This is a love story. Boy meets girl, more or less. So if you don’t like that kind of thing, maybe you’d better get out now. On the other hand, it isn’t a soap opera either, though it is about a triangle. It’s just not clear who’s on third.
It takes place in a cavernous and crumbling brick building in the heart of the Midwest. It’s a crummy old place, but there is a bright, modern plastic sign stuck on the front, nestled like an egg in the ivy. It says Evangelical Hospital, 24-Hour Emergency Care — We Can Help.
The boy of this love story is an intern at Evangelical. He is wandering down an empty, immaculate corridor in the bowels of the building, immersed in his own echoes. He wears a green scrub suit and a knee-length white coat. Clipped to the front pocket of the coat is a badge like a little plastic sign, but, naturally, the boy isn’t covered with ivy. The badge says Nathan Myers, M.D., and it bears his picture, scowling as if in challenge.
In a side pocket of the coat is a plastic box, a beeper. Dr. Myers never goes anywhere without it.
Now, as Dr. Myers walks, a shrill shriek comes suddenly from his pocket, causing him to grit his teeth.
The beeping is replaced by an equally shrill voice saying, “Dr. Myers, please come to the emergency room.” The voice stops and is replaced by a loud hiss. He stabs the beeper with his forefinger, and the hiss stops.
“Shit,” he says.
He turns and retraces his route along the corridor.
It’s four p.m. Dr. Myers had been hoping to get out of the hospital by five, since he’s not on call tonight. Now he figures he’ll have to stay late, because there’s probably a patient in the ER for him to admit.
Dr. Myers feels that he is being dragged by force along the gray linoleum of the corridor. He imagines that his beeper is tuned to a tractor beam, and it pulls him irresistibly through a fire door, and up the steps inside. He clings to the greasy green railing, jams his feet against the stairs, but to no avail.
He exits the stairwell into another corridor, identical to the first, except that this one is filled with people. He turns, and immediately ahead of him is a set of double doors with a sign above them that says Emergency Room, Authorized Personnel Only. Dr. Myers is authorized, so he pushes through.
The air is the first thing he always notices about the ER. It’s almost too dense to breathe, thickened with body odors and solvents, a stew of smells. The ER is a big rectangular room with a line of cubicles defined by green canvas curtains. On gurneys within each cubicle, patients are sprawled or hunched or curled or slumped. There is an impression of teeming confusion, like a refugee camp. People are crying, laughing, shouting, mumbling. Someone is vomiting. One end of the waiting room rattles with screaming kids.
Dr. Myers arrives at the nursing station. He leans over the cluttered counter. There is a young woman there, writing in a chart. “What’s happening, Max?” he asks.
Max finishes her writing, then looks up. Her badge says Maxine Jackson, R.N .
“Girl with a closed head injury,” says Max cheerfully. “She’s in the trauma room. Gage’s already seeing her.” Max is talking about Louis Gage, the staff neurosurgeon.
Dr. Myers crosses the ER and turns through a set of automatic doors into the trauma room. The trauma room is painfully bright, gleaming like the control deck of a spaceship. Huge swivel lights dangle like glass fruit from the low ceiling. Stainless-steel racks line the walls, bristling with tubes and blades. In the middle of the room is a single gurney, the lights trained on it as if on center stage. Around the gurney swarms a green cloud of doctors and nurses and technicians.
The trauma room is not quiet. Machines are buzzing. Roller buckets are dragged, scraping and clanking. People are shouting, “What’s her pressure now?” “Let’s get that fucking IV in!”
Peering over green shoulders, Dr. Myers sees a young woman stretched out on the gurney, naked but partially covered with a sheet. Her clothes are lying about her like a halo, having been cut off immediately after her arrival. Dr. Myers does not see any obvious sign of injury. Her injury is contained inside her, in her skull.
This girl is the girl of the love story. Her name is Cindi Teeters — Cindi with an i, as she always says. When she writes her name, she uses little circles to dot the i’s. Sometimes, she draws little smiling faces in the circles.
But now Cindi is at the mercy of the trauma team, which is prepared to inflict many small injuries in its desire to wrest her from the grip of her big injury. Soon she has IV s stuck into veins in her arms, and warm saltwater drips into her from bags hung on hooks. The tubes from the bags tangle like kelp in some chaotic sea.
An ER doctor deftly slides a thick plastic tube into her nose. As she inhales, the tube is shoved home into her trachea. This provokes a fit of violent coughing. Many pairs of hands hold her down, but a spray of blood showers those clustered around her head. Her nose is bleeding from the passage of the tube.
One of the people at the head of the gurney is a tall man with a lean, pale face. He is not wearing a badge. He is dressed in an expensive gray suit over which he has carelessly draped a hospital gown. This is Dr. Gage.
Dr. Gage shines a light into Cindi’s eyes. Nothing happens, and Dr. Gage is not pleased. But her gaze is directed inward, toward her injury, and so her pupils are vacant and unreactive. Dr. Gage looks up. “Let’s get a CAT scan, shall we?” he says. “As soon as she’s stabilized and her neck is cleared.” A nurse writes the order down.
Surrounding the city for which Evangelical is the main hospital are hundreds of square miles of clean, open farm country, sliced by shallow, sandy rivers, and dotted with neat, small towns. There are countless rutted farm roads cutting between fields and wood lots, winding in and out of river bottoms and dry washes.
While Dr. Myers was eating lunch, Cindi was riding in an open-topped jeep down one of these farm roads. Her boyfriend Mark was driving. A fog of dust rose behind them. They were smiling and laughing, shouting over the racket of the jeep. Picnic gear bounced around on the pad in back.
