The in-between

The cancer ward was on the ground floor and that was a problem. I was about to be checked-in for six weeks of treatment, placing my life in suspension, while I attempted to fight the tumour growing inside me. It was a brief adjournment between this life and the next, but the jury was still out. Would I live or would I die? Only time would tell. 

I wanted a room that would reflect my transitional status appropriately. Not the top floor – I wasn’t giving up on life just yet – but not the ground floor either. That was too close to the living population. What I needed was a room halfway up the building. A nice, comfortable, in-between room; keeping my options open to whatever came next. 

From the in-between room, I could look down or up at any time. Gazing out the window and looking down over the city, I could watch the healthy people move like little ants in disorderly lines as they criss-crossed along the streets. I could spend the next six weeks mulling things over. Would I get to rejoin them after this regime of chemicals has passed through my veins? Would I get to don an ill-fitting wig and claim the word ‘survivor’? Alternately, I could pass time looking up, considering the clear blue sky with its ever changing clouds, watching as they shifted and morphed into a stage four terminal coach, waiting to take me away to heaven. What would it be like to ride one of those clouds? What would it be like to be pain-free, to say goodbye? These are things I could ponder from the in-between room.

But hospitals are places of aggressive survival instinct and entertaining the idea of riding clouds into the next life doesn’t come naturally to them. They’re more interested in this life. The here and now and, most importantly, fighting to stay.

I have been prepped for war against this disease inside me. The doctors are the generals, who bark their orders on morning and evening rounds, their weapons are injected, not fired, and my internal organs are to be the bloody battleground. Keeping me on the ground floor is their subliminal attempt to boost morale. Stand your ground soldier! The battle continues! Onward! To victory, to life! But at what cost?

The side effects of this war will be gruesome. I will lose my hair, my skin will itch and scab, my taste will dissolve and even when I manage to swallow a bland mouthful, I’ll most likely retch it right back up. I will lose weight and no longer be able to think clearly. Fatigue will set in and anyone who visits me will have to wash vigorously before entry, in case they unwittingly carry some Trojan germ plotting a surprise attack on my weakened immune system. The price to win, to live, will reduce me to a dispensed shell. 

Despite all that though, the side effects aren’t actually the worst of it. The worst thing is the one-way glass. It lines the wall of my hospital room. Four big panes where I can see out but passersby can’t see in. Instead of getting to gaze down from the high perch of the in-between room, I’m suddenly at eye level. It’s uncomfortable and I don’t like it. Have you ever looked a dying person in the eye? You possibly have and just don’t know it, thanks to one-way glass.

Perhaps the doctors think this people-watching mural will serve as inspiration. That seeing the living wander past me every day will give me cause to rally, but what I feel is awkward. As the weeks of treatment take their toll, I become a peeping-Tom, watching and salivating over their healthy state as I touch my own ravaged body. I start to wish I could look like them; I want their polished skin, full fat bodies and long thick hair. I want to eat like them, drink like them, have sex like them, be them. It has become my desperate voyeur obsession. 

When a woman stops briefly to check her appearance in the glass, I approach until my face is superimposed over her own. I take on her features; her plump red lips and high cheekbones, her clear blue eyes and soft curled hair. She in return gets my balding head with sunken jowls and scabbed skin, my dull eyes and sickly pallor. The lines of our faces blur and for an instant I am her and she is me – only she doesn’t know it. Then she moves on, turns her head and simply walks away, leaving me with my face pressed against the cool surface, on the inside of the glass. 

A low moan escapes my throat and I bang my head repeatedly against the pane. It is all too much. This cruel illusion of health that I can see but cannot touch. It is all too much. I am overexposed on the frontline, seeing what I can’t have in high definition. It is all too much.

I flee. 

Turning my back on the windows I lurch forward and stagger through the two-way doors into the sterile corridor. A nurse jumps as the door slams against the wall and he steps toward me. I snarl at him, my thin lips stretched against my skull and he rears back, nostrils flared. I twist on my heel and continue my escape, making my way towards the elevator at the end of the hallway.

A chime echoes as the metal car arrives and the doors swing open. Thankfully, no one is inside. I hear urgent voices behind me, someone is pressing a big button mounted to the wall. I ignore them and step inside. As the doors swoop closed, I press my own button – the one for the top floor. 

The elevator climbs and I watch the floors tick by as I ascend. My heart thumps in my chest and my breathing is shallow with rapid gasps. My eyes follow the little light that moves across the numbers over the top of the door. My lips twitch, mouthing each illuminated numeral in sequence; twenty-seven… twenty-eight… twenty-nine… until another chime signals my arrival at the top. 

I step out and the grey linoleum floor feels cool under my bare feet. It sends goosebumps up my legs and prickling along my arms. My hospital gown suddenly feels paper thin and a sense of growing urgency swells in my stomach, propelling me forward on shaky limbs. The corridor stretches away in front of me, lined with rows of private rooms with closed doors on each side. Like barracks, each room holds an occupant soldier fighting their own battle against some other disease. At the far end, I see what I have come for, what my body has been instinctively moving towards: a white door with a glowing green sign sitting squarely above it. The EXIT.

I take a step forward. Then another. And another. The sound of my feet slapping against the hard floor echoes in my ears and, like a beating war drum, it mobilises me. The urgent feeling in my stomach surges and I start to careen. My arms pump like pistons and the hospital gown swishes against my unstable legs until I suddenly collide with the door, crashing into its solid frame. 

My chest heaves with exertion and I pause to catch my breath. A chime echoes behind me and I hear those urgent voices reverberate down the hall, followed by pounding footsteps. Time to go. Glancing up at the glowing exit sign above me, I place my hands against the cool metal handle and push the lever down with both arms. It gives way and I escape into the bright light waiting on the other side.

The dazzling rays are blinding but I do not raise my hand to shield my eyes. Instead, I turn my withered face to the sun and feel its warmth against my translucent skin. The fresh air fills my lungs and I breathe deeply before edging over to the railing. A gentle breeze sways against me and from my high perch, I can look down at the people below. Just like I imagined, I see ants crisscrossing, this way and that. A smile spreads across my lips and a happy giggle bubbles forth unbidden. After another deep breath, I turn my stare upwards. I take in the wispy clouds and the immense blue canvas above me. Another delightful giggle sounds and a warm calm blanket settles over me, wrapping comfortably around my bony shoulders. Tears run freely down my cheeks, my contracted skin relaxes and I wiggle my toes against the concrete. I am where I am supposed to be. Suspended. In-between.

Suddenly a heavy hand clamps down on my shoulder. Strong fingers bite into my skin and my calm is shattered. With a small whimper, the smile slides from my face. I turn and see a white coat and stethoscope; the general has arrived. A sense of dread dowses me from head to toe as I realise my attempted desertion has failed. My moment of suspension is over. Before I can resist, the general steers me back towards the door. Pulling frimly on my elbow, she leads me through the corridor and down the elevator. I’m escorted back to my post, in my hospital room, and told to sit down on the bed.

Without another word, the general turns to leave, pulling the door closed behind her. It shuts with a solid click. A silence descends upon the room and I hang my head in my scrawny arms. I curl myself up on the bed, drawing my knees into my chest, my eyes focused on the locked door. The one-way glass stands tall at my back. Looming over me, I feel it’s pull, but with my final remnants of defiance, I refuse to look.

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