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Amber Budd

Rattle and Hum

        No one ever mentions how cold a hospital can get.
        I don’t even think it’s the air conditioning. Maybe it’s just shock causing the chill coursing through my marrow. Or it could be the IV fluids—those had felt like inescapable ice shards ripping under my skin.
        Anesthesia is cold too. Unless that’s just my body’s physical response to a forced shutdown.
“Breathe in, and out. No need to worry. It’ll all be over in a moment.”
        I don’t believe you.
        It took three days for the news to hit local stations. Four more, and it became a global phenomenon. Politicians and the world’s wealthiest trampled over each other, trying to be the first to get involved, to find out if it was true. 
        After a week, it was no longer a wild rumor or wishful thinking on the part of the researchers (who frankly, were too smart for their own good). It was real, and it swept up the people like the Great Flood those religious folk go on about, gathering them together as a new form of scientific “religion” was born: The Triskelion. A tacky name, if you ask me, but that’s what happens when the boring scientists wax symbolic about “life, death, and rebirth.” 
        Honestly, it seemed like all anyone wanted to talk about anymore was the stupid Triskelion, even though the group had been an official thing for nearly a year now. “Ya know, the initiation is a free procedure,” this, and “You support those who use children?” that. Even the businesses and mega-corporations had bought into it, transferring funds reserved for charity work to the Triskelion to “further extend their research.” A lot of the hospitals and disease research centers were understandably distraught. Of course, the group just fired back the argument that immortality was a one-size-fits-all cure, and there was no need for other research institutions anymore.
        As if becoming half-metal was better than collapsing organs.
        Momma told me to ignore the whole thing—“I don’t care what you think, Pum’kin, I want no part in a group that chops people up and claims they’re saving us. I’ll be just fine without, and you don’t have my issues. This is my problem and I’ll deal with it my way.”
        I didn’t listen.
        I had no choice.
        Those stupid scientists just had to go and figure out immortality before Huntington’s. Momma was stubborn as I’ll get out, but we didn’t have time for her to be mule-headed about the matter. Already, her mobility was starting to fail her. So was her memory—it’s why she started calling me “Pum’kin.” Not because it was a cute nickname from the days of pudgy childhood, but because my real name was already lost in the landfill of her mind.
        After we’d gotten the diagnoses, I knew this would happen. Still, it hurt when Momma couldn’t remember the name of her own daughter. 
        It wasn’t just my name, either. Entire days—years—of my childhood would become blank holes in her mind. All of our movie date nights, trips to the ice cream shop after long days in elementary school, even the way she used to cradle my head while I cried over some boy or spilled tea; she forgot all of those moments. 
        I knew it was truly getting bad when she tried to throw out the decade-and-a-half-old bead bracelet I had made her when I was still in preschool. She’d worn it dutifully every day since then, despite my teenaged protests—or at the least, carried it in her pocket with her. When she tossed it into the garbage, she did so with the nonchalance of pedestrians tossing trash under an overgrown bush. She didn’t care where it ended up, so long as she didn’t have to deal with it anymore. 
        Her doctor told us that the other symptoms would follow soon after the memory loss: the personality switches, the breathing problems. Death. With the immortality nonsense in circulation, most people considered it the easy-way-out fix for diseases no one could repair; this was the only cure she would get.
        But what she wanted didn’t matter anymore. I couldn’t just let her die. I wouldn’t. Not when we had a choice.
        A horrible choice, but really, what’s worse than dying and leaving everyone who loved you behind? Whether or not Triskelion was a foolish endeavor by self-absorbed scientists with a hankering for power and recognition wasn’t important. What was important was that their stupid invention worked. Somehow.
        I thought it would be difficult to gain access to a Triskelion facility. While information about them was more abundant than the weeds in our backyard, it seemed unlikely they’d just let anybody in off the street. Surely something as valuable as immortality wasn’t cheap enough to hand out to every beggar on the street. The important things are never where anybody can find them; the big-wigs always have them on a tight lock-down, guarded by favoritism and nepotism. Yet it only took one Web search to prove that wasn’t the case. They wanted everyone involved and welcomed all who came to them.
        Guess that’s what happens when the entire world starts pooling every spare penny into your bank accounts. 
        Almost every city now had one of their little “initiation centers” already built or under partial construction. It was where they performed the first step of the immortality conversion process: the Iron Lung. Your natural lungs removed, replaced by Triskelion’s contraption, guaranteed never to fail and protect you from all manner of air-borne toxins.
        The perfect organ.
        It was late at night in a fit of choked-back tears when I decided it needed to be done. After hearing Momma stagger around the room calling out for our little puppy, Clover, who died in my toddler years, there seemed to be little choice. Ten years of watching her get sicker and sicker was all I could take. Momma was only in her forties, and ten years past the first symptom was when the death counter really started ticking down. With how quickly it was progressing, it seemed unlikely she’d make it to the thirty year mark.
