Not My Daughter
Not My Daughter
Not My Daughter Barbara Delinsky
To my readers, for their big hearts and their undying loyalty.
Table of Contents
Susan Tate never saw it coming. She only knew that her daughter was different. The girl who had always been spontaneous and open had suddenly grown opaque.
Lily was seventeen. Maybe that said it. A senior in high school, she had a loaded course schedule, played field hockey and volleyball, sang in an a cappella group. And, yes, Susan was spoiled by the close relationship she and Lily had always had. They were a family of two, fully comfortable with that and each other.
Inevitably, Lily had to test her wings. Susan knew that. But she also had a right to worry. Lily was the love of her life, the very best thing that had happened in all of her thirty-five years. As achievements in life went, being a good mother was the one she most prized.
That meant communicating, and with dinner too often interrupted by email or texts, eating out was warranted. At a restaurant Susan would have Lily captive while they waited to order, waited for food, waited to pay – all quality time.
She suggested the Steak Place, definitely a splurge, but lined with quiet oak booths. Lily vetoed it in favor of Carlino’s.
Carlino’s wasn’t even Susan’s second choice. Oh, she liked the owners, the menu, and the art, all of which were authentically Tuscan. But the prices were so reasonable for large plates of food that the whole town went there. Susan wanted privacy and quiet; Carlino’s was public and loud.
But she wanted to please Lily, so she gave in and, determined to be a good sport, smilingly hustled her daughter out of the November chill into a hive of warmth and sound. When they finally finished greeting friends and were seated, they shared hummus on toasted crostini, and though Lily only nibbled, she insisted it was good. More friends stopped by, and, in fairness, it wasn’t only Lily’s fault. As principal of the high school, Susan was well known in town. Another time, she would have enjoyed seeing everyone.
But she was on a mission this night. As soon as she was alone with Lily again, she leaned forward and quietly talked about her day at school. With next year’s budget due by Thanksgiving and town resources stagnant, there were hard decisions to be made. Most staff issues were too sensitive to be shared with her seventeen-year-old daughter, but when it came to new course offerings and technology, the girl was a worthy sounding board.
Susan’s motive actually went deeper, to the very heart of mothering. She believed that sharing adult issues encouraged Lily to think. She also believed that her daughter was insightful, and this night was no exception. Momentarily focused, Lily asked good questions.
No sooner had their entrées come, though – chicken with cannellini beans for Lily, salmon with artichokes for Susan – when a pair of Susan’s teachers interrupted to say hello. As soon as they left, Susan asked Lily about the AP Chem test she’d had that morning. Though Lily replied volubly, her answers were heavy on irrelevant facts, and her brightness seemed forced. She picked at her food, eating little.
More worried than ever, Susan searched her daughter’s face. It was heart-shaped, as sweet as always, and was framed by long, shiny, sable hair. The hair was a gift from her father, while her eyes – Susan’s eyes – were hazel and clear, her skin creamy and smooth.
She didn’t look sick, Susan decided. Vulnerable, perhaps. Maybe haunted. But not sick.
Even when Lily crinkled her nose and complained about the restaurant’s heavy garlic smell, Susan didn’t guess. She was too busy assuring herself that those clear eyes ruled out drug use and, as for alcohol, she had never seen bottles, empty or otherwise, in Lily’s room. She didn’t actively search, as in checking behind clutter on the highest shelves. But when she returned clean laundry to drawers or hung jeans in the closet, she saw nothing amiss.
Alcohol wouldn’t be a lure. Susan drank wine with friends, but rarely stocked up, so it wasn’t like Lily had a bar to draw from. Same with prescription drugs, though Susan knew how easy it was for kids to get them online. Rarely did a month go by without a student apprehended for this.
Susan blinked. ‘Yes, sweetheart?’
‘Look who’s distracted. What are you thinking about?’
‘You. Are you feeling all right?’
There was a flash of annoyance. ‘You keep asking me that.’
‘Because I worry,’ Susan said and, reaching across, laced her fingers through Lily’s. ‘You haven’t been the same since summer. So here I am, loving you to bits, and because you won’t say anything, I’m left to wonder whether it’s just being seventeen and needing your own space. Do I crowd you?’
Lily sputtered. ‘No. You’re the best mom that way.’
