Something in the Air
The sky is holding its breath. Waiting for a storm to crack it open. For the air to turn a putrid green, grumble and spew out twisters. Twisters whose tails stream over the valley where the river runs between the hills. The hills that a hundred years ago a river boat captain built his house into. The house where I sit rocking my three-week-old newborn, peacefully gazing out the window into the expectant sky.
She begins to grunt. Small spasms push her body against mine. I scan the room for the diaper bag. Retching moans escape the insides of her tiny being. Her legs draw up. Then she roars.
I put her to my shoulder and walk her around, patting her on the back. She’s the best babe. Never cries, sleeps all night, wakes up smiling, playing with her toes. You are so lucky, everyone tells me.
But now she lets out a howl. Her face twists, her eyes bulge. She throws her soft downy head back, purple and raging. She’s howling and kicking and pummeling her tiny fists against my neck. I call my husband at work.
“What the hell do I know?” He shouts above the screaming. “Call the doctor.”
I try to keep the receiver near my mouth, while my baby wraps herself around my neck.
“What’s the problem?” The nurse asks.
“My baby won’t stop crying. And she’s grunting real bad.”
“All newborns cry and grunt, Mrs. T. Does she have a temperature?”
I put my hand to her head. “She feels warm.” But we don’t have central air. And it’s summer.
A sigh. “Well, Mrs. T. Take it and call me back if it’s over 100. Otherwise just give her some Baby Tylenol.” Her voice is calm, re-assuring. Dismissing.
Her directions reclaim my senses. Muffle the noise in the room, in my ears, in my head. Guidelines to follow. Action to take. Find the thermometer. I search through the drawers and cabinets until I just can’t look anymore. I put her screaming into the car seat and drive her screaming to the drugstore. Back home I scuffle with her wriggling, pulling, thrashing body. Then I pull it out. 103.
Our cries merge together as my fingers hit all the wrong buttons on the phone. My throat clenches when the nurse answers. I choke out “103.”
There’s a muffled silence as she covers the phone. Then, “Get her to the Emergency Room. Now.”
Oh no. Oh no. I leave a message on my husband’s work phone, screaming above the screams. Flying through the house, gathering my purse, her bottle, my shoes, her diaper bag. Where the hell are my keys?
The sky rumbles, then bursts open and pours over us as we run to the car. I struggle with the car seat, pulling it from the backseat to the front where I can watch her every move. Because I can’t take my eyes off her face. Scrunched into a purple mass. The bright red rash that covers her neck.
I fumble with the straps and clips and buckle. Then put the key in the ignition and press down on the gas pedal. Racing down our winding hill on auto-pilot. I speed through the yellow lights, slide through the stop signs, swerve around the indecisive, the damn slow-pokes, cut-off everyone. Can’t they see it’s a matter of life or death?
Sirens pierce the air. Not the whirring cop-car, pull over kind. But the long streaming air-raid kind. Tornado warning.
If we were home I would be running down to the basement with the baby and the cat. Huddled on the old beat-up couch near the cupboard of canned food and bottled water. Blankets and diapers. Listening to reports of the twister’s path on the battery operated radio. Internalizing its speed and size and wake of destruction. Waiting, waiting. For the house to be sucked up. Or—the roof blown off. Or—the steady drone of the all-clear siren.
But now, I’m in a car. Speeding through a kaleidoscope of clouds tumbling through the air, trees stretching horizontal, cars pulling off the road, people huddling in shallow ditches or running to homes of strangers. Pounding on their doors. Let me in. Let me in. All bracing for the knock-out punch. But my baby is sick. My brain says, ‘Don’t stop. Keep moving’.
I shriek-sing with the songs on the radio, forcing my lungs to drown out the sirens, the thunder, her gut-wrenching cries. The song is interrupted by a grainy-voiced bulletin… Take cover. Take cover. Take cover. I force breath inside my hammering heart. I can’t pass out. I can’t crash. I can’t lose it. Or her. Keep moving. Focus on the windshield wipers. Inhale…Exhale… Inhale…Exhale… Keep it together.
I screech up the drive to ER and they meet me. Quick quick, inside. They whisk her away. I’m directed to a room with no glass windows. I sit on the floor against the wall with the others. Waiting. The lights flicker on and off as I fill out the forms. Answer their questions. Listen to the wails coming from behind that door. That cold, metal, windowless door.
The ER doctor comes out.
“Mrs. T?” He sits down next to me. A bad sign.
