Rollie stood alone at the center of a peaceful glade. Rather than the sounds of the wind and birds, he could hear all around him a rhythmic, muffled thumping, like that of a distant heartbeat. It was calming, soothing. He did not know how he’d come to be here, but he felt no fear or apprehension. What he did feel was a sensation that, though he could not see anyone, he was not alone.
The Aussie had been standing there for perhaps a minute when something made him turn around. There before him was a beautiful little boy with curly hair the color of a raven’s wing and huge, luminous brown eyes. The moment he saw the child, recognition leapt through him.
With the speaking of his name, the child’s face lit with a big smile. “Daddy!” he cried.
Rollie went to his knees and held his arms out to receive his son. Benarin threw himself into his father’s embrace.
Rollie held Benarin tightly, his heart overflowing with joy. After a moment, he looked down at the little boy in his arms. “Is that really you, Ben?” he asked in wonder.
“It’s me, Daddy,” the child replied and snuggled closer against Rollie.
The Aussie closed his eyes and laid his cheek on Benarin’s head. He felt tears come to his eyes. “I love you, Ben.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
Rollie looked around at their surroundings. “What is this place?”
“It’s a special place,” Benarin said in reply, in a voice that rang with a note of wisdom, “a place that only you and me can go to.”
Rollie looked around again more closely. “It reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what.”
Benarin looked into his eyes. “You will.”
Rollie looked down at his son, feeling a faint sensation of disquiet. “Did you bring me here?”
Benarin shook his head. “No, I can’t do that. You came here yourself.”
“But Angie can’t, can she.”
“No, though I think that, if you really tried hard, you could bring her with you.”
“Then I will try really hard next time and bring her with me.”
Benarin smiled happily. But, a moment later, the smile disappeared. A look of fear filled Benarin’s face. “Daddy, something’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong? What is it?” Rollie asked.
Even as he asked the question, the glade grew dark, cold. The thumping sound began to fade.
“No. No, Daddy, help me. Please stop it!” Benarin cried. Then he screamed as the ground opened up beneath him and began to swallow him.
“Ben!” Rollie screamed. He grabbed for his son, trying to hold onto him, pull him out of the earth that was sucking him under, but he couldn’t grab hold. Benarin kept slipping out of his hands.
“Daddy! Daddy, help me! Help me!” Benarin pleaded as he sank up to his chest, then his neck.
“Ben! Ben!” Rollie tried to dig at the ground, tear it away from his son, but it was like tearing at water. It flowed back as soon as he moved it. In horror and anguish, he watched Ben disappear beneath the surface. “Ben! No! Noooo!” he screamed, sobbing brokenly.
“Rollie? Rollie, wake up,” said a distant voice. “You’re having a nightmare. Wake up.”
With those words, the glade vanished. Rollie felt hands upon his shoulders, shaking him. He opened his eyes and looked up into Angie’s concerned face.
“Hey there. You were having a bad dream,” she said, brushing his cheeks with her fingers. He realized that his face was wet. “It must have been a really bad one. You started screaming and crying. I thought I heard you call out Ben’s name.”
Rollie sat up and pulled Angie into his arms. He held her silently for a long moment, then, almost desperately, he pulled away the covers and bared Angie’s stomach. He laid his hands on her belly, then his head, trying to hear or feel some sign that Benarin was all right.
“Rollie, what is it?” Angie asked, laying her hand on his head.
“I had a nightmare about Ben, that he was . . . taken away.”
“Oh, Rollie. Ben isn’t going to be taken away. It was just a bad dream, that’s all.” At that moment, Ben gave a kick. “Did you feel that? He’s still there, Rol. He’s still okay.”
Feeling the movement eased Rollie’s fear, though not entirely. The images of the nightmare still haunted him. He stroked Angie’s stomach. “I love you, Benarin. You’re going to be okay. You’ve got to be okay,” he whispered. He then sat up and met Angie’s eyes. “Maybe you should go see the town doctor today, just to make sure everything’s all right.”
