The Staircase

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					CLB0509p079   12/7/06        10:21 AM         Page 76

              The Staircase
                        By Molly Loomis
           We’re procrastinating at the base when
        we hear the shouting. We drop our packs
        and run: me, John, Shannon. A stranger
        with a green helmet is at the base, rushing
        to clip gear on his harness. Someone is on
        the ledge; he will climb up — can we rappel
        from above?
           From below, John directs Shannon and me
        towards the crack. Secretly, I’d rather take a
        swim in the river before the sun leaves the
        canyon. We figured it’s probably a broken leg.
        I wonder if we’ll have time to climb more.
           A young girl lies still on the ledge, legs
        splayed. The man with the green helmet is at
        her head. A blonde boy bends over her body,
        his T-shirt shoulder covered in blood, his
        face contorted with tears. His eyes are wild,
        searching for focus. Deep, choking gurgles
        escape in desperate intervals from the girl.
           We’d met that morning, small-talked
        about the weather, swapped Beta. We were
        close in age. She had blond hair and blue
        eyes like me. He had a black tattoo curving
        around his calf.
           The man in the green helmet, Ted, holds
        her head between his hands. He rattles off
        vitals and tells me there is excessive bleeding
        from the back of her head. The boy hovers,
        helping her breathe. Her upper-body goes

                                                                                                                                                                 MIKE TEA
        rigid; she sucks for air like an asthmatic.
           Ted asks me to check for a pulse. Under
        her cold skin I feel tendons and a thorax. I
        cannot find her heartbeat.                          Colorado, one hundred feet up Staircase, a        and tongue are blue-gray. I take a deep
           The boy, Zac, calls her “Baby” between           two-pitch 5.5 in Eleven Mile Canyon with a        breath and exhale; her chest rises like a paper
        breaths and repeats, “I love you. Don’t             straightforward descent. Sirens and vehicles      doll’s, filling with air. It makes me believe we
        leave me. What am I gonna do without                stop below, clouding the canyon with dust.        can save her. Sometimes she surprises me by
        you? We want to get old together.” He               We think it’s almost over. It feels like things   taking a breath that wakes her whole upper
        breaks away and shouts at the sky, “I am            will be okay. But nothing happens for a long      body — exhaling cold, rank air, coughing
        sorry! This is my fault!”                           time. Zac screams, “What is taking so fucking     bits of blood. Her eyes look straight at the
           It’s hard to know how much time passed.          long?” I want to scream with him, but             sky, reminding me of fish eyes: gray, cold,
        The sun is leaving the canyon; it used to be        lie. “They are doing their best; they’ll be       blank. Blood pools in her left ear.
        four of her breaths to one of Zac’s. It’s now       here soon.”                                          Eventually an EMT arrives, followed by a
        four of Zac’s to every one of her’s.                   Zac is tired and can’t keep breathing for      nurse, but the medical kit he’s hauling lodges
           Getting her down should be easy once             Jessica. He and I change positions. I feel        in the crack. It doesn’t make sense; it would be
        help arrives. We’re just outside Lake George,       awkward putting my lips to hers. Her lips         simple to lower or rappel with supplies. But I

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        It Could Happen To You
        don’t question. We aren’t in charge anymore.      and compressions, Sherri whispers to me.            before the EMT desists.
           The EMT opens Jessica’s jaw and inserts a      “Even if we get her off this rock, she’ll be           Later that night, sitting on the kitchen
        plastic tube down her throat for intubation.      brain dead. She’s lost too much blood.”             floor, I get angry. I want answers, but
        We start CPR. I pump air into Jessica with            I can’t remember how it’s finally called, or    Shannon and John’s story only results in
        the big blue balloon while the nurse, Sherri,     if it even is. Sherri and the EMT back away         more questions. The local SAR, ambulance,
        compresses. Jessica’s pulse comes back            while Zac dives to her still body, wailing,         and fire team all arrived promptly, but
        stronger. “This is the best sign yet,” Sherri     “God, how could you do this?”                       almost immediately turf wars broke out;
        says. “She’s strong; She doesn’t want to give         She stares silent at the stars, eyelids half    leaders engaged in shouting matches, men
        up.” Then it fades. “I can’t do anything unless   open, yellowed and gray. I try to shut them,        challenging one another with fists, all to
        we get those goddamn supplies up here.” She       but they won’t close. Her head lolls to the side.   decide who was in charge. The SAR team

               She stares silent at the stars, eyelids half open,
                    yellowed and gray. I try to shut them,
               but they won’t close. Her head lolls to the side.
                   I take off my sweatshirt and cover her
              face, not sure that I should, worried I’m forcing
                 Zac to realize — too soon — that it’s over.
        asks the question on all of our minds. “What      I take off my sweatshirt and cover her face, not    dropped their litter halfway up the dome
        the hell are they doing down there?”              sure that I should, worried I’m forcing Zac to      thinking a better one would come. The
           Something about Flight for Life sounds         realize — too soon — that it’s over.                nurse and EMT faced disciplinary action
        over the radio. It has been waiting at the           A fire fighter arrives empty-handed. By          for ascending. Up top, Shannon asked
        mouth of the canyon, but someone some-            now, we are shivering hard. They send Zac           repeatedly for supplies and clothing. John,
        where else calls it off. Desperate, Sherri        and myself down first. Zac bangs into the           directed by an EMT to deliver oxygen
        decides to try an IV. Jessica’s veins are too     rock; I don’t think he notices. I don’t want        bottles, was then threatened arrest by a
        withered for an injection.                        to reach ground or the spotlights. The lights,      SAR member and told to forget the
           Sherri says calmly yet firmly, “Zac, we are    fire trucks, ambulances, and crowd are there        oxygen. I listen in disbelief.
        doing everything we can, but we don’t             because something has happened; it’s real.             Although exhausted I can’t sleep. We
        know if Jessica is going to make it. We need      We are wrapped in blankets and escorted             drive to the hospital; I’d been given strict
        to call someone to be here for you.” He           down the trail.                                     instructions to get tested immediately for
        turns away shaking with tears. The EMT               It’s warm and quiet in the ambulance. A          “exposure.”
        shouts into Zac’s face, “Listen son, we need      woman gives us wet, warm cloths to wipe                I wait in the hallway listening to a man’s
        information.” Ted shelters Zac in his arms        away the blood dried on our skin. I scrub           labored breathing. It’s too much like Jessica.
        and coaxes names and numbers.                     and scrub, even after it’s gone.                    I clamp my hands over my ears.
           Permission to cease efforts is given over         Zac and I are self-conscious in the                 The doctor rattles statistics about HIV,
        the radio. Sherri makes the final examination     silence, neither knowing what to say. We            hepatitis: I should be tested again in six weeks,
        with her stethoscope. “No, I hear it.             have shared one of life’s most intimate             three months, six months. The risk is low. A
        Something’s there.” The EMT listens, but          moments as strangers. We begin to talk              nurse preps to draw blood. It takes a few tries.
        isn’t sure. For a few minutes, they debate        about it in jumbled tenses: past, present,          She pops through a dehydrated vein.
        continuing. The EMT presses the radio’s           future. They’d just bought a house and were            “Go home, get some rest,” the doctor
        call-button.                                      getting married. They’d come climbing to            advises. Then he lowers his voice, like we’re
           “Resuming efforts.”                            celebrate his 21st birthday.                        pals or something. “Don’t tell my wife about
           Miraculously, Jessica’s pulse kicks in.           The door opens, the EMT enters. He               this. I just got my son a rope and a harness
           They decide to attempt an IV into the other    ignores us, complaining about the cold and          so he can start climbing.”
        hand. The EMT worries he’ll punch through         the body bag. “Could you not talk about                “Tell me you got him a helmet, too?” It’s
        her fragile veins. Between encouraging Jessica    that?” Zac says, finally yelling “Stop!”            all I can say.

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