2nd Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winners – Horror

When The Bough Breaks

First-place winner (Genre: Horror) in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards

By Rebecca Spohn


She smelled of body odor from the increase in perspiration. Dabbing cold water on her face and wrists did little to erase what she had seen or thought she had seen. She quickly convinced herself it was all just a result of exhaustion. Nothing more, nothing less. That was how it would have to be, she assured herself. If not, she would be admitting that she believed in visions or spirits or ghosts. Someone engaged in a gruesome act of evil by someone she felt she had met, but didn’t know.

She looked up from the sink and watched as the pea green ceramic tiles lining all four walls of the tiny bathroom seemed to close in on her. Her breathing was shallow and her feet and hands began to tingle.

"You’re just hyperventilating you fool," she talked to herself in disgust. The scent from the bowl of apple and cinnamon potpourri by the sink made her nauseous. She was mad at herself for agreeing to work her usual shift with a midnight shift tacked on. Four nights in a row … and this was the thanks she got. A hallucination so horrible it had made her physically sick.

She’d only accepted the extra hours because so many hospital personnel were out with the flu and with her husband out of town there was little more to go home to than a parakeet and a variety of houseplants.

Most times it was enjoyable to work in the maternity ward, but something about this night, she couldn’t shake.

Maybe it was the complication with baby Josh and his parents. Maybe it was longing for children of her own. Or maybe, she convinced herself, this wasn’t the time to be doing any thinking except the job at hand.

Lowering the lid on a toilet in one of the stalls, she sat and cupped her face in her hands.

The sound of the woman’s scream rang over and over in her head. She could see him running faster and faster then overtaking the woman, like a cheetah gripping the neck of a gazelle in its jaws, she went down.

"What a time to get sick," she thought. A light tapping on the stall door caught her attention.

"You okay in there, Joan?"

"Yes. Uh, sure. I’ll be right out. Just a little constipation." She wanted to jump up and shout, "No I’m not all right. How could I be fine, just fine after what happened?"

Leaving the security of the restroom she went back on the floor.

Several babies were crying. She checked the large chart hanging over her desk. Baby Johnson and baby Mangolis both needed feedings. "Lucy, you take baby M to her mother, room 105A, for a feeding."

"You sure …. you’re okay Joan? Your coloring’s not so good."

"I know, I look a little green around the gills, don’t I? I guess I’m just overtired … it’s been a long week."

"When does Dan get home?"

"Not Ôtill Tuesday."

"Hang in there," smiled Lucy as she wheeled the baby cart to the elevator.

"Hang in there," Joan muttered under her breath. "Sure no problem. I feel as though the devil himself is somewhere in this room or maybe I’m just losing my mind, but, sure, I’ll hang in there."

Baby Johnson’s mother was too weak to care for her new arrival, so Joan lifted the infant and held it close. "I know, little one. No need to cry. Here’s a bottle with warm milk inside. Tastes good, doesn’t it?" She rocked the baby gently in her arms and hesitantly moved the rocking chair closer to the incubator, and closer to baby Josh.

"How’s our preemie doing?"

Joan jumped at Doctor Jillian’s sudden presence, dropping the baby bottle to the floor.

"I’m so sorry," he said, "I didn’t mean to sneak up behind you. Most everyone around here jokes that I sound like a herd of elephants when I walk, so I guess I figured you could hear me coming from way the down the hall."

"No, no, it’s fine. I was deep in thought. Anyway, there seems to be no change in his condition. I checked on him a little while ago and I’m keeping a close eye." Joan secretly wished baby Josh was well enough to go home, so that her feeling of doom and those images would go home with him.

"Well good. It’s still touch and go though. Should any of the monitors go off you give me a shout immediately."

"I will doctor. Have you had any luck with the parents?"

"No, they’re not going to budge, but for the time being there’s no need to push them into making a decision one way or the other. I’ll check back on him in a couple of hours." Doctor Jillian was young, full of energy and seemed sincere in his concern for the baby.

Joan felt like stopping him and shouting, "But something’s terribly wrong with baby Josh. I think he’s …" She couldn’t say it, not even to herself. She knew the only way to rid herself of the feeling of horror was to touch him again. She would have to reach in with the gloves attached to the glass of the incubator and gently rub his hand. She knew a premie more than anything needed love, care and the human touch, something she didn’t want to give to this one.

