Posted on: January 30th, 2011 Thin

By Sara Kate Ellis

Here’s how bad the epidemic was. Nobody noticed.

I show up at the ward and no one even looks at me. I find my locker, the utility closet with the mop and the non-flammable solvents and go about swabbing down the corridors. I have to do this three, four times a day because the spread rate’s high. I don’t care. I get overtime.

I’ve been a cleaner for ten years, and I like the smell of the chemicals. They remind me of the lot behind my mother’s house where there were still a few pines left. I’d go there and sit just out of sight of the kitchen window, and smoke one of the Kools I’d stolen from her purse. And if I closed my eyes, I could sometimes imagine there wasn’t a big ass freeway to our left.

When she got sick, we had to leave. Mom was one of the first cases, but they didn’t know that then and her insurance wouldn’t cover what they said was a clear case of inhalant abuse. She couldn’t think straight anymore, couldn’t pay the property taxes against her medical bills, and by then there’d been lost jobs and court dates. The bag the police used as evidence was one she’d used to pack my lunch. It still smelled of banana peels, but they told me thinner is sweet like that.

Judge sent Mom to a state rehabilitation center and me to a foster home. Said it was temporary, until she could get better.

First time I visited her, she started smacking herself across the face.

“I’m seeing lights, Harry,” she said. “They’re so pretty. Buzzing around my head like goddamned bees!”

The orderlies were on her then, had her arms pinned behind her back as they led her back down the hall.

My foster father Bill had a mail order business. He put us to work stuffing packets and licking stamps. My new sister made me do it, said each stamp was five calories, and an envelope was ten. But I liked the taste, sweet and fresh like a forest.

Then the cases started piling up. I remember finding a copy of Time on Bill’s desk and putting its slick, shiny cover under my nose. The remains of a burnt out trailer and the photos of three dead kids stared back at me. “Plains Inhalant Epidemic,” it read. “The Thinning of Rural America.”

They didn’t ask why the crime rate hadn’t risen. Didn’t ask why patients continued to deteriorate after they’d been locked up for months, or why it was spreading in other countries. They did make up some bogey substance with a few bogus names: Wiper, fuzz, snifter – that last one was good.

When I saw Mom about five years ago, her hair was white and thin, just a few taut strands barely covering her scalp. Hospices and care centers were overrun by then, and they waived half of her bill just to get me to sign. I bent down and kissed her before they pulled the plug. She already smelled like formaldehyde.

Then I went out to the truck, pressed a gas-soaked rag over my face and inhaled as hard as I could. I saw them that night for the very first time. Such cold, clean light. They floated around me, not seeing, but I could see them.

When you enter a hospital these days, you don’t so much smell the chemicals as the patients. They secrete it through their skin, their eyes. It coats their tongues until they can’t eat anymore. The ones who can afford it get a procedure to deaden their taste buds. They eat runny porridge, crisp salads, anything with texture.

Took them fifteen years to figure out it was a microbe. Fifteen years of paranoiac crackdowns, incarcerating entire families, beating down on people already so beaten up, they started sniffing on their own.

They’re still alive.

“You can fake ‘em!” a guy once told me. We were out behind a paint store, spraying streaks of purple into a brown paper bag.

“That’s just your missing brain cells talking,” I said.

The alarm sounds in the ward, and I smile as a few panicked docs rush past. Happens all the time. Then I close my eyes and inhale the scent of fresh pine, remembering the feel of their needles in my fingers. So soft, and thin.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories

2 Responses to “Thin”

  1. Tweets that mention brain harvest » Blog Archive » Thin -- Topsy.com Says:
    January 30th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brain Harvest, Eden Robins. Eden Robins said: RT @BrainHarvest: Missing the forest for the trees — new story on BH! http://www.brainharvestmag.com/2011/01/thin/ [...]

  2. Anonymous Says:
    January 30th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brain Harvest, Eden Robins. Eden Robins said: RT @BrainHarvest: Missing the forest for the trees — new story on BH! http://www.brainharvestmag.com/2011/01/thin/ [...]

  3. Zeke Says:
    February 7th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    One of the best short stories I’ve read in months. Absolutely fantastic.

  4. Zeke Says:
    February 7th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    One of the best short stories I’ve read in months. Absolutely fantastic.