The room has eighty-eight flame-retardant ceiling tiles and fifteen lamps—one light for every five-point-eight-six-seven tiles. They don't line up neatly because of how the nurses' station bisects the room. There are also wire-frame benches, a busted clock, and a man-sized coffee machine.
The nurse behind the counter could only tell me to expect a long wait, perhaps until morning. He suggested I go home for a shower and sleep, they'd call if anything changed. I ignored him. Where I sit, my back is to him.
I watch the coffee machine. It dominates one corner in its polished black bulk. With every tribute of one-fifty, the machine spurts brown liquid into a featureless paper cup. Coffee, ostensibly, but the taste is closer to burned water. Despite the underwhelming product, the queue is never-ending. A dry whop accompanies the cups as they drop down, followed by spits and hisses and grinds.
To the right, above the queue, a clock in stainless steel reflects the lights. It has dashes for numbers and chunky black dials. Static dust clings to its face. The clock is broken and it mocks me, telling dusty-faced lies. No matter how I stare at it, it won't move while in my sight. It maintains less than an hour has gone, hardly believable.
From behind me comes a whiff of rot; a vase of peach carnations is wilting on the nurses' station. In the far corner, painted daisies decorate the wall of the children's play area. Blessedly, the room is free from roses.
After the doctor signed me out, I asked a nurse to dial for me. She held the phone to my ear while I told your father to come. With rush hour, it will take him two hours at minimum.
I didn't tell him how much fun we'd had, what beautiful rocks you found, or how happy you had been—playing in the roses. I also didn't tell him I lost sight of you, nor how long it took until the ambulance arrived. The words escaped me.
All he knows is to meet me in the waiting room with a fresh set of clothes and your bunny.
Today was the first dry day after two weeks of rain. Before dawn, a heavy shower had rinsed the sky clean and left the sun to reign alone. When I opened your bedroom curtains, light sparkled across the droplet-strewn morning. It promised the kind of day where shadows are few and everything has a gleaming edge.
You bounced from bed, electric with excitement; finally, a chance to wear your brand new rain clothes. While thunderstorms kept you indoors, the yellow hat with stars had hung forlorn in the entryway, price tag still attached. And beneath it, waiting patiently, a pair of matching booties in glossy lemon rubber.
How would the day have gone if I had let you wear your new clothes around the house? Would we still have visited the park?
The waiting room bench presses patterns in my thighs. I wish for rain, and fog, and clouds of murk to swallow up the afternoon—retroactively. Please take the perfect blues, the springy greens, the velvet reds, and cover them in mud. I don't want them anymore.
En route to the park, you skipped ahead of me, searching for treasures in the cracks of the sidewalk. We walked beneath the maples. Their shadows marbled the road as the sun played winking games in the puddles from last night's storm.
You plunged into each shallow pool with both feet and collected pebbles that glistened from the rain. You called them gems and handed them to me for safe-keeping. The gems left muddy streaks on both our palms and grimy smile-lines under your fingernails.
When I cross my legs, the pebbles bulge my pocket. I'll protect them until you're ready to take them back. They roll and click with every move. The sound reminds me of your marble collection, so I sit very still. Only my head pivots, side to side, gliding from coffee machine, to clock, to entrance, past the ceiling tiles, and back again. Around I go, whittling time as it whittles me.
Our local park smells like dog poo and trash, and occasionally like fizz-less beer. Starting from early April, clouds of phorid flies float over the walking paths at face height, perfect for inhaling. Graffiti and gum cover the benches.
I don't see the appeal, but you love it there.
Granted, the rosarium is nice. It isn't any cleaner, but the smell is better—especially this time of year, when a few weeks of spring have burst the roses from their buds, all blooming together, dousing the air in perfume. This noon, the bushes were lush and bright, buzzing softly with bumblebees. Birds chattered overhead.
Roses aren't your thing—their thorns won't let you play hide-and-seek—but you like running along the cobbled paths that divide the rosarium into different sections, each dominated by flowers of a single color. Red blooms implacably separated from yellow, pink from white, and all of them from the grassy fields beyond.
I found a mostly dry bench beneath one of the arbors. From my seat, I watched you dunk your yellow booties in the puddles. Mud splashed over their edges and left white stains on your jeans. Probably your socks got wet, but you were unperturbed. Your laughter mingled with the hum of the bees, it was sunlight in sound and made me drowsy.
