This story is by E.J. van der Velde and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
07:00 she saw as she squinted with one eye against the brightness of the room. Today her first thought wasn’t on coffee or calling her mother as she did every Sunday. This morning Kate’s mind went to much darker places, places she wished were part of a nightmare from which she would wake at any moment.
She recalled this very day one year ago when she had gotten up out of bed in a groggy daze and walked wearily into the next bedroom. As she lay her hand on top of the fluffy blanket covering her baby boy and stroked him gently, she appreciated that the hard road to get him there had been worth every ounce of pain. In this sleepy melancholic daze, it took almost a full minute for her to realize something felt off.
With anxiety rising in her throat and her heartbeat pulsing in her brain, she gently turned Jack’s little face towards her and started to sweat as she noticed the coolness of his skin against the warmth of her hand. She nervously raised her fingers to his little mouth searching for his breath. Nothing. “No, no, no, no, please, no” her whisper ending like the squeal of a mouse caught in a trap. With shaking hands, she lifted the child from his crib, his stiffened lifeless body shattering her spirit in an instant.
Three hundred and sixty-five days had passed since that haunting howl escaped her lungs. She still remembered the sour taste of bile as her empty stomach tried desperately to expel the anguish from within. She had lain there for hours cradling her baby boy on the cold tiles of the nursery floor with her head in Samantha’s lap. Samantha had stroked Kate’s hair as they wept together until their muddled feelings diminished into nothing but empty despair. It was to become the day that changed everything.
Now, Kate turned to her left where her wife lay sleeping, seemingly unaware of the harrowing significance of the day. Despite the distance that had grown between them over the past twelve months, Kate needed her more than ever today. She reached over with her right hand and gently shook Samantha’s shoulder. Samantha groaned and turned towards her.
“Hey, what’s up?” she whispered, her eyes narrow with sleep.
“It’s been a year, ” Kate replied as tears filled her eyes.
“I know,” said Samantha, turning away again as though adding a full stop at the end of her words. Samantha considered the irony behind discussing people’s problems with them for a living, yet not finding the words to voice her own feelings. In evading a discussion about Kate’s feelings, she used her familiar tactic of feigning sleep, yet tears flowed silently onto her pillow.
Later, Kate collected her mother on the way to the graveyard and though she was grateful for the company, she felt overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Neither Kate nor her mother spoke for the entire journey, each lost in their own thoughts.
As they drove down Annadale road, a green tinge filled the car as the glare from the bright yet overcast Irish skies gloriously illuminated the cascading foliage above. Majestic hazelnut trees lined the road on either side, forming a botanical tunnel as though leading to some sort of secret garden rather than to a setting so final, devoted to the end of life. At the bottom of the hill that rose to meet the road, the River Laune ran parallel, and rich with last night’s heavy rainfall it flowed powerfully and with intent.
As Kate pulled up to the graveyard, she turned towards her mother in the passenger seat, choosing to break the silence of the past half hour. “Thank you for today Mom. Things between Samantha and I have been strange since it happened. I feel like she blames me, she’s been so cold towards me since then”.
“I know, Katie,” her mother replied with sadness in her eyes, leaning over for a hug. Kate could always count on her mother to be there for her emotionally, yet she offered little in terms of advice which Kate craved to help her make sense of her own feelings.
At the grave, Kate stared down at the small white cross, its whiteness symbolic of her baby’s innocence. She felt a numbness as vivid thoughts of his little body in the ground beneath them swarmed her mind. My little Jack, all alone in the ground. His organs decayed; his flesh stripped off. The ants and worms would have moved on, abandoning his little bones on completion of their feast. She felt empty and as her mother followed her back to the car, a drugged-like disequilibrium occupied both her body and mind. Her limbs felt heavy, her heart even more so.
At home, Samantha sipped her glass of Primitivo as she tried to prepare herself for the most difficult conversation of her life. I need to tell her, but how? Is she strong enough?
She eventually heard the key in the lock and moments later Kate appeared in the kitchen doorway, her face heavy with the weight of the past year’s grief. Samantha looked up from her seat at the kitchen counter, her long brown hair glistening in the sunlight from the window beside her, adding an unfitting beauty to the otherwise somber ambiance.
Samantha swallowed, the red wine pushing its way uncomfortably past the knot in her throat. “Hey, are you okay? We should talk.”
“Yes, I know,” Kate said, her voice charged with emotion. Although she had imagined many times how this conversation would go, she was not ready to say the words that needed to be spoken nor have Samantha offer one of her unwelcome psychological evaluations as though she knew her better than she knew herself.
Just then Samantha looked her in the eyes and said “Katie, I need you to remember. Please”.
Samantha struggled to find words as she recalled Jack’s cries the night before Kate had found him dead. She remembered waking to his incessant screaming and nudging Kate to let her know it was her turn to get up with him. Kate had shuffled obediently towards Jack’s room in her sleep-deprived state, as Samantha drifted in and out of sleep. She noticed the crying had stopped, or had it? She opened her eyes, listening more closely, and realized the intensity of his cries remained though the sound was softer, as though muffled somehow.
Samantha called out to Kate that night but there was no reply. Did she close the door? She got up out of bed slowly, her restless night all too apparent in her sluggishness.
Her voice cracked now as she continued describing her approach to the nursery and the deafening silence filling the air as she found Kate staring blankly into Jack’s crib, her right hand pressed firmly over his face.
“It was you, Kate,” she blurted. Her usual composure failed her as she buried her face in her hands and tears flowed down her arms onto the countertop. She could feel Kate’s eyes burning through her.
“What are you talking about Samantha? I found him in the morning. Why would I kill our baby, our little Jack?”
“Kate, you weren’t yourself. You experienced what is known as postpartum psychosis. I forgave you for your betrayal and we decided to raise Jack together as a family, but the guilt never left you, you were consumed by it. You became withdrawn and disinterested, the exhaustion from all those sleepless nights took your mind to dark places at times but I thought you just needed time to heal. You just went back to bed that night and fell asleep, it’s as though you were sleepwalking. Please forgive me Katie for not telling you what really happened, I didn’t think you could handle knowing the truth.”
“Wh-what? I killed Jack?” stammered Kate as she could feel her body shaking in rhythm with her shortened breath. Her eyes were wide, filled with anxious disbelief.
“Katie, please. I grieved for our baby just like you, but I did so with this horrible secret locked inside. I had to learn to get past the resentment I felt for you and understand that this was a manic episode, rather than you intentionally harming Jack. Do you realize how alone I have felt this past year? I needed you just as much as you needed me, Kate, but I struggled to show you, I really struggled”.
Kate’s eyes had diminished into nothing but dull, glazed socket fillers, the unspeakable terror that she felt in that moment chilling her to the core.
“Katie, you wouldn´t have coped and it would have come out somehow. Please understand how much I love you and that all I wanted was to protect you. They would have locked you up Kate, in a psychiatric facility or even prison”.