the exit

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

I was break relief on the night shift, and since it was 3am, lunches done and no breaks for thirty minutes, I offered to take care of the body in room 950.

I looked at the chart briefly, the patient’s name was Claire Johnson, 87 year old female.  She’d been Comfort Care status so there was no Code Blue or Rapid Response called.  She wasn’t on the monitor so there were no alarms when she drifted away, no one was sure what time it had been other than some time between checks.  The doctor had come and gone, paperwork and phone calls done per the usual.

I’ve never minded preparing the body after a death.  I consider it an honor in a way, to care for someone at the very end, the last human touch.  I washed her carefully, placed the ID tag on her toe and zipped up the body bag

A discreet cough caught my attention and I turned to see an elderly woman peeking hesitantly into the room.  She was slender, dressed in a neat tweed suit, her hair freshly curled under a jaunty little hat.  She wore gloves and carried one of those old fashioned clasp purses on one wrist.  In the other hand she held an overnight bag, the kind my grandmother had, sturdy if heavy, lined with silk, a little mirror inside the lid.

“Can I help you ma’am?” I asked, wondering where she’d come from.  Every once in a while we had a LOL (little old lady) who’d been admitted for something as seemingly minor as a urinary tract infection, but which could cause significant delirium in an elderly person.  After 24 hours on an antibiotic you wouldn’t believe the nice lady calling you ‘dear’ and trying to give you a mint was the same person who’d been raving about the building being on fire the night before.  

If she was a patient she’d somehow managed to get herself dressed and out of her room without being noticed, uncommon but not impossible.  If she was a visitor I couldn’t figure out how she managed to get this far.  The lobby doors were locked at this hour, the only entry was through the Emergency Department and they wouldn’t let someone just wander up here without a security escort.  I wondered how she’d know the patient’s name either way. Granted the assignments were written on a white board in erasable marker, but it was behind a corner and you’d need to know where it was to even find it.  

“I’m sorry to bother you dear, but is this the room of Claire Johnson?” she said.

When you’re a nurse you get used to saying things in a roundabout way, so I asked, “Are you a family member, ma’am?”

“Why yes,” she answered.  “We’ve been together since the very beginning, never apart for a moment until now.”  She sighed deeply and looked at the still white bag on the hospital bed.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said.  “I wish I could do more, but we can’t have visitors on the floor at this hour.  Let me call the House Supervisor for you and she can help you.”  Honestly I didn’t know how much the House Supe could do but I had no options at all, sadly, and breaks were coming up.

“Oh that’s alright dear,” she said.  She smiled, a bit wistful, but she didn’t seem grief-stricken.  I wondered if she and Claire Johnson were twins.

“By any chance, is it possible to open the window?”  she asked.  “You see, we are Swedish, and we have a custom of opening the window when a person dies so the soul can fly out.”  She seemed embarrassed to ask.

“I’m so sorry, these windows don’t open,” I told her.  We were on the ninth floor after all, but none of the windows in this building opened for obvious reasons.

“I see,” she said, nodding.  “I should be leaving then, and let you get on with your work.  Thank you for caring for her.”

I always feel awkward when anyone thanks me for doing my job but I try to understand how much it means to people.  I’m sure I’d feel the same way as a patient.  “You’re welcome, ma’am.  It’s what we’re here for.”

She smiled again and said, “I wonder if you might show me to the stairs?”

There was no way I was going to let her go down nine flights of stairs in a cold, slippery stairwell at 3am.  

“I can take you to the elevators and get someone to escort you, but the stairwell isn’t safe.  Come with me and I’ll call for help,” I said, hoping this wasn’t going to be awkward.

“That would be so kind,” she said.  “I just wonder though, I came up the stairway and I think I left something very important there.  I hate to impose, but would you be able to show me the way?  If I don’t find what I’m looking for immediately I will be happy to accept your offer of an escort.”

That made sense.  She must have somehow taken the elevator to the eighth floor by mistake and come up the back stairs.  At least I hoped so, because I hated to think of this fragile lady hiking all the nine flights up that frigid steel stairwell.  I figured it was pointless to argue, and anyway room 950 is the last room on the hall and the exit was just a few feet away so I showed her the way and opened the heavy door so she could look out.  I stayed close, you never know what people are going to do and I didn’t want to be the one who let a LOL jump down the stairwell.  Imagine my shock to see a jauntily dressed white-haired man standing on the landing.

You get a little paranoid after dealing with sick people for a long time; you never know what’s going through people’s minds, especially when emotions are high.  It crossed my mind I’d been led into a trap but these two were so fragile I didn’t think there was any chance they could hurt me.  I was about to suggest we all go back inside when the man spoke.

“Hello Claire,” he said, grinning ear to ear.

“Hello Charles,” she answered.  She reached out her hand and he grasped it in his.

They both turned to me, holding onto each other as if they’d never let go.

“Thank you dear,” Claire said.  “I found what I was looking for.”

And with that they just…disappeared.

Security searched high and low for them but never found the slightest evidence they’d even been in the building.  I got written up for violating security protocols and felt like a complete idiot for letting myself be fooled.  But no matter how many times I replayed the scene in my mind, I couldn’t figure out where they’d gone.  They couldn’t have gone up the stairs, the tenth floor was pediatrics and the door was locked, even I couldn’t get in there.  I ran all the way down to the first floor and didn’t see them, and no one on any of the floors below us saw them either.  I tried to shake it off but it bothered me.  I just hoped they were safe.

A week or so later I was sitting in the break room after my shift, drinking a cup of coffee.  I’d had a late admit and just finished my paperwork.  Someone had left a newspaper on the table so I picked it up to distract myself until I finished my caffeine infusion. 

Maybe it’s the job, but I often read the obituaries.  Morbid, I know, but there you have it.  I guess I didn’t expect what I saw that day, a double entry, a couple, Claire and Charles Johnson.  He’d passed at 2am, she’d gone sometime in the half-hour following, same hospital, one floor apart.  They looked just like their pictures.

Submitted: December 19, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Stellanotte. All rights reserved.

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Engaging story. The ending was a bit over-telegraphed!

Sat, December 19th, 2020 9:07am


Hi Adam, thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it.

Sat, December 19th, 2020 5:50pm

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