Purple daffodils; that’s what draws me to her. They shimmer and sway on the painted silk dress she wears, her long strides guiding the orchestra. I pause mid slough, gripping the mop stick in my hands so hard splinters dig into my palms. I’ve never seen purple daffodils before, not this shade and never on someone so beautiful. She strides across the lobby slowly, each step exposing heeled legs, the painted daffodils parting and closing in deference. The amorphous crowd ambling around the lobby slows and each person turns their gaze on her, one by one, entranced as I am. She is oblivious to the attention she is attracting, putting one foot in front of the other, the only task to which she has given her undivided attention. The mop stick is the only thing that grounds me as my body oscillates of its own volition to watch her walk past. She stops by the elevators and presses a button, toying with the tassel on her dress, the elevator’s dings marking time. The doors groans and she steps in, head bowed. The hydraulics pulls the doors shut and an ache lances through in my chest. I didn’t see her face.
The mop lies abandoned in the lobby as I sprint up the service stairs, taking them two at a time. I have to see her face, if even after today I might never see her again. On each floor I peek through the reinforced glass porthole set into the stairwell door and groan as I hear the ding and see the doors stay shut. First, second, third, fourth and fifth are disappointments. I see the end of her dress disappear through the porthole as I reach the door of the sixth floor and I heave in relief. I look up at the sign over the door, ‘Psychiatry’. I push the door in cautiously; irrationally afraid of the crazy people I have heard live on this floor. People with their minds all twisted by obscure compound word illnesses like schizophrenia and dementia. I am noticed and ignored by the nurse on call and I pull my baseball hat down over my eyes, its embroidered logo marking me a janitorial staff. I walk past the psych ward lobby and take the first left into its heart. I spot her, with a dozen other people in the waiting room. She is hunched forward and fidgeting. I am taken aback, she is so young. Her cheeks are still plump with the rouge of baby fat and her face taut and worry free, but her eyes! They are like clouded amethysts lying at the bottom of an abandoned well, reflecting the antiseptic florescent lights in the ward. The skin around them is sunken deep and scratched over with worry lines. She’s daubed black eye shadow all around but it does little to hide the weariness or the sadness within. Her eyes suddenly come into focus and rest on me and I turn away, ashamed. When I look back, she is off her chair and on a queue of ragtag men and women receiving shots on their forearms. I watch over her, almost protectively and wince when her turn comes and she turns away as the needle is plunged into the vein in the pit of her elbow. She mumbles something to the nurse who smiles and she leaves. She pretends not to see me as she passes, returning back to the lobby and the elevator. I scurry after her, giving enough distance that my invasion of her life is somewhat respectful.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
“What?!” I fumble. The nurse on call has me by the arm.
“I asked for a janitor to clean out room 328, the schizo there smeared shit on his walls again.”
“Oh! Not me. I’m on community service here. Lobby only.”
She grunts and lets go of my hand. “Get back to work then. This is a hospital, not Neverland.”
I start to leave, then stop. “Ma’am?”
She is irritated but I have already started my question, so I finish it.
“That queue. What’s the injections for?”
She sighs. “Methadone.”
We stand in silence for a few seconds, an awkwardness where we struggle to find the right rejoinder. Salvation comes with a loud ding.
“Elevator.” I say.
She waves me off.
The doors close just as I come into range and I glimpse her rubbing her elbow with the methylated cotton wool she was given, her eyes even more sunken. My life seems to evaporate like dew on a car windscreen. I stare at the LED above the doors with a manic concentration and break into a sprint for the stairwell as it blinks alive with the numbers ‘07’. I have to know. I need to know where she is going next. I scramble up the stairs after my quarry, stumbling once and skinning my knee, a spot of blood blooming on my janitor overalls. The fact that I am not allowed into any of the upper floors of the hospital unsupervised because of my previous acts of vandalism is forgotten, as well as the head janitor who comes around every ten minutes to ensure that I am at my post, mopping and shining the floors of the main lobby of the Mercy East Hospital for the three hours a week I have been mandated to work by the juvenile remand courts. It doesn’t matter that my absence which has probably been discovered by now will result in an extension of my community service hours by at least a month or that my parents will punish me as well. I haven’t felt this alive in… forever.
