A Package of Moods
The sun’s orange glow struggled against the darkening sky. Sara watched pink and grey clouds pass as she drove toward the city. A red light stopped her; a green one encouraged her onward. Her hands and feet acted on instinct, her eyes recognized the road and traffic, but halfway through the drive Sara realized that she didn’t remember pulling out of the driveway.
She took a deep breath.
Sara’s mother was admitted to Chelsea City Hospital a few months before. The building was on the outer edge of the city, situated the border between her home in North Field and the aged skyline of Chelsea. Rolling hills and wide lawns transformed into little villages and roads worn by dozens of winters. As Chelsea rose on the horizon, Sara could see the light from tall apartments and office buildings like stars in the sky.
Sara chose a night when she knew her father wouldn’t need his car. When he asked why she was visiting the hospital so late, she told him that she wanted to visit her mother. It was enough to settle his curiosity. She didn’t want to explain anything, especially not to him. Her family was an orchestra of strings, each taut and ready to snap.
Sara glanced to the purse lying in the seat beside her and wondered if it was too late to turn around.
She looked back to the road, hoping it would distract her a while longer. When that didn’t work she played the CD she had in the disc tray. She sang along with the first few songs–and hummed when the instrumental parts when they came–until her throat closed up and tears threatened to fall. She took a deep breath and held it all back, switching off her music and trying to focus on the road.
Sara could remember the day that the mood patches were released on the world. Not the exact date–her best guess was that they were released a few months ago–but the reactions and arguments were impossible to forget. They were all anybody would speak of for weeks, which was impressive considering the attention span of the average high school kid. The PTA was probably at fault for keeping the spotlight on it with all of their hate for the company that developed the patches.
There were six types; they were medicines, or narcotics, depending on who you asked. Sara still wasn’t sure, though her family was less uncertain about the moods. Aunt Amy hated them, and was one of the several PTA moms who were quickly becoming a master of what Sara’s sister called patch paranoia. Christina, Sara’s older sister, took a hesitant view of the drugs, but was never as disgusted with them as their aunt was.
Sara and Christina’s father had taken to the Happy patches not long after their mother’s cancer started to get bad. It was easy to take a few patches from the medicine cabinet and slip them in her purse once he locked himself into his art studio.
Sara parked outside the hospital. As she stepped from the car she felt an invisible hand grip her lungs. She tried to ignore it, but that only made the shallow breathing more pronounced. Warm spring winds blew through Sara’s copper hair and over her blue sundress–a gift from her mother when she turned sixteen. Though her sister was fond of dresses and skirts, Sara was not; their mother seemed to forget that quite often. The blue one was not so bad, though, and she hoped that her mother would be happy to see her in it. Sara slammed the car door shut.
As she stepped inside the hospital, it embraced Sara with cool air conditioning. The building smelled of sterile air and dust. She had to stop and–after a brief struggle–sneeze. A man at the reception desk glanced up at Sara, his eyes following her briefly, quietly uttering a response to her before turning back to his computer screen. She picked up her pace, her small black purse suddenly feeling heavier.
The hospital became a second home for Sara’s family in the months that her mother was there. The room they gave her mother was small, arranged with one chair beside the bed and another near the entrance. Beyond the curtain in room 310, which divided the room in two, another woman occupied a second bed. The families of each patient did their best to ignore one another, regarding each other’s presence only when the other woman made progress toward recovery. Her mother’s roommate was more energetic lately; it was the latest source of envy and grief that had infected Sara’s father.
As Sara walked into her mother’s room, she saw that a woman was already there, stepping away from the machines connected to her mother. The nurse looked over to Sara and pressed a finger to her lips. Sara crept in, nodding to the woman, peering past to see her mother.
The bed appeared to have slowly absorbed her bony body in its covers and pillows, as if it were a carnivorous plant slowly swallowing her. The sickly woman’s mouth was open, dry wheezing breaths filling the room. Her teeth seemed more unorganized than Sara remembered, and her skin looked like a filthy silk dress cut too large for the body. Her mother’s hair, once long and black as night, was razed by the chemotherapy, which left only a thin field of grey fuzz on her head. Over the bed, a whiteboard bore the name Lisa Kelly scribbled in black marker. It seemed all that remained of her mother.
Sara’s throat dried up. She had seen her mother like this several times, but it never seemed to get any easier.
Sara cleared her throat and whispered to the nurse, her arms crossed tightly. “How’s she been today; any different?”
