Emergency Room Diagnosis

Christi R. Suzanne

Her cheerful yellow shirt reflects in the vending machine, which offers a variety of chip choices at 3 a.m. to the nearly empty waiting room. She licks crumbs and residual chip grease from her fingers, considers the man’s possible outcomes.

          She focuses on her breath: inhale, exhale, in slow even intervals.

          A stocky male nurse with red-rimmed green eyes calls out, “Melisha?” A chunk of food spurts out of his mouth. He scans the waiting room as if a crowd has gathered.

          “I’m Melissa,” she says. A cold sweat spreads across her forehead and neck. She crunches a chip; the jagged edges poke her tongue. The nurse swallows what’s in his mouth.

          “Your friend, he’s going to be okay. He’s got a broken leg and his ribs are crunched—healing might take a little extra time because of his age.”

          “He’s not my friend,” she says. She touches her graying bangs. Green eyes blinks, gives a slight nod. “He’s my . . .  landlord,” she says. She looks down, waits for the nurse to offer comfort.  “I saw him get hit. I saw the car…” She shakes the memory out of her mind. In her ears she hears the crunch-of-chip sound and not the smack-of-car-on-bike sound.

          “Maybe next month’s rent will be free?” the nurse smiles too wide.

          “I’m not . . . oh,” she says, peering down at the small diamond band encircling her ring finger.

          “Sorry. Emergency room humor. I see far worse most days.”

          She nods, eats a chip. The slow blaze of heartburn blossoms in her chest.

          “His daughter is on her way,” the nurse says.

          A sharp pain below her rib cage indicates something other than heartburn—the way the burn doesn’t quite go away. Her landlord smiled, waved to her before the green Chevy slammed on its brakes. An old car. An older man, legs splayed out, one with an unnatural shape, shirt scrunched to reveal road-scraped skin.

          “You okay?” The nurse’s eyes search her face.

          “That was scary, seeing him so close to death,” she says.

          “He wasn’t though.”

          “Still,” she says and sits back. Knowledge burns in her chest, paralyzes her. “People are dying, could die at any instant,” she says. “A wave and turn of the head, that’s all it took. A moment.”

          “Wait if you’d like,” the nurse says. He pivots on his heel and leaves.

          The burn in her chest festers, simmers. Twisting her wedding band, she recalls her last emergency room visit; she had pain in the middle of her chest between her belly button and heart —it was so intense that she could barely breathe. The doctors thought it was heartburn; turned out it was gallstones. Sometimes they get it wrong on the first try.

Christi R. Suzanne participated in Liars League Portland, where her piece, “The Matchbook Room” was performed by an actor. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Midwestern Gothic, Eunoia, Foliate Oak, The Gravity of the Thing, and elsewhere. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death, founded by Caitlin Doughty. She is a sleeping dog enthusiast.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021