written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Don't Touch The Glass

I don't know about this one -- I figured what the heck! Post it, then file the story away.

Danny lurched from his mother’s vomit-stained lap. He hit the floor with a thud. Face tensed. Eyes widened, he pulled at his stomach, yanking, yanking, like something tore at his flesh. The wail that escaped his lips woke Ericca from a fitful sleep. Yet no one else seemed disturbed. Except for Danny’s mother. Except for all mothers. Some turned in their sleep. Others simply hollered for no apparent reason.

A stern-faced guard looked on as Danny cried into the floor. His mother pulled him into her arms. Then she sat inches from Ericca’s feet and cradled the six-year-old while he moaned a low, steady hum.

Ericca smiled, yet deliberately refused eye contact with the boy and his mother. Didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. No. She didn’t want to feel uncomfortable.

“The air,” the boy’s mother said. “Why don’t they turn off that damn air?” She balanced her son with one arm, with the other pulled a black shawl from the chair and covered him. “Middle of winter for chrissake.” She nestled back in the chair, whimpering son solid in her arms.

A soft breeze blew outside the E.R. on this cloudless night. The clock above the nurse’s window read 11:58. It seemed like it read a couple minutes before midnight, all night. Ericca covered the blood on her white button-up blouse with a torn People magazine. For sure, she thought, a rib poked through. A dull throbbing radiated from the bandage taped across her ribs.

“They’re trying to freeze us,” she surprised herself by muttering out loud. Clearing her throat, she scanned the room. Who are these people? She sensed they were here every night, different faces, familiar bodies, murmuring in low tones.

Ericca hugged her ribs, tensed, then coughed. Danny flinched. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed then fought against the tickle at the back of her throat. She shifted her weight and looked away from the boy. Hell. What kind of infectious bacteria had seeped in by now?

Outside the ER’s neon EXIT that flickered against a black night, Ericca found a smoker hovered over the trashcan – a boy, probably nineteen, wrapped in a faded denim jacket. “Got an extra smoke?” She held her ribs firmly applying pressure where she was certain that the rib poked through.

“Last one dude,” the kid said. “Want a drag?” He held out his half smoked cigarette.

“Ah, that’s all right.”

The boy chortled. She knew what he was thinking. Cold stone bitch, that was what he was thinking, and she ached to defend herself, but weariness pervaded. Thirty-nine years old, she’d had grown weary of lots of things. Bike rides, a simple pink flower, a bright sun . . .

Inside, a runny-nosed seven-year-old girl had taken Ericca’s seat. A pockmarked boy took up the two chairs beside the girl. His head propped up on a letterman’s jacket, his right leg hung to the side. The other foot rested on the next seat. A bag of ice had all but melted over his swollen foot. Double take on the feet. God, he had big feet.

Across the aisle, a family of five surrounded an elderly man in his wheelchair. A woman leaned in and adjusted his yellowed shirt collar. He stared vacantly at the aquarium, home to a translucent anemone and lone clown fish. A teenage boy stood gazing at the orange and white striped fish. He coughed on the glass, and then wiped the mist away with his bare hand.

Coughs meshed with whispers across the waiting room. Danny let out a soft yelp in his sleep. His mother cringed. Staring again, Ericca couldn’t help herself.

Danny opened his bloodshot eyes and forced a half smile for his mother who refused to relinquish him from her cradle. Yes, she kept her cool, but the strain in her eyes revealed a front ready to fall.

Danny’s eyes squeezed shut. He moaned then grabbed his stomach again.

“Can someone help this kid?” Ericca took a stance in the middle of the room, arms hugging her waist. The nurse behind the glass partition didn’t look up. Even the armed security guard who stood diligently aside, ignored Ericca. Everyone in the room ignored her. Even Danny’s mom. Even Danny.

Double doors opened. Heads turned toward the nurse who emerged. A tennis match came to Ericca’s mind. Back and forth. Back and forth.

“Mark Jo . . . han . . . o . . . san.” The haggard looking woman double checked her clipboard, eleventh hour of a twelve hour shift. Wisps of blonde hair hung haphazardly from red plastic barrettes shaped like bows. Her scrubs were badly stained, new stains, brownish-red.

“Mr. Johanosan?”

Wheels squeaked as someone pushed the elderly man’s wheelchair. Ericca took a breath and held it as as the old man who erupted into a into a coughing fit in his sleep, passed by. Slowly, she exhaled as everyone returned to their preoccupations. Two women thumbed through strewn about stacks of outdated celebrity magazines. Alternately, the ladies snapped their chewing gum without reservation. They neglected to notice the man with a heavily bloodied and bandaged arm who jerked with each snap. All the while, a delirious two-year-old boy, happy to be up well past bedtime kept his mother busy, running back and forth across the room. The boy’s mother finally caught him by the sleeve.

“We had a little head injury tonight,” she explained to Ericca. “He was vomiting.” The boy yanked on his sleeve to no avail. “Looks okay now,” she said as if apologizing. “No. Don’t touch anything,” the woman said and pulled her son away from the magazines. She rummaged through her purse, one hand still gripping the boy’s arm, he gave a tug and ran off toward the automatic doors. “You’re in big trouble now, Mister,” Mom said and gave chase.

Another hour passed: same people, same scene. Besides Mr. Johanosan, one other patient was summoned behind double doors – Danny and of course, his mother. Relieved. Ericca didn’t have to look at them anymore.

