It was an unusually cool day in late July.
The people had all come out of hiding; walking and driving at such an easy-going pace Sam felt as though he was watching the brook behind Austin’s house – that three-foot wide affair which hugged an outgrowth of trees as it whispered through the foothills.
It was a good memory, one from his childhood, one he wished he had taken more time to appreciate as it happened. Now, he was dying, and memories such as those would be replaced by memories of fluorescent lights, small waiting rooms, wax paper, blood-pressure cuffs, long needles with wide plungers, and the inevitable paperwork that had this count too high and that count too low. He was only thirty-one after all and had done well retaining his looks, but what did that matter now? What did it matter to the brook of people outside, flowing comfortably from one moment to the next, from one memory to the next?
When the doctor entered, Sam turned from the window. The wax paper moved along with him, the sound – like bones breaking – made his skin crawl. The doctor shook his hand then sat on a stool by the computer. He was holding a manila folder.
“It’s a nice day out, huh?” he said.
“Depends on who you ask.” Sam said.
The doctor drew in his bottom lip as he smiled.
“How are we feeling today?”
“About the same.”
“Not at the moment. But, the migraine is still going strong. Every moment I feel like I’m going to fall over.”
The doctor drew in his bottom lip again. He set the manila folder down and stood up.
“Could you stand please?”
Sam rolled off the examination table.
“Yes. Good.” The doctor said. “Stand right there. Just stay still a moment.”
The doctor watched him carefully, his eyes fixed and methodical – starting at his head, moving slowly down to his feet, and then up again. All the while, Sam could feel himself teetering, as though the hard hospital floors had melted to liquid, and he was slowly sinking. The doctor looked concerned. No doubt his physical display (or lack thereof) corroborated the contents of the manila folder.
“Just like that. Stay like that.”
Then the doctor pushed him hard, leaning in a bit to put some weight behind it. Sam caught himself after dropping back a few steps. He was closer to the window now and could hear the traffic outside. Besides the car horns, it sounded like running water, like the ocean.
“What was that?!” he shouted over the breakers.
“Sorry,” the doctor said, bottom lip withdrawn. “I just had to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“You can sit down now. I’d like to go through your test results if that’s alright with you.”
There was something in Sam’s stomach that clenched then dropped down. He dropped right along with it, lodging finally face-to-face with the now-seated doctor. Short as he was, he scaled the examination table quickly and lay back against the wrinkled wax paper – that butcher paper – awaiting the diagnosis he had always feared but had always known to be true.
The doctor opened the manila folder. He rolled over to Sam and held it out for him to see. The chart shown had a list of words – big words he could not hope to understand, but knew meant a great deal – and numbers – large, angry numbers with scythes for commas and bullet casings for decimal points. Each big word had a big bar after it, bookended by those large, angry numbers. There was a single number towards the middle of each bar, marked by an arrow that pointed down.
“Oh god –” Sam found himself saying.
“Look here,” the doctor said. “These are ranges. If your number gets too low or too high, we have a problem. Understand?” Sam nodded. “Now follow my finger.”
The doctor moved his finger down the chart, slowly, deliberately. Sam followed along, though the light from the window and the fluorescents overhead seemed brighter than ever, and the waves from outside crashed harder and harder against his ear, and the examination table began to give way as the floor had, sinking beneath him. But there, there was the finger moving, parting the ocean of his experience, separating his memories of living and dying, drifting down, down, down the middle of the chart and each page thereafter.
Finally, the finger stopped. The manila envelope closed. The doctor drew in his bottom lip as though he had been saving it.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he said. “Nothing physical anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that all your tests came back negative, this bloodwork being the last of them–”
“– So that’s it then?”
“Yeah. That’s it.”
“But–but I don’t feel healthy. I can barely stand. You saw–”
“I saw you land on your feet.”
“Might not be the case next time.”
“And how often would you say people shove you throughout the course of your day?”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh, even though he knew where the doctor was going. They had all more or less done this after the test results had been given. There must have been some protocol spelled out in an entry level medical textbook, calling for a comedy routine in order to butter up the patient.
“Have you ever seen a therapist?” The doctor said eventually.
“Well, all things considered, I think that might be your next step.”
He rolled back to the computer, wrote on a slip of paper.
“I’m going to write you a referral for Dr. Brown – a real great guy, down to earth. Dr. Brown specializes in Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder; issues I think pertain directly to your situation. He graduated from Sac State just like you. I think he even played for the basketball team, backup point guard–at least that’s what he keeps bragging about on the court.”
Sam smiled, sucking in his bottom lip. In doing so himself, he understood quickly what the doctor had meant by it. Well, he was nice at least, not like Dr. Croix, for example, who threatened to end his disability leave if the little white bottle was still rattling by his next visit.
The doctor handed over the referral. He began writing on another slip of paper.
“I’m also writing you a prescription for low doses of Paxil and Lorazepam that you can take in the meantime–”
Sam walked out of the hospital. A soft breeze met him at the automated doors, and he could again feel the sunlight against his skin. How could it have been so cool on such a day? There wasn’t a cloud around, and the sun hung low like an overripe orange. Walking wasn’t as difficult as it had been entering the hospital. His vision was still blurry, but his steps were true as he approached the steady brook of people: most of them locked in conversation, energetic, vibrant, life dripping sticky sweet from the corners of their mouths.
There was a trash bin at the corner. Sam took both sheets of paper and tore them into tiny pieces. He let them drop from his hand into the bin like confetti, feeling good for the first time that day. He’d wait another six months until his next visit. There was two other doctors on the roster he hadn’t yet seen. Perhaps one of them would be lucky enough to find it, to put a face to the horrible disease eating him slowly from the inside. One could only hope.
Nathaniel Sverlow is a freelance writer of poetry and prose. He was born in 1983 in San Diego, California and has since spent most of his time hunched over a laptop randomly pressing keys. He currently resides in the Sacramento area with three cats, one incredibly supportive wife, and a newborn son. His previous publishing credits include: Typehouse Literary Magazine, Map Literary, Defenestration, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Literary Orphans, Squawk Back, and Bone Parade.