The JRB presents a new short story by Sebastian Murdoch.
Virginia had just gotten home from her shift at McDowell’s when Christian came trooping into the trailer, blood flaking off his shin.
‘Good Lord,’ she said, abandoning a stack of bills she’d spread out on the coffee table. On her knees in front of him, ‘Christian, honey, what did you do to yourself?’ Virginia cradled his leg, not touching the cut that zigzagged across his shin—the mouth of a rotten jack-o’-lantern.
‘Fell in the reservoir,’ he said. He squirmed as she tugged his leg closer for inspection. ‘It’s fine, Mama.’
‘It’s fine, is it? Sure don’t look fine to me.’ She stared at where the blood had crusted against his bare skin. ‘You walked all the way home like this?’ she asked, quiet. She thought about the chapters in her nursing textbook on infection and disease and felt her stomach turn over like a bad engine.
‘Naw, I drove back in my new Caddy-lac,’ he said.
Virginia swatted the seat of his pants, fighting off a smile. ‘Watch that smart mouth of yours.’ She stood. Her knees creaked. ‘Let’s get that cut cleaned up before it gets infected.’ Maybe she’d find some Tylenol for her knees while she was at it. If Drew hadn’t blown through it again, talking about how he ought to have his own engraved bottle the way they work him at the shop.
‘Infected?’ Christian followed her to the one bathroom in the trailer, a simple, age-stained affair that boasted an actual bathtub and a mirror with just one crack in the glass.
‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘You’ll catch yourself some nasty gangrene walking around like that.’ She shepherded him to the toilet, got the first aid kit from the cabinet under the sink.
‘What’s gangrene?’ He slouched against the tank, scuffing his sneakers on the linoleum.
He was soon to be a young man, and she could still remember when his feet wouldn’t even touch the floor. He’d always been on the small side, but now he’d been growing faster than she could clothe him. His Levi’s were an inch too short now. She’d been glad when summer rolled around; he went back to wearing basketball shorts. Harder for kids to use those as ammunition.
‘It’s real foul,’ she said. ‘Germs get inside and start killing off the muscle and the skin. Hurts to high heaven and don’t smell too good neither.’ She glanced at him from over the cabinet door, affecting a look of boredom. ‘You’ll probably lose the leg.’
His mouth gaped in a perfect ‘O’ of shock, and he sat bolt upright. ‘Mama!’
‘Lucky your mama’s a nurse,’ she said. She withdrew from the cabinet with the plastic first aid kit.
Christian twisted his mouth in a stubborn frown so like his daddy that she nearly laughed. ‘You ain’t a nurse yet,’ he said. ‘You’re still in school like me.’
‘Absolutely right, little man.’ She dampened a washcloth and then knelt in front of him. ‘But I’m going to study hard and do my homework and then you know what? Then, I will be a nurse.’ She wiped his leg clean of dirt and blood.
‘I hate school,’ Christian said.
But she knew what he really meant. The boy loved to learn, but he loved it on his own terms. In class, teachers were always telling him what to read and when and what it meant, but Christian had the same rebellious streak that had been present in Virginia herself. Had his own ideas about what to read: science fiction and even the dry magazines he found when rummaging through local yard sales. At night, Virginia would find him plowing through a fresh stack with the rapt attention of someone who thought the key to the world’s inner workings lay within those pulpy pages. It both thrilled and depressed her to see the direction his mind took. She remembered how frustrating school could be for a kid with ambitions for things beyond the syllabus.
‘Well, that’s just too bad,’ she said, drying his leg. ‘You’ve got a lot of schooling ahead of you, sweetheart.’ She rifled through the first aid kit, looking for a tube of Neosporin, but she couldn’t find any. She should get some tonight, just to be on the safe side.
‘I don’t want to,’ Christian said, pulling her attention back to him.
She paused, holding his suntanned calf, still so small, in her hands. ‘How about this? I’ll make you a deal. You stay in school, I’ll stay in school. We’ll get through it together.’
He crossed his arms and frowned hard. Finally, he said, ‘Deal.’
‘Deal,’ she said, patting his leg. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up. You and I both have some work to do tonight.’ Christian was halfway through one of the chapter books his new teacher had assigned as part of a summer reading list. The worksheets she’d mailed out with the lists were patchy where the printer hadn’t done the job. But the work had fostered a solidarity between her and Christian. Every night, they sat together on the couch, working through the books and follow-up questions until Christian fell asleep against her side, leaving Virginia to work on her own assignments.
