The bones in Josh’s hand ground together beneath the fierce pressure of Marsha’s grip. He gritted his teeth against the pain, knowing it was nothing compared to the agony his wife was feeling.
‘Come on, darling, you can do it,’ he said, wiping a bead of sweat from her brow with his free hand.
Marsha grunted, a fleck of snot flying from her nose as her purple face contorted with agony and exertion. Sweat plastered the white hospital gown to her body.
She sank back to the bed, panting for breath.
Josh felt for her, the delivery of Caleb, their first child, had been brutal so far. An agonising fifteen hour labour in a ward that was hotter than hell was now just finally coming to an end.
If they had another kid, they were going to make sure the delivery date fell in winter. Giving birth at the height of summer was salt in the wound.
Josh whispered to Marsha. She didn’t seem to hear him, just remained lying with her head on the pillow, her eyes closed, letting out little pained breaths.
‘You’re doing great, Marsha,’ the young midwife said. ‘We just need to check the baby isn’t getting distressed.’
Josh nodded. Marsha remained motionless, conserving her energy for the next push.
The midwife moved in and pressed a stethoscope to Marsha’s bulging belly.
Bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum came the baby’s heartbeat. Marsha smiled, despite the agony that washed over her.
‘You’ll be holding your beautiful baby boy within the hour,’ the midwife smiled.
Marsha sat up, ready to push now that she had fresh inspiration. Josh’s hand went white as the next set of contractions gripped her. She pushed as hard as she could, imagining she was shoving the pain away.
Sweat rolled down her brow, into her eyes. Josh moved to wipe it, but Marsha hissed, ‘Leave it.’ Her face was the colour of beetroot.
She let out a cry that was half pained scream, half triumphant battle cry.
Josh gripped her hand hard. He felt sure one of the bones in his hand had broken, but he wasn’t about to complain as he could only imagine the pain Marsha was in.
Marsha let out a final shove and another scream then slumped back to the pillow, drained.
‘Excellent,’ the midwife beamed.
‘Nice work, honey, we’re getting closer all the time.’
Marsha eyeballed him. His relentless cheer was starting to boil her piss. Her eyes closed. She’d use the anger to push harder next time.
The midwife checked the heartbeat again. It was the same pace as before. They both smiled. Hearing the heartbeat was a novelty that never wore off.
They could picture little Caleb now. It was about time he put in an appearance.
After another agonising contraction that made Marsha scream in pain and further crush her husband’s hand, the midwife rolled the machine in closer and took the heartbeat again.
This time the bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum was conspicuous by its absence. Marsha was too drained to realise, but Josh felt a pang of alarm. The midwife’s worried expression didn’t help matters.
‘Is everything ok?’ he asked.
The midwife tried the stethoscope against her hand, making muffled thumps as her hand scraped across the jellied surface. She failed to hide her concern.
She pressed the stethoscope against Marsha’s stomach again. The bu-dum noises came back again, but the worry on the nurse’s face didn’t fade.
‘What’s wrong?’ Marsha said, sitting up. The tension in the room was palpable.
‘The baby seems a little distressed,’ she said. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, but I’m going to get the doctor in.’
‘My God,’ Marsha screamed. ‘Is he ok?’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,’ the midwife said, but her expression told a different story.
The doctor appeared halfway through the next set of contractions. He hid his concern better than the midwife, but his poker face still needed a lot of work.
‘Is he ok?’ Marsha sobbed.
The doctor said nothing as he listened to the heartbeat. ‘The baby is in distress,’ he said. ‘We need to get him out as soon as possible.’
Then Marsha was being wheeled out of the room at a frantic pace. Her hand was torn from Josh’s grip as the bed disappeared from the room.
‘What’s going on?’ Josh wailed.
Marsha’s cries faded as the bed was rushed down the corridor to the operating room.
‘The baby is stuck and he’s starting to panic,’ the midwife said, then raced out of the room after the doctor and the bed bearing Marsha.
Josh ran after them, but a nurse stopped him. ‘I’m sorry, Sir, but you can’t go in there until the operation is complete.’
‘My wife’s in labour,’ he said. ‘The baby’s stuck.’
‘I understand, but you can’t go in, I’m afraid.’
Josh shoved her out of the way and ran down the corridor.
Two big orderlies came from his left. He dodged the charge of one and cracked the nose of the second with a wild right hook. The first recovered and shoved Josh roughly into the wall. Pain flared in his nose and he tasted blood in the back of his throat.
‘My baby’s in trouble,’ he hissed through gritted teeth.
‘I understand, Sir, but that doesn’t mean you can assault our staff.’
Josh struggled to get free until one of the guards pulled his arm up his back. He grunted with the pain and froze.
