A Case for Wrongful Death

By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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1940s woman walking down street

Dr. Thornton at last appeared. He lowered his tall, clumsy frame into one of the metal chairs and faced the family he had been treating for decades, the family he had mourned with fifteen years before at the loss of their mother and wife. He looked exhausted.

“We need to talk,” he said, putting his hand on Walton’s knee. “There’s a room on the second floor. It’s more private.“

“What’s happening?” George cried.

“I’ll explain everything. Would you please come with me?”

“Now!” George said. “I want to see her now!” But he followed the family down the bare corridor, into the elevator, and up to a small room with prints of Saturday Evening Post covers on the wall and an odd mismatch of armchairs and sofas.

When they were seated, Dr. Thornton said, “I have bad news.”

“No!” George cried.

“I’m afraid Connie has passed away.”

“I don’t believe you!” George jumped up. “Let me see her.”

“Please sit down, George,” Dr. Thornton said. “I wish it weren’t true. I’m so sorry.”

Lois and Sylvia were holding each other, sobbing; their father stared at the wall of posters in front of him, stone-faced.

“I’ll try to explain what happened as best I can. Then you can see her.”

“What’s happening to Connie?” George asked. “Right now. Where is she?”

“They’re cleaning her up for you to see her. Don’t worry. They’ll knock on the door when it’s time.”

“Cleaning her up?”

“Let’s start at the beginning,” the doctor said, looking around. “Did you know she was carrying a child?”

“No!” Walton’s cry filled the room. It was a cry so full of pain it didn’t sound human. Dr. Thornton walked over and put an arm around his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Walt,” he said.

Lois couldn’t stop crying.

George stared at the doctor. “What are you saying? She was having a baby?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But she died,” he said. “Why would she die?”

“I have an idea,” Dr. Thornton said, “but I need to know more. Look,” he said, “this is going to be hard. But you all have to hear it.”

Lois moaned.

“When we picked her up, we went straight to the operating room because she was bleeding. We didn’t know what was wrong then, we just knew we had to stop the bleeding. Shortly after we got her on the table . . . ” He paused, as if he didn’t want to finish the sentence “. . . she expelled part of a fetus, maybe two months gestation, maybe two and a half.” He tightened his grip on Walton’s shoulder. “Like I said, this is hard to hear.” He paused again. “The afterbirth was the problem. It was torn up, like something sharp had been pushed against it, cutting it. There was a lot of pus. The infection killed her.”

Walton pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his face. His whole body was shaking.

George suddenly turned on Lois. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew and you didn’t tell us.”

They all stared at her.

“She didn’t want anyone to know. She was afraid . . . “ Lois couldn’t go on.

“She didn’t want me to know? Even me?”

Lois looked at the handkerchief covering her father’s face. “The shame. She didn’t want the shame. She was afraid.”

George’s head jerked up. “But it was my baby. Wasn’t it my baby?”


“Then I don’t understand.”

“I do,” Walton said under his breath.

“Did she see a doctor?” Dr. Thornton asked.

“In Stanton,” Lois said.



“We’ll need his name and address.”

George sprang to his feet. “You mean? Oh my God. You mean, somebody did this to her?”

“It could be,” the doctor said.

“I’ll kill him,” George said, clenching his fist. “Tell me the bastard’s name, and I’ll kill him.”

“Quit that kind of talk.” Walton’s voice was sharp. He wiped his eyes and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. “If anybody’s to blame, it’s you.”

“His name is Wheeler,” Lois whispered.

Dr. Thornton nodded. “I figured.”


Walton Reynolds sat motionless beside his daughter’s coffin, too angry to face her, too angry to pray.

Everything he had been taught, everything he had always believed told him he was right to be angry. His Connie, his own Connie, had destroyed all his happiness. She had sullied her body, had let that man, that man he had foolishly trusted, defile all that innocence, all that beauty. And she had done the unthinkable, sinned against God not only by degrading her body but, even worse, by killing . . . He couldn’t let himself even think it.

He sat there another half hour, trying to pray, begging God to help him bear what was unbearable. At last he forced himself to look at her, at her young face. And what he felt was a hurt so deep he could hardly breathe. For she was once again his Connie.

You were a baby, he whispered, crying now. You didn’t know about the world. And I failed you. I’m the one. You did it because you knew I wouldn’t forgive you. And you were right. God has punished me by taking you, and I don’t know how I’ll survive it.

As he sat beside her, talking to her, talking to God, his anger toward her began to melt. The God he worshipped had punished her for her sins. That was enough.

But anger still ravaged him, held him fast.

God, help me, he called out loud.

His cry shattered the hush of the funeral home.

An attendant rushed into the room, a look of practiced sympathy plastered on his homely face.

“Close it,” Walton demanded, “I don’t want all those busybodies staring at her. What’s done is done. She’s in the Lord’s hands.”

He returned to a house brimming with children and grandchildren, neighbors and church members. To long faces struggling to hide the curiosity a sudden death inspires.

“Lois,” he called. “Get these people out of here. We need to talk.”

They sought refuge in the barn where Walton kept a small office for his accounting. He sat down behind the desk and waited until Lois was settled in a dusty kitchen chair across from him.

Then, “Tell me.”

“It’s my fault, Papa.” She started sobbing.

“What’s your fault?” He waited for her to contain herself.

“The doctor was my idea.”

Walton’s eyes were dry, and he held himself perfectly still except for his hands, which fumbled with the bills and seed catalogs cluttering the desk. “Begin at the beginning.”

“She was carrying George’s child.”

“I heard.”

“She didn’t want you to know.”

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Nancy Bourne has been making up stories all her life. Eight years ago, she started writing them down and began to publish. Since then, her work has appeared in more than thirty publications nationwide. Her stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Blue Lake Review, and many others. Her short story collection, Spotswood, Virginia, based on Civil Rights in the 1960s and '70s, is scheduled for publication in Summer 2021. For a full list of Ms. Bourne’s publications, please see nancybourne.us. Ms. Bourne writes about her childhood in the South, her life in California, and her many adventures such as rafting the Grand Canyon and traveling to countries such as Iran. “A Case for Wrongful Death” is based upon stories she heard as a child. Ms. Bourne has been an attorney for public schools, a potter with a home studio, and a teacher, most recently teaching writing to prisoners and incarcerated minors.