Final Round Entry, 2019 NYCMIDNIGHT Short Story Contest
Genre: Open | Prompts: Side Effects, Grave Digger
As Violet awaits the arrival of her baby, things aren’t what they seem.
Lily will be arriving any day.
I rub my belly and stare out the nursery window. My rock garden sits under a cool autumn sky, five budding sunflowers in a neat row. The last one is the most delicate and beautiful.
I fold a onesie and place it in a drawer. After collecting the wooden blocks that spell Lily’s name, I go downstairs to paint them at the kitchen table, putting all my love for Lily into each stroke.
When the garage door opens, I leap up. Ethan’s home early. My heart thuds with each footstep tramping up the stairs. The blocks aren’t dry yet, but I shove them in the oven. He’ll never look there.
“Violet?” His voice echoes from the hall.
“In the kitchen, babe.” I catch my breath. “You’re early.”
“Meeting canceled.” He materializes then approaches, smiling. “Whatcha doing?”
“Getting ready for the baby.” I plant a kiss on his lips.
He pulls away, sighing. “Violet.”
“Stop it.” I clench my jaw. “We have to get ready.”
“I know.” He rubs his temple.
Through the kitchen window, I see the sunflowers. It’s high noon and their heads still loll toward the ground. Maybe they need water. “I’ve got to tend to the garden.” I pull away.
He exhales a long breath before handing me his coat. “Fine, but put this on. Please.”
It’s unnecessary, but I slide my arms into it anyway. I don’t want him to worry. It’s heavy on my shoulders as I reach over the sink to fill my watering can, careful not to lean on my belly. I step out to the garden, a shiver chattering my teeth. Maybe Ethan was right about the coat. As I pour, the water bounces off the rocks and fallen petals. When I bend to touch the fertile dirt, a cramp slices through me.
Maybe it’s time.
I drop the watering can and run inside. “Ethan! My stomach.”
He flips his gaze from the TV, his eyes filled with concern. “That’s happening more and more. Maybe we should go for a walk?”
“Maybe.” I hug my stomach. The pain is gone. “Never mind. It’s passed now.”
“Good.” He exhales then stands, his lips pressed into a tight smile. “Look, I’ll make dinner tonight. You should rest.”
“Yes, thank you.” I head upstairs and take my vitamins, as they’re supposed to help. Ethan has one for each day in my pill container, but I’ve been taking two more for the baby. Then I grab Lily’s ultrasound pictures from my nightstand drawer before crawling into bed to study each one. Lily has my button nose and Ethan’s full lips. Her almond-shaped eyes are all her own. Clutching them, I drift off.
I wake to an amber sunset streaming through the blinds. It’s gotten late, and my flowers will worsen at sundown. I need to water them again. But when I head downstairs, dinner is on the table.
“I made lasagna, your favorite,” Ethan says.
“Thanks.” I sit, trying not to fidget. I’m not hungry, and all I want to do is tend to the garden. Now I’ll have to wait until later.
“So, honey, you’re right,” he interrupts my thoughts. “We do need to get ready for the baby. Should we think about a middle name?”
“Of course!” Lily must have a middle name. “How did I forget something so important?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. We’ll get there.” He reaches across the table to put his hand over mine. “I love you.”
“Love you too.” I want him to stroke my tummy instead of the back of my hand, but I know he won’t.
Dinner passes in silence, and I’m relieved when it’s finally bedtime. Just as we’re about to get into bed, my phone buzzes.
I don’t want to answer it. I’m too tired.
Ethan shoots me a wide-eyed look as he grabs it off the nightstand. “Oh my God,” he whispers, breathless, giving my arm a squeeze before he rushes into the hallway. “Hello?” His voice is laced with emotion, and I’m taken aback. He’s never like this anymore.
I walk to the frosty window and even in the dark, I can see that my sunflowers are wilted. I’ve failed them. Pressing my fingers on the pane, I whisper, “I’ll be there soon, promise.”