She is not on the seventh or eighth or ninth. Which leaves the last floor, the paediatric ward. The nurse on call sees me and smiles. I’m a regular here. My brother used to live here, before the cancer took him away. I walk up to him and we fist bump.
“Hey Andy. How’s the terrible ten plus twos?”
“Haha! Good one, the pre-teens are all fine, they had pudding today, no one stays grumpy on pudding day.”
“Good for you man. Did a girl come this way, about five nine, shiny black hair, flowy dress with a slit in front?”
Andy’s face lights up. “You mean Ava? Ava’s a regular here, but she usually comes late and stays the night. She’s got a guest. Last room in the under two’s ward.”
I thank him and stalk off into the ward. I find her soon enough. She’s in the last room just like Andy said and there’s a nurse with her, disinterestedly reading a book. The girl, Ava is cradling something in the crook of her arm. Not something, someone. The tufts of black hair wave out from his scalp in a scant halo. He’s gurgling noisily as he suckles on the bottle in Ava’s hand. Her grin is a wide slash from ear to ear and she occasionally leans in to coo at him. Save for his head which is normal, the rest of him seems diminished, shrivelled. Defective. It is then that I notice Ava’s arm. She isn’t skinny, she’s atrophying. The muscles in her arm are stringy and the skin that clothes them slowly losing the robustness of stored fat. My eyes travel up her arms to her torso and her breasts. One hangs out of the deep neckline of her dress, its areola covered by a small clear clamp with a tube attached. It’s immediately obvious why they are so big, she’s lactating. For the second time today, I turn away in embarrassment. I content myself with the sounds of her cooing and her baby’s delighted gurgling. She sounds genuinely happy and for the first time in a while, a stranger’s joy brings me selfless happiness. My legs move of their own accord, taking me back to the elevators and the drudgery that awaits downstairs.
The elevator doors start to close when someone calls out, asking me to hold them. I do and she walks in. Ava. The doors close and I am suddenly claustrophobic, this kind of proximity is a drug and I have to restrain myself from trying to talk to her. We ride down, listening to the dings that chart our progress and she presses a button, lighting up the number one. The door opens and she steps out and glances back at me.
“You coming or what?”
I try to collect my thoughts but everything comes out as unintelligible drivel. She shakes her head and reaches in to drag me out just before the doors close. We are in the hospital outpatient floor and there’s barely enough space for the both of us to walk through the swarm of patients and doctors and nurses. She makes way, guiding me behind her, our hands clasped together. Her hands are surprisingly soft and I flex my palm gently, enveloping myself in the subtle sensation. We enter a consultation room where a young doctor with grey streaks in her brown hair is tidying her desk. She exclaims when she sees Ava and sweeps her into a hug.
“I brought a stray.” Ava says, laughing as they disentangle.
I realise she is referring to me.
The doctor frowns. “What is he on?”
Ava laughs even louder. “He’s clean. I think.”
The doctor sighs, relieved. She reaches into her desk and brings out a bag filled with drug packets which she hands over to Ava.
“Is he still hitting you?” She asks, trying for severity but unable to avoid the concern that shows instead.
Ava shrugs. “I’ve left him. This time for good.”
The doctor’s unconvinced but she doesn’t pursue the topic any further.
Ava eyes shine with pride. “He didn’t even cry once today. My little man’s a trooper.”
The doctor sweeps her into another teary-eyed hug.
“I have to go now, take care of yourself Ava.”
Ava salutes. “Ay! Ay! Ma’am.”
She takes my hand and leads me out back to the stairwell and we walk down together. Fourteen steps stretch into an eternal moment and as soon as it began, it ends and we’re back at the lobby. I don’t know why it seems like the right thing to do but I hug her. She hugs back and we stand there, janitor boy and mystery girl enmeshed, sharing an intimacy that need not be labelled.
“Congrats to me, I dressed up cos I’m six months clean today.” She whispers.
“Congrats! You’re beautiful.” I whisper back.
“Thank you.” She says and kisses me on the cheek.
She floats out of my life, carried away by those long legs. I always wonder about her. I suppose I could have found her if I wanted, but it doesn’t feel right. I think I was destined to meet her, but I don’t think she was destined to stay. I’m happy I met her. I knew so little about her, but somehow I already knew too much. I loved her in that moment and I think I always will.