When I Can’t Save You
by Cassidy Trudeau
I hate hospitals, the too-cold drafts of air conditioner, the bleach-laced smell of sickness, the hard plastic chairs, the constant hum of pain and worry. And somehow, you always seem to land yourself in one. Broken toes, intense abdominal pain, and two minor surgeries have lured you back into cratchy gowns every few years. Every time you sat in a waiting room or on a stiff steel bed, you would still smile. A grin that always made Mom suspicious of your silence.
I immediately want to turn around. There are toys—Legos and puzzles—in every corner. The walls ooze cheery yellow paint. Your room is close to the entrance, a small space the nurses say can only hold two visitors. You’re asleep, sprawled across the thin bed with your arms around your shoulders to keep warm. Mom smiles at me, the muscles in her cheeks too tense to hide the fear in her eyes. Rubbing her shoulder, I sit in the chair next to her and watch the small TV mounted on the wall.
“How long have y’all been waiting?” I ask, looking down at you, rolling over in your sleep. Normally, you kick and punch walls; you call my name. You scream. And I always long to wake you up, tell you it’s just a dream, that your nightmares don’t follow you into consciousness.
“We got here a little while after dropping you off at school. Seven hours.”
Upon waking up, you smile at me, stretching out your arms and legs. I swear your fingers look as small and round as they did when you were five. I lie on the bed next to you without being asked, opening my arms so you can rest your head on my chest. Your hair falls into my mouth a little bit, and you laugh when I spit it out. I hug you, kissing the top of your head.
Self-admittance into a mental ward is a process that lasts nine hours. The children’s hospital transported you here in an ambulance. No sirens needed, just guaranteed safe passage for you, a 14-year-old who only fears himself.
The ward’s fluorescent lights drench you, bleach your features shadowless. You have never been tan. Even after hours spent in Florida sun making mud pies and destroying ant piles, your skin never bronzed. Just freckles across your nose and cheeks, right under your square glasses and along the cue-ball shape of your shoulders. Even your freckles disappear as you stare at the wall. I hold your hand, our sweaty palms glued together, to keep you from dissipating into the ceiling.
Mom’s South Pole jacket billows from your shoulders, turning adolescent curves into unrecognizable folds. The scent of cigarettes clings to the fabric, wafting around us as you bounce your leg, silence drying our throats like secondhand smoke. The soles of your black canvas shoes clack against the floor. Mom glances between her Facebook feed and your pale expression. I don’t really see the waiting room walls, my mind too focused on the red curves of your fingernails digging into my skin.
“Preston P_____?” a nurse asks, her voice flat. Your name freezes in the air. My heart drops as you follow the nurse to be weighed and measured like meat at a butcher shop.
I stretch my hearing through the cinderblock walls of the children’s ward. I know that somewhere children scream and cry and drool and laugh. Somewhere children tear out their hair, chew more than just their fingernails, carve “fuck you” into the tacky paint.
I hear nothing. So I clean the dirt from my fingernails, then pick the lint off my shirt, then retie my shoes, then take a deep breath.
Mom’s face comes around the corner first, eyebrows furrowed. A familiar wrinkle puckers on her forehead, one we always pair with the sound of our full names, Cassidy Nicole! Preston Lee! Dinner, now!, with racing to the door, paper blades of grass tickling our ankles and teasing our mosquito bites as we smother our giggles with earth-stained hands.
You don’t giggle now. Instead, you sway in the middle of the room like the oak tree outside my window, caught in a thunderstorm. You stare at the floor as if the cracks will swallow you. The nurse hands us a list of contraband. The paper shivers in your white-knuckled grip as you sit next to me. Our shoulders press together, allowing me to see the list.
“He can’t have any of these items,” the nurse says, her shadowed eyes pointing directly at Mom. “You can bring him a bag of toiletries and clothes tomorrow. Visiting hours are listed at the bottom.”
My lips press into a thin line as she speaks, Mom nodding as she examines the sheet. You can’t have jackets with strings or zippers. You can’t have shoe laces. You can’t have the hair tie holding up the brown knot at the nape of your neck. You can’t have your phone, MP3 player, or Brian, the teddy bear half your size that still smells of your friend’s Taylor Swift perfume.
We wait, listening to the frigid ticking of the clock. Another male nurse appears, his bushy eyebrows slumped on his forehead.
“Take off your shoes and jacket, we have your bed ready,” he says, voice low.
You frown, a pout I recognize from our fights over the TV remote. My fingers twitch to pet your hair as you shrug out of your shroud of comfort.
The black and white sweatshirt with its broken zipper sags off your shoulders. Taking it from you, Mom folds the protective layer over her arm. You bite your lip as you tug out the black band tangled in your hair. It stretches, then snaps. You hand the broken elastic to Mom, who puts it in her pocket.
I cringe when you take off your shoes. You had clammy feet as a baby, so bad that Mom told horror stories of how she wrung out your socks like wet rags. We always gagged when you took off your shoes in the car on road trips, the rotten-apple musk present even with the windows down. The sour scent doesn’t permeate the room now. It still smells of disinfectant.
The male nurse announces the time to say goodbye.
“Family members over the age of 18 can come Wednesday afternoons to visit.”
My fists clench. I suck in my breath through gritted teeth, swallowing my seventeen years as you hug Mom. She gently pulls you close to her chest like she did when she breastfed you. Your eyes meet my gaze. I joke in my usual way, “You’re so full of crap your eyes are brown.”
Smiling, you reach out for me. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep the heat behind my eyes from staining your shirt.
Arms wrapped around your small waist, I hunch down to rest my forehead against your shoulder. Your fists bunch up the back of my shirt, knuckles pressing into the middle of my spine. I sigh, all the oxygen leaving my chest until it feels empty, like our room at home will be.
“I’ll be okay, Cas,” you say, and I hear your smile crumble like a sandcastle.
I wonder if this is the last time I’ll get to hug you for a while, if our nap at the hospital is the last one before I leave for college. I wonder when I’ll get to watch Frozen again with you, if I’ll hear you sing “Love is an Open Door” at the top of your lungs again. I can’t help but remember the times you came to my princess-themed room when our parents fought. Their yells boomed throughout the house, and we rocked on my bed, your small frame cradled in my lap. I don’t remember if I ever cried back then, if the dirty tissues and snot stains on our blankets were yours or mine.
But I know I don’t cry in the waiting room of a children’s mental ward. I don’t cry when I tell you I love you and that it’d be nice to have the room to myself for once. I don’t cry when Mom hugs you again.
Barefoot, hair a tumbleweed around your shoulders, glasses slipping down your button nose, pale under the glare of unfiltered light, you are a ghost of my little brother. I don’t cry until I leave you behind the glass door, the automatic lock clicking so loud it echoes in the empty waiting room.