I sat in the soured corner of an emergency room because of what felt like my blood turning into salt, and Mama, filed down to the raw from the stress of me, in her loose pajama set under an old Lord & Taylor overcoat, short with the nurse’s aides because they couldn’t help, fed me ibuprofen in the meanwhile, and sought the doctor-on-call for Tylenol-3 or other painkillers. It was a waiting room in the child ward, faded sky blue walls and bleached designs, rainbow and sunshine chipped away. There were pockets of carpet that were shabby and worn, a knotty sofa, lumpy bean bag chairs sewn together a bunch of times over. There was a flatscreen on the wall that played NCIS reruns all night long.
“Asani,” My mother’s voice pulled me out of my trance. She never looked so tired—too tired to hold it together. It was a month until my thirteenth birthday, and ever since I could remember, Mama hid everything behind reassurance. The pain I felt was bone-chattering, a hungry fire. It was suffocating, clamped my lungs and ran liquid steel through my ribs. The marrow could have rotted away, and I’d feel no different. I didn’t feel at all like this body, its parts, the salt that flowed through it. I wanted out of my body, I did. My blood was turning against me. I curled up beneath my coat, forced the air in and out of my teeth, heaved my lungs up and over a jagged hill.
“How you holding up, champ?” Mama asked me, full of sweetness.
“I know every Women’s NCAA championship roster from the past twelve years,” I said. “Baylor, then that pandemic season, then Stanford—”
“Why do you know this information?”
“I was bored, so I’ve Googled every winner since I was born.”
“Your homework shouldn’t be a problem then.”
“You would make me do homework at a time like this?” I asked in mock disbelief. She rolled her eyes, had gotten out her phone and was FaceTiming someone. Grandma was a deacon at a small church with worn carpet, the middle of Highway 6, a muddy driveway before you turned off into Clarksdale. Mama used to be under the pew singing “Bread of Heaven, sent down from Glory.” She claimed she didn’t know the hymns the same, like it was lifetimes ago, but I caught her humming to herself when her mind wandered. I wanted to be wherever those songs lived, but she didn’t sing to herself anymore.
Mama had filled out paperwork hours ago. Told Grandma she was going to the front desk to yell at someone. Mama knew death was a slow, deliberate process. We were used to people left on hospital beds in hallways, the rooms with plastic curtains for false privacy. Khalia had gone through years of doctor-prescribed medication that turned the kidneys to brine. She shrunk away; a cold, spring evening. Like the harsh, white light to a newborn. Too many knives and machines and opening and closing. Stitching and restitching. Blood in and blood out.
I had met Charlie on accident when he told me about the atrophy in his legs. I was only half-paying attention, searching for a vending machine in the emergency room while Mama finished her phone call, and he kept saying ‘atrophy’ like ‘a trophy’ and I couldn’t understand why he would get a trophy for his legs. A wheelchair sat beside him with a stack of comics in the seat.
“So what you in for?” Charlie asked me.
“It’s not important.”
“You don’t like to talk about it.”
“I just don’t feel like it,” I said.
“Sickle cell maybe? Your eyes are yellow.”
“Can we not—?”
“You gotta talk about it, that’s how you deal with it. I’m open about my leukemia. I talk about my ups and downs, the vomiting after fucking chemo, why I’m in this stupid chair.”
“Cool, I get it.”
“I already know how I wanna go out,” Charlie said. Leaned back in his chair. “A mushroom suit.”
“The hell is that?” I said.
“Mushrooms are like the master decomposers of the planet. They clean toxins in the environment, can fight cancer, a whole bunch of things. I saw a talk about it. When you die, they wrap you in mushrooms and bury you. Breaks your body down into nutrients. It’s like you’re feeding the earth.”
“You’re weird, my dude. Why even think about that shit?”
“Dying?” he asked. “I mean, here—what else is there?”
The pamphlets said that folk with sickle cell, on average, lived until about forty. I’m not sure if there is a ribbon for it, or a color. There is a month—September—though there isn’t much awareness besides a couple of shared Facebook posts. There were about a hundred thousand people with the disease and about two million with the passable trait. I didn’t expect much of a march or a rally; none of the kids here did.
“What’s the first thing you’ll do when you get outta here?” Charlie asked me.
“Home. My mama would get us oxtails. I’ll see my friends.”
“It’s always been hard for me to keep friends. They all probably think I’m gonna go soon. They’ll post about me on my birthday for a few years. I’ll be the reason they don’t take life for granted.”
Beneath my coat, I was slick with sweat and my hands swelled around my phone. A sickness of the blood. It was the first time I considered everyone wouldn’t make it home. Felt like none of us would. I couldn’t think about it, couldn’t actually take in his dried skin, the pale lips, or how many times Charlie had to pause and cough up something from what sounded like a cold, hollow corner inside him. All of it just was.
I got woken up by nurses rushing someone out of the emergency room, a panicked message over the PA system to a surgeon on call. Charlie was nowhere in sight.
“It’s bullshit,” my mother was saying to a Jewish woman a few seats down.
“Grade A,” she huffed.
“No one believes us,” Mama kept saying. “No one believed me when Khalia was alive, and they still don’t.”
She went back to the front desk, only to be pulled aside by an officer and a doctor in a loose-fitting suit. Their voices were trapped underneath the murmur of the waiting room.
