Justin Permenter is a writer of short stories, flash fiction, and poetry from Bryan, Texas. He earned a B.A. in Russian from Baylor University and a Masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M. He currently works as an Admissions Counselor at TAMU. A voracious reader, he lists Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, John Banville, and William Gibson among his favorite sources of inspiration.
His first story, a prose poem entitled "Ghostsong," was published online in January 2016 at 365 tomorrows.
“How are you feeling today, Mr. Russell?”
The doctor’s voice purrs with simulated concern. He stands at the foot of the bed with chart in hand, face chiseled into a remarkable facsimile of kindness, conversing with the patient in soft, sympathetic tones. Dr. Lin is the living embodiment of medical professionalism, compassion without warmth, clinical and detached, the friendliest android ever assembled.
I linger silently in the doorway, awaiting my summons to enter. Men and women in a pastel-colored scrubs and white lab coats weave in and out of the room, hovering and flitting around the patient at center stage like a ballet troupe before exiting stage left. Slowly I am growing attuned to the intricate rhythms and complex choreography of the performance. Schedules and routine are the very lifeblood of the hospital, and I know how essential it is to wait for my cue.
From my vantage point at the threshold only the lower half of the patient’s bed is visible, its occupant little more than a pair of feet, two tiny peaks rising from beneath a saffron blanket. A jumble of disembodied syllables forms a response to the doctor’s query. I cannot piece them back together into words.
“Very good, very good,” Dr. Lin’s eyes remain fixed upon the patient’s chart. “Mr. Russell, do you remember our conversation yesterday? About the clinical study?”
Another mumbled reply, followed by an expulsion of air from weak, exhausted lungs.
“Yes, that’s the one. I have a young man here who would like to ask you a few questions, if you’re feeling up to it? Are you feeling well enough to speak with a visitor, Mr. Russell?”
I hear no answer. Dr. Lin turns to me and nods, beckoning with his free hand. I step forward with a protective smile draped across my face, a shield against the reflex of revulsion which inevitably follows an encounter with the smell of disease and decay. Inside the room the walls are a tapestry of beige and eggshell white. Shades are drawn respectfully over the window– a small lamp on the corner table provides the only source of illumination. It is, like so many other rooms I have visited today, a funereal scene.
The pallid figure lying prostrate upon the bed comes into full view. At first he appears to take little notice of me. Only his eyes betray any awareness of my existence. He fixes me with the stare of a hunted animal, two watery, reddened orbs sunken deep within the apertures of an all-too-prominent skull. The patient’s hair, once a handsome blond judging from the framed family photograph at the bedside, has faded to a thin, sickly white. His chart lists an age of sixty-seven, but this shriveled, animate corpse could easily belong to someone a century or older.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Russell. My name is Evan. I’m an intern with N-Formatics Data Services. We’re currently assisting our partners in a qualitative clinical study...,” the script rolls mechanically from my lips, “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions today? I promise it won’t take more than a few minutes of your time.”
But how precious, those few minutes? I wonder. Death has a tendency to rearrange one’s value systems.
The patient nods feebly, pointing a cadaverous, liver-spotted hand toward a chair in the corner. I draw the chair closer to the bed and sit down, while Dr. Lin takes this opportunity to make a discrete exit. Moments later he is replaced by a nurse in blue scrubs and a pair of comfortable-looking sneakers. She leans in close to touch the patient’s shoulder, whispering gently in his ear in an accent I cannot place– Filipino maybe? I wait for her to finish making adjustments to the intravenous morphine drip which protrudes from the patient’s left wrist and runs like a serpent up the emaciated arm to a plastic pouch dangling from a metal stand nearby. Satisfied with the performance of the IV, the nurse proceeds to examine the computer attached to the bedside. I begin to suspect her real reason for lingering here is to keep watch over me, to ensure I do not unduly burden or harass the ward under her charge. Her presence is of little consequence, really. I recognize the importance of boundaries.
I glance down at the clipboard resting in my lap. Eight short questions on a single piece of paper comprise the extent of my duties here today. Basic biographical data– age, gender, date-of-birth, medical diagnosis– has already been obtained from the patient’s consent form, but for ethical considerations the rest of his identity must remain anonymous. I press on with the next section of the script.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today, sir. Before we begin, I’d like to remind you that your participation is completely voluntary, and you may decline to answer any question or decide to withdraw from the study at any time.”
