The Zeitgeist of Big Pharma

Submitted into Contest #183 in response to: Write a story that includes the line “We’re just too different.”... view prompt


Drama Crime Fiction

Lollie was terrified of men starting with the OB/GYN who delivered her. Calathea was co-dependent, always needing a friend to do just about anything, even going to the bathroom. Butters, nicknamed after the South Park character, had just escaped an abusive relationship. Beau was on the autism spectrum and had ADHD. Evie had a brain tumor that caused her to have seizures. Estelle was terminally ill with a rare form of cancer. Tony was so overweight that he couldn't even get gastric bypass surgery until he lost a hundred pounds. Helen, also known as Queenie, only had one eye and six digits on her hands and feet. She was the oldest of the group, having outlived much of her family and friends. Penelope suffered from not one but two debilitating autoimmune disorders. And Samuel had a pacemaker since he was five years old due to a congenital disability. He was so small that if it weren't for his bald head and liver spots, he would pass as a pre-pubescent boy. What did these ten people have in common? Aside from their various health challenges? Nothing. They were all total opposites of each other. How they all met? Now that's a story worth telling.

Levi worked in pharmaceutical sales until he decided one day that it seemed like his company kept making up diseases and illnesses to sell more drugs. He wondered if the various shapes and sizes of the sometimes absurdly named pills were all the same substance. Probably sugar. Or CDB. That stuff was in everything these days. Meeting Queenie in a local tavern, he confessed his suspicion over several Old Fashions. In return for his revelation, Queenie vowed to stop taking all her medicines and encouraged Levi to quit his job.

"It is my duty," she proclaimed with authority, "to not be a victim of consumerism. And to not let you inadvertently be its kingpin." So, they made a pact, and both gave up their vices. Queenie renounced her regimen of the countless supplements and maintenance drugs like statins and blood pressure meds she had taken for the last 30 years. And Levi left his high-paying six-figure salary.

It was a beautiful night in late September when the two ate dinner at a local bistro. The restaurant overlooked the river that led past downtown. The sun was setting. Its reflection glittered off the river and onto the city lights below. A soft breeze ruffled Levi's black hair as it blew by. It felt cool against his skin. He leaned back comfortably, enjoying the view. Queenie smiled at him, enjoying her soup. Her blue eye sparkled along with the bedazzled patch she wore over the other. She had such soft curly auburn hair that she could be mistaken for a middle-aged woman if not for her drooping jowls and crepey, sagging skin.

"You look happy tonight," she commented.

He chuckled. "I swear you can read my mind. I was just thinking, I can't remember being this happy in adulthood."

"You deserve that," Queenie agreed, reaching across the table to take Levi's hand. He looked down, always a little startled by her extra digit. She squeezed his hand tightly. It wasn't an aggressive move, more a protective one. Like she was worried if she didn't hold him securely enough, he might slip away, and she'd be alone again. He smiled, letting go of her hand to play with his fork.

"Tell me how you are 92 years old, Queenie," Levi sighed. "My mother is in her late sixties and could pass as your older sister!"

"Her lips quirked in a simper as she playfully slapped at the hand she just held. "Be nice. She raised you, after all," she laughed. Levi hadn't asked her anything about herself before. Getting personal was usually the part that got people nervous. But she was a master at deflection. "I told an acquaintance about you and your thoughts on pharmaceuticals. You know, at my age, we doubt every new thing. Change is hard. Yet I remember when getting regular vaccines to irradicate diseases like polio and smallpox were introduced. Then the discovery of DNA and successful organ transplants blew everyone's mind. The list goes on, and here I sit, still riding the tide of each zeitgeist. So, taking a leap of faith that these new drugs might be nothing more than a placebo is big. My acquaintance seemed to think you were onto something, too. Watching the nightly news, we are inundated with commercial after commercial for some new pill to treat conditions no one's ever heard of. Why do we seem to be getting sicker with all the knowledge we have at our fingertips?"

"Because there is no profit in cures," Levi replied, dropping his fork and taking a long pull off his drink.

"Have you ever thought about being a whistle-blower or doing a podcast on your thoughts? Podcasts are all the rage. Look at that Joe Rogan guy. He went from comedian to TV host to Podcaster, doling out medical advice to millions of followers. You could do the same," Queenie suggested.

