The Exit

by Christopher Bowen

“I need some help.”

He circled the bed, motorized half-way upright, as the pressured air sank and rose, sank and rose, giving the patient oxygen.

He was not awake, conscious maybe, but not awake.

Jack pulled a wooden chair out from the small room desk and turned it backwards sitting in it. He threw his elbows and forearms on top.

“I've been a smoker for twenty years. Started when I was a kid, you know? Hell, we used to trade smokes after school like baseball cards. I remember the first cigarette I had, thirteen, how the world spun afterwards. How I almost fell over.”

He shook his head, lowering it and glaring at the floor's tiling. How it shone red in the emergency exit light in the hallway from behind him and blinked sometimes from the passing of the ceiling fan.

“I tell you what? The most disappointing moment of that? When my 9th grade English teacher caught me senior year smoking in the boy's room. No suspension, no paperwork, just ‘come out of that stall...you should be ashamed of yourself.' Couldn't look him in the face the rest of that year.”

The respirator continued to fall, the cyclical tubing inside like an hourglass, ribbed and plastic the way you couldn't take it serious. Like a kid's toy. Or story. It hissed.

The patient moaned, mumbling something slightly and rolling his eyes while  turning from Jack. The dark, gray hair on the side of the old man's temple was matted and oily. He was dying, he would pass. Tubing ran up the middle of his chest and gown, split at the neck, and marathoned into his nostrils. There wasn't enough air in the world for this man.

It hissed.

“I should leave,” Jack said somberly. “I should leave. I didn't know what I was looking for here, from you.”

He circled the bed, tucked the chair in, and walked out of the open door of the ICU room.

There's the way hospitals always keep their doors open, the patient rooms, that makes you think of death as always there, always welcome. There are the ways we are welcome there, too, and friends and family, and especially the nurses who need them open for the call buttons and beeping of machines like respirators. There are doors that are sometimes never open, or usually closed, and those are the ones you find throughout life so often. But they are not here. There are so many doors in the world, and yet so few open.

He walked through the automatic exit, leaving through the hospital emergency room, but only because he was lost and they were the only doors he'd been able to find.

He lit a cigarette under the entrance canopy before the rain. How it shone.

“Excuse me, do you need some help?”someone asked.