Pharmaceutical Games by EC Hanlon

There was this one girl. She had rubbed Suzanne the wrong way from day one.

“My doctor called it in,” she’d insisted.

“No,” Suzanne said with emphasis. “He didn’t.”

“Yes, he did. I just spoke to him.”

“There’s nothing here for you.”

“He called it in,” the girl said again. “Check again.”

Suzanne despised being a pharmacist. She hated it all the time, but especially when she had to deal with people like this. There had been this promise, long ago, before she started pharmacy school, that the job paid really well. And it did. But not well enough.
Pawing through the bins of prescriptions again, she found that, of course, there was nothing for the girl.

“He told me he called it in. Check again. The name is Taylor Johnson. That’s T-A-Y-L…”

“I know how to spell it,” Suzanne snapped.

“Check your fax machine,” Taylor Johnson said. “Maybe he faxed it in.”

“Why didn’t you say that before?”

There it was on the fax machine. A prescription written in the usual illegible doctor scrawl, further obscured by the ink from the fax. Seroquel, 900 mgs.

Figures, thought Suzanne. Seroquel, 900 mgs. Powerful anti-psychotic, pretty high dosage.

“It will take a while,” she had told Taylor Johnson. “You’ll have to come back.”

“I need it now.”

“Well, you can’t have it right now.”

“I’ll wait.”

Crazy person, Suzanne had thought.

There was nothing about being a pharmacist that Suzanne liked. Dealing with the incompetency of the staffs at doctors’ offices and insurance companies; hostile customers, each whining over the wait, each insisting that their situation was the most pressing. And then there were the pharmacy technicians, the idiots the store hired to “help” her. They were so moronic they couldn’t even count by twos. They always counted out pills slowly by “one, two, three, four…”

“It’s faster and easier if you count by twos,” Suzanne would say to them.

“What?” These were always high school kids or women doing “mothers’ hours.”

“You go, two, four, six eight…” Suzanne would say, showing them how to move two pills at a time.

“Oh, I like to count this way,” they would say, then go back to one at a time. “One, two, three, four…”

“But that’s not efficient.”

“I don’t want to get confused.”

The store manager, Mr. Davis, called Suzanne into his office and to tell her she was putting too much pressure on the pharmacy techs.

“You’re talking to me?” Suzanne had said. “ I’m the pharmacist. I’m in the right.”

Taylor Johnson became a major pain in Suzanne’s ass. Every three days or so, she was in, often demanding some unusual drug that had to be special-ordered and sighing when she couldn’t get it right away. And her doctor never sent paper prescriptions in with her. No, that would have been way too easy. He was always phoning them in, or faxing them in.
Suzanne couldn’t determine if Taylor Johnson was actually a crazy person or just a faker. It seemed very possible that she was playing her doctor to get drugs.

The drugs, Jesus Christ, she took about fifteen prescriptions a day. Some of them were anti-seizure medications, which played against Suzanne’s theory of a drug habit. These were not the kind of pills a person took recreationally. The side effects were pretty terrible; one slip up, one milligram or two extra by mistake and Taylor Johnson would be hunched over the toilet, heaving for hours the next day. Even just the day-to-day side effects were unattractive: dizziness, forgetfulness, clumsiness. Occasionally Taylor Johnson would stumble down an aisle and knock into an endcap, sending a carefully constructed display of hair dye or Metamucil tumbling down.

“Sorry, sorry,” Taylor Johnson would say to the one of the front store employees. “Let me help.”

But she couldn’t help. She dropped things and wobbled and eventually the employee would put a hand on her arm and say that it was all right, that he understood, that he could get the endcap up quickly.

“I’m used to it,” Jose or Jimmy or Frank would say in their soft, teenaged, smitten manner.
Because in addition to everything else, Taylor Johnson was beautiful. She was beautiful in a very specific way, a certain carved from magnificent marble with great precision, perfect bone structure, Venus de Milo with arms way.

