An ending.

by Jamie Sughroue Brown

I draw in a breath. My lungs fill. I smother the instinct to release, strain, chest aching, wanting to hold it in forever. My eyes involuntarily close with the effort.

My concentration breaks. Primal instinct, muscle memory, fight or flight? Can't think. Gasping, I exhale, a hoarse cough choking out, and I panic.

Tiny eyes flutter, a leg in my ribcage. He's startled awake by my movements. I keep still but for a moment, listening, and then focus on him. I tilt my head and press my lips on the little pucker that forms above his right eyebrow when he sleeps, soothing. I bundle him more snugly into his blanket, clutching him close to my breast.

I allow myself another moment. The scent of lavender sneaks up on me, clinging to his dewy skin. I tense slightly, remembering, but he doesn't sense it this time, relaxing into sleep, growing heavier in my arms. It's time; I know it is.

I can't bear it, so I glance instead around the room, desperate for another reason to prolong the inevitable. I find comfort in the little lamp on the changing table, shaped like a tiny duck.

It emits a soft yellow light, bathing the small room in shades of warm amber. Someone picked out that lamp, took care, arranging it lovingly by the baskets brimming with diapers, wipes and pins. I swallow bile.

My chair creaks as I shift, rocks as my hand braces on the armrest, and I push up. The crib  is a rich mahogany, cotton sheets neatly pressed and folded down, inviting, ready. I step past it. My head swims.

All I see are pulsing lights, red, blue, spinning, blinding me. My face flushes and I break into a sweat, feel the residue of the hot, sticky day leeching into my pores. I blink rapidly, nausea rising, fighting back the encroaching memories, and shake my head violently. No. No. Let me be. I can't stand it.

I swirl around, grasping for something, anything, to focus on. That's what they told me to do, right? They said it would help. Blue. Where is something blue? Soft. Where is something soft? My eyes frantically dart, left, right, catch upon a stuffed rabbit just on the cusp of my peripheral vision.

I bend down, manically, grab onto it, caressing it with my free hand. My heart rate subsides, slowly eking back to normal, and I stare blindly until I am able to breathe normally again. I am mesmerized by the palpating pulse in my neck, the throbbing of my heated blood reflected back at me in the opened window.

A breeze wafts in, glances off my cheek, cooling it. It's refreshing, restorative. Please, God, let fall be on its way. The flouncy curtain brushes against my arm, tickling me. I lift my hand to swat at it, as if brushing away a gnat, and then—the baby. He mewls, nudging my breast, lips pursing. My knees start to give way as my shirt dampens.

The bassinet. It's blessedly close, and I clutch it with trembling fingers. I gently, reverently, place the infant in its dark warmth, cocooning him from the harsh world. A tear streaks down my cheek. It's time.

I lean closer, grasp his blanket, and press it over him. Lavender wafts up to me again. I can't help but smell it. I wince, swallow.

He's awake now. His wide, clear eyes, framed by long silky lashes are all I can see. He grunts, soft, hungry noises, wanting to be cuddled, fed.

My chafed nipples ache against my now saturated shirt. My body responds, still. I struggle to remain composed. I must do it. I'm still clasping the blanket. I have to do it.

I fold the blanket under his chin, and step away. The lamp draws me like a beacon, and I find myself at the changing table. I flip the baby monitor back on.

Noiselessly, I swing myself out of the window, slide it closed. I stand on the dewy grass, dawn just beginning to illuminate the sky. I peer back in, on tiptoes, until I see her stride into the room and pluck him from his bassinet, her back to me. She lifts him to her breast, and settles into the rocker.

I turn, and dart across the lawn, trampling anything in my path, needing to be as far away as possible. I cross the street, heedless of cars, until I reach my own. I throw open the door, climb in.

A door opens, and a man walks to the curb in front of his house to retrieve his morning paper. He stretches, taking his time, checking on his planters near the foot of the driveway. "I don't remember planting lavender," he mutters, sniffing the air. He unfolds the paper, gulps coffee from his mug, and heads back to the house.

He startles at the headline and picture on the front page, "Infant Left in Car During Heat Wave." He quickens his step, anxious to be near his new family. He trips, splayed on the lawn, paper crumpled and damp, obscuring the culprit beneath him. He gets to his knees, and snatches it up. He stakes it back in the yard, gathers the mug and dashes, carefully, back to the house.

I hear the infant wail from the house an instant before the door closes. I turn over the engine. I slowly drive off, trying not to glance in my rearview mirror. I can't help it. I do. "It's a boy!" the sign exclaims exuberantly from the yard I've just driven away from.

I round the corner and pull into the driveway. A face is at the window. The door opens and he steps out. He draws me into a hug, and then tugs me inside. I collapse against him, exhausted. He pours me into bed, I swallow the pill. Oblivion.

He pulls the door closed gently, reverently. He walks down the hall, enters another room. He side-steps the boxes piled in the middle of the room, then stumbles. He bends, picks up the small, stuffed yellow duck. He tucks it to his chin, stroking its downy fur, inhales its scent.

Bedtime rituals pop into his head. Baths, the water smelling of lavender soap. Lotion, lovingly applied. Warm, flannel pajamas waiting on the lip of the changing table. A sob abruptly rises from his chest, but he forces it back.

He places the duck back in the box, and picks up the roller. Up, then down, forming a W, he swathes the walls in white, the motion cathartic, the hue of navy blue forever eclipsed, as if it never existed.

His phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket, stares at the caller ID, then answers, softly. He listens for a beat, sighs heavily, and responds, "I have no wish to respond. Please speak with our lawyer if you need further information." His face flushes as he listens further. "Yes. He was our only child." Another pause. "STOP. Leave us ALONE!"

He thrusts the phone against the wall and it shatters. He curses, under his breath. Silence resounds. His head snaps up. He left the bottle on the nightstand.

He's in my arms again, and he's cooing, that sweet, soft sound only newborns make. I have finally found a way to get back to this moment. I relish in his clean, fresh smell, his dark curls, the chubby rolls on his thighs. I'll do everything better this time. I can't let him down again.

I wince, my stomach roiling. What is that awful smell? Why is that light so bright? We just want to be left alone, in peace. Is that charcoal? Oh, my head. I squint through my lashes and I see a white coat, and think—hospital. Why? Doesn't he realize I need to be with the baby? He can't be by himself, who's going to take care of him, give him baths, hug him? I need to be with him.