In her dream Irene walked alone in the dark. Alone. Without light. She was not afraid. She sensed that her path lay between water and sand. She noted that her way was clear. Her steps swung forward without encumbrance, or stumbling blocks and always onto solid surface. She walked. In time a faint pink glow appeared on her left. She understood that she walked out of north and into south. The glow gradually expanded into yellow and gold. Then into daylight. Her way was revealed. Hers was a narrow path between a dark water, moiling and deep on her left and and an endless desert empty of water on her right. She stopped walking and stood turned toward water. As is sometimes the way of dreams, she both stood and watched herself stand. A shadow moved over her. She sensed the shadow before she saw the door. A standing door where none had been before. Drawn, she walked forward to the door. The knob vibrated beneath her hand when she turned it. As she pushed she heard Aunt Irene’s voice through the opening door. “Enter. You are safe.”
She awoke feeling held. Safe. For the first time in five years, Irene felt home.
Irene finishes the dishes and preps the meal she planned for tomorrow’s dinner. Normally she would now pack leftovers from today’s dinner for her tomorrow’s work lunch. But these are not normal days for Irene. Instead she builds a sandwich that would make Carnegie Deli proud. Sliced turkey, smoked cheddar, fresh vegetables, pickles, and mayo on toasted rye.
It’s eight thirty in the evening before Nurse Boggs returns home from having completed her cross training. She already showered at the gym and now sits down to a snack of yogurt, oatmeal and fresh fruit. She opens her laptop and pulls up her training spread sheet titled “Toronto in October.” She notes times, frequencies, durations, heart rates and levels of exertion. Normally at this time, she would close the computer, pick up her current novel and take it up to her bedroom and get ready for bed. It turns out, this is not a normal evening for Nurse Boggs. Because instead, she logs into her clinic’s EHR and pulls up her work schedule for the next day. She blocks off an additional 15 minutes before her standing hour’s lunch block. Then she calls the patient who is scheduled after her lunch and they agree to change their meeting to 15 minutes later than originally planned. She titles the two added slivers of blocks as “phone consultation.” She closes the laptop, rises from the table and picks up her Steven King novel—but then she stops. She turns, sits back down and reopens the lap top. She taps the green message icon and scrolls down to nearly the bottom of her message list of names and taps Sister Brigid.
“Brigid, sorry it has been so long since I have been in contact. I hope all is well with you. Let’s connect. I have not kept track of RS. I might need to speak to her. Do you know how to contact her?”
Today Irene breaks the rule. She leaves the nursing home during her lunch hour without telling anyone. Normally her lunch break consists of a quick downing of last night’s left overs in the break room, followed by a brisk walk to a nearby park. When, occasionally, very occasionally, she does run an errand during lunch, she obeys the rule and makes sure to let admin know she is leaving the building. After all what if there were to be some sort of emergency? The Head Nurse would need to know who is available to assist. Or even, heaven forbid, the big emergency. The mother load of all emergencies. Somewhat vague. Maybe a tornado. Shooter. Bomb threat. The emergency in which the body count is off by one, because Irene left the building without notification.
Nurse Boggs finishes her notes for her last patient of the morning. She uses the extra 15 minute block before lunch to first clean her exam room. Then she sets up for a blood draw—CBC and CMP. She pulls out a urine pregnancy test kit. Sets a sterile pelvic exam kit on the counter and readies the ultrasound machine and printer. She pulls her gym bag out from the cupboard under the sink and changes into her running clothes. She hangs her corduroy slacks and flannel shirt from pegs on the inside of the exam room door, and sets her work shoes on the floor beside the counter. Lastly she straps Into her running belt. She jams a wooden wedge in between her water bottle and energy squeeze pack. She exits through the back hall and out the back door. She slips the wedge between the door and its jamb as she steps out into the clinic’s back alley. Nurse Boggs leans against the wall between the door and the dumpster. And waits.
