As promised, here is the entire first chapter of my upcoming debut novel, WHEN YOU’RE READY. Enjoy! 🙂
“Miss? Do you need to see a doctor?” the emergency room attendant asked. My eyes roamed the familiar sterile walls, taking me back to the last time I’d stood in this very room. When they’d told me he…
Don’t think about it. Don’t even go there.
I don’t even know why she was asking. Why else would I be standing here? The vomit smell, the wild look in my eyes and the crying child in my arms wasn’t enough of an answer for her?
“Yes, my daughter fell…she’s been throwing up the whole way here. I…I think she might have a concussion,” I managed to say while juggling said daughter in one arm and printing her name on the sign-in sheet on the counter with the other. I pushed back a piece of my auburn hair with my freed up hand, and exhaled in exhaustion.
Nodding, the middle-aged woman with the sandy brown hair and a nametag that said “Tammy” began to take our information, slapped those uncomfortable hospital bracelets on both our wrists and ushered us into the waiting room, assuring me it wouldn’t be too long a wait. Hopefully the walls wouldn’t close in on me before we got called back. I hated this place.
I sat us down in the far corner, making sure there was plenty of space between us and the other patients waiting their turn. No one needed to be sitting near this train wreck. My nerves were shot and I was still shaking like a leaf from our harrowing drive. I’m fairly sure I’d broken a number of traffic laws getting us here, but when your child was in the backseat, recreating a scene from the Exorcist, traffic tickets seemed a little less important. I knew in the back of my mind that it was most likely a normal, run of the mill concussion, and she just needed to be examined. I should have been calmer, but as soon as she began getting sick on the couch at home, I freaked out. I think it’s a mom thing, we can’t help it. It’s our job to panic. That’s what I kept telling myself at least.
I looked down at my Maddie, my four-year-old monster, currently dressed completely in pink, all of which was covered in dried vomit. She was holding onto my shirt with a tight fist, her tiny head resting against my chest. She was still sniffling from tears that had long since dried. The beautiful curly strawberry blonde hair that she’d inherited from me was a matted mess, sticking up in every direction. Her left thumb was purposely stuck in her mouth, her preferred method of calming when she was upset. I desperately tried not to think about whether or not that thumb had come in contact with anything projecting out of her mouth. Gross.
“I swear, child…you’re gonna give me a heart attack before I turn 30,” I said while absently running my hands through her disheveled hair, and gazing into the brown eyes that reminded me so much of the man I’d loved. My eyes were a deep green, but Maddie’s were the color of her father’s, dark chestnut brown.
The last two hours were a blur and I was still trying to recover. Parenthood was never-ending and exhausting. Being a single parent was even more so.
I hadn’t planned on the single part.
“Ethan, please don’t leave me!”
The memory of that night came rushing back. I remembered finding him unconscious and barely breathing, the ambulance, and the hysteria as they wheeled him in. Standing in this waiting room when the doctor came out and…no. I couldn’t do this right now. No one needed to see an emotional breakdown in the ER waiting room. Again.
“What’s a heart attack?” Maddie mumbled weakly against my chest.
“It’s like throwing up, but waaaaaaaaay worse,” I said jokingly in an attempt to lift her spirits. Mine too, maybe.
“Oh,” she whispered back. I could see her sheepish smile peek through for a second before it disappeared. Mission accomplished. At least she still thought I was funny.
Today began as any other day. Maddie had preschool this morning, and when we got home in the afternoon, she told me about all the adventures she’d had at school. I’d listened and said “Oooh,” and “Wow!” at all the right moments, making her feel like she was the most important person in the world, because she was. At least in my world.
Later, she’d gone upstairs to play dress-up in one of her many ballerina costumes. She twirled around, a vision in pink, telling me she was going to be the bestest ballerina ever.
“Baby, you already are the best ballerina I know!”
“Well duh, Mommy!” she replied. Such sass. I had no idea where she got that from. Absolutely none. She must have inherited that one from her father. Definitely not me. Nope.
I left her in her bedroom to be ballerina extraordinaire while I ran around the house picking up the epic mess a young child managed to create when I heard it…that heart-wrenching sound no parent wants to experience. I raced upstairs after hearing her hit the floor. As a parent, you learn quickly that the more delayed the scream, the worse it’s going to be. It’s like the child is working through the shock and winding their way up to the scream. It felt like a full hour before I heard that blood curdling scream. I was already at her bedroom door.
