Natalie peeked with one eye into the hospital room. There in the railed bed, covered with a thin blue blanket and surrounded by a jungle of tubes and wires and inscrutable monitors encased in beige, lay Vanessa. Her neck was fitted with a hard plastic cervical collar and the back of her hand bore the intravenous stigmata.
Natalie knocked on the doorframe and stuck her head in without yet stepping in. “Hi Vanessa… Chad said you had an accident.” One foot dipped beyond the threshold. “Just wanted to see how you were.”
Vanessa turned her swollen eyes towards her and was quiet a few moments before speaking. “You work here? Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Natalie twisted her hands behind her back. “No, I don’t work here… You know me from high school. Natalie.” She shrugged her shoulders up to her ears and took two more deliberate steps into the room.
Vanessa’s eyes returned to the ceiling and closed. Natalie dragged over the chair and sat next to the bed and waited. Vanessa’s hair looked stringy spread out over the pillow, and mascara stained her cheeks. The side of her face was bruised blue and red. Natalie couldn’t remember if she had ever really been intimidated by her. But if she did, it all seemed so far away now.
“I don’t get it… Why are you even here?” Vanessa murmured.
“You had this accident barely ten feet away from the apartment—your sister disappeared—why wouldn’t I come?”
“Don’t you hate me for what I did?”
“Hate you? No… That was a long time ago. You don’t need to think about that anymore.” A machine next to her beeped a warning. She tightened her arms around her body before she could pull out any cords by accident. Why was she here and not Vanessa’s boyfriend and sister? But if not her, then who?
Vanessa sighed and opened her eyes to the ceiling again. “This sucks but it could have been so much worse. I won’t need major surgery or anything, but I got a couple of fractures.” She wiped her nose with her free hand.
“Honestly, you’re probably better off here than at that place.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know.” Natalie said. “It just seems like bad things are waiting to happen—have happened!—there. Everything is so run down, and dark, and just doesn’t feel right somehow.”
Vanessa turned her eyes to Natalie. “It’s not just the place.” She took a deep breath and winced. “Tiffany pushed me. I don’t know how because she never touched me. But somehow, she did it.”
Mikhail loitered around the waiting room where the walk-ins came in. He could hear a distant ambulance siren from time to time but it was surprisingly quiet where he was. It was a weeknight—that was probably why. Saturday would have been a totally different ball game. A few people came in—a freckled kid crying about his arm, a woman with a sinus infection and no insurance, and a bright red man covered in hives. Some would probably argue that the ambulance bay was where all the real action was, but misery was misery as far as Mikhail was concerned. Any place sufficed.
It was difficult to understand why Natalie would go see Vanessa. Now that was a person he had truly never given a second thought to. Natalie had even less reason to think about her, except maybe to gloat about what just happened. But Natalie would never do something like that. No. Always feeling sorry for people out of some misplaced sense of duty. Probably thought she’d go to hell for laughing at the thought of Vanessa rolling down the stairs with her skirt up around her head.
He sat down near the intake desk so he could eavesdrop on the staff conversations. He wasn’t certain if their calm indifference to the patients’ plights was confirmation or rebuttal of his own theories about having the good sense not to care about anything. Most likely it was the case that one simply got desensitized to the suffering. Natalie, of course, would disagree. She’d probably say something about how you should never get used to suffering and if we wished really hard everything would magically be okay again. But he reasoned that if you didn’t care, it wouldn’t bother you so much when it wasn’t (as it never was) okay.
A woman entered through the automatic doors pushing a slumped, wheelchair-bound elderly woman who was holding an oxygen tank. At the intake desk, the woman said her mother was having difficulty breathing. The middle-aged woman looked very familiar. She gave their name and he realized that the daughter’s last name was the same as Natalie’s. That must to be her grandmother in the wheelchair. He had to find Natalie and tell her that her grandmother was being admitted to the hospital.
The nurse led them away into the ER. He jumped up and ran to the desk. “What floor is Vanessa whatever-her-last-name-is on? Please—it’s important.”
Only one visitor at a time.
“Fine.” He patted the desk as he walked away. It was no real setback. Since he had already established himself as a loiterer, it would not be at all odd to loiter near the elevator. He told the elevator attendant that he was really, really worried about his girlfriend who fell down the stairs. Turned out that the attendant had directed someone to the fifth floor about the very thing.
He looked into each room in the hallway until he finally saw Natalie sitting at the bedside. He stood back from the doorway and waved his arms and coughed. Natalie looked up with a puzzled look on her face.
He made a furious beckoning gesture.
Natalie mouthed the word “Me?”
She stood up. “Vanessa,” she said while looking at him, “they’re signaling to me that I have to go now. I hope they let you rest a little bit and I’ll check in again when I can.”
Vanessa gave a feeble thumbs up and Natalie exited the room.
Mikhail grabbed her wrist and pulled her down the hall a good distance away from Vanessa’s room. “Natalie, I think your grandmother is here too. A woman came in with an elderly lady who was having trouble breathing. I’m pretty sure that was your mother who brought her in. She has the same last name as you do.”
She smoothed her hair back with both hands and held her head. “Oh my God… that must be Gram. Did you hear where they went?” Her grey-blue eyes were opened so wide as she searched his that her pupils were tiny.
Distracted for a moment, he shook his head. “No, they wheeled her away into the ER.”
Now she was the one who grabbed his wrist and pulled. “I guess we’re going back downstairs, then.”