Irene eats her entire sandwich in the car as she drives across town. She parks in a busy mall parking lot and then walks across the street, past the clinic and into the alley. She approaches Nurse Boggs who leans away from the wall and steps toward Irene. There are no smiles. There is no embrace. The two women nod silently to each other. Then Nurse Boggs removes the wedge from the doorway and leads Irene through the door, down the back hall and into her exam room.
“We have a little less than an hour,” the nurse says. “I’m meeting with you on my lunch break. The clinic thinks I am out for my noon run. We ought to be undisturbed. You have no scheduled appointment. There will be no clinic notes. I will keep my own private notes. Your lab work will be sent out under a test patient's name and paid for in cash. As you requested, this visit will be untraceable.”
“Thank you so very much for helping me. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Okay, let's go to work. First, let’s focus on your health. Your last physical was a few months ago. Other than the pregnancy and nausea, is there any reason to believe you have developed other health concerns?”
“No. Just the nausea, I’m feeling fine otherwise. I’m not even tired. My energy is good.” Irene is seated on the exam table, while Nurse Boggs takes her vital signs, checks inside her throat and her lymph glands. “Well there is one thing," she adds. "My breast is sore and tender.”
“The one that was injured during the wedding day beating?”
Irene lifts her eyebrows and is about to ask a question, but the nurse interrupts her, “You think I didn’t figure out the timing of that injury? Of course I did. We’d better take a look at that. Has it been red or hot? Any discharge? Have you had any indication of a fever?”
“No, nothing like that, just tender.”
Nurse Boggs speaks as she examines Irene, “There is no sign of inflammation or infection. There is a possibility of scar tissue built up within the ducts which might prove to be a problem later. Meanwhile, your breasts will be enlarging, so a snug fitting athletic bra, with good support, might be helpful. Also warm packs, but only for about twenty minutes at a time. I’ll start a list for you.” Nurse Boggs picks up her script pad and begins writing.
“Okay I’ll pick up a bra with more support and I can use a warm pack after work, before he gets home.”
“Have there been any further accidents, injuries or beatings of any kind since our last meeting?”
“It is clear that you are keeping your pregnancy a secret from him.”
“Yes, and that’s not easy, especially with throwing up every morning.”
“What do you imagine would happen if he found out?”
“I imagine his fists pounding into my belly.”
“Oh my dear. You are in harm’s way. This is a bad situation. But I guess you already know that.”
“I’m thinking I have a month, maybe two before I show. I plan on being safe by then. I will be safe by then.”
“We’ll do an ultrasound today. That will help us date the pregnancy and more accurately judge how far along you are.”
“Will we be able to tell if it’s a boy or girl?”
“I don’t think so. Not quite yet. To know the gender might be as long as another month.” Irene undresses. Her only discomfort during the exam is her tender breast. During the ultrasound, Nurse Boggs presses the wand into the lubricant on Irene’s belly, moving it back and forth. Curling around and around. Returning over and over to the dark circular space. “I’d say six to eight weeks gestation. Taking in the timing of your cycle—probably closer to eight weeks. This is an early pregnancy.”
“Everything looks good?”
“Yes everything looks good.”
While Irene gets dressed, Nurse Boggs leans against the counter she stands pressing her weight onto one leg while the other is open and turned out. She continues writing on the script pad. “Let’s talk about your vomiting,” she says. “How often and how much?”
“Every morning. It’s only the contents of my stomach—mostly just clear and yellow stuff.”
“Eating something bland, like soda crackers, while you are still lying down, before you even get up out of bed, might help with morning nausea.”
Irene, now dressed and seated on the exam room chair, covers her face in her hands and shakes her head. It takes only a moment—firmly in one direction, then the other. When she removes her hands, she is not crying. Her eyes are dry. “If I ate crackers, it might wake him up.”
“Even if you can keep the morning nausea from him, he will eventually find out. You cannot keep this secret for much longer—maybe four weeks. Maybe eight at the most.”
