by Avery Bufkin
Her doctor said he’d sign us up, you know, for the trial. That either she’d get the real drug or the fake one, and we wouldn’t know which, of course. But fifty-fifty, you got to think that’s a pretty good shot and all. I said that to her in the car afterwards. “Pretty good shot,” I said. “I think we’ve got it.”
Frankie nodded, more to herself than to me, I thought. Sort of nodded to herself like she needed that affirmation. I nodded, too, more for her than for me. Fifty-fifty, I thought. That’s a pretty good shot. I mean, those doctors might even be giving all them patients the real drug, not the fake one, that is. I mean, was it even legal to give a fake drug when a real one could work?
I said that to her, too. I said, “You know, it’s hard to imagine they’d even give someone that fake stuff when the real stuff’s right there.”
She nodded again. I thought maybe I should stop talking. Maybe this wasn’t helping. I turned my attention back to the road and drummed my thumbs against the wheel as I drove.
“I mean, fifty-fifty,” I said. “That’s a darn good shot, I’d say.”
“You already did, Jack. I mean, really, just for right now, could you?”
“Yeah, yeah of course,” I said, and I put the radio on and just kept my eyes on the road.
Yeah, I thought, fifty-fifty. That ain’t bad chances. I’d had worse chances than that before. Like when I was nine. About sixty-forty then, I’d say. Was out hunting with my dad in the marshes behind our house, shotgun slung over my back, when I slipped in a bit of mud. Fell face forward is what I did. Fell face forward and didn’t catch myself ‘til my arms were a few inches deep in the water, and right about two yards in front of me, staring right back at me, was one of those moccasins, all stretched out and sunning itself on a rock there between the reeds. Was too scared to move. Could hear my dad calling for me somewhere to my left, but I knew I didn’t have much time when he started to open his jaws at me, showing me the white of his mouth. May have been more like eighty-twenty odds, now I’m thinking of it, but in one motion I swung my shotgun forward and blew the damn snake’s head off.
“You know,” I said. “I almost died hunting with my dad once.”
“Water moccasin, right?”
I nodded. I suppose I told that one a lot. I got a lot of nods for that one, a lot of glass raises, a few “oh Lords” and “by Gods.” For sure, though, it was a good one.
“I think Dr. Riley was hinting at us though, don’t you?” I said.
“Hinting at us?”
“I think I saw him wink.”
Frankie turned to look out the window. “I don’t remember that.”
I shrugged. “No, I think he did. You think he was trying to tell us something?”
“He doesn’t know who gets the real stuff either, Jack.”
“Well, he says he doesn’t, but he might—”
“Jack really, would you?”
“Sorry, hon, sorry. I don’t mean to.”
“I know you’re worried,” she said, and she reached over and touched my knee. “Just not so much, okay?”
I nodded and patted her hand. She rubbed her hand on my knee, then started going a bit up the inside of my thigh. I patted her hand on my thigh.
“Don’t worry, Jack,” she said. “Our chances are good, aren’t they?”
“Real good,” I said, but suddenly I thought our chances weren’t so good. I smiled at her anyways and I patted her hand again, and she told me to pull off onto the side of the road.
“Pull off?” I said. “Just right here?”
“Just right there is fine. Right there.”
I slowed the car and drifted us off onto the gravel that separated the road from some guy’s farm. Frankie moved her hand further up my thigh, and I started to squirm. We didn’t normally do things like this. Like pulling off the road.
“What’s up, Frankie?” I said, looking over at her, and she looked back at me the same as usual. But she had her hand pretty far up my thigh now, which was not the same as usual, and I wondered if she’d started to think our chances weren’t so good anymore either. “You didn’t take something, did you?” I said.
I shook my head, and I pulled the keys from the ignition.
I glanced at her over the top of my morning paper. She was breathing heavy and gripping the arms of her chair. Staring a bit too intently, I thought, at the floor by my feet. I looked down at the floor by my feet, folding the paper over to see.
“What’s that, hon?” I said.
Frankie glanced up at me. “What’s that, Jack?”
“I said, ‘what’s that?’ What ya’ looking at there, hon?”
“Oh, nothing. Just was thinking, I guess, is all.”
“But you’re feeling okay?”
“Well, I was thinking just now that I think I got it.”