Cindi is seventeen, Mark nineteen. They live in one of those little farm towns. Their families are close, belong to the same church. They have been going steady since junior high school, and intend to marry. They have never made love, to each other or anyone else. Neither one has a badge, and neither one is wearing a seat belt.
Now Cindi leans toward Mark and shouts over the rattling of the jeep and the hiss of warm wind. “I still don’t see why we can’t get married before you leave for State.”
He turns his face half toward her and shouts back, “We’ve been through all that. How am I supposed to support you while I’m going to school full-time?”
Cindi has thought about this, and she has a good answer. But just as she is about to shout again, the jeep descends into a wash. She pauses to watch, holding tightly to the handgrip in front of her.
Mark does not slow the jeep for the descent. Where the road crosses the bottom of the wash there are several deep ruts. He attempts to steer between these, taking them at a slight angle, but they are spaced so that just as the front wheels go down into one, the rear wheels come out of another, and the jeep is flung upward like an angry horse.
Mark’s forehead smacks against the visor, but he’s held in by the steering wheel. Cindi finds herself in the air, and there is a moment of crazy exhilaration as she sees the jeep spin beneath her, as if some childhood dream of flying has come true. Suddenly everything contracts. There is a bright, brassy noise, then a distant pulse of surf. Something big and silent opens, wraps around. She hears a soft humming seep through the silence.
Mark slams his foot on the brake, and the jeep slues around in the sand. “Cindi?” he mumbles. There is no answer. He tumbles from the driver’s seat, feeling as though he is moving through jello the flavor of sunlight. It is much too bright. His eyes sting. He sees Cindi lying in the sand a few feet away. She is still. There is a trickle of clear fluid tinged with blood running from her nose. The buzz of bugs seems deafening.
“Jesus,” he says. “Jesus.” He is kneeling by her head. He sees that her eyes are open, not blinking. He has taken first-aid courses. He tries to rouse his mind, to recall something, to act. “Jesus,” he says. “Jesus.”
Her breath moves in and out delicately, then gradually increases in amplitude, becoming great gasps. Then there is a breathless pause, and the cycle begins again. He listens to her breathe with absolute absorption, as if watching waves on a beach. Suddenly he knows that he can do nothing for her except take her away from here. He gathers her up in his arms, horrified that she is so limp, so light. He curls her up on the pad in the back of the jeep, throwing picnic things unnoticed into the wash. He covers her with the tablecloth, red-and-white checked gingham. Then he is driving back the way they came. He struggles to drive carefully. There is a volunteer fire station in town.
“Jesus,” he says. “Oh Jesus.”
Doctors Myers and Gage are huddled together in a darkened room. The only light comes from a white plastic panel in front of them, filtered through radiographs of Cindi’s head. These are the prints of her CAT scan. The doctors peer at the black-and-white images intently. They both wear glasses and the images are repeated four times in the lenses.
Dr. Myers knows that there is something wrong with the prints but he cannot decide exactly what. He imagines that he is a microscopic doctor standing in Cindi’s brain, looking up at the structures above him as if he were in a cavern. He searches for signs of life, for mysterious flashes of summer lightning in the cellular stalactites. He hopes Dr. Gage will not start quizzing him.
“No gross bleeding,” says Dr. Gage. “But you can see there is generalized swelling. The normal architecture is blurred.” He indicates this with a long and expensive forefinger. “Surgery’s not indicated,” he continues, “but she’ll need a bolt.”
Dr. Myers leaves the X-ray reading room and shuffles through empty corridors to the surgical intensive care unit.
To enter the ICU, Dr. Myers presses a button beside the door. After a moment, the ward clerk buzzes him in.
The ICU is very different from the ER, even though it is also a large rectangular room with beds placed around the perimeter, separated by curtains. But here the curtains are cream colored, the floor is carpeted, and there are no echoes. The walls are windowless and the lights are muted. The close, stale air is filled with soft hums and whirrs and bubbling. In the center of the unit is the raised nursing station, a small island in a sea of stupor.
Dr. Myers finds Cindi in a bed against the far wall. The disarray of the ER has been magically transformed. The person responsible for this is Carol Whittaker, Cindi’s nurse on the evening shift. She has a badge with her name and picture on it. She has cleaned Cindi from head to toe and dressed her in a spotless hospital gown.
Cindi now lies neatly in her bed, in the midst of a pleasant order. Her hay-colored hair spreads in waves around her face, which is smooth and blank. The bed covers are folded back so that she looks as if she is watching TV in her own bedroom. There is, in fact, a TV above her, but there is only one program — three endlessly unwinding sine waves that represent her heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing.
Cindi is the center of a web of tubes that could have been spun by a plastic spider. A tube sticks out of one nostril and extends into her airway, delivering oxygen to her lungs. A smaller tube runs from a suction cannister on the wall, through the other nostril, and winds up in her stomach. An IV catheter pokes into a vein in her left forearm. Her right wrist contains another catheter, this one hiding in the pounding corridor of an artery. The last tube snakes out from under the smooth white sheet and hangs into a clear bag hooked to the end of the bed. Urine flows down it and fills the bag.
Cindi’s breathing is now slow and deep, and very regular. She is connected to a Bird respirator, a large blue machine squatting beside her bed. It inhales for her, then relaxes so she can exhale. It sighs preprogrammed sighs every few breaths.
“Is her family around?” Dr. Myers asks Carol Whittaker.
“There’s a bunch in the waiting room,” says Carol. “Parents, I think, and her boyfriend. Her dad’s the paramedic who brought her in.”
