“The Colors of Pain”

“Gut pain’s always the worst,” says the medic.

I could tell him he’s right, but I want to keep my pain pure and white and private. He can’t know about the rest of it, and I haven’t the strength to tell him anyway.

He’d promised that the pain would be better by now. But whatever narcotic’s dripping through that tube is going to need help. I know it, can feel it, even before the GI doc phones to suggest emergency surgery, even before the specialist five thousand miles away reads the films and agrees.

New Zealand. He’s in frigging New Zealand. Is the local film guy not good enough?

I should be grateful for the specialist’s help, but don’t have the energy for that, either. The pain’s a burning web, spinning white and deep into every corner of my gut. The woman who brought me in, from whose familiar bed we’d stumbled in the night, thinks it’s a kidney stone. She had one once. It hurt. She understands.

Something new and awful twists in the core of me, some devil with a gut wrench.

“You’re kind of white,” says the medic.

That’s what the woman who should be here had said, too, but that was thirty years ago. “You could have tanned up a little. It’s our honeymoon, after all.”

A too-white man on a Caribbean beach. She hadn’t wanted to make love that night. The hotel had given us a room with two twin beds, the economy package, and that had been reason enough.

The woman beside me now, an accident of time and circumstance, ignores the medic’s color assessment. “Kidney stone,” she says again. “Got to be.”

They’re still waiting for the GI doc, the guy who could do the cut, but who’s still off saving someone else.

Waiting. Again. White, wanting, waiting for the woman who’d been false to prove herself even half true. Waiting for the woman I’d prayed for, the one who never showed, though once, that time in Texas, I thought she had. My yellow rose, I’d called her, though we’d had only three weeks together. No pain could ever dim those memories.

The false woman, my wife, would never call. Not even to check on me.

My yellow rose will probably never know.

My accidental woman steps into the corridor, summoned by a ghost in a white cowl. Together they pray, more loudly, I think, than one ought to in a hospital corridor. They don’t mean me to hear, but I do. And I decide to give up the worry of waiting altogether.

 

The surgeon who might save me arrives anyway, and I’m grateful. Its right that I should be, and I will somehow find the energy.

“We’re not positive what’s going on here,” he says. “Only way to know is to go in.”

“But it’s only a kidney stone!” my accidental woman says.

She’s shaking, white in her own turn, her own way. I should be grateful for her, too. I try, but I’m thinking of Texas. I close my eyes, hear the one who loves me begin to cry. But I’m still thinking of Texas.

“We can’t go forward without his consent,” the surgeon says. “He’s the only one who can decide.”

She starts to speak, stumbles over her words, starts again.

“Should I be here?” she asks, and in her voice I hear the despair of helplessness. “I mean . . . we’re not married.”

“Of course,” the doc says. “Of course you should.”

A low voice in the corridor says it’s fifty-fifty. I can’t see its owner, but through the door I can see the near end of the gurney he’s wheeling.

The doc wraps his fingers around my forearm, a gesture I know he intends as kindness, but scares me more than anything yet.

“What do you say, son?”

“What . . . would you do?” I croak the sentence, like a frog.

“Can’t hurt any worse than it does now.”

He’s right, but he doesn’t know the whole of it any more than the medic. I nod my head hard and the doc signals. They bring in the gurney, slide me on, roll me down a hall pristine in its whiteness. One wheel rattles like a grocery cart until we stop where halls lead off in four directions. At the end of one will be a table where my eyes will close and later open—or not.

My woman’s beside me, crying still, holding my arm. She can’t talk. I wonder how long we’ll wait here, how long it’ll take them to prepare. The woman in the white cowl stands behind us, mute, respectful. The gurney driver’s standing a few yards to the left, also waiting. His face is kind and, I think, sad. He holds his hands behind his back, and in his face I can see that he’s done this a hundred times. I realize, too, that he isn’t waiting for the preparations.

He’s waiting for my woman, waiting for her to finish saying goodbye.

Instead, she hurls herself against the white wall and vomits a yellow-pink stream of bile and blood. Her nun goes to her, comforts her as the gurney begins to roll down the longest hall. My pain is white as the walls, sterile, built from decades of sadness. Hers, I realize, is born from fear and love. Her pain holds every color I’ve never known.

The swinging doors are open now, the surgical team standing by the table beyond it. Their white scrubs shout purity beyond question. Clear tubes hang from hooks, the brightest shop light I’ve ever seen illuminates all of it.

But the walls. Thank God, the walls. They’re yellow.

Frantic, I tilt my head up and back, searching for the gurney driver’s eyes. He sees me and, incredibly, smiles. He knows what I want to say, but I still have to tell him.

“Tell her she belongs. Tell her she absolutely belongs.”

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About R. A. Shockley

R. A. Shockley is a life-long student of short fiction whose stories have at least been nominated for a Pushcart (sorry, no cigar yet). His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, Emrys, The Petigru Review, The Del Sol Review, and Scribble, among others. He writes in Athens, GA, occasionally relying on the clack of a real typewriter to break through writing blocks. Feedback is welcome at rshockle@uga.edu, especially if you’d like to review his first novel.