I walk down the hall towards Marshall’s room. Pictures of wildlife, nature and the frequent stuffed bird lined the walls. I’m a taxidermist. Yeah, maybe it isn’t healthy for my eight-year-old son to have a mother who stuffs animals for a living, but it’s what I love to do. I don’t kill the animals, obviously. It’s roadkill that hasn’t been completely squashed, or an animal that’s been shot for sport and the hunter didn’t like his catch.
I see it as a way to restore the creature’s past beauty, a sort of way to breathe life back into their appearance. I even made Marshall a stuffed fox cub to sleep with. He’s buried it in the crook of his neck and slept with it since he was four.
Once I get past the large stuffed hare on the shelf, I knocked lightly on Marshall’s white door. He wants to be a bachelor when he grows up, which will hopefully be a while from now. He keeps his room organized and simple. There’s no answer.
“Marshall?” I say, easing his door open. I immediately spot his head of sandy brown hair, half-out from underneath the covers. He likes it longer than the average boy. I walk over and pat his arm. “Marshall, get up, you are NOT going to miss that bus again.”
No response. I gently shake him awake. Tuesdays are always the worst for him. “Uuuurgh,” he groans, sticking his neck out so he can see me. “Mama,” he croaks. I can tell there’s something wrong. “I don’t - I mean, I… My throat hurts. A lot.” Yes, he still calls me mama, but only when we’re alone. He cuddles the fox cub.
I put my hand to his forehead. He’s as cool as a cucumber. “No fever,” I say, getting out his clothes. I walk briskly out of the room and down our long hallway. “Be downstairs in 10 minutes.”
At 1:46 that afternoon, I get a phone call.
“Mom?” Marshall says quietly from the other side. He’s calling from the nurse’s office.
“Yes, hon?” I answer. I already know what it’s about.
“My throat hurts.” I coil some thread around my finger from the sewing kit in front of me. I’m patching up an aardvark.
“I can’t come get you unless you have a fever,” I say, unwrapping the brown thread.
“I don’t have a fever but… yeah. Okay, bye mom,” he croaks. I hang up.
The next day, he woke up and says the same thing. “It’s worse,” he gasped. “It’s like all fiery but it’s all cold and raw at the same time.” I looked at his throat. It didn’t seem red, just…dark. I sent him to school anyways, hoping he would feel better.
“Mrs. Mejia-“ the school nurse clucked over the phone at 11:12 that morning.
“Just call me Kirsten. And it’s Miss.”
“Ms. Kirsten. Marshall is complaining of extreme pain in his throat, and I recommend you picking him up early and taking him to see your family doctor.” I agreed and picked up my son from school, wishing I’d let him stay home. He didn’t talk much, mainly just sat and panted on the way to the pediatrician. I patted his back as we walked into the small, grey-tiled room.
“It seems to be a form of strep, though I can’t be sure,” said Dr. Madda after inspecting Marshall. “The throat isn’t irritated - it’s an infection of the skin inside and around it. It has significant swelling and darkening towards the back, though. Keep him home for a few days, and give him half a tablet of Cybenzlaphine twice a day…” he handed me the pill box and instruction card. I thanked him, paid with my credit card, and we went home. I plopped down on the couch.
“Help me!” I heard a faint cry from the living room where I was sitting. The red-eared slider turtle was coming along very well, but it was Marshall calling. I got up and speed-walked up to his room.
“What is it?” I said, pushing his door open frantically. He was laying on the floor.
“Help me!” he whispered again.
My son was curled into an unnatural position, his knees bent at strange angles and the whites of his eyes barely visible because his pupils were dilated so wide. An unnatural pattern that looked like spider veins was spreading across his neck, the veins protruding and pulsing madly. “Marshall!” I screamed as he started to foam at the mouth and began to jerk his head around.
I dialed 911 and hugged him close. He had passed out just as the lady on the phone said, “Hello, what’s your emergency?”
“Marshall?” I watched as a tall, black-haired male nurse in peppermint-green scrubs called his name, shining a flashlight above his eyes and moving it around. I was hovering a little way off, desperately waiting for his eyes to open. They did.
“Mama?” he said as he woke up, sitting upright on the gurney as if nothing had happened. “How did I get here? What’s going on?!” he questioned, trying to tear out the IV hooked into his arm. The nurse managed to explain and calm him down. Once he heard the story, he remembered.
He stayed in the hospital all night. I had to go home and work. I wish I had stayed.
“How are you feeling?” I said quietly, smiling down at the young boy in the hospital bed in front of me. My long black hair was tied in a bun so it wasn’t in the way. I’m kind of tall, so I’m not really a favorite among the younger patients. Marshall smacked his lips.
“Still hurts,” he mumbled. “And I’m thirsty.” I glanced at his IV bag. He didn’t need it anymore, so I unhooked it. I pointed to a button on the wall.
“Alright, I’m going to get you a glass of water,” I said, heading out the door. “Just press that little orange button if you have an emergency.” Marshall nodded seriously. “Only an emergency,” I said again, ducking out of the doorway.
