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“Oh, same old, same old. Got a date with Chuck from Accounting on Friday night, he’s always good for a laugh, and then I’m taking Laura from the steno pool out on Saturday night. She’s not much of a laugher, but Christ on a crutch, that girl can kiss like it’s an Olympic sport. How about you?”

“Nothing so exciting,” said Dr. Lo, and slid her needle into my arm, taping it firmly in place. “Sally, don’t move.”

“Yes, Dr. Lo,” I said.

She continued as if I hadn’t spoken, asking, “Does Chuck know about Laura? And you do know that no one calls the admins the ‘steno pool’ anymore, don’t you? I’m not even sure what that means.”

“It’s short for ‘stenography pool,’ ” I said, before I thought better of getting involved. I wasn’t supposed to be a participant in this conversation. Furniture, even furniture that somehow magically gave blood, wasn’t supposed to talk. “Stenographers used shorthand to take notes before dictation machines and personal computers were in wide use, and… uh…” I tapered off, finally realizing that Dr. Lo was staring. “Sorry.”

“I taught her that one,” said Sherman, with every indication of pride. “And yeah, Chuck knows about Laura. He doesn’t care much, thinks he can convince me that the girly side of the force isn’t worth chasing after. As for Laura, she’s up for anything that comes with a side order of good times and doesn’t stiff her with the bill.”

“You are a tomcat, and one of these days, it’s going to get you hurt,” said Dr. Lo—but she was laughing, my interjection apparently forgotten. She reached for the tubing that she would use to actually direct my blood where she wanted it to go. “I was talking to Michelle from Radiology, and she said…”

Her voice seemed to trail off as I focused on the deep red color of the blood that was filling her feeder vials, pressing itself against the glass. My veins felt tight and swollen, like their contents couldn’t wait to escape from my body and experience the freedom of the open air. My breathing evened out, more sounds dropping away, until all that I could see was the red, and all that I could hear was the whisper of air passing through my nose and mouth. I let my eyes slip closed. The red remained, somehow brighter against the black. The sound of my breathing faded, replaced by the distant, steady drumbeat of my heart.

Then I slipped farther into the red, and I was gone, drowning in the drums.

“Come on, then, Sal.” Sherman’s hand gripped my shoulder firmly enough to get my attention, although not firmly enough to hurt. “Time to wake up and move on.”

“Wha’?” I sat upright, only to slump again as the movement made my head start spinning. I was still in the chair in Dr. Lo’s phlebotomy lab, but Dr. Lo was gone. The only sign of her that remained was the cotton ball taped to the inside of my right elbow, dotted at the center with a spot of vivid red. Some of my blood had managed to escape after all. The rest was away with the doctor, bound for labs and exam rooms, never to be free again.

“You know, the first time you did that, I really thought you’d just gone a little overboard with the fasting. Now I realize the truth, and it’s no less bizarre. You are the only person I have ever met who can go to sleep during a blood draw, you know that? It’s like the world’s weirdest useless talent.”

“It’s relaxing,” I said, and levered myself out of the chair. My head was still spinning. I pressed a hand against my temple, trying to get the room to hold still for a moment, or at least spin more slowly. “Is there juice? I think I’m going to fall over. Or throw up. Or possibly some combination of the two.”

“There’s juice and cookies. Sit back down and I’ll fetch them for you.” Sherman pushed me gently downward before turning to bustle toward the room’s small refrigerator. There was also a large refrigerator, but it was filled with blood and tissue samples, not safe things like juice boxes for lab rats. Sherman even managed to make a bustle look elegant. That was enough to make me giggle, as I wilted there in the chair and waited for him to come back.

Sherman looked over his shoulder at me. “Here, now. You making fun?”

“Maybe a little,” I admitted, holding my thumb and index finger about a quarter of an inch apart, to show him just how little.

“Good. Means you’re feeling better.” He came back with a bottle of cranberry juice and a package of strawberry Fig Newtons. My favorite. “Drink this, eat these, and don’t complain about either. We’re going to go give a urine sample to the boys in the next lab after this, and then it’s almost time for your visit to Accounting. Don’t worry, though, you’ll have a lovely barium treat before that.”

“Is it cranberry flavored?” I asked, and sipped my juice. Sweetness exploded on my tongue. That was never a good sign. Like Gatorade, the better cranberry juice tastes, the more you need it.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s barium flavored. At least you’re contributing to the greater cause of science by downing the stuff, eh, pet?”

“Good for me.” I opened the cookies. Then I paused. “Am I allowed to eat these before the barium?”

“Yes. Better a bit of imaging skew than a lot of vomiting barium on everyone’s shoes. Besides, this is all a formality. Now eat up.”

That was all the permission I needed. Sherman stood by while I drank the rest of my juice and stuffed cookies into my face. The room slowly stopped its spin. I wasn’t back to normal—blood sugar doesn’t bounce back that fast—but I was close enough to pick up my bag and get out of the chair without pitching forward onto the floor. Sherman still moved to take my arm, steadying me until he was sure I wasn’t going to fall. He didn’t let go. Instead, he looked quickly around, like he was checking to see if we would be overheard.

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