"A Place Like This" was written in response to a Reedsy writing prompt.
Prompt: Write a story that takes place in a waiting room.
I try not to tinker with it, but my finger is almost magnetically drawn there. I pull my hand away and just stare. The cumulous puff of white teases me. I can nearly hear it screaming my name. I want to resist, but my index finger reaches beyond my conscious thought and strokes the stray batting poking through the cracked vinyl of the armrest. The chair that supports my slumping weight is a gray powder-coated aluminum, and I can feel its bitter chill press against the calf of my leg through a hole in my jeans. The armrests are covered in a putrid green vinyl, that damn puff of padding bursting from the crack on the right side. As I shift in my seat, I can feel a deep crevice poke into my backside—another fracture in the shabby, synthetic covering. I expected more from a place like this.
Across from me is a small oval table, its chipped Formica top matches the faded gray of the chair legs and all I can think of is running. Getting up, bolting for the door, and leaving. But I know that’s not an option. Instead, my eyes poke through the magazine offerings scattered haphazardly on the tabletop. I can’t make out any of the titles. They all seem to be turned upside down, various ads for perfume, sports drinks, and clothing are all that are offered. There’s even an advertisement for Camel cigarettes. How old are these magazines?
I pick one up—the one with the Camel ad. God, how I could go for a cigarette right now. I flip it over to find its cover, surprised to see nothing but another ad. This one tells me to “Enjoy Coke.” Its ragged, dog-eared pages almost seem to disintegrate as I thumb through them. The entire thing is full of nothing but ads. I think of the hundreds of others who sat in this same fetid chair, manipulating the pages of this same worn periodical, and I feel a retching in my stomach. I toss the useless circular back onto the table in disgust. I expected more from a place like this.
The burning in my chest intensifies as I press my hand against my heart, as if that’s going to help in some way. I probably look like I’m pledging allegiance, but no one else seems to pay much attention. Most of them seem engrossed in their waiting room magazines. I can see as they each flip the pages that theirs are nothing but advertisements too, yet none of them appear to be disturbed by it. I guess your mind will search out any sort of distraction when you’re waiting in a place like this.
To my left is a woman, probably in her mid-eighties. Her white hair almost glows as it cascades over her narrow shoulders and down her back. The ends are frayed, causing a general frizz around the creases of her face. Her grin seems to shave about five years off her appearance. She’s content, satisfied. Not like me. Even her clean, neatly pressed white dress stands in stark contrast to my torn, oil-stained jeans. Her perfectly braided sandals almost mock my untied, muddy Timberland work boots. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what brought her here today.
For me, it’s this God-awful pain in my chest. I’m hoping they can get rid of it for me, or at least alleviate the agony long enough for me to have some semblance of solace. A night’s rest could do wonders for me, but I haven’t been able to sleep an iota since the torment began. As I sit here in silence, it occurs to me I have no recollection of how the pain even started. I guess it was one of those sudden onset sort of things. Come to think of it, I’m not even totally certain how I got here today. Maybe I did get some sleep, or at least blacked out. It wouldn’t be the first time.
My knee bounces up and down rapidly as my toes press up inside my work boots—a nervous habit. How long was I twitching like that? It was such a mindless act, and I had no recollection when it started. I move my right hand away from the white puff of batting in the armrest (damn that puff!) and press it on top of my knee to consciously stop the shaking. A young boy, maybe twelve-years-old, smirks at me. I was hoping my nerves had gone unnoticed. The boy has on knee pads and elbow pads, and some dried blood crusted into a dark maroon on the left side of his temple. It’s a bit heartbreaking to see such a young, vibrant boy in a place like this.
There is a gentle clunking sound followed by a mechanical hum above my head. Gossamer strips of gray ribbon billow from the grates of the air conditioning unit. The cool air seems to calm my nerves as I inhale it deeply. Even the burning in my chest seems to have subsided. Maybe that’s all I needed—just a little air, just a little calm. The boy smiles at me again, almost as if he’s satisfied that I found a modicum of peace, even if it’s merely fleeting.
The waiting room door pushes open and seems to suck all the air out with it. A woman stands in the threshold holding a brown compressed-wood clipboard, its edges frayed from years of wear. Her white head-to-toe uniform accompanies the clipboard to verify her official status of authority. She speaks no words, but I can feel her summoning me. Her eyes stare deep into mine, and I rise.
