eadlights washed over the plain white room from a car outside navigating the lot. Gusts from an overhead vent teased at her hair, making Riley thankful she’d kept her sweatshirt. The cloying, medicinal smell pervading everything here added to her worry and made it difficult to keep from throwing up. No matter how hard she tried to think about anything other than the sight of her mother limp in the living room chair, she couldn’t stop trembling. It wasn’t the cold, though the over-cranked A/C didn’t help. Her gaze settled for a moment on the empty seat at her left.
She didn’t remember the cop taking her to her bedroom to grab her sneakers, or the ride to JFK Medical Center. Somewhere within the past twenty minutes, he’d gone for coffee and left her under the watch of an older, thick-bodied nurse who didn’t seem at all happy to get stuck watching a kid. Her initial glower melted after one look at Riley’s face. The woman settled for glaring at a mini TV out of sight below the counter, abusing a contestant on Jeopardy instead… calling him a moron over and over when he got stuff wrong. Whenever she looked up to check on Riley, she transformed from Throw Momma From the Train to ‘Friendly Grandma.’
Riley draped her hands in her lap, hating the grinning teddy bears up and down her pajama leggings even more. How dare they smile at a time like this.
Please, Mom. Be okay. I swear I’ll get a job this summer if you’re okay.
A large, round, analog wall clock read 2:11 in the morning. It didn’t feel like she’d been sitting there that long, and she wondered if Amber was still trying to get her on the Xbox. They’d planned to stay awake all night before her friend’s parents hauled her off to Mexico. The tiniest sliver of resentment at being denied even that time with her friend made her cringe with guilt.
“Over there,” muttered the nurse.
Rustling plastic drew her attention to a dark-skinned man with thick eyebrows, approaching with an uneasy smile. His teal scrubs and white doctor’s coat filled her with dread, as did the greenish booties over his shoes.
A weary-looking heavyset woman with cherry red hair in a bob followed a half step behind him. Her rounded face gave her the look of a wingless cherub who hadn’t slept in four days trying her best to look reassuring. She wore a bland, grey skirt-suit with a frill-fronted pink dress shirt. The whole outfit looked disheveled and a little too large, as though someone else had dressed her.
“Miss McCullough?” asked the man.
“Yes,” said Riley, into her lap.
“I’m Doctor Farhi. This is Mina Lewis. She’s here to help you.”
“Hi.” The woman offered a weak wave.
“Can I see my mother?”
Doctor Farhi kept silent for a moment. As soon as Mina sat next to her and took her hand, Riley’s throat tightened. She looked up at them, face frozen in panic. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her heart pounded.
“I’m sorry, Riley. Your mother has passed away.” The doctor looked at his shoes, as if debating how much to say.
“No…” She shook her head hard enough to fling tears. “No… She can’t have a heart attack. She’s not that old. Mommy…” Riley pulled away from Mina and buried her face in her hands. “No, you’re lying!”
Mina put a sympathetic arm around her.
“She didn’t feel any pain.” The doctor shifted. “Your mother didn’t have a heart attack.”
“What?” None of the hundred things she wanted to say could fit past the lump in her throat.
“It’s important for you to understand you couldn’t have done anything different.” Mina sat up, trading an arm around the back for holding her hand. “Nothing you could have done would have changed anything.”
Riley stared at the wall, feeling like she floated off to another world. “What”―she swallowed―“w-what happened?”
“She did not suffer.” The doctor offered a comforting smile.
“I wanna know.” She took in a deep breath, fighting back the urge to cry. “Please.”
Doctor Farhi hesitated. The look in his dark brown eyes betrayed his pain at having to dump something like that on a child. He kept glancing at the hallway as if hoping some older family member might walk in. Riley cringed, cradling Mina’s arm to her chest like a stuffed bear. After a few quiet seconds, the doctor sat on the bench next to her and took her other hand.
“Your mother had a cerebral aneurysm, which suffered an acute rupture.” He paused, giving her a moment to process. “For all intents and purposes, the woman she was died immediately. Aside from the headache leading up to the event, it’s doubtful she suffered.”
“She didn’t die. She was still breathing.” Riley sniffled.