This is no empty promise, mind you. The subject matter of our little survey often proves too sensitive for some participants. In more than one instance I have found myself forcibly ejected from the room by a family member who did not share my employers’ enthusiasm for clinical research. The hazards of being an unpaid volunteer and all that.
For a moment, I fear my subject has fallen asleep, but at last the remnant of the human being once known as Eugene B. Russell turns his head wearily to the side and blinks twice. I interpret this as a sign of approval.
“Mr. Russell,” I continue, reading from the first question on the list, “Do you believe in the existence of the soul or the spirit?”
A weak, tremulous voice whispers a reply, brittle as newly formed ice on a window pane. Once again my ears cannot ascertain the shape of the words. I lean in closely, nostrils filling with the odors of sweat and stale sheets and fear.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Russell, could you repeat that, please?”
The patient draws in a deep breath, a herculean effort which seems to demand all his remaining strength.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Thank you, sir,” I make a note of the response, then move down the list to a supplemental question, “Do you believe the souls or spirits of the dead can still communicate with the living?”
The phrasing of this particular line of inquiry always manages to derail proceedings for a bit, and today proves to be no different. I spend the next several minutes attempting to navigate a range of interpretations of the word “communicate” inconveniently overlooked by the survey design team at N-Formatics. During this exchange I must take care to avoid making any inferences which might betray my own personal feelings on the subject at hand. There are a number of reasons why many statisticians despise working with qualitative data. I feel I could now write a dissertation on each of them, and probably add in some new contributions of my own.
At last, we manage to reach a satisfactory response. I take in a deep breath and exhale. Onward to Big Number Three...
“Mr. Russell, do you believe in god or any form of divine being?”
Another shift change.
After a cursory briefing, the morning team, eager to put some distance between themselves and the twelve hour stint just completed, hands off to the day crew. From my post near the lobby I can observe all the comings and goings inside the oncology wing of this great medical beehive. A week has passed, but the hospital staff has yet to fully acclimate itself to my presence, the foreign object standing aimlessly in the hallway like so much arterial blockage. For my own part, I cannot help but feel like an intruder, an impediment caught in the gears of a complex but highly-efficient machine.
I was never really drawn toward a career in medicine. To tell the truth, hospitals have always given me the creeps– all that concentrated suffering and death– so one can imagine my level of enthusiasm when I discovered what exactly this particular assignment would entail. N-Formatics is simply fulfilling its end of a contract, of course. The larger study, the real scientific stuff, is being conducted in laboratories and research campuses all across the country, places like Philadelphia and Chicago and Orlando where people with PhDs in white lab coats gather around expensive, high-tech machinery and nod knowingly to one another as measurements roll in on long scrolls of computer paper. Or so I imagine it, at least.
What are they studying, you might ask? Well, to put it bluntly, they’re studying death. As reasonable a topic of academic interest as any other, I suppose. For something so commonplace you’d think we would know a lot more about it by now. The study itself seems to be a bit of an ad hoc conglomeration of biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and even a handful of representatives from disciplines on the outer fringes of academia. The word “interdisciplinary” gets tossed around out a lot. These “doctors of death,” as one medical journal so sensationally labeled them, monitor brainwave activity, cellular decomposition, breathing patterns, anything and everything to try to figure out just what goes on inside our bodies during those last few moments between existence and oblivion. As far as I can tell, the medical specialists care very little about the subjects’ religious beliefs or opinions on the afterlife or any other such trivial nonsense. The psychologists and sociologists, on the other hand, eat that stuff up. Their branch of the study focuses on the psychological and emotional process of dying, although strange as it might seem, there appears to be a bit of a shortage of human volunteers for the aforementioned experts to observe. That’s where we, or more specifically, where I come in.
If you ask me, there’s nothing scientific at all about my contribution to this little enterprise. Anyone with a couple of basic methodology courses under their belt can spot the biases and flaws in our survey design from a mile away. I’m talking about a veritable buffet of measurement and processing errors here. I interview an average of ten participants a day, which comes out to around fifty respondents per week, spread across five different hospitals selected at random by the program. The survey itself is little more than a series of “yes or no” questions, the responses to which are simple enough to convert into binary data. So far, so good.