Dr. Myers looks closely at Cindi for the first time. Jeez, he thinks, she’s really pretty.
Cindi lies motionless. Her eyes are closed. They don’t dart around under her lids. There’s a vacancy about her, a transparency, nothing like sleep. She is like a film of herself, a silent movie.
The ICU waiting room is small and stuffy, the walls at unlikely angles, as if the room were an afterthought doodled into a corner of the blueprint. It is furnished with plaid couches and cheap brass floor lamps, so that it looks like somebody’s living room. Two of the three people in the room look up as Dr. Myers enters.
Cindi’s father and mother are both blond and trim. The father wears Western clothes and a mustache. He has a small holster on his belt, stuffed with a penlight, scissors, and forceps. The mother wears slacks and running shoes. They are staring expectantly at Dr. Myers. Standing slightly apart, and staring at the floor, is a tall young man, also blond, with a band-aid plastered to the center of his forehead. This is Mark. Mark is somewhat distracted at the moment, unable to rid himself of the image of Cindi lying in the sand behind the jeep.
Cindi’s parents find themselves confronting a short, wiry young man in a green scrub suit and a white doctor’s coat. He has a close-cut bristle of black hair, a dense stubble on his face, and frameless glasses. He looks like he might be Jewish, maybe from New York, and is.
Dr. Myers clears his throat. He hates this. “You’re the family of . . . uh . . . Cindi Teeters,” he says, glancing at the clipboard he holds.
Cindi’s father steps forward to speak for the group, as if getting up at night to investigate a noise heard by someone else. “I’m Frank Teeters,” he says. “I’m Cindi’s father. This is her mother, Darla. And this is Mark.”
“I’m Dr. Myers,” says Dr. Myers. “I’ll be the intern taking care of Cindi. Dr. Gage is the neurosurgeon in charge.” He clears his throat again. “Could we sit down?” Dr. Myers waves at the plaid furniture.
As they seat themselves, Frank says, “Look, Doc, I’m a paramedic. I’ve seen head injuries. We want the truth, out front.”
Dr. Myers glances around the little group, thinking of Cindi’s pretty face, violated by tubes. Frank is still looking at him intently. Mark has his eyes closed. Darla stares at the carpet as if upon a landscape viewed from an airplane. The couch looms like a mountain.
Dr. Myers imagines that he is a tape recorder, playing a prerecorded message. “Cindi is very seriously injured,” he says. The others know this. They listen, not helping.
Dr. Myers continues. “We’ve done a CAT scan. That’s a computerized X-ray that lets us see the inside of the head.”
“We know what a CAT scan is,” says Frank. “What did it show?”
“Well,” says Dr. Myers, “we know she doesn’t have a skull fracture.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” says Darla, looking up.
“Yes and no,” Dr. Meyers says. “Of course it’s good that she didn’t fracture her skull. But when the head gets hit, the brain has to take a certain amount of the force. If there’s any bleeding or swelling, there gets to be a space problem because the skull is solid, and can’t stretch, and the pressure inside builds up. If there’s bleeding, we can do an operation, and let the blood out. But if there’s just swelling, our options are pretty limited. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening in Cindi’s case.”
As he talks, Dr. Myers has the impression that the others are staring at his lips, as if his words were birds flying from a cave. The birds are all black, like ravens. Everyone is waiting for a white bird.
“You’re saying there’s no treatment?” asks Frank.
“What we have to do,” says Dr. Myers, “is to keep track of the pressure inside her skull as the swelling progresses, because everything depends on how high the pressure gets, and how long it stays there. The way we do that is by inserting a pressure monitor through her skull. It’s like a small bolt.”
Darla closes her eyes.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” says Dr. Myers, looking down. He actually thinks it sounds terrible. “But we need your consent.”
“Can we see her?” asks Darla.
“Who does it?” asks Frank.
“Dr. Gage will do the actual procedure,” Dr. Myers answers. “You can see her as soon as it’s done.”
Frank says slowly, “Of course, if that’s what she needs, then you’ve got our permission.” He signs the papers that Dr. Myers holds out, without looking at them.
Dr. Myers stands, ready to leave them alone with their hundreds of unasked and unanswered questions. Mark stands too and speaks for the first time.
“It doesn’t matter what you do,” he says. “Jesus is with her. He won’t let her die. Because He says, ‘Whoever believes in Me shall not die.’ So I know she’s going to be all right.”
There is a short silence. Dr. Myers looks at Mark, who stares back defiantly.
“I know how terrible you must feel,” says Dr. Myers, who has no idea how terrible Mark feels. “And I’m sure that every prayer helps. But you need to understand that Cindi’s injury is very serious and there’s a real chance that she won’t survive.”
Darla stands and puts her arm around Mark’s shoulders. “Jesus hears you,” she says to him. “But we have to have faith and let the Lord do His work in His own way.”
Frank touches Dr. Myers arm. “We appreciate what you’re doing for us,” he says. “But as Christians, we know it’s God’s will that counts, not ours.”
Dr. Myers removes his arm from Frank’s hand under the pretext of adjusting his glasses. He wants to be done with the day, be home, be asleep.
“Someone will come and get you in a few minutes,” he says, and slips with his papers out the door.
Dr. Myers paces the corridor back to the ICU, sure that although he is participating in this tragedy, he is not part of it. Dr. Myers still thinks that he can switch channels at will. He thinks that only these other lives will be forever altered by these moments, and not his.
