You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
We met in the emergency room, a place with a name that would suggest noise and activity and panic but which is actually as boring as boring could possibly get. We sat with our backs stiff in chairs made of vinyl and metal, the air conditioning turned up much too high, a TV in the corner just behind me so I couldn’t see it unless I cranked my neck around 180 degrees and held it there with my hands. It made no sound anyway. The chairs were in rows meeting at 90-degree angles to form a big square so we could all breathe on each other, so that if you came in with a broken leg, you could leave with the flu, also. Everyone sat there sizing everyone else up, trying to figure out who had what, who deserved to be seen next, who was in the worst shape.
I think it might have been me, but I wasn’t there to see a doctor. I was there to wait. It was 3 am.
3 am is when hypochondriacs go to see the doctor. These are the people who can’t sleep because they think they might be dying for no reason at all other than that they’re alive.
3 am is when mothers take their fevered children in to see the doctor. Sick kids are always sickest at 3 am, right around the time mothers are the most fretful and irrational.
And 3 am is when suicidal people go or are taken to see the doctor. For much the same reason as the hypochondriacs and the mothers: everything looks darkest, most hopeless and doomed at 3 am.
I was not a hypochondriac, or a mother, and I didn’t want to die. In fact, I couldn’t. Not yet. Not until she was dead – then I could take off at pretty much any time.
I was there with her that night. She was in the second worst shape, almost as bad off as I was. I knew this because they didn’t make her wait very long, just stuck a bracelet on her wrist, tipped her back and rushed her down the hall. They didn’t ask me if I wanted to come, and by the time I’d finished filling out her forms, she’d been taken even further into the depths of the hospital. I should’ve been used to all this – and I guess I was; it was the rotating hospital staff that wasn’t used to me and her, so I always ended up having to wait until I could get someone’s attention and explain it all, again, and ask where they took her this time and when I could go in. It was busy in there that night; they kept shushing me and directing me to the chairs, so I was resigned to the waiting room.
She’s probably unconscious by now anyway, I thought. The night would pass like a blink for her from there on in, and I would take on her time along with my own, like I always did. I’d survive an agonizing minute only to have to live it again. One for her, one for me, one for her, one for me…
I had a game I played in emergency rooms, since I spent so much time there. I pretended the patients were suspects in a murder mystery. I gave them silly names, complex back-stories, hilarious mannerisms, shaky alibis and heinous secrets. I thought I was the next Agatha Christie; there were, by that point, at least a dozen imaginary books in the Emergency Room Mystery Series. That night, I’d created my most intriguing mystery yet: patients were dying in their rooms one by one, alphabetically by last name. No murder weapons, no clear cause of death. The hospital was on lockdown and I’d been called in – not because I was an actual detective but because I often happened to be around when terrible things happened and had developed quite a knack and reputation for solving mysteries. I’d assembled my suspects in the waiting room.
I imagined myself walking around in the middle of the square, stroking my smooth chin and squinting at everyone, making them nervous. Spinning suddenly to face an elderly woman hunched over in her seat, almost asleep. I narrated the story silently to myself.
She looked almost dead; her body was crooked and awkward, as though she were held in the grip of an invisible giant who might snap her in half at any moment. Her mind was almost gone and throughout my interrogation, she’d become increasingly confused and kept asking me, in a low, raspy voice, to find her baby and fetch her some lemon water. No one suspected her. No one, that is, except me.
“Mrs. Peacoat!” I exclaimed (I’d fallen into a rut of naming my characters after items of clothing). “Where were you on the evening of December 2, 1964?”
The woman, who didn’t seem strong enough to lift even one of her own bony arms, hesitated only a moment before launching out of her seat and making a run for the door. I tackled her to the ground, half expecting her to disintegrate beneath me, only to find that her fragile exterior was all a charade.
I gasped. “You’re…a man!”
My murder mystery daydreams always fizzled out about there. I never cared who actually did it as much as I cared about building the characters and giving them lives – and, of course, being the hero.
That night, just as The Case of the Alphabetical Murders began to fade from my mind’s eye, a girl interrupted my thoughts, poking me in the shoulder. “Is someone sitting here?” She motioned to the chair beside me. It was the only vacant one in the room. I shook my head and let it come to rest once again in the palms of my hands, which were cold and wet with hospital sweat. This is how you sit in an emergency room if you don’t want to make conversation.
