A Dying Game

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Somewhere in the distance a cloister bell tolled the hour. Snow blew outside the window, a draping of white smoothing out the imperfections of the city below. There was something about it, Angela thought, that despite the cold and wet of it, was much more inviting than the harsh lights, white walls, and starched sheets of the room she was currently seated in. In spite of its boasting as “state of the art,” St. Margaret of Antioch felt much like any other hospital.

She rose from her seat on the couch that was placed in the room and straightened her uniform. Only a few minutes had passed since she first sat down, but to Angela it seemed like hours.

“I’m sorry, Donald,” she said, stepping towards his bed, “but I have to go now.”

He smiled at her. “That’s alright, dear. Thank you for letting an old man talk.”

“I’m glad I could bring you some relief.” She pulled those awful white sheets up to his chin to tuck him in, pretending that it was snow instead. “Goodnight, Donald.”

Angela slipped from the room and into the hallway. A doctor passed her to enter the room she had just exited, barely sparing her a glance as she tried to avoid him. His hurried steps echoed down the empty corridor. It was so quiet that Angela thought she could hear the snowflakes tapping against the windows. This unit of the hospital was far removed from the others, away from the constant bombardment of people yelling and machines blaring. While she and the rest of the unit's staff appreciated the subdued atmosphere, most of the hospital's other staff held an opinion of quiet mistrust towards the whole thing. It was the unspoken black sheep of the hospital's flock.

But personal preferences weren’t important; Angela went where she was needed, and it was for this reason alone that she trudged down hallways and up stairs to go see her next appointment.

This area of the hospital was much more alive; doctors strode in and out of rooms and machines made noise in a pattern that Angela couldn't decipher. Nurses kept careful watch at their station, the proverbial shepherds of St. Margaret's Intensive Care Unit. The lights reflected white off the glass walls and doors that led to each room. Angela wandered along these walls, searching for the correct room number. He said he would be in room 444 – Ah, there.

She spied Remy, just where he said he would be. The man had a conflicting appearance as well as disposition. Lines of laughter and frustration, wonder and sorrow overlapped across his face. Chapped lips could either compliment or cut down. His long dark hair and beard were shot through with gray, and severe eyebrows furrowed over kinder green eyes. Angela didn’t know exactly how long Remy had been around, just that he had always been there for as long as she had.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, walking into the room. The door slid shut behind her.

“What took you so long?”

Angela rolled her eyes. “Michael was being a poor loser and then I got held up in hospice. You know how it can be.” She searched the room, eyes roaming over a handmade drawing, fresh flowers, and a small photograph before settling on the small table where Remy sat waiting. A pile of old, torn playing cards lay stacked in front of him and several were fanned out in a weathered hand. “It looks like you've already started without me,” she said.

“I've been winning, too.”

Angela laughed. “Well of course you have, I haven't been here to play against you. Talk about uneven odds.”

“Don't talk to me about uneven odds,” Remy griped. “Anyway, it doesn't matter; I didn't mind waiting. I don't think she minded either.” He nodded in the direction of the prone figure lying in the bed.

Angela glanced over for a moment before her eyes turned downward. “No, I suppose she wouldn't,” she said after a small pause. “Do you know her name?”

“I might've at one point, but if I ever did I don't remember it now. Not that it really matters; they're all the same anyway.”

“I guess so.” She sighed. “Not that I think you're stalling, but can we start? I have one more to visit today and I want to see him sooner rather than later. The anticipation’s killing him.”

“Sure. Take a seat and we'll begin.”

Remy began shuffling the cards as Angela pulled out a chair and took a seat. Hers was in direct view of the window where the snow continued to blow outside. He dealt five cards to both himself and Angela, leaving the deck in the middle. “Same rules, right?” he asked.

Angela nodded. “No physical wagers. Best two out of three wins.” She picked up her cards and glanced over them. A poor hand, though that did not mean much to Angela. Sometimes the best things can come from seemingly the worst. “Are you in or out?”

“In. Yourself?”

“In. How was your day?”

“Same as always.” Remy laid down two cards before picking two more up from the deck. “The nursery was a nightmare; little bastards bawling their eyes out to go back into their mother’s belly. I don’t blame them, it only gets worse from here on out.”

“Why don’t you transfer if you hate the nursery?”

“Never said I hated it. It’s just sad.”

Angela wasn’t sure whether she agreed or not. She thought a moment before laying down three of her cards and drawing three more from the deck. Still a lousy hand. “Cards down,” she said.

Both of them laid down their cards face up. Remy smirked at her awful hand compared to his straight.

But he sobered up quickly enough. “A short lived victory to be sure. You always manage to win no matter what. Well,” Remy chuckled, “that’s not quite true. There was that one time a few years back –”

“I’m still convinced you cheated.”

“That's rich,” he said, dealing out the cards again. “You've won every game we've ever played and the one time I win a game, I get called a cheater.”

“It was a fluke; the exception that proves the rule.”

