After Care by Helen Beer

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“Try to relax,” the doctor said, her voice pragmatic and assured, issuing the impossible command.

“You’re doing fine, Lenora,” the nurse added, her voice soothing and empathetic, issuing the white lie.

The strangers who comforted Lenora were completely anonymous; their names had not been revealed to her for their own protection, even though April knew them and had made the arrangements. Lenora’s husband hadn’t come; but then again, she hadn’t told him she was coming here—or why. She’d simply told him that she and April were visiting April’s sick aunt in St. Louis and wouldn’t be back until Sunday evening. He’d had no reason to question her story; she wasn’t the type to stray. And they were, after all, in St. Louis and had indeed spent the previous night at April’s aunt’s house. Aunt Anna wasn’t sick, though—just feisty and in a perpetual state of agitation over what her country had become. She was more than happy to aid her niece and her niece’s friend in their clandestine activities; she’d even practiced a very convincing cough in advance of their visit.

Lenora tried to close her eyes, and leave the place, if only for a moment, but it wasn’t possible. The machine’s whirring and gurgling sounds brought her back to reality before she could leave. The pain—at once grabbing, pulling, cramping—made her stay.

She opened her eyes and stared at the tiny black dots in the chalky white dropped ceiling of this abandoned office building now used for unsanctioned women’s healthcare. When she closed her lids slightly, the dots all grew together like some ominous cloud of bees ready to attack. She felt her right hand being squeezed, and instinctively squeezed back.

“That’s it, squeeze hard. It’ll be over soon.”

They’d been so kind to her. She hadn’t even realized she’d been pregnant. She’d come—at April’s insistence—only because her period had gone on for fifteen days, and she’d passed more clots than usual; the fever was the last straw. When April had asked her if she might be pregnant, she couldn’t immediately respond. A couple months before, he’d taken her; it hadn’t been by choice. That he was sober at the time only made it worse. It was the first time she’d ever been afraid of her husband in twelve years of marriage, but it wouldn’t be the last, she knew. His latest promotion had changed him, gone to his head, made him mean—not just to his subordinates, but to her.

The doctor had explained to Lenora that she’d had a spontaneous abortion, and that a small amount of fetal tissue remained, clinging to the wall of her uterus, resulting in infection. She explained that there was nothing she could have done; it wasn’t her fault—in spite of the government-issued advisories to the contrary.

The nurse explained miscarriage statistics—twenty percent was the number she threw out initially, but then quickly added it might be as high as fifty percent if unconfirmed pregnancies were included. Of course, she’d added, those statistics dated back to a time before the Supreme Court had overturned Roe—back when getting a D&C, for any reason, was still legal.

The doctor made a point of emphasizing that the body does an enviable job of ridding itself of anomalies, stating her continued belief that women shouldn’t be imprisoned for having a miscarriage, as the law now dictated. The two women had explained things in terms meant to comfort Lenora; but they succeeded in making her obsess over the circumstances that led her to that room instead.

She embraced the pain as punishments meted out by some god she did not know. She’d been stupid, and foolish, to have believed the man who said he loved her, to have married him, to have remained so long. But divorce was only granted to men, not to women, no matter the circumstances. She knew that if she’d chosen to leave, without his permission, she’d be hunted down and returned to him. And although she had her own source of income, once they’d married all her earnings were legally his, deposited in his account, inaccessible to her—save what he gave her for a weekly household allowance. And while they’d had a son together, early in their marriage, he’d been away at an all-boys boarding school from the age of five on; he was being groomed for a leadership role, free from his mother’s influence.

*

Marriage had become a government-mandated institution of women’s economic dependence on men—and was required of all native-born women of European backgrounds prior to their twenty-fifth birthday. It was a rule meant to ensure an ample supply of fertile young women for the incels and white nationalists who’d taken power a decade earlier—and for their sons and grandsons. The only way out was a combination of widowhood and menopause. Hysterectomies and bilateral oophorectomies were allowed only in cases of pelvic cancers—and then only after all other means of treatment were exhausted; many women succumbed to their cancers before they reached the point of surgical intervention.

Non-European immigration had been strictly curtailed, unless individuals agreed to sterilization prior to their arrival. Early planners hadn’t considered the impact on the STEM professions, and quickly scrambled to encourage native-born women to enter those professions, offering free college tuition and generous paid time off for child-rearing. Those native-born women of non-European backgrounds were provided free birth control and voluntary sterilization. As a “consolation” they were given lifelong annual stipends and free healthcare to adopt and raise the unwanted offspring of European women—those with physical or mental disabilities; it was something most opted to do, rather than bring their own children into a society that clearly didn’t want them.

