"The Gift" - Sample Chapter

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CHAPTER 1


It should have been the most happy and exciting time of the year. But as she trudged through the drifting snow in the darkness of the late winter afternoon, Lucy Montgomery was angered by the twinkling coloured lights, the garlands and the wreaths that mocked her. With a gloved hand holding her tiny daughter’s mittened one a little tighter, the distraught mother fought back waves of tears.

As the two made their way along the crowded Albany sidewalk, the happy chatter of passing shoppers slammed into Lucy like a physical assault. The doctor had just delivered the news that this family had been dreading for most of the child’s short life.

As easily and as gently as the soft snowflakes fell around her, Lucy’s thoughts drifted back to the day the sweet little girl was born. After Lucy and her husband, Robert, had been given two beautiful sons, James and Elijah, the new parents were thrilled at the arrival of the daughter who made their family complete. Truly heaven sent, Angelina, their “little Angel,” was aptly named.

Joy soon turned to fear when just weeks after her birth, something was obviously not right with the tiny baby. Being a surgeon, Robert was well-connected at the hospital and got an appointment with top pediatrician, Dr. Dan Harper, straight away.

“I’m afraid it’s not good news,” said Dr. Harper solemnly, peering through his glasses as he reviewed Angelina’s test results.

His words sent an icy chill through the terrified parents sitting on the opposite side of his desk.

Remembering the worst of his speculations, Lucy’s heart dropped to the pit of her stomach. “Doctor, is it — is she—“ She couldn’t bring herself to finish the question.

After an agonising pause, an almost imperceptible single nod sealed the tiny girl’s fate.

Sitting side by side, Robert squeezed Lucy’s hand a little tighter as she stared at the doctor’s desk.

“How long…how much time…” The stone-faced father stumbled over the words that would not come out of his mouth.

“At best, maybe five or six years with treatment. Seven if we’re really lucky,” replied the doctor. Dammit. It never gets easier to deliver this shitty news.

“And…at worst?” asked Robert hesitantly, the words like so much acid on his tongue.

A pause. Scratching his bald head, Dr. Harper took a deep breath and faced the parents who could not take their eyes off him. “Eighteen months. Maybe two years,” he said quietly.

Lucy dissolved into tears, burying her face in her hands. Robert sat dumbfounded, recalling the long and challenging journey they had travelled to bring this little girl into their lives…It had begun more than five years before her birth…

“Your wife has sustained life-threatening injuries but we’re doing all we can to save her,” said the nurse. “She’s had significant head trauma and abdominal injuries with extensive bleeding so we’ve got to get in there and stop it.”

Lying in an exam room with minor injuries, Robert’s helplessness got the better of him. “Let me scrub in!” he cried, sitting up and swinging his legs off the side of the bed. “It’s my fault she’s torn up like that; I have to be the one to fix it! I’m a surgeon, for God’s sake! Let me put this right!” Reaching behind his neck, he fumbled with the ties on his hospital gown.

“Dr. Montgomery, you’re in no shape to do surgery and certainly not on your wife!” the nurse replied, gently pushing him back against the pillows and lifting his legs onto the bed. “You’ve had a good knock on the head yourself.”

“But I’m the one who put her here!” he argued.

“No, Dr. Montgomery, you’re not,” she replied calmly. “It was the person who ran that stop sign and drove his car straight into your passenger door.”

Shaking his head, it didn’t matter what she said; as far as he was concerned, he was the guilty party. And therefore, he was the one who should be repairing the damage to her body. What kind of doctor was he if he couldn’t even perform the surgery that would save her life? But clearly, there was no point discussing it with the nurse; she didn’t understand.

“What about the baby?” he asked, not entirely certain he wanted the answer he might be given.

“Its heart rate is a bit erratic,” answered the nurse. “And your wife is experiencing some bleeding. We’re concerned that the placenta might be separating. Could just be a response to the stress of your wife’s situation but with her injuries, we’ve got to deliver the child as soon as possible.”

Robert’s heart sank. “But she’s only seven months’ pregnant! I could lose both of them!” he cried, doing his best to remain calm, especially as the staff were his colleagues.

“I know it’s frightening, Dr. Montgomery, but this is 1945, not 1845,” answered the nurse. “Your wife and baby are getting the best possible medical care. Now please, you’ve got a concussion. Just lie back and rest. I promise I’ll bring updates just as soon as I know anything, okay?”

