HE’S FOAMING AT THE MOUTH as they load him on the gurney, and he looks at me with wild eyes.
“Angel,” it sounds like he says, but his voice is thick and gurgly and it’s hard to make out his words.
“What?” I ask quickly, trying to get through the EMTs to grab his hand. “I’m not an angel. You’re not dying, Beck. Do you hear me?”
Nothing feels real as I watch the paramedics slam the ambulance doors closed. They latch with finality, sealing my son inside, and panic erupts in my heart as red and blue flash against my skin. He can’t be alone.
“I want to ride with him,” I hear myself say, and they shake their heads.
“We’re sorry, ma’am. There’s not enough room. Follow us in your car.”
I’m not sure how I find the front door to grab my purse and my keys, or how I make it to my car. I can’t even feel my foot as I press the stiff accelerator. It doesn’t occur to me that I should perhaps put real clothes on, so I find myself chasing the ambulance in my bathrobe through the Chicago streets.
not for five more minutes that I remember my other children, and with a gasp, I call my sister.
“Sam, you’ve got to come,” I manage to say around the lump in my throat, a giant piece of terror that is stuck halfway down.
“What’s wrong?” she says quickly, even though she was sleeping and I can hear it in her voice.
“Beck.” My voice breaks, and I can’t breathe. I try to inhale and it doesn’t work. I can’t speak. It’s Beck. Of course it’s Beck.
“Nat?” My sister is urgent and her voice is thin. “Nat! Talk to me! You’re scaring me.”
“We’re on the way to the hospital,” I manage to gasp. “Dev and Annabelle are at home. Sleeping. Please . . . go there.”
That’s all I can squeeze out.
“I’m on my way,” she says, and I can hear her throwing her covers off and grabbing her clothes. “Vinny, we’ve gotta go,” she tells her husband. I hear him mumble that he’s asleep, but I can’t think anymore.
All I can do is focus on the back of the ambulance, on the perfectly square doors and silver handles. My son is in there, and I can’t lose him.
“Nat?” Sam asks, and she’s hesitant. “Is Beck . . .”
“He’s alive,” I say limply. “Or he was when they took him. But barely. I don’t . . . I can’t . . .”
I hang up because saying any of those words out loud might influence the outcome. I might tempt fate and God might take my son if I doubt Him.
“Don’t take him, don’t take him, please don’t take him,” I plead under my breath as I weave in and out of traffic, trailing the ambulance like I’m attached with a tether. The siren wails and it’s monotonous but it’s good. It’s good the siren is on. They would only turn it off if . . . if . . .
I can’t think it.
Beck is in that truck.
He’s breathing. I have to believe that’s true.
The hospital is a beacon of light and hope as we pull in. I barely remember to put my car in park before I jump out and leave it in the middle of the lane, the tires wrenched haphazardly toward the curb.
“Ma’am, you can’t park there,” a guy in a security uniform says with his fake badge, but I don’t answer. I toss him my keys and push my way to the doors, and that’s when I see him.
They’ve pulled him out of the ambulance, and he’s so still, so white. He’s got the body of a man and the face of a boy, and he’s got vomit in his hair. One hand dangles over the edge of the gurney, orange flecks dripping from his fingers to the floor, but no one notices.
“Beck,” I breathe, but he doesn’t open his eyes. “Beck,” I say louder, as loud as I can. His mouth is slack, but he’s not dead—he can’t be dead, because someone is pumping his heart with her fists. She’s running next to the gurney, and she’s pounding on his heart, making it beat.
“Coming through,” she yells at the doors, and there is a team of people working on him. They’re frantic, and that’s not good.
I chase after them, through the emergency room, through the people, but someone grabs me at a giant set of double doors, the gateway to the important rooms.
“You can’t go in there,” a nurse tells me.
“That’s my son,” I try to tell her, but she doesn’t care. “Beck,” I scream, and I try to see through the windows, but I can’t because he’s gone. “I love you, Beck. Stay here. Stay here.”
The nurse grasps my arm, and I can’t stand anymore. My legs are tired and the adrenaline . . . it numbs me. I collapse beside her and she tries to hold me up, but she can’t . . . I’m on the ground.
My face is wet—when did I start crying?
“You have to save my son,” I beg her, my fingers curled into her arm. I stare into her eyes. Hers are green, ringed with blue, and she looks away. Something about her seems so familiar, something about those eyes.
“We’ll try, ma’am,” she says uncertainly. It’s the uncertainty that kills me. “We’ll do everything we can. I’m going to take you to a quiet room and give you a blanket. Is there anyone I can call for you?”
I shake my head no. “I already called my sister.”
“Okay,” the nurse says quietly, and her name tag says Jessica. She takes me to a waiting room, a quiet private one, the ones they use when the outcome might not be good. I know that because I’ve been here before.
I swallow hard and she puts a cup of coffee in my hand.
As she does, she pushes a stray hair out of her face and her bracelet catches my eye. A simple chain with a silver dolphin on it.
“You were here the night my husband was brought in,” I say slowly. “Weren’t you? Do you remember me?”
It was over a year ago. Of course she doesn’t remember me.
But Jessica nods.
“I’m so sorry about your husband,” she tells me now, her voice quiet and thick. “I swear to you, we did everything we could.”
“I know,” I tell her. Because I do. The accident was so bad, there’s no way anyone could’ve survived. Except for Beck. He lived. But Matt . . . his injuries were insurmountable. That’s what the doctor told me that night.
I stare at the door, and this is the same room and that is the same door and this is the same blue-and-white-tiled floor. For a minute, I’m back in that moment and the doctor is coming in. I’d waited for hours and his face was so grave and I knew, I knew, before he could utter a word.
I shook my head because I didn’t want to hear what was coming next, but he spoke anyway.
Matt’s injuries were insurmountable, he’d said. We did everything we could.
But everything wasn’t enough, and my husband died.
“Is it a different doctor tonight?” I ask suddenly. “I need a different doctor. One who can save my son.”
I know it’s
illogical. I know it was never the doctor’s fault, but it doesn’t matter because Jessica is nodding. “It’s a different doctor tonight,” she tells me. “Dr. Grant, and he’s very, very good.”
“Okay,” I whisper. “Okay.”
“If you need anything, you tell me,” Jessica says, and I can see that she means it. She likes me. Or she feels sorry for me. It doesn’t matter which. I nod and she’s gone, and I’m alone.
Just like I was a year ago, and just like that night all I can do is pace.
I’m a caged mama wolf and there’s nothing I can do, but I know that if I stop moving, Beck might die. My energy is attached to his energy. I have to move. It all depends on me.
So I walk in circles.
I walk six paces, over the six white tiles, then I turn, taking three steps over the blue. I tread back six paces over the white, and then turn again, taking three more over the blue.
I will not stop, Beck. I won’t fail you. I won’t.
It becomes rhythmic, and I match my breaths with my steps. I’m a machine, a timekeeper, a being made of clockwork as I walk in circles, marking time. Every step I take, Beck is still alive. I feel it in my heart. It’s all up to me.
I’m alone in the room, and the door is ajar. The lights in here are dimmed, but the lights out there, out in the hospital, are bright. A wedge of that brightness falls across the floor, across the line of blue and white tiles, and I step over it time and again, determined not to touch it.
I won’t step into the light, Beck. I won’t go into the light if you don’t. Promise me.
They won’t let me see my boy, but if I just think hard enough, if I feel it hard enough, he’ll hear me. He’ll hear my begging and my pleas, and he’ll forgive me for everything, and he’ll live.
Please, please, please.
I pause for just a second on the far edge of a blue tiled square. The tile is dog-eared here in this spot, standing out amid the other perfectly
polished ones. This one is cracked, and I’d stepped on it a hundred times a year ago when I was waiting for news of my husband.
Kneeling now, I finger that crack.
Maybe if I hadn’t paused then, if I hadn’t focused so much on the imperfections of this one tile, Matt would’ve lived.
I hadn’t moved enough that night. I didn’t save him.
Bolting to my feet, I restart my pacing, furious now. I’m a woman possessed, and I don’t care about being rational. I don’t care about logic.
I care about saving my son.
I would do anything to save him. I’d offer my own life in trade. I’d make a deal with the devil.
“Tell me what I need to do,” I whisper adamantly to God. “Just tell me.”
Through a heavy fog, I hear the hospital sounds instead of an answer.
The beeps of machines, the squeak of nurses’ shoes on the floors. I hear gurneys rolling and curtains being shoved back, the metallic rings scraping against the metal rods. I smell the waxed floors and the iodine and the sterility, and it makes me sick.
An overwhelming blanket of dread drapes me, wet and suffocating, covering me up. I feel so suddenly hopeless, so bereft.
“This can’t be happening,” I whisper to the empty room. “How can this be happening? What kind of God would do this to me again?”
But then I’m instantly scared. “I’m sorry,” I tell Him. “I didn’t mean it.” But I kind of did. I just can’t say it aloud. I can’t have Him punish Beck for my doubts.
“Don’t take my son,” I say instead. “Please, please, God. Don’t take my son. You took my husband. Please don’t take my boy. I can’t deal with that. It’s been enough already. You know it’s been enough.”
I leave it at that, and I begin to pace again, because in my addled and illogical mind, my movement also has a direct correlation to how hard the doctors will work on Beck. My steps are frantic and fast, and that’s good. It’s
something I can do. I can power the doctors with my energy; I can push the breath in and out of my son’s lungs with my steps.
I’ve made two hundred laps around the tiles when the door is pushed open, and the light opens onto the floor and I look up, and I’m frantic, and I expect to see the doctor.
But I don’t.
It’s Kit, my husband’s best friend, and he’s filling the doorway with his giant shoulders. He’s a Great Dane in a sea of Labradors. He always has been.
“You don’t need to be here,” I tell him immediately. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Beck is going to be fine.”
“Tell me how he is, Nat,” Kit says calmly, unaffected. He steps inside the door and grasps my elbow in an effort to get me to pause. I shake him off because I can’t stop. Not for anyone.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I’m helpless. “He overdosed, I think. He was on my porch and there was so much vomit, and he was . . .”
My voice trails off, because I can’t relive that moment.
“What has the doctor said?”
“He hasn’t been out at all. They were . . . Jesus, they were doing CPR on him, Kit. His heart wasn’t working.”
There are tears on my cheeks even though my heart is a block of ice. I don’t know how that’s possible. Kit tries to hug me, to pull me against his big chest, but I can’t, I can’t. I pull away.
“Kit, stop. I have to move.”
The rejection and pain on his face cut me a little, but I can’t worry about that. I can only worry about Beck, and I have to move.
I feel Kit watching me as I pace, and I know that I look crazy. But I don’t care.
“Nat, is there anything at all I can do?”
I feel him trying to read my thoughts and I look away. I want to tell him to just leave me alone so that I don’t have to worry about anyone but myself in this moment. I word it more delicately than that.
nothing. I just want to absorb the quiet and pull myself together, honestly.”
He pauses, unsure.
“I mean it,” I insist. “You know how I get. I handle things better alone.”
He finally nods, albeit reluctantly.
“Call me if you need me,” Kit says before he turns to leave. I nod, and he’s gone and I’m back to being alone.
I pace and time bends and blends.
Jessica brings me another coffee at some point, and I’m dizzy from pacing.
“Your friend wants you to drink this.” She pushes the hot Styrofoam into my hand.
“The big blond guy? He’s out in the public waiting room.”
I exhale. Of course Kit didn’t leave. He wouldn’t. He’s the closest friend we have. He would never leave.
“Thank you. Is there any news?”
She shakes her head. “They’re still working.”
I nod, and my head is a ball on a stick, bobbing like a bobblehead doll.
She starts to leave, but I stop her.
“Jessica? What time is it?”
She checks her watch.
“It’s one forty-seven.”
I exhale slowly with relief. Matt died at 1:21. Beck outlived him. I know it’s illogical, but I don’t give a fuck at this moment. It seems important.
She nods and she’s gone, and Beck outlived Matt.
But I can’t get cocky.