There is blood on my carpet. Again.
It’s the cheap, off-white carpet I hated the moment we stepped into this shabby townhouse. Neutral in color to appease house-hunters, but quick to turn dingy and a magnet for stains. The coarse texture is poor relief after fourteen hours of standing behind a desk and dealing with the ceaseless barrage of human indignity.
Night descends when I close the front door, but I don’t wait for my eyes to adjust, trusting memory to get me from the front door up the narrow steps to our tiny bedroom. No reason to turn on the lights and risk waking you at (oh, my) 3:48 am. So I kick off my rubber-soled shoes and tread softly until cold seeps up through my sock. My hand fumbles blindly for the light switch at the bottom of the stairs and there it is. A bloody boot print. There’s another, and another traipsing up the stairs, the distance between prints indicative of you recklessly skipping steps in your hurry to, what? Reach the bathroom first aid kit? Leave as few prints as possible so as not to infuriate me? You could have at least dropped your boots at the backdoor.
I consider following the trail to its source, perhaps to find an innocent explanation. Like maybe an overturned beet smoothie or a severed finger on the cutting board. I consider heading to the kitchen for the matches and setting fire to the hated carpet, which you swore would be ripped out the day we moved in. It’s an easy fix, you said. You promised me hardwood and tile, yet all I have to show for it is more bloodstains that never come out no matter how much I scrub or how many times I borrow that carpet-shampooing vacuum from the creepy land lady. I tell our friends that it’s red wine, or I used to when we still had friends. They stopped hanging out when I started drinking red wine to make my lie plausible and you kept ditching early and leaving me to explain, all because of your habit. It’s job stress, you know. Or the roller derby league. I think the last time I swore you were trying out for a water polo team.
I lean against the staircase wall and peel off my crimsoned sock. At least bloodstains on clothing are something I can handle, as well as vomit, feces, and other unmentionable fluids. Ascending the stairs, I strip off my scrubs and try to mellow my anger by focusing on how physically weary I am. Each step sends a sizzle of white heat over my thighs, down my calves, and right into my aching feet. I swear, like I do after every long shift, that I’m going to buy good shoes and get serious insoles for my poor arches. I have a brief fantasy about dancing about the ER on gelled insoles made by a qualified doctor. At the top of the stairs, I limply toss my shirt into the open maw of the washing machine in the laundry closet, feeling only a little remorse for the horrors the My Little Ponies decorating it had to bear witness to. With less finesse, I divest myself of the matching pants and the socks, then turn on the water, add the requisite laundry soap, and drop the lid with a satisfying clang that is echoed by the empty dryer. I no longer care if I wake you. Those who dare to bleed on my floors and don’t even attempt to clean it up are not worthy of that small courtesy.
There is no friendly glow from your phone as it sits on its charger. This is not surprising since you are always forgetting to plug it in. I stalk stiffly to the bathroom to wash off today’s grime. Scrub under my nails, brush my teeth, wash my face, let you stew for a bit since you must know I’m tired and angry, but you can’t be sure which is the stronger motivator. At last, I decide I am calm enough to shame you without yelling or bursting into tears. My shadow from the bathroom light falls on the bed so I can’t really see your face, but your open eyes glint at me.
“This has to stop,” I say, and the sheer exhaustion in my voice is surprising. “We had a deal. I stop my habit, you stop yours. I know it’s important to you, I do. But I’m just tired of having this fight.” Seems like we have it every night. It starts with the carpet. Then it slithers onto unfinished projects, money problems, the failed adoption, and always at the root of it is your dangerous addiction. Broken promises and abandoned dreams. Everything goes on the back-burner, like your physical training studio you were going to create in the screened-in porch. Four years here and instead we have a half-painted porch with the screens still falling out and crowded with boxes we never unpacked.
I sit down on my side of the bed. “I don’t want to fight. I want to sleep and not dream about everything I saw today.” The school bus accident was the worst. Because of that, I instinctively reach out to hold your hand, illuminated by the bathroom fluorescent light. It is wet and sticky and limp and the smell of blood suddenly clogs my nose. I’m so used to it at the hospital that I completely tuned it out. The little reading lamp on my bedside almost crashes to the floor in my rush to turn it on. Oh no.
The sheets are ruined, cut into strips and wrapped around various injuries on your limbs and torso. I immediately check your vitals, getting a weakened but steady pulse at your carotid artery and shallow, regular breathing. Nurse-mode activated, I examine every inch of you top to bottom, stripping off clothing as gingerly as I can. I leave it where it sticks and use your Kabar to cut away what I can. Your boots prove the most difficult, being heavy construction steel-toes spray-painted black. I know it hurts, but you don’t scream and that scares me more than anything. There’s no pulse at your ankles. Your feet are stone cold.
