It was raining again for the eighth straight day in Seattle and Kari Dietz was sick of it. Plodding along in her old Honda Civic, she listened to the brakes screech in the stop-and-go traffic like some hideous dragon trying to give birth. The radio delivered the happy news again: More rain tomorrow.
She crawled forward and the brakes howled, causing her to glance over at the driver in the lane next to her. She expected to see that look again - the one that said, ‘Fix it or park it, lady.’ Kari watched the man trying to light a fat cigar with one of those tiny car-lighters. She could see the lighter between his equally fat fingers throwing an orange glow onto the man’s face. It made him look demonic and she thought the bluish haze of smoke wrapping around his head confirmed his connection to Satan.
She inched forward and the dragon screeched again and Mr. Monte Cristo looked over to scowl through the smoke. She frowned back, two demons sizing each other up. But he smiled back at her, removed the cigar to suck in the tar that would eventually kill him, and then winked through the greasy, rain-soaked window. She could see the red-X lighting up upon his forehead through the glass, but she smiled back before moving forward again.
“Screw you, asshole,” she mumbled under her breath. “Damn brakes.” She leaned forward to peer up under the Honda’s headliner, looking for anything blue that might suggest the sky really existed outside. “Damn rain.”
A quick honk from behind yanked her attention back and she finally made the left turn that would bless her passage out of the clogged artery of taillights. The Civic accelerated ahead with that buzzing, ‘It’s about freakin’ time you gave me some gas,’ yowl, interrupted quickly with her shift to second. She saw the Traveler’s Bank marquee of lights: Sixty-eight degrees.
“Yeah, we all know it’s cold… what’s the time? What’s the bloody time?” The white bulbs changed to deliver the requested information: 4:54PM.
“Damn it! I’m going to be late again.” She yelped, banging her hand on the steering wheel until the horn farted back in protest. “Nurse Ratched is going to fire me this time for sure.”
She finally pulled into the Mercy Center Hospital employee lot and screeched again at the gate. She quickly fumbled for her pass in her purse.
“Come on… where the hell is it? Don’t tell me I left… oh, thank God.”
She rolled down her window and squinted through the rain that had mercifully turned into a light mist and slid the card through the narrow gap. The little light in the panel turned red. Cussing about Nurse Ratched again, she turned the card around and tried again. The wooden gate bent at the elbow as it rose, confirming she still had a job, and she quickly parked.
“It’s five-o’clock — quittin’ time!” sang the radio announcer gaily, adding that irksome whistle that marked the conclusion of what was supposed to be the end of a normal human day.
“Shit! Shit-shit-shit-SHIT! I’m going need a coke at midnight,” she told herself knowingly, grabbing up her purse to dig through the console under the dash. She tossed various items to the floor next to her, looking for quarters.
“Come on, I’m late — I’m late!” she wailed, tossing the gaudy Mariners’ sunglasses in the seat behind her.
She finally found her leftover change and groaned, pennies and nickels only. She picked up as much of the silver as she could manage and threw it into her purse where it jangled its way to the bottom never to be seen again. She unbuckled her belt, reached over to push the locks down, and then finally exited the vehicle, cursing and kicking at everything blocking her way.
It was then that the Honda decided her abuse required a response. As she angrily slammed the door, the vehicle threw up a handful of sand-laden mud on the front of her coat.
“Christ! What the hell?” Her shoulders slumped over resignedly before looking up at the cloudy sky above her again.
“I’m really sorry… okay? I am, but I could use a little help here.” She turned and headed for the employee entrance, wiping off as much of the Honda’s excrement she could manage.
She took a direct line to the front door over the humps of grass-filled curbing, looking up to see if the head nurse was watching for stragglers through her office window. There wasn’t anybody there. So far, so good, she thought hopefully.
And then, something happened she would look back to remember and marvel at a full year from that day, and she would come to consider it the first sign of many unbelievable things that would happen after that morning in the rain. She stopped when she saw it, a baby bird sitting against a red-painted curb with white lettering that warned, No Parking. The river of rainwater pelting over the creature’s back looked harmless enough, but the sight of it reminded her of one of those TV news scenes where little children were left clinging to trees during a flood. The bird was soaked and shivering and peered up in a way that confirmed it knew it was doomed.
