In the hospital lobby is a giant cardboard cut-out of a cartoon bear with the words PLEASE BEAR WITH US WHILE WE’RE UNDER CONSTRUCTION! It’s my second trip to the hospital in less than a week and I figure it’s only a matter of time before no one is watching or waiting in the lobby, allowing me the opportunity to kick the cardboard bear. I’m carrying two large pizzas and three smaller boxes of cheesy bread. In my backpack is a four-pack of Coke. I can’t remember which elevator to take so I ask a nurse. She gives me directions to the ICU and I wander the hallways while visitors and staff all smile at the pizza boxes and make comments like, “Oh is that for me?” and “You’re so nice to bring me food!” I keep walking until I find the waiting room. Hand sanitizer stations are mounted to each wall in sets of five with small panels displaying snot-green gel. The room smells like the Wendy’s bathroom on Colfax; bleach and anxiety. A man is sitting at a table surrounded by fifty empty tables. My family is nowhere to be found. He glances up, agitation crossing his face. Behind him a window displays a storm cloud sliding across an empty blue sky. I’m not the doctor with the news he’s been waiting all day to hear. I force a smile, just for him. It isn’t anywhere near as small and polite as I intend it to be. I set the pizza down on the closest table. Somewhere in the seating area across the hall a phone goes off blaring Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. The same song was playing on the radio the night I drove into a herd of more than fifty deer on the San Juan Skyway on my way back to Durango. The smell of wet leaves and hot rubber hung in the air. My headlights reflected the terror in the herd’s eyes as I swerved to the right then the left, maneuvering my way past several massive bucks, slender does, and speckled fawns. I can’t remember how I wound up sitting on the side of the highway, untying my shoelaces, smoking a cigarette and searching my pockets for a cell phone I didn’t own. It’s funny what your brain chooses to keep and what it decides to throw away.
My stepmom, dad, and sister-in-law Kristen walk into the room all at once. We hug, exchange howareyous, and sit down at the table. Huge smiles. Their faces are worn, the kind of quick-weathered look a face undergoes when overloaded with trauma. We don’t talk much; busy cramming our mouths full of pizza and cheese bread and chugging down Cokes. In another moment we could have been sitting at a wood picnic table in a park, swatting summer flies watching dogs squirm in wet grass and kids pissing their red cotton shorts. Clouds puff and roll across a cotton candy-colored sky and someone’s kite catches on fire. I’m anxious to see my stepbrother, so Kristen leads me through a series of twisting hallways until we reach his room. He’s lying in bed, chest bare and a Y-shape carved into his torso held together by staples the size of my thumb nail. He reminds me of the guy from the Operation game, pinned and displayed with all his organs. There’s a dead man’s liver sewn inside of him fighting to stay. He tells me he wants to thank the donor’s family. There’s a look in his eyes that’s familiar but I can’t place. There will be time, Kristen assures him. A cotton washcloth covers his forehead and I notice his skin is no longer yellow. I attempt a few jokes, stacks of sobs waiting to crash in on me, but it’s a poor attempt. His eyelids are drooping, signaling my time to go. As I leave the room I hear the beeps of machines and forced air and shoes squishing down linoleum. An intercom somewhere in the hallway is demanding code blue; code team, code blue, code team and I remember where I saw that look in my stepbrother’s eyes. It’s funny what your brain chooses to keep and what it decides to throw away.
Hillary Leftwich currently lives in Denver with her son. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review, co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, and a victim advocate for survivors of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. In her previous day jobs she worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Her writing can be found in print and online in The Missouri Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Sundog Lit, Occulum, NANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming in spring of 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com and on Twitter @hillaryleftwich.
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