“All right,” he sighed bitterly.

“Is there anyone I can call?” she asked.

“No, another nurse has already called our neighbor,” he replied. “She’s looking after our son, James, tonight. Oh, why did I drag Lucy out on an icy night like this? It’s our anniversary…but it was so slippery…she didn’t want to go! I should have listened! It’s all my fault!” Burying his face in his hands, he broke down.

“Sh-h-h-h, don’t upset yourself, Dr. Montgomery. It was an accident,” offered the nurse, laying a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Now just try to relax. Someone will be in soon to stitch up that nasty gash on your forehead.”

And with that, she pulled the curtain around his bed and left the room.

Elijah was a tiny baby but like his mother, he was a fighter. Although it was touch and go for some time, both of them pulled through their ordeal. However, Lucy had suffered extensive internal damage during the accident. She and Robert were told that she was unlikely to bear any more children.

The young couple were stunned. They had planned on having a large family and this was a blow for which they were unprepared. But Lucy wasn’t about to accept it. The doctors did not know just how driven she could be, and she was not about to let them tell her whether or not she would once again experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world.

Determined to regain her former level of health and abilities, she endured a long period of rehabilitation and physical therapy. It was about a year after the accident when Lucy discovered that she and Robert were expecting another child. The couple were elated but it did not last. Tragically, the pregnancy ended in miscarriage, as did several others over the next few years.

There came a time when once again, Lucy felt the first waves of morning sickness, and after so many shattering disappointments, she dared not even hope that she was, indeed, expecting another baby. Before long, however, there was no doubt. The doctor’s tone was almost reluctant, his eyes filled with anticipatory sympathy, as he gave Lucy the news that there was yet another little life growing inside her body.

“Really, Mrs. Montgomery, how many times are you going to put yourself through this?” he asked gently.

“This time it will be different!” she insisted, pushing aside both the look and the tone. “I can just feel it!”

“Well, I hope you’re right,” he said dryly. “But I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.”

“With all due respect, Doctor, you’re not me, and I will get my hopes up,” she retorted defiantly.

The doctor remained unconvinced; it was written all over his face.

Ignoring the doctor’s knowing expression, Lucy mumbled a quick “Thank you,” and left the office, countless emotions rolling through her, each one coming on top of the last, faster than she could even identify them.

Please, Baby, please be okay! Lucy sent silent messages to her little one over and over again.

And a still, small voice inside answered. Don’t worry, Mama, I’m coming…

There came the day that Elijah’s parents announced the news that yet another baby was trying to make its way into the world. An old spiritual soul, at just-turned five years old he was certain that he was going to meet this little person.

“She’s a girl, Mommy, and she said not to worry,” Elijah told Lucy. “She told me she wants me to be her big brother!”

“That’s sweet, Elijah,” replied Lucy, smiling at his innocence. “I’m glad you’re so excited about the baby.” How adorable that he thinks the baby is talking to him…

Because of his peaceful, spiritual nature, Lucy and Robert tended to forget that Elijah was still just a child. An easygoing boy, he never gave them a moment’s worry. And unfortunately, they didn’t always give him a moment’s thought.

Of course, they loved him dearly, and he knew that. However, he seemed so grown up that sometimes it was difficult for them to remember that he was still just a little boy who needed some attention now and then.

Ten-year-old James was another story. “You haven’t said a peep, James,” Lucy commented as she cut her steak. “Isn’t it terrific news about the baby?”

“No, not especially!” he frowned, shoving his plate away and folding his arms across his chest.

A flush of guilt burned its way through Robert’s soul making his head hot. Inadequate husband. Inadequate doctor. Inadequate father. Just plain inadequate.

Robert stared at his son pleadingly. It’s my fault she can’t have the family she wanted! If I can just give her one more child…perhaps it will wipe the slate clean…perhaps I will be absolved…

“James!” admonished Robert. “What sort of an answer is that? You know how much this means to your mother and me!”

James glared at his father. Yeah, and you don’t know what it means to anyone else, do you? “Sorry,” he grumbled unconvincingly. I just want off this merry-go-round! Why can’t you just be happy as we are now? Aren’t Elijah and I enough?

So many words between them; none of them spoken.

The lad had begun to resent the Dream Child that his parents wanted so desperately. They had been spending increasing amounts of time and energy on their preoccupation with a baby that might never exist. For years, the Dream Child had taken center stage, and as far as James could see, it was chipping away at this family, a family that was deeply fractured despite how much they loved each other, even if he was the only one who seemed to notice.

