Walking into the hospital was like back in elementary school, getting called out in front of my whole class and being told to grab a vacant seat and sit next to the teacher’s desk until the end of the day. They all gave me the look, the one where their mouths were slightly down turned and eyebrows creased so close on their forehead, they looked like one long one. I gave them a smile that I hoped conveyed an ‘I’m okay’ and a ‘look away’.
I walked to the elevators that were set in a small colorless room but with a large window. The entire parking lot was filled, save for the few handicapped spots, and a few cars drove in a circle no doubt looking for an empty space. Above all that was the sky that looked like it was on fire, the small golden orb making its way higher up and hiding behind the hills.
I felt my fingers get cold and then my knuckles and my palm. I pursed my lips and inhaled a brisk gulp of air.
That morning, Jonah and I had been together on the lake beach sidewalk, an effort to forgive each other after the explosive argument we had about money. We’d leaned against the railing and watched the array of colors dance around the rising sun. The fight was the kind where our screaming was cut off by our own anger, the colors of our faces turning red and our jaws and fists getting clenched until veins bulged. It was also the kind that sent me off to sleep at my parents’ but for half the night. I went back to Jonah at 4:30 a.m.
The elevator dinged and my favorite physician stepped out, meeting my gaze. Her green eyes brightened, and she slapped her hand over her mouth. “I had to see for myself whether you were really back.” She opened her arms and I hid my grimace, walking into them. She smelled like strawberries and disinfectant, not a horrid mix but enough to make me want to pull away.
“Yeah, I am, doctor. Came in a bit earlier than my shift, too.” I had no more vacation days left and if I’d taken another day off, I would’ve been fired.
“Yeah, seems like you’re doing okay. But are you, really?”
Her stare told me she’d seen through my façade, but I was doing so good keeping my shield up, I wasn’t going to bring it down. “It’s hard. Damn, it’s hard, and I don’t even know how I’m doing this. But I’m hanging in there.”
She pulled me in for another hug and I had no choice but to accept it; I was already locked in her embrace. “We’re all here for you, Addison. Don’t be a stranger.”
I nodded and thanked her, watching her walk away until she rounded the corner and was out of sight. I walked to the elevator and pushed the up button.
Today, I wanted to go build a sandcastle, preferable one with pointed towers that spiraled into the heavens and a moat that held as much murky seawater as it could. Aside from hiding my emotions and trying to get through work, it was the only thing on my mind.
It was one of my favorite parts of that day. Jonah and I had gone on to walk on the sand in the beach, digging our feet into the freezing pebbles, knowing full well our jobs were starting in the next hour. The air was chillier, the wind ruffling our hair and wrapping our heads in a cocoon of dark brown strands. I’d saved us with a few hair ties I found when I buried my hands in my jacket pockets. It didn’t do much for him; he could only tie his hair into several short things that desperately wanted to be ponytails but didn’t meet the mark.
I’d ran down to the thin frothy edge where the ocean kissed the land and grabbed a small pail I’d seen lying neglected and dirty. I shoved it into the wet sand and pulled it up to reveal a small mound. A few giggles escaped my mouth looking at the tiny thing and it surprised me that as a grown adult, I still felt that rumbling in my stomach and air of exhilaration.
Jonah had sat down next to me, head tilted and honey colored eyes staring at me. “I can’t believe you still like building sandcastles.” But then he’d taken the pail and pushed it into the sand in front of him.
The elevator came to a stop and opened on my floor. More excited smiles and waves met me, and I returned them because I wasn’t a douche. If I hadn’t, they would’ve understood but I was keeping a neutral front, not an angry or a happy one.
I walked inside one of the hospital office rooms and fetched data and my clipboard, preparing myself for the check-ups, the paperwork, and resuscitations.
Signed into the computer, I saw I had a patient. I went out and called her name, leading her and her mother to one of the rooms.
She was a bubbly little thing, bouncing on the bed, tearing holes in the sheet I’d laid down. She’d come in for a major stomachache that died down once she neared the room. I thought that was all when I took her data and checked her but then she quieted down.
“Doctor, are you okay?”
I thought back to Jonah and I building sandcastles, back to when I first met him at his birthday party that nobody came to, back to when he proposed on a beach farther north – the same one we got married on. A large ball formed at the base of my throat and I glanced at the ceiling fan that distorted everything above it.
Neutral. Not angry and not happy. I forced it back down.
“I’m an assistant doctor, sweetie. And yes, I’m fine.”