2 AM. A young woman, mascara smeared across her face, stumbled to the nurse’s window. Her hair was dyed orange, meticulously formed into spikes. “Please! My father.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “They brought him by ambulance,” she cried. Without a word, the nurse buzzed in the girl.

The air conditioner blew a couple notches colder as the two-year-old’s mom struggled to keep her son in her arms. She carried him to the aquarium, his legs wiggling, wiggling. “No. Don’t touch the glass,” she said. His fingerprints had already left smudges.

Double doors opened. Heads turned to see the new nurse on duty. Her flower patterned scrubs clean – pressed with no stains, complimented neatly tied back gray hair.

“Ms. Stevens,” she said. “Ericca Stevens?”

Ericca moved forward and looked back at the room as if to say good-bye to longtime friends. Gum snapped, magazine pages crumpled. The clown fish swam circles at the water’s edge. And the two year old boy’s mother restrained her son as she rubbed his fingers clean with antibacterial wipes.

A new world appeared behind the double doors, an underworld revealed. Lights brightened. Radiologists, respiratory therapists, RNs, LVNs, interns and orderlies moved back and forth like well oiled cogs. An unattended long haired man’s wheelchair faced the wall. “They’re killing me,” he screamed. His head abruptly dropped. “I told you to fucking shut-up!” he said before he banged his forehead against the molding. An orderly knocked into Ericca as he rushed to the belligerent man’s side.

“Crazy night,” Ericca’s nurse said. “Fraid there’s not much room at the inn.” She smiled then directed Ericca to sit in a chair between two occupied gurneys in the hallway directly across from room D. “All we have for now, Dear.” With that, the nurse checked Ericca’s name on her clipboard list and disappeared down the hall, but not before crossing her shoulders then chest in the sign of the cross with her fingertips.

Some adults, a few children sat outside Room D. A few of them wept, while others’ eyes revealed a swollenness that only arises from extra-duty weeping. Two men dressed in simple dark suits sat clear-eyed and somber just outside the group.

Phones rang. Ericca clutched her ribs. The man who lay in the gurney beside her coughed and hacked for a solid ten minutes. Brown chunks of phlegm fell to the floor. Ericca held her breath, then tried to synchronize breaths with the gurney man so that she might not breathe in what he breathed out. She was grateful that the woman in the gurney to her other side slept soundly.

Somewhere outside the E.R. someone smoked a cigarette. The aroma smelled divine, a reminder of simpler times for Ericca. The door to Room D opened and out walked a teenage boy. One swollen-eyed woman rose from her seat. She hugged the boy as he passed on her way into the room.

“Miss Stevens? Ma ‘am?”

The man on the gurney increased his hacking. A respiratory therapist stopped by to administer oxygen from a tube. Little pieces of phlegm fell onto her white lace-up shoes. Down the hall a woman was barking.

“Ma ‘am?”

“I told you to shut up, godammit!” Thud. Thud. The nurse didn’t react to the head banging down the hall.

“Code nine. Code nine.”

“Ma ‘am?”

She was asleep, or at least she figured so. But Ericca could see everything – the nurse, silent to her ears, simply a woman standing in front of her opening and closing, opening and closing her mouth. The door to Room D opened and a weeping woman walked out, her face buried in her palms. A man moved her hands away from the face, kissed them, then disappeared behind the door.

“Miss Stevens?”


The two year old boy darted by, mother in tow.

“Don’t touch the glass,” Ericca said.

“Pardon me?”

“Ah . . . I’m sorry.” Ericca shook her head, reminiscent from earlier that evening when she tried to keep herself from falling asleep at the wheel.

The man exited Room D, hand clenching a handkerchief. He took another neatly folded one from his pocket and he handed it off to the next man entering the room.

“Are you the doctor?”

Room D’s door opened to allow three more visitors all at once.

“No. Just here to check your vitals.”

Then out in the hallway while a doctor pressed onto Ericca’s ribs, the teenager with orange spiked hair entered Room D. Ericca tilted her head to watch the door while a doctor wrapped her ribs with fresh gauze. She spent maybe five minutes total with Errica, then ordered x-rays which revealed three cracked ribs, none of which poked out.

While Errica waited for discharge papers the orange-haired teen emerged from room D. She let out a wail when the small group of people surrounded her. Slowly they began to lead her off. Room D visitors ceased. The door remained closed. And the group outside dispersed, except for the two suited men.

The woman down the hall was still barking. Phones rang. Nurses murmured about a troublesome patient. The hacking man to Ericca’s side snored loudly. An orderly wearing green scrubs had rolled away the sleeping woman in the gurney for a cat-scan. The two dark-suited men rose from their seats. They stepped through Room D’s door with not as much as a look to each other. And a few minutes later they emerged. One man on each end, they rolled away a gurney that carried a body covered with a white plastic sheet.

On her way out, Ericca walked behind the mother carrying her two-year-old who was finally asleep. She fought an urge to pet the boy’s head. Familiar faces remained out in the waiting room. She stopped to pay the clown a visit. He seemed to swim gleefully about, his orange and white stripes turning in and out, rippling like a belly dancer. No wonder they called them clowns, Ericca thought. She ran her hand along her bandages, then placed her hand on the finger smudged glass. The clown wiggled his fins then darted into the anemone that closed its protecting translucent fingers around him. Then Ericca breathed in the smell of the E.R., Lysol, Band-Aids, antiseptic, before walking out the doors to a sky that glowed orange, welcoming the day’s new sun.

(c) Lauren D. H. Miertschin

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