Hospital waiting rooms are always cold. Cold room, cold car, cold bed, cold shoulder. Tony heard that last one on Law and Order. He’s not quite sure what it means, but he guesses it fits his situation.
He sits in a corner of the too-bright room, on a cracked chair that bites his leg each time he swings his foot over the faded linoleum. He wants to move but Moms told him to stay here. Sometimes he doesn’t listen but the way she said it tonight, in a low voice etched with pain, makes him obey.
He’s not paying attention and his foot slips from its trajectory, hitting the chair leg and jarring a bigger bite from his leg. He grunts his discomfort.
“Hmmph,” says an old woman a couple chairs away. Blue lines snake beneath her skin, and she smells like coffee and pee.
Tony scowls at her and kicks his chair again, harder.
Her hands tighten on her purse straps.
He kicks again, harder, and again. It hurts but he won’t give her the satisfaction of stopping. Moms would make him stop but she’s not here. He kicks again.
The old woman stands and coughs, glares at him, and moves to another part of the waiting room.
He kicks once more, just to show her who’s in charge, then lets his leg still.
Time passes. He wishes the TV in the corner were on. Usually it’s just news in the hospital, but even that would be a welcome break from the monotony. Monotony means boredom; he learned that one from Law and Order too. He wants a distraction from the growing pressure on his bladder. He doesn’t get up though. He doesn’t know where the bathroom is and he doesn’t want to ask a nurse. He doesn’t like talking to them, doesn’t like how they look at him with pity and contempt and curiosity, a kid all alone in a hospital waiting room on a Tuesday night when he should be with his family. If he had one. Moms should be out soon and then she can take him to the bathroom before they head back to the shelter for the night.
A woman enters the waiting room. Lots of women have come in and out, but Tony can tell with just a glance that she’s here for him. Sure enough, she walks over to him.
He kicks the chair again.
She introduces herself, but he doesn’t bother to remember her name. “I’m going to take you to where you’ll be staying tonight.”
“That’s okay. My mom will be out soon.”
She kneels down so she’s at eye level with him. He turns his head and looks at the nurses’ desk, at the water cooler, at anywhere but her.
“Your mom is going to be here for a couple nights.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
“You can’t stay here.”
He looks at her finally, eyes narrowed. “So take me to the shelter.”
“You can’t stay there without an adult.”
“There are plenty of adults there.”
She tries to mask a sigh, and Tony tries to mask his smile. Social workers are fun to break.
“You can’t stay there without your mom.” She stands up. “I’ll take you for ice cream first, okay?”
“Ice cream from McDonald’s? No problem.”
His eyes narrow. Is the woman really this dense? “No, I need a number four.”
“They said you ate already.”
“And ice cream.”
Another masked sigh. “Okay.”
“And I need to say goodbye to my mom.”
She softens a bit at this and leads him over to the nurses’ station. “Tony would like to see his mom before he leaves for the night.”
The nurse behind the desk has a mole on her chin with two hairs sticking out of it. They wiggle as she talks, leaving Tony helpless to look anywhere else. She mean mugs him as she types on her computer. “Visiting hours are over, but you can sneak in for just a few minutes.”
The social worker thanks her, then guides Tony to an open door where another nurse leads them to his mom’s room.
The hallway is empty of people, but Tony can see glimpses of patients through open doors. Some are sleeping, some are getting poked and prodded by nurses, and some are just laying in their beds, staring off at nothing like they don’t care whether they get better or die. Tony inches closer to the social worker.
The nurse stops outside a room. “You have two minutes. Don’t do anything to upset her.”
Through the door, all he can see are Moms’ feet, two big lumps under a blanket. He imagines the rest of her, probably lots of needles stuck in her and a mask over her face like the patients on Grey’s Anatomy or House, and blood too, lots of blood and gore all over the place. She told him it was just a cough, maybe pneumonia, but on TV shows there’s always blood, loud beeping machines and doctors yelling things like “I need 5 CCs, stat,” and then the patient dies.
“I don’t want to go in there,” he says in a small voice, then louder, as if to portray that he’s just bored, his mom is in the hospital all the time and he couldn’t care less about this particular visit, “I changed my mind.”
The nurse and social worker exchange a quick look.
“Okay,” the nurse says in a fake cheery voice. “She’s sleeping anyways.”
“Okay,” the social work lady says with a fake smile. “Let’s go get that ice cream.”
“I’m not hungry,” Tony mutters.
They exchange another look, and the social worker’s fake smile slips a bit as she turns back towards the waiting room.
Tony smiles a little himself as he follows her down the hallway.
He’s mostly quiet in the car, trying not to think about Moms’ feet. After they’ve driven for fifteen minutes or so, he speaks up. “I’m hungry.”
The social worker lets out a controlled breath. “You said you weren’t.”
“You promised me McDonald’s.”
