“Yes.” Beside me the Boy Scouts were banging on a candy machine, grumbling about being gypped, and Cameron was a few seats down with his eyes closed, slumped in a plastic chair. “I’m at the hospital, they just took Scarlett away and I don’t have time to explain about Noah right now, okay? I can’t get in touch with Marion, so when you see her come home, tell her where we are. Tell her to hurry.”
“Is Scarlett okay?”
“She’s scared,” I said, thinking of her alone wherever they’d taken her, and how I’d promised to stay right with her, no matter what. “I have to go, okay? I’ll call you later.”
“Okay, honey. Let us know.”
“I will.” I hung up the phone and rushed back to Admitting, my dress dragging across the floor, one lone bobby pin still holding it together in the back. As I passed the front entrance I saw Macon and Elizabeth still in the car. They were talking, Macon’s mouth moving, one finger pointing, angrily. Elizabeth was just staring out the window, her arm hanging down the side of the car, a cigarette held loosely in her fingers. She didn’t even see me.
I went to the Admitting desk, told them I was Scarlett’s sister and Lamaze partner, and got led back through the double doors, past the emergency-room cots and curtains, to where they had Scarlett on a bed, the fetal monitor already hooked up and beeping.
“Where have you been?” she shrieked as soon as I came around the corner. She had a plastic cup full of ice in her hand and a green gown on, her prom dress tossed over a chair in the corner. “I am freaking out here, Halley, and you just vanish into thin air.”
“I did not vanish,” I said gently. “I was calling Marion and handling things at the front desk. I’m here now.”
“Well, good,” she said. “Because I really need-”And then she stopped talking and sat up straight, holding her stomach. She made a low, guttural moaning sound, rising and rising louder and louder, and I just stared at her, not even recognizing her face, and knew all at once I was in way over my head.
The door opened behind me and the doctor came in, all cheerful and easygoing, taking her time walking up to the bed while Scarlett huffed and puffed and grabbed for my hand, which she immediately squeezed so hard I felt bone meeting bone, crunching.
“So,” the doctor said easily, grabbing a chart off the end of the bed, “looks like we’re having a baby.”
“Looks that way,” Scarlett said between gasps. “Can I have some drugs, please?”
“In a minute,” the doctor said, moving to the end of the bed and lifting the sheet, moving Scarlett’s legs into the stirrups attached to the side of the bed. “Let’s see how far along you are.”
She poked and prodded, and Scarlett ground the bones in my hand to powder.
“Okay,” the doctor said, patting the sheet back down, “we’re getting close. It shouldn’t be too long now, so I just need you to relax, and work your breathing with your partner here. Leave the rest to us.”
“What about the drugs?” Scarlett said urgently. “Can I get the drugs?”
“I’ll send someone in shortly,” the doctor said, smiling like we were cute. “Don’t worry, honey. It’ll be over before you know it.” She slipped the chart back into its place on the end of the bed, tucking her pen behind her ear, and walked out the door, waving as she went.
“I hate her,” Scarlett said decisively through a mouthful of ice. “I mean it.”
“Let’s do our breathing,” I suggested, pulling a chair up beside the bed. “Deep breath in, now, okay?”
“I don’t want to breathe,” she snapped at me. “I want them to knock me out, completely, even if they just hit me on the head with something. I can’t do this, Halley. I can’t.”
“Yes, you can,” I said sternly. “We’re ready for this.”
“Easy for you to say.” She sucked down more ice. “All you have to do is tell me to breathe and stand there. You’ve got the easy part.”
“Scarlett. Hold it together.”
She rose up in the bed, spitting frozen shards everywhere. “Don’t tell me to hold it together, not until you have felt this pain, because it is unlike anything—” And then she stopped talking, her face going pale again as another contraction hit.
“Breathe,” I said, doing it myself, puff puff puff, inhale deep, puff puff puff. “Come on.”
But she wasn’t breathing, only moaning again, that low scary noise that made me back away from the bed, literally scared for my life. I was wrong. We weren’t ready for this. This was big, and scary, and I understood suddenly how Cameron must have felt, woozy and terrified all at once. I wished I was out in the waiting room, with the Boy Scouts and the candy machine, pacing and waiting to light up a cigar.
“Stay here,” I said to her, backing away from the bed, step by step, as she stopped moaning suddenly and watched me, eyes wide. “I’ll be—”
“Don’t leave!” she cried, trying to sit up straight, reaching for the sides of the bed. “Halley, don’t—”
But I let the door swing shut behind me and I was suddenly alone, in the corridor, the cool wall pressing against my back where my dress was gaping open. I tried to shake the fear off. I could hear Scarlett on the other side of the door, moaning. Just when she needed me, I was falling apart.
Then, I heard it. The sound of footsteps coming closer, louder and louder, clack clack clack, all businesslike as they rounded the corner. I looked to my left and coming toward me, purse tucked under her arm and eyes straight ahead, was my mother.
“Where is she?” she said as she got closer, switching her purse to the other arm.
“In there,” I said. “She’s freaking out.”
“Well, let’s go.” She reached for the doorknob but I hung back, pressing myself harder against the wall. “Halley? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t do this,” I said, and my voice sounded strange, high. “It’s too crazy, and she’s in pain, and I just think—”
“Honey.” She looked at me. “You need to be in there.”
“I can’t,” I said again, and my throat hurt when I spoke. “It’s too much to deal with.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” she said simply, grabbing my shoulder and pushing me toward the door, her hand guiding me from behind. “Scarlett is counting on you. You can’t let her down.”