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“Good morning, Nisha.”
“What’s this? You already finished the one you started yesterday?”
“Mhm…I’m on the third and last one now. They’re great.”
“I’m sure they are. How late were you up last night?”
“Mmm, pretty late…”
“You were supposed to get a good night’s sleep! You have surgery today.”
“Exactly! And I don’t want to die without knowing how Jake and Xentha figure out how to access the fourth dimension.”
“But of course. I just have to take some blood, dear.”
“M’kay – let me switch hands here.”
The engrossed young woman had been reading throughout the entire conversation, and she now balanced her book in her left hand as her nurse dexterously filled a syringe. Nisha didn’t so much as blink at the pinch at the crease in her elbow.
“Are you almost done?” she asked after a few moments, tearing her eyes away from the novel for the first time since Anne had entered the room. “I have to turn the page.”
“Do you think you could push my surgery back a little? I’ll probably need another hour or two. It seems that I overestimated how quickly I could read this, and now I’m not going to be able to finish the book before dying.”
“You’re not going to die,” Anne reprimanded, pulling the needle out.
“It’s always a possibility,” Nisha noted cheerfully, turning the page. “I could even die right this very second while talking about death with you. That’d be wonderfully ironic. Though I think something like that happened to the antagonist in a book once, and it was kind of a deux ex machina moment. But I bet it’d still be neat in real life.”
“Well, this isn’t a book and you’re not going to die. But feel free to take up the time change with Dr. Fitzpatrick when he comes in to talk to you today.”
Nisha looked up sharply from the page. “He will? When? Will Dr. Pierce be joining him?”
“They both will likely arrive sometime within the next hour. Would you like me to give you a hand showering before then?”
“No! I’m perfectly capable of bathing myself without any help from you!” Nisha declared impetuously, turning back to her book with a scowl.
“Of course you are,” Anne placated. “We just wouldn’t want you to take a fall again right before surgery.”
“Besides, I’m much too busy reading.”
Anne paused, studying her charge’s expression. “Then why don’t I sit in the bathroom with you and read to you while you shower.”
“Only if you pronounce all the words correctly,” Nisha hedged at once.
“I assure you, I have incredible pronunciation.”
“Then I suppose I have the time.” Nisha held her head just a bit higher, as if to assure herself that she was still completely autonomous, despite not having enough strength to shower on her own.
This last exchange was backwards, but Anne didn’t mind. After all, Nisha could die that afternoon. There was no harm in letting her have this one victory.
“Morning, Ms. Sharma.”
“Morning, Dr. Fitzpatrick. Good morning, Dr. Pierce. How are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” Dr. Fitzpatrick answered with an amiable smile as he walked in, Dr. Pierce close on his heels.
Nisha put down her book and smiled wryly at the cardiologist and his young intern. “So, I’m being cut open today?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And at what time were you planning on doing the vivisection?”
Dr. Fitzpatrick winced. “Ah, I wouldn’t call it that…”
“It sounds more dramatic and frightening that way. Wouldn’t you rather die from a vivisection than boring old surgery?”
Dr. Fitzpatrick seemed at a loss for words. “Young lady, I don’t—”
“In theory, that could be fun,” Dr. Pierce interjected. “Especially if it was Dr. Moreau.”
Nisha beamed. “Or Dr. Frankenstein.”
“Or Dr. Jekyll,” he proposed with a grin.
She frowned in puzzlement. “Did he do vivisections?”
“I’d like to think so. After all, Dr. Jekyll doesn’t seem quite human, so he probably wouldn’t have as many qualms regarding vivisection.”
“That’s quite enough!” Dr. Fitzpatrick spluttered. “Please step outside, Dr. Pierce.”
“Oh, don’t throw him out because of me!” Nisha objected. “I’ll be good, I swear.”
“As will I, sir,” Dr. Pierce promised solemnly. “I apologize for my insolence.” But the moment Dr. Fitzpatrick turned away, Dr. Pierce stuck his tongue out. Nisha held back a giggle.
“In answer to your question about the time of the surgery, I anticipate that we’ll get started in three hours,” Dr. Fitzpatrick estimated.
“Do you think we could schedule it maybe an hour and a half later?” Nisha requested. “I want to be able to finish this book before the vivi—I mean, surgery.” Dr. Pierce gave her a mischievous smile.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, Dr. Fitzpatrick. It’s just that this book is really great, and I don’t want to die without having finished it.”
“You’re not going to die.” It was Dr. Pierce who scolded her this time. “Dr. Fitzpatrick is a great cardiologist. He’s done this surgery a million times.”
“Ah, actually—” Dr. Fitzpatrick began to correct.
“Besides, I’ll be in the O.R. the whole time, ready to jump in and take over in case Dr. Fitzpatrick passes out.”
“You’re not so much as touching a scalpel and I’m not going to pass out,” Dr. Fitzpatrick amended.
