It took ten minutes and twenty two seconds for the ambulance to arrive. Ten minutes and twenty two seconds from the time the call to 911 ended to the instant the first paramedic came through the door. He knew because he timed it exactly, watching the seconds tick by on his wristwatch, needing to do something and not being able to think of anything else. Ten minutes and twenty two seconds of his watch ticking away in the suddenly silent room, the sound dripping onto the floor like blood.
Ten minutes and twenty two seconds. In his hands time stretched, strained, like a rubber band pulled to breaking. He held it taut between his fingers, watching the elastic start to give way, bracing himself for that moment when it would snap and burn its whiplash across his thumb. No one was talking any more. The party had collapsed. Couples sat around on the floor or on the couch - wherever the moment had found them. Huddled closer together for safety. In the panic of that first instant someone had hit pause on the stereo, so that its display flashed the same number again and again - as if time too had stuck and was waiting for permission to move on. Somewhere a girl was crying. A few streamers lay broken on the floor, like the shed skins of a serpent that had danced away into the night. An empty beer bottle peeped out from the corner, afraid of what it would see.
A pool of blood was spreading across the floor, its progress slow yet inevitable, like the march of a tired army, plotted on a map. Everyone else had stepped away from it, only Rita still sat in the centre, holding the boy's head in her lap, the stain of his blood dyeing her skirt a light maroon. They had padded the wound with a cushion cover and tied a couple of napkins around it to stop the bleeding, but it didn't seem to be helping.
Who was the boy? Where had he come from? A neighbour, someone had said. A student. But why had he come here? Bursting into the house with his throat slashed open and the knife with which he'd done it still clasped in his hand. (What a shock for the girl who opened the door, thinking it must be the boys coming back with more booze). Was it the party that had attracted him, the noise, the people; the need, in these dying minutes, for human company? Or was it something more - was there something between him and Rita? Look how she sat stroking his hair now, smiling down at him. He could tell she was holding back her tears so the boy would not see them. She seemed so lovely, so brave.
As he stood there, watching the seconds tick by, he wondered why he had never paid attention to Rita before. How long had they known each other now? Five years? Or was it six? Let's see, second year college, 1999, yes, that would make it six. Six years and he'd never really noticed how strong she was, how caring, how self-contained. She'd always been around of course: sitting halfway down the table at batch dinners, showing up for picnics with those grotesque boiled egg sandwiches of hers, coming along for the odd movie with the neanderthal she used to date in tow. Always present, always a little obscured, like your reflection in a mirror when you're not looking. Oh, there were a few times they'd talked, but only in those brief moments where they were left alone because the others happened to be doing something else. Once, they'd even ended up catching a movie together, just the two of them, and someone had seen them and assumed they were dating. How much they'd laughed about that afterwards. He smiled softly to himself, remembering. But why not? Why not ask her out? It was shocking how little he really knew about her, even though they'd known each other for so long.
Like this boy for instance. Who was he? Did she know him? Did he perhaps love her, and was that why he'd slit his own throat? Did she love him? Eight minutes and thirty nine seconds gone now. How long does an ambulance take? The boy was starting to tremble uncontrollably, his body shivering and writhing on the floor as if in the grip of some insistent yet low-grade electricity. There was a strange light in his eyes now, as if he was seeing some far-away vision. Rita was crying openly, the tears streaming down her face. Perhaps he should go over and comfort her. Place his hand on her shoulder, say something incredibly gentle and consoling. Only she was sitting in the middle of that pool of blood. He would have to get his new sneakers bloody. Anyway, he couldn't think of anything to say. He'd end up fudging it. When was the ambulance going to get here anyway?
Nine minutes eleven seconds. The first wail of the siren as it turns the corner, pulls up in front of the building. There's a sigh of relief in the room, a sense of sudden release. As if someone had finally kissed the princess and they could all come to life again. A couple of the others hurry down the stairs to show the medics the way. Rita wipes her face with the back of her hand, starts telling the boy how help is coming. Someone pushes the front couch a little out of the way - so there's room for the stretcher to get in, he says.
Ten minutes and twenty two seconds before the first medic bursts through the door. He seems young, but very professional. He doesn't even flinch when he sees the boy. Just goes straight over to him, feels his pulse, asks a question. Half a dozen voices answer in unison. He ignores them. He is looking straight at Rita. She is the last to speak. He nods along to what she is telling him. By now his partner is here as well. He is pulling some equipment out of his bag. The first medic, the young one, asks Rita to step aside. Very slowly she eases herself up and the medic helps her gingerly to the side. The medics go to work. They are like some monstrous four handed machine, working with clockwork precision. The scene reminds him obscurely of some sort of pagan rite, with the medics as priests and the living room floor as a marble altar. Every now and then the medics look across at each other, shake their heads. Their expressions look worried, then hopeless. After a while, when they have got the boy's trembling to stop, they bring in the stretcher they have left outside the door, carefully load him on it, carry him down to the ambulance. When the young medic comes up again to get their equipment they bombard him with questions. "We're going to take him down to the hospital", he says, "but there isn't much hope". He shrugs his shoulders, looks pointedly at the floor. "He's lost too much blood". Then he's gone.
In the silence that follows his departure, they don't know what to do with themselves. The evening is a pool of something dark and viscous that they must skirt around carefully, making sure it does not touch them. A girl whispers something in her boyfriend's ear, he scowls, shakes his head. They are all wondering how soon it will be polite to leave. Someone mentions in a loud voice how the boys have not come back with the booze yet. They're probably getting drunk somewhere all by themselves. Her words are a stone dropped in still water. The silence closes over them, rearranges itself.
There is a crowd surrounding Rita now. She is crying uncontrollably. A couple of people are trying to quiet her. "There was nothing more we could do", she is saying, "we called 911, we tried to stop the bleeding. It just wasn't enough! If only the medics had got here earlier. Before he started shaking like that. He was awake till then, I could see him looking at me. If only they had come sooner. Just look at how long they took". This is his chance. "Ten minutes and twenty two seconds", he says, "I timed it". His voice a triumphant schoolboy's. She turns to him, her eyes confused, bewildered. He smiles down at her. A sense of obscure joy coursing through his body. He feels very tender towards her, and strangely protective. Tomorrow, he thinks, tomorrow I shall ask her out.