“School out already?” I ask.
“The fish was lying sideways in my class.”
“A kid at school said it’s normal.”
“He said fish get tired swimming in circles. They need a rest.”
“I guess a fish could get tired. I don’t know much about fish.”
“You think it’s normal?”
“Why so much interest in the fish? You like cars.”
“It was dying, Mom.”
“Where’s this coming from, Jason? Has something happened at school?”
I want to deflect our conversation away from death. Let’s talk about bullies or sexual feelings. Let’s talk about erect penises and vaginas and how they function. I love talking about plumbing. Plumbing is always interesting.
“I killed it.”
“I don’t understand.”
I do understand, and it scares me. Maybe it’s genetic. Every time I do a shift. Mercy or murder. Decisions. I make people live who should be dead. I’ve killed people because I’m human and make mistakes, sometimes good ones.
“I took it out of the water.”
I grab my son and squeeze his ribs until he gasps. I made this child—every toe, rib and eyelash. He’s everything I did right.
Still, I’ve got to get tough. He’s got to understand that taking a life has consequences. The guilt it creates starts small, like sand, like a black pearl, until it grows into a boulder. The weight will crush him. Ten years old is too young to be acting with compassion. I squeeze him tighter.
It’s like hugging a pole. Jason is stiff and impersonal in my arms. He doesn’t have a racing heart. He doesn’t shiver or quiver. He’s cold calm.
“You okay?” I ask.
He’s okay? He’s okay with killing? That bothers me, worries me. I did find Jason pulling the legs off a spider. He said he was doing an experiment for his science fair project. Was there a science fair? I forget that kind of stuff.
Then I remember Sharlene complaining about how Jason got her son up on the roof of our complex and dared him to jump to a lower balcony. Happily, the boy didn’t. The police arrived and talked them down. Jason said it was the other boy who started the dare games. Not his fault. I believed him.
An alarm, like a hospital code, goes off in my head. I pull away from my son and stare deep into his dead-sea eyes. They are flat and tearless. I can see my reflection in his large, black pupils. No remorse. No sign of regret. Oh god, what if the fish was just resting?
My last shift was four nights ago. I’ve called in sick three times. Now I need a note to validate my absenteeism. My doctor friend can help. He writes under many different names and gives me prescriptions for antibiotics, muscle relaxants, anxiety meds, and occasionally narcotics. That’s not true. I need narcotics and try to deny my addiction. I get a steady supply because my doctor friend needs help with his plumbing. Massages turn into tug ’n rubs. Blow jobs happen under his office desk. My knees ache. My mouth is dry.
Back at work. I have to leave Jason with the neighbour as his dad is out of town. Sharlene isn’t happy but needs the money. I thank her and slip her some pills for her migraines. I don’t tell her they are near useless to me; I need stronger stuff. She agrees to keep Jason as long as he stays in her bedroom. It has a lock. I don’t ask. I tell myself I’m late for work.
I was thinking about my boy the time I finished pounding on another. He was gone.
“Every death is profound.”
That’s what the emergency doctor said when I slipped on the bloody, coagulated floor. My bum, legs and hands were covered in gelatinous, ruddy gloop; the dead cells had come from the young man lying on the bed above me. I wallowed in the blood puddle and laughed. A barrel laugh, a hardy guffaw, knowing I’d started my period that morning and was worried about leakage.
The ER doc offered me a hand up. He was splattered in blood and didn’t judge my laughter. We all laugh in emergency. My smile disappeared when I stared at the kid who died. He was a baby, only eighteen. Another nurse was calling housekeeping for a cleanup. I began to remove the tubing and started preparing the boy. I didn’t want his family to smell the iron, see the raw flesh. The charge nurse slipped in the room but didn’t fall. She informed us that the boy’s parents were away on holiday. Maybe they were sipping margaritas and thinking they were finally living the life without kids. Maybe.
The statement on death made by the emergency doctor turned out to be ironic. He died three days after the boy. I was sure someone would repeat his profound death words and others at his funeral.
“Fit ’n fifty,” he used to say, flexing his golden biceps.
“Get a life,” read his neck tattoo.
“Run junkie,” his faded t-shirt read.
The ER doctor was a marathon runner. He ran farther and farther until he died running a super marathon through the desert. He ended up in our intensive care with his kidneys shutting down and a cascade of organ failure. No slippery floors. He was profoundly dehydrated. Maybe his death was a suicide caused by vicariously over-living.
I am ready to take Jason home from my neighbours. He’s in a deep sleep. Not a peep. Not a flutter of an eyelash.
“He was no trouble,” says Sharlene.
“Has he been trouble?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
I think I’m accessible. People can talk to me, shout or slur at me. I hear them.
“Have I missed something? Did he act up?”
“Not today. I told you before, he stole stuff from my place. And then there was the police incident.”
