There was one heart monitor in the hospital that wouldn’t stop beeping. It just kept on, steady, even after the heart it was monitoring stopped, even after the nurse unplugged it, even after it was stuffed in the back of an out-of-use supply closet, where it had been for years now, faintly beeping behind the door. People died in the reach of its distant rhythm; babies were born into its muffled constancy.
I sometimes stopped in front of that closet, just to make sure the monitor was still beeping. I’d come to think of it like the beating of the world’s subconscious heart. For it to stop would surely be the worst of omens, but there it was, always, promising to outlive us all.
Ms. Nilsout was in the late stages of her illness. I was in charge of checking her vitals, which I did every four hours. They’d put her in the worst room of the poor-and-dying wing, the room for those without visitors, the one with cracks in the walls and quickest access to the morgue.
Her family was in Florida, she kept saying, which is why they hadn’t been to see her.
“They’re chasing the alligators in Florida,”she told me. “We’re a family of gator hunters.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I said.
Ms. Nilsout huffed. “It’s cool as shit.”
The hospital had tried calling her brother several times, but he just hung up the phone when he heard who it was. There was no one else. If Ms. Nilsout wasn’t dead by tomorrow, she’d be rolled out to the street and left there. I wondered, hopefully, if maybe she’d rather be outside anyway, if maybe there would be a pretty sunset just when she was passing. But when you’re alone, a pretty sunset is still just a pretty sunset.
Evening came, and Ms. Nilsout still wasn’t dead. After checking her vitals I asked my supervisor, Greg, if I could talk to him about her.
“Like, about where to leave her tomorrow?” Greg asked. He wore round glasses over his small, punchy eyes.
“Because I told you where to leave her, Ethan.”
“Just on the sidewalk next to the overpass.”
We stood in the hallway outside her room. The lights were dimmer here than in the rest of the hospital. Across the way were the old supply closet and the stairway to the morgue.
“I was wondering if we could keep her here a little longer,” I said.
Greg shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Just until she passes on,” I said.
“Her release date is tomorrow.”
“But there’s nobody to take her.”
“Correct,” Greg said. “Which is why you’re leaving her by the overpass. Did you forget where to leave her?”
“No, I just—”
“I can remind you tomorrow morning.”
“That’s not the issue.”
“All good then.” Greg smiled. “Maybe write yourself a note, like overpass, with a little drawing of the patient beside it. That helps me sometimes.” He patted me on the shoulder and made his way back up the hallway.
Ms. Nilsout felt different, though she shouldn’t have; we’d all had to leave patients on the street before, usually beside the overpass. I guess I felt like we had a sort of connection. Most of the people I tended to didn’t speak much; they were either too sad or physically unable to. Ms. Nilsout would tell me stories, though, ask about my life, and sometimes she would make a joke about the hospital food and we would share a laugh. I was moved by her persistence in putting pain beneath a pillow. Like, it wasn’t that her family didn’t care about her, it was that they were gator hunters; it wasn’t that she was dying, it was that she’d lived a life full of late nights, and this was just the final morning after; it wasn’t that all her friends were dead, it was that they were waiting for her. I understood her need for happily designed fabric covering pits of sad.
After my shift I went down to the morgue to see my friend Tom. I don’t know if Tom thought of us as friends, actually, because mostly he didn’t look at me or respond when I talked, but I thought he was pretty cool. He had tattoos of beer cans on his palms, and his hair was long like a rock star’s.
That night Tom was sitting in the purple armchair beside the cold lockers, his thumb swiping languidly across the screen of his phone. I sat on the floor against the lockers of beef sticks, which is what Tom called the dead bodies.
“I have to leave a patient on the street tomorrow,” I said.
Tom stared at his phone, mouth slightly open.
“They don’t have anyone to pick them up,” I added.
Tom wiped the back of his hand across his nose and sniffed loudly.
“Where do you want to be left,” I asked, “when you die?”
“In a bird feeder,” Tom said.
I was confused. “How would you fit?”
Tom stared at me blankly. “My ashes, stupid.” He slouched farther in the chair and looked back at his phone. “Just grind me up like coffee and put me in there. It’d be, like, a major prank on the birds.”
“Oh yeah, duh.” I blushed. “That’d be hilarious.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Tom said.
I lived alone. It had been like that for a while. I’d gotten used to it, I guess, though when you get used to something sad it is still sad, just in a way you don’t think about as much. In the days of Darren and Alicia, before they decided that they just wanted to be with each other, I would come home to love, and that love would take up all the space inside me as I moved about the apartment. Now I come home and I go along with my aloneness, but still that space wonders: what is going to fill me? It always seems to expect something, even after all this time.
That night I made pasta and ate looking out the window, watching the mother and daughter who played together in the street below my apartment. The daughter had a disfigurement that rendered her features blurry, like someone being interviewed on the news who wants to remain anonymous. The blocky pixels shifted and crackled on her face as she ran around and jumped rope. They often played late at night like this, and I wondered if the mother or daughter was ashamed of the blur, if they both were. I wanted to tell them not to be, but who was I to say that? Shame had keys to all my locks.
In bed, I lay awake and thought about Ms. Nilsout, coughing to herself in that old room at the end of the hospital’s poor-and-dying wing. There are stretches of life I imagine to be far crueler than death; the only reason we stay in them is the chance of their end. If only we knew death past the beginning. But I suppose that could be said about most things.
I got to the hospital early the next morning and checked on Ms. Nilsout. Greg was in the room already, looking over a form.
“Just need to check a few more boxes here,” he said. “You understand that you do not possess the funds to remain at the Eternal Love Hospital until your imminent death?”
