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The Regret Rooms

A short fiction story about regrets in the ER

He heard sounds of agony, pain and anger. Children and adults alike were crying. The ER was crowded, and full of distressed people.

Noah walked past them, faces imprinting in his memory. He had just started as an intern in the hospital. An unusual intern, because he was sixty years of age. Finally, he had found his vocation in life.

Noah was not a good student when he was younger, failing classes left and right. There was not anything he was really good at. So he helped out in his father’s gas station in a rural area. He did not mind the work. To be honest, it was not much work. There were only about two dozen customers a day, much less than the gas stations on the highway. But he enjoyed it, nonetheless, as it gave him plenty of time to read instead. Every week, Noah went to the library to pick up five new books. He got lost in other worlds, lived through other people’s adventures and learned more about philosophy and science which were his two favorite subjects. And before he knew it, he succeeded his father as the owner of the station.

It was only in his forties that he had found the love of his life, Bea. She had car trouble and it was snowing outside. Noah promised to fix her car when the weather would improve. So, he drove her to her house, was invited in, and practically never left. Bea had just come out of a bad marriage, and Noah was everything she needed and more.

In his fifties, Noah felt something was lacking in his life. Ever since he started working at the gas station, the area was consistently changing. The number of inhabitants in the town increased dramatically. His clientele increased dramatically. It was good for business, but not good for his mind. For Noah was nostalgic of the past and had grown used to having lots of time to himself and his books.

On a stormy afternoon, a man in a suit appeared in his station. That day, the same amount of rain fell that would normally fall in a month. There was something peculiar about this man. For starters, the man was not wet from the rain. He had bright red hair which was combed back neatly and he had a big beard. He wore a three piece, moss green suit. From behind his small spectacles, two twinkling eyes looked at Noah. The man was there to tell Noah two things. The first was a beautiful story Noah had never heard before or read in any of his books. It felt transformative, but at that moment he did not know why yet. Noah even thought he saw some lights circling around the man, or were the lights just in the corner of his eyes? The second thing the red headed man told him, was that he was prepared to offer him a big sum of money for acquiring his gas station. Noah did not even discuss it with Bea, he agreed to the terms and to the attractive sum of money, still under the influence of the story the man told. As the man left, the storm came to a calm.

Without a job and without worry, Noah decided he would want to help people in an environment in which he was also able to stimulate his mind. He would go to medical school to become a nurse.

*

After years of late nights studying, he had finally made it here to this ER. The only thing he still needed to get used to was the horror and pain he encountered every day.

Noah walked into the corridor to do his rounds. He got to treat the patients who had already been treated after they had arrived in the ER, but who needed to stay in the hospital.

Considering the fact that Noah was the eldest nurse in the team, his duties differed from that of his colleagues. They had barely the time to check a status report. Not Noah, he could allocate as much time to his patients as he seemed fit. Therefore, he had build memorable and warm relationships with the few patients he had.

The corridor looked clean, white and brightly lit, as most hospital corridors do. On the left side were four empty rooms, waiting to be filled today. On the right side were four rooms that were already filled.

The doctors and other nurses called this corridor “the in-between”. It was currently being remodeled, but more importantly, it was where the most severely injured patients waited to be moved to other rooms in the hospital to get further treatment.

As Noah pulled the curtain away to see his first patient, he was shocked to see the boy sitting on the side of his bed.

“Jamal, you need to lie down, you have to save all your energy.” He said in a gentle but firm tone.

At first, Jamal did not look impressed, but he complied.

“How are you feeling today, my boy?”

“I like the drugs, man”, Jamal giggled, “I don’ feel my wound.”

Jamal looked at Noah with hazy eyes, as if he had just cried. Jamal was supposedly a tough guy. A young up and coming delinquent trying to find his way in the world of organized crime. Noah, however, saw something different. Something was up. Had the boy been crying? He had to be careful here, a boy like this easily gets short-tempered.

“Have you spoken to Enrico today, Jamal?”

Jamal looked at Noah as if he was about to attack him, then his attitude turned softer, his eyes wandering, his face relaxing into a sad expression.

“How can I after our fight? Ya thought my wound was bad, wait till ya see that gangster. I got him real good.”

Again the eyes and the sad face. Noah knew this was no ordinary fight between young delinquents, there was more to it. The guy who he had shot was in another room, hurt. Jamal asked the nurse about him.

“Do you want to know how your friend is coping? He just came out of the Intensive Care.” Noah had visited Enrico half an hour ago.

