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Throw Away the Key

By Katrina Johnston

In right field, shallow, lonely, melting in the sun, Sarah Jackson struggles to keep her head in the game. She monitors each pitch and strains to hear the umpire’s foghorn verdict. He sounds like a pirate. “Striaaaaach.”

            She anticipates a possible outcome, dreads a directed hit, the kind that’s smacked with the trajectory of a bullet and aimed haphazardly at her body or her face. Other players call this type of smash a frozen rope. She might handle something easy – grounder or a fly.

            She needs to be ready for the inevitable. Sarah shakes her head to clear away the uninvited recall. The images are not welcome. Graphic memories invade. Reruns scroll through her visual cortex; nasty, horrors – recent pictures she can’t alter. No. Not yet. “I’ll fix it,” Sarah whispers to herself.

            She deliberately invokes a ritual to vanquish thoughts. Usually it works. She can obliterate the devil if she is deliberate and systematic enough. She might lock away the past. Escape. The baseball game does not provide adequate distraction. Eyes briefly downcast, she observes the weeds and clover that disrupt a clump of red-brown dust.

            She repositions her mind. Orders it around as if were a servant. Like any respectable Buddhist or right-fielder, Sarah attempts to be present for each moment. She’ll make herself forget. Ready, steady…. Forget.

            One, two, three…. Forget.

            Four, five, six…. Forget.

            Usually, it works. There is no allotment for indecision in baseball or in life.

            And Sarah is becoming weary of being the one and only who is qualified. She’s the person routinely called to witness the emergencies, a saviour carrying answers and the first responder gear, the expert who is beckoned by her adrenaline fuelled training and raw experience.

            But she’s tired of witnessing the heartbreak and providing immediate succour. Why is she the guardian of saving precious human life, rolling out drug antidotes, resuscitation and defibrillation, guiding the injured to the hospitals?

            The batter swings, misses. Strike two, and then it’s three. Another player shambles to the plate. He exudes his confidence. The challenger wears a red uniform. His stance is open. The safety helmet glints in the afternoon sun. Number 39: His age is displayed on his back, the way all of the participating rescue personnel have chosen to proudly show their truth. None of the crew members on either team are coy about chronological ages.

            It’s Mason Chadwick to the plate. He’s the ambulance driver. Recently, they’ve been partners. The number on Sarah’s jersey is 48. She’s not embarrassed about that seniority.

            A smash sails foul. Much ado about a false alarm.

            The outfield is dotted with tiny dandelions and fallen leaves. “No action for Jackson,” Sarah thinks. She pounds her glove and squints down the first base line.

            Slow pitch. Tedium. Another lob. The softball arcs, succumbs to gravity and bounces on a rubber mat. She acknowledges a wasp that buzzes near her ankle.

            At the plate, Chadwick snarls. He disregards the next two offerings. Sarah’s first base coach signals. Quickly; retreat now.

            If the ball never gets whacked this far, it’s a good ramble to retrace her steps when the inning quits, but dutifully, Sarah pedals backward and positions herself along the edge of nowhere.

            Chadwick is arrogant; insufferable. He thinks he knows everything about the job – her job.

            Earlier this week, when they were cramped into the cab of the St. Ellice ambulance, Sarah decided she would rather partner with someone else. She can’t stand being with Chadwick all the time. Certainly not inside the confines of the rescue vehicle, and not even in the expansive break room where anyone can sit and enjoy a space of anonymity. The room is not big enough for both of them.

            In the break room, Chadwick hung over her with his cheesy breath. He pulled up a chair. “You should get yourself to a counsellor,” he said. “It was a tough call – about the worst ever. Lots of gore. Most I’ve ever dealt with. And you were reacting. You really lost it.”

            “You’re no expert to make such assumptions,” Sarah told him, “just because you noticed I was shaking. Or I cried a little.”

            “A little – you mean an awful lot.”

            “Yeah a little!”

            “No, You really worried me,” Chadwick said.

            “Well, la de dah.”

            “Yeah, you were blubbering. I thought you were going to faint or you were going to go nuts. You displayed a text-book case of shell-shock, pure and simple.”

            “I did not.”

            “Oh yes you did.”

            “Listen, buddy boy, I’ve been working at this job much, much longer than you. I know the signs of PTSD. It’s not as if….  I’m no weakling. I’m not a beginner. You cannot pigeon hole the standard. I’m not cracking up. So what if I cried or I got jittery. I’ve got a life outside of duty hours and the ambulance department. That’s my life. My business. See…. Other stress and shit like that.”

            “Yeah, I recognize the stress,” he said. “It could have happened to anyone. It doesn’t really mean squat. No judgement intended. Wild or uncalled for emotional explosion is nothing to be ashamed of. But you should deal with it. You need to follow up.”

            She had looked down and examined what remained of her carefully applied nail polish, now a raw and ragged edge of peachy frosting bitten to the quick. “Back off, Chadwick. I know what I’m doing. I know how I’m staying calm. I can monitor my situation.” She added: “So, mind your own damn corner. It’s not your duty to poke your nose where it’s not helping.”

