Dr. Atchison never trimmed his nose hairs. That was the first thing Emmeline Kalberg hated about him. There were other reasons to hate him, of course: his condescending tone, his haughty manner, the way he’d tear apart your room when you were out at group therapy — all in the name of “mental health,” of course. But the nose hairs, those were Em’s main complaint about the good doctor, and she trembled with the urge to leap over his weathered oak desk and pull them out herself.
“I’m not sure you’re ready, Ms. Kalberg.” Atchison flipped through the thick file in front of him, brow knitted. He paused for a long while before setting down the file and placing his pale, manicured hands atop it.
“Please, Dr. Atchison,” Em said, “I have to go home today. My mother is driving all the way here to pick me up.”
The doctor sighed, a little high-pitched whine that made Em want to strangle him. “Well, the other doctors seem to think you’re well enough to go. They’re probably right.”
What you mean, Em thought, is that my insurance ran out.But she forced a smile, and kept her mouth shut.
“Now, Em, you do realize that you’ll have to take it slow. It will take a while to recover. I want you to promise me that you won’t make any sudden changes to your routine, at least not right away. Your only job right now is to get yourself well. I’m reminded of —”
As Atchison droned on and on, Em stared out the window behind him. A thicket of young trees lay beyond the chain-linked perimeter of the hospital. It looked flat and unreal, like a painting by a first-year art student with a limited range of pigments.
“Ms. Kalberg? Are you listening to me?”
“What was that?”
Atchison stood, shaking his head. “I want to speak with your mother when she shows up. When will she arrive?”
“In an hour.” Em closed her eyes. “She called from the car.”
“Okay, then. You can go get your things together.”
Em slid from the chair and padded to her room in her too-tight blue slippers. It didn’t take long to pack. She’d arrived with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and while she’d picked up a few more things in the past month, everything still fit comfortably into the lime green duffel bag her favorite nurse had brought her. She sat on the creaky hospital bed with her bag in her lap and waited for her ride.
It would be good to get back home, away from the stifling environment of the hospital. At home, nobody would tell her when to eat and sleep. Nobody would snatch a book out of her hands and tell her it wasn’t a good thing for her to read. She wouldn’t have to share her room with a black-clad goth named Amber whose crying jags were only interrupted by surreptitious vomiting.
Amber appeared on cue, a melancholy ghost summoned from Em’s daydreams. “You’re leaving.”
Amber’s eyes welled up. “You’re leaving because you hate me, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” Em knew Amber wouldn’t believe anything else. Em slung her bag over her shoulder and went out to wait for her mother in the lobby.
Trevor the Jesus Freak stopped her. He was a thirty-year-old former meth head who had shocked himself while preaching a sermon atop an Episcopalian church and holding onto the church’s weathervane for support. Before Em could smack his hand away, he anointed her forehead with a smudge of dirt. “I heard you were leaving, so I asked the Lord to bless your journey.”
“Well, thanks. I guess.”
“Jesus wants you to take care of yourself. When I opened my Bible this morning for my daily readings, He had illuminated your initials. When I saw the illumination I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and goodwill, and an urgent need to tell you of these things.” Trevor laid one of his filthy hands — he had been anointing people all afternoon — on Em’s shoulder.
Em brushed it off. “Yeah, well, like I said, thanks. But I’ll tell you who’s really in need of some peace and goodwill. Amber. She’s in my room right now in a terrible state of despair. I’m sure Jesus can do something about that.”
Trevor beamed. “You’re right. I shall go visit Amber.” He brushed past Em, his dirt-caked hands extended in benediction.
After perching on an uncomfortable plastic chair, Em gazed through the picture window to the concrete ocean of the parking lot. That’s where her mother’s midnight-blue sedan would be when it finally showed up.
Em imagined their reunion. An ecstatic Bea Kalberg would embrace Em in a hug and cover her with kisses. That alone would make these last two months worth something, to know that she would be going home to somewhere warm and safe, full of love.
When she was eight years old, Em’s father had gone out for cigarettes and ice cream and never returned. A lengthy search turned up nothing, and since then, her mother was all she had. Their relationship wasn’t perfect, but Em always knew her mother cared for her. Events had transpired to put her in this place — events that she still couldn’t remember — but that wouldn’t change anything between Em and her mother. It couldn’t.
A shadow loomed over Em. She looked up. It was a thin-lipped woman in a gray windbreaker, a black pocketbook under her arm. Mom.