She finished bandaging his leg and was storing the first aid kit back under the sink when she heard the screen door open and flap shut again.
‘Honey, I’m home,’ called Drew, stretching out the last word like a television dad. He filled the trailer with his smell, sweat and grease from the repair shop. It gave Virginia the sweetest headache.
‘We’re in here,’ she said. She got to her feet and nudged the bathroom door open.
Drew stopped in the doorway, planting his hands on his hips. ‘What happened here? Looks like you got dragged halfway across the county, son.’
‘Took a little spill playing in the reservoir,’ Virginia said. She slid up against Drew’s side, their bodies slotting together. ‘Been telling him that it’s a shame he’s probably going to lose the leg before football try-outs start.’
Christian started to protest, but Drew spoke over him. ‘Yep, sure is a tragedy. Guess you’ll just have to come work with me and the boys. Maybe we can use the old leg to prop up some of the cars.’
‘Daddy,’ Christian said, his voice a whine now.
‘Uh-uh,’ Virginia said. She clapped her hands together once, before the whining could devolve into a full-on tantrum. ‘Enough fooling around. Christian, go on and do your homework before I get supper started. Go on now.’
Christian squeezed past her and Drew, the whining already nothing more than a small mutter. He’d worn himself out during their conversation, as she’d known he would. She might even be able to get him to help with the dishes after supper.
She and Drew looped their arms around each other, watching Christian leave. Only once he’d disappeared into his room—the only other room separate from the rest of the place aside from the bathroom—did they look at each other.
‘Howdy, sweetheart,’ he said. His mouth tipped up on one side, and he pinched her waist.
‘Hey there, handsome,’ she said. Warmth flowed through her from the roots of her hair to the chipped paint on her toenails. He’d had that same effect on her since they’d first started fooling around in high school, driving out to a field that bordered the Creek Trails, a truly desolate spread of hiking trails and barren fields where they would stretch out on the hood of his old hatchback and stare up at the stars. She could still recall the weight of the whiskey bottle they passed back and forth on those long, slow nights, the taste like the edge of a knife that’s been held to the flame. Even now that they were married, she knew how some people judged their life together, the scraping by and the cheap hobbies, but when he took her out to those same fields on the nights Christian spent at her mother’s, wrapping her in his arms, she would think to herself that if everything disappeared, if the whole world went to shit the way the Bible said it would, then she could be content knowing that she had almost a whole decade full up with moments like this.
‘How was work today?’ she asked. Drew had worked at his cousins’ auto repair shop since he graduated high school. He’d dreamed of playing professional football, like most of the guys here did, but when he’d torn his ACL during one of his games, in front of college scouts no less, that had put an end not only to his NFL dreams but any chance at college, period. So now he spent long days and some weekends changing the oil for people who couldn’t be bothered to learn to do it themselves. It was honest work, but she could see how much it exhausted him day after day, and how that exhaustion was building in the knotted muscles of his back and shoulders.
‘Don’t wanna talk about that,’ he said. He crowded her against the door jamb, arms coming up around her head. His breath smelled of Coke and weed, something he’d taken to indulging in lately, thanks to his cousins. She thought about commenting on it, saying something about how he shouldn’t do that right before coming home in case Christian picked up on it, but then he wrapped one big hand around her hip, and she decided she’d talk to him about it some other time. ‘Would rather talk about how good you look in these jeans.’
She started to smile, quickly hiding her face in the crook of his neck so he wouldn’t see how the expression didn’t reach her eyes. Guilt and frustration rushed through her. Why couldn’t she be happy with that? Here she had a kind, doting husband who she loved and what? She wanted more? He mumbled more compliments into her hair, but she couldn’t bring herself to respond in any meaningful way. What had happened? They used to spend nights talking for hours about work and the world and what they wanted from it all, and now all their conversations felt flat and superficial. Circular patterns of commentary on the weather and the latest blockbuster movie and what they’d have for dinner.
