Pam ripped the hospital band off her wrist, tossing it to ground as she walked through the lobby of her apartment.
“I’ll take care of that, Miss Ricks,” the young bellhop said, rushing to pick up her trash.
“Thank you, Eli,” Pam said, not bothering to look back as she waited for the elevator.
That might have bothered her once. That she could care so little about other people. She used to pride herself on her compassion, having managed to work her way up to the highest floor of her firm without making a single enemy. Not so much anymore.
It took her a moment to recognize the song playing inside the elevator. A jazz song, the name of which she didn’t know.
Theo used to dance whenever he heard it, shaking his hips back and forth until she couldn’t help but smile. She grimaced at the memory, pulling her phone out in order to distract herself until the elevator re-opened.
Her apartment was dimly lit. Too large and too clean for her. It didn’t look like anyone lived there, which she supposed was true.
She stopped in the foyer, her face frowning back at her in the mirror. Her lip was split, swollen to a comical size.
As gently as she could muster, she peeled back the bandage on her forehead, revealing her stitches. The wounds looked oddly appropriate to her. Finishing touches on a withering face.
Theo would have been mad at her for thinking such a thing. He always insisted she was beautiful. That he wouldn’t change a thing about her. And maybe that was true when they were younger, but she was old now. Cracked and worn. And Theo wasn’t around to insist otherwise.
Pam clenched the bandage in her fist, her lips beginning to tremble. “Calm,” she whispered. “Stay composed.”
Suddenly, the mirror shattered, shards of it falling around her fist.
Startled, she yanked her fist backward, bandage still in hand. She didn’t remember deciding to punch the mirror, but it was all she could to do to keep from hitting herself instead.
“Keep. It. Together!” She screamed, a part of her all too aware that she was losing it. “Don’t yell,” she said, her voice falling to a whisper, fighting the urge to laugh at the absurdity of her outburst. “Stay composed.”
Something dripped down her forehead as she eyed her kitchen counter. Her pills sat atop the marble finish, organized by the days of the week. “I don’t need you,” she said, her eyes flaring. “I don’t need you!” She yelled again as she contemplated taking them all at once.
Knock, knock, knock. Someone rapped against her door. “Pam?” A voice followed, loud enough to snap her attention away from the pills.
“What?” She yelled back, not moving toward the door.
“Are you okay?” Her neighbor asked, his voice concerned. “I heard screams. And did something shatter?”
“I’m fine! Leave me alone!” Pam said, her voice cracking under the strain of the lie. She used to be able to lie so well.
“I’m coming in to check on you. Okay?”
Pam stiffened, glancing at the broken glass scattered on the floor. “I’m fine, Louis.” She said again more convincingly.
“You’ll understand if I need to check after last time,” Louis said as he worked the lock with her spare key.
“I don’t need to be checked on!” She yelled, scrambling to pick up the glass with her bare hands. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
Pam pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the blood dripping from her hands as Louis opened the door.
Louis stood frozen at the door, his wife and a staff member stuck looking over his shoulder as they took in the bloody scene.
“Pam,” Louis said, his voice gentle as if afraid to startle her. “I think we need to bring you back to the hospital.”
Beth looked over at her brother, wondering for the hundredth time why he refused to leave her side.
“There’s probably a smoking area outside somewhere if you need a break,” she offered, watching his itchy eyes struggle to stay open.
Chris snorted, pinching his cheek as he sat up straighter in his chair. “You okay with me smoking now? What happened to your disapproving stare?”
Beth looked away uncomfortably, pretending to study the room. They were in a large hospital room, a single curtain dividing them from an empty bed. “We all have our struggles,” she said eventually, still not daring to meet his eyes.
Chris ignored her comment, yawning as he stood from his chair. Then, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, he began to stretch next to her bed, spreading his legs to a near split while reaching to his toes.
“What are you doing?” Beth asked incredulously.
Chris looked up from the floor mid-stretch. “Yoga,” he said succinctly. “It’s good for you.”
Beth shook her head. “You do yoga now?”
Chris shrugged. “It helps with anxiety. I usually smoke during. There’s nothing quite like smoking during yoga, but house rules and all.”
Beth smiled ruefully. “You’re just trying to impress our nurse.”
Chris winked at her before breaking out into a fit of laughter. Chris was still bent in half when their nurse walked into the room.
“What are you doing?” Deb asked, staring down at Chris.
Chris rolled his back up straight, smiling as he brushed off his hands. “Sorry. Just doing some yoga.”
