Short Story Alarm
Our Prevenir wristwatch alarms went off, the sound like a flock of robotic seagulls. One pill, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours of each day.
We were all in the ocean, screeching against the onslaught of the waves, when our Prevenir wristwatch alarms went off, the sound like a flock of robotic seagulls. We swam in to where we could touch our feet to the sandy bottom and pressed the button that simultaneously stopped the alarm and released a single pill from the compartment that contained our daily allotment of forty-eight. One pill, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours of each day. We sucked spit from the backs of our mouths, placed the tiny white circles on our tongues, and swallowed them down.
Jess grabbed my hand. “Come on, let’s go back out.”
A wave slapped into our backs, pushing us forward. “I think I’m good,” I said, twisting my hair into a thick rope. A cold stream of water snaked down my abdomen. “I’m ready for a sandwich, now that I’ve cooled down.”
She shrugged and swam back out to catch up with everyone else, curling walls of murky green water breaking over their heads.
The truth was, at thirty years old, I was still scared of the ocean. Mostly the waves, which were always taller and more violent than I remembered. But also the slimy pieces of green-lasagna-noodle seaweed that wrapped around your calf, reminding you the ocean was full of strangeness. And then the detritus that floated by your face—shiny chip bags and soda bottles with labels coming loose like long tongues—reminding you the ocean was essentially a liquid trash dump. Not to mention oil spills, septic runoff, chemical runoff, and radiation. What a lovely thing to immerse your body in.
I ran across the hot sand and plopped down on the yellow floral sheet doubling as a beach blanket. I reapplied my SPF 50, then opened the cooler and took out the tofurkey sandwich labeled “A” for Alice, which meant no mayonnaise and extra pickles. I took a bite, sand somehow already grating against my teeth, and watched my friends in the water.
Jack and Jess took turns climbing on Benjamin’s broad shoulders, playing chicken with the waves. Catherine floated on her back a little farther in, her sunburned six-month-pregnant stomach protruding from the water like a setting sun. On the beach, the nearest people were far-enough away that their colorful umbrellas looked like you might find them in a cocktail.
We were here, at the Long Island beach house we rented every summer, for one last hurrah before leaving New York, where we had all lived for eight years. Jack and Benjamin were going to the middle of the country—Kansas or Nebraska or some similarly hideous state—because Benjamin had finally gotten a job as a tenure-track gender studies professor. Jess was moving to Silicon Valley with her fiancé, Chad, who created some app where people sent in pictures of their STDs and doctors wrote them digital prescriptions. It was a big hit on college campuses. Catherine was buying a house in the burbs of New Jersey. For the baby , of course. She was doing it all on her own, with a stranger’s sperm from a bank, because at thirty-four years old she was “tired of waiting.” Catherine was much braver than any of us.
And me? I wasn’t heading toward anything the way my friends were; I was running away. From the breakup of a six-year relationship I had thought would end in marriage. From my job copyediting for the website of a culture magazine that no longer printed a magazine, where I got in fights with the writers about whether or not blorange was a hair color or so-healthy could be used as an adjective. From the city in totality—I was starting to get panic attacks on the sardine-packed subway and couldn’t remember the last time I went to bed without taking an Ativan. My therapist told me it would be good for my anxiety to get out of the city, to go somewhere calmer. So I was going to New Mexico to take time out from life. The desert sounded peaceful and healing. I would do yoga and go hiking and focus on me. I would not spend my days thinking about rattlesnakes and mountain lions and tarantulas and the likelihood of getting struck by lightning.
Our alarms went off again and everyone clambered out of the water. My sun-warmed skin goosebumped as each of my friends pressed the buttons on their wristwatches, held their cupped hands under the dispensers, used their other hands to pinch the pills between their thumbs and pointer fingers, brought their hands to their mouths, touched their fingers to their tongues, then tipped back their heads as they swallowed.
It was happening everywhere, this synchronized dance. Theaters asked you to turn your Prevenir alarms to silent, and every fifteen minutes throughout the movie, the dark room would swell in a light-blue electric glow as the watches flashed. Women in Zumba classes seemed to work the pill into their routine, their feet still moving back and forth as twenty hands came to mouths and then resumed waving above their heads. The president even had to pause during her speeches to matter-of-factly swallow her pill. One time, it got stuck in her throat and she coughed for a few seconds before someone brought her a bottle of water. The next day, it was all over the news.
“What’re we going to make for dinner?” asked Jack, biting into his sandwich with extra mayo and capers instead of pickles. Before waiting for anyone to answer, he went on, “We could stop at the fishmonger and get some swordfish steaks. I could sauté them with a nice balsamic brown-butter sauce.”