“No worse. No better.” The nurse looked over to Sara sadly, the lines on her face drawn into a practiced frown. Sara had seen the woman before; she harbored the same face the other times as well. Sara hated that face. “I’m sorry, honey.”
She put a hand on Sara’s shoulder. Sara didn’t want it. She reminded herself that the nurse only wanted to help; if nothing else, that was her job. The nurse lingered in the room for a moment, then moved out the door and shuffled down the hall.
With the nurse gone, the room felt empty. Some part of Sara wished for the woman to come back. Often, she visited the hospital with her aunt or her father or some other combination of family. The only time they were alone together was when the others went to get food or coffee. She hated being alone with her mother, and she hated that she didn’t feel comfortable with her any longer.
Sara gripped her purse, feeling the shapes of her wallet and phone and a few pens poking at her through the thin fabric. She rubbed her head and sighed, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t being stupid, that offering Happy was the right thing to do. It’s medicine, she told herself, moving toward the bed. Of course it was medicine; under these circumstances, at least.
Sara sat in the old chair beside her mother’s bed. It was stained before they took up residence in room 310, but new stains were added where her aunt dropped a chocolate bar and where her sister spilled coffee; maybe some miniscule remnants from when her father cried through the first few nights. Sara watched the clock as her mother slept, each breath a jolting gasp for air. She timed the intervals. Sometimes, it felt as though minutes would pass and the time for a breath had come and gone. Just as the spark of terror began to ring in her heart, the sickly woman gasped for air once more. Sara watched the clock hands spin, trying to ground herself in reality, making herself see that there were no long minutes of breathlessness, that the silent minutes were all in her head. It seemed an impossible task.
After several minutes of exhausting surveillance, Sara had to leave for some coffee from the hospital’s cafeteria. It wasn’t great and the cost was a bit much, but it had caffeine and it was hot. That was enough. Even so, she regretted not stopping at a Starbucks on her way to the hospital.
After an hour of watching her mother, wondering what ingredients made bad coffee, and fiddling aimlessly with the contents of her purse, Sara’s mother opened her eyes. It was not a graceful awakening. She began to choke after a long breathing gap, and writhed in her carnivorous white sheets.
“Mom?” Sara asked quietly. “Mom,” she said again, more sternly.
Are you okay?
Sara immediately realized she had forgotten to ask. She knew that her sister would have remembered, and she scolded herself for not inviting Christina. She was better with emotions. Christina could function at least. Right then all Sara wanted was to crawl into bed or distract her mother from the awkwardness by way of a guitar. Sara’s eyes glanced across the machines that were monitoring her mother, most emitting a dim light or beeping, riddled with numbers and icons that made little sense to her. All of the little tones they emitted seemed out of tune.
Her mother finished coughing and her eyes rolled to meet Sara’s. “I’m here Mom,” Sara said, forcing herself to sound confident. “It’s okay, it’s just a cough.”
“I–I know that,” her mother said defiantly. Mom smiled weakly, and tried to raise her arm, but failed, and turned to face the ceiling before closing her eyes again. “What are you doing here, Sara? Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“No, Mom. It’s Saturday.”
Her mother smiled and another fit of coughing came upon her. A passing nurse slowed for a moment outside the door, a chart close to her chest. When the coughing stopped, she moved on.
“Mom,” Sara said, “how are you feeling?”
“Not any worse.” She did her best to shrug. “The nurses haven’t told me much. If anything changed, I can’t tell you what it might be.”
There was a long silence. “Will they put you through chemo again?” Sara asked.
“I don’t know…maybe. At this point, I’m not sure if I want it. Why would it work now if it didn’t the last few times? Besides, I’m so tired.”
Her words took the breath from Sara. Her mother panted as if she had just run a lap around the hospital. Sara resisted the tears that threatened to escape her eyes, and an urge to scream built within her, even though there was some part of Sara that suspected this answer.
No, she denied the idea.
Her mother was always a fighter.
All she needed was a bit of hope.
Sara touched the Happy patches in her bag.
“Mom,” she said softly, “have you kept up on the news?”
“A little,” she breathed, turning to see Sara. “When I feel like…like being told what to think,” she smiled slyly. Sara couldn’t help but do the same. Her mother paused and her eyes softened. “That dress looks lovely on you.”
“Thanks,” Sara said, running a hand along the smooth fabric.