Deb frowned at him disapprovingly, though Beth caught a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. “Hospitals are not made for yoga.”
“I’ll say,” Chris replied with a mischievous grin. “You don’t even allow smoking.”
Deb paused for a moment, obviously unsure as to how to respond before deciding to ignore Chris altogether. “Anyway, I apologize, Beth, but you’re going to have to share the room. We’re filled to capacity at the moment.”
Just then, a woman rolled into the room in a wheelchair, a baffled attendant behind her. “Ma’m, at least let me get the…“
“I told you I can do this myself!” The woman barked as she kicked the door the rest of the way open and rolled herself to the spare bed. “Forcing me to be in the wheelchair,” she muttered, waving a hand at Deb. “I’m fine!”
“I’m sure you are,” Deb said, plastering a smile on her face. “But we should still help you…”
“Nope,” Pam said, cutting her off as she lifted herself into bed. “Just check me out and tell me I can go. I’m only here because of my stupid over-protective neighbor.”
“Your appropriately-protective neighbor told us what happened,” Deb said, drawing the curtain between Pam and Beth. “We’re going to have to run some tests this time.”
Pam’s jaw worked furiously as she fought to restrain herself.
“Don’t worry,” Deb said with a half-hearted smile. “My shift will be over soon so you won’t have to deal with me much longer.”
Pam grunted in response, hiding her trembling arms underneath the hospital blanket. She knew she was breaking down, and was furious about it, but she refused to break in front of others. She would be seen as strong. Remembered as strong.
Deb never noticed Pam’s arms as she moved to the other side of the curtain. “Beth,” she said, pointedly ignoring Chris smiling at her from his chair. “We should be getting your results in soon. Hopefully before I leave.”
“It was just an anxiety attack,” Beth said, eyeing her brother. “I promise I’m fine.”
“Yeah!” Pam yelled through the curtain, pulling it back for enough to reveal her face. “Listen to the girl. We’re both fine!”
Deb couldn’t help but roll her eyes, eliciting a chuckle from Chris. “We’ll know more once the bloodwork comes back,” she said, ignoring Pam. “For now, let me know if I can do anything to help.”
“Thank you,” Beth said, glancing between Pam and Deb. “Actually, can you tell me how much this is costing? Would it be possible to leave right now? Is that cheaper?”
Deb stifled a laugh, realizing from the concerned look on Beth’s face that she was serious. “You can’t leave until we’re done,” she said. “As for the cost, you’ll have to talk to the front desk about that on your way out.”
At the girl’s crestfallen look, Deb had to fight the urge to offer to pay her bills for her, reminding herself that is wasn’t her place. She couldn’t pay for every concerned girl in the hospital. She could hardly afford to take care of her own.
“Don’t you worry about that though,” Deb added, eager to comfort Beth. “The cost isn’t what is important. Your health is.”
Beth looked to Chris as Deb left to check on her other patients. “I don’t have insurance,” she said, her voice worried.
Chris shrugged. “I figured that. I told them you were still on mom’s. You’re twenty-five, right?”
“Twenty-six,” Beth answered, letting her head fall against the pillow in frustration.
“Whelp, we’ll figure it out,” Chris said with a reassuring smile.
“I don’t want to be a burden,” Beth whispered, feeling guilty even voicing the thought. “I’ll figure it out.”
“We,” Chris corrected. “We’ll figure it out. Me, you, and dad… who is on his way, FYI.”
Beth frowned. “You didn’t wake him up, did you? He needs his sleep.”
“I don’t know,” Chris said, throwing his hands in the air, “but he replied to my text saying he’s on his way. He would have wanted to be woken up for this, you know.”
“It wasn’t worth waking him up,” Beth argued. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t know that,” Chris said, his voice hardening. “Mom thought she was fine. She insisted nothing was wrong.”
“Epilepsy isn’t hereditary,” Beth said meekly.
“You sure about that?” Chris asked, sitting forward in his chair. “How much research have you done? Because I’ve read all about it and there are hereditary links, Beth. You could have it, and seizures are one of the primary signs.”
“Symptoms,” Pam chimed in, her face peeking out from the behind the curtain. “Primary symptoms.”
Beth cocked her head, baffled by the audacity of the older woman. “Um, sorry, we were having a kind of private conversation.”
“There’s nothing private about a flimsy sheet, child,” Pam replied, unfazed. “And he’s right, your dad would have wanted to be here.”
“Maybe if there was something wrong,” Beth said, “but I promise there’s not. I don’t have seizures, I have panic attacks.”
