HEARTBEAT (finale)

The graduation gown is puffed out like she swallowed a basketball.  She didn’t even bother with make up, so the fact that she’s sweating isn’t a big deal.  What’s the point?  When your feet are swollen so much that you have to wear granny flats, and your pants are held up with an elastic band, nothing can make you feel pretty.  But pretty or not, she’s here.  Minutes away from crossing the stage, and weeks away from the scariest moment in her life.

            The principle calls names in the background. A guy three rows up is sneaking corn chips beneath his gown.  She swears she can smell them.  Pregnancy nose is crazy.  Corn chips would be great.  

This was one of the worst years of her life.  There’s no shame in admitting that now.  Most of her friends treated her like being pregnant was contagious.  Her boyfriend and his family might as well have put a sign up in their yard saying that she was being publicly shunned.  She can’t deny things would have been way easier if she had just went through with the abortion.  Why is doing the right thing so hard sometimes? 

Somewhere in the crowd, her mom and dad are watching.  Waiting for her row to stand, and her name to be called. They’re the only reason she made it. She knows that.  Had it not been for their constant encouragement she would have given up.  She’ll never forget how much grace they gave her.  How many buckets of love they dumped over her head when her hormones had her raging like a spoiled brat.  It makes her think about all the young girls who might be put in this same position and don’t have that kind of support at home.  There’s no way.

She wipes her sweaty palms on her gown then picks at the chipped pink nail polish she forgot to remove.  Didn’t really forget.  It just didn’t seem all that important.  

Everyone in her row stands.  She uses the back of the seat in front of her to help get up.  Time to take a walk.

***

“Hi,” he says, sliding through the door and into the room.  She rises up in the stiff chair next to the bed.  “I think your boy might have a guardian angel,” he says.  She smiles beneath her sunken eyes.  “You could use some sleep,” he adds.

“So could you,” she replies, trying to sound as if she’s in good spirits.

The operation was a success, thanks in no small part to several fortunate accidents.  The kind of things that all the training in the world can’t account for.  “I’m heading home now.  I just wanted to come by and double check things before I leave.”

She doesn’t say anything, only nods, still smiling.  He really didn’t need to come here.  The chances of a serious complication now are less than a percent, but he’s here.  He’s not even sure why.

He steps over to the monitor beside the bed and glances at the Bible on the chair arm beside her.  There’s a small pile of wooden rosary beads and a crucifix on the worn black leather. “Considering taking up the faith?” She asks.

“Oh no,” he says laughing.  “Nothing in that for me.  But if it works for you then I don’t judge.  Everybody needs something, and with what I do… trust me, I’ve seen it all.”

“And none of it interests you, huh?”

He shakes his head, keeping up his smile.  “I believe in what I see.”

“It’s never too late to find God,” she says, earnestly.  “Trust me, he’s already looking for you.”

She doesn’t mean to, but she’s pushing his buttons.  And he’s just as tired as she is, maybe even more.  He doesn’t have the patience for this. “Miss Johnson, let me give you some advice.  Sometimes things just happen.  Good, bad, life doesn’t discriminate.  I don’t mean to sound insensitive.  What happened to your son is terrible.  Really tragic.  But it’s nothing different from things I see every single day.  You’re lucky.  You guys came out on the other side of this ok, but if you keep trying to find some reason for it, it will drive you crazy.  There’s no reason for it.  Just an awful accident.  Now as thankful as I am that you and your boy are going to pull through this, I’m not gonna start believing in God because of it.”

Her demeanor doesn’t change.  Despite the weariness in her eyes and slumped shoulders, she stays warm.  Forgiving, and kind.  “Maybe the reason for all this was just so I could introduce you to Him,” she says pointing to the ceiling.  “Whether you say yes or not.”

He’s got to get out of here before he gets angry.  Why do Christians have to do that? Make everything about God. Doesn’t she realize how difficult she’s making this?  Calmly he walks around to the other side of the bed.  “Caroline, any God that would put a bullet in your son, just so he could say hello to me, is a God that I don’t ever want to meet.”

