The strike blocked three main streets downtown. Dora rushed through the crowd knowing she’d have missed calls waiting for her. The nearest her cab could drop her off was three blocks away from her job on Terazije Street. She tried connecting to the office computer, but the signal was too low. She zig-zagged to keep the tempo while holding up her skirt a bit so she wouldn’t trip. She always thought that availability was one of the most important strengths of a digital psychologist. She couldn’t brush off a client from the late last night. There was something odd in his voice, and she hoped he wouldn’t be among the missed ones.
She maneuvered her way through the crowd of worried or people disappointed with the government which they voted—passed their banners, whistles, and howls of support in favor of the statements coming from the stage through numerous speakers, placed at strategic locations so that all of the citizens who came could hear. Hear, agree upon, and pass on. It is the only way to take the demagogues down. The speakers also streamed a holographic image of the stage where the tubby, bearded man tried to shake up the audience with his frantic hand gestures. Technological advancement only widens the social gap if we don’t keep the social policy up to date. True. The future does not bring us an ideal society but instead inflates the gap; no use for an advanced digital age if we can’t keep up with it. There is no use for progress if a significant part of society cannot cope with learning and keeping up with the new technologies. We keep ending up jobless more and more. The folks whistled their approval, and someone near Dora shouted: “Down with the IMF inflictions!” And a handful supported him.
She knew the bearded man from her “Dosta je bilo” days of failed student activism, and while she was making her way through the crowd, he continued his discourse on the flimsy role of government in civil protection, about how government should lower taxes because even though they guarantee us the basic income and access to healthcare and education, it still taxes us on these essential commodities. Many people take longer breaks between two jobs. Intermittent and gig employment is not for everyone, especially not for those who can’t grasp the ever-changing technologies and stop being competitive. These people, we, cannot pay taxes on time. The gray economy is not the source of evils but poorly managed economic and social policy.
Dora’s phone vibrated and almost fell when she fished for it in her bag.
“How late are you?” She barely heard Petar’s voice.
“Maybe ten more minutes.”
“What a bunch of nutjobs, they blocked half of the city to ask for a greater government involvement and control!”
“Easy for a full stacker to say.”
“Right, I work my ass off to learn new things so that some younger coders wouldn’t outgo me.”
Dora knew he was right. But still. The problem was with the imposed tempo you had to follow.
“Anyway, after work, we’re going to Samo Pivo. You coming?”
“Putting you on the list regardless.” The line broke. She didn’t know if Petar hanged up or the signal got lost again.
She slipped between the two banners and turned right towards the underground passage as usually not many people pass through there. Ever since she started working at Deplex, she’d always go that way to avoid a long traffic light, and she found it strange that most people would rather wait for the traffic instead of passing under it. Maybe this small enclave of cheap stores seemed too low for them. Dora found it lively and ornated with impressive graffiti. Also, the old musician was playing the same melody every day. Dora thought that he had perfected it on that unusual instrument that produces sound without physical touch.
Contrary to her hopes, the strike had flooded the underground passage. She prepared the app to transfer 100 dinars, but the musician was absent today as well. She glanced over to find the salesman for old books and magazines but couldn’t see him. She turned towards the shop of semi-precious stones and healing crystals, looking for a piece of what she’s used to seeing in this place. A man bumped into her and pardoned himself without noticing her, and then a college boy stepped on her shoe. She held back a painful scream and hurried to wiggle her way out to the escalator and come out the other side of the street. Uneasiness ruffled her stomach. Dora wondered what had happened to the old musician. His gray short-bearded face, who sat with his back against the wall and played that melody, persistently kept coming back to her. She looked at her mobile, still no signal. She couldn’t check the number of the missed calls.
“Down with taxes!”
“Down!” The voices spread through the passage.
It didn’t take long from the passage to reach the yellow building where she worked. Dora typed the code into the elevator to take her to the fourth floor. She fixed her bun, and she straightened the folds on her skirt, crossing her fingers over the scar above her ankle. There Dora lowered her skirt a bit more. She closed her eyes and thought about how she wanted to relieve herself of the anxiety and how she needs to be the best version of herself to successfully help her clients. Dora shook her hands to release the negative energy she might have caught along the way and walked out of the elevator with a smile.
