As I pushed my chair back away from my desk, my boss strode out of his office and up to my cubicle wall. Quite unnecessarily, Steven rapped lightly on the top of the office divider. “Got a minute, Rhee?” His voice was casual, but the smile on his face was clearly strained, the corners of his eyes tight.
I broke the gaze and looked down at my computer, which was busily installing update four of fifteen. I shrugged. “Sure. What’s up?”
Steven didn’t move, and the smile on his face tightened slightly. “In my office?”
I shrugged again. “Sure.” I dragged out the vowel, trying to project nonchalance, but the timing of the request sent a shiver down my spine. He turned, and I followed behind, running down the litany of possible gaps in my performance. No matter how many times he pulled me aside to deliver an attagirl or just ask my opinion on something, I could never shake the sense that this time, we were going to have the Big Talk.
Steven’s office looked more like a nest than an office. His whiteboard was an intricate multi-colored disaster, an attempt to drag some amount of order out of chaos, and that theme seemed to carry across the rest of his space. Every available flat surface had something on it, from notepads to magnetic paperclip sculptures to printouts of presentations. As I stepped across the threshold into Steven’s office, he nodded at me. “Close the door?” Despite the rise in his voice, it wasn’t a request.
I bit back the resigned sigh as I did so. “Did you need my help with something?”
He dropped into his chair and leaned back, then waved towards one of the cheap lobby chairs opposite his desk. “Have a seat?”
I grimaced. “I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind.” My chair had been uncomfortable enough; the lumbar support jammed into my spine and the memory foam cushion seemed to have developed amnesia. Those rigid metal-and-plastic frames looked downright torturous. “I’m about to head to the doctor’s office anyway. I e-mailed you about that this morning.”
He nodded again. “I saw, which is why I wanted to catch you. I wanted to ask if the visit had anything to do with your meeting this morning.”
I held very still, gazing into my manager’s eyes, trying unsuccessfully to measure his mood. “This morning?”
He sat upright and tapped on his keyboard, exposing the desktop completely covered in icons. “Amanda emailed me afterwards, asking if you were okay. She said you took her roles-and-responsibilities meeting and tried to turn it into a turf war.”
The sigh forced itself out of me, along with the breath I’d been holding. “I’ll apologize to Amanda later; I’m really not feeling well.”
“You don’t look well, I’ll give you that,” Steven agreed, brushing his mustache away from his mouth with his fingers. “I’ve noticed you’ve had a lot more sick days the last few months.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his desk on top of a stack of color printouts. “I just wanted to find out if everything’s alright.”
Honesty warred with caution behind the scenes inside my head. “I think everything’s going to be alright,” I replied cautiously, carefully measuring the stress in my words. “I’ve been having some medical problems, but they’re nothing that ought to hurt my job performance.”
Steven chuckled grimly. “I think ‘ought’ and ‘is’ are pretty far apart here.” He held up a hand, palm outstretched, and shook his head. “I’m not trying to scare you, but I wanted you to hear it from me before you heard it from anybody else. Amanda’s not happy, and she’s not being quiet about it. I’ve already told her you’re sick, and that’s taken some of the heat off of things, but whatever it is, try to get it sorted out quickly if you can, okay?”
My gut twisted in response, but I inhaled sharply and swallowed my snarl. “Sometimes these things can take time to sort out, but I’ll do the best I can.”
Steven stood up and held out a hand. “I don’t want to lose you, Rhee. You’re one of my best people. Are you sure you can’t tell me what’s going on?”
I took his hand in my own, fighting down the grimace at my own clammy touch. “I wish I could, but it’s really nothing you ought to worry about. I’ll be back after my appointment, but I have to head down south, so I’ll be in late.”
My manager pumped once, then let go and waved me off. “Go ahead and take the rest of the day. I got your reports from this morning. Try to get things fixed, okay?”
I closed my eyes and nodded, my chest tight. “I will.” Then I was out the door, grabbing my laptop and scurrying for the exit like I was dodging a runaway train.