‘Is it school? You’re stressed.’
‘Yes,’ the girl said, but her tone implied there was more, and her fingers held Susan’s tightly.
‘I’m okay with those.’
‘Then Calculus.’ The Calc teacher was the toughest in the math department, and Susan had worried Lily would be intimidated. But what choice was there? Raymond Dunbar was thirty years Susan’s senior and had vocally opposed her ascension to the principalship. If she asked him to ease up, he would accuse her of favoritism.
But Lily said, ‘Mr Dunbar isn’t so bad.’
Susan jiggled Lily’s fingers. ‘If I were to pinpoint it, I’d say the change came this summer. I’ve been racking my brain, but from everything you told me, you loved your job. I know, I know, you were at the beach, but watching ten kids under the age of eight is hard, and summer families can be the worst.’
Lily scooped back her hair. ‘I love kids. Besides, I was with Mary Kate, Abby, and Jess,’ her three best friends. Daughters of Susan’s best friends, all three girls were responsible. Abby occasionally lacked direction, like her mom Pam, and Jessica had a touch of the rebel, as Sunny did not. But Mary Kate was as steady as her mom Kate, who was like a sister to Susan. With Mary Kate along, Lily couldn’t go wrong.
Not that Lily wasn’t steady herself, but Susan knew about peer pressure. If she had learned one thing as a teacher it was that the key to a child’s success lay in no small part with the friends she kept.
‘And nothing’s up with them?’ she asked.
Lily grew guarded. ‘Has Kate said anything?’
Susan gentled. ‘Nothing negative. She always asks about you, though. You’re her sixth child.’
‘But has she said anything about Mary Kate? Is she worried about her like you’re worried about me?’
Susan thought for a minute, then answered honestly. ‘She’s more sad than worried. Mary Kate is her youngest. Kate feels like she’s growing away from her, too. But Mary Kate isn’t my concern. You are.’ A burst of laughter came from several tables down. Annoyed by the intrusion, Susan shot the group a glance. When she turned back, Lily’s eyes held a frightened look.
Susan had seen that look a lot lately. It terrified her.
Desperate now, she held Lily’s hand even tighter and, in a low, frantic voice, said, ‘What is wrong? I’m supposed to know what girls your age are feeling and thinking, but lately with you, I just don’t. There are so many times when your mind is somewhere else – somewhere you won’t allow me to be. Maybe that’s the way it should be at your age,’ she acknowledged, ‘and it wouldn’t bother me if you were happy, but you don’t seem happy. You seem preoccupied. You seem afraid.’
Susan gasped. Freeing her hand, she sat straighter. She waited for a teasing smile, but there was none. And of course not. Lily woudn’t joke about something like this.
Her thoughts raced. ‘But – but that’s impossible. I mean, it’s not physically impossible, but it wouldn’t happen.’ When Lily said nothing, Susan pressed a hand to her chest and whispered, ‘Would it?’
‘I am,’ Lily whispered back.
‘What makes you think it?’
‘Six home tests, all positive.’
‘Not late. Missed. Three times.’
‘Three? Omigod, why didn’t you tell me?’ Susan cried, thinking of all the other things a missed period could mean. Being pregnant didn’t make sense, not with Lily. But the child didn’t lie. If she said she was pregnant, she believed it herself – not that it was true. ‘Home tests can be totally misleading.’
‘Nausea, tiredness, bloating?’
‘I don’t see bloating,’ Susan said defensively, because if her daughter was three months pregnant, she would have seen it.
‘When was the last time you saw me naked?’
‘In the hot tub at the spa,’ she replied without missing a beat.
‘That was in June, Mom.’
Susan did miss a beat then, but only one. ‘It must be something else. You don’t even have a boyfriend.’ She caught her breath. ‘Do you?’ Had she really missed something? ‘Who is he?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Doesn’t matter? Lily, if you are—’ She couldn’t say the word aloud. The idea that her daughter was sexually active was totally new. Sure, she knew the statistics. How could she not, given her job? But this was her daughter, her daughter. They had agreed – Lily had promised – she would tell Susan if she wanted birth control. It was a conversation they’d had too many times to count. ‘Who is he?’ she asked again.
Lily remained silent.
