Her daughter was alive. That was all she knew.
"Anaphylaxis," the very young doctor in the blue scrubs began to explain. "A severe allergic reaction which, among other things, causes the airway to swell shut. Rare but possible with exposure to certain foods, chemicals ..."
"Vaccinations," Charlotte finished. Though she could almost feel her blood pressure swelling within every vein and artery, she noted, too, how surprisingly focused she felt. Not her old frantic self.
"Yes, vaccinations. There's nothing in the research to indicate that this particular vaccination is unsafe. Sometimes these things strike out of the blue. A person develops a sensitivity to a particular allergen used in formulating the vaccine."
"I know all about the research on this particular vaccination," Charlotte said, trying not to sound as if she were blaming the doctor. But she'd been doing her homework -- and had the sleepless nights and bags under her eyes to show for it. "And I know what anaphylaxis is. What I don't know is how my daughter is."
"She's going to be fine," said an older doctor, coming to the young one's rescue. The veteran ER physician took Charlotte by the arm and guided her to a chair, piercing her young colleague with a "why didn't you tell her that in the first place?" glare.
The new doctor continued, "The school staff, health department nurse, and paramedics took appropriate emergency measures. By the time they got her here, she was stabilized. We have her on an intravenous drip of corticosteroids and are monitoring her vital signs -- which, rest assured, are improving. We do want to keep her overnight. But we expect no further problems."
"They gave her that shot against my express wishes."
The doctor looked down at the PDA on which she kept her notes. "Perhaps. I couldn't say. They tell us Jennifer simply got in line for the vaccination and health department staff administered it. Serious reactions to vaccines are rare, Mrs. Carolina. Even given Jennifer's complex medical history, no one could have anticipated a life-threatening reaction."
I did, thought Charlotte. Maybe not this exactly, but ... She decided she'd take that up with the school and the health department later. And -- indirectly -- with a certain eager congressman. Not the doctor's fault, she reminded herself. Stay calm. Stay polite.
"When can I see Jennifer?"
"Now, if you like."
Jennifer was propped up on a bed in a curtained alcove. She was red-faced and surrounded by the detritus of life-saving efforts just past. A technician bustled around, wheeling a mobile blood-pressure unit out to some now more-urgent patient.
Her daughter looked so small to Charlotte. So fragile. She wanted to rush to her and embrace her. But the IV drip and Jennifer's own attitude held her back. The girl turned her head away as soon as Charlotte pushed past the curtain. Wouldn't even look at her own mother.
For a moment, Charlotte had no idea what to say to her own daughter. So, wordlessly, she stepped to the bedside and simply laid her hand over Jennifer's. The girl still didn't look at her.
"Jennifer," she began. Then she realized the girl wasn't avoiding her eyes out of hostility, but because she was crying.
"Jennifer," she began again, "how are you feeling, baby?"
Jennifer turned to look at her, tears streaming abundantly. "Mom? I'm so sorry, Mom. I just wanted to get the shots so I wouldn't get cancer. Don't be mad at me."
"It's not the time for mad, Jen. I'm just relieved you're okay."
"Mom? You said you'd love me no matter what. Did you mean it? Did you really mean it? Mom, I'm so sorry!"
And reaching around and through the maze of medical equipment, Charlotte hugged her daughter while both wept tears of relief.
* * *
Unlike the tête-à-tête's between Toad O'Day and The Representative of the Agri-Tech Coalition, Charlotte's meeting with the reporter from the Tribune wasn't held in any exclusive bistro. Just a grubby newspaper office. She had come as yet another of the cranks and case-pleaders hoping for the attention of The Media. She claimed to have evidence of The Toad's vile corruption.
The Tribune wasn't exactly known for its investigative journalism. But Charlotte had already developed an unwelcome "mother on a crusade" reputation with the more important media. Despite its shortcomings, The Tribune had one big advantage. It was the first semi-serious media outlet with a reporter willing to hear her out.
