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A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We?

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I’ve written a sad short story or two, but this is probably the saddest.

We’re Not OK, Are We? is the story of a woman, a man, their diseases, and their miserable life in modern America.

This story originally appeared in Borrowed Solace. You can purchase the full issue here — mine is not the only sad short story to appear in these pages.

we're not okay, are we

My Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We?

She stumbles through the door. Her clothes fly from her in disgust. Her tan almost hides the jaundiced skin underneath.

She moves with a listlessness. The house smells of a listlessness.

He is there in the living room, and he is listless.

It’s his day off. He exercised his body, cleaned it, then threw it gently upon the couch. He did not bother to clothe it. The workout is a pebble thrown against the bulwark of his disease. Lesions litter his thin skin, abscesses dotting body parts where veins float near the surface. Tiny wounds surround each infection, evidence of careless attempts at DIY drains.

Desperate attempts to avoid an uncovered ER bill.

And the wounds, they fester.

A television injects images into his skull through his optic nerve. He’s been there for hours. She knows it. She’s jealous. She would have done the same, had they not required money.

And always, it seems, they require money.

She joins him, his nakedness a sensation, but not a comfort. A stench reaches her nose. His breath smells of fruit and nail polish, the ketones building again.

He does not notice her body next to his.

It would not matter to either of them if he did.

A sentence escapes her lips, unbidden.

“I hate work.”

His head nods in agreement. She notices, idly, that his hair has receded to the back of his skull and is turning gray. He is thirty-three. His hair was once the color of fresh asphalt. His eyes are quagmires of black paint surrounded by a sickening yellow.

She does not know when they changed color.

She does not care.

“I’ve watched this before.” She does not know why she feels compelled to speak to him.

The silence lengthens, just long enough for her to feel uncomfortable, to feel that she has been ignored. And then, at the moment her mouth begins to open, he speaks.

“Me too. Seven … seven times, I think … I … or seventy, maybe.”

He picks something up from the couch, considers it a moment, brings it to his face. It is a smile, but it is false, unfamiliar, and his blackening teeth cannot support it long. She does not bother to try to attempt to do the same. He removes the smile, places it back onto the couch.

It fades away.

**** A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We? ****

She feels the vague tapping of something. He feels it too. She realizes that it is hunger, eroding her insides. She feels a binge coming on. She wonders, in a vague way, if she has any ipecac left. The smell of the dishes rotting in the kitchen sink reaches her nostrils, reminds her how much she detests cooking.

Her fingers dial numbers, stubs of ancient acrylic flashing in front of her eyes, reminding her of a different time. Her mouth speaks words. A pizza is ordered. She hangs up the phone.

He slowly turns his head toward her. His black eyes do not leave the television.

“I’ll … I’ll take … pepper … pepperoni.”

She does not bother to respond. His eyes drift shut, his chin hits his chest, and drool begins leaking out of his mouth.

When the pizza arrives, he wakes and consumes one slice. It does not contain pepperoni.

He does not notice.

He reaches for another piece, but his hand has begun to shake. He forgets this hunger and thinks of another. He withdraws the empty hand and fills it with a needle.

She eats the other seven slices, drinks some ipecac, and enters the bathroom.

She is there for ten minutes, but it feels like a beautiful eternity.

She returns to the couch feeling clean, weightless. His eyes stare at the television, but they do not see. They are glazed, and a tiny drop of blood wends its way down his forearm.

They do not move for five hours, and then it is only to clean parts of their bodies and look anxiously at the growing pile of mail. A demand for rent, an envelope covered in red words, sits at the top. Neither opens the letter. They are both filled with a nebulous resentment at the price of their rent, at the knowledge it will increase each year, at the fact that affordable homes sit only a block away, homes they could share together, if only they could save a bit of money.

This assumes they will stay together, of course. But it is hard, yes, very hard for either of them to imagine talking with or living with or sleeping with or hating with or fighting with or existing with anyone else.

The thought of the work required to obtain a home is enough to keep them both silent on the subject. It has been six years since they discussed home ownership.

They have not discussed children in a long time.

They do not have to.

With bodies clean, bed seems the only option, but they do not go. The man clings to the day. He only has twenty-four hours off every three weeks, something his boss describes as ‘a gift.’