I follow her past a reception desk and down a narrow hallway, unnumbered doors flank either side. At the end of the corridor, a single open door welcomes me.
“Please step on the scale,” she says, not psychically this time, but with actual spoken words. I wonder why the silent dramatics in the waiting room were necessary. Perhaps it has to do with confidentiality. Those rules seem to always be changing.
I step on the scale. It’s one of those industrial medical scales where metal blocks of various sizes slide in either direction to most accurately record your weight, but the woman doesn’t touch them. I see now that there aren’t even any numbers on the scale. No readout whatsoever. At least not one that I can see. She scribbles something onto her clipboard and sighs. I’m not sure how to interpret her long breath. It could be a sigh of relief or one of disappointment.
“Do you think you can help me with this horrible pain in my chest?” I ask her, but she doesn’t respond.
“Please step off the scale and to your left,” she says instead.
As I step down, I see a square etched into the clean, polished, white linoleum, and I stand inside it. I glance to the right but fail to notice a similar square on that side. She sees me looking for it, and gestures up to the ceiling with the pen that’s in her right hand. When I look up, I see the square to the right. It’s not etched into the floor tiles, but into the plaster of the ceiling.
In a sudden jolt, the floor drops out from under me, and I free fall for what feels like an eternity. Everything rushes back to me in one gush of memory. It doesn’t play out like it did when it first happened. It just hits me all at once. It’s like I’ve found myself at the bottom of the ocean without ever having dove from the surface.
I see it now. All of it. I can see myself begging for one more hit, even though I’m broke. I’m asking for a handout, like the first time he found me on the lonely city street. The first time he reached out to me, promising the ride of my life, and what a ride it was! I came back for more; the high was just too intense to miss out on again. After a while, I thought of him as a friend, but he wasn’t anything more than just my dealer. I was not a person to him, but a dollar sign. Once those dollars dried up, I was of no use to him. I think about the “Enjoy Coke” ad in the waiting room magazine, and I smirk.
I didn’t really think begging would work. Not with him. That’s why I brought my Ruger LCP pistol—six in the clip, one in the chamber. I pulled it from the waistband of my saggy, filthy jeans and tried to point it at him, but he didn’t appear to be intimidated in the least. For one, he could see my hand shaking uncontrollably from the withdrawal on top of my nerves. Second, he was savvy enough to notice that the safety was on. I was too sick and desperate to remember to flick it off. He laughed. Can you believe that? I’m holding a gun to him, and he laughed. That pissed me off, so I squeezed the trigger, but the Ruger just clicked.
I was weak and confused and shaking when he grabbed my hand—the one holding the pistol—and turned it toward my chest. He slid off the safety, wrapped his index finger around mine, and fired a single blast.
I can feel the burning in my chest all over again now. Like when it first happened. The heat from the gunshot wound now spreads across my chest, outward toward my stomach and neck. I look down and see my shirt burning off my skin. The charred ends glow as they slowly expand, eating away at the thin layer of cotton that once covered my flesh. An ember sparks onto my right shoulder, beginning its own flaming annihilation of my shirt seam.
The frayed hem of my jeans catches fire as the flame inches its way up my calves toward my thighs. The oil stains aid in the combustion as small fires burst out on my knees and groin. I can now smell my hair burning. Fibrous follicles just melting down to my scalp. Even my eyelashes and eyebrows evaporate away in a circuitous meandering of heat around my face.
I look around and see nothing but blazes all around me—a conflagration of uncontrolled destruction. I’m alone and I’m burning, yet my feet feel no solid ground below them. I continue to fall. I flail my arms as if I can swim or fly through the inferno, but my efforts are in vain. My clothes have now burned off completely and the flames penetrate my flesh, but my skin doesn’t melt away. It remains intact, so I can feel the burn repeatedly. In this moment, days from now, years from now, for eternity I burn. My entire body and soul feel profound, excruciating pain. There is no escaping it.
I scream and I howl, not because I think it will alleviate the agony, but because I have no choice. It’s my body’s only reaction to the eternal torment. I realize that I will shriek in retched anguish as my carnal being smolders infinitely. I shouldn’t be surprised. What else would I expect in a place like this?