Enjoy an excerpt from my nitty gritty young adult short story - Off Balance.
What the hell? Is that Jen pushing a stroller? Shit, after all the frigging time I spent writing her those stupid letters, after she dropped me like a used cigarette, I can’t believe she’s the first person I see on my leave. That’s the type of karma I’m having these days. First I find out that Eje’s going to be late returning to Halifax and now this. I glance around and wonder for a second if I can walk past her like she doesn’t exist. That’s probably what she’ll do. I never thought of her as being that cold, but not once did she respond to my letters. All I wanted to know was why? Why was it over? I get that a long distance relationship is hard but it’s not like I was going to be away for freaking forever. Maybe she’s seeing someone else. Christ, the thought of that makes me want to puke up the donair I wolfed down faster than a souped-up car.
With my palms sweaty I feel more nervous walking toward her than my first day at boot camp, which sucked. For once the movies got something right. Boot camp is downright ugly. It was all running, learning how to function on little sleep, and forcing yourself to eat crappy sludge military food. That was the first week. Then it became more running, which alternated between pushing your sorry legs through large mother-fucking knee-deep water the Sergeant called puddles—I swear to god if he said that one more time I was going to drown him in one of those so-called puddles—and lots of time spent cleaning weapons. After fourteen weeks of the same routine with the only deviation being getting woken up earlier and earlier and learning to heave your tired beyond-achy body past the breaking point it was hit the books study time.
“Wow, guess who I get the pleasure of running into.” I hate when I look at Jen, my heart drops to my feet. She’s changed but the same. She’s skinner than I remember and there’s a wary deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes that makes me want to check over my shoulder. I resist that urge and hope to god I’m not drooling. Her chestnut colored hair is pulled back in a ponytail, but wisps of it frame her pixie-like face. Her cheeks look flushed and she smells like fresh clean air.
“Nice to see you Charlie.”
Nice to freaking see me. It’s on the tip of my tongue to shout at her, but one thing the military ingrained in me was it’s always best to keep my big mouth shut. The few times I did speak up, I paid for it with sweat and there’s nothing fun about working out when everyone else has gone to barracks.
“Yeah, great to see you too, Jen.” I’m so lame. Small talk was never my strong suit. I find myself shuffling my feet and I don’t want to keep walking. What I want more than anything is to sweep Jen into my arms and kiss her like I fantasized about night after night.
“So how is the military?” she asks, making sure to keep the stroller moving. She must have taken a nanny job. Funny, I never thought of her as suited to clean poopy diapers and all. I’m glad the kid’s asleep and oblivious to us.
“Great.” The kid, a baby I realize, starts to squirm around in the stroller. I attempt to peek in but Jen moves the stroller forward so I can’t see the baby. Fine. Whatever. With expertise Jen pops the soother back in the baby’s mouth and then turns to face me.
“So you really like the Army?” she asks, again.
I nod. “It’s hard though. Lots of physical work and the school stuff is a lot harder than the stuff taught in high school, but yeah, guess I really do like it.” I know now I’m rambling but hell she was the one who asked. “So what have you been up to?”
For a weird second her eyes dart back to the stroller and then she looks up at me. “Not much. Stuff,” she says, which is so unlike Jen I think I must be making her uncomfortable.
“Well, I was supposed to meet Eje tonight but since he’s not in town yet are you interested in getting together…you know like old times. I’d really like to see the gang.” Sweet Jesus I must be nuts. Why not put a bullet through my heart while I stand. I honestly can’t believe I blurted all that out.
Jen looks down at her sneakers and for a second I let myself hope.
“I can’t tonight. Sorry, Charlie.”
“Oh, okay, that’s fine. Listen I’ve got to go but it was really great seeing you again, Jen.”
She nods but doesn’t say anything. I force myself to walk away from her and feel more than ever I should run back and kidnap her. What we had felt special. Where did I go wrong? What did I do to make her hate me so much?
Oh my god I think I’m going to be sick. Of all the people to run into, Charlie. God he looked so good he made me want to cry. Instead I acted like a fool and said nothing. I can’t help glance over my shoulder to see if he’s still there but he’s gone. Out of my life for good and he doesn’t know. Maybe I should have told him. Would it have made a difference? Who knows.
Danny starts to cry and for once I like the distraction. I turn the corner, put the stroller in park and pick him up, holding him tight. At six months now he’s looking more and more like his father. The man I let walk out of my life for good. I cuddle Danny close, amazed at how bright his wonderful big brown eyes are. He’s got light cinnamon colored skin, thick dark curly hair and eyes so alert and intelligent he makes my heart soar.
“You my little man must be getting hungry.” I watch his mouth suckle hard on his soother. It will take me three more blocks until I get to my sister’s place. Tucking him back into his stroller, I make sure the baby blankets keep the chilly September day from his body.
Shame you didn’t do one of your famous cries for your Daddy. The mere thought of Charlie holding Danny unlocks something I’ve tried hard to keep closed for months. I fight the tears wanting to fall. Months ago I willed the emotional side of me to shut off. The words my father screamed at me still haunt me. I made my bed and now I’ve got to lie in it. A giggle escapes me. At least I get to hold Danny in that bed.
