DENNIS

People don't want to die in hospitals. A friend told me that once. It's not the winding white corridors with the lingering medical smell, it's not floor after floor of wards dedicated to one particular ailment or another; radiology, neurology, cardiology, pediatrics and the like. It's not the doctors or surgeons or nurses, so used to seeing death, with their samey smiles they use on patient after patient, regardless of condition. It's not the occassional screams that can be heard from other wards. It's not the crying parents who've lost their child, it's not the woman with AIDS hooked up to every machine and drug imagineable. It's not the irony that it's a building of healing.

All it is, is that people don't want to die in hospitals.

I felt guilt, that this was all I could think about, sat on one of those collapsible chairs, holding my mother's hand. Just guilt. I couldn't hold her other hand, poked and prodded full of needles as it was, narcotics and painkillers and IV pouring into her system. We were alone in a room, blinds drawn shut, me sat upright like the doting son I never was, she unconscious on the bed. She doesn't want to die in here. I could hear two nurses in the corridor talking about a little boy who came in bruised and beaten, signs of abuse at home, and the erratic bleeping of mother's heart monitor behind me, which I would sometimes jump at.

She doesn't want to die in here. But I had signed the DNR; she had told me to sign it, that she didn't want any intervention when her body gave out. I don't remember doing it. I think I didn't want to. But there I saw the clipboard, plain as day, hanging from the side of her bed. Do Not Resuscitate. Signed: Dennis Haarman.

There was a knock at the door, a turn of the handle, and the nurse who'd been checking after my mother the last two days poked his head in, looked at me. "Can I disturb you a moment, sir?"

I nodded. I didn't like how he thought he was only disturbing one of us. "Yes," I added.

He must have been newly qualified. Very young for a nurse, late twenties. No tiredness under his eyes, no wrinkles in his forehead, and there was that barely-noticeable spring in his step as he walked over, as if the weight of the world hadn't crashed down upon him yet. It was admittedly different, refreshing to see. A few years in a place like this will change that, I thought, drill out the genuine smiles and replace them with the automatic, give each step added weight. Working here is suicide.

He replaced mother's IV drip, the old one now empty, gone within minutes. That wasn't a good sign. She doesn't want to die in here. "The police will be here shortly to ask you a few questions," the nurse added, "but I gather you weren't there at the time of the accident?"

I thought the police were going to ask me the questions. "I wasn't, no," I replied. The past couple of hours, my mother's breathing had become more shallow. Her chest expanded and contracted much less now, and more infrequently. I was the only one around to answer questions, who could answer questions. The couple in the other car were both dead on arrival. They didn't die in here. The lucky ones. "How much longer does she have?"

The nurse looked up at me from his work, the painkillers he was now rearranging. His eyes looked surprised. Maybe it was too direct a question. Maybe he just wasn't used to it yet. His eyes were brown, very brown. "A few hours," he said, no hint of error in his guess.

I nodded again. "Thank you." But why did I thank him? Had I really wanted to know that? Could he not have given me false hope? I probably didn't want that. I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't want what I knew. It was all so tiring. "She doesn't want to die in here."

The nurse's gaze had never left mine. At this remark there was no shock however. He just continued staring. I was glad I hadn't once seen him smile. He was new here, this experience probably as uncomfortable for him as it was for me. No fake grins, no false smirks. "I'm sorry." That was all he said.

He left a few minutes after that, mother and me alone again. I hoped the drugs were all working. No suffering. Dying in here was pain enough, I think. She looked peaceful, past all the wires and equipment she was all but clothed in. You couldn't tell she'd been in a motorway collision. No bruises, no cuts, no gashes, no dismemberment. All internal, all under the skin, invisible. Appearances can be deceiving. Who was it that first said that?

"Can I...?" I turned my head, the nurse was stood in the doorway again. I hadn't heard the door open. Had he even really left? "Can I get you anything? Coffee? A magazine?"

It was funny, I hadn't noticed he had an accent, European. Two days, and I hadn't noticed. I thought maybe I could save him the trouble, get a coffee myself. I was quite thirsty, tired, caffeine sounded good about now, but my hand was still in hers. "No, I'm fine," I replied. I wonder what I sounded like. I was so tired. Probably drunk or stoned. "Thank you though."

Again the nurse didn't smile, just nodded. Did I want him to smile? He probably had quite an impressive smile. "Okay then. I'll be back in a few minutes."

He left, and I watched him leave this time, closing the door without a sound. I looked back at my mother. Even on a hospital bed she looked glamorous, all made-up. None of it had run either, even after a car crash. Must've been sturdy stuff. I wondered where she'd been going when it happened? Maybe she was off on a date, off to a party, a trip to the theatre.

Probably the theatre. There weren't many nice memories her and I shared, but one was in the theatre. The Dominion, London. We'd seen Annie, I was seven, she'd bought me ice-cream from one of the vendors in the hall. In the interval we'd tried to find the toilets, but wound up backstage by accident. I bumped into the girl playing Annie in the production. She was nice, energetic, she'd ruffled my hair. Mother said I'd make a cute orphan child. She wasn't drunk, I remember, dressed in a long blue gown, looking every bit the British aristocracy she was. The conductor had flirted with her. He was fat and had a big white beard. Mother had said later he looked like Father Christmas' long lost piglet brother.

I smiled to myself, and then at her, here in hospital. "A few hours," I said aloud.


KEVIN

"No, I'm fine," he replied. "Thank you though."

Damn, I was such an idiot, I shouldn't have even asked. Such an idiot. He probably just wants to be left alone with his mother. Christ, I'm so stupid. Here he is, spending his last few hours with her, and I barge in like a brain-dead moron. What's wrong with me? I should've clocked by that look, the look in his eyes. Nothing. There was nothing there, like his recognition of me was automated, something his body did but his mind was oblivious to. I could only imagine what was going on in his head at that moment...

I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Kévin, ça va?"

I turned, startled. It was Anna, a colleague, probably wondering why I was stood standing in the doorway like a clown. She was, that I knew, the only other French member of staff working in the hospital. I couldn't believe my luck when I'd first arrived to find a fellow francophone; my English at the time was below average at best. "Ouais, ouais, ça va, ça va," I replied in a hurry.

She looked back at me with those deep concerned violet eyes of hers. She was very beautiful, that much was indisputable. Blonde hair, great figure. We'd been an item for about a year, before we split a month ago. It was a very amicable break-up, no tears, no arguments. She wouldn't tell me why she wanted to end it -- to this day, I still don't know -- but I didn't want to be the guy that made it harder for her, so I agreed, got over her, the usual fare. "...j'aurais dû réfléchir avant de lui demander."

She smiled at me. "You always do try to please people. It's sweet."

Back in English. She does that a lot. When we were dating, without warning she'd swap between her French and her English. It was like a game, and a bloody annoying one at that. I like to keep the languages separate in my head, makes things easier, there's a clear distinction, you know? And then she comes along and blends the two together, and everything gets muddled. So I stumbled a bit before responding. "I...I can't help it."

She crossed her arms around the chart she was holding against her chest, and leaned to look past me into the room. "You sure it's not just because the guy in there is hot?" She winked.

Always playful, couldn't keep it in her trousers, that's Anna for you. Under any other circumstance, I probably would've grinned and joked along with her. But I didn't. "Anna, not this one, let's not do this."

Her cheeky grin disappeared instantly, and she looked like a child whose favourite toy was just snatched from their hands. "You've been no fun ever since that guy and his mother arrived," she began, eyeing me up, bemused. "What's up with that?"

Good question. "I honestly don't know," I replied, genuinely. "The guy looks... I don't know. I expected him to look sad or something, like a normal person would. But he just sits there, holding her hand, no expression on his face, speaking with a monotonous voice." I paused a moment. "I've never seen some react like this to their own mother dying."

Anna nodded. "That's fair enough, you're still quite new to this," she began, the hint of a lecturer in her voice, "but you've got to be prepared to see any reaction in this place. And I mean any reaction. Everyone deals with these kind of things differently, and Mr. Hot Stuff in there is case in point."

I sighed at the nickname. Anna was right, though; this whole case was completely new to me. I'd had another ill mother come in a few weeks back, with her teenage daughter who was constantly frantic and on the verge of tears. Her mother had died on the table, and the daughter had had a level four meltdown in the waiting room when I'd told her. It was tough to stomach, but at least I'd expected that kind of a response. It seemed more human to me. But this guy, Dennis, in the room next to me... it just didn't seem right.

"Look Kevin," Anna continued, still looking at me, eyes still concerned, "I've got to go. There's an L.O.L. in curtain three that won't shut up about back pain, and I've got just the ticket." She waved the bottle of pills she drew from her pocket in front of me, grinning deviously. They were tranquilisers, and strong ones at that. "I'll catch you sometime later, maybe dinner?"

I shook my head. "Sorry, I can't. I'm covering Bergstein's shift this evening. I lost a bet. Don't ask."

