The Black Helicopter
… in which Elmore breaks
Mary died at 1:57 a.m.
Her heart stopped. Her breathing ceased. In only moments, her lips and eyelids and fingers turned the blue of old ice.
Her death changed the temperature of the whole room. It woke Elmore in his chair by the bed with a start, the way war nightmares did.
It took him a moment to comprehend.
The small huddled shape on the gurney lay deathly still. Behind Mary, on the far wall, green instrument lights had turned red or yellow. Though designed and built to keep track of vital signs, these instruments didn’t need the patient’s actual life to go on living themselves. The LDL screens strobed little numbers and flashed little bars.
It looked so normal. Mary had died. The lines on the monitors ran flat. All numbers were zeroes.
Elmore leaped wildly from his chair. He heard a thin alarm, like a tea kettle whistle, wheezing from one of the instruments. Asthmatic, as if it might cough and die any second, too.
This day in June, his beautiful little girl died of a rattlesnake bite. Mary passed away in a hospital with no antivenom.
She’d been waiting seven hours.
He screamed for doctors, for nurses. He ripped away a tangle of plastic tubing and wires attached to Mary’s tiny body to reach her. By God, he’d carry her to the ER right now!
A driver of a fire department cruiser pulling that moment into the medical center parking lot in a black rain could have glanced upward at a second-story window and seen an unbelievable sight for a hospital – a backlit, full-grown man raging out of control.
Fire Chief Dick Wragg urgently parked, left the vehicle, raced for the ER door.
In the soft hospital room lighting, Elmore tore at tubes and apparatus like a man fighting through a thorny tangle of devil vines in thick woods.
He screamed again.
“Help! Dr. Crockett! Nurse Amber! Help Mary! Mary’s not breathing!”
Pretty nurse Amber appeared from thin air, flying into the room so fast it startled Elmore. It was a marvelous moment – like an angel appearing at the end of a desperate prayer.
“Mr. Rogers! Move away!” yelled Nurse Amber. “Move back from the bed, mister!”
She meant it. Her voice leapt out with startling volume.
“Put yourself down IN THAT CHAIR, mister! Do it NOW!”
Nurse Amber stepped between Elmore and Mary and bodily pushed him from the gurney. She shoved, and she shoved hard.
Blood from ripped-free IV tubes spattered Elmore, and he tottered and stumbled, caught his balance, then slipped nearly to a knee on spilled fluids. He flailed his arms among the dangling jellyfish tentacles of the IV rack, and red drops sprayed the floor and speckled the nurse’s white Spandex uniform.
“Room 25! Code seven! Dr. Crockett! Seven! We’ve got a seven!”
Nurse Amber seemed to simply babble into thin air, but Elmore then saw that her left index finger depressed a gurney call button. At the same time, she probed with her right hand for a sign of life in Mary’s wrist.
Her arm looked like a doll arm. It had the pulse of a doll arm.
“Security! Room 25! Urgent!”
It took Elmore a second.
That would be for him.
“She’s my little girl!” Elmore yelled. “You’re not taking me out! You won’t take me from Mary! Christ Jesus, do something!”
Something was done. A lot, and all at once.
Not one, but two doctors skated into the room, almost comically colliding as they entered the open door at the same moment from opposite ends of the corridor.
Dr. Crockett wore his white medical tunic, disheveled, stains on it from God knows what. He had duty hours that night. He’d come at a run, stethoscope bouncing behind his back, the instrument flipped round to the wrong side as he hustled to reach Room 25.
The second doctor wore green golf pants, tasseled loafers, a brick-red jacket. Dr. Thomson actually carried a black Bible in one hand. He still wore the clothes from a revival service for Rose Lake Baptist Church earlier in the evening. The kindly, retired pediatrician moonlighted as a revival organist for the Rose Lake praise choir, 50 strong.