A bit too eager, Jamal sat up again, nodding.

“He was lucky, your friend,” Noah looked intensely at Jamal. “The bullets missed his vital organs. One went straight through, but the other had split in pieces. It took a while for the doctors to remove it completely. He was still asleep when I visited him. But Enrico is tough, and I think he will recover well.”

Jamal just nodded. His heavy heart relieved. He thought about Rico and felt as if he would be sick again, a rather funny feeling. Like his insides were fighting. He felt his organs bouncing around like he has never had. He hated it, for as it only happened when he thought of his friend. However, it did not feel unpleasant.

“Do you want to tell me what happened, Jamal?”

The boy looked hesitant, but decided he could trust Noah. It was just something about the old man.

“Rico was tryin’ to get it on with my sister, and he better put his dirty hands somewhere else. He was hookin’ up with her in my house. I wouldn’ have it. I jumped up on them and threw a couple punches, nothin’ serious yet bro. But then he stabbed me here.” Jamal pointed at his shoulder where the wound was. He continued: “I had my gun clamped between my pants and my back, reached for it and shot him. Twice.”

“And then what happened, Jamal?”

“I panicked, Rico and my sister both screaming. I didn’ want my bro to die, but I didn’ want to go to juvie or nothin’. But seeing Rico, and hell myself, I called the emergency number.”

Jamal cried and let loose. He thought about his friend, about his feelings, about the possibility of going to jail. He wondered if this would be his life, the life of a delinquent, a good for nothing. Could he not become more than that? Should he go to school? Should he pursue singing, his greatest love?

Noah just held the boy. Then he had an idea.

“Would you like to hear a story, Jamal?”

Jamal nodded against Noah’s chest. Somehow, Noah had remembered the complete story by heart, word for word. He had not told it in years. It was the story told by the man who visited his gas station on that stormy day.

As Noah told Jamal the story, Jamal relaxed and lay down in his bed again.

When Noah was finished, he touched the boy’s forehead and dropped some dust in his eyes, the boy fell into a peaceful and dreamless sleep.

Noah felt for the boy. He hoped that Jamal could accept who he is and that he could walk a different, better life path. Hopefully the effect of the story and the peaceful sleep would put Jamal in the right mind the next morning, Noah thought, in order for him to make the right decision.

*

He had a flashback to studying. At first, his fellow students threw him alienated looks. He was at least twice their age. But somehow, the students were drawn to him. They came to him for advice. Not just advice about the course material, but advice about life, about love, pain, society, norms and values, about finding your true calling.

Noah smiled at the memories. He was ready for his next patient.

She was still asleep, snoring lightly. Noah wandered around the room for a bit and then sat beside her. After a couple of minutes, she woke up and looked straight at him.

*

“Hi there, Charlotte, how are we feeling today?”

Through a big yawn, she responded that she felt ok. “I can’t remember sleeping this long. It has been a while. Where are my children?”

“My guess would be that they are in school,” Noah responded.

She nodded, but her expression changed. Then came the tears.

Noah decided it was best to leave her for a bit.

“Do you want a cup of tea, honey?”

She nodded in response.

When he returned, she sat up, staring at her phone.

“Your results came back, you got extremely lucky. Do you know that? Not just for yourself, but you should thank the heavens you didn’t hit anyone else. But we do need you here for a couple of more days to do some tests with your legs.”

“I know.” She replied bitterly as she put her phone away. Charlotte was thinking the old man was maybe a bit too frank for a nurse, but she knew he was right.

“Do you want to talk about it, Charlotte? I’m here.”

“You’ll hate me when I do.”

“I am proud to say that I have never hated anyone, for hate is just a fickle emotion. It is anger and fear amplified. I won’t allow those emotions in my life. I choose not to.”

“You are a funny man, Noah. Ok, I will tell you.

Three years ago I was promoted to an executive position at my firm. It was only a couple of months after I gave birth to my second child, my daughter Lily. A miracle, at my age of 45.

We were over the moon, but I quickly went back to work. I already knew I was on track to becoming the first female executive. I desperately needed that position; I had fought for it for years. Not only for myself, but also, for all the other women I felt as though I was trailblazing for – those in the firm, my friends and family.

I was already working crazy hours, but since the promotion I had to travel a lot more too. The job was physically and mentally exhausting. I barely saw my husband and children, but I clung on to the idea of proving to myself and other women that I could juggle it all. I especially wanted to prove myself to the other male executives.