“We’re almost to the Iversons. I don’t think there’s a McDonald’s between here and there.”
“You promised McDonald’s.” He’s not above letting a quaver into his voice.
Her knuckles tighten on the steering wheel. “But you said you weren’t hungry.”
“You promised!” The quaver threatens to get ugly.
“Okay. Fine. Fine. We’ll go to McDonald’s.”
Five minutes later, she pulls into a McDonald’s drive-thru lane. “What would you like?”
“I want to go in.”
“Tony, we’re already running late.”
“I gotta pee.”
Her frustration is audible. “You couldn’t have gone at the hospital?”
“I didn’t know where the bathroom was.”
“You couldn’t have asked someone?”
“I was worried about my mom.” He sniffles; he has yet to meet a social worker immune to a child’s tears, but just in case — “Do you think she’s going to die?”
She immediately softens. “Oh, sweetie, let’s not think about that.”
It’s not until later, after he’s been introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Iverson and their dogs and the social worker has left and he’s lying in a strange bed in a strange house, that he realizes she didn’t answer his question.
Mr. Iverson, a short, round man with a droopy mustache and a big bald spot, gives Tony a ride to school in the morning. “I’ll pick you up right here after school, okay, champ?”
Tony gets out of the car and slams the door shut without answering.
Mrs. Camden, his teacher, must’ve been tipped off that everything’s not okay because she doesn’t say anything to him when he puts his head down on his desk, closes his eyes, and ignores her as she tells the class about asteroid belts, the Bill of Rights, fractions, and supporting sentences. He also ignores her when the rest of the class goes to lunch and recess, and she pats him on the back then ignores him too, sitting in the corner grading papers until the rest of the students come back.
He keeps his head on his desk throughout the afternoon, and only after Mrs. Camden has taken everyone outside at the end of the day does he look up, grab his backpack, and walk out of the building.
Mrs. Camden calls to him but he doesn’t hear what she says. His feet carry him along his normal path, past the tire lot with the barking dogs, Camden’s MiniMart (“No relation,” his teacher said when he asked her about it), and a dozen store fronts with rent signs in the window.
It’s a beautiful fall day, sunny and warm with a slight chill, and so the shelter day room is mostly empty. Tony sits at a table in a corner, doing his homework while half-watching Dr. Phil counsel a woman about owning her life choices. Usually Moms has to nag him to do his homework, but today he does it with no one telling him.
Halfway through Wheel of Fortune, Mindy the monitor comes over to him. Tony and the other shelter kids are convinced she hates children, maybe even all adults too, but right now she’s not wearing her characteristic frown, not screaming at him to keep it down, stop running, put that back. His eyes narrow.
“Hey, Tony, what’s up?” she asks.
“Just doing my homework.” He slides a worksheet over to her.
“I just got a call from a woman, Susan Ball. Ring a bell?”
It sounds familiar. Probably the social worker from last night. “Nope.”
“Well, this woman says you’re not supposed to be here.”
“Is that so.” He states it casually, like a suspect on Law and Order who knows he’s guilty but waits for the prosecutors to prove it.
“She’s on her way over.”
“You’re not supposed to tell people we’re here. HIPAA and all. She could be an axe murderer.”
Mindy rolls her eyes. “Get your stuff together.”
“I have rights, you know!” he yells after her as she shuffles back to the front desk.
She ignores him.
He considers running away but he doesn’t know where to go. Ideally he’d go to the hospital, stay with Moms, but he doesn’t know how to get there. He’s spent more than enough nights in a car, on an almost-stranger’s couch, in an emergency foster shelter, to know he doesn’t want to do it again, no matter how bad things might get. Not by himself. Not without Moms.
The social worker arrives before he can come up with a plan, and he lets himself be led away. He doesn’t listen to what she says, to find out how much trouble he’s in. He doesn’t listen to the Iversons either, simply pushing past them to go to the bedroom. He collapses on the bed and tries to fall asleep, tries not to think about how this is the longest he’s ever been away from Moms.
The next morning, Mr. Iverson gives him a ride to school. The day passes in a blur. When the final bell rings, Mr. Iverson waits for him in the hallway, to escort him to his car. Normally Tony would be angry, embarrassed at being treated like a little kid, like a prisoner, but today he doesn’t care.
“Can we go visit my mom?” he asks once they’re in the car.
Mr. Iverson is a very cautious driver, both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, champ.”
“Well, I do.”
“Let’s talk to Ms. Ball about it. Maybe we can set something up for this weekend?”
“Let’s not talk to Ms. Ball about it. Let’s grow a pair and go to the damn hospital.”
Mr. Iverson’s eyes widen, but his voice remains calm. “No can do, kiddo.” He clears his throat. “How was school today?”
