March 18, 2013
It’s the usual night in the emergency room and I’m sitting at the front desk. This girl staggers in, pregnant abdomen extending below a Dale Earnhardt Junior shirt and sweatpants now coated with liquids I don’t want to see. She moans in pain.
Husband follows, bright in his hunter’s orange, hands waving.
“She’s gonna have this baby now,” he says through three teeth. A shot of cigarette smoke and beer coats my face. The other waiting people watch with fascination. I pick up the phone and call for a nurse. The girl leans against the desk, splaying out hands covered in some kind of sauce. The husband places a hand on her back. She shuts her eyes, opens her mouth, and lets out a yell that pierces the air. She balls a hand and brings it down on the desk, knocking over a container of hospital logo pens.
“What kinda operation is this?” the husband asks, slamming his hand onto the table. His ring finger is tattooed with a faux wedding band that matches the tattoo on the girl’s hand, a hand she has spread over her stomach. His orange pants have blood on the legs and I wonder if it is human or animal. The theme from Deliverance shoots across my mind. I push the image away and look back to the woman wondering if she’ll hold out enough to not deliver on the floor.
Two nurses emerge from the back, sit the girl on a wheelchair, and push her in for treatment. The husband walks behind them, removing an iPhone from his pocket to answer a call.
They disappear and calm settles over the room. People cough. Some cry. Others vomit in small plastic bags we provide at check in. Two patients later, a man enters alone.
He points to the back.
“My girlfriend just had a baby back there,” he says. I look at the security guard. He raises his hands in a gesture of helplessness. I tell the guy to go through and hope he is with someone else. Maybe another pregnant woman arrived and I missed it.
I get the answer in two minutes.
The exit door slams open, the men pouring out in a tornado of fists. I hit the panic button under the desk.
The room clears but people stand around and wait to see if anyone will intervene. The helpless guard watches with the same fascination. Everyone likes animal aggression. A teenage kid records the fight on his cell phone.
The police arrive and separate the men. The boyfriend yells over his shoulder.
“You can have her. The kid is mine anyway.”
At the end of the night, I wait for my replacement. She comes to the desk and I start talking about the fight. The phone rings and she answers. I go and clock out, returning to see her hang up the phone. She looks at me.
“We had an elopement,” she says.
“What?” I imagine a couple running to Vegas to get married.
“A baby left behind. Mom cleaned herself up and vacated the maternity floor.” I feel a weight drop on the back of my skull, squeezing pressure through my neck. The faces of the mother and father flash through my mind. I turn from the desk and go back to the inside of the hospital.
I push through the main doors and walk to the elevators, punching the up arrow. The doors open. Maternity is a short ride to the third floor.
I step off the elevator to see a trail of blood. This was her. The thought, the instinct, makes me follow. The trail leads to an empty room and a housekeeper making the bed for the next birth. I go to the nursery, looking in the window at a handful of babies wrapped in pink and blue blankets.
Was the kid better off? I wonder. Did the baby need a home with biological parents? Would it grow up healthy in the system, running through foster homes? I thought of the baby’s violent delivery. Welcome to reality. Welcome to a parent who didn’t want you in the first place. Welcome to a society that devalues marriage. Good luck kid.
My heart breaks.
I hear movement and turn. A nurse pushes the woman from the waiting room in a wheelchair. She holds a baby wrapped in a white blanket. She smiles down at the small face in the blanket. The nurse pushes her by me and she meets my gaze in a moment of unspoken communication.
I shut my eyes.
Matt Shaner has twenty-three short stories published online and in print through various outlets including a novel and novella available from Eternal Press. He is a current student in Fairfield University’s MFA Program. He spends his nights working in a hospital and days with his wife Valerie and their two sons. He lives in Reading, PA.