The kind receptionist returned her smile. As she walked down the hallway, she glanced at the stairs that led up to the tech support and Petar’s office and proceeded to the open space. Dora smiled at the colleague who was on a call and sat at her desk. The chair automatically set itself to her posture, so the prickling along the center of her spine made her stand in an upright position and remain as such. She typed in her credentials, and 120 notifications popped up on her computer screen, 37 missed calls. Deplex called its patients clients because their sales pitch was “a digital counseling for everyone’s needs.” Of course, those needs came at a high price, so it wasn’t exactly for everyone’s pocket. Such availability to vent out started to influence interpersonal relations; as Dora noticed, close friendships might soon lose their appeal. That’s the topic of an essay she’s working on for an academic journal. She put on her headset and went through the missed call list. The client from last night wasn’t among them.
A click on the green button meant that she was available for calls. Not a minute went by, and the client’s ID number was already bouncing on the screen. His video call option was turned off.
“What seems to be bothering you, sir?” She said.
“Stupid pedestrians, not respecting the traffic lights, that’s what’s bothering me. And I spilled hot coffee all over myself and the tablet because of this stupid sensor car breaking so suddenly whenever something pops up in front of it!”
“Do you require a doctor for the burn?”
“What burn?! My brain’s burning from schmucks that don’t follow the rules. What does he think that the shitty traffic light is there for nothing!”
“People can be inconsiderate to other people’s problems when thinking solely about their own.”
“The only problem that idiot has is a lack of brain. Ape. Now, how do I go back to work covered in stains?!”
“What is the line of work you’re in?”
“Lawyer. I got an important meeting in an hour.”
“How far away is your home?”
“I won’t make to change and come back.”
Dora typed in his location and checked for the nearest dry-cleaning store.
“There’s a dry cleaner’s ten minutes away by car.” She transferred the location to the network of his car.
“Thank you.” He sounded a tad calmer.
“What type of meeting?”
“Company acquisition. Meeting the new owners.”
“Are you in fear for your job?”
A few seconds of silence followed.
“They have a legal team that’s bigger than ours, and I don’t think they’ll need us.”
“Have you engaged in a search for a new job opportunity?” Dora’s melodic, professionally tuned, calming voice. Clients were receiving empathy and guidance, which is what they paid for.
“I haven’t updated my business network profiles lately.”
“I suggest that you use the time between the dry cleaner’s and your job to update one of your profiles.”
“But I don’t have the time!” The client took a combative stance.
“It is okay to start with a few basic updates. Also, it will inspire more self-confidence for today’s meeting.”
With the sound of tapping on a screen, the client was searching for something. A pause, then tapping again.
“Do you need help with the updating?”
“No.” He said firmly.
“Make as many changes as you have time for, think positively, and update the rest of the profile after work. Deal?”
The client continued tapping without communicating further.
“Thank you for your trust and call me whenever you require so. Have a nice day.” Dora closed the call.
She went through a few emails until the next client showed up. The clients have the option of anonymity, to have their name displayed, video call, or audio-only. These were enough for Dora to already assume what type of conversation would take place. This client called using her name.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Karic”
“Good afternoon.” Her voice had a mixture of down-hearted and frustration in it.
“How are you today?”
“What’s wrong? How can I help you?”
The way she said it pulled at Dora’s strings.
“Are you following a particular diet?”
“Yes. Blazen programmed the fridge with the nutritionist’s help to make some stupid juices, porridges, and salads. The next meal is in four hours, and all I think about is food.”
“When was your last meal?”
“A moment ago. But that was some vegetable broth, and I’m still hungry.”
“Is your diet due to medical reasons?” Dora said.
“No, Blazen is the reason.” Her voice attained an angry tone to it.
“So, the reasons are aesthetic. Tell me, Ms. Karic, if you could eat right now, what would you eat?”
“A goddamn elephant!”
Dora didn’t react; she let her correct herself on her own.
“Gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola,” she said, and Dora was searching for the meal through an app. She didn’t take long.
“Do you know where those old-timey shops where you can still manually buy the food are? I’ve heard of them.”
“Ms. Karic, do you have your virtual glasses with you?” She ignored her last sentence.
“Oh, I don’t know. Let me check.”
Dora patiently waited with the file already prepared for transfer.
“Found them. They’re here.”
