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A Vision in Purple by Megan Tucker
“Mommy, it hurts!” My eight-year-old sobbed, clutching his wrist.
“Oh, sweetheart, I know it does.” I gave him an encouraging smile and continued stroking his hair. “But you’re doing so well.”
The curtain secluding us from the rest of the emergency room was pulled to one side, revealing a twenty-something young man with bright eyes and a kind face. He stepped in, pulling the curtain closed behind him.
“Hey there, buddy.” He flashed a smile, pulled up a stool, sat before us, and looked at the chart in his hand. “You must be Chris.”
My son whimpered something indiscernible and nodded.
The man continued to speak in a slow, calming voice. “And is this Mom?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Sure is,” I said.
“Great.” He looked back at Chris and went on. “My name is Mark. I’m a nurse here, and I’m going to be helping get your wrist all wrapped up and ready to put a cast on. How does that sound?”
Although he still had tears streaking down his cheeks, Chris sniffed. “Okay.” My bottom lip jutted out slightly. My brave baby.
Mark lowered his head a little, coming eye-to-eye with Chris. “Don’t you worry, bud. We’re going to take good care of you.” He consulted his clipboard, and then looked at the bedside computer. “Looks like you are allergic to penicillin, is that right?”
I cleared my throat, “Yes, that’s right.”
“Alrighty then, let’s get you a wristband.” Opening a drawer behind him, the nurse produced a red wristband. As he attached it to the boy’s arm, Chris asked, “What’s that for?”
“This,” Mark explained, “is so all the other nurses and doctors will know you have a medicine allergy. See, each different color of bracelet has a different meaning. It’s kind of like a secret code, if you think about it.” He winked.
This garnered a weak smile from the boy, his eyes brightening just a bit. “A secret code,” he repeated. His smile grew wider. “Yeah, that’s cool.”
It felt like my whole body heaved a sigh of relief. Everything up to that point had been such a whirlwind. From the moment Chris took his tumble down the library steps right up to then, I think we had both been running on pure adrenaline.
Chris was now full of questions. As Mark worked, he answered the boy’s questions, pausing now and again to explain what he was doing.
“What are all the colors? What do they mean?”
“Well, let’s see here. Red means medicine allergy, we already did that one. Yellow means the patient might be what we call a ‘fall risk’. They could fall down and hurt themselves.”
“Like old people?”
“Chris!” I whispered. “That’s not very nice.”
Mark was chuckling. “No, no, that’s all right. It could be an old person, sure, or anyone else who seems like they can’t get around too well.”
“Is there a green one?” Chris asked excitedly. “Green is my favorite color.”
“Sure,” said Mark. “That one means the patient is allergic to latex. Do you know what latex is?”
Chris shook his little blonde head.
“Latex is the rubbery stuff our gloves are made out of.” He held a gloved hand up and wiggled his fingers. “Some people have bad reactions to it, so we want everyone to know not to touch them with latex gloves on. Makes sense, right?” He paused for a moment, then said, “Hey, will you look at that! We got your IV all hooked up while we were chit-chatting! That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Chris looked down at his arm where, sure enough, a tiny needle was embedded, and his eyes grew round. “Whoa!”
“Definitely, whoa.” Mark agreed, raising his eyebrows and nodding approvingly. “You did awesome. In fact, we’re ready for the next step. We’re going to let your medicine kick in while I go grab the bandages. I’ll be right back, okay, buddy?”
The nurse looked up at me. “I’m going to step away for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
I murmured an agreement and he gave me a thumbs up sign before slipping through the curtain. Chris took a deep breath and slumped back against the bed. His skin was paler than normal, and a little clammy-looking. He was exhausted. I let him rest.
I had closed my eyes a moment when I heard a quiet mumbling. I looked up. “What’s that, sweetie?”
“He left the curtain open.” Chris said drowsily, pointing to the slightly open curtain.
I began to stand as I said, “Here, I’ll close it for you, honey.”
“No, don’t! I wanna see out there.”
“OK,” I said and sat down again.
A few minutes passed as sounds of the bustling emergency room accompanied the slender view through the curtain. Wheels on linoleum, frantic footsteps, beeps and buzzes, the occasional moan of pain, and too many voices to even begin distinguishing one from another.
A woman wandered into view. She was thin, gaunt, her collar bones, shoulders, and hips protruding beneath the papery gown, a purple band on her right wrist. Heavy purple bags drooped beneath vacant eyes. She stood there, barefoot, water dripping from her pale lavender colored hospital gown, gazing into our room, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
Chris was still melted against the bed, but his eyes were transfixed. I could see his little chest begin to rise and fall faster.“Mommy?”
I cleared my throat. “Um. Hello?” I said, trying to sound friendly.
Her dark eyes drifted into focus on mine, and she turned to face me. There was something unsettling about the labored, jerky manner in which she moved, as if her joints had sandpaper between them.
“I. Need. A. Doctor.” She spoke through chapped lips and a locked jaw. The words came out one at a time, slowly, the way water drips from a leaky faucet. She showed no emotion, no sense of urgency, just stared through me.
I glanced around the tiny space we occupied. It was barely bigger than the bed my son lay on. Clearly, no doctors present.