“I’m so sorry,” she would say, sometimes placing a plaster-white, delicate hand on the boy’s arm, making him quiver, before continuing down the aisle to torment Suzanne.

It was a busy Saturday morning. Suzanne was slapping a sticker on a pack of birth control pills, thinking to herself that the girl who had brought in the prescription was deluding herself, no one was going to have sex with someone that fat and ugly, when Taylor Johnson arrived at the counter. She handed over a slip of paper to the pharmacy tech.
A paper prescription from Taylor Johnson? Suzanne thought. Did hell freeze over?

“I’ll wait,” she heard Taylor Johnson say before retreating into the maze of aisles in the front of the store.

The young pharmacy tech stood still, looking at the prescription, for a long time. He looked up at Suzanne through his shaggy brown bangs, back at the slip of paper, back at Suzanne.

“What is it, Jesse?” Suzanne said, tossing the birth control pills on the counter in irritation.

“Do you have something you want to tell me? Tell me.”

Jesse paused. He was afraid of Suzanne. But he came close to confer with her.

“This girl brought in this prescription,” he said in a voice that wasn’t sure if it should be heard, and gave it to Suzanne with a shaky hand.

She snatched it from him: Valium. Ten milligram tablets. One hundred count.

I knew it, Suzanne thought with a jolt of victory. She probably endures the anti-seizures just to get the good stuff. No one gets one thousand milligrams of Valium at a time. No one but addicts. And the paper prescription when her doctor always faxes them in? She probably stole his pad and wrote the thing herself.

Suzanne strongarmed her way past Jesse, sending him tripping backward, and grabbed the microphone that would echo her voice over the store’s intercom.

“Taylor Johnson to the pharmacy. Taylor Johnson.”

She came down the feminine hygiene aisle in uneven steps, occasionally touching the shelves for balance, but somehow in her statuesque beauty managed to look graceful.

“You can’t have this much Valium,” Suzanne said in a normal tone of voice, holding up the little white slip, then slamming it to the counter.

“Can we discuss this privately?” Taylor Johnson said in a low voice, glancing side
to side at the elderly people standing around waiting for their blood pressure medication.

She waved her hand to the far end of the counter.

 

“You can’t have this much Valium,” Suzanne repeated when they were alone.

“Why not?”

“You just can’t,” Suzanne said across the counter. Only Taylor Johnson’s head was visible to Suzanne, her perfect skin and blue eyes, her strawberry blond hair hanging evenly and shiny, parted in the middle.

“Why not?”

“It’s too much.” Suzanne’s frustration grew; her muscles tightened and her teeth clenched. She hated Taylor Johnson more and more, hated her high cheekbones and her questions. I am the pharmacist, she wanted to say. What I say goes. “What do you need this much Valium for?”

“I don’t think I need to answer that,” the young beauty said, a confrontational tone creeping into her usually even voice. “That’s between my doctor and me.”

“There’s no reason for this much Valium.”

“But, it’s what my doctor prescribed.”

“No doctor would prescribe this.”

Taylor Johnson’s smooth forehead wrinkled and her eyes narrowed.

“What are you saying?” she asked.

“I think you know what I’m saying.”
“Go ahead and call Dr. Hinton.” Taylor Johnson dared her. “It’s what he prescribed.”

“Don’t think I won’t.”

“I’ll wait.”

I’ll wait. Suzanne had heard those two words from Taylor Johnson so many times it seemed to be her mantra. She was always waiting for her prescriptions and the subtext always seemed to be, I’m important enough for you to get this prescription done now. I’ll wait because you’ll take care of this right away. You need to take care of this and I’m used to be taken care of because, well, look at me. I’m gorgeous, and the world takes care of the gorgeous people first.