Dare games. Stole stuff. Jason gave me a gold bracelet for my birthday. He swore he found it on the street. I believed him. It was child-sized. The loopy chain link had an initialled charm attached which read To WP Love SP. No one I knew. The pawnshop confirmed it was gold. They gave me thirty dollars for it. I used the money to pay for babysitting.
“Thanks for looking after my boy,” I say, hoisting Jason higher into my arms.
At home, I drop him in his bed, clothes and all. His dead weight hurts my back. Maybe I should call in sick. It’s the night shift. Butcher knives in backs, motor vehicle accidents with pulverized bones hanging in skin, kitchen accidents involving slipping on a bottle, carrot, lightbulb or metal spoon—always found up the bum. There is always a crisis, always a sour chuckle.
Jason’s dad calls me at work. He sounds drunk. He says I sound drunk. Damn, got to watch myself.
“What do you want?” I say, carefully enunciating each word.
“Look, I’m calling to ask if I can have Jason for the weekend.”
“Sure you can. He needs new clothes. And pack him some lunches to bring home. Actually, groceries. Supplies are low.”
I hang up. My body is shaking with excitement. I’m going to have a party with myself.
It’s Thursday night. I’ll need to make a special appointment with my doctor friend. I wonder how much he’d pay for a half ’n half? What’s the going rate for a blow and roll in the back of his car?
The nursing supervisor pats me on the shoulder. She wants to see me in her office—right away. I nod and don’t breathe.
I pull out a package of mint gum and stuff four pieces in my mouth. I need a little time to pull myself together.
I don’t go to the nursing supervisor’s office. I head over to see my patient, Mr. T, an elderly man admitted to emergency after falling down some stairs. My patient appears pale and fragile, with a large contusion on his forehead. I ask him to look at my finger. He has a dilated pupil and mumbles his words. When I press on his nail bed, he barely responds.
The nursing station is across the hall, but no emergency doctors are around. I yell at the clerk to page for one.
“Mr. T needs to be seen! Now!”
“Donna!” says the nursing supervisor, standing behind me. I know she’s been waiting, but my patient is a priority. The clerk says she’ll get a doctor right away. Another nurse says she’ll cover for me.
I enter the supervisor’s office and head to a woven chair tinted with rust stains. There must be a lot of nurses with leakage, or this chair was stationed near a bleeder. I plant my ass and expect another discussion on tardiness or recurrent absenteeism. I don’t hear the door close. My mind is whizzing up a diversion. Let’s talk about dating sites and singles cruises. Let’s talk about kids and the grief they give us.
“Donna,” I hear my name and turn. Two police officers are standing next to my supervisor.
The first time I got high was in nursing school. I was with my roommate Janna and her boyfriend. We were going to see a horror movie. The boyfriend asked us if we wanted something to soften the experience. He had pills. Janna refused. I didn’t. I hated horror movies, so I grabbed a couple. I watched sudden, unexpected horror without flinching. Bloodied, dismembered bodies were hysterical. I was the only person howling with laughter in the theatre. The usher kicked us out. Janna was miffed.
A couple of days later, I bumped into the boyfriend. We had a giggle about my movie misadventure. I said the pills worked like emotional armour, and I would love a few to get me through exams. He put his hand on my thigh. He said he’d give me a fist full of pills if I sat on his face. What a valuable friend he turned out to be.
“Donna Wallace?” says an officer.
“What’s this about?” I say.
“Is your name Donna Wallace?”
“Do you have a son? Jason?”
Oh god. This isn’t about me. I can deal with me. I can wiggle myself out of any situation. But Jason. I knew something was wrong with him. Did he hurt a kid? A teacher? I should have stayed home. I should have given him to his dad early. My blood pressure drops and I feel sweaty. Scary shit is going down. I can see it in the faces of the officers, on the face of my supervisor. By reflex, my hand disappears into my uniform pocket. I can feel a pill. It’s round and chalky. I palm it to my mouth. It gets caught in the wad of gum.
“When did you last see your son?”
“This morning. I got him up and sent him to school. What’s wrong?”
“Donna,” my supervisor whispers. Her sad, empathetic eyes are on me. She has tears. I crunch my wad of gum fast, and swallow.
“What’s wrong with Jason?” I say without raising my voice. Without emoting.
“Mrs. Wallace,” starts an officer. He’s kneeling beside me. I can feel the warmth of his open palm on the centre of my back. He coughs and tries to speak. I smell coffee. He had time to drink a coffee.
“Your son was found dead in the school bathroom. We think he took some pills.”
“Pills . . .”
“Some children said he was playing a game.”
“Code Team. Room 8. Code team. Room 8.”
I bolt from the office and run across the hall. I don’t hear them calling me back. I only hear the code.
It’s my patient. The crash team is there with the cart. We are fast and efficient. But not fast enough. The old man’s eyes are open and glazed dead. The doctor is calling it.
“Don’t you dare!” I yell at him.
I’m up on the table, straddling the old man and pushing my weight into his heart. I feel the ribs crack and break. Crack and break.