Perhaps the others in the family noticed, too. Or maybe they simply wouldn’t acknowledge it, because to do so — well, the stakes were very high.

But no. No, they hadn’t noticed.

And five years later, on a bustling, snowy street with strains of cheery Christmas carols taunting her, unbeknownst to Lucy, that fracture was about to tear the family to shreds.

It was a short walk from the doctor’s office to the car. Lucy had done her best to park nearby, knowing that her beloved Angelina was too ill to walk any great distance. After helping the little girl climb into the back seat, Lucy got in behind the wheel and slammed the door. Instantly, the rest of the world was blocked out. The silence was deafening. The crowds of people and the music had been a bit of a distraction, but now they sat in the car, just the two of them as they had done countless times before, there was no escaping reality. 

The car keys still in her hand, Lucy sat still and quiet as the doctor’s words resounded in her head, spinning and swirling faster and faster, until she thought she would scream. It seemed that she had been sitting there for an eternity, though it was really only a minute or two.

Just as Lucy was certain she was about to fly apart, Angelina’s sweet voice broke through the exploding words in her mother’s head.

“Look, Mama! A little angel, just like me!”

Lucy’s blood ran cold, the child’s nickname ringing in her ears. She couldn’t bear to think that “Little Angel” would soon have an entirely different meaning.
Pulling herself together for the child’s sake, she looked in the rear view mirror. As Angelina pointed, her delicate face was alive with excitement, despite her obvious ill health. Following the direction of her daughter’s tiny finger, Lucy saw an angel in the window of a shop. Wearing a white dress with gold embroidery, the angel decoration appeared to be a child with feathery white wings, rosy cheeks, blonde curls and wide, innocent eyes. Apart from Angelina’s dark hair and pale face, the resemblance between her and the decoration sent an icy chill up Lucy’s spine. Upon seeing the rosy complexion on this little angel, Lucy could not help but realize that her own sweet child would never look well again.

“See, Mama? It looks just like me, and I’m your Little Angel! Except my hair isn’t yellow!”

It was all Lucy could do not to bite right through her lip as she choked back the sobs that she knew were desperate to escape. It took everything she had to force a smile on her face as she replied, “Yes, my darling. It looks just like you. Except your hair isn’t yellow.”

With one long and thoughtful look at her sweet daughter, Lucy inserted the key into the ignition, started the car, and began the journey home. As they wound their way through Christmas-shopping traffic to the outskirts of the city, the delicate snowflakes continued to fall...

As the ’54 Chev rolled up the drive and came to a stop in front of their comfortable home in the country, Lucy was almost startled to discover that they had arrived. Barely remembering the journey home, all she had thought about was how she would deliver this news to Robert when he got home.

With a forced smile on her lips, she lifted the child out of the car, and put her on the drive. Turning to close the car door, she paused, closing her eyes to absorb the sound of crunching snow under Angelina’s boots, desperate to hang onto every single moment of the little girl’s life.

“You look tired, honey,” Lucy said, once inside and removing Angelina’s coat and boots. “See if you can find your brothers upstairs and maybe one of them will read to you,” she suggested.

“Can I have a nap instead, Mama?” asked Angelina.

Again? “Yes, of course you can, sweetheart,” replied Lucy, plastering on her best fake smile. “We’ll have dinner when you wake up.”

“I’m not hungry, Mama,” the little girl said with a yawn.

Lucy’s heart sank as she watched the little girl disappear up the stairs.

Heading for the sitting room, Lucy lit a fire and poured a rather stiff shot of whiskey before sinking into a chair.

Alone at last, the tears welled up in her eyes as she stared at the flickering flames without seeing them. Rather, she was recalling memories of Angelina, reliving the joy that her beautiful daughter had shared with all who knew her. In her mind’s eye, there was Angelina, running and dancing in the garden, peals of her infectious laughter ringing out, delighting all who heard it. She thought of the many nights she’d sat on her daughter’s bed, the child sleeping peacefully with her beloved Teddy tucked under one arm, and a few loose curls splayed across her forehead.

The heartbroken mother recalled each of Angelina’s few birthday parties, the tiny tot’s eyes sparkling with excitement, opening gifts, or blowing out candles on a cake. Memory after memory rolled through Lucy’s mind, like a film about Angelina’s all-too-short life.

