My eyes shot open. I must’ve dozed off.
My head was pounding. Perhaps it was the bright, fluorescent light in this cold, white, sterile box of a room.
I was sitting on a black plastic chair against the wall. The entire wall was lined with the same chairs, with occupants of various ages, creeds, ethnicities.
Across from me, along the opposite wall, there was a receptionist window, with a bored-looking woman looking down at her desk. She was probably reading.
Along the left wall, a woman and her young child—no older than six or perhaps seven—sat next to each other. The child was restless; with one hand, she absentmindedly rubbed her stomach. The other hand was holding a single red helium balloon. She swung her legs back and forth, occasionally banging into the hard plastic of the chair. The woman sat upright, nervously fiddling with her hands, occasionally raising one to cough loudly into it. She looked straight ahead, stretching a hand out to still the restless legs of the child, who would sigh and slouch dramatically in protest.
Along the right wall, a muscle-bound man with a crew cut sat anxiously in his chair, legs splayed out in such a way that no one else wished to sit with him. He had his head down and was constantly rubbing his eyes. In the left-hand corner of the room sat a well-dressed Asian woman who looked to be in her mid-20s. Two seats away from her sat a high school student in a hijab; she was rubbing one of her shoulders as though she had pulled a muscle.
An elderly woman with a soft crown of curly white hair caught my eye just a few seats from me. She smiled pleasantly; I smiled back, albeit a bit hesitantly. She stood up and slowly shuffled over to the black chair beside me.
“This wait is killer, isn’t it?” she said, making conversation.
“Yeah,” I responded. “I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
“I don’t mind waiting if there’s something to do,” the old woman went on. “Like read a magazine or watch TV. Or talk with a friendly face, like yourself.” She patted my leg lightly; I smiled politely in response.
She continued: “Usually I have my husband Harold to talk to. We go everywhere together, we’re like two peas in a pod. I think he’s parking the car right now. Once he arrives then we can both be seen.”
I imagined this old woman’s husband slowly parking an old beat-up jalopy; making it about halfway into the parking spot before stalling out. The rat-tat-tat sound of the engine was vivid in my mind’s eye, almost to the point that I could actually hear it.
I realized the woman was staring at me, expectantly. Was I supposed to say something?
“What are you looking at?”
I turned to see the man with the crew cut glowering at the girl in hijab. He stood and walked over to where she was sitting, towering over her menacingly. “You got a problem?”
“Hey,” said the Asian woman. “Leave her alone.”
The man looked at the Asian woman in surprise. He attempted to stare her down, but she would not flinch. At last, the man scoffed and sauntered back to his seat.
“Thank you,” I could see the girl in the hijab mouth. The Asian woman nodded.
I didn’t see the door next to the reception window at first, as it blended in seamlessly with the stark white monochromatic color scheme of the rest of the room. The rectangular shaped-hole in the wall slowly creaked open, revealing a room of pitch black on the other side. The woman at the reception window spoke into a microphone at her desk and her words reverberated throughout the entire waiting room. “Miller. Seth.”
The crew cut gentleman lifted his head. He mumbled something under his breath, then stood up abruptly and strode with purpose through the open door. It slowly shut behind him on its own, creaking ominously all the way.
I turned to my seatmate, but the woman had already gone to sit with another person, to chat with them.
I wanted to ask what exactly she was waiting for. Perhaps it would give me a clue as to why I was sitting here. Was it for my head? I brought a hand to my temple and gingerly rubbed the area. I had this terrible headache; was I waiting to be seen for that?
For a while, all that could be heard was the woman’s voice and the low hum of the singular fluorescent light that hung overhead from the ceiling. How long had we been waiting?
The bored receptionist leaned over to the microphone again. “Glen. Sasha.”
POP! The balloon in the little girl’s hand had broken, its pieces falling in slow motion to the floor.
She stopped swinging her legs and looked down at the dead balloon. Then she looked up at her mother with wide, pensive eyes. The mother didn’t acknowledge her, still staring straight ahead. Silently, the girl hopped off the chair and walked to the door that had opened again to receive her and only her. The door closed behind her.
The harsh hum of the fluorescent light sliced through my head. It annoyed me and made it difficult to concentrate. Difficult to think.
