Part 2 of 2 of a short story I wrote a few years ago and dusted off for this month’s “In Another World” post. You can read Part 1 here.
The fire had dimmed to a few glowing embers, so I eased away from Samuel, who was still sound asleep, and built it up with the extra pieces of wood we had stacked nearby. Then I lay down again and probed my throbbing temples with my fingers.
I dreamed as often as anyone, but never like this—never as vividly and never about something that had really happened. Pangs of guilt stabbed me in the gut.
I hadn’t known how to reply to Alisa’s accusation, so I just stammered into silence. All the while, she kept watching me with those dark blue eyes of hers—not judging me, just looking . . . hurt. Remembering made me feel ashamed all over again.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want our baby. Not really. I was just . . . confused. Being a dad—it wasn’t something I’d ever wanted. I never knew how to react to kids. They almost always annoyed me and made me say something I immediately regretted.
But . . . maybe that wasn’t the real reason for my confusion.
He didn’t look up from the newspaper. “Yes, Rob?”
“Um, I have a baseball game this Saturday, and I just wondered . . . well, do you think you’ll be able to come?”
He was already shaking his head before I finished my question. “’Fraid not. I’ll be gone to Chicago for work. Maybe next time?”
I didn’t bother to mention that this was our last game or that we were in the championship. I just muttered, “Sure,” and left the room.
I shook the memory away but couldn’t erase the memories of the years that followed. “Next time” had never come. When I was a teenager, my parents separated, but my dad had been gone so often anyway, I hardly noticed the difference.
I shifted uncomfortably on the hard ground. I had to travel several times a month with my job now and when I combined that with the fact I never knew what to do with kids . . . . I can’t be like him. I can’t—I won’t.
I’d never even planned on getting married, but Alisa—well, Alisa was special. But when she told me she was pregnant, I’d never felt more . . .
So it wasn’t that I wanted our baby to die, like she’d accused. But, sometimes, I had to wonder if it might have been better if he had never been conceived.
Every time I had that thought, though, I could feel Alisa’s eyes drilling into me again.
Blue eyes . . .
That was why Samuel’s stare had freaked me out earlier. His eyes looked like Alisa’s. A lot like hers, actually.
I turned my head to check on him. He was still sleeping, his breathing deep and even. I curled behind him again, hoping that more sleep would erase my headache, which had begun to pound more persistently.
* * *
When I woke, sunlight was coming through the leaves above me. Samuel sat a few feet away, examining something shiny that hung on a leather strap around his neck.
I yawned. “What’ve you got there?” I asked and leaned forward to get a better look.
He quickly pulled away and tucked whatever it was—maybe a ring?—inside his shirt. “It was my mom’s,” he said.
“Yeah?” I was curious, but I didn’t ask to see it. I stood and tossed a handful of dirt on the fire pit, still watching him. “You know you’re going to have to tell me where you live sooner or later. You won’t be able to stay with me after we find the interstate and get back to a city again.”
He frowned but didn’t say anything.
Thing is, I mused, I don’t think he’s refusing to tell me. He doesn’t look like he’s being stubborn. Just looks a little confused—almost like he doesn’t know. I snorted to myself and pushed the thought away. That’s crazy. All kids know where they live. Least they do by the time they’re Samuel’s age. So . . . why won’t he tell me? I shrugged away my confusion and finished putting out the fire.
As we started walking, I noticed that the strange noises from the day before were back. This time I heard a low, steady beeping noise and several voices murmuring. Chills ran down my back as I wondered if the fall off the cliff was still messing with me. I started talking to Samuel again to block out the sounds.
We made good progress, and I was sure we had to be coming close to an interstate . . . or at least some kind of road. These woods couldn’t go on much longer.
“You sure you can’t tell me where you live, Samuel?”
He shook his head.
“Well, what about your family then? Can you tell me about them?”
He shook his head again.
“Well, why not?” I asked. I knew I sounded frustrated, but I didn’t care. The voices were murmuring louder, and I was working too hard to ignore them to worry about how I sounded. “C’mon, stop being stubborn.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No! I’m not.” His eyes pleaded with me, but I ignored them.
“Why won’t you tell me, then?” My voice rose, and I heard it tip from frustration to anger.
Samuel’s face scrunched up. “I—I can’t!” He took off running, ducking and dodging between trees. I groaned and followed at a walk, but when I realized I couldn’t see him anymore, I started to jog. He’ll come back, I told myself. He’ll have to. I knew I shouldn’t have yelled, but those voices . . . .
When a few minutes had passed and I still couldn’t see Samuel, my stomach began to knot up. My head had started to pound again, and my ribcage ached a little, too. I glanced back and forth, looking for him, and noticed something glittering on the ground a few feet in front of me. I stopped and bent down. It was the leather strap with the gold ring Samuel had been looking at earlier. I picked it up and noticed an inscription on the inner band of the ring.
To Alisa. All my love, Robert.
My heart stopped.