My sister, Khalia. Like me, she had jaundiced eyes that glowed like highlighters. She was older than me, but tiny, and bounced around the house with no house shoes. At her funeral, I wore a large suit and looked out of place. My mother refused to sit, just stood in the aisle and swayed from side to side. When I said goodbye, I stared into the casket until I burned it into my memory. Her small body filled out like a doll, and I wanted to stand there the whole morning and breathe but I kept moving toward my seat. I couldn’t understand it.
“So you think I’m trying to score pills?” I heard Mama cry out. The doctor bristled, continued in a low, even voice. I was trying to pull air into my lungs with all my might ’cause everything inside felt on fire. I couldn’t stand it any longer. The hard bench that was bolted down only scraped my bones. Mama came back with a crowd of nurse’s aides and a doctor, tears on her face, muttering every curse word I had ever heard, cursing everyone who listened.
“Look at him,” she said to no one and everyone, helped ease me to my feet. The waiting room was quiet. “Look at him.”
I shared a room in the county hospital where the nurses had pulled at my arms, pushed fluids into my blood, kept me under hard bedsheets. I had been here for nearly a week, and Mama and I had already settled into a routine. She read a Sistah Souljah novel by my bedside, or crocheted some hand warmers, kept a bright, purple hook and yarn in her bottomless purse. She stayed past visiting hours, sweet-talked the nurses, remembered their names, and went downstairs to the diner for red velvet cake (for me but offered the rest to the nurses’ station and some of my roommates).
When she finally did leave to get ready for work, she closed her eyes and said a prayer with me. I never closed my eyes when she prayed, just watched her as she called on the Lord and held my hand. It was the only time I really got to look at her.
“We’ve come this far by faith,” she began. She always blamed herself for what my life would be.
When visiting hours were over and the corridors were dark at the ends, I wandered the halls, pulling my IV along like a leash on a mechanical pet. The wheels were gummed up with old dirt, scuffed the flat vinyl tile which was cold and boring. There were rooms and rooms of kids on this floor, all with blood disorders, two or three to a room, kinky hair, thin from chemo or pneumonia or opioids. There was the damp smell of plastic bedpans and musk. Near the mop closet and bathrooms was enough ammonia and industrial bleach to make my eyes fill with water. The ebb of machines was constant beneath the murmur of nurses and, when I strained to listen, faint sobs. I looked out the sugary windows in my room. An empty freeway was like river water from up high, curled through the fog and flat strip malls. The hospital was near the airport and I could hear the planes leaving and coming into the city. Eventually, the medication runs its course and I fall asleep to the sound of departure.
I dreamt of water and sand. The kind mixed with dirt so you can’t tell sand from soil. Screen door led right out to the dirt road, smoke rising from a grill behind the trailer next door. Lost in them fields, or them swamps my uncle would tell me about. His ex-wife, who I called auntie still, brought over a basket of scupnun. We sat on the splintered porch, biting through a good enough pinch of the grape’s thick skin and squeezing till the pulp popped into our mouths. Tossed the skin in the patch of grass, spit the seeds out as far as they could go. Mama looked relieved. Khalia painted her toes white, sick of boys already, a bowl of ice on her lap to chew on. Unc with his hands caked in flour, the smell of whiting and hot grease. I was behind the pecan tree out back, surrounded by shells, some cracked open to the buttery seed. Dead undergrowth, branches and logs left from stolen pulpwood had atrophied (I was obsessed with the word) and blocked the path. On the shore of the lake, Mama said we should cool down by jumping in. My shoulders were ready, committed to descent. It is dead water, still. Praying for land, I don’t want to drown in what I really am. Mama hadn’t come up for air.
I kept tossing and turning, pulled awake by a cold sweat. I tried no blanket, then a half sheet, then no sheet. I still kept waking up with my gown sticking to me. I pushed the covers aside and got out of bed. It was damp. Outside there was no trace of sky, only darkness. When I turned on the lamp near my bedside, I was covered in blood. It had cooled against my warm skin, against my gown, had seeped into the white sheets, the shape of an open tree trunk. I screamed.
A nurse who looked like Cheryl Lynn rushed through the doorway. I kept looking down at the bed. The bloodspot. It looked like someone had died. The nurse said something, but all I could do was cross my eyes. Looking too far ahead.
“Your IV came out,” a voice said. The nurse.
“Your IV,” she told me. “It must’ve slipped out while you were asleep. Looks like you didn’t tear your veins up, thank goodness. This happens all the time.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know why I felt the need to apologize.
“I’m gonna go get you new sheets and a gown. Just sit tight.”
She turned on the lights overhead and rushed out of the room as quickly as she came in. The tightness of the walls came back, the grime that crawled from under the beds and machines. The floor had a sticky film that couldn’t go away, no matter how many times the custodians scrubbed. I sat in the visitor’s chair my mother used every evening, the cushion tattered and split open at the bottom. The other kids who I shared the room with hadn’t stirred, were only half visible behind paper-thin curtains that sectioned them all off. Their bodies heaved and let go, squirmed and burrowed deeper into their bedsheets. I looked back down, blood in my lap, skin dry beneath the yellow hem of my hospital gown. Stared at the ruined sheets, all blotted with red. Like someone had died. I couldn’t think about anything else. Death was all around me, as inescapable as my own body.