Somewhere, deep in my stomach is a whine of panic while I rush around turning on lights and getting the serious first aid kit from my car trunk. There is a lot of blood, but most of the bleeding has stopped already. You’re covered in bruises but no bad breaks, not even in your ribs thanks to the body armor I make you wear. Most of the cuts are shallow or at least missed major arteries. I’m unspeakably grateful for all the practice I’ve had stitching you up over the years as it takes mere moments to close the more serious lacerations. I try not to think about how much more helpful I could be if I hadn’t tapped out my strength on that school bus.
Everything which can be treated by my kit is cleaned and bandaged before I take a full breath again. I kneel by your head and gently touch your shoulder to get your attention. Your dark brown eyes are glazed with agony and your jaw is swollen and crooked, probably dislocated, yet you still try to smile. “Stop that, idiot,” I admonish softly. I cannot, will not cry. “Now, I’ve done all I can.” Dexterous fingers, so practiced at stitches, easily untie your black domino mask and drop it to the carpet. I stroke your hair, ebony black and only a couple of inches long, the tight curls springy against my palm. “I need to call an ambulance. You need x-rays at the very least, probably a CAT scan, maybe even an MRI.” You clearly want to argue. “Can’t argue with a dislocated jaw, hon. Nor can you run off when you can’t move your legs.” Your eyes widen in panic. Must not have noticed when you lost feeling down there. “I don’t know what you got into tonight, but whatever bad guys you fought were clearly above your fighting weight.”
Speed dial quickly gets me connected to the head nurse on duty. “Lola? Yeah, it’s Constance. I need an ambulance. No I’m fine. It’s Sam. I’ve stopped the bleeding, but she’s in bad shape. Dislocated jaw and left shoulder, possible spinal injury, no broken bones that I could find but she could have any number of fractures. Could you send Kali? Tell her to be discrete, no sirens. Thanks. I’ll see you soon.” Discretion would be key. I could trust Lola and Kali not to run to the Council liaison about any suspicious injuries. Plus, it’s a full moon so the rest of the staff should be too busy to notice you.
“Don’t give me that look. You got yourself into this.” Again, I want to say. This is the worst time, yes, but this isn’t the first time you’ve been under my professional care. “We’ll tell them it was a mugging on your way home. You fought back of course, but there were too many of them and your phone got smashed in the process. You only barely made it home.” There’s a catch in my voice because it’s clear in your face just how close to the truth my story is. You saw someone in trouble and, death-seeking fool that you are, you donned your little mask and ran to help. Never mind that your talent is laughably weak and completely unsuitable for crime fighting, or that, since you aren’t certified by the Council, it is a criminal act for you to do so.
If you were certified, you would have health coverage for this kind of thing, not to mention state-of-the-art facilities and teams of people whose entire purpose is to monitor your health so that you don’t almost die in your own bed all alone. Since you aren’t certified, you are a Vigilante, which is punishable by death because untrained heroes get innocent people killed. They don’t even have to give you a trial, just send in the Alpha to snap your neck and make a lesson of you.
Something hot and wet hits the back of my hand, which is clutching the dumb little mask so hard I’m shaking. Hastily, I brush away the tears stinging my eyes, but they won’t go away. The adrenaline that got me through the last hour has turned against me and I feel sick and flushed. I bolt from the room, down the stairs, and out the front door. Crying bursts out in painful gasps, choking me as I pace helplessly under the yellow porch light. Deep breaths, in and out, but then there’s your face, too still with glazed eyes and blood everywhere and I just can’t.
Mask still in hand, I storm through the dark living room to the galley kitchen, flicking on lights as I go. The matches are right where I always keep them. Then it’s out the back door, through the crowded back porch and down the rickety steps to the cheap tin fire pit we got at that yard sale when we still had dreams of barbeques and lawn parties. I douse the mask in a little lighter fluid and watch grimly as the flames consume it. Tires in the driveway have me running back to the front door where a sprightly blonde elf-girl and her burly partner are already hefting the gurney up the steps.
They follow me up the stairs and we carefully load you up. I hold your hand all the way to the hospital and hope feverishly that the Council has better things to look into than one little Vigilante with a dislocated jaw.
Now that you know how it ends, let’s go back to the beginning.