Mate Run: Cara
The year is 2124, and the world's population has been divided into two groups: infected and non-infected. Race, ethnicity, and nationality no longer matter.
When a medical mishap leaves noninfected, Cara Rodriguez, a single mother to an infected son, her life is forever altered. Her son can't live in the noninfected world, and infected clans won't accept Cara in theirs. After her only support dies under suspicious circumstances, Cara goes to Mate Match seeking an infected mate to protect them. Will Mate Match be their salvation or the biggest mistake of her life? Ready. Set. Go! It's time for a mate run.
The lights flashed in a dizzying blur. Noise surrounded me. The scent of disinfectant irritated my nose. The pinch of the IV drip in my right arm was a nagging ache. A tight pressure squeezed my left hand.
“Hang in there, baby. You can do this. I love you.” Terry, my heart, my soulmate.
Pain ripped me in two. I screamed with the agony of it. With the lessening of the pain, mental clarity returned. The baby. I was in labor. It was too early.
Doctors and hospital personnel tossed out medical jargon as they wheeled my gurney to the operating room. Bright light seared my retinas, and I closed my eyes against the glare.
“Her BP is dropping!”
“I need blood, stat!”
“Sir, you can’t come back here!”
A plastic mask was slapped over my face, covering my nose and mouth. My eyes pinwheeled as panic fought with lethargy. “She’s flatlining!”
“God damn it! Where’s that blood?”
The beeps and alarms of multiple machines followed me into the darkness…
I moaned as awareness gradually returned. My body ached as though I’d been tumbled in a commercial dryer with large rocks. I was so cold, my teeth chattered.
“I’m here, baby. Let me get you a blanket.” His voice moved further away as Terry spoke to someone else. “She’s cold. Her teeth are chattering.”
“Ms. Rodriguez, how do you feel?” a man asked.
“It’s the anesthesia wearing off. I’ll give you something for the pain,” he said.
I sighed in relief as the weight of a warm blanket settled on me. There was something I was forgetting. Something important. The thought drifted away as the medicine took me under.
I stirred, shifting uncomfortably. My body felt strangely flat. Slowly, my eyes opened. I was in a hospital room. As I sleepily glanced around, my eyes fell on a dark head asleep on the mattress next to my hip. I ran my fingers through his curly hair.
After a few seconds, Terry stirred and sat up with a yawn. “You’re awake.”
“What happened?” I asked, my memory hazy.
“I almost lost you and the baby. Don’t do that again,” Terry grumbled, his deep brown eyes as somber as I’d ever seen. There was no hint of my mischievous, devil-may-care, lover.
He picked up my hand and kissed the honey-brown skin of my fingers over the knuckles. Then he cradled it between his own against his heart. Eyes narrowed and brows furrowed, he confessed, “I was so scared. They wouldn’t let me in there. They wouldn’t tell me what was happening. This wasn’t how this delivery was supposed to go down.”
We’d booked a birthing suite with a birthing pool in a nearby private delivery center. We had several sessions with the midwife, learning about water births. It cost more than the insurance covered, but Terry and I wanted to get as close to the home birth experience as possible.
Curly dark brown hair fell over a prominent forehead, highlighting dark brown eyes with dark circles beneath them. Terry’s golden complexion appeared wan. Even exhausted, his chiseled features were too handsome for his own good. Between his looks and charm, Terry could have any woman he wanted. Occasionally, it still amazed me that he’d chosen me.
“How’s the baby?” I asked. My voice came out sounding hoarse, and my mouth felt like sandpaper.
“They have him in the NICU unit. He’s so small. There’s all of these monitors attached to his little body,” he said, his eyes glimmering with unshed tears.
All thoughts of water vanished as my heart clenched. My baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit. “Is he okay?”
Terry frowned even as he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. “The nurse says his condition is to be expected, all things considered. They won’t let me hold him. They say his lungs haven’t fully developed.”
Sighing, I placed my hand over my stomach in a protective gesture that had become a habit in the last seven months. Poor baby. I’d been so careful upon learning I was carrying. I’d eaten the right foods, exercised faithfully, and followed all of my doctor’s instructions to deliver a healthy baby boy. All of that caution and care had been ruined in a single moment by a drunk driver.
I glanced at the IV drip in my arm and the multitude of monitors attached to me. “Can you call the nurse? I need to use the bathroom.”
“I’ll go to the nurse’s station and let them know you’re awake. I need coffee. While they’re assisting you, I’ll run down to the cafeteria,” he said.
From the rumpled state of his clothes and the new growth on his face, Terry had been with me the entire time. “How long have I been out?”
He paused at the door. “Over twelve hours. They’ve kept you pretty well medicated.”
Terry waited for me to say something else. When I kept silent, he left the hospital room.
Instead of the maternity ward, where each bed was sectioned off by partitions and curtains, I’d been placed in a private room. Government-subsidized health insurance only went so far. Individuals who could afford premium health insurance receive the same level of care as everyone else but in more luxurious surroundings. My job as a teacher afforded me a decent level of coverage but nothing of this nature.