Joan looked at the clock in the far corner of the room. It read 3:05. When would this night ever end, she thought. Baby Johnson had finally fallen asleep in her arms. She carefully placed the baby back in its crib, and turned toward the incubator. She couldn’t help but notice the drawing baby Josh’s mother had taped to the glass.

Created in crayon, it was a sketch of a mother, father and little boy standing in front of a house. Little hearts were coming out of the chimney and in the corner of the paper was a sun with a smiling face.

Joan felt a sense of calm come over her. In a couple more hours she’d be tucked in her own bed with a well-deserved day off. It would be a day to wrap herself up in her fuzzy bathrobe and curl up with a cup of coffee and some good magazines.

Once rested, she was certain everything would be right with the world. She turned her attention from the drawing of a happy scene to baby Josh. He was wrapped in tubes and monitors, and his heart was visibly beating. His skin was thin and pale and she could see bluish veins traveling up and down his curled legs and arms. Not even two pounds in weight, she couldn’t believe something so small could survive. And if it did, she knew there was an increased chance of future health complications.

She could procrastinate no longer. She shook her head and smiled at herself forever thinking that such a tiny innocent creature, little bigger than a sparrow, could have caused her work shift to become something of a nightmare.

Quickly, like pulling a bandage off a wound, she placed her hands in the suspended latex gloves and gently caressed his little hand. His fingers were tightly curled as she rubbed them back and forth.

There was the park again. The park, with the distant sounds of a train, and the somber coo of morning doves hidden among the trees. It was early. The sun seemed to have just exchanged places with the moon, and the few sounds that were present were suddenly swallowed up in a scream, high-pitched, then guttural, like a cat in a fight to the death.

He grabbed her shoulders, gripping the material of her sweat shirt as he methodically banged her head, back and forth against the hard trunk of the tall elm. The force was enough to make the young woman’s eyes roll back. A small stream of blood rolled from her right ear. The boy, no more than sixteen, was small in stature, but muscular.

He dismissed the sounds coming from the woman and proceeded to pull and tear at her clothes with a feverish rage.

He had grabbed her earlier with such force, sending her to the ground, that she had left one of her running shoes in a patch of wet earth.

He lifted his bat in the air and, as it made contact with her jaw, she screamed a final weak, "No," as an echoing sound of bone being crushed traveled throughout the wooded park.

Joan’s hands fell out of the gloves as she found herself doubled over in nauseous terror. Bile reached up into her throat, causing her to choke and cough. In the reflection of the glass she could see her face was white as a sheet. Glistening drops of sweat hung along her hairline.

Frozen in place, she asked herself over and over what could be happening? Why was this happening? What did it all mean? Nothing that night had made sense, and she shook in fear. The images were as vivid and clear as if she were an invisible bystander viewing the gruesome scene by the tall elm.

Suddenly one of the monitors sounded. A loud beeping rang through the ward. Baby Josh was in trouble.

She paged Doctor Jillian and within moments he and two other doctors were swarming around the incubator. The baby was breathing on his own, but his blood pressure kept seriously fluctuating and one of the other doctors calmly stated, "I recommend a blood transfusion now. It’s evident it’s too difficult on his system to wait. What’s the problem?"

Doctor Jillian piped up and explained that because of the parents’ faith they had refused any further medical intervention.

"Even at the cost of their child’s life. I’ll never understand," spouted one of the other doctors.

Jillian assured them he was in the process of filing for a court order.

"Good, we should be ready to proceed if needed in a moments notice."

They added an extra IV to the infant and his blood pressure slowly climbed. All vital signs were at least back to a non life-threatening status.

As the doctors left, Lucy returned briefly, only to take another infant upstairs for a late night feeding. Once again the hospital was quiet and Joan could hear a distant page for a doctor and the heater kicking on and off. A few of the babies were stirring. Joan checked each one as though she were in a trance and returned to her desk to figure next week’s scheduling and to finish up any remaining paper work still sitting in her inbox.

Still unable to face what she had witnessed in her mind, she busied herself with changing the diapers of three of the babies, weighing and bathing two others and with every chore avoiding baby Josh at all costs.

5:00 a.m. arrived and Joan slipped her coat on over her uniform, changed her shoes to boots, and stepped outside into the early autumn air. The cold was a welcome change to the stultifying warmth of the ward. She breathed deeply and watched her breath fall out into the morning air. It was real. She was real. What had happened that night had not been. Driving through the streets at dawn she felt strange. Convincing herself was not working. The house was quiet. She checked her mail, her answering machine. One message from Dan. His voice traveled throughout the house as she played it. "See you in two days. Hope everything’s okay. Love ya." She smiled. After eleven years of marriage, it was still a welcome relief to hear those words. She dropped a few seeds in her parakeet’s cage and collapsed in bed. She had forgotten to draw the drapes to her bedroom window and the morning sun was quickly making its presence known.

