An excerpt from my suspense story "Guts" from my book Twisted Reveries.
I have a scar on my belly. It’s a wretched, milky white line that crawls up from the bottom of my abdomen until it meets my bellybutton. When I saw it for the first time, still cloudy with drugs, I was struck with how deep the divot of the cut went into my formally unblemished stomach. I remembered how my husband had kissed my belly once, long before the surgery, and had said he loved the smoothness of my skin, all over. This memory made tears trickle down my cheeks. But I couldn’t sob in my hands or pull in a hitching breath because it would hurt my guts too much.
That surgery was a while ago, after we got married but before we had Josie. When I was pregnant I would note the taut nature of my scar as it expanded with my body. Sometimes I wondered if it would be strained too much by the growing child inside and finally split open to let my insides spill out on to my shoes.
That didn’t happen. Instead I had a healthy baby girl and went back to waiting for my guts to betray me in another, less showy way. They did of course. They always have. My first memories are of hospital waiting rooms, hushed, worried voices, a pain in my stomach and hot vomit on my chin. I grew up snacking on Tums. I knew nothing but a bloated uncomfortableness.
And so now I visit the hospital every six weeks to silence my guts. I’m there for about four hours, maybe more if the nurses are swamped. They offer me a warm blanket and crackers and I can watch cable, a break from Josie’s strict regimen of PBS cartoons. I get a bed, which is nice, they give a bed to people like me and the ones with cancer there for their chemo. I’m thankful I’m not there to get chemo in my veins. My IV medicine is an immunosuppressant, it forces my system to stop attacking my intestines. Otherwise my body will eat my guts. And I never want to feel that sensation again. It’s like hot coals. You can taste the pain on your tongue. You can taste the fear too.
So I was curled up in my bed, in a small room with a window overlooking downtown. Snow swirled. The IV was stuck in my hand this time. I had given up trying to type emails on my laptop. The needle hurt and the cords wanted to twist up like crazy. HGTV was on but was hard to hear over the beeps and clatters coming from the nurse’s desk right outside my door. I had about an hour remaining and I wanted to doze, just wanted to lose myself in my pillow. Because once the IV was pulled out I would have to instantly return to the world. The healthy world. Out there I have to forget about my guts. I’m a mother.
“Still good?” The snack cart guy poked his head in my door. He’s older, a small man with wisps of white hair sticking out of both ears.
I nodded “I finished off the graham crackers.”
“Want more?” Snack Guy always speaks with a soft, slow voice like I’m a caged animal he’s trying to keep calm. “I’ve got fruit snacks now too.”
“No. Thank you.” I turned my head and looked out into the snow.
We were eight floors up so there were no people to see, only frosted windows and blowing flakes. I heard him push his squeaky cart past my door and on to the next lucky patient. I began to drift off. My head felt heavy and I let my eyelids close. The din of the hospital created a sort of predictable white noise, a comforting oasis from real life. I heard the familiar beeps of empty IV bags and kinked cords. The nurses paced back and forth on soft heeled shoes. Just as I let myself fall into the welcoming blackness a new, strange sound pulsed through the air. It was powerful and deafening. I opened my eyes and watched as the door to my little hospital room swung shut as though it were pushed by a defiant ghost. An alarm trilled all around me. I sat up and pushed a pile of warm blankets off my legs. I still had my jeans on and my ankle length boots, we didn’t have to wear gowns in the infusion wing. I carefully pulled out the electrical cord anchoring my IV to the wall. My medicine continued to drip into my veins as I pulled the trolley behind me.
My body trembled with relief when I was able to pull my door open and walk out into the nurse’s station. The wing consisted of twelve single rooms arranged in a circle around the main desk. There were two bathrooms and several supply closets too, as well as a warmer for blankets that looked oddly like an enlarged toaster oven. And there was a row of comfy chairs, pillowed recliners, for those needing a short infusion, an hour or less. All the patient doors had slammed shut like mine. A worried face popped out of room 8-09. She was perhaps mid-forties and her head was shiny bald. She looked at me from across the circular room with anxious, darting eyes. I just shrugged in response, keeping a steady hand on my trolley.
