“You don’t have to see this,” he said. “It’s all right.”
But she did.
I did this, she thought. By letting the astrolabe slip away, she was responsible; the thought left her trembling so hard that the same medic had her lie down across the seat to administer an IV.
By listening to the radio in the Jeep, Etta learned the following: the attacks had happened five days ago; the secretary of labor was now the president of the United States, as he’d had the good fortune to be on vacation outside of the District when the bombs struck; and there’d been no decision on whether or not to make peace or declare war.
“Is there a registry?” Julian asked. “A list of survivors from the city?”
“Not yet,” was all they were told. “You’ll see.”
And they did see. The old warehouse that had been converted into an emergency medical facility was wrapped around twice with a line of people waiting to get inside. Many of them—in fact, most—were African American. They, too, made up the bulk of those coming in and out of the tents that had been set up along the nearby streets. Their rudimentary bandages looked like basic first aid, not actual treatment.
“Why are there two lines?” Julian asked, sounding as dazed as Etta felt. She turned to see what he was staring at. Two separate booths, both with the Red Cross’s symbol, both handing out the same parcels of food. But there were two very distinct lines: one for white people, the other for blacks.
Etta fought the scream that tore up through her. The whole city was in ruins, millions of people were likely dead, and they still followed this hollow, cruel tradition, as if it accomplished anything other than humiliation.
“You know why,” she told him. Julian was an Ironwood; he traveled extensively; he had been educated about the history his father had created; and he was acting like none of that was true. Somehow, it only infuriated her more.
“But why?” he repeated, his voice hollow.
“Come on, you two,” one of the soldiers said.
“What about the rest of them?” Julian asked as they were walked right past the line waiting to get into the warehouse.
“Waiting for blood from one of the black blood banks in Philadelphia,” the soldier said, as if it weren’t a completely insane statement. Blood is blood is blood is blood. The only thing that mattered was type. This was an emergency, an utter disaster, and still—this.
Calm down, she told herself. Calm down…. She crossed her arms over her chest to keep from tearing the world apart around them in a rage of devastation. My city. These people…Etta choked on the bile that rose, and it was only by pressing the back of her hand against her mouth that she kept from throwing up until she was truly as hollow and empty as she felt.
“What are we doing here?” Etta whispered as the men led her and Julian toward the warehouse. “We can’t stay, you know that.”
He shook his head, turning back to look at the faces of the people at the door, waiting to get in. “There are open beds. Why are they outside if there are open beds?”
“They’ll be treated when the rest of the staff from Kenney Hospital arrive,” the medic said, speaking slowly, as if Julian were a child. “This way.”
The medic relinquished them to a bleary-eyed doctor, who ushered them over to sit on a cot. The man began to examine the cuts and burns on Etta’s arms and hands without so much as a word. A nurse with strawberry-blond hair eventually wandered over with a pail of water and a rag.
Julian stared at a man two cots over, quietly weeping into his hat.
“Let me help you there, sugar,” the nurse said, and cleaned away the grime and blood Etta had been carrying with her since St. Petersburg. “It’s all right to cry. It’s better if you do.”
I can’t. Something cold had locked around her core, so that she didn’t even register the doctor stitching a particularly bad cut without anesthesia. She didn’t register Julian scooting to the edge of the cot so that the nurse could lift Etta’s legs up, laying her out on the cot.
Etta watched, in some strange state between sleeping and wakefulness, as the doctors, nurses, servicemen, and families of the injured moved between the cots and curtains that divided the enormous space into makeshift rooms.
“Will you stop with this—” A nearby voice was rising, flustered. “I don’t need to be examined.”
“Madam, you do—if you’ll let me continue, I won’t be but a moment—”
“Can you not understand me?” the woman said, her voice dripping with a venomous mix of fear and tension. “I don’t want you to touch me.”
Etta opened her eyes, craning her neck to see what was happening. The doctor who had stitched her up went right to the other, badgered doctor’s side. A black doctor.
“I’ll finish here, Stevens,” the other man said. “The next shift will start soon. I’m sure they need your assistance more outside.”
“Why—” Julian had been so quiet, she’d assumed he’d gone and wandered off. “Why are there empty beds, when there are people outside?”
He wasn’t speaking to the doctors; he wasn’t speaking to the nurses, or the patients, or any one person in particular. There was a manic edge to his tone that drew eyes, nervous glances.
“I want you to tell me why—”
“The same reason,” Etta murmured, “you never truly trained your half brother. The same reason he had to sign a contract just to travel. The same reason,” she continued, “no one ever acknowledged him as being a member of your family.”