March 3, 2010

Day in the life of a New Orleans Paramedic

((( more on Harper before the supernatural shit. This was a long ass time ago, so I don't recall a lot of it, but the main points are the same. I won't be going through the entire chronicle from start to present because I don't remember a lot of it. But I will hit on a few fun scenes that I DO remember. This is a bit more narrative because it was originally written in third person and I adapted it to first person.. and because she was much less introspective back then.))

I lifted the back of the gurney up and slid it into the ambulance. I peeled off my latex gloves and tossed them into the biohazard trash bag that sat in the back of the van, running clean hands through my sweat dampened red hair.

Helluva day.

I closed the doors and turned to survey the scene. The street still bore the dark stain of blood where the man had been shot. He was stabilized and breathing easily in the back despite the several gunshot wounds decorating his lower torso.

There were people around, some watching, some milling, no one looking particularly friendly, and no one looking at all disturbed by the incident. But then, I was in the middle of Treme. Shootings happened all too often in this part of New Orleans. The people were desensitized. There was empirical testing to prove it. I'd heard that police had come here once and fired off 250 rounds into the air then recorded how many people called in to report the gunshots. They didn't receive a single call.

I also stuck out like a sore thumb, even without the soundlessly flashing ambulance lights. I all was too aware that I was the lightest skinned person within 10 square miles of my current location. Even my partner was black, though not a resident of the local neighborhood. But this added sense of incongruence did little to phase me. I'd never really felt at home in any type of social situation. So this was no different really.

The skin between my shoulder blades began to itch as I became aware that someone was staring. My eyes followed the lines of the apartment balconies and stopped on the third floor. A man stood on his ledge regarding me in a fashion that made me acutely uncomfortable. There was nothing sexual or menacing in his gaze, but I nevertheless felt distinctly unsettled. He was not physically imposing, average height, though he was leaning forward with his forearms resting on the balcony railing so it was hard to tell. He looked fit, but was not a hugely muscled individual. His hair fell to his shoulders in thin dreadlocks, but his most prominent, and chilling, feature was his eyes. Even at a distance they struck me as odd, and impressive. They were a clear, bright, sky blue and watched me with interested intensity. His posture indicated careless indifference, but his eyes said otherwise. He was creepy, and he was staring at me. Belatedly, I noticed the tall, slender woman who had been standing next to him slip discreetly back into the apartment after the man murmured in her ear.

"You ready O'shea?" I jumped slightly as my partner leaned out the drivers side door. He grinned at me in good humor. "C'mon girl. Paramedics aren't usually on the hit list, no matter how white they are. Lets get goin'." A small irritated frown creased my lips, to which he only grinned wider.

"Gimme a minute, I need to talk to someone." I said and turned before he could stop me. His eyebrows disappeared under the bill of his hat as he watched me turn my back on him and walk toward the apartment building. He settled into the drivers seat muttering about crazy white girls playing detective. I ignored him.

I had always been overly curious, and it frequently got me into trouble, but that never stopped me. I didn't really know what I was looking for when I did things like this. But it was something. Something I had to find that always seemed two steps ahead of me. So I did stupid shit like this, in hopes that I'd stumble across it.. whatever it was.

The blue eyed man watched as me approached the building, eyes following my every movement. I felt like a lab rat under observation. He seemed content to stare me down as I stopped right below his porch. I cleared my throat, ran my fingers back through my drying hair, then cleared my throat again. How the hell was I supposed to start this conversation? The man watched me with an amused and slightly condescending smile on his face. That was enough to force words from my mouth. I hated being patronized.

"Did you see what happened?" I grimaced, fully realizing how silly this endeavor was, and how foolish I probably seemed.

The man grinned wider at my apparent discomfort. He had a slight trace of an accent, and I'd been in New Orleans long enough to recognize it as Haitian. "Naw, just heard the shots. Came out to see what the commotion was all about."

I shifted nervously, grasping my right elbow with my left hand, arm stretched across my stomach. It was a stance normally reserved for younger individuals, and something I caught myself doing unconsciously when I felt... self conscious. I did it a lot, and I hated it.

"Do you know him?"

The man's dreadlocks fanned slightly as he shook his head. "Just a neighborhood kid, never met him personally, but I seen him around. Name was.. DJ Bullis, if I remember correctly. Ran around with one of those gangs..You know how all these kids are. Probably just pissed someone off. Happens all the time. What hospital you taking him to?"

I nodded slowly. I didn't really know what I'd expected to find out, but something about him had compelled me to ask. "What about her?" I gestured to the open patio door.

