… in which the black shadow falls
Mary lay still on a white stiff sheet, small as a doll. A swift pulse beat visibly in her neck, a little blue wink.
In nervous hands, Elmore rolled and unrolled a hospital admission form. He waited in a metal chair by Mary’s hospital gurney. Two hours had passed since her admission.
Mary was stable, the doctors said. They waited on antivenom.
A nurse briskly entered the room. Another day, she’d be very pretty. Blonde hair beneath her blue nurse cap. Blue eyes, too.
“Mr. Rogers, can I can bring you something?”
Elmore barely heard. He dealt with a distraction – a dark figure seemed to pace the room between him and his daughter, off and on blocking his view of her.
In dark moments, the figure stopped and stared down at Mary with lidless yellow eyes.
Eyes like that rattlesnake.
The nurse spoke again, softly.
She placed a gentle hand on his arm. Cool. How was it that a nurse’s touch felt clean and pure?
Elmore lifted his head.
Juicy Fruit and lipstick. He smelled her.
Some water, Elmore tried to say. He failed, shook his head, frowned. He’d never stopped sweating since he carried Mary through the emergency room door in his arms. His lank hair hung into his face.
“Water, miss. Please.”
“I’ll be right back with a couple of cups.”
The pretty nurse spoke in a low, sweet voice. Her name badge seemed emphatic with its big capital letters: AMBER.
“Please don’t worry, Mr. Rogers. Your daughter will be fine. That serum should be getting here any minute now. We’ll have little … does she go by Mary …?”
“We’ll have Miss Mary up and around by morning. She’ll be singing. You’ll see.”
Elmore managed to nod. The knot in his dry throat clogged any kind reply. Anyway, Nurse Amber’s reassuring words had kindled an ominous memory.
Just days after Elmore arrived in Mosul, a medic had given Elmore a little inside baseball.
The two soldiers slumped over cold beers in the canteen, the one and only place that ever got cool in that whole godforsaken part of the world. Elmore sat in a state of shock. They’d seen one of their band of brothers, a black private from Moundville, take a round in the hip from a sniper rifle. It happened shortly after lunch, an ordinary, perfectly bright Sunday. The medic got his hands bloody waiting for the evac helicopter.
Soldier’s fate still unknown.
“Want to know what I tell wounded soldiers?”
The medic stared above Elmore’s head at something only he could see, avoiding direct eye contact.
Elmore contemplated his beer, both hands on the cool bottle.
“I always tell them, every one, the same thing. You’re going to be fine. You just hang in there, son. I’ve seen worse. Just hang on.”
Elmore peeled the PBR label with his thumb. “You say that to every wounded soldier? Even the goners?”
“Every single one. Even the ones I know don’t have a frickin’ prayer, that’s what I tell ’em. Legs blown off. Faces gone. Smoking holes right through ’em. Every time. Every soldier. That’s what I have to say. What else is there?”
The nurse named Amber left. Without her white uniform, the room felt darker suddenly.
Elmore reached out and touched Mary’s pale cheek.
The black shadow rose, agitated, from its corner of the room. It began to prowl again, back and forth, back and forth. The thing’s strange crooked feet made clicking sounds on the linoleum floor.
Elmore willed himself to take another look at Mary’s terrible ankle.
The snakebite stood out clearly, twin dark punctures that oozed a colorless liquid. Ugly. How could it be possible that two little holes, no bigger than cat scratches, now threatened his little girl’s life?
A clear liquid came from the suppurating wound, and its weird odor tinctured the room. Elmore wished the bite had a bandage. But the doctors who came in the room and huddled in white jackets and talked in low voices and waved their charts and pens agreed it would be better for now to leave the wound uncovered. Some venom might be able to weep out, they said.
Lafayette General waited on rattlesnake antivenom to arrive from … where?
Nurse Amber had pressed cold packs against either side of Mary’s leg. The old-fashioned, black-and-white checkered ice bags looked just like the ones trainers pressed to the battered faces of prize fighters between rounds.
