At some point the orderlies had had to tranquilize Ameer. Not that he remembered the struggle—yanking tubes from his arms, attempting to bust his leg cast with a bedpan. Letting the Get Well Soon balloons out the window. Days later he awoke in his lumpy recovery bed for the second time. He whispered now what he’d screamed then.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Nono.”
“Oh, shit. I woke you up.” A woman in dingy pink scrubs—short and sturdy, red-haired—was halfway to Ameer. She held a tray, angled so the small plastic cup on its surface slid to one side. “My clodhoppers could wake up Rip Van Winkle.” She put the tray down. “I’ll get the RN.”
“Please.” Ameer put all his strength into making his eyes as wide as possible. “Don’t get anyone. I can’t be here.”
The woman sort of snorted and knuckled the gelatin cup toward him. “Dude,” she said, “you’ve been here.”
“What?” Ameer thought his peepers might pop. He gasped ammonia and mildew.
“You’ve been at St. Kolbe’s Hell-spittle for a week.” She tapped the tag on her chest with a cracked nail. It bore the words ST. KOLBE’S INFIRMARY and a serial number. She then poked the plastic cup. “Enjoy,” she said. “Key lime.”
Ameer scraped tight curls of black hair against a rusty headboard. Half-sitting, he began to gnaw at the thick plastic band around his dark wrist. “Zhere’s been a mish-take,” he said, between nibbles.
“That’s right,” the woman said. “You were in an accident. Collision. Streetcar, militia tank, crashy-crash. No other surv—”
“Not zhat,” Ameer said. He spat. “Not the accident. A mistake. I shouldn’t be here. I have tags—” He grunted. His wristband was undamaged. “Don’t Revive tags,” he said.
The woman shrugged. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I just make the Jell-O. You really should try it.”
“Help me up,” he said.
“Help—” He squirmed. Winced. One of his legs jimmied and gave out; the other, weighted down by plaster, didn’t budge. “Help me up. I have to leave.”
The jelly chef folded her arms and took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but that ain’t gonna happen.”
“Are we decent in here?” A purring drawl echoed in from the unlit hall. Following it came a thin, impossibly tall man with meager wisps of gray hair, half-moon spectacles, and a stethoscope around his wattled throat. A white lab coat hugged him tight, sleeves ending well above his knobby wrists.
He bent at the waist and read the clipboard hung on a nail in the door. “Mister… Ameer Attaway. Back in the land of the living. Wonderful!” The man came forward. The young redhead stood aside, watching her feet.
“I’m Dr. Kenworthy. Presiding Caretaker.” Matronly, he pressed the back of his hand into Ameer’s forehead. “What’s your pain level? One to ten?”
“I—” Ameer swallowed. “I was just telling her, they weren’t meant to bring me here. I have D.R. tags…” The doctor clutched Ameer’s chin and turned his head, this way then that.
Kenworthy plugged his stethoscope into his ears, sat on the foot of the bed with a metallic moan. “They didn’t find tags,” he said, as if describing unbuttered toast. He slid the scope’s aluminum disc down Ameer’s tunic, icing his chest.
“I’m sure if you just checked my wallet—”
“They looked in your wallet.” Kenworthy smiled. “That’s how we got your name. Do you know what else they found?”
Ameer looked at him.
“Nothing,” the doctor said. “Not a blessed dime. And certainly no tags.”
“Do you know where you are, Mr. Attaway?”
Under the blanket, Ameer tried wiggling his toes. Flexing his calves. Anything. “This is St. Kolbe’s,” he said.
“Yes.” The doctor withdrew the snakelike utensil from Ameer’s tattered collar. “Just so.” He pointed at a blood pressure gauge draped from the remnants of a crumbling ceiling tile. “Cindy,” he said, “would you mind handing me that?”
Cindy the Jell-O maker did so.
Velcro roared at Kenworthy tearing open the gauge strap. It clasped around Ameer’s bicep with magnetic force.
“You say you had D.R. tags,” the doctor said. The plastic bauble in his palm hissed each time he gave it a squeeze. The band swelled around Ameer’s arm a little with every hiss. “Now, that’s one thing I don’t understand. Why these tag things are so darn fashionable all of a sudden.” He was pumping faster now. “Why on Earth would anyone notwant to be revived after a life-threatening accident? Healed of devastating disease?”
