FROM MANIFESTATIONS, Book One of the Black Heart series by Julian Holmes:
Liam Black crouched outside the barn, its faded paint cracking and peeling under his fingers as he peeked around the corner toward the door. The demon he’d been chasing had not made a reappearance. Moving fast and low, he sprinted for the door and found it odd that no other manifestations were around to hinder his progress. A low voice in the back of his mind, harsh and insistent, told him he was walking into a trap, but he couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t walk away and leave Eve in their hands. She might have been the cause of the manifestations, she might be a conniving witch, but she made his skin tingle by the mere thought of her. One kiss and he would lose himself. Okay, yeah, that sounds totally lame, but it’s all about the romance, right?
The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges. The barn wasn’t as decrepit as someone wanted it to appear. With light steps, he followed the wall in the pitch-black darkness. Night had not yet fallen, but no light found its way into the barn. He tripped over something lying on the floor, something warm and rather soft. Using the display from his phone for just an instant, he illuminated his stumbling block. Clay’s eyes were closed, and a gash on his head poured blood over his ashen face. Liam checked his pulse. Still alive.
He continued on because the only way to save Clay, to save Eve, was to defeat the darkness growing in that place. No sound broke the silence inside the barn, no squeak of mice, no creak of wood, nothing. It was almost as if sound didn’t exist, as if light didn’t exist. The darkness swallowed him.
Slowly, painfully, Liam made his way around the edges of the world, stumbling blindly, until a light appeared in a crack underneath a door. He didn’t think he’d gone all the way around. Judging by his location, he determined that the door lay on the back wall of the barn. It should have led to the outside, but somehow, Liam didn’t think it did.
He swore as something smacked into his forehead. Liam brought the phone up and had the flashlight app on before he could blink. A shovel hung from a hook in one of the low rafters. Taking advantage of the light, he did a quick sweep of his surroundings. Empty. The lit doorway stood just feet from him. He took the last few steps at a jog and threw open the door.
Nothing, except a stairway down.
JULIAN HOLMES’S heart leaped into his throat while nurses scurried around the operating room barking orders at each other and handing complicated-looking equipment to the doctors. So caught up in the joy and excitement of finally becoming a father, he hadn’t realized his son’s life became an emergency. The neonatal intensive care team, who had been standing by as a precaution, surrounded his baby like a human shield so that neither Julian nor Erin could see him.
“Julian? Why isn’t the baby crying?” Erin asked as she tried to fix her glassy-eyed stare on him. Her voice sounded weak and vacant after being in labor for nearly nine hours before the C-section. She reached out, and his stomach clenched as he caught her hand. Desperation and clawing terror ripped the inside of his chest while he surveyed the tumult around them.
“What’s happening?” Julian asked over the cacophony of the roughly organized chaos. His voice came out as a panicked squawk compared to the calm, detached voices of the medical teams. The free fall, the lack of control, prickled sweat on the back of his neck. He hated it with a passion bordering on pain.
Not a single soul turned to look at Julian.
Only the doctor responsible for Erin’s surgery remained next to her bed while he worked diligently to close the incision. The man seemed oblivious to the flurry of activity around him, concentrating solely on his patient. The bright lights of the operating room kept everything around them in sharp, detached focus.
Leaning down, Julian gave Erin a quick kiss on the forehead and looked into her face. They had been best friends for fifteen years, since their junior year of college. She read him so easily—his confusion, his fear, his need to know—and she nodded before squeezing his fingers with almost no strength. Julian laid her hand carefully on her chest and then hurried over to the group of medical professionals surrounding the tiny baby boy on a shiny metallic table. The nurse in front of him moved slightly to her right and revealed the unmoving baby.
Startled by the first clear view of his son, Julian noticed the baby’s skin had a slightly mottled blue tint as he lay listless beneath the bright lights. He couldn’t know that, just a few feet away, his father’s heart broke at the sight of the bag over his face being clutched rhythmically, breathing for him.
Squeeze…. Breathe…. Squeeze…. Breathe….
Tears welled in Julian’s eyes, and the image of his son blurred. It took him a moment to swallow the burning lump in his throat before he could speak.
