Cupping my hands, I catch the thin stream of cool water from the faucet before splashing the pooled water on my face. Relishing its calming lick behind my ears, I take a moment in the silence of the empty department store bathroom - the quiet interrupted only by my ragged, watery breaths and the stale elevator music playing faintly on the speakers above.
Unsure if it’s water droplets, or leftover beads of cold sweat that now run down my nose and drip into the sink basin, I glance at the mirror and cringe at the nervous wreck of a man I see before me.
“Calm down, Henry,” I whisper to him. “You can handle this.”
Eight weeks. After years of dreaming and months of trying, there are only eight more weeks before I become a dad. I’ve always wanted to be a father - I've read every book on the subject. But today, strolling through these endless baby aisles, trying to decide between the most nutrient-rich formulas and greatest absorbency diapers, I realize that I have no idea what I’m doing. How am I going to take care of a baby?
Tearing a paper towel from the jaws of the dispenser and roughly drying my face, I leave the safety of the bathroom, eager to find Bug.
Searching aisle by aisle, I fight the butterflies in my stomach until I spot her near the strollers. Kneeling, of all things. Stubborn woman. Exhaling slowly through my nose, and putting on my most reassuring smile, I walk up behind her.
“We already have one of these, you know.”
Bug tosses a cheerful glance up over her shoulder before turning her attention back to the masterpiece in front of her.
“Are you sure, Henry? Because I have a feeling your mother won’t be happy if she finds out her first grandbaby doesn’t have the Silver Cross Luxury Stroller.” She giggles, gently tracing her fingers along the silver push bar of the extravagant stroller on the showcase platform.
“Yes, Bug,” I sigh. “I’m absolutely sure we don’t need another stroller. The one the Carson’s gave us will work just fine.”
Wrinkling her nose in contempt, she runs her palm gently along the white and blue gingham interior, admiring the soft satin as it caresses her fingers.
“Fine, I just hate thinking about having to put our baby in Olivia’s stupid stroller.”
I can’t help but laugh as Bug shoots me a playfully nasty pout. Even before the fire at the manor, she and Olivia never saw eye to eye. But after the investigator determined faulty electrical wiring near the fireplace to be the cause, Bug hadn’t wanted anything to do with the Carsons, despite their profuse apologies.
“I know you have your issues with the Carsons, but you have to admit – they were thoughtful in their gift.”
I bend down to help lift my very pregnant wife to her feet. Straining to pull her up from her kneeling position, I silently curse her incredible, unyielding spirit. Even at 31 weeks pregnant, she refuses to slow down and rest.
“Okay, up you go,” I groan, pulling her to her feet. “What’s next?”
“We need to get the paint, and then we’re done.”
My pulse quickens, and my palms begin to sweat at the mention of the paint. The two large cans of a mystery color – either a soft, pasture green or a daffodil yellow – will tell us if we’re having a girl or a boy. Green for a girl (Bug’s favorite color) and yellow for a boy (my favorite color). Other than our doctor, only the baby’s godmother knows what we’re having, and she placed the order for the paint.
I hadn’t noticed Bug had already started walking towards the paint section.
“Sorry, I’m here.” I say, taking several quick steps to catch up with her.
“Are you alright? You look a little pale?”
“Yeah, honey. I’m fine, I just –”
Before I can explain my unusual behavior, Bug starts to cough.
“Babe? Are you okay?” I ask, gently placing my hand on her back, feeling her shoulder blades as they heave violently up and down.
“I’m fine,” she chokes, as another round of coughing takes over.
“Why don’t you go rest in the car. I’ll take the cart to get the paint and finish checking out.”
Bug smiles, as she catches her breath and wipes a tear from her watering eyes.
“Thanks.” She plants a light kiss on my cheek as she takes her purse and heads towards the parking lot. Her long, oaken ponytail sways as she walks, and the butterflies move from my stomach to my chest. She’s had a headache for a few days, but the coughing only started yesterday.
Once she disappears, I turn our loaded cart towards the paint section and find myself straining to keep it moving straight, the broken wheel letting out a high-pitched squeal with every step. But I don’t care. I only want, no – need – to get my hands on that paint.
“Excuse me?” I call out to the young woman as I approach the paint counter.
“I’m here to pick up for Henry and Daniella Stowe?”
“Let me check on that, one moment.”
The girl clicks around in her computer, and I glance back at the full cart behind me. Several bundles of tiny diapers, a dozen brightly colored bibs and burping towels, disposable wipes and bum creams. Just the sight of it all once more making my head feel a bit fuzzy.
“Alright sir, looks like you have the two large cans of –”
“WAIT! No, stop!” I roar in a panic. “I can’t know what color they are. Isn’t there a note or something that says to keep the color a secret?”