She slid her small stack of documents across the journalist's chaotic desk, the CYACorp president's letter on top. She explained the trail of evidence.
"Charlotte," said the harried reporter, "This is thin. You're asking the Tribune -- you're asking me -- to follow a trail that's most likely not going to lead anywhere."
"But it's clear from the letter and the bill passed just weeks -- weeks! later that something crooked had to be going on. You can see that, can't you?"
The reporter sighed and briefly wished for the days when his kind could have whiskey and cheap cigars at their desks. "It's not enough. You're claiming that one of the most powerful men in Congress, one of the most well-connected men in the country, is basically taking bribes. But where's your smoking gun?"
"I don't mean to offend you, but isn't it your job to find things like that? I thought I was helping by bringing you a clue."
This was going to take a lot of patience. "Charlotte, my job is to get the news my editor assigns me. My job is to report the truth, but without offending the advertisers. My job is to keep my job when a lot of young journalism students would like to take it from me. My job is not to offend the corporate powers-that-be who own this newspaper and who therefore own a certain part of my anatomy. Charlotte, what you have here is suspicious. I grant you that. But I could probably look for the rest of my life and not find the smoking gun that proves your claims. Understood?"
"I understand perfectly." Charlotte put out her hand. "Give me my papers back, please. I know that man is dirty and I'll take my information elsewhere. I'll put up a web site if I have to, I'll ..."
The reporter thought again of whiskey, beautiful smooth, calming whiskey. "I'll tell you what," he conceded. "I'll make some calls. I'll check with some people I know. I'll see if I can find anything behind this."
"But don't get your hopes up. Okay?"
* * *
The following Friday afternoon, after discussing it with Tonio and Jennifer, Charlotte Carolina took off work two hours early. She went to the administration office at Alexander Hamilton High School. She sat down with Alfred "Boots" Warren, school principal and old football buddy of one Rep. Toad O'Day.
She said, "Heaven knows why, but my son Tonio would like you to lift the new suspension you imposed after his arrest. He would like to return to school and graduate with his class."
"Fine," Good Old Boots beamed, leaning back in his high-backed chair. "Whenever he's ready to take the ASVAB, he's welcome back."
"No, Mr. Warren. You don't understand. He would like to return to school and graduate with his friends. But unless you lift the requirement that all seniors take the test, he has agreed that home-schooling would be preferable. We've already begun making the preparations the state requires. So. Either you make the test optional and inform all students that they can refuse to take it without consequences, or I withdraw my son from your care, effective immediately."
"And what will you do if the court orders Tonio to take the ASVAB?"
She gazed at him with frank innocence. "Why, Mr. Warren, Tonio and I already said, right out on TV, what we'd do. Taking the test -- and having Tonio place so much knowledge about himself in a military database -- is not even open to discussion."
She went on, "My daughter Jennifer has also agreed to alternative schooling. I'm here to withdraw her from your school as well." She didn't mention that Jennifer's reluctant agreement had been obtained only after Charlotte had pointed out that home-schooling or a Catholic girls' school were the only alternatives to being grounded until snowball fights were regularly conducted in hell. (The gentle reunion in the hospital hadn't solved the host of underlying problems.) Charlotte had no idea how she was going to swing the schooling options, what with having a full-time job and no money. Tonio was one thing. Jennifer ... well, she'd figure that out. She'd just have to. All she knew was that the kid wasn't going to stay here, of all places.
"Mrs. Carolina ..."
She could see the calculator running behind the principal's eyes as he tried to frame an argument. Every student withdrawn took thousands of tax dollars out of his operating budget.
"No, you don't have a thing to say to me, Mr. Warren. Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it. I came here only as a courtesy, to tell you what I have to tell you. My children are not coming back here. Ever.
"Anything else you have to say," she finished, rising and turning toward the door, "you can say to my lawyer."
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.
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