Then, three nights ago, I drove back from a conference, where I got to speak on behalf of the firm in my new executive position. I was so proud of that moment. It felt as though I had now really arrived. As I drove back that night, I needed to check my emails. I had so many missed calls and messages. So, I tried to multitask, exhausted, busy, all over the place. I did not see the deer coming. I hit him at full speed, the car lost traction and hit the guardrail. Next thing I knew, I was here. Bruised, broken, and with a concussion.

And now, I can’t seem to get over the fact that this has also brought me something. I didn’t only have a lot of time to sleep. I’ve had a lot of time to think.”

Noah beamed at her, he wanted to say so many things, but the most important part was that she knew where she went wrong already. However, he needed to push a bit.

He responded with a question: “Why is your job so important to you, dear?”

“Because,” Charlotte had to gather her thoughts. “I am the only female in the executive board. In a company I love to work for. But a company predominantly consisting of men. Especially in the senior and executive jobs. The accounting firm I work for is one of the biggest listed company’s world wide. And everywhere, the same issue arises. Unequal representation of women in the top positions.”

Noah interrupted her. “I love how you are so passionate about this, and rightly so. What made you such a trailblazer for women, Charlotte?”

“In university I wanted to be participating in the national Programming competition, representing my faculty. But at the time, there were only a handful of women studying Data Science. The faculty team had traditionally consisted of men. I applied, and was promptly rejected. It felt so unfair, I was enraged. But I’m glad it happened though, it served as my fuel. I established an all female Programming team – albeit that it consisted of the only women in the Statistics faculty. We participated, even quite successfully and ended in fifth place. I knew then, that I could achieve whatever I wanted, but that I had to pave the road myself, fighting.”

Charlotte thought fondly of the memory.

Noah looked at her in admiration. “And so you have. But I can’t help but this you must miss your family too, to see your children grow up?”

Annoyed, Charlotte looked out of the window, unable to look at Noah. She anticipated the direction this conversation was progressing in. She was both amazed and angry that he asked this question. But she knew the answer. The woman sobbed.

“Let me tell you a story once told to me.” Noah said.

Noah told her the story, Charlotte calmed down as she listened to his words. To the rhythm and tone of his voice. She pulled her head back and looked at the old man.

Noah concluded the story and Charlotte showed a faint grin, feeling more at ease, but also confused.

Noah asked her another question: “What do you want to teach your daughter while she grows up?”

At that she laughed. “I want her to know that she can do and be anything she desires. And help her grow up as a wonderful woman. I want to bring up my children with the right values in order for them to flourish.”

He winked at her as he touched her forehead and again, let a bit of dust fall gently on her eyes. Charlotte had some decisions to make. Then, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*

“How are you today, sir?” Noah asked.

“I’m breathing.” He had a look of melancholy.

Henry was a pristine man. He and Noah had talked for hours last night.

He was a man who had worked his whole life to provide for his family, ignoring his own wishes and desires. Always putting them first.

He had dreams, like we all have. But Henry never wished to act upon them. He was afraid. Afraid of seeing what he was capable of. Afraid of standing out, of other people’s views. Afraid of the unknown, the uncomfortable.

He had always wanted to join his eldest brother in his business endeavors. His brother owned multiple fashion stores in the city. The seventh one they had set up together, but then they had gotten into a fight beyond repair. Henry was the youngest brother of four. He was ten years apart from the youngest of his elder brothers. They had already made a mark for themselves in their lives, when he was still in school. He looked up to his brothers, to their achievements, but Henry was not particularly good at anything. His parents had never praised him as much as they did to his brothers.

The seed of insecurity had been planted early on in his life, the plant of it nourished by his own insecurities and lack of praise from others.

Henry had been a prudent man all his life. Instructing others to be prudent in his wake. Never do this! Be careful of that! Don’t do anything irresponsible! His prudency kept him in his hometown, in the house he grew up in. Where he now lived with his wife. Pondering what would or could have been. Living through others in his regret. He took shelter in his shed, his own sanctuary created in order to avoid life’s risks.

Henry just had his fifth heart attack. It was actually a miracle he was still alive.

From his bed, he looked at Noah. At his round and open face. Noah showed him a kind and broad smile, dimples in his red cheeks.

Noah had an aura around him that made one feel at ease with immediately. He was a stranger who you trusted with your deepest secrets. It felt as if you had put them in a vault.