She could remember a time when they’d wandered the aisles of the town’s only bookstore, and Drew showed her a page he’d found in a book of poetry by Robert Frost. She couldn’t remember how the poem went, but she remembered the soft, shy look on Drew’s face as he showed it to her, his worry that she might not like it, that she might laugh at him for this sudden show of sentimentality. They’d shared their first kiss in that bookstore, and later, Drew went back and bought that book for her, even though she knew he couldn’t afford to spend his money on that sort of thing. Now they spent their hours moving from home to work to Christian’s school and back again. She supposed that was just what happened in a marriage. People got comfortable, fell into little ruts without even noticing. She could be good with that, right?
‘You drive me crazy,’ Drew said, his lips moving soft and damp against her forehead.
‘Is that so?’ she asked, arching into his touch. She pushed aside her worries—about the bills, about her classwork, about Christian’s leg—and let herself be guided down onto the bathroom floor.
Virginia was sitting out on her mother’s porch, shelling peas as the sun dripped down into the horizon line. It had been hot all day long, and, even now, with evening flapping its wings and preparing to rise, sweat ran down the back of Virginia’s neck and dampened her shirt collar. Nights like this made her wonder if the fall would ever come, if it would ever be cool again.
‘Mama?’ Christian stood at the foot of the porch steps, looking up to her.
‘What’s that, baby?’ She wiped at the back of her neck with a dish rag.
‘My leg still hurts. It hurts really bad.’ He reached down and scratched at the gauze still wrapped around his shin. ‘How long’s it supposed to hurt like this?’
Virginia set the bowl of peas down by her feet, her eyes locked on Christian’s leg. She’d almost completely forgotten about yesterday. McDowell had called her in early for today’s shift, so she’d been on her feet for almost twelve straight hours. Her brain, which felt like someone had just stuck a fork in it and stirred, had let Christian’s scrape from the reservoir fall through the cracks. She felt suddenly that her mother might come out and see her failing at taking care of her own child and scold her, though her mother was all the way back in the kitchen.
‘Come here, sweetheart. Let me have a look.’
Christian limped up the stairs and joined her on the top step, where she rested his leg across her lap. He winced but was silent.
Virginia picked at the edge of the medical tape until it peeled away. Bit by bit, the gauze unwound into her hands and sat there like an empty snake skin, detached from the thing with the real bite. She fought to keep her hands from shaking as Christian’s bare shin came into view. The last thing she wanted was to scare him any more than he already was. No, actually the last thing she wanted was to be seeing what she was seeing.
The area surrounding the gash on Christian’s leg was swollen and bright red as if he’d been stung by some massive insect. At the centre of the puffy, inflamed skin, the wound itself ran along his shin in a dark, wet line. It gaped at her with the blackness of an open mouth, exhaling its sick, warm breath into the night air that now felt significantly cooler than it had moments ago. Virginia’s mouth grew sticky and sour with the taste of fear. How could it have gotten so bad, so fast?
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it’s not that bad, baby.’ She couldn’t let on that she was struggling for the word for what she was looking at. Finally it came to her, and then she wished it hadn’t. Necrotising fasciitis. Flesh-eating bacteria commonly found in polluted water like what she had no doubt was flowing through the reservoir near their home. ‘But,’ she said, ‘let’s go see the doctor about it anyway. Just to be safe.’
‘What about Nana? We’re not having supper with her tonight?’
‘No, not tonight, sweetheart. We need to get you taken care of first, okay? Nana will understand.’ She wrapped his leg again, grateful not to have to look at it anymore. ‘Now go get your stuff together. Hurry.’
Sweat ran into her eyes, and Virginia almost wiped it away. Just as her hand reached the side of her face, she stopped. Better wash her hands first. Just to be safe.
On the drive over, Christian sat in the back seat, stifling screams whenever they hit a bump. Sweat shone on his forehead and neck, and Virginia had to pull over twice so he could vomit onto the side of the road.
Now, she stumbled into the crowded emergency room, her son clinging to her neck and moaning, her heart hammering. She found the front desk, where a tired-looking nurse was engrossed in conversation with an older woman who seemed to be suffering from something to do with her inner ear.
‘Mrs Wolak,’ the nurse said, ‘like I told you the last time I saw you, there is nothing the matter with your ears.’ She leaned back in a rolling desk chair, balancing her head on the knuckles of her right hand.
