Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide
Amelia stood in the doorway of the hospital room, looking from the phone in her left hand to the device in her right. The names displayed on each screen matched. She found him.
The young man’s parents set up a Go Fund Me page to help cover the cost of his medical bills. It had been easy to find, as the link was plastered all over the local news and social media. The post said he was in serious but stable condition and awaiting surgery at Montefiore. With a large vase of sunflowers and a bit of flustered insistence about a misdirected delivery, Amelia managed to get his room number from the overworked receptionist.
She now faced one of the victims of the Monday morning train crash, the accident she learned was coming and hadn’t been able to stop. The one that so far killed sixteen people. She stared again at the man’s information listed on Morty:
Name: Geoffrey Loomis
B: May 14, 1998
D: September 28, 2018
Two days from now, Geoffrey would be number seventeen, the final fatality.
Amelia failed the others on the platform that morning. Mr. Davies. The girl with the red hair. The elderly woman. She literally held their fates in her hand, and they were all gone now. If she’d acted fast enough, and without regard for Cue’s warning about choosing recipients carefully, Amelia could have given each of them part of her remaining years. They’d be alive now instead of her. Morty cursed her with knowledge she couldn’t act on in the spur of the moment, and sixteen people paid the price. She refused to let Geoffrey pay it, too.
Amelia put away her phone and took several steps into the room. The sights and smells of intensive care flooded her with memories of Millie’s hospitalization a year ago, and she fought past her instinct to leave. The sharp artificial tang of sterile bandages and antiseptic filled the air. The shades were drawn and the overhead fluorescents were turned off, giving the room an appearance of nighttime. A set of soft lights above the bed shone down on Geoffrey like a diffused spotlight. He was only twenty, but he looked older lying in that bed, covered in wires, tubes and bandages.
“Can I help you?”
Amelia jumped at the question, and her pulse quickened. She folded Morty shut and slipped it into her front pocket before turning to answer, hoping it wasn’t security come to escort her out.
A woman strode past her to the other side of the room. Amelia recognized her from one of the photos on the Go Fund Me page, a close-up of her and Geoffrey at his high school graduation. They shared the same mocha brown eyes ringed by thick lashes. Amelia assumed she was Geoffrey’s mother, Leticia Loomis. Her face was aglow with pride in that photo, all white teeth and sparkling eyes. That same face now was ashen, tired and indignant.
“What are you doing here? He’s not supposed to have visitors right now.” She stood on the other side of the bed and placed her hands on his shoulder and arm, as if warding off death itself. “Are you a friend of Geoff’s?”
Amelia thought about this on her way to the hospital and came up with what she hoped was a plausible excuse to be here. The Go Fund Me site said he was a sophomore at CUNY. Amelia graduated from the same school six years before but figured she’d still pass for a student. “Yes. I know him from City College. We shared a couple of classes last semester.”
The woman’s brow furrowed as she frowned at Amelia.
Was that not believable, or was the connection too inconsequential to warrant her being here? Amelia scrambled to come up with something else to bolster her story. She knew his birthdate, so perhaps mentioning that might help. “I can’t believe this happened.” She shook her head. “It seems like just yesterday we were celebrating Geoff’s twentieth birthday but that was four months ago, right before finals in May.”
Leticia Loomis gave her a weak smile as the tension left her shoulders. “Ah, yes. I think he mentioned that. Over at Duckworth’s Tavern, right?” She glanced at Amelia, who took a chance and nodded, relieved she’d lucked out with coincidence. “That’s when he met Michael.” The smile, as shallow as it had been, slipped back into a frown. “Oh, his poor, poor family.”
Amelia’s stomach dropped at the mention of Michael. She didn’t remember him when the news first began publishing names of the deceased, but those were soon accompanied by photos released by the victims’ families. She recognized him as the boy Geoffrey had been with at the station: short blonde hair, pale skin, bright blue eyes eager to explore the world. Michael Cheever, doomed to die that day on the train.
“They were inseparable after that,” Amelia offered. She didn’t know if that was true, but Leticia spoke of the young man with a familiarity that told her it was.
“It was love.” Leticia shrugged. “They were so happy together. So sweet.” She looked up at Amelia. “Geoff’s dad had a bit of a hard time with it at first. He’s a preacher, you know. Old-fashioned. But he loves his son, so he came around. We were supposed to all have dinner together for the first time next weekend.” A tear trickled down her cheek, but she wiped it away and fussed with the blanket covering her son. Leticia was fighting to keep some semblance of composure for her. Amelia knew the signs because she’d mastered that act herself this past year.
“I’m sorry to hear about Michael. He was a good man.”
Leticia nodded and continued smoothing out the blanket.
“Do the doctors think Geoff will be okay?”
