The Highlander Journal

Protest, by Christian Monroy

For the third time since midnight, Sylvia and Tara agreed it was all just an accident and moved on. Then they did it a fourth time to really make sure. The hospital’s break room was still dolled up in family-friendly Halloween props. Nobody wanted to be the one who would take down the wilted coloring-book tarantulas that still dangled from the ceiling a week after Halloween. The pediatricians had given them to the kids to pass time before flu shots. Sylvia’s favorite was the one that an eight-year-old in for chemo gave little red socks to, so the spider wouldn’t get cold during Christmas. Tara was morbidly partial to the poor spider a twitchy boy had coated in blue and green flames.

          Jamie opened the door with her butt and balanced three microwaved boxes of Thai takeout on the tips of her fingers.

           “Hottie coming through,” Sylvia said.

           “Sylvie, what do I keep telling you about your smokes?” Jamie nodded at the “NO SMOKING” sign.

           “Adds flavor,” Sylvia puffed as she helped pass around the takeout.

           Tara stared at her sneakers and opened and clenched her clammy hands.

           “Tara, yours was the one with broccoli, right?” Sylvia asked.

           Tara dug her nails into her palms.

           “Well, it’s there when you’re hungry,” Sylvia said and passed out the napkins.

           “Pass me one of those little soy thingies,” Jamie said.

           “I don’t think it goes good on Thai,” Sylvia said.

           “Why would they give us them if it didn’t?” Jamie countered.

           Jamie and Sylvia ate in silence. Tara stewed in her sweat-soaked EMT uniform.

           “At least put it out when we’re eating, Sylvie,” Jamie tapped the cigarette.

           “Told you, it adds a little flavor,” Sylvia said.

           “Maybe I don’t want a little flavor on mine,” Jamie said.

           “Let’s just open a window,” Sylvia flicked a dubious green sauce packet.

           “He’s not gonna make it,” Tara said.

           Sylvia’s hand convulsed, crushed the green packet and splattered spicy sauce all over her uniform.

           “Tara, for God’s sake, it was an accident,” Sylvia barked, and the cigarette tumbled out of her mouth onto the clean linoleum.

           “Didn’t look like an accident to me. He’ll make it, alright. Won’t be so pretty when he does,” Jamie reached for the napkins.

           “You don’t know that, you didn’t see it,” Sylvia ranted and stomped the cigarette butt out with each word.

           “What do you mean, didn’t see it? I saw it, alright, I saw they got him good with that brick, poor baby. Good thing he’s young. He’ll probably get a good graft, but that muscle isn’t coming back pretty. That’s what I mean,” Jamie said.

           Tara and Sylvia got pale, locked eyes and were very quiet. Then Tara broke off and stared at her shoes again.

           “Girls?” Jamie asked.

           Tara opened her mouth but nothing came out.

           “Nothing. Just a long night. It’s fine,” Sylvia said for her.

The room was quiet again as Jamie and Sylvia stared at Tara.

           “It’s fine. She’s right. I’m fine. It’s alright. Right,” Tara repeated stiffly.

Denver only had so many EMTs and paramedics to go around during this wave of protests, so they lowered their expectations on the few people who still applied. When they weren’t enough, they plucked Sylvia and Tara out from behind the receptionists’ desk and put them into training. Sylvia had worked there the longest and, even as a receptionist, had herself a go once or twice at some of the ambulance equipment when the incoming paramedics were falling apart just as much as the guys bleeding all over the stretchers were. Tara knew how to drive a stick and so was already qualified. Jamie had a whopping two months of paramedic duty under her belt and, despite her older age, was fairly well-liked. Sylvia and Tara had a bet on whether Jamie could even say a single mean thing about anyone if she tried.

           That night around 10, they had been called out to a residential cul-de-sac near some businesses.

           “Apparently some protester put a brick in a kid’s face,” Sylvia explained.

           “Off to a great start,” Tara snorted.

           “Oh, mercy,” Jamie’s face crumpled, hand over her heart. “Please, girls, you can’t just get into the habit of speaking so casually like that. These are tragedies.”

Sylvia and Tara casually swapped work-in-progress explanations for the brick-in-the-face on the ride over. Sylvia already had a complex mythology involving unpaid debt and a two-timing girl for the buildup to the fight. Tara wanted to call it self-defense but couldn’t come up with a good reason why the defender would escalate straight to a brick when it was so unwieldy. Jamie rode in the back, as per usual when Sylvie and Tara got the way they usually got about those poor kids.

The officers radioed the area was clear and it was safe for them to move in, even with the police soon heading out to track the protesters’ route through the streets. The spirit of protest was rising and things were already a little out of hand near the businesses.

Tara negotiated the streets of stagnant traffic, disrupted by protesters in the streets. The ambulance’s siren had little effect, and merely ushered them away at a languid crawl. The few investigators still hanging around had picked over the crime scene plenty by the time Tara could park. The investigators piled in their cars and were gone by the time Jamie got out.

           “Filthy vultures ought to be ashamed,” Jamie said.

           Sylvia snorted at Tara, who rolled her eyes.

           The unconscious kid at the scene had a brick sticking out of his right cheek. He had dirty, unmarked clothing and neither chains nor bandanas nor any other telltale signs of someone who spent the past week denouncing the system and police. Broken glasses. Earbuds, no phone. Straight, opal teeth on the left side.

           “Poor, poor baby,” Jamie repeated, wrinkled hands clasped on her heart.

           “Looks about 20, actually,” Sylvia corrected.

           When they determined he was safe to move, it took the three of them to load him into the back, mostly because Jamie’s hands kept shaking.

           “Jamie, we got him. He could’ve been a lot worse,” Tara said.

           “He must be still in high school,” Jamie said. “He could know my nephew.”

           “Jamie, you can let go now,” Sylvia said.

           “Did you see that poor kid? High schooler,” Jamie shook her head and lingered at the spot where the kid had lain.

           “We’ll handle it. He needs you now, get in. We’ll take it slow,” Tara said.

           “Sylvia, pep in your step, I’ll need your hands for this,” Jamie shook her head again and climbed in.

           “Does anybody else hear that?” Sylvia asked.

Behind them, at the mouth of the narrow cul-de-sac was a line of people. Behind them, another. And behind them, more. Some carried rebar, bottles, cameras and smartphones, picket signs and posters. Many clothed in goggles, sunglasses, balaclavas and bandanas. Their heavy jackets and jeans were torn, marks of close calls with police.

Sylvia answered herself. “Tara, in. Now. Drive,” and she led Tara back to the driver’s side door with a handful of shirt.

           “What’s happening out there?” Jamie asked.

           “Get away from the windows,” Sylvia flew into the back.

           “Sylvia, they’re not hurting anyone. I’ll just go around them,” Tara said.

           “Step on it and push right through them,” Sylvia said.

           “Through? Aren’t there any alleyways I can take?” Tara asked.

           “No. Hurry up. Back the way we came, flick on the side sirens and lights. Slow, but don’t stop. Roll. Push them. We need to move,” Sylvia said.

           “Fine, fine. I just don’t want them to panic when they’re just watching. You having a moment back there?” Tara asked.

           “I would be doing better if someone named Sylvia could help me,” Jamie said.

           “Are we gonna get this kid to the hospital or just sit here?” Sylvia snapped.

           “Alright, alright,” Tara said.

Sylvia and Jamie got to work on the boy with the brick in his cheek as Tara flipped on the siren and lights and tapped the gas. They clawed their way toward the block of protesters. Sweat cultivated between Tara’s palms and the wheel. In the back, Sylvia imagined that Jamie could see gray chasing the brown out of her hair in real time. Temperature in the ambulance swelled, their uniforms, now thirty pounds heavier, baked them.

The ambulance came within half a foot of the crowd of protesters who approached the ambulance with the same speed and maintained their phalanx that blocked the exit. Tara’s grip tightened as more coated figures, faces too many to count, too fluid to keep track of, came from around the front line and piled around the left and right of the vehicle. Tara’s foot eased onto the brake as a figure stood statuesque before the license plate, his crossed arms resting on his stomach.

           Tara tapped the horn and checked if the siren was on. It was.

           “Foot off the brake, roll, roll, keep rolling,” Sylvia said from the back.

           “How about you get out and move them? They’re not listening to me,” Tara said.

           “You waiting for their permission or something? God, where are the cops?” Sylvia’s voice wavered.

           “What am I supposed to do up here?” Tara said.

           “Back up. Get on the lawns, throw on the other siren, honk, push them, I got bits of cheek in my hand, the hell you sitting us here for?” Sylvia’s voice rose.

           “Sylvia, would you please focus? Tara can handle them, I only have two hands!” Jamie’s voice rose in turn.

Tara’s voice was about to rise as well when a dull metal tattoo of thuds interrupted her. Slaps and slams from the protesters echoed off the ambulance’s shell and sent their equipment into a quiver. Muffled calls of recognition. Voices outside told them to let Jordan go, let them see Jordan, others made accusations of collaboration with the pigs. The thuds got louder and the ambulance began to rock. Jamie saw the white in Sylvia’s hair grow as color drained from her eyes.

           “Kill the lights. Heads down. Cover the kid.”

           “Sylvia —“

           “Tara. Out. Now. Just move us, get on someone’s patio, just get —“

A gloved hand mashed a pipe into the passenger windshield and left a face-sized thumbprint of crumpled glass. Stuffy air halted in the van, their sound and sight melted into one messy night-time paste.

           “Hard right,” Tara breathed.

Tara crushed the gas pedal, revved the engine and the crowd fell back. The ambulance lurched around to the right and they all felt a smack. Then the front right tire lifted and rolled over a guy.

           Goom-goom-kuh.

He looked about 23, had a couple crowns on his molars and a hoodie with some football team’s logo. Tara saw the miniscule cracks in his palms and the texture of his nails. She saw brown eyes.

           Goom-goom-kuh.

The back right tire rose and echoed the front. Each instant of their second-long escape burrowed down Tara’s throat. She saw the guy in front of her, and then the guy went under the first tire, and then the second.

           They zipped straight through the intersection without breathing.

           Jamie was the first to speak after a couple unsuccessful attempts.

           “What, what, what did we hit?”

           Tara drove and limp sounds leaked out of her mouth.

Sylvia pressed herself against Jamie’s shoulder to keep her head down. She looked out of the back window.

           “It was the curb. We just hit the curb, it’s fine. Almost home,” Sylvia said.

           Tara and Sylvia locked eyes in the glint of the rearview mirror.

           “Don’t worry, it was just an accident. Happens to the best of us,” Sylvia smiled.

           “Just an accident,” Tara’s voice shrunk to a speck of dust. “Right.”

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