The nurse who entered the room was a plus-sized female with short blonde hair. Her facial features were naturally wholesome and very pretty. Although her expression was pleasant, her eyes were guarded and reserved. “Your husband said you want to use the bathroom?”
Terry was my fiancé, but I didn’t correct her assumption. “Yes, please.”
“That should be okay. We needed to get you up and moving soon. Let me disconnect some of this equipment. How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Tired,” I answered.
“That’s to be expected. You went through an ordeal. It’s going to take your body time to recover.” She removed monitors from my chest and temples and unhooked the clip on my finger.
As she helped me to stand, I asked, “When can I see my baby?”
“After we get you back into bed, I’ll turn on the monitor,” she promised.
With the nurse walking beside me and leaning heavily on the IV pole, I eventually made my way into the bathroom and onto the toilet. Emptying my bladder was a relief. Not having the strength to stand on my own, I had to call the nurse to assist me. Embarrassed warmth heated my cheeks as I washed my hands. Exhaustion washed over me in a wave as I climbed into bed.
The nurse plumped my pillow and smoothed the covers over me, making sure I was comfortable. “You want to sit up?” she asked.
“Please.” The incision on my stomach twinged as my body changed position.
“I’ll have breakfast brought in. You’ve only had the intravenous drip for hydration. I imagine you must be getting hungry. You haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours,” she said.
Twenty-four hours. A full day had passed since I entered the hospital. I set the disturbing thought aside to deal with later. “I’m thirsty. If you have it, I’d love a glass of apple juice.” The thought of food made nausea rise. Absently, I rubbed the dull ache of my chest.
Noting the gesture, the nurse asked, “Are you in pain?”
I thought about it and nodded. “Honestly, my body is one big ache.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how severe would you rate the pain?” she asked.
I took inventory. “Three, maybe four. Enough to know it hurts but not enough to scream for meds, if you know what I mean.”
The nurse nodded, her gaze sympathetic. “That’s the damage you sustained during the car accident. Between the accident and the C-section, you’re going to be feeling its effects for some time. I’ll request food and something light for your stomach. Eat even if you don’t feel like it. You need to regain your strength.”
I nodded, thinking of my baby. “Will the pain medication hurt the baby when my milk comes in?”
“Let’s focus on getting you better before worrying about anything else, okay?” She smiled, but once again, it didn’t reach her eyes. Her behavior worried me, but then she did something with the television remote. My beautiful baby boy appeared on the screen.
“Be back in a few,” she said, but I barely heard her.
My baby was so tiny my heart squeezed. Tabs were attached to his small chest and a breathing tube was in his nose. A pink and blue striped cap covered his little head and a too-large diaper swamped his lower body. His body was dark pink and wrinkled. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. My arms ached to hold him.
Terry arrived with a large cup of coffee, just ahead of the hospital staff with my breakfast. He motioned to the screen, a big proud grin on his face. “There’s my son, Terencio.”
My laugh came out breathy as my bruised ribs protested. “We are not naming our son after you. It would be too confusing.”
The hospital worker set the covered dish on top of the lap tray and rolled it into position across my legs. A carton of apple juice with an attached straw was set next to it. Alongside it was a bottle of water.
“Every male in my family has had some form of the name, going back to my great-grandfather. You wouldn’t want to break tradition, would you?” The teasing glint in his eyes made me smile.
The hospital worker set a piece of paper and one of those half pencils with no eraser next to the food dish. “These are your dinner selections. Mark them off and I’ll collect the form when I collect your dishes.” She flicked a graceful white hand in the direction of the side table. “The jug is filled with ice chips. If you need anything else, press the call button.”
“Thank you,” I said to her retreating back as she hustled out of the door. The purple material of her scrubs made a slight swishing sound as she walked.
I sipped on my juice and forced down a container of yogurt as we argued good-naturedly over what to name our son. It was a discussion we’d had many times over the last few months, ever since learning it was a boy.
“We need to push up the wedding,” Terry said. “I know you wanted something grand and formal, but we can do it later. Right now, it’s more important to make sure you and the baby are covered under my insurance.”
Terry had been pushing for a quick civil ceremony from the time I agreed to marry him. I’d been holding out for my dream wedding. It didn’t have to be large, but I was determined to wear a white gown. Every bride deserved to feel like a princess on her day. I’d been slowly saving up the money to purchase the dress I’d fallen in love with.
“Between your injuries and the baby’s care, the bills are bound to be astronomical,” he continued as if I needed the reminder.
“Were you hurt in the car crash?” Other than appearing like he needed a good night’s sleep and moving a little slowly, he seemed to be okay.
“Banged and bruised. You and the baby got the brunt of it,” he assured me.
“We can move—” I broke off as a brief knock sounded on the door before it was pushed open. Two men in white lab coats walked in. The first was tall and slender while the second one was shorter and stockier. Entering behind them was an olive-toned woman with straight black hair and another dark-skinned man with closely cropped black hair, both dressed in business suits that screamed lawyer. They all wore grim expressions. With all of the medical equipment, the small hospital room immediately became crowded.