“How did you call me? Through the device or your home?”
“In that case, sync the glasses with your home.”
Ms. Karic tinkered about, and after a few seconds, she set them. That’s when Dora sent the file to the server from which she called, an extension that only glasses could open.
“Relax and put on your glasses.”
“Oh! You naughty girl.” Ms. Karic giggled as she was watching the spoon come near her mouth.
“Follow the hand motions, and once you take a bite, make the movements as if they were actually in your mouth and chew. After ten minutes, you’ll convince your brain that you had gnocchi, and you will not be hungry anymore.”
“Wonderful, how didn’t I think of this?!”
“Thank you for calling, Ms. Karic. Contact me whenever you might need me. Have a good day.”
There was no one on the call for about twenty minutes or so, and then they swarmed again. At one point, Dora kept eagerly looking at the clock in hopes of a break. Petar pinged her, asking what to order for lunch today. She went to the official company channel #nas-rucak to see the options. She could go for sushi. Dora added to the group order by choosing the eel, mango, and avocado flavor. She noticed his Thai noodle with tofu order and thought that wasn’t a bad idea either.
She opened up the latest news and put it on the screen’s right side to follow the events. Just a few more clients and administrative emails later, and the order had arrived.
“I don’t understand them,” Petar mumbled between bites. “When has increased government control ever brought us any good? Ludicrous.”
Dora put some wasabi in the soy sauce and mixed it with her chopsticks. She dipped her roll.
“You’re not very vocal about this. What’s your take on strike?” Petar was rolling up the noodles with his chopsticks.
“Well, I understand them. It’s an unpleasant situation. Not everyone can keep up with the changes at the same pace, and it’s shameless to expect that.”
“So, you’re for more government involvement.”
“I’m for more tax reductions.” Dora didn’t feel like discussing politics, but Petar was very edgy today. The new colleagues entered the cafeteria talking about the company table tennis tournament they’ve been planning.
“But you do realize the government can’t simply cut from its income and give it to the people? This means, with one hand it would give one present while with the other take five. Aren’t you worried about what it would take?”
“I am, of course. There’s already a rumor going around about housing benefit cuts.” Dora shrugged and had another roll. “Will you join the tournament?”
“Table tennis? Probably, but I didn’t have time to prepare. You?”
Dora laughed. “Have you ever seen me play?”
“It’s never too late to try. Didn’t you see the emails with the discounts for the digital priests and gurus? You could get yourself some enchantment and raise your chances to win.” Petar teased her.
“Or I could drift through our part of the universe in search for eternity.”
“So, you read the emails. The company allowed advertising from 8 – 10 a.m. as they got a discount on some equipment, and we have to stop the firewall during that time. But the company from which they bought the knick-knacks has their clients to whom they allow to advertise, so there will be all kinds of spam for another two months.”
Dora didn’t like the idea. She’d always pay extra for some goods or services as long as she was not bothered with commercials. Do you want a perfect body? Two clicks away. Do you want to increase the size of your genitals? Smile. Do you want peace and prosperity in your family - try this new space-harmonizing fragrance. A bunch of nonsense that promised a better life, including the afterlife. A hive of fish stories, but she was always polite to people that called her and spouted gibberish. It was not easy finding a proper job these days. They had to make a living from something.
Dora stayed longer at work. She wanted to finish a few more things so she wouldn’t need to take them home later. After her colleagues went out for the drinks, she felt slightly relieved as she had an excuse not to go. In the silence of the large open space with only a few colleagues also immersed in their work, an unsettling feeling in her stomach returned. She straightened the folds on her skirt and scratched her scar. The greater the silence, the louder she could hear the old musician’s melody.
Under the dimmed orangy light in the underground passage, a new musician played the guitar, pulling strings with his dirty fingers. She didn’t expect to see the old guy as she had seen him only in the mornings on her way to work. She noticed the salesman of old books and magazines, his mildly taken face, always smiling. He was talking to a woman who worked in the jewelry shop next door. With her slim, elegant fingers, she held a long e-cigarette while her messily combed hair, scorched by dyes and various treatments, fell to her shoulders. Across from them was a Chinese clothes shop. At its entrance stood an awkwardly dressed male mannequin doll, clothed with things either too big or too tight. The mannequin scared Dora on several occasions thinking it was a passer-by with a creepy white face. The healing crystals and semi-precious stones store was closed at that time. The graffiti seemed darker under the artificial light, like a long shadowy blot following and watching over the passers-by.