Tony turns his head to look out the window and tunes him out for the rest of the drive. He continues ignoring him when they get home, ignores Mrs. Iverson’s inquiries about his homework, and flops down on the bed, his face smushed against the pillow.
He’s not sure how much time has passed before there’s a knock on the door. He doesn’t respond but it opens anyway.
“Your mom is on the phone, sweetie,” Mrs. Iverson tells him.
He jumps up and grabs the phone from her hand. “Mom? Hi! I miss you! Are you okay? When are you coming back?”
“I miss you too, baby.” Her voice is weak but it fills Tony with strength. “Are you behaving for the Iversons?”
“Mostly. When are you coming home?”
“Oh, not for a few more days at least.”
She keeps talking, telling him about the food, the nurses, the shows she’s watched on TV, but he doesn’t catch any of it. A few days? How can he last a few days without her?
“I’m pretty tired, baby, so I need to wrap this up. You be good, okay?”
“I love you, Tony.”
“I love you too, Mom.”
She hangs up. Mrs. Iverson comes in from the hallway and takes it from him. “Dinner’s about ready.”
He ignores her and flops down on the bed, his face smushed against the pillow again so she can’t see the tears.
The next day at school, Mrs. Camden pulls him aside after the class has gone to specials. “I know there’s a lot going on for you right now, but I need you to keep your head up and participate. Okay?”
He stares at his shoes, playing back his conversation with Moms in his head. Today is Friday and technically the start of the weekend, so maybe he’ll be able to visit her tonight. Maybe he can stay with her, in her room at the hospital. Maybe she was wrong and she’ll be out of the hospital tonight.
“Tony!” Mrs. Camden says his name sharply and he looks up at her. “Are you listening to me?”
She purses her lips, studying him. “Go to gym. And keep that head up.”
He wants to tell her there’s no way to put his head down in gym class, but he promised Moms he’d be good. He participates, the first time since she went to the hospital, and it feels good to run around playing kickball with his classmates. Right now, he feels like a normal kid, like he could have a mom to go home to, and a house of their own. He wishes this moment could last forever.
He’s still in a good mood when Mr. Iverson picks him up at the end of the day.
“Hey there, champ. How was school?”
“It was good, Mr. Iverson. I participated in gym class, and my team won at kickball.”
“That’s great.” Mr. Iverson pulls into traffic, headed in the opposite direction of his house, and Tony’s heart sings. Are they going to the hospital?
But no, Mr. Iverson pulls into the DHS lot, a badly paved slab of asphalt hugging a squat gray building that’s as depressing inside as it is outside.
“What the hell?” Tony shouts. “You said we’d go to the hospital today.”
“Tony, I — ”
Tony opens the car door, jumps out, and slams it shut before he can hear Mr. Iverson’s excuse.
The social worker is waiting for them at the door. “Hi, Tony.”
“Where’s my mom?” he yells. “I want to see my mom! You can’t keep me from her!”
The social worker looks around the waiting room, her face flushed, as Mr. Iverson herds Tony into the building. “You didn’t tell him yet?”
A man stands up from the corner and approaches them. Tony stops yelling as he tries to place how he knows him. It comes to him, like a punch in the gut. A photo on Moms’ dresser, years ago when they had their own apartment. The day after he asked about it, about who the man was, the photo disappeared. He never saw it again, never asked about it again.
Tony turns, pushes past Mr. Iverson, and runs across the parking lot. He doesn’t know where he’s going and doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to be around the social worker, Mr. Iverson, or especially that man. All he wants is to find Moms, to go home to wherever their home is. “I’m houseless, not homeless,” she said one day when asked about their living situation. “Wherever Tony and I are, that’s where my home is.” Without her, Tony is nothing.
He ends up in a little park where a woman talks on her phone while two small kids play in the sand. He sits on a swing, eyes closed, slowly pumping his legs as he considers his options. He can’t go back to the shelter, not by himself. Maybe he could live in an abandoned building, like some people did on an episode of Bones? Maybe they could make a new family, a home for the houseless?
He opens his eyes, scanning for a suitable building, and sees the man from the photo approaching him.
Tony doesn’t say anything.
“It took me longer to find you than I wanted it to.” The man is tall, tall like Tony’s mom said he would be some day, and he squats down so that he’s looking up at Tony. “I’m sorry.”
Tony looks down at the man’s feet, then at his own feet. They’re both wearing white Nikes.
“I thought maybe you could stay with me, now that I’m here.” The man clears his throat. “I can’t promise that any of this will be easy. But I’d like us to get to know each other better, Tony. Make up for lost time.”
Tony studies the trees at the edge of the park, thinking about how cold the shelter always was. How cold the hospital waiting room was. How cold and drafty an old building would be.
“What do you say?”
The man stands and holds out a warm hand.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.
“Cold Shoulder” will be included in her upcoming short story collection, Strong Enough to Cry.