“Come along, Emmeline. Let’s go.”
Em spent the next week on the living room couch, covered with a blanket, while her mother worked at the bank and her sister went to school.
“Hello, folks,” said the television therapist with the bald head that was always on channel 64. “I know a lot of people out there are feeling blue right now. It’s a hard, hard world, and sometimes it seems there’s nobody you can trust.”
“You got that right,” said Em.
“Some of you no doubt feel that you’ve hit rock bottom. That’s when you’ve gotta take a good look in the mirror, and trust in me, Dr. Wes Summersby. When you buy and listen to my five-disc emotional healing course on DVD, a magical thing will happen. You’ll feel more confident. You’ll start to take more pride in your life and in yourself.”
Em peeked under her blanket. She was dressed in two-day-old pajamas with a milk stain on the front.
“Buy my DVDs today, and I not only guarantee you satisfaction, I promise you a new life.”
“No sale.” Em flipped to a rerun of Seinfeld.
After months of expansion, Em felt like her life had contracted to a single dot, the space bar on a keyboard, the short silence between words. Every movement became deliberate, like punching her way through a roomful of cotton. The laugh track buzzed in her ears like feedback distortion.
She watched reruns. She laughed, but only when it was appropriate. At least, she hoped.
That night, Em’s mother turned off the television. “Em, can we talk for a minute?”
Em let the fuzzy blanket fall in a pile on the floor. She was suddenly self-conscious of her greasy hair and lack of baths. “Shoot.”
“I think you’re spending a little too much time cooped up here. It’s time you got a job.”
“You’re not too crazy to work at a store a couple of hours a week. I’ll take you down to Savertown USA tomorrow. They’ll hire anybody.”
With great concentration, Em sat up. “I don’t think I want to work at Savertown USA.”
“Well, honey, we all have to do things we don’t want to do. Savertown USA is a fine place to work. We’ll go down there tomorrow after I get home.”
“But I don’t want to work there.”
“I’ll be home at six. Be ready.” She left the room before Em could reply.
Em put the TV back on. Law & Order: Whatever. She took the blanket from the ground and re-swaddled it around her filthy body.
The overhead fluorescents of the Clear Falls Savertown USA hummed like the whirring of intelligent insects burrowing their way into Em’s brain. The walls blazed with thick red, white, and blue stripes. Giant decals printed like cobblestones clung to the floor. Street signs, marked with names like “Electronics Terrace” and “Maternity Lane,” sprouted where two footpaths intersected. Pop country droned from the overhead loudspeakers.
“Try not to blow this, Em.”
“I won’t have to try to blow it. That just happens.”
Em’s mom rolled her eyes. “You’ll do fine.”
At the back of the store, a glassy-eyed worker with a bleached-blond perm sat reading a romance novel. “Hello, my name is Bea Kalberg. My daughter Emmeline would like to see the manager about a job.”
The woman looked up at Em’s mom, then at Em. She then returned to her reading.
“I called earlier today. The manager said we could go in and talk to him personally.”
Without looking back up at Em or her mom, the woman picked up the intercom. “Mr. Pendleton, there’s some people here who say they need to talk to you.”
“Send them in,” a scratchy voice said.
The woman absently gestured toward the “Employees Only” door. The office was walled in clear plastic, presumably so the boss could keep a close eye on his employees as they mingled in the lounge directly within sight. The man inside — Pendleton, Em guessed — unhooked the latch to the door and gestured Em and her mother inside.
Em felt fingers digging into her back like a cattle prod. “My daughter wants a job here.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Pendleton was a slight man, who wore perfectly round glasses and a shirt buttoned all the way up to the top of his neck. “Are you sixteen?”
“Nineteen,” Em said.
“You ever work in retail before?”
Pendleton gave her a hard look. “This is a serious business. We are all very dedicated here at Savertown USA. Dedicated to business. If you don’t want to work hard, we don’t need you.”
Em tried to look into Pendleton’s eyes, but the overhead lights conspired with the glasses to block them out, creating two small suns. “I’m dedicated to business.”
“We have an opening in the frozen food section for a stock person. Part time.”
Em couldn’t stop staring at his glasses. The reflection was mesmerizing; it completely distracted her from whatever Pendleton was saying. She stared at the two white orbs until she felt her mother’s elbow in her side. “Okay?”
Pendleton held out his hand. It was hairy and covered with scabs. “Welcome aboard.”
