Her stomach is in knots. Hands shake uncontrollably. The chair feels deliberately uncomfortable. The air is at least a thousand degrees. She’s already shed her boyfriend’s flannel. She can’t take off anything else without being asked to leave, and this is the smallest health clinic in the smallest town in the state. Come Monday morning everyone will know she was here.
She keeps thinking about that night. We just won the homecoming game. Everyone was so excited. We’re seniors. We were supposed to celebrate. We’ve been together for a long time. I think we’re in love. She can still smell his breath. Beer and peppermint. She thinks she remembers wanting to. Is pretty sure she enjoyed it. Sort of remembers him using protection. But one thing she knows for certain. She’s late.
The door sways open with a whine. The nurse calls her back. She smiles, trying to ease the palpable tension. As she gets closer, the nurse starts in the usual distractive smalltalk. It’s the kind of familiar bedside manner that you wouldn’t find in a big city clinic. Turns out, the nurse went to school with her mom. Asks how she’s doing. It’s mind-numbing.
The adrenaline blurs each minute into the next. In what feels like a breath, she’s on the examination table, knees bent, legs apart. The red second hand bounces around the white-faced clock above the door in the examination room. She focuses on that motion as the nurse moves cold metal. It’s only a little painful, mostly uncomfortable. It’s what happens next that turns her eyes into fountains, and her heart to ash.
A strange whooshing sound comes from the monitor. It’s rapid and clear, and carries with it the dread of everything she was afraid of. “A hundred and twenty-two beats per minute,” the nurse says. “Clear and strong.” She adds that warming smile.
She covers her eyes and sobs into her fists. Her life is ruined. She can’t afford to have a kid. Why did there have to be a heartbeat? Why did they have to pass that stupid law? Why did I have to be born in a crap-hole town in Alabama?
* * *
The gurney bursts through the double doors, wheels skittering across the tiles. A kid. Barely into puberty. He’s head-to-toe in white rags, already soaked through with his own blood. Gunshot wound.
The kid is from the Bronx. He know’s because that’s where he grew up. He’s well acquainted with the grime and graffiti covered alleys that tie those streets together. He knows the sorrows that good people face on a daily basis there. Holding an end in each hand, trying desperately to make them meet. It’s the kind of harsh reality that most people only pretend to understand. The kind they try to ignore.
The EMT pumps the valve mask as she barks out the details of the kid’s physical condition, but he doesn’t need to listen. He’s been here too many times. When it’s that much blood, you know it’s critical.
His team is already prepped for surgery, well aware of how precious every second is from here on out. They’ve got to close an artery, get him a transfusion, whatever it takes to get the kid stable. The red second hand on the white-faced clock starts ticking.
They cut off the kid’s shirt and get him hooked up to the heart monitor. His pulse is too slow and his blood pressure is almost nil. Got to get him open. Find out exactly where the bleed is and stop it. Minutes drift off into history as they frantically try to patch a leaky roof in the middle of a monsoon.
That’s when it happens. The long high-pitched monotone from the heart monitor. Flatline. They start chest compressions as he instructs the nurse on exactly how much of each drug to send through the kid’s IV. Come on kid. Don’t die on me. I don’t need this today. His hands stay steady as he clips veins and works the sutures. Separating the usable tissue from what’s too far gone.
A woman pounds the glass from outside the room. Tears streak her face, the rosary beads rattle against the sound-dampening glass as she sobs behind the observation window. The mother. He can read her lips without even trying. My baby. My baby.
A new volunteer starts the chest compressions. The first one retires against the countertop. He’s exhausted and sweating, sucking his mask into his mouth with each heavy breath. The red hand moves on the clock. There isn’t much time. He can hear the kid in his mind. I’m in here. Don‘t give up on me. Please.
He plugs the torn artery as another blood bag is hung in place. He watches the screen. Silently begging for the high-pitched tone to stop.
Finally, as if by magic, the flatline pulses. Shoulders sag with relief. Hands tremble with the flood of emotions held captive while they were working. The kid is stabilized. He’ll make it.
He peels off his gloves and leans against the sink. The tears come. He can’t hold them back. He’s just a kid. What’s wrong with people? He wants to be there when the kid wakes up. Wants to tell him to straighten up. To do the right thing. To not let where he came from determine where he’s going. But he knows those words will fall on deaf ears. He’s nobody to this kid. Just some doctor that got his heart beating again. So much will be left up to chance, but today at least, a life was saved.
* * *
They don’t speak as the mile markers pass the windows. She told him. Her boyfriend. He told his parents. His mom cried and his dad broke things. Fortunately, they have money. And his future sports career to think about. She knew they’d pay for it. Even if they did so begrudgingly.
She can’t get it out of her mind. The strange whooshing sound from the monitor. The heartbeat. She can’t have a kid. She knows that. If they lived anywhere else it wouldn’t have been a big deal. They have to do this. That’s all there is. She won’t let her life be ruined because they got too crazy at a homecoming party.
She’s got to get this thing out of her. Heartbeat or no. Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is getting her life back to normal. Her stomach knots up. Chokes her throat. I’m in here. Don‘t give up on me. Please...
She couldn’t tell him to stop now even if she wanted to. They’ve all agreed this is the right thing to do. That’s why she didn’t tell her parents. They wouldn’t have understood. They’d call it murder. Would have begged her not to go. Tried to convince her that they would make it work. That they could help her come back from this. But they don’t have the money or the time. All they have is their belief. And that’s not enough. She thinks.
“Tennessee Welcomes You,” the partially faded blue sign reads.