“What’s wrong? Why isn’t he breathing? What’s happening?” he asked a petite woman standing next to him, touching her shoulder to get her attention. A small cap made of the same material as the gowns they all wore partially covered her short brown hair. Julian did not miss the way her eyes filled with sympathy as she glanced at him. She stopped cleaning the white, viscous goop from his son’s legs and feet so she could take Julian’s arm and lead him back to Erin’s side.
“Mr. Holmes, I need for you to stay right here if you want to remain in the room. The doctors are working on your son, and it’s very important that you let them do their jobs. I promise once your son is stable, a doctor will talk to you.” She retreated, the booties on her feet whispering as she went back to her place with the medical team.
Julian took several deep breaths, clenching his fists at his sides as he tried to stay calm. The doctors’ first priority should be his son, not him. His own impotence only heightened his fear and spiraling anger. He wanted to know what was happening and if his son would be okay. If he only knew the source of the problem, he could deal with it.
God, he couldn’t have written anything so frightening, not even amid his normal demons and monsters.
He stroked Erin’s hair, more for his comfort than hers, and watched the doctors and nurses as they rushed to care for his baby. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the corner where his boy lay on that cold plastic and metal cart. Nurses had haphazardly thrown open the utilitarian white cabinets that surrounded the area as they pulled supplies from them. The counter beneath them remained empty.
“Find your center. Don’t let it control you,” a voice whispered in his ear.
He recognized Liam’s slow, easy New York accent and closed his eyes. Liam always knew when he was hurt or scared. He helped Julian, even if he wasn’t real, even if he only existed between Julian’s novel pages.
“This is all you ever wanted, Julian. He’s your future. Stay calm until you know what’s wrong. Don’t panic.”
Julian nodded his head at no one.
“Let’s get him to the NICU,” a tall man with square-rimmed glasses called to the group. Several of them immediately backed away, leaving only two: one man at the head of the cart, ready to push, and one woman who pumped the bag that kept air in his baby’s lungs. Julian held his breath as two of the nurses walked quickly to the operating room doors and held them open while a doctor wheeled his son out of the room. The man with the glasses followed, as did the two women who had been holding the door.
Julian stood watching, shocked at how horribly wrong everything had gone. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He’d taken the birthing classes and the parenting classes. They had taught him how to prepare bottles, change diapers, give baths, and even perform some basic first aid.
Nothing had prepared him for the terrible, suffocating fear as he watched his son struggle to breathe.
He couldn’t hold back the tears any longer and felt one slide down his face, wetting the surgical mask he still wore. Erin’s hand slid into his, squeezing feebly, and he looked down at her. Even though the baby wasn’t biologically hers, she had carried him inside her, protecting him for nine months. Her heart must be breaking just as Julian’s was.
God, Julian had spent years watching Erin with her four kids. Her relationship with her husband, Paul, made envy tear at his insides. He wanted that. He wanted it so badly. The fantasy of a house, a husband, and children fused with his subconscious, making it hard to dream about anything else. He had the house, but he’d all but given up on the idea of the husband. Instead, Julian focused on having a child. He took all the baby classes, jumped through all the hoops, researched everything about childrearing, and babysat Erin’s kids for hours upon hours to practice. But now it had all spiraled out of control.
Julian glanced up to see Liam watching from the other side of the room, his head tilted, beckoning. Clay stood with him, silently holding up a hand. Liam’s black jeans and artfully ripped Sinner’s Gin T-shirt contrasted sharply with the bright, sterile room. Their unexpected presence startled Julian. Normally they came to him for plotting sessions or when he drank alone in front of the fire. But there they were. Clay’s long dark hair poked out from under a wool knit hat, and the hood of Liam’s sweatshirt was pulled up over his head, hiding his features within its depths. Julian could relate; he too wanted to hide from the world.
The double doors through which his son had been taken did not reopen. The nurse who remained in the room informed Julian she was going to take Erin to recovery. He used that as an excuse to escape, letting Erin know he would send Paul to stay with her. The room had closed in around him, a vacuum left by the disappearance of his son. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way, and he couldn’t figure out where they had gone wrong. Erin had four happy, healthy kids at home, so it couldn’t have been her. The fertility clinic had vetted the egg donor. Maybe he should have searched for his birth parents’ medical histories before he relied on the genetic testing and used his own sperm for the insemination. Questions chased each other in Julian’s head until it spun with the effort of trying to find answers. Liam and Clay usually didn’t stick around if he was with other people, but they turned to follow when he exited the operating room.
Julian took perverse pleasure in the snap of the mask when he ripped it from his face. His forearm slammed into the operating room door, and he ditched the surgical active wear in a garbage can just up the hall. Then he went to find the neonatal intensive care unit. Somebody would tell him what was happening with his son. The dim hallway made him squint after the bright lights of the operating room. His whole world had dimmed.
He turned right down the first hallway back toward the waiting room and then ducked left to the nurses’ station, trying to stay calm. A huge desk ran the length of the open hallway, and behind it sat several stations with impressive monitors showing vital signs for every patient on the floor. A segmented whiteboard dominating the rear wall showed nine room numbers and names, apparently nursing assignments. He saw Erin’s name, but they had not listed his son, so he turned his attention to the nurse behind the desk.
“Can I help you, sir?” asked an older woman in cartoon-style scrubs.
Julian studied her for a second and decided that she probably had children, maybe even grandchildren. Gray streaked her light brown hair, pulled back off her face in a loose bun. The laugh lines around her eyes and mouth gave her the appearance of a kind, matronly lady.
“My son was just taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. Could you remind me where that is?” Julian asked over the bustle of the nurses working the station. A woman in pink scrubs walked past him and behind the desk, drawing his attention briefly. None of the nurses that had assisted in his son’s birth were there. It killed him that they couldn’t be bothered to tell him what was happening.
“The NICU is on the west side of the floor,” the nurse told him gently. “Just walk down this hall and past the waiting room. You’ll start to see signs for it. Make sure to check in with the nurses’ station there, because they won’t let you in until you do.”
Grateful that he’d finally gotten a straightforward answer out of somebody, Julian walked swiftly toward the waiting area. His father saw him first and stood, followed quickly by his mother and Erin’s husband, Paul. Liam and Clay stood off to the side, out of the way. To Julian’s surprise, they didn’t disappear in the crowd.
“So, is it a…. How are they?” Paul interrupted himself. He stood directly behind Julian’s mother, Linda, looking over her head into his best friend’s eyes. They had been close for well over ten years, and Julian knew Paul could see the terror in his exhausted, blurred gaze. They all looked tired and expectant. He doubted any of them had slept during the night as they waited for delivery. He’d seen it enough to know dawn looked a lot different from the nighttime side.
“It’s a boy, but something’s wrong. They’ve taken him down to the NICU.” He told them what little he knew, trying to keep the answer as brief as possible so he could get back to his son. He felt claustrophobic in the small room, trapped by the peach and turquoise patterned walls, the seventeen uncomfortable coordinated vinyl chairs, and the television mounted on the far wall, which was blaring out the closing theme to one of the morning’s news shows. Everything was too loud, too close, and the leftover stress and adrenaline from the operating room strangled Julian.
“Erin is on her way to recovery. I told her I would send you down. She needs you. I’m too… too….” Julian’s voice faltered, and his mother broke from her shock to hug him.
“Honey, it will be okay. You were born with a bit of jaundice, and they were all worried. Come on. Let’s go find my grandbaby,” she said, and while he guessed she tried to make her voice light, she failed. Instead, she just held him, as she always had, giving him strength and courage. Her hands shook, betraying her fear, but her child came first.
Just like his child came before him. He’d just learned his first brutal lesson about being a parent.
Julian’s mother pulled away, continuing to hold his hand as they watched Paul hurry toward surgical recovery. His father, Bobby, picked up his mother’s purse and followed them toward the NICU.
The signs clearly marked the way, ten of them, which helped to keep Julian’s fear from spiraling into panic. So long as he had a plan, a clear list of tasks to follow, he could keep from losing his mind. A left turn and then another right brought them to the double doors through which they needed to enter. His father had found another waiting room just before the doors and insisted Julian and his mother go on alone. They had a better chance if they didn’t come in with a crowd. Julian silently thanked God for his levelheaded father as he opened the door and stepped back to let his mother enter first. She took his hand again and led him to a large and sophisticated nurses’ station, which appeared, at first glance, to have enough equipment to launch a shuttle into space.