Pam arched an eyebrow, a smile forming on her lips. “What’s your story, girl?”
“I have panic attacks, is all,” Beth said, not sure what to make of her neighbor.
“Not what’s wrong with you,” Pam said, rolling her eyes. “Your story. What do you do for a living?”
Beth glanced at Chris for help, but he just watched, obviously bemused. “I live in California,” she said eventually. “I’m a… waitress.”
“And what are you trying to be?” Pam asked pointedly.
Beth’s cheeks flooded with color. “A musician,” she said, feeling foolish about sharing her dream with a stranger, but Pam merely nodded in understanding.
“What’s your story?” Chris asked, smiling confidently at Pam.
“I’m a partner at a law firm,” she said proudly, but found herself shaking once more as she remembered what happened. She had control when she focused on the kids, but on herself… she wasn’t sure she could do it.
She forced her hands underneath her legs, willing them to stabilize as she corrected herself. “Well I was, anyway. I’m on leave.”
“Why?” Beth asked, obviously concerned.
Pam took a deep breath, considering how much to share. “I decided to take a break,” she lied. “I lost my husband.”
Both the youngsters frowned at her with pity, unaware of how much worse that made her feel, but there really wasn’t any other way to respond. She didn’t want to talk about Theo. All she wanted to do was work. She needed to keep moving.
“We lost our mom,” Beth shared, shaking Pam from her reverie.
“I heard,” Pam said, trying to keep the pity from reaching her eyes. “From epilepsy?”
Both Beth and Chris nodded, clearly just as plagued my memories as Pam.
“That’s a hard thing,” she said, unsure of what else to say. When neither of them responded, she continued. “I didn’t spend enough time with my husband.”
She wasn’t sure why she shared it, but both Beth and Chris straightened, attentive, sensing she had more to say. The shaking in her arms lessened just the tiniest bit as she continued. “I worked so hard. Put so many hours in at work that I was never around. He never blamed me for it, or made me feel guilty, which I loved him for. But I wish he had. I wish he had forced me to spend time with him.”
A tear fell down Beth’s cheek as she fought to keep composed. She couldn’t bare to look at Chris, her skin alight with shame. Still, she had to say it. “I left my family behind,” she said, her voice cracking. “They wanted me to stay, but I put my dreams before them. And when my mom got sick…”
Chris moved to her bed, sitting beside her as she stroked her arm. “It’s okay,” he whispered.
“I didn’t think,” Beth managed to say before breaking out into tears, her body racked with sobs, unable to say a word.
“It’s okay,” Chris whispered soothingly. “She loved you, Beth, and she wanted you to pursue your dreams. She wanted you to be happy.”
“I hurt her,” she choked through the sobs.
“We’re family,” Chris said, smiling down at her.
“You’re human,” Pam said enthusiastically. “You’re going to hurt each other.”
Chris laughed. “Exactly, but we love you anyway. Mom loves you anyway.”
Just then, the door flew open as their dad rushed to her bed, Deb right behind him. “Beth. My Beth. Are you okay?”
Beth nodded, tears still on her cheeks. “I’m okay, daddy.”
Deb smiled as she watched Beth cry in the arms of her father. It was for moments like those that she became a nurse. She was at the end of her shift, sleepless and with nothing else to give, but she couldn’t be happier.
“Nurse!” Pam yelled through the curtain.
Deb sighed, leaving the scene behind. “It’s Deborah,” she said, her voice politely strained. “How may I help?”
Pam arched an eyebrow, but her shoulders were clearly more relaxed, less defensive. “I want to help with their bill,” she whispered, pointing through the curtain.
Deb took a step backward, her mouth hanging open. “Oh… really? That’s great!”
“Also,” Pam added, “I may have left some things off my paperwork.”
Deb squinted at her in confusion. “Why?”
“Also,” Pam said, ignoring the question as she raised her arms. “My hands won’t stop shaking.”
Deb shook her head in bewilderment, but didn’t have a chance to respond before Pam continued. “You think the doctor can help with that?”
“Of course,” Deb said, quickly scribbling notes down on her paper.
“Good,” Pam said, “now go tell somebody and go home. Surely your shift is up by now.”
“I’ll be done soon enough,” Deb said, all too aware that her shift had finished half an hour earlier.
“No, girl, you need to rest. Take care of yourself for once,” Pam said, smiling to soften the blow. “Go.”
Deb couldn’t help but chuckle. “Okay, I’ll go soon,” she said, somehow feeling lighter than she had in quite some time.