I haul the stroller up the two flights of stairs and open the door. Ella, my big sister is there holding the door open for me. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Unlike my father she’s been my rock. When Dad found out I was pregnant he hit the wall, literally. Things got worse from there so a few weeks before I delivered Danny I took up my big sister’s offer and moved in with her. She hasn’t asked me for rent yet and when I offered to pay what I could she told me not to worry about it. Thank god she’s got a big paying job at the bank because the truth of the matter is I don’t have much money saved.
“Did the walk calm him down?”
“Yeah, the minute we hit the street he conked out as usual,” I say, moving the stroller into the living room. No way am I taking him out of that until he wakes up screaming for his food. His last feeding frenzy meant three nights of no sleep and my breasts are still sensitive. Maybe I should start him on a bottle soon.
“Your friend Shannon just called. You really should go out with her.”
I look at Danny and give a silent chuckle. “Can’t.”
“Well, when you’re ready I’ve got formula and bottles for you and maybe when he wakes he’ll be so hungry he won’t miss you.”
“Why do I get the impression it’s you who wants him to take the bottle more than me?”
Ella walks over to the stroller and adjusts one of his blankets. At the age of twenty-six she’s still single and I have no idea why. She’s dated lots of men but according to her none have met her criteria. I should have drawn up a list of must haves too. Maybe that would have helped me resist Charlie. I feel heat creep up my flushed cheeks and hope my sister doesn’t notice.
“I just love him so much, Jen. He’s so adorable. I’d like to try the bottle with him to see if he’d take it. I won’t push you. I know it’s totally up to you, but he’s just so cuddly.” I’m sure Ella’s coworkers would kill to hear how she speaks when she talks to Danny. Normally, my sister is all business, but not when it comes to her nephew.
I look at Danny sleeping peacefully still in his stroller and nod. “Okay, you win. I’ll give Shannon a call and maybe if you’re lucky I’ll meet her for a coffee.” I head down the hall to my bedroom. I swear to god my sister almost jumped for joy. Obviously we both need to get out more.
I give Shannon a hug the minute I see her. She squeezes me back and then punches my arm.
“Why’d you do that?” I slide my butt onto the worn leather seat. We’re at a greasy spoon and so I wouldn’t be out long in case Danny doesn’t take to kindly to the bottle my sister has eagerly gotten ready.
“You didn’t tell him.”
“Tell who what?” I ask, pleading ignorance.
“Don’t play that game with me. Charlie’s in town. He just called me to say he ran into you. He didn’t mention anything else. So, I’m guessing you didn’t tell him.”
Shit. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything to her. She’s never been good at keeping secrets. I stare hard at her. “Listen, how was I to know I’d run into him. He’s busy. I told you this was my burden.”
Shannon looks at me like I’m nuts and maybe I am, but it’s my call. She doesn’t know Charlie like I do. If Charlie knew I had been pregnant he’d never have gone into the Army. He’d never get that opportunity to do what he wanted with his life. No way was I going to be the anchor around his neck. Especially after he told me straight up how his childhood was growing up in the projects. What’s that expression? If you love something enough set it free. Well, hell that’s exactly what I promised myself I’d do for Charlie. My love for him gave him his independence.
“That’s not right, Jen and you know it. Charlie deserves to know about Danny. That’s not a secret you hide from his father.”
I’m tempted to stand up and leave. I don’t want to have this conversation. Especially since I’m feeling vulnerable. Seeing Charlie today knocked that barrier I’ve built up down a bit, so I spent the rest of the day reminding myself why I did what I did.
I lean across the table so I can stress my point. “Shannon this hasn’t been easy on me but you’ve got to trust me, the decision I made is the best thing for Charlie.”
She sits back and studies me. God, I hate when she does that. Shannon’s been my good friend all my life and the one thing she knows is when I lie my eyes twitch. I feel overly conscious of my facial movements.
“You’re full of shit. You still have feelings for him. Jen, tell him. What if someone else does?”
“What? Did you tell Eje?”
She shakes her head. “No. I promised you I wouldn’t but I hate that. Eje and I don’t have secrets between us. We promised each other we wouldn’t after all that happened and honestly this…this is killing me.”
“Don’t you dare tell him, Shannon.”
“Then you tell Charlie. He deserves to know. Trust me, you’ll hate yourself if you don’t. Listen, Eje’s going to be in town tomorrow night so I’m giving you twenty-four hours before I spill my guts to Eje and you know how tight Eje and Charlie are.”
This is blackmail. I can’t believe Shannon is doing this to me. After everything I’ve endured, she’s going to ruin it. I’m so mad at her it takes me a full minute to realize I’ve got tears in my eyes.
Shannon takes my hand in hers and gives it a squeeze. “This isn’t fair to you. Charlie’s done his basic training. Didn’t he tell you he’s been stationed here, in Halifax? Tell him. He might surprise you.”
I wipe the tears from my cheek and remove my hand. “The only surprise is how much he’ll hate me. I can’t tell him, Shannon. It’s too late. Just leave it alone. Please stay out of it.”
“I can’t, Jen. Either you tell him or Eje will. I think news like this should come from you.”
Her words haunt me all through the stupid meaningless meal we have. I practically race back to the apartment needing more than ever the feel of Danny. Telling Charlie might be the right thing but deep down I know it’s going to be more painful than childbirth.