“May I help you?” a middle-aged woman asked from behind the desk. She wore hospital scrubs, no cartoons, but their bright primary colors reminded him forcefully that this space contained nothing but sick children.
“My name is Julian Holmes, and my son was just brought here. They haven’t told me anything about his condition. Please, please can you tell me what’s happening? I don’t want to get in their way or hinder anything. I just… I can’t…. Please, he’s my son,” Julian pleaded, stuttering as he prayed that, working with sick infants, the woman had some sense of compassion.
“Okay, Julian, wait right here, and I’ll see if I can get you some kind of status,” she told him with a kind smile.
He liked that she called him Julian. It made him feel like a person rather than just another face in her ward. It gave him hope.
Julian waited with his mother, looking around the nurses’ station and then up the long hall where the nurse had disappeared. He saw a wall made up almost entirely of six large windows, and it reminded him of the nursery where his mother and father should be fawning over their first grandchild. He figured his son probably lay in that room, but he didn’t dare try to enter. The nurse had specifically told him to stay there, and he wanted information. He needed to stop the fear from choking him.
His mother’s reflection stood quietly next to his, but Liam and Clay had gone, lost in the turmoil of his mind. Julian turned to look, to see if they just weren’t reflected, but saw nothing. The fear escalated in their absence.
“Why does everything in a hospital have to take forever?” his mother whispered, as if she were afraid someone would hear and force them to wait even longer.
He didn’t have an answer for her. At that moment, he didn’t have any answers.
The door to the giant windowed room opened, and the nurse returned, followed by a brown-haired doctor he recognized from the delivery room. Sweat beaded on the doctor’s high forehead, and his short brown hair looked damp in the low hallway light. His blue eyes were grave behind thick silver-framed glasses. Brow furrowed, he reached out to Julian and shook his hand.
“My name is Doctor Novak. I’m sorry we haven’t been able to come and talk to you. Your son is stable for now, but we are going to need to transport him to St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital downtown. They have a pediatric cardiologist on staff who is better equipped to treat him.”
“A pediatric cardiologist?” Julian’s heart stopped.
“Yes, when a fetus is in the womb, the heartbeat sends blood in the opposite direction that your heart or my heart does. When the baby is born and begins to breathe on his own, a valve in his heart switches and allows the heart to function the way it should. For your son, that valve didn’t do what it was supposed to, and we need to figure out why. He’ll be airlifted for transport. The helicopter will be here within the hour.” He lifted an arm and wiped the sweat from his forehead while Julian stood there, trying to get a handle on what he’d said.
“Sweet Jesus,” his mother breathed and started to cry softly.
“Okay, first, what’s going to happen when he gets to the other hospital? Second, can I see him? Is he breathing on his own? Is… is he in pain?” Those were the only questions Julian could think to ask while they rattled around inside his head as if the cargo lines securing his thoughts had just snapped. The unreality of the situation fueled Julian’s fear. God, he didn’t know anything about heart conditions or even hospitals. He’d never been a patient in one.
“When he gets to the other hospital, more than likely they will give him a thorough examination and then a cardiac catheterization. That means that they will put a line through the artery in his leg and run a camera up into his heart to take pictures and determine the extent of the problem.”
Julian’s horrified expression caused the doctor to pause for a moment and allow Julian to wonder about the details, the pain, and how they’d have to cut into his son to put a camera into his leg.
“Right now, his lungs are working, but he’s not taking in enough oxygen from the air, so he is in a high-oxygen environment. You can stay with him until he is ready for transport. And no, I promise you, he isn’t in any pain.” He put a hand on Julian’s arm. “We’re hopeful.”
Julian was glad they were hopeful, because he could feel only a sick, paralyzing terror.