Dora knew she somehow had to ease the restlessness that itched more and more under her skin. She stopped next to an improvised stand with several books of the same covers but with different titles and thickness. She took one, and the salesman turned to her right away.
“Only one copy left.” The salesman said, tilting his head to the side. “It’s why I put them there.”
“They seem interesting. How long have you been working here?”
“Uh, I don’t remember.” He smiled bashfully. “Probably for many years.” He straightened the cuffs on his grayish sweater.
The woman with the e-cigarette observed them a bit and then left for her shop.
“I’ll take these two.” A smile crossed her face. She had to continue the conversation somehow. “Sometimes, I pass through here on my way to work. I noticed an elderly gentleman who plays an unusual instrument.”
“I noticed him absent these last few days.”
“Yeah, he’s been gone.”
The salesman wrapped the books in the paper bag while Dora transferred the money via mobile.
“Do you maybe know where Uncle Sreta lives?”
“At Galenika, near Stara pijaca. Why do you ask?”
“I’m writing an essay on the topic of street musicians.”
The salesman seemed to lose interest in her questions. He started rearranging the books on the stand. He placed them under the same line and with equal distance between each. He repeated her “Thank you” when she went on.
Dora’s heart drummed as she exited the passage. Information thrilled her enormously that she couldn’t think of anything. What exactly did she want, she kept asking herself. After a few seconds of silence, she took her mobile and pinned her location.
Traffic carried on as if there never was a strike. The garbage from the streets was collected, people got back to their daily lives as if someone pressed “Enter” and reset time, hopes, misfortunes. The period after significant disturbances always seemed unusual, forced, or like it belonged to someone else.
She got into the cab and leaned her card over the appropriate spot.
“Good afternoon, Dora. Where would you like to go tonight?” A polite voice came through the speakers.
“Galenika, Stara Pijaca.”
“That is beyond your regular travel routes. Do you wish me to continue?”
They slowly departed, and the quiet music masked the barely audible hum of the driverless electric vehicle. Dora leaned back into her seat and looked outside, selectively ignoring the advertisements on the windshield. She was still holding her mobile firmly in her hand. Usual browsing through social media during the ride didn’t appeal to her now.
As the evening slowly set in, the cab passed through parts of the city she hadn’t been in before. When it exited off the freeway, the streets became narrower, and the buildings lower the further they went on. It surprised her from afar to see the illuminated market as it seemed vibrant even at that hour. She had already heard of Stara Pijaca, but she didn’t believe that you could still buy unregulated food nowadays. Since a long time ago, independent farmers got such strict product controls. So, the small agronomists stayed without their property, which they had to sell to more prominent players to rebuild the depleted land. After the national drained and toxic product crisis, the government started the urgent land revitalization. Those who couldn’t keep up got swallowed. Many saw salvation and the end of the health crisis in those measures. In contrast, the others blamed the state for gaining more control and monopoly.
“We have arrived at our destination. Two and a half thousand dinars will be charged to your account. Enjoy your evening.”
The cab left her across the market. The stalls stacked side by side in a tight line seemed to share the same tarpaulin roof when observed from the distance. The improvised tops that had protected people from the sun’s heat now rose under a gust of wind, making a sound like sails on the high seas. A long line of trash cans lined up along the fenced part of the market. It was already crowded. Boxes protruded from them, dried flowers, some liquid leaked and poured onto the sidewalk, and then on the street, creating streams of unpleasant odor. Dora skipped one. She entered among the stalls and observed the vendors. Elderly folks from the suburbs dressed in old-fashioned, modest wardrobes. Firm and callous palms of tough women feeding a family of who knows how many with their products. Dora wondered if they’re organic, but the price said otherwise. Pesticides destroyed what little free arable land was left despite struggles for bio-renewal. Old sins are hard to forget.
Some people purchased the farmer’s products off the stalls, touched them, carried them in plastic bags, while others renewed their wardrobe. Dora walked by the stalls packed with colorful clothing, where some even seemed worn out. A mother was putting a pale green sweater on her son to check if the size fitted, while the father browsed through male boxer shorts hanging on the stand’s side. Dora slowed her pace. She felt as if someone torpedoed her to another world with a different set of rules.
