Take a Pill

Steve Mathes

 

 

Roads that close mysteriously.  News that never happens.  Then my pills fall into the toilet.

 

The pills?  Suffice it to say the toilet needs flushing.  Maybe I could have saved a few doses otherwise.  I could have called the doctor or the pharmacist, looked on the Web, about salvaging wet pills.  But not pills deposited into that particular stew.  So begins my quest for happiness.

 

Big deal that I perform this stunt on a Sunday.  This is a drug issue. Drugstores stay open.  All sorts of stores stay open on Sunday, even on Super Bowl Sunday.  Especially on Super Bowl Sunday.  What is the object of the Super Bowl, anyway?  The joy of light beer.  The heartbreak of erectile dysfunction.  At least one of those requires a drugstore.  I buy my pills at a grocery store pharmacy, so beer sales keep it open, also.

 

My pills are for attitude adjustment, not erectile dysfunction, but things happen.  Someone somewhere must have dropped his sex life into the toilet once?  The medicine cabinet.  The toilet.  Too close to each other.

 

Naturally, I want to think this happens all the time.

 

In my defense, please let me explain a little more.  I take anti-depressants, like everyone else.  But I don't tolerate drugs well.  I've tried the SSRIs, and it's a no-go.  So I'm on this experimental stuff I can barely pronounce, fast-acting but goes out of the system just as fast.  But the pills really work.  Saved my job, for starters.  I need those pills.

 

Now about the obstacle.  I live in the woods.  Really.  Dirt road a mile from pavement, the only road out.  Just barely situated in a corner of the next town, just over the border.  I am back from an attempt to drive out and as I say, we are in a situation of closed roads.

 

I try to drive out and the cop has blocked the road with his cruiser. Right at the town line.  I know this guy.  He stopped me for speeding. Could have let me off with a warning.  So now he recognizes me.  I recognize him.

 

I ask to get through.  He shrugs like he almost cares.

 

"We have a hostage-suicide situation," he says.  "We'll call you when it's clear."

 

I explain about my drug problem.  He scowls.

 

"Please go back to your house, sir."

 

You gotta love these guys for their people skills.  An actual doctor prescribed these.  I didn't score this stuff on the street or anything.

 

So now I arrive at the bright-idea stage of this adventure, which is to go out the back way on foot.  Through the woods.  More specifically, along a trail that is sentimentally called the old Province Road.  So, yes, there are technically two ways out, although you would need a bulldozer and some weeks to actually drive out this way.  

 

Another feature of Super Bowl Sunday is the dead of winter.  I say I go out on foot but the truth is I go out on snowshoes.  This is New England.  When we have a real winter, it snows.  This has been a real winter.  So I slog with the snowshoes and I sweat.  The doctor told me that sweating affects serum levels of this drug.  So I sweat and need the pills that much more.

 

Not to mention that winter depresses a body anyway.

 

Three hundred yards to pavement, by Province Road.  Through the deep woods.  Location is important here. 

 

When I hit pavement, it's just a minute or two farther to my parents. I live that close to the old parents.  I live in the next town.  I live on a small lot subdivided from my father's farm.  The farm straddles the town line, which makes his life politically complicated.  Almost like I never left home, perhaps, although I have been around. Lived in Seattle for five years.

 

Whatever, the point is I can borrow a car.

 

I trudge.  After a sweaty interval long enough to soak through my long underwear, I stumble back over the town line, back onto the main road, and finally get to the house.  As I walk up to the door, I notice that I have not seen a single car.  Again, this is the main road.

 

I open the door.

 

"Hello! It's me!" 

 

And all I get is the dog.  Why did I forget to call ahead?

 

The black lab wiggles, grateful for my visit.  I linger long enough to be polite, a minute or two of scratching her belly.  Her name is Augusta. Then I check the garage.  Empty.  I go across to the barn, intent on the Old Man's truck. The barn contains the truck.

 

The absence of everyone but Augusta has fired up my suspicion.  Still no cars pass on the main road.

 

I get the secret key to the truck, drive it out of the barn.  I stop at the end of the driveway, undecided about turning left or right.