‘And I’m telling you,’ the old woman said, ‘I’ve got something stuck deep in there. I can feel it.’ She jammed one bony finger into her left ear and dug as if she might find diamonds in there.
‘What did Dr Manning say?’ the nurse asked, her eyes already sliding off Mrs Wolak and onto a clipboard at her elbow.
‘Excuse me,’ Virginia said, pushing up to the desk with Christian still in her arms. She leaned against the counter, trying to get the nurse’s eye. ‘My son needs to see a doctor. He’s very sick.’
The nurse glanced at Virginia, then at Christian, and back to Virginia. ‘Take a seat and fill this out,’ she said, sliding an intake form across the counter. ‘We’ll get you seen to as soon as possible.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘He’s seriously—’
‘Ma’am,’ the nurse said, cocking her head to the side, ‘we are very busy tonight and only have so many hands to go around. Please have a seat, and I promise you’ll be seen to as soon as a nurse is available.’
Virginia was acutely aware that people were looking at her now. Her pride, as delicate as a wishbone, flinched in the face of all that judgement. She took the form and went to an empty chair without another word. With Christian settled in the seat beside her, she bent over the clipboard and dutifully filled out Christian’s medical history and the reason for their visit, though she didn’t go so far as to denote what she suspected was going on. The embarrassment from a few moments ago was still fresh in her mind, and she could feel herself shrinking in confidence with every passing second.
She was in the middle of texting Drew again, asking how soon he’d be here, when the nurse called them back to the front desk.
‘Right through there,’ she said, gesturing to a door beside the desk. ‘Nurse Jeanie here will be seeing to you.’
A woman with sunburned skin approached Virginia from the other side of the desk, her hair a greying cloud around her head. She barely acknowledged Virginia before turning and going straight through the door.
She found herself in a small corner of a larger room full of beds and machines. Nurse Jeanie pulled a curtain closed around their corner and indicated that Virginia should lay Christian on the hospital bed.
‘So, he’s got a scrape on his left leg then?’ she asked, not looking up from the form Virginia had filled out.
‘It’s not just that,’ she said, her grip tight on Christian’s shoulder. ‘I think he’s got an infection. I’m in nursing school and …’ The moment the words left her mouth, she knew they were a mistake. She sounded arrogant and stupid even to her own ears.
Nurse Jeanie gave her a withering stare, but she still turned to Christian, who’d gone sickly pale on the bed. ‘Let’s have a look then,’ she said, setting the clipboard down on a rolling cabinet Virginia knew to be full of medicine and emergency surgical equipment.
She could have choked on her own relief. No matter how annoying these nurses might find her, there’d be no denying the state of Christian’s leg, the severity of the wound. They’d see it and know she wasn’t some crazy, helicopter mom, and they’d help her son. He’d keep the leg. He’d be running plays on the field by the end of the year.
Just then, she heard Drew calling her name on the other side of the curtain. She poked her head out, waving him over. He stopped just by the curtain, craning his neck to try and see behind her. ‘Ginny, what’s going on?’ His tone was annoyed, and Virginia remembered in a flash that tonight he was supposed to be out with his cousins and some of their friends for a boys’ night. For a moment she felt guilty for dragging him away from them, but then she remembered Christian’s leg and the way he’d cried out during the ride to the hospital.
‘Something’s wrong with Christian,’ she said. She grabbed his hands, and, after a moment, he squeezed back. ‘I think he’s got some infection from the reservoir.’
‘Is that it?’ he asked. He laughed, a dry, callous sound. ‘Ginny, he’s a boy. They get scrapes. I’m sure it’s not that big a deal.’
The muscles in her neck tightened. Her rage was immediate and feral. In that instant she felt like a coyote, like a wild animal ready to bite down on some small creature in front of her. Instead, she gripped his hands tighter, almost wishing he would flinch. ‘Yes, Drew,’ she said. ‘It is that big a deal.’
She pulled him to Christian’s bedside, clinging to his arm. ‘Sorry,’ she said to Nurse Jeanie, though she knew she had nothing to apologise for. She knew she was right, though she wished desperately that she wasn’t. Still, a small, petty part of her was ready to have Drew and this nurse admit that she was right, to have them praise her as the true hero the way only a mother can be.