“And yet I can't help myself from playing. It's cruel, really. Now, in or out?”

“In.” She had a much better hand this time around: a two pair. From the corner of her eye, Angela could see the snow picking up in intensity. She wondered what the city would look like if no one removed the snow, leaving it there in its perfection.

“Angela?”

“Hmm?”

“You going to sit there pretty as you please, or are you drawing?”

“Yeah, sorry.” She laid down a card and drew one from the deck. Her two pair turned into a full house. “I was just thinking about the snow.”

Remy turned around to look at the window. “One hell of a storm we’re getting,” he agreed and turned back to face her. “How many idiots do you think are going to try and drive in it and end up here? You just might be working overtime tonight, Angela. Cards down.”

Her full house beat out his three of a kind. Angela gathered up the cards to deal the final hand.

“So,” Angela said, “Michael said something to me earlier that got me thinking.”

“Don’t let whatever Michael said get to you,” said Remy, gathering his cards in his hand. “He’s young and naïve, and he’s got a lot to learn when it comes to how the world works. I’m in.”

“Me too. He said that people have another life after they die. A perfect life. Do you think there’s another life after death, Remy?”

“Do you suppose that’s why people make such dumbass decisions? It’s some kind of subconscious impulse to end their miserable lives in the hopes that whatever comes after death will be better?”

“That’s not fair, Remy,” Angela frowned. “Not everyone’s life is as miserable as you seem to think it is. People tell me stories - good stories - about nice things that have happened to them; the good with the bad.”

He ignored her, shaking his head. “I hope not. Gods above, I hope there isn’t.”

“But why?” she pressed.

His eyes met hers. “Life is hard enough once. Why would anyone want to go through it again?”

“CODE BLUE 4TH FLOOR ROOM 438 CODE BLUE 4TH FLOOR ROOM 438”

Angela’s head whipped around to stare out the glass that separated her from the rest of the ICU. Nurses and doctors sprinted to a room past the one she and Remy were seated in, quick, biting orders falling from their lips.

“Maybe we should go and help,” Angela said softly.

“It’s none of our concern,” said Remy, not even glancing up from his cards. “Focus on the here and now. Are you going to draw?”

Angela studied her cards. She needed an ace of hearts to make a royal flush. The commotion from the code could still be heard from several rooms away. “Don’t you think we should go see if I can help – if you can help?”

Remy gave her a hard look. “Only two things are certain about this world, Angela: people are born and they die. The amount of time in-between is simply luck. That guy over in 438 will be fine; he has a bit more luck in him…for the moment anyway. Now, whether that luck is good or bad is another game of chance entirely, though I think you would agree with me when I say it’s bad no matter what.”

“Do you think that I don't know that people die?” Angela asked, incredulous.

“I’m just providing a simple reminder,” said Remy, picking up two cards from the deck. “Sometimes we can lose perspective.”

“We’re in a hospital. I think it's impossible to forget.”

“That’s true. Then again, only a fool forgets that he is going to die. And neither of us are fools.” A clap of thunder rumbled outside. “Now, are you going to draw, or forfeit?”

“It’s not my job to judge the quality of people’s lives,” Angela said quietly, laying a card down and drawing one from the deck. Nowhere close to an ace of hearts. She cradled her cards in her lap. “My job is to help ease people’s pain and suffering; to be kind and caring and compassionate.”

“I’m not questioning your methods, Angela. Quite the contrary. Just don't forget the why behind it all.”

Angela heaved a sigh and tugged at her sleeve with her free hand. “Cards down,” she said, bringing her cards up to lay on the table. “Royal flush.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Remy. He laid down his own hand, a straight flush. “I thought for sure that I had you there, Angela. Good game.”

“You too, Remy. I’ll see you around.”

He left without her watching. Instead, Angela busied herself gathering up the cards. With a sigh she looked up. Snow and ice had almost totally covered the window looking out to the city. Angela could almost believe that they were completely buried beneath the snow. Almost.

Angela finally turned her attention to the figure lying in the bed. The entire time she and Remy had been playing, the figure that Angela could now tell was a middle-aged woman, hadn’t moved or made a sound. Angela sat down in the visitor’s chair that was placed near the bed and grabbed the woman’s hand, staying mindful of all the wires and tubes.

The woman’s eyes fluttered open, squinting against the unforgiving white lights above her. But her eyes soon settled on Angela.

“Hello,” Angela said. “My name’s Angela. What’s yours?”

“Renata,” the woman rasped.

“Hello, Renata. It’s nice to meet you. Say, why don’t you tell me a story? A story about your life?”

A little while later Angela slipped from ICU room 444, tucking her winning ace into her sleeve as she went. Once more she found herself walking in the maze of St. Margaret’s hallways. This time her appointment was taking her to the surgical wing. She eventually made her way to the observation deck of an operation room. No one turned or noticed her entrance, save one. She walked over to him and took the seat next to his.

“Hello, Bion,” she said. “Are you ready to play?”