“Hey little guy.” The woman squatted down next to the creature and reached out. “Where’s your mother?” The bird jerked up at her and opened its beak threateningly, as the rain began to pour again.
Kari looked up, checking for a toppled nest that she might fix or put right. No such luck. She carefully picked up the creature and walked over to closest tree where she set it down next to the trunk. She pulled up the white sign with green letters that read, ‘Keep Your Green Lawn Greener with Ortho-Care,’ and carefully set it over the bird’s head.
“There you go — that should keep you dry enough until your parents find you. Try and stay out of the rain if you can.” The woman smiled, thinking she might have set an hour of purgatory aside with this humble gesture. It probably wouldn’t come to that given what she said to Mr. Monte Cristo, but what the hell; she was late anyway. She turned and headed inside.
She did the best she could in the elevator to hide her just-arrived state by removing her rain-soaked coat and soggy, knitted hat and gloves. Looking at herself in the stainless steal doors, she knew it was hopeless. Her hair looked like a mop just pulled from the bucket. She entered the palliative care floor and cautiously looked around.
No nurse Ratched in sight.
She entered the locker room, stuffed her purse and coat inside, straightened the badge on her multicolored smock, rung out her hair so as not to drip on her patients, and then reentered the floor.
“Miss Dietz? You’re late again!”
Kari’s head dropped a full three inches between her shoulders. Damn, she thought miserably, I’m doomed. She slowly peeked around to see her best friend Lisa Bonds staring back at her. Kari’s body immediately relaxed.
“God, Lisa. You almost gave me a heart attack. I thought you were She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.”
The other woman laughed. “Nah… ol’ Ratched-ass is stuck in a director’s meeting, you lucky dog; nobody here but those of us who still care about people. The night shift-super is out too.”
Kari couldn’t believe the measure of luck just delivered. She looked around cautiously. “You mean… it’s just us?”
“Yep… you, me and Bea.”
Kari fell against her friend’s shoulder. “Thank goodness. I’m gonna go dry my hair, okay?”
“No problemo: I already got the turnover. We’ll do rounds when you’re ready.”
Twenty minutes later the three nurses were visiting their patients.
“Hello Mr. Donner, and how are you feeling tonight?” Bea said pleasantly.
Donner was a dying man of eighty-six. Suffering through two bouts of cancer, something he liked to call his father’s disease, he also had a thick case of dementia that usually set his mind back to his first sexual experience seventy years earlier whenever the nurses showed up at his door. The old man looked at the three women and smiled.
“Absolutely beautiful,” he wheezed through his clouded mask.
Lisa and Kari looked at each other and grinned. Bea turned and pretended to write something on her clipboard. “Stage four-prostate cancer,” she whispered. “The poor dear can’t even remember his own name, but he can still get it up like a teenager. If that don’t define a man’s truest ambitions on earth, nothing else does. It’s all about getting us on our back, ladies.” Kari tried not to laugh, but she did anyway. She checked Mr. Donner’s lines and pump while he watched her intently. She smiled at him and then gave him a flirty wink. It was the little things that made the biggest difference with their patients.
As the three women reached the final door, they stopped to compare notes. Bea, the most ambitious of the three, spoke first. She always did.
“Sally Carmichael, age 93, still on bypass and dialysis, having problems with her ox-levels again, despite the pressures and mix. Her mag and calc levels are… well… you can see the numbers yourself. She had a really bad day yesterday. They ah… don’t expect her to survive the night. Bea and Lisa looked at Kari who was still studying the numbers on her copy of the latest test results. Her expression was somber as she slowly looked up at the other two.
“I’m sorry, Kari,” Bea said in sympathy. “I know the two of you are pretty close.”
Kari had expected this, of course. In fact, she thought it most probable she would have gotten the call that Sally had died over the weekend. Still, the drop in the numbers she was reading tore at her heart like a cheap saw through iron wood.
