I squeezed my eyes and willed the ticklish sensation in my throat to subside. It was the third time in less than two hours, but so far I had managed not to do the unthinkable. A woman passed me on the other side of the aisle, even if she wasn’t watching me, she would have heard me if I had let it out.
Plastered across the supermarket walls were the pictures and names of patients at large, patients who were yet to be given the “care” that the authorities insisted they needed. Last week my neighbour became a patient. We heard him making the forbidden sound all night. My mother called the hotline. That special number they say you are to call whenever you here someone making that persistent sound. Thirty minutes later, the paramedics came. Our neighbour insisted he was healthy. He said that it was the dust, that the building was old, that he had allergies. He begged and screamed, but they covered his mouth and strapped him to the stretcher, all for his protection.
“Where will they take him?” I asked Mom.
“Somewhere safe,” she replied. “A place where they will care for him.”
Nobody knew where that place was. They had long stopped using the hospitals for people with that condition. Many people, just like my neighbour, were simply wheeled out the building and into a waiting ambulance. Once the patient went inside the ambulance, nobody ever saw them again.
My throat tickled again, and again I took deep breaths, willing the sensation to subside. I wanted to leave, but the grocery stores were only open three times a week, and my mother needed to restock. I dragged my mini cart over to the bottled water section, and almost opened one right on the spot. But I was scared of being noticed, even though I was the only one in the isle.
Then it came. Not once. Not twice, but in uncontrollable spurts. My chest heaved, my throat ached, but at the same time I felt relief. That relief soon gave way to dread when one of the store staff came to investigate.
“Are you alright?” he asked, standing at least 6 feet away from me.
“Yes,” I managed to croak. But already I knew it was a lie and I had given myself away by trying to speak.
“Shall I get help?”
I shook my head vigorously.
“I’ll get help,” he insisted.
But I knew what that meant. I left my cart in the middle of the isle and hurried toward the exit. Two burly men blocked the path, their faces covered and their arms folded. The clerk dialed feverishly on his phone, his eyes casting me suspicious glances. I stopped, turned and ran down the isle. The clerk, surprised and terrified moved aside as I darted past him. I burst through a door that read, “staff only” and jumped down the empty loading dock at the back. The garage door was up, and out I went into the open. I coughed and ran and ran and coughed, knowing that Mom was not going to get her groceries, and that I was going to become the next patient at large.