The pediatric floor of the hospital was ten stories up, and Isaac's room faced a city park and the rising sun. Even the orange and gold tones of dawn did little to warm the sterile room. I'd brought up things to make it feel more homey: his stuffed lion, the blanket with his name stitched on it, the soft, colorful toy keys he loved to chew on. No matter what I did, it still felt like a hospital room, and I still felt like an exhausted father who had lived there for two weeks, sick with grief and anxiety.
My wife, Sarah, went home to get a change of clothes and more shampoo. In truth, she went home to get a brief respite from the hospital. She was near her breaking point, and I had learned that waiting while Isaac was in surgery was the worst for her. Her worry became panic, and her sorrow became misery. The surgical team said the procedure on Isaac's brain would take about seven hours, so I pleaded with Sarah to go home for a while. She complied, too tired to fight, knowing that having a task would make the waiting more bearable.
I kept myself busy meticulously scrubbing Isaac's crib with cleaning solution, sterile water, and all the friction my tired arms could muster. When that was done, I folded and refolded his clothes. After that, I paced the room, checking and re-checking the time on my phone as the minutes slowly passed.
I stopped my rituals to stare out the window at the sunrise. It marked the 15th day Isaac had been in the hospital. Or was it the 16th? The days blurred into a single, ongoing nightmare. When we had first arrived at the hospital, the doctors used innocent phrases like "sinus infection" and "better in no time." Then the words became more sinister, "advancing" and "encephalopathy." Finally, they became terrifying: "hemorrhaging," "brain damage" and "tough choices."
The sun completed its ascent over the treetops of the park as I whispered an endless cycle of prayers -- exhorting, bargaining, and pleading with God to save my son.
A knock came at the door, and when I turned around the surgeon was entering. It was too early. He had only been in surgery an hour. Something was wrong. The surgeon's features were impassive, but I could see the pain in the creases at his eyes and the set of his jaw.
"I'm sorry. Isaac didn't -- uh -- he didn't make it. We tried everything we could, but the infection and swelling were just too much."
The pain felt like gravity, pulling me downward. I stumbled into a chair, leaned forward and wailed into my knees.
I felt a pat on my shoulder. "I'm sorry for your loss. I'll ask the chaplain to see you."
His steps echoed on the tile floor. I heard the door open and close, and then I was alone.
I cried violently, helpless against the tide of emotion. I tried to take my phone out to call Sarah, but my hands shook so badly I dropped it, and it exploded into pieces on the floor. I interlaced my fingers to stop the tremors as I rocked and moaned. The grief was completely absorbing. I felt like I had forgotten how to breathe and each gasp was a forced effort. I felt like I was tearing apart.
A strange drumming sound started, which I first thought was the blood rushing in my head as I cried, but was coming from outside the room. It grew louder and more intense, until it crescendoed in a deafening roar. I covered my ears and screamed.
The door burst open and black water surged into the room. It rushed forward, knocking over the crib and sweeping up the plastic keys and stuffed lion.
I stood up on the chair, crying out for help.
The flood quickly consumed the chair and I tried to scramble to the top of the wardrobe. It overbalanced and fell forward, and I plunged into the murky water.
It was ice-cold, the shock leaving me breathless and disoriented. The frigid wave slammed me against the window, and I felt the glass shatter. I had the bizarre sense of falling while still encased in a sleeve of water.
I surfaced, gasping and sputtering. The water carried me away from the hospital. It was everywhere; it overturned cars, ran over street signs, and coated buildings with its brackish slime. I tumbled in the current until I was able to grab onto an inflatable hospital mattress that floated by, letting it steady me like a life preserver.
The flood poisoned everything it touched. A dead labrador bobbed beside me like a buoy. Two birds flapped helplessly in the muck. The water flowed into a grove of trees and the branches withered quickly, turning brown, then black, then disintegrating into ash. A gust of wind scattered the gray flakes over the surface of the water. I couldn't understand why the noxious water didn't sicken me.
The wall of water eventually began to slow, its momentum waning. It thinned to the point where I could feel the ground under my feet. I tried to stand, but fell back into the water, paralyzed, completely at the mercy of its flow.
Eventually, I was deposited in a parking lot. I squirmed pitifully on the pavement, dull and uncoordinated, like a doomed worm on the sidewalk.