‘But if he’s involved—’
‘I’m not telling him.’
‘Did he force you?’
‘No,’ Lily replied. Her eyes were steady not with fear now, but something Susan couldn’t quite name. ‘It was the other way around,’ she said. ‘I seduced him.’
Susan sat back. If she didn’t know better, she might have said Lily looked excited. And suddenly nothing about the discussion was right – not the subject, not that look, certainly not the place. Setting her napkin beside the plate, she gestured for the server. The son of a local family, and once a student of Susan’s, he hurried over.
‘You haven’t finished, Ms Tate. Is something wrong?’
Something wrong? ‘No, uh, just time.’
‘Should I box this up?’
‘No, Aidan. If you could just bring the bill.’
He had barely left when Lily leaned forward. ‘I knew you’d be upset. That’s why I haven’t told you.’
‘How long were you planning to wait?’
‘Just a little longer – maybe till the end of my first trimester.’
‘Lily, I’m your mother.’
‘But this is my baby,’ the girl said softly, ‘so I get to make the decisions, and I wasn’t ready to tell you, not even tonight, which is why I chose this place. But even here, it’s like you can see inside me.’
Susan was beyond hurt. Getting pregnant was everything she had taught Lily not to do. She sat back, let out a breath. ‘I can’t grasp this. Are you sure?’ Lily’s body didn’t look different, but what could be seen when she wore the same layered tops that her friends did, and the days when Susan bathed her each night were long gone. ‘Three missed periods?’ she whispered. ‘Then this happened…?’
‘Eleven weeks ago.’
Susan was beside herself. ‘When did you do the tests?’
‘As soon as I missed my first period.’
And not a word spoken? It was definitely a statement, but of what? Defiance? Independence? Stupidity? Lily might be gentle, often vulnerable – but she also had a stubborn streak. When she started something, she rarely backed down. Properly channeled, that was a positive thing, like when she set out to win top prize at the science fair, which she did, but only after three false starts. Or when she set out to sing in the girls’ a cappella group, didn’t make the cut as a freshman and worked her tail off that year and the next as the group’s manager, until she finally landed a spot.
But this was different. Stubbornness was not a reason for silence when it came to pregnancy, certainly not when the prospective mother was seventeen.
Unable to order her thoughts, Susan grasped at loose threads. ‘Do the others know?’ It went without saying that she meant Mary Kate, Abby and Jess.
‘Yes, but no moms.’
‘And none of the girls told me?’ More hurt there. ‘But I see them all the time!’
‘I swore them to silence.’
‘Does your dad know?’
Lily looked appalled. ‘I would never tell him before I told you.’
‘Well, that’s something.’
‘I love babies, Mom,’ the girl said, excited again.
‘And that makes this okay?’ Susan asked hysterically, but stopped when the server returned. Glancing at the bill, she put down what might have been an appropriate amount, then pushed her chair back. The air in the room was suddenly too warm, the smells too pungent even for someone who wasn’t pregnant. As she walked to the door with Lily behind, she imagined that every eye in the room watched. It was a flash from her own past, followed by the echo of her mother’s words. You’ve shamed us, Susan. What were you thinking?
Times had changed. Single mothers were commonplace now. The issue for Susan wasn’t shame, but the dreams she had for her daughter. Dreams couldn’t hold up against a baby. A baby changed everything.
The car offered privacy but little comfort, shutting Susan and Lily in too small a space with a huge chasm between them. Fighting panic as the minutes passed without a retraction, Susan fumbled for her keys and started the engine.
Carlino’s was in the center of town. Heading out, she passed the book store, the drug store, two realtors and a bank. Passing Perry & Cass took longer. Even in the fifteen years Susan had lived in Zaganack, the store had expanded. It occupied three blocks now, two-story buildings with signature crimson-and-cream awnings, and that didn’t count the mail-order department and online call center two streets back, the manufacturing complex a mile down the road, or the shipping department farther out in the country.
Zaganack was Perry & Cass. Fully three-fourths of the townsfolk worked for the retail icon. The rest provided ser vices for those who did, as well as for the tens of thousands of visitors who came each year to shop.
