Love and Activated Charcoal
a short story by Maura Devereux
About the Author
Maura Devereux has written a novel entitled The Sorrows and a short story collection, Pathophilia. She has degrees in Journalism and Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and contributes journalism and criticism on a range of topics. She lives and works in San Francisco.
“Thank you for creating a space for works like this to be discovered. Ms. Devereux’s descriptive abilities have the clarity & honesty I look for in any story-telling…& her bare-bones approach to the narrative is a gift & a style I, as a writer, wish to achieve,”
Someone, somewhere would have fallen in love with this girl. She was just like her mother, and, well, someone had fallen well enough in love with her to produce this child. Joel choked when he walked by their room, from all the perfume. Between the two of them, he figured they must have bought all the scent on the Champs Elysee and with it every promise ever made by the commercial producers of stink. They carried themselves in a cloud of adjectives. Mysterious, seductive, exotic; fresh, playful, feminine; tantalizing, sexy. Surely they couldn’t smell it themselves, but Joel could more than smell it. He could taste it in the air, like the violet candy in gourmet groceries, precious tins that gathered dust.
He braved the smell and peered in. Side by side, they could have been sisters, the mother in the chair and the daughter on the bed. The cosmetic lavishments, he discovered, included more than just smell. The mother’s face was buried under a greasepaint crust. The colors were vivid on her cheeks, lips and eyelids, bright magentas, greens, golds. Butterfly colors. Each feature was outlined in thick black, giving the face an expressionist aesthetic. The eyes, mostly. Both mother and daughter had huge eyes, eyes as big as saucers in the fairy tales. They were the palest green and shimmered equally with blue and gold. They hid deep in their fringes and they almost disappeared at a distance, almost blanks, almost blind. They would have been eyes soldiers would dream on in war, billboard eyes, if not for this freak of composition. On both mother and daughter, the right eye nestled directly atop the cheekbone, its orbit descended fully an inch below the left. Depthless Chernobyl eyes, those living Picassos.
If the mother’s face was museum quality, the daughter’s looked at that moment like a workshop mistake. Her black and spangled eye shadows dripped in spidery streaks from her teary red lids and her fuchsia lips smudged a wide make-out memory down her chin. All the colors smeared and slid off the canvas of her flawless, dewy skin. Her head fell backwards and her mouth fell open, baring gentle vampire teeth. A white nasal trumpet in one nostril, to preserve the airway, to keep her breathing; in the other, an NG tube with a blue tail, sucking in charcoal from the giant syringe of nurse Frank.
In the utility room where Joel picked up his tubes of blood and jars of biopsy, Trevor hovered over the sink. In the sink, two pink plastic basins stood side by side. One was filled with a black sludge, which Trevor carefully poured through a strainer into the other. He did this in a manner both painstaking and distracted, ladling the punch by the small paper cupful. Every so often, he would stir the turbid cocktail in the white strainer with a tongue depressor, peer in, and stir again before pouring in more liquid. Once or twice, he emptied the silt into a specimen cup and started again. He looked at the clock often.
This was a good task for Trevor right now. He had only forty minutes on his shift and many beers in his refrigerator, left over from the party last night. He didn’t want to talk to anyone else tonight until after he’d had one of those beers. Maybe two. Long fucking week. As long as he was doing this, involved in the care of this critical patient, no one could mind if he wasn’t making himself available for more tasks. Someone else could do them. Almost off shift and the world would not end without him.
Trevor was glad to see Joel come in the room. Joel never had anywhere to go in a hurry. They got to talk often, shoot the shit, talk guy talk. Compare girls and sports scores. Joel liked motorcycles and so did Trevor, though neither of them drove one. They were always able to waste time talking about all the bikes they never had and never would. Joel walked in and Trevor said, “Hey.” And bent over his sink again. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” Joel said, making a half-hearted lunge towards his specimens. They’d been piling up, where had he been? The stack of them instilled in him a twinge of urgency. He must get them to the lab right away, said his impulse, because by their sheer numbers they indicated grand scale calamities. Many lives at risk, here, if he failed to get them to the lab with haste. But the urgency evaporated as quickly as it came on. Joel was not responsible for lives. He himself had tried to ensure this. If he didn’t get there to pick up the labs, they’d get there another way. That was the unspoken coda around here. If it really matters, do it yourself. Underlings are never trusted if it’s really important. Joel looked over Trevor’s shoulder. “What’s that?” he asked.