        When I left that morning after, I told Momma that I was going to a friend’s house for a while. She didn’t mind. Though if she’d been feeling better, she would’ve remembered that I hadn’t made any friends since we moved to this city to be closer to her doctors.
        I was glad she didn’t remember. She would’ve cried at the thought of her baby girl all alone.
        But there wasn’t enough time in a day to take care of her and me. 
        It was only a short walk to the Center from the rails. Once I’d found my way into the disturbingly white, sterile-smelling lobby of the massive skyscraper, the task of finding someone in charge was relatively easy. A lady in a crisp white coat stood at a large, round desk in the center of the main room, chatting away with another lady seated behind a gray monitor—the only thing in this building with some color, aside from directional signs.
        Lab Coat Lady offered a slightly shocked but gentle smile when I approached her and asked if they’d be able to help Momma. 
        “Of course, miss. We take care of everyone, regardless of age or health, as long as they’re willing. Though it certainly easier for insurance authorization when we get adults like yourself.”
        “And if they’re not? Willing, I mean.”
        The look she gave me was enough to know.
        “I’m sorry, but maybe your mother will change her mind with time.”
        “But she doesn’t have time. She has Huntington’s, and the doctor said—”
        She held up a hand, effectively silencing me. “You seem…desperate, hun. Perhaps your mother would be more receptive to our help if she saw its effectiveness…firsthand? Huntington’s is dominant, after all. There’s a possibility you might need our help in the future, anyway.”
        “I know. They already tested me. Momma won’t find out I have it if I do this, right? She still thinks I tested negative, and I can’t have her worrying about me.” At some point, I started wringing my hands.
        “Of course not. Patient confidentiality.” She tapped her nose, gave me a small wink, and pressed a button on her wristwatch. “We can even do the initial procedure today, as long as you sign some papers. We don’t normally do it on such short notice, but I can pull some strings.”
        “You can?”
        “Oh, yes. I’m a certified research surgeon for the upgrades, and this is a very interesting case. Sob stories are always good for getting higher-ups to approve something. And if they do still try to deny the process, what then? I’ll already be finished with the installation. They can’t very well take the Lung away, that’d be murder!” The lady—no, the scientist—gave a rather cheerful laugh directed towards her seated colleague. “Annie, would you mind clearing my meetings for the rest of the day? Oh, and inform Surgery and Recovery we have a walk-in outpatient.”
        “Right away, doc!” Annie tilted her head towards me with a wide smile only receptionists seem capable of making. “You’ll be right as rain in no time, hun. Just fill out these approval forms, miss…?”
I almost answered “Pum’kin,” but caught myself at the last second. “Zoe Barlowe.”
        The scientist walked back to my side and offered out a hand. “Dr. Eve Adler. But please, call me Eve. We will be seeing a lot of each other I imagine.”
        Begrudgingly, I signed the paperwork and filled out the required medical history. Momma would throw a hissy fit if she knew what I was doing. But I’d do whatever it took to save her—and if that meant going through the procedure myself to prove its use to her, then so be it. She’d do the same for me.
        Besides, it might benefit me as well, if I looked on the bright side. Though Momma still believed I was safe from the disease, I knew I wasn’t. So really, this was the right thing to do. 
        I hadn’t meant to keep the truth from her originally. She’d been so worried about the possibility of me having the disease that when it came time for my bloodwork, she physically took me to get it done. Like I was still her little baby girl who couldn’t bear to be without her momma. I hadn’t needed her—but she was there anyway, holding my hand while the needle pierced my veins and drew out vial after vial of sticky, maroon blood. 
        I had tried to get her to stay behind. Her pain was increasing, day by day. Anyone who looked at her could see she wasn’t well. Yet she just gave me a little smile and a tight squeeze before pulling me out the door behind her.
        By the time the results came in, Momma was already getting worse; the last thing she needed was another reason to worry. And I couldn’t bear to break her heart like that. Dad had abandoned us years ago when Momma got sick and the bills started pouring in, so now I was the only family she had left. And I’d barely gotten her to believe me when the results first came in—like a true mother, she could tell I was lying. If she found out I had, in fact, been lying, she’d pick up that yelling match right where it’d left off. Far better she got to spend her last few months of relative lucidity and peace in calm comfort, none the wiser I’d be in the exact same position a few years down the road. 
With the same hand she offered earlier, Eve waved me along behind her, down a corridor and to a numbered room, a bed and IV rack along one wall. For a state-of-the-art facility, it was rather underwhelming. Not even a little TV to keep me company? Cheapskates.
        “Right then, we’ll get you set up for the procedure. Don’t worry, you’re in the best of hands—my hands. You made a good decision coming to us.”