As you played, you glinted in and out of the light, a dabbling dance behind the branches. Spiderwebs formed threads of silk between serrated leaves, some decorated with raindrops that fell in a spray of diamonds when you ran past. Your new hat was like a clouded yellow butterfly, flitting from rose to rose.
Each universe has rules, fundamental laws that underpin the fabric of reality. Break such a law and watch worlds crumple. I broke the one our life was built on: keep safe.
The perfect universe of you and me and him has fallen and fractured on the hospital floor. Something new must now replace it.
Does daddy know yet? Did he feel the shattering quake, hear the shrieking as our fabric shredded? Does he see the tattered pieces on the road before him?
Your starry yellow hat had slipped and was bouncing by its string on your back. Sunlight bleached your hair translucent. Some of the white roses were beginning to fade, dropping their petals like chips of bone. They dotted the puddles you were playing in and stuck to your boots.
While you played, I looked down at my phone and read the news. When I wasn't watching, you wandered past the white roses and over to the lawn, where there were more puddles to explore.
There's a "no dogs allowed" sign stuck to the double entrance doors; a red circle enclosing the shadow of a dog, x-ed out.
You like dogs. I liked them too. Your favorites are the big ones on short legs. I think you might be in love with the neighbor's basset hound, your first crush. It's old and patient and not particularly pretty, but the heart wants what it wants. Will you still be in love when you come home?
My favorite used to be corgis. You've never met one, but you probably would have liked their goofy faces—before. The puppy we'd planned to give you for your birthday has a distant corgi ancestor. The pup itself is a pale-brown mutt on stumpy legs. We picked it for its gentle temperament, but I doubt that matters anymore.
In three weeks, you'll be the big five, the whole hand, all fingers out. You've been practicing so you can do it right at your party.
Can you still do it?
The paramedics wrapped you up too quickly and completely for me to see your fingers. They wouldn't let me hold your hand or even brush your hair. Only as you were wheeled towards the OR was I allowed a quick kiss. Your blood tasted of pennies and grass.
You almost always listen, but sometimes you forget what you've been told. Today you forgot.
I taught you how to behave around dogs, to approach slowly and to test—with outstretched, sticky hand—if a dog is friendly. I taught you to let it sniff your palm and wait for it to wag its tail. Never rush an unknown dog. I told you that, I did. We even practiced it.
But you forgot.
A cleaner arrives to empty the trash bin beside the coffee machine. He pulls out a clear plastic bag with a layer of brown sludge at the bottom—a mass grave of cups that were once trees. The bag with its corpses disappears into an even bigger bin on the back of the cleaning trolley and the man wheels on.
A leak in the plastic leaves behind a line of muddy drips, like sticky punctuation marks. The cleaner doesn't notice and the drips remain, interrupted mid-sentence.
It was my fault. I didn't see you wander off. I didn't see the large dog sniffing at the grass. I didn't see it had no leash, didn't see your eyes alight with joy, nor you running in your shiny yellow boots.
But I heard you, and by then it was too late.
I've forgotten how to wait. I'm in a room made for waiting, so that must be what I'm doing. But how? Do I simply sit and let time part around me? What am I doing to make it flow?
If sitting turns time forward, how does it invert? Would getting up and walking out—backwards—spin the clock the other way? I'd have to walk all fifteen-point-two kilometers to the park, but I’d start right now if it would make time tick to the left. Three hours on foot, one lifetime by ambulance.
But I remain seated. That's how a person waits and I'm in a waiting room. I don't know what else to do. Only in my mind do I get to walk away, backward out the door. In the hallway I pass your father. He's frozen and can't see me.
You'd never cried like that before—no person ever had. I cannot bear to hear the sound, but it won't stop ringing in my ears.
The bandages on my hands itch. I pick at the edge of one until it frays. Every motion sends a lance of pain along the bones and up my arms. My right hand got the worst of it and is covered in stitches underneath the gauze. The threads running through my skin and meat and muscles burn.
The nurse gave me stronger painkillers, but I dumped them in the trash with the paper cups. The searing thump-thump throb of pain acts as a metronome. It soothes me with a ticking truth: my-fault, my-fault, my-fault.