A caper fell out of his sandwich and landed on the yellow floral sheet, rolling into a dip and coating itself in sand. Jack was obsessed with food. He and Benjamin would have everyone over for monthly dinner parties where Jack would make things like spanakopita with homemade phyllo dough, or turkey tamales with mole negro. He would even render his own lard to make the masa.
“Swordfish is full of mercury,” I said. “Maybe we could get some scallops instead?”
Jack looked at me and stuck his lips out, mayonnaise coating them in a globby gloss. “You know, eating is no fun when you worry about every single thing you put in your mouth,” he said.
“Eating isn’t supposed to be fun,” I said, handing him a napkin.
He rolled his eyes, refusing to take the napkin I held out. “And sex is purely for exercise and TV is educational?”
“Alice, I bet you’d like this new app Chad is working on,” said Jess. “You scan a piece of food and it tells you how chemically contaminated it is, on a scale of one to one hundred.”
Catherine, sitting behind Jess, made eye contact with me and stuck out her tongue, full of half-chewed sandwich, and made a silent gagging gesture. We all thought Chad was, to put it nicely, a douche. He rode a skateboard around the city, hitching rides on the backs of cabs, and brewed his own IPAs and never took his AirPods out of his ears. Thankfully, he rarely came to our get-togethers because Jess claimed he was always working. When Jess wasn’t around, we all said his name with a nasally a stretched out, Chaaaaaaaaaad, and when she was there, it was hard to switch back to saying it normally.
“Why are we taking Prevenir if we also need apps to tell us how contaminated our food is?” said Jack. He picked up the sand-covered caper from the sheet and half-assedly dusted it off before popping it in his mouth.
“Because all our food is contaminated,” said Jess. “And the pill only prevents cancer, not everything else.”
Benjamin flipped through a gossip magazine while eating his sandwich. His silence on the topic seemed intentional, and I wondered if he and Jack had fought about it. When the pill came out, it created a fissure in a lot of relationships. It’s what did me and Maggie in. Well, not entirely, but it was, as they say, the final nail in the coffin. Maggie refused to take it, saying she’d rather live in the moment and risk it.
I thought that was the most flippant thing I’d ever heard. Cancer was wiping out the population, and there was a way to prevent it, and she said thanks but no thanks. I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t value her life enough to be slightly inconvenienced, and she couldn’t be with someone who always saw the worst-case scenario.
Our alarms went off. Catherine swallowed her pill and sighed, looking down at her half-eaten sandwich. “Do you guys ever find yourselves trying to complete tasks in pill-time increments? Like, I told myself I would finish my sandwich by the time the next alarm went off. For no reason. And now I’m disappointed I didn’t. I do it with everything. Finish the dishes before the next alarm. Finish a chapter of a book before the next alarm. Take a shit before the next alarm.”
“It takes you fifteen whole minutes to take a shit?” asked Benjamin, finally looking up from his magazine. We all laughed.
When the pill came out, it created a fissure in a lot of relationships. Maggie refused to take it, saying she’d rather live in the moment and risk it.
“You try being pregnant!” Catherine said, throwing a grape at Benjamin. It bounced off his perfectly-sculpted pectoral and rolled onto the sand beyond the blanket. “I’m literally full of shit.” A seagull that had been stalking the edge of our sheet waddled-ran over and plucked the grape with its beak. “But really, do you guys do that?” she asked.
“I’m the opposite,” I said. “I don’t finish anything because I’m always waiting for the next alarm. All I do all day is count down the minutes from fifteen, then start over, then count down.”
Maggie would tell me this was exactly why she didn’t take it. What had my days looked like before the pills? I had taken naps—oh, naps! That stretched on and on, waking up and having no conception of how long I had been out, then burrowing my syrup-heavy body back into the warm covers. I had gone to the park and had lazy picnics, blades of grass leaving mazelike imprints on my bare thighs because I had sat in the same spot for so long. It had only been a few months, but thinking back to those memories was like watching clips of someone else’s life.
“For me, it’s like sleepwalking,” said Jack. “I go about my day and the alarm goes off without me even really hearing it; then I take the pill without realizing I’m taking it.” He tossed another grape to the seagull. “By the end of the day, I have this memory of being annoyed about something, but I can’t remember what.”
Catherine pushed her heels into the sand. “I wish this were a vacation from our pills too,” she said.