In the ICU, everything is ready. Tools are laid out neatly in sealed packages on a bedside stand — knives, drills, a small saw — like a sterile cabinet shop. Wearing rubber gloves, Dr. Gage busily shaves a bare patch on the top of Cindi’s head. Evidently he has been unable to imagine that Cindi’s family might choose to decline his treatment.
Now, as Dr. Gage begins, Dr. Myers remembers the forlorn little Indian skulls he has seen in museums, with healed trepanation scars. He sees Incas clad in feathers and gold gathered around, brandishing obsidian knives. Dr. Myers has always been uncomfortable with surgery involving the head. He thinks of the inside of the skull as a secret place, never meant to be peered into, as if sunlight would somehow dilute the inner illumination of the brain.
It takes Dr. Gage only a few moments of work with scalpel and drill, and then a small steel bolt is poking out of the top of Cindi’s skull. A delicate wire runs from the end of the bolt in a graceful arc up to the TV above. A fourth sine wave, indicating the pressure inside Cindi’s skull, now joins the previous three.
“Looks like her pressures are up all right,” comments Dr. Gage as he watches Carol Whittaker clean up the mess he has made. He is pleased with the results of the procedure and soon departs.
Dr. Myers sits at the nursing station and begins to write orders in Cindi’s chart. Carol Whittaker gets the family from the waiting room.
The Teeters and Mark enter the ICU with exaggerated quiet, as if arriving late for church. They cluster around the end of Cindi’s bed. Carol Whittaker gives them a tour of the hardware. Darla and Frank listen intently, trying to assume some responsibility for the care of their daughter. But they are feeling lost and confused, like a dream where they are back in school and have to take a test in a class they’ve never attended. Mark, on the other hand, is not listening at all. Instead, he hears the sweet voice of Jesus absolving him of blame.
Dr. Myers watches them from behind the counter. He feels like he should get up, help them, explain the implications of what they see, try to rescue them from their outrage. But he can’t. He’s exhausted. And he is afraid they will challenge him again with the invisible authority of Jesus.
Cindi herself hangs motionless in a gray sea, buoyed by a vibrant humming. She struggles weakly to recall something that appears to recede before her. A heaviness fills her, and she feels a deep sorrow well up, and up, and up.
It is late, past midnight. Dr. Myers sprawls on a derelict sofa in the litter of his apartment, his white coat tossed beside him. In one hand he holds a beer, in the other the telephone. He listens to the ringing at the other end of the line. “Come on,” he mutters. Finally, there is a click, and an energetic male voice says, “Yeah?”
“Is this Dr. Melvin Boorstein?” asks Dr. Myers.
“Hey, is this Dr. Nathan Myers?” shouts Melvin. “What’s happening, Doctor?”
“To tell the truth, I’m calling because I’m bummed out, Mel,” he says.
“Great, Nat,” says Melvin. “What am I, your mother?”
“I’m serious, Mel.” He pauses. “I’ve been thinking about quitting. I just can’t deal with this crap anymore.”
“You mean, as in quitting quitting?”
“Jeez, Nat, what’s going on out there?”
“It’s not like I thought it would be. I’m so fucking exhausted, I just don’t give a shit.”
“Come on, Nat. You think I’m on a cruise back here? Being tired isn’t terminal, for God’s sake. Besides, we aren’t going to be interns forever.”
“No, Mel, it’s more than that. It’s got to where people’s worst tragedies are just hassles to me. If somebody’s dying, all I can think of is whether it’s going to make me miss lunch. And I’ll tell you something else. I don’t want to be touching all these people, either. It makes me sick. I don’t want to watch them puking, and I don’t want to hear about their last goddamned stool.”
There is a short silence. Dr. Myers can hear a faint electronic chittering. He imagines he hears the weather between the Midwest and New York, the brush of winds, a spatter of rain. Or perhaps he is connected to a satellite link through naked space, and hears the crackle of starlight, the ping of errant hydrogen atoms.
Melvin says carefully, “Nathan, you’ve worked for this all your life.”
“Turns out I wasn’t as ready for the blood and the shit and all the rest of it as I thought I was.”
“Nathan, you could be a great surgeon if you’d cool out.”
“Listen, Mel, I’ve got to go. If I don’t hit the hay in about two minutes, I’m going to pass out. I just wanted to check in with you.”
“OK, Dr. Myers. You be a mensch, you hear?”
“OK, Dr. Boorstein. Talk to you soon.”
He places the phone back in its cradle, takes a last pull on his beer, then tosses the empty can to the floor. He lies back against the couch, hands behind his head. He stares at the ceiling, tries to imagine what it would be like to bounce out of the back of a jeep, to see the ground spinning up. He pictures Cindi lying in the ICU in silence.
After a while, still in his scrubs, he curls up on the worn couch, pulls his white coat over his shoulders, and sleeps.
Late in the afternoon of the following day Dr. Myers sits at the nursing station with Dr. Gage. Dr. Myers has again given up his plans for getting out early, and begins to wonder what the hospital cafeteria is serving for dinner.
Dr. Gage is staring thoughtfully at Cindi’s TV screen. “Not looking good,” he remarks. “I’ll tell you what, if she continues to worsen tomorrow, why don’t we get an EEG? We need to think about possibly taking her off life support. Well,” he concludes, “I’m heading home. I want to get in some work on my Oppenheimer paper.”
Dr. Gage is an ardent admirer of J. Robert Oppenheimer, often referring to Oppenheimer as the greatest scientist who ever lived. He sometimes bores the interns and residents with anecdotes of Oppenheimer’s life, but now he just nods to Dr. Myers and departs.
“Right, see you,” says Dr. Myers, relieved.
