Empty Spaces


She stared up at the lights. She’d done that before in her life; more times than she could count. Stared up in hospitals, putting her focus on the soundproof tiles and curved curtain railings and florescent lights while things were done to her body down below.

Sometimes she’d wince from a needle, or an injection. Most of the time she ignored the coolness of swabs or the sudden tightness of gauze tape, just as she ignored the conversational cues from orderlies or nurses.

She could distract herself just fine. She’d perfected the art all through her childhood, thanks. Most personnel didn’t push for talk then or now, and that was okay too.

The lights here were softer, and inset. She wondered if they were the new bulbs; the environmentally sound ones, or if the clinic even cared. Under her, the paper crackled, and she hated the feel of it along her bare spine. The dressing gown had slid open when she climbed onto the table, and now she could feel the paper, wrinkling under her.

“Doing all right?” came a disinterested voice. She nodded. The IV didn’t hurt, and the drugs in her system were making her drowsy. She looked back up at the ceiling again.

Insulation tiles with little holes for soundproofing; just like in thousands of hospitals and clinics all over the state. Thousands of holes. If she started counting, she could do the multiplication in her head, and the counting would help keep her thoughts from other . . . things.

Counting and numbers. Numbers and statistics. Statistics and caseloads. Bodies. Lives. Victims. Counting was a bad idea, she realized. She looked harder at the tiles.

The outlines of the tiles formed perfect squares up there. Conformity. Every one like every one else, no deviation. Sameness. She wondered if the drugs were making her think that was funny.

She had never conformed.

She decided she’d make a bad ceiling tile.

“All right, I need you to scoot down to the end of the table . . . “ came the soothing direction. Feeling rubbery now, she tried to move. Did it, wrinkling the paper under her back even more. She frowned.

“Feet up here . . . “

It was harder to feel coordinated, and looking around didn’t help. She tensed when a latex-covered hand touched her thigh. Back up, back to the ceiling tiles.

Her grid.

She looked up, wondering how much space was between her and the tiles. Six feet? Eight feet? Air and dust and space. Staring at the tiles was starting to change her perspective.

She remembered years ago when she was little, she would lie on the floor and look at the ceiling. She pretended that the ceiling was really the floor, and that she was stuck on the ceiling, looking down instead of looking up.

If she ignored the light fixtures, sometimes she almost believed it. Believed she was stuck to the ceiling, staring at the floor.

Mind-fucked herself, so to speak.

Up there she could see the curving track for the curtain. It didn’t have a curtain on it at the moment, but the grey metal was there, making a large letter J over her.

“This will feel a little cold . . . I need you to spread your knees . . . “

She wondered what the J could stand for. Not Jesus. Not here. Maybe jumpy. Or judgment. Or jittery. Bits of all those were niggling at the edges of her thoughts now, and she tried to clamp down before they rooted in.

A strange humming noise started; low and mechanical, like something several rooms away. She tensed, feeling her stomach tighten, the way it used to when she knew a blow was coming.

She wished there was music, and after a second was glad there wasn’t. She didn’t think she could ever stand hearing anything that reminded her of this weird, awful moment. This time when she kept her eyes in the one direction that never brought any help.

It didn’t feel like time was passing. The hum kept up, and she grew cold, feeling heat leave her arms and shoulders, fading out of her in a slow drain, like color fading from a photo. Nothing in the room was changing. Nothing on the ceiling was changing.

Just, she decided. That’s what the J might stand for. Just.

Just me.

Just get it over with.

Just let me get through this.

Just wish I was never here, just wish that none of this was happening, that I’m suspended between the ceiling and the floor, staring hard enough to make one into the other, turning my life from one thing to another.

She closed her eyes.

Darkness made her hearing sharper, and the mechanical hum seemed louder. A voice had been talking, but she hadn’t been paying attention to it, her brain choosing not to filter the sounds into anything meaningful.

Maybe it couldn’t, she wondered. To hear would mean choosing to understand, and she’d already made a choice. One big enough to make all the others too small to worry about, to push all other considerations aside.

Colder still. She accepted the chill, understanding that was a physical reaction; her body, so far away. Mind and body, with all the space between them, from here to the ceiling. She opened her eyes and slowly turned her head.

To look.

She ached. Her jaw ached as she clenched it. Her face ached, holding back reaction. Her soul ached as she looked at the jar of bright smears.

Not so much.

“Almost done,” came the voice. “Just a little more.”

She closed her stinging eyes.

Just.

A prescription. Two sheets of instructions. A list of phone numbers. A handful of paper. She walked out, aching.

He rose from the plastic chair, and she didn’t look at him; couldn’t look at him. Not yet. When he slipped an arm around her, she wanted to shrug it off, hard. She wanted to clutch it close.

She didn’t know what the hell she wanted.

He didn’t say anything, and they walked outside, into a blinding brightness with heat and sound intruding, like a radio cranked too loudly.

The car was a few rows over, and they walked slowly. She got in, automatically pulling on her seatbelt and adjusting it as he got behind the wheel.

She knew he was going to hesitate; to speak, and whatever he was going to say would be the wrong thing, because in a moment like this there were no right things to say.

“Just . . . don’t,” she croaked.

And he didn’t. He slid the key into the ignition, put the car in drive, took the brake off, moving smoothly and automatically through all the steps ingrained through years of practice. She closed her eyes again, and listened to the gears shift.

After a while his free hand slid into hers, and she gripped it tightly, letting the heat of his palm warm her cool one.

~end~


                                               
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