But the problem is, the bigwigs at N-Formatics don’t intend to stop there. They want participants to elaborate on their answers, to share their life stories with me, Evan the Idiot Intern. My employers are mainly interested in the terminal cases, those poor souls whose remaining time on this earth is measured in weeks, or even days. In the past month I have witnessed the hideous effects of lymphoma, leukemia, cardiomyopathy, atherosclerosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, and a litany of other Greek and Latin plagues more terrible than anything contained within the pages of mythology. Day after day I sit beside these dying invalids, attempting to record the summation of all their beliefs and hopes and doubts and fears, down to the most trivial and embarrassing detail. I pity the poor bastard who has to find a way to code all of these meandering anecdotes and digressions, probably another unpaid sucker just like me, trading his sweat and sanity for course credit and a check-mark on a degree plan somewhere.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I pity the patients as well. It’s not as if they asked for some twenty-something jerk in a suit to come barging in on their private misery, looking to pry into the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds while a brigade of doctors and nurses pries into their bodies. I bombard them with consent forms and waivers and non-disclosure agreements, of course, all signed by the participant under a sedative haze or by family members too numb with grief to fully comprehend the words on the paper. Enough legal protection to keep us from getting sued, but not enough to make me feel any better about it.
I approach the central oncology desk, pleased to find Brittany seated at the computer. I’ve managed to memorize the names and faces of most of the nursing staff by now. Alisha, Devonne, and Maribel are all working toward their OCN certifications and tend to draw the overnight shifts– they exist for me primarily as names on a dry-erase board. But the regular daytime personnel are more familiar. There’s Carla, the head nurse and designated ass-kicker for the entire third floor– not to be trifled with under any circumstances. Stacy, Joanne, and Vernadette are the veterans, cool under pressure and lightning-fast on their feet. But Brittany is my favorite. Her soft brown eyes flicker with latent mischief hidden behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses which reveal a sense of fashion more art student than medical. A hint of a rather elaborate tattoo protrudes from one of the long sleeves she wears beneath her scrubs, igniting visions of deviant sexual appetites. She greets me with a smile that could cure cancer.
“They haven’t run you off yet?”
I offer what I hope is my most charming grin, somewhere between confident and shit-eating, “Oh you’ll never get rid of me. I hear they’re setting me up with my own office tomorrow.”
Brittany rewards this bit of cleverness with a sly wink, then turns her attention to an open folder on the counter beside her. I remain standing awkwardly at the desk for a moment, trying to come up with something else interesting to say. Finally, I settle for business.
“Hey, do you know if 3205 is available now?”
She consults an entry in the computer log, “Hmmm...the patient is back in his room, but it looks like there may still be some family in there with him.”
“Ahh. Guess it can wait until tomorrow, then.”
“Well, if so, you’d better get here early. We’re sending him home in the morning.”
“You mean he’s in recovery?”
Brittany looks up from the computer screen and shakes her head slowly.
Room 3205 is located around the corner, down near the end of the hallway. I remove the clipboard from my briefcase and shuffle through consent forms for the appropriate file. I manage to locate the form I’m looking for just as I reach the doorway. The information I find there pins my feet to the floor in mid-stride.
Joshua T. Betancourt. Age: 20. Diagnosis: brainstem glioma (terminal).
Son of a–
I lower the clipboard and step back, unprepared to face what awaits within this particular tomb. A strange, nauseating sickness tugs at my insides. Twenty years old? An adult on paper, perhaps, but little more than a kid in reality. Too young to even buy a beer legally, but plenty old enough to die from a malignant brain tumor. In what kind of world does that seem fair? Then again, human beings and God have never really been on the same page when it comes to fairness or justice. Sometimes I wonder if we’re even reading the same book.
I look up to the clock mounted on the wall. Nearly four p.m. I’m expected to be back at the office by five thirty to submit my daily report. It’s now or never.
Jesus Christ, Evan, don’t say things like that.