“You should wear dresses more often. You’re very pretty. You remind me of my sister when we were younger.”
“Of course, Aunt Amy.”
Her mother continued, “you and Amy both have that reddish hair. It’s so pretty. There were some days that I hated my sister for it. ‘Why does she get the red hair’ I would ask my mother. ‘Because that’s just what God intended,’ she would tell me. I swear, when I meat the big man upstairs, I’ll have a few choice words for him about that.”
Her mother took a few breaths, her eyes focused on Sara’s. Sara smiled at the story, though both of their spirits seemed to drop a bit.
“Have you started dating that boy at your school yet?” her mother asked. “I know his mother, a good family. You should bring him with you one day, I’d like to meet him.”
“You mean Tommy? I don’t even know him,” Sara said. “I mentioned him once while we were stuck in a stupid science project together and because I knew you were friends with his parents. We haven’t talked since the project ended.”
“Oh, sorry honey. It’s never easy when those things end.”
Sara shook her head, wanting to push past the casual talk. She came for a reason, and needed to see to it while she had the courage.
“Mom, you’ve seen the news a bit, so you have heard of the mood patches?” Sara asked quietly.
Her mother sighed. “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”
“I just,” Sara slowly pulled the Happy patch from her bag. “I just was in the store and–I just want you to feel better again. Get back to how you were.”
Sara had decided long ago to leave out that it was her father’s patch. She was not sure if anyone had told her mother about his new habits, and didn’t want to be the one who broke the news. Her mother seemed confused, but she nodded for Sara to continue. She took a breath and raised the small white patch.
“This is Happy,” she said. “It should make you feel better, for a little while at least–maybe a few hours. I’d like you to try it, but not if you don–”
The refusal was nonnegotiable. Sara recognized the tone well. She quickly hid the patch back in her bag and avoided her mother’s gaze for a minute. If God existed, and he had the mercy that everyone speaks of, he would erase that last discussion from both of their memories.
Sara waited, but nothing happened. Instead, curiosity took over quickly and she searched her mothers’ face for a sign of disappointment or disgust or any of the other emotions that she had expected upon refusal. The cancer had aged her quickly, but she didn’t see any of those reactions. If anything, the sickly woman just seemed tired. Sara felt a wave of relief, though her fingers drummed without intent and her throat was still drying up.
“Oh,” was all that Sara could manage.
“Is this how my family is coping now?” Mom frowned. “I’ve been sleeping a lot since I came here, but I remember when the chemo first started. Back when I thought it might work,” she mumbled, her eyes hazy as the focused on the memory. “I remember how your father was, how you and Christina hid in the corner just wishing nobody would ask how you were doing. Tell me, Sara. Has this drug become the thing our family turns to?”
Sara tried to shrink in the chair. Her mother was right, and she felt ashamed for it. She recalled her father on the first day he used Happy, how full of life he had been and how awful he was when the drug wore off. He stormed into his studio, where he would often retreat in his free time. Instead of the usual music from his childhood, she overheard shouting and something being thrown. When she investigated the space after he’d left, she found that he had painted the walls with dents and let broken paint cans weep an array of color onto the wooden floorboards. The easel was untouched, the canvas unscarred by color but torn where a pocketknife found it. The blade was jammed into the easel beneath the canvas still. Her father titled it Grief, Part Two and hung it on a wall in his studio.
“I don’t use it,” Sara said. “Dad hasn’t either,” she lied, feeling her face redden. “I don’t know about Christina, but I haven’t noticed anything different with her. I think I would have. We do share a room, after all.”
“Good. I wouldn’t want to push any of you to a point where you feel the need to take drugs just to feel happy.”
They were quiet for a while. Sara did not dare speak for fear that she might betray her father. The presence of the patch had erased the typical discussion about school or her plans for college or her mother’s questions about Sara’s non-existent search for a boyfriend. She didn’t miss those talks, but she hated the silence.
Sara remained in the chair, holding her purse. To move at all would be to remind her mother of what was inside the inconspicuous black bag. She wanted everything that happened with the patches to be forgotten, erased from memory and stomped out. She imagined opening the window and throwing her purse out, maybe throwing herself out. Sara wondered how high up she was. Instead, she felt paralyzed. Sara decided that she should not have come. A thin layer of sweat formed over her palm inside the bag, and her hand grew uncomfortable on her lap.
