CHAPTER 3

You’re not touching her,” Ronnie said fiercely. “Take your lousy hands off her.”

The man called Doc continued to press the girl’s abdomen.

“She’s in either the first or second stage of labor.

Without knowing how much she’s dilated, it’s hard to gauge how close she is to delivering. But her pains are coming frequently, so I’m guessing-“

“Guessing?”

Ignoring Ronnie, Doc patted Sabra’s shoulder reassuringly.

“Is this your first baby?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can call me Doc.”

“Okay.”

“How long since you first started noticing the pains?”

“At first I just felt funny, you know? Well, I guess you don’t.”

He smiled. “I have no personal experience of it, no. Describe to me how it felt.”

“Like right before a period. Sort of.”

“Pressure down there? And twinges like a bad case of cramps?”

“Yes. Real bad. And a backache. I thought I was just tired from riding in the pickup so long, but it got worse. I didn’t want to say anything.” Her eyes moved to Ronnie, who was hovering over Doc’s broad shoulders. He was hanging on every word, but he kept the pistol trained on the people who were lined up like matchsticks on the floor.

“When did these symptoms start?” Doc asked.

“About three o’clock this afternoon.”

“Jesus, Sabra,” Ronnie groaned. “Eight hours? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her eyes began to tear again. “Because it would have ruined our plans. I wanted to be with you no matter what.”

“Shh.” Tiel patted her hand. “Crying will only make you feel worse. Think about the baby coming. It can’t be much longer now.” She looked across at Doc. “Can it?”

“Hard to say with first babies.”

“Your best guess.”

“Two, three hours.” He stood up and faced off with Ronnie. “She’s going to deliver tonight. How easy or difficult the labor and birth will be rests with you. She needs a hospital, a well-equipped delivery room, and medical personnel.

The baby will also need attention immediately after it’s born. That’s the situation. What are you going to do about it?”

Sabra cried out with another pain. Doc dropped down beside her and monitored the contraction by placing his hands on her abdomen. The steep frown between his eyebrows alerted Tiel to trouble. “What?” she asked.

“Not good.”

“What?”

He shook his head, indicating that he didn’t want to discuss it in front of the girl. But Sabra Dendy was no dummy. She picked up on his concern. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”

To his credit, Doc didn’t talk down to her. “Not wrong, Sabra. Just more complicated.”

“What?”

“Do you know what breech means?”

Tiel’s breath caught. She heard Gladys make a tsking sound of regret.

“That’s when the baby…” Sabra paused to swallow hard. “When the baby is upside down.”

He nodded solemnly. “I think your baby is in the wrong position. Its head isn’t down.”

She began to whimper. “What can you do?”

“Sometimes it isn’t necessary to do anything. The baby will turn on its own.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Doc looked up at Ronnie, who’d asked the question. “A cesarean section is done, sparing the mother and child a grueling delivery. A vaginal delivery is dangerous, and can be life-threatening. Knowing that, will you let someone call nine-one-one and get Sabra some help?”

“No!” the girl cried. “I won’t go to a hospital. I won’t!”

Doc took her hand. “Your baby could die, Sabra.”

“You can help me.”

“I’m not equipped.”

“You can anyway. I know you can.”

“Sabra, please listen to him,” Tiel urged. “He knows what he’s talking about. A breech birth would be extremely painful. It could also endanger your baby’s life or cause serious defects. Please urge Ronnie to take Doc’s advice.

Let us call nine-one-one.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head stubbornly. “You don’t understand. My daddy swore that neither I nor Ronnie would ever see our baby after it’s born. He’s going to give it away.”

“I doubt if-“

But Sabra didn’t allow Tiel to finish. “He said the baby would mean no more to him than an unwanted puppy he would take to the dog pound. When he says something, he means it. He’ll take our baby, and we’ll never see it.

He’ll keep us apart, too. He said he would, and he will.”

She began to sob.

“Oh, my,” Gladys murmured. “Poor things.”

Tiel glanced over her shoulder at the others. Vern and Gladys were sitting up now, huddled together, his arms protectively around her. Both were looking on sorrowfully.

