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magazine coverLouise and her good friend Kay Kenyon both appeared once in Talebones, in this same issue (#29), with a fabulous cover by Bob Hobbs. They both were also loyal subscribers. You realize, don’t you, Louise, that this time your story appears before Kay’s story? was an alphabetical choice the first time! This story was written to be read aloud for a fundraising dinner put on by Humanities Washington in support of literacy in Washington State. It’s intended to honor the many dedicated medical professionals in her family. I published her story collection Absalom’s Mother, which is a must-read.



Violet stands in the hallway, listening to the clicking of heels on concrete, the slamming of car doors, the purr and then fade of the engine as the car backs down the long driveway, turns into the street and drives away, leaving her alone. Leaving her in silence.

Violet is not used to working in silence. The hospital was never quiet, not even during night shift. Sirens wailed, alarms buzzed, even low voices carried. Violet feels exposed by the quiet in this house of strangers. She feels isolated.

She’s tempted to turn on every light in the house, to banish the night. She shakes her head, trying to laugh at herself, and flicks off the hall light instead. A streetlamp haloes the porch and the lawn. Through the front window it casts a rectangle of diluted light that glows on the parquet floor of the hallway. Violet walks back into the bedroom to dim the Little Mermaid lamp beside the rented hospital bed. She smooths the blanket over her sleeping patient, then stands for a moment looking down at her.

She is so young, this pretty child. Young enough, heedless enough, to plow her pink ten-speed, with its fluttering ribbons and rock band decals, straight into the side of a moving bus. But old enough, Violet is certain, that she will hate the patch where her long, fair hair had to be shaved off. That square of naked scalp marks the site where the surgeon inserted the shunt that saved the her life. The ICP monitor beside the bed measures the flow from the shunt to track the pressure in the injured brain. Automatically, Violet scans the monitor, to be certain the numbers are steady. It’s not necessary for her to do it, the alarm would sound if the pressure began to build. But Violet has been a critical care nurse, a good one, for forty years. She leaves nothing to chance.

How many patients has she had like this one? she wonders. Surely they must number in the hundreds. And with each of them came terrified parents, pastors and lawyers and counselors and police. Their fear disturbed her sleep, their anger ruined her appetite. Their grief, piled up over the years, still drags at her steps. She’s ready for the retirement that awaits her in three weeks, ready to retreat to her apartment and her books and her cats. This is her last patient, her last struggle with the tireless adversary.

Violet checks the girl’s catheter and IV, and then slips softly from the bedroom, walks to the kitchen at the end of the hall. A pot of tea waits for her there, and a plate of freshly baked cookies. She kicks off her worn Birkenstocks and eases herself into a chair. As she takes a paperback from the pocket of her cardigan, she thinks that there are advantages to doing home care. She knows the cookies weren’t baked for her. The girl’s mother made them, just that afternoon, in hopes that her daughter would be able to eat one. Violet appreciates them just the same. She pours a cup of tea and lifts the warm cup in her two hands.

Before it touches her lips, the ICP monitor begins to beep.

Violet jumps to her feet, and the scrape of the chair’s legs on the tiled floor is loud in the silence. She sets the cup down, missing the saucer. She thrusts her feet into her sandals and hurries back down the hallway. In less than twenty seconds, she is at her patient’s bedside.

The child’s eyes are open wide, staring at the flashing, beeping monitor, and then shifting to Violet’s face. “Mom,” she whispers. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear, it’s all right,” Violet murmurs. “It’s all right. Your mom will be home soon.” She reaches to shut off the alarm, sees with a sinking heart how much the pressure has risen. “I’m just going to check a couple of things, dear.”

The girl sighs, and her eyelids flutter.

Violet touches her shoulder, and when there is no response, her cheek. “Are you awake? Can you talk to Violet, sweetheart?”

The child’s eyelids lift, and her blue eyes glisten in the light from the Little Mermaid lamp. They focus on a point somewhere beyond Violet’s shoulder. “Angels,” she breathes. “Mom! Angels are coming.”

“What?” Violet’s hands are busy, taking her pulse, reaching for a thermometer. “What was that, dear?”

The girl draws a shallow breath. “Angels,” she sighs. “Mommy . . .”

“Yes, tell me about it,” Violet says. She is reaching for the med tray, drawing up a dose of Mannitol.

“Angels,” the girl says, her voice trailing low. “White and blue. Over the water . . .” She falls silent as Violet injects the Mannitol into the Y-port of the IV tube, then reaches for the phone.

It’s all too familiar, wearily familiar, Violet thinks. She speaks to the dispatcher, even as she raises the head of the bed to high Fowler’s position, hoping to increase the flow from the shunt, even as she scrabbles among the notes on the bureau for the number of the surgeon’s service. When the surgeon calls back, she is terrified that it might be the parents, calling from their dinner party. Her relief when she hears the doctor on the line makes her voice tremble. She reports on her patient’s status, on the call to the paramedics, agrees she will travel with her patient to the OR. She forces herself to be calm when she calls the parents, to reassure them, but their alarm makes her heart race.

And then the calls are complete, and she can only wait. There’s nothing more she can do for her patient, nothing until they reach the hospital. She stands beside the girl’s bed, holding her hand, pressing it to her own breast as if she can will the child to breathe, to live. She finds herself praying for the ambulance to hurry, to save this girl for her suffering mother, her worried father . . . for Violet herself.

