In a Starry Sky
Posters with large, red illustrations of various fetal organ systems at different gestational ages cover the cool blue walls of the university medical center’s neonatal intensive care unit, where incubators, double-glazed, with lids and portholes, keep the babies warm, protecting them from noise, drafts, infections, and excessive handling. A giant grey bunny wearing a fuchsia bonnet dances on the blue wall in the first bay and looms over Lucy, who’s unable to move her lips because the tiny tube in her mouth pushes oxygen into her miniature lungs. As she opens and shuts her eyes, her startle reflex barely moves the other tubes, sensors, and monitors attached to her one-pound self. Chestnut strands of her hair border the edges of her pink and white knitted doll-sized cap, and she seems oblivious to the clinicians monitoring her vitals and noting on her chart.
In the bay next to Lucy, her twin sister Jenny slumbers under the watchful eyes of a ceiling-to-floor decal of Minnie Mouse. Dressed for a party in her hot pink and white polka dot dress and matching shoes, Minnie’s bow jauntily tilts on her head between her large mouse ears, ears larger than Jenny herself, who fits in the palm of nurses’ gloved hands and who weighs a half a pound more than her sister Lucy. Both girls are too early to the party; the thermometer attached to the sensor on Jenny’s belly rises and falls with her breathing, programmed to ring if Jenny’s baby breaths stop.
Karen, their mother, does not notice the room’s colorful walls or cheerful motif, but she does smell the antiseptic and notice the sterile gown, shoes, and cap she must wear in the unit. She divides her time between her daughters’ incubators, peering through the glass with eyes weighed down by dark circles and bags. She’s blind to everything except the monitors attached to her pair of babies in their doll-sized clothes. Karen bounces back and forth between the incubators, inserting her hands through the gloved portholes of each, stroking each child while keeping an ear on the monitors. Jenny’s monitors scream frequently, and Karen runs over to the incubator that encases her, caressing and soothing her baby. Slightly larger and older than Lucy by only a minute, Jenny is weaker. Karen coos at her struggling baby, afraid of the worst.
The Roadrunner dashes in from seemingly nowhere and in the third bay, he’s mid-run while keeping his eyes on the two-pound boy wearing a purple and white knitted cap. His incubator monitor says “Beep Beep,” in longer tones than the Roadrunner’s, which causes the nurses to come running. They push Brenda, his mother, out of the way to reach the boy named Michael, attached to so many tubes and sensors monitoring his condition, sampling his blood, feeding him automatically, that he’s scarcely visible beneath all the technology. The Roadrunner watches him from the wall. Brenda, who hung a medal of St. Jude, patron saint of the impossible, on his incubator, mouths a prayer to the saint for a miracle. Tears leaking down her cheeks, she blocks from her mind the activity in the fourth bay, where the Tasmanian Devil whirls in imaginary circles on the blue walls, interrupted only by the large picture window streaming moonlight into the room.
Brenda struggles to ignore the activity in the fourth bay, when she realizes that what she dreads for Michael has come and swallowed the baby in Number Four. For new parents, Chrissy and Erik, the streaming moonlight through the unit’s picture windows mocks the cartoon décor element. The ornery-looking Tasmanian Devil on the wall might as well exist on another planet, at a different time. They fail to notice Brenda pretending not to see them, just as they fail to notice duty nurses working on her son Michael, trying to stop the incessant alarms. Chrissy and Erik hold each other close and cradle between them for one last time their miniscule thirty-day-old, two-and-a-half-pound baby boy, Leo. He still weighs less than a bag of flour, or sugar, or rice. Chrissy and Erik memorize the shape of Leo’s nose, the roundness of his ashen face, the heart-shape of his mouth, lips blackened by death’s unwanted kiss. They cling to their Leo, forever stilled, quiet as the midnight moon in a starry sky.
© Rosalia Scalia
Rosalia Scalia’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oklahoma Review, North Atlantic Review, Notre Dame Review, The Portland Review, and Quercus Review, among many others. She holds an MA in writing from the Johns Hopkins University and is a Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist’s Award recipient. She won the Editor’s Select award from Willow Review and her short story in Pebble Lake was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore City with her family.