‘Not a problem,’ the nurse said with a shrug. She peeled the bandages away from Christian’s leg, one strip at a time, until his bare shin came into view.
Virginia’s mouth fell open. The gash on Christian’s leg looked totally different to what she’d seen with her own two eyes just hours ago. Now, there were inches of tar-black skin surrounding the wound, with the cut the blackest spot at the centre of it all. The odour coming off it knocked her back a step, and she turned her face into Drew’s shoulder.
‘I can see why you might be worried,’ Jeanie said, ‘but it’s not as bad as it looks.’
Virginia’s head snapped up, and she stared at the nurse like she’d suggested that Virginia were perfectly capable of flying if she’d just flap her arms fast enough. ‘What do you mean? Can’t you see how awful it is?’
‘Ginny,’ Drew said, his voice hushed. ‘It’s okay. Sure, it’s a nasty scrape, but the nurse is right. It’s not that bad. I’ve seen worse at the shop.’
She was losing her mind. Or they were. How could they not see the way Christian’s leg was decaying right in front of them? Could they not smell that putrid stink either?
Virginia looked at Christian’s leg again, and still she could only see the bloated look of the infection she knew was there. ‘He’s got an infection,’ she said, her own words sounding hollow and useless in her mouth. As quickly as it had come, her confidence flickered and went out.
‘If he does,’ said Nurse Jeanie as she deposited the old bandages in a nearby trashcan, ‘some antibiotics should take care of it. I’ll get you a prescription, and some ibuprofen for the pain.’
‘But he was throwing up,’ she said in a burst of hope. How could they explain that away?
Nurse Jeanie turned to Christian, who’d managed to sit up and open his eyes. ‘When’s the last time you ate, honey?’
‘What does that have to—’ Virginia started, but Drew squeezed her hand so hard her knuckles popped.
Christian shrugged. ‘Maybe breakfast,’ he said.
Virginia wanted to die. She wanted the hospital floor to open up and swallow her whole. It wasn’t her fault. She’d been at work all day. How could she be held responsible for Christian not getting lunch? She turned on Drew, tightening her grip this time.
‘Since breakfast?’ she asked. ‘Why didn’t he have lunch? You were supposed to be taking care of him while I was at work.’
A dark line formed between his eyebrows, and his lower lip pushed out just enough to make him look like a child on the verge of a tantrum. Even Christian behaved better than him sometimes.
‘I was busy,’ he said. ‘The boy’s practically ten. He can fend for himself.’
‘Clearly he cannot,’ she said, waving her arm at Christian’s leg. ‘And I can’t be there all day every day to make sure he’s safe. You’re supposed to be there too.’
‘Virginia,’ he said—he only ever used her full name when he was mad—‘Virginia, we’re not doing this here. Let’s just get the prescription and go.’
She wanted to stay and force this nurse and Drew to see what she saw. But the closer she looked at both of their faces, the more scared she became. They really couldn’t see it the way she did. How could they not see it?
As she took the prescription with a numb hand, Virginia decided this wouldn’t be the last they saw of her. She’d come back later, without Drew and his ignorance and his blame. She’d make them see. She’d make them help her son.
For hours, Virginia lay fully awake on the pull-out couch, her body stiff as a fence post. Drew was curled up on his side, and the space between them yawned wide. They’d hardly spoken a word to each other once they got home. Finally she slipped out of bed. She paused, looking down at Drew and his blissfully unaware face. The instinct to reach out to him for help surged inside her, but she squashed it down. He couldn’t help her now. She’d have to do this by herself.
Virginia went to Christian’s room, trying her best not to wake him as she lifted him from the bed.
‘Mama?’ Christian asked, his voice bleary with sleep. ‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s okay, baby,’ she said. ‘Mama’s going to get your leg taken care of.’
‘But I thought the nurse said it would be fine.’
She hugged him tight to her chest. ‘Sometimes people make mistakes,’ she said. ‘But it’s alright. We’re going to a different nurse this time.’
On the drive to the hospital, Virginia kept one eye on the road and the other on Christian, who was now dangerously quiet, slipping in and out of a sleep that scared Virginia with its depth. It was like looking at a lightbulb that’s just been switched off. She couldn’t decide if it was better to let him rest or if she needed to keep him alert, so she settled for occasionally nudging him awake after a few minutes. Her hand shook every time she reached for him.
