Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chapter Four: AML

As usual, the parking garage was completely full except for most of the first three floors, but those spaces were all reserved for physicians, so Jericho kept driving. By the time he found an open spot on the roof, the weather had changed. The sky was a bowl of lead, and gusts of frigid air snatched at the edges of buildings and chased loose trash to dance in the corners. As he stepped out of his car, the first few large drops of rain burst against the pavement. Holding a gift over his head, Jericho jogged for the elevator; as he stepped under the overhang, the rain broke in earnest, pouring down with the roar of a freight train, the occasional gust of wind driving it sideways like so many liquid ice-picks.

The elevator lurched to a halt, and Jericho stepped out on the second floor. The halls were a maze of plastic sheets put up for construction and remodeling, sterile instruments carts, laundry, gurneys, and people walking about at different speeds in different directions with no apparent rhyme or reason. It was a long and tortuous walk to the pediatrics wing, and another elevator ride to the oncology ward. The elevator doors slid open with a cheerful beep, but Jericho did not move. The elevator beeped again, and a female voice announced the floor, “Fourth floor – pediatric oncology.” It occurred to Jericho that those words should not be in any vocabulary in any language. There was something fundamentally unjust about the idea of a child developing cancer. The doors began to close, and Jericho reached out a hand. The doors lurched back open, and Jericho placed one foot in front of the other. The floor was well lit and cheery. A chill raced up Jericho’s spine as he realized that all the door knobs and hand rails were at a height for children. Colorful murals and carpets did nothing to cheer death’s specter. Jericho handed his ID across the counter. “I’m here to see Caytlyn. Caytlyn Spears.”

The lady behind the desk flashed a smile that never made it to her eyes, and clicked a few keys. “You’re on the approved list, sir. Let me get you a wrist band.”

A few minutes later, Jericho pulled back a curtain, and stepped awkwardly into a very small space. Caytlyn was eight years old and small for her age. Tubes were taped to her arms and upper lip, and her bald head throbbed red with the reflection of her monitor. Like a solitary sentinel, the monitor counted her life away, one heart beat at a time. Beep. Beep. Beep. Her eyelids fluttered, and the muscles at the corner of her mouth tightened, but she couldn’t manage a smile. Her fingers twitched. Beep. Beep. Beep. Jericho sat in the single bedside chair as Caytlyn’s eyes followed him. When he had first heard about AML he didn't know what it meant or how serious it was. When he heard leukemia, though, he thought he understood. He hadn't though, not really. He hadn't understood the needles, the pills, the radiation, the endless tests. He hadn't understood the waiting, the worry, the fear, the pain. He hadn't understood his surprising ambivalence toward hour long telephone battles with the insurance company. He hadn't understood the psychological drain of watching a child suffer weight loss, chronic fatigue, fever, night terrors, chills, headaches, and vertigo within a matter of weeks. He hadn't understood the horror of an entire building filled with similar dying children. The hospital was named after some saint. If there are saints, this one is cruel and weak. No child should have to suffer like this. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Hi Caytlyn.” His smile faltered. He had never been good at faking emotions. “I came to see you.” Of course you did, idiot. “I know this is really tough for you, girl, but you hang tight.” You sound so lame. Jericho sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You’re so young, you don’t even know what life is yet, but you’re old enough to know what death is.” When did you turn into a poet? “I guess what I’m saying is, I know you're scared. And I know you’re scared because you don’t know why you’re scared.” Jericho’s voice caught, and he took a ragged breath. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Daddy did good last week, baby. We're going to get you the best care in the world. I promise. You’re going to be just fine, honey. Just fine. Be strong.” His eyes strayed down to the rumpled wet package crushed between his nervous hands. The purple wrapping paper was running, and the bow was smashed. “I brought you something. I know you’re still recovering, so I’ll open it for you.” Jericho tore the paper away, and placed the small gift on Caytlyn’s chest. He could feel her ribs. Her lip quivered, and a tear came to her eye, but she couldn’t speak.

“It’s ok, baby girl.” Jericho brushed her tear away with a thumb. “You be strong. I’ll be back soon.” Jericho squeezed her hand, and planted a kiss on her forehead. Then he shoved past the curtain and was gone. Slowly, Caytlyn’s hand crept up her stomach to grasp the gift on her chest. Tears trickled out of the corners of her closed eyes. 

It was a hairbrush. Beep. Beep. Beep.

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