“Well, I thought so, too, didn’t I? I’m sure I did, but what is it you’re thinking you got?”
“The real stuff,” Frankie said, tapping her arm now, tapping the soft spot on her inner elbow where the drug went in. “The real stuff,” she said again. “I can feel it, you know? Can feel it in me.”
“Does it work that fast?”
“I don’t know. I think it can.”
“’Cause it’s only been a few days. I just wonder—?”
“I just really feel it though, Jack.”
“That’s amazing, hon.” I put the paper down on the couch cushion beside me, leaned back with my arm over the back of the couch, and I smiled at her. She smiled back at me but still clutched the arms of her chair. I wished she would let go of the chair. It’d make me feel better. Like she wasn’t in pain or something.
I got up and I knelt down on the floor in front of her. “Hold me,” I said.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, and she let go of the chair then and waved me away. “Don’t worry about me. You’ve got too much to worry about with work. Can’t have you worrying that much, alright?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Good thinking, hon.”
Gina started to cry. But I was still kneeling and thinking about fifty-fifty. Frankie nodded towards the baby’s room.
“You going or should I?”
“Just don’t want to leave you.”
“What did I just say, Jack? I said, ‘don’t worry,’ didn’t I?”
I stood up and went to go check on Gina, picked her up out of her crib, and took her back to her mom. I knelt down again, right in front of Frankie’s chair, bouncing Gina in my arms, and I kissed our girl’s forehead. She was still crying.
“Someone wanted to see you,” I said.
“Jack, not now.”
“Just take her.”
Gina started screaming even as I bounced her.
“No, really. Not now, okay?”
I stopped bouncing her and held her against my chest. I pressed my lips into the thin wisps of her hair and tried to get her to stop wailing.
“Come on now, Gina,” I said. “What about mommy? Want to see mommy?”
“Please, Jack. I don’t want her right now.”
I looked up. “Oh, okay. Yeah. For sure.” I stood back up and put her on my shoulder. “Yeah, let me just go see if she needs to be changed then, okay?”
Frankie nodded, rubbing her arm now. “But I can feel it, Jack, really. We got the real stuff.”
Frankie started to get worse, but the doctor said that wasn’t unusual, even for those on the real stuff. He made her fill out a sheet, and I watched her mark off her pain on a scale from one to ten for every part of her body. Nausea, she said. Even my arms feel nauseous. But the doctor said that wasn’t unusual either. Even on the real stuff, others were getting worse, so we weren’t alone. On the real stuff, people’s arms felt nauseous. Isn’t that comforting? That’s what he said.
“Isn’t that comforting?” Dr. Riley said.
Frankie shifted in her seat. “Uh, what’s that?” she said. “Which part?”
“Part of what?”
“What’s comforting?” she said.
“Oh, that, you know, you’re not alone. A lot of the other patients are presenting with these symptoms, in fact.”
Frankie nodded. “Oh, that is good,” she said.
“Yes, I thought so. Real good,” Dr. Riley said. “So I wouldn’t worry too much. No good to worry.”
Dr. Riley started to shuffle some papers on his desk then, and I leaned forward onto his desk.
“But, you know, I was thinking though,” I said. “Is there anything you could give her? Prescribe to her, I mean?”
Dr. Riley turned his head on its side.
“She’s been feeling awful sick, you know, and I know you said lots of others are feeling the same way and all, and that’s great, really, but anything you could prescribe? That’d definitely be appreciated is all.”
Dr. Riley nodded with his head still on its side.
“And I mean, like you said, lots of other people, and so probably you get asked this too much, but—” I leaned forward more, like Frankie couldn’t hear me if I did. “She’s been getting pissy sometimes. Not wanting to hold our daughter and all.”
“That’s normal,” the doctor said.
“Well, hey look,” Frankie said, leaning forward onto the desk now, too, so that we were really crowding each other out. “It’s not like that. You can’t put it like that, Jack. It’s just—are you thinking I’ll be able to get back to work soon?”
“Hard to say,” Dr. Riley said, and he rolled back from the desk in his chair to give us some space there. “It’s different for everyone.”
“It’s just, with the treatment and all, we kinda need the money again,” she said.
“Fran, you can’t tell him a thing like that. You’re up for it when you’re up for it. That’s what he’s saying.”
“He hasn’t said anything yet, Jack. You’ve gotta let him talk.”
