Short story competition: Over 500

ANGELA BARNETT
Last updated 05:00 12/01/2014
Woman street
OVER 500: 'She's out drinking somewhere again.'

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There was something familiar about the paramedic's cropped red hair.

It was so short it stood up like a pōhutukawa flower, but I couldn't place his face. I was glad. And I knew Scarlett would be too, if she could ever remember. The ambulance started to move and Scarlett sat bolt up on the bed, furious to be somewhere other than wherever she thought she should be.

"Really?" she demanded as she tried to stand up.

Later, Paige and I would joke about getting her a T-shirt made with Really? on the front; it became the word of the night.

"Keep your friend on the bed please," the paramedic instructed.

Putting my hand on her shoulder, firmly, I was amazed when Scarlett lay down again. I'd watched her bite her husband, Jonathon, on the shoulder last time we did this. Grateful for the ambulance's dark windows, we slunk through town silently, siren off. We were not an emergency.

The paramedic tried again. "What did you have today?"

Scarlett gave him a withering look. As if she was going to confess to him. She looked like a disaster but part of me loved how sassy she got when she was drunk. Then she was pure teenager: uncooperative, dismissive, and rebellious in every way. The ambulance stopped suddenly at some lights and she sat up, calling my name in anguish.

"Right here," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder again. I felt pleased she'd called out my name, validating my position in the ambulance. Not that I had any influence over that teenager.

"Where are my babies?" she cried, her mother instinct filling her eyes with fear.

"At home, with Jonathon," I said. That was the other line she repeated all night but Paige and I decided ‘Where are my babies?' would not make such a funny T-shirt.

She flopped back down on the trolley bed. "Really?"

Really. Thank goodness they were. As soon as the ambulance stopped, the back door flew open and I leapt up, expecting a struggle. Nasty lights glared from the emergency room entrance and two buff ambulance men waited with a wheelchair.

Scarlett glared at the paramedics. "Fuck off."

Their expressions remained stoic. They'd seen it all before.

"Lady, you can get out of the ambulance by yourself or we can lower you down on the trolley bed. Over to you."

Leaning out of the ambulance, Scarlett looked at the pōhutakawa headed one. "I know him," she said, as if he was in a police lineup.

Seizing the moment, the two men grabbed an arm each and lifted her down but she refused to sit in the wheelchair, kicking and bucking. Slowly they walked her towards the doors but when she lifted her legs they didn't behave like that of a 33-year-old, they lurched about in the air like a young fowl trying to stand for the first time, unsure how to get its legs back down on the ground to take another step. It took a long time to get into that blaring light and I wanted to scream at those medics, she's a dancer, usually she's very graceful. But what did they care?

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The over-worked nurses, aids and doctors in the emergency department looked like they hated Friday nights; too many parties. We waited in the corridor for a bed, taking up precious space. Scarlett leaned so hard on me I had to dig my toes into the linoleum to keep us both upright. Paige walked in and leaned against my other side and I let my breath out. She whispered my thought, "Did we do the right thing?"

Unconvinced myself, I nodded, hoping at some point we would think so.

Through swinging double doors I could see a mother from the girls' hip-hop class sitting in the quiet waiting room. Scarlett taught their daughter. Best teacher in town the parents said. Best. Suddenly I panicked. We couldn't let that mum see us or it would shatter the tightly-held illusion Scarlett lived her life by - that she got away with it.

A broad nurse, mid-fifties, approached, looking at us like we had just crawled out from under a bridge. "We have a bed for Scarlett."

Hearing ‘bed', Scarlett protested as if we were taking her into a lunatic asylum. "NO!!!!" she shouted, flinging her arms out and turning heads towards us. I could see the hip-hop Mum peering through the double doors. Grabbing an arm each, Paige and I half catapulted her into the room and onto the bed.

The surly teenager was back. "I want a cigarette."

"And what the fuck is that?" she demanded, pointing to a strange light hovering above her bed with a long cucumber-shaped bulb sticking out of it. "It looks like a penis."

"Watch your language, we have children in here," reprimanded the broad nurse.

Scarlett giggled. "But that is proper language. Penis is the correct word, right?" she said, looking at Paige and me. Then she said it one more time, for effect. "Penis!"

I suppressed the urge to laugh, but a smile escaped. We'd discussed this when our respective boys were both three. When I'd called it a willy, she'd chastised me. Use the correct anatomical term. Willy makes it sound giggly. When she was sober she had lots of sound advice.

When she was sober. As soon as I'd got her text that afternoon I knew that she'd been drinking again. I'd asked where she was. At church she'd replied. It took me three hours to find her, passed out at Paige's house.

"What did you take today?" asked the broad nurse.

Scarlett tossed her lank chestnut hair over her shoulder. Normally she's such a minx but she looked terrible. Her face dragged down as if a weight hung under chin, her skin was oily, and old mascara hung in puddles under her eyes. Plus she reeked of urine.

The broad nurse held up a zip lock bag with five small blue pills in it. "Did you take these?"

"We could never decide what to call balls, could we?" said Scarlett, looking at me. "Scrotum sounds wrong." She turned her gaze on the nurse, "Do you call them testicles?"

The nurse put down the bag with a sigh.

Paige and I exchanged glances. We knew she'd taken some of Paige's Xanax because at least five were missing from the bottle in her bathroom. Betrayal felt horrible - what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - but this, I had to remind myself, was no party, so we told the nurse we had also found an empty bottle of vodka and some Listerine in her bag.

"Really?" said Scarlett after the nurse left. "Bitches."

A young girl cried from somewhere else on the emergency ward. A mother sobbed.

"Where are my babies?" she wailed in such torment I could almost hear her heart rip.