"And talk about what exactly? How the free-market enterprise has warped our sense of self? That the "me" economy filled with materialism and excess will be the downfall of our society? That's like a single episode. One and done," Levi signaled the waiter for a refill. "I'll need to do something soon, though. Sitting on my hands will make me antsy. Idleness and the devil's work, you know."

Podcasting. Everyone had a podcast these days. And the only qualifications any of them had were time and money. Oh, and lots of uneducated opinions. Levi ran through all these thoughts in the time it took for the waiter to bring his refill.

"You could interview guests each week. Someone who was harmed by their dependence on pills. Or who discovered that they were better off without a prescription. Hell, you can start with me!" Queenie beamed.

Swirling the liquid in his glass, he mulled over his options as he watched the sun descend over the horizon and the lights of the skyscrapers flicker to life, floor by floor. "I know some doctors and researchers who might want to talk about this stuff. And if they don't, they will know someone who does. How hard could recording conversations be?"

"I don't think the content will be a problem. Finding an audience might take a bit of work. I'll start with my building. See what word of mouth does. Only fire and COVID seem to spread faster than gossip these days. I'll spin it to make it sound scandalous," she said, raising her glass in a toast.

Levi grinned with genuine admiration at Queenie. "Have you ever considered that we're just too different to be so close?"

"Never. Age is just a number. Besides, it's not like we are screwing!" she cackled.

Her joy warmed Levi's insides, creating a sense of warmth in his solar plexus. He tried to reason it was the alcohol, but he knew it was Queenie and her faith in their shared ideology. "If you were thirty years younger, Queenie, I would make you mine."

"I've already made you mine, and you didn't even notice. That's what age does for you," Queenie countered, blowing him a flirty kiss.

Several months passed with Levi and Queenie working hard on their Podcast, The Cost of A Cure, or CAC for short. It ranked in the top 100 new podcasts after its first month and only grew from there. Of course, they'd been hit with threats of lawsuits, but the First Amendment helped tremendously. The dynamic duo even had a fan club with members from all over the world.

"We get so many people writing into the show that we should start sharing some of their stories," Queenie suggested. "Maybe we can produce minisodes, spending thirty minutes highlighting a couple of their stories once a week. If they'd shared it with us, we shouldn't worry about disclosures and confidentiality."

"We could always get their permission ahead of time, of course," he countered, talking through the idea. "We're going to need a bigger staff. Your bedroom closet isn't cutting it anymore," Levi laughed. "But I love the idea of getting some real people's stories out there. It makes our mission seem less conspiratorial, less Q Anon, if there are virtual faces to our claims."

And that's where Lollie, Calathea, Butters, Beau, Evie, Estelle, Penelope, Tony, and Samuel came in. They were each featured in a short segment sharing their experiences with pharmaceuticals and how they felt it changed their lives for the worse. They were the only ones featured in the now infamous Podcast because shortly after the last episode aired, Queenie passed away peacefully in her sleep.

Levi was so distraught. He couldn't bring himself to even think about CAC. His team attempted to bring on temporary hosts, including Samuel, who lived on the same floor as Queenie, just two doors down, but the vibe wasn't the same without her. Finally, Levi decided his message was too important, and he rallied, doubling down on his theory that these mega-corporations were the actual top killers of the population. Not heart disease, obesity, or cancer. And he didn't stop there. He labeled the healthcare industry the largest profitable industry in the United States, looping in every other sector as complacent. Each major business segment, from Tech to Retail, had a hand in the healthcare money machine. That one episode had him on the map.

Levi's face was splashed on the cover of nearly every magazine, and he was a guest on all the popular news segments and talk shows. But he was also now the face of a great movement not just in the US but across the globe. And just like the leaders of the migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath, if you are perceived to be the talking head of an uprising, you are now the target of powerful people who will do whatever it takes to shut you up.

"If this is not a cult, I don't know what is," said one pundit.

"He's got his messaging all wrong. Our advancements in science are driving more discoveries. And with more discoveries comes more customizable treatments and, yes, even cures," said a well-known scientist on one of the same talk shows Levi had starred on.

The fat cats of big pharma tried with all their savvy to discredit poor Levi. And when that didn't work, things took a much darker turn.

"It had to have been them," Lollie sobbed, clutching Calathea's hand. "Certainly, they'd make it look like an accident, a mugging gone wrong. It's a better narrative than 'we had him killed because he wouldn't shut up.' But that's the flaw in their thinking," she continued, speaking from an undisclosed location for their protection.

