When I got the call, it wasn’t anything like the movies. I didn’t even know I’d gotten a call until after I was already sitting in the lobby, searching desperately for something to take my mind off of my surroundings.
“Hello, this is Aaron Burnap with Crescent Skies Memorial Hospital. If this is Io Williams, emergency contact for Nina Williams, please call this number as soon as possible.” I let the phone drop from my ear. A few years back, I’d used my real phone number to enter some raffel at my old job, and ever since then, I’d been plagued with telemarketers and scammers, so I’d started just sending all calls from unknown numbers straight to voicemail. It had been a system that worked fine, up until today.
So yeah, it wasn’t really like the movies. A curt text from our brother asking where I was, and then a lengthy one from our mother that, for all the characters it used, only told me that Nina had been in a car accident, and that I oughta come quick, which, as you might imagine, scared the shit out of me. I rang them both over and over on my drive to the only local hospital, but neither of them picked up. Naturally.
There was no big project that I had to abandon to go, no epiphanies about our relationship, not even any tears— just numb, staticky panic, tugging on my throat and churning up bile in my chest. And it was exceptionally anticlimactic, after I’d signed in and been directed to the appropriate wing, when I burst frantically into the waiting room to see a pair of old folks in one corner, engrossed in some book between the two of them, my brother, sound asleep (at 4 oclock in the afternoon), and my mother, her eyes glued to the tiny box TV above the help desk (it was showing old SpongeBob episodes. She shushed me when I tried at first to ask her what was going on).
I found out, after rousing Richie and physically blocking the TV with my frame, that we didn’t know much about the situation except that Nina was likely fine, and that we’d be able to visit her as soon as she was checked for a concussion and her ribs were cleared. Apparently, it was supposed to have happened hours ago, but a pile up with some big truck had meant that most personnel were occupied with patients needing more critical care. Seemed sketchy, but I didn’t know enough about hospitals to really have a problem with it. So there was nothing to do but wait.
“Of course he doesn’t know, he lives under a rock,” Mama muttered disdainfully. “Why is this a surprise, Robert.” I don’t think I’d seen her blink once.
The echoing pitch of an empty reusable plastic bottle clattering to the ground, timed perfectly with my brother’s snort of surprise. “Sorry,” he muttered, eyes still closed as he stretched half-heartedly in the six chairs he was sprawled across. “I’ll pick it up in a sec.”
An alarm went off, one of those fast paced and incessant wrist watch ones. The couple in the corner sighed in unison and stood. I watched them leave, distantly confused. Why had they been there? What was the alarm for? Maybe they were spies, or assassins, here to kill a doctor or a patient, but they had to do it at a precise time. To send a message, or something. Or perhaps they were members of a hitman union that made sure they kept very strict hours. Or maybe…
Finally, a haggard looking nurse pushed a pair of opaque doors outwards, eyes drooping with exhaustion above his mask and perspiration beading on his forehead despite the chill of the building. “Family of—” he looked down at his clipboard, and I took the opportunity to chuck Richie’s forgotten water bottle at his stomach, eliciting a very satisfying grunt of pain— “Nina Williams?”
Mama jumped from her seat like she’d been electrified, struck with a sudden bolt of matron-ness. “Yes, yes, that’s us, how is she? How long will she be here? Can we take her home tonight? When do you think we’ll be able to take her home? Does she need medicine? Oh, no, I bet she needs medicine, like those painkillers, and I bet she’ll get hooked on them, because that’s always what happens when people have accidents and the doctors give them the good stuff, sir, please tell me she hasn’t got the good stuff?”
Fortunately for the poor nurse, Richie intervened, taking my mother by the elbow and slowing her down so she was following the nurse, not walking in tandem with him. “Mama, we’ll figure all that out later, we just want to see Nina right now, right?”
She nodded so vigorously that I feared her sunglasses would go flying— but the signature Williams curls kept them firmly in place. “Yes, yes, of course.”
