Part 1: A bump in the night
It was a dark and stormy night—the cool October breeze giving way to bleary November gusts—and Dr. Elvira was burning the midnight oil at the county morgue. A brilliant young doctor, she had always been drawn to the darker side of life: as a little girl, she collected beetles, pinning them to boards as they expired; a 90s girl, her teen years were marked by Doc Martens, chokers, and an endless supply of black hair dye. When she went to college, she acquiesced to parental pressures to pursue medical school, but she always countered that she’d rather serve the dead than the living. She, naturally, made necrology (term?) her specialty and quickly found herself a position in a small New England enclave as the local coroner. But the proudest day of her young life was when she spotted a vintage lavender Cadillac hearse crumbling, shoved in the corner to rot at a local used car dealership: it was meant to be hers.
Dr. Elvira dove into her work with a quiet passion. Some found her cat-eye makeup and beehived hair an oddity—the dead don’t care how their caretaker looks, after all—but they were impressed by her knowledge, deference, and verve: she was a breath of fresh air after the last guy, just barely more active than his patients. She was a night owl. She preferred her stuffy morgue under the flicker of aging exam lamps to the harsh glow of sunlight and the pink Caddy could often be seen parked out front well past the “witching hour.”
On this particularly tempestuous night, a local psychiatrist lay on her bench. He had been an odd fellow with an odd name, she was told, but she didn’t care: he was an excellent listener—in fact, all of her patients were. As usual, she went about her work with quiet resolve, occasionally asking the probing question: rather a one-sided dialogue. Perfectly proportioned counterpoint drolled on in the background—she always listened to J.S. Bach while she was working, she felt it kept her alert, sharp. She rolled up her sleeves, readying herself to extract the man’s liver. Just before plunging into his midriff, she was alarmed by a sudden ping from her cell phone. What could that be, she pondered. The device was usually silent as the grave while she was at work: no one dared defy the sanctity of her office.
She removed her glove with a snap, snatching up her mobile in a flash of impatience. It was only 11:00pm—her shift was just beginning and she didn’t like to keep her patients waiting. Her grimace softened: it was just a calendar reminder. Usually, they just vibrated, but this notification rang with the urgency of an alarm bell: warning, enemy at the gates, fire, panic, run! Why would she have set that? She punched in her pin number with haste—667, “the neighbor of the beast,” someone had once told her—and pursed her lips. Her annoyance quickly eroded away, replaced by a flood of dread. With the chime of her phone, she had unknowingly crossed into the most dreaded time of the year: student loan season.
Part 2: It’s the most un-wonderful time of the year
It had been an uneasy night. Although she had no shortage of work to keep her distracted, Elvira couldn’t keep her mind off the unwelcome reminder. She counted herself lucky that her patients never complained, never corrected her when she picked up the wrong instrument, or called them the wrong name as she tried to soothe their fears as she cut into them. She had worked diligently, but without the same focus that her patients had come to expect from her. She was uneasy: she wished she had never set that alarm. But it was too late now, nothing to do but complete the task ahead of her—that yearly sojourn into the dreaded realm of student debt—she had to file her annual paperwork.
Dr. Elvira wasn’t typically an anxious person, but she couldn’t deny that she preferred the company of the dead to the living. She was a perfectionist, and the dead rarely pointed out your mistakes. She hated student loan season: it was the only time of year she detested more than Christmas, and she always felt out of her element. Every year she had to submit her income recertification forms in order to continue to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness: the promised backdoor to help her pay for her exclusive medical school, the diploma of which hung on the wall in her morgue. She was proud of her achievement, but was glad none of her patients ever commented on it—she could at least pretend to be modest.
She had given herself a double-dose of punishment by adding to the paperwork she filed. In addition to her income documentation, she submitted an employer certification each year at the same time. She didn’t need to, but Dr. Elvira was an over-achiever. It also gave her peace of mind: every year, like clockwork, she could expect to see twelve fresh qualifying payments on her record—proof that she was one year closer to throwing off the yoke of her student loans forever. While she didn’t have to submit the second form annually, it was reassurance that she was on-track, that she was right, that she knew what she was doing.
Elvira filled in her forms with the same usual care and attention to detail she would a death certificate. Every “i” was dotted, every “t” crossed: with them finished, she submitted them online, bid them good riddance, and considered the matter finished. Her documents were always immaculate, without fault or blemish, and warranted a quick response from her servicer, verifying that everything was in order. This year was different: days and weeks dragged on with nary a word in response to her submission. She began to worry. It had never taken her servicer this long to respond: it filled her with dread. What could be taking so long?
Part 3: Dial “M” for More
Finally, it came. Dr. Elvira woke one day, reaching out from her black duvet to slap down the vintage alarm clock. The noon sun streamed through the lace curtains as she groped for her phone with just-cracked eyes. She was greeted by several fresh emails, nothing out of the ordinary there. She sifted through items from work, unsolicited advertisements, and the expected plea from her mother to call her for goodness’ sake—nothing out of the ordinary there. Just one stood out in her inbox: the long-awaited response from her student loan servicer, something that should have been so banal, but instantly filled her with an uneasiness, a hesitancy to glance inside, even though she had anxiously anticipated its arrival.
With a practiced deep breath, she braced herself and opened the email. The typical boilerplate greeted her with its usual vaguery, inviting her to log in to the website, to her own private Hell, she often thought. She hoisted herself up on her elbows and prepared to venture deeper, opening the message center. There it was, at last: the responses to her income and employer forms. She opened the former: bugger, she thought, even though she had already known it would happen. Her payments were going up—a modest raise followed by a corresponding rise in payments: the way of the world. She opened the second message, anticipating a similarly expected response: 12 new qualifying payments on her tally toward loan forgiveness. She was wrong.
She pulled up last year’s form, which she had saved to the cloud. It looked identical to this year’s—just the date was changed—no new qualifying payments, 12 shy of the number she expected. Her heart sank: this was wrong. Was it her fault? Did she forget something? How could this have happened? Almost worse than the results was the fact that now she would have to call. She’d have to dial her servicer, sit on hold, and be told that she’d made a mistake.
Elvira got dressed, prepared herself for the day. She pulled on her stockings, fastened her necklace, buttoned her coat, girding herself for the day ahead, especially the unwanted task. She liked looking like a doctor: she felt important, capable, intelligent, and she was. She needed that confidence as she dialed the servicer’s number. She swallowed and tried to calm her nerves: she hated feeling out of her element. There was a single ring, followed by an artificial voice. It thanked her for calling, a fact she found ironic and thought the voice sounded a little patronizing, despite its calm and monotonous drone. She listened to the unhelpful options, each one wrong for her, making her wait, more and more annoyed.
Finally, she was put on hold, in limbo until the “next available representative” was ready for her. At long last, a voice announced itself. A slow drawling voice asked her to identify herself and, finally, how they could be of assistance. She explained the situation with the missing QPs, that the number was the same as last year. The voice asked for patience as it examined their computer screen. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. 12 payments, gone, lost, in the ether. The voice couldn’t account for their absence. Dr. Elvira was stunned. She asked how it could have happened, how they could be found. The voice was silent.
To be continued…