Sally Carmichael had been in and out of the hospital several times over the last five years, going back to when Kari was an emergency room trauma nurse. The old woman followed her career with amused interest up and down the floors of Mercy, and she saw her again after she changed jobs to intensive care and then into physical therapy after Kari’s mental collapse. Back then Diane Whistler, the one they now dubbed Nurse Ratched, had been one of Kari’s strongest advocates. In fact, Whistler used to say that Kari reminded her of herself when she first entered nursing. In those days, Kari was ambitious and driving, and looking forward to any new challenge put before her.
Kari wasn’t exactly sure when it all started to change for her, or what had lead to her disquieted malaise of hopelessness for anybody entering the hospital. She remembered finding herself sitting on a bench at the hospital entrance during her breaks, mindlessly eating her apple and watching the victims enter Death’s motel for troubled souls. It was a strange feeling of doom for anybody spinning through the hospital turnstiles — that last bit of fun before receiving the dreadful news, and death’s little joke had to be delivered to all before they were allowed to exit again.
Later, Kari’s worry and self-doubt seemed to manifest itself into those little, transparent red-Xs she swore she could see on some of the patient’s foreheads prior to their dying. That really scared her. It didn’t matter that most of those labeled with her mental death mark left the hospital happy and pain free, looking blissfully forward to resuming their mundane lives. No, only those who actually died seemed to gather Kari’s attention. Those patients seemed to confirm her ability to see Death’s brand long before the scythe’s fall. The problem grew worse, and soon Kari was seeing red-Xs walking around the malls and supermarkets, and then on her own forehead in the mirror that dreadful morning before her mental breakdown. That’s when she turned herself in to the hospital administrators, those working in the Career Crisis Center at Mercy.
To her amazement, the hospital wasn’t surprised by her confessions of self-doubt. In fact, they had a whole department ready and willing to help her through that troubling time. She spoke to several resident psychologists and eventually, she felt herself getting better. It took time, but under the hospital’s watchful care, she eventually returned to work in a much reduced capacity – physical therapy. Despite all the counseling, Kari always felt the change in her working venue was really the best thing given for her recovery. Helping those who in no way were in trouble of dying ultimately bolstered her ability to set aside the few times the red-X appeared again as nothing more than her own fears brewing up to stab at her consciousness once more. She was happy again, and feeling fulfilled in her methods of delivering care to her patients.
But through her entire recovery process, there was one person who was clearly missing. Diane Whistler never contacted her, never called her to her office, or as far as Kari could tell, she never made any inquiries to her friends or family about her recovery. Kari tried to make several appointments to see her old mentor, to explain how grateful she was for the hospital’s response to her personal crisis, and to assure the hospital’s head of nursing that she was feeling her old self again and happy with her work in PT.
She finally saw Diane in an elevator on her way home one day and she asked her old friend if they could speak. It was then, in the chapel next to the hospital exit, that Kari realized she no longer had a friend in Diane Whistler. The woman was clearly angry with Kari for the way she had let herself fall from grace in both her eyes and those Diane said respected her work throughout the rest of the hospital. Whistler said she was embarrassed one of her prospects, one she had taken personally under her wing, would crack under the pressure of the day-to-day job. More than that, she told Kari she would do everything she could to see her gone.
And so it began: Her switch to nights, the continuous transferals to what Kari used to call, “the closet jobs”; a variety of mundane positions assigned to lesser workers; the ones real nurses laughed at behind their back. She finally landed in a job she truthfully never thought connected to nursing in any real way — social work. That position really surprised her, especially the long hours and limited respect these workers received from the hospital community, but it wasn’t long before Kari came to realize they were helping more patients than most of the doctors she knew.
By everybody’s assessment, Kari excelled in each of the jobs she was given. More importantly, she was learning what made a large hospital like Mercy truly work for its patients. Seeing Kari’s success must have disturbed Diane Whistler, who thought by that time her old protégée would have quit out of frustration and lingering self-doubt.