And it wasn’t just that. It was the Seroquel, the psychiatric drugs. Not only was she beautiful, she was crazy. And crazy people need to be dealt with right away or they might start acting nuts. You get them in and out before they start crying or yelling or making some sort of scene. They had the attitude. My medication is more important. If I don’t get it I might go on some sort of spree, something you’ll hear about on the news later and you’ll think, I could have prevented that, if only I had filled that prescription for Halcyon or Lithium or Prozac in a more timely fashion.

The crazy people were the customers Suzanne hated the most.

“Dr. Hinton?”

“Yes,” he said when the secretary finally got him on the line after twenty minutes of muzak.

“He’s with a patient,” the secretary had said. “It will be a while.”

“I’ll wait,” Suzanne had said, aware of the irony, and watched Taylor Johnson flip through a People magazine in the waiting area, still angry but not afraid, which made Suzanne less sure of the necessity of her call.

“Dr. Hinton, this is Suzanne from Conrad Pharmacy. A patient of yours, Taylor Johnson, came in just now with an unusual prescription.”

“Yes?”

“Ten milligram Valium, one hundred count.”

“Yes.”

Suzanne waited for him to say more, but got nothing but an earful of dead air.

“That’s very unusual.”

“Unusual. Not very unusual.”

“I’ve never seen a prescription for that much Valium. I wanted to verify it.”

“Consider it verified,” Dr. Hinton said with a hint of annoyance.

“Dr. Hinton, why would a patient need that much Valium?”

“That’s between my patient and me. I’m treating an illness. That’s all you have to know.”

After hanging up, Suzanne took down the tub of Valium and started counting by twos. When she got to 98, she stopped and glanced back at Taylor Johnson who looked up from her magazine with what Suzanne took to be a look of self-satisfaction. She was just sitting there with her magazine looking pretty and not at all crazy.

She has got to be playing that doctor, Suzanne thought, her index and middle fingers on the ninety-ninth and hundredth pills. There is nothing wrong with that girl.
Without really thinking about the consequences, without considering the idea that maybe Taylor Johnson was the kind of customer who would go straight home and count the number of pills in the bottle, without the thought of getting caught at all, Suzanne took her middle finger off of the hundredth pill and dropped the ninety-ninth into the bottle before capping it.

“Jesse,” she said, and the boy jumped and turned from the register towards her. She tossed him the bottle. “Ring her up.”

If she noticed the missing pill, Taylor Johnson didn’t complain. She came to the pharmacy every few days as usual, drawing stares from men and picking up one prescription or other. Suzanne figured that Taylor Johnson assumed that she had dropped a pill somewhere, or that she’d accidentally taken an extra one some night.
The thought of it filled Suzanne with a malicious glee, picturing Taylor Johnson’s lovely eyes looking into the clear brown bottle towards the end of the month and her mind coming up blank on why it wasn’t as full as it ought to be. Suzanne pictured those eyes blinking, dark lashes creating tiny disturbances in the air, maybe a shake of the head and a recount.
The Seroquel was a more ambitious game. The pills weren’t like the tiny green tabs of Valium; they were giant white things, solid capsules, “horse pills” some would call them. A missing Seroquel might be obvious. The absence of a pill that size would create a greater well in the bottle. Taylor Johnson would be able to tell that she was low on them sooner than with the Valium.

The anti-seizure meds would have been easier. Tegretols were regular white tablets, Topamax were even smaller, like pinheads. Suzanne could have easily left two, three, maybe even five Topamax out of the bottle and Taylor Johnson wouldn’t notice for weeks. But what fun was there in removing anti-seizure meds? Maybe the girl had epilepsy. That was no fun. The joke was in the psychiatric drugs.

It took about a month for Suzanne to gather the nerve to remove a Seroquel from a bottle that Lucy, one of the techs, had filled for Taylor Johnson. Lucy handed her the bottle to bag and ring up, but Suzanne pretended to see a mistake on the label and backed into one of the aisles that were lined with giant plastic bottles of every medication known to man. Her hands were steady as she unscrewed the top, but started to shake as she poked a finger in to grab one of the pills. In a smooth and rapid movement she dropped the pill into her pocket and turned back to the register.

