The heart rate monitor sounded while Martha was working graveyard. Alone in the nurses’ station, she jerked upright in her chair. The beeping had broken the quiet. She’d been playing solitaire, eating cornflakes from a styrofoam bowl. Her hands gravitated to the bump forming at her navel, as had become her habit. The heart rate monitor only sounded when a patient was about to die.
The monitor was a new technology. Alarms sounded not in the event of a heart attack, but when the machine detected certain palpitations that almost always preceded one. The bleeping display indicated room 207—Mr. Whitaker. Martha paged the doctor. She paged the priest.
She proceeded calmly down the long hallway. Her sneakers squeaked against the tile, and the sounds echoed off the walls and ceiling. Aside from that, the corridor was absolutely quiet, absolutely still. The overhead fluorescents shone hot as an operating room, bright as the end of a tunnel.
Martha tightened the drawstring on her new maternity scrubs before she opened door 207. Inside, Mr. Whitaker was propped up against his pillows, looking out the window at the pre-dawn blue. So slight, he barely indented the bed. The room smelled like metal and urine.
“Everything okay, Mr. Whitaker?”
“Far as I know.”
The man’s face was sinking into itself. His fingers were so bony they all looked broken, the angles of their joints so pronounced. Martha leaned over him to take his temperature.
“Is something the matter?” he asked.
“I hope not.”
Martha’s hands returned to her belly.
“How far along are you?”
“Boy or girl?”
A picture of a young man in a singlet sat framed on a narrow shelf by the bed. Beside the photo, a medal rested in a case.
“Your boy there,” Martha said, “is he a military man?”
Martha gestured at the shelf.
“Oh. That’s me. I ran the 400 for Indiana back in ’45, ’46.” He hacked up something awful, then cleared his throat. “If you can believe that.”
A bit of yellow bile clung to his chin.
Shakily, he raised his arm to wipe his mouth on his gown.
“You have any kids, Mr. Whitaker?”
“No luck in that department.”
“I’m sorry to hear.”
“No, no. The cards just never fell.”
Again, the thin man turned to the window. The room was quiet save his breathing, which grew more ragged. He began to knead his shoulder.
Martha looked out the window for a moment, too. There was aspirin in the medicine cabinet. There was a defibrillator in the hall. Martha turned to the bed. She took his craggy hands in her own and pressed them to her belly. His chest heaved and fell, heaved and fell. Where was the doctor? Where was the priest?
“Give me your name, Mr. Whitaker,” Martha said.
“Sanders.” Likely his heart was kicking against his ribs.
She remarked how lovely.