Each stab and throb is earned. Every scalding pull that cramps my hands, my just desert.
It wasn't a cry, it was a rendering. Absolute and endless. It echoes through my head, mixing nauseatingly with the hiss of the coffee machine and the thump-thump metronome.
It's the background radiation of our shredded universe, a remnant from the big bang that tore our space-time apart. Now, there's only space and time, separated. Time won't move forward as it should and it won't let me go back. Everything is broken.
You are broken. Your little left hand, for sure; I could see the bone. And probably some of your ribs. The dog was so very much bigger and stronger than you.
Behind my eyelids, you're still being dragged across the grass.
And thus I do not close them. They stay vigilant, stuck to the coffee machine, the no-dog door, the ceiling tiles, and the clock that doesn’t move.
Eighty-eight ceiling tiles, on their side that's two infinities. I count the tiles again and again. I try to keep track, I want to count them eighty-eight times. From each flame-retardant square I imagine a new universe splitting off, filled with its own infinities.
A fractal tree of rooms spirals out above me. And in each new room, a woman sits in splattered jeans, waiting—always waiting. Her hands are wrapped in bandages and she's wearing a hospital scrub instead of the shirt she left home with that afternoon. She'll sit there forever, creating more and more waiting rooms, until nothing else remains.
You'd wet yourself, from fear or pain or everything together. When your throat gave out and you were merely making hoarse, gagging noises, I told you it was okay. I said it over and over, the first time in your life I told a filthy lie.
I stroked your hair, mingling my blood with yours. I was scared to touch you, to hurt you more, but I couldn't stop myself. Everything in me screamed to cradle you safe, to hold you to my breast and let nothing hurt you ever again.
Too little, too late means nothing to a mother.
Daddy left his office one-hundred-and-forty-two minutes ago. He should be nearing the hospital.
Eventually, he'll park, lock up, and run. With a bang, he’ll come panting through the no-dog door. He'll restart the clock and solidify our fractured universe, his mass the missing kernel, the catalyst around which the day coheres and becomes real.
Objects at rest prefer to stay at rest, but objects in motion stay in motion. He'll bring motion back to the world, all heading one way.
In his hands, the pieces of the space-time I broke will be forged into something new, starting from this room. Our book of genesis with white walls and coffee-stained linoleum. "And then there was a coffee machine," the first line will read. Once he's here, it will be written, black on white—no going back.
I don't want him to come. Time can stay stuck if it means I get to keep my Schrödinger's boy. In this endless broken present, you still exist as you were. I don't want to open the box and find out what comes after.
My gaze leaves the entrance doors and slides up, past the stains on the wallpaper and the clock that doesn't move. In one of the many worlds above my head, surely you're alright.
We left your hat behind. Somewhere in my mind I see a tattered starry cloth, abandoned in the grass. Red on yellow on green, stars hidden behind clouds of rusty blood.
Once you're home, I'll buy you another one in whatever color you like. And you can wear it every day of the week, even to bed. I promise. All you have to do is come back to me.
Can you do that for mummy, can you meet her in the waiting room? She knows the hallways are vast and pale and cold, but she's been waiting ever so long. If you're scared to walk the hospital alone, ask that sweet nurse to take your hand. The one who smiled at you as if your face was still dimple-cheeked and pink.
It's okay if you're wearing a cast and if your cheeks are bandaged up. Mummy will love you always, no matter how you look. And she won't be angry, she won't tell you that this is why you shouldn't rush an unknown dog. She'll never, never, never-ever say that.
We'll get you something else for your birthday, too. No dog, and a new hat. My solemn promise. And I'll wash your booties until they shine like puddles. Two matching pools, reflecting the sky, waiting for your feet.
I want to see your dad and I don't. I want to meet the doctor and I don't. I need to know and I don't. I want the time to pass and I don't.
I can wait here forever, if it means I'm still waiting for you.
Daddy’s footsteps are loud. His oxfords smack the linoleum, sending echoes down the hall ahead of him. His gait is as familiar as your face used to be. Will I still recognize you?
I turn to meet him. How can I ever explain? The words do not exist.
The doors swing open and I shiver as the clock unfreezes. Endless infinities collapse into a single, burning present. You were playing in the roses.
And now you're not.