Story Number One
'…And her belly was full with child.'
I hated that phrase. There was something animal, something banal in it that invoked the image of a mechanical baby factory, continuously churning out a filthy little litter of sprogs. Nevertheless, it managed to wriggle and squirm its way into my consciousness every time my eyes happened to fall upon a tightly swollen stomach. There was something almost surreal about the process of childbirth, I decided. You had the miracle of life, wreathed in a mantle of pain, sweat and blood. Or perhaps I was being overly romantic, not that I was really sure I knew what romance was. Whatever the reality of my sentiments, the pink and puffy creature that had been hastily spirited from the room shortly before had seemed very real indeed.
Alyssa's eyes were closed and a thin sheen of perspiration glistened on her forehead. Tiny droplets had collected in the creases of her brow, made more pronounced by the ordeal she had just gone through. Her face betrayed a mixture of sheer exhaustion and worry, her nostrils flaring slightly with each intake of the sterile air that filled this space, so bland as to barely merit the title 'room'.
My apprehension concerning this event, which had been mounting steadily over the past few weeks like a creeping caffeine addiction, had been fulfilled, but in a completely different manner to that which I had envisaged. The whole idea of a younger brother, his skinny arms and legs waving in the air like a nest of ostriches demanding attention, concerned me in a way that I could not articulate. Looking back on it, I recognise that mysterious sentiment for what it was - the primal craving of an adolescent for the attention of his parents, which I feared would dissolve away, wisps of smoke on the wind. In reality, that would never have happened, even had my tiny sibling not died shortly after quietly slipping forth into this world. I just demanded too much attention.
Mum and dad were absolutely devastated, of course. Breakfast was the worst; mum would stand by the toaster, a look of weary detachment on her face, smudges of eyeliner that she had been too tired to remove the preceding evening staining her skin. She rarely smiled during those days, and laughed even less - just carried out the fabrication of our meals with a detached precision born of well-worn routine. My father's reaction was different, although no less severe in its dissimilarity; he seemed to have fashioned an emotional carapace of false vivacity, I suspected partly in an attempt to lift the mood of my mother. But his jokes never reached his eyes, which had steadily sprouted crow's feet as if they were feelers tentatively rediscovering the outside world.
I felt no small amount of guilt at what had befallen our embryonic family. While I knew that in no way was I considered accountable, I could also see that, as much as they loved me, my parents had desperately wanted to have a normal child, and that was one capacity in which I was lacking.
As far as my reaction went, I was sad of course, but some semi-conscious part of my psyche buried deep down in the depths of my skull whispered that it was more a sadness born out of empathy for my parents rather than out of any true sense of loss. It was an ugly, treacherous thought, and I ruthlessly suppressed it every time it bobbed up to the surface of my awareness, but I suspected that in it's midst lay a grain of truth. Sometimes I managed to believe the conclusion of my parents; that I was too young, too detached and too emotionless to really appreciate what had happened