“Will you hold my hand while I go under?” Nisha smiled hopefully. “Pretty please?”
“Of course. No cherries necessary.” He winked.
“Nisha!” A woman hurried in, her bangles jingling. “I’m so sorry we’re late. We went to go pick up Ravi, but then the car wouldn’t start even though I told your father to take it into the shop last week.”
“I did take it into the shop,” a man protested, following his wife. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it!”
“Good morning, Mrs. Sharma,” Dr. Fitzpatrick greeted, “Mr. Sharma, and, ah...”
“Ravi,” a younger man introduced himself as he entered. “I’m Nisha’s fiancée.”
Dr. Pierce’s eyebrows flew upwards. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Nisha replied dryly.
“We were just discussing the possibility of moving your daughter’s surgery back,” Dr. Fitzpatrick explained.
“Why?” Mrs. Sharma’s forehead creased in concern. “Is there something wrong?”
“Not at all,” the doctor assured her. “Nisha just wants a little more time to finish up her book.”
Mrs. Sharma patted her daughter’s shoulder. “Oh, beti, don’t make the good doctor change his whole schedule for your book. You can finish it right after the operation.”
“But I want to finish it before, just in case,” Nisha protested, irritation lacing her voice.
“In case of what?”
“In case I die, a possibility that you almost seem immune to now.”
“Ah, ma’am,” Dr. Fitzpatrick cut in. “It’s really no trouble.”
“No, Nisha needs to learn to be respectful of other people’s schedules.”
“Amma, I’m dying and all I want is to finish my book. I’m in college now. Stop treating me like a child!”
“Then stop acting like a child!”
Mr. Sharma stepped to his wife’s side, looking embarrassed by her outburst, and murmured, “Let her read her book, jaan.”
Scowling and fierce, Mrs. Sharma looked ready to take on the whole room if she needed to, but she glanced up and saw the doctors’ uncomfortable expressions, and forced herself to relax, shoulders lowering and breath puffing out. “Go ahead and read your book, Nisha,” she allowed brusquely.
Pleasantries and thanks always felt like dust in Nisha’s mouth when they were neither pleasant nor thankful.
Dr. Fitzpatrick’s pager began to beep frenetically. He glanced down at it, muttered a curse under his breath, and started backing out of the room. “I’ve got to go. Pierce, get the Sharmas to the reception desk and have them fill out that paperwork.”
Dr. Pierce nodded sharply. “Got it.” Dr. Fitzpatrick rushed out in a flurry of white fabric and papers.
“If you’ll just come this way, Mr. and Mrs. Sharma.” Dr. Pierce opened the door for them. “There are a few things regarding insurance that we need to finalize.”
Ravi smiled at Nisha, sitting in a chair at her bedside and well aware that they were now alone. “Good morning, meri jaan.”
Nisha picked her book back up and continued reading. “Not now, Ravi. I’m going to spend my last few hours of life reading, not making small talk with you.”
“You know you’re going to survive this. You’re just trying to be dramatic and foreboding,” Ravi complained. “Come on, at least look at me, Nisha.” He tried to take her hand in his, but she jerked away.
“I already told you, I don’t want to marry you.”
“We’d be great together, meri jaan.”
“You really have to stop calling me that.”
“Our parents know us better than anyone else. They know how perfect we are for each other.”
“Well maybe I don’t want a perfect marriage. Maybe I want us to be all Heathcliff and Cathy, and Erik and Christine, and Maxim and his second wife, and Romeo and Juliet.”
Ravi brightened. “I can be your Romeo.”
Nisha sighed and turned the page. “That’s not the point. You don’t understand.”
“Maybe that’s because you won’t explain it to me.”
“I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.”
“You just want what you can’t have. You always try to be difficult because you read about all these tormented people and want to be just like them. What you don’t realize is that this is reality, and in reality, tormented people get put on meds or admitted to insane asylums or commit suicide, and everyone forgets about them. Everyone forgets and thinks of them as failures, not as genius literary creations.”
“Go away, Ravi. Go find yourself a beautiful, uncomplicated girl who appreciates you. Make your parents call off the marriage, because they’ll never listen to me.”
Ravi frowned, doing his best to dissect the inscrutable face of his former best friend and fiancée. “You’re making a big mistake, meri jaan.” Nisha’s only reply was to flip the page.
The door swung open and Dr. Pierce entered, with alacrity at first, and then hesitancy as he caught a whiff of the tense atmosphere. “Am I interrupting anything?”
“Not at all, Dr. Pierce. Please, come in,” Nisha invited without looking up.
“Nisha—” Ravi began.
“Make yourself useful and buy my father a chocolate bar. Knowing him, his blood sugar is probably low by now.”
Ravi stood up, looking colder than she had ever seen him. “Of course.”
Nisha wouldn’t have been surprised if she had seen ice crystals form in the air where he walked through.
Dr. Pierce seated himself in the now unoccupied seat. “What was that?”
“I’ve been trying to break this arranged marriage for the past couple months. Considering all the success I’ve had, it looks like the only way I’ll get out of this would be by dying.”
Dr. Pierce chuckled darkly. “You really have to stop being so morbid. With that thinking, you actually will die.”
Nisha shrugged. “So it goes.”
He winced. “Ooh, that’s even worse! Oh, it’s painful!”
She grinned at his exaggerated discomfort, still reading. “You have no idea how happy it makes me that you get all my references.”
“I’m glad your life is now complete.”
“Will you please quit—” Dr. Pierce sighed. “Do you need a bookmark?”
“I’m sorry. I’m terribly rude when I read,” Nisha explained, not sounding very apologetic at all. “Once I finish this chapter, I’ll be less sarcastic and more fun to be around.”
“What a shame. I so do love the sarcasm.”
“Just a minute, Dr. Clever. I’m almost done here.”
“Should I hold my breath?”
“Be my guest.”
When Nisha set her book down a minute later and returned to reality, she discovered that Dr. Pierce actually had been holding his breath. “Stop it!” she chided, hitting him in the shoulder and making him lose his concentration. He threw his head back and laughed as she continued, “At this rate you’re going to die before me.”
And as suddenly as he had started, Dr. Pierce stopped laughing. He clutched at Nisha’s hand fiercely and stared her somberly in the eyes. “If you don’t stop making comments about the possibility of your death, you’re going to create this nocebo effect, and your body will freak out at all your negativity, and you’ll actually die. I’m not f***ing around here. You have to stop, now, because I’ve grown rather fond of you over the past week and I would really hate for you to die.”
Nisha stared at him in shock. “You smell nice,” she observed in a whisper.
Dr. Pierce’s lip twitched into a ghost of a smile, but he quickly composed himself. “Did you hear a single word I said?”
“Of course. You told me to stop being negative because otherwise I’ll kill myself with the nocebo effect, and you’re also in love with me.”
Dr. Pierce gave into a grin this time. “Wonderful paraphrasing.”
“Thank you. I’m very good at multi-tasking. It’s a gift.”
“How old are you?”
Nisha blinked in surprise. “Ah, twenty.”
“Just twenty or almost twenty-one?”
“I turned twenty three months ago.”
Dr. Pierce let go of her hands and leaned back, exhaling heavily and running a hand through his hair.
“How old are you?” Nisha asked meekly.
“Twenty nine, as of two weeks ago.”
“Happy belated birthday.”
Nisha thought it was funny that she’d never heard anyone else use that phrase so graciously.
“We could be like Jane and Rochester, you know,” she suggested.
Dr. Pierce winced. “It’s not nearly that bad.”
“What, you don’t have an insane wife locked away in your attic?”
“Unfortunately, no. Just a whole lot of ferocious storage boxes.”
“What a shame.”
“Do I have to call you Dr. Pierce still?”
“You mean now that we’ve declared our undying love for one another?” he deadpanned.
“Well, I suppose you could call me Andrew.”
“What, not Ender?”
He laughed and pressed an exuberant kiss to her forehead. “You are truly adorable.”
“Thanks, Ender. That was pretty adulterous though.”
“I’m about to get married, and that was quite the intense display of affection.”
“You just broke up with your fiancée, and I kissed your forehead,” he pointed out incredulously.
Nisha shrugged. “Vivisection, surgery. Adultery, amiability. Tomato, tomahto. What’s the difference?”
“You’re right. I can’t possibly do anything worse now.”
To emphasize this point, he kissed her right on the mouth, which Nisha agreed wasn’t worse at all.
“Good evening, Nisha.”
“Hey there, Ender.”
“Are you ready for this?” he asked, holding one of her hands in both of his. “All optimistic and pumped and ready to survive?”
“Well, my book series ended with both the main characters dying, but other than that, yeah, I’m not thinking about death at all.”
“Yikes.” His brow creased above his surgical mask with genuine worry, and his gloved grip tightened uncomfortably.
“Don’t worry, Ender. My incentive to live will be more adulterous activities with you. Can you promise me that much?”
“As long as by adulterous you mean amiable, because I don’t want you still marrying Ravi.”
“Nope, not a chance. I’ll even give you the privilege of telling my parents about our new relationship.”
“How do you think they’ll react?”
“Mmm, they’ll probably disown me and try to kill you. But that’s alright, because you’re gonna be a rich doctor with great insurance.”
“Dr. Pierce,” Dr. Fitzpatrick interrupted. “It’s time for her to go under now.”
“Of course, sir. Are you ready, Ms. Sharma?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be, Ender.”
“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.”
“I’ll miss you the whole time.”
His eyes crinkled happily. “Count backwards from ten, alright?”
“Ten, nine, eight,” The mask descended over her face, a stream of anesthesia flowing into her nose, “seven, six…five…f-four…”
“Good night, Nisha.”