My Brave Little Boy – New Fiction by Joseph Friesen

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction

Babies don’t stop being sick on holidays.

Jen shifted in her seat at the breakroom table. Ten straight hours on her feet and yet somehow she’d found the one chair that made sitting just as uncomfortable. She scrolled through photos on Instagram, only stopping to take nibbles of a stale granola bar or sips of warm water that had been sitting in her locker all shift and now tasted like swamp.  

The sun had not come up yet, and the hospital’s neglected common room lights offered little illumination. Instead, the glow of her phone shone on her face. Pictures of bright sunshine, sandy beaches, backyard barbeques. Kids with their faces painted the red and white of the Canadian flag, and her friends sitting on a cottage dock in bikinis, holding bottles of Corona Extra with bright limes stuffed down the bottlenecks. A picture of her little brother donning a black robe and hat at his eighth-grade graduation. Jen turned off her phone and slid it back into the pocket of her scrubs. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead for thirty therapeutic seconds.  

She checked her watch: 6 a.m. Time to get back to it. Two more hours and she’d be done. Not that she would be joining her friends after. No, she’d be hopping on the bus for a ninety-minute commute back to her cramped, sweltering apartment to try to get some sleep before doing it all over again tomorrow night. She could dream of beaches and cottages, but her soul belonged to Toronto Children’s Hospital now. Why had she given up everything to be a nurse here? Why had she moved hours from home, from comfort, from familiarity, from her family and friends, only to work the worst shifts that the hospital could force onto their rookies? She asked herself that every day, and twice on holidays. There would be no reading on sun-warmed, lakeside rocks this long weekend. She had exchanged those pleasures for the joy of administering meds, cleaning pee, and following orders, all because babies don’t stop being sick on holidays.  

Nancy burst into the break room, bubbly as ever. She could have retired two years ago, but had been coming in to fill staffing needs for the last six months. “Oh, hi there, Jen! Didn’t expect to see you here. Enjoying your last break? I think I’ll go spend mine on the bench outside and watch the sunrise.  It’s a beautiful morning that the Lord has made!”

“It’s my first break,” Jen replied. Somehow Nancy’s positive attitude made this all the more depressing.

“Tough assignment?”

“A nightmare,” Jen said. “I have a preemie. I guess his idea of an exciting holiday weekend is to code every five seconds.” She got up stiffly. “I only took a break because Lizzie told me she’d take him while I ate. But I better get back to him.”

“Fair enough!” Nancy said. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“You’re working again tomorrow? Why? Are they making you?”

“No, no,” she said with an annoying grin. “But you can’t beat the holiday premiums!”

Jen managed to turn away before rolling her eyes, and walked out onto the floor. She was greeted with the smell of antiseptics and sterilizers, and the sound of blaring alarms and constant beeping. She pulled up her medical mask that had been pulling sharply on her ears all night, and squeezed some slimy sanitizer onto her hands that squelched between her fingers as she rubbed them together. 

She moved through the labyrinth that was the neonatal intensive care unit. A doctor walked briskly from behind her, knocking her shoulder.  

“Asshole,” Jen muttered under her breath. She watched as the doctor continued to walk in the same direction as her. Was he headed to her baby?

She picked up her pace as well. Alarms grew louder and more urgent as she approached her room. She could see a small huddle of doctors forming around the bedside.  

“Jen!” Lizzie called from behind. The surprise made her jump. Lizzie’s face was red. “Jen!  Oh my god, it’s been crazy. I didn’t know where to find you.”  Lizzie had been in Jen’s training group. She was the closest thing she had to a friend in the city.  

“What’s going on?” she said as they rushed inside.  

“He stopped breathing. He started turning blue. I called the second I noticed it. I don’t know.”

The two young nurses stood side by side as the doctors worked. Alarms began to quiet one by one, and the rapid beeping began to slow to a normal pace. Jen realized she had been holding her breath. She let out a long exhale.

“Whew,” Lizzie said, and smiled nervously. Her face was returning to her natural hue. “I think he’ll be okay.    

“Okay,” Jen said. She was jolted. This baby had been driving her to the brink all night, but something strangely maternal had kicked in amongst the panic.  “Thanks Liz. I can take it from here.”

One of the doctors, a tall man with dark hair, turned to her. “Where are the parents?”

“No parents,” Jen replied. “Mom was homeless. On drugs. This is a Child Protection baby.”

