The Shift

For the second round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that begin with this sentence: "The nurse left work at five o'clock." The winning story was "Last Seen" by Cathy Formusa of Port Townsend, Wash. You can read her story and more of our favorites on our Three-Minute Fiction page.


The nurse leaves work. iStockphoto.com i i
iStockphoto.com
The nurse leaves work. iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com

The nurse left work at five o'clock.

You realized she was gone, and sat up in bed, suddenly and unexpectedly bereft. You bargained with yourself to keep your dignity. In the end you think you might have won. You did not limp down to the nurses' station at the end of the hall and beg her to stay.

You didn't like her during her shift. The last time you saw her, 15 minutes ago, she showed up with the big machine and you groaned, because they wheel it in here four times a day. When she asked to take your vitals, and it wasn't really a question, you asked her to pick a finger, and that wasn't really a question either.

She chose one of your twinned middle fingers and latched the machine onto it. You waggled the fingers to make sure she got the point, but she asked you to please keep still, then rattled off a series of numbers your body provided but your brain did not understand. She did not bother to explain them to you. You wiggled the fingers again as she unclipped the machine, but she left without even a sigh, wheeling the machine into the hall, barreling towards the next patient. Your feelings were hurt. She was supposed to be caring for you, but she didn't care enough to even be annoyed.

And then you were alone again. You are alone now.

You have some freedom; you can unplug yourself from the wall and walk around a little, wheeling your tubes ahead of you on a pole, but where can you go? The bathroom, maybe. Into the hall, to be turned around by a person wearing a hospital garment that affords them more dignity than yours affords you. It's not worth leaving the door of your room, but you do, because hospital television bores you and you're in too much discomfort to read.

None of the other patients seem to want visitors and you don't have a roommate. You were thrilled to see that there was only one bed when you arrived, as thrilled as anyone being admitted to the hospital could be. But after ten days, you wish there were someone here to loathe. Someone with a racking cough to keep you awake nights. Someone with horrible relatives who visited often, voices piercing the curtain dividing your beds. Someone with a taste for hospital food, so that you, taking your meals though a tube, would start salivating at the smell of turnips and stewed peas.

But there is no one else. You share your room with a pile of your belongings. They are things you can't use here — sneakers, a backpack, a coat, pants with pockets, your wallet, keys to a car parked miles away.

By now, your nurse could be miles away as well.

You know there will be another nurse. There is always another nurse; they never leave the patients without one. But you know what that means: one more stranger. One more person to take the vitals and ignore your wiggling fingers. One more person who will see your back through the johnny coat. One more stranger who will return to her own life when the shift is done.

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