She knew this kind of trade hadn’t died down, but it was her first time to see it live. Her world of smart homes and refrigerators that ordered groceries based on a set meal plan never seemed further away as she observed the market’s microcosm. The anxiety and excitement mixed in her making the best emotional cocktail, the discovery of new things. Some of her clients have consumed significant amounts of half-legal substances and nanochips to trigger similar emotions. Or they’ve got lost in depths of anonymous apps with promises of adrenaline and true love. Dora felt a ping of guilt because she was doing the exact thing she had advised against, not to satisfy their desires. But she didn’t pay too much attention to it.
“Fresh apples, miss.” A woman of short stature shoved her hand with two apples in front of Dora’s face.
“Where are they from?”
“What do you mean where? My garden, of course. Smell them, fresh and sweet.”
Dora smiled as she passed by her. Not far away, a man was biting into an onion as if he were eating an apple. Baffled, she didn’t blink even when the man caught her staring. Indifferent, he just turned his gaze away and spat aside a piece he had not peeled well. The man tipped his dark gray cap and scratched his unshaven beard, which was already starting to turn gray.
A man with the crossword puzzle apps on digital papers passed by offering different crossword games in various sizes. Dora turned back once he passed her. His coarse voice gave her the chills, as did the scent of his sweat he had left behind. She came across a stand with erotic content and a young man who winked at her. Shocked, she sped her pace. But few rows further, she slowed again, realizing she had to be part of the whole if she wanted to find out where the old musician was. Dora approached a Romany with two old trumpets and an accordion that had seen many generations displayed on the rag near one of the market’s entrances.
“Good evening. Do you know Uncle Sreta?”
“An old guy who plays an unusual instrument.”
“Nope.” He didn’t even look at her.
Dora thought she should have at least informed herself about the instrument as it would be easier to explain it to people. Well, it was too late now. Dora left the market and went down the nearby street, jumping over the hacked cabbage leftovers. She passed next to a children’s toy store full of screeching noises and flashy colors. A few Chinese men moved boxes from a white van into one of the stores, so she waited to pass.
A replica art store followed, replacing the noisy toys. Landscapes were painted in more vivid colors because, apparently, the originals seemed dull. Mona Lisa’s smile turned into a flirtatious smirk. On the wall, paintings were changing on the digital frames. There was a stand near the entrance with scaled-down reproductions, in the form of postcards or mini images, as well as digital fridge magnets. Right next to the store stood a vending machine for cigarettes and drinks with an “out of order” worn-out sign glued across it. Dora took the vibrating phone and quickly went through notifications. No calls from the clients, only a few emails that she could leave for later.
A few shops away, she came across a grocery store. Dora remembered her client Ms. Karić as she stood next to the window observing the colorful products. It offered everything from cigarettes and alcohol to sweet and salty snacks she hadn’t seen in ordering apps for a while now. By looking at the packaging, she realized they were imported from nearby developing countries. The gray economy was in full bloom within these couple of hundred square meters. She entered the grocery store.
“Evening.” The saleslady was arranging bubble gums and lollypops near the cash register.
“I’m looking for an acquaintance, and I’ve heard he lives near the market.”
“What’s his name?” The saleslady looked at her.
“He’s a musician playing a very unusual instrument. People call him Uncle Sreta.”
“Oh, Unc’ Sreta, why don’t you say so.” She took a few seconds to take a good look at the woman inquiring about her neighbor. “You go straight ahead, and you’ll see the Little Shanghai restaurant. He lives somewhere around; best you ask there.”
“Thank you kindly.” Dora purchased the closest snack to repay for the information.
It took her a few minutes to get to the restaurant. She passed by the fast food and kebab kiosk. For a moment, there was a smell of the sewage, and she frowned but soon, an odor of fried fish covered it. She hurried through that stench, finally seeing the Little Shanghai sign.
“Good evening, I’m looking for Uncle Sreta, and I was told to ask for details here.”
The slant-eyed woman checked her out at first, then nodded towards the passageway next to the toilet. “Main entrance on the first floor.”
“Who did you say you were looking for?” A new female voice behind her.
“A musician, Uncle Sreta.” Dora turned around and saw the girl. Her freshly washed hair was still static from the blow-drying.