“That explains the NAS,” the doctor said, and scratched his chin. “Okay. We need to redirect to end-of-life.”

“Wait, what?” It wasn’t proper to question doctors, but how could this soulless monster suggest such a thing? “He’s… he’s fine. He’s breathing. He’s back to normal.”

“It’s not looking good,” the doctor said, and sighed. “He’s on too many antibiotics. He’s already had five transfusions in twelve hours. He’s on the highest vent settings, he’s been prone, his sats are still dropping, he’s on pressers, fentanyl… he’s on every med in the book. I’m sorry. We’ll go talk to the lawyers if there’s no family to make the call.”

“Oh… okay,” Jen said blankly.

“I’m sorry. I’ll call in Wendy for you.” The doctor walked away with the others and Jen was left alone. She approached the bedside and peered down to where the tiniest little boy lay. Much of his pink little body was obscured by lines and tubes. His small chest rose and dropped with the rhythm of the ventilator. His wiry fingers curled and his arms waved weakly. He was fragile, delicate, and… Precious, Jen thought. What a precious little thing.

Part of her wondered if saving this boy could be what redeemed her long weekend. “There’s still time for a miracle,” she whispered to him.  

Wendy, the support nurse, came through the door and stood beside her. “So that’s going to have to be it then.”  

“That’s what the doctor says, anyways,” Jen replied. “What do we do now?”

“This is your first time? Well, often we try to do some things for the parents.  Molds, footprints, things like that. But I’ve heard this one doesn’t have parents. What’s his name?”

“He never got one. He’s not even 24 hours old.”

She clicked her tongue. “Poor thing. Well, let me know if you need anything.  These are never easy.”

“Yeah… Okay.”

“Sorry, Jen. I know it’s tough. But we’ll get someone from the end-of-life committee to take over at eight.” She patted Jen’s shoulder and began walking away.  

“No, wait,” Jen said. “I’ll… I’ll take him. I’ll do the overtime until the lawyers call back.” If there was going to be a miracle, it would be on her watch.

Wendy smiled and shrugged. “Okay.  Up to you.”


Wendy walked off and Jen was left alone again with the baby. For ten minutes she stood alone and did not move. She looked down at him. An odd sensation came over her, and she wanted to detach every line and hold him tight to her chest.  

She resisted. 

“What should I call you? Little dramatic Canada Day boy? How’s Sunny? Do you like that name?”

The baby wriggled in his bed.

“I’ll take that as a yes. I’ll be right back, Sunny.”

Jen strode around the unit and picked out supplies from the crafting tables.  Scissors, glue, colourful paper, markers, ink pads. She returned to his bedside. 

“Would you like to make some crafts with me? I’ll bet you have a creative mind.” She cut out the shape of a sun and drew a smile on it. Hands extended out from it, and it held a can that Jen labeled “Beer.”  

“That’s not appropriate, Sunny,” she said, scolding the baby. “How’s this?”  She squeezed in the word “Root” at the top of the can.  

“Now for the final flourish.” She dabbed the boy’s feet in the black inkpad and pressed them down on the face of the sun, giving him a pair of fashionable sunglasses. Then she scribbled something on the top and turned the card to the baby, reading aloud to him:

Sunny Daze

Feat: Sunny

“That’s pretty clever, eh Sunny? Get it? Days? Feet? In this business, that is what we call a ‘double pun.’”

She then wrote on the bottom:

From: Sunny


She left it blank. Who would keep this card in an old shoebox somewhere, only to show the boy once he was going off to college? If he made it, would he be given over to foster care? Adoption? Could his mother make a comeback and take him on? Who would love this boy? At this moment, she could think of at least one person who loved him.  

“To Jen,” she said, as she wrote on the card. “Aww, thanks Sunny. That’s really sweet. I’ll keep this forever.” She meant it. She slid the card into her pocket.  

Lizzie walked into the room with her backpack on. “I’m going to head out soon,” she said. “I just wanted to check in on your little man. How’s he doing?”

“He’s all good now,” Jen replied. “I think he’ll be okay. Look at how happy he looks!”

“Shame he has to spend the long weekend with you,” Lizzie said. “What a little charmer. He probably has friends way cooler than you waiting for him to get out.”

Jen laughed. “He’ll have a fun story to tell, that’s for sure.”