Ethan returns. He’s flushed, gasping. “It’s time, Violet. They want to induce in the morning.”
He’s excited, grinning. His joy is contagious, and I smile, too. Then pain strikes my abdomen again, and I wince.
“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice cracking on a sob.
I nod. I don’t want to ruin the moment by mentioning my pain.
He sits on the bed beside me and rubs my back. “Are you sure you’re okay?” He studies the pill container on my nightstand. “Do you think you’re having side effects from those? You’re different.”
That’s silly, they’re just vitamins. I shake my head. “No, I’m fine, Ethan.” I swipe away a tear. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.” My voice is just above a whisper. “All these years.”
He kisses my cheek. “Just a little longer.” He lets out a happy sigh as he crawls back under the covers and clicks off the lamp.
The minutes crawl by as I wait for Ethan to fall asleep. After he does, I rush outside to the most beautiful sunflower in the world. The icy air bites at my arms. I scrape at the dirt with my bare hands, but it won't move. I claw harder, my fingernails peeling, cuticles bleeding, broken bits of me littering the frozen ground. It won't budge.
I fetch a shovel, but the soil is so hard that I’m forced to chip it away. With each gasp my breath lingers, a ghostly cloud in the night air. I thwack the icy layer with the metal tip, a primal scream ripping through me. Something is very wrong, and it won’t be right until this is done.
Piece by crumbling piece, the ground begrudgingly gives way. It can’t be like this, I’ve worked day and night to keep the dirt soft and supple so that life can grow.
Has winter arrived? No, no, no. It’s too early.
Staring at the barren earth, hot tears tumble down my cheeks. I have to keep digging. Tonight is the last night. I finally slow, but only from exhaustion.
Exhaling a breath from deep inside my chest, I unearth the rim of a wooden box. Her bed. I dig faster, my back throbbing when I heave up a corner. The rest of the ground finally splits apart.
I’ve found her.
The celebration was on her due date, an afternoon brushed with every color, the flowers in summer bloom. Everyone insisted that she stay at the cemetery, but I brought her home and told no one, not even Ethan. I wish we’d had celebrations for our four other souls, but Ethan didn’t want anyone to know about them.
I pry the lid off, fumbling when I take my precious girl in my arms. She’s perfect.
It doesn’t matter that her cheekbones are more delicate, her chin is sharper, and she’s bitterly cold. I run a finger over the bumps on her eyelids, the wounds they left when they tried to seal her eyes shut.
I’m stroking her engraved necklace that says, ‘Lily Watson’ when she starts crying. The sound of my pulse crashes in my ears like a pair of cymbals, piercing and fast.
I rock Lily, but she cries louder. When I try to speak to her, I can’t. Instead I pull her tight, letting my heartbeat soothe her like it used to.
It takes a long time, too long, but holding her works. She’s quieter and so is the beat of my heart. My shivering has stopped too. I’m joyous as I look at Lily’s sunflower on the ground. It’s gray and shriveled, but it shimmers with the droplets of ice that decorate its withered petals.
It’s beautiful again.
Snowflakes begin to fall, and I can’t feel Lily in my arms anymore as I watch them flutter through the sky. When I crumple to the fluffy white ground, my phone slips out of my pocket. I can’t move my fingers, but a message shows on my screen from the agency.
Baby Rose has arrived on her own, healthy at 7 lbs 5 oz! Her parents want to spend the night with her, but they’re sure they want to give her to you now. Come to the hospital in the morning. Congratulations!
I’d smile if I could. Look Lily, you have a baby sister.
I wish I could reply to the text, but Lily is calling me to join her in sleep. Like Ethan, I’m happy for the first time in as long as I can remember. Lily is at peace now, and with her in my arms, I am too.
* * *
Dedicated to mothers who have lost children. May the world better understand your incomprehensible pain so that you may get the love and support needed to heal.
A heartfelt thanks to Deena Short and Shelby Van Pelt for being all around amazing help and providing late night support.