It kills me, sometimes, how people can hate me so much and still be oblivious of me. Every once in a while, a forlorn soldier will acknowledge me with a nod, the relief and recognition clear in their exhausted irises. Sometimes babies will smile unknowingly at me, toss me a mistaken giggle as I pass. But mostly I come and go, do what I’ve been tasked to do, and the world is none the wiser.
Which was why, on a day when the sky was the color of summer-goldened hay, I considered abandoning my post. There was a rusty nail, ripped rubber, and a swerving truck. There was a little boy with warm cheeks and eyes like stained glass. There was a noise like the earth shattering.
And there was the girl.
“Three-year-old boy, victim of a car crash. Possible crush syndrome, punctured lung. I’ve got a pulse, but its thready. BP dropping steadily.”
My work is plentiful, and I suppose I should be grateful for that. It’s always a happy surprise when I show up only to be waved off, unneeded. But I very rarely spend more time than is necessary at any one stop. I’m too busy.
On this day, though, when I arrived in that trauma room, the doctors held up a finger. Give us some time, he’s young. Let us at least try. I admire doctors for the work they do; they certainly lighten my own load. But in cases like this, where the tragedy that comes through their doors hasn’t even learned to write his name yet, they look for answers that aren’t there. Not because they like to play God, but because they believe I carry a scale similar to Lady Justice’s. All humans understand life isn’t fair, but death, they say, is the great equalizer. This is not true. I know it, and the best doctors know it.
I don’t decide when or why. I don’t choose one over the other. I don’t wait longer for some while rushing others. I simply go where the work takes me. Today, I have other stops to make. An old, graying man awaits my arrival on a small island in the Pacific. Somewhere in Syria, in a hospital constructed entirely of tents, tarps, and folding tables, nurses talk in hushed tones, terrified their thoughts are grim enough to move up my visiting time. They’ll have to wait.
The doctors were doing their best to stall me, and having entered unnoticed, it would’ve been easy to leave and come back later. But just as I was looking around for my exit, the girl noticed me.
At first, she only stared, shock halting her tears in their tracks. She saw me, and she knew why I was there. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old. Curls like a churning waterfall of black ice down her back. Shaking hands with glossy nails and soft, fleshy palms. A chin like a diamond; small, regal, and slightly pointy in just the right way. But it was her eyes, green as the nodding grasses of Ireland, where I’d spent much of my time during the 19th and 20th centuries.
“He’s going into V-tech. Crash cart, now!”
Even when she was pulled away from the door, those eyes stayed on me. They begged me to leave, and demanded I listen at the same time.
“Please.” It wasn’t even a whisper. The word was born on her tongue and died by the time it reached the little red bow of her lips. “Please, let him stay.”
Dew gathered on the fields in her eyes until it rained down the dunes of her cheeks. Dripped off the delicate chin.
It’s not up to me, I wanted to tell her.
“You don’t have to take him.” She was drowned out by beeping and shouts and the rustle of scrubs. “You don’t have to.”
Between me and the girl, a glove searched desperately for a pulse. A defibrillator was recharged. A veteran trauma surgeon denied his own logic for a third time, because the third time’s the charm. I could hear the new life slowing down. Little hearts thrum like hummingbird wings, and when they slow down, it’s a terrible thing to behold. Timing the silence between those final beats is the least favorite part of my job.
“Take me instead!” She lobbed the words at me, improperly weighted and unwieldy. “Let him stay! You can have me instead!” Her voice was loud, harsh. It sounded the way my shame felt.
It’s not uncommon for people to argue with me. Some even believe they can outsmart me, or undo my work. Most people question God about the necessity of my presence. But I’ve never been bargained with. Never been propositioned in quite this way.
It occurred to me that the girl with the black ice curls and diamond chin was probably the best of humanity. Those Easter Rising eyes and leaking cheeks were a vision of the human race in its finest hour. And for the first time in my wearying, arduous career, I considered leaving my work undone. I considered standing up the Tongan chief, letting those poor Syrian nurses struggle to squeeze their refugees into beds that I should’ve long since emptied. I wondered… if I quit, would the world keep turning? Would my absence go just as unnoticed as my presence had?
I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, my dear. The silence between the tiny beats was growing. The boy didn’t have much longer.
The girl screamed at me. “Take me instead!” She stabbed me repeatedly with the plea as she was lifted off the ground, carried away. A clock was consulted. The time was recorded.
The boy’s soul was so heavy, weighted down with unlived years. I struggled to gather it in my arms. It was small, and smelled of milk, diaper cream, and purity.
Kelly Castillo is a college student writing out of Southern California.