“Alright. Well, I’m just going to give report. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“When the sun sets over the hills, you shall find me here. With my little friend.”

Lizzie smiled. “Okay, see ya.”

“Hey Liz, wait.”


She hesitated, embarrassed. “Do you… believe in miracles?”

“Sure I do. My uncle had a stroke. He was in a coma for eleven days. Then suddenly he woke up like nothing happened. The doctors said they’d never seen anything like it.”

Jen nodded. “Yeah. Me too. Okay, see you Liz, get some rest.” She watched her friend walk out. She was hardly jealous of her leaving.

“Do you want to watch a movie with me?” Jen said, turning to Sunny, who was squirming around, making quiet whining sounds. She took her phone from her pocket and loaded up Netflix. “Do you have any summer movies you like? Every summer my dad makes me watch Jaws with him. He’s kinda a dork. But it’s tradition now. Do you want to watch it together? Don’t worry, I’ll skip past all the scary parts.”

Sunny cooed. 

“I knew you had good taste,” she replied. 

She played the movie on her phone, holding it over his bedside and tilting it so that both could watch. Sunny didn’t seem too interested in the movie and was dozing off. “It’s okay if you fall asleep,” Jen said. “You need lots of rest.  Sometimes it’s enough to just have a movie playing while among friends.”  

Friends. She wondered what kind of friends Sunny could make. Her chest tightened at the thought of him getting bullied at school, or having a birthday that nobody showed up to. No! Sunny would be a nice boy, and have nice friends. He’d have a girlfriend far too early in middle school who would break his heart, but then he’d find love again and marry early, and then have a son of his own whom he would be a terrific father to. Maybe, Jen thought, she’d one day dial him up when he was older, and she was a little old lady, and ask him to have lunch with her. She’d tell him all about when he was a tiny little baby, and what a fright he’d given her for twelve hours straight.  

For the next hour, she let the movie play, placing her phone near the bedside at a low volume while she administered medication, did his blood work, and kept an eye on his vitals. She gave him a bed bath, gently wiping him down with a cloth. The sun was rising and shone through the window, and she moved Sunny down into some glowing rays. Other nurses were coming in for their shift and receiving report. Jen stayed with Sunny. It was hard to tell with him, but Jen thought he was happy. 

Now it was Nancy’s turn to walk into her room. Insufferable, jolly Nancy. But Jen didn’t mind. If Sunny was happy, she was happy. 

“Hey Nancy. You’re still here?”

“Just wanted to go around and say bye to everyone,” she said. Her cheeks were rosy and small greying curls bounced around her shoulders. “So… bye!”  she said with a wide grin.  

“Have a nice day. Try to get some sun,” Jen said.  

“Oh, I will,” Nancy said. “Jim said he’d get up early to make me some breakfast to eat on the porch. He’s a sweetie.Jim’s my husband, of course.”  Jen knew. No shift passed without Nancy bringing up her flawless, doting Jim. “Ah well. Being a nurse’s husband isn’t easy, but he’s a good man.”

“Enjoy,” Jen said, trying to send Nancy off. But Nancy didn’t leave. She strode up to the bedside.  

“So this is the little rascal giving you so much trouble, huh? He’s a handsome devil.”

“He’s well, thank you.” Jen replied.  

“I heard…,” she began as her grin faded. “I heard he’s end-of-life.”

“That’s what the doctors say,” Jen replied. “I’m kinda holding out hope, I guess.”


Jen couldn’t believe she was now asking a question, though the asking of her corny question got easier with practice. “Nancy.  Do you believe in miracles?”

Nancy took a seat by the bedside in a chair typically reserved for parents. “I do. I’ve seen enough of them in my time to be sure.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.”

“But I’ve also seen it go the other way,” she said, peering over. Her eye contact made Jen uncomfortable, so she lowered her gaze. Then Nancy continued. “Let me ask you something, honey. Why did you choose to become a nurse?”

“I dunno,” Jen replied, her gaze still averted, before chuckling half-heartedly.  “I ask myself that all the time.”

“It’s not easy,” Nancy said. “The pay is definitely nothing to write home about. But I’m sure you have a reason.”

“I just… for a lot of reasons, I guess. Why did you?”