I walked down the hall, seeing Terry, the little red-haired girl with leukemia. Her hair was thinning and there was a small ball of it clinging to her shirt. I brushed it off and threw it away so she wouldn’t see, but apparently she did. “Am I going to be bald?” she cried to the mustached doctor wheeling her to the radiology room. He did his best to soothe her as I walked into the kitchens, cringing at her loud wails.
I filled a thoroughly sanitized plastic cup with water and made my way back to Marshall’s room. I suddenly heard the small intercom device on my pale green scrubs go “Deet-deet-deeeet!” I nearly dropped the water. I set it down on the counter and speed-walked to his room. I flung open the door, fearing what I might see. I had good reason to be afraid.
Marshall was standing up on his bed, screaming at the top of his lungs. His neck… oh, his neck. It was ripped open, with a watery white substance dribbling out along with the ruby liquid I’ve seen much too often.
I pressed the black button on my coat and urgently spoke, “Red, red. Doctor Ferrell to 331, NOW!” I tried to get Marshall to sit down, but he wouldn’t budge. I finally clamped my hand over his throat and soaked up the strange liquid with a towel.
“AaaaaaAAAAAUUUGH!” his screams got even louder as the wound was dried. It seemed like he didn’t have enough skin to cover his throat. I could see large, black, pulsing veins through his skin. This wasn’t strep.
Dr. Ferrell opened the door, snapping his gloves on. He was calm. Another nurse helped me sit Marshall down, and a third was removing the IV and trying not to get his face slapped by one of the boy’s flailing arms. Then he fell to the ground, missing the bed. The third nurse caught him before he hit the floor and laid him on the bed.
I was currently holding Marshall down as his neck split open like seams breaking off an overstuffed toy - and he began to bleed and secrete the white stuff even more. The second nurse tried to patch it up, but the wound was growing wider and wider until he had lost a pint of blood. I had to turn away when I caught sight of his larynx.
“What is this?!” the male nurse (Joe) cried, his gloves caked with red and white. I had a split-second image of a strawberry shortcake in my head. I vomited into the trash can in the corner. But I couldn’t leave my patient.
Dr. Ferrell got out the defibrillators. “Clear!” he hissed and pounded the metal pads into Marshall’s heaving chest. But after just one shock, Ferrell knew there was nothing he could do.
The wound had stretched all around the boy’s neck, and the substances had mixed together, forming a soupy pink liquid that dripped off the bed. I heaved again, and I knew I wouldn’t be any good in that room.
I didn’t see it when Marshall Mejia died. I wish I had. Maybe I would’ve been able to find out what caused it.
The phone rang. I ignored it in favor of the turkey I was sewing.
"CALL FROM: LOUDON GROVE HOSPITAL," sang the phone.
“Hello?” I whisper-shouted into the small silver device.
“Miss Mejia?” came the voice from the other line.
“This is she.”
“There’s been… there’s been a terrible accident. Your son…”
I threw the phone into the wall. “NO! NO! YOU AREN’T DEAD! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I screamed. My baby boy… My baby boy with the clean room and white walls and quiet voice and many friends… he wasn’t. I snatched up my keys and flung myself into the Honda, my face a mess of mucus, tears and cold sweat.
I screamed, “YOU AREN’T!” once again and drove to the hospital, getting honked at four times.
“Where is he?!” I demanded to that black-haired nurse. His nametag said Gene. He turned away from me. It didn’t matter, I remembered his room number anyways. I sprinted up the stairs as fast as I could.
“Wait, ma’am!” that followed me up. I opened Marshall’s hospital room door. I saw his small body and a pink-drippy soup on the bed when some nurse in blue shoved me out. “Wait,” she whispered to me. “You don’t want to see it. Please, ma’am. Wait.” She started to hug me for no apparent reason. I embraced her back and soaked the shoulder of her blue coat.
Two Days Later
“And he had been eating fine?”
“Yes,” I answered Dr. Ferrell. I hated these questions. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t the slightest idea what had killed my son.
The doctor sighed. “I can’t determine what caused his illness,” he said, looking mournful. Marshall didn’t matter to him. Marshall was just another patient, another problem that could be worked out and shoved out again. It was everyday life. The doctor didn’t care. I know that for a fact.
“Did Marshall come into contact with any dangerous or ill animals in the past two years?” he questioned.
“No. I’m a taxidermist, but he’s never near any live animals aside from his friend’s pets. They’re all safe,” I mumbled.
“A taxidermist?” Dr. Ferrell said, twirling his pen around a large finger. “Did Marshall spend time around a specific animal for long periods of time that may have had bacteria or a disease in its fur?” he questioned.
“No, I don’t re-“ I started. Then I looked across the room to the table where Marshall’s files were laid out.
I remembered the fox.
The fox I hadn’t had time to sanitize in time for his birthday.
The fox my son had always cuddled under his neck.
The fox I gave him four years ago.
The fox I found on the side of the road, leaking blood and a strange white liquid.