‘I’m Fine’, P.L. Salerno

Illustrations © 2022 Sarah Salcedo

 [ Thorns, © 2022 Sarah Salcedo ] “Hey,” Alex says, coming up to the register and holding a small stack of books in their arms. The covers show a blonde woman whose teeth are so white, it’s like staring into the business end of a flashlight. “This place is dead, so I’m gonna just put these books and a few others on the shelves, then close up. Start pulling the money.”

I nod. “Sounds good.” They nod back, their dark hair bouncing, and then leave, off to the far corner of the labyrinthine bookstore, where the self-help books are displayed.

We don’t normally close this early—it’s only eight o’clock on a Friday night—but business has been slow lately, and I guess Alex can’t afford to keep the lights on for much longer or pay me for another two hours, which is when I’m supposed to get off work. I don’t hold that against them, of course. Alex and I have been friends since high school, and this job is mainly so I can earn some extra cash to save—I thought being an accountant would pay better—but still, I sigh. I want money.

I log out of the register; the drawer snaps open, almost hitting my fingers, and I extract the cash—a pitiful amount—before putting it in the blue bag under the scratched, wooden counter. Just as soon as the money is away, a tickle begins in my throat. Not now. Please, not now.

A fierce cough tears its way out of my throat; my fingers clench up, spasming, then go slack, and the bag falls from my grasp. I bend down to pick it up, but another cough grips me, and I almost fall to the gum-speckled, tiled ground. I manage to right myself, but then I feel something snagging in my throat. As a third cough wracks my body, I throw a hand in front of my mouth; hot, wet drops greet it. I pull my hand back, unsurprised at what I see.


“Kenna, are you okay?” I hear Alex shouting from somewhere in the store. Shit. “I’m fine!” I croak out, wiping the blood on my jeans. “My throat’s just dry; I haven’t drunk much water today.”

“Okay…” Alex calls back, not sounding like they believe me.

I have to do this fast, before they come back and see.

I pump out a pool of hand sanitizer from the bottle on the counter, slathering it on my hands and arms, all the way up to my elbows, and wait for it to dry. Then, before I can stop myself, I reach my arm down my throat, take hold of whatever is in there, and pull.

I grimace, gagging, as the thing cuts, and cuts, and cuts my throat, blood forming a choking but unseen river. My eyes sting, tears prickling, the feeling similar but not nearly as excruciating as the one whatever stuck in my throat is producing. Warm blood dribbles out from the corner of my mouth. Finally, though, I have the thing removed from my body, and I look down at it.

Huh. That’s a new one.

A green, thorn-covered vine, now dyed an unsightly red-brown from my blood, lies in my hands. Saliva covers it, thick and slimy. Red drips to the floor, and before any more can, I chuck the thing in the garbage basket. I then spit the remaining blood in my mouth there, too, rub my face with a non-bloodied part of my hand, and grab a wipe from under the counter to clean up the mess. A dirty-penny taste lingers on my tongue.

Just as my arms are once again clean and I’m about to bend down to wipe the floor, Alex winds around the nearby bookshelves, heading toward me. I drop the saturated wipe into the garbage, hoping they notice it. Or don’t notice it, rather. Because I’m fine. I’ve dealt with coughing these weird things up for years; I’ve learned to accept it. I am fine.

Alex’s arms are now empty, and their blue shirtsleeve has ridden up on their left arm, exposing their tattoo, a rose with thorns on its stem. I am reminded of the vine I pulled out of my throat, buried in the garbage. When they reach the counter, they rap their knuckles on it. “Everything good over here?”

“Yes,” I affirm, internally cringing at my raspy voice. I almost sound like a smoker.

Alex raises their eyebrows but says nothing. “Did you take the cash out of the register?”

“Yes…” I pick the bag off of the floor and notice a small bloodstain. I fold it over and present it to Alex so that the stain isn’t in their view.

“Thanks?” Alex says as they reach out to grab the bag from me, confused as to why it was lying on the ground. Luckily, they don’t inquire. “I’ll finish closing up here; you’re good to go home.”

“Great!” I chirp, trying to inject some happiness into my voice, though, judging from Alex’s narrowed eyes, I fear I’ve overdone it. I grab my purse from behind me, sling it over my shoulder, and say, “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” echoes Alex, then walks in the direction of the back, carrying the bag of money with them.

I leave before they can discover the blood I’ve left on the floor.

As soon as I get home to my studio apartment, furnished with a rickety bed, a fraying couch, and a teetering, unoccupied dresser I inherited from my grandmother, I go into the bathroom to shower. The room is small, with hardly enough room to close the door, and mold lurks in the cracks between tiles. Preparing to turn on the shower, I catch sight of myself in the mirror. My dark hair hangs in loose, tired curls; and my eyes look sunken, dead. More alarmingly, a dried drop of blood is crusted to my lip. Fuck. I hope Alex saw. Didn’t see. I rub my eyes. What the hell is wrong with me today?

I turn on the water and let the scorching torrent rip my soul from my body.

