Sunday, September 27, 2015

Not Zen 174: Responsibility

Plainsville. On Tuesday night at 200 West street, a pedestrian was struck by an object hanging out of the open window of a vehicle. Emergency responders reported loss of blood from the injury. The victim, a minor, was transported to the city hospital where she was reported in stable condition.

"Give me your gym towel," Laurel said. She held our her hand.

Her friend backed away. "Are you going to get blood on it?" she asked.

"What kind of question is that?" Laurel returned her attention to their classmate. The girl was bleeding from the shoulder. Fluid kept coming, more than Laurel had ever seen. She pressed on the shoulder. Her fingers stemmed the flow a little. She would have felt better if she could make a tourniquet. Or if an adult would step in to do everything. Where were the grown-ups? She knew she'd seen a couple of teachers standing around. Somebody needed to tie off this arm.

A blue truck had struck the first girl out of class. 

Actually, the vehicle itself hadn't made contact. There had been a pole sticking out of the back window on the driver's blind side. Something on the end of the pole must have been sharp because the truck wasn't moving fast but the girl, when hit, yelled, "Ow!" She'd spun as if nearly knocked over but she managed to stay on her feet. She had chuckled in embarrassment for a moment. She'd taken a step. The truck had kept going. 

The girl had taken two more strides, staggered, and fell to her knees in the street. She'd dropped her bag. Her right hand had risen to her left shoulder. Her eyes had rolled up. She'd collapsed.

That's when Laurel had rushed forward. It shocked her that no one else did. The street and sidewalks were full of people.

"Forget the towel, then. Call the police," Laurel ordered her friend. When her friend didn't move, she shot a meaningful glance at the next girl over, another member of their class. But that girl was staring at the blood. It had a rhythm to it. 

Laurel leaned over the shoulder wound and added more of her weight to the act of preventing the bleeding. It seemed to work although she could still feel the surges of the blood. It felt like something squirming beneath her fingertips.

"Why is no one moving?" she shouted. 

She spent half a minute trying to get the other girls to tie tourniquets for her or at least lend them her gym towels. A couple people moved a little. One opened her backpack. Everyone else did nothing more than stare. Finally, man with a beard and a white, button-down shirt poked his head over the gathering crowd. She recognized him, a teacher. 

"You're blocking traffic," he said.

"What?" At first, she couldn't believe she'd heard him correctly. Then she realized that he must not know what was going on. She shouted at him, "Make a tourniquet!"

He pressed forward between students until he could see the figure lying on the ground. That made him step back.

"Is that blood?" he asked.

"What do you think?" Now he was starting to seem timid and a bit slow-witted. She had liked him before this although mostly by reputation.

"I'm not qualified to help." He held up both hands as if to absolve himself.

"Get someone who is!"

"Right, right." He continued stepping backwards. "I'll get Mrs. Laudine."

"Fine." Two years ago, Laurel had been in the woman's class for a semester. Mrs. Laudine seemed like the best choice among the faculty if she were nearby.

"I'll be back soon." The teacher turned to go.

"Call for help first!" Laurel shouted at his back. He paused to look around at the school girls. 

"All of you stay here. Keep blocking traffic," he said. Then he decided on a student to make the call. He gave her instructions. The student nodded.

As soon as he left, the by-standers started to talk about the accident. New arrivals to the throng of onlookers posed questions to anyone willing to admit they were a witness. No one asked the important ones, though, like how they could help. No one stepped forward from the crowd. 

"I didn't notice the truck," said one of her friends.

"It was a van," someone else countered.

"Did you get the license plate?"

Laurel wanted to scream at them for occupying themselves with irrelevant things. They needed to save a life. But the other girls kept their distance from her. Meanwhile, the blood flow slowed. Laurel didn't think that was a good thing. The pulse that she felt beneath her fingers had nearly disappeared. 

She studied the face of the victim for a minute. The lips had grown pale. 

After a while, a set of heavier footfalls announced the arrival of more grown-ups. The crowd began to part. The first sign of Mrs. Laudine was the wide, brown dress. Next came a glimpse of her grey hair. The older woman swept aside the students and non-students alike with a grim expression. Behind her followed a pair of other teachers. One of them carried a first aid kit. 

"Laurel, right?" said Mrs. Laudine with a look of recognition. She set her stance wide and placed her fist on her hips. "Don't move. Don't let up on the pressure while we look. Can you do that?"


Laurel almost cried with relief as adults at last took over the care of the accident victim. For a while, she closed her eyes. She didn't have to think so much about everything that was going wrong. Mrs. Laudine had her assistants spread out a blanket. One of them used a towel to wipe blood off of Laurel's arms. They cleaned up the scene enough for Mrs. Laudine to kneel down on yet another, folded towel. She bent closer for a look. Her hands moved folds of cloth with care.

In her fist, she held a professional, pre-made tourniquet. It was a thick strand of rubber. But even after two or three minutes, Mrs. Laudine couldn't find a place to tie it off. She frowned.

"How are you holding up, Laurel?" she asked.


"There's nothing we can do with our equipment that's better than direct pressure. You seem to be on the right spot. I'm afraid to let you move." The matron sighed.

