Mattie clutched her bag. She clutched her bag so hard her arms tensed and ached. Her bag was a sea foam green that she wanted to squeeze the color out of. The pain in her arms from the squeezing didn’t compare to the ache, the throb in her temples.
She would be called back soon, this woman said. They would help her very soon.
She hadn’t slept since— hadn’t slept for two weeks, not really. Just lay in bed awake, and Charles held her, and then he fell asleep, somehow. And she lay there the rest of the night. Sometime in the morning the sun came up and shone through the windows. She turned to her pillow away from the shining sun. She hated the sun. Sometimes, with her face in the pillow, she drifted into a light haunted sleep, still aware of everything, like how she used to sleep on subway commutes to work, and would wake as the train slowed into her stop.
Mattie clutched her bag closer now, kneaded her fingers into it, crumpling the fabric.
A patient who had come in after her was called. She was still waiting. She unzipped her bag, went through the contents to pass the time. She pulled out her stress gummies. Maybe gummies would help her now, while she still didn’t have what the doctor would give her. (The thing that would surely help.) She sucked on the candy. She sucked all of the elderberry flavor out of the candy, and she was left with a flavorless gummy. The time passed slowly.
She pulled out her wallet. Her bankcard, her driver’s license, her health insurance card, her old health insurance card, two or three punch reward cards for cafes. She took out the cafes cards. She wouldn’t need them anymore, and she put them next to her in a to-throw-out pile.
She didn’t have the picture. The picture of Eliane. She had been sure she had—the one from first grade, or the one of Eliane hiking for the first time—but now she doubted if she ever had either Eliane in her wallet.
She wasn’t the type to carry pictures in her wallet, never had one of Theo, and she didn’t have one now of Charles. But by god, Elly. Elly’s face.
A couple of tiny pieces of paper, perhaps scraps of disintegrated receipts. She put these with the café cards to throw away.
In the outer pocket, her hand hit something large, and she passed it, for now. Her fingernails scraped crud at the bottom. They scraped at the crud, and it shimmied its way under her nails. She withdrew her hand, and spent a moment putting one nail under the other to scrape at the crud, trying to dispose of it but mostly transferring it back and forth. She slipped her hand once more into the pocket. Her hand hit the large thing, and she pulled it out open-palmed to look at it better.
A shell. She would have known it was a shell if she had slept, if her temples didn’t press in on her, if Elly wasn’t— Elly had given her this shell, not at the beach this time, no, but years ago.
The office door opened. The nurse held it open and called her. Mattie followed the nurse through the door and down the hall to an office in which she was invited to sit, painted a dark lilac. The lilac absorbed the sun streaming through the window, and so the room stayed shadowy. She lay on the table facing away from the light-splintered window, flung her arm over her head so everything was more shadowy.
Her arm was still flung over her head when the doctor came in. She sat up, and he sat down.
He asked what happened, and Mattie told him her child—
He repeated what she’d said like he didn’t believe it, and then wheeled his chair over and put his hand on her shoulder.
He kept his hand on her shoulder. He wrote notes on his clipboard with his other hand. He had to place the clipboard on the table, and so she watched him scribble as he talked. He wrote with jagged letters that she could half make out, and perhaps the first thing he wrote was that he wanted her to attend therapy, a group session with other parents. He wrote then what she began to tell him: that she hadn’t slept a full night since— and that she displayed symptoms as expected. When he was done writing, he placed the clipboard and pen aside and swiveled to face her. He took his hand off her shoulder—now facing her, his hand on her shoulder would have meant they were too close— and folded it with his other hand in his lap.
“Something like Ambien,” he said. “We can prescribe it to you for just a couple weeks, just to get you sleeping some.”
She said yes, she would like some Ambien.
He wrote her a prescription for three weeks, and said they’d scan it over to the pharmacy right after.
“I’ll go to the pharmacy right away.”
“Make an appointment for two to three weeks. I’d like to check in with you at that point.”
She was holding the shell still. It lay curved into her open palm. She brought it close to her face, shaped her lips as if to kiss it. “Shell,” she said, suppressing her voice to a whisper.
He gathered his clipboard and pen. He didn’t mention what he had written. “I am so sorry,” he said.
Mattie didn’t say goodbye as he left. She sat in the lilac room to prepare to leave it. She sat there and breathed, took the air into her lungs the way her daughter had tried and found only water. She prepared herself to walk to the pharmacy. The walk in the sun. She was too tired to drive, and the sun during her walk would be blinding.
Natalie Gerich Brabson is currently a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work was published in Go On Girl Book Club’s magajournal as the 2017 Unpublished Writer Awardee.