The strap was plenty tight now. But Kenworthy wasn’t stopping. It clamped Ameer’s arm like a beartrap, the skin around it chalk white.
“Because, Doctor,” he said, nostrils flared, “some of us can’t afford it.”
“Nonsense!” The doctor let go, and air phweeted out of the gauge. Ameer’s arm throbbed to life.
“Everyone can afford well-being! Only some…” The doctor smiled. “Some pay in other ways.”
“Cindy, dear, won’t you come here?” Dr. Kenworthy said, standing.
Cindy did. The doctor put an arm around her. “Cindy here,” he said, “is a diabetic.”
“Which kind?” Ameer asked.
“Well, that’s moot. I treat her.”
“So you assigned her a number and a cell and made her your indentured servant,” Ameer said, pointing at her plastic badge.
“Employee,” the doctor said.
Cindy rubbed her hands. She was looking at Ameer’s Jell-O.
“An employee you don’t pay, who can never leave,” said Ameer. “I know about these places. I know about St. Kolbe’s Internment Infirmary. What you do here. How people live. It’s why I carry goddamn tags, and—!” He swallowed. “This isn’t right.”
Kenworthy patted Ameer’s exposed foot. “I give her life,” he said. “That’s not cheap. She’ll repay me and, yes, she will leave when that debt is settled.
“As will you, Mr. Attaway. That’s just economics, you goose.”
Kenworthy raised a finger and clicked his tongue. “Ah!” he said, shuffling to a sticky countertop. “Speaking of.” Peeling a thick stack of loose papers from the counter, he snorted and plopped them down on Ameer’s crotch with spiteful carelessness. “That’s our catalog of job postings. Give her a riffle and see what strikes your fancy. No reason to stick you on toilet duty when you’re a Premium patient.
“Your vitals look great, by the way.” He reached the doorway. He rapped on the jamb. “You’ll be out of that cast and settling your bill in no time.”
And he was gone.
Cindy was still there. It was a long Jell-O delivery.
“How many years?” Ameer said.
“Ninety,” she said, one eye gleaming.
Seeing Ameer’s resulting face, she slapped her forehead. “Oh, you meant for you. Yeah.” She laughed without mirth. “You’ll be out in thirty-five.”
Ameer chewed on one cheek. He watched his fist-whitened knuckles ripple.
“You saw my tags, didn’t you?” Ameer said.
A vein in Cindy’s neck bulged. She nodded once.
“Don’t Revive,” Ameer said. “You saw.”
She looked terrified. Her O of a mouth quavered, her eyes darting to the tray she’d delivered. “Eat your dessert,” she said. “It’s key lime.”
Ameer’s own chuckle surprised him. “Do you get years off for every cup licked clean?” he said. “Or, what, is it poisoned?” He scoffed.
The woman was silent.
“Oh,” Ameer said.
Somewhere, another patient wailed. They were saying just what Ameer had said earlier:
No, no, no.
Ameer shifted, chewed on a lip. “What— What’s in it?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Cindy said. “Just what it does. And that it’s got a Jolly Roger on the jar.”
Ameer leaned forward with some pain and effort. Grunting, he snatched the plastic dessert cup from the tray. There were no spoons at St. Kolbe’s. He scooped the acid green gelatin with four fingers and palmed it into his willing mouth.
“Thank you,” he said through a mouthful, and gulped.
“Why don’t you?” he said. “You know. Treat yourself?”
She picked up the tray.
“Diabetic,” she said. “That shit’s pure sugar.”
And she left Ameer to his sleep, such as it was.
“He ate it,” she told Dr. Kenworthy later in his office. The porcelain dolls he collected leered at her from grease-smeared glass displays.
“Sure he did,” said Dr. Kenworthy. He was undoing his scarf. Pulling on rubber gloves. “Most do.”
“Think you can save him?” Cindy said. Her pink jumpsuit was deep burgundy at her armpits and collarbone.
“That’s what I do.” The doctor had one leg out the door. “I have my job, as you have yours.”
“He won’t like it.”
“Living?” the doctor said. “Or doubling his debt?”
“Yes,” said Cindy.
Dr. Kenworthy pulled a red ink pen from his breast pocket. With it, he struck out a number on a chart taped to the wall. He wrote in a new one.
Next to the name CINDY, 90 YEARS became 85.
“Well,” he said, “that’s the system.”