little joys by Loren Weiss

The air smells like bleach and that unmistakable metallic tang of blood. It never fails to make bile rise in my throat; the deaths of these people are always inevitable, but I still haven’t gotten used to it yet. The life fading out of their eyes, the heaving breaths they take that end up being their last. It is gruesome, it is disgusting, and it is all but the graceful death the politicians on the tiny television screen promise.


Right after I leave the room clean, another body gets wheeled in, twitching under its sheet. The person is alive, but they won’t be for long; they’ve gotten the fast-acting strain, the one that makes boils rise on skin and causes blood to drip from every orifice. It is painful, but it is quick, and I believe it to be more merciful than the original strain, which slowly picks people apart from the inside out. If mercy can even be considered in a situation like this, that is.


My coworker walks up to me, and we trade a look. I remember we’d argued about eye colors once, using silly reasons to declare superiority; but now, her green eyes are just as weary as my brown ones. We don’t need to talk as I hold out my mop and she takes it. Though it couldn’t have been more than a month since the disease ripped through our town, we have already seen more bodies in these few weeks than we’d expected to see in our entire lives. She jerks her head towards another one of the rooms, her voice scratchy when she speaks.


“455. She’s asking for you again. It’s not looking too good.”


My eyes burn, and I blink before I can let tears well in them. “Thanks,” I whisper, swallowing. She gives me another look, this one full of sympathy. I don’t need her pity, though. I’m the one who chose to get attached to a patient.


I hear a wheezed, croaking laugh as I peer through the crack in the thick wooden door, my footsteps sounding much too loud on the hard tile below me. When I allow myself a quick glance in the reflective window of the door, I see a haggard version of myself; long dark hair matted, my skin pale from being underneath this damn hazmat suit. More chatter comes from inside of the room, and I step in as quietly as I can muster.


Ella is red, which is the first sign that things are really and truly going downhill. Her dark cheeks are bright spots of crimson, and her thick hair is slicked down with sweat, but still she smiles, though it must hurt. She’s got one of the male nurses playing UNO with her. I’ve never understood how a game of simple numbers could bring her such joy. She has a thing for sudoku, too. I’d bought her books of puzzles back when her hands could still hold a pencil.


“You suck at this,” she says to him, placing her last card down. The nurse mumbles something, moving to reshuffle before I clear my throat.


Ella’s eyes instantly brighten. “Aiko!” she cheers, then coughs, blinking down at her hand before wiping it away. It stains the sheet a rusty brown, bringing my attention to the other streaks of red covering the clinical white fabric.


I make a mental note to see if I can change her sheets before I allow her a smile. “You doing okay?”


The nurse quietly packs up the cards as well as he can with his thick gloves on, quickly moving out of the chair to give me a place to sit. I’m not sure how it happened this way, but people seem to not want to be in the same room as Ella and I. Perhaps they can hear the raw pain in my voice that she cannot. “Could be better,” Ella says with a delicate smile, holding a blistered hand up in the air. When she meets my eyes, I realize that the sickly blue sheen of disease has settled even farther into her irises.


“I’m-” I start apologizing, then shut my mouth when she fixes me with a stern look. Right. Don’t say sorry for things you aren’t responsible for. “I’m wearing a dress today, like you asked me to. The one I wore to my high school graduation.” Two years, and I still fit into it. Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here; me, a medical student with a few classes under my belt. Then I remember that I’m one of the only ones they have left.


Ella’s smile turns dreamy. “Are you? Can you describe it to me?” Her hand stays in the air, almost as though she was actively holding back from reaching out to touch. It’d been hard for her at first. Now, it’s hard for me to keep myself from wrapping my arms around her poison-ridden skin and combing a hand through her hair, whispering that everything would be okay. I thank whatever godly entity is out there that she hasn’t caught on.


Describe the dress. I’ve never been descriptive. “Um, well. It’s yellow. Sunflower yellow, stops at my knees, puffed sleeves. It’s too short for you, but you would look beautiful in it, I think.” It’s an uncomfortable dress, but it’s pretty enough.


“You look beautiful in it.” Ella’s dreamy smile fixates on me. It takes all of my willpower not to wipe the sweat from the apple of her cheek.


“You can’t see it,” I whisper instead, clenching my hands in my lap.


“I can. In my mind.” Her finger traces a shape in the air, and I follow it. The pads of her fingertips are bleeding, and they connect to make one dark rivulet that trails down her wrist. Her expression is still as bright as ever. I don’t understand how she can be in so much pain and still smile.


A bird chirps from just outside of the closed window. I look over to see it peering into the room with curious, beady eyes. It’s a cardinal. Superstitiously, I wonder which spirit possesses it. My mother always told me that lost souls visit in the bodies of these fat, red, beautiful birds. I have always wished that the souls would choose a less ominous vessel.


When I turn back to Ella, she is watching me with eyes half lidded. “Aiko,” she whispers, clasping her hands in her lap. Though her voice is raspy now, my name has always sounded perfect on her lips. “I’m sorry.”


“You can’t apologize,” I say immediately, guilt crashing over me like an angry wave. “You haven’t done anything. Whatever you’re apologizing for, you’re not responsible for it.”


“Your eyes smile less and less,” Ella says carefully, as though I’m the sick one. “I miss seeing your smile. It’s because of me, isn’t it?”


I feel the tears welling up again, then a spark of fury that I can’t just swipe them away from my eyes. “No,” I insist, breaking eye contact. “That’s not your fault, El. I’m not supposed to get attached to patients, it’s the first thing we learned in school.”


Ella swallows, then coughs into her fist again. Another stroke of red on the white sheet. “You should apologize to yourself, then.” Her expression shows nothing but conviction, an emotion so strong that I can’t help getting swept up in it.


“Then I’m sorry,” I whisper, but I’m not. I’m not sorry to myself, because though loving her is painful, it is what keeps me whole. No, I am sorry that it is someone like her that the world must take away, that such a bright light must be extinguished so brutally. That one day, she will be the bright red cardinal sitting in the window, while I must keep on living.


A knock sounds on the door right as a soft smile climbs onto her face. “Aiko,” someone calls, muffled through the wood, and I bite on my tongue to distract from the ache in my chest. “You’re needed in 418. They’re dropping like flies out here.”


I turn to Ella, and she must sense my panic, because she raises her hands to make a heart with her fingers. “Go,” she says. “I’ll still be here.” I can see in her face that she believes it. I dread the day when she doesn’t.


I love you dies on the tip of my tongue. “Hang in there,” I say instead, closing my eyes and standing. I cannot look at her while I leave for fear that I will go running back. She whispers a goodbye just before the door shuts.


As I take the bottle of bleach back into my hand, my stomach turns again. I hate this. I hate it here, I hate being here, and I hate living like this, and yet, I am someone who cannot afford to die. Perhaps, when the bodies become too many, the rest of the doctors may lose their minds just as I’m doing now.


There is no end to what I have found myself in. All I must do is scrub and wait for my world to fall apart.