Shortly after I got the phrase “Hell wasn’t built in a day” from the Idiomatic, I came down with a savage case of the weretonsils, and would up in the ER late at night over the weekend. My husband joked that I really know how to surprise him with a romantic date. We settled in for a few hours of intravenous steroids, and as I waited in the hospital bed, all the ideas I originally had for the story changed and turned into this as I observed life after midnight in the ER—not my usual style, but hey, why not try something different?
Hell Wasn't Built in a Day
The thread of life was unspooling and near its end. A small cluster of hospital staff stood around the bed.
“There’s no one to contact?” asked the doctor.
A nurse shook her head over the clipboard she was holding. “Her former husband hung up on me after saying no one in her family wants to hear about her.”
From within a remaining spark of consciousness, Karen felt a great heaviness within her chest. Suffocating…so cold…
She was vaguely aware of how large the johnny felt over her emaciated body. Uncounted weeks’ of grime and sweat covered her skin.
“Do we admit her?” asked the nurse.
“There’s no time. She won’t be with us long. It’s amazing she’s here at all, considering the level of fentanyl we found.”
Karen struggled to remember her last moments before she landed in the hospital. The touch of hands as she passed by her dealer on Boston Common and they exchanged money for the sealed packet. Hiding in the curved nook at the bottom of the stairwell of the Chinatown T stop with her gear. The exquisite rush as the ambrosia flowed. The slump leading to an indefinite doze.
She didn’t remember how she found herself walking down the street, but she did recall the comment someone made about the tourniquet still wrapped around her arm. The heaviness set in her chest, as though an alien whisper blew Earth’s atmosphere away in a puff. Then darkness.
It was light years from the life she knew. Fitting the sash around her shoulders when she got her MBA from Wharton. Dan putting the platinum ring on her finger a month later. The leather strap of her briefcase neatly tucking under her lapel as she headed off to her career in health insurance. The sharpness of that thick strap, holding a goldmine of data and business deals, was once a joy that could’ve rivaled the rush anticipated when the tourniquet tightened on her skin.
Her earliest memories were of ruthless ambition, even in grade school. There was no high greater than a power play, until the pills led her down the dark path.
The pain killers. The very ones she helped push to a broader market. There are some kinds of pain that can’t be banished, even with the strongest of drugs. The images from the moments before the accident seared into her memory. Distracted by the shrill notifications, she never thought to look up while she argued with a colleague.
“My husband’s an important lobbyist with pharma! If my CBA doesn’t support his argument, we’ll lose!”
She grimaced at her colleague’s next text. “What’s a CBA?”
“Cost-benefit analysis! What kind of idiot school did y—”
A thundering crash jolted her in her seat. A sickening crunch brought her out of her self-centered universe. She had collided head-on with her husband’s gold Buick. They both looked up from their phones and over the steering wheels and faced each other, their child’s aqua bicycle crushed between their cars. The only thing that had kept them together was now gone. The child wasn’t much more than a status symbol to begin with. An opportunity to brag about the most progressive charter schools and exotic extracurricular activities over cocktails and sea urchin foam-covered canapés. How did the nanny allow the kid to be on a bicycle anyway? That hour was reserved for creating an outline for the junior entrepreneur program. The nanny ought to be sued for endangerment. Always arguing about the importance of playing outside. Really.
There was no reason to stay together. Karen and Dan already had secondary households set up with their respective lovers. Once the prescription to treat her broken shoulder ran out, she turned to friends in the business for freebies. Until she wore them out. Until she slept through conference calls and missed her targets.
The job crashed and burned. She stayed with her sister’s family until things began to disappear. Blank checks from the checkbook. The new tablet for her niece’s birthday.
She settled for an apartment on the gritty side of town. What money she had disappeared as though it had never been there. The ambitious mean girl was now a denigrated, feeble outcast. It was only a short time before she was evicted. She slept in the entryway of a vacant office space downtown. Until.
“How does it come to this for so many people?” a voice above her asked.
The doctor clicked his pen. “Hell wasn’t built in a day.”
The last of the light flickered over her eyelids, and she was gone.