What had I been doing before I came to this waiting room?
Seeing the woman and child made me think of my own mother. I struggled to recall why she had driven me to this waiting room. Or did I take the bus? That would explain why she wasn’t here with me. My head was foggy, as was my memory, which was made more difficult to recollect as I heard the old lady talk to another waiting person. I didn’t listen to her conversation, but I noticed her voice sounded a bit less pleasant, and a tad more urgent.
Finally, as though springing back to life, the mother ceased her catatonic state and walked over to the receptionist window. “Excuse me,” she said authoritatively. “I’d like to know why I can’t go in with my daughter?”
“Did you hear me? I said I’d like to know why I can’t be with her? Hello?”
She coughed, then tapped on the window with a single manicured digit. BANG BANG BANG.
My heart jumped at the sound. I brought my hands to my head and brought my legs up to my chest. I started breathing heavily. The throbbing in my head became worse. Now my vision was blurring. What was wrong with me?
I tried to focus on something—anything else—to get my mind off the searing pain. So I focused on the old woman’s talking, now more desperate. She was no longer content with sitting down and chatting; now she went from one person to the next, on a mission for answers.
“Have you seen my Harold? We never travel alone, we always travel together. Have you seen him? I’m not entirely sure he realizes he left me here…”
When one person would shake their head lamely, she’d move on to another. At one point she started fussing on her person, looking for an item that she just couldn’t will to materialize.
“Damn…a picture…I have a picture…if only I had my purse…where the bloody hell is my purse…”
Suddenly the room froze. The mother stopped tapping. The old woman ceased talking.
All eyes rested on a person I hadn’t noticed before: a man in black who stood in the center of the waiting room. He was dressed in a long black hooded jacket, combat boots, and sported black sunglasses. I couldn’t see his face. Confidently, he strode straight through the open door, before the receptionist could even announce his name. The door closed behind him.
The mother at the window was livid. “So you’ll let him go through and not me? Unbelievable! What makes him so special? Who’s in charge here? I want to speak to your supervisor.”
The woman behind the window glanced up, then leaned over to the microphone again and said a name.
I stiffened. It was my name.
My legs straightened as if they had a mind of their own. I was on my feet, and walking to the door, which had opened again like some treacherous maw that led into the belly of some giant beast.
A sense of dread suddenly gripped me about being in this room. I didn’t want to be here. I SHOULDN’T be here. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mom.
The old lady stood in front of me, blocking my path. “Excuse me,” I said.
But she wouldn’t budge. She placed her hands on my shoulders and looked at me with pleading eyes. “If you see Harold, you’ll tell him I’m looking for him, won’t you? Please?”
I looked up at the single fluorescent light. It shone brightly, offensively, its hum suddenly the loudest thing in the space.
I willed the light to take me. Away from this room, away from this pain, and back to something I could hold onto and remember…
The receptionist called my name again…and again…
Each time she repeated it, her voice sounded softer…farther away…
My eyes refocused to the light in a different room. I was lying in bed, in a hospital room. To the left of me was my mom, and to the right of me was a doctor.
“Mom…” I choked out. My voice was dry and hoarse, like I hadn’t spoken in ages.
“Oh thank you, Jesus,” said my mother, smiling with tears streaming down her face.
“Her vitals are good,” said the doctor. “She is immensely fortunate that none of her brain function was touched in the attack. She should be fine and make a full recovery now that the swelling has gone down.”
Swelling? I touched my head; it still throbbed, and I could feel bandages around my skull. My eyes wandered from the people at my bedside to the TV attached to the ceiling in the corner of the room. It was on mute, but the screen flashed with BREAKING NEWS, and the headline HORRIFIC MASS SHOOTING AT FAIRGROUNDS.
They showed the image of the man responsible, followed by photos of his victims. They all looked familiar.
The girl with the hijab. The man with the crew cut. The sweet little girl.
I thought back to everyone that went through that door into that blackness. I had to know.
“Did she find Harold?”
Mom’s face contorted out of confusion, as did the doctor’s.
In my mind’s eye I pictured Harold again. This time there was no jalopy. There was just a frightened husband searching for his wife, holding her purse in his hands as he went from face to face for answers.
They never traveled alone.