I approach the half-opened door cautiously, rapping the knuckles of my free hand against the painted wood. Inside, the drapes are open. A man in his mid-forties with hair the color of gunpowder is perched at the windowsill, silhouetted by the rays of the afternoon sun. He stares absently out the window, his gaze unseeing and distant. One hand is raised to cover a trembling lower lip. Nearby, a middle-aged woman sits at the bedside. Rivulets of tears stream down her cheeks, while her shoulders twitch periodically in the throes of deep, silent sobs. A gaunt figure lies next to her beneath the familiar shroud of a hospital blanket. I cannot bring myself to look directly at him.
“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Betancourt?”
The woman’s eyes plead with me to deliver them all from this senseless tragedy, to tell them the good news that everything is okay, there’s been some kind of mistake. You can all go home now. But the man in the window knows me for what I am– an intruder, an interloper, a parasite. I can see the anger begin to take shape at the corners of his mouth.
I recite the script, unsure of what else to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I’m with N-Formatics Data Services. We’re assisting our partners with a qualitative-”
The man silences me with a glare of pure contempt, “Go away. My son doesn’t need to be bothered right now.”
My voice trembles in reply, “I apologize, sir. I... promise not to take more than a moment of your time. I believe Dr. Lin gave you some information about our study earlier?”
Mr. Betancourt rises to his feet in challenge and points at the door, “I said ‘go away.’ We’re not interested in your little survey.”
Suddenly a frail voice calls out from the bed, “Dad, it’s alright. I don’t mind.”
The boy’s father hesitates, caught between the impulse to fling me headfirst from the room and a desire to accommodate the wishes of his dying son. After a moment, he returns to his station at the window, crosses his arms skeptically across his chest, and stares at me in silent hatred. He has, at last, found someone to blame for all of this, a focal point for all the pain and rage and unremitting despair. I shift uncomfortably beside the bed.
“Do you mind if I sit, Mr. Betancourt?” I ask the patient uneasily. Mister? I am five years older than he.
“Of course. Call me Josh, by the way.”
“Josh, thank you. I’m Evan,” I extend a hand as I sit down beside him. Josh’s bones and knuckles are painfully visible just beneath sallow skin. He no longer has the strength to grip my hand, but merely brushes the tips of his fingers against the palm.
“Are you part of the staff here at St. John’s?” his mother inquires hopefully.
“No, ma’am. We’re a contractor with the hospital. We...help gather patient data...,” suddenly I am at a loss to explain what exactly I am doing here.
Josh’s father snorts derisively from the window, while his mother leans back in her chair, confusion and concern etched across her sorrow-worn face.
I look to the clipboard for assistance, attempting to recover, “Mr. Betancourt... Josh... thank you for agreeing to speak with me today...”
My mouth forms the words I have read hundreds of times to hundreds of patients, but my thoughts fixate upon that skeletal handshake, the paper-thin voice, the sunken craters which encircle a pair of listless green eyes. Pale green, like my own.
Finally, I abandon the script altogether, “Josh, they want me to ask you some questions about...about how you feel about what you’re going through. The questions can be kind of tough, so if you’re not feeling up to it...?” I suggest, hoping, pleading with him to let me off the hook.
“It’s fine. Ask away,” he says instead.
Deep breath again. Just get it over with and get out of here.
“Okay. Josh, do you believe in the existence of the soul or spirit?”
Josh draws the blanket up to his neck, coughs softly, then glances over to his mother.
A pen scratches on paper. A simple negation, yet nothing could be more complicated. There were times in the past when I myself might have given the same answer. It’s not as if I am currently much of a practitioner of any kind of conventional faith. But I simply can’t bring myself to concede this final point, to give myself fully over to the materialist view of the world. Over the past few weeks I have observed that belief in the existence of a soul tends to persist stubbornly, tenaciously, even when all other religious convictions have been cast aside. Wishful thinking, perhaps, nothing more than the fundamental desire of all mortal, sentient creatures to somehow endure beyond the grave. In my own mind, Death, for all its cruelty, pales in comparison to the awful finality of nonbeing, the cessation of light, of life, the absence of what once was but is no longer, and perhaps, shall never be again. And yet here before me lies a young man, a mere boy dangling over the very precipice of eternity, who fully accepts the possibility of his own extinction.