Violet doesn’t want to end her career like this. She doesn’t want to stand helplessly by to watch another precious child slip away, to see her parents broken by sorrow.

She looks up, searching for the clock in the unfamiliar room, trying to judge how much time has passed. From the corner of her eye she sees a mote of darkness, something vague fluttering just out of her sight. It’s as if a black moth had come in from the night, found some window left open or door left ajar, and has come to hover in the hall. Gently, Violet lays the child’s hand down. Her heart beats like a drum in her chest as she steps to the door of the bedroom.

She peers toward the kitchen, where she can just see the teapot cooling beside the untouched plate of cookies, her cup askew on the table where she left it.

She looks the other way, toward the front door. The light from the streetlamp gleams on a glass table, on brass pokers beside the fireplace. Violet feels a throb in her fingertips, and finds she has put her hand to her throat. Fear is a presence in the night, a palpable, living entity, and it pushes her back into the bedroom, away from the dark hall, the fragmented light, the emptiness of the house.

And then Violet thinks, it’s not fear. Fear is not the enemy.

Death is the enemy. It has always been the enemy.

Death has won too many of these battles over the years.

The monitor blinks and blinks. Her patient’s breathing grows ragged. Angels? Violet thinks. There are no angels here. There’s only me.

She takes another halting step backward, stops when she feels the cold metal of the bed against her legs.

“No,” she whispers.

The mote flits past the doorway, bigger this time, much bigger, and darker. It’s no moth. Its shadow stretches across the hall, threatens to slip inside the bedroom.

“No,” Violet says, her voice a little stronger. She pushes herself away from the bed, takes a step toward the door. “No! You can’t come in here!”

The shape swells, surges, filling the hall. It’s darker than dark, blacker than black. It ripples and sways, blocking the light from the streetlamp, the distant glow from the kitchen. It hangs for a long moment before it slips away, leaving Violet to stare at the empty doorway, her stomach crawling with fury.

“Damn you,” she cries. “No!” Her legs are trembling, but she takes another step forward. The flashing light from the monitor is reflected on the parquet of the hall floor, on and off, on and off. The black shape hovers near the ceiling, swelling and shrinking and swelling again. It seems to Violet that it’s shaking an amorphous fist at her.

“I’ve had enough of you,” she says, very low. “You can’t have her! I won’t give her up!”

The shape lowers, expands to fill the hall, to swim past the door.

When it withdraws, there is sound, an impossible sound, like the roar of wind through a tunnel. Violet’s vision blurs. Maybe the sound is in her head. Maybe she’s having an ischemic attack, a stroke, an MI. She tries to move forward, but her feet feel like lead, like she’s wading through mud, or wet cement. The roaring intensifies. The darkness flows across the doorway again.

A tendril of it, a slender, questing black tentacle, reaches inside the room.

Violet’s vision clears all at once. Everything sharpens, clarifies. Even the roar seems distinct, a discrete sound, almost, but not quite, familiar. Violet’s legs grow steady. Her heartbeat slows.

Another tendril explores the air of the bedroom, a seeking arm of shadow.

“Like some filthy octopus,” Violet says. Her voice sounds perfectly normal to her ears. She steps right into the doorway and finds that the air in the hall is icy cold, dank as some long-closed cellar.

She pays no attention to it. It is the way it is. She has spent many years trying to accept that things are what they are. People die, people in her care, people who are treasured, or despised, or forgotten the moment they’re gone, or grieved for past all endurance.

“Not this one, you greedy bastard,” she tells the phantom.

In answer, it quivers, waves of shadow, ombre depths shifting, swelling, shrinking. The roar grows louder and higher.


The roaring becomes a screech, a terrible tinnitus that would have hurt her ears if it had been a physical sound.

None of this is physical. Violet understands that. It’s an ancient war, waged between determined spirits, fought with skills honed over millennia. And Violet refuses defeat.

She has lost track of time, but it doesn’t matter. The battle rages outside of time.

The darkness wells in the corridor, infinite and awful. It drowns even the faint flicker of the monitor’s lights. It floods the bedroom with the stench of decay.

Violet reaches the doorway. She braces her legs and stretches out her arms to grip the doorjamb with her hands. The tendrils lick at her, curl around her arms, her legs, lap at her stockinged feet in their aged Birkenstocks. Violet grins into the blackness. Her resistance is a light, a shining light that nothing can dim, a fire nothing can quench.

She laughs aloud, once, and lets her flame burn as high as it will go. It rises, spreads, bursts from her in a tremendous flash. She is consumed by it, but that doesn’t matter. The darkness is driven back, dispelled by her brilliance. She holds until the shadow dissipates like a fog under the morning sun.

When Violet’s strength evaporates, it empties her. She collapses in the doorway like a deflated balloon, her legs folding, her arms flung out.

The light in the hall comes on, and the paramedics and the parents are at the front door. Violet tries to speak to the them, to reassure them. To tell them she has won.

She is surprised when she finds she has no voice.

The paramedics hurry past her to the child’s bedside, the mother at their heels.

The father bends to lift Violet from the floor.

She watches from a distance, curious, as he carries her limp body to a couch and lays her gently down. Where is her breath? Her heartbeat? She has lost them.

The father shakes her shoulder, calls her name, but she doesn’t answer. She can’t answer. She isn’t there.

She is in the bedroom, watching her patient open her eyes, smile up at her mother.

“Mom,” the girl says, weakly, but clearly. “Mommy. There were angels.”

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