According to Denise, he should be grateful to be shaken like a can of paint every morning. Okay, it was fun, once, when they were kids, when their parents pretended the torture chamber—pardon me, vibration apparatus—was something else. A life preserver, a bulletproof vest. Daniel’s doctor had found Denise a matching, non-functional version. When he did his therapy, she strapped herself in, too, and suddenly, they were parachute jumpers. That had been fun for about ten minutes, watching his colt-legged older sister leaping about pulling an imaginary ripcord.
It isn’t fun anymore: the noise, the restraints, plugging himself into the wall like a kitchen appliance, all to loosen the gunk from his lungs between visits to Albany Med, where instead of a machine-pummeling, he gets wailed on by a respiratory therapist with Popeye forearms. He should go up soon; in fact, he’s overdue for his normal maintenance. The nurses have been calling, but he blew the last of his sick leave back in February and can’t afford to take any more time off. He’ll deal with it when school lets out. Kick off his vacation with a stay in the CF ward and get down to some serious painting for the rest of the summer. He’ll miss the kids, the routine of the school day, but mostly, it will be a relief. Two months without pretending he feels great all the time. Two months without stopping conversations whenever he walks by.
Ten minutes until he can unplug, unstrap, and hack his guts out into the sink, hack until his ribs are sore and stars dance in front of his eyes.
But to be able to draw a breath down one, two, three more rungs of his rib cage?
It’s worth a few minutes of his time.
Beneath the pulse of his hardware, he hears Denise’s Jeep pull into the driveway, a sound he’s heard every Saturday morning for the last six years. Under his breath he utters the same curse. Except now, in vibrato.
She doesn’t even knock anymore. Too many years have gone by for him to put up a fuss about it now. So she doesn’t have to disturb Maureen and Caitlin (or probably to avoid them), she uses her copy of his key to let herself through the front door. “Danny,” her nasal voice calls out as she barges up the stairs and into his second-floor apartment.
His sister appears in the bedroom doorway, but even fuzzy around the edges, he knows the stare, the look of exasperation, of disapproval, that once again he’s done something wrong. Balanced on each hip is a paper shopping bag. He guesses what they contain: groceries on the left and clothes from Goodwill (or castoffs from her husband) on the right. Pete is the same height as Daniel but at least a half a person wider.
“Albany Med’s been calling,” she says. “You canceled again?”
He forms his tremulous tones into the monotonic voice that he teased her with when they were children, when she leaped about in her matching vest pretending she could fly, when he got aggravated with her bossiness and wanted to be a robot instead of a parachute jumper. “I’lllllll gooooo whennnnn schoooollll’s outttttt......”
She isn’t amused. She’d never wanted to be a robot. “That’s two weeks! You were supposed to go last month! You’re not supposed to wait this long!”
His therapy isn’t finished yet, but he switches the apparatus off and vibrates to a stop. If he ends five minutes early, what will it do, kill him? “Drop it, Denise.”
She softens her tone. “Pete’s working again. I can cover your rent, the phone bill—if you need to take more time off, you shouldn’t have to worry about—”
“I said—” His lungs convulse with the effort to free the frustratingly small amount of phlegm the vest had loosened. Throwing off the straps, he races to the sink, flinging the bathroom door shut behind him. Sister or not, there are some things no one needs to see.
She’s standing on the other side; he can feel her there. He can almost see her squinty brown eyes, her teased-up hair, and her self-righteous posture through the swollen wood of the door.
“Danny?” Her voice is child-small. “Can I get you anything?”
She gets away with saying that because their parents are dead and she’s the only family he has left. She gets away with saying that because his sides are heaving and stars pop in the bathroom mirror. His cheeks are two slashes of flame. He clutches the edge of the sink. Breath is only going out, out, and not in.
This is not good.
“Got a razor blade?” he gasps, pawing through the medicine cabinet for a rescue inhaler that still has some juice. “Cyanide? A gun so I can blow my brains out?” He reminds himself to get out this afternoon and refill his prescriptions and not tell Denise he’s let them get so low. There’s so much he doesn’t tell Denise.
Silence from the other side of the door. Perhaps she thinks he’d been serious and is now fretting that one Saturday she’ll pull up in her blue Jeep, pound up his stairs and find him hanging from the shower rod, overdosed on medication, or bleeding on the bathroom floor.
“How about a cup of coffee?” she says.
He finds gold: a spare epinephrine canister, tucked behind the antacid and a spent can of shaving cream. He sucks the mist into his lungs. Finally, he feels his bronchial tubes relaxing. “The way you make it? That’ll work, too.”
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