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Excerpt: Deep Breath Hold Tight

From the included short story "The Dark Age":


I caught her.

The doctor gave me a textured blue wrap. Frannie looked alarmed and said, “No, no, skin—skin-to-skin, I want skin-to-skin,” and the doctor assured her that this was only for me, so that I wouldn’t drop her. I lost track of what I was supposed to feel, and I bent over the bed, only dimly aware of Frannie’s feet near my head, her toes splayed wide as she fought. I heard her scream like I’d never heard her do anything before. It was primal, and I felt like a hunter on the savannah, standing over my kill, like a warrior, head thrown back and the taste of blood in my mouth.

And then she came to me, like a child on a water slide into my arms, slippery and dark and blue, and I caught her, and her tiny face looked like the wrinkles of my knee, almost featureless in her surprise, and she bawled rapidly. She pierced my heart and my ears with her cries, and a nurse clamped and clipped the cord, and I carried her to Frannie and laid our daughter on her breast.

She wailed and clung to her mother, her tiny fingers opening and closing against Frannie’s skin, and Frannie breathed heavily and said, “Elle.”

I didn’t want to look away from either of them—Frannie dripping with sweat, her hair in damp rings on her face, and Elle, pushing against her mother’s skin like a fresh piglet—but the movement at the door caught my eye, and I did, I looked up, and for the rest of my life I wished that I hadn’t.

Frannie saw, and looked, too.

The man in the doorway smiled regretfully, and waggled his fingers at me, and nodded.

I met Frannie’s dark eyes, and watched the tears well up, and I felt my heart pull out of my chest and stay behind in that beautiful room, the most wonderful place that had ever been made. I kissed Frannie, but she kissed me back, harder, and then I nuzzled Elle’s tiny soft ear with my nose, and kissed her head everywhere, and her small hands. I would have stayed in the room forever if I could have.

But I followed the man out of the room, my ears ringing with sadness, an enormous hole in my head and my heart, and that was that. We both knew that it had to happen, but we pretended it wasn’t going to. And then it did.

I followed his dark suit through the hospital corridor. I couldn’t feel my hands. My feet moved on their own.

He said something, but I don’t know what it was.

We stepped out of the building and into the light, and the cold wind turned my tears to ice.


Elle taps the camera, and I watch her fingertip, large enough to crush worlds, grow dark and obscure my view. I laugh, and she giggles, and this makes her laugh harder, and then she begins to hiccup wildly. She rocks back on her bottom and puts her hands on the floor behind her, and reclines and stares at me, hiccuping and laughing, and I laugh with her.

“You’re silly,” I say to her. “Silly, silly Elle.”

She babbles at me, and in the stream of muddled sounds I hear something that sounds like a-da, and I say, “Frannie!”

Frannie turns the camera on herself, and her smile is big and bright and threatens to push her eyes off of her face. “We’ve been working on it all week,” she says. “She can’t quite make the d sound work, so all we’ve got is ada-ada, except, you know, it’s more like atha, atha.”

I turn away from the camera and wipe at my eyes.

“Daddy’s crying,” Frannie says. I look back to see her turn the camera to Elle, who thinks this is hilarious. She pats her round tummy and laughs harder, and then the hiccups take over in a big way, and a moment later Elle burps up breakfast.

“Oh, uh-oh! Uh-oh!” Frannie sing-songs, and she says to me, “We’ll be right back, Daddy!” and puts the camera down.

I watch Frannie’s feet, then she scoops up Elle and whisks her out of frame.

I sigh and push off of the wall and turn in a slow flip, waiting.

Sarah comes in through the research wing hatch and sees the camera and says, “Oh, shit—I mean—oh, goddammit, I—fuck! Shit.”

I laugh at her and tell her it’s fine. “Elle spit up,” I say. “Commercial break.”

Her face relaxes. “Whew. Okay. I don’t want to corrupt your little girl or anything.”

“Did I forget to flip the sign?”

Sarah turns around and leans out of sight. “Well—nope, no, you did,” she says, leaning back in and holding up the little handwritten recording sign. “I wasn’t even looking, I guess.”

“What did you need?”

She looks around, scatter-brained, gathering her thoughts. Then Frannie comes back into the room with Elle, singing a bit, and she sees Sarah on the display and says, “Sarah! Hi!”

Sarah looks up at the screen and smiles sheepishly. “Hi, Francine,” she says.

“Everything okay?” Frannie asks me.

“Everything’s fine,” I say.

“I was—I shouldn’t be in here,” Sarah says, making a slow turn towards the hatch. “I’m sorry. Nice to see you, Francine.”

“Bye, Sarah,” Frannie says. She lifts Elle’s small hand and flaps it at the camera. “Say ‘Bye, Sarah!’”

Elle yawns.

“Bye, sweetie,” Sarah says, then shakes her head at herself and looks at me. “Really, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I should’ve checked first.”

“Not a big deal,” I say, and then Sarah floats back into the research module and presses the hatch shut behind her.

“It’s not like we were having phone sex,” Frannie says, chuckling. “Make sure she knows it’s fine.”

I look at the readout beside the screen. “Time’s up anyway,” I say.

Frannie’s frown is adorable. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” she says. “We wasted so much time cleaning Elle up—I’m so sorry.”

I smile, but I know it’s a sad smile, and I know Frannie can tell. “Kiss her for me,” I say.

Frannie kisses Elle, a big playful smooch that sets Elle’s giggles off again.

“Love,” I say.

“Love,” Frannie answers, and then she squeezes Elle and coos, “Love! Love!”

The screen goes dark, and I sigh, and look around the module. It’s cramped and small, but it’s private, at least until Sarah bumbles in again. I point my hands at the floor and push off with my feet, just enough to reach the lights, and I snap them off. The module goes pitch-black, and then my eyes adjust to the faint light from the porthole. And then I cry, the way I always do. The tears stick to my face like film, and when I’ve cried enough to feel better, I sop them up with my sleeve, and turn on the lights, and get back to work.

This is the way it has to be.

I was already in the program when Frannie and I met. She sometimes asked me that awful, difficult question: Would I have signed up for this if we’d already been married? And I tell her no, of course I wouldn’t, but I would have. I still would have. Some things are important, and then some things resonate through history like a bell, and this is one of those resonant things, being here, aboard the Arecibo, crawling through the night.

Then Frannie got pregnant, despite our best efforts and multiple contraceptives, and my answer to that question softened.

When I caught Elle that morning in the hospital room, I knew that it had changed. Frannie saw it on my face, I think, though we have never talked about it since then. But she knew that my heart had changed, and by noticing that, she learned that my earlier answers had been kind lies.

We are a crew of seven, with the simplest of orders.

See what’s out there.

So that’s what we’re doing.

We’ve all left something behind.

It isn’t easy for any of us.

We are martyrs.

I think of Elle’s bright eyes and her shock of blonde hair, and I wonder what it would feel like to hold her, that hair tickling my face as she falls asleep on my shoulder.

I would hold her for hours and hours and never grow tired.

It wouldn’t matter to me if my arms fell off.

Every day I grow heavier with regret.

Every day I hate my younger, star-crossed self a little more.

© Jason Gurley. All rights reserved.

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