Catherine Kwon

Call Number 1:

He’d always had the feeling that his mother would die for him. It still came as a surprise when she actually did—a foot in the dark expecting one more step. Now he was alive and she wasn’t. That had never been true before. He vomited three times on the way to the hospital. They checked for concussion but all was clear.

Claire didn’t know him. She never really would. Usually she wouldn’t answer an unknown call, but it was a slow day in the office and any distraction was something. The paramedic on the other end of the line told her the facts and she said she’d be right there. Wrong numbers rarely offered the chance to be a hero, or to clock out early.

It took 28 minutes to reach the ward, and in that time the boy had fallen asleep. He was older than she’d expected—at least fifteen. She could still remember being fifteen with the sort of discomfort that meant she hadn’t quite recovered. But a boy was a boy and she’d answered the call, so she sat by his bed and thought of comforting things to say. She looked at his hands, palms red with the crescent moons of fingernail marks, and placed one of hers on top. He woke in the morning. She said what she’d prepared.

“What do you need?”


Claire had no reply to that. They sat in unquestioning silence. When the forms were signed for his release she offered again to help. He refused and they parted, each to their own lives.

Call Number 2:

It was too late for hospice. The paramedic’s disembodied voice hung somewhere between bored and judgmental as she described the 89-year-old woman’s solitary suffering. It had been days. Not just hours. Days alone in the pit of her shower, living off the water that dripped from the faucet. Days that would be her last, or almost her last. She had a few hours left, at least, and Claire might like to say her goodbyes.

Two absences from work in less than a month would hardly be treated kindly. The job was still boring, though, and perhaps this time she would be needed. Any surprise she felt at this second wrong number was quelled by some sense that she was, at least, prepared. She made it to the hospital in just 24 minutes. It was a different ward and a different patient, but the same white walls and white smell and background noise of panic. Already the routine felt familiar, the first sketches of a habit.

She found the woman laughing. To make matters worse it was in response to nothing more than a weather report on the outdated TV. The patient in the bed was shrunken and looked, Claire thought, like a mildewed drowning victim who hadn’t yet bloated. The ocean-green of the covers bunched around her seemed to tint her thin hair. Her lips opened and closed like breathing learned from a manual. This was the sort of old age that was fought for and came at a cost.

“You aren’t dying.” Claire tried to regret her words. The woman coughed out another laugh.

“Like hell I’m not. Just give it time.”

Claire didn’t have time. Not if she wanted to get paid. Still, she wasn’t the one in the bed. She breathed, willing herself to be the calm one—the caring one.

“What do you need?”

“Oh, nothing. Unless you think you could swipe some juice from the nurses’ lounge—I’ve heard they have pineapple. Us poor wretches in the hospital beds get saddled with orange.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Claire turned, choosing not to wonder how this woman could know about some secret pineapple stash. She was alive, at least, and well enough to come up with busy work. Claire knew she should feel glad. Instead, all she could think was that the paramedic had a vindictive streak and she could have stayed at work after all.

Call Number 7:

Noise was almost always a good thing. A patient bawling in the background of a call meant that they had lungs and minds intact enough to scream. That didn’t make it any less annoying.

The man in front of her had a convincingly stupid goatee. It made it easy to imagine the sort of situation that would cause him to be stabbed in the upper thigh with a fork. His well-tailored suit was ruined, but nothing else seemed to be.

“What do you need?” She asked. The man looked up in surprise, then assessment. His blotchy skin blotched more.

“You could lend a hand pulling this out, if it won’t make you vom all over me.” He gestured down to his leg. There was blood on the hospital sheet, but not much.

“I could, but I’m not a nurse. The fork could be stemming an artery, I shouldn’t risk letting you bleed out.” She imagined doing just that—imagined watching his smirk drip off his face like sweat.

Either her fantasies weren’t visible in her expression, or he wasn’t looking. Now granted an audience, he seemed to have forgotten his previous performance of pain.

“Weren’t doing anything else, I hope?” He asked, flashing what he no doubt called his ‘winning smile’.

“No,” Claire ground out, lying.

“Good good. Fancy getting a new nurse, then? This lot are hardly the attentive sort.”

Claire spun on the heels of her smartest, most uncomfortable shoes—the ones she always wore for important meetings. It had been a last chance, a token of trust. She hadn’t deserved it. Behind her the man pulled the fork from his leg. Blood fountained and nurses were there in a beat.

Call Number 15:


This patient seemed determined to mistake her for someone else. It was the only word he’d managed since she’d arrived at his bedside. A dreary hospital pamphlet with a picture of a dreary blue balloon in a dreary blue sky had told her that his rasping was the result of fluid buildup in the throat and upper airways. Towards the end a dying person loses the ability to swallow or cough. The excess saliva then begins to block airflow, some mix between drowning and suffocation.

“I’m not Zara. I’m Claire. I’m here to help. Would you like me to look for Zara?”

The man tried and failed to reply. Claire thought he would likely die soon. She adjusted the morphine the way she had seen the nurses do and hoped it would be enough. Nothing much happened. The day stretched on. Horror shifted to boredom. She looked at the clock and tried to calculate how much longer propriety demanded. Her landlord and credit cards didn’t care much about propriety, and temp-agencies didn’t compensate sick days.

He moaned when she left, but it could have just been a rasp. It didn’t matter much, he couldn’t even get her name right.

Call Number 22:

Claire waited two hours for the 60-something-year-old heart attack victim to show up. She forgot to check the morgue. The only saving grace of the experience was that she successfully evaded the landlord who had decided to bring the rent notice to her apartment in person.

Call Number 30:

When she was fourteen, Claire had spent all of ten minutes thinking she was a murderer. She hadn’t checked the box’s ingredients list for allergens and hadn’t known her brother could be saved.

Whether the man in front of her would live seemed as uncertain as she had been in the kitchen that day—too frozen even to call for help. Now, she knew better. She held his swollen hand and counted his breaths, waiting for the medicine to either take effect or fail.

He eventually woke with the groan of a hangover and not a hint of surprise. He’d found himself here before.

“How can I help?”


“How can I help? What is it you need?”

“Well, let me think,” he paused to rasp, “maybe a cashew?”

Claire paused, recalling his notes. She scowled.

“That’s what you did?”

“They taste good!”

“Enough to—fine. How are you even alive?”

“Beats me.”

Claire waited, then gave in to curiosity, asking “Was it worth it?”

“I never want it said that I turned down any worldly experience. No one can say I didn’t give it a go.”

“Give what a go?”


Claire paused again, considering. This time it was the man who spoke.

“I’ll be discharged soon, I expect. You can go if you want.”

Claire thought of where else she could be. She came to a blank.

“It’s fine. You might find another cashew if I leave.”

Claire readjusted in her seat, checked her pocket for her phone. She wouldn’t want to miss it if it rang.