 

Maybe the spooky feeling is just the pills wearing off.  They have definitely worn off.  That much I can feel.  The decision feels big anyway.  Left or right?

 

I remember my manners, pull out my phone and call my mother.  Her phone just rings.  I leave a voice-mail, not that she ever checks.  She doesn't thrive with technology.

 

Left would take me back toward Province Road, then to Raymond. Raymond has drugstores.  Right would take me to Concord.  A bigger town with more drugstores, including the grocery that usually sells me my experimental pills.  This way would also pass near the area that is presumably still closed.

 

Maybe I overdosed.  Maybe my pills carry strange side effects. Maybe I dream.

 

I pull onto the road.  I go right.  Barely past the next turn is another road block.  I brake hard, manage to stop before hitting a cop.  They start screaming.  I lower my window, and realize they're yelling for me to hurry, to go through.  I want to ask about my parents, but this is real screaming.  Men with guns are waving at me to hurry up, swearing at me to move.  None of this "sir" stuff, just "MOVE!"  I go and I keep going.

 

I feel like I came close to getting shot.

 

I drive toward Concord.  I pass the way toward my road, and see no cops, no sign of trouble.  Also no sign of humanity.  I stay the course for Concord.  After miles, I see one car.  Ahead of me.  It turns right. Then a cluster of cops, who look like they might be setting up a road block or taking one down.  Even spooked as I am, I nearly stop, nearly risk arrest or death just to learn something.

 

Finally, I pull onto Route 4.  That would be US Route 4, a federal highway.  It changes suddenly, like some secret transition to reality. Cars ride the roads.  People go into and out of houses. Any other day, the traffic would be annoying, but after what I've seen, it tastes of sweet business-as-usual.

 

The need to know should surpass any need for medicine, but I need my pills.  I turn the radio on, surf the stations, but stay the course for Concord.

 

I drive.  I wonder.  Should I be worried about my parents?  The feeling I feel is bad.  But after the cops and after the lack of pills, my intuition is off.  My parents have taken care of themselves for seventy years, but a feeling nags me.

 

They left Augusta.  They would never leave the dog past its supper.  I can check when I bring the truck back.  After I've had a pill, after my attitude is adjusted.

 

Nothing on the radio but recycled greatest hits.  They do a news show, but it mostly covers celebrity gossip and this week's notorious sex offender.  No mention of a town's disappearance.

 

The grocery lot is jammed, everyone rushing.  Laden with beer, snacks and erectile dysfunction pills.  Yes, game time approaches.  A nice spot opens up and I park.  I rush in, brandishing my sullied pill bottle safely sealed in a plastic bag.

 

"I dropped these in the toilet," I tell the pharmacist.

 

He glances up from a portable TV.  Pre-game show.  He puts on latex gloves.  He holds the plastic bag at an angle and squints.  He holds it gingerly, between thumb and forefinger, like it might be unclean.

 

"Can you refill it?"

 

He shrugs like he almost cares.

 

"I'll need to call your doctor," he says.

 

My gut tightens.  Call the doctor?  On Super Bowl Sunday?  But, having no choice, I say nothing.

 

I wait almost no time.  

 

"You're all set," the pharmacist says.

 

"What?  Did you call some sort of secret hot-line?"

 

Like anyone would admit to something like that.  The pharmacist ignores the question and goes into the back.  Fifteen minutes later, I have my pills, he's taken my money.

 

By now there's a line formed behind me.  It's good to see a crowd.  I step aside for next guy, but I crane at the TV.  Five-o'clock news is on, reporting a major police sweep out my way.  The background graphic behind the announcer says something about rural privatization. An explanation?  He mentions only police.  He doesn't even say what the sweep is for. The graphic must be for another story.  Pathetic news story.

 

So why did the cop say murder-suicide?

 

"Hey, that's out your way," the pharmacist says.

 

I shrug like I almost care.  I'm afraid to look guilty.

 

On the way out, I buy beer for good measure.  Something to wash down the pills, celebrate a possible explanation.  Support the economy.