“Musician?” She smiled cheerlessly. “He was a physicist, but I suppose we were all a lot of things before we became what we are now.”
She started walking towards the passageway. “Come this way.”
“You’re his granddaughter?”
“I’m Dora. I noticed your grandfather playing on an unusual instrument.”
“The Theremin? Yes. Ever since grandma passed away, that’s the only thing keeping him together. But now, it’s bad news for him as well.”
“What do you mean?
“He had a stroke a few days ago. They brought him back home. He’s barely conscious from all the medications they put him on. And who exactly are you?”
“I’m writing an essay on street artists, and your grandfather got my attention with his instrument,” Dora repeated the lie, thinking she should actually write something on the subject.
“He’s a horrible musician.” She smiled gently.
They passed through the narrow terrace, which ran through the entire outer part of the building facing the yard. The apartment door had a decorative pattern glass. It already was unlocked, so they went in through the kitchen and dining room area.
“But he was an excellent physics professor in his heyday and loved my granny very much.”
They entered the living room. Many different items were neatly arranged in every free part of the room. The wooden showcase closest to the door had small teacups made of brass, chipped porcelain plates, and cutlery polished too many times. On the shelf next to it were several salat bowls that used to belong to different sets consumed over the years. There was a storage heater under the window, and Dora kept her eyes on it as she saw it for the first time. On top of it were a beige crochet tablecloth and several worn-out photo albums. On one side, the books leaned in a pile stacked on top of each other. They’ve merged with a bookcase that occupied half of the wall.
The books looked neatly arranged, and where few were missing stood picture frames and wooden figures of Egyptian and sub-Saharan gods, perhaps travel memorabilia. While on the other side of the heater, framed oil paintings leaned on. Dora noticed a segment of still life on one, a vase with dried flowers and a yellowish fruit next to it. In fact, the entire room looked like part of a painting, a moment that documents the flow of different time intervals and each filled with family love. Dora thought of Vela, the aunt that had raised her.
“My grandparents loved keeping things. Only when someone new comes, I realize how big of a hog pen this is.” Minja smiled.
“You grew up with them?”
The girl looked over to the shelf with the pictures. The colors and the format changed. So did the frames, but the faces were familiar even under the veil of time.
“Yes. My life was here with them.” She took the towels from the armchair and moved the cup from the wooden dresser. “Is tea okay?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Dora was fascinated with the scent and the objects, which seemed piled up in one area, but then again carefully put in another. A sense of someone else’s family history tangled mixed feelings in her repressed emotional landscapes. She saw two longcase clocks hanging on the wall. One was working and showed the correct time, while the other’s pendulum stood frozen at eleven hours and six minutes at night. Dora knew the time stopped there on purpose; she could feel the significance of the moment. It brought the memory of the number one hundred and forty-seven carved in the marble at Novo cemetery.
“What can you tell me about your grandfather’s instrument?” Dora accepted the teacup. The steam rose, dispersing a green tea with a lemony aroma.
“I think the Theremin is the only instrument that doesn’t require physical contact to produce sounds. It’s enough to move your hands near its two antennae. The hand’s distance from the vertical antenna determines the frequency, and the horizontal determines the tone’s amplitude. It’s pretty hard to produce the sounds you want; it requires a lot of practice. And I think some Russian invented it inspired by our Tesla.”
“What about the melody he played?”
“Oh, that’s Tri metera somota, granny’s favorite Starogradska song. When he started building the Theremin, she made fun of how he needs to learn to play it now. The poor guy went through quite an ordeal to make the song sound half-recognizable and surprised her with it during an anniversary. It was quite amateurish but also very touching.”
The name of the song meant something to Dora. She repeated it to herself several times and saw her mother dancing through the crack in her forgotten memory. Dora took a sip of hot tea. She saw her dancing and smiling, like in a slo-mo retrospective of an old film. Suddenly, Dora became aware of the unpleasant warmth on her tongue. She suppressed a scream.
“A lovely gesture. It must have been nice growing up with them.”
“My parents weren’t very interested in parenthood, so my mom left me to her folks. I thank her for that.”
Dora persistently stared through the crack to her mother’s face. When did the memory happen? Where did it happen? The furniture didn’t seem like the one they had in their old place. She was wearing a light color turtleneck and a long skirt; she also had makeup on her. It could have been some party.
