Mom had a hangnail once; it put her in the hospital.
I know that sounds dumb, but it’s true. She kept pestering it, picking at it and chewing on it before she managed to pull it out of the skin, wounding the crease along her nail bed and cuticle. She rinsed it off and forgot about it.
Until it got infected and swelled up like a balloon, that is.
You ever watch cartoons, where some guy bashes his thumb and it grows into a big, throbbing ball? Mom’s thumb reminded me of that: bulging, red and hot, like it had a fever even thought the rest of her didn’t.
It all happened in the middle of the night, so we had to get security to let us out. Trains didn’t run on our line between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. The underground was gated and locked up during those hours so the homeless people wouldn’t try to get in to loot the kiosks or sleep on the platform.
Joe and Holly’s mom let us out. She was on a night shift, which was weird. She wasn’t actually a security person, and usually works mornings, with my mother, monitoring the rails and trains. “I’ll be back soon, Rebecca,” Mom told her. “In time for work.”
Dad shook his head at Rebecca, and she said, “I’m pulling a double. Dan’s sick. I’ll let Megan know, just in case we need to cover for you.”
“I’ll be back in time.” Mom was nothing if not determined.
Of course, we weren’t back. Jake and I missed school, Dad called in to work for himself and Mom. We were at the emergency room for hours, because the infection cause blood poisoning and she was on an IV getting loaded up on antibiotics.
A doctor numbed her up and then made a big slice in her nail bed to drain the infection. Mom and I were smart—we looked away. There was this noise: “Squelllchhh!” Then there was a terrifically horrible smell.
Jake groaned, “Ook, urk…uuughh!” and threw up all over the floor.
Dad let out a, “Ohhh…”
The nurse said, “Easy, sir, head between—oh shit, there he goes!”
Dad thumped to the ground, passed out.
I looked at Mom. She was pale, and looked horrified.
I looked at the doctor. Her face was mostly hidden by her mask and a Plexiglas face shield, but her eyes were so crinkled up I knew she was laughing. “Men!” she said. “Why do they always think they need to watch?”
It was a long night, and Mom was sick for a couple of days.
Infections are nasty.
I mention this past story because I knew Dale was in big trouble.
We’d been in the high school gym for a few hours; I know, because Jake had had time to roll over and drool on my leg in his sleep. Any other time, and I would have shoved him away, grossed out. But, who cares? It’s a little drool; it’ll dry.
Anyway, Ted had taken Dale into the boy’s locker room and washed out the gash on her leg. He used some disinfectant and put on clean bandages, grateful that they had a first aid kit in the gym teacher’s office. But the wound was swelling, and it smelled bad—I could smell it from the corner where I had tucked myself, my brother and our friends Paul and Julie.
We were between the bleachers and the wall—I guess we felt more secure in the cramped space; I don’t know. Ted and Dale had elected to sit on the bleachers, and had stretched out on the seats to rest. So, it’s not like they were across the room from me, or anything, but still…the smell was strong, and terrifically horrible, just like Mom’s infected finger.
When I started to notice the smell, I got scared. Dale was a big woman, and stronger than anyone I had ever seen. She was brave, too. But even brave, strong people can get an infection, and they can get blood poisoning, too.
And it happened so fast!
My little group was still sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb them, but I was compelled to get up and check on Dale. So I started inching myself away, out from under and through the bodies of my sleeping companions, careful not to let a head drop on the floor or anything, and careful not to disturb Paul’s dislocated shoulder. That would wake him, for sure.
I suppose by the time I extracated myself, sort of slithering out of the tangled arms and legs, I must have looked like a wriggling snake, scooting along on my back. Finally, I worked myself free, rolled over and carefully stood up.
Dale was still asleep, but she was moaning with misery. Ted was awake, and was sitting with her head in his lap. Her face was a blotchy mixture of ghostly pale, marred by bright red cheeks and chin. She was drenched in sweat. The black and pink striped lip art was gone, and her full lips were nearly colorless.
I inched closer, until Ted noticed me. “Is she asleep,” I asked, “or unconscious?”
Ted gave me an imposing frown. I mentioned that Dale is big, but Ted’s no slouch in the size department, either. I might have been intimidated by that frown once upon a time, but after the day we’d been through, I was over being intimidated by frowns, or size or just about anything.
“She’s infected, for sure,” I added. “I can smell it.”
Ted heaved a great sigh, and brushed hair from Dale’s forehead. “I haven’t tried to wake her up,” he told me. “So I can’t answer your question.”
“I guess I’m scared to find out. You know; if I can’t wake her up.”
I nodded again. I felt pretty useless; nodding wasn’t much help.
I looked around the gymnasium. There were mostly grownups here, but I thought the odds of anyone being a doctor were pretty slim. “Mr. Scott’s a teacher. What does he teach?” I asked.
Ted shrugged. “I have no idea.”
I studied the people, sitting in little groups of two or three on bleachers or at those lunch tables that pull out of the wall. The high school gym wasn’t any different than the gym at our K through eight. I guess school design is pretty much the same everywhere.
I don’t know why I’m going on about the gym. What I was thinking was it would be good—maybe—if one of those grownups was a science teacher. I looked back at Ted and told him so.
Ted nodded. “I’ll go ask,” I said. “And I guess you should try to wake her up. Just to know…you know, for sure.”
I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself, and I looked more closely at Dale’s leg. She was wearing biker shorts, and they were torn up on the leg she’d gashed. The area all around the bandages was red, and I’m sure if I had touched it, the heat would have been intense. If there were any red streaks moving up to her hips and belly, I couldn’t see them. Ted could look under her clothes; I wasn’t going to.
But I was really afraid that streaking was there, hidden by her shorts and shirt. I was afraid her wound got too dirty while we were making our way over all the broken-up soil and rubble in the park. I know they washed it up when we got here, but what if it was too little, too late?
That made me scared about the cut on Julie’s head. Grace cleaned that up really well before we retreated to our corner, but—
No, one thing at a time, Stella!
I made my way toward the other people and asked, “Is there, like, a doctor in the house?”
God, that sounded so stupid! Where did I think I was, in the middle of some dumb movie?
Faces turned toward me, but no one spoke up to announce that they had their own private practice in school. Then a woman did speak. She said, “I’m the school nurse. Are you…are you hurt?”
“Not me,” I replied. I studied her. She didn’t look old enough to be a nurse. She didn’t look old enough to be in high school, even. She wasn’t any taller than me, maybe five feet tall, and had huge warm brown eyes and an angelic baby face. “You’re a nurse?”
She smiled, revealing deep dimples in her cheeks. “Hard to believe, isn’t it? Who’s sick? One of your friends?”
I couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed Dale, lying up there on the bleachers with her head in Ted’s lap. They were a little hard to miss. But she had been sitting in a chair facing the opposite direction, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
It seemed rather selective to me that she’d turned her back. The thing was, I couldn’t remember if she’d been sitting like that when we came in. My impression was that she hadn’t moved at all in the time we’d been here. And there was a part of me that got it; if I didn’t have to, I would probably choose to sit and stare at the wall and not move anymore myself.
But I had Jake to think about. I might be all he has left in the world; the fates of our parents were unknown and might stay that way.
As it turned out, Mr. Scott taught English classes. Not much help there, in the way of advanced first aid knowledge. But he heard me talking to the nurse, and he got up and went to speak to another man.
The two came over and joined me as the nurse stood up. “Stella,” Mr. Scott said, “This is Mr. Fabio. He’s the anatomy teacher here.”
What luck! “That’s good,” I said. I led them all over to the bleachers where Ted still sat with Dale’s head in his lap.
She looked bad.
The nurse introduced herself to Ted. “I’m Denise,” she said. “I’m a licensed practical nurse—”
“An LPN,” Ted murmured absently, gently stroking Dale’s forehead and barely glancing up at Denise.
“Yes,” she agreed. “This is a little out of my league, but we’ll do the best we can. I would like to move her to my office, though. Can she walk at all?”
Ted did look up then, and said, “I can’t really get her to talk to me anymore.”
I swallowed hard, hearing him say that. She really was unconscious, then. This was bad, I knew.
Denise turned to Mr. Scott and said, “There’s a stretcher in my office. She really needs to be in there—I have all my supplies there.”
“I’ll go get it,” Mr. Scott turned and crossed the gymnasium to another door. He gestured at the two teenage boys as he went, and they joined him.
They returned with a stretcher and some blankets pretty quickly, although it felt like hours to me. I couldn’t stop looking at Dale’s face. It was hectic with red patches and covered in sweat. Her breathing didn’t sound good, either. I was scared.
Mr. Scott and Mr. Fabio unfolded the stretcher and put a clean sheet on the mattress. Then they, and the teenage boys whose names I still didn’t know carefully lifted Dale and they all moved her down the steps and placed her on the bed and covered her. Mr. Fabio used straps to secure her.
“Why is he tying her down?” I asked. “She’s unconscious.”
“She might wake up and try to move,” Mr. Scott explained, giving my shoulder a reassuring pat. “Better safe than sorry.”
I nodded. That was true.
When Denise and Mr. Fabio started to push the stretcher away, closely followed by Ted, I started after them. Mr. Scott reached out and pulled me back. “I’m sorry, Stella. You’re just going to have to wait.”
I turned to the teen boys. They shrugged at me. “We can’t help,” one said.
“We’d be in the way,” the other added.
I sighed. I wanted to cry, but not in front of guys whose names I didn’t even know.
The first one reached out and patted my shoulder. “You’re Stella?”
“I’m Patrick. This goon here is Bobo.”
“It’s Beau.” He slugged Patrick lightly on the shoulder. “Look, we work mornings in the cafeteria. That’s why we were here when everything—”
“Went to shhh—er. Went to hell.”
I giggled. “You can say ‘shit’.” I told Patrick. “I’m not a little kid.”
“Anyway…” Patrick looked embarrassed. “We’ve been here for hours, and no one has eaten. Maybe we should do something about that. Wanna help, Stella?”
Something to keep me occupied while we waited to see how Dale was doing would be good. I looked at Mr. Scott, who nodded in agreement.
Weird, how I had already found an adult to seek permission from. What the hell is wrong with me?
I guess I really am just a little kid.
I followed Patrick and Beau to the big kitchen so we could feed people.
My brother and our friends slept on. I kind of envied them.
Previously published on my Vocal Media page. You can find many other stories and articles here.