“Ah. Well, my father had cancer when I was a teen. That was a long time ago.  It was a sad time. He was dying. We had a nurse that became almost like family to us. Her name was Julia, and I remember her like it was yesterday.  What a special lady she was.” She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a quiet laugh. “My father even wrote her into his will. Some ties he wanted for Julia’s boys, because of course my father never had a son. Well anyways, HR nixes those kinds of things now, darn them.”   

She stood up and looked at Sunny. “But my father had lived something close to a full life. Fifty-four years. Can you imagine the places he went, the people he saw? Julia was just a tiny raindrop in his bucket of life, and yet…?” she started dreamily. “Well anyways, look at this little fella.” She ran her finger down Sunny’s cheek. “You get to be a much bigger part of his earthly life. I always thought that was such a wonderful blessing. Who will he run to in the great by-and-by, and squeeze with a hug? Who will he remember?” She glanced down affectionately. “Ah, what a brave little boy he is, to live in this cruel world if only for a little.”

Nancy approached Jen and gave her shoulders a good, motherly massage.  “And what a special person you are to him.” After a tender pat, she walked off without another word. Jen was alone with Sunny, the soundtrack of Jaws playing softly beside her along with the beeping of monitors. She sat in thought for a long time before standing up like she was waking up to a new day. 

She said nothing. She tilted the phone and held the boy’s hand carefully in her own. 

Jen was startled to hear alarms going off. She looked to the monitors.  Sunny’s blood pressure and heart rate were dropping. His oxygen levels were tanking.  

“I’ll call the doctors,” she said reassuringly. She did, and in an instant the respiratory therapist arrived. He hurriedly went to work as Jen looked on, and she could feel her heart fluttering. Soon after, the doctor she spoke with before swung to the bedside.  

“What do we have?” he asked.

“We already put him on 100% oxygen,” Jen began. Her voice was suddenly cracking. “The RT is manually bagging him. What do you want us to do?”

“Yes, well. We got off the phone with the lawyers fifteen minutes ago. We all agreed on no code. It’s the humane thing to do. It’s time.”

Jen stifled tears. She knew that as a nurse, she was a professional.  Professionals don’t cry on the job. Especially in front of the doctor. The doctor bent down and his voice softened.

“I’m sorry,” he said in hushed tones. “I really am. But this is the right move. Now, typically we let the parents hold the baby at this stage. Would you… do you want to do it?”

Jen opened her mouth to speak but no words would come out. Surely this couldn’t be real. The end? She nodded, and quickly wiped away a tear that had begun running down her cheek.

“Okay, I’m going to remove these now,” he said. As he removed tubes, other alarms began going off until he silenced them. “It’s going to happen quite fast once it’s all detached. I just want you to be ready.”

Jen cleared her throat. “I’m ready.”

Once tubes and lines had been detached, Jen took Sunny in her arms and lifted him gently, one hand under his buttocks, the other behind his soft head. She could feel a few wisps of gossamer hair in her fingers. She sat down in a chair and held the wriggling baby to her chest. He was whining quietly, not quite strong enough to cry. He smelled fresh and clean, the way all babies do. He squirmed weakly in her arms and she rubbed his back as tears slowly ran down her cheeks.  

“Can I sing you a song, Sunny?”

The doctor stood at her side. His presence reassured her. 

“My mom always sang this one to me when I was a little baby like you,” she said in a guttural, sobbing voice. She cleared her throat, but her voice remained shaky. She didn’t care. She sniffed and wiped her running nose on her shoulder. Then she sang.

“You are my sunshine

My only sunshine

You make me happy 

When skies are grey

You’ll never know, dear

How much I love you

But please don’t take…”

She interrupted herself. “It’s okay, Sunny. You can go now. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

She held him tightly. Tears ran down her cheeks and splattered onto his head. She wiped them with a finger, and lightly ran her fingernails down his neck. She touched his cheek, hoping it would soothe him as he wiggled and cooed. He soon became less active against her body. “It’s okay,” she repeated. “It’s okay.” She sniffed. “You’ll never know… how much I…”  She couldn’t continue. Sunny was still. She looked down. He had breathed his last and rested on her body, unmoving.  

“Time of death,” began the doctor, peering at his watch. “8:16am, July 1st, 2023. He looks at peace.”

Jen brought Sunny to her cheek. “Until next time. I’ll miss you, my brave little boy.”

Joseph is a writer from Toronto, Ontario with a social work background. He won The Letter Review Prize in spring 2023. He writes biography for Life and Legacy Publishing.