Winter nights in Rineyville, Kentucky have always been bitter cold, but on this particular night, every gust of air carried spears of death. Nocturnal creatures retreated to their burrows to avoid its onslaught, but a new target lay in its path.
The two-story frame farmhouse of David and Wilma Hallstrom showed its great age, due to continual neglect and temporary fixes. Its single pane windows made a poor barrier between the weather’s wrath and the Hallstroms, who buried themselves under many quilts.
More quilts nailed over the windows bellowed outward like parachutes when the wind forced its way through gaps between the glass and shrunken wooden window frames, and between the frames and the creaky walls.
It is 3:00 am and the old Zenith television, complete with rabbit ears, had been left on. Wilma could never fall asleep with it turned off. The weather segment of the news was on; the announcer reported that the northwest part of the country was suffering record cold temperatures. At that moment a stabbing pain shot through Wilma’s abdomen. She rose to a seated position and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
“Oh God!” she exclaimed while rubbing her swollen belly.
Barely 4 feet 11 inches tall, Wilma’s legs dangled off the floor. Below them sat strategically placed bedroom slippers. She slid off the bed, landed in them, and began the slow trek to the bathroom. Then she felt warm liquid flow down her inner thigh.
“David, it’s time,” she whispered softly in her husband’s ear.
David tossed off the quilts and put his massive hands gently on Wilma’s shoulders. The contrast in stature between the two of them always turned heads wherever they appeared together. David stood a giant six foot five inches. His full head of red hair blended into a bushy beard that came to mid-chest. His 250-pound frame loomed over Wilma’s petite, 100-pound body. He was the archetype of a hillbilly rural American.
“Is it really time, honey?” he asked, wide awake now.
“Yes, my love,” she affirmed. “Now, go get the truck started while I get dressed.”
David put on his faded overalls and a heavy coat in an instant. If you knew David “Big Red” Hallstrom before he met Wilma, you could not imagine that anyone so petite could command him as you would a child. David, the eldest brother of three, was the most violent of the Hallstrom clan. He was a two-fisted drinker with a hair trigger temper. The town people would cross the street when they saw the quarrelsome family members approaching. Even Sheriff Gregory Brown, who stood as large as David and had a reputation of his own, walked softly around them.
David’s colorful past raised the community’s eyebrows when the local newspaper posted the announcement of Reverend George Pinter’s daughter’s marriage of him. The Pinters were known to be devout bible thumpers, and George was the town preacher. He ruled his family with an iron fist. He also saw himself as the anointed shepherd of Rineyville’s 6000 souls. But Preacher George had inner demons. They opened the door for David to enter Wilma’s life.
The Reverend had three daughters and no sons, a regret he threw at his wife Laura whenever he drank a little too much wine. The thrown reminder usually took the form of a slap across the face, a lashing with a thick leather strap, or other physical abuse of her flesh. When either Wilma or her two older sisters Carol and Debra tried to intervene, they would get the same.
Wilma’s diminutive height, nearly a foot less than her siblings, did not lessen the severity of the beatings the Reverend would inflict on her. This never dissuaded her from interceding, again and again, because she knew it would take his attention away from her mom.
Once a month, the good Reverend would take his family into town for shopping. It was more of a parade than a shopping trip. He wanted to show the town how well disciplined and righteous a family he had raised. He made sure everyone was watching when he emerged from his big shiny Cadillac, which the good lord had provided for him via the collection plate. Laura was always on his right arm and the daughters walked behind, their eyes averted to the ground. This was to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
On one such occasion, they passed by a group of men milling around the door to a bar. The Reverend always saw this as an opportunity to chastise them with the Scriptures. He loved to impress his family with how the men dared not speak back to him.
This time, however, was different. One of the men made a passing remark directed at Wilma, which made the 19-year-old giggle. Hearing this, the Reverend turned around and slapped Wilma so hard that she landed halfway in the street.
“That is where you belong, Jezebel,” the Reverend yelled pointing a finger at the now unconscious Wilma. “That’s for you and your evil thoughts.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you asshole?” David said, emerging from the group.
George wheeled around with fists clenched, ready to fight until he saw that a giant stood in front of him. Like King Saul’s Israelites facing ancient Goliath, he felt the same weakness of the knees.
“What I do with my child is none of your damn business, young man,” George stated in a weak display of bravery.
David went behind George, lowered himself to one knee, and cradled Wilma in his lap. He held her as if she were a fragile egg whose shell he feared cracking.
“Get her some water, God damn you!” David ordered the Reverend.
“Take your filthy heathen hands off my daughter,” George demanded.
Bo Hallstrom, the youngest brother, walked up, grabbed the Reverend by his collar, and lifted him off the sidewalk. He frog-marched him to the bar door and shoved him through.