It’s night in the ICU. The main lights are off and the patient cubicles are broken into isolated islands of illumination. All the visitors have gone home, and the unit is quiet.
Most of the nurses are on their breaks. The two remaining are both down at the far end of the room, bent over some task.
Dr. Myers has just arrived at Cindi’s bed on his evening rounds. He stopped for dinner at the hospital cafeteria, and now he’s running even later than usual. He pulls the curtains around the bed.
Cindi appears unchanged, pale and still. Her hair is spread over the pillow, coated with a patina of blue light. Her eyes are slightly open, and a nurse has squeezed a small amount of K-Y jelly into them to keep them from drying out. Her body seems small, a little range of hills above the neat field of the bed.
Dr. Myers picks up the graphs on the clipboard that hangs from the bedside stand. The graphs record the fluctuations of Cindi’s vital signs and intracranial pressure since admission. Dr. Myers does not like the gradual increase in cranial pressure, the implacable graph line sloping up and up, like a scarp rising into mountains that cannot be crossed. He tosses the clipboard back onto the stand.
Next, he shines a penlight into each of her eyes. The K-Y jelly gives her a surreal Hollywood look, but he can see that her pupils still do not react to light. He takes an otoscope from the pocket of his white coat and peers into her ears. On the right, instead of a bright reflection from the eardrum, he sees the eardrum bulging toward him, something purplish black behind it. This is blood. Dr. Myers steps back, as if caught looking into a keyhole.
He stands staring down at her. With the curtains closed he has the illusion that he and Cindi are alone. He closes his eyes and sees an image of her face as he has never seen it, bright and animated. A sense of loss wells up inside him, so sharp that it takes his breath away.
He leans down and presses his lips against her forehead, tasting sweat and skin lotion. He feels the throbbing of the respirator. He imagines the terrible pressure behind her skull, her dreams slowly being crushed.
He lifts his face from hers and looks down at her. “Cindi,” he says, “why isn’t Jesus helping you?” He puts out his hand and touches her breast. He cradles her breast in his hand. He feels tears stinging his eyes, blinks them back. He reaches behind him and pulls up the chair, sits, drops his head onto her shoulder, his arm across her body, her breast warm in his hand.
Ordinarily, the ICU is a sad place where love does not flourish. It is filled with a perpetual twilight, and a mist of perished souls. But this is a love story.
In her gray sea, Cindi sees before her a light, a sweet golden glow, and behind her a quiet and peaceful darkness. The hum in which she has been held begins to fragment, and breaks into the rattling of leaves and the whisper of wind. She moves, unthinking, toward the light, and as she does, she realizes she is clinging to something, but she does not know what it is.
Dr. Myers starts and glances around guiltily. How long has he been sitting here, embracing his patient? The nurses are still at the far end of the unit. Dr. Myers hurriedly gathers his gear and leaves the hospital.
In his apartment, he dumps his books and white coat on the floor, undresses, and crawls into his bed for the first time in weeks. He sleeps, spent.
In the sunny midmorning of the next day, Dr. Myers is walking in the park a few blocks from the hospital. He has made a brief appearance at morning rounds, done a couple of unavoidable chores, then left. He has never done this before, taken off in the middle of the day. He is dressed in his usual green scrub suit, but he has left his white coat and his beeper back at the hospital.
As he walks, he wrestles with his shame. He worries that someone may have seen him fondling Cindi, and that he will be confronted, humiliated, and fired.
He wanders vaguely over the green grass of the park until he comes to a mossy pond tucked into a clump of elm trees. It is early summer. The grass is dry, the sun warm. School is not out yet, so he has the park to himself.
He tosses pebbles into the dark water of the pond, and sees himself drifting in space. He comes to the end of his life-support tether, then reaches down with a pair of powerful cutters and cuts the cable. He floats away into the galactic depths.
He lies beneath a rattling elm tree, his hands behind his head. He thinks about Cindi. It seems likely that if she were awake they would have little in common, would probably dislike each other. He dozes in the flickering shadows of the leaves.
And in dream something presses warm against his cheek, hair wafts across his face like cobwebs. A hand takes his hand. “Cindi?” he says in his dream. “Cindi? I’m so sorry.” And in his dream he doesn’t know if he means her terrible injury or touching her, but it seems to him that he means both. “I felt you touch me,” she says in his dream, her voice like a moth wing. “Do you see the light?” And it seems to him that he does see. “I don’t think I can come back,” she says. “I want to, I really want to, but I can’t. Do you understand?” And in his dream Dr. Myers takes her face in his hands and kisses her on the lips, but he cannot see her. A dark mist curls between them. “Please let me go,” she says, and he knows that she does not mean him. Her hair, her long, pale hair, sticks to him where his skin is wet.
He awakens with a start. The sun is still warm around him. He sits up, looks out across the pond. A wind ruffles the face of the water, rattles the leaves above his head. He feels it touch his hair, his bare arms.
In the early afternoon Dr. Myers returns to the hospital. He is not surprised that no one has noticed his absence. He retrieves his white coat from his locker, then hangs it back up. He clips his beeper to the waist of his scrub pants. He knows he has numerous chores that need doing, but he cannot focus on them. He prowls the hospital corridors aimlessly, then finds himself in the ICU waiting room. It is empty, so he sits in one of the silly plaid chairs.
He is still sitting there an hour later when Cindi’s family comes in.
“Doc,” says Frank, “how’s it going?”
“We’ve been with Cindi,” says Darla. “We all think she looks much better.”
“I think she knew we were there,” says Mark. “I’m sure she squeezed my hand.”
“What’s the news?” says Frank. “Does Dr. Gage think there’s been any progress?”