Too tired to get up and close them, she turned away from the window, curled up in a tight ball and closed her eyes. Sleep was quick to steal her thoughts and just as quick to cause her to wake.

A couple of hours later, she sat up in a sickening sweat. "This happened one time before," she muttered to herself, "a long time ago."

"Can Joanie hold the baby, Sissy? asked Sandy. Sandy was Joan’s best friend. They had both recently turned ten and had convinced themselves they were now full-fledged women. "I’m going to be a stewardess like my big sister, Sissy," said Sandy with unflinching determination. "What are you going to be Joanie?"

"A bus driver," said Joan.

"Why, so you can squish the kids in the door?" Squealed Sandy.

"No, I just think it would be fun to drive a bus."

It was a hot, July afternoon when Sissy arrived home with her little baby girl Lilly. No one knew who the father was and Sissy wasn’t telling, but all that was forgotten when everyone laid eyes on Lilly. Sandy immediately wanted to hold Lilly and Sissy finally agreed.

"Now, sit on the sofa, stay still and you have to remember to support the baby’s head and neck."

"You can see its heart beat on the top of its head," said Sandy. "Come look, Joanie. Isn’t it creepy?"

"That’s long enough. I have to feed her and put her down for a nap. ÔCause you’re a tired little thing, aren’t you my precious girl?" whispered Sissy. She held Lilly tightly, kissing her forehead. Sissy’s parents smiled with pride. Joan couldn’t wait until she was Sissy’s age, all grown-up and able to make her own decisions.

"Can Joanie hold the baby? She wants a turn too," Sandy said smartly with her hands on her hips.

"Of course she can, and not because you asked me so sweetly my little brat of a sister," laughed Sissy. Joan settled herself on the sofa cushion and held Lilly with great care as if she might break.

Lilly was wrapped tightly in a soft pink and yellow blanket. Joan touched her small fingers.

In her mind Joan could see a pretty young woman. Her smile was wide and bright and her laugh was warm and full like sipping a glass of brandy. Her eyes as blue as the morning glories entwined around the white picket fence. She was running fast with two young girls, chasing after her.

She fell to the grass and grabbed the two girls, tickling them. All three were giggling and laughing. There was a vegetable garden and flower beds around the rim of the yard. And the sound of lapping waves and seagulls mixed in with their laughter….

"You never let me do what I want. I, I hate you," the girl screamed.

"Don’t you dare talk to me that way!" She stopped speaking and picked up the laundry basket and fumbled with the door to the basement.

Joan saw a flash of the woman with the bright smile lying still at the bottom of the stairs, with a small stream of blood near her open mouth, and clothes scattered around her. The door shut with a thud.

"I think Lilly likes you Joanie, but I better put her to bed." Sissy picked up Lilly and the baby suddenly smiled wide and bright, her eyes as blue as morning glories.

Joan sat frozen in bed, wondering what had happened and why. All these years later she was having visions again. Horrible visions from baby Josh. She instinctively reached for the phone and dialed the motel where Dan was staying. When she finally got his room and heard his voice, she breathed a deep sigh of relief.

"You okay, sweetie?" asked Dan.

"I am now. It’s just been a long week. I miss you and my sleep schedule is all screwed up."

"True enough babe. It’s 8:00 in the morning and I’m off with Mitch to our conference. Can I give you a call tonight?"

"Of course. I’m sorry. I’m better now. Just out of sorts I guess."

"Take it easy and I love you."

"Take it easy," she mumbled to herself as she hung up the phone. Joan decided to make a cup of coffee and sit out on her deck. The neighbor boy had helped her plant giant zinnias around her porch and they were a sight to behold. Bright yellow and orange colors greeted her as she settled herself on the porch swing. A nagging feeling kept coming back to her. The more coffee she drank, the more awake she became, and the more determined she was to find out whatever happened to Sandy and Sandy’s sister, Sissy, and Sissy’s daughter, Lilly.

She supposed there were worse ways to spend her day off than the public library, and so there she was between Judith, the reference librarian, and a computer. "You know the internet can be very helpful," touted Judith. "You can search news items from the archives of major newspapers, with very little difficulty."

