2021 Short Story Writing Contest Grand Prize Winner
By Sara E. Belanger
“He needs a heart transplant.”
Those were the only words Josephine heard. Tears stung her eyes as she peered through glass windows at her son, Simon. His chocolate hair grew uneven and choppy as a stark reminder that she had tried to cut his hair to save money. She could remember his brilliant smile minus a front tooth as he thanked her for the best haircut ever. His auburn eyes gleamed with the profound love only a son could hold for his mother. It had been a while since she last saw a smile that lit up his puppy-dog eyes. Simon was only five years old but he was such a small boy; he barely took up half of the hospital bed. Needles and patches invaded his little arms and chest as if he were a pincushion. Snake-like wires hung from machines and fought off Death’s hands with every second of the day.
This white room that seemed so dark to Josephine had become their home over the last few days as Simon’s condition worsened. He had become so frail and lifeless. The jumping bean that had always been her son withered. “My chest feels broken,” was how Simon described the pain to her the night before he was rushed to the hospital. Josephine refused to leave his side, scared something might happen in her absence.
“Jo,” Elliot whispered as he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Go home. Take a shower. Pack some clothes. He’ll be here when you get back.” Josephine glanced at her estranged-husband but she could barely see him through the turmoil that raged war just behind her eyes. As she pieced the days together, Josephine tried to remember the last time she showered. Pained bloodshot eyes glimpsed over her clothes to see that they were stained with blotches of coffee and tears. She was covered in grime.
Josephine breathed deeply, terrified to leave Simon’s side. “Okay,” she muttered as her lips quivered. Her hands trembled as she slid the door aside and stepped inside the hospital room. Wobbly steps led her across the cold tile to her coat that clung to the chair like how Simon clung to her when he didn’t want to be put down. Worry racked her body with tremors as she pulled on her ebony peacoat. Keys that had fallen to the floor clinked repeatedly as she shoved them into her coat pocket. As though an invisible thread pulled her tight, Josephine found herself at Simon’s bedside. Her hands caressed his soft cheek as she took solace in his relaxed sleep. She leaned down and kissed his forehead lightly, a single tear escaped her eyes. “I’ll be right back Si-guy, I promise. And you know Mommy always keeps her promises,” she whispered as she placed her forehead against his. The sound of his breathing relaxed her; he was still here. Josephine pushed herself away before she changed her mind. Anxious eyes flittered between her son and the door before they met with Elliot’s. “If he wakes up, tell him I’ll be back real soon.”
“Just go, Jo,” Elliot grumbled. Even through the dark cloud that covered her eyes, Josephine still saw that agonizing look of disapproval. Her hair was a greasy rat’s nest. Her skin was shiny with oil and crusted by tears. Her sweat-stained shirt clung to her body like mud to a pig. She saw it all in his criticizing gaze that pressed for her to leave. Elliot was never satisfied with her. He had an overbearing need for control; to impress and be the best. Even on their wedding day, he found something to criticize her for. The fact that it took them years to conceive only made the news of Simon’s heart defect more painful to Elliot.
It had only been Josephine and Simon since Elliot moved out. The two musketeers. The dynamic duo. Josephine took once last glance at her precious Si-guy then hurried through the halls. One hand found her coat pocket and searched diligently for the special rock that Simon gave her last summer. “Mommy, it’s a jumping rock! Next time we go camping, you have to make it jump. I kissed it good luck just for you!” His smile radiated such joy that day that she couldn’t bear to part with the rock. In her pocket, her fingers found comfort in the smooth skipping stone and its solidity, in his good luck kiss. The cold stone warmed with her touch as she caressed it all the way home.
Josephine wasn’t sure how she got home. Her car was parked in the driveway, but she couldn’t remember the drive at all. Bright flowers bloomed below the front windows and danced in the breeze. Sprinklers sprayed water in a beautiful gliding arc over green grass that happily reached towards the sky. Josephine turned the key and the lock moved with a dreadful thud. Damp air seeped out of the house as the oak door creaked open. Curtains had been hastily drawn but streaks of light peaked through. Dust took refuge in Josephine and Simon’s absence. Toys were scattered on the floor like an untamed minefield. Partial food-covered dishes were stacked mountain high in the sink and stunk of months-old scraps. Josephine overlooked the disaster that her house had become and placed her shoes in the dirt-covered shoe rack.
Crooked picture frames lined the wall as she climbed the stairs. Josephine didn’t dare look at the photos. She couldn’t bear the falsehood of her wedding. It had all been a deceitful trick by Elliot to stay in control. The soft carpet welcomed her tired feet as she reached the top of the stairs. It took everything she had not to peek inside Simon’s room as she half-hoped he would be in there, healthy as he played. Instead, she turned towards the bathroom. Bath toys bounced across the floor as Josephine kicked them aside to get to the shower. As the hot water warmed her body like an overdue embrace, the steam fogged the room like her thoughts did the mind. A mixture of soap, shampoo, and tears pooled at the drain as the water struggled to go down the pipe. She had meant to call a plumber.