“There was no mistake,” Suzanne said as she emerged from the aisle. “I was wrong.”

Lucy nodded and looked at the bottle in Suzanne’s hand, then moved to the far end of the pharmacy, glancing back over her shoulder. The defeated look in Lucy’s eyes had said she’d been ready to take the abuse for the mistake, but now she was just confused. Suzanne was admitting to being wrong?

“Thank you.” Taylor Johnson’s words were chilly and clipped, having become hostile since Suzanne’s accusal of forgery. Suzanne didn’t care. Suzanne had always hated Taylor Johnson.

She was laughing inside as the girl walked away one Seroquel short.

Suzanne was enjoying her game, maybe a little too much. But there were few things in life that gave her pleasure. She had nothing but this pharmacy, nothing but her position as “boss.” Having found something that was fun, she was clinging to it; she widened the scope of her game, let it seep into other customers’ prescriptions. One less Zoloft here, two less Ativan there. She considered the fun of replacing some pills with a placebo. That was worth looking into. She would have to check for something that matched the size and construct of an aspirin. Her only rule was that she only played with the psychotropic drugs. She wasn’t going to screw around with heart medications or anything important like that.
The central figure for Suzanne was always Taylor Johnson. The others were playthings to occupy her time on the days Taylor Johnson didn’t come in. Some of the customers did turn out to be the kind to count pills, and they came in, angry, demanding satisfaction. Suzanne had no patience for it. It wasn’t that important for them to play the game. She would have one of the techs calm them down.

“Candace,” she said to the cheerleader-type teenager who worked weekends. Candace was good with the customers, Candace with her fresh-faced good-heartedness. “Deal with this. Give her whatever pills she says were missing.”

“Another one?” the tech said before she could catch herself. Suzanne gave her a lethal look and Candace spun around to make cooing sounds at the customer, patting a hand and counting out three Xanax.

Suzanne made mental notes on who not to play with again, tried to keep track on a database in her mind. Mary Becker counted, but Doug Bradley didn’t notice four missing Klonopin until refill time. It was time to up the ante with Sarah Hart, pull one more Moban from her bottle and see what happened. But she couldn’t mess around with Diane Whitmore or Edna James; they were counters.

Taylor Johnson never counted pills, even as they dwindled. Suzanne gradually gave her fewer and fewer pills. Three fewer Valium, two fewer Seroquel. Five fewer Valium, four fewer Seroquel.

And then Taylor Johnson came in one day and she was slightly less beautiful than usual. Her shiny straight hair was neither shiny nor straight. It was not parted in the middle, or rather, it was parted badly, crookedly. The space between her less-sparkly-than-usual eyes and her well-carved cheekbones was tinged a little with purple. She handed an empty bottle across the counter to Suzanne, saying, “I’d like to refill this.”

Suzanne looked at the date on the label.

“You can’t refill this,” it gave her great delight to say. She tried to hand the bottle back, but Taylor Johnson wouldn’t take it. “You can’t refill it until the twentieth. This is only the fourteenth.”

“But it ran out early,” Taylor Johnson was saying with a strain in her voice. “I can’t understand why.”

“You must have taken too many one night.”

“I didn’t,” she stressed. “I know I didn’t. There weren’t as many pills as there should have been.”

“Our staff is very good,” Suzanne said. “They don’t make mistakes.”

Candace looked up from the computer to glance at Jesse, who returned the look. Did you hear what I heard, the look said. Did Suzanne just call us good? Suzanne pretended not to notice the exchange.

“Please. Can you fill it early?”

“The rules are very strict. Especially when it comes to controlled substances. You’ll have to wait until the twentieth.”

Suzanne dropped the empty bottle and it hit the counter and rolled towards the floor so that Taylor Johnson had to stoop to pick it up. With a little smile, Suzanne turned her back to her.