“He just said—didn’t you just say?—Fran, he just said.”
“I know what he said.”
“Well, it’s hard to say,” the doctor said.
“What is?” Frankie asked.
“When you might be up for going back to work.”
“It’s just too hard to say, hon.”
“I got it, Jack.” Frankie looked at me, and she touched my arm, squeezed my arm for a second, and leaned back off the desk.
“And what about Gina, Fran?” I said.
“Don’t you remember us talking? We talked about it, Jack. Hannah ‘cross the street will take her three days a week, she said. She’s already lookin’ after the Bennett kid.”
Frankie turned from me.
“Very normal concerns,” Dr. Riley said.
“Well, that’s good,” I said.
“Very normal,” Dr. Riley said again. “And remember, you call my office anytime and someone will answer. Might be me, but it might not be me. Very qualified people around here, though.”
“That’s good,” I said again.
Frankie stared at the pictures on Dr. Riley’s desk.
“Are those your kids?” she asked.
He picked up one of the frames and looked at it. “Yes,” he said. “They are.”
“Beautiful children,” she said.
I could hear her coughing behind the bathroom door. I knocked. “Fran, you okay?” I said, and I tried the door, but she’d locked it.
“I’m fine, Jack. No worries.”
“Could you open the door for me, hon?”
“Really, I’m fine. Just give me a moment, would you?”
“Yeah sure,” I said, and I leaned against the wall by the door. I stared at the row of photos that hung on the wall across from me. Black and whites of our wedding, of our parents, of Gina. So many faces on the wall, I thought. So many lives on the wall.
I tried the door again. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I can’t move, Jack.”
“What do you mean, Fran? What do you mean, you can’t move?” I turned and started to shake the knob.
“I just feel so sick. I don’t want to move. I can’t feel my body. I want to die.”
“Fran,” I said. “Frankie.”
She didn’t say anything. I just heard her coughing, but coughing like she were choking really.
I tried to break open the door, but I have to admit, I’m not the strongest man ever. Not even close, really. Tried slamming my shoulder into the door as they do in the movies, but the door just rattled a bit and Frankie just gave a little shriek is all.
It sounded like she was vomiting.
“I think that’s blood, Jack.”
I slammed my shoulder into the door again, tried putting my foot into it, but that didn’t work any better. Put my shoulder into it again.
“Please, Frankie,” I said. “Please just try and open the door.”
I could hear her palms slapping the floor. Then I heard the lock turn, and I opened it, and she was sitting up against the side of the tub. There was blood on her chin, dribbling from the corner of her mouth. There was blood in the toilet too, spattered against the sides.
“I’m sweating,” she said. “I feel wet.”
“You want me to put you in the bath?” I said.
“I don’t think I can move.”
I put the water on and stopped up the drain.
“Come on,” I said, lifting her from under the arms. She sort of got herself to her feet. Or at least, I got her to sit up on the side of the tub and slide over its edge, and she slipped into the few inches of water with her clothes still on. I watched her clothes turn dark.
“Fuck this,” I said.
Fran looked at me. “Don’t say that, Jack.”
“No, I’m saying it. I’m saying, ‘Fuck it’ alright? Alright, Fran? I said—no—I’m saying. Listen to me, alright? Fuck this goddamn fucking—”
“Would you stop that?”
“Frankie,” I said.
She looked down at the water.
“Jack,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Jack, you look at me!”
I breathed. I stared at the toilet because I couldn’t look at her, but there was blood in the toilet and I couldn’t look at that either. I slammed the seat closed, and Frankie covered her ears.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She didn’t say anything. She put her arms back down in the water.
“You good?” I said.
“I’m fine. Water feels nice. Thanks.”
I couldn’t help it. I had to ask. “Are you still sure you got the real stuff?”
“What does it matter?” she said, and she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the tile. “What would it matter?”
I guess it didn’t, but at the same time, it did. I wanted to know who to be mad with. God or those damn doctors. Those damn trials. But maybe that didn’t even matter. I shook my head and grabbed her hand, shook it in the water.
Gina’d been crying since I tried putting my foot in the door, and Frankie nodded towards her room.
“Would you, Jack?”
“What? Are you kidding me? She’ll stop on her own. I’m right here.”
“No, it’s okay, Jack. Go on, then.”
