First Place Winner: Backstays of the Sun

August 31, 2018

By Chelsea Pennington


He only sees white. White walls, white countertop at the front desk, white tiles beneath his feet. Sturdy white sneakers belonging to doctors and nurses clip-clop across the floor. They wear blue, like splinters of the sky cascading through the hallways.


Thomas swallows and looks back at the months-old copy of National Geographic in his lap. He picked it up out of obligation when he entered the waiting room, but he hasn’t opened it. Sure that at least a couple hours have passed, he checks his watch and realizes that Jamie has been inside for less than an hour. He glances again at the large swinging doors protected by a sign declaring Operating Rooms—Staff Only and wills someone, anyone, to step through to report what is happening. But no one appears.


Thomas reaches into the pocket of the baggy gym shorts he put on when he went to bed hours earlier. When Jamie woke him, his first thought wasn’t of changing out of his pajamas, only about grabbing his rock. Their rock. He rotates it in his fingers as he watches the hospital’s harsh fluorescent lights glint off its smooth surface. It feels cool and solid in his palm. Closing his eyes, he squeezes it as hard as he can, as if trying to transform a piece of coal into a diamond, except he would never want this rock, their rock, to change. He remembers when Jamie gave it to him.


He was twenty-two, about to graduate college, and standing in his favorite spot—under a stone bridge that divided Meadowlark Park in half. The walls were high and arched, causing his music to reverberate in a way that would never be acceptable in a concert hall, but he loved how he could feel it pound through his body. He squatted to set the case on the ground and clicked it open. His violin always brought a smile to his face, and he traced his fingers along the smooth, dark wood like one would caress a lover. He lifted it, positioned the open case to face passersby, and brought the violin to his chin, his right hand gripping the bow. The first note surged through him and swelled to fill the bridge before disappearing into the park.


He lost track of time when he was playing, and after he finished the song, he opened his eyes to find a young woman gazing at him. How long had she been there? He shifted his weight, unsure what to say.


“That was good.” She tilted her head. “Beethoven?”


He nodded, wishing his voice would work.


She sighed wistfully. “I love Beethoven. Maybe it’s cliché, but he’s definitely my favorite composer.”


Thomas sensed that she expected him to respond, but his mind blanked, and she turned as if to leave.


“Bach!” The word broke through the silence like a rock thrown at a window.


She stopped, her lips quirking. “What?”


“Bach,” he repeated, and it occurred to him that he sounded like a dog. “That is, I love Beethoven, but there’s nothing quite like Bach.”


She studied him for a moment. “Not a bad choice.” She gestured to his violin. “I’d like to hear more of the Beethoven once you’ve polished it.”


He tensed. “You thought it wasn’t polished?” And you want to see me again?


“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound harsh. The music was lovely. You’ve got talent.” A breeze floated through the tunnel under the bridge and rustled his shaggy brown hair, but her thick blonde hair, which was pulled into a loose bun, remained undisturbed.


“Do you play?” Thomas asked, twisting his violin bow between his fingers.


“No, actually.”


Thomas frowned. She’s criticizing me when she doesn’t even play?


“But my mom is Dianna Ardstedt.”


Thomas froze. “Your—your mom—” Surely she was joking. Dianna Ardstedt had played in orchestras around the world before settling in as the concertmaster for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.


She nodded. “Yep. The one and only.”


Thomas’s mouth felt like he had been chewing on sandpaper. She smiled at him, but he wished she would quit because it paralyzed his tongue.


“Well, I know I’m no musician, but I did enjoy hearing you play.” She removed a small object from her pocket. “I don’t have any cash on me. But I do have this cool rock.” She opened her hand to reveal a shiny gray stone that was almost a perfect oval except for the notch on one side.


“It matches your eyes.” The comment slipped out before he could suppress it, and his face flushed.


She raised her eyebrows. “You think?”


“Uh, yeah. Like a stormy gray. But not a big, angry thunderstorm, you know? Just a storm that rolls through quickly and you can still catch glimpses of the sun through the clouds.” Thomas cringed inwardly, but he couldn’t take his words back now.


“You’re quite a poet,” she said softly. “Play me something else?”


Mutely, Thomas rested his violin on his shoulder. Shutting his eyes again, he let Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 flow through him. After a minute, he heard a soft plunk that he recognized as something hitting the velvet-lined interior of his case. He opened his eyes, and she was gone.


His interrupted notes echoed off the bridge. Stupid! He should have asked for her number, or even her name. Sighing, he glanced into his violin case.


A slice of a summer thunderstorm sat among the coins—the rock she had offered him. Wrapped around it was a piece of paper. Slowly, he bent down and peeled it off. An old receipt. On the back, a phone number had been scrawled, along with a name. Jamie.


Thomas’s phone rings, startling him into the present. He scrambles for it in his pocket, nearly dropping the rock before he manages to whip out the device. “Hello?”


“Hi, Thomas? It’s Nadine.”


“Hi, Nadine.” He should probably say something else, but he can’t think of anything, so he stays quiet.


“I’m just calling to see how things are going.” Her tactful but concerned tone belies her many years as a school principal. “We had a staff meeting before the school day began and everyone is thinking of you two.”


“Thanks, Nadine,” Thomas replies. “No one’s updated me since they decided to do the emergency C-section and took Jamie into the operating room.”


He visualizes Nadine’s comforting nod and understanding smile. She used it often with students. “I’m sorry, Thomas. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”


He’s tired of hearing that. He wishes he could talk to Jamie. He needs to tell her how sorry he is and that he doesn’t want their baby to be born into a world where they’re fighting. But instead he says, “Thanks, Nadine.”


They exchange goodbyes and hang up. Thomas stares at the doors again. They remain as still as if they are part of the wall that surrounds them. His fingers itch, longing for his violin, and he taps the arm of his chair to the mournful rhythm at the start of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor.


The large window that spans half of one of the walls would normally be flooding the waiting room with warm sunlight, but today it’s streaked with raindrops. He returns to massaging the rock, but the clouds outside are a darker shade than it is. More like that time they went camping.


They had been dating for about a year, and the autumn Alabama weather was mild. The school where Jamie taught was twenty minutes from where he worked, so he picked her up after the final bell on Friday and they drove the few hundred miles to Cheaha State Park.


“Thomas, do those look like rain clouds to you?” Jamie asked as they parked beside their camping spot.


He squinted at the sky above and tried to inject confidence into his voice as he climbed out of the car. “Nah, I’m sure they’re normal clouds. Nimbostratus or something.”


Jamie cocked an eyebrow. “Nimbostratus clouds are rain clouds.”


“How on earth do you know that?”


“I taught a unit on weather last month. You remember.”


“Right. Then they’re probably whatever normal clouds are called.” Thomas popped the trunk and began unloading the equipment.


“Cumulus,” Jamie added as she lugged the tent toward the flat, grassy area of the campsite.


“You got that?” he called to her.


“Yep.” She removed the first pole from the bag, then unfurled the tent. Thomas hefted two camping chairs onto his shoulder and grabbed the sack of food before hurrying to join her.


“Here, let me.” He took the tent fabric from her.


“Okay, but I said I got it,” Jamie replied.


“Right, but I can help.” He smoothed out the tarp-like material and reached for one of the collapsible poles.


Jamie sighed loudly. “Would you like me to do anything?”


“You could gather firewood.” He continued sliding the pole through the loops along the top of the tent. Behind him, Jamie’s footsteps crunched through the fallen leaves toward the woods.


By the time she returned, he’d erected the small tent and was moving their sleeping bags inside. She dumped an armload of sticks and branches near the tent.


“Great,” he said, straightening one of the sleeping bags. “I got the chairs set up, the sleeping bags are in here, and the food is on the picnic table. I’ll start the fire soon since we don’t have time to go on a hike before nightfall.”


“Makes sense.” Her answer came out flat, obligatory.


He poked his head out of the tent. “You okay?”


“Yeah, I’m fine.” She gave him a smile, but he didn’t buy it.


“Did you really want to go on a hike today? We could maybe hike for a short while. I just figured we have all day tomorrow, and we’re probably both tired, so it’d be nice to relax tonight—”


“I said it’s fine. And you’re right, we should wait until tomorrow. Especially with those thick clouds.” She peered up at the sky.


Thomas scrambled out of the tent. “Seriously, Jamie, what’s up?” He touched her arm lightly. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t lean into him like usual either.


She exhaled slowly and turned toward him, flashing another fake smile. “I told you, I’m good. Really.”


Thomas opened his mouth, but before he could speak, a deep rumble ripped through the air. He cleared his throat. “So, uh, those may be nimbostratus clouds after all.”