Joan gave all the information she knew, from names to dates and watched Judith click away on the keys.

"I really appreciate this. I’m a nurse, definitely not a computer whiz," said Joan.

"No problem at all. It gives me something to do. We’re real slow during the day while kids are in school. We’ll start getting busy around 4:00 this afternoon."

As Judith was talking, Joan saw the woman in her dream. The pretty woman with the bright smile. "Stop," she said. "That’s her. That’s Lilly all grown up." The computer screen showed the photograph of Lilly MacLaine over a small obituary. Joan’s hands began to shake as she read the first line, "Lilly MacLaine, age 30, passed away Tuesday morning from a fall in her home."

"Are you alright?" asked the librarian.

"No, actually, I’m not. I knew her. I mean I held her once when she was just a baby. She was my best friend’s sister’s little girl. Does it say she left two daughters?" Joan couldn’t bare to read any more.

"Yes, yes, it does," said Judith.

"Thank you for your help," Joanie mumbled under her breath as she headed back to her car. There it had been, she thought to herself. In black and white. Proof that the horrible images she had seen or felt when she had held Lilly had come true. One of Lilly’s daughters had pushed her down the basement stairs and left her to die. "Why do I only see evil?" she asked herself. She remembered holding baby Johnson and changing the diapers on the other babies and nothing happened. No images. No nightmares. No horrible visions. If this were true, then baby Josh would grow up to kill. In sixteen years he would run through a park and beat the skull in of a 19 year old woman jogger. He would do these things if he lived.

"He can’t live. I can stop this. He’s a premie. No one will suspect anything. I can do this." She said it over and over in her head.

The next day Joan stood in the maternity ward and starred at his tiny body. "Hey, you, how was your day off?" asked Lucy.

"Good. Very good."

"You know that little guy is a real fighter. Yesterday we almost lost him, but I think he’s going to make it. His mother was here and she said he smiled when she was holding him. Isn’t that sweet? Well, I’ll be right back, they need me on floor five," smiled Lucy as she headed for the elevator.

But what if she were wrong. Maybe her visions weren’t always right. She had only researched one incident. Not enough to end the life of a small baby. She was a nurse. She took an oath to help save and to care for. Maybe with the love of his parents it wouldn’t happen. "No," she thought to herself, "I can’t do it afterall. I will have to hope and pray that the future is different from what I saw."

The next morning the thought of coffee made her sick, and she couldn’t keep her breakfast down. "Hi, Lucy, I hate to call in sick but I am."

"No problem Joan. Take care of yourself. At least Dan comes home tonight, right?"

"Yes, thanks Lucy."

Joan hung the phone up as a strong feeling a nausea came over her. She threw up half way to the bathroom and sat on the hall floor wondering. Wondering could she be pregnant? She had wanted a child of her own for so many years and they had not been able to conceive. Could this be the miracle she had prayed for? By the time Dan arrived home that night Joan had taken a home pregnancy test and was waiting with the news.

Unable to hold it in, she kissed Dan as he entered the front door, nearly knocking him over, and blurted out, "We’re pregnant! We’re pregnant. I’m going to have a baby!"

"That’s fantastic. My God, I’m so happy. I love you so much. And I already love our baby," he smiled.

That night Joan was so happy and nervous, and nervously happy, that she couldn’t sleep. She felt her stomach and smiled. She watched Dan as he slept and felt like all was right with the world.

Nine months later the doctor handed Joan her newborn baby boy. He was beautiful, with big blue eyes and curly red hair. "He’s perfect, my little Mark Robert Beckman," said Dan. "I’ve got to go let everyone know what’s going on. I’ll be right back. I love you."

Joan held the new little life in her hands. He was wrapped tightly in a blue blanket. She kissed his cheek and reached for his little hand.

"So you found out about my affair. So what. I don’t give a shit if you’re pregnant. I’m not taking care of no baby and I’m not paying for no baby. And I’m not going to let you ruin my life," the man said as he grabbed her neck and squeezed.

Joan started to shake and she wanted to let go of his little hand but he held on tight. She could see in her mind a television airing the news of a Mark Robert Beckman arrested for the murder of his young wife.

"No!" she screamed. "Nooooo!"

Winners

Grand Prize Winner: The Bunker
Horror Winner: When The Bough Breaks
Sci-Fi/Fantasy Winner: Beth
Thriller/Suspense Winner: The Replacements
Mystery/Crime Winner: Three of a Kind
Romance Winner: Casualty

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