Leticia swallowed hard as she stroked her son’s cheek. “He was in surgery early this morning for the spinal injury. Everything went as well as can be expected, but they say the next twenty-four hours will be critical.”
Amelia took a step forward but kept a polite distance from mother and son. She wouldn’t allow herself that intimate pretense, not when it didn’t belong to her. “He’ll be okay. He’s strong. He’ll make it through, I know he will.” That was the first honest thing Amelia had said to her. Geoffrey would survive this tragedy, because it was within her power to make it so.
“I pray to the Lord Jesus every minute of every hour for that, I do, but . . .” Her voice hitched and she pursed her lips. “I fear for him, for what he’ll find when he wakes up.”
An uneasy feeling settled over Amelia. “What do you mean?”
Leticia pulled a tissue from the box on the bedside table and dabbed at her eyes. “He’ll be paralyzed from the waist down. The damage to his spine was too extensive to repair completely. He’s going to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”
“Oh no,” Amelia gasped. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s going to be so difficult for him. He’s an active person. He plays soccer for CUNY, but of course you know that.” Leticia tilted her head at Amelia. “And running. He loves running. He and Michael talked about doing the Boston marathon next year and hiking the Appalachian Trail after they graduated. They had all these great plans, but without Michael . . . without his legs . . . the things that meant the most to him . . .” She covered her mouth to stifle her sobs and stared down at her broken son with a tortured expression. She needed a moment alone. They both did.
Amelia gestured toward the door. “I’m going to get some coffee. Can I get you anything?”
Leticia didn’t look up at her. “I just want my baby to wake up. To open his eyes,” she whispered.
Amelia did the only thing she could in that moment and left the room.
Amelia paid for her coffee—or what smelled like a weak representation of coffee—and scanned the cafeteria for a place to sit. She wanted to think about what she’d come here to do. By all accounts, or at least by his mother’s account and a bit of social media research, Geoff seemed like a decent person worthy of more time. Leticia said the surgery went well, and the doctors didn’t expect complications outside of paralysis. But, Morty indicated he would die two days from now, and Amelia could only guess that would be from an unexpected medical issue. Would extra years avert that issue or prolong the suffering of it?
And then there was another possibility. One that Amelia herself attempted. The one that placed her in her current situation. Geoff might want to die. Given what his mother said about Geoff losing both the man he loved and his ability to walk, he might recover from his traumatic injuries only to be overwhelmed by emotional loss. In that case, extra years might be unbearable, and who was she to make that decision for him? She hadn’t wanted her own life. Why should she force her years upon someone else who might not want them either?
Those questions consumed Amelia but not enough for her to miss the woman waving at her from across the room. Aasma Rifaat sat at a table near the windows with a curious look on her face. Amelia returned her wave and considered leaving the cafeteria. She didn’t want a conversation; she wanted reflection. She wanted time to think.
One of Aasma’s well-defined eyebrows lifted into a questioning arc, and Amelia realized she couldn’t ignore her without being monumentally rude. She sighed and made her way over to the table.
“It’s too soon for those stitches to come out, you know.” Aasma pushed away a tray with half-eaten food and gestured at the chair across from her.
“I know. I’m just here for coffee.” She lifted her cup in confirmation of that statement.
“You came to Montefiore for coffee? You hit your head harder than I thought.” Amelia couldn’t help but smile. “How are you feeling, by the way?”
She pulled out the chair and took a seat. “I’m fine, thanks. And, I’m visiting a friend.”
“Oh? Is your friend going to be okay?”
“Maybe. I don’t know yet. It’s still too early to tell.”
“What are they here for? Maybe I can find out more for you.”
What could Amelia say? That she was here to save one of the train victims? To keep them from dying? Except that now, she had doubts? Amelia had the sensation that Aasma’s curiosity was like toeing the edge of a deep hole, one in which she’d have trouble getting back out of if she fell in.
“It’s fine. I don’t want to bother you.” She waved off the offer. “I’m sure it’ll all be fine.” Amelia focused on turning the white foam cup in her hands. Steam poured through the narrow opening in the lid, so at least it was hot if it wasn’t strong. She took a sip and wrinkled her nose. Weak and a bit bitter. The more she felt Aasma staring at her, though, the more interested she was in the terrible-tasting coffee.
“Are you visiting a patient from the accident?”
Amelia’s body temperature rose to rival the contents of her cup. Her face flushed with the heat. “Why are you asking?”
“I worry you may be internalizing what happened, shouldering the blame still. Maybe you think you can erase the worst of it, if you could see someone survive their injuries.” Amelia pushed her chair back to leave, but Aasma reached across and touched her wrist. “I understand, and that’s not a bad thing. It could do you good to see someone make it through. It might help with the healing.”