“It’s Saturday, Rol. I doubt he’s in the office, even if he is a Marcus Welby wannabe.”
“Doctors usually have a number you can reach them at after hours.”
Angie studied Rollie’s face, seeing the fear that was still there. She nodded. “Okay, I’ll call later this morning.”
“Thanks, Ange.” Rollie turned to the clock, seeing that it was just after six. “I don’t think I’m going to get back to sleep, so I might as well get up. But you should try to get some more rest.”
“Well, after that rude awakening, I don’t think I could get back to sleep either.” Angie smiled to let him know that she was teasing. “Let’s just get up, have an early breakfast, then get a little work done around here. I’d like to get those curtains and drapes hung today.”
“I think that we should just take the day off, relax. Cecilia’s right that we’ve been doing too much too fast, especially you.”
“Well, how about a compromise? We’ll just hang the curtains in this bedroom, the living room, and the main bathrooms, then do the rest tomorrow.”
“Okay, it’s a deal.”
The newlyweds got up, showered, and got dressed. Then they fixed their first meal in their new kitchen, Angie having picked up some groceries when she went into town to pack their bags and check out of the motel.
“We need to get a little table and chairs for the kitchen so that we can eat breakfast in there,” Angie remarked as they sat down at the dining room table. “That corner with the big window is supposed to be a breakfast nook.”
“Good idea, and we’ve still got two bedrooms, a sitting room, and an office to furnish, not to mention what we’re going to do about the basement room. Maybe we should try Oklahoma City next time, see what they’ve got.”
Angie nodded. “I think we’re going to be busy next week.”
The couple finished their breakfast and washed the dishes. After that, they got busy hanging the draperies in the living room. The drapes and matching valance were a dark emerald green, which went well with the parquet flooring and the beautiful oriental rugs with a hunter green, mauve, and powder blue pattern that they got. Behind the drapes, they hung white lace curtains that would let the light in.
Once they were done with that, Angie made the phone call to the doctor. The call was answered by the doctor’s wife, who told Angie that her husband was at the hospital in McAlester on an emergency with one of his patients and wasn’t expected back until late in the afternoon. She asked Angie if it was an emergency.
“No, that’s all right. I’ll talk to him on Monday,” Angie replied. Saying goodbye, she went to the downstairs bathroom, where Rollie was putting up the curtain rod. “He’s with a patient in the hospital in McAlester. He won’t be back until later this afternoon.”
“Oh.” A small frown creased the Aussie’s forehead. “I guess you could talk to him tomorrow or maybe tonight after he gets back.”
“Or I could just wait until Monday, maybe go in for a checkup. I feel fine, Rollie, and I felt Ben move some more while we were hanging the drapes.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Rollie said uncertainly, the lingering traces of his fear still hanging over him.
Angie gave him an encouraging smile. “Come on. Let’s finish hanging the curtains, and then we can relax and have fun for the rest of the day.”
They finished hanging the light peach curtains in the downstairs bathroom, which were several shades darker than the walls, then went up to do the master bedroom. The carpet in the bedroom was deep blue. The walls had been left white to offset the darkness of the carpeting. The drapes they’d chosen were several shades lighter than the carpeting.
Once the bedroom drapes were up, then did the master bath, which had light blue walls. The curtains were white with small blue roses. Lastly, they did the other upstairs bathroom, which was done in pale yellow.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Rollie said after they were finished. “How about if I go into town and get some stuff for a picnic lunch? We can have it right in the garden. Then maybe we could go for a drive. It’s a nice day out.”
“That sounds like a great idea. We’ve got stuff to make sandwiches, but some kind of salad and fruit would be good, and maybe desert too.”
“Okay, you make the sandwiches and leave everything else to me. If you don’t mind a little later lunch, I also want to get some stuff that we didn’t think about when we were in Tulsa, like hangers so that we can unpack our clothes.”
“Good idea. No, I don’t mind a later lunch. I’ve got some crackers I can munch on if I get hungry.”
“Okay, I’ll be back in a while then.”
Rollie gave Angie a kiss goodbye, then went down the hill into town. He did the other shopping first, wandering around the hardware store, then the general store, trying to think of other things they might need. The clerks in both stores were very helpful, or at least tried to be, suggesting items that Rollie and Angie might have forgotten at the same time as they peppered the Aussie with all kinds of questions about him and Angie and what they did for a living.
It was as he was leaving the general store that Rollie began experiencing a vague feeling of unease. By the time he got to the little grocery store, it had grown in intensity. As the minutes passed, it continued to build until it had reached the point that he could no longer concentrate on anything else. A knot tightening in his stomach, Rollie quickly went through the checkout stand and headed home.
“Angie?” he called as he came in the door. Not getting a reply, he deposited the bag of groceries on the dining room table and ascended the stairs. “Angie?” he called again, this time hearing a reply from the master bedroom. He went in to find Angie laying on the bed, her brow knit with pain. Rollie hurriedly knelt beside the bed. “Angie, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. My lower back hurts, and there’s this feeling of fullness and pressure in my pelvis, and, now, I’m cramping, as if I was in my period. It started about twenty minutes ago. I decided to lie down and see if it would go away, but it’s just getting worse.”
The fear that had been building inside Rollie escalated dramatically. “I’m going to call the doctor’s house and get a number where he can be reached.” He grabbed his cell phone, got the number from the phone book, and placed the call. The fear in his voice alone was enough to make the doctor’s wife give Rollie both her husband’s pager number and the phone number of the hospital in McAlester. Wanting to make sure he got through to the doctor, the Aussie paged the man’s beeper and called the hospital, stressing that it was an emergency. It was an agonizing five minutes before the doctor answered the page. After Rollie listed Angie’s symptoms, the doctor asked to talk to Angie. There was a note of urgency in the man’s voice that terrified the Aussie.
Angie confirmed her symptoms, giving the doctor more details of what she was feeling. Rollie was sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes never leaving his wife’s face.
Angie handed the phone back to him. “He wants to talk to you,” she said.
“What is it, Doctor? What’s wrong?” he asked as soon as he put the receiver to his ear.
“It’s not for certain, but there’s a chance that Angie is going into preterm labor,” the doctor replied.
“Oh my God. What do we do?”
“We may be able to stop the labor with drugs if we catch it in time. Time is of the essence. The faster Angie is treated, the better. I’m going to get a life flight helicopter out there from here, and I’ll be on it. But you need to get Angie down to the clinic. There’s a place for the helicopter to land out back. Don’t let her walk. Carry her out to the car and have her lay on her left side. Make her drink lots of water, several glasses’ worth. And try to stay calm, Mister Tyler. It isn’t going to do either of you any good if you panic. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”
Despite the doctor’s advice, Rollie could feel the panic rising as he got Angie a glass of water then rushed to the car to open the back door. He filled a water bottle and stuck it in the car. Almost running, Rollie dashed back up the stairs. The terror in Angie’s eyes as he met them told him that she was as scared as he was.
“This can’t be happening, Rollie. It can’t,” she whispered as he gently scooped her up into his arms.
“It’s going to be all right, Angie. It has to be,” he told her, trying to keep his voice steady.
Moving carefully, he carried Angie down the stairs and laid her on the back seat on her left side. Handing the water bottle to her, he got behind the wheel and started the car. Suddenly, Angie gave a loud gasp.
“What? What is it?” Rollie asked, his voice rising in fear as he twisted around to look at her.
“Oh, God. I’m having contractions, Rollie,” Angie cried. “No, please, don’t let this happen.”
Fear choking him, Rollie shoved the car in gear and stepped on the gas. He drove down the hill as fast as he could, praying like he never had before. In a matter of minutes, he was at the clinic. He drove around back and parked beside a clear area where he guessed the helicopter would land. Even as he stopped the car, Angie cried out in pain. Rollie leapt out of the front seat and tore the back door open, kneeling on the ground at Angie’s head. She was crying, her face pale, her eyes dark with grief and terror. She reached for Rollie’s hand and grabbed onto it.
