Grace stood outside the hospital waiting for her mother to finish work. Her father didn't know she was here, her sister didn't know she was here… her teachers didn't even realise that she had skipped school to be here. Nobody knew she was here in fact. This was just something she had to do.
She shivered. She'd been standing on the side walk now for over an hour, watching the other doctors and nurses hurrying in and out. It was starting to get dark now, and she didn't even have a coat, but she didn't dare go in. She knew that the hospital would be full of sick people, and Grace didn't want to catch anything.
She hated the thought of her mother working in a place like this… what if she were to catch something one day? She knew that some people would tell her that if that was to happen she would be in the best possible place, but Grace couldn't think of a worse place to be.
She could feel the panic rising in her throat. She couldn't breathe… couldn't catch her breath. She'd been standing out here for over an hour now and her mother still hadn't come out. What if something had happened?
Her father should have realised that she was missing by now. He should have been out looking for her. This should have been the first place he would have looked, but he hadn't shown up. What if he hadn't even realised she was missing. What if he didn't know because something else had happened?
What if something had happened to him?
Grace could feel the tears stinging in her eyes, trickling down her cold cheeks, and she swiped them away angrily. Where was her mother? Why wouldn't she just come out?
She didn't even notice the upheavals of her chest until she started sobbing – all the fear and anger escaping her now as through somebody had suddenly turned on a faucet. Still people continued to walk on past her.
Grace had never felt so invisible. So alone.
Her tears continued to choke her. She focused on her own laboured breathing, too scared to do anything else – each new breath becoming more and more difficult to draw, and the little girl wondered if this was it. Was she actually dyeing?
It certainly felt like it.
Could blind panic actually kill you?
She didn't even notice when someone broke free from the crowd and started making their way towards her – a tall, rather good looking young man, with brown hair and dark eyes. He was wearing a white coat. Evidently a doctor.
He smiled as he approached, and bent down beside her. A lone caring soul in a deep ocean of people too wrapped up in their own worries and busy lives to even notice a lone, crying child.
"Well hey there." He spoke gently, tone a soft and friendly whisper. He looked around for the girl's parents but could see no sign of anyone who appeared to be searching for a lost child. "What are you doing out here all by yourself then?" He asked.
She just stared at him. Her glistening eyes boring into his. There was a slight air of arrogance about him – a façade which he couldn't drop, even now – but his expression was kind, and there was something reassuring about the way he was smiling at her. Just a front then Grace realised, and she tried to smile.
"I was waiting for my mom." She explained, drying her tears, before blinking the fresh ones from her eyes and swiping them away too, angrily. "She works in there."
She pointed towards the front entrance of the hospital.
The young man's gaze followed the direction in which she was pointing. He nodded.
He didn't bombard her with questions. He didn't push her for answers. Instead he appeared to register the little girl's distress and let her say what she had to say, in her own time. He wasn't condescending, as adults usually are with children – as though they've forgotten what it feels like to be young, confused and frightened themselves. He didn't smother her with reassurances he couldn't live up to, but there was something comforting about his presence which soothed Grace, and she started to relax a little.
"What's your name?" He asked.
"Grace." She sniffed.
"Well Grace," He smiled kindly, "I'm Doctor Cooper. How about we go and find your mother for you? It's getting late, and I bet you're cold. You don't even have a coat."
He held out his hand for her to take, but the little girl held back, shaking slightly and wringing her hands nervously as she bit back the fresh tears which threatened to fall. "I can't." She cried.
"Can't? Now why can't you?" The young doctor asked, kneeling down on his haunches beside her again and looking deep into her small, frightened face. His expression was reassuring. But the breath was hitching in Grace's chest again now and she couldn't be consoled.
"You wouldn't understand." She snapped.
"Try me." He smiled.
His tone was soothing, and Grace looked up into his calming expression – eyes full of kindness. It was strange but this man wasn't like any of the adults she'd ever come across in her life before. He wasn't patronising. He didn't pretend to know all the answers, or to understand what he couldn't. There was still a childlike innocence about him, and he genuinely seemed to want to help – not because he felt he had to.
Grace took a deep breath, trying to compose herself before she spoke again.
"Because there's sick people in there." She finally explained – voice shaking with fear and the slight embarrassment of knowing even at her young and tender age how her reasons must sound to the rational minded adult. "I don't want to get sick."
To her surprise the man seemed to understand however – instead of telling her not to be so silly, that if she were to get sick then a hospital would be the best possible place for her to be, he sighed deeply, edging slightly closer to the frightened child, and smiled.
"You know I haven't always been… well, like this." He explained with a slight laugh. "When everybody in my class at school had a mother and a father, I had two mothers. That didn't really bother me, but… well I guess a kid with both Tourette's and OCD doesn't tend to make many friends. When you're nervous of just about everything which can go wrong the world can be a very frightening place."
Grace just looked at him.
"You're frightened too aren't you Grace?" He continued. "You think that if you don't take complete control something bad is going to happen to you or to someone you love very deeply. I can see it in your eyes."
The little girl nodded – shocked. Even at her young age she could see that he clearly understood more than any adult she'd ever encountered, and had explained things better than any doctor had to her before.
Somebody finally understood her, and it made Grace's young heart sore.
"How… how did you know?" She asked.
"Because that's what OCD does to you, it gets inside your head Grace, feeds on your fear. But the thing is Grace," He continued, "we mustn't allow that fear to control us. We have to take back that control."
Nobody had ever put a name to her problem before – and the little girl looked back at him anxiously.
"So how about we go find your mother then?" He asked. "If only to prove to yourself that everything is alright, and there's no reason for you to be standing outside in the cold worrying. I promise you'll feel much better!"
"What's your mother's name?" He asked gently.
"Jackie…" She smiled slightly, a much more genuine gesture now as she dried her damp cheeks on the sleeve of her jumper, and blew her running nose. "She's a nurse."
She thought that she noticed the young man falter slightly with the mention of her mother's name, but if he did he composed himself quickly as took her kindly by the hand and stride by slow and steady stride the little girl took her first few steps through the front doors of the bustling hospital.
Grace still felt anxious making her way through the busy hospital corridors, but she forced herself to keep breathing, and in the reassuring company of Doctor Cooper things didn't seem quite so scary after all.