Dr. Myers looks up at them, takes a deep breath. “You’re a paramedic, Mr. Teeters,” he begins. “You know how it is with head injuries. Her injury is misleading, because from the outside she hardly looks hurt at all.”
“What are you saying?” demands Frank. “Are you saying she’s not doing well?”
“Yes,” says Dr. Myers. “I’m saying it’s looking more and more like it would take a miracle for her to live through this. I’m sorry.”
Frank sits on the couch, frowning. “What does Dr. Gage say?” he asks.
“Dr. Gage?” says Dr. Myers. He is thinking of Cindi’s voice in the sunlight. “Why?”
“Because he’s the neurosurgeon in charge,” says Frank. “No offense, Doc, but you’re an intern. Does Dr. Gage agree with what you’re telling us?”
Dr. Myers turns to face Frank. “Dr. Gage wants to get an EEG,” he says. “He’s going to recommend that you consider removing Cindi from life support.”
“You mean, let her die?” asks Darla.
“I mean let things take their course,” says Dr. Myers.
“We’re not interested in pulling the plug,” says Frank angrily. “I do know how it is with head injuries. There’s plenty of cases of people who were sure to die, or be vegetables, who woke up and told their doctors to go to hell.”
Darla sits next to Frank, takes his arm. “You were saying it would take a miracle for Cindi to wake up,” says Darla to Dr. Myers. “You should know that we believe in miracles. We believe that anything is possible through prayer.”
Darla pauses, breathes a deep, ragged breath, stuffed with memories. “When she was twelve, she fell off her horse and shattered her knee. They told her she’d never walk again, never mind ride. She had three different operations. I know she was in pain most of the time for two years, but she never said a word. She prayed to Jesus every day, and did her exercises and wore a brace. And Jesus was with her, because in two years she was up and riding again. So I know what I’m talking about when I say that little girl has more courage and more of the true spirit of Christ than you can imagine.”
Dr. Myers spreads his hands in a conciliatory gesture, as if he is warming them over a fire. “Mrs. Teeters,” he says, “I don’t doubt Cindi’s courage for a second. But there’s only so much damage the human body can take. You have to let her go. She needs to know that it’s OK for her to die.”
Darla sits up, opens her eyes. “How can you tell us what Cindi needs?” she says. “You don’t know her at all. Just her cranial whatever.”
Mark steps forward, a smile perched on his face like a trained bird. “It’s not OK,” he breaks in. “It’s not OK at all. It’s not what Jesus wants, and it’s not what we want. You just don’t want to admit you don’t know what to do.”
“Mark,” says Dr. Myers, “I know how hard it is to deal with something like this. And I know you feel guilty because you were driving. But how can you speak for God? We’re only human. We can’t know what God wants.”
“You have no faith,” says Mark. “That’s why you don’t understand. You say I feel guilty, but I know my faith is strong. This is like a test of our faith. So I know Jesus will give us Cindi back.”
Frank puts his arm around Darla. “The Lord doesn’t want to keep us in ignorance,” he says to Dr. Myers. “That’s why He’s given us His Testament and His only son. If we accept the Holy Spirit, we’re like an expression of God’s will.”
“Are you a religious person?” asks Darla.
“I’m not denying the importance of your prayers,” says Dr. Myers.
“But are you personally religious?” persists Darla.
“I come from a very religious Jewish home,” answers Dr. Myers.
“Do you believe in God?” Frank asks.
Dr. Myers stares at Frank and Darla. They’re all so blond, he thinks. He closes his eyes, rubs them under his glasses. He feels greasy and inept. He imagines the others dealing with firewood, livestock, shotguns — things he knows nothing about. His knowledge of medicine suddenly seems paltry. He remembers his dream, Cindi’s touch.
He opens his eyes wearily. “I believe in God,” he says. “But God plays by the rules. Prayer can strengthen us and teach us, but it doesn’t change the rules.”
Darla shakes her head. “Jesus teaches us that anything is possible if we believe in Him. That’s the meaning of His death and resurrection. If we accept Him in our hearts, He will not delay to work miracles for us.”
“Why bring her to the hospital then?” says Dr. Myers. “What do you expect us to do that God’s not already doing?”
“We’re not attacking you,” says Darla. “We appreciate what you and Dr. Gage are doing to care for Cindi while she’s helpless. But we know what we know.”
“Cindi and I are going to be married,” says Mark, suddenly. “We’re together in Jesus.”
Dr. Myers looks at Mark for a moment, then stands and walks to the door. “I need to get going,” he says. “I hope you’re right, I really do.”
As Dr. Myers walks through the hospital corridors, he tries, he really tries, to feel God’s presence, to hear God’s soothing voice, maybe like a soft snowfall. But all he can hear is the faint rattling of leaves and the lonely sighing of wind.
Dr. Myers meets Dr. Gage in the ICU. Dr. Gage wants to make some decisions.
They stand together at the foot of Cindi’s bed. “Our full-court press hasn’t done much good,” says Dr. Gage, gesturing at Cindi’s graphs. “She’s maxed out on meds, and she’s dry as a bone, but her pressure has continued to rise steadily.”
Dr. Myers is not paying attention to Dr. Gage. He is staring at the oxygen tubing that runs from Cindi’s tracheal tube to the respirator.
“You know,” says Dr. Gage reflectively, “it’s amazing how few people really appreciate Oppenheimer’s role in the inception of the nuclear age.”
