by Ryan Sheffield

When the doctor informed Charlie that he might be a hypochondriac, he took the news very seriously. His hands began to tremble when he heard the word. It was cold and medical and impossible to spell. It was serious. A strange feeling washed over him, somehow all at once uneasy, anxious and a great relief. He wondered if it might be the flu coming on.

“Hypa-what was that, doc? Is it serious? Because I’ve been getting these… chills when I urinate. And sometimes it hurts a little. Not every time, but I’ve been worried about it, you know?”

He waited anxiously for the doctor to rattle off the symptoms. Was it life-threatening? Would it affect his work? What was the prognosis? The statistical rate of survival? Was the surgery invasive?

The doctor sighed.

Charlie left the office without returning the desk clerk’s robotic, heartless farewell. Hypochondria was the one disease he most certainly did not have. Another quack. Another goddamn quack. Was there a single doctor in town that knew just what the hell they were talking about? Where was the empathy? Where was the compassion? The world had gone to hell. The Golden Days were long gone. Misdiagnosed. Under-prescribed. Dead. The world would have had a serious damn malpractice suit on its hands if Charlie had anything to say about it.

In a past life Charlie had been a civil attorney with a near-spotless record of victory. He had been a humble man but well-respected in the community and lauded in newspapers all over the country. Maybe the world. The memories were hazy and occasionally overlapped, but he distinctly remembered a courtroom drawing from the front page of the Times. It was certainly flattering, though the artist’s vision might have been a bit obscured by his adoration. Charlie—or whatever his name had been at the time… John?—had been painted a hero, but he was merely a man like any other. A man with empathy. Compassion. He couldn’t clearly recall procedures or specific cases, but one thing was for sure: he would not have stood for quackery. Not on his watch.

When he got back to his apartment, he locked the door and drew the chain. He went to the kitchen sink to wash his hands with antibacterial soap. Doctors’ offices were cesspools of disease. If he wasn’t sick when he went in, he sure as hell would be when he left. He dried his hands on a paper towel then used it to press the pump on the bottle of sanitizer. For the sanitizer to be effective, the label recommended fifteen seconds of rigorous application. But who could trust a label? It may as well have been written by quacks. Quacks making their money. Always money.

Charlie counted aloud to thirty-Mississippi then shook his hands over the sink basin. He wasn’t sure why, but it seemed to increase the sanitizer’s effectiveness.  He thought about all the children coughing their sickness all over the doctor’s office and wished he could rinse clean his lungs. The least the quacks could do was invest in some goddamn Lysol.

He sat down in front of his computer and pulled up The doctor may not have had anything to say about his maladies, but Charlie sure as hell had a few things to say about him. It was the fourth negative review he had been forced to write in the last month alone. The world had gone to hell and that was surely evidenced by the high marks these doctors received from other patients. Patients or PR firms? Could anyone be trusted anymore? Wasn’t it always about the money?

He rummaged through the pile of orange bottles on his desk and took a Xanax to calm his acute anxiety. He couldn’t remember which doctor had prescribed it to him, but he was probably some pill-pushing quack, slapping his John Hancock on prescriptions and paychecks—kickbacks from some poison-peddling corporation.

He looked for the number of refills on the bottle and took another. Even through the Brita filter, the tap water tasted of metal and godknowswhat. He had read somewhere that drinking water was filled with trace amounts of a thousand pharmaceuticals from the piss of a thousand fools and their phony scripts.

He thought about piss and poured the remainder of the glass down the bathroom sink. Back into the water supply. Who regulated these things? Did they even give a damn?

In a past life Charlie had been a Roman architect. He had dedicated his life to the design and construction of the aqueduct system and had taken pride in his work. He wasn’t sure if he ever met the emperor, but he was definitely well-known amongst the senate. He could remember some of their faces—chiseled and stoic, like the great sculptures that remained of ancient Greece. He often wondered if there were any statues dedicated to his honor. Likely not. The emperor would have claimed the credit for himself. It didn’t matter. His accomplishments stood the test of time.

This short story is part of the collection One Bedroom Apartment by Zouch editor Ryan Sheffield. It is available on Amazon Kindle for 99 cents. (Free to borrow for Prime members.) 

Charlie gathered up the month’s bills and walked to the post office. He didn’t particularly enjoy walking, but it was better than wasting gas. It wasn’t the money—but wasn’t it always?—he just couldn’t stand the act of pumping gas and he avoided it whenever possible. It stank like hell, and the pump itself—good god. He had read somewhere that gas pump handles were the most germ-ridden things the average person could touch. He always carried sanitizer in his car, but that was only 99% effective, and with the amount of germs on a gas pump the remaining 1% was enough to kill a man.

A woman and her child were entering the post office as he approached and he hurried to squeeze in behind them before the door shut. The woman seemed startled and gave him a bewildered, sour look as he wiped his shoes on the mat. Charlie had never been good with women. He wasn’t sure why. Women were just picky.

