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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
2,560 words ~ spooky scale: •••• 14+

In the Cradle of the Night

The doctor pushed open the A&E room door. There were smears of crimson blood on his gown. He scanned the corridor up and down, looking out for me I supposed, then nodded. He pulled off gloves, threw them into a bin, turned, and with his eyes lowered, shuttered, started towards me. But he didn’t need to tell me anything. I could tell by his composed, closed face. I’d seen this scene too often on TV. We did everything possible, but unfortunately he was already in a very serious condition when he arrived here…

I heard myself moan. Tears well up in my eyes. I jerked my head back, hitting the wall, needing to feel something other than this ache, than this emptiness, than this constriction in my chest.

Seeing me move, the doctor quickened his step.

I jumped up, darted through the double doors, and through the reception area, out into the cold night air.

I’d come running in here a little over an hour ago, I figured, my baby boy wrapped in a blanket in my arms. He’d been running a fever, and hadn’t responded to anything I’d tried — damp flannels, baths, analgesics — and was getting more and more unresponsive, broken by bouts of fitful crying. His eyes were red and runny. When I touched that delicate, wonderful head, I felt he was burning up.

I hadn’t been able to find any transport — no neighbours, no minicabs, no buses at this time of night — so I had wrapped him in a thick blanket, and ran for the Hospital. A nurse had taken the small, fragile parcel from my arms while an orderly lead me to a chair, knelt besides me and asked questions, and later brought me tea in a plastic cup.

The doctor had come over and spoken to me. A few words had pierced the fatigue and worry: suspected meningitis… stabilised… waiting for results… At some point a woman with a clipboard had sat next to me and asked questions: name, address, and other details. I had mumbled replies but a alarm had tripped somewhere in the rooms, and the doctor had hurried by, other people had arrived, crowding into the room where they’d put my son.

Then I’d seen the doctor, and known.

There was no need for words.

I stood in the forecourt and breathed, looking up at the few scattered stars in the night sky.

I needed to punch out. I needed to drink myself into blind forgetfulness. I needed something to cover the pain, the lead weight gripping my stomach, my lungs, my heart.

I remembered a grubby face beaming up at me, and my heart melting. I remembered a first tottering step. I remembered a scraped knee, and the cuddle that followed…

“Dad!” I heard someone call.

And then a voice next to me spoke my name.

I turned and looked.

There was a teenage boy in ragged jeans and a hoodie. He pulled it down as he spoke revealing a mess of dark hair, a sallow face, and sunken eyes. He looked like a down and out, or worse. But how did he know my name?

I felt the world spinning, the ground slipping away from under my feet. I reached out an arm to steady myself.

The youth moved closer.

“We haven’t got long,” he said.

“What d’you mean?” I barked back. “Leave me alone.”

His eyes darted right and left, up and down like a torch beam sizing up a darkened room. He moved closer again, reaching for my arm as if to steady me. I pulled back.

“Leave me alone, I…” I started. “I’ve got nothing on me anyway.”

“We’ve got to be quick.” He looked around again. “We haven’t got that long.”

“Get off!”

I pulled my arm back, lifting it, away and ready to hit out.

“I’m your son,” he said softly, looking up at me.

“Don’t you..!” I stormed. I turned to face him. “Do you even real— I just left my son. In there. He’s dead. The only one I’ve got.”

Tears burst through the barriers, flooding down, and burning my face. Everything blurred and faded as I realised what I’d said.

“No,” said a soft voice just nearby. “He’s not… It’s not… It was a changeling. I am… Look, this is hard, and I haven’t got much time. This was the only moment I knew a definite time and place to find you, right?”

“What do you do?” I shouted back. “Hang about here waiting? This how you get your kicks, is it? Messing up poor sods who’ve.. who’ve…”

I felt myself falling apart.

He continued softly: “They steal the kids. Leave something else in the place. It doesn’t live. It’s not meant to. Just cover their tracks like… that’s all…” He broke into a cough. “A decoy, that’s all.”

I looked at him, not wanting to listen. Not wanting to fall for his trick. Not wanting to believe.

“You gotta…” He coughed again. I saw dark bubbles at the corner of his mouth. “No! It’s too soon!” he cried out. I need more time!” And he reeled over in a fit of violent coughing.

I grabbed at his arms. He grabbed for mine. And then we were holding each other on that cold, empty forecourt.

But it felt familiar. It felt right. It felt like I knew him.

“You feel it too,” he whispered. His voice rasped as he spoke, and there was now blood smeared round his mouth.

“Get inside!” I said, and guided him to the doors.

As soon as we passed through, an orderly came over. He took the boy’s shoulders on the other side, leading us forward.

“What happened?” he asked us.

“Dunno,” I said. “Found him like this outside.”

“Sit him down. I’ll get someone to come and look at him.”

He pulled a handful of paper from a roll, and passed it to the boy. Then he hurried off.

“Are you all right, kid?” I asked. He looked white, almost transparent under the harsh fluorescent lighting. The blood around his lips and chin was bright red, too red as he mopped at it, and then held the paper to his mouth.

The orderly came back pushing a clattering wheelchair. A front wheel caught on the lino tiles, stuck and then span free. He jerked at it as he pushed. With him was a young woman in a white blouse, and a stethoscope round her neck.

“Tell me what happened,” she said, catching his eye and holding on to it. She bent down and looked the boy in the face and the eyes.

“Nuffin’,” he muttered. “Caught up with me Dad, and then this started.”

“No I—” I started.

The doctor flicked a gaze over me, the sort of look people give when checking out a family resemblance, gave me a brief encouraging smile, and turned her attention back to the boy.

“Never happened before, I suppose? Nothing in the family?”

This last question was for me. I shrugged.

“And I’m afraid I’ve got to ask,” she said, staring at the boy, on the lookout for his reaction. “No drugs, pills, anything like that?”

He shook his head. Then he bent, coughing again, spitting dark clots of blood onto the crumpled paper towels.

She stood up.

“Let’s get you somewhere comfortable, shall we?” She turned to the orderly standing by with the wheelchair. He was gripping the push handles and then releasing them again. “Where we can get a good look at you.”

The orderly helped him into the chair.

“Can he..?” said the boy, looking at me, and then at the doctor.

“Of course,” she said, touching him softly on the arm. “We’ll need the portable X-ray for his chest. And we’ll send a nurse for some blood samples,” she added, speaking to the orderly. “I’ll be right over.”

He nodded, levered the front of the chair up and round, pressing down again to lift the front wheels over the cracked tiles on the floor.

Another fit of coughing shook the boy as they moved into the room. The orderly handed over another wad of paper, then helped the boy onto an examination table.

“Be right back,” he said. “There’s more if you need it. And just stick the used stuff in the bin there.” He pushed the empty chair with one hand, rotating it, letting the wheels spin. “You’ll be as right as rain in no time.” And he left us alone.

“You all right?” I asked the boy. He was lying back, holding the paper up to his mouth. He nodded.

“So fast…” he said. “Look, I—”

“What’ve you got?” I said. “I mean, it’s not—”

“Contagious? No. I doubt it. A side effect, of getting here. I think—” Then a pause, “Dad?”

I looked at the scruffy, dirty clothes, the pale face, the shock of dark, slightly damp hair. He could be… But he was just any old kid.

“Stop it!” I said. “I don’t know what your game is, but it won’t work. You don’t know who I am, or what I am at all—”

“You’re right…” he cleared his throat, spitting something onto the paper. “I don’t know you.” He paused. “Fourteen months, that’s all I had.” A chill flickered down my spine. “What can I know, remember, from that? Warmth. Impressions. Hugs and feeling the stubble on your cheeks. But even that I’m not too sure. How much I remember, and how much I invented or imagined later. A bed. A warm bed, something blue and soft and cuddly. And something real weird, a lullaby? Your voice, or a man’s voice anyway, singing, We will rock you, rock you little snake…” His eyes looked right into me, and right through. “Does any of that mean anything?”

I shook my head.

How could he know? An old Genesis song, and that mock nursery rhyme I found funny.

“Sometimes I think I made it all up. As a way of comforting myself. Of keeping sane…”

He stopped, his voice trailing off to a moan. His body tensed, and jerked inwards: arms folded over his chest, knees bent, neck taunt.

“I never thought…” he breathed through clenched teeth.

I put out a hand to hold onto his shoulder.

And the orderly backed into the room pulling some sort of machine: boxes and wires and screens set on two spindly legs.

