"I think I just had a contraction."
I'm in the shower when Bella's voice filters through the sound of rushing water.
I should know what to do and say right now. There are things I'm supposed to ask her. But the only thing that comes out of my mouth is, "What?"
"My back's been really achy since late yesterday afternoon," she says. "But I think … I think we might be having a baby today."
I slide open the glass door, and steam goes whooshing out of the stall, curling around Bella and curling those wisps of hair that frame her face.
"Are you sure?"
"Are you okay?" I should be the one asking her that, but she's standing there, one hand resting on top of her stomach, looking at me with worried eyes and her lip between her teeth.
"I'm–" I shake my head. Who cares if I'm okay? "Did you catch the time … of the contraction?"
She lifts her hand, showing me the watch she's dangling between two fingers. "Ten past ten. And it lasted about fifteen seconds."
I nod. The shower continues to run, the hot water wasted as it cascades over the shoulder still inside the stall and gurgles down the drain. "What time is it now?"
She wipes her thumb over the face of the watch. "Ten thirteen."
"Do you want to go to the hospital?"
She gives me a strange little smile. "No. Not yet."
"Okay. Yeah, probably too soon." Unless her water breaks before then, her plan is to head into the hospital only once she's been having minute-long contractions every five minutes for close to an hour.
"Honey?" Bella pushes away the hair clinging to her damp forehead.
"You should probably finish up in there soon. We might be needing that hot water before the day's out."
I scrub a hand over my face. "Yeah … Yeah, I'm coming."
Sliding the door closed, I step back under the water and close my eyes. The hot spray needles my face as I try to center myself.
Contractions. Just one, but it's the start.
This is happening. Sometime in the next day or two, I'm going to be holding our child …
But only once Bella has endured hours and hours … and hours of agony. Shit.
She's waiting for me, towel in hand, when I shut off the water and step out of the shower. I almost chastise her for it, tempted by the guilt collecting in my gut to tell her to go get some rest, to remind her that she's going to have a very long and trying day—but then I catch the flash of fear in her eyes as she leans in to kiss my cheek. I swallow the words down and offer her my thanks instead.
She stays by my side as I walk into the bedroom, as I pull out some clean clothes, as I double back to the bathroom to apply deodorant and hang up my wet towel. Wrapping an arm around her waist, I guide her back into the bedroom and pull her down next to me on the bed. She grimaces and I loosen my grip on her wrist. Hand on her stomach, the muscles in her jaw working, it takes me a moment to realize she's not reacting to my having tugged on her arm too forcefully—she's having another contraction.
"Breathe," I say. Yeah, that's super helpful.
Bella's jaw relaxes and she rolls her eyes at me. "If you're going to say that every contraction, I'm probably going to punch you in the nose before today is over."
"What time is it?"
I grab the watch from where she left it on the nightstand. "Ten twenty-seven."
Bella wriggles around on the bed until she's got a pillow folded under her head and her ankles crossed. I lie on my side, propped up on my elbow, looking down at her. She's still in her pajamas, just a loose camisole and cotton shorts. Her hair sprawls across the pillow in the tangles and curls that form when she goes to bed—as she did last night—with wet hair.
"Stop it." She giggles uncomfortably. "Don't look at me like that."
"Like you think I'm amazing or something."
I close my eyes—if that's how I'm looking at her, I'm not sure I can stop myself.
I make periodic trips to the kitchen for small snacks and cold drinks, but we spend most of the day holed up in the bedroom, watching television or chatting quietly as we work on today's crossword puzzle.
A few times, Bella insists I help her to her feet, and she paces back and forth across the carpet, her hands supporting her lower back. Sometimes she talks to the baby, reassuring him or her that they're loved and encouraging a speedy arrival.
By late afternoon, we're both lying on the bed and the room is silent but for the humming of the air-conditioner. The light is slowly turning the room gold as the shadows on the ceiling lengthen.
