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Derek walked in through the door, as he had hundreds of times before. Slipping his shoes off by the front door, placing his jacket over the light brown la-z-boy chair, and putting his keys on the countertop that overlooked the living room from the kitchen. He walked passed the couch and the chair across the cool hardwood floor into the bathroom and ran some cold water. The icy water splashed on his face but he couldn’t feel it. The numbness already taking hold.
In the mirror, Derek saw the deep dark bags under his eyes from the stressful night that consumed every bit of energy he had left. Hospitals had that effect. Draining every ounce from you despite cup after cup of coffee you drink trying to add more fuel to the tank that seemed to have an open sieve at the bottom. His mouth was dry and tasted like an ashtray. He stopped smoking a few years ago when Jamie made him quit, but he needed something to pass the time. He needed an excuse to walk outside, to get away even if just for a moment. Plus, the cherry burning on the cigarette gave him something else to look at besides the beeping machines.
It had been thirty-five hours since he’d slept and twenty-six since he and Jamie had been in the hospital. Since then, he’d been staring at the different lines on the hospital machines, wondering what they meant, terrified of what was to come. Jamie was hooked up to a machine to help her breathe, one for her bodily functions, and one to keep her heart beating. Derek looked on helplessly as the woman he loved was fighting for her life. The doctors had told Derek to go home hours before but an argument ensued. Derek was inches away from causing that same doctor to be hooked up to a breathing apparatus. But, when they finally got Derek to understand it was for his own good and that he could come back first thing in the morning, reluctantly, he agreed.
Unable to drive, Derek called a cab. During the ride, he kept looking down at his hands, examining the callouses and cuts, thinking of how old his twenty-nine-year-old hands looked. He had washed most of the blood off but the bits under his nails and between the wrinkles on his knuckles he couldn’t seem to scrub hard enough.
Staring at his reflection in the mirror in their bathroom, he saw the tousled hair, the scruff of an unshaven face, and the bloodshot sleepless eyes that had not one tear left in them. He scrubbed his face, letting the cold water fall where it may. He dried himself off and went to his dresser to grab basketball shorts. He looked, but he didn’t dare lay in the bed they shared. It would be a betrayal. So he grabbed a blanket from the closet and settled on the living room couch. At the beginning of the night, everything seemed like it happened so fast. Now, time was standing still. Derek’s mind wouldn’t keep quiet, so he counted the revolutions of the ceiling fan until his eyelids became too heavy to keep open.
Derek woke to the fan rattling overhead. The sun had yet to show through the blinds at the front window but the birds were wide awake. He was hoping that hospital was just a dream, but waking up on the couch reminded him of why he laid there in the first place. He told the doctors to contact him if there were any changes in Jamie’s status. Derek looked down at his phone, seeing a few irrelevant social media notifications, but no messages or calls from the hospital.
He sat upright, rubbing the sand from his eyes. Although he had woken up on the couch many times before, this time felt especially lonely and cold. He knew he’d be going right back to the hospital, but he needed something other than the taste hospital coffee. He put on his jeans, tossed his gray Illinois State hoodie over his head, and threw his worn black jacket over his shoulders. He slid his shoes on and headed out.
He walked outside to the frigid air biting at his face. Having facial scruff helped, but not much. Chicago’s winter air could break through anything. He pulled out the Blackhawks knit hat that Jamie had gotten him two years prior and pulled it over his head, his long untamed hair sticking out on all sides. Cops are supposed to be clean shaven and have their hair uniform, but his current position allowed him to do what he wanted and the chilled winter air made the decision to grow it out pretty easy.
He ducked into the corner coffee shop for warmth. It was still dark so the morning rush hadn’t hit yet. The small shop had old vinyl records hung on the walls and maps with the various origins of the coffee roasts they served. He walked up to the barista, a short twenty-something with gauged ears and scarf around his neck. Derek ordered a mocha with an extra shot. The chocolate to help him feel a little better and the espresso to ensure he stays awake.
Only a mile from the hospital, Derek felt the need to walk. It would give him something to focus on aside from thinking about the last time Jamie was awake and how unpleasant their conversation was. He thought if he was cold enough, he’d be more focused on potential frostbite than Jamie’s unresponsive state. But God did he wish he could take back the things he said.
The streets and sidewalks were covered in rock salt and the gray slush had built up along the curbs. Derek kicked chunks of ice as he made his way back to the hospital. The tips of his hair were like icicles that would occasionally touch his neck, making him shiver.
He could see the glow of the hospital building a few blocks over. The massive blue and green sign illuminating the street it looked over. A thin layer of morning snow covered the cars that lined the streets. Derek thought of the plan that he and Jamie had to one day move out of the city and go where it was warmer. They both hated waking up early for work only to spend fifteen minutes of the morning warming up the car and scraping ice off the windshield. They would do papers scissors rock to see who would be doing the dirty work. Jamie won most of the time.
Derek walked out of the cold and into the warm air that was the hospital. He saw different families in the hallways than he had just the night before. He was looking for Jamie’s doctor but, as always when you need the doc, he wasn’t around.
Derek took long strides to get back to Jamie’s room, already feeling guilty that he had left her there alone for the five hours he’d been gone. Each room he walked passed seemed to be a blur until he walked passed one that caught his eye. A woman held the limp hand of her husband as he lay in bed. The man was hooked up to more machines than Jamie. His wife was seventy, eighty perhaps. The man around the same age. The woman’s eyes, like Derek’s, said that she was out of tears although she kept trying to coax out more.
Seeing her leaned over like that made Derek wonder. At that point, when you’ve cried every tear, do you keep trying for you or the person you’re crying for? He couldn’t decide.
Derek looked at her eyes as she looked on at her husband. He could see how her eyes ached to catch a glimpse of his just one more time, unsure if she would ever get the chance. He thought of Jamie and how much he wanted to see her smile, the one he fell in love with, and how he had it for granted up until now. Something as simple as seeing your loved one’s smile can keep you moving forward, despite watching your whole world fracture and crumble in front of you. Derek inhaled deeply and set off for Jamie’s room, hoping but not expecting to see her smile waiting for him.