"Yes, ma'am." She gulped.

"Marty?" The woman shouted to one of the other teachers. "It's been, what, ten minutes since this happened. That's a lot of blood. What's the status of the ambulance?"

"I didn't make the call myself," he said.

"I did." A girl raised her arm. "But I don't know when it's coming. They told me to hang up."

"That's not right." Mrs. Laudine shook her head. "Try again. No, you, Marty. You've got a nice, deep voice. Call and ask about the ambulance that should be on the way to this address. Don't let them tell you to get off of the line. Make sure they know you're serious."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Laudine put her hands over Laurel's. That was how she took turns applying direct pressure to the wound. Rather than have Laurel remove herself from the effort, which would mean the patient losing blood, Mrs. Laudine added her own physical force. She was strong. Her thick forearms bulged. When she pressed down, Laurel leaned against the larger woman to rest.

She noticed that the teacher's dress was a thick one. The material felt coarse on the inner layer as folds of the skirts turned the wrong way but it was glossy and almost waterproof on the outside. She smelled faintly of perfume. Her shoes were sensible, flat and black.

Twice, the teacher eased up and asked Laurel to lean harder. That was so Mrs. Laudine could check for breath and other vital signs. There still were some good signs, which Laurel tried not to think about. If she let her hopes rise too high, her dread of being told to give up rose as well. She couldn't bear the thought of someone telling her it was over, that there was no point in going on. She kept pressing. She kept leaning against the teacher when she could.

"At last," Mrs. Laudine breathed when the ambulance arrived.

"Where is she?" a man called, someone sounding casual, almost careless.

"Dispatch said someone was hit by a car?" said another man. Voices in the crowed on on-lookers started to answer.

It took less than a minute to untangle the caretakers from the cared. The ambulance men started to speak sharply to Mrs. Laudine but a few seconds in, they gave up. They moved with polite, fast attention to detail. They put their equipment in place, including a stetcher. It took them less than half a minute. They helped Mrs. Laudine to her feet. The men ignored Laurel. They didn't so much push her aside as set themselves up where she was and expected her to move.

"What did you say?" she asked one who mumbled. The smell of the blood had started to bother her. It was sticky and it smelled that way, salty and clinging.

Instead of responding, one man moved her hands while the other replaced her. The man who dropped into her place seemed sure of himself despite the renewed bleeding from the unconscious girl. He found a pressure point under her armpit. He pressed on the shoulder and the pressure point at the same time. The second man pulled out a white tourniquet that seemed too large. It looked like someone had cut away part of a straightjacket.

As she watched, Laurel began to shiver. 

The men appeared to make mistakes. The tourniquet took three tries. They kept at it. Eventually, they fit it into a position they felt was sensible and inflated it. That was clever. The tourniquet naturally tightened. The main thing going wrong, it seemed to Laurel, was the way in which the ambulance crew showed they didn't know the girl. It wasn't as if Laurel knew her very well either. Their acquaintance was mostly for a smile and a wave but it seemed wrong to leave any kind of friend in the company of people who didn't care.

Someone, a teacher, started wiping the dried blood from Laurel's fingers. A student patted her knee with a gym towel. Laurel couldn't stop shivering. The ambulance driver, the third man of the group and the last to step out of the vehicle, approached from her left. He tried to push her aside. He told the girls, including Laurel, that they shouldn't be here.

"You shouldn't watch," he said.

It didn't make any sense. Laurel didn't know what to say so she ignored him. Two of the teachers spoke to the driver. Together, the teachers and the driver asked the crowd to step away from the ambulance doors. Everyone did. Before Laurel knew it, the two paramedics lifted the fallen girl on a stretcher and carried her into the ambulance. The driver hesitated, hand on one of the doors.

"Do you want to ride along, ma'am?" he said to Mrs. Laudine.

"She shouldn't go alone," the matron answered. "However, it would be more proper if someone from the administration accompanied you."

She pointed out the assistant principal. He had been merely another figure in the crowd. At Mrs. Laudine's direction, however, he put a hand over his tie and clambered in. He sat on the riding bench next to a paramedic. The last Laurel saw of him, as the driver closed the doors, he was holding a hand over his stomach. He looked sick.

Mrs. Laudine turned to Laurel as the vehicle pulled away.

"You keep shivering, dear," she said. She took Laurel's left hand and wrapped it in both of her own.

"I c-can't stop." Her lips quivered as she spoke. Her head bobbed in affirmation.

"Come inside with me. Let's clean up."

"Yes, ma'am."

Laurel concentrated on walking. She kept Mrs. Laudine's brown dress in her field of vision as they went. As they passed through the doors into a wide hallway, the matron spoke over her shoulder.

"You made the right decisions, Laurel." She gave a curt nod of approval. "I want to make sure you understand that. You gave critical care. You told your friends to do correct things."

"It was all messed up." Laurel squinted. She felt tears starting to flow. With an effort, she held them back.

"It always is. This was your first time. Every emergency is chaotic."

Mrs. Laudine's long strides outpaced Laurel. She paused, turned, and waited. Laurel removed her hands from her face. She tried to march at a steady. pace

"Sometimes," her teacher told her, "you learn that you're the one. You're the responsible person."

