Steven pulled into the newly paved driveway of his cute yellow cape style house. The flowers were blooming, Spring was in all its glory. The electric blue Charger rumbled to a stop, its powerful engine shaking the car before Steven turned the ignition and removed the keys. Steven had just got done with his third physical therapy session for the week, he now had four days off until the next session. His face could tell you that he needed the rest, just by looking at the bags under his eyes, the wrinkles on his forehead that could seemingly hold pencils in between them now; This was a man who was tired to the bone. Steven also had white hairs propping up all over his head now, a fact he had noticed a few weeks ago, and again now as he looked in the rear view mirror and brushed his hand back through his short hair. With the way his heart failure had almost killed him, the way it had decimated his heart to the point where it was only performing at fifteen percent, and his physical appearance now, he looked to be a man much older than 24. He sighed at his own reflection, opened the car door and gingerly got out of the car. Steven grabbed his foldable black cane his wife had bought him before shutting the door, snapped the cane open and leaned upon it on his right side.
As he made his way toward his black front door of their little home, you could hear his knee crackling with every step. “At least you can walk now, and you no longer have to use that stupid walker!” Mercy would say to him when he complained. She was short in stature but powerful in conviction. Steven loved his wife, and she loved him. They were high school sweethearts, in fact, they had only ever been serious with each other. They married a year before Steven had gotten sick, about six months after they had moved half way across the country for a job Mercy had gotten at a prestigious hospital in Texas. As Steven opened his front door and turned his way in to the house slowly, he remembered back to when he was first diagnosed.
When Steven first felt sick, they visited the hospital Mercy worked at and the doctors told them he had a case of walking pneumonia. Drink water and rest, it will be fine. It got worse over the next week, requiring more trips to the emergency room and more bad diagnoses. After the fourth visit, Mercy demanded that Steven be admitted to the Hospital for testing, in a heated exchange with the ER attending physician. Boy were their faces red when they came back a few hours later with the test results. “You seem to have congestive heart failure, Steve.” The doctor was looking at his clipboard, not daring to look at Steven in the eyes. “Steven.” Mercy corrected the doctor. The doctor flashed a quick eyebrow up and then moved on, “Yes, well, we need to bring in a, um, specialist and we can figure out what to do from there.” Eyes were back to the clipboard, this guy was not the guy to be talking to and Steven and Mercy knew it. “Ok.” Steven said. That was it. The doctor was taken aback, he seemed to be expecting a tongue lashing or crying, some form of outrage. “Ok? Ok then, I, uhh, I’ll get a call in to a cardiologist that is on call this evening…” Mercy, her long auburn hair tied behind her and still wearing her green nurse scrubs, spoke up, insisting on which doctor would be the one to treat me. “Call Dr. Javis, please. I’ve worked with him on my floor and his team.” The doctor nodded, looking at Steven once briefly finally before turning to leave.
Steven was brought back to the present and out of his thoughts by the stench of cleaning product odors that hit him like a brick wall as soon as he had closed the front door. He could smell the Febreeze he and Mercy had gotten at Wal-Mart, and a stronger odor, probably bleach. Something else too, the undertones of which he recognized at once, sickly sweet. Steven didn’t flinch, he just kicked his black Nike’s off at the shoe mat next to the wall, then started to make his way to the kitchen. The home Steven and Mercy had made for themselves was nothing fancy, but it was nice and it was clean, but today Steven noticed it was sparkling clean. Mercy was playing her jazz music in the kitchen while making her breakfast, and his dinner. She had to work a night shift in Boston at the General tonight, so this was really the only meal they would get with each other. The moment he saw her, even with his limp, he walked a bit faster to get to her to give her a hug. Their home had a lot of their wedding photos adorned through out. Steven was well over six-foot three, and Mercy was a five foot nothing ball of fury, but still, their wedding photos didn’t look that bad. Just a lot of necks craning in one way or another.
“How was therapy? I just got up about an hour ago.” Mercy asked.
“It was good, did the same routines as last time. Felt my pacemaker go off a few times.” Steven patted the rectangular bulge that was under his chest without thinking of it.
“No shocks though?” Her eyebrows raised, her brown eyes large and beautiful.
Steven smiled, “No, no shocks, I’m ok honey.” Steven kissed her forehead and tightened his bear hug around her. Mercy hugged him tightly around his waist, then gave him a pat on his ass as she let go and moved back to the stove. Steven took his keys and wallet out and put them in their usual place on the marbled counter, right near the toaster oven. Turning his attention to his calendar, to mark another day off, he brought up the smells of the house. “Sauce smells good hon, did you use the turkey and veal for the meatballs?” Steven asked, but did not wait for answer, quickly following up with his real question, “Also noticed you cleaned a bit, huh? Smells a little…fresh out there in the family room, was there a problem or mess?” Steven was trying to gauge if maybe she would use their dog, a faun boxer named Buddy who likes to get into the trash, as an excuse maybe. But he knew what that underlying smell was. When they had it done it together, they had it always called it “their smell”. It has a distinct odor.
“Oh no, I just spilt a little something, and it needed to be cleaned. And once I got going, you know…I just had to get the whole house clean.” Mercy was stirring her red sauce, in a large stainless steel pot housing more than a dozen meatballs, her back to him and not raising her head. Steven un-capped the red marker that was attached by string to their seasonal calendar. He marked off another day. Another day crossed out. As he snapped the red cap back on the marker, and it fell against the wall, he thought back to the hospital again. Dr. Jarvis also had his clipboard, but he was looking at Steven straight in the face while telling him his fate.”Mr. and Mrs. Clark,” Dr. Javis was a well coiffed, blue-eyed, early 40’s good-looking doctor and had brought his four member team of what looked like high school kids in lab coats with him, “Your blood work indicates your BNP is well over 900..” An audible gasp escaped Mercy, and the pale ivory skin of her face started turning brighter shades of red by each passing second. Steven looked to her, and immediately knew that this was not a good number to have, whatever a BNP was. “…This indicates, usually, severe heart failure. Which is why we ordered you to have an echocardiogram.” Steven remembered how the gel was cold when the technician applied it to his chest, felt like a snowball melting on him. He had to lay on his left side, in an open gown, with the technician using a wand like the ones they use for ultrasounds. That’s when Steven knew something was very wrong.
“Have you had this problem since you were born?” the very plump older african-american woman had asked him. “What? No, I…I don’t think so, what is it?” She wouldn’t tell him, saying that the doctor had to be the one to explain it, and now he was about to. “Well the echo indicates that your ejection fraction is under 15%.” The doctor moved his eyes from Steven’s to look at Mercy. “The ventricular movements in your heart are also quite worrisome.” Mercy’s right hand was shaking. She sat down in the chair next to Steven’s hospital bed. He took her hand in his and squeezed. As the doctor continued to explain what they thought was wrong, one of the young fellows came over with their stethoscope out. She was a good-looking blonde girl with her hair tied back, her blue name tag said S. Connors. Connors smiled at Steven when he looked at her, as she lowered the top of his light blue hospital gown, and placed the stethoscope on his chest. Steven gave her a half raised eyebrow in return for her smile. Her smile faded. Dr. Javis continued on, “The walls of your heart are all moving abnormally, or… they are not moving at all. It’s idiopathic cardiomyopathy.” Steven nodded, “Well that’s not good.” Steven remembered how Mercy’s grip was like a vice at that moment.
Her hand, soft and warm now, brought him back to the calendar in front of him. Mercy looked at it with him, all those red x’s looking back at them. “Just because they told you five years, doesn’t mean you have to do that.” Her hand was on the small of his back, rubbing gently in a small circular motion. Steven gave a slight smile and answered with a sigh, “Yea, I know. I just want a little bit of control over something. This stupid calendar, I can handle this.” Steven turned away, making his way to their counter so he could sit down. He did not see the smile fade from Mercy’s face, and the flash of sadness in her eyes. “Well maybe there will be good news one of these days, about a donor. Or a new treatment.” Mercy sounded as sure and as hopeful as she always did when bringing up these ideas of hope. Steven just nodded, then rested his chin in his hands while Mercy began to serve dinner. Everything these days had to be low sodium, low-fat, low sugar, low carbs, low flavor. But Steven was used to it by now, picking at his turkey meatball, but he still missed spaghetti. Steven could smell the basil Mercy had used from their garden, but still that underlying odor was gnawing at him.
“Meatballs are awesome, thank you hon.” Steven offered, as he took another from the bowl in front of them on the counter. The big wooden ladle made it easy to get a meatball and just enough sauce all at once. “So you just woke up, huh?” Steven asked, but was not requiring an answer, he wanted to read her demeanor. “Well, I got home about 7:30, I slept until about 3, so…I just did a few chores before starting dinner.” Her lips smiled, a pale pink beautiful smile that made Steven react with one of his own every time. But her big brown eyes were cold, looking at him, though him. “Chores, right. So you picked up the bedroom, did some laundry?” His tone dropped an octave or two. “Steven, I…” She began her defense, one he has heard before. Steven did not have the strength to get into a fight over this with her. “I understand you have needs. And I can’t…”
Steven remembered. “No, no sweety that’s not what I was…” Mercy’s voice trailed off as Steven remembered where he first noticed that smell.
It was on one of his return trips to the hospital. Dr. Javis had screwed up the cardiac catheterization on his right leg, and now he would live in pain for the rest of his life because of it. On top of being treated for all of his heart problems, Steven now had to endure the agony his leg now, and the doctor had no idea how to treat it. It wasn’t until they brought in a specialist in pain management that they finally figured out what had went wrong. Dr. Javis had punctured Stevens femoral nerve when going in for the cardiac cath. This slight slip had caused Steven to develop complex regional pain syndrome, the most painful chronic pain disease known to man. It is systemic, and it is listed on the McGill pain index as Mercy would tell him as being more painful than a woman going through her first child-birth. Steven didn’t need to know anything about any indexes, he could feel it, it was his screaming agony that got him an ambulance ride back to this god awful hospital. Dr. Javis had put Steven on cardiac meds to start to manage the heart failure, he also put in an internal defibrillator because of Stevens erratic heart rate. Then Steven was sent home, and told to manage with his meds.
