Short Story: “Guardian Angel”

This short story was written in Andi Cumbo’s online Short Story class. You can find information about all her classes here. I am publishing this on my blog because I made a commitment to an online writers’ group brought to life by Jim Woods (#WritersUnite) that in the month of October I would write something I want to write, not something I have to write, and share it. I have never publicly shared my fiction before, ever. I welcome feedback. Peace.

I pull up to the garage entrance in my blue Ford Focus and swipe my badge in the reader. The yellow arm flips up to let my car in. It’s about 6:30 pm and the sun is close to setting on this winter night. The clouds hang low and the sky is gold behind the dark red brick buildings of the hospital campus. It’s so easy to forget that we’re in downtown Detroit with the old brick and the rolling green of the courtyard between the buildings—it feels a bit like we’re in Ann Arbor, on the leafy campus of the University of Michigan. But, there are housing projects a stone’s throw from here. On my break, when it’s warmer, I go down to the courtyard and sit on one of the benches in the garden close to my hospital.

Once I maneuver my car into a spot in the employee level, I park. I pull down the visor mirror and look at my face. I don’t see anything particularly special, but my boyfriend Jorge always embarrasses me and tells people that my skin is like dulce de leche and my eyes are like pools of honey (ridiculous!) I reach into my purse to reapply my lip gloss and give my shiny forehead one last dab of powder from the compact. I adjust my headband and give my curly, black ponytail a tug. The headband keeps my bangs out of my face while I’m working. I step out after popping the hatch. Hace frío! Brrr! Quickly, I sling my backpack over my right shoulder and flip the hatch door down until it latches. “Beep-beep!” The horn honks while the blinkers flash, indicating the alarm is set.

I head toward the stairs and hurry down the steps. Even though I’m plenty early for my shift, I always move quickly.

“Carlita, always on the move,” Jorge always says to me. “Don’t you ever sit still?”

“Nope, I’m a ball of energy. Can’t help it!” is always my reply. I don’t have a fancy job here at Children’s Hospital, but it’s an important job. I’m a cleaner, or custodian, or janitor, or whatever you want to call it. I keep my floor clean while I’m there. I think through the tasks that I have to do as I head to the elevator for the 4th floor. When I exit the lobby, I peek into the family waiting room as I pass. It’s decorated in the colors of a garden: several different greens, blues, purples and yellows. There are window clings of butterflies and flowers and bees on the curtained windows of the offices that flank the waiting room on either side. I’ll be in here later, but I need to go get changed.

I reach the break room and open my locker. I keep several uniforms here—scrubs—along with a hoodie. Sometimes it’s chilly in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit—the PICU. The NICU is usually a little bit warmer—all those preemies, those bebitos—need to keep ’em warm!

I pick a cheerful top—with a Santa and Christmas tree print on it. I grab a pair of red pants and go into the ladies’ bathroom to change. Emerging from the bathroom, I pass a few of the nurses coming on shift.

“Hi, ladies!”

All of them smile and wave, but Renee stops—she’s one of my favorites. “Hi, Carlita! How are you tonight?”

“Terrific, as always, how are you?” I pat her on the shoulder and she leans in a little bit.

“Can’t wait to get this shift over with,” she rolls her eyes and puts her head on my shoulder, pretending to yawn.

“Aw, you don’t mean that. You love it here!” I laugh, shrugging my shoulder the slightest bit. She pops her head off my shoulder and grins.

“You’re right. I do. Christmas time is just hard around here, ya know?”

“I do, ‘Nee, I do.” It was December 21st.

“I wish the hospital was empty between the 24th and New Year’s Day,” she sighs.

“I wish it was empty ALL the time.”

She smiles. “It would be nice to be out of a job because of that, wouldn’t it?”

“You’d just be taking care of old people instead, sister.”

“True that. See you for dinner tonight?”

“Yeah, sure.” I smile and she goes into the ladies’ to get changed. I know I won’t probably see her for dinner. She’ll get caught up with her patient and she’ll stuff her face full of all of the holiday treats that make their way into the break room, creating an impromptu smorgasbord. She won’t eat a real meal until she gets home at 8am, assuming she gets to go home by then. Around the holidays, babies and children tend to misbehave a little bit—code blues, pressure drops, seizures—the gamut of the sad and disturbing that happen in a PICU anywhere. The patients want to make sure that someone is paying attention, it seems. I pay attention, babies, and my girls do, too. For some reason, I feel very maternal toward the nurses, even though we’re mostly close to the same age. Taking care of the rooms is taking care of them, too, I guess. I wouldn’t want to work in a dirty room, and I’m sure they don’t either.

