Sunday, May 25, 2008

The End of the World, Part 2

Emily turned and walked out of the room. Jack followed, mute, numb, and scared. They walked in to Nate's room. Emily put her hands on the railing of the crib. Jack wrapped his arms around his wife's waist and they stared down at their infant son; together, but completely and totally alone.

Jack had never been able to see himself as a father. He and Emily had met when he was nearly 28. By then he'd been best man at three weddings, a godfather twice over, and developed a bad habit of snickering behind the backs of his friends when they'd traded in their Mustangs for minivans and replaced their wallet condoms with baby pictures. Now here he was, a month past 31 and facing something he couldn't even begin to contemplate.

Diaper bags, baby formula and car seats had once seemed like a death sentence, the mark of lost freedom and the dreaded growing up. But he found himself looking forward to walking in the front door every night and seeing his smiling baby, hearing him laugh, smelling that odd combination of baby powder, baby oil, and tear-free shampoo that now permeated most of the house. He treasured walks around the park with the stroller and was happy to trade in Friday nights at the bar for collapsing on to the couch, wrapping his arms around Emily and tickling Nate's toes while barely paying attention to the latest Netflix DVD.

Bill was the last holdout from his group of bachelor friends turned fathers. They had mocked their friends together, but Jack had ended up feeling sorry for Bill. There was a joy in growing up and starting a family that couldn't be explained to someone who hadn't yet experienced it.

Still, that old "just the guys" machismo was why Jack had told Bill that Emily didn't like the Maserati. In truth, the car terrified him at the same time he was thrilled to see it in the driveway. He squeezed Emily just a little tighter, remembering the accident that had almost cost him everything. She mumbled something and pressed her head against his shoulder, but didn't share her thoughts with him, didn't save him from his memory.

He'd been at work when the call came from the hospital. A drunk driver had run a stoplight in an SUV, rolling over the Toyota Corolla driven by his six-month pregnant wife. He'd rushed to the hospital, arriving just in time to give the doctors permission to perform an emergency c-section on the still unconscious Emily. From there that terrible day had been a blur. He mostly remembered sitting in a spartan waiting room, staring at the floor while his parents and in-laws sat on either side, saying all the inane things that are supposed to be said to and by the terrified, helpless loved ones.

The only clear recollection he had from that entire day was the doctor. He'd limped out of the surgical theater and taken in the motley collection with weary eyes. But when he pulled his mask down he was smiling. "Your wife is okay," he'd said, "And so is your son."

In the end, the insurance settlement had paid for the new Prius out in the driveway, allowed them to pay of a substantial portion of their mortgage and given them a fine start on both a retirement and college account. But the money wasn't worth the cost. For nearly a month the only way he'd been able to touch his son was with rubber gloves pushed through holes in a plexiglass box. For two weeks he'd had sleepless nights on a reclining chair in Emily's hospital room. Then there was the rehab and the frightening, barely considered, possibility that Nate would be Emily's only child.

"I love you," Jack murmured in her ear. "We'll get through this."

She turned from the crib and wrapped her arms tightly around him. "I know," she said after a long, deep silence. "Maybe...maybe the President was wrong. Maybe it won't come here."

"We can only hope." They fell silent again, this time not quite as alone as before.

Nate suddenly woke up, hungry. Emily picked him up and helped him find a nipple. She leaned over to kiss him on top of his head. When she looked back up her eyes were filled with grief.

"I can't lose him, Jack," she said as a tear ran down her cheek. "I just can't."

He caught the tear on her chin with his finger, then traced its path back up to the corner of her eye. "I...I can't, either," he said. "We'll think of something, though. I promise."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," she said hoarsely, "No matter how much you want to."

Nate finished and snuggled up against his mother's breast. She hefted the baby over her shoulder and pulled her shirt all the way back on. Then she walked out of the nursery and in to the master bedroom. Jack followed the pair, unwilling to let them out of his sight.

She laid Nate down on their bed, then picked a book up off the dresser. It was a baby blue album emblazoned with the words "Our Littlest Treasure" in gold on the cover. A tiny black hand print was beneath the words, the print of a preemie who'd miraculously survived a traumatic first day.

Emily folded herself protectively around her son on the bed and opened up the baby book. Jack slid on to the bed behind her, wrapping his right arm around his wife and propping his head up with his left. Together they shared the too few memories of their son.

The first few pictures were of mother and son in the hospital. Doctors and nurses filled in the space in those shots, their names gratefully recorded so no one would forget how much work had gone in to that one little life. He smiled as she flipped to the page with the picture of four smiling, paint splattered grandparents. They'd barely talked to each other in the months leading to the wedding and nearly come to blows at the reception, but while Emily and Nate were in the hospital and Jack barely saw his own home they'd decided to prepare the nursery together. Since then, his parents and in-laws had been inseparable friends whom no one who didn't know the history would believe had once despised each other.

Too soon, though, they came to the blank pages where the six month and one year pictures were supposed to go. Emily closed the book, turned off the light, then rolled over and placed Nate between herself and Jack. They'd laid in that exact position many nights already, amazed at the little person they had brought in to the world, dreaming of the man he would grow up to be. Now Emily looked in Jack's eyes with an unspeakable grief. He knew that his eyes mirrored hers.

After a while they fell asleep. Jack dreamt that he was standing in a big field with his son at his feet. A great, terrifying beast approached the pair, intent on devouring the helpless baby. Jack scooped his son up in his arms, then turned and ran as fast as he could. Away, always away.

With a start he found himself back in his bedroom. Emily slept quietly, one arm around their son. Moonlight streamed in through the open window. Jack got up and walked to the window, straining his eyes for the slightest hint of a terrible dawn on the eastern horizon. All he saw was his quiet, empty street. Then his eyes fell on the Maserati, glowing slightly under the white, soft light of the moon.

His eyes widened as the solution hit him. He spun and looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was 5:30. There was still time, just barely.

He jumped on to the bed and shook his wife's shoulder. "Em, wake up," he whispered, "I have an idea."

Her eyes fluttered. "Wha...what?" All of the sudden they snapped open. "Nate?" she asked, then squeezed the baby. She smiled. "Are we okay?"

"It's not dawn yet," Jack told her. "We've still got an hour, hour and a half."

"Then what's going on?"

"I have an idea."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So sad and yet so beautiful. Truthful sentiments, and a stark contrast to the madness yet to come. Keep it up.