It was because of Scarlett's babies that we'd put her in A & E the first time. Midafternoon she'd passed out in front of her six-year-old boy, who'd wedged a pillow under her lolling head. He'd put a glass of water next to her, but she kept knocking it over. For two hours he kept filling up her glass, hoping water might bring his mum back to him. Jonathon found his petrified son curled up in a ball, holding Scarlett's limp hand, grateful their daughter was at our house.

When he told me, it ripped my own heart. Then we had known the situation was bigger than either of us could handle.

Enormous hands pulled open the curtain, and a doctor with curly grey hair stepped into the small room. "Hi Scarlett. How are you?"

His fatherly voice had her attention immediately and she watched as he pulled up a stool. "Were you drinking today?"

Playing it cool, Scarlett raised her eyebrows.

"Do you know what you had?" said the doctor.

Her unsteady eyes wobbled over to his and rested there for a moment. "Vodka."

The doctor leaned in closer to her and I liked him for that, for not being bothered by the smell. "Your alcohol level was over 500. Your friends here would not survive with that sort of level in their bodies. Were you trying to kill yourself tonight?"

Her eyes widened, surprised that he asked so boldly. "No."

The doctor remained close. "Have you tried before?"

She nodded, yes, lowering her eyes. "But not this time."

He seemed satisfied with that. Slumping back down on the bed, Scarlett looked at the penis light and laughed, quietly. The drip in her hand slowly pushed out the teenager, sobering up the mother. "Where are my babies?"

The doctor stood up and said he was going to send in a counsellor. "It could take a few hours." Feeling hungry and thirsty I wanted to say Really? It was my second night in two weeks in A & E with her. It was wicked of me but I could not stop thinking about a glass of Pinot Noir: Te Kairangi, Mt Difficulty, Sacred Hill. I could hear the thwok of the cork, the slug of the pour, and sniff the pithy aroma wafting towards my nostrils.

We used to drink red wine together, before I knew. We would share a bottle while we cooked dinner for our children, giggling afterwards, as we managed to get all four of them in the bath.

Once home, with her kids in bed, I had no idea she continued on alone, sneaking swigs while her husband watched TV. I missed those nights - not the wine but the laughter. Our friendship was strained now, so many unsaid words and shattered trust.

During chaotic drinking binges, I rehearsed what I would say to her once she was sober enough to hear, how she was going to lose everything if she didn't stop, but once sober, she was so fragile I never said anything in case it tipped her back into another frightening binge. Jonathon was the same; we were both her best and worst friends.

Sneaking out to the waiting room, I smiled at the hip-hop mother and grabbed some magazines. People and New Idea. Paige and I devoured them like we'd never read gossip magazines before, desperate to remove our minds from the waiting and bubbling rage. Scarlett delighted and infuriated us both in equal measure too.

We waited for the saline drip to slowly bring her back. It was close to the end of the second bag by the time the counsellor came in. Barbara walked with a limp, her face well weathered. She looked half-cut herself, but her voice was arresting.

"Hi," said Barbara. "I've seen you in meetings."

Scarlett sat up, took stock of Barbara and pulled the sheet up around her shoulders, shivering. "I want to go home."

Barbara pulled up a chair. "I know you do, but I want to talk to you. How much did you drink today?"

Expecting her to lie, I was relieved when she said, "A bottle. Maybe two."

"How often are you drinking?"

Scarlett's head began to shake, violently, followed by her slumped shoulders. Sobering up, she'd arrived back in our reality. Raising those mascara puddled eyes, she said, "Whenever I can."

"And you're a mother? How old are your children?"

She got out four but I had to say six.

"My ten-year-old daughter called the cops on me, and sent me to rehab," said Barbara. "But it saved our family."

I liked Barbara's straight-shooting honesty but hearing rehab sent Scarlett back into her fog. "Really?" she said, her eyes half closing.

Counsellor Barbara was all business and laid out the options. Scarlett could go home and start drinking again or go to a three day rehab facility to sober up, by which time she might decide to stay longer.

We rang Jonathon. He sounded exhausted. "Whatever we have to do," he said. "I don't want the children to see her like this."

When we finally walked out, putting one foot in front of the other, it was midnight. We stayed at Paige's house, although I slept only fitfully, keeping one ear cocked towards Scarlett's bed. Half expecting her to run away, I was still shocked to find her gone in the morning. Paige and I combed the garden, like crime detectives and when Barbara arrived, a ridiculous school-teacher voice came out of my mouth, "She's out drinking somewhere again."

"Of course she is," snapped Barbara. "She's going to rehab and she's scared shitless."

We needed Counsellor Barbara's frankness, telling us what to do. What not to think. Anger frothed up regardless. You've done it this time girlfriend, I thought. This really is it.

Jonathon arrived, holding Scarlett in his arms like a sack of kittens. He'd found her down the street and his face was lined with disappointment. Our eyes met and a spark of anger flashed across his. I knew what he was thinking; I had failed to keep her sober. Bereft of words, all I could do was shrug. Nobody could keep her sober.

As I followed them to Barbara's car I felt happy Scarlett was going away and guilty for feeling that way. Leaning in to say goodbye, she nuzzled my neck like a horse and I threw my arms around her. I couldn't wait for her to go, yet I couldn't let go of her. Pulling away, her droopy eyes met mine, full of betrayal.

"Really?" she said, for the last time.

As the car pulled away my frustrations were ripped off like a plaster, and tears unlocked the thought I've been thinking ever since. Will you ever forgive me?

It wasn't until dropping off the kids the following Monday that I realized where I knew the pōhutukawa headed paramedic from - his son went to the same school as our boys. When I saw him, he ignored me. I could have kissed him. More than anything I needed him to pretend, just one more time, that she'd got away with it.

- Sunday Star Times

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