“Thanks,” she said. Her voice was hard and sad, and something in it caused me to glance up without thinking. The finger she’d prodded me with was disappearing back into the sleeve of her oversized black sweatshirt. She silently folded into the chair, legs under, arms in, hood up. Compact. She caught me staring. “What?”
I felt my eyes widen at her abruptness. I was reminded of a documentary I’d watched recently about spitting cobras. “Nothing. Sorry.”
She looked like she was about 17, so I forgave her. I was 17 once; I’d hated it too.
She started examining her fingernails, which were covered in chipping pink nail polish. She frowned at them, as though they were her problem. As though she’d come to the emergency room at 3 AM for nail polish remover. “What?”
I was staring again. “Nothing. Sorry.” But I was her problem now. She turned her critical gaze to my face, to the hard lines in my forehead and around my mouth chiseled out by ever-present worry and too many 3 a.m. emergency room visits. “Why are you here?”
“In this chair?” I was flustered because I was embarrassed. For a split second, I thought she was going to ask me to move.
“No. In the ER. Why are you in the ER?”
For all of the nights I’d spent there, I’d never been asked this before. Because I usually sat with my head in my hands, making up mystery stories. “I’m waiting for someone. You?”
“You’re waiting for someone too?”
“Yeah.” She slid her fingernail under a piece of polish on her thumbnail and scratched it off. It made a slight but horrible noise. She moved on to her index finger. I wished she’d stop. Her eyes flicked over at me for a split second. She didn’t look annoyed now, just defensive. “My friend broke her leg.”
“Oh.” I nodded. “How’d she do that?”
“She…I don’t know. None of your business.”
I wished I could put my head back into my hands and disappear back into my imaginary trench coat, but now we’d exceeded the minimum number of words needed for our back-and-forth to qualify as a conversation. As soon as you pass that point, you can’t just put your head in your hands and run off into a daydream. You, at the very least, have to end the conversation.
The girl slipped her hand into her hoodie pocket and extracted some earbuds, which she pressed into place without giving me another glance. She fiddled with something else in her pocket, probably an mp3 player, slouched into herself even more, and closed her eyes. She didn’t appear to care that much about being thought of as rude and I didn’t mind being released from the interaction that way.
A part me found her interesting, though, and suddenly I realized why. She was my emergency room daydream in real life: here was the mystery. Here was a girl with an alibi. Here was my unfounded suspicion: that here, beside me, was the victim of an attempted murder. Here, in the same body, was the suspect.
“Emily.” A woman appeared at the girl’s side. She looked tired; she wasn’t wearing any makeup and her hair was piled up on top of her head, held there with a large butterfly clip. She was holding out a hospital bracelet like it was a stick of gum. “Put this on. I’m going to grab a coffee from the cafeteria.”
Emily kept her eyes closed.
“Emily.” The woman’s voice was ragged. She’d been yelling. She’d been awake for hours. Her face sagged but her eyes flashed; she was a confusing mix of intense sadness and fierce anger, already defeated and, for some reason, still fighting. “Emily,” she repeated, reaching out in one swift motion, grabbing the girl’s hand and stuffing the bracelet into it. “Put,” she steadied herself, glancing at me. “This,” she caught her breath again, “on.”
Emily’s eyes didn’t open. “Whatever.”
“Not whatever. Put it on. Now.”
Emily pushed her sleeve up, scowling in my direction without looking at me, like she knew I’d be watching. She’d clearly done this before; she completed the task with one hand. Then she thrust her bony wrist out, displaying the paper jewellery for the woman to inspect. I saw more clues there. My suspect was being careless. Perhaps she wanted to get caught.
The woman either didn’t see the clues or they were nothing new to her. She nodded, turned, and took off down the hallway toward the cafeteria. She walked like someone who was used to wearing high heels. She walked like someone who was about to collapse.
I’d never been to the cafeteria in that hospital. I’d never been to the bathroom there either. I sometimes got hungry, and I sometimes got uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to be unavailable for even a second. I spent those nights prepared to say goodbye at any moment. Some doctors urged me to walk around or even leave the building and said that she would wait for me. “Go out for a bit! Go grab a coffee!” they’d say, clicking their tongues and smiling the kind of smiles that were completely detached from their eyes. “She’ll be fine. She’ll be here when you get back. She’ll know you’re not there; she won’t go without you.”
