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It’s Good Work if You Can Get It

The nurse licks her thumb, turns the page in her tabloid. The next headline reads: “Alien LoveChild Discovered on Earth,” so she gives up for the night.

She asks the old man, her patient for this shift, “Who was she?”

There’s a grainy photo, framed in brass, on his nightstand.

She’s not so interested in his answer as she is in getting him to speak again. He’s been staring at the same old photograph for at least an hour.

The old man holds a vein-marbled hand up to point to the grate in the ceiling above him. He clears his throat. His bowed finger wags, nearly with the beat of each syllable, each filled with a nervous sort of palsy: “Oh, her? I hated her.”

“Why was that?” she asks.

He says: “She was a nurse.”

The nurse laughs. She asks to see the photograph. The old man obliges.

Her patient’s face was handsome way back then, shorter-seeming, clean-shaven. 

On one end of a gurney, hunched over, he wears a light gabardine trenchcoat, dark gloves, and a dark herringbone hat. His hand lays on an old man’s frail chest as he sleeps. Standing opposite the pair, a dark-haired nurse — white scrub dress and all. She smiles, or winces, at the sad scene. 

It takes several more hours for the nurse to learn it was Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1968. A cold snap in early April, a two-week affair while his father faded with dementia in a terribly little, under-heated hospital. The photo is of him, his dying father, and the nurse. There’s something electric between the two.

“Did you ever tell her?” the nurse asks, now.

“Yes,” the old man says. “And she told me.”

The nurse places the photo on the stand beside the bed. She folds the tabloid over the wooden arm of her chair. She leans in, takes the old man’s hand in her own. It’s not pity, whatever this feeling is. She thinks of her husband. She hears, deep in her memory, the shattering of a wine glass. She thinks of the handing-back of a ring that should have happened years ago, but didn’t and likely won’t ever.

The old man eventually slips into sleep in the new silence. After watching his purple, flickering eyelids, her own grow heavy. She leans back, nods her chin forward, then dreams of night, of a forest she’s never been to, never seen.

Red light flickers through a wall of adumbrated trees in the distance. She approaches it, sees a camp where a band of women, all dressed as she is, sit equidistant around a fire. In each hand, they hold large, smooth river stones. She can see them desperately knock the stones together. Each beat echoes, forming a thock-thock-thock-thock in the night.

Then, she can see these aren’t stones at all, but rather two small universes in their hands. The two glowing orbs smash, a yellow-purple aether at their centers wobbles upon each collision. One hard stone chips away the softer one. She understands the work. One of these must be a honing block, if the other is to become a blade.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Contemporary Fiction, Fiction

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