His breathing deepened as he drifted off to sleep. His chest rose and fell in a rhythm that comforted his sister sitting next to him.
Ellie Harrison wrapped her arms around herself in a hug and closed her eyes. She tried to sleep like her brother, but it was impossible to get comfortable in the hard wooden chairs of the hospital waiting room.
After a few minutes, Sleep found her and took her away from the hospital and all the pain of everyone in the waiting room with her.
But Sleep had no extra time to spare and was impatient to be rid of this new customer. So Sleep went away, leaving her huddled in the cold chair of the hospital waiting room. She opened her eyes, rubbing them gently to make the grogginess go away. The fluorescent light shone brightly, but there was something oddly fake about it; about the whole room. Everything was a sterile white, and too clean for her liking.
She glanced around at the other people in the chairs all around her. Some had stains of recent tears on their cheeks; others sat staring straight ahead of them. A few were asleep like her older brother, Luke, curled up in chairs and even on the floor. One man sat with his head in his hands, sobbing silently into his sleeve. A woman close to the white door spoke softly into her cell phone, reading something off a form in her hand. Some children looked at magazines, and some played video games on iPads or cell phones. There was a big TV mounted on the wall near the door, playing a children’s program on mute. A few people stared blankly at the TV. But no one in the room was really focusing on what they were doing.
The waiting room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Or even a cotton ball. The silence was not broken for several minutes, until the door opened and a doctor with smeared lipstick and messy hair that had been tied back in a loose ponytail walked in. Her eyes quickly scanned the room, and she called out a name.
The woman who had been speaking on her cell phone jumped up and dumped her phone and the forms on her lap into a huge purse. She walked over to the doctor uncertainly, tucking her red hair behind her ear and slinging the monstrous purse over her shoulder like it weighed a thousand pounds. The doctor whispered something that made the woman dissolve into tears. She bit her lip and nodded. Slowly she followed the doctor back through the door, still sobbing quietly. The doctor wore a look of almost sympathy as she closed the door, enveloping the waiting room in silence again. Ellie thought that the doctor should try a little harder to comfort the woman.
Ellie quite disliked doctors. She hated the blue pajamas they wore. The white hygiene masks and the fake smiles plastered on their faces. And especially the way they pretended to understand your pain, the way they shook their heads; implying that their patient had not made it through the night or that their treatments hadn’t been successful.
Now Ellie sighed and sank back into the wooden chair, tapping her foot impatiently. A moment later, the white door swung open again, and this time no doctor walked in, but Ellie’s dad slumped to where Ellie and Luke sat.
His eyes were red and puffy, as if he had not slept in many weeks. He was unshaven and his hair stuck up in every which way. He held a cup of coffee from the cafeteria downstairs, on which his name was printed sloppily. Bradley Harrison.
“Daddy!” whispered Ellie, “Are you OK? How is Marcella doing? When can I visit?”
Ellie’s father sighed. His youngest daughter, Marcella, who was only five, was in the hospital, unconscious. One week ago, Ellie’s mom had been driving Marcella to her school. It was raining. They were stopped at a red light when a big truck came skidding out of nowhere. It collided with their car, and Ellie’s mother had not survived.
Marcella was alive, but very hurt. The doctors were still trying to figure out what was wrong with her. She had scans and tests every day. Their father rarely left her bedside, except for nighttime, when they stayed in a hotel across the street from the hospital. Ellie and Luke spent much of their time in the waiting room, because only one visitor was allowed with Marcella at a time. But sometimes Ellie was permitted in with her sister, and she knelt by the bed. It was full of Marcella’s favorite stuffed animals and blankets, and the table beside the bed was overloaded with sweets and cards from friends.
Ellie was distraught at losing her mother, but since Marcella was so hurt, she couldn’t think about her mom. She had to focus on Marcella, because she could not lose two members of her family. After Marcella got better, they could properly mourn Mrs. Harrison. Ellie’s dad looked at his shoes, blinking back tears.
“Marcella is the same. She’s still unconscious. The doctors hoped to see some improvement after the treatment they gave her yesterday, but there’s been no sign. But there’s still hope. She will pull out of this! No extra visitors are allowed right now. But I was wondering if you were hungry. It’s six thirty, and if you get too tired we can head back to the hotel soon. But I think we should eat first. Come on, wake up your brother and we’ll head to the cafeteria. OK?”
Ellie nodded and shook Luke awake. He rubbed his neck, which must have been full of cricks from the uncomfortable chairs. They stood up solemnly and followed their father out a new door, this one also white, and down some stairs. He nodded at the receptionist in the lobby, who smiled and handed Luke and Ellie each a piece of candy.
The cafeteria was almost like a restaurant. Mr. Harrison ordered some pasta, and Ellie got a grilled-cheese sandwich from the kids’ menu. Luke wanted a grilled-cheese also, but it only came on the kids’ menu.
“Can I get a grilled-cheese too?” Luke asked his father.
“You’re too old. You can only get the kids’ menu when you’re under ten years old. You’re twelve, Luke. Did you forget?” Mr. Harrison’s laugh was strained.
Ellie stuck her tongue out at her brother. “I can still order from the kids’ menu! There’s a good thing about being eight!”
Their dad forced another laugh. “You’re right, Ellie. But don’t stick out your tongue.”
Ellie was proud that she had found a good thing about being four years younger than her brother, which she was always trying to do because Luke always teased her that he was older and bigger and stronger than her. He ended up ordering a burger, which Ellie pointed out was unhealthy.