An icy blue sun emerged from the horizon, ascending in fast-forward. It radiated a chilling mist which coated the streets in frost. Terrifying specters rose from the pavement, clad in opaque rags. They saluted their frozen god with outstretched hands and mournful wails. I could feel their misery and hear their prayers for oblivion. I cursed the evil sun until I was too exhausted to make a sound. Then I fell into an unrestful stupor.
When I awoke it was still cold, but less so. I tested my limbs and they creaked into motion. I pulled my legs to my chest and sat up.
A hospital stood at the edge of the parking lot. It wasn't the one where I had started, where Isaac had been. The water had carried me far away from there and left me, with cruel irony, in front of another medical facility.
I saw people going in and out of the front doors. Everywhere else I looked was uninhabited desolation. The blue sun perched on the western horizon, lighter in color and less frigid, but I still wanted to be out of its cold reach. I walked toward the hospital, picking grime from underneath my fingernails.
The foyer was empty. The information desk sat covered in dust, and the waiting area was eerily silent. I had just seen people entering the hospital, yet I was utterly alone. I wandered around a corner, into a hallway, calling out to see if there was anyone around.
The hall was painted sterile white, and the top half of one entire wall was glass. I walked up to the window and pressed my dirty forearm against it, looking through to the other side. It was a nursery. In the center of the room was a single crib, complete with a pink baby boy kicking his feet like a frog. A man reached into the crib and pulled the child lovingly to his chest. When the man turned, I realized it was Isaac, grown up.
My heart leapt into my throat. His face was mature but his smile was the same: charming, mischievous.
I slammed my fist against the glass and screamed his name. He cradled the child, oblivious to my calls. I sprinted to the door of the nursery and yanked on the handle, but it refused to budge. He turned and walked away from the glass.
I tore a fire extinguisher from the wall and thrust it at the window. The glass didn't break as I had expected. Instead, the whole wall melted into a murky waterfall. The red tank disappeared behind the curtain of water. I plunged through after it, trying to catch up with Isaac.
The slimy water coated the tile floor of the nursery, and I nearly fell when I came out the other side of the waterfall. Isaac carried the baby in his arms, walking toward the far wall of the room, which faded in color as he approached it. The drab white paint became gray, then black, and then disappeared completely into darkness. Lights appeared in the gloom as tiny gold orbs. Together they illuminated the scene.
Isaac was walking down a cobblestone street bordered by rows of cozy houses that stretched beyond my vision. The lights were candles in each of the windows, which warmed the night scene with their flickering glow. The silhouette of Isaac and the baby shrank as they moved further away. I ran after them, begging them to come back, but no matter how fast I sprinted, the village street drew no closer. Isaac and the baby kept getting smaller until they disappeared completely.
I sat down on the floor, fighting to keep despair from overcoming me. The waterfall at the window behind me increased its flow until the flood waters covered my lower half, numbing me and pushing me forward. The village road was replaced by snowy desolation. No path carved through the icy plains; there was only a frigid blue sky overhead and endless white as far as the eye could see.
The specters reappeared, some close by, others scattered across the distant tundra. They danced to mournful dirges, inviting me to join as their voices moaned in a cacophony of grief. I rose and walked away from the apparitions, wading back through the murky water to a door. I expected it to lead back out to the hospital hallway, but instead I found myself in a dormitory hall.
A shabby carpet floor was lined by door frames. Nervous-looking boys moved in and out of the rooms, followed by parents with possessions in hand. It appeared to be a college dorm on move-in day.
At the end of the hall stood a lanky adolescent, whose familiar cowlick jutted from a mop of brown hair. The figure turned, and I saw that it was Isaac, as a teenager. He slapped another boy high-five and walked into his dorm room.
I ran down the hall, calling his name, dodging clusters of people blocking the walkway. When I reached his door, I saw bunk beds with feet moving up a ladder to the top bunk, and then he was gone. I bolted across the room, begging him to wait for me. The metal ladder groaned as I launched myself onto it and began to climb. When I looked up, the white dorm room ceiling was gone, and in its place was the inside of a stone tower.
The ladder ascended into a dark cylinder, which was lit only by the orange glow of torches, built into the masonry at even intervals. The spire reached heavenward as far as I could see, and I could just make out Isaac's figure, countless rungs above me.
I climbed up the ladder at a reckless pace. All I wanted was to be with him, no matter what the cost or the danger. My voice became hoarse from calling his name, and my hands bled from grasping the unrefined metal. Tears marred my vision, but I propelled myself upward, afraid to lose him. I strained my eyes, looking for him above me, but he was gone.
