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SWEAT TRICKLED DOWN the side of Brijette Dupre's brow and a few loose strands of jet-black hair stuck to her damp chin. The ancient air conditioner in the other room did little good, especially in this heat. Brijette wiped her face with a paper towel as she counted sample packs of an antibiotic.
"He needs to take these three times a day with food and try to keep those stitches dry and clean. I'll be here next Thursday all day and I'll want to see that cut."
The bony woman moved her head in agreement, her stringy hair falling into her eyes. She held on to the barefoot eight-year-old boy. Brijette made a last swipe with a sterile towel in an attempt to remove one more spot of dirt from the child's skin. She wanted to tell the woman to take the kid home and give him a bath, or at least toss him in the creek. But you didn't tell these people what to do or expect them to live by any other standards than the ones to which they were accustomed. She should know. She'd been one of them for the first seventeen years of her life.
Brijette helped the boy off the portable exam table and led mother and son to the door. The breath of cooler air made her wish she could leave the door open, but she couldn't treat patients in front of the customers who came and went in the run-down store. Anton Guidreaux, who owned the place, had been good enough to let them use an empty storeroom attached to one side of his building as an exam room. As a nurse practitioner, Brijette worked under the license of the doctor in town. She normally practiced in the clinic with him, helping him see patients. But on Thursdays she came to the small community of Willow Point and offered medical care to those not likely to get it otherwise.
More than a few of the people in Cypress Landing wondered why she came here. They figured if those people wanted to see a doctor, they could come to town. Those people. Other folks in town made it sound as if she jetted off to another country every week. As though the simple people who still chose the life of the backwater and swamps were of a different species. This was Louisiana, not some Third World country. How would the woman who'd just left feel, sitting dirty with worn shoes in the pristine waiting room at the clinic in Cypress Landing? No, Brijette was doing what she had to, for them and for herself, or at least for the girl she used to be.
"Brij, I see trouble coming."
Brijette left the storeroom, to see what Alicia was talking about. Alicia Ray was the nurse who assisted her at the weekly clinics in this rural community off the Mississippi River. Brijette joined her on the porch steps and unconsciously gripped the other nurse's shoulder.
"Oh, no!" she whispered.
Ten feet away, a young girl staggered toward them with the help of a boy who looked as if he might faint or run at any minute. The girl struggled with her very large and very obviously pregnant stomach.
The two women jumped to the ground, grabbing the girl. With the young man's help they managed to haul her into the exam room and hoist her up on the table, which was definitely not intended for delivering babies. Unfortunately, Brijette figured transforming the space into a delivery room wasn't an option.
"Go see if you can fine a land-line phone—there's no reception here on your cell. Call the clinic and have them get in touch with the helicopter rescue service. We'll need it. Let them know what kind of situation we've got."
Alicia hurried from the room and the boy followed her.
"You can stay if you want," Brijette called to him, but he didn't respond, shutting the door behind him instead.
"He's scared," the young girl on the table mumbled.
"What about you?"
She started to reply, then gritted her teeth and tossed her head from side to side in pain.
"What's your name?" Brijette tried to hold the girl's hand and dig into her supply box at the same time.
"Regina." The word exploded on a whoosh of air from the girl's mouth.
Brijette let go of Regina as the girl relaxed a bit, and moved to open another box. They didn't stock delivery supplies. But unless the paramedics could materialize on the spot, she might have to deliver this baby with whatever equipment she could find. "Yeah, I'm scared."
Brijette glanced at the girl who watched her with wide, watery eyes. She'd almost forgotten she'd asked that question.
"Regina, have you seen a doctor during your pregnancy?"
The girl shook her head. Brijette didn't bother to ask why not. At this point her lack of medical care couldn't be helped. She piled the items she might need to use onto the tray by the table.
"How old are you?"
Regina stared at the wall, giving no answer.
"Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to you or your boyfriend if you tell me."
"And your boyfriend?"
"He's twenty-two, but he's my husband. We've been married more than a year."
"That's good." Brijette tried not to sigh out loud. What else could she say? She thought of her own daughter, Dylan, who still hadn't reached her teenage years. Kids occasionally had to grow up fast and, like herself, Regina seemed to be one of them.
"Do you have family—mother, father, grand-mother—we need to contact?"
"No. My mama and daddy moved a year ago. I didn't want to leave my boyfriend, so they let me stay and get married."
Brijette heard sad stories nearly every time she came here. This was simply another one to add to the list. What kind of parent dumped their teenage daughter off on her boyfriend because she didn't want to move? In the middle of searching for a box of gauze, she paused. How could she be thinking like that? She knew exactly what kind of parent would do such a thing, one less mouth to feed and no kid hanging around your neck. Without her grandmother, that could very well have been her about to have a baby with no family to help.
Brijette pulled more supplies from a box. "Is it time for the baby to come?"
Regina's brows knitted into a confused expression. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, how many months have you been pregnant? Is this your ninth month or is this baby early?"
The girl fisted the sheet covering her and didn't answer.
"Regina, I really need to know if I'm going to deliver a premature infant."