The girl looks at me with wide eyes, clearly startled by my loud outburst. I feel bad for frightening her, but she had almost ruined the surprise.
“I-I’m sorry sir. There wasn’t a note in the file. I’ll scrape off the sample dot on the lid.”
I let out a sigh of relief and turn my back, listening to the metallic scraping as the girl chips away at the small dash of color on the top of the paint can lid.
“Okay, it’s gone. That’ll be $67.84.”
“Are you sure it’s ALL gone?”
“Yes sir, it’s gone.”
Hesitantly, I turn to see that she’s telling the truth. The aggressive scratch marks on the top of the can are all that’s left of the little dashes of paint that the mixer had dripped on the top to prove the final color.
“Can I pay for the rest of this here too?” I ask, gesturing to my full cart. The girl glances around nervously before agreeing and scanning my items, bagging them quickly and taking my card.
Eager to get home, I make my way quickly to the car, a sense of relief washing over me when I see Bug through the car window. She’s singing along to some song on the radio. Unable to stop the smile that spreads across my face, I stop to admire her from a distance. One hand on her giant belly, the other holds a small, purse-sized hairbrush like a microphone. Although I can’t hear her, I can imagine her melodic, if not slightly off-key alto voice filling the inside of our car. God, I love this woman.
Shoving our purchases in the trunk and returning the cart, I hop in the driver’s seat and lean over, pulling her face to mine and kissing her deeply. Her strawberry lip balm dances on my tongue and her vanilla shea butter plays in my nose.
“What was that for?” she laughs, pulling away.
“That was for the beautiful mother of my child.”
Bug smiles, and for a moment I swear I can see the faintest trace of a pale blush grace her cheek.
It only takes 15 minutes to make the drive from the department store to the house. After the devastating fire at the manor, and with a newly pregnant wife, I had taken it upon myself to find a quiet, safe home for us near the essentials, including the shopping districts.
“You go up to the nursery, Bug,” I say after putting the car in park in the garage. “I’ll carry these things in and I’ll be right up.”
She squeals with excitement before slamming the car door and waddling into the house. Unwilling to make multiple trips, I slide several bags onto each of my arms, tuck a box of diapers beneath each armpit, and carry a can of paint in each hand. Making it inside to the kitchen, I throw everything down but the paint, and run upstairs without bothering to close the garage door.
Bug is standing anxiously in the bare and empty nursery with a hammer in her hand.
“Are you ready?” she asks, giddy and unable to pull her gaze from the two cans.
Her eyes shine with anticipation, but all I can taste is a bitter dryness in my mouth as my feet pull me towards her, cans in hand. Blood pounds in my ears – I know that no matter what color this paint is, I’m going to love my child. My wife reaches out to take the first can, and as her fingers wrap around the wire handle, I notice a strange, splotchy redness on her arm.
“Honey, what’s that?”
Setting down the cans, I pull back the flowing cream sleeves of her maternity top and notice that a rash has broken out on both of her arms, covering her palms and wrists, traveling up to her elbows.
“What the –”
“Maybe we should call the doctor,” she says, confused.
Paint cans forgotten, I guide her down the stairs to the living room, helping her to get comfortable in a large, plush chair before grabbing the house phone and dialing up Doctor Robeson. Handing over the phone, I hold my breath and strain to hear the tiny voice on the other end of line, unable to make out his questions. But after a moment, Bug’s face drains of all color.
“No, actually, I haven’t,” she says after an extended silence. A single tear runs down her cheek.
“Bug? What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
She holds up a weak hand, and her eyes grow wide as the tiny voice continues to murmur rapidly in her ear. After a moment, she thanks the doctor and hangs up the phone before growing still.
They say that there is calm before every storm. A peaceful quiet unlike any other, where the winds are still, and the breeze is sweet. But in my wife’s eyes I can see thunderclouds, darker and more menacing than any I’ve seen before. A chill runs down my spine. I’m afraid.
“Hospital,” she murmurs.
With one word, my sky splits open. The winds howl, thunder crashes, and rain pours inside my mind. I don’t need to know what’s wrong to know that I need to get her help, and I need to get it now.
Picking her up the way I did on our wedding night, I carry her to the car, placing her gently in the front seat as tears stream down her solemn face. Keys still in my pocket and garage door still open, I don’t waste time locking up the house.
Bug is silent on the six-minute drive to the hospital. I ask twice what the little voice said to her, but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to. I already know.
I leave the car idling as I help her walk into the Emergency Room, a team of nurses already waiting with a wheelchair – Doctor Robeson had called ahead. As we hurry through the double doors towards a private room, I’m hit by the strong taste of disinfectant and squint under the fluorescent lighting – those butterflies are back, but they’ve been replaced by something far more sinister, and I use every ounce of strength I have left to avoid vomiting from my own anxiety as the nurses help my wife into a gown and onto a hospital bed
Where are they taking us?
They’re all talking at the same time. Asking ten different questions at once. I can see their lips moving but their voices sound very far away. All I can seem to focus on is my wife’s scared eyes and tear-stained cheeks as she chokes out responses to their questions as quickly as she can.
I am helpless.
“Sir? Sir, please step this way behind the glass.”
I don’t register the nurse’s voice until I feel his hand on my shoulder, pulling me backwards, away from my wife. We’re in a small, dark room with machinery. Another woman is lifting Bug’s shirt and smearing a gel on her stomach.
“What are they doing? An ultrasound?”
“I’m not leaving.”
“We’re just stepping out of the way.”
Allowing him to guide me to a place nearby, I watch, and listen. For several minutes the nurse passes the doppler wand over Bug’s stomach, furrowing her brow deeper and deeper before looking up and giving the faintest shake of her head.
“What does that mean?”
The man beside me ignores my question, and trades places with the younger woman. After a moment, it becomes clear that he isn’t having any luck finding whatever it is he’s looking for.
“What’s going on?”
The younger nurse hesitates, and glances at me quickly before looking away and busying her hands with random boxes and papers on the desk beside us.
“We’re having trouble locating the heartbeat. We may need to think about an emergency C-section.”
The fluttering in my stomach stops. The pounding in my head stops. It all stops.
“You mean, today?”
“I mean right now.”
Looking over at Bug, I see fear.
“Can I go to her now?” I ask.
“We’ll take you both to a room.”
Holding her hand as we’re taken to a room, the nurses start an IV, take some blood, and let us know a doctor will be in soon. Once they leave, Bug and I sit in silence. After a moment I turn to her.
“Honey, are you alright?” I ask. She doesn’t answer, instead staring down at her stomach, caressing it with her hands.
At the use of her name, she glances up at me, tears in her eyes.
“We didn’t even open the paint, Henry.”
My eyes fill with fire as I hold back the tears I so desperately want to let out. “Everything will be alright, Dani, I’m sure that –”
Interrupted by a knock at the door, a middle-aged woman enters, carrying a file and followed by three nurses.
“Daniella Stowe? I understand we’re having a bit of trouble hearing the baby?”
“Yes, and I’ve developed a cough, a rash, and a headache over the past few days. And I haven’t felt it move in…in…”
“Okay sweetie, just relax. We’re going to do everything we can to help you out. It does look like we’re going to need to take you in for an emergency C-section this afternoon. Roger will go through the details of the procedure while I get ready.”
Roger talks us through the process. It’s supposed to only take 15 minutes. Bug will be awake. I’ll be in the room. After asking us if we have any more questions, Roger wheels Bug to an operating theatre, and I follow, holding her hand as tightly as I can.
The doctor’s already in her surgical cap, surrounded by a team of nurses in lavender scrubs. There’s a seat for me near Bug's head behind a large curtain divider, keeping us from seeing the operation. After they prepare, they tell me it’s time to begin. I’m going to be a dad in 15 minutes.
But 15 minutes goes by. Then 20 minutes goes by. After 25 minutes, I know something’s wrong. The doctor’s voice is tense. The nurses aren’t making eye contact with us anymore, and they are growing frantic. Voices are getting louder. Bug is crying.
“Where’s our baby?” I finally have the courage to ask from behind the curtain divider.
Slowly, one of the nurses lowers the curtain to reveal the doctor surrounded by four nurses all huddled over a small table across the room.
“Daniella, Henry, we’re doing everything we can to help right now,” says the nurse beside us.
“Help?” I whimpered, any trace of strength gone from my voice.
“The baby didn’t have a heartbeat, and we’re doing everything we can to find it.”
“I need to see the baby,” cries Bug, “please.”
“The doctor is doing her best, Daniella.”
“No…no!” cries Bug, as her wails fill the room. “Please bring me my baby!”
My knees go weak, and I fall back into my chair. I see Dani trying to stand and reach over, holding her down.
“No, Henry! Let me go!”
“Please Dani,” I cry, “there’s nothing we can do, you have to let them help us.” She collapses back onto the table, sobbing.
After several chaotic minutes that feel like hours, the room goes quiet.
Two of the younger nurses leave quickly, but they can’t hide the tears in their eyes. From the tables and machines across the room, the doctor stands behind two nurses. She turns to us, approaching slowly with deep regret in her eyes.
“I am so sorry,” she says.
Dani lets out a heartbreaking wail. I can no longer hold back my tears.
“Would you like some time with the baby?”
Her words slide down my body as the full weight of their implication crushes any remaining hope. I look over at my wife. She’s inconsolable, so I answer for her, nodding. The doctor beckons the nurses, who bring over and place in my shaky arms, for the first and last time, a very small, very still bundle of pale, pink blankets.