Maternal Instincts by Melanie White
The night lights twitched and died along the hospital corridor. Pete slowed, not sorry for an excuse to put off his visit. The wards were dim enough at this hour; now they fell from medicinal blue to lifeless grey.
Monitors blipped through the quiet, drowned out now and then by a quailing newborn. Each warbling cry was different from the next, yet each sounded... normal. Right. Pete had had time to register this, slumping in one of the waiting area’s orange plastic chairs throughout last night, and now this one.
The nurses hadn’t encouraged him to go home. They didn’t know what to say. Through his stupor, he registered their glances: half pitying, half wary, like he was a bizarre specimen in need of containment.
The lights flickered again and, straining for a moment, flipped back on. He paused in front of a cork noticeboard and squinted at its torn scraps of paper: nutrition guidelines, breastfeeding tips, antenatal groups. What would he and Kara tell people? He didn’t even know what to report back to Kara’s mother, Gretchen, who was waiting impatiently at the house, looking after Winston and clogging up his voicemail.
He drifted further along the corridor, its squeaky floor a pale waterway, glistening. Curtains hung limp from flimsy rails in the wards, cordoning off the sleepers. Here and there the curtain was drawn back around an empty bed, though one near the corridor was occupied, a woman propped up and breastfeeding in the shadows. Startled, Pete looked away.
“Hey,” said the woman, rustling her sheet. He turned back to see her beckon him. The white mound of her breast gleamed in the moonlight from the window. Reluctantly, he moved toward her.
“How’s your wife?” the woman asked, hushed. Pete could hear the infant making determined little sucking noises. “Has baby made an appearance?”
Pete swallowed, wanting water. Two bucks from the machine, but there was a water fountain at the other end of the building. He would have to turn around. He felt a small surge of relief for somewhere else to go, something else to do, if only for the moment.
“She’ll be alright,” Pete said, trying to shut out the fish mouth working at the woman’s flesh. “She’s recovering. He gave a her a — bit of a rough time. They had to do a C-section.”
“Oh he,” the woman squealed. “She said they weren’t sure of the sex. A boy! That’s marvelous.”
Pete nodded automatically. The woman talked in confidential whispers, hefting her baby around her breast.
“She told me how long you’d been trying for. That must have been agony, pure agony, all those treatments.” She leaned toward him. “You must be so pleased.”
“Oh — yes.” He was dying of thirst. “I was just going to check," he said, backing away. "On them.” He reversed around the corner like a midnight courtier.
He turned and hurried back down the corridor, away from Kara’s end, where she had been given a private room. His throat was raw. Kara had complained of thirst through all three rounds of IVF: dry throat, dustbowl mouth, vagina like the Sahara. Hot flashes, searing headaches, daily hormone injections. Disposable needles crackling in their paper packets, Kara’s bruised skin and tired veins yielding to each sharp little point. She was worn out the first time around; by the third, her hair was falling out and Pete had to brace for screams, tears, anything, every time he came home from work. She’d banned him from drinking, to get his sperm in top-notch condition, but he would never have coped without a fortifying swig at the end of each day from the flask of Scotch in his office drawer, followed by a mouthwash chaser.
Guilt stabbed him in the guts, now. He wondered if it was his fault. Kara had gone to such lengths to conceive, put her body through the wringer, and he couldn’t even manage to lay off the sauce. What if it was him, his deficient sperm, that had caused this... thing?
The irony was, they had given up trying. People loved pronouncing that it always happened the minute you stopped. But it was almost farcical, the effort they’d made — more than two years of optimally timed intercourse, followed by 25 grand’s worth of fertility treatments — only to give up on it, spend a further five K on a consolation trip to the Caribbean, come back and, bingo, two months later Kara was jumping for joy (but only metaphorically, in case bouncing dislodged the baby).
The metal of the water fountain gleamed like an ice block as Pete bent over it. He let the cold stream run over his mouth and tossed leaky handfuls at his stubbled face. Heavy with sleeplessness, he leaned against the rim of the fountain and stared at the greasy sheet of glass before him, out into the empty black.
Although the child had come a week late, he was still on the small side, with hair not just on his head but elsewhere, too, downy brown creeping over his body like a strange moss. In the operating theatre, with tubes feeding from Kara’s hands and a green sheet bisecting her body, the doctor had lifted the wrinkled, curled creature from her groaning abdomen, and the room had fallen silent. “What is it?” Kara had drowsed through the anesthetic, struggling to raise her head. “Is it okay?” The doctor had looked at Pete, briefly, then swept the child into a coven of nurses.
“It’s fine,” Pete had said, patting her swollen arm. He strained to peer through the murmuring huddle. The doctor stepped back and came toward him. She hesitated, glancing at Kara’s expectant, hazy face.
“It appears,” she said, “it’s a boy.” Kara glowed, cracking a loopy, lopsided grin. More quietly, she added, “There are one or two — irregularities. Don’t worry, we just need to run a few tests.”
“I want to hold him,” Kara slurred. The doctor leaned over her. A nurse fiddled with the machine connected to her hand.
“Just rest for now,” she said, as Kara's eyelids fluttered. “Nothing to worry about. Just rest.”
“But,” Pete said, watching nurses carry the child from the room. “Can’t we — shouldn’t I —” The doctor laid a hand, long and thin, on his shoulder.
“I’ll come and find you in the waiting room,” she said. “Why don’t you get a coffee from the shop downstairs.”
Kara had slept through the rest of the night and woken late the next day. When Pete returned from lunch, a limp cheese and ham sandwich in the antiseptic cafeteria, she was propped up in her single bed, cooing over swaddling. A nurse in a starched uniform stood near the door like a navy sentry, tight-lipped and iron-limbed.
The face was scrunched into tight folds of downy flesh, eyes closed tight. The next thing Pete noticed was the ears, small folds rather higher up than he would have expected, peeking out from the edge of the wound cloth. The wrinkled face protruded, conical, from its white binding.
“Hum,” Pete said.
“Isn’t he gorgeous?”
“Is he —” Pete glanced at the nurse, who was staring at the opposite wall. He bent closer and whispered. “Okay?”
“Of course he is,” Kara snapped, tugging at the cloth beneath the infant’s jutting chin. “Nothing wrong with him. As if all babies have to look alike. He’s perfectly healthy.” She jigged him in her mottled arms, shielding him like a giant awning.
Pete stared down at the bundle.
“Can I have a look at him?” he asked. “You know — can we unwrap him?”
“He’s sleeping,” said Kara, clutching him. “I don’t want to disturb him.”
Soon afterwards the doctor had come, saying they needed to conduct further checks. Kara had objected, wanting to go home, but the doctor insisted she remain overnight, at least one more. It was hospital policy. Eventually she had fallen asleep, and the sentry nurse gathered up the baby to take it away. Pete followed her into the corridor.
“Wait,” he said. “Could you wait a moment? I haven’t even held him yet.”
The nurse stared at him, doubtful. He held out his hands. She glanced down the empty corridor and slid the foreign cargo onto Pete’s outstretched arms.
He lifted the infant closer, up to his face. The movement stirred it from sleep; Pete felt it writhe and twist. A corner of the blanket fell aside, exposing the baby’s arm: a short appendage, nubby and soft. Pete was staring at it, puzzled, when the baby’s lids peeled open, and he found himself looking into the inky blots of two large eyes, blackness suffusing each gelatinous mound.
“What’s happening here?” the doctor said, coming upon them abruptly and causing a pile-up of surgical gowns and suits. “Sorry doctor,” said the nurse, hastily reclaiming the child and tucking back the stray swaddling.
“We’ll have him back with you shortly,” the doctor addressed Pete, moving again. “Nothing to worry about,” she said over her shoulder, hurrying the nurse with the creature along and her entourage sweeping behind.
Now day was breaking, and they would soon go home. Kara had screeched upon waking the previous evening and kicked up a fuss, and as the heartbeat was strong (if a touch fast) and vital signs checked out, the doctors had no choice but to return the child to its mother and promise to release them from the ward. There had been some trouble about the breastfeeding, but Pete was feeling a little faint at that point and had to leave the room.
Kara clasped the child to her defiantly as a nurse wheeled them through the hospital doors. She strapped the mewling creature into the car seat, cooing and bustling, while Pete hovered at the car door, holding on.
At home, Gretchen pounced on Kara before they were in the door, pawing at the bundle in her arms. The women gurgled into the house, a rolling mass of maternal instincts, while Winston bounded around them, barking joyously. Pete unloaded the car and found a quiet place to lie down, on the old corduroy sofa in the guest room.
Waking later, the house was still. His stomach rumbled and he wondered whether to order pizza or get to the liquor store before it closed. What else he was supposed to do, he had no idea.
He padded down the stairs and paused on the landing beside the master bedroom. The door was closed. He waited a moment, uncertain, then quietly turned the knob and peered into the room.
On the bed, Kara was curled round the child like a crescent moon, stroking the soft brown fuzz of his forehead. On the other side of the bed — his side — lay Winston, bushy tail languidly slapping the comforter. At the sound of Pete’s entrance, Winston threw his long muzzle over his shoulder and bared his teeth, growling.
“Oh Winston,” Kara said, her voice tinkling. “No need for that.” She stroked his dense fur. “Isn’t he funny,” she said to Pete, smiling blissfully. “So protective already.”
Pete stared at the trio, the two long figures sandwiching the wriggling little ball between. The creature rolled onto its back and waved its nubs in the air. Winston panted softly, warm breath haloing its head, while Kara tickled its stomach delightedly.
“I might just leave you to it,” Pete said. Kara nodded, smiling, without looking up. He withdrew and closed the door. Remembering his secret stash of minibottles in the cupboard upstairs, he turned, relieved, and climbed back up into the guest room.
© Melanie White, 2014
Melanie White balances freelance journalism with fiction writing. In addition to short stories published by Liars' League, Booked and Londonist, she has a few screenplays and a novel-in-progress lurking within her laptop. Despite intense nostalgia for her old 'hood in Park Slope, Melanie currently lives in London, where she is mother to a terrier cross from Spain. Her website is www.melaniecarowhite.com.
Maternal Instincts was read by Jeff Wills on 5th February 2014