Thomm Quackenbush, author

"Getting the Slip" by Thomm Quackenbush



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A live recording of Thomm Quackenbush's story "Getting the Slip," from the anthology Find What You Love and Let It Kill You. Narration by Thomm Quackenbush and Amber Haqu.

Full Text:

"Where would you like to begin?"

"I was on a date, like a blind date. Jill set it up. She's also the one who gave me your number."

"Yes, I know Ms. Sinclair. Lovely girl, plays tennis with my daughter."

"Right. So I was on this date with a guy-I think his name was Paul. I'm pretty sure it was Paul. You'd think I'd remember that, right? Anyway, we were on this date. He took me to see that movie starring that guy George Whathisname? From the hospital show? You know the movie, probably, the one where he gets his slip and you spend the whole movie wondering what it says and he hides it even from his wife. He goes through all of these revelations about life and purpose, really heavy-handed crap. Finally, he goes missing because he is on this Native American vision quest thing and his ditzy wife goes into his drawers and all through his stuff. It's seriously like a half hour of her sorting through his boxers and business paper looking for the slip intercut with him sitting on a rock looking all Zen. And it turns out that he is fated to die because of her. It's her name on the slip and he's spent this whole time being around her anyway. I guess it was supposed to be uplifting or something. Like a slip would have a person's name on it. Basic research fail, if you ask me."

He cleared his throat. "We don't use the word 'fated' here."

"What?"

"'Fated.' It is not a term we choose to use. It implies a destiny and some divine credence to the predictions," the doctor replied. "How the machine works has nothing to do with-"

"I know, okay? The machine is infallible. I get it."

"We also don't-"

Karen sighed. "I know, I was making a joke."

"Ah, I see. Would you care to go on?"

She sat for a moment in silence, weighing the question. "No, but my insurance will be charged the hour anyway, so I will. So we left this movie, Paul and me. Was it Paul? Maybe his name was Pete. I think it was some 'P' name. Anyway, there was one of the machines in the lobby, some kind of tie-in with the movie. Pretty morbid. Pete asks what my slip said, just to make conversation. I think he knew the date wasn't going well and wanted to keep me talking. I was evasive, so he told me that he was fated to-" She heard the doctor inhaling sharply. "I mean going to die in an avalanche. I asked him how that made him feel. I used to be a psych major, before my prediction-" She hesitated when she heard the intake of breath "-diagnosis, I mean, so I asked questions like that a lot. He said he didn't mind, that he wouldn't stop extreme snowboarding just because some paper said it was going to kill him. I think he just said that to impress me, like I would care that he snowboarded. And what the hell is 'extreme' snowboarding? It probably wasn't even his prediction. It's not like people keep their slips on them. Maybe he was really supposed to die in his mom's basement. So he asked what my slip said again and I admitted I didn't have one."

"It is unusual not to have one, don't you think?"

She sneered. "No, I absolutely don't think that. I wish I didn't have one. I think it's sick that people are having their babies done, supposedly for crib death but would you really want to know that about the kid you just popped out?"

"Why do you feel that way?"

"Former psych major!" she chided. "Don't ask stupid psychology questions about how that makes me feel. For what you are charging my insurance, you can actually listen to what I'm saying and not just keywords, okay?"

The doctor seemed about to speak again, but motioned with his pen for Karen to continue, as though he were conducting the orchestra of her angst.

"So he bugged me about not having a slip. Was I some kind of religious nut or something? Did you know there is a whole, like, commune of people who refuse to get slips because God told them it was evil? You heard about them, right?"

"Yes," the doctor admitted neutrally.

"And there are people who get together and party based on their slips. Like all the 'burned to death' people hang out, hopefully away from fires."

"I had heard that as well."

"I just... I didn't see a reason for it. It wasn't about God or anything like that to me. I was agnostic. It just wasn't any of my business how I was going to die."

"You said you were agnostic. Are you agnostic now?"

"Aren't you not supposed to badger me about religion?"

"Some find that it helps them come to terms with the-"

"The death sentence?"

"We don't call it that."

"Well then, screw me that I do, okay? So he annoyed me until I just went in and got a slip. I wasn't even going to look at it, I just wanted to shut him up. I should have told him that I suddenly remembered that I needed to shave my cat. He would have bought it."

"Ms. Hughes, what did the slip say?"

"I thought you knew that already? Isn't that in my medical file?"

"For medical and insurance reasons, as well as privacy, the content of a slip are not revealed unless a patient wishes for them to be, as in the case of cancers and similar conditions."

"So you know not to try to save them if they are dying of something on their slip?"

"Well, yes, it has been used as a sort of living will. That is one of the preferred uses of this diagnostic tool-"

"Mine said 'LOVE,'" she interrupted.

"Pardon?"

"Mine. Said. 'LOVE,'" she pronounced carefully. Then, eyes closed, she laughed. "You should have seen Pete's face when he saw it. Maybe his slip actually prescribed him 'DEATH BY SLIP READING LOVE.' That date was over, not that I exactly minded. He smelled like corn chips and cheap aftershave."

"You understand that this is a rather unusually prescription?"

"Yeah, and I did go to my regular doctor and had a slip done in his office, in case it was a prank slip. They make those-isn't that just obscene?-and, given the movie we just saw, it seemed possible. I really wanted it to be possible. But the slip came out the same. My doctor, the same woman I saw since I was little, looked at me with total pity, like she wished it said 'cancer.' She told me that there were support groups and therapists, but I didn't really hear her."

"It really does help to speak to others about your condition."

"I don't have a 'condition.' I have a slip. A little stupid piece of paper with the word 'LOVE' on it. There's a world of difference. And I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes, you certainly are."