“We finally got the spinal tap. Had to try three times, she’s so little.”
Tears jump to my eyes. “Spinal tap?”
“Well, we think it’s meningitis. But we won’t know for 24 hours. Until the test comes back.”
“Wha, wha, what’s that?” I breathe in staccato. “Meningitis.”
“Spinal Meningitis. It’s an infection covering the lining of the brain.”
“Well, like I said, we won’t know for sure until the tests come back. But we’re going to treat it that way.”
I’m shaking my head, then nodding, then shaking. Tears blur his image into a faceless white lump. “Can I see her?” I ask.
“Yes, um…is your husband here?” He looks around. “Or anyone?”
“He’s on his way,” I say. I think. I hope.
“Ok. Now, I’ve got to warn you.” His metal stethoscope magnetizes my eyes. I can’t look away. I can’t look at him. The lump in white.
“Her veins are so tiny, we had some trouble with the IV. We tried her hands and feet, but the veins all burst… So we had to run it through her head.”
His words suck out my breath. Straps my vision to a medieval torture chamber. Wrings out my hope.
“I had to tell you,” he says gently. “Didn’t want you to be shocked.”
Shocked? “Thank–you,” I squeak out. One mustn’t forget their manners when one’s first born is being tortured to death.
The all-clear siren sounds. The room is a mass of movement. The doctor leads me into the ER ward, past the car wrecks, stab wounds and overdoses. Into the room where my newborn lies on her back fastened spread eagle to the bed with Band-Aids and safety pins. With a tube in her head.
I softly stroke her baby body avoiding her bruised and bleeding hands and feet. Momma’s here, darling.
“It doesn’t look pretty, but at least she’s getting the medicine,” the doctor says. “We’ve got to get that fever down. It’s up to 105—”
“Oh dear God!”
“The aides will come and give her a sponge bath every hour. But as you see, we’re real busy tonight, so…”
“I’ll do it,” I say.
“Great. You can breast feed her too. Just be careful not to pull the IV out from her head.”
“Where’s the sponge?”
The hours tick by. I keep calling my husband and keep getting a busy signal. The storm jammed the circuits. The roads. He could be in a ditch somewhere.
My sweet beautiful babe lies asleep. Sedated. The aides un-pin her hands and feet. Every half hour I lift her miniature limbs and sponge down her body with cool water. The perfect baby, never cries. The aides pull up a chair and I carefully lift her to my lap and pull up my t-shirt. I curve my arm around her perfectly shaped, burning head. The IV tube jiggles.
The curtain opens; my husband stands there dripping wet. “Damn madhouse out there. Accidents, trees down, power lines hanging all over the place. Floods.”
His words flip out his frustration, but his eyes hold anxiety when I find myself in them. Watching a scared rabbit of a mother. Doing the most natural thing in the most unnatural position. Condition. Situation.
“If she doesn’t come home,” I say calmly, “you can order two coffins.” And for the first time ever, I see his eyes dampen.
The doctor comes in. He explains, describes, projects.
We ask, “How did this happen?” We want to know. “Was it something we did? Something we didn’t do?”
“No.” he says. “It’s in the air.”
At two A.M. I crawl into bed with my sleeping daughter. Smell her sweet baby scent. Pet her comatose body. The aides give my husband a blanket and pillow and he stretches out on the floor next to us.
I lie awake in the dark counting my heart beats. I count to sixty, thirty times then sponge. Count then sponge. Count then sponge.
The night moves into morning. Her eyes open. She doesn’t cry. Her fever has broken. The tests come back negative. The IV is pulled out. She is smiling, cooing, playing with her black and blue feet.
“What was it?” We ask the doctor.
He shrugs. “Some kind of twenty-four hour bug. It’s in the air.”
My husband brings my car around. I buckle my daughter in and drive home. Through the streets littered with debris. Past the people going to work, talking about last night’s storm over coffee.
In the bedroom, I sit on the rocker humming. My daughter snuggles softly against me as I gaze out the window. Over the hills to the river. Where the sun hangs soft in the powdery sky.
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Chera Thompson is a graduate of Ohio University School of Journalism, her short stories have been published in The Los Angeles Review, Roadside Fiction, Queen City Flash, Have A NYC 3, Flash Fiction Press. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s short fiction contest. She has contributed human interest stories to the Buffalo News, travel publications, and spiritual retreat newsletters. www.cherathompson.blogspot.com