Originally written on December 5, 2016 as part of the story Verity
The rest of the day Millie walked with a certain spring in her step, of the kind that she had long ago realized meant she was feeling some mixture of contentment and hope. Or maybe it could better be described as a very quiet elation. She wore a half smile as she went about her duties, most of which she could luckily perform by rote because her mind was not fully present.
Only later during her commute home for the night did she realize that she was treading into dangerous territory. It wasn’t that she was beginning to notice warning signs, for there was no point of comparison. She had never developed this kind of bond with a patient before. However, she could recognize the warmth running through her. She could feel the tug of wanting to spend more and more time with Ada, even though they spent almost every waking moment together. But that was as nurse and patient, and she wanted more. She wanted to learn everything there was to know about Ada, to hear every story about her life, about how she came to be who she was, and even how she came to be, finally, under Millie’s care.
This was an entirely new experience for her. She had always felt the greatest sympathy for her patients and had always worked herself ragged to cater to their physical and emotional wellbeing. Never, though, had she allowed any of them to do anything for her. Obviously clinic policy strictly forbade it, but she also wholeheartedly agreed with that policy. Those who came to the clinic were suffering in the most terrible way. All they wanted was release, and yet they had to be patient while endless tests and monitoring were performed, just so that no single life ended before that end was truly and definitively desired.
The fact of the matter, though, was that in the decade since the Verity Clinic opened, not one patient had failed to show him- or herself prepared to exit the world. The precautions were important, and Mildred strongly believed as much. However, they did delay the inevitable and prolong suffering. To ask anything of any single one of the patients, to add to their already great misery, would be simply unconscionable.
And yet here Millie found herself with this bewildering, enigmatic woman who was supposedly under her care, but who, more and more, seemed to be the true caregiver. She couldn’t quite put into words how she felt about the situation, but feel she did. Ada was a warm fire, beckoning Mildred in from an arctic cold. Interestingly, she was almost completely unaware of the cold, and yet the allure of the warmth was tantalizing nearly to the point of being painful. She felt a hunger, a deep burning hunger, and she felt ashamed for it, now, on the quiet train ride back to her apartment.
Beyond even the question of why, how was Ada even able to do this? Millie did not know much about thermodynamics, but there was a principle, she was sure, about energy flowing from greater to lesser potential. Was there some analog between people? She and the other nurses were expected to be the “greater potential”, their care and compassion flowing to the patient. How had this flow been reversed? Just who was this woman, this Ada Noble? And who was she? Who was Mildred Sheffield to allow this apparent change in role?
Again her face was flushed, only this time with shame. She was breaking the rules of her employment, and she was breaking her own moral code. She was taking, and she was taking from someone who was in no position to give. Mildred was failing at her job, and at the same time, her yearning was simply overpowering, her need to be near Ada.
Millie got off at the next stop, walked across the platform and waited for the next train in the opposite direction, which she boarded and rode back to the clinic.
“Oh, you’re back,” said Kimball, running into her in the hallway. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just got to thinking on my way home that my patient’s readings were a little bit strange earlier. I want to be around in case anything develops,” replied Mildred. This was completely normal – many nurses would spend the night if they thought their patients needed extra attention. All of the rooms had fold-out beds for just that purpose.
“Hope you sleep okay,” said Kimball warmly. “I’ll be around for a while longer. Let me know if you need anything.“
Millie was pretty sure that her colleague hadn’t noticed anything unusual in her behavior. She walked quietly into Ada’s room, folded out the temporary bed, and lay down. She looked over at the other woman’s sleeping face, unusually serene. She fought past a moment of guilt, instead smiled to herself and closed her eyes.