The two Mexican men were talking softly together, their hostile eyes darting about. Tiel hoped they weren’t plotting another attempt to overthrow Ronnie. Donna the cashier was still lying on the floor facedown, but she muttered,

“Poor things, my ass. Almost killed me.”

Ronnie, having reached a decision, looked at Doc and said, “Sabra wants you to help her.”

He looked as though he were about to argue. Then, maybe because time was a factor, he changed his mind.

“All right. For the time being, I’ll do what I can, starting with an internal examination.”

“You mean her…”

“Yes. That’s what I mean. I need to know how far the labor has progressed. Find something for me to sterilize my hands with.”

“I’ve got some of that waterless hand wash,” Tiel told him. “It’s antibacterial.”

“Good. Thanks.”

She made to get up, but Ronnie halted her. “Get it and come right back. Remember, I’m watching.”

She returned to the spot where she had dropped her satchel, her soft drinks, and her sunflower seeds. She retrieved the plastic container of hand wash from her satchel. Then, getting Vern’s attention, she mimicked holding a video camera up to her eye. At first he looked perplexed, but then Gladys nudged him in the ribs and whispered in his ear. Nodding vigorously, he hitched his chin in the direction of the magazine rack. Tiel remembered they’d been browsing there when the robbery commenced.

She returned with the bottle of hand wash and handed it to Doc. “Shouldn’t she have something beneath her?”

“We’ve got some bed pads in the RV.”

“Gladys!” Vern exclaimed, obviously mortified by his wife’s admission.

“They would be perfect,” Tiel said, remembering the disposable protective pads she’d seen on Uncle Pete’s bed in the nursing home. They prevented the staff from having to change the bed linens each time a resident had an accident. “I’ll go get them.”

“Like hell,” Ronnie said, dashing that idea. “Not you.

But the old man can go. She,” he added, pointing the pistol at Gladys, “stays here.”

Gladys patted Vern’s bony knee. “I’ll be fine, honey.”

“You’re sure? If anything happened to you…”

“Nothing is going to happen to me. That boy’s got more than me to worry about.”

Vern levered his rickety body up off the floor, dusted off the seat of his shorts, and moved to the door. “Well, I can’t walk through glass.”

Ronnie nudged Donna again, who instantly began imploring him to spare her life. He instructed her to shut up and unlock the door, which she did.

At the door Ronnie and the elderly man exchanged a meaningful look. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” the old man assured him. “I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my wife’s life.” And, although Ronnie Davison was fifty pounds heavier and half a foot taller, he issued him a warning. “If you harm her, I’ll kill you.”

Ronnie pushed open the door and Vern slipped through. His attempt at a jog was unintentionally comical.

Tiel watched his progress across the parking lot until he reached the gas pumps and climbed into the Winnebago.

Doc was talking Sabra through another pain. When it passed, the girl relaxed and closed her eyes. Tiel looked at Doc, who was watching the girl. “What else would be helpful to you?”

“Gloves.”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Some vinegar.”

“Standard distilled vinegar?”

“Hmm.” After a brief pause, he remarked, “You’re awfully cool under pressure.”

“Thanks.” They continued to watch the girl, who, for the moment, seemed to be asleep. Tiel asked softly, “Is this going to end badly?”

His lips compressed into a grim line. “Not if I can help it.”

“How bad-“

“Hey, what are you two whispering about?”

Tiel looked up at Ronnie. “Doc needs some gloves. I was about to ask Donna if the store stocks them.”

“Okay, go ahead.”

She left Sabra’s side and moved to the counter. Donna was standing behind it, waiting to unlock the door when Vern returned. She regarded Tiel suspiciously. “What do you want?”

“Donna, please remain calm. Hysteria will only worsen the situation. For the time being, we’re all safe.”

“Safe? Ha! This is my third time.”

“To be robbed?”

“My luck’s bound to run out. First time, there were three of them. Came in pretty as you please, emptied the register, and locked me in the freezer. If the dairy delivery man hadn’t come by, I’d’ve been a goner. Second time, this guy in a mask clubbed me good ‘longside the head with the butt of his pistol. Had a concussion and couldn’t work for six weeks on account of headaches. So dizzy I puked ’round the clock.” Her narrow chest rose and fell on a deep sigh of resignation. “It’s only a matter o’ time.

