Caves by Brittani Miller

Humans love to believe that it’s going to get better.

Her lungs had been the first thing to go. She couldn’t venture up a flight of stairs without a five-minute break to catch her breath. Still, she’d said she was fine. When her coughing fits overtook her sentences and her best friend begged her to go to the doctor, she insisted it was just a bad cold. 

Next was her stomach. There wasn’t a food she could keep down, so she stopped eating. Everyone said she needed to keep her strength up, she needed to eat, she was losing too much weight. She said it was the stomach flu. It wasn’t until her throat closed one day, when the pain became unbearable and her heart felt frozen, that she accepted she might not get better.

The ladies in their maroon scrubs were nothing more than robots. They filled the empty hallways with the sound of acrylic nails clacking against plastic keys. The lady at the check-in desk had mousy hair and loudly chewed bubblegum.

“Name?” Her voice was as monotonous as the beige walls; this woman knew that names didn’t matter. They were nothing more than appointment slots, and room numbers, and bills to be paid, and the woman was so sorry. Everyone was always so sorry. It was funny, she thought, that people were so sorry over things that were so minuscule, things you wish could be the only thing.

The sorry people weren’t facing the doctor today, she was. And she knew it was all a charade of hollow sympathy from someone who had worked in this field long enough that they were unable to offer any real emotion. The doctor, with his slicked-back hair and cardigan, was like a sailor dropping swear words off the deck of his ship. The word he said felt like some strange new profanity, a word that once had a completely different meaning but was now so vulgar it must be avoided at all cost; it was two letters longer than the long-forbidden ‘C’-word, but warranted the same gasp.

She felt like a ghost. A human’s first instinct is to survive. As a young woman, if a man comes toward you in a parking lot, are you more likely to survive if you pepper spray him or if you get into his car and strip for him? And when you find out that your body is destroying itself, do you kill it first or do you wait for your lungs to stop working?

The car ride home dragged on much longer than its ten minute duration. The radio shuffled through pop hits, upbeat tunes about heartbreak and pain and loneliness. The Billboard’s Top 100 was a misery factory, blared through car speakers across the nation. 

She didn’t cry, not in the office or in the car or even once her door was chained and her shoes were off. She felt hollow, like she was watching her life on a movie screen and not through her own eyes.

Numbness spread out from behind her eyes and down through her legs as she lay naked atop her bed sheets. Her arm draped over the side, allowing her Husky dog to lick her fingers. It was winter, but her ceiling fan spun overhead. She wanted to feel something, even if it was just the feeling of air blowing on her bare skin. She imagined the fan being a clock, spinning out the rest of her life as fast as it could, while it still had the time. It was closing in on her, like crumbling cave walls blocking her from the outside world. Time was something she had always worried about.

*

“They have support groups for these kinds of things.” The pamphlet was pea-green, the front bore the words “Supporting. Caring. Helping.” in white letters. She knew this helped some people, and it was what you were ‘supposed’ to do. There were a lot of things she was ‘supposed’ to do – go to therapy, call her sister, pick out a wedding dress, become a mother – that she just never saw the time for. There was always a better time than the present, but now that the present was presented as the only promise she had it seemed like it was far too late. The electronic signature pad lit up, and as she filled out the required paperwork, she felt like she was signing her soul over to some high-tech devil in a pantsuit. She tucked the brochure into her purse as she was called back. 

She was directed away and led by a woman much older than her. The ceilings seemed cavernous, twisting and turning through a maze of hallways. The nurse was gaunt and silent, like a white-dressed Reaper leading her through some tiled-floor afterlife, humming the entire way. They boarded the elevator, and she began to wonder what the likelihood would be for the cords to give out and plunge them down deep into the pits of Hell.

They exited, and she followed to a small, ten-by-ten room barely big enough to hold a table, a bed, two chairs, and a monitor. She was instructed to strip and as she did so the cold, sterile air made her shiver. The floral printed gown they had left behind for her hung from her frame like her father’s old shirts.

The nurse returned to hook her up to the machines, tentacles wrapping around her skin and attaching to IVs and TV screens. The needle pumped ice-cold saline into her bloodstream, stinging her veins like freezer burn up her arm. A couple painful shots of compazine were added to the mix, until her heart slowed and her eyelids felt heavy. She dangled her fingers against the side of the hard hospital mattress, imaging she was back home with her dog licking her hand.

The grinding wheels of her suddenly moving bed jolted her eyes open. The spinning sound of the bed dragging against the tiles echoed through the hallway. The walls were dark, cave walls crumbling in around her, with lights swinging overhead like stalactites. Her claustrophobia was kept at bay somewhat precariously by the drugs in her system.

They moved her onto a hard table, a half-dozen scrub-clad people surrounding her. A man told her to count backwards from ten.

Ten.

There is a theory that every single action we take leads to every single thing that happens to us for our entire lives. Some go as far as to say every single choice creates a new dimension of never ending possibility, all the different ways a life can play out or get cut short. Something as small as leaving your bed a few minutes late or what you choose to eat for lunch can change the outcome of an entire day for you and everyone you encounter.  Even just a single word can determine what you think, feel, or do for the rest of your life.

Nine.

She wondered what she had chosen to get here, to this moment. What these people had done that led them to working here. Why her and not someone else?

Eight.

Do you kill your body or do you wait for it to destroy itself?

Seven.


Brittani Miller is a writer and thyroid cancer survivor from Southern Illinois. She is currently a student at University of Illinois at Springfield, where she was recently awarded the Rosie Richmond English Award. Her poetry has previously appeared in the 2019-2020 issue of The Alchemist Review. You can find her online at brittaniwritesbooks.com or on Twitter @brittaniwrites.