What the hell? I exchanged a glance with Terry.
“Ms. Rodriguez, my name is Dr. Adams. I’m the head of Obstetrics. This is my colleague, Dr. Phillips. He’s the neonatologist assigned to your son. How are you feeling? You gave us quite the scare,” Dr. Adams said.
I set my fork down and pushed the tray to the side. Terry had stood when the door opened and now stepped closer to the bed to lay a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m told I’ll live, thanks to the quick response of the EMTs and the actions of this hospital. Thank you,” I told them, despite the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. My gaze bounced from person to person.
At my words, some of the tension left the room. Their expressions were still grim, but they no longer held themselves so stiffly, as though expecting Terry and I to attack.
“The trauma you suffered during the accident forced us to act quickly to save you and your son. Unfortunately, mistakes were made,” Dr. Adams said.
My breath caught. Did something happen to the baby? Is that what this is about? I’d yet to see my son in person. Now that I thought about it, no one had offered to wheel me to the NICU to see him. I glanced at the monitor again, this time searching for injuries. So many scenarios ran through my mind, it strangled my vocal chords.
“Mistakes? What kind of mistakes?” Terry asked in a hard voice. The hand resting on my shoulder tightened to a point just short of pain. Fortunately, he stood on my uninjured side, close to the window.
Dr. Adams stepped forward, as though accepting responsibility. “The wrong blood was administered. We recognized the error almost immediately and were able to take preventative measures. However…”
“However? Doctor, what are you saying?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“It wasn’t in time to save your son. He’s one of the infected,” Dr. Adam’s said.
“That’s actually a good thing,” Dr. Phillips said.
“How can my son being one of the infected be a good thing?” Terry snarled. He was so angry, his face and neck turned a dull red.
“The virus strengthened his immune system and gave him a boost that made the difference between life and death. If your wife hadn’t accidentally been given the wrong blood, I’m not sure your son would have made it,” Dr. Phillips said, glancing at me as though ensuring I understood the ramifications of his statement.
“Am I also infected?” I asked, my voice quiet. It didn’t really matter to me if I was. I clearly remembered voices shouting that they were losing me. They’d saved our lives with their quick actions.
“No, we got you vaccinated before the virus could take hold,” Dr. Adams assured me.
I glanced at Terry, who’d removed his hand from my shoulder when I asked the question. He appeared only slightly mollified.
“Can you vaccinate my son?” Terry asked.
The two doctors exchanged looks.
“Your son isn’t out of danger yet. Doing so might tip the scales against him,” Dr. Phillips said.
“But it can be done,” Terry said at the same time that I asked, “You mean he might die?”
“There is a distinct possibility,” Dr. Phillips admitted.
“Do it,” Terry ordered.
“No! Are you crazy? Didn’t you hear him? It might kill the baby,” I shrieked, whirling on my fiancé. The move caused pain to streak through my body, but I was too shocked to pay much attention.
“Our son is a freak,” Terry shouted, fists clenched by his side. “They did it. They need to fix this.”
“Even if it means his life?” I asked, unable to believe what I was hearing.
Terry lifted my hand and gripped it in his as he appealed to me. “Cara, what kind of life will he have? The infected are little more than animals.”
I snatched my hand free of his, hissing. “This is our son you’re talking about.”
“I know.” His words were grim. Terry’s expression displayed no remorse. The bastard meant every word he’d spoken.
This couldn’t be happening to me. To us. I turned to the doctors. “Can he be vaccinated later, when he’s stronger?”
Dr. Phillips was already shaking his head. “The virus has already spread throughout his body, affecting all of his internal organs. Even if we administered the vaccination right at this moment, there’s only the slimmest chance it would work. More likely, the attempt would place unnecessary strain on his heart.”
“I’m willing to risk it,” Terry said.
“I’m not,” I said fiercely. I knew Terry had issues with the infected, but I had no idea his bigotry was this ingrained.
Dr. Phillips glanced at the hospital’s lawyers, who nodded and sighed. “We will abide by whatever decision you two make.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and gave Terry a hard stare. “My son. My decision. We’re not married, and the birth certificate hasn’t been signed.” Which meant currently, Terry had no legal rights. Thank God for small mercies.
Terry retreated a step, putting space between us. “If you do this, the wedding is off. Cara, be reasonable. We’re both young and healthy. We can have more children.”
His words slashed like knives against my already battered heart. My breathing became so short, I was in danger of hyperventilating. Reaching for my left hand, I took off my engagement ring and held it out to him.
Terry took it with obvious reluctance and slid it into his pocket. His eyes begged me to reconsider. “If you change your mind, you know where I’ll be.”
Ignoring the tears sliding down my cheeks, I told him in as firm a voice as I could manage, “I won’t.”
The love of my life nodded and walked out of the hospital room without a backward glance.