“You should be grateful,” his boss says, “to have a day off. I haven’t had a day off in six months.”

The man is always unsure, when his boss repeats this tiny paragraph bimonthly, why his boss does not take a day off, or why he should care that his boss does not take a day off.

The man does not feel grateful.

The man does not feel much at all.

**** A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We? ****

They do not go to bed because the next day holds nothing for them. They are loath to meet it. The woman feels a rock of anxiety in her stomach when, every night, she thinks about her inevitable return to the grocery store, to the idiot customers who cannot seem to understand basic math, who feel it is her job, as an assistant manager, to give them free items because they possess expired coupons, who feel compelled to educate her on the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer,’ who verbally abuse the poor high school students whose parents have tricked them into believing that a job at a grocery store will be a stepping stone to something greater, to the beginning of The Dream.

She began working at the grocery store when she was in high school, before she got pregnant. Her mother told her that it was, ‘The first step on the path to success!’

She is thirty-five years old. She realized ten years ago that her mother is a fool.

Or a liar.

Maybe both.

The man no longer thinks much. When he exits his twelve-hour marathon of sleep on his day off, exercises, and enters his ten-hour marathon of Valium-and-heroin-coated-television, his mind is fuzzy.

When it is time for sleep again, his mind has been erased.

He finds that not thinking about returning to the restaurant makes life bearable.

He finds that not thinking is best of all.

But the grind of time is relentless, and they are forced to bed. They pretend to read, pretend to screw, pretend to sleep.

They give up, take an Ambien each.

He takes a few extra.

The pills sleep for them.

Oblivion is painfully short.

They wake together. Alarms screech from both sides of the bed, but neither moves, neither opens their eyes.

Instead, they pray the only prayer they ever pray:

“Please, let there be a disaster.

“Let there be a fire at the store and an explosion at the restaurant. Let a sinkhole open under both buildings and swallow them whole. Let a tornado suck the shitholes into the sky and rain the pieces down on our apartment. Let my boss (and my other boss, and my other boss) be sick, ill, diseased, cancerous, crippled, dead. Let a riot over presidential decrees and congressional apathy and people who have lives that really do matter pass our places of business, leaving behind burning cinders. Let an army of old women step on their gas pedals too hard and punch out the plate-glass windows covered in the handprints of shithead children. Let a hurricane make unforeseen landfall and carry us into the Mariana Trench. Let a plane crash into the freeway, let an alt-right-men’s-rights-make-America-hate-again psychopath go on a rampage, let a terrorist target both buildings, blowing up these two monuments to capitalism in a meaningless gesture of violence that ultimately solves.

“Let them burn.

“Let them burn.

“Let it all burn.

“In the name of nothing, we pray—amen.”

And they check their phones. And they have no missed calls, no text messages of disaster, no alerts of tornados or Nazis or earthquakes or terrorists or hurricanes or pandemics or old-lady armies.

Not even a goddamn amber alert.

And they sigh.

And they rise.

And they dress.

And they prepare for the pain of living.

**** A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We? ****

They share a ritual—a bowl of cereal in a dark kitchen. He readies his needles for the day, cooks the Valium and the heroin separately, mixes them together, searches for a vein that still shows a hint of health. She’s stopped caring that he does it at the table. She pours half her cereal in the trash, walks to the bathroom, sticks a finger in her throat, and pukes out the rest. Tiny, brittle, crackling strands of hair fall from her head. They have lost all pigment. She steps on the scale, and the number that comes up gives her a brief stab of sorrow: eighty-seven.

“Still too big,” she thinks.

But as she looks in the mirror at her colorless hair, colorless eyes, tanned, loose flesh, and protruding bones, she cannot help but have a thought:

“Beautiful.”

She returns to him. He is slumped on the table. A needle juts from his arm. She pulls it out, props him up, slaps him once, twice, thrice.

He opens his eyes after the ninth slap. Shakes his head. Gathers his filled needles. Places them in his work apron. Mutters:

“Thanks.”

