Chapter 2. Inflammable populists

“Your husband is literally starving to death,” the emergency room doctor said. She looked almost exactly like the doctor emoji on an iPhone, blonde female version, right down to the stethoscope hanging like a fox fur stole. “When was the last time he ate?”

“Last night!” Cathryn said. “And I swear, he was f—ing fine, he was f—ing healthy… argh, no, I don’t swear, but he was fine, he was healthy, and suddenly he was like this.”

“This doesn’t happen suddenly,” the doctor said, in that medical-professional-patiently-levelling-with-you way that is probably a one-credit course all of its own in med school. “This is the result of a long period of not eating properly. Or at all.”

“But I’m telling you, he eats like a hor—” Cathryn stopped short, suddenly afraid that finishing the word would instantly fill her husband’s stomach with several pounds of oats. “He eats a lot. And he bikes for exercise. He biked 50 kilometres yesterday!”

The doctor looked at her steadily for a couple of seconds, apparently doing not just bullshit detection but full bullshit MRI. “We have him hooked up to I.V. nutrition,” she finally said. “You’re lucky you didn’t wait any longer. His organs will take a long time to recover. And I’m not making any promises. We’re going to admit him. I’ll need you to wait in the general waiting area for a few minutes.” She gestured slightly but firmly towards the door at the end of the row of green-curtained stalls.

Cathryn walked back to the waiting room and sat down. It wasn’t so much a waiting room as a waiting intersection, with a nurses’ station and a TV and assorted chairs made of a vinyl that was probably designed for easy and frequent isopropyl alcohol spritzing.

“…And in Ajax,” the anchor on the news channel was saying, “a person was rushed to emergency with third-degree burns after catching fire at home. It’s not clear what the cause was.” She turned to her co-anchor and said, anchorly, “We’ve been seeing a lot of these sudden and unexplained emergencies in the last few days.”

“An emergency is sudden,” said a tired-looking woman a few chairs over in the waiting area. “It emerges. Suddenly. That’s why it’s an emergency. No one has gradual emergencies.”

Cathryn said nothing for a moment, followed by “That’s a good point.”

“It’s right in the dictionary,” said the woman, now reorienting towards Cathryn. “Like they ever owned one.” She nodded up towards the screen, which continued its recitation of disasters and improbabilities. She pulled out her phone, which was the size of a small sushi tray and was in a case designed to withstand a Rottweiler attack. “I just got the app.” She sort of smiled. She tapped a few things on her device and then read off it: “‘calls for immediate action.’ … ‘urgent need.’” She looked up at Cathryn again and nodded once more at the TV. “They’d do a better job if they were more precise.”

“Is that the Worcester dictionary app?” Cathryn asked her.

“The one and only. Deluxe. Universal edition.”

“I just got that for my birthday! The whole dictionary. The big book. Plus the web access.”

“Then you get the app too. The good one. Not the free one.” The woman held up her phone. “Happy birthday. Well timed. Any earlier and the latest edition wouldn’t have been out yet.”

“I’m sure that’s why my parents had me when they did.” Cathryn smiled a little. “I’ve always been a dictionary and encyclopedia person.”

“Are you an editor?”

“Not… well, not yet, I guess. I’ve been looking at getting into it.”

“I hope your husband has a good job.” Pause. “Sorry. I don’t know if you’re married and if so if you’re married to a man. I shouldn’t assume.”

“No, you’re right, though,” Cathryn said. “He has a job that pays well. I wouldn’t call it good but…” Cathryn paused, sighed. “I think he’s going to be off sick for a while.” Her face drained a little.

“Yeah,” said the tired woman. “Mine too. He got some burns. He was working in his shop with a torch – I don’t even know what he was working on but it looked risky – no sooner had he said ‘Don’t worry, it’s inflammable’ than it burst into flames.” She looked steadily at the air in front of her. “Well, at least he used the right word for once.” She shook her head. Let out a single chuckle. Sighed and looked tired.

The TV continued. It was the mayor now, talking at a bunch of cameras as he usually did. Cathryn rolled her eyes. “I’ve always been a populist,” he said. “I care about what matters to people, and I care most about what matters the most to the most people. It’s in the dictionary!” Cathryn rolled her eyes some more. “That’s why I’m announcing a new investment in transit. We’re going to be expanding service, and we’re going to be eliminating fares.”

If Cathryn had been holding a glass, she would have dropped it. “What the f…”

“He always says things like that,” Tired Woman said.

“Not like that,” Cathryn said.

“I’m also pleased to be working with higher levels of government on universal basic income. This will help get people off the street and give those who need it a step up towards a good productive place in society. Studies have shown that it works, and polls have shown that it’s what the ordinary people want. And I’m for the ordinary people! We’re also going to be working more closely with unions from now on…”

“Did someone replace him with a body double?” Cathryn said.

“The world has gotten really weird all of a sudden,” Tired Woman said.

“Take what you can get,” said the nurse at the station, getting up. It sounded like she approved. “We’ve been literally busting our asses around here lately. The staff is decimated. If he wants to help, he’s welcome to.”

Cathryn looked around. The staffing levels appeared the same as a moment ago and their hindquarters seemed unbroken.

“Don’t you own a dictionary?” Tired Woman said spikily.

The nurse lowered her whole face except for one eyebrow, out from under which she looked at the woman. “Listen, honey. You can take care of people’s healthy grammar. I’m here to take care of people’s healthy bodies. I don’t see your dictionary helping you out of here.”

“…More like helping us into here,” Cathryn said in a wondering half voice to the middle distance.

“Ms. Gibson?” Doctor Emoji leaned out the door from the emergency cubicles. Cathryn took a moment, then realized the doctor was looking at her.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, getting up. “Gibson is my husband’s name. I’m Espy.” She walked over.

“S.P.?” the doctor said, holding the door.

“E-S-P-Y,” Cathryn said.

The doctor jotted this on her clipboard. “Come this way, Ms. Espy.” She said it like the verb, never mind how Cathryn had said it five seconds earlier. Cathryn said nothing and followed her through the door.

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