The tension is fierce, like a rubber band pulled to the point of breaking. She opens her mouth to speak.

“Momma,” her son whispers beneath the tube in his nose.  

“Hey, baby.”  She turns all her attention to the bed, letting the world fade into the background. Tears immediately fill her eyes.  

The moment sends goose bumps over his arms.  Watching how all at once her son’s weak voice consumes her, and rescues him from the conversation.  Thank God.  He slips quietly outside, grateful to be unnoticed, letting the door close softly behind him.

***

“Congratulations, baby,” her father says drawing her in for a hug.  It’s an awkward dance, getting as close as her pregnant belly will allow.  

She nearly drowns in his Stetson aftershave.  “Thanks, Dad.”  She dabs the corners of her eyes.  His eyes are red and puffy too.  He was seriously boohooing during the ceremony.  

“Pull yourself together, Franklin,” her mother says handing him a Kleenex. She smiles.  “You were beautiful, Caroline.  Just beautiful.”  Her smile deepens.

She’ll be sobbing for hours tonight.  That’s how her mom works.  She bottles it all up and lets it all out when no one’s watching.  “Yeah right,” she laughs.  “Now comes the hard part.”  She looks down at the protruding graduation gown.

“About that,” her father chimes in after wiping his eyes.  “I have a surprise for you.”

They head out to the parking lot.  She didn’t have many people to say goodbye to anyway.  Just a few smiles and waves from the ones brave enough to call themselves her friends.  The only pregnant girl in the class, she might as well have worn a scarlet letter on her gown.

It’s sweltering in the parking lot.  The air is so heavy it’s like trying to breathe through a coffee straw. Her dad takes her towards the back of the lot, away from the crowds of families and their loud congratulations. 

There, in the shade of a skinny young oak tree, is the pastor.  His arms are crossed over his chest.  There’s an envelope in his hand, and an ear-to-ear grin on his face.  He’s leaning up against a used white Jetta.

            “The paint is faded, but we put new tires on it,” the pastor says as they get closer.  

            “This is for me?” she asks in disbelief.  

            “And this.”  He hands her the envelope.  It’s thick. She can tell there’s cash inside though she doesn’t want to open it in front of him.  “Your parents told me that you were planning to leave.  The church didn’t want you heading out on your own without a reliable means of transportation.  As soon as you settle in somewhere, your parents are supposed to provide us with your address.”

            She looks between her parents for some sort of explanation.  “They set up a fund for you at the church,” her dad says, new tears forming and falling down the lines in his cheeks.  “Every month, they’ll be sending you something.  It might not be much, but it will help.”

            “Your father was right,” the pastor adds. “When he stormed out of my office that day.  The bible is pretty clear about bearing each other’s burdens.”  He looks past her at her dad.  “We were doing a pretty lousy job.  Sorry it took so long for us to figure that out.”

            “So no more stealing trucks,” her dad says and they all laugh.

            She can’t keep from smiling.  By the end of the day her face is going to hurt.  She reaches out and takes the keys from the pastor.  

            ***

            It’s over.  Twenty-three hours of misery.  It’s felt like a year since she was able to take a breath without gagging.  She’s on the verge of passing out.  Starving to death.  A popsicle and ice chips don’t qualify as dinner.  If it weren’t for the epidural, and her parents, there’s no way she would have made it.

            A baby wails in the background of all the pain and emotion.  A little boy. Her little boy.  “Do you want to see, Mommy?  Huh?  Yes, oh, yes you do,” a nurse says in that all too soothing tone.  “Are you ready to hold him?”  She asks.

            The pain and emotions swim to the background. “Yes,” she says.  She reaches out as the nurse gently places the bundle in her arms. His crying subsides and she holds him close, staring down at his wrinkled little face.  She can’t keep the tears back.  She doesn’t even want to imagine how ugly she is right now.  

            “Hey, baby,” she says when she finally can manage the words.