It was a nice thought, but I always wanted to say something snarky about how if she couldn’t dress herself or control the spastic flailing of her hands, if she couldn’t keep herself from calling out gibberish in the middle of a church service, I highly doubted she was going to know how to keep her body from dying at an inopportune time. In fact, I wanted to yell those words at the doctors, not just speak them, not because I was angry at them but because I was angry at the situation and the doctors were the ones standing in between me and it right then. Like the situation was a physical being, an invader from another country, like it spoke a foreign language (which, in a way, it did), and the doctors were its interpreters, impartial middlemen relaying its messages to me from the body of my sister.
She and I were born on the same day of the same year. Our bodies and faces and hair and skin were the same. We ate all the same things growing up and played the same games and had the same friends. We had the same parents, and had attended our mother’s funeral together when we were only 16. We’d graduated from the same high school and waitressed at the same restaurant while we worked through similar programs at the same community college.
And then one day, her body turned on her, quit working the way it always had, shut up like a steel trap with her inside it. Snap. It was like hugging someone as they were struck by lightning, having them crumble into ash in your arms. I can’t understand how I alone was untouched by something that big and that close. How it could claim all of her and none of me.
So then I had to take care of her; I carried her cage body around and poked food into it and talked to it, hoping she was still alive in there, that my voice was soothing and comforting. Sometimes I’d say to her, “I’ll get you out of there, Megs,” or, “This doctor looks like he knows what he’s doing. He’ll get you out.” Sometimes her body would smile at me, but her eyes would loll off into the corners of the room.
Sometimes her eyes would look at me but her mouth would droop open and the rest of her would hang limp in her wheelchair. Maybe, I thought sometimes, she escaped long ago and I’m just lugging an empty cage around.
A cage that looked exactly like me. It was weird to see myself like that.
Emily poked me again. “Hey, sorry.” She had to wait a second for me to climb out of my thoughts. “Do me a favor, okay? If my mom comes back, tell her I’m in with the doctor. Tell her they’re keeping me overnight and she can go home.”
I frowned. “And you’re just going to leave?”
“And your mother’s not going to want any kind of proof? She’s not going to want to say goodnight or talk to the doctor?”
Emily scoffed at this. “No.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t lie for you. And I don’t think you should leave without seeing a doctor.” I expected my reaction to elicit some level of rage from her, thinking back to when I was that age and how I reacted when my dad told me I couldn’t do something, but I’d clearly overestimated her interest in my opinion. She shrugged and turned to the man reading a magazine on the other side of her, repeating her request to him. He nodded and she stood up.
As she walked to the door, I pictured myself tackling her the way I’d tackled the fictional Mrs. Peacoat in my daydream. Mrs. Peacoat had been a murderer disguised as someone helpless. Maybe Emily was someone helpless disguised as a murderer.
I stood up.
I caught up to her just outside the hospital doors, reached out my hand and jabbed her in the shoulder the way she’d done to me twice already. She spun around; I could tell she was expecting her mother. When she saw it was me, she relaxed. She didn’t say anything at first, and I didn’t either. Then, “What?”
“I,” I began. I what? “I’m not going to make you go back inside or anything.”
“But I think you should come anyway.”
The girl shrugged at me. “No. I don’t think so.” She started walking away again.
That was all I had. I couldn’t actually tackle her. Could I? I called after her. “What about your friend? With the broken leg?”
She snorted at me, over her shoulder, but stopped walking. “I don’t have a friend. My mom brought me in; she wants me to see a doctor and doesn’t think it can wait until morning. I think it can. You can tell her you tried to stop me, if it’ll make you feel better.”
I sputtered, knowing I should say something more but not knowing what. And then I started to cry. It surprised me because I wasn’t sad; I was something else. Something that burned a little. Something like seething rage.
The rage was for the girl. I was blisteringly mad. She could live, and she didn’t want to. She had a mother, and she didn’t want her. It was as though she’d taken those things from my sister and was now going to set them on fire and walk away, right in front of me. It wasn’t fair or rational, but it was how I felt.
As though reading my thoughts, she shrugged. Then she left, disappearing around a corner without another word. And I just stood there and let the murderer run away with the victim. Some detective. Some hero.
And then someone’s hand was on my shoulder and a woman’s voice dripped down my back, thick with sympathy. “Miss Duke? I think you should come and see your sister. I think you should hurry.”