“Thank you,” Julian told Dr. Novak numbly. He should have thanked the man for saving his son’s life as well, but shock had overwhelmed any sense of decorum. Julian heard his mother thank the doctor again as he walked toward the NICU, almost scared of what he would see. The door chilled him as he pressed his palm against the cold, impersonal glass and looked inside. There were seven plastic cribs in the room, all surrounded by monitors and cables. Fragile children, some so tiny he could barely see them over the sides of their beds, lay passively in bins like clearance merchandise. Sadness overwhelmed Julian—for the babies, for their parents, but mostly, selfishly, he hurt for himself and his son. The scene intimidated him as he stood watching while a nurse moved from bed to bed, checking complex and terrifying equipment.
“Come on, honey,” his mother told him, taking his arm. Together, they ambled through the large double doors.
As they got closer, Julian saw that each small crib bore a construction paper sign in the traditional pink-and-blue theme giving the child’s name and a few statistics like weight and date of birth. Julian wandered away from his mother, looking for his own name.
Immediately, the nurse stopped what she was doing and walked over to them.
“Can I help you?” she asked kindly as she looked up at Julian. Petite, maybe five feet tall, she had black hair pulled back from a face far too young to belong to a neonatal nurse.
“I’m looking for my son. Dr. Novak said that I could stay with him until he was transferred,” Julian choked, his voice having lost all measure of strength after the shock of his conversation with the doctor.
“Mr. Holmes?” she asked, and Julian nodded. “My name is Kathy, and I’ll be taking care of your son until he leaves.” She led them over to a plastic box on wheels that, to Julian, looked like a large hamster cage. The clear plastic box had six large circular shapes around the sides and a latch-opening top. It was just missing the little tunnels and maybe a wheel—oh, and a water bottle.
Julian nearly asked about it until he looked down and saw a baby in a diaper lying atop a light blue blanket, attached to cables and wires, with a hose across his tiny little face. The zoo-like sign on the infant’s cage bore the name “Holmes.” The air left his lungs in a rush of awed breath.
“There is a sink over there. If you both wash up with that antibacterial soap and put on gowns from that box, you’ll be able to hold him. We still have a little while before they will be ready for him,” Kathy said, indicating a box of yellow surgical gowns next to a small sink in the corner of the huge room.
“I wouldn’t… I don’t… I don’t want to hurt him,” Julian whispered as he gazed down at his son, who looked so fragile with an IV in his scalp and tape across his face. Even if he were perfectly healthy, Julian had a feeling he’d still be afraid.
“We wouldn’t let that happen,” the nurse told him gently. “If it weren’t safe for him, I wouldn’t let you even if you begged. But, Mr. Holmes, what he needs right now is to know that someone loves him and is looking out for him.”
A lump formed in Julian’s throat as he hurried to the sink. The nurse was right; there were things Julian needed to tell his son.
They donned the necessary paraphernalia after washing their hands thoroughly for several minutes. Julian and his mother returned to the nurse, who held the sweet infant in her arms.
“Sit right there in that rocker, and I’ll hand him to you. It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she assured him. “You’ve just been through a lot today.”
He appreciated her understanding and sat in the chair she had indicated. Then the blanket fell away from his son’s face, and the tiny boy came into view.
“Be careful of his oxygen tube,” she instructed before laying his son in his arms.
Julian’s first thought was that nothing on earth had ever been as beautiful as the child he held. His sweet son had soft curls, black as the night, that were significantly shorter than Julian’s own shoulder-length curls. The baby’s coloring, while pale because of his traumatic birth, appeared to be a lighter reflection of his father’s skin. Subtler differences between Julian and his son showed in the baby’s ears and nose. While his father’s ears were larger, the baby’s nose was flatter and wide. Nevertheless, no matter what their similarities or differences, Julian’s heart nearly burst with love for the tiny, helpless boy.
He was so overwhelmed in that moment, a tear slid down his cheek and he brushed it away, not taking his eyes from his son.
“Julian, he looks just like you,” his mother whispered reverently as she reached over to stroke her grandson’s diminutive cheek. “Have you decided on a name for him?”
Julian nodded, using his thumb to stroke the boy’s hair.
“Robert Aaron Holmes,” he answered, his voice breaking as he looked away from Robbie’s delicate face for the first time to seek out his mother’s approval. She beamed at him. “Robert for Dad and Aaron for Erin because they are two of the strongest people I know. He’ll need their strength.” Then he looked back down at his son again. “Robbie,” he said quietly, and the baby’s brilliant blue eyes opened.
