Short story: Everything happens for a reason

Written for the Spring Writing Contest 2017, hosted by Short Fiction Break

I’ve been staring at the shy yet daring, flamingo pink line for a good half hour. It’s there, staring at me from the washing machine in the basement, judging me with its incontrovertible bluntness that I’m forty-four and pregnant with my third child. In the first heat of shock, all I could do was text a trembling picture and delirious screams to my best friend Celine. As I reread my tear-blurred outburst, I realize nothing I wrote makes even sense.

‘How many chances it’s wrong???’

‘It could be wrong!’

My eyes skim through the patient package insert for the millionth time. It says the test is not valid anymore after ten minutes and I wonder why, for a good twenty minutes past that deadline it’s still unchanged. And so is the trembling of my hands as I try to figure out how that happened. Well, I know how that happened, I guess I was counting on my not so young age and on my history of hard-fought pregnancies to preclude any possibility of that kind.

I was so naive.

And the timing. Could it be any worse? We’ve just run up lifelong debts for a larger home that suddenly looks so inadequate for a family of five. We’ve just gone at our poor finances resources fiercely to grant a better life to our two sons. Not to mention, we don’t have grannies who could take care of it and daycare costs a real fortune. A fortune we don’t have. I don’t want another child, I don’t want another pregnancy, I don’t want to start all over again. Or do I?

‘How will hubby feel?’

‘I have no idea.’

I put the test back in its envelope. There is a horrible feeling that I try to shush, failing as my eyes start wetting again. The sound of the front door unlocking and the cheerful voices of my kids, Matt and Danny, make me stiffen. I quickly clean my tears in the sleeve of my orange sweater, silently trying to regain control so my voice won’t quiver. When I do, I ask Aaron, my husband, to reach me downstairs.

Whatever he’s saying as he walks down dies on those polished wooden steps. Arms defensively on my chest, I simply turn my eyes towards the white plastic envelope. The cap of the test barely peeps outside. Aaron’s face pales, as he quickly grasps what I’m wordlessly telling him.

“We can’t.” Two words, barely whispered, that turn my stomach.

I’m well aware we can’t, but for some reason that’s not what I was aching to hear.

“The timing couldn’t be worse.”

Somewhere deep-down, I find the strength to overcome the sudden lump in my throat.

“We’d be back to the drawing board, we’re doing all of this for them,” he turns his eyes at the upper floor, “we’d be back even worse than before.”

“I know.” It’s all I can articulate. He’s right, they couldn’t keep living in a study readjusted into a bedroom for two, with no garden, no space where to work their young energy off. Still, the idea of not having this child feels much worse than the idea of having it.

When Matt calls me from upstairs, it’s a relief to escape this conversation, even if temporarily. I walk past Aaron, carrying all the unexpected, shattering disappointment within me.

It’s after dinner, with the kids playing upstairs, that the inevitable confrontation, rather a monologue, reprises.

“Had this happened a couple of months ago, we could have still made adjustments to fit three. It’s impossible now,” Aaron brings his motivations, justified, I admit, for the new apartment is almost finished. To knock down and rebuild walls now would mean more money we don’t have.

“We should sleep on it,” I make a mild attempt at buying time, as if some miracle might solve our situation overnight.

“It’s not going to change anything.”

Eight hours later, I wonder if staying awake all night thinking about it counts as sleeping on it. Rolling on one side, my hand moves on my belly. As hard as it is to believe it, there’s a baby. The little girl we never had? There is no smile on my lips, as if my heart had already given up on the idea.

“So, did night help you think about it?” The question comes over breakfast preparation, while the kids are still asleep.

“We should try to rearrange the rooms.”

“How? They’re so little! I don’t want to play the bad one, but you know it too. We have already promised the kids they’re finally getting separate rooms.”

“I still think we should try,” I probably tilt at windmills, with a glimpse of hope coming from God only knows where. “They’re growing, they’ll need more and more space outside and less and less inside. We should at least test waters with them. Matt keeps begging for a little sister and Danny is seven, old enough to not suffer from jealousy!”

My words must hit the right spot, for I come back home later to the apartment’s layout lying on the kitchen table and a ruler in Aaron’s hands.