That’s why the ring had looked familiar. I had picked it out myself—for my wife.
“It was my mother’s,” Samuel had said.
My heart started beating again—pounding, rather.
It can’t be.
But . . .
He has Alisa’s eyes.
He has my smile.
It was true. That’s why Samuel’s smile had looked familiar—it was the same one I’d seen in pictures of myself for the last twenty-nine years.
I had no idea.
I started running again, more urgently now. My right leg suddenly started to ache, but I ignored it. “Sam? Samuel!” I called.
A roar filled the forest, followed by a shrill scream.
I sprinted in the direction of the sound. Seconds later, I saw them. A bear was raised onto its hind feet, and Samuel stood only a few feet away.
He started running toward me but tripped and rolled onto his back, facing the bear who had followed him. The monster swiped a huge paw across Samuel’s small body. He screamed, and rage swept through me.
I dashed forward and pulled him away, putting myself between him and the bear. A long, red stripe ran along Samuel’s left forearm, and his face was white, but he seemed okay other than that. I didn’t have time to do or think anything else before I felt claws dig into my back. Hot pain shot through me, and I collapsed, shielding Samuel’s body with my own.
The claws raked my back again, and I couldn’t hold in the scream this time. The beeping noise from earlier was back, and I wondered how I could notice that at a time like this. The claws came once more, then the forest grew blurry, and darkness blocked out everything else.
* * *
I jerked upright, my heart pounding. Wha—Where am I? I glanced down at the white sheets covering my legs. A low beeping noise came from a machine near my bed, and an IV was attached to my arm. A hospital.
I felt sluggish, my brain foggy, but my heart began to race, and the beeping quickened. What happened? I saw a red call button on the side of my bed and pushed it. Once. Twice. A third time. Frantically, I kept pushing it, willing someone to appear in the doorway.
The sound of quick footsteps came from down the hall, and a nurse appeared, her cheeks flushed from her hurry. “Mr. Harper! It’s good to see you awake. The doctor will be—”
“What happened?” I demanded. “Why am I here?”
“Don’t you remember?” She hesitated. “The doctor will be here in a minute. He can—”
“Wait.” I sank back against the pillows. A memory pushed slowly to the surface. Alisa and I had been driving home, and then—“A semi hit us!” The words burst from my mouth as I looked sharply at the nurse. “My wife. Where is she? Where’s Alisa?”
She glanced down. “Mr. Harper. Perhaps you should wait until the doctor—”
“Where is she?”
“She . . . your wife didn’t make it, sir.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No!” Red waves of pain washed over my mind, but a sharp sensation prodded at me. There was something—something I needed to remember. “My—my son.” The words came from someplace faraway, almost like a memory, or a dream. “Our baby. Is he—?”
The nurse met my eyes again. “Your son is alive, Mr. Harper. We did an emergency C-section when you and your wife reached the hospital.”
“Take me to him.” The words came out softly.
“Mr. Harper, you have a broken leg and several broken ribs, as well as a severe concussion. I’m afraid you can’t—”
“Take me to him!”
She opened her mouth again, but the wild look I could feel in my eyes must have stopped her. “I’ll—I’ll see if one of the orderlies is around to help you, sir.”
A few minutes later, an orderly had helped me into a wheelchair and wheeled me down the hall to the preemie section. He stopped outside the window. “Take me in,” I ordered. He hesitated. “Do I have to say everything twice? Take. Me. In.” After a quick conference with the nurse on duty, he did just that, pushing me through the door and pulling me to a stop beside a small bassinet.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes, sir,” I heard him say, but I didn’t respond. I stared at the tiny form in the bassinet before me. His mouth puckered as though he might start crying. His eyes were tightly shut, his face red and wrinkled.
I had never seen anything so beautiful.
“He’s quite healthy, you know.” It was the nurse on duty. “Surprising, considering what he’s been through. He’s small, but that will change soon.”
Ignoring her for the moment, I reached into the bassinet and grasped his tiny hand in mine. As I did, his fingers uncurled and then wrapped around my thumb. My heart jolted. A fierce feeling rose inside me . . . something wild, like a tiger, or—a bear.
A crazy idea gripped me, and I leaned forward, slowly sliding his tiny left sleeve up his arm. My eyes began to burn. A long white scar streaked across his forearm.
“We don’t know where that came from,” the nurse said, looking over my shoulder. “It must be a birthmark, but it’s so odd.”
Slowly, I reached over my shoulder, feeling my back under the hospital gown. Cool, ridged lines of skin met my touch. I covered my face, and my shoulders began to heave. The nurse left and busied herself at the other end of the room, allowing me my privacy. “I’m sorry,” I whispered hoarsely to him. “I didn’t know. I never would have wished—I’m sorry.”
Several minutes later, the nurse returned. “We haven’t been able to finish filling out your son’s birth certificate yet, Mr. Harper,” the nurse said. “Do you know what you’d like to name him?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Samuel. His name is Samuel.”