"It's going to look very suspicious when we all start dying," Calathea inserted. "We are not giving up this fight. They've inspired us to take up the mantle and continue Levi's messaging. Big. Pharma. Kills. Not. Cures!" she shouted, pumping her fist in the air with each word.

"Levi brought all of us together," Beau stated in a new episode of CAC. "Penelope and I were complete opposites, even living on different continents. But when I heard her story read by Queenie, I knew I had to meet her. It was the first time I hadn't felt anxious about getting to know a stranger in about fifteen years. No drug was responsible for that. Levi and this Podcast was."

Tony was a techie and offered his services to the Cure-rator team, the nickname for the Podcast crew. Levi's demise inspired him to take action, gave him purpose, and through that, he naturally began to lose weight. He also credited CAC for finding the love of his life, Samuel. "I know we look like Mutt and Jeff. We are physically so different, and if we'd spotted each other passing on the street, we probably wouldn't have given a thought to the other. But bonding over our shared stories of being wronged by these conglomerates of hell, of losing Queenie and Levi, we found that opposites do attract. And really, we all do have something in common. We are human beings having a shared experience on this crazy planet called Earth!"

"Having a finite amount of time, as determined by your doctor, opens your mind to possibilities," Estelle explained on her own Podcast, Your Life Ends Here. "I've tried a number of treatments and programs, prescription pills and supplements; I've done things that would make the crudest of you blush, all in the name of avoiding my expiration date. What Levi taught me was to live! Part of being sick is in that mental space of having this invisible thing that makes you different from your healthy peers. The attachment to the disease, affliction, or condition you've been told you have is more of what makes you ill than the thing itself. Thus, the term dis-ease. What if your condition had never been discovered? Would your life be different? In my case, no. My cancer manifested in a way that I knew something was wrong before I received my grim diagnosis. But I might not have wasted so much money on useless remedies. Experiences, travel, taking risks… that's what life could be if we set aside our obsession with aches, pains, looks, and material possessions."

"You would have never tried being in a throuple," Evie added in the background.

"That's true," whispered Butters. "You would have never known love the way we love you."

And these ten people may have lived longer, more fulfilling lives, too, if it weren't for their connection and belief in Levi and Queenie's rhetoric. On the first anniversary of Levi's death, they chartered a Mercedes Sprinter van to take them on a speaking tour across the US. Their shows, to be held in large theatres in all the major cities, sold out in record time and were considered the event of the year. However, none were ever performed.

After leaving a roadside diner around lunchtime on a cloudless, sunny day, their southbound bus veered into the opposite side of a six-lane highway, colliding with no less than three semi-trucks and multiple passenger vehicles. It came to rest upside down in a ditch, bursting into flames. Everyone inside the Sprinter, including the driver, was killed. No cause could be determined. Thus, ending CAC and all its related movements. What a strange coincidence.

February 03, 2023 14:43

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Jack Kimball
22:28 Feb 05, 2023

Hi Kt. What I like best is your writing. It flows along. No re-reads needed. And that’s not easy so congrats on that, which is talent, which you have. I agree with the message but, in my view, the story could have been more of a micro-story. I would have liked to see a conversation, fact based debate even, with a pharma exec. maybe so I could ‘see’ it taking place. Like the scene at dinner. Best. Jack


KT George
13:45 Feb 06, 2023

Thank you very much, Jack! I am honored by your compliment. I actually had a whole other version where I had Levi and an exec run into each other at the restaurant, but I decided to go this other direction. Maybe another prompt will come up where I can use that! Thanks again.


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Wendy Kaminski
15:20 Feb 04, 2023

It was definitely "them!" Kt, this was like a made-for-TV story, and I found it so fascinating. The podcast premise has real promise (loved the "Cure-rator" moniker :). This story felt so real, and I think it sentiment is shared by many ... the takeaway really sells it, though: get out there and live! A couple of other favorite lines: - Probably sugar. Or CDB. That stuff was in everything these days. -"Because there is no profit in cures," I see we are Mystery Twins this week - couldn't have chosen a better co-conspirator! :)


KT George
15:56 Feb 04, 2023

Thanks, Wendy. I love having a co-conspirator! :) *runs off to drink CDB-infused coffee*


Wendy Kaminski
16:01 Feb 04, 2023

hehehe :)


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