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Untitled Short Fiction
We were sitting outside the quiet hospital room, in those cookie-cutter lobby chairs, upholstered in a sort of turquoise fabric, the kind that makes your skin itch at every touch of its surface. The large linoleum tiles on the floor were brown and tan, and they reminded me of a suit my dad used to own when he was younger. It was around eleven o’clock at night, and we had been here almost all day. I was beginning to wonder whether we would ever hear from the doctors about Dad’s condition, and thought about Mom’s hands clenched in his, their fingers fused together. I saw a tear fall from Astrid’s face and land on her lap, her legs crossed beneath her, probably falling asleep by now. She wiped the dampness away from her small, pale face, and tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. I got those earrings for her the Christmas before last. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without them on since then.
“Do you think Mom is ever going to leave his side?” she said, grabbing the Time Magazine that lay on the small coffee table next to our chairs. The sound of her cold hands on the glossy paper of the magazine made me focus on the front page of the one she chose, a picture of an old Chinese man wearing a long robe gracing the cover. His eyes seemed ancient in the black and white photo. I had never heard of him.
“You know she’s going to stay the night here again. She won’t leave him until he wakes up.” I could tell by the awkward look on her face that Astrid really wanted Mom to come out of Dad’s room and sit with us, saying positive things and taking our focus off of what was really going on. Astrid was always dependent on Mom’s presence: her voice, her touch.
Astrid slipped her feet out from under her body, scraping her knees against the seat of the scratchy lobby chair, and leaned toward the door of Dad’s room. Moving her head from side to side, she tried to see what Mom was doing now. Was she still talking to him about next year’s World Series hopefuls, trying so hard to wake his senses with a subject he cared about most? Or had she finally broken down like the rest of us, ultimately letting the salty tears escape her otherwise dry and seemingly cheerful eyes? Astrid’s unsatisfied search for Mom’s face forced her to look straight down at her feet, and I saw another tear drip from her eyes. I could hear the faint sound of Mom’s voice, trying so hard to connect with Dad’s mind.
My dad had been in the hospital for four days now, failing to wake up after his surgery that had seemed to take the entire day. He had had a heart attack at work the previous week and didn’t seem to be getting any better. People came and went in the span of four days, giving their sympathies and offering their support. They praised mom on how well she was holding up, but to me her demeanor seemed like an act. We were all devastated; why couldn’t she really show it like Astrid and I had for the past four days? Mom always had to be the strong one, not letting anyone see her cry. It made me sick to think that I couldn’t recall the last time I saw her cry. I think it was when Papa died six years ago. That one took a toll on all of us. And now it was my own dad, and I didn’t know how to feel. I looked back at Astrid’s face, wondering what she was thinking.
As I reached toward her to place my hand on her thigh, the door to Dad’s room finally swung open, and Mom slowly walked out, letting a cool breeze sweep over our bodies. I don’t know if I got chills from the breeze, or if it was in anticipation of what she was about to say.
“Well, it’s getting late. You two should probably head home. Jane, take your sister back and I’ll stay here with your father.” The bottom of her skirt clung to the backs of her legs, the result of sitting in the hospital chairs too long. She tried to pull it away but the static would not budge.
Astrid immediately put her sweatshirt back on and stood up abruptly, a deep breath pushing its way out of her heavy chest.
“You know you still have school tomorrow,” Mom said, rubbing her hand on the back of Astrid’s shoulder. “Did you finish all of your homework?”
Astrid nodded and put her arms around mom’s waist. It was obvious that she was getting tired and wanted to go home. At this point, I really just wanted to have some time alone with Dad. I didn’t care how much longer I needed to stay to get it, but I knew it would be hard to convince Mom to leave his side for an extended period of time.
“Mom, why don’t you go home and get some rest? You can take Astrid and I’ll stay here with dad. You’ve been here all day and stayed here all last night. You need some real sleep for a night. Besides, I don’t have class until noon tomorrow.” I could see the look in her eyes; the words wanted to come from her lips, but she just stood there, staring at me, as if I just told her she was going to be a grandma. Astrid couldn’t believe I had tried to tell Mom what to do. She looked at me and then back at Mom in search of a harsh reaction. Then, in the quietest voice I have ever heard my mom speak in, she said, “Jane. I don’t know if you completely understand the severity of the situation here. Your father has had a heart attack and you want me to leave him? Do you think he is ever going to wake up if nobody is by his side all night, talking to him, encouraging him? How can you be so selfish in a time like this?”
“I told you I would stay with him, Mom. I told you that you could go home and get some sleep. I am trying to be helpful. I thought maybe you would appreciate that. How is that selfish?” I wasn’t yelling at all, but the open space of the hospital lobby, with its tall ceilings and linoleum floors, and the fact that we were the only three people in there, made it seem as if I was raising my voice. Astrid had detached herself from Mom’s side and sat back down in one of the lobby chairs. She picked up the Time Magazine she was flipping through earlier and crossed her legs. And at that moment, I began to see tears well up in my mother’s eyes. Her bottom lip started to quiver and she placed her hands over her face. I felt as though I had just told her she was the worst mother in the world, and walked closer toward her, trying to comfort her. But when I started to put my arms around her, she pushed me away, revealing her newly soaked cheeks. Astrid looked up from her magazine.
“Do NOT try to comfort me, Jane. You have no idea what I’m going through. How dare you raise your voice at me! Your father is in there right now, barely alive, and you are not helping the situation at all. You will take your sister home and you will stay with her until tomorrow, and that is that. I don’t want to hear another word from you.” With that, she turned around and walked briskly back into Dad’s room; the sound of her heels hitting the floor echoed through the lobby.