The odds’ll catch up with me, and one of ’em’ll kill me.

Do you think he’d let us smoke?”

“If you’re so afraid, why don’t you quit and get another job?”

She looked at Tiel as though she had lost her mind. “I love my work.”

If that was logical, maybe Tiel was losing her mind. “Do you carry any latex gloves in the store? The kind a doctor wears.”

She shook her frizzy, permed head. “Rubbermaid.

That’s it. I think we got two pairs over yonder with the household cleansers.”

“Thanks. Stay cool, Donna.”

As Tiel moved past Gladys, she leaned down and whispered,

“Is there a tape in your video camera?”

The old lady nodded. “Two hours’ worth. Rewound, too. Unless Vern screwed it up when he was fiddling with it.”

“If I can get it to you-“

“Hey!” Ronnie shouted. “What are you whispering about now?”

“She’s afraid for her husband. I was reassuring her.”

“There he is now,” Gladys said, pointing at the door.

Donna threw the bolt and Vern came tottering in, everything except his spindly legs hidden behind a stack of bedding. Ronnie ordered him to drop the load of pillows and quilts, but the old man argued. “It’s all clean. If I drop it, it’ll get dirty. The lady should have a comfortable place to lie, and I thought these towels might come in handy, too.”

“Actually that’s very good thinking, Ronnie,” Tiel said.

‘You can examine the stuff once he brings it over.”

From his Winnebago, in addition to the pads he’d gone for, Vern had brought two pillows, two quilts, two clean bedsheets, and several bath towels. Ronnie found nothing concealed inside the linens and gave the go-ahead for Tiel to make a pallet, which she did while Sabra leaned heavily against Doc.

Tiel used only one of the sheets, saving the spare for later, should the need for it arise. When she was finished, Doc laid the girl down on the bedding. She settled on it gratefully. Tiel placed one of the disposal pads beneath her hips.

“They’re not for what you think,” Vern declared.

Simultaneously Tiel and Doc glanced up at the old man, surprised to see him bending down to confide in them. “We’re not incontinent.”

Tiel could barely contain her smile. “We didn’t ask.”

“We’re on our honeymoon,” Vern explained in a confidential whisper. “Every night we go at it. Daytime too, if the urge strikes us. You know how randy honeymooners are. Those pads aren’t the most comfortable things for the partner on bottom, but neither of us likes to lie in the wet spot, and it beats changing the sheets after each time.”

The old man winked, turned away, and obeyed Ron nie’s instruction to rejoin the others. He sat down beside his wife-his bride-who hugged him and gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek, commending him for his bravery.

Tiel, realizing her jaw was hanging slack, closed it with a soft click of her teeth. Her gaze slid to Doc, who was intent on timing Sabra’s labor pain, but his thin lips were twitching with a smile.

From beneath his eyebrows, he glanced up at Tiel, caught her looking at him, and made a snuffling sound that passed for a laugh. “Gloves?”

“What?”

“Did you ask about the gloves?”

“Oh, uh, two pair of Rubbermaid.”

He shook his head. ‘Just as well be leather work gloves.

What about some vinegar?”

“Coming up.”

“And gauze.”

She asked Ronnie’s permission to shop the aisles, where she found several plastic bottles of vinegar, a box of sterile gauze pads, and a package of disposable baby wipes. She gathered them up. On her way back to Sabra, another display caught her eye. On a burst of inspiration, she added two boxes of hair coloring to her collection.

When she got back to the girl, Sabra was listening intently to what Doc was telling her.

“It won’t be comfortable, but I’ll try not to hurt you, okay?”

The girl nodded and glanced apprehensively at Tiel.

“Have you ever had a pelvic exam, Sabra?” she asked softly.

“Once. When I went for birth-control pills.” Tiel cocked her head quizzically, and Sabra lowered her eyes in em barrassment. “I stopped taking them because they made me fat.”

“I see. Well, you’ve been examined before, so you know what to expect. This probably won’t be any worse than that first exam. Right, Doc?”

“I’ll make it as easy as I can.”

Tiel gave the girl’s hand a quick squeeze. “I’ll be right over there if you-“

“No, stay here with me. Please.” She motioned Tiel down for a private consultation.

