The Waiting Room
J. E. Deegan Copyright 2014 6303 Elmgrove About 2,430 words Spring, TX 77389
The Waiting Room
Mary Ellen Steele sat stiffly in her white Nissan Altima as it quietly idled on the shoulder of Interstate 81 just north of Binghamton. Her eyes were narrowed, her lips taut, and her fingers drummed steadily on the steering wheel. She inhaled deeply and the drumming stopped. She then nodded briskly, and with a great swoosh of breath accepted what her heart had been telling her for the past few days: you’re not ready; you need more time.
Immediately following the graduation ceremony earlier that day, she had left Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and a plan to stay with a trio of sorority sisters in New York while job-hunting. But the idea of living and working in the Big Apple had never truly taken root in her. She was a small-town girl from Triangle, Virginia, whose occasional visits with her parents to east coast cities while growing up had made her wary of shaping her future in a huge metropolis. Despite her apprehension, or perhaps due to it, her parents often reminded her that the best jobs were in big cities. But her parents were gone now, killed in a boating accident the previous October. One consequence of that grievous happening was that she, an only child, was left financially secure. Another was that she was now solely responsible for her future.
No need to rush, she told herself. Why not just drive around for a time and think this thoroughly through? Yeah, why not? A quick call on her cell phone informed the friends in New York that they shouldn’t expect her for a while. That done, she, for no particular reason, headed east on Interstate 88 toward Schenectady then took Route 7 into southwestern Vermont. She spent the night in Rutland then early the next morning decided to work her way north.
The sign read WYNTER 4, and it was simple curiosity about a town with that name that compelled her to peel off Interstate 91 and onto Route 101. A short time later she crested a hill and gazed upon a compact little hamlet that could have been the subject of a postcard. Soon after, she sat behind the town's only traffic light while her eyes guided her up the left side of the street. The stores and shops were colorfully painted, the sidewalk wide and clean. Very pretty, she thought. Those words repeated themselves as her gaze drifted down the right side of the street.
The light turned green. She gently pressed the gas pedal.
The sudden flash was blinding and caught her totally by surprise. Her mind stalled under a searing pain that drilled into her skull and raced the length of her body. She shuddered a moment then rubbed at the darkness coating her eyes until a dull, creamy light appeared and slowly brightened beyond her car's windshield. Soon after, the sky slowly blossomed into a blue expanse dappled with puffy white clouds. As her senses refocused, she guessed that the brilliant flash of light had been nothing more than a shard of sunlight harshly reflecting off a store window. Her eyes steadily cleared and locked upon a sign centered above a door between two large rectangular windows. The sign read FERLAZZO’S, and she didn’t remember seeing it prior to the flash of light. The sign, she surmised, identified an eatery, and after being on the road since early that morning, the idea of coffee and a blueberry muffin was quite appealing.
But before she could move, the searing pain returned and the world went dark.
Mary Ellen’s eyes popped opened and rolled slowly side to side. A few moments passed before she realized she was seated in a diner of a type reminiscent of ones she had seen on old TV shows. The floor was a black and white checkerboard, and shiny red vinyl booths jutted from the walls on either side of the front door. Several people quietly occupied the booths on the far side of the door, and a large colorful jukebox and three small tables with wrought-iron chairs took up the side wall beyond the booths. Posters of 1950’s automobiles and pictures of film and music celebrities populated the walls. Elvis Presley was the only one she recognized. In the back center of the diner stood a long marble counter fronted by a row of round, padded stools.
“Hello, Mary Ellen. Coffee and a blueberry muffin are on their way.”
Startled, Mary Ellen turned with a gasp and stared at a pretty woman with coal-black hair and bright dancing eyes. She wore a tidy gray uniform with a white collar and white cuffs. “How did you know that…and my name?” Mary Ellen asked warily.
“We’ll get to that, honey.” The woman smiled. “But let’s start with me. I’m Kathleen… Kathleen Ferlazzo.”
Surprise captured Mary Ellen’s face; she glanced around again. “Ferlazzo? This is the diner I saw from my car?”
Kathleen nodded. “Belongs to me and my husband Nick, who doubles as the cook.” She tossed a glance over her shoulder. “That’s him.”
