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IN PATIENT by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

When the IV pump pings to warn of an occlusion, she no longer waits for someone in scrubs to respond; she unkinks the tubing herself. In the hierarchy of beeps the IV occlusion alert is low, outranked by the chirping pulse-Ox monitor and the angry squawk of the bedside fall detection mat. King EKG checkmates them all.

He dislikes her charts and schedules, cringes when she calls the nurses by name and remembers their children and hobbies. Order is a dangerous illusion. He imagines himself on a science fair poster, her little bean sprout in a milk carton. He is in exactly the same position on Monday when the nurse from Friday says, Yes, the beach was lovely, thanks for asking. The beach can go fuck itself.

She has noticed they’re the youngest people here. They are the ward’s doomed lovers: buds severed before blooming and all. Yesterday she saw a patient making her shuffling rounds, hugely pregnant, her belly a prow. He was sleeping when the woman walked by. “Perspective,” she tells him later. “I can’t even imagine.”

His hands and feet are numb, rubbery and distant as if he’d sat on them too long. Barefoot on the sand would probably feel like walking on the moon. Compression boots on his calves perform a programmed sequence of rhythmic squeezes. A gentle hiss accompanies each release. In the time it takes to count to eighty-seven, they will begin squeezing again.

She can imagine, she has envisioned all the worst things. Each prognosis a coin to flip: an 84% chance of five more years leaves 16% of design space. It was her job to create optimized solutions for stakeholder specs, before it was her job to dose him with Ativan and rub his extremities with mint oil for the neuropathy. This is the only time he does not shrink from her touch. He says he feels unlovable this way. But she has already imagined that this may be the only way from now on; this may be the best it will ever be.

Again with the damn peppermint oil. Somebody on one of her message boards must’ve claimed it gave auntie or grandma relief. He hasn’t been online in weeks, but he is tempted to grab her phone to broadcast: The oil is bullshit. Also, forget the antinausea diet, smuggle in burritos. He misses food that wasn’t engineered to be bland.

His first week in the hospital, she was putting away his laundry when she found the ring box. She does not know whether he’d bought it before the diagnosis. She does not know whether she cares.

On the TV mounted in the corner, he watches nature shows. He resisted these – a message board favorite – at first, afraid of zither music and gazelles loping in slow motion. He does not want to be lulled into anything like comfort. Yet he’s compelled by the red foxes taunting a grizzly bear lumbering behind; the squirrel who thinks he’s outsmarted the hawk only to be swooped upon by a thunder of talons and beak.

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