I have several stories in this section so if you’re not ready to read the first, check out one of the others. They are all very short.
At this point I must also say these could be classified as ‘memoir’ material. They are all true with the exception the conclusion of “The Knife Drawer.”
The Emergency Room
It’s December twenty-seventh in the emergency room. I glance at the clock. 11:47 p.m. I left the house at eight. My baby’s fever is out of control. The little girl in my arms is limp. She cried herself out ages ago. I’ve done all I can. There is nothing more I can do, but wait.
We’re at the city’s only hospital that’s willing to admit any patient, with insurance, or not. It’s crowded. Old people sit, huddled in layers of clothing. Children play tag and wander on their own. Working class folks wait in grease stained uniforms and duct-taped shoes. This is the walk-in entrance. There are two others, where ambulances and police cars stop. Anyone in the room where I sit is at the bottom of the triage totem pole.
It took forever to get my husband on the phone when the problem first arose. I was worried, but not alarmed. The fever wasn’t so bad. But baby Tylenol and cooling baths weren’t doing the trick. Nothing was getting her temperature down. As a resident physician, I figured my husband would know what to do. It was the attending pediatrician who said to bring her in. He promised he could squeeze in an exam. So, here I am, nearly four hours later, afraid my child’s been forgotten.
A bearded man in the corner makes crackling sounds when he moves. Newspapers are stuffed inside the remains of his coat. It’s noisy, but I’m sure the extra insulation helps. Even though I’m inside wrapped in my winter gear, I’m cold. Still, he seems nervous. Something’s wrong, like he’s afraid of getting caught. That’s when I notice the grocery cart outside, the one his eyes keep watching. Where it sits, it’s far more frosty. I finally understand. The homeless man is afraid he’ll get caught stealing the warmth of this place.
I wipe my baby’s brow, wondering if another visit to the counter might help. Every time I go up, my problem gets passed from one person to the next, like they’re all too busy to listen.
“My name’s Nala,” from out of the blue, a child near five-years-old introduces herself to me. “This is Coco.”
Her little sister gives me a shy smile.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I reply.
A clattering noise interrupts our conversation. There’s an older lady on her way in. A young woman follows. She’s dragging a huge, clear plastic bag filled with aluminum cans. Against the elderly lady’s stern objections spoken in Spanish, the girl runs to the nearest trash bin, pops off the top and begins rummaging through it’s contents.
“Is your baby sick?” asks Nala like nothing strange has happened. “Our mom is sick. We come here a lot.”
“A lot.” confirms her shadow.
“I’m sorry.” I answer.
“Did your baby get that bear for Christmas?” both girls stare at the toy in my little-one’s arms. “I’d like a Teddy bear.”
Her sister nods in wide-eyed agreement.
My baby… why don’t they call me back?
“Would you like to sit down and read a book?” I ask, holding out one from my bag. Maybe if I can get the two to sit down, they’ll let me wrap my extra blanket around their coatless shoulders.
Both stare at my offering for a moment. Little Coco looks to her sister for the verdict.
“We mostly get clothes for Christmas,”says Nala, ignoring the book. “Did you see my outfit?” she poses, then twirls. The fabric is stained. More than one day’s wear is evident.
Nala’s mini-me, whose clothes are the same, tries a spin, but plops to the floor. Giggles follow.
Over at the trash bin the rummager cries out in triumph. Nala runs to see. After one last lingering glance at the bear in my daughter’s arms, her sister does the same.
The baby’s still burning. Please God, get us help…
Over at the trash, an aluminum can is the cause of the excitement. It gets crunched beneath the finder’s foot then tossed in her overstuffed bag.
Outside a low-rider screeches to a halt. Someone gets shoved out the door before they peel away. A young fellow stumbles in, clutching at his side. There’s blood on his jacket. It trails down his pants. He reaches the counter, then collapses.
“Knife wound. South entrance,” the intercom sounds.
Eternal seconds pass while the boy lays bleeding on the floor. Pressure needs to be applied to that wound. But I can’t care for my baby and him. No one else is moving. It’s a huge relief when the orderlies arrive with a Gurney and wheel him away.
Again I check my little girl. She’s still ablaze. I’m terrified. Let a child boil like this for too long and brain damage is sure to follow.
It’s a miracle when my husband finally appears. I ask why we’ve had to wait so long. He’s shocked to see the hour is long past nine. Like every other professional I’ve encountered, he’s looks like a dead man walking. They’ve been swamped. Car accidents. Gunshot wounds. Last second surgeries performed on the fly. He leads me into cramped halls lined with wheeled beds, all occupied. He tells me the hospital rooms are full. There’s nowhere else to put them. Police officers stand in the passageway, overseeing patients who are hand-cuffed to their beds.
An infant encased in a plastic box rushes past us. An old man moans for help from his bed. A drug addict trembles and vomits. Then a child, no more than four, is wheeled into the pediatric room where my baby and I are being deposited. The bottom of her burned feet, now permanently deformed, show a blackened swirl that matches an electric stove burner.
Tears begin welling in my eyes. How could anyone be so cruel? I yearn to take her away, tend to the burns, clean the clothes, hand out blankets, feed the hungry, comfort the sick, wipe up the vomit, the blood, the filth until it’s all gone. I want to hold these lost, forgotten people in my arms until the pain disappears.
But I can’t. And it won’t.
My baby is ill.
She is all I can clean.
She is all I can feed.
She is all I can comfort.
She is the only one I can save.
While a room full of parents clinging to children like mine continue to wait, the attending physician examines our daughter.
She is safe.
Clutching my child close, I leave, a solemn promise in my heart. I will not forget. I cannot be silent. If nothing more, this world I’m escaping needs a voice.
There must be change.
(I didn’t think this story would be controversial, but it turns out I was wrong. There were two group reactions – those who said things couldn’t possibly be so bad and those who said I was right on the mark. This is based on my own first hand experience of what it was like at a hospital in the heart of San Antonio, Texas. I have been told by those who have been doctors and/or patients that conditions are far worse at other, busier hospitals like San Francisco General and Houston’s Ben Taub.)
Here’s a highly charged topic. If you don’t agree with the views expressed, please remember this is written from one person’s perspective. Ultimate judgement doesn’t belong in your hands or mine. That’s one reason why it’s called ‘My Choice.’
(word count 1078)
“Given your medical history, there’s no question you need to have an abortion,” says the case worker after one last cursory glance at my file. “We’ve got openings available for next Tuesday. How does eight sound?”
She holds out a sheet of paper with instructions regarding the procedure. When I don’t take it, she lays it on the desk in front of me.
“It’s nothing to get nervous about, just a quick in and out kind of thing…”
Her commentary continues, but I’m not listening. There’s a small metal wastebasket in the corner that I’ve been eyeing in case I need to vomit. It was a likely scenario when I walked into this closet sized office. I’ve been in this nightmare of a women’s clinic for how many hours now? …Four? …Five? They say all their services are free, but they’re not. If you don’t have the money, they’ll take your time. Lots of time.
“…Honey? Are you listening?…”
Yes. I’m listening. Earlier while I was waiting in line I was listening.
“Yeah, this will be my third time,” a brunette who couldn’t have been more than six months past her sixteenth birthday had commented. She and her blond friend had climbed out of a new Mercedes. Both wore designer jeans, tees, and high heels combined with accessories ‘Seventeen’ magazine would have lauded. Compared to everyone else, they stuck out like sore thumbs. Based on what I could see, the other women, like me, couldn’t afford expensive clothes when basics like food were a higher priority.
“Brad says rubbers take all the fun out of sex,” she continued. “and birth control pills…”
“The bloating. I know!” exclaimed her friend. “I can barely fit into my pants as it is!”
“Well, why not enjoy yourself while you’re young?” the first girl had argued. “You’ve been through this before – right? It’s not bad. You fake sick for a couple days and you’re fine.”
And this is what the state’s tax dollars cover? Flippant teens taking dangerous risks at everyone’s expense when safer, no-cost-to-them contraceptives would have worked?
I can almost understand why the women with blistered needle tracks on their arms are here. They, along with the numerous others who were struggling through their last cigarette before going inside, are dealing with addictions that would put any fetus in jeopardy, not to mention their own lives.
Then there are the others. Women with sallow faces, frizzled hair, and worn-out clothes in out-of-date styles. Most of them already had babies on their hips, and toddlers on the floor beside them. Like me, these were the desperate, barely clinging to sanity and survival, who couldn’t afford anything better than free. But the teens?
“…Is getting some extra help got you worried? Transportation? No one who can pick you up and drop you off? They don’t need to be here the entire time…”
No. Getting help is insignificant when you’re contemplating a life or death decision. The way this woman is talking, it’s as if I don’t have a choice. I have two beautiful kids, so I know what it’s like to feel life inside me. Once I felt the first flutter of independent motion, it was undeniable. My body housed something separate, a human being. A child. My child.
“…Sweetheart, this is a busy clinic. Other people are waiting. I’ve got you down for eight on Tuesday. You’re set,” once again she offers me the surgical sheet.
I stare at the paper. The woman closes her eyes, pinches the bridge of her nose, and sighs deeply.
“Having this baby could kill you,” she says bluntly. “Saving yourself isn’t a sin.”
So she thinks I’m some kind of religious fanatic? Maybe I am. According to my beliefs there are only three exceptions when it comes to abortion: rape, incest, or the mother’s life being at risk. That’s me. The mother whose life is at risk.
“You’ve got two kids and a husband who need you. Think of them.”
Does she take me for an idiot? Believe me, I know. My husband deserves a wife. My children deserve a mother. So this baby doesn’t deserve a life? Tell me, how does it all weigh in the balance? The situation has plagued me for days. After two full term pregnancies I’ve been through hell and back again. Postpartum psychosis as intense as mine is rare. And deadly. Doubling in deadliness with each child that comes. Without an abortion there’s little in my favor. Only three outcomes: I die. I’m institutionally insane for life. Or, by a miracle, after the insanity, I survive.
Yet, in every case, the baby is fine.
“Take the paper. You can call and cancel if needed.”
I take the sheet. I think of my husband, my kids, the life I’d like to live. I think of the baby, an unwanted surprise, yet desired. My husband’s beliefs are the same as mine. He knows where this could lead. We both want this baby, but whatever I choose, he supports me. He knows the real question: Could I kill this baby and live with myself?
“I’m sorry,” I say as I lay the instructions back on the desk. “I can’t.”
“It’s my choice.” I simply remind her. Isn’t that the right so many women claim to be theirs?
I walk down the hall, past the teens, the other desperate and waiting women, each with their own reasons to erase the same ‘problem’ I’ve got. They have theirs. I have mine.
Once outside, I bask in the sun. I breathe. Decision made. It’s mine. I’m free.
(I’ve been told by some this depiction isn’t what abortion clinics are really like. That is probably true in a number of states, especially at centers where the services are not for free and there are numerous restrictions/requirements. This story is based on a state-run facility in California where everything from birth control pills to procedures were offered at no charge to those who could not afford them.)
Merry Christmas! The season may or may-not be in active celebration, but in my opinion, a story like this should be remembered all year.
(Word count 1413)
It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 and my family is on a secret mission. It’s dark outside. Sleet patters then slides down the minivan’s windows. As we drive from the suburbs into an area choked with aging apartments, we’re giddy. The weather is a wonder to us. The van’s temperature gauge taunts us as it hovers just above the freezing point. We’ve lived in Houston for nearly a decade. Never has it snowed.
Weeks ago I was told of a family, a mother and three boys, stranded in the U.S. Due to a military coup, the father, a diplomat to our country, was being held as a political prisoner in their African homeland. His fate was uncertain. Any assets they had, had been seized. Without a visa, the wife couldn’t work. She and her boys were living in a small apartment. They had no furniture, no car, no country, and nowhere to go.
For Christmas the boys, aged nine, six and three, had one wish: A bike, so the oldest son could run errands for his mom.
Helping a family in need has always been a holiday tradition for us. To let our recipients know how important each family member is, we select individual gifts. On Christmas eve we leave a pile of packages on the doorstep, ring the doorbell and run.
Like anyone on a budget, there was a limit to what we could contribute. This year the funds we set aside could cover the bike, but not much more, not the kind of individual gifts which relayed the message I wanted to share. So, I talked with my husband. We presented the problem to our kids. They were old enough to understand the economics of Christmas. We could give the family the bike along with a few small things, or maintain our tradition, and cut back on what we bought for ourselves. It was up to them. They could think it over.
At the time of our pitch no one objected, but the gang didn’t seem thrilled.
A couple days later my kids and I went to Target to pick up the one essential item, a ten-speed Huffy I’d found on sale. On our way to the bike section my eleven-year-old daughter grabbed my arm.
I stopped up short, wondering what was wrong.
“Isn’t the littlest boy three?”
“Look!” she pointed at a toddler-sized training wheel bike. “Can’t we get this one too?”
I glanced at the price.
“You could take it out of my Christmas money,” she added when she saw the concern on my face. I was floored. How could I turn her down?
“It’s not that much money is it?” she persisted.
“No.” I answered. “But if we get two bikes for three brothers, how would the bike-less middle brother feel?”
“You could use some of my money,” volunteered my thirteen-year-old. This statement was followed by a pointed look at her brother. “I’m sure Harrison would be okay if you used some of his,” My fifteen-year-old shrugged, indicating his agreement. “Wouldn’t that be enough to get three bikes instead of one?”
“Are you sure?” I asked them.
“Please?” begged my youngest.
I gave my two teens a meaningful glance. If they had any objections, now was the time to speak.
In reply my son put the boxed bike in our cart.
That day we left the store with three bikes, none of which had been on sale. My shopping assistants had informed me the bargain Huffy wasn’t good enough, not when it was their money I was spending.
After that, Christmas changed. At a time when my kids would have been obsessing over what they wanted to receive, they were gleefully hunting for new ways to help a family we did not know.
And here we are on Christmas eve, ready to complete the task; leave our gifts on the doorstep, ring the doorbell and run.
We’ve never visited this part of the city before. Half the streets lights don’t work. Everything’s poorly maintained. The weather doesn’t help. So it’s a triumph when my son spots the address on an unlit sign.
As we pull into the drive we’re stunned to find the entry gate closed. We left early in the evening to avoid this problem. Now what are we supposed to do? As we weigh our limited options, a white Toyota pulls up to the entrance. Slowly the gate opens. My husband smiles. As we sneak in behind, we’re giggling. The mission is on.
I call out the building number. Everyone’s on the lookout. The apartment complex is a black maze of two story buildings sheathed in grey siding. Most are dark, but we find our target. It’s on the second floor with it’s own staircase to the doorstep. The barren windows are lit. They’re home. The pressure is on.
In spite of my heavy winter coat, once I’m outside the car, I’m shivering. With cold-reddened hands, we unload the bikes from the back of the van.
Traversing the stairs is our next challenge. They’re that iron/concrete combo that vibrates and echos if you aren’t careful. We pass the first bike up, assembly line style, our backs to the wall so we stay out of sight. Thus, our largest item gets placed without raising a ruckus, but there isn’t much room in front of the door. Two more bikes get passed up. It’s a squeeze. My husband silently hooks the front tires over the railing. They fit, but there’s three more bags filled with gifts waiting to be placed.
On this project we’ve sacrificed more than ever before. To the best of their knowledge, our kids have volunteered every dollar that would have been theirs. At this point for them, for our family, what waits in the morning doesn’t matter. Right here, right now is our Christmas. The thrill warms us from within. We dash from the van down the walk to the stairs and back, so full of smiles we’re ready to burst.
The job’s almost done, which is good since we’re freezing. My husband and the girls are running for our getaway vehicle. At a slower pace, I’m following, glancing back toward my son to make sure everything is in place.
Our practiced, doorbell-ringing runner hits the button. He flies down the stairs grinning, bee-lining his way toward the van. Behind him I watch as the last overstuffed sack leans toward the steps and falls open. Two packages with bright bows tumble out.
I gasp, then run to catch the presents before they splash into the slush that covers the ground. The boxes are saved, but for me it’s too late. The porch light comes on. What can I do? Hiding isn’t an option. There’s nowhere to go. Taking off at full speed will attract more attention. So in imitation of the few wandering tenants we’ve seen, I turn and walk toward the car.
With wide eyes, my family watches from the van.
Two thin boys wearing shorts appear at the apartment door. They begin jumping and pointing, calling out to the remainder of their family. Their mother shoos them back inside. For a moment she stares at the mountain of gifts. Her jaw drops. Shaking hands cover her mouth. That’s when she sees me. She rushes down the stairs, calling out in a strange language.
That’s my cue to bolt for the car.
But there’s something in her voice that stops me. In spite of the boys who have reappeared to marvel behind us, the frenzied air of a moment before becomes peaceful. That’s when I know there’s one last message I need to deliver.
So I stop. I turn.
A beautiful stranger with tear tracks glistening down her face, rushes into my arms. We’ve never met before. We will most likely never meet again. Yet the love I feel is overwhelming.
“God loves you.” I say, even though it’s doubtful she knows English, “God loves you.” I repeat, as tears fill my eyes. She understands. The woman, out in that cold weather, wearing no shoes and dressed in thin clothes takes my face in her hands.
She kisses my cheeks.
That’s when we notice flakes of white fluttering from the sky. I can’t believe my eyes. Snow is falling in Houston.
Miracles happen. In 2004 I witnessed three: A distressed family’s Christmas wishes came true. Through the generous desires of my children, we experienced the true gift of giving. And the snow, like the star from a night long ago, reminded each of us from Whom all blessings flow.
WARNING: This tale is graphic. If you have a weak stomach, don’t read it. I wrote it for a scary story contest. The idea was drawn from my most terrifying moment. I’m thankful it’s fiction. But the experience of writing it was cathartic. The line between fiction and truth is frightfully thin.
