Short Story // To Breath is to Scream
My baby. She’s not screaming. My heart beats fast as I stop to lift her out. Her skin so hard and cold. ‘Scream, Lily.’ I whisper. ‘Scream, scream, scream.’ She doesn’t listen. Babies don’t listen. They can’t listen. I know that. I’m a father. Good fathers must know. No matter how many times you tell them to. Babies don’t listen. I shake my cold baby. Her head wiggles back and forth, a ragdoll in the rain. But still she doesn’t scream. I shake her harder. There. Now a screech. An almighty screech. Tyres on tarmac. I breathe again. A bright glow in the gloom licks the lace of Lily’s white dress.
An arm around my neck. A harm around my neck. So tight. Nasty voice: ‘Put the baby down.’ A wheeze into the chill air. ‘Call an ambulance, Celia.’ The harm slackens enough to let me put Lily back in the pushchair. Baby’s gone quiet again. What if she can’t breathe? Choking on something? The harm spins me around. I stare into a roaring bright. In the middle of the road. In front of a car. But it’s as it should be, a good father doesn’t worry about bone-crunching car crashes if his baby isn’t breathing.
Gripping me too hard. The young man with gel in his hair. He wouldn’t know about babies. Maybe in a few years’ time. When sharp-toothed worry gnaws his bowels. When the screams, the endless screaming, bore holes in his cotton-wool brain. Maybe then he’ll understand that babies need to always scream.
‘What the fuck’re you doing, mate?’
Did he slap me?
‘My baby. She’s not well,’ I say.
‘You don’t shake babies.’
Hard on the other cheek.
‘She wasn’t breathing,’ I say.
Hands grabbing my collar.
‘And now you’ve killed her.’
Gel-hair-man drops my collar to stoop over the push chair. I lunge to stop him from hurting Lily, but as he
moves out of my line of vision I see an angel; her jellyfish-tentacled hair float in the beams of the headlights. And I stop. And I know that the angel has descended from the heavens to make my baby scream. Screaming is breathing. Breathing is screaming. And babies never let up. Not at one, two, three, four, five in the morning. Days and weeks. Until you know that they always scream. And when they stop…
No, no, NO. Hair-gel man is holding Lily by her foot. Upside down. Between only two fingers. He looks up
at me. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed. ‘You absolute nutter,’ he whispers. ‘It’s a fucking doll!’ he shouts over to
the angel in the headlights. Angels don’t like swearing. She’ll never let him have one of her beautiful screaming babies now. ‘Please,’ I say. A barbed wire-word hooking my tongue. ‘Please,’ I say again. ‘Please, put her down.
She’s not well.’
He chucks my little girl in the pushchair. She knocks her head on the metal frame. I jump at the clunk. Got to get off the road. Take Lily home. People don’t realise how… Oh now she wails. Scream baby, scream. I don’t need to sleep or eat. Not for as long as you scream. As long as you scream, I won’t shake you. ‘The ambulance,’ says the man. ‘We don’t need it though,’ says the angel. ‘Bloody well think we do,’ says hair-gel-man and hooks my shoulder. I grab the pushchair before he starts dragging me. Spinning blue light. I drag the pushchair behind me. The wheels have locked. Pushchair goes bumpety, bumpety, bump, bump, bump. And she’s stopped screaming. My heart bleeds red-raw love for her. An ambulance. Paramedics who will ask questions and touch me. Not touch like the men in prison used to. All knives and hairy penises. Bigger than mine. ‘Please,’ I said to them. ‘Please...’
A lady steps out of the ambulance. I know her. She’s too fat to be beautiful. Too crinkly to give babies. But her eyes glitter in the darkness, and she understands about babies. ‘Ralph,’ he says. ‘It’s you. How are you?’ And my entire body contracts like an accordion and just like an accordion all the air leaves me and I whine an accordion whine. Fat lady strokes my back. I wish I was a cat. ‘How’s Lily?’ she asks. I fill with air and expand. I contract and whine. Expand and contract. Expand and contract. I used to play the accordion. Until I broke it. Over my angel’s face. ‘What have you done?’ she said, her words just a breath. When she saw. Our baby. In my arms. The tears she cried while I said ‘Please’ to her, I said, ‘Please.’ and ‘Please.’ again. And her tears grew larger until I thought I might drown. Afterwards my angel lay in bleeding silence on the floor. I lay down beside her. Naturally. Our baby. Our little baby blue. Wedged between us.
‘Would you like me to check on Lily for you?’ The ambulance lady holds my chin and waves her hand in front of my eyes. I nod and breathe and nod and breathe. Noisy business breathing. And so tiring. I sit down on the road. How wet the tarmac is. Cold and hard. And the darkness swirling around the beams from the head-lights. I need to get my baby home to bed. ‘Please,’ I say. ‘Please, can you make her scream?’ The lady’s tucking blankets around Lily. She bends over the pushchair. Mouth-to-mouth I think. Then she’s kneeling by me ‘We’ve talked about this Ralph. Lily doesn’t need to scream. She’s happy just being with you.’ I nod. Of course. Of course. Of course. I remember now. The soft baby who screamed. Then she stopped. After just that tiniest of shakes. Now she sleeps quietly in a box below ground. But I have Lily. I forget. Lily’s not supposed to scream. The relief is physical. Warmth travelling upwards. Me and Lily a family, forever.
Lisa took seed in a forest in southern Sweden and was brought up on a diet of dark fairy tales and Norse mythology. As a teen she washed up on the shores of southern England where she now writes and breathes by the sea. Since finishing the Creative Writing Programme run by New Writing South in Brighton, England, Lisa’s short fiction has been published in The Dark Mountain Project, The Dawntreader, The Forgotten and The Fantastical 4 and The Best of British Fantasy 2018. Last year she was short-listed for the Bridport Flash Fiction Competition and another piece of flash was chosen for week 17 of the 52 Crows project. This year Lisa won 2nd prize in the Writers’ HQ Flash Fiction competition and was long-listed for the Reflex Flash Fiction Competition. She also has a children’s picture book called Älgpappan (The Moose Dad) to her name that she wrote in her native Swedish and another one of her children's book manuscripts, Beckmörkret, will be published in 2020.
More information and contact details can be found on www.lisafransson.com