The only indication Bella isn't actually asleep is the periodic clenching of her fists and the hiss of her breathing as each contraction rolls through her body. They're still about ten minutes apart, though from the way she presses her lips together and squeezes her eyes closed, I can see they're increasing in intensity.
"Edward." She grabs my hand, her fingernails digging into my wrist.
"Another one?" Her last contraction was only six minutes ago.
She shakes her head. "It's not a boy."
I'm so focused on measuring the timing, duration, and intensity of her contractions that it takes me a moment to realize that this isn't a contraction, and that she probably requires a response from me. "What?" Apparently that's the word of the day.
"The baby. She's not a boy. She's a girl."
"How do you know?"
She lets go of my wrist and folds her hand across her stomach. "I just do. She's a girl."
"Um … Okay." What else am I going to say?
"You'll see," she says. She starts to yawn, but it's cut short as she groans. Both hands wrapping around her stomach, she curls in on herself, breathing hard through her nose as the pain peaks.
I check the watch. Eight minutes.
Bella's forehead is beaded with sweat when she relaxes back into the mattress. I get up and grab a washcloth from the bathroom, rinsing it with cold water before I bring it out to her. She gives me a small smile as I wipe her brow. "Thanks."
"Do you want a drink?"
"Yeah." She slaps at my hands as I try to help her sit up, insisting she can do it herself. I raise my hands in surrender as she struggles into a sitting position.
"My back hurts," she tells me, reaching for the glass of lemonade on the nightstand.
I sit down beside her, but catch myself before my hands find her back. "Want me to rub it?" I haven't done a great job of it so far, too eager to do anything I can to help her out, but everything is supposed to be her choice. Pain relief, where she delivers, who touches her and where—these should all be her choice.
"Yeah." She shifts a little on the edge of the mattress, presenting her back to me.
I knead the tight muscles in her lower back carefully and she groans again—this time in relief rather than pain.
I keep massaging through the next contraction, and she tells me it helps a little, so I keep doing it, moving my thumbs in tight circles each time she stiffens with pain, until my hands are cramping and I have to take a break. Her contractions are still seven or eight minutes apart, but they're lasting close to thirty seconds now.
Her temper flares a handful of times—she snaps at me once for talking too much during a contraction, once for being too quiet, and once when I suggest we let our families know her labor has begun. She apologizes immediately, but I wave it off. It's not necessary. Pain makes people do and say all manner of things, and—though she'd dismiss me as being patronizing if I told her—she's coping with it as well as I could hope.
Afternoon darkens into evening and I flip the switch on the lamp beside the bed. Buttery light reaches across the room, gentling as it moves away from its source. Bella is curled up on her side, her back to me, her long hair gathered in a messy knot at the base of her neck.
She stiffens, crying quietly as I rub her back gently, glancing over my shoulder to catch the time on the alarm clock.
"This one's … longer … right?"
I nod, though she can't see me, and continue counting silently until I feel her relax again. "That one was a little over thirty seconds."
"Is that all?"
I smile sadly at that. "Do you want to go in?" I've asked three times in the last hour, but so far she's rejected the offer.
This time she sighs. "Soon."
The clock by the bedside reads 9:35 when Bella grabs my arm.
"We have to go," she says. "Now."
"Okay." I get to my feet and step into the pair of shorts I kicked off a few hours ago. I run a hand through my hair, trying to think through the fog of tiredness that has settled over me in the last hour or so.
Keys. Phones. Wallet. The Bag.
"We have to go now," she insists, stress pulling her voice higher than usual.
"We're going," I promise. I'm not sure entirely what's changed for her that she's decided now is the right time, as opposed to an hour ago. I suspect it's the combination of pain and exhaustion. Her water hasn't broken yet … and she refused to let me check her cervical dilation.
"No," she said, when I offered. "No way in hell are you poking around down there right now."