Anxiety numbed her body as the voice of Dr. Waxman echoed in her head. “You’ll need to consider raising funds, Jo. While the hospital would never deny a child a heart, there are other medical emergencies to consider; hospital stay, aftercare, medication.” The constant pitter-patter of the water against her body became unbearable. Josephine slammed the water off with her hand and stood silently in the steam as she prepared herself for her next task. Sorrow dripped off her body as she toweled herself dry. Knots sheltered in her hair as she whipped it into a bun atop her head. In her room, she pulled on old workout clothes that were now baggy. The ruthless worrying had taken so much from her as it threatened her own vitality. Josephine sighed as she knelt beside her bed and lifted the mattress. There laid her biggest secrets. Where she expelled her greatest fears and made her toughest decisions. Her hands caressed the little black notebook delicately. It was in these pages that she disclosed her own sorrow by Elliot’s hands. These pages where she decided enough was enough.
Josephine clutched the notebook tightly to her chest as the mattress plopped back onto its frame. Her pants sagged as she shuffled down the hall to Simon’s room. The door creaked open and her eyes scanned all his things untouched for days. Trucks and dinosaurs scattered the floor. Dirty clothes gathered around the laundry basket from when he pretended he was a basketball star. His stuffed animals were unloved, stuffed between his bed and the wall. The drool-covered pillow laid crooked with the blankets tossed. It smelled like her little boy.
The blankets were cold as Josephine climbed into his bed and pulled them over her legs. She hugged his pillow tightly before she laid it on her lap. Anxious hands laid the notebook atop his pillow. Silence enveloped the room as Josephine stared at the glossy cover full of tattered pages. She was so tired. Tired of making decisions like this by herself. Tired of having the joy ripped away from her. Tired of being alone, fragile fingers opened the notebook slowly. Josephine grabbed a colored pencil off Simon’s nightstand and began. Every cent she spent monthly covered the page. Mortgage, insurance, utilities, cable, gas, phone, food, medication. Anything she could get rid of or downsize, she circled repeatedly. On a separate page, Josephine jotted down things she could sell to scrounge up more money. Her grip tensed as she wrote down her engagement ring and wedding band. Josephine scowled as she drew stars next to the rings, they’d be the first to go.
It felt like hours had passed by the time Josephine was done. It wasn’t enough. No matter how many things she sold or gave up, it wasn’t enough for the operation. Josephine sighed with such heavy guilt as she wrote down a bank account number. When she and Elliot had decided to start their family, Josephine immediately began saving for their precious baby. Years had gone by but she still saved. She knew this would be her only child and she wanted the best for her baby. Then her miracle happened, Simon was born, and she continued to save even more. There was only one way she would be able to afford her little boy’s heart transplant: Josephine would have to use the entirety of Simon’s college fund. Josephine closed the notebook and curled up in his bed. The smell of him lingered on his pillow as Josephine clutched it tightly to her chest. Tears spilled out as she prayed for her son and fell asleep.
Months of hospital visits had come and gone. Simon’s condition deteriorated until he was confined to the hospital room indefinitely. The door revolved all day long as doctors and nurses checked on Simon repeatedly. Josephine held onto hope as she clutched the paperwork in her hands. Her signature had barely dried by the time the doctors wheeled Simon away. A match had been found. It was a risky operation. Josephine held tight to the little dog that Simon brought everywhere. She had promised to keep it safe until he came back. Her fingers rubbed the worn fabric of its ears where Simon rubbed to fall asleep.
Hours passed before the surgeon found Josephine. “Josephine,”
Josephine’s legs trembled beneath her as she stumbled to the doctor. Fear clouded her vision as she stared at the surgeon.
“Everything went perfectly. Simon is recovering and he’s on his way back.”
Tears burst from Josephine’s eyes as she clutched the stuffed dog tightly. “Oh God, thank you. Thank you!” Years of pain and struggle were lifted from her chest with each sob she cried out. Her little boy would be okay. A smile tugged at her lips as she pulled the stuffed dog even closer to her chest.
“The family that donated the heart wanted you to have this,” the doctor smiled as he held out a small black notebook. Josephine took the notebook and carefully opened it. Words smudged by a stranger’s tears covered the page as Josephine read the note.
Today you received our little boy’s heart. His name was Christian. He dreamt of becoming a pilot since the day he first saw a plane. Christian wanted to fly high. May your little boy live long and dream big like Christian did.
New tears dripped onto the page and Josephine touched the note lovingly. A bump in the paper caught her attention and she turned the page. Josephine dropped to the ground and sobbed uncontrollably as she clutched a check for $20,000. The memo read: