”Good evening, Doctor. No appointments, but you might get some put off from today. You know.” The last day shift nurse – Marge? No, Madge – waved dispiritedly through the front windows at the sprawl of tiny cardboard headstones. “Your Kristin called in again, said she’s still feeling too drained, so I’m with you for the double.” She released the door as he took it and preceded him into the lobby. “There’s fresh coffee.”
Her shoulders were slumped, her graying hair wisping free of its bun, and there was scarcely a flicker of energy anywhere about her. It looked like only the chemical lashings of caffeine and sugar were holding her together, a febrile thread lacing her muscles. He’d get nothing out of her tonight. ”Yes, alright. Get some rest in Exam Two, Madge. You’re working too many hours yourself. Damn funding cuts.” She nodded wordlessly, a dim blurry flash of gratitude briefly lighting her eyes and around her head, and shuffled toward the rearmost exam room. As she closed the door behind her, he settled behind the clinic desk.
The coffee was indeed fresh, smelling light and sweet. He never drank it, of course, but he did like to smell the changes it went through as it slowly cooked down, so he let it be.
The coffee had lost perhaps an eighth of its volume when the girl walked out of the fog and darkness.
She was young, probably in her late teens, early twenties. He wasn’t good at guessing exact ages, but she was clearly still in the flush of young womanhood. As she came closer his estimate leaned toward the younger end of that spectrum, though; she still had some of the softness of facial contour people called “puppy fat” in her features. It was the dark strands of stress and worry that had made her appear a bit older. Her hair was dark and tangled too, and for a moment he allowed himself to appreciate the coincidence of body and soul. Her eyes were brown and wary, her lips subtly asymmetrical – bruised? Her aura was tightly clamped, flaring slightly… He was taking too long to speak, making her uncomfortable.
“Hello,” he said, in the careful, nonthreatening tones he’d practised. He spread his hands in a slow, easy gesture that indicated both the silent waiting area and the coffee nook. “You’re my first visitor tonight. Would you care for some coffee? I think it might still be potable.” Head tilt, raised eyebrow, hooky half smile that crinkled his eyes… He saw the tension diminish, both directly and in her posture.
“Thanks, I would. It’s been a long day.”
He wasn’t actually very good at idle chatter, but having relaxed she didn’t need much. He remarked on the fog, she said the weather had been lovely earlier, he apologized for the protesters, they shared amused gratitude that they had all left when the TV cameras rolled out as the fog rolled in, and by then she was ready.
Squaring her shoulders, lifting her chin, she shook back her hair in a gesture that revealed a touch of defiance and, yes, bruising on her temple and down around the outside of her left eye, that context showing his suspician about her lips to be plainly true. It was mild compared to some of the cases he’d seen, but someone had clearly been hitting her. Her face flushed slightly, but it was plain that she wasn’t hiding the damage but quite deliberately revealing it to him. Gazing directly into his eyes, she said, “I’m sure you can guess why I’m here.”
He paused a beat, then asked as a first step, “Do you need shelter? Financial assistance?” She looked a bit surprised; she must not have known those services were available. Truth be told, they usually weren’t, but the possibility was alluded to in local advertising, which confirmed another guess he’d made – that she had come in from out of town, probably from the neighboring state, where clinics like this were nonexistent. After a moment she shook her head in a firm no.
“I’m okay for both. No, it’s the medical… Oh, hell. I need an abortion. I’m here for that.” A bolus of bright regret surged up from deep in her torso, imperfectly controlled by the sudden re-clamping of her spirit. Physically, the only sign was a bunching of her jaw. She did not break eye contact, and neither did he.
He didn’t speak; it was a fraught moment, and he didn’t want to derail her. He simply nodded and rose, touching her hands gripped tight around her empty coffee mug in a manner that told her to stay put. He got the forms and a pen, placed them neatly and squarely in front of her. He sniffed his own coffee cup, still full, grimaced and said “I’ll make fresh.”
“I’m sorry this is required.” As she watched the shadowy ultrasound he felt the song of her yearning. If he was careful, when her soul was reaching out anyway, he could suck the edge off her pain without devouring her entirely… but despite its inchoate power he resisted the urge to siphon any of that away. The general misery he could eat of, but this pain she needed to have herself if she were to truly choose. Still, he could not help but marvel at the hot copper smell of her soul in conflict, the sharp tang of the burning ghost-tears she still had not shed.
“Yes. I see..” For a moment her iron self-control faltered, her voice faded. He touched her shoulder, gestured at the running tape. Her aura flared in wild spikiness, then changed, quieted and smoothed as she recovered her calm. She spoke quietly but firmly. “I see the fetus. I see the heartbeat. I have seen it move, I know what it is and what I am doing. I have not changed my mind.” He squeezed her shoulder, turning her away from the screen, with his other hand turning it off. He saw that her tears were no longer ghosts.
“Okay. That’s it, that’s all for tonight.” He took the box of tissues that always, always had to be kept ready in this room from beside Madge, who had dozed off in her chair, and proffered them to the girl.
“Tonight?” Her glance was sharp, her tone sharper. She was one of those rare people who could cry tears without sobbing, and her voice was controlled.
“I’m sorry, yes. There is a mandatory waiting time of three days. Not working days, but you will have to come back after the weekend. It’s the law.”
She stayed composed, but the sadness and regret transmuted into anger, like a soft yellow gas jet tightening into a roaring hot knife of blue fury. “Not until Monday? Seriously? I have to leave Tuesday morning. I have to go… I have tickets. ” She wiped her face angrily, balling the tissues and throwing them into the wastepaper basket.
“I will be here Sunday night. I can do it then,” he assured her. “It will be fine.” It would, in fact, be perfect.
After she had gone he played back the ultrasound, watching the grey blob with its insanely pulsating heart, and to his mind’s eye came the matching memory of that almost-separate aura. Almost but not quite. The timing had worked out perfectly. Yes, three days would be fine.
In three days the blob would be separately ensouled, would (though still utterly dependent physically upon its… his mother) be a new person.
It… he… would be ripe.