This story is by K.M. Hotzel and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I sit in the waiting room, my head hanging between my shoulders, staring down at my hands. My fingers twitch as I try to hold still, try to listen to the whispered words of the nurses shuffling up and down the hallway. I urge myself to remain calm, not to worry.
She is in expert hands.
My hands slide off my thighs, down to the edge of the seat where they curl around the plastic. I try desperately not to jump up and run down the hallway.
Not that they would let me past those doors. I’ve tried.
They told me to wait.
I stare at the doors through which they carried her away.
My chest aches. I can’t breathe.
How long will it take?
My eyes wander back to my hands. They look rough, covered in blood and dirt. I should go to the bathroom and wash my hands, remove the smudges–the grime, the dirt, the blood. I lift my gaze, searching for a restroom, but decide I’m not leaving my spot even before I locate it.
What if they come for me?
I can’t risk missing them.
So, I sit there, perched at the edge of the chair, my leg bouncing nervously while I scratch at the crusty smears.
Pieces, tiny little fragments of dried blood, come off and fall onto the speckled linoleum between my feet. I scratch harder, desperate to eradicate every trace of my failure.
Perhaps if I could get it all off, remove every remnant of the accident, she’ll be fine. Something inside me latches on to this irrational hope. I lick my thumb and rub the grime off one spot.
A shadow startles me, and I lift my head, squinting into the fluorescent light. A doctor, I presume, looks down at me. I jump up to meet his gaze. Hope and fear competing for dominion over my face.
He gives me a friendly pat on the shoulder, encouragement flickers in his smile.
Or is it pity?
My heart flutters. I swallow repeatedly, panic bubbling in my stomach. I open my lips, but the words won’t come.
“There is a restroom over there.” He points down the hall, my eyes drifting from his face to his hand and along the white wall until they land on the sign.
I nod and shuffle in the indicated direction, wondering if he knows anything about her condition. When I turn to ask him, he has already vanished.
I chastise myself for failing to put the question to him.
Why didn’t I? I should have.
In the bathroom, I wash my hands, scrub them until they are red and sore. Icy water runs over my hands, clears the fog in my head and I notice, for the first time, the cuts and scrapes.
Laid bare, they leer at me, fiery and accusing.
I should have been there.
I drop my hands into the sink and stare at my reflection. The cuts sting and pulse, aching under the chilly water. Dread clutches my heart as I remember her contorted features, her mangled arm.
I collapse onto the floor and sling my arms around my knees, pulling them as close as I can. Hot tears run down my cheeks and a sob catches in my throat.
Get a hold of yourself, a voice inside my head insists.
But it’s easier said than done.
What if something goes wrong?
Panic engulfs me.
I leap to my feet and dash out the door, searching for someone to ask about her.
But no one is at the desk. No nurse or doctor in sight.
I return to my seat, hunch over, rest my elbows on my knees, and stare at the back of my trembling hands. They are clean now, littered with cuts. I turn them over, glare at my palms. Even though I removed all traces of her blood, I feel no relief.
And I shouldn’t.
Because it’s all my fault. I’m to blame. I should have known better, kept her safe, protected her.
But I failed. I failed in my duties as her mother, and now she is somewhere behind those doors undergoing surgery.
And I’m here.
I sit up and stare at the door, wondering how she is doing.
Will she make it? Will I see her again?
My lip quivers and I avert my gaze, bury my face in my hands, trying to quiet my mind. But my guilt screams at me. I put my hands over my ears, hoping to subdue the sensation, but it only amplifies it.
Remorse takes my hand and drags me along.
I go over the events again, analyzing each part of the sequence, trying to identify the moment I failed her.
I should have told her to stop.
She would have climbed the tree, regardless.
I should have warned her.
She wouldn’t have listened.
I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.
It was a quick phone call, barely two minutes.
I could have prevented it, caught her before she got hurt, if only…
I curl my fingers into my hair, digging my nails into my scalp, wanting to tear it out. Yet, I force myself to relax, to drop my hands and dangle them loosely between my thighs.
I rotate my head and peer at the door again, separating me from her.
What’s keeping them?
I haven’t seen her since we staggered into the emergency room. Right away, they took her from me and rushed her off. I didn’t even have time to kiss her or tell her it would be okay. Not that I was certain.
How long ago was that?
The door opens, and a haggard-looking doctor exits. I push myself up into a seated position, my back straight and my focus trained on her.
Does she know something? Is she going to give me an update?
I slide to the edge of my seat, ready to pounce. But she walks past me like I don’t exist.
I get up, my hand outstretched, trying to stop her when I realize she is here for the couple holding hands. My heart sinks and I plummet into my seat. I can’t help but watch her as she stops in front of them. Even from where I’m sitting, I can tell it’s good news. Their faces light up as they rise from their seats, eagerly nodding, their bodies relaxing in relief.
It must be great.
I look away, batting my eyes to keep the tears locked up.
I’m glad for them, even as a wave of sorrow pulls me under. My lungs throb and I tug at the collar of my shirt. I need air. I spring to my feet, ready to run out the door, but I stop myself.
What if someone comes looking for me?
I need to stay.
So I sit down and suppress the impulse.
Seconds trickle by, minutes elapse, and hours tumble past. I lose track of time, busy chastising myself and drowning in guilt. The only interruption to my chorus of culpability and despair is the occasional opening of the door and the glimmer of hope it ignites each time.
Maybe this time…
But the nurses and doctors never stop at my seat, and when I rush after them, desperately tugging on their sleeves, they tell me in stern voices to sit down, be patient before they shuffle past, their steps echoing down the hallway.
Each time I collapse into myself, as if someone had punched me. My thoughts spiral down a bleak path.
What if her injuries are more severe than anticipated? What if the doctors can’t help her? What if she dies?
I choke, then cough. I put my hands on my knees and dig my fingertips into my jeans until I feel my nails driving into my skin. The pain brings relief, and I recover my breath.
I hear the rasp of the door opening once again. A woman wearing a white coat over scrubs exits. I give her a sidelong glance, not letting hope get the better of me. Nevertheless, my leg bounces in anticipation.
As she stops in front of me, I raise my head, slowly as not to startle the image and make it disappear.
Worries fizzle like acid as I search her face for clues.
In the second she takes to answer, worst-case scenarios, imagined and surreal, crowd my mind, and I taste bile.
“The operation went well. Eliana is on the mend. We’ll bring her out in a few minutes.”
“What about her arm?”
“The fracture looked worse than it was. She’ll be in a cast for a while.” She closes the folder and searches my face for a sign of comprehension.
Again, I nod.
“There may be some limitations regarding range of motion and some scarring, but she’ll recover. Kids are resilient.”
Relief blooms in my chest. The pressure fades. Lightheaded, I smile, I sway.
She’ll recover. My baby will be okay.