By Sarah Benal
Caroline considered the complexities of her Epi-pen when she plunged it into her leg. The needle, much longer than she cared to imagine, sunk through her thigh and distributed the medication. For a moment the swelling in her throat hesitated. Her heart soared and her tongue smacked against the roof of her mouth, the tinge of almond chicken still sticky. Then she threw up.
The ambulances were always cold, always loud, always crowded. The doctors were calm as they raced down the empty streets of Caroline’s town. It was fall, and Caroline had just started her sophomore semester. Her father would notice the charge on the insurance months from now and ask why she was so stupid to not ask what was in the food in front of her. She would tell him her roommate was kind, and shared what she had bought. She would tell him half of that, because his yelling would drown out the rest of her explanation.
The hospital had artwork from one of the grade schools in town, each piece framed in synthetic wood: lanky parents in shades of blue, dogs larger than the houses they lived in,Valentines that thanked the nice nurses. In her room, Caroline watched the IV slide into her arm, felt her heart slow down, felt her legs decompose. Her mother would not rush in, but walk with determination, forcing the doctors out of her way. Her mother would take a deep breath and consider the impatience she felt when she was pregnant with Caroline, two weeks past her due date. She would recall the swirling winds and harsh rain of the impending hurricane, wondering if that theory about high pressure would push Caroline out. Her reluctance at scheduling an induced labor would be thwarted by the shock of contractions at four the next morning. Now, she watched Caroline’s eyelids flutter. Caroline’s mother texted Caroline’s brother the simple phrase Caroline’s in the hospital again. She deleted again before sending.
The marker board in the hospital room was cleaned of the notes from the previous patient: a three-year-old who stuck a penny up his nose. Doctors sketched prescriptions and notes in front of her while Caroline’s brain faded and she watched the blues and greens bleed together. The doctors’ voices dragged and slid dumbly onto the floor. She watched their sounds make shapes, their heaviness stacked: one word on top of the next. A male nurse with smooth, brown hair took her blood pressure. She smiled because she thought it might be nice to have his hand squeezing her own instead of securing the blood pressure wrap around her arm. She broke up with her boyfriend a month ago. He had used too much hair gel and he had hit her. Just one, sharp smack across the face, but it had been enough for Caroline to jump to the future and see flashes of many more. She cried, sat in the kitchen of her apartment and accepted tissues from her roommate, who nodded but glanced at her phone. Caroline now had three different dating profiles, all enclosed secretly in her phone. But when she opened them, she felt her body deflate, and her energy wane as she skimmed the profile bios and registered half of the information. She hadn’t responded to any of the interested messages.
Caroline’s brother, Eric, arrived after the Benadryl pushed lazily through her system and the steroids surged under her skin. He took pictures, one in black and white. “This is your album cover,” he joked and held up the screen. He cleaned his glasses on his shirt three times before he launched into his anxieties surrounding his band. He remembered there was a notebook Caroline left in his car when he drove her to work the night her battery died. Biology, Caroline thought. Or History of the Major Religions. Girls called Eric sweet. They admired his long hair, even though the length came from his forgetfulness instead of a desire for a particular look. He was too old for Caroline to see the world the same way. Eric stared at Caroline and hoped his imaginary future daughter would not be framed by the same course pillows.
The doctors took tests and patted her arm. They mumbled encouraging words to Caroline’s mother, and gave her permission to leave in a few hours. They emphasized caution, subsequent reactions could be worse. Make sure her Epi-pens are not expired. Caroline closed her eyes and had dreams with the density of mercury, the stickiness of marshmallows. Her tongue decreased in size and she thought about how her roommate had a crush on a guy with a girlfriend. The dishes in the sink grew mold. Caroline’s mother traced the veins that roped around Caroline’s wrist. Eric answered his phone, “It’s Dad,” he said before he turned into the corner of the room with his arms crossed.
A wheelchair was pushed into the room. Caroline stared at it and thought she’d rather walk. But her mother sounded grateful as she wrapped her own hands around the handles. The nurse with the brown hair held Caroline’s arm steady as he extracted the IV. He smiled and Caroline tried to smile back. His hands were chapped, his knuckles small mountains with snowy caps. She imagined running her thumb across the top of them, feeling the valleys and plains. The last time she flew in an airplane, Caroline refused to look out the window. She knew if she did, the ground would hurdle toward her, the farms or mountains or bodies of water rushing closer. She had sat still in her chair, and felt her legs grow stiff with fear. When the attendant walked by to offer drinks, Caroline could only shake her head. When the plane landed, her ears popped so suddenly her eyes watered. But she felt an overwhelming sense of relief and craved the cold air outside the door.
Her mother’s car was parked outside the hospital and Eric sat at the wheel. He pressed a button and the door of the minivan slid open. Her mother helped her into the closest chair. Caroline settled into the worn fabric and inhaled the scent of Eric’s fast food. “Want one?” Eric asked and held a fry out for her. The car lurched into traffic and Caroline’s head flopped to the side, letting Eric interpret the movement as a No. Thank you. It was dark. Traffic cones littered the roads, territory marked by construction workers in ways that seemed arbitrary to Caroline, and she grew angry with her brother as he bent and swerved according to the cones’ placements. They passed by the grocery store, her old high school, and the only hair salon that ever gave Caroline bangs she liked. At a stoplight, a trio rolled through the crosswalk on skateboards. The wheels rumbled over Caroline’s chest. Inside the car was silent.
They arrived at her apartment. A dull lightbulb cast a hazy spotlight in front of the door. Caroline’s mother fussed. “You can stay at my place, sweetheart.” But Caroline declined and cited exhaustion. Claimed she’d be better the next day. Besides, her roommate would watch over her once she returned. Her mother kissed her along the part in her hair. Eric hugged her and escorted their mother down the hall and back to the car. Before exiting, her mother turned and gave a wistful wave. Inside the apartment, Her roommate was not there, probably with the guy who had a girlfriend. Caroline wandered through the dark rooms, ran her tongue along her chapped lips, surveyed the damage done from the few hours of neglect.
Her phone was filled with texts, a voicemail, a few missed calls. Her father and her best friend — each wondered how she was doing. Her father wanted to know whether it was a dessert or one of those kale chips cooked in almond oil. Her friend worried Caroline wouldn’t be available to study for their upcoming chemistry exam. Caroline placed her phone on the small table in the corner of the kitchen. Her father would call again in the morning. He would follow his lecture with insistence she move closer to him. Her mother could not care for her. He would tell long, detailed stories about his two dogs—one overweight from eating the food in the other’s bowl. Her father would ask her how her grades are, wonder where she wanted to go to medical school. Caroline never wanted to be a doctor, but it had been an easy answer for so long. She was good at science, she was a woman, and she could comfort children. The call would end when Caroline said “I love you,” and he said “See ya.”
The windows in Caroline’s apartment were old; the paint chipped, left small piles in the windowsill, and spiderwebs swung in the corners. Their neighbors were quiet except for the elderly man who lived down the hall, who often forgot which end of the hallway he lived in, and would rattle his key in Caroline’s lock. Caroline wondered if her roommate had noticed the stain by the couch yet. They hadn’t seen each other in two or three days; they missed each other lately. Caroline was grateful. Her roommate’s absence made the space seem smaller, and she reveled in the tightness. She liked to feel her body test the boundaries of the apartment. Each night she slept somewhere different. Her bedroom had stacked dishes, and the TV room had damp towels.
The boy who already had a girlfriend had words like honey. Her roommate choked on them, too sticky and sweet. His girlfriend didn’t understand him. They had been together for too long. Caroline watched her roommate count the days that he did not break up with his girlfriend. Caroline wanted to tell her roommate to stop holding her tongue out, waiting for the next drops of sweet nothingness. She did once, but her roommate bristled and stood on guard. “I know what I’m doing,” she told her.
Caroline was five when she discovered her allergy. She had been making cookies with the neighbor girl. Together they scooped huge handfuls of walnuts and showered them over the dough. Now, Caroline saw a plate of cookies sitting next to her phone. Plastic wrap stretched over it tightly; a note placed carefully on top said contains nuts in her roommate’s loopy script, a smiley face off in the corner. Caroline’s mouth watered as the plastic crackled under her fingertips. It collapsed to the side. She picked up a cookie, felt the crumbs fall between her fingers. She thought how good her roommate was at baking as her teeth broke through the soft dessert.
Sarah Benal received her BA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her MFA in Fiction from the University of South Carolina. She currently lives with her husband in South Carolina.