Trevor stirred patiently. “Hm? Oh. Lavage. You know. Gastric lavage.”
Joel stepped back reflexively, and quickly scanned his shirt for splashes. This gave Trevor the small satisfaction of seeing him grossed out. The gross out effect was one of the few benefits of the job. He continued.
“I’m to look for fragments. Pill fragments. Valium. Xanax. They lie.” He pointed to the cup where he dropped white chips like baby teeth. As they grew into a small mound, above the gray water and green flakes of gastric flora, Trevor said, “Looks like chick didn’t lie.” He flicked a nearly intact orange disc into the cup, then, after thoroughly swishing and poking around, he spilled the more solid elements into the flushing hopper in the corner. It occurred to Joel that he may have wanted to vomit. He banished the thought and tried to elicit more narrative from Trevor in his own shorthand.
“So,” Joel said, “who’s this?”
Trevor jerked his head almost imperceptibly towards the women with the perfume. “Ingestion. Like 10, 15 Valium and a couple-few Xanax. Plus whatever she had on board before. You can smell the ETOH from here. I’m guessing that alone is probably at least 250.” He kept scooping, less interested now that he’d actually found some pills. He was answering the question of, If any? Not, How many?
Joel asked, “Is that going to kill her?”
Trevor shrugged. “She could be messed up, no doubt. We’re getting most of it, though. She did it right in front of her mother. Drama queen way.” He smirked. “They probably take turns. The two of them.” He indicated the cup. “At least she knew how to make it look good. Did the right shit. She’s the third one today. One idiot OD’d on his Grandpa’s Lasix. He’s probably like, `heart medicine, yeah, that’ll fuck up my heart, I could die that way.’ A lot of anything has to be dangerous, right? I walk into the bathroom and he’s just staring at his dick like it’s Niagara Falls. Could not make the pee stop. I fucked with him, too. I told him he was going to die from dehydration if he didn’t stop.”
Joel looked into the room across the hall, where nurse Frank was readying another basin for Trevor. Joel thought Trevor looked like a prospector, panning for gold in the Old West. He was about to say so when he saw the smeared up girl get agitated. He walked into the middle of the hallway to get a better look. She started wailing, literally wailing, in a manner so precisely woeful, so desperately sad as to sound disingenuous, which in turn made the sound evoke that much more pathos. Her wail, he heard, was joined in chorus by electronic sirens. Her heart monitor, leads detached, pinged a calm disaster. Her nursing call bell, pulled from the wall, squawked for attention. And deep in the bottom of her purse, a pager beeped. She withdrew it. It was purple, and it chirped happily. She clutched it, staring at its tiny text screen, manipulating its buttons. She was looking for only one message and could see no other. She’d programmed a special beep to alert her when he called. This wasn’t that beep, but she answered anyway. She read the screen to herself, hitting buttons, frantic, scrolling back and forth. Her tiny messenger said, to her: My Darling. You must forgive me. I love you too much. I can’t live without you. You are the most beautiful girl. I want to be with you forever. Don’t leave me, my darling. Baby. Sweetheart. I love you. You are the only one for me. I will come to you. You are the one I love.
Nurse Frank was in no mood for distractions. He snatched the beeper and looked at the screen. The screen said Low Battery. Frank deftly opened the hatch, allowed the batteries to fall out, and rendered the tiny beast well and truly dead before tossing it on a stack of rumpled bedding at his feet. “I don’t think so,” he said. The mother stood and held her hands, held them down, secured, and cooed sshh baby while her daughter cried and wished he would see her dead. Then, he would want to die for her. Then, they would be together.
“Love and Activated Charcoal ” Copyright ©2000 by Maura Devereux.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.