One raindrop splattered his nose. Then his arm. Then too many to count.


“You think?” Jamie yelled as they dashed for the tent. They dove through the entrance and Thomas zipped it closed behind them.


“Crap.” Thomas slumped onto his sleeping bag. “I’m sorry. I swear I checked the forecast, and today was supposed to be partially cloudy, which I didn’t think meant rain, but—”


Jamie laid a hand on his arm. “Thomas. Chill. It’s fine.”


Thomas smiled thinly. “Okay. But I feel bad that it’s raining on the one weekend we decided to go camping.”


“This is only our first evening. We’ll wait out the storm in our tent, and I’m sure the weather will clear up by tomorrow—” She stopped suddenly, confusion crossing her face, and scanned the roof of the tent.


“What is it?” Thomas also looked up.


“I thought I felt…”


Water splashed onto his forehead. “Are those raindrops?”


“Did this tent come with a rain tarp to cover it?” Jamie asked.


Thomas rubbed his neck. “Um, not that I noticed. But I borrowed the tent from my uncle, and there’s no telling how long he’s had it…” By this point, rain was pouring almost as much inside the tent as outside.


“I vote we run for the car.” Jamie unzipped the flap and ducked through. He sprinted after her, jammed the key in the hole, and unlocked the car. They both collapsed onto the front seats, dripping wet.


“I…I’m sorry,” Thomas mumbled. Hot tears sprang to his eyes and he blinked them away.


But Jamie threw her head back, releasing her deep, throaty laugh that he loved and she was incapable of faking.


“What’s so funny?” A hard knot formed in his stomach because she must be laughing at him.


She shook her head, gasping for breath. Finally she got herself under control enough to speak. “The tent! It isn’t waterproof! We brought a leaky tent on a camping trip the one weekend that it rains cats and dogs!” Then she dissolved into giggles again.


Thomas’s jaw stiffened, and the tears started to spill, so he twisted to face the front, watching rivulets of rain zig-zag down the windshield.


Jamie touched his shoulder. “Hey, what’s the matter?”


He shrugged, his throat tight. “I’m sorry, okay? I should’ve checked the weather, and I should have bought a new tent instead of borrowing an old one. I thought I’d save some money, but now we’re stuck in a car on a camping trip.”


Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her tilt her head. “Thomas, I’m not mad at you. It’s not your fault.”


“You sure seemed angry earlier.” He knew he was being childish and almost regretted it.


Jamie sighed. “You were doing that thing where you take charge of everything. The tent and the whole campsite. I was just annoyed. That’s all.”


Thomas closed his eyes. “I just…I wanted this weekend to be perfect, for nothing to go wrong. Camping seemed like such a fun idea.” He turned his head so he could look at her. “My family never did camping trips. Not really my dad’s style, even before he left. I guess I imagined I’d be different, that somehow I’d be a natural at camping.”


Jamie squeezed his shoulder. “You are different from your dad. You were willing to try camping! That’s what’s important. And I don’t know that anyone is a natural at camping. Particularly since no one can control the weather.” She tucked a few wet strands of his hair behind his ear. “You can’t control everything, Thomas. And you don’t need to.”


Thomas swiped at his damp arms.


“Repeat after me. ‘It’s not my responsibility to make everything perfect.’” She raised an eyebrow and a smile tugged at her lips.


He smiled back. “It’s not my responsibility to make everything perfect.”


“Good.” Jamie pressed her face to the window. “And the rain might not even last much longer. The crepuscular rays are peeking through over there.” She carefully enunciated the syllables as she pointed at a spot in the distance.


Thomas snorted. “You must know I have no clue what that is.”


Jamie grinned. “Yeah. I only learned the term for teaching that unit. It’s just the fancy name for sunbeams coming through the clouds. Some people call them Jacob’s ladder, or backstays of the sun, if you’re a sailor.”


“Now you’re showing off.” He smirked.


She winked. “Me? Never.”


Her eyes matched the clouds with the sunlight filtering through them, and Thomas’s throat constricted again, but for an entirely different reason. “Um, Jamie?” He inched his left hand into his pocket and stroked the smooth rock she had given him when they first met.




“There was another reason I wanted this weekend to be perfect.”


She frowned. “What do you mean?”


Sucking in a deep breath, he reached into the other pocket of his shorts and pulled out a velvet-covered ring box the same color as his rock and the sun-soaked clouds outside.


A child wails, jolting Thomas out of his reverie. On the other side of the room, a young mother attempts to quiet her son, who looks to be not quite a year old. Her daughter—maybe four years old?—sits in the chair next to them, playing on a phone. As the boy continues to cry, the sound grates into Thomas’s eyes and squeezes his chest until he struggles to breathe.


The National Geographic drops to the floor as Thomas abruptly stands and walks toward a hallway. He thinks the cafeteria might be in this direction, but he doesn’t plan to wander that far.


What if a doctor comes out with news while I’m gone? He halts and glances back at the waiting room, at the doors beyond it. But then the shrieking starts again, clawing inside him, so he shoves his hands into his pockets and marches forward with no real destination in mind.


As he chooses turns at random, he recalls one of the few memories he has of his father that stands out. On Thomas’s eighth birthday, his family visited a corn maze and he got lost among the twisting, menacing stalks. Like then, his stomach tightens. Will I be able to find my way back to the waiting room? He forgot to check his watch when he left. How long have I been gone? The hallway ahead seems familiar, so he rounds the corner, heart pounding, and stops short.


Simple, clear doors open into a room lined with wooden pews covered in red cloth. At the front, a plain wooden cross hangs on the wall, with a pulpit and a table of flickering candles below it. If their positions were switched, and he was in surgery and Jamie was waiting, he knows this is where she would seek solace. At least, in the past few years, anyway. He can’t remember the exact moment Jamie became interested in religion, but he does remember when she began pestering him about it.


She’d attended a women’s Bible study, or maybe a midweek service—he hadn’t paid attention to which. When she returned, she plopped herself beside him on the couch. “Thomas, look at this!”


Reluctantly, he paused the TV show he had been watching. She flipped through the thin pages of the small leather Bible one of the women had given her. “Tonight we started a study on the book of John. It’s one of the Gospels, which actually describes Jesus’s life. I sort of grew up hearing about God and the Bible and stuff—I mean, I was raised in Birmingham, so it’s hard not to. But this…” She ran a finger down the page, dotted with words in red ink. “It never hit me like this before.”


Then she said what Thomas had been dreading. “I think you should come to church with me. It’s not boring, honestly. It’s very interesting, and the people are super friendly.” Her eyes were wide with earnestness.


Thomas’s breath caught in his throat. “I don’t know, Jamie. That’s not really my thing.”


“I know, but I think you should give it a chance.” She grinned. “Imagine it’s a date night. But on a Sunday morning.”


He snorted. “That doesn’t sound like a great time for a date night.” She persisted, gazing at him imploringly, so he relented. “I’ll think about it, okay?” But he had no intention of changing his mind.


Thomas shakes himself back to the present and spins away from the chapel. Why couldn’t she have been happy with him and their marriage? Guilt gnaws at his stomach, making it churn. Why had he been so harsh on her? She’s lucky to have beliefs to cling to during difficult circumstances.


He aimlessly veers left and right until a hallway deposits him in the waiting room, which feels like bursting through the surface after being stuck underwater, only to realize that the air is toxic. He’s back and still has no idea how Jamie is doing.


As he approaches the chair where he sat previously, he notes that the mother and her two kids have disappeared. Did they decide to step out until the boy calmed down? Or did they receive the news they had been waiting for—good or bad?


The doors open. A young nurse about Thomas’s height emerges. He looks familiar, but the faces of the staff who helped them earlier are a blur, so he can’t be sure.


“Mr. Abbot?”


“Yes.” Thomas grasps the cool stone in his pocket.


The nurse smiles. “You have a beautiful baby girl.”


Thomas thuds down into a chair, one arm slamming painfully onto the hard plastic frame. “I—I’m a dad?”


The nurse nods, still smiling. “You are. They’re putting her in the NICU, mostly as a precaution. The birth was rough on her, and since she’s a few weeks early, they want to keep monitoring her. But you’re welcome to meet her.”


“The birth was rough?” Thomas repeats. Those are the only words that hang in his brain. “What about Jamie? Where is my wife?”


The nurse’s smile falters. “Your wife is still in surgery.”


“The C-section?”


“No, um, there were some complications with the C-section and they’re working right now to—”


“Complications? What does that even mean? What’s happening?” Thomas’s voice rises, and he senses other people staring at him, but he doesn’t care.


“Mr. Abbott, that’s all the information I have at the moment.” The nurse’s voice remains steady and calm. “If you want to visit your daughter, I’ll update you as soon as I know anything. Unfortunately, we can’t do much more than wait.”