Mrs. Betancourt’s brow twists in upon itself in disbelief, “Joshua...”
Josh extends an arm from beneath the blanket to touch his mother’s wrist. The protest dies on her lips.
I avert my eyes from this wordless exchange and skip ahead to the third question, “Thank you. Josh, do you believe in god or any other form of divine being?”
Mr. Betancourt cries out in indignation before I can finish the sentence, “Just what kind of bullshit is this? Are you one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses or something?”
His wife shudders beneath the impact of the expletive, “Stephen, please.”
“I’m just saying, Nancy, what right does he have to come in here and ask questions like that to a boy who’s...?” he trails off, unable to speak the final word aloud.
I don’t disagree with him. I have no right to be here whatsoever. But what good is talk of rights and privileges in a situation like this, anyway? Doesn’t his son have a right to live? Isn’t that far more important than privacy? Fate has already trampled upon the only right which really matters. What’s one more small injustice in the grand calculation?
“Mr. Betancourt, I can assure you, we are legally prohibited from disclosing our participants’ personal information or identities. Everything we record here today will be kept strictly confidential.”
We, we, we. But there is no “we.” I don’t belong to N-Formatics any more than I do to the hospital staff. In another month I will be back at the university, immersed once more in the comfortable domain of classrooms and mid-terms and essays and late night study sessions. For now, I merely play the role of observer, a conduit, a piece of film upon which an imprint of a human life is made. I carry them with me inside this briefcase, these fragments of hundreds of souls bound up in imitation leather. But Joshua Betancourt doesn’t believe in souls.
“Dad, just let me speak,” Josh’s voice is soft, but resolute. “For once in my life, just once, I want to be honest about what I believe...”
Mr. Betancourt holds his hands palms outward in silent surrender. He looks away again, refusing to meet my gaze. There is a history here, an unspoken tension between father and son which leads to places to which I am unprepared to go.
Instead, I cautiously repeat the question. Josh answers immediately this time, with conviction, “No. No, I don’t believe in god.”
I wait for the young man to continue, to offer some further justification for this position, to rail against the absurdities of religious faith or decry the injustices performed in the name of various deities, but after almost a minute of excruciating silence I simply record the answer and press on.
“Do you believe in any form of afterlife?”
His eyes grow distant for a moment.
“No. No, I do not.”
Mrs. Betancourt begins to sob once more. This time, Josh winces visibly. He has managed to push the knife deeper into his mother’s heart, the one I have been twisting ever since I first set foot in this room. Is it not enough that she must endure the loss of her son? Must she also surrender all hope of a heavenly reunion?
The clipboard is my refuge, “Do you consider yourself to be a practicing religious person?”
Josh coughs harder, a raspy, jagged rattle of phlegm which contorts his entire wasted frame. Mrs. Betancourt places a hand upon his head, lovingly stroking the scalp denuded by chemicals and the ravages of radiation. I wait for Josh to regain his breath.
“I...I used to go to church pretty regularly.”
“But not anymore?”
“No, not for a couple of years now.”
“Have your views on religion or spirituality changed at all since your diagnosis?”
To my surprise, he smiles, “You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
I offer no reply. We –that word again– are discouraged from leading the participants toward any particular answer.
Josh continues, glancing occasionally at his father still simmering in the windowsill, “No, I had my doubts long before life dealt me this lovely little hand.” Strangely, his words contain not a trace of bitterness but rather a curious detachment, as if he were delivering testimony before a jury, recounting events merely witnessed rather than experienced. His demeanor, much like his body, resembles no other twenty year-old I have ever encountered.
“It’s hard to say when everything changed, really. There was never any single event that destroyed my faith. I tried to make it work for a while after high school, kept on repeating the words I’d heard so often in church, other people’s words, trying to convince myself they were my own, and then...I don’t know, one day none of it made any sense anymore,” Josh furrows his brow in concentration, “The Bible says ‘when I was a child, I talked like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ There’s a lot of truth to be found in that verse, but in the end, I guess it just led me to realize it was religion I needed to put away.”
