Fiction: Sorry

Wednesday, August 4th 2010

So I went and wrote another short story. It's been a long time.

Recently, on a drive into work, I heard a story on NPR that had something to do with prescription medications. I don't even remember what the story was. All I know is that it started me on a thought tangent: at what point does big pharma become a legalized form of drug dealing? Addicts steal and prostitute themselves to afford heroin, so how much different is it when the drugs keep you alive rather than getting you high? I know it's not a perfect comparison, but exploring issues like these is one of the things that speculative fiction does well. I know I'm not the best writer, but I thought I could give it a go. I wrote this up in about an hour.

I'll be adding this one to the writing section of my site soon, but for now I'll post it here.

"I'm sorry."

The man cocked the Ruger .22 and took a deep breath, raising the weapon to point at the bespectacled redhead behind the pharmacist's counter.

"Whoawhoawhoa! Wait!" Cringing, Robin took an involuntary step back from the counter, hands raised, speaking quickly. "Just... don't. Let me get whatever it is you need." She glanced around, gesturing with her head at the shelves full of pills, injectables and other pharmaceutical supplies. "There's plenty here. I can get you whatever it is quicker than you can find it yourself. There's no need to... use that."

The man's brow furrowed and he closed his eyes for a moment, lowering the gun a few inches and sighing deeply. He spoke slowly, fixing his eyes on a point near the floor. "Do you think that it's wrong to kill somebody if it saves your life?"

For a moment, her consternation was replaced by confusion as she worked to figure out what this man could possibly mean. "Look", she started, "My name is Robin." She remembered hearing somewhere that telling him her name might make her seem more like a person, maybe make him less likely to shoot her. Clenching her hands at chest level, she dipped her head a bit to the side, trying for eye contact. "What's your name?"

"Just... my name's Steve. Just... what do you think? If I had a knife or something and I was coming at you from back there, if I was gonna stab you, and you had a gun. Would it be wrong for you to shoot me?"

All this shooting and stabbing stuff was not cool. Right now, it was just too damn real. Robin looked at him. He still wouldn't meet her gaze. He didn't look like a thug or a druggie. Just a regular guy in a polo shirt and khakis, late twenties, not bad looking. Just a regular guy, except for the gun he had pointed at her.

Robin swallowed. "I couldn't kill anyone."

Steve shifted where he stood, then lowered the weapon as he closed his eyes again and turned his head, fingering the bridge of his nose. He looked conflicted, Robin thought. When he'd pulled out the gun, the two or three customers in the Rite Aid had exited quickly. So had Josie the cashier. The place was empty now except for herself and this man. Steve.

"Look. Nobody's going to hurt you. Just tell me what it is you want and I'll get it."

Steve snorted. Mirthless laughter. "A lifetime supply of Orthaprase." He glanced over his shoulder at the Rite Aid entrance. No one there. "And a get out of jail free card."

"Orthaprase." Robin smiled in relief, half-turning towards a section of shelving. "Yes. We have that." Then she paused, the worry returning to her face. A terminal patient with a gun did not bode well. "You have IVM?"

"Yeah." Steve didn't look up.

Intrathecal ventricosis meningitis was a disease which affected the cerebrospinal fluid. Until very recently, those diagnosed with IVM had weeks to live. Orthaprase was a new drug. A new and expensive drug. A year's supply of Orthaprase cost nearly a half million dollars. And prescription drug plans weren't going to let their members off with a twenty-five dollar copay when the medication cost that much. Unless the IVM patient was very wealthy, the disease was still fatal.

Robin knew that the pharmacy didn't carry more than a week's supply of Orthaprase, and the only reason they had that was because Mrs. Wentland over on Watch Hill had IVM. She and her husband were retired, living out their twilight years in opulence. She could give Steve the Orthaprase the pharmacy had on-hand, but it wouldn't get him very far.

"Look. You need to understand." Steve was looking at her now, though he still wasn't making eye contact. "I'm not a criminal. I work in the traffic department over at channel 4. I just... after everything that's happened to me, I don't. Have. A choice." Robin still wasn't sure where he was going with all this. If he wasn't here for the Orthaprase, why was he in the Rite Aid with a gun?

"You don't know what it's like. You can't know what it's like. I go a day without Orthaprase, I'm in pain. Three days, and I can't walk. I'm sure I'd be dead in a week. Maybe that'd be better. I know it'd be more noble for me to let myself die than kill someone else, but I can't stand the fucking pain anymore!"

"I borrowed everything I could. Then... I was desperate. I broke into a house." Another snort-laugh. "What the hell do I know about breaking into houses? Selling a stolen plasma screen isn't as easy as you'd think. I sold all my furniture, sold everything. I never thought I'd be a homeless guy. I kept my job. I had to keep my job. But I don't get paid enough to afford half-doses of Orthaprase every day."

Robin stopped him. "We've got seven full doses right here, already in a bag." She showed him her palms again, a gesture of submission. "Let me get the bag for you." In the distance, she could hear the first of the sirens approaching.

"Don't bother." said Steve. "Then what? Running from police? What happens after a week? I just wish I had the goddamn guts to kill myself. Truth is, I just... I don't want to die." The police were minutes away, and Steve didn't want the Orthaprase. So what did he want? Why was he here?

"When I was stealing the TV, I started thinking. Prisons are required by law to provide medicine if it's medically necessary, and I die without this stuff. Prison is just about the best prescription plan out there. But if I got caught breaking and entering, how long would I be in prison? Maybe a few months? By then, who knows what state I'll be in, whether I'll even be able to walk. I'd have no money for the drug, and I'd need to commit some other crime to get back into prison. Otherwise I'd be dead in a few days."

"I'm sorry." said Robin.

"No. I'm sorry." said Steve, and he raised the gun.

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