Anna giggled at me. "Ah I see, I see. Ah well, see you sometime tomorrow then? Assuming you're not too tired that is, you busy boy, you."

She winked again, kissed me on the cheek, said "à demain!", and then was off down the corridor. I shouted "à tout ma pute!" after her, for which she stuck her tongue out at me and gave me the finger. I laughed, before turning back to the door, thinking about the guy with his mother again.


DENNIS

So it was French then. Mother liked French. I wondered if she could hear anything in her condition. She'd probably have had a go or something, told me I should've kept up my studies in it. I stopped going back to France two years ago, couldn't stand being with her anymore. That was the last time I saw her before this, actually. Was it ironic that it takes a death to bring two people back together? Probably. The word ironic is overused.

I had a question I wanted answering, so I buzzed for a nurse. I looked at the remote that patients use to call them in. Just two controls on it, a big red button to call for help and another smaller white one to control the lights in the room. I didn't have the lights on, and the blinds were drawn. Even had the moon been out, the room would've been dark. She doesn't want to die in here.

Everything was illuminated as the young nurse opened the door. I had to squint, I was convinced the lights in the corridor were brighter than the last time. The nurse looked like an alien disembarking from a starship in one of those old trashy science-fiction movies. I realised I wasn't high when I was watching him enter, though. It was less impressive.

"You called?" he asked, staring at me.

I wondered why he did that, the staring. No blinking. All the other doctors and nurses who'd been in and out of here didn't look directly at me for very long, but I got this guy's full attention until he left. I wondered why I noticed so much about him. I hadn't been so attentive over others in here. "What's an L.O.L.?"

I think he wanted to smile when I asked that question, something in his eyes. But I saw him check himself, like if he laughed in front of me I would want his blood. "I-I'm sorry you had to hear us in the corridor," was his answer. Not a very good one.

Why was he sorry? People can talk. Means I can listen. "I don't mind," was my answer. I wanted him to answer the question.

"L.O.L. is kind of doctor slang, if you can call it that, for Little Old Lady," he said after a minute.

I burst out laughing. Probably woke up the whole fucking ward. I don't know why I did it, but I did. Little Old Lady. The same acronym as Laugh Out Loud. I was laughing. Talk about beautiful symmetry. I didn't think that I was on drugs then, but it sure felt like it. My laughter made the nurse jump in fright. That caused me to laugh further. His face. He looked so incredulous, like he'd never seen someone laugh before in his life. Probably thought I was a lunatic. Wouldn't blame him. How many people have been known to corpse laughing infront of their dying mother? Must've been at least a couple. But not as many as those who cried. Obvioulsy. "What's your name?" I decided I needed converstaion.

He looked relived that I could manage one. "Cotillard," he said. "Kevin Cotillard," after a moment.

I felt the need to say this aloud, repeat it like some special needs kid. "Keh-veen Koh-tee-yarrrd." His surname was so unbelievably French. His first name was anything but, yet he said it as such. Kevin with a french inflexion. Kévin. Keh-veeen. I smiled to myself. He made me conscious of my accent. The bastard. "Mine's Haarman," I replied. "Dennis."

He mimicked me. "Deh-Neeese Haarr-man."

He made my name sound like Denise. Stupid accents. But I think I didn't care. I'd never been called Dennis the way he called me Dennis. It was different. Why did I notice this?

I disregarded the thought. "Uhm, thank you by the way," I continued, not sure why, "thanks for being so...attentive."

He definitely thought I was an lunatic. Another surprised look, like he'd never been thanked either. He was very attractive, angular jaw, messy brown hair. Walked and talked like an adult, but those brown eyes said he was still a kid at heart. I noticed all this while my mother as dying next to me. "You don't have to thank me," he replied, eyes still locked with mine. He was so intense. "I-I'm really sorry this had to happen to you," he said. "To your mother," after an instant.

I think I must have smiled slightly then, gratefully, because he seemed to blush slightly. He was very attractive. I wanted him to smile. And, emotionally fragile or stupid or insane as I was, I got up from my chair and let go of my mother's hand. In that moment it didn't matter to me that she didn't want to die in here. I moved across the room to where he stood, our eyes never leaving each others', his seemed to fill with fear, and I couldn't say what was in mine. I moved in close, very close, so close that I could feel the breath escaping his lips on mine. I brought my hand up and brushed it against his cheek and jaw, satisfied that it felt like sandpaper. He hadn't shaved in a while. I could tell he had to restrain himself, his eyes wanting to flutter at the touch, his mind too confused and petrified to allow it.

I moved in that little bit closer and kissed him.