Sunlight streamed through the window and followed the old man. Five measured steps. Pivot. Five more the opposite direction. Repeat. He paused only when a white-coated figure silently emerged from the room. “Hank. How is she?”
The younger man shook his head and grimaced. “Sorry, Stanley. It’s too soon to tell.”
Stanley released the breath he’d been holding, and deflated. His own white coat swallowed him. He ran gnarled fingers through wispy, silver hair. “Can I go in?”
“Not yet. Soon.”
“No ‘buts,’ Stanley. You know the rules.”
Before he could object, Hank turned and reentered the room. Alone again, Stanley resumed his pacing.
Inside, Hank lingered in a corner near the window, removed from the flurry of activity surrounding the patient and the latest crisis. The doctor barked commands. Nurses came and went. Machines beeped and hummed. They forced fluid into her veins, shoved oxygen into her lungs, monitored every aspect of her condition.
No, Hank reminded himself. Not every aspect.
A woman joined him in the ray of sunlight that filtered into the room. Questions filled her panicked eyes. “H-Hank?”
“Hank, what’s going on? You’re — I don’t understand. Am I—?”
“Shh, I’ll explain everything.”
“No, ‘buts,’ Adeline. You just have to trust me.”
Stanley paced the corridor on autopilot. His steps were slow and deliberate, but his mind sprinted. He thought about the rule that stranded him out in this hallway instead of inside, with her.
“The prohibition against tending one’s own spouse or child is absolute. No exceptions,” Hank had told him during orientation. “I wasn’t even allowed in the room while they tended to Elise — after her accident.”
“Is it worth it?” Stanley pondered. “To be able to help strangers, but not the ones you love?”
“It keeps you close by. Near your family. You and I… we were friends for years before I… just trust me.”
So Stanley had signed on.
“What was I thinking?” He berated himself, even though he knew exactly what he’d been thinking. It was better than going away. Away from her. Away from everyone.
The door opened and the medical team spilled from the room. They didn’t look at Stanley. They never did. His anxious eyes examined each face for clues. They revealed nothing. Finally Hank rejoined him.
Hank half-shrugged. “Still in a coma.”
“You see this all the time — we both do. What do you think?”
“I don’t know, Stanley. I just don’t.”
“I need to see her.”
“We’ve been over this. You’ve done this work long enough to know you can’t go in there no matter how bad you want to. They’re still monitoring her.”
“I spoke with Adeline. She’s scared. Confused. More than anything, though, she’s tired.”
“You can’t. It has to be her decision, in her time. If you go in there, you could influence—”
“I know you, Stanley. You think you wouldn’t try to sway her, but I’m not sure you could help it. I’m not sure any of us could. Maybe you should get out of here. Take a break.” He held up his hand before Stanley could protest. “Just for a little while.”
Stanley sank into one of the plastic, tangerine-colored chairs that lined the waiting area and sighed wearily. He looked at Hank with tear-filled eyes. “It’s just so hard.”
“I’ve been there. It was before you got here, of course, but when Elise had her accident—”
“You stayed. You stayed, but you’re telling me to leave? I thought you of all people would understand.”
“I’m just telling you what I learned when I was in your shoes. And what Elise told me after… You’re not here for her; you’re here for you.You sit in this chair, you pace this corridor, and you tell yourself, ‘I can’t leave her now,’ but really, she’s already gone.
“She’s gone. Retreated into herself to find her own answers and to make her own decision. Science and medicine have done everything they can. It’s up to her now.”
“I know, but—”
“This isn't open for discussion. I know you’ve missed her all these years since… She’ll be with us again soon. You just have to be patient. She has to decide whether to fight and wake up, or let go and join us – join you. We’re guides, Stanley.” Hank grasped Stanley’s shoulder. “We can explain the options to a soul hovering on the brink, but that’s all. Adeline has a choice to make. She knows that. Let her make it.”
Stanley stood. “What if she decides and I’m not here?”
“She’ll find you. Her soul is destined to find yours. That’s how it works.”
Stanley bowed his head and stared into the trash can filled with paper coffee cups, potato chip bags, and other detritus left behind by recently departed families of other patients.
Both men whirled toward the voice.
“Adeline,” Stanley choked.
Liberated from the machines, Adeline looked healthier than she had in weeks. She beamed in the sunlight. Her thin hospital gown had been exchanged for a white coat similar to the ones the men wore. She glanced briefly at Hank, then focused on Stanley.
The heart rate monitor squealed. Doctors and nurses rushed past Adeline and into the room.
It wouldn’t do them any good. She’d made her decision.
“Good to see you here, Adeline. Elise will be thrilled to have you with us.” Hank cleared his throat. “I think I’ll visit the emergency room. See if anyone needs me down there.”
Neither Stanley nor Adeline heard him as their hands touched for the first time in ten years.
“I missed you,” Adeline whispered.
“I missed you, too.”
Jenni Cook a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, is employed as a litigation attorney. Author of several unpublished short stories, she is currently working on her first novel, a slightly snarky who-done-it, tentatively titled "The Disposal." You can find more of her original work at judgedbyjenn.com
Waiting Room is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @samuelzeller