AFTER THE FOG
By Kathleen Shoop
Average 4.2 STARS
The sins of the mother… In the steel town of Donora, Pennsylvania, site of the infamous 1948 “killing smog,” headstrong nurse Rose Pavlesic tends to her family and neighbors. Controlling and demanding, she’s created a life that reflects everything she missed growing up as an orphan. She’s even managed to keep her painful secrets hidden from her loving husband, dutiful children, and large extended family.
When a stagnant weather pattern traps poisonous mill gasses in the valley, neighbors grow sicker and Rose’s nursing obligations thrust her into conflict she never could have fathomed. Consequences from her past collide with her present life, making her once clear decisions as gray as the suffocating smog. As pressure mounts, Rose finds she’s not the only one harboring lies. When the deadly fog finally clears, the loss of trust and faith leaves the Pavlesic family—and the whole town—splintered and shocked. With her new perspective, can Rose finally forgive herself and let her family’s healing begin?
Inside the Greshecky home, Rose pressed the light switch but knew it wouldn’t work. Ian appeared, his form outlined by the paltry light slipping through a gap in the wood siding. Even in darkness his complexion—white as the smoky plumes billowing from the zinc mill—told Rose things were not well with his Aunt. He opened his mouth, but Rose grasped his shoulders and shoved the twelve-year-old toward the kitchen before Ian could form a single word.
“Heat the water. Get the clean towels we hid away for the birth.”
Ian looked at his feet, but didn’t move.
“Go on. You remember,” Rose said.
Isabella’s screech from the back of the house summoned Rose toward the bedroom. She groped the walls trying to remember the placement of the furniture. The last thing she needed was to trip and fall. She stepped where the wood floor dropped a few inches into an unfinished dirt path, stumbled and twisted her knee. She grimaced and fell back against the wall, bent over, grasping her throbbing leg. Nothing felt out of place. Another wail. Rose pushed off the wall and limped down the hall toward Isabella. She slammed open the bedroom door, tearing it from its hinge.
In the middle of the shadowy room, Isabella squatted as though urinating, her nightgown splashed with blackened blood, its thick iron odor choking the air. Rose hooked Isabella under the arms and hauled her toward the window, and the mattress on the ground. Rose dug her heels in; thankful traction was the one good attribute of having a mud floor.
She gritted her teeth, wanting to reassure Isabella, to remind her of the slew of births Rose had assisted over the years. But Isabella’s awkward two hundred pounds consumed the energy Rose might have spent on reassuring words.
Isabella groaned and bucked forward. Rose knelt in front of her on the mattress, praying for the moon to move a sliver to the right and illuminate the shadowy room. Rose needed to assess why there was so much blood; Ian was spooked enough to forget the candles she had requested, and his uncle, the baby’s father, was on shift at the mill.
Rose gripped Isabella’s knees and tried to wrench them apart. “It’s all right, you can let go. It’s okay, Isabella. Baby’s coming.” Isabella’s legs gave way and fell open as she dropped back onto the mattress, gasping. Rose felt between the woman’s legs to the baby’s crowned head. She felt a surge of panic at Isabella’s sudden silence, but pushed her fear away.
Rose supported the baby’s head and reached for Isabella’s hand. She squinted, trying to gauge if Isabella’s nails had blued from lack of oxygen, but it was too dark.
“Isabella? You all right? Baby’s here. Prop yourself up, you don’t even need to push, he’s coming, he’s—”
The baby slid out, bringing the usual tumble of cording, but so much more Rose thought she was witnessing the birth of triplets. So much flesh falling through her fingers in the darkness. The rush of blood warmed Rose’s knees, saturating her nurse’s uniform as if it were consuming it.
Her breath tripped and sputtered as she fumbled through the mass of expelled tissue and peeled the baby away. She flipped the body over, whacking its back. Part of Rose understood what she was experiencing, but in the darkness, she could pretend.
“It’s a girl, Isabella. Your baby girl’s here. Just like you wanted. A girl to stay by your side.” Rose worked quickly, firmly opening the baby’s airway and bracing her against her chest, warming her back to life. The baby was definitely full-term, but too thin, and not breathing, heart stilled. Rose cursed herself for not forcing Isabella to take the labor inducement, but the woman thought God alone had the right to induce anything.
Rose snapped around. She hadn’t heard anyone come into the room. Behind her stood Ian, a nearly invisible form holding fresh bleached towels that glowed in the twilight. The image of a happy birth flashed through Rose’s mind, a plump, pink baby and healthy mother. Rose’s heart heaved with desolation at what Ian was about to understand.
She waved Ian to her. “I need you to hold this little princess while I tend to your aunt. And, get the scissors from my bag.”
He nodded, handing over the downy towels and dashed to Rose’s bag. She didn’t have time to tell him how to be sanitary when handling them, too busy toweling the blood and fluid from the baby’s eyes, her own burning from the emotion she was stuffing away.
Ian dashed back with the scissors, thrusting them under Rose’s nose.
“She’s okay, right? Both of them?”
Rose lay the baby on the towel, not saying a word, and cut the infant’s cord. Next she swaddled the baby and handed her to Ian. She shuffled him toward the chair across the room and ordered him to sit; fearful he might pass out, afraid if he wasn’t in the room, she might.
Rose resumed her attempts to stop Isabella’s bleeding and rouse her with soft words, knowing the woman died with the birth of her daughter. Even without surgical lighting, Rose saw the woman’s uterus had been expelled with the baby and even in a hospital, it was unlikely she would have survived.
“Sweet Isabella,” Rose whispered, wiping the woman’s hair from her brow. “I’ll put in a call to Dr. Bonaroti.” Rose wiped her hands on the uniform’s apron; angered the physician hadn’t made it to the birth.
“No phone, Nurse Rose,” Ian said, “‘member last time yunz guys come down the house for—”
Ian began hyperventilating, his body shuddering rhythmically, bouncing him out of the chair. His desperation jolted Rose’s own grief. She dashed toward the boy grasping his arms.
“That’ll be enough, Ian. I need your help.”
He looked up, snot flying from his nose, saliva at the corners of his mouth like a rabid animal, and she grabbed him from the chair, hugged him so tight he choked. She held him there, baby between them. Rose eased his pain with the warmth of her skin, hoping that she could stave off the sadness he’d feel as he grew up without his aunt.
“Now Ian. You need to go next door and phone Dr. Bonaroti.” Where was that damn doctor? This was exactly why Donora needed to fund Rose for the next year. If her nearly one year serving as a community nurse had shown her anything, it was that they actually needed three nurses. Just two more months of funding and the program was shot if their data wasn’t convincing.
Rose took the baby and guided Ian from the room. “Tell Alice to tell the doc it’s an emergency.”
She rubbed his back and wanted to say everything would be all right, but she knew nothing would be fine for young Ian. His uncle had a lust for booze and when he wasn’t breaking his neck in the zinc mill, was inattentive even at his most benign.
Though she would have given anything to be one of those people who could lie to make someone feel better, she had discovered through the losses she’d experienced in life, she was not that kind of woman at all.
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