The shock the words had inflicted hit so fiercely, like a punch. Disappointment rushed in, threatening to pull him under, shaking him to the core. Then how, he wanted to ask, but thought better of it; he knew how it sounded, and nurse Jonathan seemed to think him somewhat unhinged as it was. He murmured a thank you and softly shut the door behind the younger man, leaning against it with a sigh.
That's when he noticed the chair by the bed; just one, with the other still across the room. There was a blanket on the floor where it had dropped when he woke up, a blanket a different nurse must have brought during the night. He had no such recollection. He only remembered her.
Was it all in his head, then? She seemed so real; every aspect of her. Even when he told himself it couldn't be, that the coincidence was too incredible, her warmth, her touch, her scent, were enough to persuade him. Was he simply desperate enough to be seeing what he wanted to see? And if there was some divine purpose for the apparition, what was it, if not the sole purpose of tormenting him?
He felt like stomping his foot like a child, dropping to the floor in a tantrum; yelling that it wasn't fair, at no one in particular. Why would the universe hand him this gift, just to be snatched away so damn soon? Luckily at that very moment Jordan stirred, slowly waking, and the memory of what had occurred the other evening put things into sharp perspective. The rest of his bitterness evaporated as he rushed to her side and gently took her hand.
"Daddy," she murmured sleepily, her eyes slowly focusing on him.
"Morning, sleepyhead." He was all choked up; the tears of a worried father, not a disillusioned brat. "Did you sleep okay?" Jordan nodded, hugging her unicorn to her chest. He knew better than reminding her of her resentment towards it mere hours before. "How are you feeling?" he asked, softly squeezing her hand. "Anything hurts?"
"No." She looked at her bandaged arm and her little face twisted in a grimace. "The stitches are in there?"
"Yeah. You were such a brave girl last night." He wondered how much of it she actually remembered. He knew the whole experience would be scorched in his memory for a very long time.
"When can we go home?"
"Soon. The doctor will want to see you first, I think." He helped her sit up, and ran his fingers through her hair. "Are you hungry? I can get you something from the cafeteria." He would kill for some coffee, the stronger the better. Even if it came from a hospital cafeteria.
"Pancakes?" she asked in that hopeful sort of tone. He chuckled through his tears.
"I'll do my best, sweetheart." He leaned to kiss her forehead, breathing her in.
The door all but tore open, and Gillian stood in the doorway, disheveled and wide-eyed. It was then he remembered his promise to keep her posted throughout the night. Which had never actually happened, as he was too busy having an imaginary conversation with an ex girlfriend he hadn't seen for over a decade.
"Jordan! Honey, are you alright?" She barely cast a glance at him as she rushed forward. He slowly let go of his daughter's hand and stepped slightly backwards, sensing her need for reassurance that her child was safe.
He ran a hand through his hair and glanced around the room once more. Looking for any hint of her presence. It seemed her essence was etched solely on his body; the room remained untouched. But wait... His eyes suddenly fell on the medical chart at the foot of the bed. He approached it casually, inconspicuously, and let his eyes fly across the sheet. He didn't remember her actually writing anything in it, but if she was there last night, maybe –
"How did this happen?"
It was a moment before he realized the question was meant for him. He looked up from the chart and found Gillian eyeing him. Not a glare, thankfully; she seemed too weary. Nonetheless, he couldn't find the words to reply. Whatever he said would sound like an empty excuse. He messed up. He lowered his head in defeat, a wordless admittance of his failure.
"I'm not mad, Mark." Gillian's voice was unexpectedly soft. He dared to look at her; indeed, there was no menace in her eyes. "Those things happen. It could happen on my watch."
Except it didn't; it happened on his. It made all the difference in the world.
"You did the right thing, bringing her here."
"Daddy was here all night," Jordan informed her mother.
"I'm sorry I didn't text you more often," he mumbled, blushing ever so slightly at being the subject of conversation.
"It's alright. I knew she was in safe hands. In hindsight, I'm glad she was with you this evening and not with her babysitter."
He felt like pinching himself, but didn't want to disrupt the delicate balance of things. What the hell was going on? Was he still sleeping? That would explain a lot, actually. Maybe that was the hallucination, not the previous night. He felt as though he was trapped in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. They were reading it just the other day; could it subconsciously have that big an impact on him?
Jordan was showing Gillian the unicorn he had got her. They were trying to name it; couldn't decide if it was a boy or a girl. Their heads were close together. He eyed his wife with trepidation, but it really did seem she wasn't mad. She mainly seemed relieved nothing serious had happened. He could only imagine what passed through her head, coming home to all that blood...