“We’re going to lose him, Rollie. It’s too early. He’s going to die,” she sobbed.
“No! No, we’re not going to lose him. I can’t accept that,” Rollie told her, tears falling down his own face now.
They waited for the helicopter, Angie clinging to her husband’s hand. Finally, Rollie heard the helicopter approaching. He looked up, scanning the sky, and spotted a small, dark spec that quickly grew bigger. Soon, the helicopter was right overhead and coming down onto the clear area. As soon as it landed, a man in his late fifties got out, followed by an EMT. They rushed to the car.
“Mister Tyler? I’m Doctor Bradford,” the older man said.
“Angie’s having contractions. They started several minutes ago,” the Aussie told him.
“Okay, let me get in there and take a look.” The doctor climbed into the car and sat on the edge of the seat beside Angie. “How far apart are the contractions coming, Angie?”
“I-I’m not sure, maybe eight minutes.”
“Okay, I need to take a look at what’s going on down there. Mister Tyler, could you help me get her pants off?”
Rollie moved around the other side and helped the doctor remove the maternity pants that Angie had on. Both of them froze when they saw the blood on her panties. The doctor examined her, his eyes then lifting to Rollie’s. The look in them made the Aussie’s heart plummet into his stomach.
Doctor Bradford turned to Angie. “We’re not going to be able to stop the labor, Angie. You’ve got a discharge of blood and fluid, which means that the amniotic sac has ruptured.”
“No. No, please, you have to stop it. It’s too soon. It’s too soon,” Angie whispered brokenly.
“I’m sorry, Angie. This baby is going to be born today. There’s nothing I can do to stop it.” The doctor reached into his bag and pulled out a syringe and a vial of drugs.
“What’s that?” Rollie asked as the doctor stuck the needle into the vial.
“It’s Betamethasone. It will help speed up the baby's lung development.”
Doctor Bradford injected Angie with the drug. The EMT had run back over to the helicopter and was now bringing back a gurney. They loaded Angie onto it and got her into the helicopter. Rollie climbed in beside her, grabbing onto Angie’s hand again. A moment later, they were in the air, the doctor instructing the pilot to go to St. John Medical Center in Tulsa.
“Why Tulsa?” Rollie asked. “McAlester is closer.”
“St. John has one of the best neonatal intensive care units in the state. There’s a neonatologist on campus twenty-four hours a day.”
The flight to Tulsa was agonizing as Angie’s contractions got closer and closer together. Her fingernails were biting into Rollie’s hand, but the Aussie barely noticed the pain. All he could feel was the fear and pain in his heart and the sick feeling in his stomach.
At last, they arrived at the hospital. There were nurses and doctors on the roof as they landed. Angie was transferred to another gurney and taken down the elevator to a room full of equipment and monitors. In a whirl of activity, Angie was transferred to a birthing bed and hooked up to several monitors, including a fetal heart monitor. Rollie stared at the line moving across the screen that was recording their son’s heartbeat.
“I’m Doctor Stein,” said a tall man in his early fifties. “How far along is your wife’s pregnancy?”
“Twenty weeks since conception,” the Aussie replied after quickly doing the math in his head.
A look passed between the doctor and one of the nurses that sent icy fear coursing through Rollie. That look told him what his heart had refused to admit. ‘He going to die. Our baby’s going to die,’ his mind cried.
Just then, Angie cried out as another contraction gripped her. Rollie ran to her side, desperately holding back the sobs that were trying to break free.
“Rollie, please make it stop,” Angie begged. “It’s too early. He’ll die.”
“I can’t, Angie. I would do anything to stop this from happening, but I can’t,” he said, a sob escaping and catching in his throat. He looked up at the doctor. “Please save him,” he pleaded.
“We’ll do all we can, Mister Tyler,” the man responds.
The following hours passed like a nightmare. Rollie never let go of Angie’s hand as she and the medical staff tried to delay the birth as long as possible to give the Betamethasone more time to work on accelerating the development of Benarin’s lungs. But all too soon, there was no more time.