I write furiously, eager to escape this room, to be free from the malevolence of Mr. Betancourt and the perpetual anguish of his wife, to run as far as I can, far, far away from this corporeal reminder of the fate which awaits each and every one of us. Only two more questions stand between me and the exit door.
“Josh, do you believe that life has a purpose or higher meaning?”
The meaning of life. Go ahead, Josh. We here at N-Formatics can’t wait to hear you solve that one for us!
Suddenly I can no longer avoid his eyes. It as if I am gazing into my own reflection across a vast, incalculable distance. When he speaks, his words resonate with a strange new vitality, “I think we tend to confuse ‘meaning’ with ‘permanence.’ It’s probably a natural instinct, rooted deep inside our brains. Cling to what will last, what will endure, and discard the rest. But nothing lasts. Nothing is permanent. Nothing, not even the universe itself. So I stopped going to church, stopped reading my Bible, stopped praying. A year later I got sick. Some people saw a connection there…”
I can almost hear Mr. Betancourt’s jaw clenching tighter as Josh continues.
“…but to me, it just seemed to be confirmation of the obvious.”
“And what is that, Josh?” I ask.
“That it doesn’t matter what you choose to believe. It won’t really make that much of a difference to the outcome. There’s not some Great Scorekeeper in the Sky deciding who lives and who dies. Life, from what I can tell, is pretty random. Things happen to good people just as often as bad ones, and it’s up to us to assign some kind of meaning to it all after the fact. When I was a Christian I spent so much time focused on eternity... Heaven, Hell... questions of ‘what comes next?’ and ‘storing up treasures for the Kingdom’ and all that. I think if people just stopped for a moment and took a look around, they’d see that life itself is the meaning. Life is the purpose. And yes, maybe when we die, our purpose dies with us. But just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it never had value in the first place.”
Hot tears spring insubordinately to the corners of my own eyes. This is wrong. This is sick. There is no justification for any of this, this farcical interrogation on the doorstep of Death, this final blight upon the uprooted flower of youth. I can barely read the words of the final question.
“Josh...are you afraid of dying?”
Now he draws very still. The blanket seems to swallow him. Josh swims in puddles of fabric, his withered body sinking into the bed’s embrace, receding, fading away. When he replies, all the strength seems to have evaporated from his voice.
“Of course I’m afraid,” he whispers, “Anyone who tells you they aren’t afraid to die is lying to you and to themselves. It’s a pity, really. We’re capable of so many...so many beautiful emotions. And in the end, most of us depart this life so full of fear–”
Another wave of coughing snatches the breath from his lungs. I am aware of a presence standing at my side, a heavy hand upon my shoulder. Mr. Betancourt hovers over me. He does not speak, but his expression says clearly, Enough. Time for you leave.
I tuck the clipboard and pen into my briefcase, my hands shaking uncontrollably as I fumble with the latch. I start to say something, but Josh’s coughing has not subsided. Mrs. Betancourt cradles her dying son in her arms and whispers words only a mother can speak. She has no time to look at me as I depart.
I pause once more at the threshold, wiping my eyes with a jacket sleeve. I turn back to find the eyes of Josh’s father once more. I can only mouth the words.
Outside in the frigid confines of the hallway once again, the blood comes rushing to my head all at once. I feel as though I have just survived an artillery barrage. A surge of grief, unbidden and inchoate, fastens like glue to the back of my throat. Suddenly I hate this place, the doctors and the nurses and the patients and the families and the machines and the cold, crushing sterility of it all. I hate this goddamned job. More than anything I hate the bastards who sent me here to wallow in other people’s suffering.
I stagger into the lobby, punch-drunk and bewildered, rubbing my hands against throbbing temples. Brittany catches my eye at the nurses’ desk. The sight of her face brings me back to earth for a moment.
“You look like you could use some fresh air,” she says, a hint of concern dancing around the edges of her greeting.
“I think you’re right,” I mumble softly.
She tilts her head toward the elevators down the hallway, “I’ve got a break coming up in just a sec. Meet you downstairs by the front doors in ten minutes?”
I nod without hesitation. That daily report can go straight to hell.
I wait outside for Brittany near the main entrance, next to the bronze statue of St. John of God– now there’s an epithet for you. When at last she comes bounding, almost jogging through the automatic doors, the first things I notice are her shoes, a pair of neon pink sneakers sheltering two tiny feminine feet.