Carlita, stop daydreaming and get to work! Shaking off my reverie, I go to the custodian’s closet and grab my cart, stocking it up for the night: garbage bags, cleaner, wipes, polyethylene gloves (no latex because of allergies) and a couple of bottles of water that I slipped into my hoodie pockets. If I stock the water, I don’t have to step away to get a drink, and I can keep working, keep busy. Reaching into the plastic canvas garbage collection bag, I pull the last few items that my predecessor, who shall remain nameless, left behind. She is so lazy—perezosa. I always have to clean up after her before I even start my shift. Annoying as it is, I don’t have the heart to report her to our supervisor. She’s a single mom and I know she’s tired and worried about her kids. She lives in one of the projects close by, and while they are much safer than Detroit’s surrounding neighborhoods, she’s told me that she dreams of getting them into the suburbs, where the schools are better. So, if I have to make sure that the bag is empty or the cart’s fully stocked, I don’t really mind. Plus, I haven’t said anything to her, anyway.

Maybe it’s high time you did, Carlita. You’re just enabling her.

Oh, shush! That’s not very Christian of you!

Ay, these conversations I have with myself. Easy to get lost in when I’m working. Stay focused! Time to work!

My night always starts on the east end of the PICU—this is usually where the sickest patients are. It’s not as cheerful as the waiting room. The walls are grey, the floors are grey. The only color comes from mobiles hanging from cribs and isolettes and the blankets and comforters that the hospital gives them, or that they bring from home. Lots of the kids have stuffed animals surrounding them or pictures and cards taped to their walls and doors and mylar balloons tied to their beds. Some of the kids have signs with their names on it that the nurses draw with markers borrowed from the Child Life Specialist taped to the cribs or above their beds on the walls, if they’re bigger kids. While the color brightens up the floor, it also is a little sad, because it means they’ve been here long enough to collect so many things. Most of the rooms are single occupancy. One nurse might work two rooms, if the patients aren’t too sick, or if one of them is close to being moved to the floor—out of ICU and into the step-down unit. A few of the rooms at this end are empty tonight, so I cross myself and kiss my crucifix. Grácias, Señor! I stop by the desk and talk to the intensivist (the ICU resident).

Are these rooms empty for good reasons, Dr. Elson?”

What?” He doesn’t even look up to talk to me. He’s intently reading a chart, and I’ve interrupted him.

451 and 453—are they in step-down?”

Oh, Carlita, sorry. Yes. They are.”

Thank you, Jesus! “Good, I’m so happy for them. They had been here long enough—both of them.”

Yes, they had. Success stories are a good way to ease into the holidays, yes?” he pushes his wire-framed glasses up his nose with his index finger. He looks up at me, finally, and runs his hands through his sandy blonde hair and locks his hands together as he leans back in his chair. He smiles at me.

Yes, they are.” I smile back and go to room 455. The nurse is out of the room. The patient is a baby who seems to have an infection, but they’re not sure what—waiting for cultures. The mom is snoozing in her chair. I don’t say anything and try to sneak in and out. The nurse will wake her up when she comes back—parents aren’t supposed to sleep in the rooms. The room is for the child—not the parent. Except the two are inseparable—silly administrators. There are lots of things around here that are done against all common sense, it seems. As I’m emptying the waste basket, the mom stirs, but doesn’t wake completely. Whew. I back up out of the room and move on to the next room.

There are interns and specialists in for rounds, talking away while the exhausted parents sit with their heads in their hands, so I skip it and make a note on the sticky pad I put on the cart at the beginning of my shift. I don’t want to forget anyone, and I never have. Some of the other cleaners will skip and forget a room and a nurse with an overflowing garbage can, dirty countertop or floor littered with wrappers and little blue IV caps will give the charge nurse a piece of her mind. That will then reach my supervisor and the cleaner on shift will get an earful. Shit slides downhill, as they say. I don’t want to ever be on the receiving end of that shitstorm, so I am diligent.

I slide into the next room and it looks like Grandpa has come in to sit the night shift. He is tall and barrel-chested, balding with a band of snow-white hair cropped close around his head. His brown suede jacket is draped over the chair and he’s wearing a plaid button down, khakis and a pair of New Balance tennis shoes. The baby’s parents work opposite shifts and Mom has to be at home with the kids at night. I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with this baby; I think she has pulmonary issues, maybe something like cystic fibrosis. But really, it’s none of my business. Grandpa looks up at me and smiles.

Good evening, sir.”

Good evening to you. How are you tonight?”

I smile, my heart warming to this man who takes the time to talk to me. I start sweeping up the few pieces of debris on the floor. “I’m well, thank you.”

Do you have your Christmas shopping done?”