Dr. Thomson happened to be at the hospital to see his own loved one – his mother, felled by a stroke. He read to her from the New Testament. She lay badly glazed over in a room where the doctor knew from long experience they put little old ladies who weren’t going to make it.
“Nurse Amber, get us gloves,” Dr. Thomson ordered, relieved to take his mind off a mother’s suffering.
“What’s he done to the child? What’s he done?”
Dr. Crockett, young and reed-thin, pointed a ballpoint pen at Elmore. The physician had brown rabbit eyes and a light moustache. Papers slipped from his clipboard onto the shiny linoleum floor.
“He ripped out her IVs, for one thing,” Dr. Thomson stated in a voice of spooky control. He stared accusingly at Elmore. Another judge. The physician seemed spectral, pale, with straw-colored hair and blue eyes that seemed to grow larger and larger as they criticized Elmore.
“Help her!” Elmore yelled. “Would you help her?”
Elmore couldn’t believe two doctors stood in the room … and both ignored his daughter.
Couldn’t they see? Mary! She was gone to sleep! What were they waiting for? Did they want to bitch out a few words about a distraught father in the room or save a little girl’s life?
The nurse didn’t waste time, at least.
“Not finding a pulse. Blood pressure squat,” Nurse Amber grimly announced. “Shock and cardiac arrest. Dr. Crockett?”
Nurse Amber gave up on the little doll arm. She now searched for the faintest sign of a heartbeat in Mary’s jugular. Her index finger plunged to the second joint.
Elmore saw Mary’s poor leg. Black to the knee now, the discoloration had far out-climbed the Sharpie hash marks up the ankle, then the shin, then the knee. Mary’s body looked carved from ivory … with a black leather leg.
A thought came to Elmore, stunning him.
Neeley brought me back to life, he remembered. Neeley saved me, and if he did that, I can save Mary. I can make Mary live again …
Elmore screamed. A war cry. A cry of father’s fury.
What kind of hospital in the Deep South didn’t have a stock of rattlesnake antivenom? What kind of hospital let a little girl wait seven hours on treatment for a rattlesnake bite? Could such a thing really happen this day and age?
Mary’s thin blue lips parted just a little, like she might breathe or whistle or blow a bubble any second.
“Back up. Give me room,” Dr. Crockett said, calm as that.
Then, Dr. Crockett stabbed Mary.
His fist rose in the air, and it held a knife. Only it wasn’t a knife, but a fine shining needle, with drops of something clear already streaming from its tip.
“Jesus Christ! What are you doing?”
Elmore felt himself coming undone.
That moment, strong male arms encircled him. Two powerful bands of muscle and bone gave a single swift jerk that gusted all the breath out of Elmore’s lungs. He felt ribs crack.
A boa constrictor, Elmore thought, surreally. A snake.
Elmore’s head flopped. He looked down to see track shoes on someone’s feet, dress shoes with tassels on others, canvas work shoes on the pretty nurse.
A snake killed me, too. Now, I’m dead just like poor little Mary …
Elmore felt Fire Chief Wragg drag him away, then recline him almost tenderly on the cool hospital floor where it met the far wall. As his cheek carelessly hit the floor, Elmore felt a tiny single thread of oxygen begin to find its way back down his throat and inflate his lungs.
One precious thread.
More air, a gulp.
Elmore gasped, and he sucked in breath.
He witnessed events in the hospital room with intense clarity.
Down plunged Dr. Crockett’s hand. A silver needle sank through Mary’s bare breastbone into her dead heart.
Outside the window of Room 25, a long white crack of fire opened in the heavens. A shock of thunder actually shook the hospital walls, and set off car alarms in vehicles outside.
Seconds later, small hailstones like pea gravel loudly pelted the window.
Elmore lay still on his side on the polished floor – it smelled faintly of isopropyl alcohol and kidneys – and watched the hailstones bounce crazily off the glass.
He thought of tiny fish struggling for their lives in a giant black net.
Lightning flashed again.
Mary’s eyes flew open, strangely blue, like her fingernails. Her blue mouth formed an O.
Elmore heard his daughter gasp.
Mary came back from the dead, just like Elmore had.
* * *
The antivenom noisily arrived.
At long last.
It descended from the stormy night on a helicopter even blacker than the ink-black rain. The Eurocopter dared a rooftop landing atop the medical center helipad in the very worst of tumultuous winds and shears. (The windsock stood straight out, like an orange megaphone.) Highly risky. But a skilled invisible pilot (Elmore wondered if the man at the controls might have served in the reserve with him) settled the bird down sweetly with barely a splash.
Dragonfly on a lily pad.
The noise of a landing helicopter a hundred feet away can burst a man’s ear drums. This night, rolling peals of thunder completely drowned out the flying machine. Elmore could have been watching a silent movie.
“That’s our serum,” announced Dr. Crockett at the window. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
Over and over, with respectful pauses allowing apprehension to mount, fresh lightning bolts split the air. One struck so near the hospital that Elmore heard the air actually hiss, a vroom through his gut at the speed of light.
Mary breathed. Mary had a pulse.
But the lightning bolt presented Lafayette General Medical Center with its own heart-stopping moment.
Lights flickered. Off. Briefly back on. Then, off completely.
The entire hospital went dark.
Cries fluttered down the hospital halls like spooked birds in the dark.
Startled patients left their rooms. Ghostly figures dressed in white skated halls of black ice. A symphony of internal beeping instruments and gauges and monitors and warning bells joined the banging thunder and the howling car alarms and the human distress calls.
Elmore couldn’t believe his eyes, his ears. Was this possible?
A total power outage. In a modern hospital. Could a thunderstorm really put a whole hospital out of commission?
Elmore felt lost in some kind of dream. Was this the end of the world?
Everything seemed impossible.
He blinked in dismay at yellow and white halos running down the hallway, circles of light brightening dark walls, the magic handwriting of flashlights snatched from desk drawers, out of storage cabinets and foot lockers.
Elmore saw one patient, an old woman in a shapeless white gown, ghosted free from her hospital room. A sack of flour with legs. Her hair frazzled out one end of the sack, making her seem more old man than an old lady.
She carried a lit white candle she found somewhere. The yellow light on her old face made her look Chinese, wax, insane. She might have been a thousand years old.
“MOMMY!” she bawled down the corridor, in a timbre terrible to hear. “I’m scared of the dark, Mommy!”
The two doctors and the nurse worked over Mary in the dark, reattaching tubes and drips.
With a sound like a great gasp of air, hospital auxiliary power sources kicked in.
All through the facility rolled a heavy thrum of engines – the kindling noises of air conditioning, respirators, fluorescent bulbs, all the refrigerators, freezers, and heavy appliances that stored drugs and medical samples. Fluorescent fixtures and room lamps and chirping instruments with their wires and tubes, the monitoring devices with their lights and numbers, the cityscapes of LEDs popped and flared and beeped back to life. The machines still connected to Mary’s body reignited, and the breathing tube newly inserted down her nose gave a soft, steady hiss and inflated slightly.
Mary’s pulse strengthened.
Where had it been all that time? Elmore abstractly wondered. Where had Mary’s heartbeat gone? What did the little soft organ do in the meantime? Did it simply wait to see if she wanted to live again, black leg and all?
Her poor leg. Discolored to the knee now.
What if they had to amputate?
Elmore convulsed as the possibility occurred to him.
Oh, God. Thank God. At least she’s alive. But what if they have to cut off Mary’s leg?
Lightning hit a tree or a pole somewhere nearby. Electrical sparks showered onto cars in the parking lot. The power in the hospital gave them all one more scare – lights flickered again, swooned, surged a second time, popped back to life with sudden dazzling intensity.
Mary’s bare, birdlike chest rose and fell. A tiny spot of blood, red as a ruby in a Hindu’s forehead, shone mid-sternum where the needle entered.
Elmore somehow pulled himself back onto his feet. He glanced warily at Wragg. The fire chief wore a Lafayette Fire Department black T-shirt, and a gun holster, for some reason, wagged on his thigh.
“You stay right there where you are, Elmore. The little girl’s coming around now. These fine doctors don’t need any more of your help.”
Sure enough, Mary’s pulse line on the monitors formed an endless row of green hills, then an endless range of tiny emerald mountains.
Elmore felt his own chest rise and fall. The hospital floor’s mixed odors of disinfectant and ammonia burned inside his nose and brought tears to his eyes.
Mary. Our little Mary is breathing.
The slashed blue line of Mary’s mouth took on color. Her soft cheeks grew pink before Elmore’s very eyes, a lovely blush of life conspicuously pooling where chalk white – dead white – had briefly discolored her skin this unforgettable night.
She turned her head to the side, gave a bad-dream whimper. The clear plastic nasal tubes moved when her lips moved. Elmore watched her tongue dart out, lick dry lips.
Mary’s tongue was the same blackish-green color as her poisoned leg.
The sight horrified Elmore. He felt like curling into a ball, screaming.
Instead, he breathed in, breathed out, hands to his side.
Mary breathed in, breathed out.
She wasn’t out of the woods. Her black leg said it all. Mary’s flesh was dying. A few short hours ago, she’d been healthy enough to nearly beat her brother in a bike race.
How could the wheels come off a life so suddenly?
Mary moved fingers, a hand.
Simple. A wave. Hello, not goodbye.
“Stay where you are, Rogers.”
Wragg growled, poised like a linebacker waiting for the snap.
Dr. Crockett raised his head. The doctor’s face was not triumphant, but close.
“Mister … ah … Rogers … we’ve got your daughter stabilized …”
Three dripping soldiers in National Guard uniforms interrupted, loudly bursting through the open door.
Every person in the room jumped in surprise.
Even little Mary jerked.
The soldiers stood at a sorry excuse for attention, all three gasping for breath. One simply gave up, placed his dripping hands on his knees, bent at the waist in the doorway like a sprinter at the end of a heat. Puddles collected like pee under their black boots.
Behind the soldiers, down the corridor, a fourth figure slowly approached. A heavy, square man. He wore a white fringed jacket and oversized cowboy hat.
The tallest guardsman gripped a small Styrofoam cooler about the size of a six-pack. Yellow tape held the lid. The tape read: WARNING: HAZARDOUS MATERIAL.
It hit Elmore too fast. Too much.
The uniforms made it happen. The three soldiers wore camouflage. Elmore’s mind reeled back, dizzily, roiling through space like a camera on the head of a skydiver, a man free falling, spinning, untethered. He saw a flash, heard an explosion – lightning? Thunder? A roadside bomb?
Abruptly, Elmore’s memory locked tightly onto the image of a sinister, barely visible man half in shadow, half in light.
In the woods. Climbing down a tree. In camouflage.
Helpless to stop, Elmore felt his memory rewind further, deeper into old terrors. Up and away he flew, on a lightning bolt of remembrance.
He saw Dan Neeley.
Not Mary. Not doctors or soldiers. Not the pretty nurse.
Elmore lay blown almost to pieces, dragged from a burning truck onto a blistering desert roadside. Something made a noise like a big drum in the air.
Neeley leaned over Elmore. Rocks and hot shards of metal bit his skin. Neeley formed a tight fist and plugged a hole in Elmore with it.
Elmore’s ears rang now, but that sound blessed him – the ringing drowned out every other terrible sound the world made.
Screams of burned men.
Armored vehicles rumbling up like prehistoric animals in the dusty afternoon somewhere close to the end of the world.
That big drum.
Neeley jammed his balled-up fist further up the hole in Elmore’s thigh. He was trying to shove a cork back into a gushing champagne bottle.
Red champagne, lumpy and soft. Sharp shards of bone floated loose in its bottom, and sticky crimson liquid welled over Neeley’s fist, past his wrist. It did not seem to be slowing.
One of the soldiers in the Lafayette General hospital room cleared his throat and spoke.
“Dr. Crockett? We … were ordered to deliver this package to …whew … oh boy … is one of you Dr. Crockett?”
The physician remained carefully busy with Mary, adjusting the ventilator as the child turned her head to watch.
“I’m Dr. Crockett.”
The doctor pointed a finger at the cooler under the arm of the tallest soldier.
“Soldier, is that the antivenom?”
“Yes, sir. I’m …” The soldier took a breath. “I’m … Captain Parker. We’ve been in flight …. ”
“It’s freakin’ TIME!” yelled Elmore. He didn’t recognize the guardsman. A Mississippi soldier. “It’s freakin’ TIME you got that medicine here …”
Wragg put a hard warning palm against Elmore’s chest. But Dr. Crockett chimed in.
“Where you boys been? We called for antivenom yesterday afternoon!”
An unprofessional lapse settled over the room.
“Look at this child!”
Dr. Crockett actually raised his voice now, but Dr. Thomson leaned closer and spoke to him, calmingly.
“We scrambled, sir,” explained Captain Parker. “We are just the messengers, sir!”
Captain Parker stood stiffly at attention now, barking his words as if he’d been busted to private on the spot and still had to answer his drill sergeant.
Thunder somewhere. The lights flickered yet again.
Up the corridor, a lone figure shuffled closer.
“Captain Parker,” Dr. Crockett said, more quietly. “I apologize. We just needed this treatment sooner.”
Captain Parker, earnest and pink with exertion and perfectly moustached, gave a momentary glance at Elmore.
He didn’t need to guess that such a worried face belonged to the stricken girl’s father.
The soldier immediately stood even stiffer at attention. As if he hoped it would convey an impression of command and control, the captain relieved the somber soldier beside him of the Styrofoam cooler.
“Dr. Crockett, sir, we’ve been trying to get a positive on a vial of antivenom since the call from command at exactly 1700 hours yesterday afternoon. We’ve had a dozen men on this assignment, and, sir, this batch of antivenom comes all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. On a helicopter volunteered by a good citizen. We canvassed every hospital in a 100-mile radius, sir. So, either there’s been a lot of snakes biting civilians recent days … or else our medical planners have not been up to their task of keeping stockpiles in order.”
The captain made sure his message sunk in thoroughly. Then, he barked a word that might as well have been a curse.
Dr. Crockett glared, but a sound came from Mary, a groan from the gurney.
The physician extended a white-sleeved arm and relieved Captain Parker of the cooler.
He ripped away the yellow tape, opened the cooler lid with a painfully sharp squeak.
Dr. Crockett looked up immediately, his face a mask of irritation.
The soldiers passed glances at one another.
“It’s frozen, Captain?”
“Yes, sir. We were ordered to keep it frozen, sir.”
The captain did not blink.
“It’s still frozen?” Dr. Crockett’s voice rose and broke almost like a sob, and he trembled with frustration.
“Doctor, let me have it.”
Nurse Amber stepped briskly between the two men. She took the cooler. It made a squeaking noise, like it had something small and alive trapped inside.
“Just use the microwave in the doctor’s break room, please.” Dr. Crockett’s face had turned a shade of purple. “We don’t have time to take it all the way down to the lab.”
“I’ll hurry, doctor.”
Nurse Amber left the room. She run in the corridor the moment she exited the door.
“The little girl’s trying to talk!”
That was Dr. Thomson, still in his church jacket, still working over poor Mary. At least one of the people in the room hadn’t forgotten her.
Mary’s green eyes opened.
Opened, like that.
She looked straight at Elmore.
A little expression came on her face, a crinkle that made her resemble an old, old woman for a moment. Then, her mouth cracked open to say something, her little-girl blue lips formed a heart shape, and Mary mouthed a word only one man in the whole world could really hear.
And Elmore fell like a man shot in the heart at point-blank range.
* * *
A fit came on him.
It attacked Elmore at last, the black giant that roared out of the shadows in the room’s corners, under the bed, from the bathroom. The thing’s top and bottom jaws stretched wide and its black maw gaped.
Elmore fought desperately to keep the terrible thing away from Mary.
“Christ Jesus! What’s the MATTER with that dude?”
Captain Parker, frightened, leaped back against the doorway. Young Privates Tom and John Lake, brothers, bolted out into the corridor, John slipping partway down on rainwater he’d dripped earlier. The soldiers looked panicked. They’d never witnessed a madly thrashing grown man at the foot of a bed with his eyes rolled back into his head and his legs flailing wildly as if being electrocuted on the spot.
Even Dr. Crockett and Fire Chief Wragg jumped back in shock from Elmore.
Here came the battle for life and death all over again.
Elmore kicked and jerked, fighting off the fearsome thing that rose out of nowhere and attacked him. He felt his boot connect with a food tray, heard a crash as the plastic and aluminum contraption catapulted into the wall. A tympani followed – metal plate covers and the silverware and plastic water glasses splattered and clattered about the floor.
“Grab his arms! It’s a seizure!”
Dr. Thomson sounded far away, miles distant from the dark shape that piled onto Elmore, battering him to the floor, strangling him.
“He’s swallowed his tongue!”
That wasn’t true. The beast surely had braced its great limbs against his throat. Elmore couldn’t inhale, but he would breathe again if he could kick away the thing’s deadly grip …
“Lake! You Lakes! Get his legs! He’s broken his hand! Come on!”
Suddenly, Elmore could no longer fight the beast away. Someone had thrown weights heavy as sandbags across his legs, his arms. He struggled still, fought them all desperately, the black creature on his chest and the soldiers and Wragg and even a doctor, a white sail on a ship, all zooming in and out of view.
Someone tried to pry Elmore’s teeth apart, slipping something between them – a spoon? A billfold?
He heard a voice, softer than any other sound in the room, but so loud it stopped the universe cold for one instant.
He heard it. Elmore was sure.
She was awake. She spoke. She called him a second time.
Elmore was a powerful man. He had the physique of a center-fielder, a nail-driver, a ditch-digger, a cabinet-worker. His head and his rib and his tongue and his wrist – what was wrong with his wrist? – hurt this very second, but tiny distractions seemed unimportant.
The power of a man’s gathered rage, the superhuman strength of a father with a child in danger, infused him. He felt a godly flood of force through every vein and muscle and bone.
Elmore flexed. Simply flexed.
The black thing lay at his feet now, hurled away to the floor, the weird goblin face blinking up in surprise and maybe even fear.
The three soldiers lay sprawled in three separate corners, all in camouflage, their clothes torn, one with a boot ripped free. The doctor in the white tunic lay flat, face up, his head beneath a huge dent in a metal panel that encased the climate control unit. The device rattled with uncertainty now and shot drops of moisture against the hospital window.
A little blood ran from Elmore’s nose.
Lightning split the sky again, a hot crack in a ghastly black pumpkin head of thunder clouds. The gods had crammed the false head down over the hospital and the whole little town of Lafayette.
Elmore found himself on his feet, towering above the wreckage in the room. He grabbed blankets from the foot of the gurney, and he rolled his daughter, his Mary, into them and held her swaddled in his arms just the way he held her when she was a little baby. A baby, no bigger than a doll …
Elmore roared now – the first noise out of him since soldiers rushed the room.
Soldiers in camouflage.
Elmore Rogers roared again, the veins bursting in his neck, the volume so loud Venetian blinds and lampshades trembled.