Elmore studied the delicate blue web-work of blood vessels in Mary’s ankle and thigh. (She had smaller webs of blue on the closed lids of her eyes.) Those blood vessels mattered very much to Elmore right now – certain veins coursing up Mary’s leg from the snake bite gleamed like black seams of coal in a road cut. Ominous black.
The doctors had been making marks on Mary’s pale leg with a Sharpie, a new line every 20 minutes or so. Their marks tracked the steady progress of the snake poison toward her beating little heart.
Where were the doctors? The black poison in the vein had now risen a half inch, maybe more, past the last pen mark. Elmore thought of the mercury rising in a deadly thermometer.
He wanted to yell for help. Mary in danger? It broke his heart.
Still, thank goodness for small blessings. He was glad Will couldn’t see his sister. Lafayette General had a hard and fast rule against allowing children under age 12 in any room but the lobby. This protocol meant that the blue-haired volunteer candy-stripers who greeted hospital visitors took Will and Timmy Wragg into their caring grace, promising to contact Chief Wragg down at the firehouse about his boy. The hospital had a children’s entertainment area. Elmore imagined the boys of Fort Apache sucking chocolate milkshakes through straws and laughing at jiggling green Jell-O squares on their plates. They’d be watching TV, probably “Bevis and Butthead” or something else Elmore didn’t want them to see.
Those two could keep themselves entertained. They’d be fine till Daddy came down the corridor with good news about Mary.
Please, God, Elmore prayed spontaneously.
But he couldn’t shake a troubling thought.
What kind of hospital made a little girl wait for two hours … two hours and counting … on life-saving treatment? How top-notch could this top-notch facility really be?
What kind of Alabama hospital didn’t keep snake serum on hand in the summer?
It made no sense. Here in the Deep South, some terribly unlucky soul with a bucket of worms and a cane pole probably sat down on a cottonmouth on some muddy creek bank once every week. Or some farm hand uncoupling a bush hog from a hitch on a John Deere tractor stepped right on a coiled up rattler waiting all its life to strike a human being.
Snakebites in Alabama summers were a natural fact.
So, why had the hospital coolers here been out of antivenom?
Doctors assured Elmore a helicopter from Camp Shelby over in Mississippi would soon be dispatched with the serum. Forty-five minutes after take-off, they said. Absolutely.
You’d for sure find rattlesnake antivenom at Camp Shelby. The Rock ’n’ Roll Regiment used to train in the heat and mosquitoes of that hellhole in the woods a miserable two weeks out of every summer. Some grunt took a pair of poison fangs there every year.
Elmore bit back his frustrated anger.
At Lafayette General Medical Center, staff in the lobby gave red lollipops to every man, woman and child visitor. Lots of lollipops.
But doctors inside the hospital couldn’t find a drop of antivenom for a snakebite?
They told Elmore they’d made three separate sweeps through the facility, looking in every storage room with a cooling unit.
They found condoms. They found plastic tubing. They found miles of bandages.
They found bags and bags of lollipops.
Elmore shook his head. The snake was to blame. He, Elmore Rogers, was to blame, for stumbling out into a bog so his kids would follow him, for foolishly trying with the kids too close by to learn why some sinister idiot in the woods would put a video camera in a pine tree.
How crazy was that?
Mary’s leg, propped on pillows, was greenish yellow. Elmore wished her wound were only a bad bruise, a twisted ankle. Instead, it could have passed for spoiled chicken meat.
The black vein had climbed up Mary’s leg another quarter inch.
Mary’s leg. His daughter’s leg.
The dark intruder in the room stepped again between Elmore and the lamp by Mary’s gurney, dimming the light.
Elmore hated that shadow. It hung around him month after month during his convalescence, laughing when Elmore told visitors he felt just fine, snickering every time he whispered to Kelly and the crying babies that he loved them so much …
Elmore leaped to his feet so fast that he felt dazed for a second. He steadied, placing both palms briefly on the cool cotton sheets of the gurney.
