Holding Pattern

vending machinePeople in padded chairs, fidgeting and squirming, unable to find comfort like babes reluctantly outgrowing their mothers’ breasts, ignoring the mass-produced art on the white walls, chosen to soothe rather than provoke. They drink the bitter coffee, never swallowed in any other place and form unnatural bonds that will only be broken when the automatic doors swing open to reveal their fates.

The young couple whose daughter yelled “look at me”, the teenage girls whose friend texted “LOL” , the old woman whose husband said nothing at all, just before it happened. The pretty young wife with the blond bob hands the old woman a tissue to protect the others from her contagious sobs and sniffles.   The teenage girls with the pointy hairdos never look up from their phones, thumbs working in overdrive, reaching out to the cosmos, the Internet, to anyone who will listen to their angst. The young husband in khaki pants thumbs through the magazine, pages bent from the others before him, who have also ignored the words laying dormant on its pages.

The bright lights illuminate the room, attempting to make the surreal real. Now the polished floors squeak from the sounds of pacing souls as two of the girls move toward the vending machine. They dig into the pockets of their ripped jeans to retrieve nothing. “Anybody got any change?” the tall one with the neon pink hair and pierced nose asks the room. The young wife reaches for the flowered bag under the chair. Her husband, interrupted, shuffles his sockless, boat-shoed feet, looks up from his magazine and begins to count the ceiling tiles, counted and recounted by many before him, sums never the same.

The girl with snake green hair and skull tattoo asks the old woman why she’s there. “My husband,” she says, and starts to cry. More tissue from young wife. “What about you?” she asks young wife. “Our daughter fell from the top of the slide in the playground,” whispers the young wife. “Is she hurt bad?” asks snake head, pushing relentlessly ahead. “We don’t know yet.” Now the young wife grabs some tissue for herself. “Our friend is probably dead,” continues skull bearer. “She flew right through the windshield because this ‘tard smashed into an SUV while she was texting her boyfriend.” She points at the third girl, still seated, thumbs locked on her phone, not looking up.

“I hope your friend will be OK,” ventures the young wife. “Don’t blame yourself, honey,” she says to the seated girl, “We have all made mistakes.” The third girl, black hair, black T-shirt, black jeans, absorbs the light, absorbs all, flips the young wife the bird with a chipped black fingernail, never looking up.

Hours pass. Husband stares. Old woman sobs. Teenage girls text. Wife hovers. Doors remain closed.

Finally, when the pain turns to numbness and reality finally leaves the building, the automatic doors swing open. The girls, even the girl in black, stop texting and look up. The husband’s eyes seem to focus. The wife stands still and the old woman blows her nose.

The Doctor, standing inside the door, looks around, selecting the recipient of his message. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” she says, “I would like a word with you.” The young husband and wife obediently follow the doctor past the automatic doors into the hall.

When the doors swing closed behind the young couple, for a moment there is silence. Then the girls start to text and the old woman starts to sob.

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