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  • Writer's pictureterraweiss

Heart or Soul

FINAL Round Entry, 2020 NYCMIDNIGHT Flash Contest

Genre: Paranormal | Location: Dream, Object: Camera

As his sick newborn fights for her life, a father faces a choice no one should ever have to make.

Tubes covering her face and cords sticking to her chest, Abby clings to life inside a plastic box. In septic shock, she’s getting sicker by the minute. I stay glued to her side, refusing to let her fight death alone.

In the NICU, every tick of the clock feels like a lifetime. Waiting, watching, jumping at the flutter of an eyelash or twitch of a finger.

“It’s touch and go while we wait to see if the antibiotics work,” the nurse says. She doesn’t mention Abby’s chances of survival, which tells me they’re not good. The odds are stacked against her with her low birth weight and prematurity. When they induced labor after the accident, my wife’s vitals crashed.

My wife—sweet, quirky Lauren.

Our first Valentine’s Day, she placed tea candles around my apartment and cooked steaks. The wax leaked on my tables and the burning meat set off the fire alarm, but when she laughed about it, my knees buckled.

A terrible cook but an amazing human being, my Lauren.

She made me laugh every day, even through her own pain. Our journey to getting pregnant with Abby was gut wrenching—riddled with endless fertility treatments and heartbreaking miscarriages. My wife, a woman with a temperament designed for children and a body that refused.

Conceived from Lauren’s final round of viable eggs, Abby was a literal dream come true. It was Lauren’s last chance to have a baby of her own.

Then, along with the car windows, everything shattered in an instant.

The memory rushes through me, leaving ice in its wake.

My gaze darts to Abby. She’s turned ghostly.

Digging up strength I didn’t know I had, I read her stories and describe the stuffed animals waiting at home. There’s a quilt Lauren selected for the nursery that can’t go unused, unseen.

Every time Abby’s heart rate slows, I sing her the lullaby that Lauren sang to Abby throughout the pregnancy. It came to her in a dream.

Whatever happens, one thing will stay true

Mommy and Daddy will always love you.

It’s simple, but it helps. Abby’s heart rate increases every time. So, when I grow tired and everything around me dims, I continue, persisting through the hum of sounds no one wants to acknowledge: the beep of monitors, the hiss of ventilators, the murmur of whispering nurses. Eventually they seem to drop away.

The others in the room dissolve into the background as it takes all my power just to focus on Abby. My surroundings become disjointed, detached from reality. Exhaustion sucks my essence away, leaving me a hollowed shell.

My foggy mind compels me to drift through the room, aching to touch something. But my choices are stethoscopes, syringes, needles. Everything is too sterile, too cold, like Abby’s nursery, which craves to be used.

I return to Abby, loathing how we’re separated by a thin, clear wall that might as well be a steel vault. Yearning to stroke her tiny fingers and toes, I’d settle for a touch of the budding dark hair she got from Lauren.

The light in the room intensifies as the day marches on. It’s so bright it’s hard for me to see, and I fight against it. I must take out my phone and snap a photo of our baby before my vision is gone.

I need a picture, Abby may not be around for another. But for some reason, I can’t do it no matter how desperately hard I try.

Others take photos with cameras. Why can’t I?

One moment blends into the next, and the world around me fades in and out as my strength deteriorates. I can no longer discern if it’s been minutes or hours that’ve passed.

Darkness drops like a velvet curtain.

The shrill wail of a monitor startles me back. Abby’s heart rate dips dangerously low, and the NICU nurses and doctors surround her like vultures on a fresh kill.

What have I done?

I sing, desperate to bring Abby back. Reeling, I keep going on fumes. When she stabilizes, I slow but refuse to stop. With poor vision, I focus on the clock. I’ve been here twenty-three hours.

Medical staff approach, the doctor saying, “We don’t know how this baby’s pulling through, but she’s clearly a fighter.”

“She is,” I reply.

They smile sadly, looking at Abby.

“What about the dad? Heard anything?”

“He was doing better yesterday.” The doctor sighs. “But he’s taken a turn for the worse today.”

What? Dazed, I check myself, pulling up my hospital gown to see my abdomen. There’s mangled flesh in a pool of deep red, but no pain. Where’s the pain?

Memories come crashing back: the ambulance, the shock to my heart, my fight to breathe. My body lies lifeless on a hospital bed, two floors below. My flesh beckons me, the draw magnetic as my survival instincts shift into overdrive. My body needs my soul to survive.

But now there's Abby.

It takes every ounce of willpower in me to stay in NICU. But I do, and the strangest thing happens. I actually feel my heart stop beating in my chest.

God, please don’t let my child be an orphan.

With crystal clear vision, I see someone being wheeled through the NICU door.

My Lauren. She made it.

Her face, bruised and bandaged, is beautiful, as always. When I wrap my arms around her, my grief dissipates like fog.

After being parked in front of Abby’s incubator, Lauren sings,

Whatever happens, one thing will stay true

Mommy and Daddy will always love you.

The color returning to her cheeks, Abby opens her eyes. A coo escapes from her tiny lips.

Warmth fills my soul, full and content.

My baby and wife, my everythings, pale to white as the light consumes me.

* * *

A heartfelt thanks to Shelby Van Pelt, Mel Todd, Deena Short, Katina Ferguson, Brenda Lowder, Jill Cobb, and Jenny Ling for being all around amazing help.

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