“Incoming! We’ve got another one coming up from the ER, doc!”
Dr. Caleb Wahlburg took another deep breath as he tore off his blood-splattered surgical gown and gloves and raced down the hall of the Labor & Delivery ward to grab a clean set. As he ran, he seemed to be in an endless hallway filled with stretchers holding women in various stages of pregnancy, all of them in distress. Gurney after gurney. He dodged pools of blood forming across the floor, dripping from many of the gurneys, and adding to the obstacle course he found himself combating.
A moment later, he seemed teleported back into the operating suite, his protective gear again splashed with the red liquid of life. Another young mother-to-be crying and screaming for the baby she was losing. Exhausted nurses worked like automatons to assist but were no longer numb to the loss of life filling their ward. Their wails matched those of the patients. L&D was supposed to be a happy place; a place filled with new life and parents in love with their freshly delivered bundles of joy.
“Incoming! We’ve got another one coming up from the ER, doc!”
In that instant, he found himself again rushing down the hall in search of clean gear, dodging stretchers and blood, only to find no more clean gowns. And then, he was back in the operating suite. Gurneys lined the room as he began to deal with yet one more stillbirth.
“Incoming! We’ve got another . . .”
He awoke in a sweat. The nightmare had returned.
Aric Afton picked up his book bag and jacket from his desk and opened the door to his dorm room.
“See you at lunch,” he said as he looked back to his roommate, Robert.
“I’ll be there unless something comes up.”
Aric nodded and closed the door behind him. He smiled to himself. Lunch on Wednesdays had evolved into a growing Bible study among the Christian youth group on campus. And while they faced some opposition from the LGBTQ+ and BLM crowds that once claimed the central residence hall as their own fiefdom, that resistance had been minimal during the past year and a half. Aric couldn’t help but ponder that turn of events every Wednesday morning as he left for class. God is good! he thought, and in his mind, he heard Jess respond, “All the time.”
Jessica Larson and her brother Chris were in different classes from Aric this semester. Aric missed seeing her each morning, so the Wednesday lunch sessions were doubly special to him. Their relationship had grown in ways that still surprised him.
Reflecting on Robert, he, too, had surprised Aric. A confused young man who once insisted upon being called Bobbi and crossdressed flamboyantly, Bobbi had been sicced on Aric by the LGBTQ+ crowd to drive him from the dorm during the short January term in the middle of the 2020-2021 school year. Now, just over eighteen months later with a new school year in progress, Robert refused to respond to the name Bobbi and nothing feminine could be found in their dorm room. In fact, he had become the “perfect” roommate for Aric, to the point that Aric and Robert had agreed to room together yet again for the year.
And for the past four weeks on Wednesday mornings, Robert had said the same thing. And every Wednesday at lunch he showed up. Aric anticipated that he would soon join the group at church on Sundays, too.
Aric decided to take the elevator down and waited for it. As the door opened, he found Toni riding inside. Toni had been another part of the “team” dedicated to driving Aric from the dorm. The guy identified by the pronouns they/them and was openly gay. As recently as the previous spring semester, Toni would have bolted from the elevator rather than ride in it with Aric. Today, he nodded a subtle greeting and didn’t move from the back of the box.
“Hey, Toni, I like the purple. Was it hard to make the switch?”
Toni had been known for his neon pink hair, most commonly worn in a spike over the top of his head. Now a deep, plum-purple color topped his head.
“Yeah. A bit.”
Aric’s brow flinched up in surprise for a microsecond. While the guy no longer ran in the opposite direction and offered the occasional nod in greeting, these were the first words spoken to Aric since a confrontation in the dining hall two previous Januarys ago.
Aric decided to brave the waters, figuratively speaking, by asking, “So, have you seen or heard from Ashley?”
Toni glowered. “Don’t ask me about that traitor.”
With that, the door opened on the first floor, and the guy swished out of the elevator.
Aric raised his brow and shook his head in mild disbelief. Ashley Love had been a resident advisor at the dorm that fateful January. Few would have guessed “her” to be a trans activist whose birth name was Sam Cooke. His depression ultimately led to a suicide attempt by jumping into the icy waters off the Kenosha lighthouse pier. Aric had been there with Jess, who was taking photographs. It was then that he had braved the waters, literally, and saved “her.” That was also when he first learned as fact that she was a he. Prior to that, he’d only heard the rumors.
After that incident, Ashley left the college. But now, rumors swirled once again about a return to campus. Yet, this time they also whispered that he’d had an encounter with God in those icy waters and was back to being Sam. If Sam had returned to campus, Aric had not encountered him.
He smiled at the sound of Jess’s voice behind him. He stopped and turned to see her rushing toward him. On rare occasions that semester, they found themselves heading to class at the same time, despite being in different ones. This was one of those serendipitous days.
She walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Serendipity indeed. A public kiss was rarer than meeting up before class.
“Wow. To what do I owe that special honor?”
She stepped back and looked at him in surprise. “What? You don’t know? I would think you’d be the first to know.”
“Know what?” He felt truly confused.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
He shook his head.
“Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t spoil the surprise.”
“Too late for that. You have to tell me now.”
Jess started to speak when Dean Schmitz’s secretary approached them, waving an envelope in her hands. Aric, Jess, and Chris had all been called to the dean of students’ office that previous January at risk of being charged with hate speech. However, that incident had been cleared up thanks to Robert.
“Aric! Aric Afton! Wait up!”
The two of them stopped and waited upon the woman.
What now? wondered Aric.
The woman caught her breath and proceeded to say, “This is for you.” She held out the envelope. “The dean asked me to also convey his congratulations.”
Aric had no idea what was going on, but the look on Jess’s face suggested that she did.
“Open it.” She smiled.
Aric complied, as the dean’s secretary turned and headed back to the admin building. Inside, he found another envelope embossed in gold. A wedding invitation? he wondered. That’s what it reminded him of. Instead, as he opened it, he discovered an announcement as well as an invitation. He was to receive the Mayor’s Award for Courage and was invited to a special reception in his honor.
“The Mayor’s Award for Courage? What’s that?” He looked at Jess who appeared radiant. “And how did you know?”
She teased her right index fingernail along his jaw. “From what I’ve heard, the award’s a new one, and you’re its first recipient. My dad’s got several friends in city hall and the police department. That’s how I heard, but I thought you already knew. Sorry.”
“No problem. You can spoil my surprises anytime.” He leaned into her and kissed her fully on the lips.
Now, she was the surprised one.
“It says, plus one. Hey, maybe I could ask Kels—” He grinned, as she punched him in the arm. “I mean, would you like to be my plus one?”
“You bet,” she replied. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Aric pondered Jess’s comment that this was a new award. Had his crazy, knee-jerk reaction to a suicidal individual’s jumping into the icy waters by the lighthouse truly been an act of courage deserving an award? Plus, the incident had occurred almost two years earlier. Why now?
More than that, though, was that the mayor’s left-leaning, “Woke” policies would seem to rule Aric out as the award’s first recipient. Was the man aware that he, Aric, was a white, faith-filled, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian conservative? He didn’t tick off a single intersection.
But then he recalled the story of Mordecai and Ahasuerus in the Bible. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle had foiled an assassination plot against the king. Sometime later, the king sought to honor someone who had performed a service for him. It had been such a long time since Mordecai’s revelation of the plot that it required a search of the archives to reveal his name. In that story, the timing served God’s purpose. Aric trusted that this upcoming award would also serve God’s purposes.