It’s quitting time on Friday at the Red Cross. When the boy arrives on his bike, it has stopped raining but the roads outside are still wet. There is a single nurse drawing blood and a burly man by the backdoor stacking blood packets into a cooler. The room is small and, at seventeen, the boy is the youngest person there. Ahead of him are a heavyset man in his 50s, a woman with a sleeve tattoo, and a tall businessman in a suit. All of them look as though they’ve been waiting a long time.
It’s a warm day and there is no air conditioning. The boy remembers the time when his mom was in the hospital, how hot and sticky everything felt to him too. He can see his bike chained to the tall oak tree by the front entrance. He considers leaving right then and there, but the receptionist taps him on the shoulder. “It’ll only be a minute, hon,” she explains, the name “Patricia” written in curvy script on the nametag affixed to her gown.
But it is not a minute, and the boy grows impatient. “Two Princes” and “Working for the Weekend” fade in and out over the scratchy FM station. The businessman unfolds a newspaper and the boy cranes his neck, wanting to think about anything else. The nurse is surrounded at the center of the room by four patients on collapsible metal stretchers. There is a shock of cords and clear plastic tubes connecting the patients’ arms to blood bags like deep crimson tentacles.
The boy thinks that doing this will help someone, in the same way that someone wasn’t able to help his mom. But pretty soon, his neck is damp with sweat and nerves. Just then, Patricia comes around with a stack of lifestyle magazines like a stewardess on a long flight. She is humming the melody to “Genie in a Bottle,” which trickles in over the tinny speakers. The boy snatches a magazine without looking at the cover and she winks at him, like she’s punctuating the end of a sentence.
“I brought these from home,” Patricia says, a pair of dimples glinting on either side of her cheeks. She looks down at the boy’s lap. “That one’s my favorite,” she says with a grin. “The only problem is I can’t read it without getting hungry.” She winks at him again, and the boy is not sure if it’s a nervous tick or something else.
The back page of the magazine has a feature story entitled, “Marathon Runners Share Their Guiltiest Pleasures.” The boy thinks it will be about bungee jumping or strip clubs, but really it’s about eating low-fat ice cream after races and sometimes adding chocolate syrup. One runner confesses to a jelly doughnut after an ultramarathon. Another says he’s vegan but secretly enjoys it when restaurants serve him butter on his toast.
Time passes slowly. When it is finally his turn, the boy is led to a table shielded from the rest of the waiting area by a cardboard screen that resembles the trifold boards at a science fair. The nurse asks him if he faints easily, if he has lived outside of the country for at least five years, if he has ever been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The boy shakes his head. The nurse tells him that his blood pressure is low and asks him if he takes an iron supplement before breakfast. He nods. He has never given blood before but it seems like the right thing to say.
When the needle goes in, the boy screws up his face so he doesn’t have to see. He is lying on one of the four stretchers at the center of the room, his legs close together. His veins are hard to find and the nurse shifts the needle around, this way and that. The boy starts to panic now, fidgeting in the seat, going pale. The nurse sighs impatiently and hands the boy a rubber ball that is only slightly smaller than his fist.
“Squeeze every five seconds,” she tells him. The boy is using all of his energy to count the seconds in his head and clench his fist like he is about to punch. For a moment, he thinks he sees Patricia staring back at him, her eyes magnified by her glasses, a pink handkerchief sticking up from her pocket. He is gazing drowsily when the music fades, and he doesn’t notice when the nurse takes away the ball and the needle and raises his arm straight up to the ceiling.
“What would you like?” Patricia asks him, when it is all over. On the table are Lorna Doone and pretzels and 8-oz. cans of Ocean Spray. The boy has a piece of blue surgical tape wrapped around his elbow but his blood packet is not stacked with the others in the back. “Cranberry juice,” he says softly.
“You really tried your best,” she says, nodding her head. “That’s what really matters.” Patricia spreads the snack packets out across the table and touches the boy on the shoulder. “Everyone always complains about high blood pressure, but no one tells you low blood pressure is just as bad.” The boy runs his eyes over the Lorna Doone and pretzels, but there is a sinking feeling in his chest and he doesn’t feel at all like eating.
Patricia, determined, pulls out a half-dozen cans of cranberry juice from a crate in the back and stacks them onto the table. “This will be our little secret,” she whispers, a finger pressed to her lips. She keeps winking at him and smiling, like they are accomplices in a bank heist.
By the oak tree in the parking lot, the boy takes the cans from his arms and starts to shove them inside the bicycle helmet dangling off of his handlebars. It has begun to drizzle again and the sun is low in the sky. The boy is still light-headed but he moves quickly, hoping that no one nearby will see him. He manages to get all eight cans crammed between the chin straps when Patricia careens through the double doors.
“I can’t let you leave like that,” she says, visibly out of breath, her nametag bobbing up and down on her chest. “I was watching you from the window.”
The boy looks up from the cans piled like contraband in the helmet, but doesn’t meet her eyes. “It’s no big deal,” he says shortly, “I bike like this all the time.” He undoes the lock and throws a leg over the bike frame. Patricia shakes her head.
“It’s a Friday night and people will be drinking,” she says. “The roads aren’t safe.” The boy scrunches up his shoulders and sighs. He makes a move like he is about to leave.
“Look,” she tells him gravely, “I’m a mother.” Her eyes dart from the boy’s arm to the helmet. “They call me ‘Paranoid Pat,’” she says, placing a hand over her heart. “I don’t like to see blood.”