“Okay, Angie, he’s not going to wait any longer,” Doctor Stein said. “I need you to push now.”
Angie bore down, sobbing from the pain and fear. Twice more, the doctor instructed her to push. Angie’s hand tightened on Rollie’s as she did so.
“Okay, the head’s crowning, Angie. We’ve almost got him. Just take some slow, deep breaths. You’re doing great. I think this little guy’s going to come out the rest of the way on his own.”
“Rollie, please look at him. Please tell me he’s okay,” Angie said, her eyes begging him.
Not letting go of Angie’s hand, Rollie moved down until he could see under the sheet draped across Angie’s thighs. For a moment, wonder replaced his fear as Rollie watched an unbelievably tiny head emerged from between Angie’s legs. The doctor gently took hold of the head, guiding it as it was followed by the shoulders and torso. In what seemed like only a few seconds, the baby was completely out.
Doctor Stein quickly laid the unmoving infant on a table. Rollie’s sense of wonder immediately turned to horror as the doctor announced that there was no pulse or respiration.
“Oh, God, no,” Angie said, staring at the still, shockingly tiny form of her son.
Rollie gathered her into his arms, and they watched as CPR was performed on Benarin. It seemed like a horribly long time before a weak pulse and respiration was established. Doctor Stein then gave orders to put him on a respirator, which was immediately done.
Angie paid no attention to the nurse who was talking to her. All her attention was focused on the efforts of the medical staff to keep Benarin alive. When the placenta was ejected from her body a few minutes later, she barely even noticed.
Finally, Doctor Stein approached Rollie and Angie. “We’ve got your son stabilized for the moment, but he’s in critical condition. We’ll be taking him to the NICU now. Someone will take you to a postpartum room where Mrs. Tyler can recover.”
Angie shook her head. “No, I want to stay with Ben,” she said in a shaking voice.
“Mrs. Tyler, I promise you that we’ll take the best care possible with your son, but it would be best for you and for him if you are taken someplace where you can recover from the birth.”
Angie turned to her husband. “Rollie, please. I want to stay with him. Please.”
“Mrs. Tyler?” said a gentle voice behind them. They turned to see Doctor Bradford standing with a woman whose clothing identified her as a nun. It was the nun who had spoken.
“The doctors will take good care of your baby,” she promised. “Come let us take care of you. You’ll want to be strong for him when he’s well enough for you to see him, won’t you?”
Angie nodded, tears sliding silently down her cheek.
“All right, then. Let’s get you out of here and into that room.”
Angie was taken to one of the postpartum rooms. Rollie went with her, having never let go of her hand.
“Is there anything I can get you?” the nun asked once Angie had been cleaned up, changed into a gown, and settled in the bed.
“Some . . . some water,” Angie replied in a small voice.
The nun poured water from a pitcher into a cup and handed it to her.
“Would you like someone to talk to? Perhaps the hospital chaplain?”
“No, I just . . . I just want to be alone.”
The nun smiled understandingly. “All right. If you need anything, just buzz the nurses station.” She left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. With the shutting of the door, Angie’s tears returned. Rollie pulled her close as she sobbed.
“Why? Why, Rollie? Why did this happen?”
“I don’t know, Angie. God, I don’t know,” Rollie replied, his voice ragged.
“It’s my fault,” Angie said in anguish. “I did too much. I didn’t rest enough.”
“No! It’s not your fault, Angie. You’ve been taking good care of yourself. You did everything your doctor told you to.”
“Oh, God, Rollie. I don’t want to lose him,” Angie cried. She buried her face in Rollie’s shirt and wept deeply. Rollie clutched her to him, crying with her, his own guilt burning a hole in his heart. His dream had tried to warn him. It had told him this was going to happen. He could have prevented it. He could have gotten Angie to a hospital in time for the labor to be prevented. Why hadn’t he known? Why hadn’t he done something? This was his fault.
The minutes ticked by slowly as they awaited word of their son. Rollie had settled on the bed beside Angie, her head pillowed on his chest. They hadn’t spoken anymore, each of them too distraught to speak.