“Baby, are you okay?” I picked her up and brought her into my arms. Looking back, I realize that was probably not the most intelligent thing to do. Aren’t you supposed to leave them still in case of spinal damage or something? I don’t know…my parental instinct was to pick her up, so that’s what I did. She cried and I consoled. This went on for a few minutes, and then she calmed down a bit so we could talk.
“What happened, Maddie? How did you fall?” I asked, looking over at her ballet barre positioned right next to her bed, putting all the pieces together in my head as she looked up at me.
“I don’t know Mommy, I just fell,” she said, lying through her teeth.
“Mmm, well…it wouldn’t have anything to do with this ballet barre, would it?”
“Um, no?” I could see her mind going, trying to figure out something, anything that could get her out of this…but nope, her four-year-old brain wasn’t fast enough, so she reverted to an old favorite, the pathetic pouty face. It works on everyone except me. I’m Mommy, therefore I’m immune.
“Okay, well I’m going to tell you what I think happened and you can tell me if I’m close or not, okay? She nodded in agreement. “I think someone, possibly you, thought it would be fun to climb on their ballet barre and perhaps sit on it like the monkey bars at the playground.”
Her eyes widened. Yep, bingo.
“Considering that isn’t the safest thing for a little girl to do, I think it might be time for the ballet barre to take a vacation until we can find something safer for you to practice on.” I knew I shouldn’t have taken that hand-me-down plastic ballet barre from my Mom’s friend, but she insisted. I don’t know why, but everyone felt this overwhelming need to give toys and clothes to the widow. If I showed any of them my monthly bank statement, they’d probably have a different opinion. Ethan was a planner, and he made sure we’d be taken care of no matter what. I could choose to never work another day in my life and we’d be fine. But being a young widow, I was still the ultimate charity case. It’s been almost three years and I think there might still be enough frozen casseroles in my freezer to last through an apocalypse.
Maddie, though sad, had agreed, and we relocated the ballet barre. She was pretty bummed over losing it, I could tell. But she handled it like a champ.
“Mommy, if my Daddy were here…could he build me a ballet barre?” I nodded, unable to form words, staring at those stupid hospital walls, a reminder of everything lost. That’s exactly what Ethan planned on doing when she had gotten old enough, but plans, being the bitch that they are, have a way of changing.
“Madilyn Murray?” the triage nurse called from across the room. I rose from the chair, juggling Maddie in my arms, and followed the nurse through the double doors to a small room on the left.
“We need to weigh her. Can she stand?” the petite blonde nurse asked as we entered the room.
“Oh, yes.” I placed Maddie’s petite body on the scale, stepping back just slightly. I didn’t want to be too far away in case she fell.
“Okay, you can take her now,” the nurse said, writing down the information on a notepad.
The triage nurse, whose name I learned is Nicole, goes through the many triage procedures, taking her temperature, pulse and blood pressure and asking if Maddie’s allergic to anything. I always find this a strange question to ask for a young child. I mean, how many medications can a normal four-year-old possibly have taken to know a definitive answer to this question? Maddie’s probably taken a grand total of maybe five medications in her short life, and I’m supposed to say no, she not allergic to anything.
“Okay, let’s go over all her symptoms so I get everything into the system,” Nicole said, transferring information from her little notepad into a computer.
I went over the events of the afternoon with her, the ballerina routine, the fall, flying up the stairs, and how it happened. She continued to type on the keyboard and listen. Occasionally she asked questions.
“After she settled down, we went downstairs to cuddle on the couch and start a movie. About an hour or so later, she became quiet and lethargic, which is very un-Maddie like. I was about to call the on-call pediatrician when she became violently ill. So, I packed her in the car and came here.”
Nicole leaned forward, examining Maddie, completely oblivious to our stench, and it was strong. There was no way someone could miss it. People who worked in hospitals must have nostrils of steel.
“Bless your little heart. How ya doing, baby girl?” Nicole’s southern accent was strong. She was not originally from here. Richmonders don’t have that much twang.
“I’m okay, I guess,” Maddie managed to say before burrowing her head back into my chest.
“We’ll take good care of her. Let’s finish up, and we’ll get you settled in an exam room. I’ll make sure she gets Dr. Matthews. He’s the best.”
“Thank you, Nicole. I really appreciate it,” I said, meaning every word.
“Don’t you mention it, hun. I got one at home just about the same age,” she said, turning back to the computer to type again.
Nicole proceeded to ask a few more questions, briefly examined Maddie’s head, made a call, and minutes later another nurse appeared in the doorway, ready to escort us down the hall.