Etched on my face there’s a mild, almost pleasantly guilty smile.

“This is unfair,” he whines, deep into measuring.

“What?”

“Sticking this idea in my head!”

“You know I didn’t get pregnant alone, right?” I try to downplay the surrealism of this situation, as he grumbles and tosses the ruler.

I snort good-naturedly and poke him aside, so the drawing is before me. It’s impossible. This apartment was never meant for five.

A good hour is wasted on a nonexistent solution. In my naivety, I still think we can do it, as if rearranging rooms were the only issue. In reality that’s probably the last thing to worry about.

‘We compiled a list of pros and cons.

Pros:

1) It could be a girl

2) Grannies would squeal

3) Matt always wanted a sister

4) My niece would love me forever

Cons:

– Everything else’

Celine’s reaction is an interminable list of laughing emojis. ‘I’m not a bible thumping religious person but someone upstairs thinks otherwise. This is how it happens. Comes and knocks you upside the head when you least expect it.’

‘Knock is an understatement. Hubby is panicking, and he’s the rational one.’

Everything happens for a reason. Celine keeps telling me so and I guess I’m starting to believe her. Or at least, I make her words mine with the feeble hope that Aaron starts believing it too.

Why would fate decide to give us another child now? I browse through websites, reading up on pros and cons of late pregnancies. It’s funny how, according to statistics, I shouldn’t be pregnant at all. My guilty thoughts go to the women who struggle to have a child at my age and fail. My stomach knots, maybe it’s this tiny being trying to let itself heard. My hands are on my belly, instinctively. There is a child growing inside of me. As intimidating and ill-timed as it can be, I’m overwhelmed. The wish to scream it to the world is excruciating, though I’m aware I have to keep it for myself; for now, maybe forever. I had no idea how much this need was still in me until I faced its reality. Starting all over again. Sleepless nights. Sky-high piles of diapers. I shouldn’t be ready, I shouldn’t even have that energy anymore. Yet, here I am, visualizing my life turned upside down for the third time and beaming at the idea. Alone.

“I decided.” The words, spoken with fiery resolution, come while dressing for Mass. That tone, one I barely ever witnessed, can only mean something I’ll deplore. “We just can’t.”

I don’t have the strength to say anything. As I walk down the side aisle of the church and take a sit on a back bench, there’s a silent apology to God, a tacit beg for forgiveness.

I can’t eat the next day. Or the one after. The drives to work are soundless and stifling, filled only with inner conversations – one hour and half of heart-shattering monologues of bliss – I’ll never have. I reapply my melted makeup in the courtesy mirror of my car, hoping nobody will notice my red eyes. How have I come to this state? My stomach is tied in a pain never known before. A pungent nausea assails me and it’s hard to say if it’s the first symptoms of the pregnancy. I thought I’d seen the worst of life. Until now. When I walk into the studio of my gynecologist for an ultrasound, my pray is that I’m losing the baby so I don’t have to do something so awful. Fate keeps siding against me. The tiny pixel flashing on the monitor makes it all the more real, all the more brutal. My eyes shut in the desperate attempt to erase that image.

“Are you mad?” Had I one penny for every time Aaron asks me this question on the days to come, daycare for this child would be settled before it sees the light. This seems all he can – or dares to – ask me.

“I’m not mad.” I’m many other things. Defeated, miserable, disappointed, emotionally smothered, strained by the effort of holding back tears. I feel selfish and misunderstood at once. My gaze is focused on my reflection in the bathroom mirror, my voice quivers as, with herculean self-control, I confess all the above feelings. I’m not stupid, there’s no way we could afford another child, but to sacrifice it? It feels horrifying. I feel guilty, dirty. I’ve never been against abortion until now that its eventuality is affecting me. I don’t want and cannot deal with it. It’s not who I am, not who I want to be. It was easy to take positions until the body was mine…

I should accept the decision, move on, stop dreaming of a child that will never be. Maybe I’m stubborn, or hopeful, maybe I don’t pay enough attention to the right signs and catch only the misleading ones, those most appealing to me.

Matt keeps asking for a sister, he’s almost eleven, he would help with the baby… Your niece would thank you forever… The only girl in my family… Grannies would freak out…

I play every possible card, even the trembling pouting lip. It always works when Danny does it.