They gave Steven too much blood thinners. The puncture of the femoral artery and nerve created a bleed in his leg, thus creating a situation which required the ambulance ride. Then a stay in the ICU, and now the pain management. Mercy was livid. Steven had seen her mad, angry, screaming, but it was something different that day. Something snapped in Mercy, and she could take no more incompetence. There was no yelling. Just a quiet rage that Steven could see boiling beneath the surface. After the pain management doctor failed to do anything but prescribe narcotics, Mercy had gotten a new cardiologist, and a new job, back in Boston. She knew, and told Steven, that if they stayed there, he would die. So after just a year of being in Texas, they were moving back across the country. But before he was discharged, Steven had to get one last blood draw, and that’s where he remembers that smell from. His male nurse, Steven called him “Murse” when retelling any story of his time there, came to draw the blood. This nurse was clearly new and not sure what the difference what a vein or an artery was. Mercy was on shift, so Steven was left to deal with this himself.
When he stuck Steven to draw the blood, everything was fine at first. The vial filled, but when he released the vial from the butterfly needle, it should have stopped flowing blood. It did not, blood went everywhere, it was spurting out like something out of a horror movie. Stevens light blue gown was now soaked with blood and his blankets of the hospital bed were dripping to the floor. Steven got light-headed, not from just the sight of all that blood, but from the total loss of it all. And the smell. That sickly sweet smell of blood. He didn’t realize a large quantity of blood had a distinct odor up until that point. Steven hear them announce a code for his room. He had never seen so many nurses move so fast in his life. Doctors he didn’t recognize came flying in, and then out of the corner of the mayhem he saw Mercy standing at the entry. She must have heard the code and came running. Mercy did not scream, gasp or cry. She looked at the blood, grabbed a pair of latex gloves out of the box on the wall, and walked slowly inside as she put them on. Steady and cold. Mercy pushed people out-of-the-way without a word, took her husband’s arm in both her hands and squeezed as tightly as she could. A doctor Steven didn’t recognize got another tourniquet wrapped around Stevens arm and tightened it very tight. Steven passed out then, but now he shook himself back into the moment with his wife. They had been married six and a half years now, he was just passing the point where the doctors gave him his survival rate of five years, and he couldn’t believe his next words.
“You killed him?” Steven said, under his breath, both hands palms up on the counter.
“Yes. I told you I had found a match.” Mercy kept eating her meatball. Her manicured fingernails glistened as the fork dangled from her hand. “I just got done before you got home. We should get a call any minute to come to the hospital.” Steven couldn’t blink. He couldn’t move. Mercy kept on chewing and then took a sip of water to wash it down.
“You told me you found a match, but it was to some healthy middle-aged guy who was in the system because he was at the hospital for a car accident. And doesn’t he have a family too?”
“He does. Well, he did.” Mercy was staring right back at Steven now. As red as his face seemed to be from rage or disapproval, Mercy seemed to be running on icewater.
“So you didn’t have to work last night…”
“No, I went to his place of business listed on his contact information, drugged him and kept him in the garage.”
“Does it matter?”
“YES! JESUS CHRIST!” Steven was standing, his chair had fallen back behind him when he stood up so fast, he did not even realize.
“He was the only one left I could find with blood in the lab I could type and match with your ABO type.” Steven just came to a realization. The weight of the world just filled his stomach, it sure wasn’t the turkey meatballs.
“Left? Wait a second, he wasn’t the first you…”
“Nope.” Mercy pulled her hair back into a ponytail, using one of those bands that she always kept around her wrist. “Some of the others had complications with specific matching, or other things got in the way. But this one is perfect, a perfect match. I made sure!” Now her eyes were smiling along with her lips. She also made the A-OK sign with her fingers as she spoke to him, like this was all brilliant news.
“Right. Ok. Yeah. Holy shit.” Steven went to sit down again, almost landing on his ass since he forgot to pick the chair back up. He looked over at the calendar again, that countdown of his mortality. He started to wonder just how many of those red x’s actually stood for someone else’s life ending.
“No more of that, not after tonight. They should of found him by now. They should be calling you in, any minute now.” Mercy checked the watch that Steven had given her for her 20th birthday. “Any minute.” Tapping the watch face with a manicured nail.
“This isn’t right. I can’t do this. I can’t be a part of this.” Steven looked ill, more than usual. Mercy got up, neatly put her chair back in place, then walked over to him and put an arm around her husband.
“You are going to die. If you do not answer that phone when they call you, you are going to die.” Mercy was scratching his head, the way that she knew he liked it. “This will all be for nothing if you don’t answer that call.”
“But what If I can’t? Oh god, what did you do?”
“You’ll do it for the same reason I did it honey.”
“But I was ok, I was doing a little better. I’ve already gone longer than they said I would!” Steven’s eyes welled up.
“You’ll do it for me. You’ll do it for our future. For our familys future, just like I did.” And Mercy grasped his face full with her hands and kissed him. She stepped back and placed her left hand on her stomach, and moved it in a circular motion. Steven smiled, and the tears fell from his welled up eyes.
The phone rang.