And then Kari finally landed in the palliative care wing of the hospital where patients like Sally Carmichael were expected to leave this world for parts unknown and outside the science of man. This last assignment seemed to have the lasting effect Diane had been hoping for in Kari. Watching people die week after week was starting to get to her again; those blood-colored red-Xs were showing up all the time now.
Through it all, Sally Carmichael followed Kari everywhere she went in the hospital. From Sally’s three trips through the ER, and twice in intensive care, they saw each other again in physical therapy after Sally’s fall from grace two years ago. And now, finally, it would seem they would be together again for Sally’s last stop at Death’s door. Sally talked very little about herself, but as her trips to the hospital became more frequent, and her contact with Kari friendlier, some of the details of her life eventually did come out.
Sally had been born in 1907, the oldest and only daughter of five children, in Mid-West Nebraska. “In a three-room shack on the side of the road where Route 62 connected Stella and Shubert,” Sally said. The house her father built was eventually torn down to widen the dirt road — two lanes of shiny blacktop; “a road from-nowhere-to-nowhere,” Sally used to say jokingly.
Her father was a farmer. That meant he took care of the land while her mother took care of everything else. Corn, wheat, milo for feed, and nothing of what they called land management for as far as the eye could see. In those days, you planted until the soil wasn’t soil anymore. You planted until the ground was nothing more than a dust bowl of lost dreams.
The family walked every inch of those five hundred acres, putting the seed down by hand and delivering a solemn ahem as they covered it with their feet. If you got some rain and your prayers were properly said, the crops grew through the summer and then in the fall they would steal a little for themselves and the animals and sell the rest. A lot gets said about a farmer and his sons, but very little about the daughter of a farmer’s wife. Sally was expected to do the wash, feed the chickens, milk the cows, clean the outhouse, and help her mother with supper. The children would work the summers in the field and prayed for what they called the learnin’ time, the time they were allowed to leave the fields for their lessons in the fall. The schoolteachers were always the mother of somebody’s cousin living up the road a bit, somebody who actually graduated high school, but never any college.
And then there was Sunday; God’s day — the big breather. Sally always said people took the Lord’s given rest pretty seriously back in her day. In a community that relied on its wits to survive the fires, droughts and tornados, you didn’t piss on your neighbor like they do today. And a man without church-time was considered Godless, a man best left alone even in the hardest of times. No… going to church, Sally said, was a necessary thing even for the non-believers living in a farming community.
Prohibition started in Nebraska, Sal said proudly, even before it went national in 1920. And then came the famine in Russia and the government paid a little bit more for their corn that year, enough to buy their first tractor. That was high living until the tractor broke and there wasn’t enough to buy the parts to get it running again. It rusted out completely in the woods north of the line.
The 1930s brought the devil’s drought, the Depression, Route 62, and death for her father from a stroke while working in the fields. The bank took the land, and the government took the house to widen the road. “Private property claimed for public benefit”; that’s what Sheriff Landry told her mother as he moved the family’s belongings outside on that hot summer day in August. Her mother died the same year they all moved to Omaha. The Great War took two of her brothers, another stroke took junior in 1962, and her baby brother Johnnie Ray was gone from this world before they saw the man walk on the moon.
Sally didn’t marry until after her mother died. In fact, she didn’t agree to care for another man until her mid-thirties. It was one of those, “I might never come home from fighting the Japs,” statements all the girls heard that eventually pushed her mother’s values aside. It was the same for many: Even the girls who thought they would never lie with a man did so before waving the best of them off on all those great big ships. It was the same for Sally. She said she thought she would never see the man again, and that was okay. She figured she had done her part for the war by letting him ravage her and then agreeing to marry him before he shipped out to meet his doom at the hands of those ‘slanty-eyed bastards.’ Giving up her virginity for the cause didn’t get her pregnant like it did so many other girls, and she was thankful for that too. There were too many babies born in the summer of 1942 who would never see their father.
