Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Open Enrollment"

This story takes place in the same world as two of my earlier short stories, "Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched" and "The Best Medicine", which focus around the character Jillian Nightingale, human nurse practitioner to the supernatural community. She actually doesn't appear in this story, but... well, you'll find out. 

The Salisbury steak wasn’t from Salisbury, and it sure as hell wasn’t steak. More like a mound of meat someone had smashed flat and poured over with cold, brown sauce that slightly resembled gravy. I didn’t want to be rude, but I looked up at the waitress and hoped my disapproval and confusion were plain. If she picked up on my cues, she gave no response before walking back behind the counter.

Disappointment was bringing on a pain between by eyebrows. I closed my eyes and kneaded the spot with two fingers and tried to control my temper. I was getting better at it, but my therapist said I still had a long way to go. And stuff got bad when I lost my temper.

“Is something wrong?” Came the voice of the guy on the other side of the white-and-red checkered table.

“What exactly is Salisbury steak?” I asked calmly without opening my eyes.

“It’s a sort of minced-meat patty, served with gravy,” said the other person. “It was invented by J.H. Salisbury in 1897, while he was trying to patent the first low-carb diet.”

“Not from Salisbury,” I spoke my realization. “And I think ‘steak’ is a bit of a misnomer.”

There came an uneasy clearing of a throat, and finally I opened my eyes and gazed at the skinny guy in the suit sitting across from me. He sipped from his glass of water, pushed his glasses further up his wide face, and shuffled the papers in his hands. “Mammon, if you don’t mind, I could read over the policies while you eat. That way, you can already be deciding which one might be best for you.”

I sighed and, just to make he and the waitress feel better, I unwrapped my fork from my napkin and cut a piece from the Salisbury ‘steak’ with its edge. I didn’t exactly relish the idea of eating a steak I didn’t need a knife to cut. “If I don’t eat, does that mean you won’t read?”

“Oh, come on. Don’t be that way,” Tim Greenbrier, head of human resources for the department, said. “You’re the only one who hasn’t signed up yet, and open enrollment ends today. Templesmith says that if I don’t get you signed up today, you’re going to be stuck doing deskwork until the next open enrollment.” He set down the paperwork and leaned forward a bit. “And so will I!”

“You already do deskwork all day,” I said, finally gaining the courage to stick a forkful of Salisbury steak into my mouth.

“But you don’t! You love fieldwork. And you can kiss it good-bye until November unless you sign up. So, why not just sign up and get it over with?”

I chewed slowly. Hmm. Maybe I had judged Salisbury steak too quickly. “Do I seriously have to?” I asked out of one side of my mouth. “What kind of medical coverage could I possibly need?”

“Well, for one, we have a plan that would cover your therapist sessions. Wouldn’t it be nice to simply pay a little every month and not have to worry about writing a check every time you saw Dr. LaRue? Or not having to pay out of pocket every time you catch a piece of furniture in her office on fire?”

My eyes snapped up from my meal, and Tim flinched a little under my gaze. My skin, which is already tomato-red during my best moods, started to glow.

It was days like this I wished I hadn’t had my horns filed down. Tim got to keep his, although he was mostly behind and desk and not on patrol (not to mention that a satyr’s horns don’t get much bigger than nubs). Apparently the department was trying to soften their image, and iffrits’ curved, black horns apparently made me seem less than approachable. As did my outbursts that tended to make things combust.

I forced myself to breathe more slowly, through my nose, like Dr. LaRue had shown me. In doing so, I chewed the bite a little more slowly. Tim’s only trying to help, I told myself. And he’s just doing his job. You can’t get mad at him for that.

Actually, now that I thought about it, Salisbury steak was pretty damn good. “That would be pretty nice,” I said. Though I hadn’t told anyone about the periodic fires at my therapist’s office, apparently word had gotten around the rest of the precinct.

“You bet your ass it would,” Tim said, practically cheering. He shuffled the papers in front of him and pulled a few from the stack. “I already picked out a few policies I think you’ll like. I’ll read through them, and you tell me which ones you like best.”

So I ate, and Tim read. He used a lot of big words like ‘copay’ and ‘deductible’ and ‘premium’ and ‘in-network’. For the most part, what he said made sense. There were a few plans that seemed identical, and when I asked Tim to clarify he only made me more confused. In the end, I picked a plan called the ‘Commonwealth Plan’, because I liked the name the best.

The more I ate the Salisbury steak, the more I realized I liked it, and the more I realized I had unnecessarily given the waitress the stink eye. I would have to make good with her before I left the restaurant. That’s something Dr. Larue told me I should do: as soon as I realize I’ve done wrong by sometime, make amends as quick as possible.

A thought occurred to me. “Hey, if the department says I have to go to counseling, I’m not sure I should have to pay for that. I mean, it’s for my job, right?”

“You still have to pay for it,” Tim replied without looking up from the stack of paperwork he was rapidly shorting. “But you can write it off on your taxes as a work-related expense. Your NP should be able to tell you more about it.”

While Tim had been talking, I had flagged down the waitress and apologized for my behavior over the Salisbury steak. Satisfied with my apology, she now poured coffee for Tim and I. “NP?” I asked, lifting my cup. “What does that stand for?”

“Nurse practitioner,” Tim said, ripping the tops off of three packs of Equal. He dumped them into his coffee, along with a drop from a small cup of half-and-half. “Our new heath plans are through the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. They have a bunch of NPs on staff that do housecalls and stuff. One will be by your place to check on you every month or so.”

“Aw, crap,” I breathed, after I had swallowed my firth mouthful of coffee. “I don’t want to have to clean up my apartment for company that I don’t even want.”

“You don’t have to clean up anything,” Tim added. “Their visits aren’t for more than a few minutes each. It’s supposed to be a new initiative to bring down insurance premiums for all cryptos.”

“Tired of paying extra premiums of offset the mummies’ rapidly rising cost of bandages?” 

He smirked. “More like, tired of paying for iffrits who catch their therapists’ couches on fire.”

I sipped my coffee. “See how I’m not killing you now? I think I’m making progress. I should send Dr. Larue a text.” I finished my Salisbury steak, vowing to return soon for another. Our waitress, a pretty faeling with curves in all the right places and shimmery dragonfly wings that emerged from the back of her uniform shirt, set our check on the table. She smiled at me, I smiled at her, and I considered that I might not be coming back just for the steak.

“Oh, and get this,” Tim suddenly added as he pulled out his wallet. He set down a few bills to cover his part of the tab. “They Agency just hired a human NP!”

I froze with my hand in my wallet. “Wait. What?”

“You heard me.”

Finally thinking again, I scooped Tim’s money from the table, put it into my wallet, and sent my credit card off with the check. “Why the hell would they do that? Only a tiny fraction of humans even know cryptos exist.”

Tim rose and pushed in his chair. When he wasn’t looking, I wrote my phone number on the check beneath my signature. “Way I heard it, she saved a gillgonder that got hit by a truck. Noticed his gills and, instead of losing her mind, got him to water before it was too late. They offered her the job to thank her.”

I made sure to smile at the waitress one more time before Tim and I headed out the door. In the sunlight, our covers, the enchantments that let us (mostly) blend in with human society, shimmered to life. “A human nurse,” I said, shaking my head and following Tim down the sidewalk, back toward the Cryptohumanoid Police Department precinct. “What’ll they think of next?”

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