Amelia seethed but considered Aasma’s words. She was an overly-familiar and assumptive woman, but that seemed part of her personality. Amelia couldn’t fault her for being who she was, but it made her uncomfortable, as Aasma would likely continue making assumptions without knowing the full story. And how could Amelia possibly tell her? That was the deep hole she feared tumbling into. Every unanswered question or those answered with a lie was another foot further down the hole, and at the bottom was the truth as it related to Aasma.
But then, it was nice to have someone to talk to about the accident, and for all her bold assertions, Aasma was both perceptive and thoughtful. Her questions stemmed from concern not accusation. Amelia couldn’t confide the whole story but she could discuss it on a theoretical level. It’s not like anyone might believe Amelia was capable of giving away years of her life. She still struggled to believe it herself.
Aasma withdrew her hand as Amelia resettled into the chair. “Okay, sure. Yes, I’m here to see Geoffrey Loomis.”
“The young man with the spinal injury?”
“Yes. I spoke with his mother, Leticia, and she said he seems stable after surgery, but he’ll never walk again.”
Aasma scrunched her face in consideration of this. “I don’t know enough about his case to confirm that, but I’d trust the surgeon’s diagnosis. Spinal injuries are tenuous.”
“Is there any chance something else could go wrong? That he might . . .” Amelia paused, trying to come up with the least harsh way to ask what she wanted to know. “That he might not make it?”
Aasma shrugged. “I wish I could give you a firm no, but I think you want honesty.” She lifted her eyebrow again, and Amelia nodded. “If there were no complications during surgery, I’d say chances are remote, but still possible, that something could go wrong. He’s not out of the woods yet, but reasonably safe, Insha’Allah.”
She meant the words to be encouraging, but if true, they increased the probability that Geoff’s death two days from now would be intentional.
“You don’t seem convinced,” Aasma said.
“It’s not that. I appreciate what you said, but life is going to be different for him when he wakes up.” She thought back to Leticia’s words. “Difficult.”
“Of course. Paralysis will change everything for him, but it’s something he can adapt to and overcome with time and work, and support from family and friends.”
Amelia shifted uncomfortably in the seat. “That’s part of the difficulty, too. He lost someone on the train. His boyfriend, Michael. He meant the world to him.”
Aasma leaned her chin into her hand and stared down at the table for a moment before bringing her attention back to Amelia. “So you do know him? Apart from the train accident?”
Amelia canted her head and shrugged, allowing the gesture to form an answer for her. “How do doctors do it?”
“Make these quality of life decisions on behalf of patients who can’t consent? Who can’t choose whether they’d rather live or die, given the circumstances?”
“Ah, you’re worried he would rather we hadn’t saved him.”
“Given what he’ll face when he wakes up, it’s possible.”
“Most patients we see in the ER can’t tell us what they want. We have to rely on family members for that direction, or living wills if they have them, but we work on the assumption that human nature always chooses life over death. We strive for the best possible outcome in hopes that our patients will value whatever life we’ve been able to give them.”
“And if they can’t?”
“Then I suppose they have other options once they leave our care, if the challenges prove too much for them. At that point, their lives are in their own hands. But as doctors, it’s not our job to anticipate how they might react to their perceived quality of life. We can’t make that decision for them. We just work to make sure they have the opportunity and the time to consider life, and hopefully to embrace it, no matter what it looks like.”
Amelia considered her words. True choice wasn’t about decisions made in the heat of the moment by doctors or in the depths of pain by patients. It was about having time to move beyond those small, brutal moments before making an irrevocable choice.
“My break is over. I better get back to my rounds.” Aasma stood, tray in hand. “I hope your friend makes it through.”
“Thanks. You’re good with the coffee talk.” She lifted her foam cup in salute.
“Oh, this doesn’t count, because that’s not real coffee,” Aasma said. “But I have this coming Saturday off. Are you busy?”
Amelia smiled again, her second genuine smile of the day. “I’m never too busy for good coffee.”
“Well, I know you like to creep around Java Jones, so want to meet there around two?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“What’s your number? I’ll text you so you have my info in your phone.”
Amelia had no idea where she put the piece of paper Aasma gave her yesterday, so she was glad they exchanged texts. Aasma put her tray away, bid her goodbye and returned to her shift.
Amelia made her way down to Geoff’s room. Leticia was asleep in the chair by his bed, curled around an extra hospital pillow. Amelia tiptoed over to the near side of the bed, opened Morty, and stared at the short future of the unconscious man spelled out on the screen. Aasma said chances were slim for complications that could kill him, but in her hands, Amelia held the contradiction to that. He would die two days from now, be it from unexpected issues or self-release from unbearable grief.