Regardless, what did he care about this lady’s sour grapes? If he could get by without having to grab another filthy door handle then why not? The woman pulled her daughter close and went to the self-service counter to affix her stamps. Charlie never understood why people went places so unprepared. He wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the lady actually licked the damn stamps. Or worse, let her daughter do it. He shuddered at the thought. Did he have a fever?

In a past life Charlie had been a rider for the Pony Express. It wasn’t as glamorous a job as history often painted it, but it was adventure in spades. He remembered his horse quite vividly. It had been unusually large for its breed and its coat was the color of sun-kissed amber. It was majestic. He couldn’t recall its name, but it had a sense of loyalty and pride about it that made it seem almost human. And it loved him.

Charlie dropped his bills in the box and reopened it twice to make sure the envelopes had gone down. He bought a half-sheet of stamps and, on his way out, the woman and her sour grapes caught his gaze. She was pretty. Her cheekbones were high and defined, and the way they blended so seamlessly into her milk-white skin reminded him of masterpieces by artists once his contemporaries. Bitch.

He returned home, drew the chain on the door and washed his hands. He took another Xanax and lay down on his bed. The clock on the nightstand said 5:32 and Charlie wished more than anything that it were late enough for sleep. He’d be damned if he’d spring for the ridiculous cost of cable television, and since they switched from rabbit ear antennas to that moneysucking digital box, he had given up on TV. He would have picked up a book, but reading was making him feel nauseous lately. He needed to set an appointment with an optometrist. Or could it have been an ulcer?

Timekilling was becoming more and more of a problem. His work shift ended at 5PM and he had read somewhere that it was unhealthy for an adult male to sleep more than nine hours per night. That left quite a bit of time to kill. He had tried taking up hobbies—crosswords, collecting, everything—but they bored him. He had mentioned it to a doctor once, but the quack assured him he did not have ADHD. Charlie wrote a particularly scathing review about that one. What’s the problem, doc? No kickbacks from the Ritalin company?

In a past life Charlie had been a Spanish conquistador. His discovery of a minor but resource-rich island in the Caribbean would have made him famous and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but the news never reached the Queen’s ears. The first mate—a man he had called a friend—led a mutiny against him. They spared his life, opting to chain him up in the galley, but the voyage itself was doomed. There had been rumors amongst the crew of an Indian curse, but Charlie—or whatever his name had been at the time… Juan?—didn’t believe in such things. Cursed or not, the ship mysteriously capsized in the Atlantic before his discovery could be inked into the pages of history.

Three hours had mercifully passed by the time Charlie got out of bed to take another Xanax. Did the damn things even work? He made a bag of microwave popcorn and called it dinner. It wasn’t exactly health food, but money was tight. Wasn’t it always? The phony pills killed his appetite anyway.

Charlie had been staring at the blank television screen for an hour before he realized what he was doing. Maybe it was better that way. A blank screen was miles beyond the trash on cable. He slowly got to his feet and grabbed the worthless rabbit ears off the top of the TV set. His feet felt as though they weighed a hundred pounds each and he struggled to make it to the kitchen. How long had he been walking?

He dropped the useless metal sticks in the trash bin and wondered if the heaviness might be a symptom of a serious heart problem. His circulation had always been poor, but it was getting worse and it worried him. By the time he stopped staring at the trash bin, the nightstand clock read 10PM.

In a past life Charlie had been a libertine playboy in the times before the French Revolution. His wife had died of consumption and they had no children, so he lived out the remainder of his days in the company of beautiful women, drowning his sorrows in drink and earthly rapture. In those days, women weren’t so picky and no one got HIV from gas pump handles. The world was still full of wonder and entertainment and no amount of time deserved to die.

He lay in his bed and stared at the patterns made by the white spackle ceiling as the shadows of the spinning fan blades danced over it in waves. It sure beat the hell out of collecting stamps. His lungs felt heavy, but at least his feet had lightened up. He struggled for a moment to feel them at all. Did anyone know the name of a good cardiologist? Was everyone on the internet a goddamn PR agent?

Charlie wondered if it was time yet for nine hours of sleep, but the clock was far away and being generally unpleasant. The clock was just another damn quack, counting its money. Not on his watch. The unintended pun would have made him laugh out loud, but his lungs didn’t seem to be working. Quacks, all of them.

Too much time. Too much time to get sick. Too much time to wait in this goddamn doctor’s office. Everyone was sick. He was sick. And no one believed him.

Sometime between fanshadow waves across the moon-rock spackle sky, Charlie’s feet grew heavy enough to touch the floor. There was an orange bottle in his hand and it was empty. The water tasted like metal and piss. He was sick and no one believed him. A strange feeling washed over him, somehow all at once uneasy, anxious and a great relief. For godsake, was there a doctor in the house?

In a past life Charlie had been a low-level insurance rep with above-average healthcare benefits. He never paid for cable, but he once met a pretty pair of cheekbones in a post office full of disease.