“How you feelin’?” you ask as you adjust the pillows behind Astrid’s tiny five-year-old head. You try to reposition her frail body upright to help drain the excess secretions from her nose and throat. She grimaces. You force a smile.
“I heard Santa is visiting today,” you say as you turn the almost-empty IV pump to hold, hang the new bag on the pole taking the stopper off, remove the tubing from the old bag and insert the tubing into the new bag.
You see Astrid’s eyes light up. “He is?” she asks, her eyes lighting up with a hint of hope.
“He sure is,” you smile, “What will you ask for?”
It’s December 3rd. You don’t think Astrid will live until Christmas. She most definitely won’t.
“A paint set and My Little Pony,” she exclaims. You see her imagining all the presents that will be under her tree in a few weeks. See her imagining herself going home.
“You’ll have to tell Santa that’s what you want, and he’ll bring it to you on Christmas morning,” you lie. You turn the pump back on and make sure to change the volume amount in the pump settings.
Astrid smiles. “How’s your puppy?” she asks. You’d told her two weeks ago you got a puppy. Something to talk about. You don’t tell her you live alone in a shitty studio apartment since it’s located only two bus stops from the hospital. You don’t tell her you don’t have any pets. No husband. No kids. Just you and your Lean Cuisines and nightly Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
“He’s a little devil. He chewed up my new shoes last night!” you say. Astrid giggles.
“What color shoes?” she asks.
“My fancy red high heels,” you say. You don’t tell her you haven’t worn heels in years. You don’t tell her they hurt your plantar fasciitis. You don’t tell her you wouldn’t have anywhere to wear them anyways even if you did own them. You hand her ice chips held in a purple Frozen plastic cup.
“That silly Oscar,” Astrid says, placing an ice chip on her tongue. You’d let her pick the puppy’s name when you told her you were getting a dog. You’d found photos of lab puppies on Google and showed them to her. Told her she could meet him when she got out. You glance out of the window and see Astrid’s parent’s approaching the building from the parking lot, carrying a Sammy’s Subs bag. You smooth the pretend hair on Astrid’s head and stand up.
“Looks like mommy and daddy are back. I’m going to check on our friends,” you say. Astrid raises her brows towards the window, and you walk into the hallway and enter Vernon’s room. His mother is asleep on the pull-out chair and he’s playing some sort of a gaming device. You wave your hands in his peripheral vision as to not wake up his mother. He looks up and smiles, placing the device on his lap.
“Minecraft?” you ask, gesturing towards the device. You don’t tell him you hate video games. You don’t tell him you think they are rotting the brain cells of every child in the world.
“So cool,” you whisper as you change out his IV, “How’re you feeling today?”
“Not good,” he whispers, “Feel pukey.”
You raise your brow. “Did you throw up?” you ask, checking his temperature.
“No, but feel like I’m going to,” he says, his brown face turning a dark green hue. You add some Zofran into his IV to stop the nausea.
“Any pain?” you ask, checking on how much pain medicine he’s receiving.
“The same,” he says, clenching his jaw. You make a note to check with the doctor about upping his dose. No point in him being in pain during his last days.
“Are you excited to see Santa this afternoon?” you ask as you change out his catheter.
“I’m too old for that crap,” Vernon says frowning.
“Too old? Aren’t you only twelve?” you ask. You fluff the blanket on his bed and put his device on its charger.
“Almost thirteen,” he says. You don't tell him he's not almost thirteen. You don't tell him he'll never be thirteen.
“You’re never too old for Santa,” you say. “I love seeing Santa even now that I’m an old lady.” You don’t tell him you grew up Jewish and are now an atheist. You don’t tell him you’ve never sat on Santa’s lap in your whole life.
“Can I ask you something?” he asks, scratching at the tape around the IV on his hand.
“Of course,” you say as you look over as his mother shifts positions in her chair.
“Am I gonna die?” he whispers so quietly; you almost don’t hear him.
You pause what you are doing for a second. Only a second. You don’t think he notices. “We’re going to get you as good as new,” you say.
“Mom says I’m going to get better. But I’m not stupid. I know I’m in here to die,” he says. “I know I’m dying.”
You fluff his pillow and prop him up. You walk over and change the water in the vase of flowers. It’s getting brown and smelly. You wipe a smudge from the window with the sleeve of your undershirt.
“I said I know I’m dying,” Vernon repeats himself. You turn your eyes from the window and look at him. You’re startled at his accusation.
“We’re all dying, aren’t we?” you say. “What do you want for Christmas?” You change the subject. It’s always good to change the subject.
You watch as Vernon shifts in the bed.
“Fortnite for my Xbox,” he says, pointing towards his device.
You smile and make a mental note. You think he’ll make it to Christmas. Maybe even make it to Valentine’s Day.
“Is that one of those shooting games?” you ask, crossing your arms, a grin on your face. You don’t tell him that he shouldn’t be spending the last days of his life killing pretend people on a gaming device.
Vernon smiles, “Battle game. It’s awesome.”
“Just make sure to tell Santa when you see him this afternoon,” you whisper as you walk towards the door. You give Vernon a wink.
Vernon rolls his eyes and waves goodbye.
You head towards Wynne’s room and peek inside. Her parents are gripping both of her hands and her eyes are still closed. She’s been unconscious since Sunday and it’s only a matter of days.
“Do you need anything?” you ask gently as you approach the mother and father. Their faces are puffy and wet from crying. Eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep.
Wynne’s mom, Megan, turns her head and looks at you in despair. You place your hand on her shoulder.
“Do you think she can hear us?” she asks, “We’ve been talking to her.”
“I think so,” you lie as you check Wynne’s vitals. You don’t tell her that Wynne is on so much morphine, she most probably cannot hear them.
“Do you think she could make it til Christmas?” her dad asks, his eyes filled with hope.
You look down at Wynne. You look at the tubes in her nose. At her skeletal body. “You never know,” you say. You don’t say you doubt Wynne will make it through the week. You don’t say Wynne might not even make it until tomorrow. So instead, you say, “There’s always hope.”
You leave the grieving parents alone. Give them privacy. There’s nothing you can do for her now except let her be with her parents and make sure she’s not in pain.
You step into the hallway and check the time. 4:05 pm. Your shift ended five minutes ago, and Shelly should be taking over soon. Shelly loves the shift when Santa comes. He’ll be coming right before supper. You go to your locker, gather your things, and pass by Shelly. You fill her in on the patients before exiting the building.
As you wait for the bus stop, you go to your Amazon account. You add a paint set, a My Little Pony, and a Fortnite game to your cart. You click to have them overnighted. You’ll wrap them in the morning and place them in Vernon and Astrid’s rooms while they’re asleep tomorrow. You’ll write, “Love Santa” on the card. They don’t have time to wait until Christmas.
You step onto the bus and find an empty window seat across from an elderly man who looks at your uniform and then up at you. You smile and stare out of the dirty window. You wonder how often they wash the windows on the bus. Not often.
“You work in the hospital?” the elderly man asks, pointing towards your teddy bear scrubs.
You smile. “Yes, I do,” you say. You do not want to have small talk. You want to go home and eat your Lean Cuisine and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
“What do you do there?” he asks.
You tell the truth.
“I lie,” you say. The man furrows his brow, and you turn your head and look back out the window as the buildings pass by. You wonder if you have enough wrapping paper at home or if you should stop at the store and buy some. You hope you have enough.