Thomas groans, sliding his head into his hands. “Waiting is all I’ve been doing.”


The nurse hesitates. “I realize that, sir. But seeing your daughter would be really—”


“I know. I’m coming.” Thomas stands and follows the nurse, the blue scrubs blurring as tears fill his eyes.


Jamie had been exuberant the day she took the pregnancy test. They waited together on the couch, the little plastic stick sitting on the coffee table. The minutes seemed to stretch into weeks, months, years. Finally, a light pink strip appeared, quickly darkening.


Jamie gasped and threw her arms around him. “We’re having a baby!” she squealed, tears glistening in her eyes. “Thank you, Jesus!”


“We’re…having a baby,” Thomas stammered.


She released him, beaming from ear to ear. “Yep.”


He swallowed and felt like a rock had settled in his stomach. Jamie, of course, noticed immediately. Her smile vanished. “What’s wrong?”


“No, nothing. What could be wrong? We’re going to be parents.” He almost managed to keep his voice composed, but he choked on the last word.


Understanding registered in Jamie’s eyes. “Thomas…” She placed both her hands on his knee. “We wanted this. Be happy.”


“I know, I just…” Thomas shook his head. “It didn’t feel real until now… I don’t know anything about being a dad.”


Jamie chuckled. “And you think I’m an expert at being a mom?”


“But you had a mom. I had a crappy dad until I was ten, and then none at all. What if…” He grimaced. “What if I turn out like him? I’ve always assumed he was terrible his whole life, but maybe he was excited to have kids, then he discovered he couldn’t handle the responsibility and bailed. What if that’s what I do?”


Thomas,” Jamie said sharply. He refused to look at her until she cupped his chin and moved it toward her. “Stop that. You had a sucky dad. But that does not mean you’ll be the same way. You don’t need a dad as an example. You have a wonderful mom who will love to help care for our baby. And I think even people with two picture-perfect parents feel overwhelmed when they have a kid of their own.” She pushed his hair back from his forehead, her eyes soft. “You make your own choices, Thomas. That you can control. We’ll figure parenting out together. Okay?”


“Okay,” he said, his voice hoarse. She leaned forward and kissed him, and some of his anxiety melted away. He could figure anything out if Jamie was with him.


“Here we are!” the nurse announces, leading Thomas through a door marked NICU. The walls are a soft blue, and low lights illuminate cribs protected by plastic domes. He brushes past the stuffed chairs positioned beside each one until the nurse stops.


Monitors surround this crib like guards, inscrutable to Thomas. When he peers through the clear dome, his breath hitches. The smallest human he has ever seen lies with her eyes closed and arms raised above her head like she’s cheering. A pink knitted cap is halfway on, halfway off her tiny head.


“Why…why all the wires?” Thomas chokes out.


The nurse pats his shoulder. “They’re just monitoring her heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing—things like that. You can put your hand through and touch her if you’d like.” He points to the two round holes in the dome.


Thomas slips his right arm through and hovers his hand above her. She is so small, so fragile. She might break at the slightest touch.


“It’s all right,” the nurse whispers. “She’s a fighter.”


“Just like her mom.” Thomas strokes her arm with a finger. She is warm and soft.


“I’ll leave you two alone.” The nurse starts to back away.


“Wait,” Thomas says. “What about my wife? When will I know?”


The nurse’s smile wavers for a split second. “I’ll…I’ll notify you. Or someone will. You can stay in here, and we’ll come get you. Okay?”


Thomas nods, and the nurse tiptoes out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Thomas turns back to his daughter. He wishes they’d picked out a name for her. They had narrowed down their list to a few options, but had also expected to have three more weeks to decide.


The baby shifts, and Thomas freezes. She doesn’t wake, however, just restless in her sleep.


A tear splashes onto the dome as a sob racks his body. Jamie should be here. They should be meeting their daughter for the first time together. Not like this. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. He isn’t even sure whether he’s apologizing to his daughter for Jamie’s absence and how he’ll never be enough for her on his own, or if he’s apologizing to Jamie for their argument the night before. Now he might never have a chance to ask for forgiveness. He drags in a deep, ragged breath.


Last night seems like a century ago. They’d been preparing for bed. While Thomas was brushing his teeth, Jamie had stood in the bathroom doorway and made a remark about the baby. It was offhanded but laced with hope, like all their conversations about their daughter’s future.


