At the master control panel Firban was thinking: A pretty kid. Wonder what’s wrong. Must be something serious for Bell to take all that interest; usually the chief doesn’t pay attention to patients until after the films are made. He double-checked the panel controls; in this work you acquired the habit of taking no chances. Settings were okay—84 kilovolts, 200 milliamps, exposure time fifteen hundredths of a second. He pressed a button which set the rotating anode of the picture tube in motion. Then calling out the familiar formula, “Don’t move! Keep still!” he thumbed the second button and knew that whatever was to be seen by the osmotic eye of X-ray was recorded now for others to evaluate.
In the X-O-Mat room of Radiology, the Venetian blinds lowered to cut off the light from outside, Drs. Bell and Lucy Grainger were waiting. In a few minutes the films which Firban had taken would be ready for comparison with those of two weeks before. The technician had already fed his undeveloped negatives into the autodeveloping machine, and at this moment, looking somewhat like an oversized oil furnace, its interior was humming. Now, one by one, the developed films began to fall too a slot at the front of the machine.
As each film appeared Bell placed it under the clip of a viewing box, lighted by fluorescent tubes behind. On a second viewing box, immediately above, he had already put in position the earlier films.
“Did we get good pictures?” There was a touch of pride in the technician’s question.
“Very good indeed.” It was a reflex answer; Bell was already studying the new negatives intently, then comparing the corresponding areas in the two sets of films. He used a pencil point to aid his own thought process and so that Lucy could follow him.
When they had gone over both sets completely, Lucy asked, “Do you see any difference? I can’t, I’m afraid.”
The radiologist shook his head. “There’s a little periosteal reaction here.” He pointed with the pencil to a slight difference in gray shading at two points. “But that’s probably the result of your own biopsy. Otherwise there’s been no conclusive change.” Bell removed his heavy glasses and rubbed his right eye. He said, almost apologetically, “I’m sorry, Lucy; I guess I have to throw the ball back at Pathology. Will you tell Joe Pearson, or shall I?” He began to take down the two sets of films.
“I’ll tell him,” Lucy said thoughtfully. “I’ll go and tell Joe now.”
Staff Nurse Mrs. Wilding pushed back a wisp of gray hair that seemed forever to be falling out from under her starched cap and walked briskly down the fourth-floor corridor of Obstetrics a little ahead of John Alexander. At the fifth door they came to she stopped and looked inside. Then she announced cheerfully, “A visitor for you, Mrs. Alexander,” and ushered John into the small semi-private room.
“Johnny darling!” Elizabeth held out her arms, wincing slightly as the movement caused her to change position in the bed, and he went to her, kissing her tenderly. For a moment she held him tightly. He felt her warmth and under his hand the crisp, clean coarseness of the hospital nightgown she had on. There was a smell in her hair that resembled a combination of sweat and ether; it seemed a reminder of something he had been unable to share, as if she had been to a distant place and was now returned, a touch of strangeness with her. For a moment he sensed a constraint between them, as if, after separation, there was the need to find and to know each other again. Then gently Elizabeth drew back.
“I must look a mess.”
“You look beautiful,” he told her.
“There wasn’t time to bring anything.” She looked down at the shapeless hospital garment. “Not even a nightgown or a lipstick.”
He said sympathetically, “I know.”
“I’ll make a list. Then you can bring the things in.”
Behind them Mrs. Wilding had drawn the overhead curtain that separated them from the other bed in the tiny room.
“There you are. Now you’re as private as can be.” She took a tumbler that was on a bed table beside Elizabeth and refilled it from a jug of ice water. “I’ll come back in a little while, Mr. Alexander; then you can see your baby.”
“Thank you.” They both smiled gratefully as the nurse went out.
As the door closed Elizabeth turned to face John again. Her expression was strained, her eyes searching.
“Johnny dear, I want to know. What are the baby’s chances?”
“Well, honey . . .” He hesitated.
She reached out and covered his hand. “Johnny, I want the truth. The nurses won’t tell me. I’ve got to hear it from you.” Her voice wavered. He sensed that tears were not far distant.
He answered softly, “It could go either way.” He went on, choosing the words carefully. “I saw Dr. Dornberger. He said the chances are just fair. The baby might live, or . . .” John stopped, the sentence unfinished.
Elizabeth had let her head fall back into the pillows behind her. Looking at the ceiling, the words little more than a whisper, she asked, “There really isn’t much hope, is there?”
John weighed the impact of what he might say next. Perhaps, if the baby were going to die, it was better for them both to face it now, better than to buoy up Elizabeth’s hopes and then in a day or two have them cruelly destroyed. Gently he said, “He’s . . . awfully small, you see. He was born two months too soon. If there’s any kind of infection . . . even the smallest thing . . . He doesn’t have much strength.”
