She sat in her oncologist’s office, waiting for him to return. He scheduled a meeting at 7 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t know why, but had a guess.
He told her he would be back in just few minutes.
The room had pictures of papers on the wall, all sorts of degrees and certifications. She never bothered inspecting them further. There was one painting of a meadow that covered one wall, just enough to be aesthetic. She enjoyed staring at this painting to let her mind rest.
She sat in an old wooden chair on a faded green cushion. Across from her sat the doctor’s empty faux black leather office chair. A large blocky wooden desk separated the two, it had a small pile of papers neatly stacked in the center.
One more empty chair was placed with care in the corner of the room. This used to be her chair.
A bookshelf covered one of the walls. It was filled; some books looking unopened like they existed simply to impress, while other books were tattered and beaten like they had collected years of experience.
She eased her way out of her chair. Her muscles ached. Her bones creaked. She had grown familiar with these aches and creaks.
She walked over to the bookshelf and began looking at the books. Each time she came to an interesting title, she picked it out. She looked at it and flipped through the pages, searching for nothing of significance. She put the book back and continued through the books on the shelves.
The doctor walked through the door and she gave him a soft smile. She had seen him enough times that she didn’t feel the need to give a formal greeting.
“Good evening, Mrs. Joie,” the doctor said.
She looked over at him. She dipped her head to see him through her true eyes, rather than her spectacles, and smiled again, with a book in her hand.
“I see you’ve taken a liking to my books.”
“I’ve taken a liking to your bookshelf,” she said as she slid the book back into place. The doctor sat at the desk with one foot up. He had a pen in his hand and clicked it several times.
“I think there should be a bookshelf in every home,” she said.
“Bookshelves can tell so much about a person.”
“Oh?” the doctor said. “Then what does my bookshelf say about me?”
Mrs. Joie didn’t speak for a long time. She looked at a book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. The cover had faded and torn. She would have thrown the cover away by now, but he kept it. She noticed how perfect the book looked beneath the cover, no dust, no scratches, beneath the cover the book had never seen the real world.
“John,” she said.
“What kind of books do you think are on my bookshelf? At home.”
The doctor didn’t know how to respond, he looked at her for a moment in thought.
“You’ve known me for three years now, John.”
“Well, are the books only yours? Or are they Robert’s as well?”
“We shared our books like we shared our lives,” she said.
The doctor sighed and looked over to his bookshelf. He thought for a moment.
“Let’s get down to business, Mrs. Joie.”
“You’re just trying to get out of my question.” She smiled at him as she turned around to walk back to her chair. The doctor considered helping her back to her chair, but decided not to bother. She took her seat and began to look around the room, careful not to make eye contact.
“How have you been doing?” the doctor asked.
“I’ve been well.”
“Have you been feeling okay? No physical problems?”
“None. I feel as spry as a puppy at dinnertime.”
“That’s wonderful news!”
“Just wonderful,” she mimicked. Her aged smile shone with confidence; the smile of somebody who lives only to share her memories. Someone who has experienced both love and suffering. Someone who knows the value of life.
The doctor had a pain in his chest. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t. He didn’t know where the pain had come from and didn’t want to make himself vulnerable to it. “I have a question for you,” he asked.
“You know, I have to be honest when I say, this surgery isn’t a smart idea.”
“That’s not a question,” she interrupted.
The doctor laughed and dropped his foot from the desk. He leaned forward and laced his fingers, resting on his elbows. He looked at her, still unable to make eye contact. “Why do you want to go through with this surgery?”
“I’m in pain,” she said.
“You just told me you were feeling as spry as a puppy at dinnertime.”
“I’m in pain, John.”
She looked at him and her eyes connected with his.
He nodded to himself with a frown. He looked at his computer. She could see its reflection in his eyes. “You’re a kind man. Cultured and intelligent, John. You want only the best for others. It’s why you do this horrible job. So that you can help people. People like me, people like Robert. You want everyone else’s smile to be brighter than your own,” she said.
The doctor’s fingers stopped typing and his eyes froze. Only for a moment, then she continued. “Your bookshelf told me that,” she said. “Without Robert, my memories are the only thing that keep this smile on my face. My smile will dull with time, John.”
She reached her hand out for his and embraced it. She smiled at him one last time. A smile tried to breach his face, but he contained it. She stood up. The doctor thought to help her up, but continued staring at his computer. She walked out and the door shut behind her.
Robert Ruzicka is a recent graduate in Environmental Science from CSU Channel Islands. He grew up in Southern California with a dormant interest in poetry and fiction. His interests awoke his junior year of college after taking a class in Environmental Writing. Since then he’s written two novels, many short stories and poems, and is working to get some of these pieces published.