November 30

Stay Home Because You’re Well Day

 

Kingsley used to joke about faking a sick day, to take a “mental health” break from annoying co-workers.  As his supervisor, Alisha Martens usually granted the request.  She appreciated the honesty.  It was better to be warned in advance about the absence, so she could prepare for it — and it spared her another early-morning, last-minute phone call filled with sniffles or fake coughs or baby talk (“I just fwew up.  Urp.”).

Besides:  she supervised the other employees, too.  She knew they were annoying.

Alisha was especially angry with her staff today.  None of them showed up on time this morning.  An hour into the a.m. shift, and still no signs of anybody.

She checked her voice mail, both for her personal and work phones.  Both empty.  She hated getting sick-day messages, but now felt offended that nobody had bothered to call.

Besides… it was getting so late in the day, she she wouldn’t have time to bring in temporary workers from the agency.  Barring some miracle — like the whole crew pouring through the door at once, all sharing the same story about a huge traffic backup, power outage, or childcare emergency — she was going to have to close shop for today.

If she’d known this was coming, she could have stayed home herself.  Slept late.  Watched game shows, baked cookies, finished a few chores around the house.

Before making any final decisions, Alicia typed in “Holiday November 30” on her web browser.  Several obscure observances flashed on the screen, but the one that stood out was, “Stay Home Because You’re Well Day.”  Reading the description, she learned it was the equivalent of Kingsley’s mental health day, writ large.  An unofficial free holiday, and apparently her whole staff had decided to take advantage of it.

Sneaky trick they all pulled, not telling her.  The one who angered her the most, though, was Kingsley.  He’d always been honest, but now he was playing the same silly game as the rest of them.

So Alicia decided to call him at home.

She hoped his ring tone was loud.  She hoped it woke him from a sound sleep.

While she waited, Alicia glanced at the empty workstations spread out on the main floor.  They were really going to have trouble meeting their goals this month.

On her desktop, the computer monitor flashed away from the search she’d typed in earlier.  A random advertisement filled a box in the right column of her screen, all red letters and exclamation points.  She’d trained herself to ignore such intrusions.

Click.

At first she thought she’d been disconnected, but then she heard a raspy breathing on the line.  No other clues, no recognizable words or syllables..but for some reason, she didn’t doubt that it was Kingsley.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Alicia said, “but we’re behind schedule.  We can’t all ‘stay at home because we’re well’ today.”

Even as she said it, with all the authoritative sarcasm she could muster, Alicia knew she’d made a mistake.  Kingsley’s wordless breaths still conveyed a message.  He wasn’t well.  Not at all.

A low gurgle rose through the phone line, then a cough — not a fake cough but a real one, low and deep and phlegmy.

“Tell me what’s the matter,” she said.  “Are you still there?”

She was afraid he’d answer No, in a voice totally unlike his own.  No, I’m not here.

An awful retching followed.  She imagined Kingsley trying too hard to speak, clearing a pathway in his throat but actually shredding internal tissues in the effort.  It almost sounded like Kingsley was turning himself inside out.

Then he finally formed two words…delivered in the rhythm of his former voice, but with an awful metamorphosis brought about by illness and pained awareness:  “We’re dying.”

In all the sick-calls she’d gotten over the years, with all the bad acting and exagerrations, she’d never had anybody say that before.  I feel terrible, yes.  But nobody every said, dying.

The plural bothered her a bit, too.  *We’re* dying.

The connection ended abruptly, and Kingsley’s name and number disappeared from the screen of her smartphone.  The display shifted to flashing red letters and exclamation points.