Mary Ellen turned toward a tall man emerging from the kitchen area. He wore a friendly face beneath a dark crew-cut and carried a tray holding a steaming coffee mug and a blueberry muffin. He stumbled slightly as he approached and smiled as he placed the mug and the muffin on the table.
Kathleen looked at Mary Ellen. “That man,” she cheerfully said. “At times he can be as clumsy as a moose on ice.”
Nick laughed, but Mary Ellen sat unmoved. “How did I get hereHHHHHHHHHow did get here?” she asked guardedly. “Will one of you please tell what is happening.”HHHHHHH hHHHHH H
“We soon will, honey,” said Kathleen softly. “But first, you’ve got to relax.”
“That’s right,” Nick chimed in. “Don’t want your Italian blood to overheat.”
Mary Ellen’s mouth fell open, but Nick continued before she could find her tongue. “Your bright shining eyes and beautiful black hair are obviously Italian. But more importantly, your mother’s maiden name is Diamonde, which is about as Italian as it gets.” He watched the color drain from Mary Ellen’s face then said, “I should be better at this, considering how long I’ve been at it.” He rubbed his jaw and looked at Kathleen. “Perhaps you’d better take over.”
“Precisely my thought,” Kathleen said with feigned annoyance. She pointed at the window. “Look down the street to the left, Mary Ellen.”
Mary Ellen didn’t move. Kathleen sighed and waved a finger at the window. Mary Ellen shifted uneasily then turned and put her cheek to the glass. She stiffened upon seeing a mangled mass of white metal impaled upon a crushed red pickup truck. “Is that my car?” she asked nervously.
“That it is,” Kathleen replied. “The pickup lost its brakes and ran a red light.”
Mary Ellen stretched her arms out and turned her hands over. She felt her forearms, her shoulders and her face. “But I’m not hurt,” she said, nearly whispering.
Kathleen took the seat across from Mary Ellen. “Actually, you’re hurt pretty bad, honey. In fact, you’re in the Intensive Care Unit of the local hospital.”
Mary Ellen drew back and scoffed. “Don’t be silly. I’m sitting right here in front of you.”
Kathleen shook her head. “Only your soul… the part of you that doesn’t die.”
“My soul?” Mary Ellen quickly looked herself over. “That’s absurd! This is me…my body.”
“Just a shell, honey. A replica of your physical being that allows you to communicate with Nick and me while you’re here.”
“Are you saying that I’m…dead?”
“No. But you are in a coma.”
Mary Ellen sat stiffly upright. “You can’t expect me to believe that,” she said, her voice quivering. “This has gone far enough. Please tell me the truth.”
Kathleen’s eyes softened. “I know how difficult this is for you, honey, but everything you’ve heard from me is true.” She leaned forward and took Mary Ellen’s hands. “You are in a coma, and I am talking to your soul. Those are truths. Another truth is that we are sitting in what is known in higher circles as a waiting room, a place where souls reside until their fates are decided. This little diner of Nick’s and mine is one of many waiting rooms on earth, and we are responsible for watching over the souls assigned to us.” She nodded toward the people in the booths across the room. “Like them…the souls of people who have died. They’ll remain here until they’re directed to move on.”
“Directed?” Mary Ellen questioned. “To where and by whom?”
Kathleen lifted her eyebrows and smiled coyly. “You’re a good Christian girl. I think you know.”
Mary Ellen froze. Seconds later her eyes widened and she slowly nodded. She then breathed deeply and asked, “But what will happen to me?”
Kathleen shrugged. “Well, if you die from your injuries, you’ll wait here until it’s decided where you’ll be sent. But should you awaken from your coma and survive, you’ll be reunited with ---” She abruptly stopped as a glowing circle filled with scores of sparkling specks suddenly appeared over an empty booth and steadily coalesced into the form of an elderly man.
Mary Ellen swallowed a breath and threw a hand to her chest.
“That’s Marvin Dent,” Nick said briskly. “I’d better get over there.” He looked at Mary Ellen and smiled warmly as he walked away. “You can still eat, you know. The muffin’s much better when it’s warm.”
Mary Ellen could only stare blankly at him.
“Marvin was driving the pickup,” Kathleen said. “And he was in the ambulance with you.” She paused before adding, “He didn’t make it.”
“You know him?” Mary Ellen asked.
“A lifetime resident of Wynter and a good, decent man. He was quite an athlete in the 50’s…still a legend in these parts.”
