Margie refuses to let me sleep. The nurse rattles my service tray, adjusts the drip. Cold fingers constrict my pulse. She counts down the seconds by watching the clock above my head.
“How’s your pain, today, Mr. Johnson? Can you give me a number?” These words have become a sort of mantra for her, a hymnal for the dying.
“Points on a compass,” I say. “Horses of the Apocalypse.”
Margie keys the response into her tablet. “Four is good,” she replies. “Much better than five. Have you been using the morphine?”
I nod and look away. Whenever I press the button in my hand, a small machine releases a metered dose of opiates into my bloodstream. For the past two weeks I have pressed that button over and over again.
It took them seven days to diagnose me, another three to tell me I was dying: Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Other than the gift of morphine, little has changed since I arrived. The doctors come and go without warning, and the nurses wake me every hour to poke and prod. And always they ask the same question.
“Can you give me a number?” they ask. “A number between one and ten?”
The staff on the leukemia ward have reduced my pain to a simple set of integers. They want me to do the same. Instead I give them riddles.
“Deadly sins,” I tell them. “Wonders of the world.”
I’ve been here for a little over two weeks when I awake to find Lisa sitting next to me. We’ve been through so much together, she and I—most of it more painful than it needed to be.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” I say.
“How could I not?”
We don’t talk much after that, and maybe this is for the best. I take her hand in mine and squeeze it gently.
“Do you remember the first time we met?” I ask.
We found one another on Acapulco sand. We were but teenagers then. I watched her emerge from the sea, blue water trailing behind her. She reminded me of Bo Derek, the star of a B-grade movie popular at the time. Lisa laughed at the suggestion.
“Do you say that because you think I’m beautiful, or because I’m unattainable?”
“Both,” I told her.
She has been in the room for only five minutes when she stands and walks to the window. With slender fingers she parts the blinds and looks out onto the world below.
“Does it hurt?” She asks.
“A little,” I say.
I want to tell her that I’m sorry. I want to ask forgiveness for all that I have done. Instead, I remain silent.
Infinity turned sideways, I think. Two to the third.
When I awake, she is gone. A nameless nurse measures my pulse to the tick of the clock above me.
“Can you give me a number?” She asks.
I close my eyes and think of that first day on the beach.
“Bo Derek,” I whisper.
—Stone Showers lives in Central Oregon with his wife and two children. His short fiction has recently appeared, or will soon appear in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things, Stupefying Stories, and Black Denim Lit. He is currently at work on his first novel.