*

Lenora felt her trembling legs being stretched out once more, laid together once more; the effort to keep her knees bent, and apart, had been harder than she’d imagined. A warm blanket was tucked around her entire body, its light blue folds caressing her neck with its cottony softness. She shuddered, crossing her arms over her chest, trying to warm herself. But she felt cold from the inside out and couldn’t stop shaking. In that moment, she was reminded of her son, and how much she missed him.

“It’s over. You’re going to stay here for a little bit. You were grossly anemic to begin with, so you’re probably feeling a little lightheaded. You just lay there, nice and still now, all right? I’ll get April and ask her to come back; she knows the protocol. The doctor and I will be leaving now, as we explained earlier—we can’t be seen leaving here together. Wait at least another hour, okay? Make sure to turn off the lights as we instructed—both for the room and the hallways; we need to conserve the fuel powering the generator in the basement. The door will lock behind you, so make sure you have everything with you before you leave. And remember… if the drones fly overhead as you make your way to your car, avert your faces. And make sure they’re out of sightline before you exit the garage. I’ll remind April as well.”

“Thank you for everything,” Lenora responded. April was the person she’d wanted to accompany her here, not her husband; of course, she conceded, it would’ve been impossible for him to have come. He would’ve reported his wife to the authorities, had he known the circumstances.

But April came—without question, without judgment, without hesitation—knowing full well the penalties she could face if they were caught. They’d been colleagues at a biometric technology firm for a year, until April finished nursing school and started working at the hospital instead. They’d remained friends even though their schedules were lopsided; April worked nights, she worked days. They shared a secretive appreciation of a different time—a time April and those of her generation had only learned of through whispered conversations with women like Lenora, women who’d known another way.

The worried look on April’s face made Lenora want to hold this young woman—twenty-one, and fifteen years her junior—mother her, reach outside herself and her pain and be a loyal friend back to her. She hated that she was the one worrying her, putting her at great risk.

“The nurse said everything went okay… you… you look good.”

“Bullshit, April.” She tried to push herself up with her elbows, but her head felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds, and she abandoned the effort, letting it drop back onto the hard, flat pillow.

“Weren’t you instructed to just lie still? You’ve got to allow your strength to come back, and the Valium’s got to wear off. I’m in no hurry… are you?” April set herself down on an ancient, mesh back office chair, stuck in its highest position, and rolled it to her friend’s side. She let her fingers travel from Lenora’s forehead, then to her cheek.

“Warm enough?” April asked.

Lenora realized she’d stopped shaking.

“Yeah.”

April busied herself pushing back Lenora’s hair from her face, damp from sweat in the stuffy room, then began rubbing her friend’s shoulder, attempting to comfort her.

“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Minutes later, the doctor and nurse returned to the room and closed the door behind them, their faces ashen.

“Did you see anything on the monitors in the other room, April? Any activity on the street?” The doctor’s voice betrayed her worry.

“No. Everything was quiet,” April responded. “No activity.”

“And was there a drone flying overhead when you came in?”

“Yes, but we kept our faces down as you’d instructed, and only entered when they weren’t in sightline.”

“And you parked your car in the lowest level of that abandoned deck off Barr Boulevard… and replaced the cone barriers?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, maybe it’s nothing, but there are troops patrolling the street about a block away, near Kavanaugh Avenue. I think it’s best if we all stay here until they pass. Lenora, please get dressed, we need to go to a safe room on the floor below us. April, can you help her do that, please? We’ll step outside.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Please hurry.”

April gathered Lenora’s clothing and shoes from a bag resting on a chair and grabbed an old-fashioned sanitary napkin from her backpack propped against one of the chair’s legs as well. A napkin was far safer for her friend post-procedure than the internal cups mandated for women’s periods. Napkins were only issued to post-partum women, but a healthy black market remained for them on the dark web, sourced in Canada; April and her colleagues managed to stockpile them, at great personal risk, for use after D & Cs.

The cup usage had aided Lenora, though, in hiding the clotting and real cause of her infection from her husband. Cervical and vaginal infections were common from the combination of pooled blood and bacteria formation on cups not meticulously cleaned after their use, so women were issued free antibiotics to address them, no questions asked, no examination needed. Lenora’s husband hadn’t even asked her why she’d been taking them, as she’d done so regularly during their marriage. He had managed a passing, “You should’ve cleaned that damn thing better,” though.

April helped her wobbly friend to a standing position and assisted her in getting dressed quickly. As soon as April opened the door to the hallway, the doctor rushed in and gathered her portable equipment from the rolling table in the corner of the room, packing it carefully into a padded suitcase, while the nurse hurriedly stuffed the blanket, pillow and bloody sheet into a garbage bag. She then deflated the air mattress, rolling it impatiently to force out the air, and stuffed it into the bag as well, leaving an aged wooden conference table with no evidence of its recent, illegal purpose. She flicked off the fluorescent lights as she shepherded April and Lenora out the door.