“So, how was work this morning?” Dr. Bernardi asked as he tied the strip of rubber around my upper arm. “Pretty lousy, I’m guessing.”
I turned my head so I didn’t have to watch the needle going into my arm. “That’d be pretty accurate. I bit somebody’s head off in a meeting today. Figuratively,” I added after a moment’s pause.
“Just checking,” my doctor quipped. “You never can be sure. Ready?” I nodded and held my breath. The needle burned as it entered, a bright spark of pain just inside my elbow that always made me grit my teeth. “There. Hold still.”
I nodded again. “Holding,” I grimaced through clenched teeth. It was ludicrous, I knew, being afraid of something so tiny, but fears didn’t have to be rational to have power, and were usually stronger when they weren’t. Seconds ticked past while I focused on the padded table under my butt and the itch at the base of my spine. I wanted to think of anything but the needle jammed into my arm and that burning, stinging sensation around the puncture wound and vial after vial of blood pumping out through the hole and—
“Done!” he exclaimed, sliding the tiny butterfly needle out of the hole. A whimper escaped me, but Dr. Bernardi just clucked his tongue in response. “I’ve been doing this every three months for four years.” A wad of gauze and a strip of vet wrap later, he was holding my elbow bent to stop the bleeding. “You’re going to get used to it eventually.”
He said that every time, and the familiarity was comforting, even if the reason for it wasn’t. I held my injured elbow in my good hand, smiling despite the lingering pain. “Not if it hurts worse every time you do it!”
Dr. Bernardi put his free hand on his chest over his silk tie and raised his eyebrows in mock-surprise. “You wound me, Mrs. List. I am a professional.”
I grinned at that. “A professional what, though?”
Dr. Bernardi set down the vials on his counter, then waggled his hand, turning towards his desk. “Oh, a little of this, a little of that, very little of that.” He pulled out a full syringe, then stuck it through the rubber stopper on one of the vials. “Speaking of, are you going to be at the gathering two weekends from now? My oldest’s going to be presenting himself.” He pulled a testing strip from a jar, then set it on the counter beside the sink. “I’d like a few supporting voices to be there.”
“I’d love to,” I replied. “We can talk politics later, though. What’s the word?”
My doctor clucked his tongue again as he let a drop of blood fall onto the testing strip. “I don’t have to send these off to the lab to tell you what’s going on, but I will just so I have exact numbers.” He kept his head down over the desk, watching the paper change color. “At a minimum, your expressin is low, and I can guess that your serum teratonase levels are off the scale.” He turned around and looked down the length of his nose at me. “Let me guess; you’re not taking your pills over the weekend.”
I sighed. “I was hoping I could get by without doing so. If I skip Friday morning, by Friday night I’m able to change again, and then I start taking them Sunday morning and by Monday I’m fine for work.”
Jerome Bernardi, MD, DVM, scowled and walked over to the exam table, putting one hand on my knee. “Did you remember to take your pills on Sunday?”
I nodded urgently. “I swear, I did. Morning and evening dose, both.”
He patted my leg lightly. “And I bet I’m not going to be able to talk you into taking your pills every day like a good little bear, am I?”
I sighed. “I really don’t want to lose that. It’s the one chance I have to feel sane during the week.”
Dr. Bernardi rubbed his chin with his free hand, then squeezed my knee. “You know, we can try putting you back on the adhominol.”
I shook my head quickly. “The last time I tried it, I broke out in hives all over.”
Dr. Bernardi clucked his tongue, then took a seat at his desk, two fingers flying over his keyboard. “Fine. I’m upping your expressin to two-hundred grams, twice a day, but that’s as high as I can safely push it. Take half a pill every morning and night over the weekend, then double up on Sunday night to try to get your serum levels back where they should be. If you feel the least bit off next Monday, call me, okay?”
I let out a chuff of relief and nodded slowly. “I can do that. Thanks, doc.”
My doctor shook his head and grinned lopsidedly at me. “Don’t thank me until it works, Rhee. Which… who knows? It’s worth a shot.” He stabbed the keyboard with one fingertip. “Sent. Take care, and I’ll see you a week from Saturday.”