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Nevada Barr - Bittersweet.docx
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Imogene ran down the steps. “Quick, child, run. I can keep up.” She turned to the older woman. “I’ve got to get to her.”

            Mrs. Utterback was halfway to the house. “I’ll get Dr. Stricker and follow you.”

            Melissa grabbed Imogene’s hand and darted out the gate. It was more than a mile across town to the Ramseys’ house, and when the child tired, Imogene carried her, her long strides throwing her skirts before her. The shady lanes, with their tidy border of homes, grew ragged, the fences leaning and unpainted. Dogs wandered unconfined, sniffing at corners and poking their noses into refuse dumped in the street. The air was foul with the odor of rot, and clouds of flies buzzed over the garbage.

            “There!” the girl cried finally, and pointed to a small house near the end of the street, the unfenced yard overgrown with weeds and only the memory of paint still clinging to the weathered wood. Imogene broke into a run. Melissa’s mother, a heavyset woman of indeterminate age, was there to meet them.

            “I told you to git Miss Utterback!” she scolded.

            “She’s coming with the doctor,” Imogene intervened.

            “You better do somethin’ now,” the Negro woman warned, “or there goin’ to be no need for the doctor; Miss Sankey goin’ to kill that child.” She took Imogene by the arm and propelled her up the steps. “You get in there an’ you do somethin’ now, you hear? This nigger’s goin’ to wait here by the door an’ she want to hear somethin’ happenin’.”

            The spare front room was empty. The bedroom door stood ajar and Imogene pushed it open slowly. The last light of the sun poured through the window, flooding the room with orange light. A double bed, piled high with clothes and rumpled bedding, took up most of the space. A narrow-faced girl lay amid the covers, her eyes closed. In the corner, by the head of the bed, a sluggish, blowzy woman jabbed at something and there was an angry cry.

            Imogene stepped to the foot of the bed. “Is she all right?” she whispered. The woman stared at her with glazed eyes. The air was heavy with the smell of whiskey and blood. Her mouth was slack, and she held a pin in her hand, poised above the protesting form of a newborn infant almost hidden behind a mounded blanket. The baby’s hair was slicked against its head, and a gelatinous mass of afterbirth extended from it like a snail’s trail. The umbilical cord, uncut, disappeared into a fold of heavy wool behind the infant’s head. The baby turned milky eyes on Imogene and smeared its mouth with a tiny, bloody fist.

            The sun dipped below the sill, and the orange light drained from the room. Without the food of color, the blankets showed their black banners of blood, and Mary Beth’s white face was staring in contrast. Imogene leaned over the bed, her hands hovering above the still figure.

            “Mary Beth,” she whispered, stroking the girl’s cheek with the back of her hand. “No. No, Bethy.” Jerking back the covers, she pressed her ear to the girl’s chest.

            When she looked up, her face was like slate. Her nostrils flared slightly, two white dents appearing on either side of her nose. The midwife still poked drunkenly at the whimpering baby, trying to diaper it before the cord had been tied off or the blood and afterbirth washed away.

            “Get out,” Imogene said quietly. The woman looked up stupidly, focusing with difficulty. She pawed the hair away from her eyes.

            “You git,” she said thickly. “Nobody tellin’ me my business. You git! Cow.” She snorted and a thin line of mucus ran from her nose.

            Imogene was around the bed in three strides. She clamped her hand on the woman’s wrist and the midwife cried out, dropping the diaper pin on the bed. Imogene jerked her away from the baby, slamming her into the wall. Her fingers clenched into a white fist, Imogene raised her arm.

            “You got no call to go hurtin’ me,” Mrs. Sankey blubbered. Her flaccid, puffy face quivered and crumpled. Imogene dropped her hand and, grasping the woman by the dresstail and the back of her neck, ran her from the bedroom.

            Melissa and her mother crowded the narrow steps, peering in. When they saw Imogene, stonefaced and bloodless, drag the midwife from the bedroom, they scattered like chaff before a storm. They were just in time. Imogene wrenched back on the woman’s hair and the seat of her dress, hauling her just off the floor, and hurled her though the door. She landed in a bawling heap at the bottom of the steps.

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