Sixteen Minutes

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
Really, she thought, hospital dramas and teen novels should be more accurate. There was no “steady beep,” no hospital smell (or maybe there had been and she’d simply grown accustomed to it over the past few days). There were no rushing nurses, no hysterical families (well, except for her own family’s hysterical laughter at jokes that shouldn’t have been funny but somehow were in the unsettling waiting room atmosphere). Any flatlining patients seemed to wait for the middle of the night or ten o’clock in the morning to say their final goodbyes. Times when the whole ICU was nearly empty and disturbingly quiet.
It wasn’t anything like a movie, except for the fact that she seemed to be watching the whole thing through a screen. True to form, it wasn’t a Hollywood-style out-of-body experience, she didn’t encounter any comatose patients wandering through the astral plane. She simply felt disconnected, disbelieving.
None of this was happening. She would go home and everything would be normal again. She was sure of this, without ever really voicing it to herself.
Some time earlier that day, a younger cousin she scarcely remembered stopped by with flowers, cowering behind the legs of an uncle who had only ever made her uncomfortable. Brave. There was nothing to say to this, no socially acceptable way to say, “Hey, sorry my brother’s wife I haven’t seen in ten years and couldn’t pick out of a crowd of one is in a coma. Here, have some flowers. I don’t feel as sad as I think I should and this is awkward.”
Maybe if she was older, the thought would have counted. But her father didn’t seem to know what to do either, other than put the flowers in the car to join all the other bouquets on their kitchen island. Coma patients aren’t permitted floral decoration.
She watched with misplaced annoyance as her younger brother went over to the coffee station for another cup of caffeinated something. He was tired, he claimed. Exhausted from the emotion. He was eleven and it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to react. It wasn’t his fault he could only hope to keep up by emulation of equally lost adults.
In all honesty, she couldn’t bring herself to go in the room. Couldn’t make herself believe that this was real. That the cold, clammy hand in the bed wasn’t some sick toy, wasn’t a clone or a hallucination. Everything was fine as long as the shock never wore off.
But there are no guarantees in life, and the only thing worse than knowing her mother might never wake up was imagining her funeral. “Here comes the daughter to give a speech. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to her comatose mother, so her last words were some random comment about the movie they were watching.” Imagining herself graduating high school knowing her final tribute to the woman who raised her was a shout and a curse at paramedics who did this every day, who were walking much too slowly and calmly.
Her own courage, or lack thereof, was not going to be the cause of a lifetime of emotional trauma. She was not going to be a burnt-out suburban mom looking across the couch at a therapist, teary-eyed, saying things like, “It all started when...”
Her legs were numb from sitting so long. Her head was still fuzzy, still disconnected. She didn’t remember the room number, despite being told many times. For the thousandth time that day, a well-meaning nurse lead her back to the room.
Her mother, the brilliant, warm woman who raised her was in that bed, chilled to preserve any brain function that might have survived the cardiac arrest. She could do this. She had to do this.
She took a deep breathe, set her shoulders. “Hi, Mom.”