2022 Short Story Competition Runner-up


“Nobody Knows How Much You Love Him” by Dean Gessie


This is how your story begins. Your mother-in-law sings to your two-week-old son, his hairless head droll contrast to her own stacked ash layers: “Fais dodo, Colas, mon p’tit frère. Fais dodo, t’auras du lolo. 

We’ll call that mood, a rosy blush in the sunroom. It leaves you completely unprepared for the hook. Says Claudine, “He’s not breathing very well.”  

That catches your interest. You’re out of the sunroom and out of doors, contemplating space debris. 

But Claudine’s tone is composed, like she’s questioning the efficiency of a furnace. She frowns, shrugs her shoulders and channels your own denial. Now, of course, neither of you is to be believed. You fear a whopper at the end of that hook. 

Your wife appears. Her smile is amiable but dopy, the result of sleep deprivation and a ten-pound-six-ounce graduation gift. But a twenty-minute nap is anesthetic only, causes a reversible loss of consciousness and sensation. There will be plenty of that soon: consciousness and sensation and terror. We’ll call that foreshadowing. 

You kiss your wife on the cheek, mention the weather, breakfast and the breathing thing. Emma immediately presses her ear close to Sebastian’s nose. It’s true. His breathing is shallow, but that’s normal, right? 

You listen, too. There’s a game you’ve learned about willing data into the shape of your own desires, the shape of a fish, a game, it seems, whose returns improve if you’re the one frowning and shrugging your shoulders. In fact, you imagine the kinds of items that will kill this story from the get-go: bronchodilators, steroids or diuretics. Later, you can take him to the water, develop his lungs.

Claudine keeps her distance, skulks, prowls, feigns indifference. You read respect for the parents, an admirable move. Only much later do you reimagine the moment as self-preservation, her glances behind and askance like those of a wild animal fleeing dogs.

But not everyone escapes the dogs. The next day, they force you and Emma up a tree. We’ll call it the complication. You’ve been keeping an eye out and things aren’t looking good. That eye out is a compound lens, corrects and magnifies unpleasant truths. Sebastian will not nurse. The milk (lolo) makes a splatter sheet of his cheeks. He gasps for air almost as often as he sucks. You look at Emma; she at you. Foreboding is an iceberg on a fixed course. 

Suspense accompanies you into the Emergency Room at Southlake. As short fiction goes, this one’s a page-turner. The suspense is killing you. The triage nurse has a marked-up copy of your story. You go directly into an examination room.

The doctor’s face is the emotional colour of all things kind. His kind face and his white coat are the perfect plot device: deus ex machina. You invest in him the powers of a beneficent god. Problem solved. Case closed.

“Thank you,” you say, “for seeing our son so quickly.” You imply that the doctor is making some kind of personal choice. Is it hubris or fear or imbecility? 

The doctor corrects you, says, “We don’t take chances with babies.” 

Momentarily, you think of the suffering bipeds for whom health care is roulette. You feel self-conflicted about the suffering bipeds, but not for long. 

While the doctor looks at your son, you look at your wife. When did she arrive? Is it possible that she, too, has feelings for your son? You hug Emma because you need to be reintroduced. You need to be forgiven. 

“Something’s wrong,” says the doctor. “His lips turned blue when I used the tongue depressor. We’ll run some tests.” 

You stop listening after that. What these tests are, you have no idea. You and your wife stand in the waiting room. You hug and you cry. Ironically, the air conditioning makes cold comfort of Emma’s shoulder, the kind of imagery you get from a tearjerker. You fear it will end badly, this story of yours, that you will become parents whose loss is greater than the sum of their fears. The seedlings in the ground are blame. 

The kind doctor in the white coat says, “His heart is working too hard. We’re sending him to Sick Kids.”

Emma is in the ambulance with Sebastian. You follow in the Dodge Sundance. It’s the middle of winter and the heater in your piece of crap car still doesn’t work. The ice on the windshield might as well be ice forming over a lake. You’re beneath the surface, peering up and into a reality that is increasingly opaque, rationing your oxygen, dreaming of cremation. 

You start to sob. Tears drop from your lashes onto the steering wheel. You imagine yourself an empath: I am my son struggling for life. 

The ambulance is travelling fast. You feel obligated to remain in its slipstream. The thought occurs to you that any sudden de-acceleration on the part of the ambulance could cause a rear-end crash. You measure the lesser evil in your mind, living with the loss of your son against an apocalyptic inferno for the three of you. You keep the results to yourself.

But the new doctor is less circumspect with her results. She’s looked at the tests and made her diagnosis. We’ll call it the crisis. Sebastian has coarctation of the aorta. He needs immediate surgery. You hear the rest of it through cottony walls of psychotropic drugs: congenital heart defect and localized deformity of the tunica media. You feel like an astronaut in space, one whose tether has been cut and whose oxygen is low. 

The doctor says Sebastian’s odds are very good. Of course, gamblers play good odds all the time. Gamblers lose more than they win. All you can think about are action verbs, gerunds like cutting, opening, retracting and sewing. You have no comfort zone with great odds and great verbs.

Hours are compressed into minutes. Sebastian is on a gurney on his way to the surgery theatre. An attending nurse says, “Do you want to give him a kiss?” Did you hear final kiss? You don’t know. You press your lips against your son’s cheek. This can’t be the last time you see him alive. Hemingway might have written that story. You’re glad Hemingway is dead. 

At this point, the setting becomes important. You top up miles of pacing by going outside and navigating the block around the hospital. You fill the bowl of your pipe and light it because self-harm is the least of your worries. A sinister idea enters your mind. Maybe your son’s localized deformity is the product of your inhaling ammonia and arsenic? The seedlings of blame have found fertile ground here.

Plot twist. You discover the real enemy. You discover religion. You conjugate the word fuck many times and it’s not a pleasant conversation with God. You don’t see that very often in popular fiction. Who would dare? You know who would dare. The hospital is full of parents negotiating similar Faustian deals, adding and subtracting souls like beads on an abacus. In fact, you create of your lungs zeppelins of tobacco smoke, think, take me, instead. 

Ice pellets awaken you from self-absorption. You have an epiphany. Your wife is suffering, alone. Apparently, the world isn’t big enough for your feet and your hysteria, but your wife remains a point of light flickering in the holy of holies. In the waiting room, you hug Emma because you need to be reintroduced. You need to be forgiven, again.

The next day, your baby becomes that astronaut in deep space, connected to life critical systems. He is lying in an adult bed with tubes attached to his side, his neck and his arm. A ventilator pumps breathable air into his lungs. He is still and alive and beautiful. The climax is as promised. You feel euphoric and buoyant. You feel like you’re floating in the salt water of a sensory deprivation chamber. All your years as an English teacher have prepared you for this one artless moment, the legendary happy ending. 

But don’t get too comfortable. It turns out that the denouement is a black hole from which Nobody returns. It turns out that this story isn’t your story, after all. In fact, it’s not even your son’s story or your wife’s story. Nobody writes this story. Nobody takes responsibility for its structure and outcome. If it will give you closure, imagine a ghost writer and a different kind of sensory deprivation chamber, the horizonless, salt water of a Dead Sea. But, really, Nobody’s in charge and Nobody listens to your prayers. You’ve won this round, but you can’t possibly win them all. So, you’re best to hug your baby while you can, smell and kiss him while you can. Because Nobody knows how much you love him and Nobody gives a shit. 

One thought on “2022 Short Story Competition Runner-up

  1. Pingback: Witch trials inspire 2022 story comp winner | Shooter Literary Magazine

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