“You heard him, shithead,” Bo barked. “Go get some water.”
Wilma was beginning to come around when her chastened father returned with a glass of water. David took the water and somehow also snatched Preacher George’s handkerchief from his suit pocket. He dipped the cloth in the glass and dabbed Wilma’s forehead with a grandmother’s gentleness.
George’s protests fell on deaf ears while David continued to administer the cold compress. When the cobwebs had cleared, Wilma’s stunning blue eyes scanned the rugged, fist-scarred face that hovered above her. The sun angling behind David’s head gave him an angelic appearance. She raised her petite hand and stroked his beard.
“Wilma!” the Reverend yelled.
Her wits now about her, she stood up on unsteady legs. David held her arm until she had regained her composure.
“Are you all right?” he inquired.
Before she could answer George yanked her free arm. He pulled her to him and herded his family quickly into the Cadillac. They sped off in a trail of smoke. The onlookers laughed.
David, however, was not laughing. He was holding the damp handkerchief as if it were a precious relic. He tucked it in his pocket with the same care he had used on Wilma.
“What are you thinking about, big brother?” Sam asked as he joined his two siblings.
“I’m thinking I just met my future wife,” David said with resolve.
Sam and Bo proved skeptics. They knew the Reverend Pinter viewed the Hallstroms as the worst scum of the earth. The Pinters were one of the oldest families living in Rineyville. By big-city standards they constituted “high society.” His younger brothers tried to dissuade David by assuring him that the Reverend would die before he let hill folk marry any daughter of his.
“Then I’ll just have to kill him,” David retorted nonchalantly.
That is exactly what he almost did. The following week when the Pinter’s came to town, David noticed that Wilma was wearing a large hat, and she held her head noticeably lower than was her custom. Despite warnings from the Reverend, David walked over to Wilma and lifted her chin up with his finger. The sight of her bloodshot, left eye made him bristle.
“Who did this to you?” he asked.
Wilma raised her head and diverted her eyes in her father’s direction. The force David used to yank at the Reverend sent his bible flying in one direction and his right shoe in another. They then disappeared into the bar. The Reverend’s cries for help dwindled to whimpers.
Laura tried to go in after them, but Bo and Sam blocked her. She kept up an appearance of wifely piety, but deep inside she relished every thump and crash emanating from within that bar.
After an eternity, from the good Reverend’s point of view, George returned to the sidewalk disheveled and on unsteady legs. David loomed a step behind him. George never looked at Wilma as David took her face in his massive hand once again.
“Your father will never lay a hand on you again,” David uttered meekly. “He has also agreed to allow me to come and court you, if that would please you, Wilma.”
“I would like that very much, Mr. Hallstrom,” she replied staring up into his eyes.
“Please, call me David,” he said.
“David, there’s no need to rush,” Wilma emphasized before climbing into their pickup. “The baby probably won’t come for hours.”
The drive from the Hallstrom ranch to Candlestick Memorial Hospital only took 15 minutes. But four inches of snow on the road and a steady stream of sleet didn’t help the visibility. David not only was a master mechanic, but also a very good driver. He developed the ability to drive in all weather from years of out-running the local constabulary. He took no chances with the precious cargo he had on board this night.
By the time they reached the hospital Wilma’s abdominal pain was excruciating, but she didn’t let on, to keep from alarming David. The nurses wheeled her into the delivery room and shunted David to the reception desk. He then hurried to the waiting area outside the delivery room where a young man was also waiting.
“This is my first child,” he volunteered.
“Mine too,” David said proudly.
The young man gave David a perplexed look. The reason for this reaction was the fact that David had reached the age of 40 years. The young man saw Wilma being wheeled in and had guessed her to be in her twenties. She was in fact 29 and had been married to David for 10 years. Although the doctors had confirmed that they were both healthy, they’d taken a decade to conceive. David had to endure occasional ribbing from his brothers about his virility, while Wilma anguished every time one of her sisters had a baby.
David paced for a few minutes and sat down. He remembered how Wilma looked when he walked in from work and told him she had some good news. She didn’t tell him in words. She just glanced down at her belly and touched it with her hands. He recalled picking her up and spinning her around, laughing as he had never laughed before.
Wilma’s first sonogram, however, cooled their celebratory mood. Doctor Ellen Shockley, who had brought Wilma into the world, told them not to be alarmed by the news she was going to share. This only made David more frantic until she assured him that the baby would be healthy. However, there was some concern about the growth rate of the baby.
“Your ultrasound shows the baby’s head is growing a lot faster than the rest of its body,” Dr. Shockley said. “But this is nothing to be concerned with for several reasons. Neither one of you has a family history of Down syndrome. Your prenatal test did reveal some interesting results. Excessive amounts of both dopamine and growth hormone are present.”
“What the hell does that mean?” David said, clearly annoyed that the doctor was using words that tasked his third grade level of education.
“It simply means that it will be a little larger than a normal baby’s head,” Dr. Shockley continued. “Dopamine is a compound that will aid in the child’s learning. The pituitary gland is also larger than normal. That means your child has the natural tools to become very smart and strong. I’m sure the rest of your child’s body will catch up with its head. I’ve seen it before. I’ll keep a watch and let you know if anything changes.”
Wilma, who had been silent, but intent on every word the doctor said, leaned forward in her seat.
“Doctor Shockley, I noticed that several times you referred to my baby as it,” she said. “Why would you do that? Is it a boy or a girl?”
Doctor Shockley removed her glasses and said, “That’s because we can’t tell your baby’s gender yet.”
David started to stand up, but Wilma placed her hand on his thigh, and as if by some unseen force, made him slump back in his chair. A lot of the communication she used with David was either a look or a touch. They were so in tune with each other, it was as if they had created a new and secret language that only they could decipher.
“Doctor, earlier you said that the baby was healthy,” Wilma recapped, “Now you’re saying the baby is deformed?”
Doctor Shockley stood up and walked over to the ultrasound screen. She picked up one of her probes to use as a pointer. She tapped on the pelvic region of the baby where there was a dark area. This was the area where the genitalia would normally be.
“You’re only in your twelfth week, Wilma,” she pointed out. “The genitalia usually form around the eleventh week. Your baby may be a little delayed. But if I had to guess, judging from the high levels of testosterone present, I’d say you’re going to have a very healthy, strong and smart boy.”
This news made David jump to his feet and hug Wilma tightly. She stroked his beard and whispered in his ear how much she loved him.
“Code blue! Code blue! Dr. Braden to delivery stat!” was blaring over the hospital P.A. system.
Hospital staff rushed past David and the young man, oblivious to the panic on their faces. David grabbed the trailing nurse by the arm so hard it made her grimace with pain.
“Is my wife all right?” David shouted at the now annoyed nurse.
“I can’t tell you anything until I get in the room. Now let go of my arm, sir!” she snapped back.
David released her arm and she rushed into the delivery room. Two burly security guards came and stood by the door. The young man had his face pressed against the glass trying to see which mother the staff were working on, but the same annoyed nurse closed the window curtains. One of the security guards suggested that David and the young man take a seat, but that fell on deaf ears.
“Wilma, I need you to slow your breathing,” Dr. Braden said. “Cathy, is she dilated ten cm yet?”
“No, Dr. Braden, only nine, but the hemorrhaging has increased,” Cathy, the assisting nurse said.
Wilma let out a blood-curdling scream. Dr. Braden looked and saw one eye and a corner of the baby’s head protruding. It then receded back into the birth canal.
“I’ve never seen the like! Prep for the cesarean,” Dr. Braden shouted.
Dr. Braden gave Wilma an epidural after assuring her that she had nothing to worry about. Soon as it took effect he made the first incision, but it was too late. The infant’s head and one hand had already emerged. The incision caused blood to splatter Cathy's face.
“Nurse, I have to take the baby vaginally,” he said taking the infant’s head.
“Ok, Doctor,” she said weakly, wiping her face as she stepped away.
There was an urgent call over the P.A. system for the delivery nurse, and Cathy left the room immediately. When she returned moments later, she wore a look of panic on her face.
“Dr. Braden!” Cathy screamed. “I just got off the phone with Dr. Shockley. She said the rest of the blood tests show she has Von Willebrand disease!”
“Sweet, Jesus!” Dr. Braden exclaimed. “Now I see why she’s bleeding so much. I can’t stop it!”
Wilma reached up and grabbed Dr. Braden by the wrist. She yelled, “You save my son at all costs! Do you hear me? At all costs! Tell my husband I love him and I’ll always be with him through our son. Promise me! *cough*”
“I promise, Wilma,” Dr. Braden said while tears welled in his eyes.
The infant squirmed in Dr. Braden’s hands, instinctively pushing with its legs to free itself. He knew he had to pull the baby to prevent internal damage. After a few quick tugs, he was able to extract the baby. Mixed blood and placenta poured out.
Wilma turned her eyes skyward, whispered a prayer, and closed her eyes. Her vitals went flat and the heart monitor alarm was the only sound in the room, aside from Dr. Braden’s muffled sob. A deathly chill came over the room as the nurses consoled each other. The only one who was not crying was the baby in Dr. Braden’s hands. She was staring at him with a fixated stare.
“We still have a job to do; let’s get to it,” Dr. Braden whispered. “We’ll mark the time of death 4:07 am.”
Forty-five minutes had passed when one of the nurses walked into the waiting room. Both men jumped to their feet asking the same question.
