“Seriously?” Jacob laughed. “And no one noticed?”
“Not until Christmas morning,” Samantha lied with a bright grin. “It took a full round of presents before they knew I switched all the nametags.”
The Nurse appeared in the doorway to the waiting room. “Jacob Brennan?”
“Oh, that’s me,” Jacob apologized hastily to Samantha. “Thanks for the talk. Hope whoever you’re waiting for gets better soon.”
“I’m sure he will.” Another lie.
Samantha had been more boisterous with Jacob than she normally was, so she needed to wait before starting her next conversation. If she drew too much attention to herself, the hospital might notice her. They would realize she wasn’t waiting for anyone. She was just waiting.
She was careful with her hobby. A variety of facades ensured no one would recognize her. Today she was a businesswoman with a modest black outfit, fake glasses, and brunette hair twisted into a tight bun.
Also, she divided her time between three hospitals. Generally, this hospital was quiet. Jacob had been an anomaly. He was nervous and needed a distraction. Samantha had become a fun-loving prankster, which was not one of the more common personalities she adopted when talking to strangers.
She scanned the room reading everyone’s expressions and selected a middle-aged man with his strong hands laced over a pink teddy bear. Samantha meandered until she was close enough to gesture to the seat next to him. “Mind if I sit here?” He grunted with indifference. Samantha folded her hands in her lap. “You look tired.”
Mr. Pink-bear’s voice was raspy. “I’ve been here four hours.”
Five, Samantha corrected, internally, and fifteen minutes. She took a moment to select the appropriate personality and properly set her voice so the lie would be believable.“My nephew’s in there. Biking accident. He’s only nine… I shouldn’t have left him alone…” She stalled, swallowing hard enough that he would notice. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be unloading this on you.”
“It’s fine,” he sighed, leaning forward, letting the bear dangle from his fingertips. “Taking care of kids is hard. I…. Well, I understand.”
Samantha’s pulse raced. She was in. This was a good day. “What happened?”
“My daughter, Jessica. Sweet kid. Likes to draw. Apparently, she also likes to poke beehives.” His mouth twisted with suppressed emotion. “I’m not a good father.”
Samantha leaned forward, invigorated by Mr. Pink-bear’s honesty. In waiting rooms, she could seize souls being ripped apart and for the next five minutes she could become their best friend, their spouse, their mother. She could be their shadow. “Why aren’t you a good father?”
“I went to grab her favorite toy…” his eyelids pinched shut “…and I didn’t know which one. How can I not know…?”
“It’s okay,” Samantha whispered, and would have said more but just then she noticed someone was looking directly at her. Samantha, thoroughly unpracticed at being the subject of calculating gazes, was intrigued. This increased tenfold when the hoodie-clad teenager removed a hand from his oversized pocket and beckoned to her with a quick jerk of the finger.
After muttering sincere, rushed apologies to Mr. Pink-bear, she joined the stranger by the wall. He eyed her with frustrated confusion before asking, “So, how d’you do it?”
He nodded to the room. “You just walk up to people and get all chummy with them. Like it’s that easy.”
Samantha didn’t have a good read on him. That didn’t happen to her very often. “Well, you’re talking to me,” she offered. “You struck up this conversation without problems.”
“Yeah, but I’m not invested in this, and neither are you.” His hand flicked though the air. “We’re not talking about any deep, profound stuff. That’s what’s hard. I can’t talk to people about anything that matters, and I’ve seen you have four meaningful conversations since I’ve been here.”
Okay, now she had it. She quickly calculated the appropriate sympathetic personality and slipped into it. “It’s not like that,” She sighed, leaning against the wall next to him. “Yeah, I talk to a lot of people, but it’s easy to share things with strangers when you know you’ll never see them again. I actually find it very difficult to invest in real friendships.” Once the words were out, Samantha felt a strange uneasiness as she realized the words were coincidentally true.
“Well, yeah. People suck. If you get close to people, they can hurt you. If you pick good friends, they won’t; but how are you supposed to know that? You can’t.”
“No, you can’t,” Samantha agreed. “And it only takes one person to destroy your ability to trust properly.”
He looked sideways at her. “That happened to you?”
She wanted to lie, but the truth fit too perfectly. “Yeah. My… my step-brother.”
He pointed to himself. “My first girlfriend. Sucks, right?”
“So, who are you waiting for?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. “You look like you’ve been here for ages.”
“I’m not waiting for anyone.” The words were out before she could stop them.
“Oh… well I guess that makes you happy…”
“It used to.” Another truth.
The nurse reappeared. “Joseph Minnis?”
The teenager pushed away from the wall. “Hey, um,” he rubbed a hand through his hair, “you can wait for me. If you’re tired of just waiting.” Looking embarrassed he hurried away.
Samantha took an empty chair, feeling disoriented about the strange encounter. She didn’t look around for another stranger to talk to. Just for today, she picked up a ratty magazine from the end table and waited.
Olivia Berrier is a student at Hollins University. She is often clueless and always shoeless.