"In emergencies?" She laughed. She hadn't felt that way.

"In everything, probably." Mrs. Laudine tapped Laurel's arm with her meaty fist, a gesture of camaraderie that seemed awkward because it was forced and genuine because it was meant. It was followed by a quick hand clasp and a release. "When others around you don't step forward, you'll organize your office farewell party. You'll invite out the friend who's going to cry about her relationship or her dead grandmother. It's going to be you."

Mrs. Laudine led her around a corner and down another hall. Laurel tried to understand what the older woman was saying. It didn't sound so bad.

The woman started to lead the way through an open door. Laurel froze.

"This is the teacher's lounge," she said. It was one of the few rooms with a carpet, dark and brown. It took up three-quarters of the floor. The remainder of the floor, a kitchenette, displayed a pattern of alternating-shade olive tiles.

"We'll walk through. My office is on the other side." The teacher said it so confidently that Laurel stepped forward. But as she passed into the doorway, her standard, school conditioning took over. She stopped.

"I'm not allowed," she said.

"You are this time." Mrs. Laudine kept striding. She pointed to a countertop ahead and to a door on her right. "I'm going to use the kitchen sink. You're going to wash up in the teacher's bathroom. Then join me for tea. You need something hot to calm your nerves."

Washing up made a sort of sense that was alluring. Still, Laurel crept into the room as if she could be caught at any second. In the bathroom, she discovered her pants weren't as bad as she'd assumed. On the other hand, they were probably still ruined. She doubted her mother would let her wear them anymore. 

The cold water on her legs and arms made her shivering worse. For a few seconds, she vomited. It was only snot, not much stomach acid, as if she'd cried a bunch even though she hadn't.  She wiped it with a paper towel.

Laurel had seen the inside of Mrs. Laudine's office before. It had second door through the teacher's central classroom. Nowadays, it appeared to be locked.

The office space was the biggest in the school outside of the principal's suite. It was easily wide enough to hold a small class. Wooden panels lined the walls. Soft, yellow light shone from the lamps. The carpet was thicker and greener than the one in the teacher's lounge. Framed pictures of important figures in literature, science, and history seemed hung as decoration and to describe an underlying theme. One of them was a famous scientist with his tongue sticking out.

The teacher led Laurel to a chair. It was a real, padded one, meant for adults, not a kid-sized seat or one with a desk arm. Laurel remembered that other teachers and administrators visited here. The principal herself sometimes called on Mrs. Laudine and had probably sat in the same guest chair. Laurel relaxed in the fabric-covered divan.

"You did a good deed." Mrs. Laudine rose from her desk as soon as her teapot rumbled. A moment later, it let out a pre-boiling growl. She snapped it up by the handle. "I want you to recognize that. Maybe no one else really understands it. Maybe your friends and parents won't ever really get it."

Laurel hadn't thought about any of that. She watched her old teacher pour from the teapot. She accepted a cup. There was a saucer under it. She wasn't sure how to hold it.

"It doesn't matter about them," she said, confused.

"Good. That's right."

"Did I really help?" She set the saucer in her lap and balanced the cup on it after her first sip. Her mind flashed to an image from a few minutes ago, her knees against the pavement, her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Is she going to live?"

"I can't be sure whether she'll live or not." The woman put her hands on her hips. "Clearly, you've given her a better chance. She would have bled out on the spot if not for your quick thinking."

Laurel took another sip. The warmth calmed her for a moment. But then, unexpectedly, a sob wracked her. She burst into tears.

"That's fine, dear." Mrs. Laudine crouched over her teacup. She took a sip.

Together, they drank in silence for a minute or two. Laurel wiped her face.

"Why her? Why me?" she asked. Her knees hurt. Her wrists, too. She was just noticing the rewards of her effort. "Why do I have to be responsible? Why didn't any of my friends do something?"

"I don't know." Mrs. Laudine rose from her chair, which had leather pads on a sturdy, wooden frame. She strolled around her office. She touched a portrait of a woman who'd written a novel that was required reading. "You'll find that this keeps coming up in your life."


The woman shrugged.

"It just happens. Sometimes you'll stumble upon a situation in which the experts are ignorant. The authorities abdicate. The official responders don't arrive. It's up to you. With the type of person you are, you may discover that it's always been up to you, really."

Laurel set down her tea. She didn't quite understand what the woman was getting at but it felt important.

"Doesn't everybody help out? I thought they did."

"Mostly, yes. But did everyone lend a hand this time?" Mrs. Laudine strolled to her desk and picked up her tea.

"Some helped. They just seemed a bit late to me." She let out a sigh that she didn't know that she'd been holding in. The trembling in her hands hadn't stopped but it had faded. The tea warmed her. She felt almost calm.

"You are a clear thinker, Laurel. Who knows? You're already paying things forward, I'd say. Perhaps you'll make a job of it."

None of those phrases made any sense to Laurel. It didn't seem polite to say so. Instead, she wrapped her hands around the teacup. It didn't feel scalding, just nice.

"Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Laudine."

The older woman set down her cup.

"Thank you for everything, dear."

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