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Burnout

"How can you do this work, Theo?" my patient rasped.

Surprised, I looked up from my charting. I'd thought he was beyond speech. My narratives included 'unresponsive to stimuli' for the last four hours, and his breathing had long ago passed into the realm of agonal. The periods between gurgling gasps had stretched to almost a full minute, and I was sure his death was close.

Last second rallies weren't unheard of, though, and I closed the chart to give him my full attention. "What work, Mr. P.?"

"Sitting with the dying, day after day. It must be hellish."

Usually it was a family member, not a patient who asked me: How can you do this? It must be so depressing… right before they called me an angel of mercy. Saint. Godsend. If only they knew.

I was none of those things.

Mr. Pogibija had no family, and that was the reason I requested these kinds of assignments. No one should die alone.

No one should have to live forever alone either.

"It's a calling." The stock answer rolled off my tongue, and I smiled at him gently. "Are you in pain?"

"No. But you are." He snorted at my confusion. "It's obvious. You picked this job to torture yourself. Men like you don't become a nurse for the fun of it, especially not a hospice nurse."

"Men like me?"

"Young. Buff. Gay." He waggled thick eyebrows suggestively, purple-tinged lips turning up in a smirk. "Immortal."

No one knew my secret. No one. "Mr. P, I think you're hallucinating." Inside, I was cold.

"And you're delusional, Theodoulos." I froze at the sound of a name I hadn't used in centuries, each syllable pronounced deliberately. "Do you really think I'm Pogibija? He died two minutes ago."

Rheumy eyes with dilated, unseeing pupils fixed on me. "I told you it wasn't a game, boy. Immortality isn't for the faint hearted. But you knew I'd show up eventually, didn't you?"

"Thanatos," I whispered.

My heart was pounding, my palms sweaty. He was right; I'd gone into hospice nursing for this. For the hope of exactly this moment.

Two thousand years of life was enough. When I was twenty-one, on the heels of my lover's death and terrified of growing old, I'd demanded a chance to be spared the fate of all men. Arrogant, I thought myself clever enough to beat the god of death at petteia. I won.

Amid the endless crawl of time I convinced myself that Thanatos knew I cheated, and let me win only to punish me by giving me the very thing I thought I wanted.

My former patient's head swiveled toward me with the disconcerting flaccidity of death. "Are you hoping I'll take back what you won?"

"Yes." I lost my arrogance after the first millennia, and no longer had the stomach to be proud. "Please. I beg you."

"You've tried to get out of it enough times." He ticked off a list on blue-tipped fingers. "Nine hundred and ninety-nine outright suicide attempts. A soldier in, what—eighteen wars? Throwing yourself in front of spears, cannons and bullets. Martyrdom, and burned for confessing to witchcraft. Drug overdoses." A nauseatingly liquid laugh followed. "Trolling redneck bars and coming on to the regulars."

"You've been watching me?"

"You lasted less than a hundred and fifty years before you started whining. "

"I …" I swallowed. "When Eryx died so young, I thought dying was worse than living. I was wrong. Living longer than those you love is worse than death."

"You've had your share of lovers since then."

"And they all die. I haven't allowed myself to truly fall in love in a thousand years. I don't want to lose them all to you until the end of the world."

"You picked an odd penance if you're avoiding love and loss."

"It's something I understand." I smiled bitterly.

"I suppose you do," Thanatos admitted. He was silent a moment. "You do have compassion for your patients. Did you know this one before he was dying?"

"Not before he was ill, no. I've taken care of him for the past two weeks."

"You remind him of someone he used to know in Croatia. He has grateful memories of you. He regretted he never thanked you for your kindness. Tenderness, even."

"That's not why I do this."

"No. It isn't." He regarded me with those clouding eyes, and I looked away uncomfortably. "Why do you do it?"

"At first, partly for the reason you said: to torture myself. But eventually…" I lifted my gaze. "I find it comforting, especially with people like Mr. P. Their loneliness is over. And I was there to usher them through. Not because I wanted their thanks, or their admiration. I just didn't want them to be alone."

"Huh." Thanatos grunted. "Altruism at last. Took you long enough."

"What?" A dull flare of hope kindled in my chest. Had he been watching me to find some evidence of redemption?

"You stopped thinking about yourself in order to ease the suffering of others. I suppose two thousand years is long enough."

"You're going to let me die?" Tears of disbelief rose and spilled over onto my face.

Mottled skin stretched in a rictus-like smile of benevolence. "It was childish of me to hold a grudge this long. I wanted you to suffer. No one else ever beat me at petteia." Mr. P's body relaxed into death as Thanatos began to vacate it. "That's why I switched to chess."

I couldn't help myself. Through the tears and near-hysterical laughter of relief, I blurted, "You know I cheated."

At shift change, my coworkers found me sobbing against Mr. Pogibija's lifeless chest. They had to pull me away. I couldn't tell them why. They tried to comfort me, told me I'm burned out and I need to take some time off. But I know he's watching me now. I can't.

There's hope.

About the Author
E.M. Hamill writes adult science fiction and fantasy somewhere in the wilds of eastern suburban Kansas. A nurse by day, wordsmith by night, she is happy to give her geeky imagination free reign and has sworn never to grow up and get boring. Frequently under the influence of caffeinated beverages, she also writes as Elisabeth Hamill for young adult readers in fantasy with the award-winning Songmaker series. You can find her online at www.elisabethhamill.com or follow her tweets at @songmagick.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link