The Knife Drawer
(word count 1768)
It’s sometime after one a.m. The TV’s on, droning about vacuums, or blenders, or shoes. As usual, I’m curled up in a ball on the couch. The sound’s turned low. The light of the screen flickers making shadows shift about the room.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here. The nightmares keep getting worse. I wake up, soaked in sweat, shaking because I’m so afraid the unthinkable inside my head is real. It doesn’t matter. Right now my head is in the kitchen, ten short steps from where I sit. There’s a narrow drawer to the left of the sink. That’s where our biggest knife resides. Ten inches long, three inches wide. Perfect for chopping, and… other things.
I’m in denial. Something’s wrong. Something’s been wrong for a long time now. Horrors stir within my mind. I can’t believe they are a part of me, of who I am.
Now I know. It isn’t me. Something evil crept inside my soul. This body wasn’t made for two. Little by little, in vulnerable moments, it’s been gaining strength. Visions flash through my mind. At first they came in flickers, something so small you could brush it away like dust without a second thought. They grew. I’d be in the car. In my mind I’d see the turn, the crash, the bloodied victims and broken glass. The urge to make it real arose. It passed. During the day it’s easier to diffuse.
But we all must sleep. With sleep comes dreams. Mine fly, unfettered, through unholy acts. At times like this, they’d reach a peak. I’d wake. For an eternity I’d lie frozen in my bed, fearing what would happen if I moved. Slowly it would dissipate. That’s when I’d get up and wash the dishes, fold the laundry, or pay the bills. Or, like right now, watch TV. Ordinary, every day things. It would pass as it always had, I’d tell myself. Those thoughts did not define who I was or what I’d do. I’d imagine I had it under control.
The Demon has nearly commandeered my soul. The person I know, as who I am, is a fly on the wall, a speck in the corner of my mind. I’m tangled in the Invader’s web, watching as I lose my self.
The peaceful apartment does not deceive me. My husband sleeps without a worry. The baby snores softly in his crib. For them I must be strong. But the struggle between myself and the Invader hangs by a thread. So once again I mentally rehearse the only option I have left.
Seven steps from the couch the bathroom waits. I close the door to muffle the sound. The preparations are simple. Slowly the bathtub fills. Steam rises. As I climb inside, the heat stings my skin. That’s what I want. I sink into the water. The blood in my veins pumps so strong it throbs. The blue lines in my wrists stand out.
I’d rather leave my hands in the water. It wouldn’t take long. I could close my eyes and drift away… But the Invader, the Demon, craves something more. It needs to see the gore. I have no choice.
My husband’s razor blade slices into the delicate flesh with ease. What happens next is glorious and dreadful. Blood dribbles down my hands, running in pulsing streams down my fingers, until it pools thickly on the floor.
Oh God! I don’t want to die. Why didn’t I listen to the doctor? Why didn’t I take the pills? Why didn’t I let them dull my senses and lose my self to something else?
Silently I’m crying for my husband, pleading for him to wake. If only I could make a sound, any sound. But it won’t come. I’m afraid it’s far too late.
Unbidden the vision I dread the most begins again. Seven paces to the bedroom. I pass the wedding pictures in the hall. Eight more steps lead me to the far side of the bed. I’m at my husband’s bedside with the kitchen knife in my hand. He’s strong, which means I must move swiftly. He’s laying face down, which helps. I plunge the blade into his left side between his ribs. His eyes fly wide in shock. The knife sinks into his right side. His hand flails toward my leg. Again the knife falls. Again, until it’s a frenzied blood bath with splatters on the wall. My face, my hair, all of me is dripping red.
The Demon’s silken threads wrap around my fly self, squeezing until who I am is nearly gone. The worst is still to come.
It takes seven steps to reach the hallway, six more to reach the goal. I’m standing in an infant’s shadow world of cuddly things and pale pastels. In the crib he’s on his back, limbs relaxed. The knife is not enough for him. Anticipation flows through my veins. His little legs are in my hands. I yank him from his bed. He flies in an arc until his head smashes into the wall. His tiny skull cracks open. Brains spill out, spewing with bony fragments. Half his head is gone.
Still the Demon thirsts for more. Once the Evil begins, it will not stop. It will hunt and find and hunt again, leaving a trail of endless blood and gore.
I’m gripping the couch in desperation, straining to hold it back. Maybe if I switch the light on, things will change. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it will go away like all the times before.
Summoning my courage, I finally release my grasp. The light switch is three steps away. I’ll run to wake my husband and everything will be okay.
I take three steps. The light switch clicks. The Demon laughs. The knife drawer opens. The blade is in my hand.