“Why?” Sara asked, feeling the need for somebody to break the silence. Her mother reopened sleepy eyes, but did not look at her, and only waited rather than answering the question. “Why don’t you want the mood?”
“Because I don’t want to feel like anything but me. I saw somebody come visit Mrs. Huxley.”
Sara looked back at the curtain that divided the two beds, remembering the other woman’s name now that it had been said. She could hear Mrs. Huxley sleeping on the other side.
“Partway through the visit,” her mother continued, “Huxley’s visitor used one of those moods. The man was completely changed. He went from quiet to impatient and began to pace all around the room. I can only imagine what was going on in his head. He kept talking about weird mechanisms and being inspired to work on something. I don’t know what,” she sighed. “I want to feel like me, think like me, even if that means the feeling of cancer and poison in my veins. It feels fucking terrible,” she grinned, “but that’s what being Lisa Kelly is like right now.”
Sara looked over to the IV. “What about morphine?”
“Don’t judge your mother.” Mom smiled. “Morphine is a wonderful and useful painkiller. Your Happy is not. It’s…it’s a recreational drug–when has it ever been advertised as anything else? So long as it’s used correctly, morphine is purely medical. What’s more,” she grinned, “I only hallucinate on occasion.”
The night concluded without any arguments or significant showing of affection. Sara stood for a while–once she managed to stand–until she said that she needed sleep. Both agreed, and Sara walked out of the room. She tossed her empty coffee cup in the trash and went down the elevator. When she got to the car, She put the key into the ignition and brought the vehicle to life. The dials and gauges glowed red and her headlights cut away the darkness. In the same moment, the car roared and spat, fracturing the quiet around her. Sara could not manage to put the car in reverse, she could not bear to leave so unaccomplished. She punched the steering wheel and shouted, then stopped when she gained the concerned glances of a couple walking toward the hospital. Sara sighed and retrieved the napkin and a pen from her purse. She scribbled a few words on it, hummed a few shaky tones, and set it aside when a yawn took hold of her.
She turned out of the parking lot and drove down the road, her handbag in the seat beside her. She continued humming, longing for the guitar in her room, singing makeshift verses aloud and trying to memorize the variations that she liked.
Weeks later, Sara rolled impatiently in her bed, longing for the sleep that eluded her so often. Across the room, through the dim red light of her alarm clock, Christina slept in her own bed. Her older sister’s long black hair hung over her face and disappeared beneath grey covers. Sara turned from her, rolling further into her bed.
Christina looked too much like their mother–how their mother used to look. Sara would have liked to move past the death, but Christina’s image could reopen those wounds for anyone in her family. Her aunt, uncle, and the rest of her family had left behind that reminder when they returned to their homes. Only the Kelly family couldn’t escape.
Sara looked over to her alarm clock. It read 1:54. Beside the clock was a discarded T-shirt and a small acoustic guitar, both faded into the darkness of the room, the mother-of-pearl inlay on her guitar catching the dim light. It had been a gift from her father, and she sang songs that Christmas morning as her mother made breakfast. A somber melody came to Sara, though the strings remained still. She wanted to pick at them, test out the tune, but knew that she couldn’t with Christina sleeping. She needed her own room. Then, at least, the sleepless nights would be at least a little productive.
On the nightstand beside her, Sara’s purse rested. Within, a few loose pens and her phone laid motionless. A napkin was underneath it, a series of phrases and scribbled lines decorating it. A Band-Aid sized patch poked from the unzipped purse. It was white, with the word Happy printed on it in green type.
Sara reached out for it. In the silence of her bedroom, the action felt dreamlike, as if it were another version of her reaching for the mood patch. She looked over at Christina, who was motionless.
Sara peeled away the paper, revealing the adhesive back, and stared at it in the dim red light. The translucent white patch blurred whatever was behind it. It had a subtle chemical smell, and it seemed to glimmer in the pale red light. It was like holding an apparition. Sara pushed her hair aside to expose her neck. That was where her father put his moods, and where they were used in all of the television ads.
Sara took a deep breath.
As she pressed the mood to her neck, warmth ran across her. She felt a shiver run over her skin just before a second wave of warmth enveloped her. The corners of her lips curled into a grin and she nestled into her pillow. She watched the ceiling, picturing her parents before the cancer, and a tear welled up in her eye, descending down her cheek as exhaustion seeped into her. She loosened her feet from the covers and sank into the bed. As she closed her eyes, she felt happy.