Author Meagan Lucas explores a crises of conscience in this compelling short story
Michelle studied the pattern the raindrops made on the outside of the window. It had been pouring for days. Puddles like lakes flooded the flat roof of the emergency wing below. Ambulance sirens and flashing red lights broke the monotony of grey everything; grey sky, grey parking lot, grey walls, grey noise from the hall. The automatic blood pressure cuff on her arm hummed to life; filling like a balloon and then ticking like a bomb, before admitting a disapproving buzz and trying again. After the third fail a screech emerged. A wail calling attention to her poor body, to her inability to produce enough pulse, enough pressure, enough anything. She turned and looked at her arm, it was more blue than pink.
A new nurse rushed in, “tut-tutting” under her breath as she mashed the buttons on the screen. She yanked the Velcro. The hooks ripped from the loops violently. Michelle sighed and looked at the clock for the thousandth time in the last two hours. The nurse wrapped a new cuff around Michelle’s arm and squeezed the bulb repeatedly. The nurse studied the dial and her watch and squeezed again. Michelle watched the rain drops. The nurse wrote something on Michelle’s chart, paused while reading page two. The nurse removed the cuff more gently this time. She put an extra blanket over Michelle’s legs and said: “You need to get some rest.” Michelle looked at her, blinked and resumed staring out the window.
Heavy footsteps echoed down the hall. The tempo was fast. They stopped outside her room. The silence was pregnant with anticipation. John walked in, wide eyed and grey faced. He stood very close to the bed, but not touching. His arms crossed over his chest, and his eyes were everywhere but on her.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
You didn’t answer your phone.”
His arms were in the air now, conducting, as if to convince her with his exuberance. “I didn’t hear it ring. I saw the rain and I knew with those tires you’d have trouble so I set my phone where I could see the screen, so I wouldn’t miss the call.”
Her brows knit, fingers gripping the blanket next to her thighs. “You didn’t answer.”
It didn’t ring. I worried the whole time.” His hands were in his hair now, pulling; his eyes squeezed closed.
Not enough to check your phone.” It was a whisper.
That isn’t true. It didn’t ring.”
Not enough to call to check.”
I was in a meeting. You’re a good driver. I thought you’d be fine.
In the pouring rain, on bald tires that you’re too busy to replace, with our children.”
I slid across three lanes of traffic coming down the mountain. The road turned. The car didn’t. The tires were spinning beneath me and the steering wheel was loose in my hands. A scream of metal on metal and a roar, then we were hanging from our seat belts upside down, watching the water rush across the pavement.”
He sat on the end of the bed, his face in his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“I called you three times.”
“I’m sorry, okay!” His voiced echoed off all the shiny and easily washable surfaces.
“You’ve been saying that a lot lately.”
“That’s not fair. The kids are fine. You’re fine. This is not the place to have that conversation. It has nothing to do with this.”
“I’m not fine,”
“You’re not? The nurse who called me told me you were.” He finally looked at her, his eyes narrowed.
He rolled his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair.
“I’m married to a man who works constantly. Whose nose is buried in his phone when he’s at home. Did you notice I changed my hair? That I’ve lost ten pounds? What’s your daughter’s teacher’s name? I have no freedom, but I’ve never been so alone.”
“Do you know what kind of pressure is on me to support you and the kids. I have three monkeys on my back. I don’t even know where the money goes. When we have our taxes done, I’m shocked. I don’t know how I can make so much and have so little. I come home from work and I’m so tired and stressed I want to fall over, and I’m not even in the door before one of you needs something. Everyone always needs something. I don’t have a single minute to myself.”
“Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“Do you want a divorce?”
Her head recoiled like she’d taken a blow. “Why would you ask that?”
“I’m trying to gauge how important this argument is.”
“What the fuck?”
“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?”
Michelle looked at him open mouthed. The blood pressure cuff hummed to life.
“I’m going to go see the kids. I’m glad you’re alright.” He stood and walked out of the room without looking back. He held his breath until he was in the stairwell.
Alone with the stairs, he pressed his forehead into the cinder-block wall. Tears wet his cheeks. He started to climb to the next floor but stopped on the landing to stare at his shoes. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and pressed the home button. The screen came to life full of the notifications of her calls. He pulled up the recent calls and pressed the top number. He sat on the step while it rang.
“Hey,” he said, and paused listening. “Yeah. Bumps and bruises.” He listened some more, his thumb and index finger pinching the bridge of his nose. “No, I’m not coming back.” He held the phone away from his ear for a few seconds before slowly bringing it back. His knuckles were white. “I can’t do this anymore. My family needs me.” He pressed home and turned the ringer off before putting the phone back in his pocket. He climbed the stairs to the children’s ward and hit the crash bar in the door at full tilt.
Meagan Lucas’ work can be found in a variety of literary journals including: Four Ties Lit Review, The Santa Fe Writers Project and The Penmen Review. Her story “Kittens” is the 2017 Winner of the Scythe Prize for Fiction. Her story “What She Lost” was the runner up in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition. Meagan lives in Asheville, NC with her husband and their two children. She teaches undergrads the joy and pain of writing. Family life, the grey space between right and wrong, and the dark underbelly of the American Dream figure prominently in her work. Read more at www.meaganlucas.com.
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