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The End of Innocence
The ride into town is painfully quick. Hundreds of tall linden trees stand by the roadside like curious spectators silently cheering as we rush toward the finish line; their thick crowns filter the bright sunlight like a giant sieve.
An empty parking spot is waiting for me in front of the hospital’s main entrance. The building is a proud, fragile relic of the 1930’s. The yellow stucco is crumbling on the corners, revealing battered gray stone beneath, and faded green shutters cover the large windows. The heavy wooden doors and rusty steel handles resist at first, then surrender with a sad creak.
“Do you know where we have to go?” I turn to Emma.
“Yes. The exam rooms are on the second floor, toward the end of the hallway,” she replies, her façade of cool tinged by worry. I wonder what she is thinking. Or maybe it is best I don’t know. She is no stranger to this desperate place; her mother and father both passed away within its lonely walls.
I had been lucky. I haven’t been to a hospital in forty-three years. I received my conscription papers from the Serbian military a week after my seventeenth birthday and I was ordered to submit to a physical exam. All young males had to serve and my kind, the ethic German and Hungarian teenagers, were the first to be called in. I was just a boy then, short and bony, and my hand felt the barrel of a gun before it ever held a razor. The doctor glanced at me from the corner of his eyes and stamped the paper that sent me to the desolate black mountains of Montenegro for a two-year tour. They put me on a train the next morning, in the middle of winter, and I arrived two days later into the dilapidated barracks that had no heat and no indoor facilities. Twenty of us slept in one open room; our beds were hammered together of rotting wood and covered only with thin mattresses. We used feed sacks and hide to keep warm yet on many long nights I thought I would not see the sun rise again.
A nurse directs us toward an exam room. Black and gray tiles cover the floors and sterile white subway tiles line the walls. Some of them are chipped, others are just a hair from falling off. It is a place that holds no hope.
There are no chairs and we stand in silence with three others. A man in his forties is leaning against the wall reading the sports section and an elderly couple is holding hands, waiting patiently with resigned smiles on their faces. They already know why they are here.
The windows are open and I busy myself listening to the chirping birds when an ursine woman opens the door.
“Markus Wolff!” she bellows my name. “Come in.”
She closes the door behind us and points to a chair by the window.
“You can sit over here. Please roll up the sleeve of your right arm or remove your sweater,” she continues. “I will take your blood pressure first and then draw the blood.”
I sit down and watch her attach the device to my arm. She inflates the cuff with short squeezes, watches the gage, and then lets the air out with a quick burst. I don’t need to observe; I know my blood pressure is low.
“90 over 50,” she calls out while she scribbles the numbers into the chart. “I’m going to take three vials,” she continues and I close my eyes as she inserts the needle into my arm. “We’ll do the tests right away; it should take no more than twenty minutes. You can wait in the hallway again and Dr. Zeltner will bring the results.”
“Thank you,” I tell her and Emma and I follow her into the makeshift waiting room. I lean against the wall and watch Emma pace while she talks on the phone, yelling in silence.
“We need to stop at the supermarket on the way back,” she says and drops the phone in her bag. “Ilona called and said they have no vinegar or black pepper. She should have told me this morning when I asked her to check. She knows we have a busy day today. She never listens and he is no better. Why do they think I pay them? What am I running here, a charity? But when it is time to get paid they suddenly remember it’s a business.”
“Why are you surprised?” I reply.
We opened our twenty-room bed and breakfast twenty-two years ago. Twenty-two years that have often felt like century, drawn and exhausting. Days and nights, weekends, holidays, vacations, illness, and even the birth of our son – we are always open and we are always there. The last time Emma and I took a real vacation, just the two of us, no kids, no work, and no commitments, was over twenty-five years ago. Since then, it has never been the right time to get away and there is always a perfect excuse: we’ll go away after the summer rush, we’ll take a break next year, or we’ll have plenty of time to do that when we retire. It is just that. One thrown opportunity after another. And now we are here.
I look up and see Dr. Zeltner approaching. Her face is equipped to win a hundred poker games. Maybe we should take her to Vegas.
“Good morning, I’m Dr. Zeltner. I believe we know each other. I treated your mother a couple of years ago,” she says to Emma. She did. And Annuska died just a few months later. I shudder as a feeling of darkness envelops me, crushing me from the inside.
“I have the results of your blood work. Let’s go into the exam room so we can go over them,” she continues and we follow her in. “While most of your results are fine, there are a few numbers that should concern you. Your bilirubin level is extremely high, and your cell count is off.”
My heart starts racing and I struggle to get the words out. “What does this mean?”