“Thank you.” Elizabeth was quite still, not looking at him, but holding his hand tightly. There were tears on her cheeks, and John found his own eyes moist.
Trying to keep his voice even, he said, “Elizabeth darling . . . Whatever happens . . . We’re still young. We’ve a lot ahead of us.”
“I know.” The words were scarcely audible, and his arms went around her again. Her head close against him, he heard her, muffled through sobs. “But . . . two babies . . . this way . . .” She lifted her head, her cry despairing. “It isn’t fair!”
He felt his own tears coursing. Softly he whispered, “It’s hard to figure . . . We’ve still got each other.”
For a minute longer he held her; she was sobbing quietly, then he felt her stir. She murmured, “Handkerchief,” and, taking one from his own pocket, he passed it to her.
“I’m all right now.” She was wiping her eyes. “It’s just . . . sometimes.”
He told her softly, “If it helps, honey . . . you cry. Any time you want.”
She smiled wanly and returned the handkerchief. “I’m afraid I’ve messed it all up.” Then her voice changed. “Johnny . . . lying here . . . I’ve been thinking.”
“I want you to go to medical school.”
He protested gently. “Now, honey, we’ve been over all this . . .”
“No.” Elizabeth stopped him. Her voice was still weak, but it had an edge of determination. “I’ve always wanted you to, and now Dr. Coleman says you should.”
“Do you have any idea what it would cost?”
“Yes, I do. But I can get a job.”
Gently he said, “With a baby?”
There was a moment’s silence. Then Elizabeth said softly, “We may not have a baby.”
The door opened noiselessly and Nurse Wilding came in. She glanced at Elizabeth’s red-rimmed eyes, then discreetly avoided them. To John she said, “If you like, Mr. Alexander, I’ll take you to see your baby now.”
After he had left John Alexander at the nursing station Dr. Dornberger had headed for the hospital nursery.
The nursery lay at one end of a long, bright corridor, decorated cheerfully in pastel shades. It was in a section of the building which had been remodeled two years earlier and reflected the newer trend to spaciousness and light. Approaching, Dornberger could hear, as always, the cries of infants, ranging in pitch and volume from full-lunged, anguished howls to tentative falsettos. More out of habit than thought, he stopped to glance through the thick glass paneling which screened the nursery’s main area on three sides. Business, he reflected, noting the preponderance of occupied bassinets, appeared as brisk as ever. His glance ranged over the orderly rows.
These, he thought, were the normal, healthy animals who had won, for the moment, their battle for existence and in a few days more would go outward and onward into the waiting world. Their destinations were the home, the school, the strife of living, the competition for fame and possessions. Among these were some who would taste success and suffer failure; who, barring casualty, would enjoy youth, accept middle age, and grow old sadly. These were those for whom more powerful and glossier automobiles would be designed, in whose service aircraft would wing faster and farther, whose every whim and appetite would be wooed by others of their kind with wares to market. These were some who would face the unknown future, most with misgiving, many bravely, a few craven. Some here, perhaps, might breach the barriers of outer space; others with the gift of tongues might move their fellow men to anger or despair. Most, within twenty years, would fulfill their physical maturity, obeying, but never understanding, the same primeval craving to copulate which had sown their seed and brought them, mewling, puking, here. But for now these were the victors—the born and urgent. Their first and greatest barrier was down, the other battles yet to come.
Across the hallway was another area with a smaller nursery beyond. In it, quiet and separate, each in an incubator, were the premature babies; these—the doubtful starters, their existence insecure, their first encounter not yet won. Turning away from the main nursery, it was this section that Dornberger entered now.
When he had viewed his newest patient—a tiny fragment of insecure humanity—he pursed his lips and shook his head doubtfully. Then, methodical as always, he wrote careful instructions on the treatment to be followed.
Later, as Dornberger left by one door, Nurse Wilding and John Alexander came in by another.
Like everyone who approached the premature nursery, they had put on sterile gowns and face masks, even though plate glass separated them from the air-conditioned, humidity-controlled interior. Now, as they stopped, Mrs. Wilding leaned forward and tapped lightly on the glass. A younger nurse inside looked up and moved toward them, her eyes above the mask inquiring.
“Baby Alexander!” Wilding raised her voice enough to carry through to the other nurse, then pointed to John. The girl inside nodded and motioned for them to move. They followed her the length of the plate-glass window and stopped. Now she pointed to an incubator—one of the dozen the nursery contained—and turned it slightly so they could see inside.
“My God! Is that all?” The exclamation was torn from John even as it framed itself in mind.
Nurse Wilding’s glance was sympathetic. “He’s not very big, is he?”
John was staring as if in unbelief. “I’ve never seen anything so . . . so incredibly small.”
He stood looking down into the Isolette cabinet. Could this be human?—this tiny, shriveled, monkeylike figure, little larger than his own two hands.