“He’s nice,” she said, speaking in a low voice directly into Tiel’s ear. “He acts like a doctor, and talks like a doctor, but he doesn’t look like one, know what I mean?”

“Yes, I know what you mean.”

“So I feel sorta weird, having him… you know? Could you, like, help me take off my underpants?”

Tiel straightened and looked at Doc. “Could you give us a moment, please?”

“Sure.”

“What’s happening?” Ronnie wanted to know when Doc stood up.

“The lady needs some privacy. From me. And you.”

“But I’m her boyfriend.”

“Which is exactly why you’re the last person she wants observing.”

“He’s right, Ronnie,” Sabra said. “Please.”

The boy moved away with Doc. Tiel lifted Sabra’s skirt and helped as she awkwardly raised her hips and worked her underwear down her thighs.

“There we go,” Tiel said gently, taking away the damp garment, which Sabra had balled up to the size of a Ping-Pong ball.

“I’m sorry it’s all icky.”

“Sabra, starting right now, you’re to stop apologizing.

I’ve never been in labor, but I’m sure I wouldn’t approach it with near the dignity that you have. Are you more comfortable now?” Obviously not. She could tell by Sabra’s grimace that she was in the throes of another pain. “Doc?”

He was there in an instant, pressing his hands on the mound of her stomach. “Sure wish he’d turn on his own.”

“I’m hoping for a girl,” Sabra told him on gasping breaths.

Doc smiled. “Really?”

“Ronnie would like a girl too.”

“Daughters are great, all right.”

Tiel stole a glance at him. Did he have daughters? she wondered. She’d taken him for a bachelor, a loner. Maybe because he looked like the Marlboro man. You never saw the Marlboro man with a wife and family in tow.

Perhaps…? Tiel couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d seen Doc somewhere before. His resemblance to the rugged models in the cigarette ads must be why he looked vaguely familiar.

When the pain passed, Doc placed his hands on the girl’s raised knees. “Try and relax as much as possible.

And let me know if I’m hurting you, okay?”

“Oh, wait.” Tiel reached for a box of hair coloring and opened it. Reading Doc’s inquisitive expression, she explained.

“It comes with disposable gloves. They won’t be great; they probably won’t even fit,” she added, glancing down at his manly hands, “but they might be better than nothing.”

“Good thinking.”

He peeled the plastic gloves off the sheet of waxed paper to which they were stuck and worked his hands into them. It was an O. J. Simpson fit and they looked clumsy, but he thanked Tiel, then once again assured Sabra that he would try his best not to make it too unpleasant.

“This might help.” For modesty’s sake, Tiel spread the second sheet over the girl’s knees.

Doc gave her an approving glance. ‘Just relax, Sabra.

It’ll be over before you know it.”

She took a deep breath and pinched her eyes shut.

“First I’m going to wash the area with one of these wipes. Then bathe it with some vinegar. It might be a little cold.”

As he poured the vinegar over her, blotting at it with several of the gauze pads, he asked her how she was doing.

“Okay,” she replied timorously.

Tiel found herself holding her own breath. “Breathe deeply, Sabra. It’ll help you relax. Let’s do it together. Big inhale. Now out.” Upon penetration, Sabra flinched. Tiel said, “Again. Another deep breath in. Out. That’s it. Not much longer now. You’re doing great.”

But she wasn’t. Doc’s expression told her as much. He withdrew his hand from between the girl’s thighs and, hiding his concern, bragged on how well she’d done. He peeled off the gloves and reached for the bottle of hand wash, rubbing it vigorously onto his hands and forearms.

“Is everything all right?”

Ronnie was back. It was he who had asked the question, but Doc addressed his answer to Sabra. “You haven’t dilated much.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that your labor is dysfunctional.”

“Dysfunctional?”

“That’s a harsh word, but that’s the medical term for it.

As hard and frequent as your pains are coming, your cervix should be dilated more than it is. The baby is trying to push its way out, but not all the parts of your body are ready for the birth.”

“What can you do?”

“I can’t do anything, Ronnie, but you can. You can stop this foolishness and get Sabra to a facility where she’ll receive proper obstetric care.”

“I already told you, no.”

“No,” Sabra repeated.

Before there could be any further argument, the telephone rang.

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