Better Off

By Ciahnan Darrell

The men shoved her toward the emergency room and ran. Stumbling, she fell forward, belly first, her head behind, whipping into the pavement with such force that it spun her onto her side. A spasm of vomit broke from her mouth and tumbled onto her grease-stained sweater as the world went dark. 

She woke up alone, confused, an IV in her arm. 

Where was her baby?

She was only vaguely concerned.

They must have given her something. 

Naloxone, probably. 

She’d been on fentanyl; such a golden high, bathed in sunlight, floating on a bed of clouds. 

Coming down had been like slamming through crushed glass.

She almost hadn’t noticed the men roughing her up.

Someone appeared at her bedside, dark skinned, a mask.

No, she shook her head, no insurance.

The man gave her an odd look and left.

She blacked out again. Woke, slept; time dissolved into dust and the dust into a tangled wind. 

Awake again; a nurse wanted her to sign something. 

A birth certificate.

She wrote her name in a ponderous, quivering script, left the space for the father blank. 

He’d been a banker, had given her her first hit. 

She’d been nineteen, his intern, home from college. 

He’d flattered to deceive, poured honey in her ear, bed her.

She hadn’t known he had a family: a wife, four children. 

He’d said he’d made a mistake, that he never meant to hurt her.

She had nodded, bravely.

We’ll stop, she’d said.

He’d peered down at her, six foot four to her five three.

I won’t say a word, she’d said. Ever.

He’d shaken his head.

I promise.

And they did stop, and she was silent, no matter how persistently her parents asked her to tell them what was wrong.

Nothing, she always said, putting on a smile. 

Two weeks passed, three, and even though she cried, sometimes, late at night, life resumed its familiar patterns. But then she missed her period, and the banker informed her that he had to let her go and gave her an envelope containing $3,500 and the name of a clinic out of state. 

She’d had a few packets of powder leftover, snorted them successively over two-and-a-half days, found a way to get more.

Pictures of the banker’s family floated through her head sometimes, four blond girls in matching skirts, but she never cared when she was high.

She awoke to find a woman checking her chart. Was it a boy or a girl? she asked.

A boy, the woman read, turning. 

Oh, the girl said.

The banker finally has the son he’s always wanted, she thought, and he’ll never know.

And she wouldn’t, either, she realized. Know the boy.

Cops. They’d be waiting. She had to go.

Her eyes ran from wall to wall in terror, looking for her clothes, but couldn’t find them, so she stole a pair of scrubs from the closet and dressed. They were three sizes too large, but she didn’t care.

She had to go—now. 

She ripped the IV from her hand and fled, steeling out of her room and down the hall, skirting a doctor immersed in her clipboard and a patient care tech pushing a cart, turning the corner at a fast walk and running face first into the nursery. 

Eleven babies screaming behind plate glass as an overworked pair of nurses did their best.

She paused, scanning their bawling faces, their kicking feet, ignoring the pink caps, setting upon the blue.

Which was hers?

It didn’t matter, she thought, crumbling into the window beneath the shattering pain of the blood rushing through her head.

He’s better off with them.

She felt something hot on her leg and looked down to see blood spotting her pants. She forced herself to turn away and walk. 

Better off, she thought.

Better off.

                                                               *  *  *

Ciahnan is the author of two award-winning novels: A Lifetime of Men and Blood at the Root. His short fiction has appeared in multiple journals, including The Columbia Review. In addition to his creative work, Ciahnan has published essays on race and class relations in America, and he holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University at Buffalo, where his research focused on racialized and gendered violence in South African literature.

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