At the house, we put three pounds of scallops in the refrigerator and took out four beers, a seltzer, and a container of hummus. As we settled around the table in the screened-in porch for a late-afternoon snack, Benjamin said, “Guys.” His tone was urgent. He held his phone a few inches from his face, scrolling with a finger.
Jack put a hand on Benjamin’s forearm. “Remember we talked about checking celebrity gossip during vacation?”
“This isn’t gossip,” Benjamin said. “The Times is saying Prevenir is way less effective than they claimed.”
“Like how much?” I said.
“Eighty-five percent less effective,” he said.
I grabbed his phone and scanned the article. Efficacy called into question. Some 315.8 million prescriptions. Conspiracy of false hope. Continued clinical trials. Not perfectly understood. We checked to see if other sites were covering the story. It was everywhere, and all the articles said the same thing: 15 percent prevention rate.
Our alarms went off. We all looked at our wrists, then at each other. We each pressed the button that stopped the alarm, and the small white circles fell into our palms. The pills looked smaller than they did fifteen minutes ago, more insignificant. Outside, a housefly repeatedly rammed into the screen of the porch. Its buzzing sounded like a faraway chainsaw.
“Fifteen percent?” said Jack. He tipped his palm to the side and the pill dropped onto the table, rolling a few inches and stopping when it hit a beer bottle.
Everyone followed suit and deposited their pills on the tabletop. I kept mine in my palm, between the C-shaped line that surrounded my thumb and the line that horizontally bisected my hand, sloping down on the left side. The life line and the head line, palm readers called them. I had gotten a palm reading once, from a very persuasive woman with bright red hair who sat at a folding table on the sidewalk. Because my life line and head line were joined at the top, she told me my strong sense of mind ruled over my body. Hypochondriacs generally had a joined life and head line. She said I could choose to use my mind force positively or negatively. For a few weeks after that, I would look in the mirror and say, “I am healthy,” over and over, but I could never get myself to believe it. I let the negative sink its teeth in, like a bear trap closed over my brain.
“Fuck it,” said Jack. He swept the pill back into his palm, walked inside, and dropped it in the trash. The metal lid clanged shut, seeming to affirm his decision. He sat back down at the table and hit the button on the side of his watch that turned it off. The button no one ever used. He opened a bag of pita chips. He plunged one into the hummus, the beige dip towering on top of the chip as he brought it to his mouth. He closed his eyes as he chewed, the chip crunching loudly, then less loudly.
“That was the first thing I’ve really enjoyed in months,” he said. He looked at Benjamin, his chin raised in defiance.
Benjamin placed his pointer finger on his pill, sliding it up and down an invisible vertical line, toward him then away from him, toward him then away from him.
“Yeah, fuck it,” he said, sliding the pill off the edge of the table. It fell on the floor and landed near Jess’s big toe, her nail painted turquoise. “Fifteen percent isn’t enough for all this,” he said, dipping a pita chip in the hummus.
The pill in the valley of my palm slid around in the sweat gathering there. “What percent would be enough?” I said.
Ben chewed his chip. “Fifty?”
“Sixty, at least,” said Jack.
“I could go lower,” said Catherine. “I’d take thirty.”
“Yeah, thirty sounds right,” said Jess. “Maybe thirty-five.”
They all looked at me. Which number between one and one hundred would justify the way we had been living for the last few months? I counted down, and when I got to fifteen, I wasn’t sure. A whole number like twenty would be nice, but fifteen wasn’t nothing. Fifteen was higher than zero.
“So you’re not going to take it?” I said to Jess and Catherine.
“I don’t know,” said Catherine. “If they were wrong about the prevention percentages, they could be wrong about the safety too.” She rubbed her stomach in small, protective circles. “It doesn’t seem worth it if it might harm him somehow.”
Safety—I hadn’t even thought about that. Cancer versus Some Other Thing. Which was the greater risk?
“I’m going to call Chad,” Jess said, stepping out the screen door with her phone to her ear. “Hi, babe,” she said. “Did you see that article?” Her voice became inaudible as she walked across the lawn. She stopped in front of a Rosa Rugosa bush and sniffed one of the deep-pink flowers as she talked.
“Hey, babe, I’m in a meeting with Steve Jobs, so try to make it quick,” said Catherine, imitating Chad in a deep bro-y voice. “Yeah, he came back from the dead when he heard about my dope new app.” We all laughed.
“I’d like to see her make one decision without him,” said Jack.
Benjamin shrugged. “I get it,” he said. “This is one of those things where you need to be on the same page. If one person was taking it and the other person wasn’t, I don’t see how you could coexist.”
I was starting to worry about how much time had passed since the alarm went off. Could I take two pills at the same time, or was that bad? The pill floated in a tiny milky puddle, my palm sweat melting off its coating. “I’m just going to take this one now, until I figure out what to do,” I said, to the group or to myself, placing the pill in my mouth and swallowing it down with some beer. I felt a little better.
Jess came back in and picked up her pill from the table. “Chad said if we focus on being healthier, it’s a better defense than this.” She chucked the pill at the trash can, completely missing. “We’ll use that new food app, we’ll work out more, stuff like that.”
“So I’m the only one still taking it?” I said, now feeling worse. It was like being back in junior high again, having no idea how to judge your own decisions if they were different from people around you.
“Fifteen percent isn’t enough for all this.”
My alarm went off—the first time I’d heard a singular alarm in a long time. The trilling noise sounded lonely, echoing around the room like it was playing a game of Marco Polo with itself. I pressed the button that released the pill and turned to the side as I took it, swallowing self-consciously.
“It’s so weird watching someone take it when you’re not taking it,” said Benjamin. “I never realized how robotic it looks.”
“Yeah, it’s like you don’t realize how un-free you are until you stop taking it,” said Catherine. “For the last fifteen minutes, I didn’t try to finish anything! I just drank my seltzer and ate hummus and even thought about how pretty the clouds looked.”
We all looked up at the clouds.
“Ooh, they are pretty,” said Jess. “So puffy.”
“I think I see a poodle,” said Jack.
I squinted at the sky, but the clouds looked the same to me as they did most days. They moved unusually fast across the blue expanse. I suddenly felt like I was on a train, when you can’t tell if you’re moving or the train next to you is moving. Was I moving, or were the clouds? I closed my eyes, and when I opened them the sensation was gone.
Benjamin got up and went into the living room. A few seconds later, dancey pop music surged through the speakers. He came back with four more beers and the bottle of bourbon. He grinned and set glasses in front of all of us except Catherine. I didn’t feel like bourbon, but I didn’t protest as he poured half an inch in my glass.
Jack held up his glass. “To no more Prevenir!” He looked at me and quickly added, “To vacation!”
I clinked my glass weakly against the others, then tipped my head back and dumped the bourbon in my mouth. I had to swallow twice to get it all down, and my throat constricted in protest. I remembered why it had been years since I had done a shot. I ate a pita chip and hummus, to give the alcohol something to chew on.
“Who wants to play Drunkoo?” asked Jess, which was what we called Drunk Taboo, one of our usual games at the beach house.
“Benjamin and Jack aren’t allowed to be on the same team,” said Catherine.
“I’m going to start dinner, anyway,” said Jack, getting up. We all knew better than to offer to help—the kitchen was Jack’s domain. “Catherine, anything new on the nausea no-no list?” he asked.
“Mustard,” she said, pulling her mouth down into a grimace.
“Okay, so scallops in a mustard pan sauce it is,” he called back from the kitchen.
Catherine rolled her eyes. “I call Ben for Taboo,” she said.
Jess smiled at me, pretending she wasn’t disappointed I was her partner. I was terrible at board games, and Taboo in particular. I found it very stressful. I’d sit there, watching the white sand drain from the top of the hourglass timer to the bottom, then blurt out a word on the Taboo list, and then someone would blare that nasally buzzer in my face.
Jess put a thick stack of cards in the teal plastic holder. “Okay, we’re going first since they got Ben,” she said. “Do you want to be the clue-giver or the guesser?” she asked me.
“The guesser, I guess,” I said.
“Okay,” said Jess, sitting up straight and brushing hair out of her face. “Ready?”
I nodded. My head felt like a bobblehead doll—the shot of bourbon, doing its work. I ate another pita chip.
Catherine flipped the timer and said, “Go!”
“Okay, this is a . . . Shit. Okay, this is a mammal you find down under, and it has a, a . . .” She paused, looking up at the ceiling. “A knapsack in its stomach where it keeps its baby!”
I could see the animal with its long feet, short little arms, and deerlike face. It started with a k . . . Whenever I played taboo I could understand how Alzheimer’s patients felt, their minds grasping for something just out of reach, like a jar of mixed nuts on the highest shelf in the kitchen cabinet. You can poke it with a finger, but you can’t get your whole hand around it. The same thing happened when people asked me for directions on the street—they could be asking me about a place I went every day, just a few blocks away, and my mind would empty out the instant they asked. I’d always have to tell them I didn’t know.
