Holding Hands

J.P. Roquard

Australia

J. P. Roquard is a husband and father, based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of the Emperor Donald Trilogy and his short works have appeared in Every Day Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, SciFi Lampoon and elsewhere.

Iniencephaly

Her hands are cold. I shiver when she lays them on my thigh.

“Sorry.” She gives that sympathetic smile all good medical practitioners give. The smile you want to see when you're half naked under a smock. “This will only take a second. You’ll be in to see Dr Goldstein in no time.”

“Can Bill come in with me? When it’s time, I mean.”

 

“Of course,” she says. “I’ll tell him to come in now, if you like?”

 

I hear him before I see him. He's breathing heavily and I know he’s been crying. When I see his puffy eyes, I almost start crying too. Not for myself, or what I am about to endure, but at the thought of Bill’s bulky frame, huddled in the waiting room, sobbing into his hands, alone. No matter what I tell him, he still thinks this is his fault.

 

“Hey babe, how are you doing?”

 

I just nod, not wanting the lump in my throat to get the better of me.

 

“Did they say anything?”

 

“No,” I manage. “Just gave me something for the pain.”

 

He wants to speak, to reiterate everything again, to comfort me, reassure me, blame himself, say anything he can to soften what I must endure. But he doesn’t trust himself to speak, or to say the right thing.

 

I raise a hand, he takes it, tears in his eyes.

 

“Mrs Wagner? Dr Goldstein is ready for you now.”

 

The room blurs when they wheel me in, light and sound muted under the blanket of painkillers. Bill leans over the bed, arms around me. His tangy scent reminds me of our home, and I hold close to that memory.

 

I'm under lights now, Bill cupping my hand in both of his. Dr Goldstein talks constantly, her voice clear and low, an exemplar of calmness.

 

“Has the procedure been explained to you, Mrs Wagner?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What we're going to do is called a dilation and curettage, often referred to as a D&C? Do you have any questions about the procedure?”

 

“No.”

 

“Now I understand you've been given something for the pain, is that correct?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Yes.”

 

She knows the answers to all these questions, but that's not the point. She is distracting me, trying to keep my focus away from the tray she’s preparing, all that cold, shiny steel.

She's still talking when the pain comes. It hurts like hell. A searing, bright light in my medicated fog.

 

Two weeks ago I'd never heard of iniencephaly. Now it’s the only thing I think about, the diagnosis echoing behind every thought. Disorder. Defect. Deformity. I have seen the photos too, online, in journals, and every night in my turbid sleep. Hideous bodies, contorted unnaturally, arms and legs hanging limp from the froglike body with a human face. Every picture has a caption, an explanation, but not one tells the truth; that each of these hideous, stillborn monsters is a child. Each is a lost love.

 

It's over in minutes, Dr Goldstein still talking, to Bill now; instructions for care. Antibiotics will be prescribed, bleeding is normal for up to six weeks, take ibuprofen for the swelling, try to rest.

Bill's crying properly now that we’re alone. Big, noisy sobs. I know what's coming, in the weeks ahead. He will make a rod of his grief to thrash against himself. He will wallow in suffering; lament he cannot take my pain too and drown himself as a martyr to our failed family. The blackness will cover him, and he'll withdraw, just as he did with the first two.

 

Although this will be harder, because this time we had hope. This time we got so far. Sixteen weeks.

 

We told our parents.

 

He painted the nursery pink.

 

We bought a cot.

 

We dared to think we could be happy.

 

I lie in recovery, the drugs keeping me numb, but doing little to drive down the little voice in my head, the voice of doubt, of blame. We ask to leave because neither of us can stand the sterile white light any longer.

 

Outside, the winter air slaps me in the face. I hold closer to Bill, huddle against this cruel world. The woman stands alone, across the street, with her placard. She is rugged up against the frigid air, gloves, hood, sunglasses, scarf. She points at me and I hear her voice, clear through the whipping wind.

"Murderer!"

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