        Prep was a blur of wires, beeping monitors, and cold fluid pulsing through the tube in my hand. The overwhelming dizziness didn’t help my muted panic as I was wheeled into the O.R.—“It’s just the anxiety meds,” Eve had said—but the dual metal containers on a silver tray caught my attention while the nurses finished hooking me up. The Lung, most likely. I wanted to smash the thing to the floor. It didn’t even look like a real lung, more like an artist’s warped interpretation of what a lung should look like. A globular mass aggressively breathing in squealing, jagged motions, looking for all it was worth like it was the living patient instead of me. They had it hooked into its own set of monitors, measuring who knows what. 
        I tried to call out to Eve, tried to tell her to stop, stop, I didn’t want this, I didn’t want those things in my chest. I wanted to go home. I wanted Momma. I wanted out.
        But I kept quiet. 
        Momma needed me to do this for her more than I needed her with me right now. Even if she didn’t want me to.
        So I lay there, watching the Iron Lung breathe in and out—in and out, in and out, in and out—like the perfect replacements they were.
        Was there anything that could make them falter in their rhythm? Would laughter make them hitch in my chest, or would the bubbling giggles be stifled before they could burst free from their iron cage? Oh, gods—did all of the organ replacements work like this? Look like this?
        How much of me would be left at the end of it all?
        The gentle smile on Eve’s face assured everything would be fine.
        “Breathe in, and out. It’ll all be over in a moment.”
        Yet the darkness in the corner of my eyes whispered otherwise as dreamless sleep swallowed me whole.
        I staggered home alone, listening to my horrid lungs rattle and hum with each dreadful step. After I’d been deemed coherent enough to leave, the nurses tried to offer me a wheelchair ride up to the front of the building. I couldn’t tell if they did it out of kindness or because they wanted to avoid a lawsuit if I fell.
        I refused. Merely grabbed the aftercare packet Eve left on the table next to my bed, crumpled it in my fist, and wobbled out to find some kind of transportation. But most of the rails were either shut down or filled with people on their way to, most likely, start a night of barhopping. Eve didn’t see me out, only twiddled her fingers in a wave as I staggered past the front desk. She was a busy woman after all, and the procedure was designed to be outpatient. I had no need for her anymore.
        Momma was already waiting by our front door with her shoes on, as if she were about to hobble out into the night’s biting air on her own to find me. When she glanced towards me, shock rippled across her face. But then she heard my clicking breaths, saw the crumpled flyers in my hands, and her eyes glossed with tears. I hadn’t bothered to hide the papers. Momma would’ve figured it all out soon enough when I had to start caring for the sutures. 
        “Oh Pum’kin. What have you done?”
        “Hear me out, mom—”
        “No, I won’t hear of it.” She shuffled back into the house, flinging her shoes to the side as she went. “I told you to not worry about it, yet here you are. You know that can’t be undone, right? Do you realize what you’ve done to yourself?”
        “Mom, I know. But please, just listen. I thought if you saw how effective it was on me, then maybe you’d be willing to try it yourself. Triskelion can help you.” I held my voice steadier than I felt, and only hoped I wasn’t lying to my own mother.
        “I didn’t want their help, and I didn’t want you to get roped into this mess either, Pum’kin. Now look at you,” silvery streaks ran down her cheeks as she reached an arm out to me. “You’ve wasted your life on me.”
        “But you’re all that’s left of my life, Momma.”
        Her shoulders visibly slumped, and she trudged her way towards her room. “Then I’ve failed. no better than my own parents. I wasn’t supposed to make you give up everything to care for me like they made me do.”
        “But you didn’t! I chose this, Momma. Why can’t you see that I’m okay with this? If it helps you, then I don’t care what the cost is.”
        “But I do. I know what it does to you, having no life outside your dying parents. My poor little Zoe…” Her voice trailed off, and she gave her head a gentle shake before shutting herself behind the master bedroom door.
        Not willing to go through the argument again, I scooped myself an oversized bowl of too-sweet ice cream that I normally would have avoided, except that it effectively offset the tang of salty tears tracking down my cheeks and onto my lips and tongue. I switched the television on to whatever cheesy, horribly written TV show was running at the moment—a sitcom, by the sounds of it. Awkwardly-spaced laugh tracks were playing over sub-par jokes that would have made Momma laugh if she were sitting here and not avoiding me in her room. Episode after episode played, but I wasn’t really watching. I didn’t much care.
        Momma may not like Triskelion, but the Iron Lung did have one benefit:
        Mechanical breathing meant no one could hear you cry.
Amber Budd is a graduate of St. Charles Community College and a student at Lindenwood
University pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. Her work has been included in
Wayward Fables and Mid Rivers Review. A writer since her childhood, she is working to one
day become a novelist and an English professor of literature.
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