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   a short-short story

                     By Austin Alexis

Dr. Chang, wearing her habitual suppressed smile, strolled into the hospital room. She nodded at Abigail, who sat in a chair toward the front of the hospital bed. Abigail had been to the hospital three days in a row to visit Ernest, her friend, who lay sandwiched in sheets, opening and closing his eyes and occasionally making grunting sounds.

A nurse came in, hefty and solemn. She and Dr. Chang consulted with each other, glanced at medical charts, adjusted this and that: intravenous tubes that were hooked up to Ernest from a silver pole.

"Is he awake?" Abigail said, not wanting to feel left out of the conversation between the nurse and the doctor.

"Yes and no," Dr. Chang said. She had a way of being polite yet curt at the same time.

Abigail stood up, as if standing would assert her presence more. She was aware of a need to be assertive. This massive hospital, with its shiny corridors and its hum of perpetual motion made her feel small, diminished. Designed like a huge glass jar, with a slightly concave front, it was a place that reflected a person's face and body in multiple surfaces, but it was easy to feel invisible there. Being the newest hospital in the state of Pennsylvania, it had a mystique of cutting-edge sophistication, but it lacked warmth.

The nurse jotted something on a chart as Dr. Chang strode toward the door. '"Doctor, may I speak with you for a moment," Abigail said, following Dr. Chang to the room's doorway.

The doctor stopped and the two of them stood halfway in the hospital room and halfway in the hallway. Dr. Chang wore a slightly surprised look, like a rehearsing actress who had been interrupted while reading her lines.

"Doctor, I...I don't understand how it has come to this."

"You knew he was very ill; you've known for weeks."

"Yes, but now it's in stage four. How did it get to stage four?"

"I can't answer that.""Meaning you don't know or you won't tell me."

"Frankly, both. What is this line of questioning about?" the doctor asked, her Boston accent apparent to Abigail for the first time, as if the accent were a function of the doctor's sudden annoyance. "You know, you aren't a relative of Ernest. And you're not his wife."

"We're good, good friends. I'm tired of people underestimating the relationship between close friends. The depth of that kind of relationship."

The nurse pushed passed them, her dark ebony skin in sharp contrast to her white uniform. A tightness around her mouth said she felt uncomfortable hearing this exchange between Abigail and the doctor. "I'll be right back," she said and whisked herself out of the room into the brightly lit corridor.

"I get," the doctor said, "that you love him, as a friend--I really do.

"Well, then. Don't shut me out, the way you've been--"

"--I'm not comfortable discussing his health or my treatment of his health with you. Now, when his cousin comes back, and if you happen to be present, I'd be glad to say what I have to say about Ernest's case."

"You forget: I'm Ernest's health proxy."

"Alright. Fine. What do you want to know?"

"For one, why did you take him off hormone therapy?"

"It's called intermittent therapy for a reason. The patient is supposed to be on it and then off it occasionally. That's how it works, to put things in layman's terms."

"Are you being condescending?"

"Now, that's your insecurity showing."

An aide wheeling lunch trays caught Abigail's eye; good timing, since she needed a pause, a distraction, anything to keep her from screaming at Dr. Chang. Abigail eyes glazed over with anger or grief or bewilderment--she wasn't sure which.

"Who's your supervisor?" Abigail asked in a quiet voice. This was the tone she used when she wanted to show she was in control of a situation, or herself.

"Why escalate this thing?" Dr. Chang's charcoal-colored dress and white doctor's jacket gave her a neat appearance. For a second, her color scheme reminded Abigail of a nun's habit. Abigail was aware of appearing less than groomed. These all-day vigils at the hospital had taken their toll on her. Lint clung to her sweater. She hadn't removed her cat's hairs from her skirt.

"Would a lawsuit be escalating this 'thing'--as you call it--too much?" Abigail asked, surprising herself.

They both heard a shuffle of feet. They both turned and saw Ernest coming toward them while lugging his IV pole. They both were too startled to move.

Ernest peered at Dr. Chang and then hugged her. He then proceeded back to his bed. After a few hesitant seconds, the doctor helped him reach his bed, aided his climb back into it. Then she glanced at Abigail.

Frozen at the doorway, staring into Dr. Chang's eyes, the dissonance in Abigail's gaze modulated to harmony.

Bob Heman
© Wasp collage - ca. 2014