Khara’s thoughtful prompt today was to write something “red.” A short story came to mind.
Crimson. Scarlet. Blush, magenta, cherry, burgundy, russet, cerise, sanguine. Yet none of these describe the color quite as well as simply saying “red.” No other word captures that hue, the hue of blood, dark, frightening, compelling, the same elegant way.
Susan loved her work. She was a phlebotomist, and she had a cool professionalism about her that calmed the most worried patient, soothed the crying children and eased the frail and suffering. She took her job seriously. She was here to take the ruddy elixir from the living and send it to the lab where they would seek signs of illness bourne by blood. In this new age of computers, the results could be seen within mere minutes—twenty minutes after a blood draw a doctor could have in hand the detailed views of the simplest tests, just a week to show the more complex. A person in the exam room waiting for a cancer diagnosis could know conclusively in a very brief amount of time, and Susan was proud to assist in her own small way, perfecting her skills until the draw was usually almost painless.
Yet Susan had a secret. She always seemed to know what was wrong with people (if anything was wrong) when she drew their blood. At first she put it down to an overactive imagination. Wasn’t it impossible to just know if someone was sick or not, impossible to know they had diabetes or cancer or a parasite? She thought that she was just imagining it. But she began to realize, slowly at first, that she was never wrong. Never. And yes, it was frightening, but also kind of exhilarating. All of the people she saw every day, the precious drops of blood she spilled so carefully, measured into tiny tubes, it all spoke a message she could clearly hear. As the vials filled warmly, the information trickled into her mind like the fluid, swiftly and spurting, or slow and sluggish, or quickly and steadily; she simply knew if there was something wrong or not, knew the state of that person’s health.
But Susan did not speak of her secret talent. Oh, no, she wasn’t going to become a guinea pig too, poked and prodded and put in a cage to determine how she knew what she knew. It was her secret and she never, ever shared what she knew.
Until, that is, the day that little Sarah came in to the lab. Sarah was just the kind of daughter Susan thought that she might have some day if she ever had children. Quiet, not overtly pretty or anything, but thoughtful, and with an intelligence that shone out of her smiling pixie face. She was only a little afraid of the needle and willingly allowed herself to be distracted from the process by the pictures of puppies and kittens on the walls.
Sarah smiled as she filled the vial, hoping with all her heart that there was no illness in this sweet girl. But as the blood flowed, the information trickled into her mind: this girl had a very rare and lethal form of bone cancer. She smiled bravely at Sarah as she walked back to the waiting room with her mother, and stifled a tear at the thought of Sarah’s bright light extinguished.
Still, there should be no problem. They would diagnose her and Sarah would have the same chance all the other oncology patients had. At least there would be some chance, and Susan comforted herself that life was strange and that sometimes fighting cancer had the effect of making a young person stronger. If they survived.
Later that afternoon she mentioned casually to an oncology nurse how sad it was that young Sarah had cancer. The nurse looked puzzled, and said that, no, she must be thinking of someone else; Sarah had been given a clean bill of health. Susan’s heart almost stopped. She knew Sarah was ill, knew it. Yet the doctors had mis-diagnosed this promising young girl, essentially dooming her. But what could she do? She was a mere phlebotomist. She had no degree of any kind, no diagnostic skill other than her strange talent. Could she let this go? Could she knowingly allow the mis-diagnosis to stand and by her inaction, kill the little girl? She didn’t think so.
Susan stayed late that evening, cleaning the lab per routine and sending everyone else on before her. She took a moment to get into the computer files and look up Sarah’s personal information. On her way home, she stopped at an anonymous strip mall and found an indoor pay phone. She dialed Sarah’s home number, and speaking low so as to disguise her voice, she left a message on the answering machine. All she said, half in a whisper, was that the doctors were wrong. That Sarah’s mother should seek a second opinion, and she gave the name of the bone disorder as additional incentive.
With a sigh, Susan hung up the phone and tightened her coat around her to go back to her car. Before she reached the outside door, though, she heard the pay phone ringing behind her. She paused, dared she answer it? No. She shook her head and walked through the door. She had done all she could. Sarah’s mother would have to take her at her word. She had said all she could and would say no more. She just hoped that her message would be taken seriously.
Some months later, Susan had the opportunity to see Sarah again. A new doctor had joined the practice, bringing his patients with him, and one of them happened to be Sarah. She was in chemotherapy, and had come in to have her white blood cells checked. Susan’s heart almost stopped when she saw the pale, solemn face before her. But she said nothing as she drew the blood, smiling at the little girl as she wrapped bright pink tape on the tiny wound. She knew the cancer was receding. She knew Sarah had her chance now.
“Thank you!” said Sarah, smiling as she hopped off the chair and headed out to her mother.
“You’re welcome,” Susan replied.