“Where did he come from? I mean he just…just…” Mary Ellen’s voice stalled.
“Materialized,” Kathleen said. “Just as every soul who arrives here does. Just as you did.”
Mary Ellen’s eyes snapped to Kathleen’s. “But I’m not dead.”
“That’s right, you’re not. And the truth is we don’t get many like you -- folks who are comatose or are on life-support, that is. We’re mostly assigned people who have died.”
Mary Ellen’s eyes filled with uncertainty. Questions had formed in her mind that she wasn’t sure she should ask. But after a moment’s pause, she glanced at the people in the booths then back to Kathleen. “How did this…this waiting room, as you call it, come into being? And you and Nick, are you…?”
“Dead?” Kathleen completed the question, smiled briefly then said, “I haven’t been asked that in quite some time.” She looked off a moment then back to Mary Ellen, intending to say more. But before she could, Mary Ellen put her hands to her head and said unsteadily, “I’m feeling strange, Kathleen. Sort of dizzy…and numb.” She lowered her hands and watched them and her arms slowly dissolve into sparkling specks of light. She sensed that the rest of her was doing the same, for an odd yet pleasant tingling was working its way throughout her body.
“It’s all right, honey, it’s all right,” Kathleen calmly said. “Don’t be afraid. What’s happening is a good thing.” She smiled as Mary Ellen evanesced into a bright circle filled with tiny flashing lights that looked like swirling fireflies. The circle glowed intensely for a few seconds before the lights began to fade away.
As she steadily drifted into a dark nothingness, Mary Ellen heard Kathleen’s voice struggling toward her. “Good luck, honey!”
Jeannie Mentzer was nearing the end of her shift in the Intensive Care Unit of John S. Suren Memorial Hospital. Although she already had done so more often than was necessary, she decided to look in again on the patient in Room 7E, a young woman who had arrived earlier that day. She carefully checked the IV line then patted her arm while whispering, “You sure are a pretty one, Miss Mary Ellen Steele. We’re all pulling for you, so stay with us, okay?” About to leave, she froze, thinking she had caught movement in the corner of her eye. Seconds later that thought was confirmed as she watched Mary Ellen shudder and briefly rock her head rock side to side. She hurried to the door and looked to the nurses’ station, where fellow nurse Nancy Aiken was busy at the computer. “Nancy! Get a doctor!” she said hurriedly. “This girl might be coming around!” Nancy rose to her feet as Jeannie scurried back into the room.
A few minutes later Jeannie turned from the bed as two men entered the room. Both were well-known and highly respected in the community. One wore a doctor’s white smock; the other a chocolate-brown jacket of the kind worn by members of the local sheriff’s department. The doctor approached the bed and raised Mary Ellen’s left eyelid, then her right. He next took her left wrist and searched for a pulse. He nodded confidently and said, “Looks like this young lady is back with us. Hopefully, for good. Has she said anything, Jeannie?”
Jeannie Mentzer answered as if in a trance. “Yes, she did. She said…Ferlazzo’s, then the names Kathleen and Nick.”
The doctor dropped Mary Ellen’s wrist and turned sharply toward the nurse. “She said…what?”
Jeannie didn’t answer. Instead she stared intently at Mary Ellen and asked, “Why would she say those names?”
Dr. Steven Ferlazzo stood rigid as a fence post while his face turned white as his smock. It was then that Philip Ferlazzo, Wynter’s sheriff and the doctor’s brother, stepped to the foot of the bed and stared curiously at Mary Ellen. “Kathleen and Nick were our grandparents,” he said in a slow monotone. “And Ferlazzo’s was the name of the diner they owned in Wynter some sixty years ago. They were tidying up after closing time on a summer night in 1956 when there was an explosion. Caused by a faulty gas line…or so it was determined. Both died instantly.”
“But how could she know that?” Jeannie Mentzer asked of no one.
Dr. Ferlazzo’s voice shook as he asked, “Did she say anything else?”
The nurse didn’t answer. Her gaze was frozen on Mary Ellen.
“Nurse Mentzer!” the doctor barked. “Did she say anything else?”
Jeannie snapped to attention, looked briefly at Dr. Ferlazzo then at Sheriff Ferlazzo. “Yes… Something about coffee and a blueberry muffin.”