HEARTBEAT (part four)

Don’t do this to me…  Please… How could you?  I kept him.  It cost me everything.  Totally derailed my life.  But I did it. I kept him because you made me believe it was the right thing to do.  And now you want to take him away from me?  After I’ve let him become my whole world.  You’re supposed to be good.  If you do this to me I’ll lose it. 

There’s no way to be certain whether her silent begging counts as a prayer. But it’s all she has right now. She’s still sleep deprived, hungry, and emotionally drained, and yet she’s here again, outside the operating room, watching her heart bleed out on the table for a second time.  

She pounds her hand against the glass.  Just once.  Not hard. She doesn’t want to risk distracting them from their work.  He’s a good boy.  You know he is.  It wasn’t even his fault.  A stray bullet from a gang fight rips through a playground and my angel lands in a bloody sprawl on the concrete.  How could you?  People scramble around her boy behind the glass.  There is panic on their faces.  The tears blur her vision.  She blinks them away, ignoring the sting.  It’s too painful to watch, but its all she has left.

“HOW COULD YOU?”  she cries out at the ceiling, spinning away from the window and collapsing onto the floor. Tears splatter against her jeans as she sobs.  She wants to scream, but does her best to choke out the sounds that try to escape her throat.  The rosary snaps between her fingers, the beads tumble around the hall, pinging on the tiles like the ticking red second hand of a white-faced clock she remembers from years ago.  She doesn’t hear the nurse as she approaches to comfort her.

***

“C’mon kid,” he cleans the wound as fresh blood begins to flood in. The hemorrhage has  aggravated the artery he previously closed.  As soon as he has enough visibility to see what he’s doing more blood rushes the table.  The nurse keeps the suction close.  He knows where he needs to get to fix the hemorrhage.  A fragment of the bullet lodged in the wall of the artery. Small miracle.  If the fragment had made it’s way to the kid’s heart, there’d be no saving him.  But he’s been bleeding internally ever since.   

A sound comes from behind the glass.  Faint, but deliberate.  Caroline. She pounds the glass before sliding down to the floor.  He flashes a glance before refocusing on his work.  She doesn’t know how lucky she is, all she sees is her son on the table again.  Dying. He can’t know what she’s feeling.  Doesn’t need to.  All he needs to do is stop the blood and get that fragment out. 

The minutes roll by as he works.  Patient.  Methodical. He doesn’t see the kid anymore. Just another body.  Meat, bone, and blood.  That’s how he has to see it.  It’s what keeps his hands from shaking.  He’s not saving a life, just cleaning up a mess.  He can spend hours overthinking it long after he’s done.  But he has to be fast.  If the kid goes critical again, they might not get him back.  Body’s been through too much trauma without enough time to recuperate.  

“Blood pressure fifty-eight over thirty,” the nurse calls out.  

***

What has she thinking?  She knew better than to think anyone would help her.  She made a mistake coming back home.  She should’ve went through with it.  Should have stayed in that cheap motel with her boyfriend and went to the clinic. Then this would all be over.  Things would be back to normal.  Now she’s still going to have to do it, and this time her boyfriend’s parents probably won’t even pay for it. 

 They drive back home in silence, after her dad rants for a few minutes. “Hypocrites,” he says through his teeth.  “Million dollar building and they say they can’t help anyone.”  She pretends she doesn’t hear him, curled up around her half-caff coffee, taking the lid off so she can breathe the steam from the paper cup.  

“Caroline,” her father says after shutting the car off in the driveway. “I can’t understand how difficult this is for you.  You have to be scared and probably all kinds of messed up right now.  But I want you to hear me.  Your mother and I love you so much.  Nothing’s changed.  I know we don’t have much, but we’ll help you any way we can. You still did the right thing by coming home.”

She can’t keep from crying.  The words come out broken.  “What can you do, dad?…You and, and mom?  What are we supposed to do with a baby?  What am I supposed to do?”  She sniffs, wiping her nose on her sleeve and looking out the window at the rotted tire swing in the front yard.  

