“Quiet Before the Storm” by Sara Staggs


Dallas, Texas

Yvonne was not a superstitious woman, but she was unsettled by the pressing storm clouds, unusual in February. She stood next to the white wooden crib, watching her 14-month-old baby scream while she put cool washcloths on the little feverish body. Kate’s torso was flushed, as were her legs, arms, and cheeks: every piece of exposed skin mottled red from fever. One small lamp with a lamb on the shade rested on top of a chest of drawers that matched the crib, casting a soft yellow light across the cream-colored carpeted floor. Heavy white curtains with pink trim covered large windows, and Yvonne heard the rumble of thunder overhead. 

Yvonne whispered to her crying daughter in the dim light as she turned the plush tan washcloths over to use the other side, hoping to soak the heat from her daughter’s burning body. She started to sing softly. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird…”

Kate continued to bawl at the top of her lungs. Yvonne picked her up, careful not to disturb any of the washcloths. She rocked her baby in her arms, kissing her soft, dark hair. She looked at her watch. 2 a.m. She had given Kate some ibuprofen ten minutes ago. It should start working soon.  Holding Kate, she walked across the room and sank into the black leather rocking chair. Rocking back and forth, she pulled the washcloths one-by-one from Kate’s heated body and lay them on the nightstand. Slowly, Kate’s wails turned to pathetic whimpers, then shallow breathing as she fell into a fitful sleep.

Yvonne rose slowly from the rocking chair and crossed the darkened room cautiously, slipping Kate on her mattress gently as if she were placing a bomb in the crib. She looked at Kate, tiny on the pink sheets, and tears came to her eyes. I wish it was me, not you, she thought. Kate’s long eyelashes laid quietly on her red chubby cheeks as she took small, quick breaths, her little round body fighting a mysterious viral intruder as she slept. 

Yvonne collapsed into the rocking chair. She closed her eyes as she tipped her head back and rested, exhausted from the night. It had not been the first of its kind. Kate sometimes got fevers that rose very high, very fast. They generally did not last long, but the pediatrician said that, although it was probably nothing to worry about, they should stay on top of the fever, alternating baby Tylenol and Advil every four hours to keep it under control. This was Kate’s third fever this year, which meant that there had been several nights of alarms going off every four hours, where Yvonne would wake from her bed, stumble into the nursery, rouse a sleepy, hot Kate from her feverish dreams to pour medicine down her protesting throat, and then coax her grumpy, sick baby back to sleep.   

A sharp cry came from the crib, as if Kate had been hit in the stomach and all the wind knocked out of her. There was the sound of hard movement on the mattress. Yvonne’s eyes flew open, and she jumped from the chair, crossing the carpeted room in two steps. “David!” She screamed for her husband when she saw what was happening in the crib. Kate lay on her back and thrashed about in the crib rhythmically. Her stiff legs hit the mattress and her arms jerked uncontrollably. Her head had turned to the side, and she had foam at the corners of her small mouth. “DAVID!”

David came stumbling in from their bedroom, barefoot, his black hair askew, wearing his blue pajamas monogrammed “DEJ” on the pocket and pushing his glasses on his face. 

“David!” Yvonne was crying now. “Look—Kate—”

David looked in the crib and his brown eyes widened. “Kate?” he said, reaching over to touch the toddler as she kept convulsing. 

“I think she’s having some sort of fit,” Yvonne wiped tears away and took a steadying breath. “What do we do? Do we call 9-1-1?” She wanted to reach down and hold her daughter, to stop the shaking, but she was afraid to touch her. 

“Go get the gin,” Dave barked. Ever the doctor, he thrived on giving orders. Yvonne looked at him blankly. 

“The what?”

“Gin, dammit, gin! Go and get it!” He pointed to the door, and Yvonne took her cue. She ran down the long brown carpeted hall into the living room and over to the wet bar. Behind the whiskey and vodka was the small amount of gin. She grabbed the glass bottle and looked at it, frowning. She had no idea how old it was, nor what he wanted it for. She had heard of giving someone brandy for shock, but she had never heard of giving gin to a baby. 

“Yvonne, hurry!” David bellowed. She closed the wet bar and ran back down the hall and into the nursery. He grabbed the bottle and soaked one of the washcloths that Yvonne had used earlier in gin. Kate was still convulsing, and the jerking seemed to have increased in intensity. She was making high, guttural noises as she thrashed about in her diaper. David wiped the gin-covered cloth all over Kate’s moving body. “Old army trick,” he said. “It will break the fever. You’ll see.” 

“I’m calling an ambulance,” Yvonne strode out of the room. She walked into the master bedroom across the hall and sat on their gold-threaded comforter. Turning on the light, she picked up the white phone with shaking hands. 

“Yvonne, wait!” David called urgently. “She stopped.” Yvonne put the phone down and ran back to the crib. Kate lay limp, whimpering, and panting. Yvonne quickly picked her up and held her to her chest. Kate’s head rolled back, her green eyes partly open. Yvonne cradled her head and turned to David. 

“We are going to the hospital now,” she said. She wrinkled her nose as she caught a whiff of the smell of gin emanating from Kate’s damp skin. Grabbing a pink linen blanket to put over the baby, she clutched Kate and marched out of the nursery. David followed, dazed. 

The dark ride to the ER was short, and David drove in silence, his face stone, hands gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled intensity. In the passenger seat, Yvonne gently held Kate, who was still limp but now breathing more steadily, and sang quietly to her. They drove past the portico in front of the hospital and parked in a spot near the front door, saved for doctors. David pulled out his blue “Hospital Employee” badge and hung it on the rearview mirror. 

The night sky a dark blanket overhead, the air unnaturally still, they walked silently across the parking lot and through the sliding glass doors into the blinding light of the ER lobby, the scent of gin wafting in their wake. As the doors closed with a hiss, Yvonne heard a bang of thunder, and the storm broke. 

Sara Staggs is a lawyer and writer who is originally from Texas, and landed in Portland, Oregon fourteen years ago. She lives in the Northwest with her husband, two children, and three chickens.

You can chat with Sara on Instagram at @Sara.Staggs or on Twitter at @SaraStaggs