A Woman Waiting

Fiction
John A. Broussard


MONDAY

This dreary, rainy Monday midway through the semester wasn’t all bad. Professor Roger Coulter could remember his student days when Mondays meant weekend hangovers, particularly once the mid-winter exams were out of the way. Well, they were out of the way, but were no longer his headache. The class readers had corrected them. He’d gone over the papers, attached the grades, and had returned them to the students the previous Friday. There’d be some disgruntled ones coming by today, but that was all in a day’s work. In fact, the first one was already hovering outside his office when he arrived.

Or maybe not. He didn’t recognize her. A counselee, perhaps, one he’d seen only briefly at the beginning of the quarter. But, no, she quickly identified herself as a student in his class. With well over a hundred in the thrice weekly sessions, it wasn’t too surprising he couldn’t recall her. Except that she was attractive, in a pale sort of way. What was the color of her hair? Platinum blonde he supposed. Blue eyes. Or were they grey? In any event, she was very probably an infrequent attendee now coming around to complain about her grade. Or perhaps she hadn’t bothered to take the exam, and was now going to beg for a make-up. Fat chance.

“I’m sorry, but what’s your name?” He was reaching for his grade book.

“Eve Harbinger.”

Yes, there it was. A hundred and forty-three students. He’d thought there were only one hundred and forty-two. But the grade brought his head up. An A. There weren’t many As in his classes. Why didn’t he recall her?

A faint smile lit up the rather elfin face. “That’s all right, Professor Coulter. People seldom remember me.”

He was hoping he didn’t show his embarrassment, or his sudden wonderment about someone who was “seldom remembered.”

He made it a point to scan the faces in the classroom that afternoon, but couldn’t spot her. As he slipped effortlessly into the long familiar lecture, his thoughts turned to his research project. It was the end of the period before he again looked at the names in the grade book.

 

TUESDAY

Ordinarily, Dr. Michael Michaelson wouldn’t have considered squeezing in an unscheduled patient at the end of his lunch hour, but Roger Coulter had been under his care several years before. Suffering from the aftermath of a bitter divorce, the professor had responded satisfactorily after only a few counseling sessions. Michaelson remembered him well enough to know that the urgency in his caller’s voice was genuine.

“There’s no question but that I’m hallucinating.”

Michaelson tried not to smile at the utter conviction in his patient’s voice. His years as a psychiatrist had informed him long ago how self-diagnosis was far more often wrong than right. And seldom did actual hallucinators recognize the unreality of the sights or sounds they reported.

It took little prompting for the complete story to emerge that afternoon at the abbreviated session.

“She came into my office early yesterday.”

“She?”

“A student. Or, at least, she claimed she was a student.” He described the visit… and its aftermath.

“Then, when I looked at my grade book after class, her name had disappeared!”

“What do you mean, ‘disappeared’?”

“I mean when she was in my office, I saw her name on the list, and when I looked again after class, her name was gone.”

“Maybe you picked up a different version of the list, or someone is setting up a hoax.”

“I thought of those possibilities, but they make less sense and are even less likely than hallucinating.” As he spoke, he reached into the slim briefcase he’d brought along, and pulled out a bound printout. “This is my grade book—straight from the computer. The names are all alphabetized and numbered. See! There are only a hundred and forty-two entries there. I even checked with the office, and that’s the correct number. But when that woman was in my office, I not only saw her name in the book, but there were a hundred and forty-three entries.”

The psychiatrist struggled to find other explanations. His client was so quick to dismiss them, that Michaelson was finally willing to tentatively accept Coulter’s label for what he was describing—a vivid hallucination. Was his delusion really that vivid, however? Yes and no. He couldn’t really remember why she had come to his office. Something trivial about an assignment, he thought. The meeting had lasted no more than four or five minutes. At the time he’d been thinking of other matters, in fact, a research problem he’d been working on.

From there, Michaelson explored various explanations for why Coulter had the illusion there had been a visitor—possibilities to be re-examined at the next session when the psychiatrist knew a more probing exploration would be necessary. Perhaps a search back into the earlier divorce. Probably confusion about his sexuality when confronted with an attractive female. Perhaps… but that would have to wait until later. Another patient was due in.

 

WEDNESDAY

She was sitting in the outer office when Michaelson arrived. Wednesday morning was normally quiet, clear of appointments, and his receptionist wasn’t scheduled to come to work until ten. He frowned, and wondered how she’d managed to get in. Doors were supposed to be locked. Night watchmen checked to make sure they were. He was about to ask, when she dropped the magazine on the end table and, hand outstretched, rose to greet him.

“I know this is imposing, but I had to talk right away to someone who could help me.”