“Can we pray about it, Caroline.  Right now.”

“What’s that gonna do, Dad?”  She looks back at him, eyes bloodshot, cheeks streamed with tears. She can see he’s crying too.

“Please,” he says, eyes begging her to take his hand.  

She puts her hand in his without saying anything.  He starts praying.  Talking to God.  A stranger on a cloud in the sky.  She doesn’t hear what he says.  Her own thoughts are deafening.  I’m all alone.  I can’t ask my parents to do this with me.  Can’t ask my dad to sit by and listen to the whole town say the worst things about his baby girl.  I can’t put him through this.  Either of them.  If there is a God, then why did he let this happen?  Why me?  

Her heart aches as more tears come.  No one knows what she’s going through. How hard this is for her. It’s not like she doesn’t want to have a baby some day. Just right now, it’s impossible. It would cost her everything. Her whole life, her reputation. All of it just for a clump of cells in her belly. It’s not worth it. It just isn’t.

No one will help her. Not even the church. She’s alone in this and she doesn’t have a choice. No matter what her dad says. She can’t do this. I can’t do this. 

She listens to her dad whisper his prayers beneath the torrent of thoughts that flood her mind and fill her eyes with more tears. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, she thinks she hears something. Maybe it’s her dad’s voice, or maybe she’s imagining it. But something, in a tone both affectionate and soothing whispers gently to her mind. More accurately, to her heart.

“I see you. I’ve always seen you. I am with you.”

Is that you God? She thinks, but gets no answer, other than the peace that begins to overwhelm her heart. She smiles, and cries, and knows she’s not alone. She can’t explain it, but knows she doesn’t have to. Please. Help me. I’ll trust you, just let me know it’ll be ok.

She cries until her head hurts, but the feeling of peace never leaves. Only swells and grows till it feels as if the windows of the car are about to bust out. She squeezes her father’s hand and he squeezes back. She listens to him pray and she prays silently too. Whispers the desires of her heart to a God who knows her. Who somehow, has always known her. And slowly the fear in her heart is replaced with love. Love for a child she has never met. Love for a father that she is only beginning to discover. And a hope and confidence that everything is going to be ok. Somehow, as unbelievable as it sounds, everything is going to be ok.

HEARTBEAT (part 3)

She could smell the axe body spray oozing from his letterman jacket all the way home. He’ll forgive her for stealing the truck. He pretty much has to. There’s no way she could do something like this without talking to her parents. That night, laying on top of the comforter in that hotel bed, that’s all she could think about. She almost threw up twice thinking about it. Mouth watery, accompanied by the tightness in her throat. The moment she heard his breath change from the other bed, she took off.

Her parents were worried sick when she showed up in the truck. She nearly fell asleep twice on the drive back. Half a Red Bull and a Slim Jim giving her the last bit of energy to get home. She hadn’t told them anything. Hadn’t thought about it till they reached the Tennessee line. And when she told them what was going on, they responded just like she knew they would.

Her parents love her, but they don’t understand her. Their answer to everything is pray about it. It’ll all work out. They mean well, and that prayer thing might have made her feel better when she was twelve and the girls at school were mean, but she grew up. She’s over that now. She know’s that real problems need real solutions, and talking to an invisible God isn’t always enough.

Still, they hugged her. Told her she did the right thing by coming home and telling them. That felt good. She felt comforted for the first time in a couple days. Then her dad called the pastor, and she wanted to throw up.

She barely had time to take a nap before they drove out to meet the Pastor at the church that afternoon. Her boyfriend had called twice while she was asleep. Hadn’t called since. They were led through the church by the woman in at the information desk. It’s a mega church. The kind with a coffee shop out front and great big chandelier in the lobby. She was surprised they could even get in to see the Pastor at such short notice. But her parents had always been pretty active in their faith.

