You sit there and watch, and resist the urge to flinch, as the nurse pierces your skin and slides the slender silver needle in your vein, purplish and puckered after she flicked it to get it to wake, sleepy, like you, at this early hour, but you’re awake now too. She tells you to relax and your first reaction is “yeah sure, okay, fine, why didn’t I think of that?” as she connects the IV and routinely taps a few buttons and suddenly what would be poison in any other circumstance begins to race inside the circuitous route of the dangling tube and into you from a plastic bag suspended above your head by a shiny metal stand. It feels unnervingly cold as you trace its path up your arm before vanishing.
You do try to relax, you have been trying to relax, ever since the doctor informed you last week, scribbling into your chart, the pen scratching the course paper, that you needed this treatment, except it’s easier said than done, particularly when you’re not entirely sure what they’re dumping into your blood, only that it’s supposed to be a cure and at this point, when nothing has worked and it’s about damn time you start to feel better, all you can do is trust that everyone knows what the hell they’re doing.
You sigh, and slip on your headphones, and let chance decide what you’re in the mood to listen to, and lean back in the rigid olive green vinyl-covered chair that’s supposed to pass for comfortable, and close your eyes, and think, about everything, and nothing, but you can’t help but wonder how you’re going to die. It could be from this, or it could be from something different, something completely random and unexpected, a distracted tourist on a runaway electric scooter, a bone in a piece of fish. Yet it’s going to happen regardless, it’s bound to, you’re not immortal anymore, no matter how careful, no matter how cautious, no matter how much “good” poison they inject you with.
It causes you to consider if you’ve done enough with your life, and you’re convinced you haven’t. But it’s always this way, each time you find yourself in this situation, more times than you deserve, your own mortality breathing on your neck, hot and stale, when you vow to do more with what life you have left. Then you eventually move on, managing, somehow, to increase the distance between you and death, or so you guess, and life moves on, as it always does, as it always will, until it doesn’t, and you ignore the promise you made to yourself. Not this time, you swear, as you drift off to sleep.
You have that dream again, that dream you have during periods of distress, more or less, the setting might change, and the supporting cast differs, but it’s still that dream again: you, trapped inside a haunted house, sometimes your own house, sometimes another house you don’t recognize. You’re in this haunted house, and you’re being attacked by the ghosts that have overtaken the place. You never clearly see them, these shapeless, shifting spirits. You can only sense their presence, and you’re quite aware they mean you harm. So you fight them off, one-by-one, with everything you have, every bit of energy and effort, an exertion, even in your dream, like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
You fight, and you fight, and you fight. And you’re tired, and you’re beat, and you’re scared as shit of these ghosts, a near paralyzing terror. Yet you fight nevertheless. Something pushes you to persist, to keep going no matter what, and besides, there’s no alternative. You swing your arms wildly, and you kick your legs madly, and you yell, and you scream, and you curse, exhausting your lexicon of obscenities. And you fight, exorcising these ghosts from this house, whatever house this might be, before you wake with a startle and a gasp.
You sit there and watch, and resist the urge to flinch, as the nurse slides the slender silver needle from your vein, and the needle seems exponentially longer coming out of you than when it went in, with a splutter of crimson drops as the tip emerges. She presses a cotton ball at the point of insertion, the back of your hand, and directs you to hold it in place while she tapes it down. Then she tells you, nonchalantly, as if she’s making small talk about the weather, that you’re “all set” and it strikes you at that instant how utterly ridiculous that statement is given this circumstance for never have you felt more the polar opposite of “all set” than right now, with a plastic bag amount of “good” poison circulating somewhere doing whatever in another attempt to make you well.
The nurse hands you your appointment card for next week, as if you could forget, then dismisses you to go, to return to what you would be doing if you didn’t have to spend a Wednesday morning at the hospital, to carry on as if none of this happened, was happening. She helps you from that awful chair that left you with a crick in your neck and an ache in your back, and eases you across the scuffed linoleum floor into the hectic hallway. You pause for a moment to acclimate since you’re lightheaded and momentarily struggling with your balance because you’ve been asleep, as you glance at the stoic clock on the wall, for about an hour, and you’re also ill after all. Once you’re able, on your own, you walk down the hall, past the other rooms of everyone else in their attempts to get well, out of the building, out into the unforgiving sunlight of just another day as far as the world is concerned. You go back home, to lie back down, only this time you vow to keep the promise you made to yourself, if you have that chance.
This short story is part of the collection, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press), available now.