I got up to go, but I looked at her, and I couldn’t let myself leave her like that. There was still blood on her chin, and I bent over. I dipped my thumb in the water and went to wipe the blood from her mouth, but I think maybe she thought she might throw up again because as my hand got close her face, she pushed it away.
“No, please,” she said.
“Okay, then,” I said. “I’ll go get Gina.”
“Frances?” I said.
“What is it, Jack?”
“You want me to call Dr. Riley?”
“He’s got too much going on, Jack. He hasn’t got time for—”
“Hasn’t got the time? It’s his damn trial, isn’t it?”
“What’s he gonna say? Is he gonna say something?”
I shook my head. She was probably right, I thought. What was he going to say?
“I’m just angry is all,” I said.
“Don’t be angry, Jack.”
I nodded, and I went and I sat with Gina, holding her in my lap. I watched the sky out over the back lawn, and I held her ‘til she stopped crying. Held her right up against me so I could feel her nose against my collarbone. The sky went dark, and the trees turned to black against it. Street lamps flickered on. The neighbor let the dog out to pee. I rocked our baby and held up her little hands with just a finger. So tiny. And I thought I’d call Dr. Riley. So what if he said something? I needed to hear someone say something, anything. Just something to tell me this was normal.
I sat down with Gina against me, listening to the dial tone. A nurse picked up and transferred me to his cell. I thought I’d ask him how normal blood in the toilet was. I did.
“Dr. Riley speaking.”
I said, “Dr. Riley, how normal is blood in the toilet?”
“Oh, not too uncommon,” he said. “Already had a few calls earlier in the week about this.”
“Oh, that’s good,” I said.
“I’m actually on my way out of the office as we speak.”
“Could you tell us?” I asked him, sorry to cut him off. “You think you could tell us now if we had the real drugs?”
“I’m sorry, real sorry, but I really don’t know myself. You remember when we started this and I said some things about scientific integrity? What that means is that I can’t even know, but if I did know, for sure I’d tell you, but unfortunately, it’s not possible. Just not possible, I have to say.”
“But this is normal? People who get the drug, the real one, they have these symptoms?”
He didn’t answer.
“Because she feels it. She can feel the drug. We feel it, I mean. We both do. We’ve got the real stuff, almost certain of that. Just want to make sure there hasn’t been some other kind of complication is all.”
“That’s good,” Dr. Riley said. “Hope is the best medicine, you know?”
“That’s what I always say. Well, I mean, I think it at least, or at least, I’ll start saying it is what I mean. You know, I think my dad used to say that.”
“That’s good,” the doctor said. “I think you’re doing good. It really sounds like everything’s going well.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “You know, I almost died hunting with my dad? I swear, ninety-ten odds I had, and I beat it.”
“That’s good. You’ve got something on your side it seems.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Something on our side. Could use that, right?”
“Is that all, Mr. Rayner?”
Gina started to cry again, and I bounced her on my leg.
“I suppose so,” I said. “You did say this is normal, right? Probably nothing, right?”
“Many people are having the same problem,” he said. “It’s very common.”
“That’s good to hear, real good. I’ll go tell her now, I suppose.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Dr. Riley said. “Have a good night,” he said, and I heard the line click.
I put the phone down feeling better, and Gina had stopped crying, so that was good. I set her back down in her crib and went back to the bathroom. Frankie was still in the tub, drawing shapes with her finger in the surface of the water.
“Doctor says this is completely normal,” I said.
“Says a lot of people had been complaining about these same symptoms earlier in the week.”
“For sure. He says it’s very common. I think those were his exact words in fact.”
“Very common for who? For those with the fake drug?”
“No, hon,” I said, and I knelt down on the bathroom rug and leaned over the edge of the tub. “No, he said he thought you got the real one. You’re doing better than most of the other patients he’s talked to. Says you’re doing real well actually if this is the worst you’ve got to deal with. Says this is nothing. Says toughen up is what he says.”
“Toughen up? I thought I was dying. Thought I couldn’t move.”
“Not toughen up. Not sure he said ‘toughen up’ exactly. But he said not to worry.”
I patted her hand and sat with her there on the bathroom floor while she closed her eyes and drew some more shapes in the water.
Avery Bufkin is an emerging writer from Atlanta, currently residing in Athens, GA. They’re an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, studying economics and English.