When I pointed out that it would scarcely be the first time, she shook her head at me and clamped her knees together like she thought I'd actually fight her on it.
"Exactly," she said. "You've examined other women, down there, as patients … but with me it's always been for–" she wrinkled her nose at me "–fun. Let's keep those two things separate, please."
There was some logic to her argument—and regardless, the moment she said "No," I'd accepted it. Her choice.
"Help me up," she says now.
Her face is pink and sweaty as she walks awkwardly to the front door, reminding me to grab The Bag.
The Bag has been sitting by the front door for the last three weeks. Bella printed a checklist off the Internet, so the thing is stuffed with everything she'll need, and probably a ton of things she won't. I didn't bother to mention that as she checked off each item—if it made her feel prepared and more comfortable with the idea of giving birth, then I figured I could deal with carrying something that weighed three times what it needed to the short distance to the car.
Outside, the summer night blankets us, dark and fragrant, the day's warmth still lingering.
"I need The Bag," Bella says again, reaching for her seat belt.
"Got it." I stow it on the floor under her feet and slam the door.
Getting behind the wheel with adrenaline pumping through me … Well, it makes it a challenge to drive responsibly. She's not close enough to delivering the baby for me to need to put my foot down and blast through every red light between here and the hospital front door, but I'm still thankful that it's late enough at night that the roads are reasonably empty. My knuckles are white in the light reflecting off the dash, gripping the steering wheel like it's a life preserver.
Bella moans in pain beside me, and my foot presses the accelerator down a little more firmly. She's curled almost sideways in her seat, hair falling from her bun and covering her face as she whimpers.
"Almost there," I say. She doesn't acknowledge me.
The speedometer needle rises a little higher.
"I don't want it." Bella shoves the mouthpiece for the Entonox away. She slaps at me as I try to hand it back to her.
"Are you sure?" She's been using the gas and air for about an hour now—I'd assumed it was helping.
"All it's doing is making my fucking mouth numb," she says, her voice hard. "And as far as I'm aware, this baby isn't going to be coming out of there."
"Okay, okay." I stroke her hair away from her face. She doesn't slap my hand away.
The nurse who's been hanging around since about midnight, Maria, comes bustling in and explains she wants to check the dilation of Bella's cervix.
"Fine," Bella says. "Whatever." She looks at me. "We should've stayed home longer. Why did you let me come?"
Her face scrunches up as Maria pulls her knees apart. Bella reaches for my hand as the nurse's arm disappears under the sheet she's unfolded over Bella's waist and legs.
"I don't know why they bother with the modesty blanket," Bella mutters. "Hey, I'm poking my fingers around in your vagina, but let's cover you with a sheet. It'll totally make it seem less invasive."
Maria's face creases with amusement as she looks up at Bella. "I know it sucks," she says, her voice gentle with the patience of years of experience. I've taken a liking to Maria—Bella has, too, despite the scowl she's directing at the nurse at the moment.
She told me earlier that she's been in Labor and Delivery for thirteen years, and her competence is obvious. But for all her experience, she hasn't forgotten that for many women, like Bella, this is new and terrifying. She's thorough, explaining what she's doing and why whenever necessary, and reassuring Bella that what she's experiencing falls well within the range of normal.
"Not long to go now, Bella," she says. I hear the familiar snap of rubber as she removes her gloves and tosses them into the trash. "You're almost fully dilated."
Bella manages a small smile before another contraction grabs hold of her, causing her to stiffen and cry out.
I wasn't entirely sure what to anticipate during Bella's labor, despite having witnessed a number of women giving birth. The one thing, however, that I didn't expect was just how exhausting it would be—for both of us. Well, that's not entirely true. I didn't expect to be this exhausted.
I knew Bella would go through hell, but I figured it'd be reasonably easy on me. I'd rub her back, hold her hand, remind her of the breathing techniques she learned, and generally just "be there" for her—whatever that meant.
