This story is by Irene Wintermyer and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dampness and a musty odor filled the darkened chamber as a trace of light glistened through a gap under the door. The inability to see what lurked within its four walls made the hairs stand on the back of Emily’s neck.
Pressed against the cold stone wall, confusion over how she ended up in this eerie place plagued her. Should she rummage around to search for a clue? Heaven forbid any rodents hid in its shadows. A sudden movement somewhere within disrupted her thoughts. Emily’s heart pounded like a sledgehammer against her chest as she strained to identify the noise through the darkness.
“Someone there?” A shuffle sound moved towards her as she pressed hard against the wall. “Who are you?”
“There’s another question you need to ask yourself,” a man’s voice said. “Why you’re here.”
That’s an odd remark, yet not odd at all since she didn’t know where or how she arrived, only that she needed to hide. But from what?
The stranger moved again.
“Please, stay back.” Emily yanked her knees against her chest then encircled them with her arms. With the sound of his retreat, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m not here to hurt you, so don’t worry. But if you’ll let me, I want to help you figure out why you’re here.”
Could he read her mind?
“What if I tried to jog your memory by asking questions?
Emily found it bizarre that the gentle tone of his voice put her at ease. If the man wished her harm, why offer guidance? He sounded kind, knowledgeable, and for reasons unknown, trustworthy. Maybe it’s worth the effort to unearth why she’s in this predicament. After all, he’s trapped too. Maybe she could help him, then they’d both escape whatever brought them here. “Well—I suppose it can’t hurt.”
“Let’s start with where you grew up.”
“Lived on a ranch in Bowerdale, Massachusetts with a sister and three brothers, we raised horses and cows.” Emily stretched out her legs as the thought of the memory made her smile. “I loved life in the country—so peaceful, unlike the city. Back then we never owned a TV because Dad thought it took away from the time a family ought to spend together.”
“What did you do for entertainment?”
“We played games, attended festivals, visited friends, that kind of stuff. Every once in a while my father read us stories. Sounds quirky, but we loved his dramatization. Used to think he’d be a good actor or an audio book reader.”
“Remember your school years?”
“Yes. I excelled in school but enjoyed my high school years best. Still keep in touch with a few of my friends.”
“What made you leave home?”
“Went to college and earned a degree in veterinary medicine.”
“And after college?”
“Got married. Met Justin in college at a mutual friend’s house for dinner. Surprised we got together because we didn’t have much in common at first.”
“Tell me about him?”
“Why?” Emily squirmed. “If I remembered my marriage why ask for details?”
“Fair question. It’s necessary to go through specifics to find out where the memory loss started to trigger what’s lost. But we’ll stop if it makes you uneasy.”
Despite her discomfort, what he said made sense. But her defensive behavior about Justin didn’t; unless—but why would she want to forget any remembrance of the man she loved?
“No, I’ll continue. With a gift for numbers it’s no surprise he majored in finance. Justin’s a sports addict and gets involved in volunteer activities. He coaches little league baseball in the summer and plays flag football in the fall. One week out of the year he goes with our church to a third world country to work on construction jobs.”
“Sounds like a person I’d want as a friend. Married long?”
“Uh, uh—oh no, no—my baby!” Her head dropped to her knees as hysterical cries echoed. When the man moved close and placed a hand on her shoulder, she lacked the will to withdraw. They sat in silence until her tremulous body relaxed.
“I—I remember. While in labor alarms sounded, then the doctor yelled for a code team—and the blood—spattered on him. Within seconds people rushed in with equipment and inserted multiple IV’s. At the other end of the room a group of doctors and nurses huddled over my—” she whimpered. “Before I blacked out, Justin—his tears—” Sobs came in full force.
The dim light intensified and penetrated through the keyhole and edges of the door. Emily’s forehead crinkled as she looked at the stranger, his features faint.
“Justin?” Her voice feeble.
“No, I’m not your husband.”
“Sorry.” Emily looked down and picked at her cuticles. “Thought I saw—you resemble him, at least in this limited lighting.
“After the first ultrasound when they told us our child’s a boy,” she sniffled, “we planned to name him after my husband. In his family the firstborn males take on the name Justin Alexander.”
“Because—I’m your son.”
Emily gasped then scooted away. “What kind of cruel joke—how insensitive—”
“This isn’t a joke. The affliction caused by my death overpowered your reason to live and how you ended up in this darkness, and why I’m here to help. Your efforts to escape the hurt won’t work—you need to confront the pain.”
“But you’re a man, not my baby.”
“True, but in the place I live, we are all fully grown.”
The seriousness of his expression faded as a smile crossed his face. “Tell dad I heard him whisper into your stomach, ‘boy if you come out singing this country music crap your mother likes, I’ll destroy all her CD’s.’”
His laugh sounded like Justin’s and made her chuckle as she remembered him talking into her belly button while they lay in bed. He can’t know that unless—
“It’s really you!” Emily held him tight, but he pulled back with a gentle touch.
“Mom, you need to open the door.”
She cradled his face and brushed her lips against his forehead. “No, I can’t let you go.”
“One day we’ll see each other again. Go to your husband, he’s overwhelmed with grief and won’t survive without you. Share this experience with dad and help him heal. Fight to move on and don’t give up hope. Now go, it’s okay.”
An intense light blinded Emily when she opened the door. She shielded her face with a hand until she adjusted to the brightness.
Through the open doorway she saw Justin next to her unconscious body; dark circles underlined his red, wet eyes. Nurses bustled about as they fiddled with noisy equipment and the bags of fluid connected to her. The room now clean and devoid of any infant apparatuses or supplies. A doctor hovered over her as he swung a small flashlight from one eye to the other.
“Anything doc?” Justin said.
“I’m optimistic. She’s responding to the treatment.”
Tears trickled as Emily looked back at her son and the once darkened chamber with a smile. Thankful for the opportunity to hold him in her arms. The irony of it all. The son she couldn’t save, saved her.