“I think he likes that,” the nurse said with an indulgent smile.
“Hi there,” Julian told his son. “God, you’re so beautiful. To look at you, no one would ever think that anything was wrong. Don’t you worry, Robbie, because I’m going to make them take very good care of you at that new hospital. So don’t be scared, okay, buddy?” Julian pushed the light blanket away from his baby’s face, stroking the tiny, pale cheek before pulling the little bundle higher onto his chest. “Daddy loves you so much, and I’m going to make it all better. I promise.”
Not wanting his son to see him cry, Julian asked his mother if she wanted to hold Robbie. He stroked his baby’s whisper-soft hair absently with his thumb as he handed Robbie to the nurse so his mother could settle in the chair. After she had Robbie safely in her arms, Julian broke down completely, his sobs quiet and painful. His mother kissed his sweet boy on the forehead and cooed to him. Holding her grandson made her so incredibly happy; he tried not to wonder how badly she would be devastated if they couldn’t keep him alive. Julian pushed that idea away and promised himself that he wouldn’t consider the possibility again. Robbie would live. He had to.
Linda didn’t let go of her grandson until she and Julian were both shooed away by the nurse so the staff could get Robbie ready for transport. His ride would land soon.
“Can I ride with him? Please, I don’t want him to be alone,” Julian asked, feeling a little desperate. In just a few minutes, Robbie had filled him so completely that he wasn’t certain he’d be able to survive without his son. Robbie wasn’t just a picture on the screen anymore or some random movement in Erin’s pregnant surrogate belly. He was a beautiful little boy with his father’s hair and eyes. Robbie was a part of him.
“He won’t be alone,” the nurse reminded him with quiet patience. “But no, for safety reasons, they don’t let nonmedical personnel fly. I can get you directions to St. Mary’s. Don’t rush, because they won’t let you see him while they are getting him settled anyway. Take your time, stop by your house and pick up a change of clothes, and maybe book a room near the hospital.”
“Thank you for being so kind and for taking care of him,” Julian told Kathy as two EMTs entered the room and started checking Robbie’s plastic home.
“I hope everything turns out okay,” she said as they walked into the hall.
Julian turned and followed his mother from the room, like the shell-shocked survivor of an emotional holocaust. He let her lead him back to the room where his father waited alone. Paul must still be with Erin.
“How is he?” his father asked his mother quietly while Julian stared at the gurgling, bubbling fish tank, not taking in anything but his reflection in the glass. Robbie had his eyes, his hair. They were supposed to be celebrating this moment, taking pictures. God, he had to remember to take a picture on his phone when he got to the other hospital. That thought burned into his heart, taking over everything else.
“Mom, I need to go,” he said suddenly, as if he were racing God himself to get to his son.
“I don’t want you to drive, Julian. You’re too upset.” She fretted, winding her fingers in his father’s sweater.
He looked up into his father’s eyes, brown and steady, so different from his own, different from his son’s. The understanding shone clearly, the words “if he were my son” so clear, his father might as well have said them aloud.
“We’ll be right behind you,” his father said, and Julian turned for the door, forcing himself not to run.
In his mind, he made a list of the things he would need to take to the hospital: clothes, toiletries, maybe his laptop. He’d look for a hotel after he checked on Robbie. The plan clicked into place in his mind, each step logically following another. With something to do, some kind of control, he could finally breathe again.
His escape from the hospital turned into a blur of scurrying nurses, ambling family, and the brightly lit gift shop where he’d planned to buy Erin flowers.
He pulled out his cell phone and sent a quick text to Paul.
Robbie is being airlifted to St. Mary’s, something about his heart. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. On my way there now.
The automatic doors couldn’t open fast enough, and he forced himself to wait until he could squeeze through before breaking into a run in the parking lot. Nervous energy flowed off him in waves, and he wondered how he must look. Crazed. Neurotic. It didn’t matter. He caught sight of his midnight blue Civic, purchased for its safety record at the start of this whole process. He remembered Erin teasing him even as he signed the paperwork. It had been a week after she’d told him she was pregnant. All the science, all the inseminations, it had worked, a