The waiting room was practically empty at this hour, something that gave Virginia a small amount of validation. No one made a trip to the emergency room this late without it being serious.
She got lucky. She didn’t see a single nurse from their last visit. After filling out the intake form, she was led back to the same bed as last time. Virginia stayed glued to Christian’s side the entire time and didn’t look at her phone once, though she had a feeling Drew would notice their absence soon enough. She held Christian’s hand and told this new nurse, a man with a soft face, all about her suspicions. He listened quietly, nodding occasionally, and never took his eyes off her face.
‘That sounds terrifying,’ he said when she’d finished. ‘I can see why you’d be so concerned about making sure your son is okay. Thank you for bringing him to us.’ He made a few notes on his clipboard and set it aside. ‘Let’s have a look at this leg, shall we?’
She could have cried with relief. She could have kissed this wonderful man. Nodding, she squeezed Christian’s hand and waited for him to take the fresh bandages off.
His leg was even worse than before, the cut leaking a thick, greenish pus. She found herself staring into the wound, hypnotised by the horror of it. She could see small, white specks wriggling in the bed of traumatised flesh. Maggots.
‘Well, that sure is a nasty scrape, little man,’ the nurse said.
Virginia sank into the chair by Christian’s bed. Suddenly, she was cold all over.
‘But I think you’ll be alright, don’t you?’ The nurse smiled at Christian as he wiped an alcohol swab over his leg. It did nothing but smear the pus across his skin. ‘Still, maybe we ought to get you some stitches just to be safe. Wouldn’t want this getting infected.’ The nurse went to get a doctor to put in the stitches, and Virginia could only sit in silence as he left.
Was she actually crazy? Was she imagining all of this and just putting Christian through unnecessary stress and pain? But no. She knew what she was seeing.
She peeked behind the curtain, making sure the doctor wasn’t already on his way. Then, when she saw that she had some time, she went to the medical supply cabinet by the bed. She took a suture kit, a scalpel, and a tourniquet, stuffing them into the bottom of her purse. She was about to go looking for pain medication when she heard approaching footsteps and hurried back to her seat, stowing her purse under the chair, hidden behind her jittery feet.
The doctor, as nondescript in appearance as the nurse had been, pushed through the curtain with a neutral smile Virginia knew he must have practiced for years. He reassured her that the stitches would be over quickly, and Christian would hardly feel a thing, but she wasn’t listening. She was watching him move toward the supply cabinet and praying he wouldn’t notice anything missing.
He bent over the cabinet, picking through the supplies until he pulled out a suture kit and a bottle of iodine, but he said nothing about any missing supplies. Virginia said a silent thanks as he sat back down by Christian’s leg. However, her relief quickly transformed to horror as the doctor stitched together the rotting gash. The needle swam in and out of the blackened flesh like a knife through pudding. The wound closed up, and Virginia nearly threw up to see that the maggots were very much still within the cut as it closed. She turned her head to the side, but the doctor must have thought she was just squeamish about the needle and said nothing more.
On the drive home, Virginia kept her eyes directed straight ahead, not wanting to look down at the mess that had been made of Christian’s leg. He slumped against the passenger door, sleeping soundly now, and, for a moment, Virginia wondered if she was about to make a terrible mistake. But then the stench of his dying flesh hit her again. She had no choice. She’d sought the help of the people who were supposed to be the best at keeping her son alive and, well, they had failed her. But she could not and would not fail her son.
When they arrived home, Virginia parked the car but left the engine running. She guided Christian to the back seat, telling him to lie down for just a minute while she went to get something. She knew where Drew kept his saw when he wasn’t using it, and she knew where the good painkillers were, and she gathered all of this while keeping utterly silent.
Back at the car, she encouraged Christian to swallow the painkillers. ‘Whatever happens,’ she said, ‘don’t look. It’ll be over before you know it.’ She had to believe that, because the thought of what she was about to do terrified her so much. It was her sincerest hope that he would just pass out at the very start.
She tied the tourniquet just above where the infection stopped. For a long time, she tried to figure out if it would be better to saw below or above the knee and finally settled on just above the joint. Virginia spread a towel beneath Christian’s lower half and wedged herself backward into the car so she could keep him from moving as much as possible.
Then, she settled the saw against his skin.