She sympathized with that second possibility. She’d been there herself less than two weeks ago. She’d decided to end the suffering, the pain, the loss, and then had that decision taken away from her. She hated Cue for interfering, but then, she’d had an entire year to come to that decision. Geoff would make that choice in two days, if his death was even a choice at all. Time worked against him, but it didn’t have to. She could change it.
But how much time would be enough? She could grant him the maximum and thereby force him to endure seven potentially miserable years. Or, she could go with the minimum of one year, but she’d be betting on his preference to die. And if he then found value and beauty in life, or a compelling reason to live? Only to have it ripped away a year from now?
“Impossible,” she muttered through clenched teeth. Cue didn’t give her an opportunity for selflessness. This was a punishment, pure and simple.
Leticia stirred and a soft whimper escaped from her sleeping throat. Amelia selected a number, hit the dial button, and—once the screen cleared out his information—left the room.
The day was cold and crisp, but the afternoon sun burned off some of the chill. Amelia sat on the park bench and stared at the Go Fund Me site. She’d been too afraid to visit Geoff’s page since she gifted him four years. What if it hadn’t worked? Or worse, what if he’d slipped into a coma? What if she’d effectively gifted him the fate she herself was working to avoid?
She wanted to believe the universe, or God, or karma, wasn’t that cruel, but her current situation was proof that it was. She’d essentially been blackmailed into giving away her unwanted life with the threat of a vegetative state. No, she had no faith in whomever, or whatever, steered this ship.
She found Geoff’s campaign through the search function and clicked on it. Her heart pounded heavy in her chest as the page loaded. The entry was unchanged. No updates. She didn’t know how to interpret that. She considered stalking his social media accounts when a text alert popped up on her phone.
I’m worried about you. Please just let me know you are okay.
Amelia’s first impulse was to swipe the text off her screen. She’d cultivated a habit over the past several months of ignoring Rufus’ messages and deleting them unread. She was surprised he continued to contact her, but they were still technically married.
Her thumb paused over the alert as she considered what he was asking. For the moment, he wanted only a sign that she was ‘okay,’ meaning that she was alive and functioning. That she hadn’t thrown herself off a bridge or down a flight of stairs. The truth—that she was alive and functioning despite having done both those things—was laughable, though she doubted he’d appreciate the joke.
More than anything, he was letting her know that he still cared. She stopped caring about anyone after Millie’s death, including Rufus. Her grief grew to the point it smothered all else in her life until even that turned on itself, leaving behind an empty shell she tried to shatter on the cold waters of the Hudson.
Yet, here she was, intact. Alive and functioning as a shell that wasn’t as empty as it had been that night on the bridge. The emptiness that replaced her grief was now being replaced itself with consideration, the closest she could manage to caring. She didn’t want Rufus to inherit her pain. She didn’t want him to stand helpless over her hospital bed, torn apart by grief, regrets, and guilt. She could give him closure, because she now had the time and foresight to do so.
Amelia tapped the notification and typed out her first response to him in months.
I’m fine. Busy with a new client. Will call later. Promise.
She thought about it for a moment, changed ‘call’ to ‘text,’ deleted ‘promise,’ and hit send. Amelia put away her phone and leaned forward to stand, but a flash of bright pink to her right caught her eye as Morty buzzed in her jacket. Her heart leapt to her throat as she recognized Lizzie and her mother strolling up the sidewalk that ran behind her bench.
Amelia settled back into place and squeezed the device through her pocket in an attempt to silence it. Her first instinct was to whip it out and aim it at the little girl, but that would only frighten her mother. Instead, she sat and waited as the two walked behind and past her.
“But I want to swing!”
“I know, sweetie, but we don’t have time today. We have guests coming for dinner, remember? Tomorrow, I promise I’ll bring you back to the park, okay?”
Lizzie whined a bit more before relenting with the promise of an after-dinner cookie. Once they were well past the bench and headed away from her, Amelia removed Morty from her pocket and aimed it at the girl:
Name: Elizabeth Walden
B: August 19, 2013
D: November 24, 2018
Finally, Amelia had the little girl’s last name. She could now find out more about her online, though the search would be easier if she had more than a child’s name and a general neighborhood to go on.
Amelia stood and followed the pair, keeping a fair amount of distance between them. They trekked three city blocks before stopping outside a middle row home. As they climbed the steps to the front door, Lizzie broke into a series of dry, hacking coughs. It sounded worse than a week ago, when Amelia first encountered her. The girl’s mother ushered her inside.
Amelia made note of the house number and street on her phone, and tucked both that and Morty away in her shoulder bag. With this information, she could come up with the parents’ names and dig around their social media for any mention of the little girl’s illness. If that produced nothing, she’d befriend her mother to find out more. She hoped to hell there’d be nothing to find. After all, the potential to gift Lizzie seven more years of life would only be worth it if that time was a blessing and not the curse it now proved to be for Amelia.