Outside, the land is still black with night, and snow has fallen, and the snow continues to fall, and the snow will not grant them a reprieve, not like when they were children, and the snow is black, and the light, when it comes, will be black too, and when they leave their jobs, the land will be black again, and he will count his tips and realize that always, always, always, they are not enough, and she will walk through the snow and hope that no rapists lurk in the parking lot, that she will not slip and fall and end up in the hospital and limp out with a series of bills that will take them a decade to pay, and she will wonder what it must be like to have health insurance with a deductible under fifteen thousand dollars, and he will walk for half a mile before he realizes that he drove to work, and he will walk back, and his eyes will be blank, and his eyes will be black, and they will not even reflect the light of the sodium streetlamps that set the snow sparkling, and they will not even see the snow, and he will stumble in the dark and wonder if Marco Polo will ever come back to Netflix, and she will sigh with relief when her engine turns over and her lights turn on, and she will wonder what it must be like to be rich enough to own a car with heat, and she will don the extra jacket that she keeps in the backseat, and she will bow her head and thank God that He did not curse her with a kid because honestly, honestly, honestly she does not know how they could support just one kid, let alone two, let alone the twins her coworker Sharlene tells her are a blessing, yes, a BLESSING, such a BLESSING Sharlene says it is to have not one but two children, but hard it is, yes, hard indeed to raise them on nine dollars and fifty-three cents an hour.

Hard indeed.

But Sharlene will make it work, yes, make it work, yes, yes, they have to make it work for the sake of the CHILDREN, for them, for them it is that Sharlene works so hard, so hard, for them it is that her husband works so hard at the construction sites, despite his bad back, even though they never could QUITE get that green card, but my God, what a blessing, what a blessing it is that his boss has taken PITY on him and raised his under-the-table wages all the way up to five dollars an hour, and it really makes those ninety-hour weeks just so much more BEARable, you see, bearable …

Bearable.

The man and the woman drive home in the dead of night, and they try to forget about the meaninglessness of their day, and the snow whips around their cars, and they think about the things they want, and the things they do not have, and the things other people have, the things they would steal, if only they could get away with it, and they arrive home, and they see the emptiness that crawls from each other’s eyes, and they do not speak.

No, they do not speak at all.

They live in a land that tells them they are free.

They do not feel free.

**** A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We? ****

He places the empty needles in the trash and fills new ones. She purges again in the bathroom, the seventh time today. They meet on the couch, shed their clothes, turn on the TV. She helps him find a vein. He passes out. She ignores him, stares at the TV, eyes unfocused.

Thoughts rise, unasked for, unwelcome.

Unstoppable.

“It’s not that we can’t afford kids,” she thinks (for indeed, she is the only one who still has what might be considered thought processes), “it’s not … that’s not what it is. It’s not that I’m barren. I don’t think I’m barren. I’m definitely not barren. No, it’s not those things. It’s not that I’m on birth control (I am, and thank God my insurance covers that, at least, well, twenty percent anyway).

“It’s not the abor—it’s not … that. I don’t regret that.

“It’s just that …

“It’s just that … that I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone. Let alone on a little baby.

“To force that on a kid … it’s … it’s cruel.

“What would they have to look forward to?

“Nothing. They would have nothing … nothing.”

And back when his brain did not sink—daily, nightly, foreverly—into benzodiazepinic opiate abyss, he would consider this matter too, and he would mull it over in his not-so-stupid brain, and he would think: “A child, a child would be so much work, so much sacrifice. Sacrifice, you know? And what do we have to sacrifice? We have nothing to sacrifice. We’ve sacrificed it already.

“I don’t know what I would give to a child.

“I don’t have anything to give.”

And he pukes. And he wakes.

And again, she deposits her food in the toilet, but a bit less this time, a bit less.

And again, he deposits his dope in his body, but a bit less this time, a bit less.

And the television drones on.

And they sit.

And the smell of acid and death rises, and they stare at a box filled with moving pictures of people much richer and much smarter and much more successful and much happier and much healthier and much more content than they are, and they stare, and their brains empty.

And there is a timelessness.

And a thought pushes the drugs aside and enters the man’s skull. It is not a thought of suicide—it is a different thought.

