A Boy and A Girl

"She's dead."

The words seem to hang in the air for a moment. He sees them, right there, actually spilling out of the nurse's mouth. Big and bold and red-SHE'S DEAD.

There's that painful silence that follows the news. Nobody seems to know what to say at this moment. There really is nothing you can say, except-

"I'm so sorry."

Sorry? His hands form fists in his lap. Sorry.

SHE'S DEAD, SHE'S DEAD, SHE'S DEAD.

His mother sets a hand gently on his arm, says, "It'll be okay, Josh." But he shrugs her off.

He doesn't look at her. Just stares down at his fists and tries to pretend that this isn't all his fault.

The nurse clears her throat and opens her mouth, as if to say something, but closes it. After an awkward moment, she says, again, "I'm so sorry."

"It's okay," his mother says quickly.

No, it's not. But he doesn't say it out loud. Just keeps staring down at his hands. Just staring and blinking and trying not to cry.

"I'll…send in the chaplain?" She says it like she's so unsure. She takes a careful step backward, towards the desk.

"No," says Josh.

"Yes," says his mother.

The nurse doesn't know what to do. She smiles weakly. "So that's a…?"

"No," Josh says before his mother can say anything else. "He's useless now."

The nurse leaves without another word, but very hesitantly, leaving Josh and his mother in an uncomfortable silence. There's a fly flitting around, lighting on and off his arm, but he doesn't bother to wave it away. Why should he? He's no better than shit, really.

"You could at least do it for Shandra," his mother says, almost bitterly, getting up from the chair to pick up the box of tissues on the waiting room table.

"Shandra hated religion," he says, almost automatically. As soon as the words leave his mouth, his face twists into a painful smile. Hated. Past tense. Already.

He goes back to staring at his fists.

His mother blows her nose and lets loose a heavy sigh. Minutes struggle by, like a child trying to run through water. The fly continues to buzz around him, and he's oddly thankful.

"I don't know what to say," his mother says, finally. She takes a deep breath and lets it out. "I just don't know what to do..."

"I don't, either," he says. But it's a lie. Lie, lie, lie.

Without a word, he gets up and he leaves the waiting room. His mother doesn't follow him. The fly does, for a few seconds, but soon finds something else to entertain itself and forgets about him. He heads down the hall, hands jammed in his pockets, fingering the stone in his pocket, turning it over and over and over.

He enters the elevator, hits the first floor button with his fist, and waits impatiently for the doors to close. As soon as they do, he lets go of a breath he couldn't remember taking and rests his head against the wall. He likes the way it feels, to drop. That brief sense of falling. It's too brief, really. He wishes there were more than three floors to this hospital. And he really wishes that whoever it is on the second floor didn't have to use the elevator right this moment.

The elevator comes to a shaky halt, jolting him a bit. The doors open, and there's a petite blonde woman who steps in, newspaper under one arm and briefcase hanging loosely from her hands. She's middle-aged, sporting small professor-type glasses. At first glance, he thinks she might be a lawyer, but she's wearing the wrong kind of suit-a jogging suit.

"Hello," she says. It's strange, the way she says it. Not rudely or friendly. No real inflection at all. It's just a "hello." Like she's running on auto-pilot.

He doesn't say anything back. In answer, he sniffs. He can't enjoy the elevator anymore. She's ruined it by making it stop halfway through its descent. When they reach the first floor, he's out as soon as the doors open.

"That's rude, you know," the woman says behind him, in that same sort of lazy, monotone voice.

"Excuse me?" He turns around to see her slowly walking out of the elevator, briefcase swinging at her side.

She looks at him over her glasses, a crooked smile crawling across her face, and says, "It's rude to just ignore someone like that."

Josh opens his mouth to say something, but she interrupts.

"Humans are social creatures," she says, very matter-of-factly. "You can't isolate yourself. You'll die. Have you ever heard of the Genie Project?"

He immediately does not like this woman, and he can feel his face twist into a sneer. "No," he says. "I have not heard of the Genie Project." He practically spits the last three words back at her.

"Well, never mind, it's not important, really. There were also these babies. In Russia…" The woman sounds like she's trying not to laugh. "But, again, not important." She shifts the briefcase from one hand to the other. "Our lives are completely ruled by outside forces. Did you know that?"

Josh scratches at the inside of his arm nervously, debating whether or not to just turn around and walk away. Walk away and keep walking until he reaches the main lobby. He doesn't know how to respond to this woman, and he really isn't in the mood to deal with her. He begins to turn around when the woman rests a hand on his shoulder. A very unnerving move.

"You want to know a secret?" she whispers.

"No," he says, yanking himself away from her, uncomfortable and feeling almost violated. Without another word, he turns and starts walking-fast-down toward the lobby.

"You didn't kill her."

He stumbles, as if tripping over her words.

"Society killed her."

He can't help but laugh at this statement. Society.

"Who are you?" He turns around and faces her, one hand in his pocket, caressing the stone nervously. "And why the hell are you talking to me?"

"Humans depend on each other for survival," she says, taking her glasses off to clean them on the end of her jumpsuit sleeve. "You need human interaction right now, whether you want it or not."

Josh feels his lips curve into a smile. A big, awkward, nervous smile. "My girlfriend just died," he says, each word drenched in anger and pain, things he wasn't quite sure he felt until he said the words out loud. My girlfriend just died.

The woman places the glasses back on her face and blinks a few times, adjusting to the new sight. "I know," she says.

"How?" he demands.

"You're a guy. And you're easy to read. Body language, voice inflection, eyes. You're a window to someone like me. Also, we're in a hospital." She sighs and shifts her briefcase again. "Do you mind if we sit down?"

"Yes," he admits, a bit too quickly. She eyes him carefully. "I don't want to commit to a conversation with you."

"I know," she says, just as quickly. "But we're already having one. Why not continue it?"

"I need to mourn."

"No, you don't." She tilts her head to one side. "Blaming yourself isn't mourning. Get over it. And get rid of that stupid stone. It's weighing you down."

Josh's fingers pause, the stone a cold lump in his hand. "It's my anchor," he argues.

"It was her anchor," the woman says, staring him straight down. "It dragged her to the bottom of this ocean, and she drowned. You want that to happen to you?"

"Yes," he lies. There are tears behind his eyes now. He stares down at his shoes, which blur and become one with the white linoleum floor. He feels like he wants himself to blur, in that moment.

For a few seconds, the woman is silent. Then she sighs and shifts her briefcase to the other hand again. "The secret is that other people don't matter," she says, a half-smile playing on her lips before she turns and shuffles out of the building.

She leaves him alone, standing there in the hall. Just him and his anchor. And then he can't help himself anymore. He can't keep the guilt inside any longer. He knows, in that moment, the truth. And he cries. Stands there and cries, the stone in his fist, pressing deep into his palm.