This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The rhythmic ticking of the oversized clock above the nurses’ station reminded Sam that he had already been waiting for two hours. He watched a dozen doctors and nurses race each other from room to room, invisible markers as their starting lines, and wondered briefly if there were ever any winners.
Hospitals were always the same: an ever-present smell of antiseptic, barren walls promising sterility, and long corridors that led to either hope or devastation. Sam took a deep breath and tried to remind himself that Isabelle was in capable hands. Everything was going to be fine. Still, he stepped towards the welcome desk and drummed his fingers anxiously on the counter.
“Can I help you, sir?” A tight-smiled nurse asked, eyeing his dancing fingers in barely-concealed irritation.
“I wondered if you had any news about my daughter, Isabelle Manning?” he asked.
The nurse’s eyes momentarily flicked towards the corridor on her left.
“I’m afraid I’m not able to give you any new information at this time. Perhaps you could call your daughter or her husband,” she said, her tone softening.
Sam nodded his thanks and returned to his groaning metal chair. He pulled out his phone and passed it between his hands, his fingers occasionally freezing above its black screen. Sending you lots of love, from Dad. The cursor blinked expectantly at him and he hurried to press send. He had neither the time nor energy to analyze his every word today.
Familiar footsteps rang through the hall, and he looked up to find Clara peering into the room. Her eyes caught his and she wandered over to him cautiously.
“Hello, Sam,” she murmured. He noticed a large stuffed bear in her hand, the kind that trilled well-wishes when you pushed its paw, and felt a sharp pang of panic. He hadn’t even bought Isabelle a card.
“Hello, Clara. Would you like a seat? I can move my things.”
Clara paused and then nodded.
“Have you heard from Isabelle or Mark? I’ve been here a while but haven’t learned anything new,” he said. Clara ran one hand through her dark curls, so like her daughter’s, and nodded again.
“Mark was texting me while I was trying to leave work. She’s doing OK, but is in a lot of pain,” she said. Her eyes never quite met his and he looked away in embarrassment.
Clara opened her bag and pulled out a glossy magazine, its cover screaming about the transgressions of a vaguely familiar actress, and Sam wished that he had brought something for himself to read. A gold ring that no longer matched his own glistened as she turned each page, and his throat burned, crying out for a drink that would temporarily relieve him from his regret.
His fingers curled around flimsy armrests. He may not have earned the title of husband or father, but he had earned his sobriety and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers like those precious moments he had missed in his family’s life.
“There’s a café downstairs,” Clara said, her eyes fixed on but not seeing the article before her. Sam smiled weakly in her direction, then rose from his chair.
A bored cashier wrote Sam’s name on an empty coffee cup and then immediately focused her attention on the customer behind him. He caught his reflection on the glass casing in front of him and winced. Years of turning to brown bottles had taken their toll.
He pulled out a chair and rubbed his temples, the sharp hissing of the espresso machine reverberating inside his skull. In front of him, a young girl was tugging on her father’s sleeve and pointing at one of the cupcakes hiding behind the counter. She offered him the first bite before swiping it away at the last moment and squealing in delight. The father felt Sam watching them and extended an exaggerated shrug.
“Kids!” He said in mock exasperation.
Sam pulled his hands tighter around his cup, interlacing his fingers haphazardly against its smooth cardboard ridges. He had left when Isabelle was so young that his memories of her as a child had become like dreams; a figure standing in his periphery, quickly disappearing whenever he turned to find her. His only clear memory had been her frightened brown eyes looking down at him, begging him to get up in her broken toddler vernacular. It had been the moment he knew he had to leave, and the image still haunted him.
In many ways, he had dreaded his and Isabelle’s first meeting after so many years apart. That unquenchable thirst had clawed at him, threatening to tear through the flimsy trust he had built through months of preparatory phone calls. He would clench his fists, every inch of him drenched in sweat, as his sobriety coach reminded him of how far he had come and how much he had to lose if he gave up.
Then the day had arrived and Isabelle was there, clutching her purse to her chest as she scanned the coffee house. Her face had lost its childhood roundness and her eyes were sharper than he remembered, but he recognized her easily. She had watched him carefully as he made his apologies and accepted his remorse with gentle guardedness, a remnant of the hurt she had carried for so long. Over the next six years, they had built a tentative relationship with each other, and while it was not one of father and daughter, Sam treasured it nonetheless. There was no relief, though. He had left to shield Isabelle from the demon he fought and had instead left an army for her to face alone.
Sam drained his cup quickly. It was time to get back.
Isabelle’s mother-in-law, Deborah, trotted frantically into the waiting room, her face shining with perspiration.
“I’m sorry, I got here as quickly as I could. Mark just called me, but nothing much has changed,” she said amid pants, dabbing her face with a tissue.
“I suppose we just need to keep waiting,” Clara said. She tried to smile, and Deborah squeezed her hand.
The three sat in silence, occasionally glancing at the clock, until Mark burst into the waiting room and motioned for them to follow him.
Deborah and Clara exchanged hopeful smiles and hurried out of the room. Sam paused, those familiar and agonizing whispers echoing in his mind, reminding him that he didn’t deserve to be there. It was irrelevant how long he and Isabelle had spent together since they reconciled, or how they continued to inch towards each other; what mattered, the voices spat, were his mistakes.
He gritted his teeth, his only defense against their relentless assault, and forced himself forward.
Isabelle lay serenely on the hospital bed, her eyes half-closed from exhaustion. She greeted each person with a soft smile and then turned back to the bundle that lay in her arms.
“Her name is Emily,” Mark said, a proud smile widening across his face.
Clara and Deborah dashed to Isabelle’s side, each loudly claiming a different feature that decorated Emily’s face while Isabelle and Mark playfully rolled their eyes at each other.
Sam held back at the door, feeling as if he were intruding on a private moment. The besotted grandmothers sat at the edge of the bed and stroked the soft fuzz that would one day grow into dark curls, cooing that no baby had ever been so sweet. Isabelle grinned at them through her fatigue and declared that she needed some soft cheese immediately. Clara chuckled as she wiped at one of her eyes.
“Would you like a hold, Sam?”
He lifted his head and found Isabelle smiling at him. With an almost inaudible acceptance, he walked towards her.
“Emily, meet your Grandpa,” Isabelle said with the slightest catch in her voice. Sam stared at her, uncertainty clouding his face.
“Or do you prefer something else?” She teased.
“Oh, Grandpa is perfect. Just perfect,” Sam managed. He cradled Emily to his chest and was surprised at how swiftly his hands remembered holding his daughter this way nearly thirty years earlier.
“She looks happy there,” Isabelle said, her shining eyes mirroring his own. She placed her hand on his arm and a warmth overcame him.
He was going to be a grandfather. And he had become Isabelle’s family again.
Sam bent over and kissed Emily on the head.
“I won’t let either of you down.”