The torches turned a cold, harsh blue and the tower became frigid. The ladder was unbearable to touch, its frozen bars burning my skin on contact. I pulled my hands into my sleeves, climbing gingerly, teeth chattering. The stones above me turned white and crumbled. The jagged blocks of ice fell inward, smashing against the ladder and the walls of the tower before descending into the depths. The chunks pelted my back, but I clung to the ladder, refusing to be torn from my perch. Through the falling ice I could see the blue sun above me, gloating with malice. The specters returned, but they looked like giant, ethereal birds rising through the downpour, the blocks of ice passing through their immaterial wings. They sang wordless, melancholy tunes as they circled around me, moving upward toward the frozen sun, but I refused to follow them.
Slowly I climbed down amidst the falling ice and rising ghost-birds. The ladder thawed as I made my way downward, and the collected frost on the rungs became water. The tower melted away and I descended the freestanding ladder in strange silence.
My feet slipped on one of the wet rungs and I was plummeting down, the damp air rushing against my back. I felt no fear, just an extreme sense of loss at having failed to catch Isaac.
I landed in warm water. My body plunged downward for several seconds, until the momentum of my fall subsided, and I managed to kick my way back to the surface. When I broke through, the smell of chlorine filled my nose and I blinked away the burning chemicals.
I was in our swimming pool. I treaded water, trying to get my bearings. On the diving board was an elementary-school-age Isaac, shaking with fear.
As soon as I saw his trembling form, I swam toward him.
My arms shot through the water like oars, propelling me forward. I wanted to catch him and carry him above the dangerous grasp of the water, but no matter how hard I paddled I wasn't getting any closer to him.
He took a deep breath and jumped into the pool. I wasn't there to catch him, and he sank through the clear water toward the bottom. I dove after him, kicking my feet and stretching out my fingers. The bottom of the pool became a craggy black surface, and phosphorescent creatures glowed against the darkness. Anemones waved their glittering fingers while twinkling fish darted in lines across my vision.
My lungs burned, and the pressure felt like it was crushing me, but still I chased him. The creatures coated him in their warm, bright glow. His features flashed like fireworks and lightning as he sank further away, until he was gone.
The animals disappeared and I was left in darkness. The brief blackness gave way to sudden, blinding light, and the ocean floor became a familiar blue. Frosty vents sputtered bubbles into the water, turning it cold and opaque. Serpentine specters appeared in the mire. They slithered around me in wide arcs as they swam downward toward the light, their eel-like faces sagging in sorrow. The blue surface coaxed the creatures with promises of numbness and they were incapable of resisting their fate.
I turned and headed back toward the surface, refusing the nothingness. The water squeezed with its frigid fist, threatened to invade my lungs, but just when I thought I couldn't wait another second to breathe, I broke the surface. I guzzled huge draughts of air, treading to stay afloat. When I looked around, I was no longer in the swimming pool.
I was inside a house. It was as if the house floated just above sea level, but a large square had been cut in the floor. I realized it was my living room.
I pressed my hands on the carpet and hauled myself out of the water. For several moments I lay there, soaked, exhausted, and miserable, but then I heard a childish giggle.
I was jerked to my feet by the laughter, and before I knew it I was running toward the sound.
The door to Isaac's room stood open at the end of the hall. Isaac, as a toddler, stood a few paces away, clutching a dresser.
He turned and for a moment I saw his round face and perfectly spaced baby teeth. He let go of the dresser and started toward the far wall, babbling happily.
I sprinted toward his room. Just before I passed the threshold of the bedroom, the back wall he was approaching faded away, revealing a field of wild grass set against a cloudless night. He kept walking, his wide-legged baby steps carrying him away as I ran into the room calling his name. He passed the place where the wall had been, continuing out into the pasture. The gray carpet under my feet became familiar, sludgy water. It began to spin, creating a funnel that pulled downward. I swam against its grasp, struggling to stay oriented toward Isaac, as the crib and dresser swirled around me and the changing table disappeared into the twisting whirlpool. I could still see Isaac's faint outline against the stars, toddling onward with purposeful concentration, getting further away from me.
I had almost made it to the bank at the far end of the water, when the night sky began to fade. Isaac disappeared from sight and the cold sun peeked over the horizon at the end of the field. The prairie grass turned brown, then froze over, the blades clumping together in icy sheaths. A cold wind blew against my face as the water drained away from the remains of the room. I clutched the bank created by the receding water, fearful of being dragged down. My hand caught a stray root which jutted from the soil.