“Get back to work,” Suzanne told the two techs who had been watching without realizing it.
Within the hour, a call came from Dr. Hinton, ordering the pharmacy to refill the prescription early. Suzanne hung up the phone in disappointment, and to cheer herself up, gave Taylor Johnson even less Valium than usual, bringing the stolen few into the employee bathroom with her and tucking them into her pants pocket to be ground up in the garbage disposal when she got home.

Every time Taylor Johnson came into the pharmacy, she looked a little worse. Her hair got frizzy and dark at the roots; her perfect skin turned out not to be so perfect when she wasn’t wearing make-up. No longer was she wearing her stylish, close-fit clothes; no longer was she drawing stares. Suzanne was thrilled.

“I’d like this refilled,” she would say.

“You’ll have to wait,” Suzanne would tell her.

The calls from Dr. Hinton stopped. He must be thinking that Taylor Johnson was misusing her medication. It had been smart of Suzanne to only attack the attractive medication, she thought. It hadn’t been her intention, but it made Taylor Johnson look bad. It made her look like a drug addict. Her own doctor seemed to be turning against her.

There was the fringe benefit of the other customers’ slow decline, too, but Suzanne did not react to them with the same vigor. Doug Bradley hadn’t been sleeping without all of his Klonopin; that was evident in his zombie-like stumble and his muttered, vague complaints. Sarah Hart had actually told one of the techs (Suzanne had overheard the whispers) that she thought she might be going crazy, having a psychotic break, maybe.

“I don’t know where the pills are going,” Sarah Hart confided to Candace, whose sweetness invited such confessions. “I’m afraid that I’m doing something with them that I can’t remember.”

That was kind of fun, a kind of win.

“I’d like this refilled,” Taylor Johnson said, handing over her empty Valium bottle, and Suzanne was disappointed to see that she could, indeed, have it refilled.

It didn’t matter too much, though, because Taylor Johnson was standing there looking exactly the way Suzanne wanted her to look: dirty hair, hollow space under her eyes that was a deep gray, a thinness that bordered on the anorexic. She was in sweatpants and a huge sweater that looked like it must have belonged to her father or boyfriend, sagging to her knees. And she was crying. Taylor Johnson was reduced to tears. She wasn’t sobbing or heaving, she just had watery eyes that spilled over, her cheeks wet and slippery. Once in a while she would run a hand across her face, but mainly she just sat and let the tears flow all the way down her neck. The collar of her sweater was wet. And she was shivering.
“Taylor Johnson,” Suzanne said, holding up the little paper bag, and the skinny, quivering girl exchanged her co-pay for the eighty-eight pills Suzanne had put in the bottle. It was her most daring feat yet. Eighty-eight out of a hundred. She’d been so excited by the sight of Taylor Johnson defeated and down and out that she’d made a leap. Last time, Suzanne had given her ninety-two. Eighty-eight was pushing it.

Taylor Johnson shuffled out of the store to Suzanne’s delight.

For seven days, Suzanne didn’t see Taylor Johnson. Maybe she was coming in when Suzanne was on her days off; maybe she was going to another pharmacy. Maybe she had killed herself. The thought didn’t create so much of a sense of guilt in Suzanne as a feeling of disappointment. The game could not continue without Taylor Johnson’s participation. Were she at another pharmacy or dead, Suzanne would have to shift her focus on to someone new. No one else ignited hatred in her nearly as much as Taylor Johnson did, but she could work on finding someone. She conjured up image after image of psychiatric patients, but they all seemed dull in comparison.

Then there she was, Taylor Johnson, looking not like her old self, but not like her new self either. Her hair was clean and brushed, but she was still as skinny as a straw. A belt that was pulled tight beyond its capacity cinched her jeans at the middle. Her face was still pasty and shadowed but her eyes were alive. They were gleaming.

And she was not alone.