That night, back from a party, Aaron is unusually silent. If fifteen years of marriage taught me something, is that his silences are never silences, they’re storms ready to rage. And before I can figure out what’s crossing his mind, all sorts of accusations pour down on me with a frustration-driven fury I wasn’t expecting, or remotely foreseeing.

I’m selfish. I’m guilting him. If I keep this child I’m gonna have it alone because he’ll leave.

Petrified, I listen to every word without daring to counterattack, or to utter even an innocent monosyllable. My belly contracts. It hurts in every possible way. Then, something inside me dies, something has just changed forever the way I look at him.

‘Aaron decided for abortion.’ My accusation is outright, and so is Celine’s sorrow.

‘Only you guys know what’s best for you. I’m so sorry…’

When they take my unborn child from me, I don’t want Aaron around, not until later when I’m back to a home that suddenly feels cold, in spite of what I still have. We solved our problem, but at what cost?

“In five years you’ll look at your kids, happy with their space, and realize we did the right thing.”

He couldn’t be any more wrong.

I know myself. I know my heart. In five years I’ll look at those rooms and see the dark, giggling pigtails that never toddled, I’ll still blame her father for making that choice for the both of us. In five years, I’ll still regret that child I never had.

Short story: Gemma and the warmth of snow

Written for the Winter Writing Contest 2016, hosted by Short Fiction Break

 

‘Although I understand you might be attached to Charlie, under the law your dog is considered the same as a piece of furniture.’ Terrible. I backspace everything to a blank page, then look out the window, frustrated the words for my last counsel refuse to come the right way.

I coffeed my night away to finish this piece. It still needs a few changes but, dog’s hiccup aside, it’s almost done. My gaze falls on a still sealed envelope that is showing among the notes. I lean out to take it and snort as I read the handwritten name, not for the first time. Only my ex-husband can keep writing missives in the Whatsapp era. Last time I dared to check he was working at a shipyard in New Zealand, under an incandescent sun, while here an unwelcoming stalactite was adorning my kitchen window. I put it back where it was, still unopen, then reach for the steaming coffee mug on my desk – the sixth? I lost count – and between small sips I stare at the laptop screen while trying the umpteenth rewording in my head. My fingers are already finding their place on the keyboard, resolute, when my eyes catch something small falling before me. One flake, then another. My eyes follow the snowflakes as they become thicker, dry enough to dot the ground. Their view is hypnotizing and in the early morning’s quiet you can almost hear their fall. It’s the first snow of the year. My lips curl in a melancholic smile, but at the same time I’m beset by an odd, yet familiar anxiety.

Focus, Leslie, focus.

My gaze shifts back to the keyboard first, then to the cursor flashing rhythmically on the screen, it takes a few moments before I regain enough concentration to remember where I left my sentence. Charlie. Right. All the frustration for the uncompleted assignment builds up, intensified by the last dose of coffee, as I start to type furiously, ‘Neither of you two idiots deserve the poor dog, no matter what the damn Ohio law states. Sincerely, Leslie Stewart,’ then quickly backspace everything. I could be in New Zealand right now, or God only knows where else. Instead, my stubbornness will probably ground me here for the rest of my days.

I close my laptop with a resigned exhale. Maybe a short nap will help my tired mind come up with an insult that doesn’t sound like an insult. The snow is cascading now, and the little greenery still left will be mantled very soon. I stand up and walk to the window, then rest my forehead against the fogged glass to peep outside and get a glimpse of the porch. The wind, as mild as it may be, has decided to blow toward my home, making me wonder if I’ll even be able to leave to get to the journal today. The creaking of the porch’s wood echoes distinctly in my head, together with the thrilled shriek and frisky cavorting of my daughter.

“You would love it,” I whisper to Gemma. Unlike me, she adored winter, she adored the snow and all the frolics that came with it. Her love for that gelid barricade never failed to amuse me, especially given her half-Dominican blood. She was only eleven when, the irony of life, a layer of iced snow caused the car accident that took her away. The reminiscence is still intense. I should have listened to Damian, we should have followed him while we still had that chance.

It’s been seven years, the darkest seven years of my life, though it feels like she never left me. And truth be told, she never really did…

It’s the kind of thing you don’t go around telling anyone, even more so when it’s something you can’t quite understand yourself, but the fact is that sometimes, during the snowy days of winter, she comes back home to see me. One might say it’s a dream, a figment of my imagination, or the side-effect of way too much caffeine in my system playing tricks on my sanity. One would probably say that I’m still grieving. Maybe it’s a little of all of them, maybe it’s not. All I know is that it feels… real.
A yawn escapes my mouth, sign that my body ran out of coffee. Just a nap, Leslie, just a nap. The monotonous fall of the snowflakes has an entrancing effect, making my lids heavy with the eight hours of sleep I didn’t get. Just a nap, I repeat to myself as I climb the stairs to my bedroom.

Wooshhhh.

Wooshhhh.

The sound of something hitting the window, repeatedly, intrudes my sleep. There’s a snowball battle underway somewhere, I presume, as I cocoon myself deep under the red checkered duvet, while muttering to the kids playing down the street. Five more minutes of sleep, that’s all I’m asking.

Wooshhhh.

I peep out the covers with one eye still closed, blinking as I try to focus the alarm clock. It’s barely eight o’clock, which means I haven’t even slept a full hour. Resigned to my torture, I sit up and squint my sleep away. A snowball hits smack in the middle of the window, leaving its imprint as it glides down. I walk up to the window and pull the curtains aside to check who’s winning the battle. But as my eyes catch sight of an empty street, my heart suddenly starts drumming off my chest in anxiety. Only when the curtains fall back in their place, hindering my view, do I realize my hands are trembling. I run the whole way down the stairs, afraid that I might lose the moment when I’m not sure there is a moment to lose in the first place. I halt in front of the locked door and inhale deeply. My feet are bare and my jumper is not warm enough to walk out into such a weather, but I take the risk of a pneumonia with no hesitancy.
My fingers bicker with the latch before managing to unlock and open the door.

And there she is. With her chocolate ringlets rebelling beneath the knitted gray hat, her sunny, toothy grin flawed by those two premolars that never grew, Gemma is waving at me from the garden with an impatient, a tad impudent attitude. She reminds me of someone, Damian used to playfully mock me. “Where were you, mum?” she yells at me.
The chill wind should freeze the tears before they reach my cheeks, instead I can taste their saltiness. I step on to the porch, tentatively, until my feet land on the thin cover of intrusive snow. I’m expecting to feel its bite, but much to my surprise, it’s warm in an almost pleasant way. Did it always feel like that? I take a seat on the first step, unconcerned about wetting my clothes, then gesture for Gemma to join me. My eyes memorize every little freckle, her flushed cheeks as she stares at the white blanket in front of us, lost in thought.

“Why do you keep coming back?” I don’t know why I ask, and I fear its answer.

“Because you need me,” Gemma admits candidly.

Do I?
“You’re always angry when it snows.”
Is this the memory my daughter saved of me? The mere thought breaks me. “Snow doesn’t make me angry. It makes me… sad.”

“Then why do you stay?” she casts a confused glance at me.

“Because… you…” Selfishness? That’s the only reason that comes to my mind. I am the one who makes her come back. I’m stuck and I hold her here with me. Gemma’s gaze is focused on me, eager for an answer I don’t have. “You know mom will always love you.” I move my hand to caress her cheek but don’t dare to touch her, or embrace her. I’m petrified that she might disappear.

“You’re weird, mom. You talk like you’re never going to see me again.” Gemma shakes her head, jumps squared feet back in the garden, then turns to face me, a sly glint in her jet eyes. She thinks she can deceive me, but I notice that her hands, hidden behind her back, are rounding a fistful of snow into a ball.

As we engage a battle under the snowfalls, I lose any concept of time. Only as a faint sun reflects against the snow, I realize it stopped snowing. By instinct, I look up at the sky, a dazzling fraction of second. “It stopped snowing,” I tell Gemma, but when I turn around she’s already gone.

Holding back the sudden lump in my throat, I go back inside as the clock strikes eight.

Numbed in my head and in my heart, I sit back like a robot at the desk. The sealed envelope beckons me, so I smile, muster some strength and open it.
A picture of Tallahassee. A page long letter. Does it ever snow down there?