The Nurse

Pale light sifted through the shutters, never quite reaching the undersides of their fat, catching in the wrinkles. She step-tip-toed into the silent room, hearing her every breath catch with each footstep, as if her step was a small alarm that could wake the two sleepers, and even exhalations were suspect. Patients Patricia Wheaton Fletcher and James (Jim) Fletcher, wife and husband. They never usually got a pair in the same room. From her view under the doorjamb, their faces were obstructed by thin white cotton sheets stretched over two people-shaped mounds, like trick-or-treat ghosts.
They were both oddly naked, and she couldn’t help but glimpse at her body’s future. The woman’s skin was covered by a layer of dust; she dragged her fingertip lightly across the swollen belly. A little snaking trail was left where her finger had passed. She couldn’t see her fingerprint on the end of her index through the thick brown film. She lifted it to her nostril automatically; it held that indescribable scent of old people. The woman’s breasts sagged like over-filled water balloons — surely they would burst at that capacity? — but they reached lower by the year, longing to reach the final solicitude of the ground. The woman’s eyes opened languishly, and in them she could see her youth, these eyes she had carried around with her always, which had seen sixty-two more years than her. Pale irises just barely peeked out, obstructed by pages of hanging skin, paper-thin now, like the day she was born. The nurse could almost see the heaving difficulty of her pumping veins just underneath the skin’s surface, clear as milky bath water, pipelines obstructed by lime and rust and years of wear, but a thin trickle of blue blood still pushing through to her softly quaking heart.
The woman’s eyes questioned, silently, but closed without caring for the answer. She’d probably never be entirely cognizant again for the small remainder of her life. The nurse hoped that she had told the stories she had to tell to her family, that they had gotten their weeping good-byes. She was supposed to be impartial, get used to death gazing hungrily at her patients over her shoulder, but these trespassing thoughts always slipped through her mind nonetheless. She looked down to the woman’s raisined hand and saw the translucent spots where teardrops had fallen on the sheet. So they had got to say good-bye.
As her eyes had about had their fill and her brain had just completed mapping and cataloguing the woman, the sound of rustling sheets came from the next bed. The second mound was moving. The white sheets were wrapped around the man’s entire body, as if ready for the final labyrinthine passage through the hospital halls and down to the stainless steel gates of the morgue. But through the sheets, she could make out the shape of two arms wrapped around his chest. In his twitching sheet cocoon, stretched now up to the ceiling, he was preparing for his next reincarnation. She wondered what he would look like when he emerged.
Her eyes pulled away from the sight with difficulty, as if they were trying to swim through gallons of leaden water. The old woman was lying back still, her skin flaking off in translucent beige pieces. Soon there would be two people-skin shells littering the floor, and she would have to be the one to sweep them up. It seemed wrong to just clear away a piece of somebody, though. Maybe she would crawl inside the woman’s shell for a few hours, and see how much smaller she was than her. No, it would probably break the person-shape, and surely someone would be in here looking for her in a few minutes. She had other patients to attend to. Why had she been in this room for so long?


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