The One Who Got Away

The nurse licks her thumb, turns another page in her tabloid magazine. The next headline reads: “Alien LoveChild Discovered on Earth,” so she finally gives up on it.

She asks the old man, her patient for the night, “So, who was she?” She’s not so interested in his answer as getting him to speak again. He’s been staring at the same photograph for at least an hour.

The old man holds a vein-marbled hand aloft to point to the grate in the ceiling above him. His bowed finger wags, nearly with the beat of each syllable: “I only recall what I hated about her.” 
“Which was?” she asks.
He says: “That she was a nurse.”
The nurse laughs.

It was Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1968, he explains. A cold snap in early April, a two-week affair while his father faded with dementia in a terribly little, under-heated hospital. The photo is of him, his father, and the nurse.

She asks to see the photograph. The old man obliges.

Her patient’s face was handsome back then, longer-seeming, clean-shaven. On one end of a gurney, hunched over, he wears a light gabardine trenchcoat, dark leather gloves, and a dark herringbone hat. His hand lays flat on an old man’s frail-looking chest as he winces out a smile. Standing opposite the pair, a dark-haired nurse — white scrub dress and all. She smiles at the sad scene. She seems plain, this nurse thinks now, in the way that paintings of Mary always seem plain.

“Did you ever tell her?” the nurse asks.
“Yes,” he says. “And she told me — she told me I was making too much out of nothing.”

The nurse carefully removes the photo from the old man’s hand and places it on the antiseptic stand beside the bed. She folds the tabloid over the wooden arm of her chair. She leans in, takes the old man’s hand in her own. It’s not pity, she thinks, whatever this feeling is. She thinks of her husband. She hears, in her memory, the shattering of a wine glass. She reminds herself of the bruises on her thigh and calves. She thinks of the handing-back of a ring that should have happened years ago, but didn’t and likely won’t ever. How could someone hold onto something for this long? She knows.

The old man’s hand falls limp; he slips into sleep in the tentative silence of the hospital. After watching his purple, flickering eyelids, the nurse’s own grow heavy. She releases the old man’s hand, leans back, nods forward, then dreams.

It’s a forest she’s never seen. Red light flickers through a wall of adumbrated trees in the near distance. She approaches the copse, then sees a camp where a group of cavemen sit equidistant around a fire. In each hand, they hold large, smooth riverstones, each about the size of baby’s head. She can see the wild men as they desperately knock the stones together. Each thock echoes — they must be in a valley — forming a beat in the night.

She realizes these aren’t simple stones. Rather, they’re two small universes, contained within the bounds of the oblong spheres. The two glowing orbs smash, a yellow-purple aether at their centers wobbles upon each collision.

One hard stone chips away the softer one, she dreams. The nurse understands the work. One of these universes must become a honing block, if the other is to become a blade.