 

THURSDAY

Dr. Trent Weiss was looking forward to seeing his old friend again. They hadn’t so much as had lunch together for weeks—but psychiatrists didn’t always have time to spare and a flexible schedule to work around. ER physicians most certainly had neither the spare time nor any flexibility. When Michaelson had called, they’d decided on a hospital meal, since Providence provided passable fare, a significant cut above the traditional, bland institutional meals.

Small talk carried over to the after-lunch coffee, though Weiss could see something was bothering his friend. No need to press. Weiss mentioned some recent cases, commenting, as he had once or twice before, that there was more satisfaction in treating broken bones than twisted minds—the results, good or bad, being more readily observable. That was when Michaelson described the case of the hallucinating professor.

Weiss shrugged. “The answer’s simple enough. College record-keeping is probably even worse than the hospital equivalent. We lose and find patients with embarrassing regularity, especially when it comes to billing Medicare. Maybe there was a duplicate grade book. There must have been. Students keep changing classes, you know.”

“I thought of that and mentioned it to my patient. He was adamant. According to him the grade book had never been out of his possession from the time the woman left his office until he checked it out at the end of his lecture.”

“So, okay. I don’t know much about hallucinations, but I’ve heard that some can seem very real.”

Michaelson shook his head. “It isn’t that simple. He not only saw her, spoke to her, felt her when they shook hands, but even smelled her. After she left, the odor of gardenias lingered in his office. Simultaneous visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory hallucinations are rare. Very rare. I’ve checked the literature and, while some such cases do occasionally occur, there’s reason to doubt the accuracy of the reporting on the part of the physician in many instances.”

“When are you going to see him again?”

“That’s the problem. I’m not. I was supposed to see him later this week but, about two hours ago, I got a call from his departmental secretary who’d checked his appointment calendar. He died last night from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

“There’s your answer. I know what brain trauma can do. There’s the source of his hallucinations. Prior small hemorrhages.”

Michaelson attempted a smile. “That’s not terribly reassuring, since I had a visit yesterday from a woman who vaguely fits the description my patient gave me of his visitor.” He paused. “Perhaps we now have a classic case of folie à deux.”

A laugh greeted the comment. “Visual, tactile, auditory?”

“Definitely. Even down to a trace of gardenia odor after she left.”

 

FRIDAY

The morning in the ER had been too hectic for Weiss to give much thought to the previous day’s luncheon conversation, except to again be thankful he had chosen trauma and not psychiatry as his specialty. “I always knew that shrinks run the risk of becoming like their patients.”

By 2:00 pm, activity had slowed enough to allow for a long coffee break—long enough for him to check on some of the cases that had come through earlier.

The motorcycle head injury in 102 was out of danger. A helmet would have meant nothing more than a broken clavicle rather than what would be at least a two-day stay in the hospital.

103 was a recovering heart attack. Asleep. No need to do more than check the chart.

The next three rooms were empty, thanks to the new wing now taking up the slack. 107 he didn’t remember. Someone who had undoubtedly been one of the morning’s walking wounded treated by some other doctor called in during the morning avalanche of emergencies. She was pale, smiled up at him, said “hello” as he checked for a pulse without really thinking why he was doing so, when his phone screamed at him. A hotel fire, and burn victims on the way.

 

SATURDAY

Friday night had been duty night and a busy one. Not much time to think. A short two hours on the cot. Several cups of coffee. Respite by five am and time for another nap. Nine was the end of the shift, and a summons to the ER for a DOA. There wasn’t much question, but formalities had to be attended to. The medic gave an abbreviated version—a gravel truck skidding on the icy streets had plowed into a taxi at an intersection. The only injury was the fatal one to the passenger.

The shock was slow in coming as he saw the face of his friend—Michaelson of Thursday’s lunch. Death was always hovering in the ER, and Weiss had come to terms with it. Still—when it struck this close to home…

There was nothing more for him to do. Family would be notified, but that was a chore for others of the hospital staff to take care of. Nothing left but to change and head home for an uninterrupted sleep. On his way, he stopped at 107. Nurse Tobias came by, looking into the room.

“What happened to this patient? The one who was here yesterday?” he asked, nodding toward the empty bed.

“Wrong room, Doctor. One-o-seven’s been empty for over a week.” She moved on.

Weiss sat in the sole chair and stared at the bed. At that moment he noticed a tightening in his chest. He had never felt it before, but he knew what it was, and he knew there would be no time to reach the button to summon the nurse.

Was he mistaken, or was there an odor… a faint odor… of gardenias in the room?

pencil

Born in Cambridge Mass in 1924. AB Harvard ’49. MA and Ph.D. University of Washington. College teacher for 20 years. Several articles published. Reviewer: mystery/suspense books (I Love a Mystery); books and videotapes (The American Association for The Advancement of Science). Over two hundred-and-fifty short stories sold, along with several books. E-mail: broupome[at]kona.net.

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