Not quite, but almost. I have a few more things to get for my nieces and nephews.”

They’re lucky kids,” he laughs.

Why?”

To have an aunt like you.”

What do you know about me—Oh. I’m sorry. That was rude,” I feel like climbing into the big garbage collection bag.

No, it wasn’t. It was a perfectly valid question. After all, how would I know what kind of aunt you are?” he is still smiling. His eyes have softened, and even seem to be watering.

I’m curious as to why you would feel like you know what kind of aunt I am, yes?”

It’s not just because you’re buying them presents—everyone has to do that, right?”

Right…” I said, trailing off. Where is he going with this?

I sit here with Alicia,” he gestures toward the baby’s isolette. She is a beautiful baby, with a single golden curl swirling up out of the top of her head. She’s a little blue, because of the lung issues. I’m not sure what color her eyes are—I imagine they are a steely blue, like her mother’s.

I know. I pray for her every night,” I admit, bowing my head a little bit.

See! That’s why I know.”

I’m still confused.”

You care about everyone, don’t you? You love everyone, don’t you?”

Isn’t that what Jesus tells us to do?”

I don’t know about Jesus. But I know that you have a heart full of love. I see it when you glide in and out of rooms so as not to disturb sleeping parents. You’ve slipped in and out of here more than once when I’ve nodded off during my vigils. You are always, and I mean always, smiling. You are full of joy and it just oozes out of you.”

Am I really so transparent? I try to mind my own business, to fly below the radar, especially with the parents. I am to be seen and not heard, mostly.

Really? You see all of this.” I am stunned by his observations.

I do. There’s not much to do around here these nights. The nurses are in and out and most of them are nice. A few are even quite friendly with me—especially Renee—what a doll. But it’s just me and Alicia, and if she’s sleeping, I just sit back and observe. And I see you. What is your name? I feel bad—I’ve never bothered to ask.”

Carlita, sir.”

Oh, please, it’s Chuck. No formality. Don’t remind me of how old I am.”

Sorry, sir.”

Carlita! No more apologizing. You keep our room nice and tidy. I come in here every evening and whoever cleans before you is a total failure. I’m always picking things up off the floor.”

That’s it! I’m having a talk with her. Kids or no kids, rough life or no, she will not make these families’ lives even a little bit more difficult. I’m sure I can reason with her.

Carlita?”

What? Oh, I’m sorry. I have a tendency to daydream.”

And apologize, even though you don’t need to.”

OK, Chuck. I get it.” He smiles broadly.

Good. I just wanted you to know that what you do around here is noticed and appreciated. And I have to assume that since you care so much for people you don’t even know, you must take really good care of your family.” He lifts an eyebrow, like he’s asking me a question.

I think I do, Chuck. But here, I’m just doing my job.”

No, you’re not.” Wow.

I don’t know what to say.” I was almost on the verge of tears. Never had anyone expressed gratitude like this to me. It was mostly in passing, a half-hearted “Thank you” to my back as I pushed my cart out of the room.

You don’t need to say anything. Just keep being you.” He smiles at me and reaches into his shirt pocket. He pulls out a small box and puts it in my hand, curling my fingers over it.

Sir—Chuck, I can’t–“

Yes, you can, and you will. Please. It’s from Alicia,” he winks and nods.

Ok, I just don’t know what to say.”

Just say thank you.”

Thank you sir—I mean, Chuck,” I blush, and I slide the box into the pocket of my hoodie.

You’re welcome, Carlita,” he says. Renee walks into the room right as I pocket the box.

“What’s that?” Renee says.

“I’ll tell you later,” I reply, feeling a little bit self-conscious. “Are we still on for lunch?”

“So far, so good!”

I finally grab the garbage can and empty it in to the bag on my cart. Immediately, I take a deep breath, exhale and walk out of the room. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I collect myself and move on to the next few rooms. As I’m coming out of 463, the PA system squawks to life: “Code Blue. Code Blue. ICU room 457.”

I finally hear the alarm bells going off and see white coats running down the hall. I see them stop at Alicia’s room and go in. I see Renee run toward the supply room with a look of panic on her face. I plaster myself against the wall and try to hold in the burning tears. I start to pray the Our Father but can’t bring myself to say it out loud, so I say it in my head and I am so upset I can’t even remember the English version.

Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo…I reach into my pocket and pull out the box. I lift the top and see a small silver medallion with the words “Guardian Angel” inscribed on it with a winged, robed angel in the center of the medallion. I grasp it in my palm and pray harder than I’ve ever prayed for what seems like eternity and cry. The alarm bells stop. I look up, with one eye open and see Renee, smiling. I breathe a sigh of relief, grab my cart and push on to the next room.

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