He thought back on the day they left, that first week without them. It was a different kind of pain than the pain inflicted by losing his friends. But looking at them now, he couldn't deny their bond, couldn't bring himself to resent Gillian for taking Jordan away with her. As upsetting and shattering as it was at the time, her decision sort of made sense upon seeing them together. Under her mother's care, Jordan was thriving. Who knew what would have become of her had she remained under his care?
When Dr. Gilmore arrived some time later, she gave Gillian a full report of Jordan's condition. She explained how to clean the wound and when they should return in order to remove the stitches. Soon after, they got the okay to leave. He followed Dr. Gilmore to the front desk; Gillian said she and Jordan would meet him there. She got Jordan a change of clothes, her hairbrush. He felt kind of clueless and incompetent in comparison. Maybe the saying was true; mothers did know best.
The head nurse handed him the discharge forms with a curt smile. He grabbed a pen and skimmed over the paperwork halfheartedly. He was leaning against the counter, didn't even bother to sit down in the waiting area. He just wanted to get out of there. Adding his signature at the bottom of the page, he handed her back the pile, stifling a yawn. It had been an incredibly long night.
"Oh, you're the guy with the kid at Pediatrics?" she asked, and their eyes met briefly. He nodded, wondering why she cared. He was about to turn away from her. "I happened to hear one of my nurses; he said you were looking for a nurse."
Her half statement, half question, brought him to an abrupt halt. He could feel his heart beginning to race yet again. "Yes. Maureen Johnson. Do you know her?"
"Oh, I know Maureen alright."
"So she does work here?" Maybe he misunderstood nurse Jonathan. He was rather disoriented.
"That's just it. I'm not sure how you got the impression she's here. She's been gone for at least two years."
He grabbed the counter until his knuckles went white. The room was closing in on him. The words echoed in his ears. The rest of the world ceased to exist. Maureen's enigmatic statement suddenly carried a terrifying meaning. I know something you don't. His thoughts became one single prayer. Not her as well. Please, not her as well. "G-gone?"
As if noticing his sudden distress, the head nurse shook her head, chuckling a little. He blinked at her reaction. He had just received a message from the grave and she was, what, mocking him? "I only meant that she's back in New York. She's working as head nurse at a hospital in uptown Manhattan."
"In uptown Manhattan?" he echoed incredulously. For two years!
"That's right. I have her contact details in the system; I can print it out for you if that's..."
"Please." It came out more urgently than he'd intended. He could feel himself blushing.
The head nurse eyed him with amusement, then typed something on her keyboard. Somewhere behind her, a printer came to life. She excused herself for a moment, and returned with a printout and a gleam in her eyes. "You know, usually I'm not allowed to do this."
"I know. But I promise I'm not a stalker or something. I've known Maureen..." In another life. Realizing a statement like that might give the opposite impression than the one he was going for, he reached for the page she was handing to him. His eyes flew over the densely typed words. He knew the hospital; it was laughably close to his building. The document contained no personal information, though. There was no photo, no date of birth to rely upon. But it was a start.
"Thank you. So much."
"Best of luck." He could have sworn she winked at him. He barely had a chance to ascertain it, or make sense of it, for suddenly there was Gillian, holding Jordan's hand.
"Mark?" She asked, looking at him strangely. "Are you okay? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
He chuckled. He sort of had, in more ways than one.
"Are you ready to go?"
"Just about," he replied, stuffing the printout in his pocket. He turned to thank the nurse again, but she was already busy, in the middle of a phone call. He walked towards Gillian. "So, umm, I guess I'll head out and find a taxi."
"Back to my hotel. I'm due at a meeting at noon." Okay, so that wasn't exactly true, but it's not like Gillian cared about his itinerary.
"I came with my car, I meant to offer you'd crash at ours for a few hours. Looks like you need it." He must have stared at her incredulously, because Gillian laughed softly. "Look, what happened tonight got me thinking... about how things have to change. There's no reason why we can't work things out between us like adults."
"I couldn't agree with you more." It was sort of funny that the thing he had feared would push them further apart actually brought them closer together. It was their most mature exchange in months.
"So will you go back with us? I'll make breakfast. Jordan said you said something about pancakes."
"Umm... okay, if you're sure."
He could never resist his daughter's pout. Gillian smiled at him encouragingly. He hesitated for a second longer, then nodded.
As he followed them out of the hospital into the pale morning, he was feeling more optimistic than he had in months. His daughter was going to be okay, and so was he. The last traces of helplessness he had felt only hours before quickly dissipated with every thoughts of the information in his pocket. He still couldn't make sense of their strange conversation in the middle of that crazy night, but at the same time he knew with clarity that absolutely everything had led him to that very moment. There was hope now, something to look forward to. He had refused to accept it before, but now he faced the finality of his marriage without protest. There were more important issues at hand; he had a renewed sense of purpose. He was determined to get his life back on track. Colors, love, Maureen - he was going to win them all back.