The Seat of Judgment
Fighting tears, Catherine Wheeler slumped on a bench at the end of the hospital corridor. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the odors of human suffering, fear and death. Ever since the young doctor had come to her husband’s room and pronounced Tommy dead, she’d felt like a ship torn from its moorings. She glanced at the wall where peeling green paint told of age and neglect. Place is old, like me, she thought.
The elevator creaked to a halt and the doors opened. A gurney with high sides and a dark cover emerged. As two grim men pushed the cart past her, the wheels squealed.
Though she’d told the nurse she was leaving, Catherine had needed to wait until her husband left the unit. Pain like the gnawing of a mouse bit into her heart and brought waves of dizziness.
The pain faded. The squeaking gurney returned. She half-rose and sank back. Why couldn’t she take this final ride with him?
The rules, she thought. The unfairness of a system that kept people from their dead angered her. She should have been the one to wash his body and to close his eyes. A momentary desire to challenge the rule the way she’d fought other edicts years ago arose. But she was too old, too tired.
She sucked in a shuddering breath and watched the gurney disappear behind the closing elevator doors. Tommy had been four years her senior and she was glad he’d gone before her. He would have been lost without her, just as she would be without him. Sixty-three years of living with the same man made thoughts of being alone frightening. He’d been her life. Together they’d faced problems and found solutions. With a sigh she rose and pressed for the elevator.
Outside the humid air, redolent with exhaust fumes and the stench of garbage, made her cough. Pain circled her heart. Before crossing the street to reach the bus stop, she paused to catch her breath. When her strength returned she plodded to the other side. There she glanced at a display of bears in a toy store window.
The images wavered. She pressed her hands against the glass. Three dolls formed a tableau against a painted backdrop showing a mountain lake and a pale moon in a dark sky. The center figure captured her attention. The doll wore a deep amber robe and golden brown boots. In her hand, she held a staff topped by an amber crystal.
The need to hold the doll burned as hot as the pain in her chest. As she opened the shop door, a bell tinkled. The young woman behind the counter looked up, then began buffing her nails again.
Catherine lifted the doll from the case. Why this urgent wish to possess this doll? She had no child or grandchild. Pain, agonizing and exquisite, exploded in her chest. She crumpled to the floor.
The clerk jumped to her feet. Why had the old biddy wandered in? The young woman knelt beside old lady. “Hey, are you all right? When there was no answer, she searched for a pulse. Her eyes widened. The woman was dead.
She reached for the phone and called for an ambulance. Had the old lady taken something from the window? A check of the bears showed none were missing.
Moments later the ambulance arrived.