“That’s all the time I need.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“The right thing to do will come to me. My Aunt Irene told me so. In a dream, she told me so.”
“Dreams are all well and good. Having a firm plan along with the dream gets my vote every time.”
“I have more than the dream. I have resolve. I have faith. I love this baby. This baby is innocent of him. I will not let him take my baby.”
“The authorities? It’s 2023, for God’s sake. They ought to be able to keep you safe.”
“And then what? Spend the rest of my life trying to keep The Mistake away from my baby? There will be no restraining orders. No divorce. No shared custody. I will not spend the rest of my life trying to protect us from him.”
“Years ago I had a patient whose little daughter was being sexually abused by the father. The court ordered continued visitation rights. With supervision, but continued visitation nonetheless. My patient’s mother found out about an underground railroad for abused women and children. Believe it or not, my patient and her daughter ended up with new identities in a church in Canada. I heard from her just the one time, when she contacted me to let me know she was safe.” Nurse Boggs, still standing, crosses her arms, crosses her legs. Her body is strong. Rigid. Let me look into it. Don’t do anything rash, Irene. Let me see what I can find out about RS. Promise me—nothing rash.”
“No, I’m solid. I’m not thinking of killing myself or anything like that. In case you are worried.”
“Good. Because I have a feeling that is not what your Aunt Irene has in mind. I’m going to write down a list for you. Given your situation, you might want to memorize the list and then eat it.”
“If I eat the list first thing in the morning, will it help my nausea?”
Nurse Boggs shakes her head and chuckles. “Morning nausea is not uncommon and ought to stop within the next few weeks. According to our records you have not lost any weight. So first on the list: If you are vomiting more than four times a day, and you begin to lose weight— notify me immediately.”
“It’s just in the morning. My appetite has actually been mostly good for the rest of the day. I’m hungry for yogurt, if you can believe this, I’m eating it several times a day. It’s crazy.”
“Good. For now follow the craving. Your body needs that extra calcium. So here is the second item on the list. Get some prenatal vitamins and take one with a meal daily.”
“I’ll get a bottle and leave it at work and take it with my lunch.”
“Third, keep eating. Small meals. avoid spicy foods and foods with strong odors, like bacon."
“Fourth, and I want you to try this. Don’t just blow me off. For the nausea, try ginger lozenges. You can slip one of those into your mouth before you get up without awakening him, right?”
“Yes, when I make the bed, I will put a lozenge under the mattress on my side of the bed. That way it will be there for me in the morning.”
“Good. How about we meet again in a few weeks? By then I ought to have information about the underground railroad. Also, we can do a sonogram, which might show the gender of the baby.”
“Thank you so very much for helping me.”
“You are very welcome. I will rest more easily when I know you are safe.”
“I am walking toward safety. I’m following Aunt Irene’s plan.”
“How are you doing that? What is Aunt Irene’s plan?”
“I watch for doors. I open each one as it appears.”
“Doors? Odd. I am just now reading a book that has doors in it. A door appears and King says, 'It was for only one of two things: opening or leaving closed.’ One must notice that there may be doors that are best left closed.”
“I will know the difference. I will know which doors to open. I came through your door, right? The part of me that is Aunt Irene knows.”
“Okay, I will let you decide about your doors. You and your Aunt Irene. Meanwhile I will get in touch with the underground railroad.” As she handed Irene the list, “and you take care of your health.”
“Nurse Boggs, what is your first name?”
“Nurse Theresa Boggs, thank you for helping me.” Nurse Boggs steps forward as Irene rises from her chair. The two women shake hands. The nurse leads Irene through the back hall and out the back door. Irene turns to watch the door swing shut. On the way through the mall parking lot, she stops at a dumpster. Using both hands, Irene opens the heavy lid and keeping it pried open with one hand uses the other to crumple up Nurse Bogg’s list and toss it in.