Nina, honestly, looked… fine, if a little unfocused. She had a bandage over her left cheek and around her head, and one finger was in a splint, but she was sitting upright, eyes bright, squinting at us as we walked in. Well, not quite at us— more like, just above the door. The covers rustled as she crossed her arms.
“Now, as I was just telling Ms. Williams, we would like to keep her overnight, to monitor the concussion, and—”
“And, as I was just telling Mr. Armond,” Nina butted in, tearing her gaze down to focus on the nurse, “it was only a minor accident, I’m fine, and I would very much prefer to go home.”
The nurse sighed. “Maam, the car you were in crashed through four walls before stopping. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle that you’re not in the same condition as the driver. However,” he added quickly as Nina opened her mouth, “concussion protocol can be conducted from home. You’ll need someone to check in on you every hour, for the next 24 hours, to monitor your symptoms and ensure that you can wake up normally.”
He went on to explain the recovery process, what she should avoid and what to expect, to which Mama paid rapt attention. I noticed, though, Nina’s eyes had drifted back upwards, brow furrowed as she scowled into the air just above us.
“Right, right,” she said distractedly. “Can I go now? No offense, but this place is giving me the creeps.”
The nurse sighed again, and gestured to the door. “Your effects are behind the counter, and you’ll have to fill out a form confirming that you were made aware of the risks of being discharged early, but—” She was already out of bed and in the hall.
I jogged to catch up to her, as Mama turned her concern back towards the nurse and Richie tried valiantly to save him once again. “Nina. Nina!”
She turned, and again, her eyes missed mine, focused on something maybe a foot above me. I glanced up and saw nothing there. I grabbed her shoulders, and realized, with a jolt of my own fear, that she looked scared. “Nina, what’s going on?”
She hesitated. “I… I keep— Io, I think I’m seeing things. I feel like I’m being watched, and there’s this person… this face…” She trailed off and her eyes unfocused, looking at something behind me. Beyond me.
“Nina!” I snapped, and she gave a little gasp as I shook her gently. “You’re freaking me out. Are you seeing it right now?”
Her face twisted. “Sort of? I don’t… I don’t know. I just want to go home.” As she said it, I saw her eyes begin to water, and instantly felt guilty.
“Oh Nina, Nina, look, I’m sorry, let’s get to the desk, yeah? Get you your stuff?” She nodded weakly and we began to walk again. I could hear Mama and Richie approaching from behind us. “Maybe this is normal, I’ll ask Mama if paranoia was one of the symptoms or—”
“No!” Nina stopped again and gripped my jacket with surprising strength. “Don’t tell her, or Richie, Io, I mean it,” she whispered furiously, “I’m sorry for telling you, too, I wasn’t going to. I don’t want you guys to have to see them.”
“See them? Nina, what—”
“Hey losers, wait up!” Richie crowed. “Guess who just got some diiigiiitts,” he sang, waving his phone in the air. Nina furtively wiped her eyes, then rolled them.
“The nurse? Really? Can’t you do any better than that stick in the mud?”
“Yeah,” I added, “I never thought I’d say this, but I think you’re selling yourself a little short. From the looks of it, one good night of sleep would actually kill him.”
“Don’t worry, little Io, sleeping’s not what I had in mind anyway. And it’ll be a nice change of pace from mud for him, he can be a stick in—”
“Christ, Richie, Mama is right here,” Nina cut in, looking green. I knew how she felt.
“Be nice to Richie,” Mama said automatically, absorbed in the many paged pamphlet the nurse had given her. I groaned, feeling immensely childish at the familiar ebb of righteous anger that always flowed when Mama played favorites, and looked over at Nina to see if she’d been struck by the same sort of deja vu. Her eyes were closed and her face was grim. I felt my smile slip away and I wrapped my arm around her shoulders.
“We would rather die than do that,” I announced, and pulled my car keys out of my pocket. “We’re going back to Nina’s house to conspire. You guys come over after you finish forging any necessary signatures from her.” She shot me a grateful look as I led her away from a protesting Richie, but then grimaced and closed her eyes again.
