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It was just before sunset, the pink-candy colored sky melting into the black specks of night. We were on the playground, my hands gripping the handles of the tired, old swing set. I stared at him, into his eyes the gateway to his thoughts, the color of maple syrup. “Jake?”
“How much time do we have left before it closes?” He glanced at his watch for a second. “Honestly, not much. We should go.”
I breathed, the warm air filling my lungs. My bones shook beneath my skin. “Do we have to?”
“She’s not my mom.”
I sighed and looked up, not letting Jake see the glossy tears thinly coating my eyes. I held my pose for a minute before allowing myself to speak. “Okay.”
It was a fifteen-minute drive before we got to the hospital. I stared out the window and watched the people passing by, we were moving so fast but I could still make out their worries clinging to their faces.
The hospital was ghostly, as if the people who died here had never left; they stayed by clinging onto little pieces of human existence that they could find. If you stopped, you could hear them breathing in the walls, you could imagine them looking at you. You could see their desire to be alive once more. They welcome you, carry you inside on cloud. And you’re not sure whether to feel safe, or scared.
We got to the 3rd floor, room 316, where they told us my mom was. It smelled like hand sanitizer and febreeze and clean sheets that you just took out of the washing machine and acid. I wanted to leave. “Can I just go? I hate this.” I whispered to Jake as nurses with needles in their hands walked past us, and I thought I was going to faint just imagining blood. “Nope. Come on.” He opened the door and pushed me into the room.
“Katie?” a small, raspy voice whispered from the cot.
“No…” my voice trailed off as I took a few more steps and saw a wrinkly old woman crumpled in the bed. Her blue eyes were pressed in between years of wrinkles and exhaustion.“ Where’s Katie?” she looked at me, helpless and dreary. “I…I’m not sure,” I stammered. “I’m sorry I should…”
“Katie’s my daughter,” she said, raising her voice as if asking me not to leave. “She’s my little girl,” and then she laughed. A crackly, tired laugh that sounded unused, but once was golden. “Well, she’s not so little anymore. She’s got to be in her 40’s, or 50’s but I can’t remember how old exactly. Isn’t that awful? Her own mother forgetting her daughter’s age.”
“Oh it’s not…”
“Katie’s got brown hair. Did you happen to see her in the lobby? Maybe she doesn’t know which room to come to. The nurse called her, I know. I talked to her for a minute. She said she’d be right over. She sounded worried. Tired. I hope she didn’t get in an accident.”
“I’m sure she’s…”
“You look a bit like her actually. Or like she used too anyways. You’ve both got that wavy, full brown hair. God, you’re beautiful. She’s beautiful. Maybe I should call her…” she burst out into excessive coughing, her frail body shaking like there was an earthquake. It looked as if her arm was going to snap off, and her crinkled skin was going to shed. I stood there stunned, not sure what to do but walk near her and place my hand on her shoulder until she calmed down.
“Thank you,” she gave a half-smile, and took my hand into hers. She closed her eyes and I stood there like an idiot watching her eyelids flutter while she tried to keep her breathing constant. I felt her hand, curling inside mine, almost fading away. “Katie should be here any minute.” She said quietly and turned her head towards me. “I’m sure she will,” I replied softly. The old lady seemed content with my answer and let go of my hand. She folded her arms on her chest and gave one last sigh before I couldn’t hear her hoarse breathing anymore.
The world seemed to stand still. All I could feel were hot tears streaming down my face as silence consumed us. Drops of tears fell onto the corner of her cot, making heart-shaped stains on the crisp white sheets. I placed my hand on her arm, feeling for a second her rough skin and how it almost seemed to be falling off of her bones. I could feel the emptiness in the room, the sudden transfer of energy. She didn’t stir.
I began to back out of the room, my hands moist with tears and mascara. I looked up to find Jake standing right in front of me. He grabbed my hands and filled them with the warmth of his own. “That wasn’t her room,” I sniffled and Jake looked at me confused.
“Was that someone you knew?”
The tears stopped. I looked into Jake’s face, as if I was searching for the answer, my vision blurred and swirled with stained glass droplets. “No.” I said finally, and whipped away the persistent tears that clung to my cheeks. “Where’s my mom?”