A clap of thunder could not drown him out.
Nurse Amber, hair flying, a slushy, partly thawed vial of antivenom in hand, burst back into the room. Yet another slick spot on the floor nearly brought her down – she snatched for the doorframe, kept her balance, accidentally whacked the antivenom sack heavily against the jamb.
She blinked in complete surprise at the war zone.
She turned out to be a cool one.
“Mr. Rogers, please put your daughter down,” Nurse Amber said evenly. “She needs this medicine. Right now.”
Elmore met her eyes. Blue. Unblinking.
He loved her.
But the black thing on the floor stirred and rose once again. It stood between them. It had no features at first.
It resolved into the face of a rattlesnake.
“See it? See it, Nurse?”
Nurse Amber didn’t see it. Elmore knew she didn’t by the bewildered look on her face. Her blank confusion.
Elmore hoisted Mary for a better grip. He looked at his wrist. It hung down like a pocket pulled inside out. Useless. A white pearly bone showed under a bloody tear in his skin.
He hoisted Mary, a bundle of Mary in her blanket, closer to his chest.
Was he the unluckiest man in the world?
Mary coughed. Her steady green eyes remained open, on Elmore, watching.
“OK.” Elmore nodded to Nurse Amber. “Please help her. Please.”
Gently as a man lowering a sinner into a river for baptism, Elmore took Mary back toward the white rumpled sheets of the gurney.
“Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Rogers.”
The words came from Nurse Amber. What was her last name? Her face shone, beautiful with kindness.
Behind the nurse, the three soldiers and two doctors and Dick Wragg huddled, rubbing their wounds, dabbing at cuts with paper towels and fresh gauze pads. Out in the corridor, a small mob of the curious had gathered. No one uttered a sound.
But one figure now stepped forward.
The last time Elmore had seen Mr. Wood, it was from high on a rooftop. He looked tiny then. Such a little man to be such a big man.
It was not a good memory. Elmore had crowed from a rooftop, blood dripping from his thumb.
What is that son of a bitch doing here?
“Mr. Rogers,” Mr. Wood said. Here stood a man who always spoke in orders. “You best put that beautiful child of yours down on the bed. If you don’t, she will die. Or lose that leg.”
All at once, Elmore knew it was true.
“Put her down on the bed.”
Mr. Wood turned and whispered something to Wragg and Captain Parker. The men nodded, never taking eyes off Elmore. The captain made a hand signal, and the other two soldiers stood at full alert.
Elmore knew what would happen the moment he took his two strong hands … even with one of them hurt … off his little girl.
His living little girl.
Mary, brought back from the dead, somehow. Wrestled away from that ugly black shadow in the room.
Where was that shadow? Where had it gone now? Another room down the hall? Slipping into bed beside some withered old lady with a stroke on the first floor?
Then, Elmore smiled.
He lowered his lips to kiss Mary’s forehead.
She was cool as marble, even with such a bright light in her eyes.
“I love you, Little Mary.”
“I love you, Daddy …”
He gently snuggled her down onto the gurney.
He knew what would happen as soon as he took his hands off Mary.
The soldiers. Mr. Wood would sic the camo boys and Wragg on him like dogs.
Why was Wragg here? That Mr. Wood? What on earth was he doing in the hospital?
Maybe Elmore asked those questions aloud.
Because somebody answered.
The captain. Elmore watched his mouth open, and he actually saw the soldier’s words come out, shimmering like fish in the dim air of Mary’s wrecked room. Elmore heard the words as they hung brightly in place, waiting for his ears to be ready, to accept and hear …
“… Mr. Wood’s private helicopter … out of nowhere … brought the serum all the way from Memphis … on his own bird … fastest damned machine … just 45 minutes … saving a little girl’s life … not another drop from here to Timbuktu … flew the damn thing himself …”
Then Elmore was gone.
He whirled. He ran. He launched.
The hospital window crashed ahead of him.
