There are days when you cannot keep up with the dying, the supervisor has told you many times already, and you know it’s true, although of course what you hope to do is beat death. You find refuge in the cafeteria where there is what you can find nowhere else, a sense of invisibility afforded by wide open spaces, a sense of anonymity, as if you could be anyone but yourself, a young woman with a perennial ponytail, too pale from lack of sun. Already it seems as if all your medical knowledge has been replaced by information about hospital policies and procedures, although to yourself, you are what you have always been.
“Believe in yourself,” your dad always said, tweaking your shoulders a little when you were afraid to dive into the pool or speak in front of class. It was the phrase you repeated in your mind the day you found him dead of a heart attack in his office, the same day you knew what you would become. As you finish a cup of strawberry yogurt and begin on an apple, the cafeteria fills with other interns, nurses, doctors, visitors, all but your brother with whom you are to supposed to meet to confer about your mother who is ailing from cancer in another hospital. He is late as usual.
The woman whose name you do not know but whom you have seen many times, with whom you already feel a sense of kinship, amistad, is emptying trash in front of you. She has worked in the hospital many years, had two sons, one of whom, a star high school athlete, was killed by a hit and run. Her only other child, a son who is developmentally disabled, lives with her and her husband, who is a drunk. All this she told you the first time you met, divulging everything immediately the way people do who have no time, no time at all.
Now there is Larry, the dark-haired intern who has a crush on you, and Pieter, who has a crush on him, each carrying bottled water and a sandwich, heading your way. You have to return to work in less than five minutes, and where is Michael? It will occur to you later when you revisit this moment that humans need to be unraveled as well as healed, the history of their entanglements runs that swift and deep.
In Connecticut in the fall, turning leaves tease to infinity out the cafeteria window, which is high as the ceiling, although slate clouds splattering the blanche sky bring to mind winter. Sunlight lends its own design on a metal sculpture at the courtyard center, where a young man wearing a black bandana passes swiftly, carrying what appears to be at first a metal building support. As you pop up, moved by a sense of urgency that impels you to look closer, the window glass shatters and everyone around you scatters screaming, ducking from the collapsing glass and ensuing barrage. One of the two interns heading towards you slips or falls and the other scrambles away as shooting becomes very loud.
There is Michael, his hand around an apple; in the other, a bottle of water. You can see him because May, the cashier who was in front of him, has been swept away by gunfire. Michael’s blue scrubs are splashed with blood, May’s blood, and as he turns, your eyes snag.
Now she is lying next to an empty bin, one leg folded behind her as if in an excruciating yoga posture, her face wearing a placid expression turned toward you, one arm flung back. You run toward her, although the gunman is near, just away, shooting under tables. Soon he will see you. But he turns the other way, so you run toward him, run faster than you remember running in your life, and kick the back of his knees so he collapses, shooting the ceiling instead. Then your brother, a decorated army veteran, is upon him, applying a neck hold that renders him immediately unconscious. Your glances meet, acknowledging presence, survival, and you realize it’s another nurse, not your brother kicking aside the AR-15 that even you recognize, it has been used that often.
The wounded inch toward you as if in silent, steady entreaty. The pulse of the man whose wrist you hold is nil, the scar down the right side of his ashen face like the imbedded track of a tear, familiar, like something you recall seeing on someone you once knew. It will come to you. Michael. That’s right. Your brother, who was wounded in Iraq. To your right, the nurse you thought was Michael applies limb restraints to the attacker, roughly appending his wrists to the leg of a table attached to the ground.
Outdoor breeze caresses your right side as you close the cafeteria worker’s eyes and place one hand upon her hand with its cinching wedding band. Who will care for her son now? You imagine people falling like dominos as policemen enter in a repeating thud, guns drawn, dressed in full, helmeted regalia. They fan out, a few converging upon the shooter, whom they detach, shackle, and drag away expertly, swiftly.
Your hands and knees are sticky with blood, which puddles wide around you. So many dead all around, lying still, soiled, uncaring, unremovable as stains. They will stay with you. You know this even as your attention turns to the living, those being lifted away on gurneys with whom you must go. It is to the living you must turn. You will have to remind yourself of this often.
—Published previously in Matador Review (Summer 2018); appears here with author’s permission
—This story is from a collection of flash fiction, Blackouts & Brownouts, which is currently under consideration with publishers.
is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose writing has been published in numerous journals and zines such as About Place Journal, Across the Margins, Anti-Heroin Chic, Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Five on the Fifth, Fictional Café, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jerry Jazz Musician, The Matador Review, Metafore Literary Magazine, Mojave Literary Review, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sunday Stories Series. Her fiction has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of a collection of short stories, Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite, 2018), and three poetry chapbooks: Jewel Fire (Allbook Books, 2011), Silence Has a Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019).