I point down, “Those are nice.”
She grins as she settles in beside me, a rhapsody of full lips and adorably imperfect teeth. “Thanks. They tend to be a little more relaxed with the uniform regulations once you’ve been here a while.”
“Yeah,” is all I can muster.
She quickly identifies the source of my distraction, “Had a rough interview, I take it?”
“I can’t...I just...,” I struggle to find the words. Speech is elusive at the moment, meaning even more so.
“It’s alright. There’s no need to be ashamed. It can get pretty overwhelming in there sometimes, believe me.”
“Honestly I don’t know how you guys do it, day in and day out. I think I’d go crazy having to be around all that misery all the time.”
“I guess you won’t be needing that new office after all, huh?”
We share a much-needed laugh. She leans against the side of the building, one leg raised and folded beneath her like a flamingo, “So...you’re a research assistant, right?”
“Just an intern, actually. One of the requirements for my grad school program.”
“Ahh,” Brittany raises both eyebrows. I cannot tell if she is impressed or disappointed, “What do they make you ask the patients on this survey of yours?”
I shake my head in disgust, “Nothing important, really. Just a bunch of questions which don’t have any answers.”
A flicker of flame catches my attention. I turn to see her with lips pursed, igniting the end of a slender cigarette with a small, compact lighter. She takes a deep drag, removes the cylinder from her mouth, and turns her gaze toward the parking lot as she exhales a long plume of smoke.
“Answers are overrated, if you ask me,” she says. “People tend to avoid going to the doctor, not because they don’t think they’re sick or anything, but because they can’t stand the thought of knowing something’s wrong. It’s the certainty that bothers them, I think. As long as they don’t know for sure, they can go on pretending they’ll live forever.”
I lower my head to stare at the pavement, “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
She turns back to look at me, “Is it about the cigarettes?”
Suddenly I see a vision of our future together. I see Brittany standing beneath the vaulted ceiling of an old stone chapel, the caramel tresses of her hair caught in beams of warm sunlight through stained glass, a bouquet of cherry blossoms and pink amaryllis in her hands, a long flowing veil trailing behind her like a ship’s wake on the ocean. I see children, tiny pink bundles of baby flesh, stuffed animals and lunchboxes and trips to the zoo and first cars and graduation gowns. This is where I say something incredibly profound, something powerful and life-affirming and deeply poetic, something to forge a connection which will last a lifetime. But I have misplaced my script.
Instead, I smile weakly and continue to stare holes into the asphalt beneath my feet.
“It’s okay, everyone asks about them.” Her face is now wreathed by dancing contrails of smoke.
“It just seems strange...for someone in the medical profession, I mean,” I suggest, hoping I haven’t once again crossed an invisible line somewhere.
“Quite common, actually,” she declares, “I know I should quit. Honestly, I don’t even remember why I started.”
She smiles again, then takes another long, deep drag, “Just another one of those questions without any answers, I suppose.”
This is the moment. It is my cue to speak, my opportunity to dazzle her with the sheer breadth of my intellect, to buckle her knees with a fusillade of confident masculinity and irresistible charm. Say something, you idiot! “Can I call you some time? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want to go out for a drink this Friday? Will you marry me?”
All I can think of are Josh’s hands.
It is Brittany who must break the silence, “Well, I should probably get back to the desk. It was nice talking with you.”
She discards the spent remains of the cigarette and departs without another word. I stare at the back of her head as she crosses the short distance between the statue and the front doors. Her hair shimmers, radiant in sunlight, just as it did in my vision. She never once looks back.
I remain standing against the wall. Alone with my thoughts once more, I study the ashes of Brittany’s cigarette as they smolder on the pavement. Should I follow her? Would she think it’s weird? What else is there to say? I fear the moment has already passed, soon to be dead and buried alongside Eugene Russell and Josh Betancourt and all the rest.
But that’s the thing about being alive. There’s another moment coming up right around the corner.
After another minute or two of deliberation, I tuck both hands into my coat jacket pockets and approach the hospital entrance. The automatic doors slide open to greet me.
Inside, the air is cool and inviting.