“Follow us,” said the doctor, as she and the nurse headed down a long corridor towards a long-dormant exit sign, marking a metal fire door and a stairwell beyond. “Help your friend, April,” the doctor instructed, “it’s only one flight down, but she’s still weak.”

Before April could respond, Lenora piped in with an adamant, “I’m fine. The adrenaline’s kicked in.”

The doctor shoved the heavy door with her back, holding it open for April, Lenora and the nurse—who flicked off the hallway lights before brushing past her colleague, and flipping on an aged flashlight. “Stay to the right and hold the handrail,” the nurse instructed. “I’ll do my best to keep the light pointed at the stairs in front of you.”

They descended the staircase in silence, illuminated by the eerie, ghost-like glow of the nurse’s flashlight, turning their bodies into shadow figures on the concrete walls like ancient cave drawings. As they came to the fire door at the fourth-floor landing, April opened it, and signaled with a nod of her head for the doctor, nurse and Lenora to precede her into the dark hallway, the door clanging shut behind her once she followed them. Within twenty steps, they’d come to a door marked, “Janitor.”

The nurse set down the garbage bag and fished in her pocket for a key, illuminating the doorknob as she unlocked it. The door creaked as she opened it. “Go ahead. I’ll light your way.” The group gathered in the tiny closet, while the nurse locked the door and pulled it shut. “Stay close to me,” she said, as she pointed the light towards bare metal shelving lining the back wall. The doctor reached under one shelf, and the wall swung away from them, opening into a larger room, bathed in a blue glow, with monitors lining one wall, oxygen tanks stacked against another, air mattresses lining the floor, a mini-fridge tucked in one corner, and a camp toilet in another. “Go,” she instructed.

As the wall closed once more, the nurse addressed April and Lenora, instructing them to make themselves comfortable on the air mattresses, then turned her attention to the monitors her colleague was already studying.

“Looks like a regular surveillance squad,” the doctor said.

“Yeah… probably just routine,” the nurse added.

The doctor turned towards April and Lenora, huddled together on one of the mattresses, and said, “This isn’t unusual, so you shouldn’t be alarmed.” She pointed to one monitor, and continued, “that’s the old parking deck on Barr Boulevard. If they head into that, then we worry. But look, this room is powered by an offsite power source, and a colleague of ours is monitoring us right now.” She pointed to a tiny wall-mounted camera and waved at it. “So, the oxygen tanks? They’re only for use if that offsite location is breached… and that’s never happened before.” She pointed towards the mini-fridge. “That’s stocked with water and snacks.”

“And we’ve got a toilet,” the nurse added, while still focusing her attention on the bank of monitors. “We’re good.”

“Questions?” the doctor asked.

“This is all my fault,” Lenora began. “How did I not realize I might’ve been pregnant? I could’ve taken one of those stockpiled morning-after…”

“It’s over,” the doctor interrupted. “The only evidence that you’d ever been pregnant is in a vacuum-sealed bag in there.” She pointed to the suitcase. “And that’ll be incinerated as soon as possible once we’re out of here.”

“They’re heading towards the garage,” the nurse said.

“Okay. Plan B,” the doctor said, as she looked up at the camera, and back down to April and Lenora. “I need you both to listen carefully, but first things first.” She walked over to the suitcase, opened it, extracted a small bag—its contents clearly reddish-brown—then pulled out a folded backpack as well, and closed the case once more. She fished in the garbage bag for the bloody sheet and extricated it; she placed both items into the unfolded backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “Okay. So… your car was stolen this morning, Lenora. April’s aunt drove you down to this area to look for it, as it was the last location it pinged before its tracker was deactivated.”

“But…” Lenora began.

“It’s okay, Lenora,” April interrupted, pointing at one of the monitors. “See… there’s Aunt Anna. There’s her car. Your car was reported stolen as soon as we got into this room.”

“Wait…” Lenora began again.

“It’s simple. They’ll explain it to you, but I’ve got to go… but there’s one more thing,” the doctor looked straight at Lenora. “You need to give me the pad. Now. It’s just a precaution, you can use another one later.”

Lenora stood, pulled down her pants and stripped the bloodied pad from her panties and folded it in half. “Here,” she said, holding it out to the doctor, her pants around her ankles. She turned towards April. “Can you hand me a cup, please?”

The doctor shrugged the backpack off her shoulder, unzipped an outer pocket, tucked the bloody pad in it, zipped it once more, and shimmied the backpack onto her shoulder again. She then punched a button and the wall section opened into the room. She turned towards the nurse, “Gail, you know what to do.” The door closed behind her.

