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The Dream Quest One Second Writing Prize Winner





Brian G. Ross

of Aberdeen, Scotland

for the following short story:

Contractions & Reactions


Webbed fingers.

I am afraid of many things: spiders, snakes, flying, the far corner of the attic, that coaster I was on last year at Busch Gardens, but most of all I am afraid of being here, right now, with my sanity hanging by the thinnest of threads.

I know childbirth frightens many women, so I try to work with that. They call it embracing the fear, but I know it is all just a mind game.

As I lie here in the delivery room, legs apart, sweat pouring off me, I know I am about half a centimetre from my world collapsing around my shoulders.

But now, it has gone beyond fear.

And still, I pray for webbed fingers.

Adrian’s hand is sweaty in mine, and I can see my nails digging into his skin. The nurse had suggested I clip them, but with everything else going on it slipped my mind. I never wanted to hurt him — physically or otherwise — and I guess it’s just one more thing I will have to apologise for when the time comes.

I am holding onto Adrian like nothing else matters, like to let go would be everything. In a way it probably would be. I wonder if he can see it in my eyes, or if he mistakes the panic there for something else. Pain, maybe. Or exhaustion.

The drugs the nurse gave me are starting to kick in and do their thing, and I can feel lucidity beginning to float away. I am on a cloud, looking down upon myself. God I look fat. I reach out, but my hands are like gossamer and Adrian doesn’t hear me when I call his name.

He has been my rock through all of this. I can’t fault him on that. He was there with the ibuprofen when the headaches just wouldn’t quit; there to rub my back when the cramps started up; there when I craved boiled mushrooms and pistachio ice-cream at three in the morning; and now here, when I realise that nine months of dissecting everything in my head hasn’t really prepared me for anything at all.


Adrian’s smile is bright and eager. I try and fail to give him one in return. Tears stand in his eyes and eventually roll down his cheeks, because a father’s pride is hard to suppress. Although we are approaching it from different directions, this is as much his crossroads as it is mine, and when he looks at me like he is right now, it’s difficult not to give in and just enjoy the moment.

My own tears are too cold and painful to shed. It feels like I’m passing glass. All I can think about are the questions that will surely come — like emotional bullets — when this is all over, and that stays them in my eyes. But at least they blur my vision, so I don’t have to see my husband while my body lies to him.

He tells me to push, just a little more honey, and although I don’t want to, my body does just that. The baby squeezes down upon my cervix and although I clench, I know that I can’t postpone this moment forever. The longer this goes on, the deeper this hole I’m in becomes.

I’m expecting. That’ s how all the literature refers to it. I’m expecting a baby. It’ s a strange way to put it, I think, as if there is even the slightest possibility that I may deliver something else instead. The truth, perhaps. I laugh, but none of this is funny at all.

When this is all over, and the pushing and the tears and the panic attacks make way for the heavy reality of parenthood, Adrian will be expecting an explanation. Lord knows he will deserve one. And when he does ask, there will be no place to hide. No doctors to sedate me: nothing to cushion my confession.

Webbed fingers. That’s all I ask for.

I hold Adrian’s hand tighter. Look at him. Tears of joy that he — quite rightly — thinks mirror my own. This is his moment as much as it is mine. At least, it should be. That smile will take a thousand washes to remove. Or maybe just one timely admission.

Through eyes almost squeezed shut, I look at the nurse who gave me the drugs, and the doctor who is between my legs, urging me on. She smiles like she believes it, and he tells me it won’t be much longer now. I know he’s right. I can feel it now, scrabbling for air, fighting its way out as I fight to keep it in.

This is the child Adrian always wanted. He’s going to make such a good father: much better than the mother I am about to become or the example I have set.

I promised myself I would never be this person; the person my own mother was when I was growing up. The lies and the deception. All that selfishness. I guess you don’t even realise it’s happening, but over the years it becomes as much a part of you as anything else. It’s in the air, like dust.

I want to tell him the truth but I don’t know how, or even if it’s a good idea. It’s worthless if all it offers is pain, and I can’t see how my confession brings anything else. I’ve been over it a thousand times in my head, but all the truth does is shift my guilt onto his shoulders, where it will eventually become bitter and resentful.

I can’t tell him.

Not now. Not here, in front of the doctor with the hooked nose and the curious hands, or the nurse with the too wide grin on her face, beaming as if it’s Christmas and she’s the only one who knows.

I don’t have the heart to tear out his in front of these strangers. No. I will wait. Maybe things


will work themselves out. Maybe he will never question it.

Maybe I will die giving birth.

And for a moment, that seems like the best idea of all.