The office was all shiny leather. Framed on all sides with wall to wall books. Some ancient-looking, others more recent. The desk was some kind of exotic wood. Knotty. The Pastor listened as her father told her story. She was too embarrassed and intimidated to say anything. Just kept looking at the engraved nameplate on the desk. Waiting for the meeting to be over.

He told the pastor how desperate they were for any kind of assistance. How they were all going to have to make sacrifices in order to provide a life for this child. The pastor just stared at them behind his steepled fingers, rocking back and forth in his desk chair, trying to mask the silent judgement in his eyes. She almost didn’t realize when her father had stopped talking.

“I’m truly sorry about your situation,” the pastor starts. “But there’s very little the church can do to help you right now. Some of the elders would be offended by the nature of your predicament, as I’m sure you might have guessed. I can provide council and prayer, but we are not in a position to do anything else at this time.”

She can see the anger boiling in her father. The tips of his fingers going white against the wood of the desk, his jaws tensing up, chewing on nothing with his nostrils flared. She’s never seen him this ticked. It’s scary. She leans away in her chair.

“I’m very sorry,” the pastor says with confidence, unmoved by her father’s clear agitation. “Shall I pray with you both right now?”

Her father stands up, slowly, like he wanted to do more than just stand. “You know, I think we’re good, actually.” He turns away from the desk abruptly. Like he can’t get out of the office quick enough. “Come on, Caroline.” He touches her chair and she follows. Just before they leave the room he whispers something.

“What’s that?” The pastor asks.

“Out there in the lobby,” her father says with his hand still on the door. “I said that’s a real nice chandelier.”

***

“After I had him, I had to get out of town,” she tells the doctor before taking a sip of burnt coffee from the styrofoam cafeteria cup. It’s barely even warm anymore. “Single moms aren’t a common thing where I’m from.”

“What made you pick New York?” he asks. “It can be a pretty intimidating place to relocate to, if you don’t have any family up here. Especially if you’re from a small town.”

His eyes are kind, but tired. He wears the stress of his job in the sprinkling of gray hair at his temples. Probably in his mid thirties, but could pass for a bit older. “A flat tire,” she says. He laughs and she smiles back. “My aunt lives in Maine. I was on my way to her place when I got a flat up state. A new tire, turned into a hotel room, that turned into a HUD apartment.”

“It sucks you in doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” she tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She feels as tired as he looks. Emotionally spent. “It’s a hard neighborhood, but we’re blessed. A church back home has been helping us out since we left. They bought me the old clunker I drove up here in twelve years ago. Somehow it’s still running, though I don’t use it much anymore.”

“So you’re religious then?” He eyes the rosary round her wrist.

“We’re believers but I don’t know if you’d call us religious. Faithful, is probably more like it. You?”

“Oh no,” he says waving a hand in objection. “I’m about as far from religious as you could get. But everybody needs something, I guess.” He looks back over at her son, sleeping beneath the white sheets and bandages. “The whole prayer thing, does it work?”

She opens her mouth to speak but just then the machine next to her son’s bed starts beeping. The doctor rounds the bed to study the small screen. “Blood pressure’s too low,” he says to himself. “Heart rate’s climbing fast.”

Bolts of panic shoot through her limbs, making her fingers tingle. She can feel the rush of nervous adrenalin as she studies the doctor’s changing expressions. “What’s wrong?” she asks, standing.

Beneath the blanket, her son’s chest shows the rise and fall of rapid shallow breaths. The doctor peels the blanket back to get a better look at the bandages. A nurse rushes in, all practiced concern. “Not enough external bleeding,” the doctor tells the nurse. “He’s going into hemorrhagic shock.”

She comes over to the bed, grabbing her son’s hand. “What’s happening?”

“Your son is bleeding internally, we need to get him back on the table and find out where the hemorrhage is before it causes anymore damage.”

The nurse and the doctor start talking to each other in a language of medical terms and abbreviations that she can’t make heads or tales of. It only adds to the terror she feels. “What’s happening? Is he gonna be ok?”

