By C.J. Adrien.
His phone pinged him from the bedside table before dawn. He reached for it from under his covers and tilted the screen toward his eyes. A notification presented itself on the screen from his social media account.
“You have reached a milestone,” it read.
He oriented the screen so its light illuminated his face and allowed the camera to scan him. The tiny lock symbol at the top of the screen opened and allowed him to touch the notification. An app opened, and at the bottom, he saw thirty-six new notifications waiting for him. With his finger, he pressed the heart-shaped notifications button and read the list. His eyes gravitated toward the top, and he smiled.
“You have reached 1 million followers,” it read.
Finally, he thought, he had reached his long-awaited milestone, and he had worked hard for it. He scrolled through the other notifications and read some of the comments. Most complimented his physique, some asked for advice on how to build abs and big biceps, and a few haters said things he chose to ignore. Once he read through them, he selected his own profile to look at the other pictures he had posted that week.
“Damn, you look yummy,” a comment read under another picture.
“Yea, duh,” he mumbled to himself.
He selected the commenter’s profile and scrolled through her pictures. She looked like so many other followers of his profile: impeccably made up, staged poses, and an impeccably manicured profile to make her look as good as possible. One picture betrayed her. It was a candid shot of her with her dog at the beach. She wore khaki shorts and a thin green tank-top.
“Another fatty,” he said to himself.
When he spoke, he felt a hand run down his back.
“What are you doing?” the woman in his bed asked him.
“Working,” he replied dryly.
He could not remember her name. The previous night was a blur. Five shots of vodka had turned to ten, and the party had spun out of control. It was damage control time. Anyone at the party could have taken pictures, and he needed to make sure they would not get posted and tagged. His followers believed he lived a healthy and fit lifestyle, dedicated to crafting the perfect body. An out-of-control party could work against him. He was a paid social media celebrity now, and he had to manage his image accordingly. As he scrolled through another girl’s profile, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach.
Rather than try to sleep some more, he stood out of bed and opened the curtains. The cityscape shined as brightly as it had when he had crawled into bed. Vegas never sleeps. He looked at his watch to read the time, and he saw he had at least six more hours before the expo. A stale, sour taste filled his mouth, and his throat felt dry and sore. The girl in the bed moaned and rolled over away from light. He tiptoed to the bathroom and locked the door. With his phone in his hand, he looked into the mirror and admired what he saw. His abs looked more defined than usual, and the separation between the muscles in his arms, shoulders, and chest looked deeper than they had earlier in the week. The vodka he had drunk had dehydrated him and drawn out the subcutaneous layer of water that made his muscles look flat.
He raised his phone to snap a picture. The light in the bathroom was not ideal, but he knew how to angle himself to take a killer selfie. To make his sponsors happy, and to make a quick couple thousand dollars, he held a bottle of a branded green tea extract fat burner in the frame. His camera phone made a shutter sound as it captured his image. He looked down and tweaked the photo with various filters until his body was a Greek marble statue. When he felt he had done all he could to improve the image, he hit the share button. Almost immediately, his followers began to like and comment on the picture.
“Looking RIPPED bruh,” one comment read.
“Ooh la la,” said another.
Nothing rivaled the immediate satisfaction of others praising his looks. It made him feel wanted, loved. His father had put him down his whole childhood, telling him he would never amount to anything, that he was lazy, that he was spoiled. His mother never praised him, either. She always had some remark to say he wasn’t perfect enough. It annoyed him that she spent so much time talking about her friend’s children who were picture-perfect from birth, and lived a seemingly perfect life in their white-suburban bubble of carefully constructed bullshit. No matter what he did, it was never good enough; he could never be as perfect as them. It did not help that he had a weight problem in his teens, and his mother had never been shy to point it out. Now he had the body every other guy envied and every woman wanted on her man. His phone pinged with more notifications. When he read the first one, he paused on it and re-read it.
“Is that the filter, or is he looking a bit yellow?” the comment said.
A reply under the comment said, “I see it, too. I would guess it’s the filter.”
He looked at the picture again. The filter he had used tinted the image bluer, and his skin did still look oddly yellow. Looking in the mirror a little more closely, he stared into his own eyes. Dark circles had formed underneath the lower lid, and the whites seemed oddly yellow. When he pulled down his eyelid, he found a thin layer of yellow goop at the bottom of his eye. Panicked, he opened the bathroom door and called for the girl in his bed.
“Yo!” he called out. He still did not remember her name. “Yo, I need you real quick.”
He heard her shuffle around on the bed. Her feet thumped on the floor in the quiet room. She stepped into the bathroom’s doorframe and pulled back her hair. He recognized her face. She was one of the other social media fitness stars in Vegas for the expo Her name was Narcissa. Unlike the manicured profiles of most girls on social media, she had the goods to back it up. She had a thin waist, augmented breasts, and muscular legs that could crush a watermelon; she was even more attractive in person than on her profile.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Do I look yellow to you?” he asked her.
She looked closely at his eyes and said, “Damn, babe. Something’s not right.”
“Yellow?” he asked wide-eyed.
Before she could answer, he felt a thrush of a fluid rise in his chest. He leaned over the toilet and expelled everything he had eaten in the past day.
“Hey, Alex,” Narcissa said calmly. She ran her hand across his back to comfort him. “Let me take you to the hospital.”
Alex agreed. They dressed quickly and took the elevator to the lobby. When the elevator doors opened, they heard the bustle of the casino. To Alex’s surprise, the casino was as busy and as loud at 6am as it had been at 9pm the previous night. The two walked arm in arm through the crowd toward the lobby, and Narcissa called a ride share from her phone. As they waited, the sharp pain in Alex’s stomach worsened. He curled over and tried to take the fetal position, but Narcissa held him up.
Arrived at the hospital, Alex gave his insurance card to the intake nurse and explained his symptoms: sudden pain in his abdomen, yellowing of the skin and eyes, vomiting, and nausea. The nurse took one look at him and sent him straight to triage.
“Are you family?” the triage nurse asked Narcissa.
“No, just a friend,” she said.
“She can come with,” Alex said.
The nurse asked a long list of questions, took Alex’s temperature and blood pressure, and made notes on her computer. When she finished, she sent them back to the waiting room. Few people were there. A homeless man sat quietly in a wheelchair in the back, facing the TV. A mother and her young son sniffled and coughed together across from them. Not long after they sat, a nurse called Alex’s name.
Alex and Narcissa followed the nurse to an ER bed separated from the others by pristine white curtains. The nurse asked Alex to undress and put on a gown, and Narcissa stepped outside the curtains while he changed. He heard a nurse ask her her relation to him, and she stated they were friends attending the fitness expo. The nurse stepped through the curtain and hooked him up to a variety of medical equipment to measure his vital signs. She also put in an IV drip and drew blood, all of which made Alex concerned for his wellbeing.
“I’m sure you’re fine,” Narcissa said.
An hour passed without another visit from a nurse. The IV helped to relieve the pain in his stomach, but not the tremble in his fingers. Finally, a doctor in a white lab coat and a stethoscope around his neck stepped through the curtain. He wore a fresh pair of black Nike shoes, and he held a clipboard in his hand with printouts of several charts. Narcissa stepped aside as he pulled up a rolling stool to sit near Alex.
“Hey buddy,” he said. “I’m doctor Luebke.”
“Hi,” Alex said back.
He looked at his chart and said, “It says here you are…twenty-three?”
“Yeah,” Alex said.
“In college?” he asked.
“No. I, uh, I work in the fitness industry. I have a million followers on social media,” Alex explained.
“Oh, so you’re here for the expo?” the doctor asked. He apparently followed the fitness expo in some way.
“Yeah, with my sponsors,” Alex replied.
He gave Alex a kind smile and looked back at his chart when he said, “Look, Alex, I got some numbers back from your bloodwork, and I need to ask you a few questions about your lifestyle. Do you smoke?”
“No,” Alex stated.
“Do you drink?” he asked.
“Yes, we drank last night,” Alex admitted.
“How much?” the doctor asked.
“Uh, too much, I guess. Six, maybe eight shots,” Alex said. He knew the doctor could tell he was admitting to less than what he had actually drunk.
“Do you take supplements?” the doctor asked.
“Yeah,” Alex replied.
“What do you take?” he asked.
Alex listed them all: protein powders, amino acids, creatine, green tea extracts to burn fat, energy drinks; you name it, Alex took it to improve his looks and his performance. He was a big believer in supplementation.
“Do you take steroids?” the doctor continued.
Alex hesitated. He knew he had to tell the truth and said, “Yea, I take a stack.”
The doctor noted everything on his clipboard. He slipped the pen back into his coat pocket, put the clipboard in a holder at the end of the bed, and crossed his arms. As he thought about what to say and how to say it, he bit into his lip and frowned.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this, Alex. You have acute liver failure,” the doctor said.
The news came as a complete shock. “But, I’m only twenty-three!” Alex exclaimed. “There are tons of other guys doing what I do, and they have nothing!”
“Yeah,” the doctor said as he inhaled. “This type of liver injury usually takes longer to present, but I’ve got to say, Alex, you’ve done a number on yourself with the fat burners, the steroids, and then drinking on top of it all. All of these things that you are putting into your body are risk factors that increase your likelihood of disease, and everyone is different as to how and when those diseases show up. In your case—and we can’t say for sure why—your organs failed.”
“So, how do we fix it?” Narcissa asked. She had tears in her eyes, even though she and Alex hardly knew each other.
“In this case, we’ll need to put you on a liver transplant list,” Doctor Luebke said. “But your kidney numbers came back really high as well, so it may disqualify you. I’ll need to have a conversation with the clinical team.”
The doctor excused himself and left Alex in his bed with Narcissa at his side. Alex did not know why she was still there, but he was happy to have her. None of his friends from high school or college ever talked to him anymore. His only social circle was the people he met and interacted with online. He picked up his phone and called his mother. It rang several times with no answer. Finally, the voicemail message played.
“Hey mom, it’s me. I’m in Vegas at the expo. Um, I’m trouble,” Alex said with a quiver in his voice. “The doctors are telling me that I have liver failure, and I may need a transplant. Call me back, please?”
Alex cried as he ended the call. Narcissa caressed his hair to comfort him. Suddenly, he felt a strange sensation in his head. The room spun around him, he heard a ringing in his ears, and the lights grew intolerably bright. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, half a dozen hospital workers stood over him. They had moved him from the ER to a different room in the hospital. He could not speak, and he felt a tube running down his throat. He overheard a doctor talking to someone on the room:
“He has multiple organ failure of the liver and kidneys and associated cerebral edema. He’s been in a coma for two days now, and we don’t know when he will wake up, if ever.”
Alex felt a familiar presence look over him. It was his father. He cried and wiped the tears with a plaid handkerchief. Slowly, he put his hand on Alex’s arm and squeezed.
“What have you done to yourself, son?” Alex’s father asked agonizingly. “What have you done?”