Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock.

Submitted into Contest #142 in response to: Write a story that includes one character reading aloud to another.... view prompt

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Contemporary Fiction Drama

Cold. With arms wrapped tight about my torso, I attempt to hide the shivers. But I ask myself in the silence of the waiting room, am I shivering from the cold or from nerves? Glancing down, I gawk at the gooseflesh. My eye catches the state of my appearance. At this, I ponder my choice of t-shirt. Wrinkled, a coffee stain near the waistline. When did that happen, I wonder. A sweatshirt would have been better. Or perhaps a more professional outfit to cut down this overwhelming sense of stigma? 

Questions flood my mind. Am I sweating? Why am I sweating if I’m this cold? Do I have a fever? Are my socks wet? Do my feet normally sweat this much? I wonder if I smell? Did I remember to put on deodorant? Is that why everyone was staring in the waiting room? One after another, I am bombarded with hysteric thoughts. Should I be grateful? At least they distract me from the clock in the room’s upper corner. Well, until I remember the clock is there.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. One hour. Sixty minutes. Thirty-six hundred seconds. How long should a patient be left in a clinic room? I suppose long enough to get results. “But I’m different,” I mouth in silence with eyes fixed on the door before me. “Is this my penance? Do I deserve this?”

Footsteps from the hall approach the door. Is it time? From the plodding crescendo, there follows a trailing decrescendo. Not my time I realize. Just more time to consider when the time will be my time. Time, time, time. Tick-tick. Tick-tock.

“I hate this!” I scream in my head, still held by my own straight-jacket grasp. I turn my attention from the door, and sweeping eyes across the room lock on to a crumpled ball. I recall the original brochure, now on the floor in an attempted toss to the trash can. Fate, it seemed, felt the need to continue taunting me through poor aim. I unlock my hold, bending forward to reexamine the discard information as I unfurl the folds and creases. The woman illustrated on the paper’s cover smiles while caressing her protruding abdomen. I hesitate to return the smile as I lock eyes with the inanimate character. At least someone in this clinic, though fictional, shows me a sign of solace and consideration. Arching above her head in some agreed upon corporate font is written, Preventing Perinatal Transmission of HIV. 

The nurse tasked with checking me in had taken the time to read through some of the handout’s facts before her departure. As she did so, my mind pieced together past and present.

“Perinatal transmission of HIV…”

You’ve tested positive.

“Passed from a woman with HIV to her child…”

How many partners have you had this past year?

“During pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding…”

In what routes of sexual intercourse do you engage?

“Women should get tested before becoming pregnant…”

We will need to start you of medications and schedule regular lab work.

“The earlier detection, the sooner HIV medicines can be started…”

You will need to ensure your inform others about this diagnosis.

One line in particular, however, seemed to hold an icy grip on my heart.“Perinatal transmission of HIV is called mother-to-child transmission.” 

Maybe it was how the nurse read it, almost nonchalantly and rather matter-of-fact. It harbored the notion that this was my own doing. An inflicted, hateful action of a mother to their child. 

Mother-to-child. Mother-to-child. Mother-to-child. That phrase nestled in like a parasite. It continued to feast on my anxiety as I remained seated, cold yet sweaty.

Footsteps again, this time at a slower tempo. This time, a small pause. This time, turning around and heading back down the hall. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. 

My heart nearly leapt from my chest as the audible notification from my phone echoed in the room. Allowing myself to calm down, I pulled out the device and read the message. 

“How are things going,” I could hear in Paul’s voice as I read the note. I closed my eyes to envision the scene from days earlier. 

“Paul? Can you come in here?” 

He shuffled into the bathroom, still in boxers and bearing a unkept mop of hair. It was early, but I assumed I could benefit from his struggling cognition amid a morning fugue. 

“Tell me what you see?”

He squinted. He examined the stick in my hand. He slowly registered both the object and the marking it bore. My Scarlet Letter. A plus sign. The tension I felt turned to concern. No anger. No yelling. I yearned to hear his thoughts as he remained struck in silence. 

That silence became status quo in the coming days. I had taken the steps to schedule today’s appointment. I had called my mom to gather some, if any, maternal insight. No answer, per usual. It was worth a shot. I started to look things up online but found myself inducing panic to the point that I recognized I should stop and wait for the appointment. 

One sentence of Paul’s had kept my mind’s cogwheels in motion. “What if the test was wrong?” He hadn’t mentioned this until just prior to my departure for the doctor. Though upset by his delay in raising this idea, I felt a sudden surge of satisfaction that it could, in fact, be possible. I had failed to acquire any additional tests. A result of being swept up in the moment of scheduling, calling, and fretting. 

I decide to wait on a response to Paul until I talk with my provider. It should be any second now. Or minute. Maybe an hour? Tick-tock. Tick-tock. 

“Am I a bad person?” I asked Kate over dinner the night prior. 

“What? For getting pregnant?” 

“No!” I snap. “For not wanting this kid. For wishing all of this to be a bad dream. For hating myself.”

Kate took a moment, reached over to my hands, and held them tightly as she beamed with her amber eyes in a way that seemed to penetrate my very soul. “Hallie, do you remember when you told me?” 

“That I was pregnant?”

“No, when you were positive?” 

I think about the morning I spent with head in her lap, bawling and crippled with fear of the unknown. “Yes,” I answered. 

She had been there for me at my lowest, told me all she could from her own medical training, and informed me that everything would be alright. She’d held my hand as I called up my partners, as I took the harsh comments and screaming rants over the phone. She’d accompanied me to appointment after appointment for lab draws, viral load assessments and CD4 cell counts. She’d helped with decision-making about the proper medications to manage my status. When I found Paul, she took the time to sit him down and tell him that if he ever hurt me or stigmatized me he’d have to deal with her wrath (though the threat seemed lessened by her petite stature and soft-toned voice). 

“Didn’t I tell you that day that I’d always support you?”

Of course she had.

“This journey through difficult times will never be simple. People will form opinions, and you will feel scrutinized. But the ideas or notions you have amidst this endeavor will never make you a bad person. Everyone has thoughts! You are you. If you want to be a mom, then embrace it! People delivery babies with a positive status, and I’ll be there with you through it all.”

“But Paul…” I began, but she cut me off mid-sentence. 

“So will Paul! I know he may be acting,” she paused to find the right word.

“Off?”

“Yes, off and distant. But somehow I know he’ll respect whatever choice you make with the information you find out today.” 

The door handle jostles. It breaks my memory and lurches me back into the present. Past the swinging frame, my doctor strides while still glancing down at the door notes left at the door by the nurse. Where did she come from? I hadn’t heard an approach, though it could be possible I’d dropped my attention at footstep following. The door shuts behind her, and its clang snaps her trance amid preparatory thoughts into a stare in which our eyes meet. 

She smiles. I don’t. She knows. I don’t. And as she opens her mouth to initiate our conversation. “Good afternoon, Hallie. Sorry for the wait, but let me read you the results...”

I can’t seem to hear anything as her voice trails off. All I hear in my rising angst is the clock still moving its hands in a circular dance. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. 

April 17, 2022 15:19

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1 comment

Chris Williams
00:51 Apr 28, 2022

Well done. Of all the things in your story, the "My Scarlett Letter" leapt out at me. Nice touch. And well-placed in the narrative.

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