Dr. Myers is still staring at the tubing. It is about an inch in diameter, an attractive translucent blue plastic with accordion ribs. It hangs in a gentle arc. At the bottom of the curve a small pool of water has collected, condensed from the flow of humidified oxygen. Every time the Bird breathes the tubing shakes and the pool quivers. Dr. Myers imagines that the pool is alive, a liquid creature trapped in the tubing. It runs back and forth, trying to escape.
“The incredible thing about Oppenheimer,” Dr. Gage is saying, “is that he was the only scientist involved in the project who really understood the implications of nuclear energy.”
Dr. Myers resists the temptation to tear the tubing off the respirator port, free the pool. He can see the shiny little creature crawling away across the floor, while Cindi’s breath flows from the torn tubing like blood from a vein.
“I’m going to finish my rounds,” says Dr. Gage. “Then I’ll go talk to the Teeters.” Dr. Gage nods pleasantly to Dr. Myers and leaves the unit.
Dr. Myers, otoscope in hand, thumbs on the light and peers again into Cindi’s ears. On the right side, where he had previously seen blood behind the eardrum, he now sees a glittering gray mass. It takes him a moment to realize he is seeing her brain. The eardrum has ruptured and her brain, impelled by the pressure in her skull, has filled her ear canal. Dr. Myers stares at it in wonder, his light glinting off its faceted surface. Can he see her thoughts? If he turns out the light, will he see the flicker of electricity, like the distant lightning he has imagined?
He straightens up, decides to skip the rest of the exam. What more does he need to see? He reaches down, strokes her hair. They are confidants now, conspirators. He sits at the counter in the nursing station, watching urine drip into the bag hanging from the end of Cindi’s bed.
He is startled by loud voices and laughter. Cindi’s neighbor in the next bed is an old man with bowel cancer, named Emilio Cargoles. His family has just arrived for a visit. They are Spanish Gypsies, part of a small community in the city. The old man has absolutely refused any surgery and hasn’t responded well to chemotherapy. He isn’t expected to last much longer.
The nurses have long since given up trying to make the Cargoles family adhere to the ICU rules. Now instead of the three visitors allowed they have crowded in eight, including a couple of kids. They have brought food, strictly forbidden — bread and cheese, olives, fierce green peppers. The old man cannot really eat, he is too weak. But he goes through the motions, chewing on a piece of bread dipped in olive oil. He is surrounded by a warm cloud of laughter and color. His dark eyes are bright in his sunken face, like two little animals peering from caves.
“Hey, Papa,” says a young man with a round face and curly hair, “when you see Jesus, you’ll tell Him how come I miss church so much, qué no? That I’m too busy taking care of my lazy old Papa.”
“No, Carlos,” says the old man in a voice like a scratchy fiddle. “I’ll have to tell Him the truth. That you’re always out getting drunk and chasing women.”
“Papa,” says an older man, “the doctors want to know if you want to sign papers to donate your organs.”
“Sure,” says the old man. “If we can donate my dingus to someone who can use it.” The women all cross themselves, smiling.
It’s close to three a.m., the thin end of the day when silence shows through like bones. Dr. Myers lies sleeping in his bed. In dream, he stands in darkness on a grassy hilltop, a meager wind hissing around his legs. He can taste loss on his tongue like lemon peel. Cindi stands before him, smiling. “Cindi,” says Nathan Myers, “they can’t do it, but I can. I’m letting you go.” She opens her mouth as if to speak, and light pours out and he feels himself darken and melt in the intolerable brightness, like a jammed film. She seems to rush past him, part of the wind.
He opens his eyes. His heart is pounding. He rises, wanders into the cluttered front room. He pulls the curtain open on his single front window, stares down at the empty street. Then he sits on his battered old couch, his face in his hands, and cries and cries, sobbing as he never has before.
It is early morning in the ICU. Dr. Myers has just arrived. He goes immediately to Cindi’s bed. Nothing has changed. But when he looks closely at her face he sees that there is a new laxity there, as if an inner framework has been removed.
He turns away and sits at the nursing station. He picks up Cindi’s chart and sees that Dr. Gage has stuck a note on the cover. It says “DNR.” Do Not Resuscitate.
Dr. Myers stares at the note, wondering if Cindi’s family has agreed to this, or if Dr. Gage has made this decision on his own. A sudden chiming fills the unit. Dr. Myers looks up at Cindi’s TV. The top line, where her heartbeat should be, now looks like the edge of a saw, flat with tiny zigzags.
Nurses converge on Cindi’s bed. Charlene Zolecki is there first. She feels for a pulse on Cindi’s neck. There is none. Dr. Myers arrives and Charlene looks at him with her eyebrows raised, gesturing toward Cindi’s chest. Dr. Myers shakes his head.
“No CPR?” Charlene asks, wanting to be sure.
“No,” says Dr. Myers. “There’s no point. She’s a DNR.”
The heart line on the TV flattens out. Dr. Myers feels for Cindi’s pulse. He finds nothing. The Bird is still chuffing away, filling and emptying her lungs. Dr. Myers reaches over and switches it off. Silence settles over the cubicle. After a moment, Dr. Myers reaches up and switches off the TV too. The lines contract themselves into little balls, implode, and vanish.
Cindi lies outwardly unchanged, giving no hint of the cooling and clotting and dissolving going on inside. She takes one agonal breath, then lies still. The tubes and wires give her a forlorn appearance, like the leavings from last night’s party.
Dr. Myers stares down at her with dry eyes. When we’re alive, he thinks, something’s always moving.
Charlene moves about the cubicle, detaching tubes from machines and bags.
Dr. Myers leaves Charlene to her chores and goes to the waiting room. Cindi’s family is there.