We have been together for seven years, and for a while it looked like that was all we were going to get. The honeymoon period barely stretched beyond the two weeks we spent in Hawaii. Slowly the creases turned into cracks, and soon enough those cracks became chasms. Big enough to fall into and lose yourself. Things that we laughed about in the early days were all of a sudden not so funny anymore: things that were cute then, now annoyed the hell out of me.

But we never actually fell out with each other, just fell apart, like two pieces of driftwood, tossed to separate shores. After seven years we just didn’t have anything new to say to each other, and when the silences last longer than the conversations, it’s probably time to reassess what you have. It happens. Some relationships just lose their flavour after a while.

In the beginning it was easy to convince myself that I wasn’t hurting anybody. I always thought an affair was staying late after work, secret meeting places, hotel rooms in the name of Smith, showers in the middle of the day, fake smiles and alibis.

All I did was say yes when I should have said no. It only happened once, but I guess that doesn’t matter. It was still something, however you slice it.

Next thing I know, I’m in stirrups.

Sometimes I think Adrian knows, and that he’ s just waiting for the right moment to cut me off at the knees; then I look at him the way I’m looking at him now and realise that he doesn’t know a damn thing.

If he took out his calculator and did his sums, perhaps he’d wake up to a different reality. I’m sure he wouldn’t have his hand in mine right now: he’d be somewhere else, crying different tears. But he trusts me so damn much. It never crosses his mind to doubt my loyalty.

“You’re doing it honey.”

Of course I am doing it. What choice do I have? Come to think of it, what choice did I ever have?

None of the obvious solutions were really solutions at all, and every window you have closes oh-so quickly when you’re on the clock and the guilt is pressing upon you like a lead weight.

The nurse by my head thinks her smile is helping, when all she is really doing is reminding me of my shame. Adrian leans over me, wide-eyed, telling me to breathe baby, breathe, as if - in all the excitement - I am going to forget to do that.

I wonder if the doctor with his measured tones has his suspicions. Of course he does. He probably gives birth to guilty secrets all the time, then goes home and tells his wife about them over dinner. I guess doctor-patient confidentiality doesn’t exist for my kind or me.

He says I am doing well and that he can see the top of a head. Everything looks fine.

I’m glad he thinks so.

I should be happy, but now all I can think about is what colour the kid’s hair is. Wispy blonde or — “Come on baby.” Adrian’s coal black hair is sweat-stuck to his forehead like a plastic Ken

doll. “We’re almost there.”


Oh we are, are we? And when did you start pushing?

I look into his hazel eyes and wonder if genetics will turn a blind eye to my infidelity just this once. I clutch more tightly to his hand, and the ring he wears reminds me of the vows I took and broke. Forsaking all others, but one.

The doctor tells me to push just a little more. At first I try not to. I wonder how long I can keep this baby inside me before somebody decides enough is enough, throws a grenade up there, and smokes it out.

That makes me laugh, and that makes me push.

“You okay, honey?”

What kind of a ridiculous question is that? Of course I’m not okay. In a few minutes we are both going to see just how not okay I am.

But I nod just the same, and he pats my hand reassuringly.

I hope this baby has brown eyes. Please Jesus, I will swap my place in Heaven for brown eyes.

And, of course, webbed fingers.

Tears of pain, tears of sorrow, tears of joy. All three start running down my cheeks at once: each emotion as strong as the next.

Adrian looks at me, reading but not really understanding my lies, and I look away.

The doctor nods his head urging me to push just a little more.

“You’re almost there.” Adrian keeps repeating it. I feel his weight start to shift southward. But I hold him where he is for as long as I can.

Pushing and crying, pushing and crying.

As hard as I can, with all I have. Just get this thing out of me. Now I just want it to be over.

With one more sustained effort — fingernails drawing blood on Adrian’s hand, purple spots before my eyes — I finally squeeze out my secret shame and fall back onto the pillows, spent.

Now I wait.

But there are no questions. There are no doubts.

The doctor tells us we have a beautiful baby boy, and I immediately hear my son start to cry, gasping for his first breath. I sit up in bed as much as I am able, as the nurse wipes him down and brings him over to me.

I hold him against my chest, and the doctor says he looks just like his father. Adrian blushes at the textbook compliment. I try hard to see him in my son’s face, but in the afterglow of delivery, he looks exactly like every other baby I have ever seen. Frightened, confused, alone. Just like tile.

Adrian tentatively kisses his boy’s forehead and says hello for the first time. I carefully lift up my son’s left hand and stroke his newborn knuckles, where a tiny flap of skin joins his thumb to his forefinger.

I start to cry again, but now the tears taste like relief.

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