But the man did come back, of course, and as she watched him rolling down the ship’s ramp in a wheelchair three years later, she knew she had made a mistake in agreeing to marry him. It wasn’t the loss of his left leg that turned her love away. In fact, the Japanese mortal fire that nearly killed him never sidelined his ambitions in the thirty years of marriage that followed that day on the dock. No, it wasn’t until he rolled to a stop in front of her and kissed her on the hand that she realized she never loved him in the first place. But a deal’s a deal, and even Sally couldn’t set her mother’s values aside enough to walk away from him. No… she was married now, albeit - not in the eyes of the church, but she had let him fall between her thighs and grunt his way to manhood; the deed was done, and the church made it official a week later.
Sam was a good provider, eventually an executive in a firm that made fencing materials, chain link mostly, but wood and eventually plastics too. They finally left Omaha and moved to Seattle so he could add the contraction VP to a meaningless list of titles on his business card. That truly upset Sally to no end. She said they argued about moving for months before it finally happened, and never slept in the same bed after it was done. But before the move, she had one daughter in 1946 and they had named her Mary after Sally’s mother. Mary died while at college in 1966 after taking what the doctors called LSD. Sally’s daughter departed this life thinking she could fly by jumping off a fifth floor balcony in front of twenty other laughing students while at a party.
Sam died ten years later of a heart attack at his desk at work. Apparently, he had been yelling at one of his salesmen when the Good Lord reached in to seize his heart before he had a chance to say enough to put him on the diving board to Satan’s great lake.
Although Sally said she always hated Seattle for all of the rain Nebraska never saw, she couldn’t seem to leave it behind given the fact her husband and, more importantly, her beloved Mary were buried there. It always struck Kari that a person shouldn’t be forced to live so long as to be a widow longer than they were married, especially after a marriage that lasted more than thirty years, but Sally carried on with life through the seventies, the eighties, and nineties — a woman simply existing while she waited for her Creater’s final call.
“I’d like to see her alone, if you don’t mind,” Kari finally told the other two nurses outside of Sally’s door. She had a wanting look on her face they thought familiar, but not surprising. It belonged to someone expecting to see a loved one for the last time; the last tribal rite before the new alpha female told her mate to go into the woods and dig a hole.
“Sure. I understand,” Lisa replied caringly. She gave her friend a gentle pat on the arm, looked at Bea, and then the two left her alone.
Kari set the chart in the slot on the door, took a deep breath, and then reverently entered the room. She looked purposefully at all the monitors first, insuring the lighted graphs looked to be in their given envelops of acceptability, but when Kari finally looked down at Sally’s face she frowned.
Her first thought was that Sally must have died somehow without their knowledge. Her color was a faded gray, almost plastic; an even coat of primer across what should have been the flushed cheeks of somebody simply sleeping. Her chest rose and fell in sync with the click and slap of the ventilator next to the bed.
Click – whoosh; her chest rose. Click – hiss; her chest fell.
Kari checked the lines gong to the dialysis machine, which was giving off a metallic click-click-clicking sound as the wheel spinning within the housing hit center. She checked the hanging bottles at the top and the collection bags at the bottom; everything was in order.
She placed her hand on Sally’s forehead. “So cold.” She moved to her hands and feet; they were even colder.
“I’ll get you a blanket, Sal. Hang on.” She opened the closet and pulled down two blankets and layered them over her friend’s body. “There you go, sweetie. That should warm you up a bit.” She leaned in to push her white hair back.
“Well…. here you are, honey…” Kari whispered gently, “standing at the door to God’s great Kingdom. Is there anything else I can do for you? Is there anything else you need?” She could feel her tears beginning to burn her eyes.
“You always said God had a plan for us all, Sal. What more could he have planned for you now?” She caressed the unconscious woman’s hand again. “I know there’s no one here to tell you this… but I think you’ve done all you can for your fellow man, Sal. It’s time for you to go.” She leaned in again. “Let go, Sally. It’s time for you to go to God.”
There was a beep at the monitor behind her, and Kari spun around to check the vitals again. Heartbeat-52, BP-60/80, Ox levels low, but still acceptable.
“Well… I’ll be here for you if you need anything, and I’ll be checking in on you all day, okay?” The nurse smoothed the blankets again, sniffed, and then left the room.