“She’s gone,” Dr. Myers says. “We didn’t try to resuscitate her.”
“Gone?” demands Frank. “Gone? You mean dead? That’s not possible.”
“We’ve got to see her right away,” says Darla.
Tears spring into Mark’s eyes. He starts out the door. Dr. Myers lays a hand on his arm, but Mark shrugs him off and strides away in the direction of the ICU.
“She knew she couldn’t come back,” says Dr. Myers.
“What are you talking about?” shouts Frank. “We want to see her!”
“Of course,” says Dr. Myers, and the three of them follow Mark down the bright, immaculate corridor. At the ICU, they find Mark angrily rattling the door. He has forgotten to press the admission button. Dr. Myers does it for him and the clerk buzzes them in.
Charlene Zolecki has composed Cindi neatly on the bed. The tubes in her nose are cut off close to the skin. The covers are pulled up to her chin. Darla drops to her knees beside the bed. In a moment, Frank joins her. Mark stands behind them, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.
Dr. Myers sits at the nursing station. Charlene pulls the cream-colored curtain around Cindi’s cubicle and goes to see about her other patients.
An hour passes. The ICU pulses with its small tides. The Cargoles family is absent. The old man stares into space. Cindi’s family has not moved.
Charlene Zolecki sits down next to Dr. Myers. “Nathan, don’t you think it’s time to move them along?” she asks. “We need to get the body out of here. We need to clean the bed, plus it’s not fair to the other patients.”
Dr. Myers nods, stands, goes over to Cindi’s cubicle, carrying her chart. He moves the curtains aside.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “We really have to move her downstairs. And you need to start thinking about funeral arrangements.”
Suddenly, Mark throws himself across Cindi’s body. “You’re not taking her anywhere,” he hollers. “You want her to die, but Jesus is going to make her live.”
Dr. Myers reaches down to grasp Mark’s arm, but Frank rises and pulls Dr. Myers away. Darla stands too. “Jesus isn’t going to let you take her away from us,” she says firmly.
Dr. Myers turns to Frank. “Mr. Teeters,” he says desperately, “this is just making a terrible thing worse. Cindi’s dead, for God’s sake. It hurts, but we have to let her go.”
Darla stands in front of Dr. Myers. “What did you say?” she asks.
Frank folds his arms, looks away. “Nothing is impossible for Jesus,” he says.
Dr. Myers feels the situation crumbling in his hands like stale bread. He is still holding Cindi’s chart. He clutches it tighter.
Charlene steps up. “Mr. Teeters, Mrs. Teeters,” she says in a soothing voice, “there are other patients here.”
Frank, his mouth working, abruptly falls to his knees again, tears streaming down his face. “God, Jesus,” he cries, “take me if You want, but leave Cindi.”
Charlene steps away from Frank, as if he has burst into flame.
“Christ Jesus,” Frank goes on in a booming voice, “You said, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.’ ”
“Oh, Jesus, Christ Jesus,” shouts Mark from on top of Cindi’s body.
Darla turns back to Dr. Myers. “Cindi wasn’t yours to lose,” she says through clenched teeth. “How dare you?”
Something falls away from Dr. Myers, like the husk of a seed. He clenches his fists, dropping the chart. The papers flutter to the floor.
“Don’t tell me what I didn’t lose,” he shouts.
Darla steps back, blinking.
At the nursing sation, the clerk calls for hospital security.
Mark jumps off the bed, swings his fist at Dr. Myers, who goes down, his white coat flapping.
Frank has pulled Cindi’s arm out from under the covers. Now he clutches her hand, his eyes squeezed tight.
Two hospital security guards enter the ICU, stout men in gray uniforms. “OK, let’s all relax here,” says one.
Dr. Myers is sitting at the ICU nursing station, rubbing his sore jaw. The Teeters and Mark are in the corridor outside the ICU, receiving a stern lecture from the security officers. Dr. Gage is in his office, taking notes for his article on J. Robert Oppenheimer. Charlene Zolecki is wiping down Cindi’s bed with antiseptic while Mr. Cargoles jokes with her about his impending death.
Cindi is gone. Her body has been taken to the morgue in the basement.
The nurses have changed shifts and Charlene Zolecki has gone home. Mr. Cargoles is sleeping, dreaming of a young woman who is now an old woman. She is dressed in white, whirling to the music of drum and violin. Dr. Gage has been called to an emergency surgery and is carefully sawing through the skull of someone he has never met.
Frank and Darla and Mark are in Frank’s truck, making the long drive home. They are immersed in silence, like flies in amber. Frank is driving, and he and Darla hold hands while he steers one-handed. Mark is slumped against the door, his hands jammed into his pockets.
Frank is chewing on a smoldering anger, feeling humiliated. Is he being punished? For what? Darla is dreading how empty their house will seem. She keeps remembering what has just happened, that Cindi is gone, won’t return, not ever.
Mark is consumed in a paroxysm of sorrow and regret. He and Cindi will never make love now. All his plans seem like ashes.
Outside the truck, night seeps up from the ground, crawls around the horizon like a violet cloud. In the fields beside the road a wind ruffles in the corn, rattling the stalks.
Cindi’s body lies empty in darkness in the morgue. Tomorrow it will be taken to a funeral home in the small town toward which her family is driving.
Nathan Myers is still in the hospital. It is his call night, so he will be there until morning. His beeper has just summoned him to the ER for another admission. He shuts the beeper off, holds it in his hand, looks at it carefully. He sees himself hurling it against a wall, breaking it into a million pieces. He sees himself flinging his white coat into a corner, and dancing like Gene Kelly out the hospital doors forever.