I remember the smell of the antiseptic and the cold stale air of the maternity ward.
I sat next to my wife’s bed in an uncomfortable chair, one of those cheap jobs with metal bars holding together squares of padding covered in pea-soup coloured vinyl, and listened to her shallow breathing next to me.
Things hadn’t been going well.
The doctors were concerned she was going to lose the baby. There had been a lot of bleeding, and she was in a lot of a pain; the wrong kind of pain, and more than should be experienced before the birth.
I watched her chest slowly rise and fall, and tried to push out the dark thoughts creeping into my mind. I stared across the stark green emptiness of the room at my reflection, a ghost wrought in fluorescence in the blackness of night let in through the windows.
I turned a page in the magazine I’d stopped reading hours ago. Down the hall, the footsteps of a nurse and the rattle of wheels from the cart she pushed echoed. The sound faded away into the corridors of the ward and soon the silence in the room, our tiny cell, our microcosm, was near absolute, save for the soft hum of the air conditioner.
And then a strange feeling came over me. I felt as if all the sound, all the air and the objects around me stretched out away from me and became distant. Now I was in the room, but not in the room – the hospital green, my ghostly reflection in the window panes, the faded cover of the ancient magazine – everything was detached and far away.
I smelled burning.
And then, feeling equally far away, in the distance of the recesses of my mind, I heard a voice. It was a low, raspy voice, more whispered and exhaled than spoken. The words came out slowly, increasing in volume until they were in my mind’s eye.
she’s going to die.
I panicked. My heart jumped and I tried to stand up from the chair but found that I could not. My mouth moved and I heard myself speak into the chemical air of the hospital room but the sound was far away and muffled.
“Who…? What are you? How….”
My words were met with low gravelly laughter in my head. It was a low slow laugh, one more of derision than amusement.
you need not speak. i hear you, as you me.
I became afraid that I was losing my mind.
Who? What are you? How can you possibly know she’s going to die?
i am that i am. i exist in a different realm. i see what you cannot.
How do you know my name?
i know many things. i was sent here for you. you, and your family.
What do you want from me?
There was a pause. I could feel the presence in my mind waiting, thinking. In the depths of my consciousness again came its slow raspy exhales.
i can save her.
The voice in my head was hollow – emotionless, empty of life. The words made my blood cold, yet another part of me rose up in hope. I loved her more than anything. The thought of her being gone was more painful to me than our not having a child.
Why would you do that?
i give you a choice. The smell of burning, of sulphur, became stronger. him, or her. give me your unborn son and i will spare her.
No. I can’t… this is insanity. We had tried for so long. All she ever wanted was for us to have a family. I remembered the look of joy on her face when we found out it was really happening.
she will die. Silence, save for the rough low breathing in the darkness of my mind.
I love her. Please. In my dissociated body, I felt the far away wetness of tears running down my face. She can’t die.
i can save her.
I don’t know. I do. I don’t. Please…
The voice, slower now than before.
give me your son. i will save her if you give me your son.
Yes. Take him. Please. Take him. Just spare my wife, I love her! I heard myself calling out in my mind. The low rasps of the presence in my consciousness were joined by a noise like a low growl, and then stopped. Far away, I felt the air of the hospital room shimmer. Sulphur burned.
it is done.
And with that just as suddenly as it had appeared, I felt the presence recede, as off into the distance, and the hospital room coalesce. It was a strange sensation, like a camera lens moving and bringing all of reality back into focus.
I turned and saw my wife’s pale wrist slip out from under the covers of the hospital bed. Her delicate hand softly grasped mine and squeezed. I looked up and her beautiful blue eyes were wet and staring back into mine.
“Everything is going to be all right, my love,” she said softly. I cried, and I knew that it would be.
In the blackness of our darkest night, in the glass of the windows, I swore I saw thin white slits of eyes, watching us.
He grew into everything we wanted him to be and more.
After the scares of the pregnancy were over, the doctors kept a close eye on our newborn son, and his mother, but they were healthy as horses. A beautiful mare and her new foal. I watched him grow up and he made us the happiest parents alive. We called him our little miracle.