“Doctor’ll be along in a sec’.” He pushed the machine round until it was both under and over the table. “Need you to step outside, Mister. The radiation. Though I’m sure them mobile phones do more damage than this fellow…”

I squeezed the kid’s shoulder, stood up, and walked out through the doors. I looked at the door opposite then rubbed my eyes. I combed my fingers through my hair, rubbed my scalp. Tried to chase this feeling of numbness, of distance.

Another blouse, and then another, pushed through the doors, and into the room with the boy. I heard urgent talk, and the click-clack of machines.

Someone came out.

“You can go back in now…”

I turned. It was the orderly. He pushed the machines against the wall, into a recess between two tables, next to a poster reminding everyone that washing hands reduced nosocomial infections by 60%, whatever that meant.

I looked along the corridor. Just along the way was the room where they’d taken my boy. He’d been hot and feverish. Burning up. But living. And now he was dead. I wanted to go and see, but I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. The weight of the night bore down on my shoulders, pinning me to the floor.

“They’re waiting on the results,” said the orderly. He looked at me with soft, liquid eyes. “Hey, didn’t I see you earlier?”

I nodded.

He patted my arm just above the elbow.

“He’s stable now,” he said. “Go and wait with him.”

I looked through the doors. The boy was lying on his back, peaceably enough. But now he had tubes and a monitor attached to his arms and chest.

The orderly gave my arm a last squeeze and moved on.

I saw that the kid on the table was looking at me.

I pushed through the doors, scooped up a stool, and sat down near his head.

“How you doing, kiddo?” I found myself saying.

He nodded.

“OK,” he said. “I knew this was the risk, but… I figured it was worth it.”

He looked as if he was going to cough again, and I looked around for the roll of paper, but he calmed down, the sudden rush of colour fading from his cheeks. “Before the end. You should go. Just slip out. They’ll only want to ask you awkward questions.” He paused. “And you won’t be able to answer.”

“Speaking of questions…”

“You can ask, but I probably can’t give you much in the way of answers. Or not much sense, anyway.”

“The baby? My son? Why?”

“That’s easy. I told you. To cover up. Hide the snatch. They like to get them young, and I guess that fewer people notice the change when it’s a littl’un. But you should still mourn it. Mourn me. At least I tried.”

“And why should I believe you?”

“Don’t. There’s nothing I can say to convince you that you don’t know yourself, already. I did it for me, not for you…”

He reached out a hand, trying to find me. I took it.

It was warm, hot even. It felt curiously like holding my own baby son.

“Thanks,” he said in a low, soft voice. I fancied I could hear it fading off to a wheeze at the end. Besides him one of the machines started an urgent beeping.

He looked over through half-closed eye, fresh blood swelling at the corners of his mouth.

“So much light here,” he said. “I never imagined…”

The machine started sounding some sort of alarm.

A nurse pushed through the doors, punched a button on the monitor, and cut the sound. She felt his wrist, his forehead, and then inspected his eyes before hitting a button on the wall. A bell rang out.

She looked at me.

“What happened?”

I shook my head.

“He was just lying there. Seemed peaceful enough.”

The doctor arrived.

“You’d better wait outside,” she said to me, leaning over the boy.

I let go the hand, feeling the contact break, and disappear.

The machine started beeping again

I backed off, and out the door. I felt tears running down my face again. I reached up, and brushed them away.

Down the corridor a couple were arguing at the admissions desk. A man in a grey coat pushed a mop across the floor. An orderly carrying piles of white boxes pushed through some double doors, and disappeared from view.

I walked on, through the double doors.

Outside in the car park I was a little surprised to notice it was still night. I felt so much had been happening.

I breathed deeply, feeling the sharp night air in my throat and lungs.

“Dad?” said a voice from behind me.

I turned to face the voice.

I heard a cry echoing round the forecourt, across the car park, under the streetlights and the empty stars.

And that scream was mine…

THE END

2550

Most of these stories have been fun to write. Not this one. In actual fact it started out as a dream. Or perhaps I should say a nightmare. And it was a most terrifying experience. Sincerely, I don’t think there can be a worse experience for a parent than losing a child, which is why this particular nightmare spooked me, and why I needed to get it out of my system.

This story was originally written in January 2010, and is the second to last of this series. Next week’s is — I hope — a little less intense. See you then.

Last edited: Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

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black as snow Juliet has just moved to the country. She doesn’t like her new school, she doesn’t like living on a stinking farm where it always rains. Then she starts seeing a pony, waiting outside at night in the rain. And she’s sure it’s waiting for her...

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