She smiled and reverted to cheerful in the span it took me to move an inch away from the bed. I bid them safe journeys and watched the girl’s sandals clack on the hospital floor.
I had several more patients after her, dealing with more sheet ripping and a few tears from one who was behind on his shots. In between patients, I thought about how I’d build it if I was able to. I hadn’t been to a beach since and I could have looked at the large expanse of blue and decided that my heart couldn’t take it.
Lunch break would be my think space. Perhaps, I could’ve planned it out, skip an actual lunch and draw the layout, where the walls would go, the measurements and if I needed to dig further underground for a dungeon.
I pushed open the door to the break room and walked inside. I knew what was coming and I was right. “Addison, you’re back for real!” and “We missed you.” Was this what it was like for mothers after maternity leave? I think I was hospital famous, and I didn’t like it. Neutral front.
“I really am, guys. And I’m doing better.” I grinned. Lucky for me, they didn’t have the intuition of my favorite doctor or the little girl from earlier.
I sat at a table after grabbing a few sheets of paper and a pen from the copier machine. Everyone knew I didn’t know how to draw; Jonah had no problem teasing me about it when a situation came up where I needed to.
I could have easily looked at my phone or a computer, but I didn’t. Instead, I let whatever memory I had of sandcastles lead my pen on the paper. I watched myself draw block like structures with pointy tips and lines that met in the middle or strayed off to the edges of the paper, almost writing on the table.
In the end, it looked like something an artistic four-year-old drew but you could tell it was a castle and Jonah would be proud.
It stayed in the pocket of my scrubs, through the drawing blood of adult patients, two resuscitations, and through prescribing medications and giving directions to the hospital pharmacy.
The paper also served as support. When I walked out of the room where I’d ordered a diagnostic test for an elderly man, I heard commotion down the hall near the entry of the emergency door. My clipboard was resting on a table and I was going to rush down and see what was going on, despite my brain screaming at me to stop.
I listened to it when I heard the paramedics and nurses calling things out while wheeling a gurney through the hallway. Of all the things they were saying, two words popped up multiple times and they were what had me clutching the paper like it was going to crumble into a million pieces and slip like dust through my fingers. Code blue.
I wondered if somebody dunked me underwater; voices were distant, nothing was clear, and I felt light, like I’d been stripped of fifty pounds - exactly how I felt that day in the room.
I took a step back and turned around, muttering things I didn’t understand. I let the receptionist know I had an emergency and told her to tell my manager. I threw the doors of the hospital open, and my head got yanked back up the surface of the water.
The bleak evening wind took me in its gust and directed me towards my car. I got in and slammed it shut, starting it and driving off with one destination in mind.
The entire drive, I risked a ticket. When I sped past a police car without seeing it until I was a few meters ahead, I'd already began to switch lanes. But he may've been paying attention elsewhere because he rounded the corner and was out of sight, sirens and lights not making an appearance. It took an extra ten minutes, but I pulled up at the sidewalk that was in front of the railing.
Gripping the paper, I walked forward, throat feeling like the skin of a popcorn kernel was lodged in there. I could almost see him in his old college sweatshirt and grey sweatpants, taking sips of black coffee and watching the steam curl into the air.
I walked past the railing and down to the sand, keeping my shoes on. I saw something yellow down by the edge and my forehead creased. The pail was still there. Something twisted in my gut and I walked slowly towards it. My neutral front could come down now.
Salty tears made their way into the sides of my mouth as I sat down on the beach, not caring that I was still wearing my scrubs, and picked up the pail.
I held it close to my chest, like it was a baby, and shut my eyes. Every single time I’d closed them, thoughts of Jonah came swarming in, but this time I welcomed any and all of them. Even the one of that day, when the same thing that caused me to leave work today happened but with Jonah on the gurney.
I remembered the torso clothing removal and the placing of defibrillator pads, the doctor calling "Charge to 200. Clear!", Jonah’s chest heaving up every time. I remembered the silence when they tried everything and the only noise was the long unwavering beep of his flatline. I remembered whispering, “I’ll call it”, and “Time of death. 7:58.” I remembered all of it. What I didn’t do this time was push them away.
I didn’t know how long I sat on the sandy floor but when I clutched the handles of the pail and opened my eyes, the sky and the water matched in a blue so dark it looked black. The moon danced on the rippling surface and the wind had picked up.
I pulled out the warm and crumpled piece of paper and opened it. I laid it down and placed sand on the edges, squinting in the dim light. I could see the castle. I picked up my pail and pushed it into the sand.