As the door swung closed, Astrid and I just looked at each other. She sniveled as her eyes began to water, and she slowly stood up from the turquoise chair. “You know Mom’s right, Jane. She can stay here with Dad if she wants to. Wouldn’t you want to stay with Preston if he was in the hospital? Let’s just go home. I have school in the morning and it’s getting close to midnight.”
Her voice got softer as she looked down at the floor. Her hair fell in front of her face and she took a tissue out of her pocket. I couldn’t help but think of Mom, alone in that hospital room. As Astrid bent down to grab her 8th grade science book from the floor and placed it in her backpack, I nodded and grabbed my purse from the table next to us. I could hear the sound of my mom talking in the other room, probably telling Dad the score of the latest Blazers’ game. Part of me didn’t want to leave her, but I knew I had to get Astrid home. I can’t believe she actually cried in front of us.
“Ok, I’ll take you home. Remind me to feed Marv when we get there, alright? That dog’s probably aching for a snack. I’m kind of hungry myself.” I looked back through the small window on the door of Dad’s room, hoping Mom would come to her senses and stop us on our way out. I couldn’t hear her voice anymore so I turned to my sister and motioned toward the exit. I put my arm around Astrid as we walked out of the lobby and toward the elevators. Her grip grew tight around my waist, and I could feel her breath in my ear as she asked if I would stay in her room with her that night.
“Of course,” I said, pressing my thumb hard on the down button next to the elevators. “But I get top bunk.” She softly smiled and wiped a few tears from the side of her face. As the doors slid open in front of us, my phone began to buzz in my back pocket. I reached for it and saw the name “PRESTON” shine from the front screen. I knew he would want to hear about my dad’s condition, having just spent time in the hospital with his older brother who was getting chemo. “Hey Pres,” I said as the elevator doors closed in front of us. “Yea we’re just leaving right now.” Astrid pressed the ground floor button and leaned her head against the wall of the elevator. “No, I’m not staying in the dorms tonight. I’m gonna stay at my parents’ place with my sister. My mom’s staying with my dad again tonight.” The doors opened to the main level of the hospital and we walked passed the front desk. “Nope, nothing’s changed. He’s still not awake.” I moved my phone away from my mouth to say goodnight to the receptionist, and Astrid took a mint out of the basket on the counter. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Pres. I love you.”
I closed my phone and put it in my purse. I put my hand on Astrid’s shoulder, a gesture that reminded me so much of mom, and left it there until we got to the car. Mom’s car was one of the last ones in the parking lot and had been in the same spot for almost the entire time. Mine was parked a few spaces down, next to a red Dodge Durango that looked like it hadn’t been washed in ages. We got into the car and Astrid slumped down in the front seat with her hood over her head.
“I don’t wanna go to school tomorrow. I’m so tired. You think Mom would get mad if I skipped?” We both laughed a little because we knew she would get mad; that was a given. But neither of us cared. Astrid was in no shape to go to school. She needed her rest as much as I did. And there would be no way Mom would find out anyway if she stayed at the hospital all the next day.
“Yea, but we have to come back tomorrow around three. I’m not gonna go to class tomorrow either. I don’t like Mondays anyway.” As we rode home, I couldn’t help but think about Dad. Hopefully Mom would call the house in the middle of the night telling us he’s awake again, but all we could do was wait. My eyes started to water as I looked over at Astrid. She had fallen asleep in the passenger’s seat, her head resting on the seatbelt. “Tiny Dancer” was playing on the radio and I turned it up just loud enough to hear. I sang along until we got home and woke up Astrid as we pulled into the driveway. She opened the car door and staggered slowly to the front door. She looked back at me and stared for a while, but I didn’t want to get out of the car yet. Astrid turned back toward the front door and walked inside.
After I heard the front door shut, I began to cry. It was almost as if I couldn’t breathe and I was gasping for air in between sobs. I just sat in my car and wept for my dad. I could see my eyes getting puffy in the rearview mirror and my face getting pink. Just then, my phone buzzed from within my purse. It was my mom. I took a deep breath and flipped open the phone.
“Hello,” I said, after I cleared my throat.
“Jane?” She sighed. “I just wanted to call and apologize for the way I acted earlier tonight. I know you were just trying to help calm my nerves and I’m sorry for lashing out at you. The last thing I want is for you to hate me over something like this. I should have let you have some time alone with your father before I sent you away.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I know you’re under a lot of stress right now. I’m sorry for trying to take you away from Dad. You should be there with him.” We talked for about ten more minutes about Dad and his condition. Mom said a nurse came in right after we left to check on him, but she didn’t have any news – good or bad. I told my mom that I loved her and asked her to call if there were any changes. She told me not to wake Astrid the next morning and to let her sleep as long as she wanted.
“I love you, too, Janey. Goodnight.” I closed my phone, stepped out of the car, and walked into my parents’ house. Astrid had already slipped some food into Marv’s bowl, and it was half eaten when I walked through the kitchen. I went down the hall and into Astrid’s room where I saw her and Marv cuddled up next to each other on the bottom bunk of her bed. I sat at the foot of her bed and pet Marv’s back as his tail began to wag.
“Will you sing to me, Jane?” Astrid whispered. “Mom usually sings me to sleep when I’m having a bad day.” So I sang my sister to sleep that night, trying my hardest not to cry.