“Sorry, it’s just us,” I said, flashing a sympathetic smile.
She gave no indication she had heard me at all. “I need a doctor,” she said again, a little more clearly. As she spoke, the woman took a shaky step toward the curtain.
I was immediately on my feet but froze when she looked me square in the eye. She stood there, stock still, her eyes boring holes into mine. At a loss for words, I opened my mouth and shut it again.
For a moment, it was as if the frenetic sounds of the emergency room were dialed down, dulled into static as we stared at each other. That’s when I noticed the puddle forming at her feet. She had long dark hair that was sopping wet, completely soaking the back of her gown. My brows furrowed as I watched the water pool at her feet. My eyes snapped up.
She reached up and gingerly touched the back of her head. I saw her wince. When she pulled her hand away, it was shaking. She held up her hand and stared in horror as if blood ran down her fingers and her forearm. The purple band hung loosely around her wrist.
I gasped and immediately clamped a hand over my mouth.
The vacant look was now gone from her face. Her eyes grew wide and her entire body began to tremble as tears welled in her eyes. “Oh my god,” she whispered, and looked up at me again. “I need a doctor. I need a doctor!”
I was frozen to the spot. I wanted to run, to shout for help, but my legs felt like tree trunks. Every hair on my body stood on end.
The woman swayed, and I feared she would faint. I willed my feet to move.
“Mommy?” my son asked, a little louder. That snapped me out of it.
I whirled around to face him, placing myself squarely in front of him, blocking his view. I forced a frantic smile and blurted, “Hey, honey. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I’m going to get the doctor. I need you to stay here and don’t move. Got it?”
My smile melted into something more sincere. “Good boy. I’ll be right back.”
When I turned around, she was gone. The last thing I expected to see was nothing. I darted through the curtain, looking left and right. There was no woman and no puddle on the floor. The deafening sounds of the emergency room rushed back into my ears. My head swiveled back and forth. She was nowhere in sight.
I stood there for a moment, wondering what I should do. What could I do?
In the end, I decided to stay put. My son needed me. What were my alternatives? Run around the ER asking if anyone has seen a dripping wet lady with no shoes on? No, I thought, that wouldn’t do any good. Surely, she would get help. There was no way she could get far unnoticed. This was the Emergency Room, after all.
I sat and took a long, deep breath. What the heck just happened? I stared at the empty space between the open curtains. My mind was trying to work through it when my son asked, “Mommy, what does purple mean?”
I blinked, a rush of relief hitting me as I looked back at him. “Purple what, sweetie?”
“That lady was wearing a purple bracelet,” he said. “What does purple mean?”
I was exhausted and confused. “I don’t know, sweetie. We’ll have to ask the nurse when he gets back.”
Mark returned minutes later. I jumped up, pulled him aside, and told him what I’d seen. He assured me everything would be all right, and he would report the incident to his shift lead. They would be able to make sure every patient was accounted for.
Five minutes passed and Chris was barely able to keep his eyelids open when the nurse reappeared.
“Hey, how we feeling? Nice and sleepy?” he asked cheerfully.
“Great, let’s go ahead and get you wrapped up.” He began laying out his supplies on the bed beside them, working deliberately and gently.
“Um, hey,” said Chris, raising his eyebrows extra high attempting to keep his eyes open. “What does purple mean?”
“Yeah. The purple bracelets.”
Mark froze, his hands hovering over the bed, but he only missed a beat. He smiled a somewhat apologetic smile.
“Sorry, buddy, we don’t have purple bracelets.”
The boy’s face scrunched in confusion. “But, um, I saw a lady…”
“Is that medicine making you loopy or what?” He forced a chuckle, then continued quickly, “Here, bud, can I get you to lie back for me?”
Chris obliged and was quickly distracted by the process of bandaging his arm.
It was nearly seven o’clock and the sun had begun to set by the time we were ready to leave. Chris was still pretty groggy as Mark helped him into a wheelchair to get ready for discharge. As I made to follow them, I found my brain itching with a question. Mark parked Chris a few feet away from the nurse’s desk to finish some paperwork for discharge.
“Excuse me?” I said, knowing Chris was far enough away to not hear.
Mark looked at me from behind the nurse’s station. His smile was friendly, but his eyes told me he knew exactly what I was going to ask. “Yes?”
“I’m just curious. Earlier you were telling Chris about the wristbands.”
He took a breath, but when he didn’t say anything, I went on.
“Well, it’s just…That woman I told you about, the one who came into our room? She had a purple wristband on.”
He frowned. “That’s impossible.”
“What do you mean?”
He craned his neck, making sure Chris was out of earshot. “Look, I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure if I should say anything in front of the little guy. We put the purple wristbands on bodies before they are taken down to the morgue.”
copyright Megan Tucker, 2018
Image by Taya Iv, courtesy of Unsplash
Author photo by Andrew Aldrich
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About the Author:
Megan Tucker is a proud Pacific North Westerner and two-time invitee of the Oregon Writing Festival. Her work has been featured in publications such as Yalla Magazine, Tryger Tales, and Lit Llama.
When she is not writing short stories, Megan can be found drinking questionable amounts of coffee, petting cats, or working on her young adult sci-fi novel.