“Mr. Walsh, your wife, and son are doing just fine,” the nurse said. “I’ll take you to see them now. Mr. Hallstrom, Dr. Braden will be in here to …oh here he is now.”
The nurse led the young man out of the room. The two security guards came in and stood behind Dr. Braden.
“Where is my wife?!” David shouted. “What’s happened to her? Why won’t anyone tell me what’s going on for almost a goddam hour?”
“Sit down, David,” Dr. Braden said gesturing to the chair.
“No!” David barked, “Tell me now!”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news, David,” Dr. Braden said. “There were unforeseen complications. We couldn’t save your wife.”
David collapsed to his knees. He buried his face in his massive hands as if they would hide his tears and muffle his sobs. He pounded the floor with his fist so hard the two security guards jumped.
When he had regained a little composure he demanded to see his wife. Dr. Braden took him into the delivery room where the nurses were frantically trying to roll up the blood-soaked sheets, but David had already caught an eyeful.
He walked over to the table where his wife’s body lay. A white sheet was draped over her abdomen. It was also soaked with blood that had seeped up through the towels. Blood also pooled between Wilma’s dainty thighs. David took one of her small feet in his hand and stroked her toes. He was admiring the pink toenail polish he had applied the day before, at Wilma’s request.
His eyes quickly skipped over her torso. They were desperately in need of a pleasing sight. His gaze landed on her deathly pale face. Despite the ghost-like hue of her skin, her beauty still radiated through death’s clammy veil. David’s fingers did not notice the absence of moisture as they caressed her lips. Nor were they aware that the warmth of her cheeks had faded, now replaced by a cool, stiffer texture. His fingers repeatedly twirled her long black hair, as if they were a conductor directing an orchestra.
David took a step back from the table, and without looking at Dr. Braden asked, “Where is my son?”
A nurse, who was attending to the young couple on the other side of the partition, brought him a baby wrapped in a towel and said, “You’re the proud father of an 11-pound girl, Mr. Hallstrom.”
David turned his head slowly and looked the nurse square in the face. His expression made her take a step back. He reached over and pulled back the blanket to see the baby.
The first thing he noticed was how large her head was in contrast to her body. He noticed the hands were also slightly larger, as she sucked greedily on her thumb. She had a full head of black hair, a trait she shared with Wilma.
“Dr. Braden, can I ask you a question?” David said.
“Of course, David,” Dr. Braden replied.
The rage swelled up in David’s face and he yelled, “Why didn’t you kill it?”
David stomped out the door before Dr. Braden could reply. His shouts of, “It killed my wife!” faded away as he ran out into the hospital parking lot. Screeching tires then retreated into the distance.
Dr. Braden walked over to the baby and said, “You’re having a rough start already, aren’t you?”
The nurse gently rocked the newborn, crying less from the shock of birth than the anger in David’s shouts. A few minutes later she was quiet again and sucking on her fingers.
“Dr. Braden, I know Wilma’s sister,” the nurse said. “She’s married, childless and a devout Christian. I’m sure she will give her niece a great home, and something she’s going to need a lot of.”
“What’s that?” Dr. Braden asked.
“A lot of love, doctor,” she answered. “A lot of love!”
Sam and Bo Hallstrom were ordering their third round when David walked into the Red Beaver bar. Sam took one look at David’s face and immediately ordered a bottle of Kentucky bourbon for him. They each took an arm and escorted him to their favorite table in the bar.
“Dam, big brother,” Sam said. “You look like someone shot you again.”
David took a long swig from the bottle. He put his head on the table and quietly began to cry. Sam and Bo scooted their chairs closer to David and wrapped their massive arms around him. It took several minutes, and as many more swigs of Kentucky bourbon, to pry the horrible news out of him. Bo patted David on the back, returned to the bar, and ordered another whole bottle. The first bottle was empty by the time Bo returned. He sat down and joined his siblings in sullen silence.
During hard times such as this one, the conversation stayed simple: “Pass the bottle, they were all right, and I’ll miss her.” David would occasionally share some memory of Wilma with them, followed by a long silence and longer pull at the bottle.
He wasn’t aware of someone calling his name until he felt a hard slap on the back. It was Richard Bell, a regular customer at the Red Beaver, and a local prankster. Sam made a futile attempt to shoo Richard away, but it was too late.
“How’s the lucky father?” he quipped. “How much did the bouncing baby boy weigh?”
Richard never saw the bourbon bottle that hit him, nor did he remember David throwing him through the bar’s glass window. Sam, Bo, and the bartender could not stop David’s further attacks on patrons who were too drunk to get out of his way.
One sober patron managed to get hold of a bar stool and whack David on the head with it. He got the worst of the beatings that night. David was in the middle of knocking out two more of his teeth when Sheriff Brown’s gun barrel knocked him out cold.