But as the night heads toward morning, I'm shattered, bone-weary in a way I've never before known—and feeling guilty as hell.
A yawn builds in my chest as Bella collapses back onto the bed, released from another wave of pain, her cheeks red and forehead dripping with sweat. I clench my jaw, refusing to let it escape.
"It hurts," she says, her voice cracking. "I can't do this much longer."
I think it might be the first time she's spoken in over an hour.
She's been quiet, almost worryingly so. She hasn't screamed out her hatred of me. She hasn't screamed at all—most of her pain has been expressed in low groans and the silent tears that streak her cheeks when it peaks. She hasn't sworn to me that we're never having sex again, and she hasn't blamed me for the ordeal. I wouldn't have blamed her if she did.
"You're doing so good, sweetheart."
Bella slaps away my hand as I reach for her. My heart sinks a little at seeing her like this and being unable to offer her any comfort or relief.
She has been offered an epidural more than once, but she kept shaking her head and muttering the same thing she'd been saying for the duration of her pregnancy—there's no way she's letting anyone "shove a big ass needle" into her spine. Given how poorly she copes with a simple blood test, I wasn't really surprised that she'd taken that position. Though I must admit, I thought the sheer pain she'd experience once her labor began might have swayed her somewhat.
She takes a shuddering breath. "How m-much longer do I have to do this?"
I look at Maria, who gives me a rueful smile before she meets Bella's gaze. "It's almost impossible to predict how fast things will happen," she says, her voice soft but firm. "But you're fully dilated now, so it's very likely that the baby is going to be coming very soon."
"Shouldn't I be able to like, feel that? That it's time."
Almost as if the very words are the fire of a starting gun, everything starts happening at once. Bella's insisting that she needs to push, Maria's talking her through it, a number of other people appear in the room, and I'm hanging onto Bella's hand as everything explodes into a whirlwind of noise and activity.
Months and months of grief and thirty-nine weeks of nervous anticipation and more than twenty hours of labor are all suddenly gathered together into right now.
Minutes pass. Or maybe they're hours.
Bella's crying and swearing and the nurses gathered at the end of the bed are encouraging her to keep pushing and she's holding my hand so tight I think something might break and she's telling me I'd better not move because I don't get to see this baby before she does and then something gets pushed to the floor with a clatter of plastic and metal and an obstetrician turns up with her face hidden behind a paper mask and somewhere in the distance someone's calling a code for something and an infusion pump is beeping and …
And then I hear it.
The indignant cry of an infant forced from its warm and comfortable home and into a world of light and sound and cold.
And it's not like everything stops and goes silent and the whole world suddenly revolves around that tiny set of lungs as they protest this new world being thrust upon them and my vision doesn't zero in on the wrinkled little bundle of skin Maria has placed on Bella's chest and there's no slow motion and no soft lens … but something inside me … I can feel it, that spider-silk cord of hope that's held me up through all the anxiety and panic and weariness, it's stronger now. And maybe those places that have worn and frayed with time and stress can't be mended—not fully—but they're being reinforced with new threads. Joy and relief, pride and wonder—they're woven in, too, and right now it feels like they could withstand anything.
And I look down at Bella, and I watch as she touches her finger to our daughter's cheek and though someone's jabbing a needle into Bella's thigh and telling her she'll need to deliver the placenta in a moment and someone else is wrapping a cuff around her upper arm to check her blood pressure and though she's absolutely exhausted and her face is streaked with tears, she's looking at me and I'm looking at her, with our Emily in her arms and we're a family.
A/N: Just an epilogue to come :)
Thank you so much for reading and reviewing, and for sharing your stories with me. Some of them have made me smile, others have made my heart ache, and I've been so touched by them all.
Thanks to my Believey, too, for continuing to teach me so much about writing and characterisation, and even more about friendship. (Go read her story 'With Ties' as soon as you can - it's in my favourites).
Wishing you all a 2014 filled with things that make you smile.
Love, Shell x