“Mm. She’s going to look so adorable all dressed up.” Jamie splayed her hand across her round belly that stretched the old T-shirt she slept in.


Thomas spat out his toothpaste and chuckled. “Dressed up? Are you planning to bring our newborn to black tie galas?”


Jamie laughed. “No, not like that. But church clothes and stuff. Frilly dresses, and shiny black shoes.”


Thomas rinsed his toothbrush. “Church clothes?”


“I mean, I know people don’t have to wear fancy clothes to church anymore. Hardly anyone does at my church, but I still think it’d be cute, at least until she’s old enough to care what she wears.” Jamie smiled and gazed down at her stomach as she massaged it.


Thomas should’ve ignored her. But she had been making more and more comments like this, and he’d had enough. “Why would she go to church at all?”


Jamie’s head snapped up. “Because I go to church.”


“Right, but I don’t. Why wouldn’t she stay home with me?”


Jamie huffed a little. “Well, I would prefer that all three of us attend together, and I’m still praying that happens. But if you won’t go, I can at least make sure my daughter does.”


Thomas shook his head. “You can’t just decide what our daughter will believe.”


“I’m not deciding for her. I’m giving her a chance to learn all the options.”


Thomas snorted. “If that were true, you’d also take her to a mosque and a Buddhist temple and—”


Okay.” Jamie held up a hand. “I get it. But I don’t understand what’s so awful about bringing her to church.”


“Maybe I don’t want her exposed to that stuff.”


Jamie’s forehead wrinkled. “What do you mean ‘that stuff’?” Her voice had a hard edge.


Thomas waved his arm around, searching for the right words. “I don’t know. About a God who loves and watches over us. Trying to sugarcoat the world.”


“It’s not sugarcoating,” Jamie said slowly. “It’s the truth.”


“No, it’s your truth, and I won’t let you to force it on our daughter.” Thomas struggled to keep his frustration from exploding.


“I’m not forcing anything!” Jamie protested. “Is it so wrong to teach her that there’s something bigger than herself, someone who loves her?”


We love her, and that’s enough!” Thomas clenched his jaw. “Unless you’re afraid I’m going to abandon her like my dad and she needs someone better.”


“Thomas!” Her eyes widened and the flush that had heated her cheeks drained away, leaving her face ghostly pale. “That’s—that’s not what I’m saying.”


“Are you sure?” His voice could have been chiseled from stone. “Because it feels like you’re trying to replace me.”


Jamie fell silent.


Thomas swallowed. He’d finally revealed what he’d been thinking. He had been patient with Jamie’s beliefs, letting her attend church and Bible study and pretending to listen whenever she talked about it. She’d mostly stopped nagging him to join her, and he hoped they could maintain that equilibrium. But as for their daughter, he was her father. Jamie couldn’t steal that from him.


“Thomas…” Jamie stepped closer and reached out a hand toward his arm. But he shrugged it away.


“I don’t want to discuss it,” he said flatly.


Jamie’s eyes held the same pity she’d show to a stray dog. “Thomas, I never thought about—”


“Never thought about why I was opposed to church? Yeah, that’s because you’ve been busy with your new family, or whatever you call it. Don’t start caring about me now.”


Jamie stepped back as if he had slapped her. “I would never—”


“Honestly, Jamie? I don’t care about your excuses. Goodnight.” He squeezed past her to escape the bathroom, already questioning his outburst. Was that really how he felt?


He grabbed a book off the table and dropped onto the couch. But he kept drifting to the end of a page only to realize he hadn’t read a word. The bedroom door clicked shut shortly after that. That was fine with him. He didn’t feel like talking to her anyway. When he snuck into the bedroom later, she was asleep. A few hours after that, she woke him with a gut-wrenching cry of pain, and everything changed.


Thomas’s face is drenched with tears now, and he has to remove his hands from the dome so he can wipe away the wetness. He collapses into the chair, the fake leather squeaking under him. What if their fight caused her to go into labor early? What if all this is his fault?


Suddenly, their daughter wakes up. Thomas jumps, and she starts wailing. What is he supposed to do? He can’t even pick her up. She is trapped inside the dome. Vainly he puts his arm in again and begins stroking her leg.


“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” he says over and over. But her crying only increases. His first responsibility as a father, and he is powerless. Maybe he isn’t any better than his dad. He clenches his teeth as he fights more tears, wanting to scream in frustration. Thunder booms outside, and it ripples through his tense muscles.


