Fright Week Flash Fiction VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.

The Alternative

“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”

I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.

I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.

“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.

“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?

But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.

“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”

“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”

“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”

I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”

“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.

“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.

“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”

“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”

“Medical records.”

I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.

“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”

And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.

“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”

“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.

For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.

I sigh.

I open up my laptop.

*****

A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.

I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.

“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”

Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.

What else can I do?

What other choice do I have?

“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–

–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.

And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.

And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.

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