Monday Myth & Mayhem: In the Blood

Posted on March 20, 2010

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The nurse woke Evelyn from yet another nap, gripping her wrist to take her pulse. Evelyn scowled at her, resisting her cool, professional hand.

“I was sleeping,” she pointed out, her voice weak and hoarse. The nurse ignored her, counting down her sluggish heartbeats. She made a notation on a chart, and looked up at Evelyn with a too-bright smile.

“Your daughter just got home from the store,” she said. “She’ll be in after she’s changed.”

“I’m sure I don’t have time to wait for that.” The nurse’s smile faded, and she turned to check the I.V. which trickled morphine into Evelyn’s blood. Palliative care; the leukemia was in its final stage, conquering and devouring, flooding and blasting her body, denying her what should have been her finest years: unfair, as most things had turned out for Evelyn.

She shifted uncomfortably in the bed; her bones hurt despite the morphine. There were nurses here almost around the clock now to take care of her, but Evelyn was certain it was not to ease the difficulty of her passing. Her daughter Sophie had arranged all this so that she could do as she liked while strangers sat the vigil in her place. That Sophie had moved into Evelyn’s house to be near her, that she had quit her job to be with her in her final hours: that was just a ruse so that people wouldn’t see her for the ungrateful, selfish brat she had always been.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” the nurse — what was her name: Millie — was saying. “Let me help you now before I leave. The night nurse won’t be here for another couple of hours yet.” Evelyn waved her off.

”I’m fine. Just leave the bedpan. It won’t kill Sophie to lift a finger if need be.” Millie bent over her, grey eyes narrowed. She pressed her fingers against the swollen organs in Evelyn’s abdomen, laid a broad palm against her forehead.

“You’re feverish,” she said, and reached for the digital thermometer in her pocket, crackling the paper off the sterile mouthpiece. “Are you feeling stiff? How’s your pain? I can increase your dosage a little.” She put the cool thermometer in Evelyn’s mouth, and ticked off the seconds on her wristwatch. When the beep signaled time, she recorded the temperature on the chart, brows furrowed.

“Well?” Evelyn said. “Am I dying?” She took a bit of grim pleasure in the look on Millie’s face.

“It’s 102,” the nurse sighed, overlooking Evelyn’s sense of humor. She reached up and fiddled with the I.V., and in a moment Evelyn felt the blankness of the morphine deepen and spread out to, but not quite reach, her bones.

Sophie came in then, dressed in shapeless sweat pants and a baggy sweater, smelling of soap. At least she had bathed, but her homeliness and the neglect of her appearance infuriated Evelyn. Weren’t her mother’s dying moments an occasion to make a little effort?

“Hey, Mom,” she said, coming to stand by Millie at the foot of the bed. Then, to Millie, “How’s she doing now?”

“She has a high fever, and she’s stiff. She’s been asleep more than awake. I think I’ll hang around until Joe gets here for his shift.” Evelyn saw Sophie’s eyes widen and go dark for a moment, and some message passed between her and Millie that she couldn’t see, but that she understood well enough.

Nice acting, Sophie, she thought, and Sophie looked at her as if she had spoken.

“Thanks, Millie,” she was saying. “Why don’t you go get something to eat in the kitchen? I’ll call you if… she needs anything.” Millie nodded and smiled down at Evelyn, then left the room. Sophie sat down on the side of the bed, careful not to bump Evelyn’s numb legs with her wide behind.

“The shopping took longer than I expected today,” she said. “We were just simply out of everything. I did get you some of your favorite magazines, though, so you can keep up with the celebrity gossip.”

“I don’t feel like reading,” Evelyn said. She coughed; her chest was heavier than usual today.

“Then I’ll read to you,” Sophie said, and got up to pour a glass of water. She held the glass to her lips, but Evelyn only moistened her mouth and didn’t drink.

“You can stop pretending now. Nobody’s here to see your performance.”

Sophie took a deep breath; her face was stony. She pulled the dainty chair from Evelyn’s vanity table over to the bed and sat down again; Evelyn hoped her weight wouldn’t crush it.

“Millie said you slept all afternoon, and you slept all morning before I left. Did you get some good rest?”

“I dreamed about your father,” Evelyn said without meaning to. “About when we were young and I was pregnant with you.” Sophie’s bland face softened into a hesitant smile. Even that didn’t improve her features.

“You did? Was it a nice dream?”

“I had such high hopes then,” Evelyn sighed. “I used to daydream about how I would have a son who would be big and strong, who’d be just as handsome as his dad. I always wanted a son, ever since I was a little girl. I would imagine how he’d grow up to be successful and rich, and how he’d take care of me in my old age and give me lots of beautiful grandchildren.” Her eyes slowly focused on Sophie: overweight, shabby, unmarried Sophie, who had not inherited the good looks from either side of the family. She looked back at Evelyn, her brown eyes empty.

“I had a dream, a nightmare, really, when I was pregnant with you,” Evelyn went on, “that somebody came to me in the middle of the night and took my baby out of my belly and put something ghastly in its place. I woke up screaming that night, but your father convinced me it was just a bad dream. Then, a couple of weeks later, you were born.”

“That’s terrible, Mom,” Sophie said quietly, guardedly. “Is that what you dreamed about today?”

Evelyn shifted in the bed again. No position was comfortable, and the small effort exhausted her. Sophie did not move to fluff the pillow or to help her.

“Your father swore to me that it was just a dream,” she said, breathing heavily. “I believed him for a long time, at least until I got pregnant with your brother Marcus. Then everything went wrong. I had nightmares all the time during that pregnancy. I would dream that you were in the bed with me, nursing, and that the more you fed, the dirtier my blood got, until it was black and thick and… evil… and it filled up my baby boy and suffocated him right there in my womb.” She stopped, feeling winded.

“It was just a dream, Mom,” Sophie said into the quiet. “I was two years old when you had Marcus, and you never breast-fed me, remember? Marcus was stillborn because you were Rh-negative, and your body was allergic to him because he got Dad’s Rh-positive blood. It happened to a lot of people back then, because they didn’t have the shots to fix that like they do now. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I lived because I was your first baby, and I had the same blood as you. And… and I mourned for my little brother, too. You know all this, Mom.”

Evelyn’s legs were beyond numb; she couldn’t feel them any longer. And in spite of her fever, she was cold, shivering a little under a slick of clammy perspiration.

There were shadows drifting about the room, behind Sophie. Evelyn could see faces in the shadows. There was her grandmother, and her husband Phil, now ten years dead. She strained her eyes, searching the milling shadows, hoping little Marcus was there, too.

“Marcus should have been my firstborn, not you.” Her voice was just a coarse whisper now. “You’re the reason my blood went wrong, because you’re a—a changeling, or a monster or something. My grandma was from the old country, and she used to tell stories… It’s your fault he’s dead. You took the son I’d always dreamed of away from me. And since you were born, my blood’s never been right again. It’s killing me now because you tainted it. I hope it makes you happy.”

Sophie was looking at her hands, which lay like clubs in her lap. She shook her head slowly, dishwater hair falling lank against her face. When she looked up at Evelyn, there were spots of angry color in her puffy cheeks. Truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it? Evelyn thought.

“Same old story even now, Mom?” Sophie said finally. “You should have been the person who loved me most in the world. You should have been grateful that you still had a healthy child who lived.”

She stood up and leaned over the bed, and Evelyn tried to shrink away, suddenly fearful that Sophie might do something to speed the inevitable.

“You’ve never really seen me, Mom,” she said directly into Evelyn’s face. “You’ve only seen the story you made up about me, and about Marcus. You don’t know me at all. And what’s even sadder is that now you’ll never get the chance to know me. You’re dying, and there’s nothing I can say or do that will make you open your eyes. And no, I’ll never be happy about that. I just feel sorry for you.”

Sophie straightened up and turned away from Evelyn. The room was getting dark with the early evening; she went to turn on the lamp on the vanity table, but that only made the shadows more distinct. Evelyn could see the faces moving in and out of the shadows clearly now, and she knew they were waiting for her. They were close, standing at the end of the bed, Grandma and Phil looking just the way she remembered them. Their faces were grim and unsmiling. They both understood what she was going through, and knew that she would have to face it alone, as she had faced everything else.

Sophie was just here to be rid of her, to be done with her… If Marcus had lived, he would be beside her in this moment, distraught and weeping… He would have been such a good son, if he hadn’t been denied that chance.

The last breath was slow and hard, and then Evelyn was too exhausted and weak to open her lungs to take in another. She felt her heart beat one final time, then stop, and darkness settled in her body. The thick, sour blood stopped moving in her veins, and her aching bones and bloated organs sank into the most profound silence she had ever known, so deep that it seemed nothing could reach her.

She felt something very strong pulling her, and suddenly she was above her failed body, looking down. She was disoriented for a moment until her husband came to her. She turned to follow him, but he stopped and wordlessly commanded her to take a last look at what she was leaving behind.

A beautiful young woman about thirty years of age, tall and shapely, was standing at the vanity table, glaring at her reflection in the mirror there with contempt and doubt. Oddly, the girl resembled Evelyn when she had been that age. Was this a new night nurse, then? Evelyn wondered. Sophie must have left. It would be just like her to desert her mother at precisely this moment.

But the young woman sensed that something was wrong. She turned to the bed and to Evelyn’s corpse lying in it and said, “Mom?”

When there was no answer, she rushed to the bed and gathered Evelyn’s body into her arms, her rich chestnut hair falling over them both. She began to weep, hard wrenching sobs that should have torn her open.

“Mom!” she screamed. “Oh, my god, Mom…”

Millie and Joe, the night nurse, came running in then, to take care of them. Evelyn hung stunned in the air, pinned to the moment and unable to move, until Phil came to lead her away.

I never knew, she told him, and unexpected grief engulfed her.

I always tried to tell you, he told her. Come on, darling, I’ll take you away from here.

Evelyn gazed down at her lovely daughter, inconsolable in the arms of strangers, and did not want to leave her.

You can’t help her now, her husband said. She’s strong. She’ll find her way in time. We have to go.

Evelyn turned and saw her grandmother waiting at the end of what seemed a long, silvery corridor.

My Evvie, the grandmother said. You’re here at last. Look who I’ve brought to meet you.

Evelyn felt herself rush forward, knowing her little Marcus was there, delight and relief competing with her sharp new sorrow. Finally, after all these miserable years, she would be with him now, and together they would watch over beautiful, lonely Sophie. Her grandmother moved sideways and disappeared.

Before her, very close now, Evelyn beheld a black, seething clot that reached out for her, a darkness that was solid and vast and irresistible, with hollow eyes that yet glowed and pulsed like blood.

Mommy, I’ve been waiting for you, it howled, pulling her in.

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