As the years went by and my hairs turned from black to salt-and-pepper, our new son grew from a baby to a child to a gangly teenager and we were just as happy to be a part of it all. So many firsts, so many moments, fleeting when they occurred, yet eternal in their remembrance.
His first word (mama). His first steps. His first day at school, when he was mad because we made him wear the orange sweater his mother knit.
His first crush on a girl at school (Jenny). Us talking about the birds and the bees, in the quiet shafts of sunlight coming into the solarium that one summer afternoon. The first day of high school.
All those moments in time flew past, and it should have been easy to forget about that night in the hospital, that darkest night, when I sat beside his mother and thought of her dying. The presence that visited me in my mind should now be but a past hallucination, a bizarre mental episode brought on by emotion, stress, and fear.
Yet it lingered.
Through all the years the conversation with that presence, that evil thing that I’d promised my son, lingered in the back of my mind. It hung heavily over all the special moments of my son’s life.
The first few years were the worst. Despite my happiness, in my mind I was a man on death row, awaiting the inevitable. Awaiting the thing would come sometime in the night and then he would be gone. Or I’d awake one morning to find him dead, having suffocated in his sleep. Or a rare childhood disease would infect him, and he’d burst in fountains of blood, staining the wallpaper and coating his mother’s horrified visage with geysers of red death. On the outside I was the happiest man in the world, but on the inside I lived in constant fear of our dear child being taken any moment.
I had made a deal, and her life had been spared, but at what cost? Was it worth having her alive and my beautiful son, only to live constantly in fear, to waking up one day to find him gone, or worse?
I learned to live with the fear. I started to be able to enjoy those moments in my son’s life, even with that fear lingering like a dark cloud, like that sulphurous odour of the visitor in the hospital that night so many years ago.
Still it lingered because I saw the eyes. I learned to live with the fear I couldn’t keep the eyes from appearing. When I put him down in the nursery for the night, I’d see those burning white eyes in the leafy branches of the oak outside the window. At his first birthday, when all the other kids crawled around and the parents socialized over spiked punch, my hands became shaky from those long white eyes staring at me from the mirror in the kitchen. When I dropped him off at school for his first day, behind the shoulder of his mousy teacher I saw those white slits burning. The night he came in late from the school dance and his mother chastised him in the front hallway I watched from partway down the stairs, while beyond the still-open front door so too did those eyes.
The fear subsided but the knowledge of the deal to spare his mother’s life never did; the eyes were always there, always watching, always reminding me of the deal we’d made.
Today was his eighteenth birthday.
As he pulled back the bow on the gift his movement slowed. It was then I again felt that strange sensation, the sensation I’d not felt for so long, for eighteen years, since that fearful night I’d sat in the cold emptiness of the hospital room.
The room filled with the smell of sulphur.
I watched as my son’s movement slowed, then stopped, and his head lolled backward. His eyes opened wide and stared into the air in front of him.
“Honey, are you alright? Aren’t you going to open your gift?” his mother said from beside me. I watched his face and saw a milky white membrane creep in from the sides of his eyes and cover them, turning them completely opaque. He blinked, slowly. His face took on a catatonic character.
“What’s happening?” She was talking to me now. “Should we call the hospital?”
I watched his mouth move and we heard a voice that was not that of my son. A voice that was low, slow and raspy, with venom behind the words. The voice I had heard in my mind eighteen years ago.
“surprised to see me?” An evil smile spread on my son’s mouth, and his head moved up to face us.
“You.” I started to rise up from the table. “You said you would take him from me but you didn’t. What are you doing here?” I made no effort to hold back the anger in my voice. I felt my wife’s delicate hand reach out under the table and squeeze mine. I could feel her fear.
“you know i have been here all along. i said i would take him, and i have.” That laugh. Cold and evil. Heartless. “i am taking what’s mine. i have taken possession of him.”
He rose from the table and the opaqueness of his eyes narrowed into long thin slits, like the slashes from some cruel blade, angular on what had been the face of my son. The eyes were the same that had followed me all through his life, the same eyes that were with me these last eighteen long years, the eyes which had watched me from the reflection of the hospital window, when I agreed to give him up to them.