The man glanced over his shoulder into the apartment. "You can ask her if you like. Suzette! Medico's got a couple questions for you."

The slender woman appeared back out on the balcony, blinking down at me. She was slender with dark hair. She wore a long brown sift skirt and a pale yellow tank top. Her neck was adorned with pendants on leather thongs and numerous strands of beads, her eyes a normal harm honey color. She looked at me expectantly but didn't speak. It was a little weird. Like this whole situation. I must be going nuts.

"Do you know this kid? Or see what happened?" Suzette shook her head but remained silent.

"What hospital you takin' him to?" The man asked again.

I hesitated before answering the guy, but it would be easy enough to find out anyway. "Charity."

He nodded in recognition. I cleared my throat again, suddenly anxious to be away from this disconcerting couple. "Thanks for the help. Sorry to have bothered you."

"Always a pleasure. And Medico, best if you don't approach anyone else. No one ever sees anything." A small smirk played across his face as I regarded him. Solemnly, I turned and strode back to the ambulance, getting in the back with the victim. I caught one last glimpse of the man's unearthly blue eyes as I pulled the door shut, a chill slithering down my spine as the vehicle pulled away from the scene. I worked hard to ignore James as he berated me for playing detective with a gunshot victim sitting in the back. He was stable. He'd be fine...because as much as I couldn't stand myself.. I knew I was at least a damn fine medic

The incident was forgotten for the next 12 hours. In that time span I had almost forgotten even those eerie blue eyes. I sat in the Emergency Room waiting area of St. Christine's, long legs stretched out in front of me as I sank as low as possible into the thinly padded armchair. I closed my eyes and willed myself to relax. The adrenaline was draining away, leaving me exhausted and hungry. The shift had ended an hour ago and by all rights I should be home and in bed by now. I was so tired I doubted I'd even need the morphine to help me sleep.

But Charity Hospital had called requesting I come and sign a few things right as I had turned on the ignition in my Jeep Commander. I always hated these calls. It usually meant that the hospital was afraid of some lawsuit from one of the patients I had brought in. When I had walked through the glass sliding doors, the nurse had scurried away like a scared rabbit to find the appropriate document. That had been 15 minutes ago. At odds with the harsh glare of the florescent lights, the chill of the overworked air conditioning system, and the chairs made intentionally uncomfortably to discourage overnight visitors, I still managed to dose off briefly.

I was abruptly awoken as a clipboard was slammed down on the laminated countertop. The nurse gave me a bland look that held no trace of an apology. The scared nurse was no where to be seen.

I rubbed my eyes and willed them to focus on the page in front of me. I scanned it carefully, then re-read it. Twice. I was suddenly more awake. Dead? From a blood infection? How was that possible? He had been completely stabilized when I brought him in, fuck, he had even looked healthy. I knew the attending physician, he wasn't one to make such fatal errors. And so quickly? He had only been admitted 12 hours ago, and at that time had been completely infection free. Logically, I knew that infections sometimes found their way into the body despite all precautions, but I was shaken. Things like this didn't happen to my patients. It just felt wrong. The nurse cleared her throat impatiently and I realized I'd had been staring at the paper for several minutes and was gripping the pen so hard that my hand was trembling. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Wouldn't do to let the hospital staff see I was having a small mental breakdown. Over one patient. I scrawled my signature across the bottom of the paper and flipped through the other pages just to be thorough. On the third page another name caught my eye. It was the signature of the next of kin who the body had been released to. Some people chose not to have a mortuary take care of such things, and with such a high concentration of Voudun practitioners in New Orleans, it wasn't unusual that a family member would chose to use non-traditional burial procedures. The handwriting looked neat, but hurried, the name of Suzette Williams easily discernible.

Curiouser and curiouser. I put down the pen and slide the clipboard back to the nurse, who grabbed it impatiently and stomped over to a filing cabinet.

I turned and walked out of the waiting room, taking several deep breaths of the morning air. Even with the humidity and the fumes it tasted a hundred times better to me than the stale, recycled, hospital atmosphere.

I was a naturally inquisitive person, but what I was considering just seemed insane. Surely the police would investigate if there was something amiss, if the body had been stolen. I shouldn't start playing Nancy Drew.

You'll just get yourself into trouble O'Shea. I knew that inner voice (that, oddly, never really sounded like me..) was right.. I knew it would be wise to leave it alone, what business was it of mine? But even that internal warning couldn't dispel the feeling of intense curiosity and the burning need to follow down the foggy trail that was stretching out in front of me. I felt pressed to continue on it, and considering I felt as though I had been wandering aimlessly for my entire life, common sense could not deter me from the first firm direction I'd ever felt inclined to take. Odd how I felt so committed to something that was probably nothing more than a combination of clinical errors and misunderstandings. I slid into the drivers seat and the jeep rumbled to life.