Then his shoulders shudder, and tears stream down his face. He shuts his eyes, but hesitates. He’s never prayed and didn’t pay much attention when Jamie did it. “Um, God…” He pauses. “I don’t know how to do this. Being…a dad. I need Jamie. Maybe I even need You, but I can’t do this on my own. I don’t deserve her or our baby or anything, but if You’re real, if You’re there…You know she deserves to be a mom. Just help her. Save her. Please. Um, amen.”


Nothing feels different and the sky doesn’t part for angels to descend. His daughter is still crying, but the intensity has lessened. He keeps his hand on her tiny leg, and her cries slowly fade to whimpers. Rain patters against the window.


Thomas inhales a deep, steadying breath. His other hand is wrapped around the rock, the shade of the sun piercing the clouds. “I’m here,” he murmurs. “I…I’m not sure what happens next, but I’m here.”


He sees movement out of the corner of his eye. The nurse is back, accompanied by a doctor. They both walk down the hall and stop at the door of the NICU. Thomas stands, his heart hammering as thunder rumbles outside, and the door swings open.


Chelsea Pennington lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband. She has a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.A. in Museum Studies. She has been writing fiction for as long as she can remember and believes in the power of stories to change the world. She has published several short stories and is working on her first novel, Chaos Theory. Chelsea can be found online at chelseapenningtonauthor.com, where she aims to help readers and writers discover and create life-changing stories through her blog, Penn & Paper.


  1. Serenity

    OH! I’m crying! This is SOO good. Wow, Chelsea! Way to go!

  2. Kate Lamb



    Um, ouch.

  3. Daeus Lamb

    Wow, Chelsea. Really good job.

  4. Olivia

    This is incredible!!

  5. Germaine Han

    Ahh I remember reading this! Super super great job, Chelsea, it really is a great story.

  6. Martin Detwiler

    Gosh! I’m a mess.

    That was excellent. Really. I felt like I was Thomas.

    Thank you, Chelsea, for that journey. What an incredible gift.

    These comments are paltry compared to the depth of feeling you brought into being as I read the story.

  7. Savannah Grace

    Oh my gracious, that was incredible. Utterly incredible. You’ve got crazy talent, Chelsea – amazing job! <3 <3 <3

  8. Hope Ann

    Ouch… I love this so much.

  9. Sam Kowal

    The amount of emotion and skill tucked inside this story…amazing.

  10. storyjoy

    Is. Amazing.
    There aren’t even words to describe how incredible this is.
    Beautiful ♥♥♥

  11. Buddy J.

    Wow! This made me tear up… And that hardly ever, EVER, happens. As others have said, I don’t have words to perfectly describe what you did here.

    The characters are so deep in their character. The pictures are vivid, resting upon the emotion of each character, which holds the power of a lightning strike.

    So impact-full.

    I have a new role model!

  12. Evelyn

    Wow. Just wow…
    I’m speechless.
    Ouch, but wow.

  13. Chelsea

    You guys are the sweetest! <3 It definitely wouldn't have happened without lots of help from readers! (like Germaine!!) Thanks for the encouragement everyone!

  14. Kat

    It’s really good!! but i thought there should be more!! XD

  15. Josiah DeGraaf

    I love the way this story grabs you by the heartstrings and doesn’t let you go. There’s so much depth in Jamie & Thomas’ relationship and it’s so realistic as well. Thanks for writing this, Chelsea. It was a pleasure to get to read this. 🙂

  16. Heather

    DID SHE DIE!???

    • Callie Sullivan

      Yes— DID SHE DIE????????????

    • Michaela Tasker

      I’m wondering the same thing.

  17. Wonderland7

    Wow! This is so powerful. Beautifully written. Good job!

  18. Sarah

    Chelsea wow! It was an amazing story full of emotion and relationships that were beautifully balanced and it is in my opinion a masterpiece. That being said…WHAT HAPPENED!?! I loved it but the suspense! Did Jamie die? Did she live? Ahhhh!!! 😉

  19. Cassandra Hamm

    I remember reading this at some point on Ydubs, Chelsea, and I still love it. Incredible job. So proud of you!

  20. Coralie

    Wow!! That was breathtaking, literally breathtaking! You certainly set the bar high! Thank you so much for sharing this stunning piece!


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