All at once, Elmore felt scared to touch his daughter. He stretched his hand, then brought it quickly back. The simple motion, horrifically, made him think of a snake striking.
“Daddy … my leg hurts.”
Elmore nodded. Yes, yes. This was his fault. He felt like his head should hang through the rough hole in a wooden stock in a town square, with people throwing fruit.
A soft voice. “Did Will, Daddy?”
Elmore leaned to hear. “Did Will what, honey?”
“Did Will get snaked?”
Mary turned her head slightly to see her father. That little face, so beautiful. Elmore felt a pumping surge of love. A flood of something exactly the opposite of snake venom rushed him.
Little girl, you’re going to be fine. I’ve seen worse. You just hang in there.
Elmore’s eyes bleared with tears, hot and unexpected.
Now, it didn’t seem to be Mary in front of him.
Elmore suddenly didn’t recognize her strange, bright eyes. They held a new light, different deep down inside.
Elmore thought of glowing green ghost lights on a distant hill in the middle of the night.
* * *
Kelly Rogers woke with a start.
Hands touched her.
The blue light from medical devices faintly illuminated a nurse’s silhouette. She had quietly come to check, in sequence, the Velcro restraints on Kelly’s wrists and ankles, the tube disappearing like a snake into her arm, the readings on the monitor. The African-American RN had a kind face. Her name tag: EVA.
The nurse silently adjusted Kelly’s bedclothes and gown, fussed with a mechanical setting or two on a device, scribbled something on a clipboard knotted to the gurney.
Kelly meant to say simply hello. Not a greeting, but a notification. Of life. Of feeling, consciousness, awareness.
Kelly realized that a plastic tube ran down her nose into her lungs. She now could feel it inside her, uncomfortable and invasive. Was this tube to suck stuff out? Pump stuff in?
How, Kelly wondered, could a person wake up with a plastic tube stuffed down the throat and not instantly be aware of it?
Lithium. That’s how.
Lithium and friends.
“How you feeling, Ms. Rogers?”
To her relief, Kelly heard care in the nurse’s voice.
Kelly grunted once.
If her answer to Nurse Eva’s pleasant question sounded negative, Kelly meant it to. She honestly felt like death warmed over.
Kelly remembered a dream. She plunged through darkness toward a black wall.
“I know it hurts, I know,” the nurse said, consolingly. “But we’re gonna get you well. You’ll see. And you know what?”
Kelly lay still a moment. She then grunted again. What?
The nurse named Eva gave a beautiful smile, her teeth strangely white in the room’s blue light. Or maybe in the light of lithium.
“It’s the most beautiful evening you’ve ever seen tonight. It’s like patent leather shoes out there.”
Not even lithium could cloud the memory that instantly flashed into Kelly’s mind.
She was a little girl. A white Easter dress and brand-new patent leather shoes practically glowed in the sunlight. Her family posed for a photograph in front of blossoming purple azaleas in the front yard of their Lafayette ranch house. Her clever dad, good old Frankie Bellisle, set a timer on the camera, and it ticked atop a shiny aluminum tripod. He scrambled, hilariously, to pose in the photo beside Kelly and mom. Everyone wore huge smiles.
It was the most beautiful day any of them had ever seen.
Then, time jumbled up. The hospital room confused Kelly. Lithium did its part too.
She wanted the camera to stop. She wanted time to stop.
Kelly held up a hand in bright sunlight. She made an announcement to her mom and dad.
Y’all, wait! We don’t have Will and Mary in the photograph!
Then, Kelly heard a voice. Again. Clear as a bell. The clearest she ever heard it.
It’s not what you did. It’s what you will do.
* * *
Kelly felt sleep drip over those bright memories, and sleep slowly washed them away, the colors running, fading to black.
Patent leather blackness.
A video surveillance camera in one high corner silently recorded her.
In the suicide-watch rooms, cameras constantly watched patients. They never blinked.
Life and death depended on them … and the unseen, anonymous figures at the monitors.