I was thankful that it was still early morning as I pulled into the parking lot of the apartments. I slid into one of the parking spaces and tried to ignore the hostile glaces from the early risers. I didn't have the ambulance or the uniform on to protect me this time. They seemed less than impressed by my jeans and gray tank top with "Army" stenciled on the front. I looked up at the third floor, searching for the right apartment, and was surprised to see the blue eyed man out on the balcony again. Staring at me again. This was monumentally stupid. I nodded to him and moved towards the stairs and he disappeared back into the apartment, presumably to meet me at the door.

I knocked once at room 324 and the door opened almost instantly. The man gave me his amused and superior smile. "Whats up medico?" I consciously stopped my nervous shifting before it began. "I just have a few more questions about that shooting, if you don't mind."

"Come on in." He stepped aside, closing the door softly as I entered the apartment.

The room wasn't nice, but it was clean and well kept. It smelled of cigarettes and other smokey odors that I couldn't readily identify. Dried flowers decorated the tops of the off white walls, and a portrait of an old white woman hung above the faded coach. She looked ancient and wore a rather unsettling grin. A small fired clay ashtray sat on the coffee table, a cigar smoldering merrily within it. Beside it sat a half full glass of a dark, amber colored liquid. The man walked into the kitchen and called back over his shoulder. "Get ya a drink?"

I answered absently, walking around the small room, eyes roaming across the details. "Please. Rum and Coke if you've got it."

He let out an amused chuckle. "You start early Medico."

"Huh?" I glanced at my watch and shrugged, then realized he couldn't see my gesture from the kitchen. "Haven't been to bed yet, overnight shift." The conversation was cut off by the muffled sounds of clinking glasses, and the fridge opening and closing. Under all that noise I heard a steady drumming.

I paused in my trek around the living area and listened. It was some kind of music, maybe a stereo, but all she could make out was the thrumming bass. I moved toward the small hallway that led to the bedrooms. The door half way down the hall was not snug in its frame. the wood was warped slightly, leaving a gap wide enough to see through. The quality of the light coming from the slit suggested candles, or a fire, instead of an electric bulb. The music pulsed from behind the door. I pressed my finger tips against the wood on either side of the crack and leaned forward after glancing at the kitchen to be sure the man was still busy.

It was difficult to see far into the room. The gap was small and gave a very limited line of sight. There were candles everywhere, some in jars, others sitting in pools of their own wax. The music sounded almost tribal, rhythmic and deep. There was little else to it besides the drums. There was a table in the middle of the room, and someone lying on it, but all I could see was the bare feet. Every few moments someone would pass by the door, moving in a frantic and somewhat sensual manner, as though it were a dance. I caught glimpses of cream and coffee colored skin, and a light sheen of sweat. There wasn't a stitch of cloth I could see on either figure.

The man cleared his throat behind me and I jerked back from the door. He spoke before I could come up with a valid excuse for my rudeness.

"Suzette'll be in there awhile. Takes time to put the dead to rest." He motioned for me to follow him back into the living room. I sat perched on the edge of the overstuffed coach, sipping my drink absently once he handed it to me. As usual, it had the after taste of whiskey sour. I never could figure out why that had been happening lately. It was fucking annoying.

He sat opposite me in a gray armchair. "I thought you said you didn't know the kid Mr.." I groped for his name, then realized he'd never given it to me.

"Trevian. But everyone just calls me Third."

"Harper." I offered my hand, and he shook it firmly. It was a good handshake, he didn't try to crush my hand to prove he was tough, I noticed a lot of men, in this area particularly, tried to make me cry uncle, it was just a handshake, though his hand was ice cold. "A pleasure."

The grin I had noticed when they first met appeared again on his lips. "I don't know the kid, not well at least. But we're all the family he's got. Living in Treme, we gotta look out for each other ya know?"

I nodded slowly. Third stood and walked over to a bookcase. The shelves were bowed in the middle and the paint had started to peel. He took a cigar from a small brown box, lit it with a wooden match, and placed it in the ashtray on the coffee table. The old cigar had smoldered down to almost nothing. He never pulled the cigar to his mouth. Instead, he returned to his chair and pulled a pack of cigarettes and a bronze zippo out of his pocket. I declined his offer with a wave of my hand as he held the pack out to me. Shrugging, he sat back and put one between his lips, lighting it then snapping the zippo closed.