For her part, Sally Carmichael was back in Nebraska, her mind floating across the planted fields and hills of the parched countryside she knew so well. And then she was home. Her mother and father were there — her four younger brothers taking a break from planting the seed. Her neighbors were there too, enjoying a cool break after the rising. There was the laughing talk of local politics, and the joy of life that existed before Route 62, the war, and her years of loneliness. Sally was pouring her father a glass of lemonade when he looked up at her and smiled.
“Why are you here, girl?”
There was a sharp squeal overhead, something resembling a siren blaring in the sky above them. Sally sat the pitcher down on the warped table of splinters and looked questioningly at him.
“What do you mean, poppa?”
The rest of the family and neighbors around them started to laugh as her father shook his head and stood. He put his roughened, field-dried hands upon her shoulders and grinned as the sky’s siren blared once more.
“How old are you now?” he asked her.
Sally smiled stupidly. “Why I’m…” she stopped and then looked around the table again. Her family and friends were smiling back at like a clowder of Cheshire cats.
“I’m… old… older than all of you!” She grabbed the silver pitcher and raised it up and stared at her image looking back. Her hair was gray, her skin wrinkled and dry.”
Junior, a young boy of sixteen again, raised his glass to her. “You may have noticed that I'm not all there myself.” There was another blast in the sky again.
“But why is everybody else so young?” Sally asked them.
Her father leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Because we’re all dead, but you…”
Sally remembered the hospital. “I’m not dead yet?”
“No… you have to go back.” There came another blast again, louder this time, and her father looked up at the sky and smiled. “They’re calling you back, Sally.”
“But why, poppa? Why can’t I stay here with you and momma? Why can’t I be young too?”
Her mother was suddenly by her side. “You will be, but we’re all full up here right now. You’ll have to go back until there’s room again.”
Sally looked around them and at the miles of open space surrounding their little house.
“But there’s plenty of room here. I don’t understand… why can’t I stay? There’s too much pain back there. I’m all-alone. I… don’t want to go back. Please… poppa…”
Her father reached up and covered her eyes with his hand, and as the dirt of his palms took her vision, she heard him say, “You’ll do fine. You won’t be alone for very long and you will be as beautiful as the days when we were last together.”
There was loud blast again and Sally’s eyes immediately popped opened. She could barely see the blurred images of several people moving around her. The doctors and nurses at the hospital were talking loudly and one was pushing down with both hands on her chest. He immediately let up when she tried to speak.
“You’re okay, Sally,” came a voice on her right. She looked over and a shape-challenged image of a face came forward, a young girl whose name she couldn’t remember. The nametag on her chest said Kari Dietz.
“You can’t talk because we have a machine helping you to breathe. You had a close call with your heart, but the doctors were here to help. They’re going to give you something to help you sleep, okay?”
Sally didn’t want to sleep. She wanted to die, to return to her family sipping lemonade by that dusty road. The weight of ten bricks began to press down on her eyelids, and before Sally could protest she was gone again, dead in all the ways but those important enough to send her home.
Kari left the floor the next morning reliving Sally’s night. Why didn’t God take her when he had the chance? She’ll never get out of that bed again. She knew Sally was a very religious woman, but even if she were to awaken, what sins would she confess that she hasn’t already declared? Why was God keeping her here?
Kari was frustrated and sad as she pushed through the turnstile into the weather outside. It was raining again, but for the first time in a very long time, she didn’t really notice it. What she did notice before leaving Sally that morning was something quite surprising to her. The bloody red-X: It wasn’t on Sally’s forehead, and now that she had a chance to think about it… in all the time she had already known Sally Carmichael… she’d never seen it upon her.
Kari was suddenly aware of the rain again as it changed from a light drizzle to a downpour, and she cursed the heavens as she pulled her hood over her head. She noticed the white sign she had bent over the baby bird and decided to check him. A nurse’s job is never done, she thought amusedly.
As she tilted the sign back, she found herself expecting the worse before looking down. Her mouth dropped.
“What the hell?” The woman looked around in surprised wonder before deciding to cover the bird again. She headed back to her car, her thoughts of Sally finally set aside for the sake of wonderment.