The water had retreated hundreds of feet. Far below me was a river, teeming with menacing rapids. I reached my other hand to grasp the root more firmly, and realized it had become metal. When I looked up, I saw I was no longer clutching a bank but the edge of an old metal bridge. The structure stretched high above the river, steadfast against the wind. My feet dangling, I tried to summit the slippery ledge, but all of my strength had left me. The sun spat sleet at me while I clutched the metal girder and wept at my failure.
A solitary specter stood above me on the edge of the bridge, wailing into the uncaring sky. A gust of wind whipped its shabby cloak and knocked back the hood.
The specter was me.
Despite the sunken eyes, the sallow skin, the sorrowful expression, I could see myself clearly in his face.
He raised his hands to the distant blue god and lamented in inarticulate sobs. His fingers flexed toward the sky, grasping for answers, meaning, reasons, explanations, comforts. But the stoic sun remained in the sky, indifferent to his pain.
He lowered his hands and stared down at the river.
I shouted for him to stop, begged him to turn around, but he stepped off the ledge into nothingness. The gray figure streaked downward, hit the river with a crash, and sank out of view.
I gaped at the spot where he'd gone under. For a moment, I envied his numbness. I sighed and reached down into the depths of my spirit, and without tremor or hesitation, hoisted myself over the ledge. I stood against the wind, the rain and the frozen sun, refusing to be broken.
The sun grew faint as I turned my back to it and walked from the bridge to the land.
I stepped onto a dirt path, surrounded by woodland. The blue light continued its retreat and the sky became overcast. The rain continued but it wasn't cold anymore. It was just rain. I felt driven to walk to the end of the path, wherever it took me. For hours I journeyed forward, pushing through the exhaustion.
I could see the path's end ahead of me like a pinprick in the wilderness. I fixed my eyes on that spot and forced each drooping foot forward, until the point in the distance grew into a vast, gray openness.
The path stopped at the edge of a lake. Murky water stretched before me as far as I could see. It was the source of the cold, toxic flood that had first carried me out of Isaac's hospital room. The lake frightened me, and I wanted to turn away from its filthy depths.
Then I heard a familiar cry. I knew it was Isaac, the infant, as I had known him before he died. He lay on a stone altar in the center of the lake.
The only way I could reach him was to wade out into the mire. Without hesitation, I stepped into the lake. The water was bitterly cold, and slimy, but it was shallow. I looked up, noticing for the first time the clouds had disappeared and a starry sky filled the void.
I sloshed through the water. At times it was no deeper than my ankles; at others it was up to my waist. Isaac's cry was a siren song that brought me to the base of the altar. His arms waved like glowing batons against the moonlight. My heart pummeled my chest in erratic bursts as I approached the altar.
I ran the last few paces, splashing through the shallows. I stood over the altar, afraid to touch the perfect baby with my cold, dirty hands. Every detail was as I remembered it: divoted chin, wispy curls, brown eyes that closed halfway when he cried. Two fledgling teeth stuck out of his lower gums.
I picked him up with trembling hands and cradled him under his neck and bottom. His skin was warm, dry and soft. I thought he would cry at my cold touch, but instead his fussing trailed off. I sobbed in heaving gasps, feeling overcome with unspeakable joy. I pressed him to my chest and he tucked one of his hands under his face, directly over my heart. His back rose and fell against my palm and I could feel how alive he was. I danced in slow circles around the altar, humming lullabies and gazing up at the stars. The heavenly bodies swayed in rhythm to our song, twinkling in waves to Isaac's breath. I felt whole.
I stopped and pulled him away from my chest just far enough so I could look at his face once again. His eyes were wide, attentive, and calm. For a moment, everything stopped. There was no time, sound, feeling, or space. There was only a father and son, staring into each others' eyes, speaking volumes in silence. He blinked once, raised his hand and pressed it to my face. His small palm cupped my chin, and he smiled.
He began to glow -- softly at first, and then blindingly. He illuminated the sky, driving off the darkness with his light, until I felt like I was holding the sun.
The brightness fragmented into tiny creatures which escaped from my fingers and into the water below. The light-creatures looked like tadpoles and they swam outward, filling the lake. The murky water became clear and warm everywhere they went. When the entire lake was cleansed it became perfectly still. His glow was everywhere: in the sky, in the water, on the altar, even on me. I stretched out my arms and embraced the light that was all around me.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, J.T.R. Brown. All rights reserved.