“Interesting how different paths intertwine with our lives.” Minja looked at her mug pensively. “Just when you think you know what you can expect from life, it usually unpleasantly surprises you.”
“We fell into a daily grind, worrying about paying the bills, our career success, maybe forgetting about some people or things along the way. And then, bam, an unexpected change happens, and the flow takes an entirely different course.”
All of a sudden, Dora felt a guilt trip. In someone else’s home, while drinking hot green tea, she yearned for Vela. They haven’t heard from each other in a while. She wanted to ask how her life was abroad where she had returned; she also wanted more memories of her parents.
Something beeped. Dora and Minja looked at each other for a moment, and Minja rushed into the other room.
“Grandpa!” she cried out. “Grandpa!”
She took a mobile from her pocket and started typing a number, but the display didn’t respond. “Not now!” The battery was empty. According to an old habit, she looked at the end table where a landline phone used to be.
“Here, I’m calling the ambulance.” Dora ran in. She entered the emergency app to send their location.
“No, not the ambulance.” Minja highjacked her phone and called a number.
Dora was not sure what was happening. The old musician was lying in a hospital bed with an IV and a few other medical instruments behind him. One of them was making the sound.
“Hello, it’s happening. The device is beeping as you said it would.” Pause. “Hurry.” Minja slumped onto the chair near grandfather’s bed. She took his pale hand and caressed it. She brushed his bare forehead with a few age spots on it. His skin looked paler than what Dora had remembered. The gray mustache was neatly trimmed.
“Minja, how can I help?” she asked quietly.
The girl focused herself on caressing her grandfather.
“The paramedics will be here soon,” she said after a while.
Dora sat next to her and lowered a hand on her back. “It will be alright.” The odds didn’t look so well for the musician. But she thought of her; she will be alright after a while. She’s a strong girl. That’s what the gentle grip on Minja’s shoulder had meant.
The interval noise that made the “beep” sound every three or four seconds had mingled with Minja’s moans and rapid breathing. It didn’t take too long, and two young men in yellow-red uniforms came in and moved the grandfather onto a stretcher. Minja followed them first by holding her grandad’s hand but had to let go due to the narrow hallway. Dora came out last and closed the front door. She followed them to the restaurant’s front, where their vehicle waited. She had never seen such markings on paramedics before.
They put the stretcher in the vehicle, and Minja got in after them. After they left, Dora remained standing on the street with a few neighbors.
“Which hospital are they taking him to?” she asked the woman from the restaurant.
“To a nearby infirmary.”
Dora promptly took her phone to check the locations of the nearby hospitals. Also, she didn’t find any infirmaries. She wanted to see through the old musician’s admittance and track his condition through the app.
“That won’t work here.” It’s as if the woman had read her mind.
“What do you mean?”
“Infirmaries are not part of the official hospital system.”
“Sweetie, not everyone has the money.”
“But we all have healthcare.”
“All of us that pay taxes regularly.” The woman gave off a light smile.
“I understand.” Dora’s words got lost in the woman’s back.
She looked around, the dispersing people, the market after the working hours. The scent of fish. The screeching plastic toy store was also closing. The neighborhood got quieter with a few passers-by. Plastic bags carried by the wind stuck to small bushes that grew near the market. Stuffed trash cans reeked. The silence of this place was unsettling. Dora sent her location to a cab and stayed under the restaurant’s light until the vehicle appeared.
“Good evening, Dora. Where would you like to go tonight?” The polite voice from the speakers appeared when she placed her card.
“Destination: home.” The voice confirmed, and the pleasant music started to blur the market’s silhouettes.
Dora looked for information on infirmaries, but there wasn’t anything specific. Just some news articles without websites or locations. She tried to see if any such institutions existed on the map. No luck, even when she manually zoomed in the neighborhood.
Her phone vibrated again, and she opened it to check the missed notifications: work and ads. A few of her clients from today had called her again. She thought that one of them might be the gentleman whose company fell into the acquisition process. The woman with the locked smart fridge, some politicians, and several anonymous clients had sent her messages. Some begged to hear from her; others informed her of their progress. She started answering every question and dilemma as the streets became wider and the street lights more frequent.