 

I go out to my dad's truck.  I try my mother again, leave another voice-mail.  I call their house.  Answer machine.

 

Explanation or not, my worries have a focus.  I forgot to buy bottled water, so I hold off on the pills.  I concentrate better on the pills, but this is a situation where I feel a need to feed my skeptical side. I tend toward too trustful on my pills.

 

The drive back to my parents returns me to a ghost town.  Cops have vanished, but so have all the people.  Afternoon darkness has closed in and there is no sign of electricity anywhere.  Houses, the convenience store, the gas station.  Everything dead.  A closed convenience store on Super Bowl Sunday?  That would strike me even on my pills.

 

I get the truck back in its barn, try the light in there.  Lights work.  I refuse to believe that everyone could vanish and remember to shut off every light.  I refuse to believe cops would break into every building and shut off every light, including outdoor lights over driveways and stores.  

 

Welcome to the impossible.

 

Back to the house, back to the dog.

 

I feed Augusta, which distracts her from demanding that I scratch her belly for an undue amount of time.  I check every room in the house, now thinking in terms of dead bodies, signs of a struggle, signs of foul play.  Not a thing out of place.  Except that my parents are still nowhere to be found.

 

Too spooky.  I decide to cut and run.

 

But not before turning on most of the lights in the house.  Not before grabbing a leash and Augusta.

 

The lights are to make a statement, I'm just not sure what I'm stating or to whom.

 

I write a note, leave it on the kitchen table.  Against all hope, I try my mother's cell.  I pack the beer in an old day pack, along with a little dog food and the leash.  I borrow a head-lamp. Augusta, desperate for a companion, follows me out.  We make our way to Province Road, where I put on the snowshoes.

 

It's easier going the second time through, nice packed powder snow. Clearly, I made a nice path earlier today. Augusta runs in circles, leaping through the deep drifts, inspired enough to bark once or twice.  But I hear something, so I call her over.  Tell her to sit and stay.  I kill the lamp.

 

Motors. 

 

I feel I need to choose.  I can run into the road and flag someone down, ask for news.  Or I can stay behind these hemlocks and hold my breath.  Fear makes the decision for me.  Even Augusta trembles.

 

No, it's not just the dog, it's the ground.

 

Military vehicles and police cars.  First come cars with flashing lights, then armored troop carriers on treads. Spotlights scan the woods, aiming too high as if searching for dangerous squirrels, headlights turn the road brighter than daylight. It's the treads from the armor that shake the ground.  Then come buses, hundreds of buses.  I count.  I miss the first few, because it takes me that long to believe my eyes.  Then I stop counting after a hundred.  There are already enough buses to hold the whole town. Big luxury coaches with black or silvered windows.  It takes an age for all those buses to pass, then more armor, then a last couple of flashing police cars.

 

The trembling fades, except for mine.  Darkness drops again.  I shake from fear and the cold.  I have been hiding in a snow drift with snow falling from the hemlocks and melting into my neck.  I want to get home, get warm.

 

Instead, I go back to the road.  I understand the stupidity, but I have to do it.  I need to see.

 

Yes, someone turned off the lights.  

 

Augusta, always wiser than I am, hangs back in the shadows.  I rejoin her on the path.  Her refusal to return home is a sure sign.  I need to stay away from the house of my parents.

 

I jog the length of the trail, both from fear and from the need to get warm.  I blast over the snowbank where the town plow stops, turn straight into my driveway, where the town plow turns around.  Not my town.  My parent's town.  My town can't get to my road. I turn up to my door.  I gasp for breath, ready to puke. The light I left on is still on.

 

I shed the snowshoes and open my door.  Augusta refuses to go inside. I don't force it.

 

There's a thick manila envelope on the table.  Granted I don't ever lock the door, but someone had to just walk in and dump a big envelope on the table.  Someone walked into my house and I don't even know if they bothered to knock.  Maybe that cop at the roadblock.  An envelope.  Big corporate-looking logo for a return address.  And a stranger's calling card.

 

I pull out the papers.  Forms for me to fill out.  And a cover letter explaining.