“Basic brain functions operate below the level of the damage, and continued for a short while after. The injury was… not survivable.” He bit his lip. “You had no way to know. Most patients don’t even realize they have this condition until a rupture.”
“She was only forty.” Riley repeated the phrase three times in decreasing volume, the last a whisper.
Mina squeezed her hand.
“Certain things exacerbate the risk factors, chiefly stress, alcohol, some recreational drugs, genetic factors―”
“Stress and alcohol.” Riley wiped at her face. “Yeah. That sounds like Mom.”
“I’m sorry… there was nothing we could do for her. The damage was too extensive. I’m sorry.” Doctor Farhi looked at her like someone had shot his dog.
“Can I see my Mom?”
The doctor glanced at Mina. “I’m not sure if―”
“Please… If you can clean Mrs. McCullough up, it will help her cope,” said Mina. “She needs to see her mother to say goodbye, to understand this is real.”
“Alright. It’ll be a few minutes.” Dr. Farhi stood and walked off.
Riley felt like a rubber statue of a person, jostled about by Mina’s attempts at comfort. She locked her gaze on a small cross-stitch of a flower vase on the wall, trying to force herself to wake up in her room with her mother nagging at her about oversleeping.
Please be a nightmare.
Mina squeezed her hand. “Is there anyone I can contact for you?”
“I dunno.” Riley tried to bore a hole through the floor with her stare.
She lurched forward as an overenthusiastic hand rubbed her back. All the times she’d felt angry for not having a ‘whole’ family rushed back like a river of lame. When she was eight and nine, she’d been furious at the world for not having a father. Mom had never told her why he left―only that he was still alive. That had been the one subject capable of getting the woman to stop talking. Eventually, Riley had stopped asking.
“I guess I have a dad somewhere. I haven’t seen him since I was little.”
“Any grandparents? Did you mother have any siblings?”
Grief and exhaustion drained her to a monotone. “Mom was a broken condom… I think I was four when my grandfather died. Never saw Dad’s parents. They never even mentioned them. Mom’s got an older sister somewhere, but she’s like… old now, and a bitch. Hates everyone. It’s just me and Mom.”
She let her head droop, feeling the water building up at the corners of her eyes again.
“I’m so sorry, hon. It’s okay, let it out. There’s no shame in crying.”
Silent minutes passed. The sound of Riley’s grief seemed to have a muting effect on the angry nurse’s belittlement of Jeopardy contestants. Mina rested a sympathetic arm around her back and let her sob without trying to talk over her.
June 16th had been the last day of school. Tomorrow―well today, technically―Friday, was supposed to have been the start of the ‘big summer’ between eighth grade and freshman year. Her last summer as a ‘kid.’
Now, it was a giant pile of fear and suck.
Mina squeezed her hand around 2:37 a.m. Riley looked up, and followed the woman’s gaze to Doctor Farhi who stood at the opening of a hallway leading deeper into the hospital. The sight of him got her shaking again. She pulled her hair out of her eyes, but couldn’t bring herself to say anything.
“She’s ready,” said the doctor.
Riley stood, still trembling, and clutched Mina’s hand as they walked behind him to the fifth room on the left. She hesitated at the door where the overwhelming silence felt like a physical presence in the air, warning her away from what awaited her inside. She swallowed. Until she went in, Mom might still be alive. Until she laid eyes on her, this could still be an awful, awful dream.
“It’s okay. Take a breath.” Again, Mina patted her back. “It’s okay if you can’t do this.”
I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.
The doctor’s neutral expression could have said, ‘we prepped her, you better not change your mind’ as likely as it offered consolation. She let go of Mina’s hand and forced herself to enter the room. Her mother lay on a bed, pale and lifeless, head slumped to the right as if asleep. A blanket covered her to the waist, a basic patient’s gown the rest of the way. Bandages wrapped the top of her head, though a little dried blood lingered in her ear. No equipment was connected to her, though they had taped gauze over several spots on her arms.
Mom’s so… white.
One look left no doubt her mother was no longer there.
She ran to the side of the bed, put a hand on her mother’s arm, and stifled a gasp at how cold the skin felt. Ignoring the unnatural temperature, she cradled the limb to her chest.