‘Settle yourself down,’ the first orderly said. ‘You need to wait in the visitor’s room until the operation is complete.’
Josh started to sob as the orderlies led him away. He had a horrible feeling about all of this.
After the longest half an hour of his life, the orderlies came back inside. ‘You can see your wife now,’ the first one said.
Josh was so worried he didn’t notice the concerned expression on the orderly’s face.
He ran down the corridor to the room where Marsha had been taken. The doctor gave him a smile but didn’t say anything.
The midwife said, ‘They’re in there,’ without lifting her head to look at him.
As he stepped into the room, the metallic smell of blood hung in the air like an invisible fog. Marsha was lying on her back, her glazed eyes staring at the tiny infant on her chest.
‘I’m here, honey,’ he said. ‘The bastards wouldn’t let me in.’
She nodded but his words didn’t seem to have registered with her. She didn’t really seem to have acknowledged he was there.
‘He’s beautiful,’ Josh said. He stroked the back of his son’s head, amazed at the softness of the gossamer thin hairs. A sticky flux of blood and vernix coated his hand. He wiped it on his jeans then stood, staring at his wife and the new addition to the family.
It took a good few seconds before he noticed the livid purple colour of his son’s skin. His entire body was the colour of a day old bruise.
After this initial shock registered, he stared carefully at his son. His tiny chest was still. It didn’t rise or fall.
He put his hand on his son’s back to see if he could feel the movement of his breathing. The cold, clammy feel of Caleb’s skin terrified him. He was as cold as the grave and his chest still wasn’t moving.
‘But he’s not breathing,’ Josh said, trying to figure out the situation.
A single tear rolled out of the corner of Marsha’s left eye.
The sound of the door opening made Josh spin. The doctor approached, his face ashen. He looked everywhere but into Josh’s eyes.
‘I’m so sorry, Mr Walker,’ he began, but the rest of his commiseration was lost beneath Josh’s howl of despair.
Josh hugged his wife hard, careful to avoid the tender midsection from where they’d tore his stillborn son loose.
‘I’m sorry, honey,’ he sobbed, his tears falling onto their tiny, dead son.
Marsha didn’t react, just continued staring at Caleb’s lifeless body until the doctor carried him away.
The next day, the reality of the situation had still yet to sink in. Josh drifted through the hospital in a daze, not thinking about anything, just existing. Marsha was still off her face on morphine, and only partly aware of what had happened.
Josh sat by the bed, staring at his sleeping wife, wondering how the hell they were going to cope with the loss of the child they had both craved so much. The nursery they’d painted in the brightest sea blue was going to lie empty, mocking the hopes and dreams they had held for the future.
They had enjoyed life as a twosome, but they had gotten used to the idea of a third person in the house. It would be nigh on impossible to imagine going home without Caleb.
A knock at the door disturbed him from his musings. The sound of a man clearing his throat preceded the visitor.
A tall, skinny man in a black suit came in. He had a dark monocle clutched against his left eye and had a thin black goatee. His expression was mournful, as though it was he that had just lost his firstborn.
He cleared his throat again, then wiped his right hand on his trousers and offered it to Josh.
‘Hi, I’m Doctor Hank Laverick,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘I am so sorry for your loss, Mr Walker. The loss of a child in such tragic circumstances is a nightmare come true. My heart goes out to you, it really does.’
‘Thank you,’ Josh said, his voice cracking.
‘I come to you with a solution to the problem you face. I believe your wife should be awake for this discussion as it is not the kind of decision one can make alone.’
Josh felt a twinge of alarm at the gravity of the doctor’s tone. He shook Marsha awake.
Laverick shook Marsha’s hand and offered his condolences. When it looked as though she was alert, he began.
‘I don’t know if you have heard of me before, but I am one of the world’s leading authorities on bionic technology.’
Both of the Walkers pulled puzzled expressions.
‘I have a proposal for you. If you are willing, I may be able to give you the child you both crave so much.’ He paused, seemingly for dramatic effect, but neither of the Walkers responded. ‘I am in the business of bringing stillborn children back to life.’
‘And how the hell do you propose to do that?’ Josh shouted.
Laverick held up a hand to calm him. ‘I am conducting research into this very subject at the moment. I have managed to give two distraught families a second chance to have their child. The first few subjects I had were unsuccessful, but the two families I mention have successfully had their children returned to them.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Josh said.
‘I place bionic implants into the stillborn children and resurrect them. Sure, it’s a false life, but the impartial observer would never know that. If you are willing to let me take your son’s body, I will do my best to bring him back to life.’’
Read the rest on 6th March when Digital Children is available on Kindle