The alarm continued to pulse overhead. Red lights flashed in unison in the corners of the main room. Nurse Jessica, barely old enough to visit a bar, flew out of room 8-04 with a string of gauze flapping behind her. She was pudgy and generally a slow and relaxed sort whom often yawned while taking my blood pressure. But now Jessica zipped to the main desk with incredible speed, wrenching up the phone and dialing frantically. As she screamed into the receiver, trying to be heard over the sound of the alarm, I noticed the doors to the waiting room were shut too. They were white metal and large enough to be mistaken for the gates of a fortress. I wondered what would happen to someone standing in the way when the alarm sounded and they swiftly shut. They would surely knock me down.
“YOU THINK IT’S A FIRE OR WHAT?” Snack Guy shouted over the noise. He lingered in the hall, his liver spotted hands gripping the cart.
I just shook my head, anxious now for an answer. It worried me that he was a volunteer and he hadn’t been trained on such things.
Nurse Alan came out of one of the supply closets, a fresh IV bag in his hand. He strolled past me and gaping Snack Guy on his way to a patient room. He nodded a hello, his neck tattoos visibly creeping out of his blue scrubs. His cool strut made me feel a bit better.
The sound stopped as abruptly as it had started. The red lights flashed another beat and they stopped too.
Jessica set down the phone and cracked each of her knuckles. I waited until she was finished to speak.
“Is everything okay?” My voice sounded far away within my ringing ears.
Jessica forced a thin smile. “Should be over soon, they said it was nothing.”
“Isn’t it already over?” Snack Guy still had a death grip on his cart, like he was afraid it was going to roll away.
The young nurse cracked her wrists. “Well we’re still locked in,” she gestured to the enormous doors to our unit. I saw then that there were no handles, it was more like a wall than a door. “But it’ll open soon.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I have to pick up my daughter from school.”
Jessica nodded. She looked down and gave her attention to some pink papers on the desk. Snack Guy waited a beat and then began to take another turn around the circle. I pushed my door open with my free hand until it clicked into the doorstop. I rolled my trolley back to its spot and climbed back into bed with effort. My medicine doesn’t make me sick, but it does make me tired. As I shifted around to get comfortable my IV began to beep. I was done.
Alan answered my nurse light. He was cheery as ever, asking about Josie.
“How’s kindergarten? Does she have friends yet?” He used a wet antiseptic cloth to wipe some dried blood off around my IV site.
“Yeah, she and this girl Vienna are inseparable. It’s really cute.” I looked away as he pulled the needle from my hand.
Alan smiled, sincerely, as he bandaged me up. “Geez they grow fast. Hey can I see a picture? I don’t think you’ve showed me one since that one of her in that little Hanukkah thing, that little play.”
I gladly produced a picture of Josie on my phone. She was decorating my birthday cake and had yellow frosting in her eyelashes.
“She looks like you.” Alan remarked. We got that a lot. Both Josie and I have long black hair and thick, distinctive eyebrows. But she has her father’s piercing green eyes thankfully, not my muddy hazel ones.
“Yeah, say, that door is going to open soon right? I mean, I need to pick her up.”
He stopped and stared out into the snow. “Oh sure…probably, but maybe you should text your husband in case, you know if we’re cutting it close.”
Yes of course. Jack could do it. I picked up my phone from the bedside table and wrote a message.
“Might as well hang out here in your bed till it opens. I’ll let you know if you miss it.” Alan rubbed at a tattoo on his wrist. This one was of a snake, coiled and ready to pounce.
If you'd like to read more of "Guts", my collection of 13 suspenseful short stories from Inklings Publishing, Twisted Reveries, is on Amazon in paperback and kindle/ebook: