written by Sharon Keating. Sharon (she/her) works for one of Ireland’s foremost mental health charities. Originally from Dublin, she now calls Wexford her home, having relocated with her young family during the pandemic. She loves writing short stories and poetry and is delighted to have works featured in the Wexford Bohemian and Wexford Women Writing Undercover.

Trigger Warning: This story contains themes of pregnancy loss, medical procedures, and intense emotional distress.

“You understand the risks?” The nurse flipped through screens on her pad before meeting Jennifer’s gaze with her cold eyes.

Jennifer matched her stare, determined to convey certainty. “I understand,” she said, nodding, while rubbing a hand over the photo of her and Norah in her pocket – an old Polaroid she found in the shoebox under her mother’s bed. That was two months ago, when she had finally felt up to clearing out her mother’s house. That old shoebox under her mother’s bed had set this whole thing into motion.

“We’re achieving over a ninety-five-percent success rate with these re-implantations, but sometimes things come back a bit off.”

“That’s okay. I want it back, even if it’s upside down!” Jennifer’s voice wavered slightly, thinking of the horror stories of people going mad after re-implantation. It seemed to particularly affect those who were reclaiming traumatic events. The loss of Norah had to have been traumatic but despite the risk, she was determined to do this.

“Hmm, I can see you had the extraction ten years ago.” The nurse paused and pursed her lips at the information on the pad. “That affects the success rate somewhat, for extractions from that time we are looking at closer to seventy-percent success.”

Jennifer nodded, not sure what to say or how to process this piece of information. She needed the memories back. She couldn’t fathom why she had Norah removed in the first place. Even if the end of her short life was extremely painful, why erase her completely? It made no sense. Extractions were so new when she had it done, and she was always risk averse. Her stable, dull, but well-paying and demanding job as an actuary confirmed this. Her modest one-bedroom apartment close to the office with no frills and her sizeable savings, now significantly reduced by this procedure, corroborated it. Sacrificing the joy of now for the comfort of a stable future had been her goal for as long as she could remember. Mitigating potential risks, securing modest comfort and reliable income. No surprises, no change, just peaceful stability – that was her life’s aim.

In the weeks since the discovery under her mother’s bed, these thoughts had consumed her. Why had she risked losing her mind on an experimental procedure? Was she really such a different person back then? Had the removal procedure changed her so much?

They say removees often isolated themselves afterward, becoming alien to those around them who had the memories they had gotten rid of. Isolation was at an all-time high, blamed in part on the ease of the procedure and its widespread use. Conservative figures said at least half of Jennifer’s cohort had dabbled in it. A modern epidural applied to every kind of emotional trauma, making for a happier society. Even if the effect was social isolation, they were proving to be more stable for employers, less traumatised, less sensitive, more productive.

Had Jennifer been different, more social before her extraction? Her current life contained no one she knew from ten years ago except a few co-workers. They were purely that, co-workers. Remote work meant that she had never even met any of them despite having worked with some of them for over twenty years now. They never shared personal details – she knew them by name and title only – and had no idea if they had families or  where they lived.

Had her mother seen a change in Jennifer after the extraction? In all the years since, she had never alluded to Norah. They weren’t close, so it would have been easy enough to avoid. Her mother had kept that shoebox though. A pair of pink knitted booties, a bamboo blanket with the word Norah stitched across it, and the Polaroid of Jennifer ten years younger holding a tiny newborn baby girl. Small round cheeks, a rosebud mouth, and beautiful grey-blue eyes.

“I’m going to need you to sign this.” The nurse pushed the pad in front of Jennifer. A waiver absolving them of any consequences hovered inches from her nose. All Jennifer’s instincts demanded she read it, query it, push back on those areas she disagreed with, but she knew she couldn’t. It was either sign it or give up those extracted memories of Norah. So, she connected her finger to the pad and heard the happy beep of confirmation. Perhaps she wasn’t that different after all, risking her mind again to get back what she had extracted.

“Thank you.” The nurse pulled the pad back before moving behind Jennifer and angling her chair backwards, reclined so she was staring up into the bright spotlights on the white ceiling.

Jennifer remembered wanting to be a mother, not an all-consuming desire that she had heard described, but she had wanted it at one point. That want had faded over the years, like so many other things do with age. And while she didn’t pine for children, once she saw that picture of herself and the baby, she couldn’t let it go. She needed to know what happened to the beautiful child in her arms. It was horrific, the not knowing, surely that not knowing was worse than any pain. She was older now, more able to deal with it given that time had passed. She would be able to process it better than a younger version of herself could have.

She watched as the nurse worked with her back turned to her. She listened to the noise of cabinet doors opening and shutting, the rip of plastic packages, the tap of metal on metal as a solution was prepared. The room filled with an acrid smell that stung Jennifer’s eyes and throat. Cloying like children’s Calpol, too sweet to be natural, trying and failing to mask something chemical underneath.

With an air of reverence, the nurse took a large syringe filled with a cloudy solution from the tray table and held it aloft as she approached Jennifer with measured steps. Jennifer’s arm tensed beneath the nurse’s cold fingers as she pinned her in place. In one quick motion the nurse administered the injection, causing Jennifer to wince as the cold liquid seeped into her veins. Gradually it warmed to match her body’s heat as it spread inside her. Her eyes watered as she tried to stay still, desperately wanting those lost memories of Norah to return, even if they were just days, hours, minutes. She wanted to remember how it felt to hold her – and how she had come to lose her.

The nurse’s voice echoed from somewhere behind her. “I’ll be back to check on you in thirty minutes.” 

 Jennifer noticed that straps had been places over her wrists and her ankles, securing her to the chair. When had the nurse done that? She must have moved fast. Jennifer thought of the sweet little face in the photo in her pocket, closed her eyes, and waited for the memories to flood back, hoping to see those little eyes come to life, sparkling in her memory the way she imagined they would.

A solid word – PREGNANT – printed on a white stick. Strong arms wrapping tight around her, lifting her high, sharing her excitement.

“We are going to be parents!” A hushed rush of words escaping her mouth. John’s blue-grey eyes shining with tears, putting a hand to her stomach with pride. Sharing their news; hugs from her mother, father; handshakes from John’s dad. Sarah, Joan, and Deirdre’s squeals of excitement for her over brunch. Softly singing “Hush Little Baby” every night to her growing bump.

The debilitating tiredness and sickness, wave after wave. The scans, the fear, the crippling uncertainty. Hand pressing on her belly, cold metal rods probing inside her. They just smiled down at her, not listening, not talking to her, not answering her worries.

Waters gushing out of her in their bed in the middle of the night, a little early but okay, she was thirty-eight weeks. An excited trip to the hospital smiling at John, holding his knee and her bump as he drove those dark streets. A look of contented bemusement on his face now that they were so close to their baby. Staff buzzing around them in the hospital, screams from other women, not knowing what to do. Pacing, waiting, waiting, and pacing. Then the pain, oh that pain, groaning screams from deep inside her.

Trying and failing to push the baby out, gripped with terror as her body was splitting open, pulled apart, shredded from the inside. John’s eyes wide with fear as she was wheeled off surrounded by doctors, walls dripping away as she fell under, pulled down, lost, suspended in time. Then being yanked back into life with a void in her stomach where they tugged her child from her, ripped the tiny form from inside her failed body.

Norah was cold when they handed her to Jennifer. Her sweet baby Norah, named for her grandmother. Her longed-for beloved baby girl, cold and motionless. They hadn’t closed her eyes; those eyes, the same blue-grey as John’s stared blankly up at Jennifer in the hospital bed where she bled. She rocked her still form, singing “Hush Little Baby” for the one and only time without flesh separating them.

John looked on in terror at his partner, the mother of death. He balked when she asked him to get into a picture with them. A picture of the three of them together was what she wanted, a memento of their little family. John backed away, left the room, left them alone. It was a nurse on the bereavement team who had brought the Polaroid camera out, snapped the picture of Norah and Jennifer. She handed it to her, a sick consolation prize, as she tried to take the small cold body from her arms.

Jennifer pulled Norah back. “I need to close her eyes! She needs sleep!” she screamed at them all while reaching for Norah’s face. Her nails made eerie, bloodless contact. Norah’s eyes wouldn’t close. Jennifer tugged down again and again at those little lids, desperate for them to close, as the midwives tried to pull the body away.

Then she saw that Norah’s eyes were expanding, filling up that little face with deep blue-grey holes, swirling pools of cloudy mess replacing her dead eyes. 

“She’s alive!” Jennifer raged. “Look, her eyes are moving.” Jennifer stared into the cloudy mess where her daughter’s eyes were swirling, transfixed. Her small newborn mouth opening in a contorted suckling motion that wouldn’t be satiated. A black mouth expanding outwards, sucking Jennifer in, swallowing her whole, dragging her into a dark, cavernous void of despair.

“So, how are we doing?” The nurse’s voice brought Jennifer back. 

She strained to open her eyes, trying to return to reality.

“Jennifer, how are you doing?”

Jennifer felt the nurse’s cold hands around her wrist as she blinked, letting in a crack of light. A smell like bleach emanated from her. Jennifer’s mouth felt like cotton had been stuffed in it as she tried to say she was okay.

“Jennifer, how are you doing?” the nurse barked again.

As Jennifer looked up, her eyes adjusting, the room coming into focus, the nurse’s dark eyes began to slide slowly down her face, opening into two massive holes that spread from her forehead to her dripping cheekbones. Inside those holes, a swirling mass of cloudy blue-grey liquid. All Jennifer could do was scream, her body tied down in the chair. The nurse’s grotesque swirling eyes pulled her back down, deep into that terrible void within them.

CategoriesIssue VIII