Jess was giving me more clues, like that would help. “It hops around, and it has tiny arms. The babies are called joeys .” Jack banged pots around and turned the water on and off in the kitchen.
“I know what it is,” I said. “I just can’t think of its name right now. Skip it.”
Jess breathed out a long sigh and flipped the next card over. “Okay. This is . . . a state of being. It’s when you don’t have any concerns, and you’re like, la la la,” she waved her arms around in the air and flopped her head from side to side.
I was on the verge of saying a word that might have been right when my alarm went off. The trilling sounded more high-pitched, more insistent, like it was wailing. Like it knew it was the only one left and was fighting to stay alive. I wanted to put my hands over my ears. Everyone looked at my wrist and grimaced. I pressed the button and the word flew out of my head.
“Oh!” said Jess. “It’s also a brand of old-school panty liners that come in a pink box.”
Benjamin and Catherine held the word in their mouths like food they wanted to spit out.
“This word is, like, the opposite of you,” Jess said.
I regarded the pill in my hand. The markings on the front almost made it look like a tiny face, gazing up at me. I swallowed it, imagining its eyes getting wider as it traveled down my throat and fell into my churning, bourbon-topped stomach. “I don’t want to play anymore,” I said.
“Aw, come on,” said Jess. “It was just a joke, Alice.”
The trilling sounded more high-pitched, more insistent, like it was wailing. Like it knew it was the only one left and was fighting to stay alive.
“I don’t care about the joke,” I said. I walked out the screen door and threw myself into the grass. I pulled up pieces of clover and plucked the heart-shaped leaves off one by one, dropping them into the wind. They skittered to the ground and became indistinguishable from the mass of green beneath them.
Everyone inside did another shot. Celebrating. I opened my phone and checked Twaddle, Blurt, and LinkMe. I scrolled through my contacts. When I got to the M s, I stopped at Maggie’s number. My finger hovered over the “delete” button; then I did the opposite and called her.
“Hey, Alice,” she said, then let out a short laugh. “This is really weird timing.”
“What do you mean?” I figured she meant she had just gotten engaged, or was on the toilet, or had just won the lottery.
“Well, I’m at the hospital,” she said.
“Is everything okay?” I ripped one of the green clover hearts in half while I waited for her to respond.
“I found a lump,” she said. “In my breast.”
“Shit,” I said. “Do they know if it’s . . .” I stopped before saying the word.
“They’re not sure yet. I’m here for tests.”
I imagined myself there in the hospital room with her, kissing her temples—what I always did when she was upset about something. “When do you get the results?”
“A week or so.”
“That’s ridiculous. Tell them you need them sooner.”
“Alice,” she said, in her old tone that meant “You’re getting on my nerves.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Are you freaking out?”
“No, just kicking myself.” Through the phone, machines beeped and a muffled female voice crackled over an intercom. “This is where you say I told you so.”
“I would never say that,” I said, thinking, I told you so . “Plus, it could be a cyst or something. It could be nothing.”
“I don’t know. I have a bad feeling.”
I didn’t know what to say to make her feel better. She had never sounded so defeated. “It turns out the pill barely does anything,” I said. “Did you see all the articles today?”
“Fifteen percent is something,” she said. “I know you’re still taking it, so don’t act like you’re not.”
“I’m at the beach house, with Jack and Benjamin and Catherine and Jess. They all decided to stop taking it, and they’re having the time of their lives.” The pop music inside the house had gotten louder. Through the doorway leading to the living room, I watched them twirl and jump and sidestep in and out of frame.
“Oh, the beach house,” she said, sounding wistful. “I miss them.” She paused, then added, “I miss you .”
I had imagined her saying this many, many times. But now that she was saying it in these circumstances, it didn’t feel the way I had hoped. “You don’t miss me. You’re just afraid.”
“Can’t I miss you and be afraid?”
“I guess,” I said. “I just wish you’d missed me before you were afraid.”
She said something, her voice sounding like she had pulled the phone away from her ear. “Hey, Alice, they’re calling me in now,” she said. “Can I see you when you’re back in the city?”
I told her yes before we hung up. Inside, the dance party was still going strong. I could see half of Jack doing his signature “hips don’t lie” swivel through the doorway. Catherine pumped her stomach to the beat of the song while her arms, bent at the elbows, came together in front of her face and then moved out to the side, like she was doing some kind of pectoral exercise. Jess’s legs wrapped around Benjamin’s waist, her torso at a 120 degree angle as he spun circles so fast I thought Jess might go shooting out the window.
My alarm went off. I took my pill and it scraped down my throat as I watched my friends dance their carefree dance.