It had been perhaps half an hour when the door opened and Doctor Bradford came in. He looked at the couple, his kindly face filled with sympathy.
“How are you doing?” he asked gently.
“Not good. How’s Benarin?” Rollie asked.
“He’s holding on. I’m afraid that I can’t help much in this regard. I have no experience with extremely premature infants. But Doctor Stein is a highly regarded neonatologist. He’ll take good care of your baby.”
“Thank you for being here with us, Doctor Bradford. We appreciate it.”
The doctor nodded. “I’m just sorry I can’t do more. But if you want to talk or need anything I can get you, you have my number. I’m afraid that I have to go now, though. The patient of mine that’s in the hospital in McAlester is not doing well. I have to get back over there. I’ll call here this evening to see how things are going.”
“There is one thing you can do for us,” Rollie said.
“Could you call the Parkers and let them know what happened?”
“Of course. Is there anyone else you’d like me to call?”
“No. There are some other people, but we’ll wait until . . . until we know more.”
“All right. Remember, any time you want to talk, day or night, just call.”
The room fell silent again after the doctor left. Angie’s exhaustion finally caught up with her, and she dosed fitfully in Rollie’s arms. The Aussie stared sightlessly at the wall across the room, trying to believe that the curse he seemed to have lived under all his life wasn’t going to strike again, that his happiness wasn’t going to be snatched away by the death of someone else he loved. But, no matter how much he tried to tell himself that, deep inside him, a voice kept saying that they were going to lose their son.
Another hour had passed when Doctor Stein came in. Rollie woke Angie. She stared at the doctor, both hope and dread on her face.
“How is he? How’s my baby?” she asked, her voice shaking with fear.
“He’s alive. His heartbeat is weak, but it’s steady, at least for the moment.”
“For the moment?” Rollie repeated.
The doctor pulled up a chair and sat before them. “I have some things I need to tell you, and it’s best that I be honest about them. Your baby was only twenty-two weeks gestational age at birth. The chances of an infant that premature surviving are extremely low. The generally recognized survival rate for a twenty-two week preemie is ten percent.”
“Ten percent?” Angie said, her voice rising in anguish.
“If he’d been born even a week later, his odds would have been greatly increased, but as it stands now. . . .” The doctor sighed. “I’m afraid that you now need to make a tough decision.”
“What?” Rollie asked hoarsely, fighting back the tears that were burning in his throat.
“You need to decide if your son is to remain in intensive care or be put in hospice care.”
“Hospice? That’s for people who are dying!” Rollie exclaimed angrily.
Doctor Stein nodded. “I know, Mister Tyler. I know this is a hard thing to accept, but the chances of a baby this premature surviving, let alone surviving without severe disabilities, is very remote. Most twenty-two week infants are put in hospice care because the odds are so low. In hospice care, the parents are given the opportunity to be with their child, to hold him and give him love in the hours he has to live.”
Rollie didn’t need to look at Angie to see the grief and pain on her face. He could feel it. Then all he could feel was anger, rage that the doctors and nurses had given up on his son so easily.
“No,” he growled, fighting to keep from hitting the doctor in the face. “I am not going to give up on our son, and I won’t let you either. You do everything you have to to keep him alive, you understand?”
Seeing the fury in the Aussie’s eyes, Doctor Stein wisely chose not to continue pursuing the issue of hospice care. “All right, Mister Tyler. We will do all we can to save your son.” He got to his feet. “The next few days are going to be very long and stressful for you. We have guestrooms on campus for the parents of premature infants. I can have a nurse check on the availability of one, if you wish.”
Both Rollie and Angie nodded, wanting to stay as close to Benarin as possible.
The doctor left, and they were alone once again.
“When I woke up, I thought for a moment that this was all some horrible nightmare,” Angie said. “But it isn’t. It’s really happening. What if he dies, Rollie? What if we lose our baby?”
Unable to answer, Rollie pulled her tight against him, hiding his fresh tears in her hair. “Please, God. Don’t let our baby die,” he prayed.