Elmore Rogers left a gaping open hole through thick window glass.
The storm rushed through the opening. Cheap Venetian blinds rattled violently in the burst of wind. The air tasted of lightning.
“Go get that cracker bastard,” snapped Mr. Wood. “We didn’t bring that snakebite medicine all the way from St. Jude just to have this son of a bitch fuck up these doctors and this hospital and get away scot-free.”
Nurse Amber didn’t glance around. She coddled Mary, hoping the child hadn’t heard or understood Mr. Wood’s ugly language.
The nurse pulled a second blanket over Mary’s brightening face to keep off the blowing rain. The storm quickly drenched the room, even speckling the bystanders out in the corridor. Papers gusted wildly again off the doctors’ clipboards, pages wilting in the puddles, some waltzing away into the corridor and beyond, sucked swiftly away.
Wragg and the soldiers disappeared just as quickly, racing like deer to bring Elmore to justice.
Dr. Thomson, the older physician, stood simply stunned.
He stared down through the man-sized hole made by Elmore Rogers onto the parking lot two stories below. Dr. Thomson was nearly 80 years old. He’d fought in World War II and stood at attention on the hot deck of the U.S.S. Missouri the day Hirohito surrendered. He’d practiced medicine since the days of iron lungs.
He’d never witnessed a night like this in any hospital.
He attempted to spread a blanket over the blowing gash in the window.
In a flash of lightning, Dr. Thomson witnessed Elmore Rogers, the broken fool, hobble free of a massive – and now massively crushed – boxwood hedge that fringed the foundation of the hospital. The splintered head-high landscaping must have broken Elmore’s fall from the second story. But look – the man trailed a length of bone-white Venetian blind, tangled on one ankle. He limped badly, and his wrist dangled. He looked curiously, absurdly, like a woman holding a purse. But without a purse.
Unexpectedly, the passenger door of a big dark car – a sheriff’s department police car – yawned wide.
Dr. Thomson saw Elmore Rogers stumble in surprise. He caught his balance painfully, hesitated, warily peered in. Dr. Thomson watched the escapee wipe his bleeding face with one good hand. The swipe pushed streaming hair out of his eyes.
Elmore Rogers addressed someone in the police car.
A square little boy got out of the vehicle in the rain and came and stood in front of Elmore. The kid seemed to be pleading.
Elmore first shook his head no. Then, he nodded his head yes. Finally, sadly, he hung his head.
He got into the police car with the little boy.
The light on top blazed blue. The siren howled, rose in pitch. The police car gunned its powerful engine and jumped a curb, then squalled in a full-circle smoking turn, slinging rainwater into the foggy air.
Dr. Crockett stared out the window now, too, the left lens of his eyeglasses cracked.
“What is going on in this crazy world tonight?”
The police car accelerated on the firm black asphalt again, and tires screamed. The driver flared his blue lights and his engine made a popping noise like gunfire.
The cruiser rocketed the length of the parking lot. On the way out onto the highway, it threw up a mighty spray of rainwater … that doused three National Guard soldiers and Fire Chief Wragg, who burst onto the near sidewalk from a hospital side door at just the wrong moment.
The curses of the soldiers and fire chief would never be heard over a new crack of thunder, a new blast of white light in the sky.
The police car was still picking up speed when it rounded a curve a half-mile down the road toward Eutaw, and disappeared.
Dr. Thomson marveled.
He’d never even learned to drive.
He turned back to the hospital room.
Nurse Amber and Mr. Wood sat side by side on the gurney.
The nurse held Mary Rogers in her arms possessively. Madonna. Child.
Mr. Wood – the famous rich man, Mr. Wood – stroked the child’s soft hair.
The little girl’s eyes were fixed on him, wide.
Mr. Wood teased Mary’s hair a moment longer. He cleared his throat. He spoke with a deep coo.
“You get well, little girl. Christmas will be here before you know it.”