This story is by Duncan Woodall and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A Father’s Love
I am sitting at my work-station looking at another dreary set of month-end reports. My body is present, but my mind is elsewhere. My wife is 9 months pregnant and I cannot wait to meet our child. I feel my palms moisten and my heart soar and dive repeatedly. I don’t know if it’s through the excitement of having our first child or the fear of being the type of absent parent that my father was. I tighten my fist and promise myself that I would never let that happen. Not now. Not ever.
Who am I kidding? I reason with myself. She could go into labour any minute now and where am I? At the office looking at these damn spreadsheets.
I stare out of the small window to my right and watch the autumnal leaves twirl in the wind. Nature has always had such a calming effect on me. Even in the most stressful of situations. I feel the background disappearing, the harsh aroma of my dark coffee softening and the frantic voices of the sales team blending into a small, uniform hush. I watch those beautiful golden leaves moving so rhythmically like they are part of a grand symphony beyond my understanding. At that moment, the worry of my not being by Angela’s side as she prepares for birth just melts away.
“Jim! Answer me” my boss screams over, instantly cutting through the office din. I see her lively brown eyes lock on to mine as I peek over my desktop monitor. My mouth opens, and my eyes widen before she even utters a word. It’s time.
The next hour getting to the hospital is a blur of vehicles, road signs and a cacophony of frantic air horn noises. I make it to the hospital car park, but I sit for what seems like an age. I parked five minutes ago and still I can’t let go of the steering wheel. I finally pull my hands off and can see the indents of the cover imprinted onto my skin. My hands just won’t stop shaking.
If only the rest of my platoon could see me now. I survived two tours of Afghanistan going up against the best Taliban fighters in extreme heat, but I am scared to death of a little girl? I half chuckle and how illogical my cowardice is. “Get a grip Jim” I verbalise as I try to will myself back into control of my body as I close my eyes and take deep breaths. It works, and I open my eyes and feel rejuvenated. I look at myself in the rear-view mirror. “Time to meet your daughter, Jim”.
As I reach the 5th floor, I feel my heart rate climbing as the elevator doors open. I have walked into the fire of hell with bullets spraying around me. This is nothing. “Fake it ‘til you make it” I could hear my boss’s authoritarian voice echo in my head in my first performance review as I was transitioning to civilian life. The best advice I have ever received.
I push out of the elevator with purpose and start my way down the hall. I am no stranger to hospitals, especially after a Friday night’s drinking in an undisciplined youth. I look down at my heavily scarred knuckles with shame at the violent teenager I was, but also pride at the way I turned my life around. I will never let my little Amy be as rudderless as I was. That’s a promise.
I arrive at the maternity reception and ask for my wife’s room. After a barely imperceptible hesitation, the nurse tells me to sit down in the waiting room and the doctor will be along shortly. When it means the difference between life and death, you learn to notice these small tell-tale signs. I wish I didn’t, but I push my overactive imagination to the side and take a seat.
“Jim?” I hear a voice from behind me call out. I turn around and I am surprised to see a familiar face. Angela and I have few friends and family here in Edinburgh. It was a strain on our marriage when I was on deployment. It takes a minute for me to recall his name.
“Carl, great to see you” I say, trying to ‘fake it ‘til I made it’, with limited success.
“I thought you would never make it,” he says with that smug, superior tone of his.
I never liked Carl. Angela thought it was because he is black, but that wasn’t it at all. He is just too annoyingly handsome for another man to like. Those perfect cheekbones and his wiry but muscular build made him popular with every woman who laid eyes on him. Thank goodness he was gay. I used to distrust him with Angela even though he is. It’s something I have been trying to work on as he was there for Angela when I couldn’t be.
Before I could respond, I spotted a haggard-looking doctor heading towards me. He didn’t look like the eternally youthful doctors on tv with the pristine haircuts. He looked like a doctor that had seen too many bad winters.
“Mr MacKenzie” he bellowed and surveyed the waiting room, looking for me. I gave my best fake smile to Carl and said, “Catch you on the other side, Carl” before standing up to make myself visible to the doctor.
I started walking towards the doctor and he gave me a look that I have seen so many times. It is a look somewhere between sympathy and fear. I saw it in the eyes of the soldier who knocked on the door of my family home, on my fourteenth birthday to tell us my father would not be coming home.
I had given that look myself a few times from the other side of the door. To this day I could not tell you which side of the door was more difficult to be on. You know how the conversation will go but you dream, hope and fantasise that it will be different. That there has been a big misunderstanding. There never is.
The doctor takes me to a quiet area and delivers the hammer blow I was expecting. He starts off with the pleasantries before uttering those four words that changed my life forever.
“Your wife is dead”. Each one is like a dagger to a different internal organ. The problem with this kind of news is that it always shocks your foundations to the core. No matter how well prepared or mentally tough you are, you are never ready.
He is explaining what happened, as far as I can tell. I can hear the words but somehow cannot understand what any of them mean. I feel physically nauseous and numb all at the same time. I try to open my mouth to speak, but no words come out. I don’t even know what I am trying to say until “daughter” comes out in a muffled, and somewhat alien-sounding, voice. “My daughter” I say with more purpose.
My mental faculties are coming back a little as I notice him looking hesitant. “That’s umm, complicated” he stammers out as his eyes dart around looking for support. I can almost smell the fear emanating from his body as I grab his lab coat by the lapels and lift his old bedraggled body entirely off the ground as I stare a hole through him. “N..Nurse!!!” He screams. “Take Mr MacKenzie to see the child”. The nurse hesitates for a moment and gestures for me to follow her. I throw the doctor to the ground with no care or remorse and follow the nurse.
She takes me to an incubator, and there is movement. My daughter is alive! Although, my brain hasn’t fully processed everything that is going on. There is something screaming at me inside my head that there is something wrong with what I am seeing. Very wrong. The second my brain catches up I realise what my eyes were trying to tell me this entire time; the baby is black.
“I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!” is the last thing I remember screaming that day as I punched the concrete wall in front of me. This is the moment that the psychiatrists say I had my psychotic break.
Some say that I killed 5 doctors trying to get to Carl. Some say I killed my wife’s baby as the police tried to stop me. All I know is that I have been in prison for 3 years now and they still call me ‘The Maternity-ward Monster’ on tv.
I am currently in solitary confinement as the last inmate I shared a bunk with used the name ‘Angela’ before I sawed off his tongue with the sharp end of my toothbrush. My name is Jim MacKenzie and the only thing I deserve is death.
Eric Holdorf says
that’s a well executed, but also tough story to read. I can imagine it was tough to write as well, but it fits the theme of the contest very well. I really like the paragraph about which side of the door was worse, and that the narrator didn’t know. A constructive comment, I don’t know if word count was a concern, but near the ending when he was after Carl, but didn’t recall anything seemed rush. I would like to hear a bit more detail, and in his words, but that would be very difficult to pull off.