The doctor finally looks at her, aware of how stricken she is with panic and grief. “Caroline, I need you to step back and let us take care of your boy. I promise we’ll do everything we can, but I need you to back up and let us work.”

Heartbeat (part 2)

They wouldn’t let him go in with her. Not while they went over the details of the procedure. “Are you family?” the nurse asked.

“No he’s not,” she said, emphatically.

I probably don’t want to hear how they do it anyway,” he thought. Still kind of felt wrong to sit out in the reception area like a big idiot. Playing on his phone. Scrolling through his instagram feed. “I just need things to get back to normal.

She didn’t say a word on the way to the clinic. Just got in the truck, closed all the vents on her side, and chewed her fingernails as she stared out the window, shoulders slumped with the weight of the world. Wasn’t like he could say anything that would make her feel better. What? Should he have played her favorite song and told her everything was going to be ok? What a joke.

When she walks out from the consultation room, she looks like she just stole something. Hiding her hands in the sleeves of her hoodie, eyes bouncing from her feet to the exit door, and back. He stands up when she gets close. “They can do it tomorrow,” she says. “We’ll have to stay over night.”

“We passed a motel on the way here,” he says, trying to be helpful. “I think it’s just a few miles back.”

The truck smells like the Black Ice air freshener dangling beneath his rearview mirror. It’s six miles to the motel. “Do you want to get something to eat?” he asks. She shakes her head, pulling her knees up under her arms. The cab of the truck feels huge and empty. The foot or two of black leather between them might as well be the Grand Canyon.

“I’m gonna stop and get something,” he says, his stomach in knots, but starving all the same.

“Ok,” she says, emotionless.

***

She listens to the beeping of the machines as she watches his little chest rise and fall with shallow breath. She can’t remember the last time she blinked. The room smells like it was bathed in hand sanitizer. The rosary beads are sweaty between her fingers. The doctor said that the worst was behind them, but she can’t make herself leave his bedside. She came so close to losing him. To losing her world.

A soft knock and the door opens with caution. She recognizes the surgeon as he walks in. “Hi,” he says with a quick wave. “I don’t mean to bother you, or…”

“It’s no bother,” she says smiling and dabbing the corners of her eyes with the back of her thumbs. It’ll probably take a week to erase the remnants of all the tears. “You can come by anytime.”

He steps the rest of the way in the room. “I just wanted to give him this.” He holds up a brand new leather baseball glove. Tan and black. “I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing a twelve-year-old is into or anything…”

“That’s so kind,” she says, ignoring the forced awkwardness of the moment. “He’ll love it, but you really didn’t need to give us anything. You’ve already done more than enough.”

“Well…” he starts. “I know what it’s like. You know. To grow up in the hardest neighborhood. I don’t know what kind of trouble he’s gotten himself into-

“He’s a good kid.” She catches the flare of anger before it turns into something bad. The doctor means well, even if he has the social grace of a teenager. “It’s been tough, just the two of us. But no matter how many times we get knocked down, we’ve always managed to fight our way back to our feet. We’re blessed.”

His smile is genuine and surprisingly warm. “You two aren’t originally from here are you?” he asks acknowledging her accent.

“No honey, I’m from the south.”

***

The motel room smells like smoke. Two double beds with dingy comforters, a TV, a bathroom, and a piece of threadbare rust carpet. There’s a rattle in the AC unit that he pretends to fix the moment they enter. She ignores him, goes straight for the bathroom.

He pulls the comforter back on the bed nearest the door, kicks his shoes off, and throws the truck keys on the nightstand before sitting down. The remote is one of those weird environmentally friendly ones that feels like its made of paper. He flips through the channels, waiting for her to come out. Wondering if they are going to talk about tomorrow. Secretly hoping that they won’t.

He should try and comfort her. Ask what she’s feeling. Or maybe that’s just him being stupid. That’s just his father in him. Telling him to man up.

He’ll do it anyway. He’ll ask if she’s ok. That’ll give them the chance to talk about it. The burger and fries do a somersault in his stomach. He turns the TV down low.

She comes out of the bathroom. “I’m pretty tired. I’ll probably just go to bed.” She doesn’t give him the chance to say anything. She lays down on top of the dingy comforter on the other bed. Back turned to him. He flips the channels for nearly another half hour before drawing the blackout curtains and going to sleep.

When he wakes up, her bed is empty. The comforter shows the wrinkled imprint of where she had been. There’s a note on the nightstand where he put his truck keys last night. The keys aren’t there. He picks up the note, then throws it away angrily before storming out of the room. He stains his socks on the warm pavement of the parking lot. His truck is gone. “I’m sorry,” the note said.

Heartbeat

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.

Moral Ambiguity In Fantasy

Does the punishment fit the crime? Should it even be a crime?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine the other day. A deep thinker. A coffee drinker. From the local shop, not Starbucks. I asked him if he had watched Avengers: End Game yet. He hadn’t. And the whole truth is that he actually fell asleep in Infinity War. So I did what anyone else would do in that moment. I probed. I had to know why he hadn’t caught the fire of the worldwide, cultural phenomenon that is the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). He shared with me the thing that grieved him most about the superhero movie trend. Their undeniable predictability.

“You know the good guys are going to win,” he said. “They always do. The only thing you’re trying to figure out is how they wind up doing it. The bad guys never win. Why shouldn’t the bad guys win?”

This is typically the norm when the story/movie, very clearly depicts one side of the conflict as villains and the other side as heroes. Tolkien had the champions of Middle Earth fighting to save the world from the doom of Dark Lord Sauron. I think it’s safe to say that out of the droves of Lord of the Rings fans that exist in the world, almost all of them would align themselves against the Dark Lord. I mean he’s the Dark Lord. His warriors are evil orcs spawned from the muck and filth of the earth. What’s not to love?

This was something my friend found seriously irksome, and unrealistic, though I still believe he would consider himself a Tolkien fan. As we continued talking however, he shared with me his love for moral ambiguity in cinema and literature. How he found himself drawn to the stories that allow the reader to find heroes and heroines on every side of the conflict. Stories that weren’t about good vs evil, but rather different persons or groups of people, in conflict with each other over their unique values and ideologies. In George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series for example, multiple sides of the conflict find themselves motivated to claim The Iron Throne and each have unique ideologies, moralities, religious beliefs, and there are characters that you can truly empathize with from each of the noble houses. Those were the stories that my friend found more entertaining. And at first this made total sense. But as I pondered a bit more on the idea, deeper questions started to rise.

If the characters are morally ambiguous, then there aren’t any “bad guys” or “good guys.” And if that is the case, doesn’t that mean the “bad guys” still can’t win? There’s an idea floating around that morally ambiguous stories are smarter, more believable. That they require more craftiness to pull off, and allow for more potential surprises and subverted expectations. But what if that’s backwards? In the absence of a true villain, the writer can very easily let whomever they want win, and regardless of which side they choose, they never actually had to step outside the typical box and write the kind of hard-to-sell story that truly lets the bad guys win. I mean, Jaime Lannister does belong to a “bad family” but if he starts showing heroic traits and winds up on the winning side in the end, then a “bad guy” still didn’t win. It’s not any smarter than having a good vs evil plot and just waiting to see how the good guys pull it off in the end, now your just doing the same thing with individual characters. You know Jaime has a good side and a bad side, and you know he’s going to turn to a hero, you’re just waiting to see how he does it in the end.

I personally find myself writing stories that flirt with the themes of moral ambiguity more often than not. This is mainly because I find them to be more entertaining. But in the end, I know who the heroes are, regardless of which side of the conflict they start on, and I know the heroes are going to win. Those are the stories I like. The hopeful ones. And sometimes I wonder if moral ambiguity is nothing more than a veil we storytellers use to disguise who the heroes are and create a falsely inflated level of anticipation and suspense around our stories. What do you think?