“Here, Lenora,” April said, handing her a new cup in its official, government-stamped wrapping, along with an antibacterial wipe. She turned her back on her friend, as Lenora laid on the mattress to position the cup inside her vagina. “Gail’s my cousin,” she continued. “My aunt and the doctor’s husband are monitoring our conversations on a secure channel—and have been since we got to this room. We knew something like this might happen, but we didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily.”

“Oh, God,” Lenora said, as she stood and pulled up her pants, “so many people at risk.”

“We knew the risks, and we accepted them,” Gail said. “Now, we need to get going.”

“Together? As we’d planned?” asked April.

“Yes… exactly as we’d planned.”

*

A group of six soldiers gathered around April’s Aunt Anna, as she sat on a park bench in Schlafly Square, coughing fitfully. April, Lenora and Gail rounded the corner from Kavanaugh Avenue, and approached the group surrounding the older woman. Lenora noticed the doctor and a man she assumed to be her husband sitting on a park bench nearby; the doctor was tossing popcorn to a grateful assembly of pigeons, while the man was tapping away at his phone.

“There they are! Oh, thank God!” Aunt Anna exclaimed.

One of the soldiers pointed to a bloody stain on Lenora’s pants, and asked “What’s that?”

“My cup runneth over,” Lenora responded, winking. “Look, when I saw my husband’s car was missing from the driveway this morning, I didn’t stop to empty my damn cup… I just jumped into panic mode. Now, if I’d paused for a moment to look at my stupid calendar, I would’ve realized it was my heaviest flow day. But my period wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my thoughts.”

“See?” Aunt Anna began, but devolved into a coughing fit. “What’d I tell you?” she said, her voice hoarse, to the soldier who’d pointed; he’d turned red at the mention of the cup, and redder still at the mention of Lenora’s menstrual flow. “She had us all up, dressed, and in search mode before anyone really thought it through… you know, with the idea that if we could locate it by that last ping, we might be able to get it back before the hooligans had it stripped.”

“As I told you,” the soldier began, “that was taking an unnecessary risk. Besides, those pings are only accurate to within…”

A loud explosion rang out from the parking garage, rocking the ground beneath them, and causing a massive plume of dust to rise into the air. Everyone jumped in response, except for Lenora, who fainted dead away, collapsing into a heap.

“I think we found her husband’s car,” one of the soldiers said, and laughed. “I’ll bet they saw us, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk… blowing the damn thing up was the smartest thing they could do, wiping away any DNA evidence.”

April, Gail and one of the soldiers were bending down to check on Lenora, while Aunt Anna looked at the group of soldiers who remained standing and said, between coughs, “Well? Aren’t you going to go look for them now? Isn’t that your job?”

The doctor and the man approached at a jog, announcing as they got closer to the group, “We’re doctors. We can help.”

The soldiers backed away to let them through, and Aunt Anna chided the soldiers once more, “You’re not needed here! Go! Do your job… investigate and find those damn thieves.” She looked at them sternly. “Her husband’s an important man.”

One of the soldiers countered, “They’re probably long gone… it was most likely detonated remotely.” But then he turned to his fellow soldiers, and said, “All right… let’s secure the blast scene.”

As soon as they’d left, Lenora opened her eyes and asked, “How was that?”

“Perfect!” said April. “And Jesus, ‘my cup runneth over?’ Ha! You missed your calling.”

“Hell, I had to cough to keep myself from sputtering with laughter!” Aunt Anna added.

“So,” Lenora said to the group around her, as she was helped to her feet by April, “come here often?”

“Only when we’re needed,” said the doctor, “although we’ll have to scout a new location again. Parking around here is a bitch.”

“Well, when you’re needed again, I want to help. I need to start fighting back… it’s the least I can do for staying silent, so comfortably removed on the sidelines, thinking someone else would fight the fight back in ‘24. Keep practicing that cough, Anna.”

glasses

Helen Beer

Helen Beer sells for a living. She’s had success in short story contests, with multiple placements in both Moondance Film Festival and the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story competitions. Her work has appeared in Literary Potpourri, FRiGG, Typishly, Flash Fiction Magazine, Persimmon Tree, The First Line, and 101 Words, with forthcoming pieces in Sky Island Journal, Haunted Waters Press, and Defenestration. When not working or writing, she enjoys the Zen-like tranquility afforded by time spent riding her horse and mucking stalls.

If you enjoyed ‘After Care’ leave a comment and let Helen know.

You can read more of Helen’s writing below:

Why Now?“, FRiGG Fall/Winter 2016 “Shame Issue”

Tammy and the Wand“, Typishly, June 2019

Awake“, Flash Fiction Magazine, August 2019 –

Ben’s Logic“, 101 Words, August 2019

The Guide“, Persimmon Tree Short Takes “Mourning” Issue

EBITDA! EBITDA! EBITDA!“, The First Line Fall 2019 Issue

You can find and follow Helen at:

Photo by Engin Akyurt

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