And he tries to tell her the thought, but his mouth takes time to work, time to move, and finally, he finds the muscles again, and he speaks as though encased in ballistics gel:

“I think … I think …” She turns to him, surprised. “I think that … you know … if only I could … could experience … nothingness … real … nothingness … well … I think I would … sit in it … forever … forever, you know?”

She does not answer for a long moment. He does not notice that she has not answered.

A whisper boils its way out of her brain.

“Me too.”

**** A Sad Short Story — We’re Not OK, Are We? ****

And she looks at him, and she looks at the lack of life behind his eyes, and he stares at a point five hundred meters beyond her skull, and she thinks of the children dying in the country in which she lives because they do not have enough to eat, and she thinks of the people dying in her country because they cannot hold down jobs, or because they had the audacity to contract a difficult-to-treat disease, or because they had the audacity to stand up for their rights, or because they had the audacity to try to protect and serve their fellow human beings, or they had the audacity to think right-handed thoughts, or they had the audacity to think left-handed thoughts, or they had the audacity to have a skin tone just a bit darker than her own, and she thinks of the people in her country who are dying because they take the pittance they are offered as a wage and give it to their children, and none is left for them, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because her country is dropping bombs on their heads, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because her country will not stop the bombs being dropped on their heads by still other countries, and she thinks of the people dying in other countries because they do not have enough water, or they have enough water, but it is not clean, or they have enough water, and it is clean, but it is held by warlords, or they have enough water, and it is clean, and it is not being held by warlords, but they cannot afford to purchase the water, and she thinks of the strangeness of having to purchase water, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because they’ve had their clitorises cut off by their aunties with dirty knives because those same aunties had their own clitorises cut off by their aunties, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because they have been raped—violently, repeatedly, systematically—by men who hate them, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because their heads have been cut off because they do not agree with the thoughts that run through the heads of the head-cutter-off-ers, and she thinks of the people who are dying in other countries because they do not worship the correct invisible man in the sky, or because they are the wrong color, or the wrong shape, or they love the wrong people, or they say the wrong things, or they think the wrong thoughts, or they wear the wrong clothes, or they believe the wrong beliefs.

And she looks at her empty life.

And she wonders how she can be so selfish.

And she wonders how she can have so little gratefulness.

And she wonders if the children in other countries cry when she does not finish her baked potatoes topped with melted butter, if they cry when she eats only half of one, pushes the rest into the garbage, and retreats to the bathroom to purge what she ate from her belly.

And she wonders which of her organs will fail first.

And she wonders if his poisoned blood will kill him before his liver gives out.

Or if, one day, he just won’t wake up.

And she thinks about how nice that would be—to just not wake up.

And she looks at him, and she notices, for the first time in a long time, that the tiny punctures in his arms are not healing, that they are spreading in fractal patterns across his forearms and shoulders, that they cover his legs, creep toward his neck, climb delicately along the large vein on his dick.

And she notices that his skin is the color of saffron, and she brushes a layer of amber crystals off her arm, and she tongues her teeth, and they wiggle in her gums.

And she whispers again, her mouth aching with sores.

“We’re not OK, are we?”

He moves toward her, hands shaking, eyes blank, fingers reaching for a jawline ravaged by osteoporosis. His nails are black. They slide like delicate razor blades through her hair, dislodging clear strands in bunches.

When the air moves through his lungs.

It creaks.

“No … we aren’t.”

And the next morning, they do not wake.

And after two no-call-no-shows, their decaying bodies are fired in absentia.

And in three weeks, the smell rouses the neighbors.

And when the remains are dumped in a black trash bag and buried.

The only witnesses are an old man.

And a shovel.

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Adam Fout

I'm an addiction / recovery / mental health blogger and a speculative fiction / nonfiction writer. I have a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Professional and Technical Communication. I'm a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop. I'm a regular contributor to Recovery Today Magazine, and I've been featured on numerous recovery podcasts. I have personal experience with addiction and mental health. I have Substance Use Disorder (SUB), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar II, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), and Binge Eating Disorder (BED), among others. I have been in numerous drug rehabs, detoxes, and mental institutions, so I understand from personal experience how the mental health system works. I have been published in numerous literary magazines, including December, J Journal, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. I LOVE when readers reach out to me! Always feel free to send me an email at awfout at gmail dot com. I can't wait to hear from you!