The ride to her house was silent, but I thought she’d started to feel better, because as soon as we’d left the lot, her grip on the armrest had relaxed and she’d been able to ease her eyes open. She’d tried to explain it to me again, but gave up pretty quickly. I think she was worried that if she talked about it, it would come back.
As the evening progressed, and Richie and Mama joined us for what Richie had dubbed Nina Watch™ — yes, he said the “trademarked” out loud— I managed to forget about how strangely she’d acted, mostly. Nina seemed the normal amount of cranky and distracted as she recounted how the car had hydroplaned. Apparently, the Uber driver had freaked out and yanked on the wheel, sending them spinning into a bunch of new apartments. Fortunately, the complex was still unoccupied, because they plowed through a whole room and into the lobby.
When we all started to fade, the warmth of Nina’s building and the weight of the pizza I’d ordered dragging us to the edges of sleep, we started to set up a rotation for Nina Watch™ —
“Nina Watch: Dangerous Nighttime Addition, Trademarked,” Richie corrected. “It’s the version that’s twice as expensive. But twice as fun!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nina stiffen. She was looking at him, the same way she’d looked at me in the hospital. Like he wasn’t there. Like there was something just beyond him. She brought a shaking hand to her mouth.
“That’s great, Richie,” I said quickly. “As the provider of this wonderful service, it seems only natural that the bedding should be provided, alarms set, and shifts designated by you! If it’s twice as expensive.”
“Agreed,” Mama said, her voice muffled behind the pillow over her face. She’d been “sleeping” for the past hour, now.
“Ah,” Richie said, shaking his finger at me and hoisting himself off of the couch. “Shrewd customers; disgusting! You’ve got me. I can’t believe that I must now actually follow through with my promises.”
As he left the room, I made my way over to Nina, whose vacant gaze had now settled on the space around me.
“Hey,” I said quietly, touching her shoulder again. “You with me?” Nothing. “Nina?”
“Can you— can you really not see it?” she whispered, grabbing my hand so tight that I feared briefly for the small bones of it. “You can’t see them?”
“Who, Nina?” I whispered back.
“I don’t know! I don’t know. The stranger, they’re watching. I can’t— I can’t quite see all the way. I don’t want to see all the way.”
“Nina,” I said gently, “no one’s here. They’re not here. They’re not real.”
She let out a hysterical giggle. “They’re not here. Not really, you’re right. But they’re very real, I think.”
A loud crash made us both jump. A second later, Richie’s voice floated down the hall. “Io!” he called. “Io, I need a hand with, uh. With the blankets.”
Nina squeezed my hand one more time, and I hurried to help Richie, who had somehow managed to upend the Christmas decorations Nina kept high in the closet, far away from anything that Richie should have been touching. By the time I had helped him sort out the mess and returned to the living area, Nina looked to be alright again, and waved off my discreet attempts to talk about it. So we didn’t. I kept an eye on her as we set up sleeping arrangements and alarms, but I didn’t have to— she stayed present the whole time.
Things got weird again on my second time waking her up. We had to check in on her every hour, to monitor her concussion symptoms, and Richie had made sure I was first shift. “You earned it, champ,” he’d said when I complained. “Of course you have to be the alarm the most— there’s no one I’d trust more to be an irritating, incessant nuisance.” I’d shoved him into the coffee table.
I fumbled for the phone to turn off my alarm, then groped down the dark hallway to Nina’s room, taking extra care to avoid stepping on Mama, and taking extra care to actively step on Richie.“Hey,” I yawned, pulling on the lamp cord and pushing at her through the covers. “You wanna recite the alphabet or something?”
She didn’t respond. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and went to push her again, but started when I saw her eyes were open already. She lay unmoving, eyes unfocused— except, they weren’t. They were focused. They were focused really, really hard on something.
“Nina.” I waved a hand in front of her face. No response. “Nina, talk to me, please.”
She turned her head slowly, but her eyes didn’t move.
“I see them,” she said softly, sitting up.
“I see you.” She’s— she’s looking at you, I think. She’s talking about you.
Alright then. Hello, stranger.