"There are like seven words for love in French, did you know that? Familial love, romantic love, love for God... I think there might even be one for pets. Any one of which could kill me. Will kill me. I should have gotten it done in France for the first time. Maybe it would have been a little more specific, but they don't change. I've tried. It would say 'LOVE' even if I were in Djibouti."

"We prefer that you consider that it is simply a cause of death, not something that will kill you."

"I prefer not to be killed by love, so I think both of us will just have to be disappointed, okay?"

He scribbled something. "What steps have you taken?"

"I guess I went through the predictable ones. I cut off all my personal relationships, just to forestall death as long as I could. My mom did not like that at all, but maternal love could definitely be smothering. Possibly literally." The doctor coughed, but Karen took it as a disguised laugh. "You like that? I thought of it on the way over here. I didn't date much before this. I mean, I dated, but it was never usually serious. Never love, exactly, which was nicer in retrospect. Fewer ex-flames that are going to come at me with knives."

"That seems rather pessimistic, if you do not mind my saying."

"I don't. I knew it was pessimistic, but I would rather be pessimistic than dead. I guess I don't get much say in that?"

"Everyone dies, Karen, you just have the benefit of-"

She sat up, off the psychiatrist's red leather couch. "It doesn't feel like much of a benefit to know that I'm going to get killed by one of the core parts of the human experience, doc."

"Well, it needn't be so cut and dry. 'Love' could mean many things..."

"I've been over that. I could die because that big Love sculpture in Philly falls on my head. I could die because Courtney Love bites me. I've heard all the ironic twists, lame as they are, but I don't buy it. I'll die because of love, not a pun."

"So you have eschewed romantic relationships entirely?"

"More or less, just to narrow the field. I got drunk the other night-I do that a lot lately, just can't imagine why-and got picked up by some guy, shagged. Trust me though, that wasn't what I'd call romantic. I don't think he'd fall in love with me, I was like a dead fish I was so out of it. That's happened a few times. Maybe a dozen."

"Love could refer to something of the venereal variety..."

"He used a condom-everyone is pretty scared of diseases, even if the slip doesn't say AIDS-and I freaking hate that. That twisting of words, not condoms. No matter how someone dies, you people twist it. You make their death fulfill the freaking slips, because that proves your damned machine is perfect, right?"

"I'm noting a lot of anger."

"I told you, no psych 101 crap! Yes, I have anger. I am entitled to have anger, since I'm not supposed to have love."

"You are supposed to have love, Karen. It is inevitable."

"And that's another thing. You doctors and scientists act like good little atheists, 'oh, the machine has nothing to do with religion or God' and in the next breath using words like 'inevitable.' If I can't be 'fated,' you shouldn't be allowed to say it's inevitable. People have free will, nothing is inevitable."

"Death is," he answered simply.

"Do you actually have a doctorate? Really? That's your answer? 'Death is'?"

"It is the truth. You will die somehow because of love. No matter how you try to avoid this, it will happen."

She huffed back onto the couch. "No, you'll just say you were right, no matter how I die. It isn't hard to make something up that fulfills your prophecy. It's not like 'BURIED ALIVE,' is it? That person damned well be under something or your machine is wrong and then what will you do? If I commit suicide, you'll have the mortician put down that it was because I loved someone too much. If someone murders me, it's because they loved me and couldn't have me or loved my money. If I die of old age, it is because I loved living too much. I can't win." She turned on her side and saw him scribbling in a legal pad. "What are you writing?"

"Notes on your reaction."

"Yes, but what does it say? I'm entitled to know. Pretend I was your colleague, okay?"

He held his pen above the paper for a moment before placing it in his lap. "I wrote that you are shuttling between denial, anger, and bargaining. In time, and with considerable work together, we can help you move past depression and testing until you finally reach acceptance."

"The Kübler-Ross cycle. Cute, like I have a terminal illness. Is that how you doctors see life? As a terminal illness? I don't think I am bargaining, though. How do I bargain? I get that this is going to happen, that the slips always happen eventually."

"I would like to add, though this is yet to be a part of your file, that I believe you try to push people away from you to forestall your death."

"No offense, but duh. I said that."

"That is your bargaining. You sacrifice the life all around you for a death you can't avoid. I see this a lot, but I must admit that I have yet to see a case quite so unfortunate as yours. It is a simple matter to forego a leisure activity in fear of the prediction on one's slip, waterskiing when one is to drown for example. But love is not something you can avoid. Call me a sentimental old fool-I have a Bachelor's in Disembodied Poetics from Naropa, so you would not be the first-but I do not think life is worth living if you deprive yourself of the experience. Yes, you will die. Yes, it will owe to love in some permutation. You'll die, but you really should try living first. Can you be okay with that?"

She reclined silently for a long while, thinking. "Not today, I can't."

He shrugged. "We aren't miracle workers. This is still something of a new field, you understand, though we stand on the shoulders of giants. For now, I believe our time is up. I hope to see you next week."

Karen rose from the couch and shook his proffered hand. "What are you doing with all of your notes? I mean, I had to sign a release before speaking with you."

"I thought I might make them into a book, actually. The machine has caused a lot more problems than it was made to solve and I believe it would do the world good to know what other people experienced."

"I would be a part of this book?"

"I would lo-" he caught himself. "Prefer if you were, yes."

She walked to the door and starts to open it before struck with a thought. "What does your slip say?"

He studied her for a moment over bifocals. "PATIENT."

She nodded her head softly and laughed. "Thanks. I'll see you next week, doc."


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

The Night's Dream Series

We Shadows by Thomm Quackenbush

Danse Macabre by Thomm Quackenbush

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush