A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Ripples on the Water
by Beth Stephenson (Feb 2008)

“Goodbye, son,” she said softly.  There were no more tears, just a vast empty place inside her that seemed to yawn like the depths of hell.  The nurse covered his face and unlocked the brake on the hospital bed.



Monica swallowed the Tylenol quickly with a gulp of water.  “I’m not sick,” she told herself.  “I just need to catch up on my sleep.”  She quickly loaded the car seats into the back seat with the sleeping girls.  They were tired after being up all night with fevers.  The medicine made them sleepy too.  The day care center ought to have an easy time with them today.

After she dropped off the kids, she rested her head on the steering wheel for just a moment.  She had to go to work today.  Since her divorce, she was on her own.  She was tough and she was determined that her past would not keep her from success.  For an instant, the dreadful memory of the day her husband found out about the baby flashed through her mind. 

“It wasn’t my fault,” she repeated the mantra.  “If he had told me he would be deployed overseas and leave me alone with a baby, I wouldn’t have married him in the first place.”

Her chest was tight and she coughed hard to loosen it.  “I’m not sick,” she repeated.  I just need more sleep.”

As she parked in the nurse’s parking lot, Monica was tempted to call from her cell phone and go home.  The lot was only half as full as it ought to have been.  There was so much sickness going around, half the nurses must be on leave,” she thought.  But there were bills to pay and she couldn’t’ afford to have the girls in daycare unless she was working.  The Tylenol seemed to be kicking in finally.

Monica liked the clean orderliness of the ward.   She changed into the fresh scrubs in her locker and scrubbed her nails and hands with the sterilizing soap.  The antiseptic eased her conscience.  She wasn’t sick, but in case she had germs from the babies, she’d get rid of them in the locker room. 

The charge nurse greeted her with a glance at the clock.  “Are you healthy?”

“Of course I am,” she tried to sound surprised. 

“You sure?” 

“Course I’m sure.  I’m here aren’t I?”

“Good.” The charge nurse was tender with the patients but often brusque with the nurses.  “We need  you to go to the pediatric oncology ward today.  There are so many out sick, they’re at less than half staff.” 

Monica hesitated for an instant, but the rent and the daycare payment were due next week. “Fine,” she said.



Alan seemed especially tired when his mother visited him that afternoon.  His billiard ball-smooth head set off the dark circles under his eyes, and though he usually greeted her eagerly, he was almost asleep when she arrived.  Sue kissed him and told him she show him the game she brought after his nap.  He nodded and drifted away in sleep.  Sue sat by his bed, pretending to read a magazine until she was certain he was asleep.  The nurse stepped in, but when she saw that he was asleep, she stepped out again and Sue followed her.

“Is he doing okay?  He’s grayer and more tired than he’s ever been.”  The nurse seemed tired too.  “He’s okay, I think.  The nurse who had him the last shift said he’s at the point in his treatment where he’ll hit the bottom and then start to bounce.  Don’t worry.”

Sue thanked her and returned to Alan’s room.  She was tired of reading, tired of knitting, tired of Sudoku and tired of hospitals.  When would it end?  Would she ever have a life that didn’t include hospitals and medicines and listening for Alan’s breathing in the night?

Sue was tough.  David was deployed just before Alan was diagnosed and she had downplayed the sickness as much as she could without lying.  David didn’t need to worry about them when he had so much to worry about already.  His letters were cheerful and optimistic.  It reassured Sue that she carried the burden at home for both of them.  But she was bone weary.  Sometimes it seemed like any change would be good, but with both her dearest ones in harm’s way, she quickly repented of the idea.  She would hang tight until things got better.  They had to get better.

Alan slept for three hours until Monica roused him to draw a blood sample.  She was efficient and gentle, but nobody could keep from waking a patient when they had to draw blood. 

“Where’s Mary?” Alan asked.  “Mary is usually my nurse on Friday afternoon.”

“I don’t know, Alan.  I guess she wasn’t feeling well, or maybe she took a little vacation.  I heard you beat her on the skiing game last week, so maybe she’s home practicing for a rematch.”  Alan smiled wanly.  He didn’t like change and he was tired of strangers.  “She let me beat her.  I could tell because she kept checking my points and she wouldn’t do that unless she wanted me to win.  When I was behind she’d make some dumb mistake so I’d catch up.”

“That’s not the way I heard it.  I heard you are the champion and that you’re invincible.”  Monica winked at Sue.  Sue felt anything but invincible.  Alan lay back with sigh.  He didn’t seem invincible either.

Monica finished the 4:30 check and slipped into the rest room.  She popped another pair of Tylenol and swallowed them with a Dixie cup of water.  She’d be going home in half an hour.  All she could think about was wrapping up in her bathrobe and sipping some hot tea.  She’d give the girls some benadryl to get them tired for bed a little early.  “I can’t afford to be sick,” she reminded herself. 



Monica missed the next week of work and the day care center cancelled her privileges.  Two days after she returned, she was sent to oncology again.  She heard weeping from Alan’s room.  It was strange since Mrs. Davisson was such a rock.  She read the chart.  Alan had pneumonia.  His treatments had weakened his immune system so much that his body was giving way.  The chart said he was ‘semi-comatose.’

She tried to force herself into the room, but as she crossed the threshhold, she found Sue sitting on the bed with Alan’s skeletal frame cradled in her arms like an infant.  She rocked from side to side and tried to sing a lullaby. Her eyes were puffy and red, but Alan’s were shadowed with death.  Something in Monica’s gut twisted around her airway and she couldn’t seem to get enough air, but she didn’t move.

Suddenly, Alan exhaled a long rattley sigh.  Blood and other debris bubbled from his mouth and he didn’t inhale again.  Sue stopped rocking.  “It’s my fault,” she said.  “I knew I shouldn’t go to a public place where there were germs, but I was so tired, I just wanted that one hot meal.”  She said it simply as though she was explaining to Monica.

“It’s not your fault.” Monica whispered.  “Things happen all the time that we can’t control.”

Sue laid Alan’s body on the bed tenderly.  “He was such a cheerful, innocent boy.  He was happy to be a friend to the child that nobody else wanted to be with.  He wanted to be a teacher when he grew up.”

Monica raised her eyes to Sue.  She was supposed to be professional, but the agony in the mother’s face drew her arms around her.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I am so terribly sorry.”

Sue patted Monica’s back.  She felt Monica sob against her breast.  “There’s nothing you could have done.” She said softly.

Monica dropped into the chair, covering her face with her hands.  Sue watched her for a moment and then turned back to the silent form on the bed.  How strange it was that his chest did not rise.  How peacefully he rested.



“Goodbye, son,” she said softly.  There were no more tears, just a vast empty place inside her that seemed to yawn like the depths of hell.  The nurse covered his face and unlocked the brake on the hospital bed.

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