Back at the hotel Ellie slept restlessly. None of them had been sleeping well since… the accident. They gained about six hours of sleep before the sun gobbled up the darkness and they returned to the hospital.
Marcella improved little over the next few days. The Harrisons appeared strong on the outside, but underneath their thick armor they began to lose hope. They knew that only a miracle could help Marcella. Ellie and Luke spent many more hours in the waiting room, and their dad spent countless hours by the bed of Marcella. More than a week passed.
Mr. Harrison drove Luke and Ellie back to their house to get more clothes, books, and games; because they had both run out. Then they returned to the sterile white hospital which Ellie so detested.
* * *
One day, as Ellie sat in the waiting room with Luke, she had an interesting thought. What would Marcella say when she woke up in a completely white and way-too-clean hospital? Would she remember the crash? Would she be confused?
Ellie asked Luke these questions, and he had an idea. He said that Ellie should make a poster or something, a poster for Marcella. Ellie thought it was an excellent idea.
Ellie had been trying to teach Marcella how to read before the crash, with the help of Luke. Marcella’s attention span was only about five minutes at a time, but five minutes a day certainly got her somewhere. She could read a whole picture book and could sometimes follow along when Luke read his chapter books. In fact, she could read almost as well as Ellie.
So the next day, Ellie’s father drove them to an arts-and-crafts store in downtown. Ellie loaded up the cart with poster paper, colored construction paper, and oodles of pens, crayons, and colored pencils in every color of the rainbow. Then there was the scissors, the tape, the glue, and the hole-punchers of different shapes.
Ellie’s dad groaned as he looked at the receipt but said nothing. They loaded all the supplies back into the car and pulled out of the parking lot. On the highway the mood in their car was sullen. Ellie’s father was staring at the road in front of him. Suddenly he began to speak very slowly.
“This red light, this one right up in front of us, this is the light that… the place where… this is where it happened.”
He said the last part very softly, as if he wanted them to know but he didn’t want them to hear the words. Ellie glanced at him and saw a tear slowly slip down his cheek. He blinked rapidly and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
Usually he wore contacts, but he had lost them in the chaos of the past few weeks.
Ellie stole a look over at Luke. He was concentrating on something outside his window but didn’t seem to be taking it in. He sniffed a few times, and his eyes were red but dry. Ellie looked back and forth from her dad to her brother. She began to cry quietly in the back seat.
They sat in silence for the next few minutes. Ellie tried to think of something other than her mother. Something other than her sister. She thought of all the supplies they had bought. Then she pictured the poster she would make.
Across the top, she would print in big block letters: Marcella . It would be curved like a rainbow, and written in rainbow colors too. Underneath it would say, “WE’VE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!!” There would be doodles and nice pictures all around it, in bright bold colors. It would include nothing about their mother, for it would be no time for mourning. It would be a time of rejoice. Rejoice in a family that persisted on. In the family that Ellie knew and loved. With Marcella at the center.
* * *
Over the next few days, Ellie made a poster for Marcella with the help of Luke and occasionally their dad. They worked on it for hours every day, right there on the floor of the waiting room. When it was finished, Ellie directed two nurses in its hanging.
She very much liked being in charge of adults.
“Um, a little more to the left. Now up more. Stop! That’s too much. Down more. No, no, no! You know, I think it would look better on this wall. Marcella might not look to her right first when she wakes up just because that’s where Dad is sitting. It has to be right in front of her. Yes, that wall. Now to the right… more… more… no, that’s too much. Move it back a little. Good! But that’s much too high, Marcella will have to look up and she might hurt her neck! Down more. More. OK, I think that’s as good as we’re going to get it.”
Ellie glared at the nurses like they were impossible. They hurried out of the room, muttering about the bossy eight-year-old girl they had just left.
Ellie grinned. They hadn’t done such a bad job. The bright colors of the poster looked good against the dreary white walls.
Later that night, after they had eaten dinner in the cafeteria, Mr. Harrison’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He answered it with his eyebrows raised. As he listened, a grin slowly spread across his face.
“We’ll be right there. Thank you, thank you for everything,” he said before he hung up his phone.
“Marcella is really improving! They’ve been noticing it all day, but now they think that she might become conscious soon! They want us to be there, and they’re even gonna let us all go in! Isn’t that great?”
His eyes shone as he spoke.
Ellie and Luke actually jumped for joy. They all ran up the stairs but slowed to a fast walk as they reached Marcella’s room. Mr. Harrison gave a soft knock as he opened the door. They stood for a moment, catching their breath, as the doctor beckoned them in.
“Her heart rate has returned to normal. She may wake up any minute now.”
Ellie grinned and sat down in one of the chairs by Marcella’s bed. She didn’t sit long, though. After about five minutes, Marcella opened her eyes. She struggled to sit up and looked up at the poster in front of her. Then she looked down at the tube connected to her wrist. Then back up at the poster. Slowly her face broke into a smile, a smile too big for her frail little five-year-old face.
Everyone hugged her. They all seemed to be speechless. Then everyone hugged everyone else, and Mr. Harrison said thank you over and over again to one of the doctors while Ellie ran up to the other and hugged her.
Marcella stayed in the hospital a few more days, and then they all went home. Even though their family was still missing someone, they seemed fuller than ever. And they all cherished Marcella, and her miracle survival, instead of dwelling on the past.