“Mom…” she whispered. “I should’ve called the doctor. I should’ve made you go to the hospital.” Sniffles grew to tears. “You can’t die.”
Minutes of uncontrolled crying eventually evened out to quiet breathing. Riley looked to her right where a different nurse stood watch at the foot of the bed. This woman looked younger than the one at the desk, slim, with dark skin, and had water at the corner of her eyes too.
“If you want to ask about anything…”
“They shaved her hair,” muttered Riley.
“Yes.” The nurse pointed at the bandages. “They operated on her brain, trying everything they could to save her.”
“What’s an aneurysm?”
The young nurse moved up alongside her. “A blood vessel in her brain swelled up like a balloon.”
Riley sniffled. “If I dragged her kicking and screaming to the hospital at seven, would she be alive?”
The nurse cast a sorrowful look at Mom… at Mom’s body. “It’s hard to say. It depends on how she presented to the doctor. She might’ve been sent home with headache meds if she didn’t display any other symptoms.”
Riley glanced at her mother again. Mom would have appeared downcast if her eyes had been open. “I’m sorry I felt happy you didn’t bug me”―her calm faded as whining sobs overtook her―“tonight when I was online.” She rocked back and forth, trying to squeeze life back into her mother’s arm. “Mom had a headache… I thought she was sleeping.”
Mina walked up behind her. A hand touched her back. Riley jerked away, not wanting this stranger to touch her. Mina stiffened as a worried expression flickered over her face. Riley took one more look at her mother’s pallid face and whirled to cling to the woman she’d only just met, wailing. Mina ran a hand up and down her back, patting and swaying side to side. The nurse sniffled.
A few minutes later, Riley calmed enough to peek at the body. “Make her get up.”
“I’m sorry, honey, that’s not something we can do,” said the nurse.
Riley squeezed Mina’s arm, shaking it. “I need my mom. I don’t have anyone else. I don’t wanna be an orphan. Please, make them fix her.”
Mina pulled her close. “It’s no one’s fault. There was nothing they could have done for her.”
“Your mother didn’t suffer,” said the nurse. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“She was gonna stay home from work tomorrow… We were gonna have a ‘movie day.’”
Mina swayed side to side, patting her on the back, murmuring platitudes like ‘it’ll be okay,’ ‘she’s in a better place now,’ and ‘let it out.’ Riley tolerated her clinginess, resting her head against the woman’s side while studying the peaceful calm on her mother’s face. She refused to blink, trying to dislodge her last memory of her mother: that horrible, red-eyed, gaping ‘nobody home’ expression.
She had to know something was wrong. She looked so confused.
Never again would Pritchett torment her to the point of working until 10 p.m. on weeknights. Never again would her mother have one too many Manhattans and nag her every fifteen minutes about some trivial chore she’d already finished. Never again would they spend all day in their pajamas watching movies together. Mom wouldn’t be there for her first boyfriend, or her wedding. Her kid (if she ever had one) wouldn’t have a grandmother. No, she wasn’t ready to stand on her own two feet. She needed her mother.
Riley shook the limp arm. “Mom, come on. You gotta get up.”
The young nurse stifled a sniffle.
She’s really gone… I-I’m never going to see her again.
She draped herself over her mother, giving her a final hug.
Mina patted her on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Take as much time with her as you want, then I’ll bring you to a place you can stay for the time being.”
Riley clutched her mother’s arm to her chest like a beloved doll. Mina Lewis looked sympathetic, but also about to fall asleep on her feet. The nurse hovered close, with a comforting smile. After a few minutes, and countless useless wishes, Riley stood.
“Bye, Mom.” Riley laced her fingers through her mother’s for the last time. She held on for a moment before lowering the arm to rest at her mother’s side. “I love you.”
Riley backed away, unwilling to turn her back on Mom. Maybe, if she waited just one more second, she’d stir and open her eyes. At the doorway, Riley’s legs gave out, but Mina caught her. The nurse rushed over and helped Mina carry her back to the waiting room bench. Riley curled up, hands clutched to her chest, too sad to cry.