I set the drink on the coffee table, the rings stained into the wood indicated that I wasn't the first to do so without a coaster. I rubbed my sweaty palms against my thighs and glanced nervously over my shoulder. The music continued to pound through the walls. I wondered what exactly I thought this would accomplish. "What is she doing in there?"

"Suzette is sending him on, trying to secure safe passage for him to the other side."

"What do you mean?"

"You know anything about Voudun medico?"

I shook my head. "Next to nothing. Haven't been in New Orleans very long."

"Suzette is asking the gods, the Loa, to help our friend to the other side. The Loa that watch over death are the Ghede. Ya see, the Loa aren't like most gods. You ask favors, give offerings, and hope they feel like grantin' your request. They're more like us, only with more power." He gestured to the portrait above the couch, and the rum and cigar on the table, still untouched. "We offer Manma Brijit and her husband, Baron Samedi, what they wants, and hope that they looks on us favorably for it."

"And if they don't feel like granting your request?"

"Well, then his spirit won't be protected and his body will rise up as a zombie." He grinned at me, making it hard to tell if he believed that would happen himself. I tried not to look skeptical.

"We is just trying to do right for the boy. And what about you Medico, whats it matter to you?" Smoke trailed from his mouth and nose as he spoke. I thought it was weird, I hadn't once seen him exhale any of the smoke on purpose..

I shifted uncomfortably and shrugged. "I didn't even know he died. It was bothering me." I said, as though that answered his question, when obviously, it did not. I didn't really know why I was here. But something wasn't right, and I still couldn't figure out what it was. But he didn't ask again, just nodded like that explained it all.

I sipped my drink, the only sound for a few moments the clink of the ice cubes. It was a distinctly uncomfortable silence. I had no idea what else to ask the guy.. why in gods name was I even here? Third just watched me, smoke trickling out of his nose. After what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than a minute, he rescued me. "It's nice to see someone takin' an interest in the kids down here. Most people just write 'em off.Is there anythin' else I can do for you Medico?"

I drained my glass and set it on the table. "I guess not. Sorry to have bothered you.." we stood at the same time and he just smiled at me.

"Stop by anytime, medico." and he walked to me to the door.


Another day, another call. Treme again. It had been a few days since I'd gone on my fruitless detective kick. I'd had a couple days to convince myself that nothing was amiss and that I'd been stupid. Inwardly, I was a little disappointed. I had wanted it to lead somewhere. Anywhere. But it ended up being another dead end.. like everything else I tried to do.

This kid couldn't have been more than 16.. and was DOA. Multiple stab wounds to the abdomen. It was pretty messy. James and I loaded up the gurney and were moving to leave when I noticed him. In the crowd of people gawking at the gore, there was someone familiar. I stared at him, and he just stared straight ahead, eyes glassy and unfocused, like he wasn't all there. It was the kid.. the Bullis kid. I suddenly heard Third's words in my head again.. talking about zombies.

"Hey! Red! lets get the fuck outta here!" James called out from the driver's seat. I glanced at him through the open passenger side door, then back out to the crowd. The kid was gone. I scanned the group a few extra seconds then jumped into the EMS.

"You okay girl?" James asked as he pulled the vehicle out onto the street.

"Yeah.. yeah. Just tired." I couldn't believe that I honestly jumped to 'zombie'. But that's what he looked like. No decayed flesh or anything, but like no one was home upstairs. Drugs probably. Bullis had a junkie brother. I settled myself lower in the seat and pulled my hat down over my eyes.

"How long has it been since you had a day off, Red?"

I shrugged without looking up. "Awhile. I picked up a shift from Darren yesterday, and traded with Kat on Monday..."

"No, you worked with me on Monday."

"Must've been last Monday then.."

James just laughed. "Do me a favor and don't pick up a shift tomorrow. I know, I know.. you like to work.. but holy fuck Harper. You're getting all weird on me, and it's making me nervous."

I smiled a little. "Fine."

Truth was, I didn't have anything else to do besides work. Work helped me not think about the shit I didn't feel like thinking about. It also gave me an excuse not to call or fly up to see my folks. Maybe a day off would be good..I let myself dose a little as we headed to the morgue, but that kids face kept showing up. And there were others. Glimpses of people I knew had died, up and walking around. Always in that area of town. I always wrote it off as nerves, sleep deprivation, or similar looking family.

But something was gnawing at me that wouldn't let me let it go this time. Something about this was important. Or that could just have been me projecting, like I had when I went to Third's place. Maybe James was right. I decided to tell Mark I couldn't take his shift tomorrow, and I'd go out tonight and get a fucking drink. Hopefully this time it wouldn't taste like a goddamn whiskey sour..

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