“You take care, hun,” she said, waving at Maddie and me as we walked away.
Ushered into an exam room, we were introduced to yet another nurse, this one’s nametag said Theresa. She gave me a tiny hospital gown to change Maddie into before heading for the door, saying she would return shortly.
I looked at the clean, freshly laundered hospital gown with envy. At that moment, I’m pretty sure I would have given half my closet for a pair of scrubs. The last thing on my mind when we left was clothing, and I’d rushed out the door covered in vomit. The time since hadn’t improved matters, and I was pretty sure I smelled awful. No, scratch that. I knew I smelled awful. Theresa seemed to be holding her breath the entire time she was in the room. Well, at least I was at a hospital. There was no one to impress here.
The door to our exam room cracked open and a familiar face peeked in.
“Clare? Oh my God! I heard one of the nurses say your name and came to investigate. Can you tell me why I had to find out my BFF and goddaughter are in the ER through some random nurse. You couldn’t have called or texted?” Leah, my slightly peeved best friend said, walking into the room wearing panda bear scrubs. Only Leah could wear those ridiculous looking scrubs and still look hot. I don’t know how she makes it out alive each day in the Labor and Delivery unit. If someone like her had walked in when I was in labor, all tanned and blonde with her perky breasts and model physique, while I was sweating like a pig trying to birth a child, I would have decked her. She was lucky I actually allowed her in the birthing room when Maddie was born. Although I did make her come to the hospital in her grungiest scrubs and absolutely no makeup. Petty? Yes. But it made me feel the slightest bit better.
Leah and I had been best friends since second grade, when Kara Daniels tried stealing my chocolate pudding cup in the lunchroom. Leah saw the whole thing from across the cafeteria. She got up from her chair, walked over to Kara and punched her right in the nose. That little bully fell backasswards off her seat, stunned. Leah of course went to the principal’s office for it. He called her parents and she got sent home for the rest of the day. Honestly, she got off easy. When she returned to school the next day, we were inseparable and have been ever since. Kara Daniels, of course, never bothered me again. Leah and I did everything together, and even graduated from the same college, but shortly after, she decided to return to school and get her nursing license, after several failed attempts at finding a job revealed that you couldn’t do jack shit with a philosophy degree.
“Leah, I’m sorry. I was going to text you as soon as we got through triage, but they just put us in here. The whole thing has been one giant blur. I thought concussions were supposed to be instantaneous. We sat on the couch watching The Wizard of Oz for over an hour. What if I made it worse by not doing anything?” I said.
“Should I have taken her here right away? What if her brain is hemorrhaging or something?” I think my blood pressure doubled with each word. I don’t know why I started panicking again. Stress is a funny thing.
“Clare. Seriously, calm down.” She kneeled down in front on me as I sat next to Maddie on the bed.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. You know by now that you can’t take her to the ER for every bump, scratch or fall,” she said soothingly. “You did everything perfectly. Now shut the hell up and relax.” She paused, and then scrunched her nose in disgust. “Did you know you totally smell?”
A giggle escaped out of me and I pulled her toward me for a tight hug, silently thanking her.
“No, I mean, like really smell. Don’t hug me! Yuck!” I laughed harder. I could even hear Maddie giggling a little next to me. Leah had always been my savior when my world was flipped upside down.
“Seriously, are you doing okay? You know, being here?” she asked, knowing the last time I’d been here, having been in that waiting room holding my hand to the very end.
“Yeah, I mean. I guess.” I smiled weakly. She squeezed my hand, knowing when not to push.
“Okay, well take care of my girl. I’ll be back to check on you later. And seriously, find a change of clothes, cause you are just nasty,” she teased.
“Thanks, Nurse Morgan. You are the bestest nurse ever,” I mocked as she rolled her eyes and headed for the door.
Being here was like anywhere else that reminded me of him, the ice cream shop, our favorite restaurant, and the grocery store. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid, just have to fucking do it and get it over with. Of course, he didn’t die at the ice cream shop.
I pulled myself away from going down that awful road. Leah’s right, Maddie was fine. Just because there were memories here that haunted me and filled my soul with dread didn’t mean that every event here would end with the same outcome. I looked over at Maddie who was now resting comfortably, and I felt calmer.
“You know Maddie? I think we’ll be able to go home in no time!” I said enthusiastically. She looked over at me and smiled, right before she lifted herself up and hurled over the side of the bed, right on my shoes.
Copyright J.L. Berg 2013
WHEN YOU’RE READY
Coming July 25th