 

The letter complains about the title to my property, also the title to my parent's property. The registry of deeds in my town has the deeds but the property is in two towns.  The complaint is about small towns and sloppy administration.

 

There is this letter, and the forms and also a slick brochure in color.

 

The brochure describes my rights in simplified language, although even then I don't understand.  Things about the privatization of security, my privileges under the Freedom of Information Act, my right to register a protest with my local government and how doing so waives other rights.  And so on, as if I am clear on what is going to happen to me in the first place.

 

Only the letter really says anything. 

 

The letter says I have to fill out the forms.  The forms will get my parents back.  Fill out the forms or else.  The letterhead is for a legal firm in Washington D.C. and the signature matches the calling card.  Under the signature is an actual hand-written postscript.

 

"You'd feel better if you took your pills!" it says.

 

The Super Bowl is a rout, pretty boring.  The ads are better than ever, though, and I drink all of my beer.  One ad selling erectile dysfunction pills is actually really funny.  But none of it, not even the beer, is enough to keep my mind off my parents.

 

So I spend most of the night filling out the forms. 

 

The instructions are clear enough.  It's like the computerized tests you take to get a job at a chain store.  Anyone with half a brain can figure out what you're supposed to answer, but you still gag when you do it.  They require a certain level of dishonesty.  You promise you would betray your mother for the benefit of the corporation.  Or else.

 

I fill out the form and leave it on the table, as instructed.  The friendly messenger will pick it up in the next day.

 

I feel pretty low when I go to work the next morning. Not that I'm the only one a little sleepless and hung over.  Take the pills?  I shrug as if I almost care.

 

At the Monday-morning stand-up, there is plenty of nonsense and then one strange announcement.  Drake is missing.  Drake lives a few doors down from my parents.  He used to drop by on them from time to time.

 

The boss tells her side of it.

 

"Drake is no longer with us.  He cleaned out his desk over the weekend. I can't discuss the reasons for his termination and I'm prohibited from explaining why we had to act so suddenly. I hope you'll understand that my silence is a legal matter, that I am well aware that we all suffer when something like this happens."

 

"Does this have to do with that police sweep?" someone asks. 

 

"I can't say.  My hands are tied.  If you feel you need to talk about it more, you know my door is always open."

 

She smiles sincerely, not that anyone is any less spooked just because she acts understanding.  I, for one, am extremely spooked, but of course I have good reason to keep my feelings to myself. 

 

"So how about that game?" says the boss's toady.

 

Suddenly there is banter.  Everyone forgets about the police sweep.  About Drake.

 

I sneak into the conference room in time for the noon news.

 

The news still claims something about police sweeps, although they refuse to identify the town by name.  It isn't even the lead story. There is a new pedophile scandal.  And the mall is expanding.  People will notice a missing town, but will it matter?  Will they care? 

 

Probably.  Probably a lot.  But probably not enough, if the history of carting people off like cattle is any indication.

 

I detour toward my parents' house on the way home.  The first thing I notice is the town line.  It has been moved down the road.  Just enough to move their house into a new jurisdiction, into my town.  The name of my town is on one side of the sign, but the other side is blank.  My parent's old town no longer has a name.  The road there is open, so I guess I can get home. 

 

If I dare to try.

 

But at least the town with no name isn't my town.  The friendly messenger must have found my form. My parents' house is now here in my town, not over there, where there isn't a town.

 

I pull into the driveway.  Augusta made it home.  She wiggles for me.  My parents act like nothing happened.  When I try to talk, they refuse.

 

Fine. I've got them back.  A happy ending.  Nothing else matters.  Except I refuse to take the pills.

 

 

Steven Mathes writes fiction as well as articles about computer system administration. For a long time he felt guilty because he tended to think the work of Kafka was funny. His guilt subsided when he discovered that the humor in Kafka's work is intentional. Mathes' guilt returned when he realized that Evil itself strikes him as funny, but he now takes solace in knowing that people doing evil hate being laughed at.

 

Photo Courtesy of Dreamstime.

 

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Fiction Copyright 2007 Steve Mathes. All rights reserved.