Deep in thought, Lucy jumped when suddenly Robert appeared at her side and affectionately stroked her hair.

“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed, one hand flying to her chest. “I didn’t hear you come in!” And I still don’t know how to tell you…

“Sorry, darling,” replied Robert. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Leaning over and kissing his wife gently on her upturned cheek, their eyes met. Hers were red and swollen. Without a word, he had got the answer to his unasked question. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t get to the appointment,” he mumbled, needing to say something, anything, to postpone the inevitable. Once he heard the news, he could never un-hear it. And their lives would never be the same.

Glancing at his back as he poured himself a drink, her anger bubbled up. I’d have been surprised if you’d actually made it for once.

“We were swamped with a bus accident this morning. There weren’t enough surgeons as it was,” he continued, turning toward her and seating himself in an adjacent chair. “What was I supposed to do, Lu? Walk out and leave people bleeding to death? Did you get the message I left with Dan’s office?”

“Yes, I did.” As usual. Lucy’s throat strained to get the words past the lump that was choking her. “It’s always something, Robert, but honestly —“ She turned away from him, sighing heavily as she swirled the whiskey in her glass and stared at the fire.

“I know, Lu, but —“

“No, you don’t know!” she spat, eyes flashing as she stared into his guilt. “Because if you did, you wouldn’t keep leaving me to deal with all of this by myself! You would have made sure you were there today, of all days! You knew, Robert — you knew what today might mean!”

Lucy turned back toward the fire and gulped the last of her whiskey. Her jaw was clenched, her lips pursed as she took one deep breath after another in an attempt to diminish her rage.

“You’re right. I should have —“ he began.

“Yes, you should have!” she shot back, slamming her empty glass on the table next to her chair. “You always ‘should have,’ Robert. I’m sick of hearing it! And now, on the worst day of my life, you should have been there — and once again, you weren’t!” And with those words, she broke down and sobbed into her hands.

His body taut, Robert felt the blood drain from his head. His heart was beating wildly in his chest; he could feel it pounding, his breath coming quicker as adrenalin flooded through him. Swearing his veins were suddenly filled with ice water, Robert was afraid to say a word. As long as he did not speak, they could go on for just a few more minutes or hours, or maybe months or years, thinking Angelina would be all right. He knew that once he spoke again — once he asked the unaskable — Lucy’s answer would shatter their lives into a million pieces. Clinging to the present, he savoured the last few seconds before their world changed forever.

He sat unmoving for several moments, trying to figure out what he should say. Once Lucy’s sobs had been reduced to quiet tears, he opened his mouth and some words came out with no real thought behind them. He could simply not find a way to ask the question in a way that didn’t repulse him beyond description.

Too restless to remain seated, he rose and paced back and forth by the window. After several uncomfortable moments, he asked, “So…what did Dan — uh, is it as bad as we feared?”

Lucy’s eyes filled with tears again, and the aching lump in her throat was almost more than she could bear. “Yes,” came the stiff reply. “Without a miracle…” Her voice broke as she trailed off, unable to say another word.

For four and a half years, Robert had been anticipating this moment, wondering exactly when and how it would occur, and imagining how it might feel. And now he had his answer, yet there was no way to describe it. How many times had he been the one to deliver the death sentence? How many times had he stared into the faces of other parents and essentially ripped out their hearts in just a few words? It was only now that he understood, fully and completely, how it felt to be on the other side of this horrible conversation.

A million questions tore through his soul but no answers were forthcoming. Robert was reeling. Suddenly, becoming light-headed, the color drained from his face as he sank into the nearest chair, trembling.

After a few deep breaths, Lucy spoke once again. “He said we probably don’t have much time. Of course, he reminded me that she has surprised us in the past. She’s had an extra few years that have been nothing short of miraculous. But…this time…well, she’s never had test results like this before.”
She looked across at her husband and added, “And she’s never looked like this before either.”

As a doctor, Robert was not surprised by the news, but as a father, he was entirely unprepared to hear the words that told him that his sweet little girl, not yet five years old, did not have much time to live. Rising, he went to his wife and with a questioning look, held out his hand.

Gazing up at him with pursed lips, his pain-filled eyes and clenched jaw spoke volumes. She’s his daughter, too.

Lucy’s anger dissolved, and hesitantly, she took his hand and rose to stand in front of him. The parents held each other for a long time, the silence only broken by the sound of their breaking hearts. 

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