Noah and Henry immediately formed a friendly rapport. Henry did not have any close friends he spoke to regularly. The few he had, had died.

And now, he felt how friendship could feel again. What he was missing. He thought about all the friends he pushed away. Out of pride and envy. But mostly because of his own insecurities.

Henry’s wife had passed away a couple of months ago. Ever since, Henry was counting the days until he could join her. The couple had three children. Henry had not spoken to them in years. He pushed them away because of futile arguments, trivialities that turned into a storm of fights. Fights that were unnecessary in retrospect. Fights about relationships with partners he did not approve of. About his expectations for their futures, which they had not lived up to. About his conservative views and their liberal perspective in an ever-changing world. And of course: fear, fear of living. That particular fear turned him against his children, to the grievance of his wife. He had seen all three of them at the funeral. They were incapable of comforting each other in their grief. The distance between them was created by years of pride. His daughter had come up to him, desperate for a hug from her dad. It felt right, but they did not speak. Both too proud to be the first to admit they had been wrong.

Noah saw a broken and depressed man. A man unable to cope with his feelings. A man full of guilt and pain. A man who, at 85, had still not found his place in this world. It broke his heart to see this man without his children by his side. However, Noah had heard a story once. A story that helped him to turn his life around. He had told it twice before today, to people filled with regret, people who needed perspective. Henry needed to hear it before it was too late.

He told the man the story. Henry’s eyes flickered. The tension in his face was visibly eroding as the story continued. Twilight formed outside. A small stream of light coming in from the streetlights shone upon Henry’s face.

When Noah was finished, the old man asked him to call his children to come over. He always carried a note in his wallet with their phone numbers.

With his fingers, Noah touched Henry’s forehead as some dust settled in Henry’s eyes. In all of his 85 years, Henry had never had such a carefree sleep.

*

His rounds that night were hard on him. Noah had not felt so drained in weeks. He dreaded his next patient, for she was a patient so full of life and curiosity. Now life was about to leave her thanks to a disease that was attacking her body menacingly. It was hard for Noah to see the young in so much pain. In addition, this night had already turned out to be quite exhaustive for him, visiting the previous patients.

“Help, Mister!” the girl, scared.

“What’s wrong, love?” Noah replied calmly.

“I had a bad dream. There was a monster under my bed and then I woke up and my mom was gone.”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. She is just in the cafeteria, having dinner. I’m here. Tell me about your dream, honey.”

“Well, the monster wanted to get inside my body, but I didn’t want it to. Is it gone, Mister? Isn’t it under my bed anymore?”

Noah bent over and looked under her bed.

He nodded. “No one there, Julia. You don’t need to worry and I’ll stay until your mom is back. Is that ok?”

She showed a faint smile through her tears. Noah wiped them away and told her to lie down.

Only a couple of months ago, Julia was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was undergoing chemotherapy. A cruel process that slowly killed both her infected cells and her lively cells.

She was a vibrant, curious girl. Strong too. However, Noah was unsure if she would be strong enough to fight her disease.

Julia had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks now. A couple of days ago she ended up in his corridor to regain strength from the chemo and for her family to stay over. This room had a stretcher for guests.

Julia had the tendency to comfort the people around her, when she was actually the one who needed comfort. She wore a bunny shaped cap to cover her bald head. She was pale and skinny, but her smile was as bright as the full moon on a clear night. Noah looked from the tubes in her nose to her bedside table. On it was a piece of paper that said Julia’s Buket list. She had written down the numbers one to ten, but had not made up her mind yet as for what she wanted.

Noah grinned. “What is going to be on your bucket list, Julia?”

The girl sat up, with a sudden burst of energy. “I want to learn to play piano, I want to see a ballet show, I want to marry Robbie …”

“The boy who visited you yesterday?”

She nodded happily.

“Is he your boyfriend?”

“Yes, but it almost didn’t happen. I was too scared and he was too. In school, I liked him, he was funny and well… he looks nice.” She giggled shyly. “My friend said I should ask him to be my boyfriend, but I didn’t dare to do it. What if he would laugh at me and tell all his friends? For weeks, I was too scared to do it, and then I arrived at the hospital.” Her tone died down a bit.

“Either way, you learned something. He could have liked you back. Or you could have always wondered: what if? What did you do when he visited you? Did you ask him?”

She chuckled. “Yes, and he said yes. Only he said he hoped that I would grow my hair back. He liked my hair. Will it grow back, Noah?”

With a heavy heart, he put on a smile and said that she would grow even more beautiful hair.

“You know what, Julia? You have a lot of courage. I’ve seen other patients today. They regretted many different things in their lives. They are afraid of being judged, afraid of loss of face, afraid of living. You are not, young lady. You are a strong little girl.” At that, she beamed with pride.

“Can you tell me a story, Noah?”

“Of course, dear. I will tell you a story that was once told to me when I was afraid of life. It was told by a peculiar man with magical powers.”

Her eyes lit up and she gasped.

*

Once upon a time, there was a man who had lost everything. He had no family left and barely any friends. In a year’s time he had lost the love of his life to another man. His misery thereafter resulted in him being fired from his job.

Living on public welfare, he felt like a failure. On top of it all, he felt his shortcomings growing larger and larger.

His morale was low. Wherever he went, his presence drained the life and energy out of rooms and crowds. His troubles consumed him, his mind was always in a worried state.

One night, as he was contemplating giving up on life, a young boy arrived at his doorstep. The young boy introduced himself as The Moon.

The hopeless man thought life was throwing another cruel joke at him. But fortunately for him, this was not the case.

The boy who called himself The Moon took the man’s hand and told him they were going to his home up in the sky.

Amazed, the man flew while holding hands with the boy Moon. Looking down to the Earth, his house started getting smaller and smaller. The man kept looking down, his heart growing less heavy with the increasing height. When he looked down, his house was unrecognizable, a blur in a darker pool which was his town. Soon that too became a blur until it was removed entirely from sight by the clouds.

As the clouds’ mist touched his cheeks, he felt lighter.

He looked at the boy Moon, who was looking up towards his home. The man looked down to his planet, thinking about his troubles. What would people think of this? For the first time in his life, he did not care as much as he would normally have. It was a liberating feeling.

After what felt like days, the boy Moon warned him that they were about to arrive.

Suddenly, the man felt drawn to a shiny silver planet. With a pop, they were softly pulled to the surface.

The boy Moon invited the man to take a seat and take in the view.

“What do you see?” The boy Moon asked.

“A tiny spec that I know as the Earth, as my home.”

“How do you usually see yourself on Earth?”

“To be frank: as useless and as a failure.” The man’s shoulders dropped.

“How do you feel now you’re here?”

As his shoulder lifted, he said: “Light and calm.”

“So what does this teach you about your existence on earth?” The boy Moon asked, amused.

“I don’t know.” The man said with hesitation.

“Let me tell you what I see when I see your kind from here. Your kind worry and fear too much, about uncertainties, prestige or other vanities. But one needn’t worry about those trivialities. If something doesn’t go your way, think of how big that problem is, seen from this very spot.

People can’t even be seen from here. When you are on your planet, I can’t see you either. In this universe, all elements are but tiny dots composed of atoms. Besides, all these elements are temporary. Some last longer than others, yes, but all will cease to exist.

Whenever you are faced with an obstacle in your life, think of what you would see from here. From a distance, your troubles become smaller and smaller.”

The man felt the words of the boy Moon wash over him like a nice warm bath, a bath so fresh with insight that for the first time in his life he did not pity himself. For why pity yourself when life’s purpose is to seek, to challenge and to evolve? There is nothing scary about that, and if you look around, everyone is doing the exact same thing. Growing, evolving, falling down, standing up and rising to new heights. He felt a new determination running through his veins. He needed to help people to see and feel what he had just felt.

The boy Moon smiled at him and gathered that the man was changing in front of his eyes.

“Let it all go. Let yourself go. Whatever you’re experiencing, always think: this too shall pass,” the boy Moon said. “There is only one certainty: I will always be here in the universe fulfilling my duty around your world at night. Tomorrow I will be there, and the day after that, and after that…

You seem to know what you must do. Live, I beg you, and fulfill your role in the grand scheme of things. Find chaos and adventure. Overcome adversity with resilience. Help out and use your time well.”

Just as he accepted what the boy Moon was asking of him, he closed his eyes. A strange force pulled his body from the moon back to earth. It happened so fast, he only blinked twice. He was dropped safely in front of his house, just as he thought he was going to be catapulted into the ground and end up in human pieces. He was softly stopped and put on the ground, feeling light as a feather.

*

Barely noticeable, Noah touched the girl’s forehead and dropped some dust in her eyes. The girl fell asleep. Noah hoped and prayed this would not be her last sleep. She should be able to enjoy so many more.

– The End –

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Originally published at www.turnerstories.com

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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