Reluctantly, Em shook Pendleton’s hand.
A thin black woman with a crooked smile fitted Em for a red, white, and blue Savertown USA vest. It made swishing noises when Em moved her arms, and the cheap fabric seemed designed to never smooth out completely. Somewhere along the line, she was given a nametag with “Emma” written on it.
“That’s not my name.”
The woman squinted, then affixed a “final markdown” price tag sticker over the last two letters. “There. It’s perfect.”
An elderly man sat her down at a desk and popped a DVD into a nearby player. Somehow she didn’t think it would be a rerun of Gilligan’s Island.
“You have to watch this. It’s about the company. We all had to watch it.” He turned down the overhead lights.
The video opened with an exterior shot of a Savertown USA store. Generic music played over the image, and the camera zoomed into the store. A pleasant narrative voice kicked in.
“Savertown USA Stores Incorporated was founded in the spring of 1982 by William St. George, a humble grocer from Lexington, Kentucky. Mr. St. George had one goal in his life: to provide affordable products to American consumers in a clean, well-organized environment, where they could get all their shopping done in one convenient location.”
The narrator rambled on and on about the achievements of William St. George: about how he was the youngest self-made person to make the Fortune 500 list, about how he had gone through a string of three wives before becoming born again. The narration was underscored with photographs and artists’ renderings of St. George as he progressed through life. The discussion of William St. George ended at his death, which had occurred at the tragic age of fifty-seven during a rock-climbing expedition.
Em had stopped watching the film long before St. George’s demise. She instead traced the pattern of the fake wooden desktop with her fingers while humming a song.
“At Savertown USA, we respect the ideals of William St. George every day when we price our goods. We believe, as he did, that family is the most precious thing in America today, and we are dedicated to bringing the American family the very best in products and services at prices they can afford. So, new employee, as you prepare to embark on a fulfilling, rewarding career with Savertown USA Stores Incorporated, remember that your number one goal must always be customer satisfaction. Nothing is more important than the happiness of our customers. Because our customers are America, and America is —”
A scream sounded. A flash of light shot from the television, narrowly missing Em’s eyes. When she looked back at the television, the afterimage of a complex mathematical formula filled the screen.
The overhead light came on. “Enjoy the movie?”
It was the man who had put the video on. Em looked him over. He didn’t hear the scream, she thought, or see what I saw. He can’t see it even now. I must be hallucinating. Did I take my meds today?
She stood up. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, that’s all you have to do today. You don’t start work until tomorrow.” He ejected the DVD and put it back in its protective sleeve. “Are you okay? You look a little sick.”
“Must be the flu. Don’t touch me, it’s catching.” Em tucked her vest and name badge under her arm and dashed through the little fake village to the parking lot, where her mother was waiting with a full trunk of groceries.
“How did it go?” her mother asked.
“It was fine. Totally fine.”
Em’s mom raised an eyebrow. “You don’t seem fine.”
“Look, I know if I’m fine or not, okay? Just drive.” Em leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. Just a hallucination.
As Em drifted off to sleep that night, she heard loud whispers through the wall behind her bed. She slid out of bed and padded to her sister’s room.
“Jackie, what are you doing?”
Jackie looked up from her clasped hands. “Saying my prayers.”
“We’re not religious.”
“You’re not religious.” Jackie quickly crossed herself and squinted her eyes at Em, like a hex.
“Just keep it down. I’m trying to sleep.” Em looked around her sister’s room. The walls were lined with photographs of old white men in funny suits–preachers, maybe. Thick tomes lined her bookshelf. “So you’ve found Christ, huh?”
“He found me.”
Em considered telling her about Trevor the Jesus Freak, but decided not to. It always made Jackie nervous when Em talked about the hospital, or the other people who lived there. “Why? Are your friends into it or something?”
“I’m part of a Bible study group. We meet every Monday and Friday.”
“You know we’re Jewish, right?”
“That was Dad,” Jackie said, with a tone that seemed to say and that sure worked out well for him, didn’t it?
Em never understood the appeal of religion. There’d been a few Bibles in the paltry hospital library, but Em thought it was slightly improper to give people who couldn’t tell fantasy from reality a book about imaginary beings. Trevor, of course, hadn’t spoken to her for days after she pointed that out. “Well, that’s nice. Does Mom know about this?”
“No.” Jackie refolded her hands and returned to her prayers.
Em stared at her sister for a few moments before leaving the room. The whispers continued for another twenty minutes.