An Impromptu Family

May 2018



NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2018 (Round II)



       Guideline

        Word limit: 1500
        Genre: Romance
        Subject: Anonymous
        Character: A fertility doctor


    Dr. Chen, in the minutes between appointments, was struggling to find calm. Not long ago, he might have looked outside the window of his clinic, meditated on the architecture of the Summer Palace and turned over some lines of poetry. Today, this was made impossible by an obstacle to his view—another megamall. These horrors, often constructed in minutes, appearing and disappearing like mirages, were an insidious force in Beijing. All that could be seen of the Summer Palace were a couple of spires. There might be something in the malls to be compared to the creeping void in his heart but he did not care to write such stuff.

    His assistant’s voice through the telecom said that Mr. and Mrs. Liu had arrived. The doctor winced. In his five years as a fertility specialist, he had gained a reputation for success and did not take well to defeat. It had become clear that Mrs. Liu could not conceive.
    Mrs. Liu occupied the clinic in much the same way as the orchid on his desk. It was as if she had been carefully positioned by a feng shui master. She smiled at Dr. Chen even though there was apprehension in her eyes. Unfortunately, the feng shui was thrown out of balance by her husband. Mr. Liu brought with him a profoundly bleak spirit and imposed it on those within a three mile radius. He is the very embodiment of that megamall, noted Dr. Chen.
    “The drug you gave us did not work,” snapped Mr. Liu, scowling at his wife. “And neither has anything else you have suggested. I have been put through-”
    “I am sorry to hear this,” Dr. Chen cut in, his face showing concern. He shuffled some documents and went on, “It is with great displeasure to inform you that, in my professional opinion, direct insemination is not a possibility. You may have to consider other options. I can refer you to a respectable adoption-”
    “You want us to adopt?” said Mr. Liu, getting up to leave. “I knew you were a useless fraud.”
    “Thank you so much for your help, doctor,” said Mrs. Liu with a sweetness that absorbed her husband’s spite. “You have been of great help. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
    It was then that the doctor, forgetting himself, almost acted on an urge to hug her.
    “Nonsense. You have not wasted my time and I have not yours,” he said, following them to the door with a brochure. “This is not the end of the line.”
    His eyes met Mrs. Liu’s, hopeless, and the door slammed. Her husband’s voice broke through the walls, “He says we should adopt! What does he take me for? My son will be my own!”
    The doctor was left to his window and to thoughts of Mrs. Liu’s plight. They say a flower trampled emits the sweetest fragrance. Her fragrance filled his mind that day.
    He did not hear from the couple again. They did not pay their last bill and he chose not to pursue it.


#

    Some months later, it was a miraculous day by Beijing’s standards. The sky and the sun, an unprecedented blue and gold, rejoiced in the absence of smog. The city’s inhabitants could not comprehend the phenomenon and so tried to enjoy it while it lasted. The doctor, above all, was in a blissful mood. He had taken an early day and was on his way home with the intention to sit on the balcony with pen and paper and do nothing but write.
    He was constructing a line of poetry in his head that began “At long last! The” when he reached his apartment floor. The unfinished line remained unfinished at the sight of a more pressing matter. On the floor at his entrance lay a basket.
    He came close, heard a tiny whimper and nearly fell backwards. He was looking at the tiny frame of a sleeping infant.

#

    Dr. Chen was deep in thought as he sat looking at the basket that he had carefully carried and placed on his sofa. The baby was still sleeping and he wanted to keep it that way. He took another look at the handwritten note recovered from the basket.

Kind doctor,

Sorry for troubling you. Please find a home for our boy. He cannot stay with us.
You are sure to find someone. There is milk in the basket.
-Anon

    The doctor felt sympathy and irritation towards the author of this note. This infant was clearly a second child. A second child in a one-child only state meant a hefty fine. But who were these people to entrust him with another beating heart on a sudden? He had come in contact with enough distressed couples to put him off the whole affair of child rearing entirely.
    He was struck with an idea. He tiptoed around the basket to his home office, turned on the computer and logged on to the patient records.
    “Liu, Liu, Liu… Ah! Liu, Mei,” he whispered, tapping the monitor. “There she is.”
    There was a phone number which he called immediately.
    “Hello?” said a soft voice.
    “Hello. Mrs. Liu, I presume?”
    “Miss.”
    “Ah,” the doctor was at a loss. He stood up and paced the apartment, in search of inspiration. “This is Dr. Chen. You will remember me as the fertility specialist that you and your husband appointed-”
    “Former husband. Yes, I remember you.”
    “Former husband,” he said, unconsciously picking up some porcelain and admiring the craftsmanship. “I’m in a situation and I could not help but think of you.” He decided to just spit it out, “I have a baby.”
    “Congratulations, doctor,” she said at length, not without confoundment. “Is there some way I can help?”
    “No, yes, listen… Oh shit!”
    His hand had lost grip on a teapot and it had crashed to the floor. There was a deafening silence before a high-pitched yowl enveloped his existence. He fled to the office, shut the door and brought the phone to his ear.
    Miss Liu was saying, “Doctor? Are you there?”
    “Sorry, Mrs- Miss Liu. No doubt you could hear that,” he said clearing his throat. He then endeavoured to explain the situation.
    There was laughter through the phone that echoed like birdsong in the good doctor’s soul.
    “I was wondering if you are still in need of a child,” he said awkwardly.
    There was a pause.
    “Are you alone?” she asked at last.
    “Yes.”
    “Give me your address.”

#

    In the hour that followed, Dr. Chen’s valiant efforts to hush the infant failed. He had held the boy to his chest and rocked him back and forth. He had found the milk in the basket and shoved it into the poor boy’s mouth. He had attempted a lengthy game of pickaboo. The crying persisted, growing louder one moment and softer the next. The doctor was an authority on bringing these creatures into existence but had not the faintest idea of how to exist with them.
    Presently, he was reading to the boy a particularly dull verse from Confucius’ Analects when there was a knock at the door.
    He rushed to open it and there stood Liu Mei just as he remembered her, the fragrance of an orchid. Dr. Chen was fond of orchids and, by that reasoning, must be quite fond of this woman. It was then that he also realised he had been lonely of late and this orchid in the doorway was filling a void he had not known existed.
    “I’m so sorry to have troubled you,” he said, heart in his throat.
    Liu Mei smiled. “Not at all! I find your situation very amusing.” She made her way into the apartment to locate the source of the noise.
    Dr. Chen watched in awe as the woman approached the basket, lifted the boy and hushed him with whispers and clicks of the tongue. The infant’s cries became whimpers and the whimpers, a gentle snore.
      “You’re a natural,” said the doctor.
    He noticed a tremor about her. She was crying.
    Without thought, he rushed over and embraced the two of them.
    She looked confused for a moment before smiling through tears and returning the embrace.
    “Thank you,” she heaved a sigh into his chest. “I didn’t expect to feel this. Not in this life.”
    Her being there, in his chest, and the boy in hers, felt proper. The boy twitched in her arms and they came apart to watch.
    Dr. Chen was no longer irritated. This boy had conjured a family in minutes.
    “Shall we give him a name?” she broke the silence.





Artwork credit: Shan Shan Lim