            “Okay. Okay. I’m backing off. But you need someone to talk it through, and there’s a woman I know and I’ve got a list of other possible counsellors too. This particular one is a fully licensed psychologist. She’s got an office over at Fullerton near the golf course. And no one in our department or the district needs to know that you might go there, that you could be seeking therapy.”

            “I’ll say it once again. Mind your own goddamn business. I’m just fine.”

            Near the home-run barrier fence, Sarah implements her meditative plans. She employs the old standard of thought sequence. She forces the elimination of her memory, obliterating the worst. She has a methodology.

            The last images that she attempts to eradicate are from Tuesday’s call with Chadwick at the wheel. She was the lead paramedic.

            They had sirened along Highway 2 to the border of Pacific Street. A routine traffic incident. But it is never a routine for the victims. She’s seen graphic amputations, stood over the dead. She’s seen too many children torn and shredded.

            And the scene was gruesome. A bicycle – no helmet. A mangled cyclist. Fifteen years on the urban roster. She thought she was immune.

            She knows she hasn’t recovered from every single incident. But Chadwick is fairly new. He’s not qualified. Sarah is technically his boss. And this particular accident was the challenger.

            What does Chadwick really understand? He boasts the expertise of a fool. Mr. Know-it-all. The images in her mind evolve again. This time, when the scene reinstates itself in life-draining colour and sharp definition, she shudders.

            It was 1600 hours on Friday –  humid, under cloudless skies. Although it was not a child lying there. No, not a child twisted or dead upon the shoulder of the highway. The memory, for a while refuses to dissipate. It’s usually only when the youngest children are involved that Sarah struggles with the game of thought obliteration.

            This time, it was a young man, age approximately 32; sandy haired, average build; an adult wearing a nylon shirt and khaki shorts. Perhaps she would learn much later that he is the father of two children, that he works as a web-page developer. His young wife (she allows herself to imagine his wife) is likely tending to him at the hospital. She will be an honourable partner. Sarah imagines the girl; a furrowed brow of concern along her ash-blond curls, sitting at the bedside, holding hands, worrying.

            When Sarah had pried the victim from the gravel, she rolled his inert body over and saw that he was definitely going to sacrifice an eye. The blood was copious. His breath came in shallow crackles. The left side of his face was pulp. Arterial blood; crimson, sticky. Sarah applied a sterile cotton wad. She pressed it firmly, concerned about the crushed ocular, the lens, the retina and the tiny shards of displaced bone probably infiltrating the cerebrum.

            He must have ripped the major nerves. A broken mandible flattened the lower jaw.

            This could have been her son, a brother, a cousin (Sarah’s husband if she had one) an uncle, a friend, or a lover. Ruined. He’d never be a whole or beautiful man again. She wondered if he was before – a beautiful man. Like…. Before forever.

            He wasn’t now.

            Sarah shakes the image until it vibrates, loosens. She molds it into a physical block. She freezes this and wraps the block in greyish mental bandages. She steps outside herself and observes carefully. She settles the vision inside the imaginary steel box. The lid falls shut. She snaps the lock, twists the key, tosses key and box into an infinite sea where they both sink rapidly.

            There’s no way that the steel container may ever be re-opened. That’s her rule. There. It’s done. Locked and nullified. It will not bother her. It cannot. Never. Never. No, not ever.

            And Sarah concentrates even harder at the potential of the next baseball play. Ball two; and another miss and a useless strike.

            Chadwick’s athleticism asserts itself. He tags it and tosses the aluminium bat extra casually. He’s smacked a bouncing grounder out to Sarah’s location. The ball dances past her, avoids her weakly outstretched glove. She looks behind her. It’s too late. Her mind and her body have not hustled. She’s gone awkward and slow. Flubbed it. A blatant fielding error.

            The opposing teams scores two runs. The fans sag in silent disapproval.

            But Sarah doesn’t hoot. She trots over, scoops the ball, throws a weak-armed unfrozen rope. Cut-off at second base.

            After the game, she phones the hospital. She follows the prescribed protocols to find out information. Yes, exactly how is the patient (any recent patient)…. How is he faring now? She identifies her ambulance number and the call time sequence.

            The patient she’s recently escorted – that most unlovely young man who got his face squashed, is now deceased.

            A new ogre stomps around her mind.

            She can’t sleep because she can’t close her eyes. She worries about his family and the consequences of his passing. She can’t eat. Sarah envisions the funeral. She can’t do the crossword puzzle. She can’t blame God and his indifference. His existence?

            She makes a telephone call and reaches Chadwick.“What’s the name of that counsellor person,” she says.“You know, the one you were telling me about.”

            And she waits.

            Chadwick has gone to fetch the address and the details.

            Sarah waits for hope and change to come to her like the cavalry. She waits to be able to box up another gruesome inevitable emotion.

            But pain is a devil. Pain is trickery and pain insists it must be felt… until she wants to scream. Except she doesn’t. Her training won’t allow it. Sarah is a professional. She knows what she is doing. Most of the time.

Katrina Johnston‘s short fiction may be found a several online journals as well as a few print entities She is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of CBC Canada Writes ‘True Winter Tale.’ The goal of her writing is to explore human connections and to share. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.

Categories

Fiction, The River

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