Carmen came in promptly at sunrise to get fresh supplies for her day in the sick room. Seeing the girl’s tired, apprehensive face, Isabella tried not to smile. It was like looking at a mirror of her own self months ago, when she realized that being a hero wasn’t as glamorous as Disney movies made it seem. In the books and novels, no one showed the people cleaning up vomit and washing diarrhea-soaked clothing behind the scenes as heroes. The tiny snapshot of the grandiose crusader didn’t account for the rest of the world, making a bigger difference in smaller ways.
Carmen had agreed to help Isabella, the hero of the school, in the hopes that some of that heroism would rub off on her. So far, all that had rubbed off on her was the stink from the makeshift hospital.
“Good morning Carmen,” Isabella greeted the girl, pushing herself upright with her good arm. Carmen’s face lit up at the prospect of helping somebody in an odour-free way, and she rushed to help Isabella sit up. In the process, however, she tripped, and half-fell on Isabella’s broken arm.
“Oh, Isabella, I am so sorry!” Carmen exclaimed, tears filling her eyes as she watched Isabella try not to scream. She fell beside the bed, sobbing. “I give up! I’m never going to be any good at this.”
Isabella finally composed herself, and wiped the tears from her face. She reached over and grabbed Carmen’s chin. “Look here, it’s going to be okay – ”
Carmen jerked away and crossed her arms. “No! I can’t do anything right. I’ve spilled hot water on the patients, I’ve stepped on someone’s hand and broken it, and every time I try and feed a baby it starts crying. No one else is as terrible at this as I am!”
“Carmen – ”
She sniffled and stood up. “I’m sorry. I thought it would be fun to help you out, but I’m doing more harm than any good. It’s better for everyone if I just quit.”
Isabella tried to reach out again, and upset a glass of water on the night table. The shattering of the glass did little to break the silence between the two. After a dubious moment of hesitation, Carmen reached for the broom behind the closet door of the infirmary. With a look that clearly said, “After this, I’m so out of here,” she began to clean up the mess.
Isabella remembered the days after the first bomb hit, the months that dragged on as power and water became scarce, and the infection teared into the school population like a child tearing open wrapping paper. She remembered days of anger at the world, especially the systems that were supposed to be so infallible. She was angry that she had gone to school and been told that she was being prepared for the future. She had never known how little use the information really was, until she had to learn how to be a doctor from scratch, isolated from the world outside the school.
Most of the adults were dead, Most of the kids were dead. Those who were left had turned to her, because she had helped them to focus more on what was real and present, than what the schools had told them was important. Like democracy, and rule of law, and all those pretty concepts that were like a cloth bicycle helmet.
She remembered that once, a lifetime of months ago, she had been so angry she had wanted to simply give up and forget that any of this had even happened.
“Carmen, do you know the story of the three little pigs?”
“Duh.” Carmen’s brief shift in attention to roll her eyes at Isabella earned her a slice on the finger from the broken glass. She winced, but clenched her jaw and kept working. The sooner she got this cleaned up, the sooner she could leave and never come back. “That’s like, kindergarten stuff.”
“You came here because you wanted the prestige of being a dedicated, creative, respected problem-solver, right? That’s why you were the first one to volunteer to help me when I broke my arm and leg?”
It took a moment for her to decide to answer. “I guess. But what I really wanted was a chance to help people. All I do is hurt them.”
“Don’t you remember what happened to Andrew?”
“Yes, of course! But you were just trying to help, because no one was around. You didn’t know anything about first aid. It wasn’t your fault you killed him.”
That’s what Isabella’s friends kept telling her. It’s what she kept trying to tell herself. But she still had nightmares about his last agonizing moments on earth.
“That’s what I mean, Carmen. You’re trying. You’re learning. I’ll bet you will never carry a stack of bandages, a case of ointment, as well as a pail of boiling water over the patients again, will you?”
Wide-eyed, Carmen shook her head.
“See, Carmen, this is the only way to learn stuff now that things have fallen apart. This isn’t school, where you can try again when you make a mistake and have the evidence erased. This is real life. The choices you make have real consequences, and sometimes people get hurt. But it’s always better to do something, than to stand by and do nothing. The worst that can happen, even if somebody dies, is that you learn.” Even as she said the words, Isabella found that this was a new realization, even for her. Andrew’s death had taught her so much about what not to do to treat the infection.
“Yes, but everyone has different talents. I could be of help somewhere else, like the kitchen.”
“Avoiding making mistakes is not a talent, Carmen. You’ll feel the same feelings when you fail, no matter what you’re doing or where you are. The important thing to realize is that when you’re learning, nothing is what you expect it to be, but once you know what to expect, you feel much more confident in what you’re doing. It’s like a house made of bricks. It takes a lot of work, since bricks are so much heavier than straw or sticks. It takes much longer, and it takes more sweat, to build that brick house. But when the wolf comes and there’s no way to blow down your house no matter how hard he tries, the hard work is worth it. Reality is like that, Carmen. It takes work to accept it, and sometimes it’s a heavy thing to bear, but it’s also the sturdiest thing you could ever hope to lean on. So even though it wasn’t initially your fancy, easy-to-build dream house made of straw, you realize that you wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Isabella took a breath. She felt dizzy from talking so much at once. Or maybe she was dizzy because of the turn her thoughts about Andrew were suddenly taking. Sure, she would do anything to bring him back, but the reality was that he was dead. She had killed him. And because of it she was able to help so many other people.
She gazed out the open door of the infirmary, out the small window of the office, where armed guards made their steady progress around the school. And she looked beyond that, to the top of the summit, and imagined that she was there. Washing clothes, or something, but out of this stupid bed.
Carmen finished cleaning up and stood for a moment, staring at the shattered glass in the dustpan. She tossed it in the trash and shuffled out the door.
A moment later she returned with a laundry hamper, and silently began filling it with the supplies she would need for the day.