The first time I saw one of the black ambulances, my mother had just picked me up from my cardiologist’s to drive me home. Mom had her music on and was singing to Patsy Cline, so I leaned my head against the window and watched pissed-off drivers pull into the slow lane to pass us. (Mom refuses to accept that driving too slowly is as bad as speeding. Flow of traffic, Ma!) In the rear-view mirror, I caught a flash of black, and scowled as an Audi passed us with an ambulance on its tail.
Now, if there’s one thing I know, it’s ambulances. I go for a nice ride in them a few times a year. They’re big and boxy and full of really sexy first responders, and they come with a whole show: lights, sirens, cops, fire trucks. Once, the house across the street caught fire at the same time I developed chest pains, and my little suburban street turned into a morbid rave.
Of course, this means I also know what ambulances aren’t. Like black. Or silent–especially when running under lights. The ambulance stayed on the Audi’s tail–illegally close, I should add–the whole time I tried to get my mom’s attention.
“Stacy!” she finally said, slowing down even more.
“What the hell is that following the green Audi that just passed us?”
“It’s gonna be a ticket as soon as a cop catches him.”
“You didn’t see the… the black thing?”
“What, the pickup? He’s not even in the same lane.”
I sighed. “Never mind.”
Mom misses a lot, especially when she’s driving. However, you’d have to be deaf, blind, and dead to miss a giant black ambulance glued to someone’s bumper.
We stopped at a local hot dog joint for some lunch. My shoulder popped out of joint when I got out of the car, but I got it back in before Mom could see. She had a monster kielbasa in a bun and gave me a nasty look when I snitched some of her fries. I turned to the TV while I ate them.
They went cold and dry in my throat when I saw the Audi from the highway on a news flash. It blew a tire and veered into an underpass pylon. No survivors.
I must have gone pale, because Mom took my wrist and counted my pulse. When she finished, she stood from our booth. “Hang on a minute, kiddo. I’ll get a box so you can go home and rest.”
For once, I didn’t argue.
When you have a genetic condition that sends you to the hospital every time your stomach hurts, you get to know your locals. EMT’s, paramedics, firefighters, even a few cops. So, when the internet turned up nothing but Marvel stuff and a few places that paint their ambulances black, I looked up Bud.
Now, Bud isn’t really Bud. His name is Harlan G. Gates, Jr. Due to his hobbies in the days before he became an EMT, he picked up the nickname Bud. I’ll leave it to you to decide how he got it. Anyway, Bud had picked me up and checked me over enough times we were just short of married. He’s a good guy, invited me to his wedding. Even his wife has called me to check up and chat after I’ve seen the guys professionally. So, I called him. Just to see if he knew what in hell was going on.
“Nope,” was the first thing he said. “Got no idea what you’re talkin’ about.”
I pulled my pillow over my face. “You’re breakin’ my balls, Bud.”
“Sounds like you dozed off and had a weird dream.”
“Look, it’s an ambulance. Solid black. Runs under full lights, tinted windows, absolutely no sound. Not even engine noises. Like a Prius or something.”
Bud laughed. I growled like an underfed kitten, and he said, “A Prius. Really.”
“Just ask around, you dick.”
“Yeah, yeah–hey, we’re getting a call. See you later.”
“Break a leg,” I said, and practically heard him flipping me off as we hung up.
I sat up and paused at a slight burn low in my chest. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a bitch, especially when it mainly goes after your heart. After a minute, it faded. One of these days, it was going to kill me. For now, though, I wanted some of the cookies Mom had in the oven.
The moment she saw me, she steered me upstairs and into bed. “I don’t like your color, young lady—”
“I’m almost thirty!”
“–So you are going to lie your butt down. Good girl.”
Only after she threatened to tuck me in like a child did she leave to fetch some cookies and a drink. I looked around my room, at the nice adjustable bed, and the door to the en-suite, and the posters of great cities I’d never get to visit. Most of the time, it helped me feel better. Today, I just wanted to drown in some TV.
Inevitable death. You never know when it’ll getcha.
A few nights later, I woke with the flames of Hell burning my belly from the inside. I groped for my phone and called Mom. She might be just down the hall, but she can (and once did) sleep through a tornado.
“… Huh?” she said after 27 rings, and shushed my dad’s grumble.
“Call 911, Mommy.”
Her sheets rustled as she sat up. “Right away, honey.”
I lay back as Mom hung up. The burning in my belly inched towards my chest. Closing my eyes, I begged anything in the universe that this was just a kidney stone. Appendicitis. Gallstones. Anything but what it had to be.
The ambulance arrived in a cataclysm of lights and sirens. Bud rushed the guys into my room. One look, and tilted his head toward the mic clipped to his shirt. “Twenty nine-year-old female, Ehlers-Danlos vascular type, possible aortic dissection. Getting her to Saint Michael’s ASAP.”
He grasped my hand for a moment, and they strapped me to the gurney. A couple of minutes later, I lay inside the ambulance, staring at the ceiling as the guys strapped every possible monitor to my body.
“You’ll be okay,” Bud said as we tore into traffic. He kept still, his hand atop mine. His eyes, though, dark and gentle, may as well have been a wall.
The siren sounded miles away. I closed my eyes and let the ambulance’s rocking lull me to fear. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to go to the cities on my walls: London, Reykjavik, Edinburgh, Nairobi, Machu Picchu, Honolulu, Seoul, all over the world.
“I don’t want to die,” I said, and Bud rubbed my hand.
“I know, kiddo.”
I lifted my head, but a wash of dizziness stopped me from looking around. It was only when we got to the Saint Michael’s ambulance bay that I started feeling better. Appendicitis. Gallstones. Maybe dinner was bad and I just needed to throw up. I lifted my head at a flash of light through the rear windows—
Lights flashed. No siren so close to the hospital. I tugged Bud’s hand and nodded at the black ambulance waiting behind ours.
“Shh,” he said, staring at the thing. I squeezed his hand as tightly as I could.
“Do you think people know when they’re going to die?”
Bud shook his head, his eyes shimmering more than they should, and snorted in a breath. “I hope not, Stace. God, I hope not.”