I am fine.

The next morning, I wake up on my rock-hard mattress, my back screaming in protest. I should get a new mattress, but I don’t want to spend the money. I roll out of bed, my bare feet touching the coarse carpet, and crack my joints. That feels a bit better.

I step over to the closet and dress quickly, exchanging my soft pajamas for a white t-shirt and a pair of dark-wash jeans. After that, in the kitchenette, I scarf down a banana and granola bar, despite my sore throat, then make myself a cup of tea.

A few minutes later, I sit at the small, round table shoved in the corner of the studio, steam wafting up my nose. I take a tiny sip, the tea soothing my still-aching throat. That was the first time I ever pulled something with thorns from my throat, and I’m not eager to repeat the experience.

As soon as I finish my tea and grab my purse to walk out the door for work, a tickle scratches at my throat. Fuck. This usually doesn’t happen two days in a row.

The cough is small. Manageable.

But then, a vicious cough splits my body in two. Sweat beads on my temples. I cough once more, my chest heaving, and out shoots a blood-and-saliva-slick coin. I pick it up from the floor, wiping away the blood. It’s an arcade token: Sal’s Fun Zone and the silhouette of a pinball machine are printed on its face. Resisting the urge to sigh, I swallow the blood in my throat, throw the token away, then walk out the door.

I’m fine.

 [ Marble, © 2022 Sarah Salcedo ] “Good morning,” Alex says distractedly as they rearrange books so that they’re in the correct order on the shelves.

“Good morning,” I repeat, making for the register, where I’m always stationed. “Is anyone else coming in today?”

Alex turns, finished with their work, and starts toward me. Today, they wear light jeans and a graphic t-shirt with some old band I can’t identify on it. “Fiona was on the schedule for today, but she called earlier this morning to tell me that she got a job somewhere else and is quitting immediately, so…”

I scoff, shrugging off my purse. “Well, that’s a shitty thing to do.”

Alex just shrugs, though, and shakes their head a bit. “It’s probably for the best; one fewer person to pay.” Their eyes go wide as they realize how I could interpret that. “Fuck. I didn’t mean to say it like that.”

I laugh. “I know that, Alex; I didn’t take offense, anyway.”

Alex sighs and jerks their thumb in the direction of the back. “I’m gonna go take care of some stuff back there, and then we’ll officially open for the day.”

About half an hour later, the store is open for business. I’m still standing at the register, and Alex straightens up the empty, echoing store. No customers come in during the first hour, but a woman enters nearly two hours after opening, strolls around a bit, and then leaves without buying anything. This happens five more times throughout the next three hours. Finally, though, a man buys a one-dollar bookmark and nothing else. I put the limp bill in the register, filled only with the cash needed for change.

Soon, my throat itches and burns. I desperately want to deny it—this has never happened twice in one day—but I know this feeling as well as I know my reflection. It’s starting again.

The first cough is weaker than the ones that tore through me earlier today; my chest hardly convulses. But then the fit begins in earnest.

The next cough is violent, splitting my throat in two. I cough again—harder—and blood rockets from my mouth, splattering the already-stained floor. I bring my hand to my face, and with another cough, a marble shoots into my hand. I don’t even bother to look at it before throwing it in the trash. I feel like a cat that just hacked up a hairball.

“Kenna? What’s going on?” Alex asks, emerging from behind a bookshelf and coming toward the counter.

“Nothing,” I say, choking down the blood clogging my throat. “I’m fine.” I wave a hand around, nonchalant, but then, when I see Alex’s dark eyes widening, I realize I’ve just shown them my bloodied hand. Fuck.

Alex dashes forward, closing the little distance remaining between us. “Did you cut yourself, or something? Do I need to call an ambulance?” Concern swims in their eyes.

“No.” I shake my head. “Just give me a second.” But then another cough rises in my throat, and I can’t fight it off.

I don’t even have time to cover my mouth before blood and saliva and another marble explode from it, hitting Alex in the chest and ruining their shirt. I hear the marble pinging to the floor. Alex picks it up and squints at it, muttering, “What the fuck?”

More coughs ruin my body as I turn away from Alex, who is screaming: What’s wrong; what can I do; why is this happening? Marbles of all colors and sizes and styles pour from my mouth, a veritable river forming at my feet. Gore stands out in sharp relief against the white, tiled floor. Tears of pain wind down my cheeks, then drop, wetting my clothes, but it’s nothing compared to the blood—more than I thought was available in my body—erupting from my mouth like a sick volcano.

One last cough rents my throat, ejecting two marbles with it, and then, finally, I think I am done. I look over at Alex, who has since given up their questions and decided to stare at me with an expression of blank-eyed horror. I kick aside the marbles covering my shoes, then twist my body so that I am looking into Alex’s eyes. Maintaining eye contact, I raise my shirt and wipe away the blood clinging to my face.

“I’m fine,” I say.

I don’t know if I can believe myself anymore.

© 2022 P.L. Salerno

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