"I think it's eight or nine months. I'm not real sure." If they ended up with a two-pound preemie Brijette would really be in a mess. Her mind raced to the few times she'd had to help Doc Arthur with emergency deliveries at the small local hospital in Cypress Landing.
She heard the door open as she finished tying a sterile towel to the metal rods on the side of the table, fashioning stirrups as best she could. As Brijette finished preparing the supplies, Alicia entered the room with Regina's husband behind her.
"T.J." The girl reached toward the young man. He looked as if he might keel over.
Brijette smiled at him. "I'm glad you decided to come in."
Alicia began to help Regina remove her clothes and put on the hospital gown Brijette had unearthed from the bottom of a box.
With the girl positioned on the table, she moved the sheet to check her. Brijette sucked her breath in between her teeth and Alicia looked to see what was wrong. The nurse gasped. Brijette reached for sterile cloths, piling them at the end of the table.
"What's the matter?" the girl asked as she groaned with a contraction.
"Nothing. Everything's fine," Brijette responded, which was true in a sense. She couldn't see a thing wrong and the vital signs Alicia called out were good. But there was no way to monitor the baby, who didn't plan to wait for the paramedics. The top of the head was already visible.
"Regina, on the next contraction, I need you to bear down and push."
"Is the baby coming now?" Regina started to cry. Alicia wiped the girl's face with a moist cloth. The temperature in the room had soared and sweat rolled from the four of them.
"I'm sorry, Regina, but this baby is coming now and I need you to work with me."
WHEN BRIJETTE COULD finally step away from the table, she sighed at the sight of her blood-stained scrubs.After throwing her gloves in the garbage, she dumped plenty of antiseptic gel in her palm, rubbing it lightly on her hands and arms before wiping with a paper towel. Not exactly prescribed usage for the stuff but the sink was in another part of the store and this would have to do for now.
There was a banging sound outside and loud voices broke the silence that had finally settled in the small room. With only a brief knock beforehand, two para-medics rushed in with a gurney.
They stopped short at the sight of the healthy baby. "Guess you don't need us after all, Brij."
She snorted at Michael, the lanky medic. "Well, it wasn't by choice, I promise. At least you can give Regina and her daughter a quick ride to the hospital. I didn't even hear the chopper come in."
"I'm not surprised." He paused as he and his partner eased mother and child onto the gurney. Alicia helped roll the bed to the door, while Michael stayed behind.
"The chopper's across the river. We'll have to go back to it by boat. That's where the nearest clearing is."
"I guess if the two of them have made it this far, they can survive a boat ride."
He didn't respond but glanced around the room instead. "So, this is your clinic."
"Yep." Brijette grinned, realizing that most of the medical people in town knew she came here, but few had actually seen her exam room.
Michael took a deep breath. "Stinks like a pigpen, and it's hot as hell."
If she hadn't been friends with the guy for years she might have been offended. "Thanks a lot. We did just deliver a baby in here. Besides, we don't all have the luxury of an air-conditioned ambulance or helicopter."
"Relax, I didn't say you stink, which of course you do."
She laughed and threw the near-empty bottle of antiseptic gel at him. He caught it with a grin. "I better go before your nurse and my partner drop our patient on the stairs."
Brijette followed him out front. From there she watched as Michael trotted down the dirt road after Alicia and the other paramedic, who were rolling the gurney toward a waiting boat. The breath she'd been partially holding since she'd seen the girl struggling to the clinic slipped from her lungs and she leaned against the wall of the store.
"Whoowee, chère. Never 'spected that when you set up shop here."
Brijette turned to see Anton Guidreaux sitting in a rocking chair several feet away. She hadn't noticed him before.
"Neither did I, A.G." Brijette pushed sweat-soaked hair off her neck. Anton Guidreux was too formal a name for him, so it had been shortened to A.G. long before she remembered making the trek to this place to buy flour, sugar and whatever else her grandmother needed.
A.G. got up to go back inside and paused to pat the top of her head as if she were still five. "Glad you were here, girl. Don't never think folks ain't proud to have you. Might not say it, but you know how that is."
Her head bumped the wall as she nodded. "I didn't come here expecting thank-yous."
"Know that, chère. Don't mean I can't tell you thanks here and there."
She bobbed her head again, staring at the floor as A.G. left her standing alone. After one more deep breath she went back to the exam room. Fanning the door, she tried to encourage a bit of cool air to come inside. She wrinkled her nose. Michael hadn't been joking. The scent of sweat and blood hung in the room, making it positively reek. And me, too, she admitted with a wry smile. Disinfectant spray bottles sat on top of a box and she took one, squeezing the trigger, shooting generous amounts on the exam table.
"Are we done for the day?"
Brijette continued cleaning the table as Alicia rejoined her. "Unless it's an emergency, we're going to pack and go home. I'm exhausted. Besides, it's going to take an hour to clean up and get the supplies loaded on the boat."
With a shove, Alicia moved a box against the wall and began to mop the floor. In minutes, they were both dripping sweat again.