Walking with her with his hand on her back was a middle-aged man with wire-framed glasses and brown hair that touched his collar. He was wearing a shirt and tie but no jacket, and had three pens in his breast pocket. Suzanne knew the likes of him. She could tell right away: this was a doctor. This was Dr. Hinton.

Dr. Hinton took his hand away from Taylor Johnson and walked directly up to the counter.

“I’d like to see your supervisor,” he said to Suzanne.

“I’m the pharmacist,” she said, crossing her arms. Did he take her for a tech?

“Does that mean you have no supervisor?” the doctor asked, harshness written on his face. He wasn’t interested in Suzanne. “Do you have a store manager?”
With reluctance, Suzanne retrieved Mr. Davis, who took both Dr. Hinton and his patient aside. Suzanne watched as the doctor spoke to Mr. Davis, as the psychiatrist took out several prescription bottles from a briefcase, pointed to the labels, pointed to Taylor Johnson. She could hear only scraps of what was being said, the low grumble of Dr. Hinton, the familiar tone of her own boss, a breathy version of Taylor Johnson’s alto.
“…had her in the hospital for a week trying to get her medication regulated…”
“…must have been a mistake. Our pharmacy staff wouldn’t…”
“…it came up short, when I counted, there were only eighty-eight…”

Dr. Hinton pointed to the label of a final bottle, then spilled the contents into the manager’s hand. Suzanne’s boss began counting the green pills, moving them from one hand to the other.

Suzanne turned away. This was nothing. One crazy customer. Davis would assume that she was an addict who was using her doctor, just as Suzanne had initially, and nothing would come of it.

The three techs were gathered at the far end of the pharmacy, watching the little meeting around the corner, straining to hear.

“Get back to work!” Suzanne shouted at them.

The three of them looked at her, then at each other, back at her, over to where Mr. Davis was conferring with Dr. Hinton.

“Are you deaf? Jesse. Candace. Lucy. Back to work.”

But they didn’t go back to work. They continued watching Taylor Johnson for a couple of minutes, then Lucy, the forty-year-old mother of three said, “I’m going over.” She opened the gate that separated the pharmacy from the store and slipped out from behind the counter.

“Lucy,” Davis said as the woman approached. “Do you know how this…”

“…this wasn’t the first time,” Taylor Johnson was saying, and Lucy nodded.
Jesse and Candace looked at each other, stole a sideways glance at Suzanne, and hurried after Lucy.

Suzanne pretended to be working on the computer but situated herself so that she could watch the growing meeting. Candace spoke, Jesse nodded. Lucy spoke, touched Taylor Johnson’s arm. Mr. Davis shook his head.

Suzanne looked back at the monitor. Davis was on her side. She was the pharmacist after all; who would believe these three idiots who had it in for her anyway? They’d always hated her, always thought she was too strict. She typed in the name of a new customer, then looked back at the group and saw all six heads turned to her.

Automatically, Suzanne’s hand went into the pocket of her white coat and fingered the mélange of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that she’d collected out of the bottles that day. She took two steps in the direction of the employee rest room, and as she did, the group moved as a single unit towards her. Scuttling backwards, she picked up speed. She got to the bathroom and turned the lock before she could be confronted. The pills spilled onto the linoleum when she tried to retrieve them and she dropped to her knees painfully, heart racing, to pick them up one by one.

She was flushing when the knock came on the door. Flushing and flushing and flushing in a panic, damning the unmovable pills as they floated to the bottom of the porcelain well, not disintegrating, just sitting there, sitting there like some irrefutable DNA evidence, evidence that would take her down.

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About the Author

EC Hanlon lives, works and writes in Salem, MA with her husband, fellow writer Nathanial W. Cook, and her twin boys. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, and her work, fiction and creative non-fiction, can be seen in such journals as The First Line, Two Cities Review, and The Leopard Seal, among others. When she’s not writing, Ms. Hanlon has a day job working with international students at Salem State University, which gives her a unique perspective on the world.