“I understand,” Ms. Nilsout said. She looked incredibly frail, having passed into that phase of sickness where one resembles a skeleton more than a living person.
Greg checked a box. “You understand that you have no family willing to let you die in their home or pay for you to remain at the Eternal Love Hospital until the time of your aforementioned imminent death?”
“I understand,” Ms. Nilsout said.
“Very good.” Greg scribbled something and nodded at me. “She’s all yours.” He made his way out, stopping at the door and looking back at Ms. Nilsout. “When you get to the other side, say hi to John Lennon for me. I lost my virginity to ‘Imagine.’” He stood there grinning for what seemed a long time, then left.
I sat beside Ms. Nilsout and checked her vitals, though it didn’t really matter at that point. “I’m going to miss you,” I said.
“Yes, yes.” Ms. Nilsout nodded. “Let’s get on with it.”
I wheeled Ms. Nilsout out of the hospital. The sun was still rising outside, and the sky was like grainy orange juice. Tom was taking a smoke break, and I stopped to say hello.
“This the dying lady?” Tom nodded at Ms. Nilsout.
“It is,” Ms. Nilsout said.
“I have to take her to the overpass,” I said.
Tom flicked his cigarette on the sidewalk. “I’ll come,” he said. “I need to move around a little.”
So the three of us made our way off hospital grounds and down the side of the highway. I wheeled Ms. Nilsout’s stretcher as smoothly as I could, but it still bumped around a good bit on the gravelly pavement. Tom shouted over the roar of passing cars, telling us about all the cocaine he’d done last night.
“At one point I was like, fuck! I could fucking fly right now if I wanted to!” he said. “But then I just cleaned my fucking bathroom.”
I thought Tom was pretty cute when he got excited like this. Ms. Nilsout had her eyes closed, but she was smiling. I think she was enjoying Tom’s story. We approached the overpass, and I weaved Ms. Nilsout around a clutter of abandoned shopping carts.
“I always loved the word celestial,” Ms. Nilsout said, voice skidding as she rode across the uneven ground. “I suppose dying out here will be kind of celestial in its way.”
“I could see that,” I said. And I could, maybe. It seemed better to try, anyway.
There was a little chalk outline indicating where to leave patients like Ms. Nilsout, and I steered the stretcher inside of it. Below us, the cars on the freeway were already in gridlock. Their windows glinted angrily in the morning sun. I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what to say. Tom leaned against the railing and lit a cigarette.
“So this is it, huh?” Ms. Nilsout said.
“I guess so,” I said. “I’m sorry I can’t do more, Ms. Nilsout. I—”
“Quiet.” Ms. Nilsout patted my wrist. “I’m trying to die.” She squeezed her eyes closed and clenched her fists. I joined Tom at the side of the overpass, and we watched Ms. Nilsout willing death to come. Car horns blared from below.
“Let’s go.” Tom sniffed. “Smells like piss.”
“Just give me a second.” I went back to Ms. Nilsout, thinking it might be nice for her if I held her hand for a moment. When I did, though, her palm was cold and limp. Her face had gone slack, paler than pale, and when I checked her pulse I felt nothing.
“She’s gone,” I called to Tom.
“Nice of her to wait until we got all the way out here,” Tom huffed. “Might as well drag her ass back.”
So I wheeled Ms. Nilsout’s body back to the hospital while Tom talked about necrophilia. Apparently he suspected that his cousin Jim was into it. When we got to the hospital, I asked Tom if he would maybe want to have a drink that night. He seemed to be talking to me more than usual.
“Nah,” Tom said. “No offense, dude, but you’re kind of weird.” He took Ms. Nilsout’s stretcher from me and headed down to the morgue.
Probably it had just been the cocaine.
I went to the out-of-use supply closet and leaned my head against the door. The heart monitor inside was still beeping away. I imagined Ms. Nilsout becoming a part of it, her heartbeat leaving this world and entering the collective pulse of the monitor. It was a nice thought.
When Darren and Alicia told me they were leaving, I asked them why, as if I didn’t know. They were leaving because they loved each other more than they loved me. When they traded glances, there was a new language present in the air between them, one that didn’t include me. When they spoke, it was for my benefit, because they both had the words in their heads already.
I said maybe it would come, a love for me that was equal to their love for each other. Maybe it was close behind. They shook their heads, and I screamed into a pillow.
I was nearing the end of my shift when Greg told me there was a new patient in the poor-and-dying wing.
“Hit by a car on her way home from work,” he said. “Her daughter’s here—really weird kid. All blurry in the face.”
“Oh,” I said. “I think I know them.”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “We’re neighbors, I think.”
“OK, Ethan, OK!” Greg threw his hands up. “I don’t need your whole life story.”
I hurried to the woman’s room. She was in pretty bad shape, with a broken collarbone and lots of bruises around her ribs. Her daughter sat beside the bed, blurry chin resting on her fist.
“My name’s Ethan,” I said. “I’m just here to make sure you’re doing OK.”
“I got hit by a car,” the woman said.
“Right,” I said, reading her heart monitor. “That was a stupid question, sorry.”
“You are enough,” said the daughter.
I paused and looked at where her eyes seemed to be. “What?”
She pointed behind me, and I looked over my shoulder. There was a poster of a mountain on the wall, the frame moldy and cracked. I’d seen it a million times but never really looked at it. You Are Enough was printed beneath the mountain, which I thought was silly because how could any of us live up to a mountain?
“I don’t get it,” said the daughter. Her voice sounded like it was coming from underwater.
“I guess it’s, like, telling you that you don’t need to be anything more than you are to be worthy of love,” I said. “You are enough.”
The girl’s blurry head dipped, and she knocked her dangling shoes together. “Do you believe that?”
“I do,” I said. And at that moment, I did.