But Perry & Cass wasn’t what had drawn Susan here when she’d been looking for a place to raise her child. Having come from the Great Plains, she had wanted something coastal and green. Zaganack overlooked Maine’s Casco Bay, and, with its hemlocks and pines, was green year-round. Its shore was a breathtaking tumble of sea-bound granite; its harbor, home port to a handful of local fishermen, was quaint. With a population that ebbed and flowed, swelling from 18,000 to 28,000 in summer, the town was small enough to be a community, yet large enough to allow for heterogeneity.
Besides, Susan loved the name Zaganack. A derivative of the Penobscot tongue, it was loosely interpreted to mean ‘people from the place of eternal spring’, and though local lore cited Native Americans’ reference to the relatively mild weather of coastal towns, Susan took a broader view. Spring meant new beginnings. She had found one in Zaganack.
And now this? History repeating itself?
Unable to think, she drove in silence. Leaving the main road, she passed the grand brick homes of Perrys and Casses, followed by the elegant, if smaller, ones of the families’ younger generation. The homes of locals fanned out from there, Colonials yielding to Victorians and, in turn, to homes that were simpler in design and built closer together.
Susan lived in one of the latter. It was a small frame house, with six rooms equally spaced over two floors, and an open attic on the third. By night, with its tiny front yard and ribbon of driveway, it looked like the rest. By day, painted a cerulean blue, with sea green shutters and an attic gable trimmed in teal, it stood out.
Color was Susan’s thing. Growing up, she had loved reds, though her mother said they clashed with her freckles. Dark green would be better, Ellen Tate advised. Or brown. But Susan’s hair was the color of dark sand, so she still adored the pepper of red, orange and pink.
Then came Lily, and Susan’s mother latched onto those colors. You have a fuchsia heart, she charged despairingly when she learned of the pregnancy, and though Susan discarded most else of what her mother had said, those words survived. Loath to attract attention, she had worn black through much of those nine months, then a lighter but stillbland beige after Lily was born. Even when she started to teach, neutrals served her well, offsetting the freckles that made her look too young.
But a fuchsia heart doesn’t die. It simply bides its time, taking a back seat to pragmatism while leaking helpless drops of color here and there. Hence teal gables, turquoise earrings and chartreuse or saffron scarves. In the yarns she dyed as a hobby, the colors were even wilder.
Turning into her driveway, Susan parked and climbed from the car. Once up the side steps, she let herself into the kitchen. In the soft light coming from under the cherry cabinets for which she had painstakingly saved for three years and had largely installed herself, she looked back at Lily.
The girl was Susan’s height, if slimmer and more fragile, but she stood her ground, hands tucked in her jacket pockets. Pregnant? Susan still didn’t believe it was true. Yes, there was picky eating, moodiness, and the morning muzzies, all out of character and new in the last few months, but other ailments had similar symptoms. Like mono.
‘It may be just a matter of taking antibiotics,’ she said sensibly.
Lily looked baffled. ‘Antibiotics?’
‘If you have mono—’
‘Mom, I’m pregnant. Six tests, all positive.’
‘Maybe you read them wrong.’
‘Mary Kate saw two of them and agreed.’
‘Mary Kate is no expert, either.’ Susan felt a stab. ‘How many times have I seen Mary Kate since then? Thirty? Sixty?’
‘Don’t be mad at Mary Kate. It wasn’t her place to tell you.’
‘I am mad at Mary Kate. I’m closer to her than I am to the others, and this is your health, Lily. What if something else is going on with your body? Shouldn’t Mary Kate be concerned about that?’
Lily pushed her fingers through her hair. ‘This is beyond bizarre. All this time I’ve been afraid to tell you because I didn’t know how you’d react, but I never thought you wouldn’t believe me.’
Susan didn’t want to argue. There was one way to find out for sure. ‘Whatever it is, we’ll deal. I’ll call Dr Brant first thing tomorrow. She’ll squeeze you in.’
Never a good sleeper, Susan spent the night running through all of the reasons why her daughter couldn’t be pregnant. Most had to do with being responsible, because if Susan had taught Lily one thing, it was that.
Lily was responsible when it came to school. She studied hard and got good grades. She was responsible when it came to her friends, loyal to a fault. Hadn’t she gone out on a limb to campaign for Abby, who had set her heart on being senior class president? When the girl lost the election, Lily had slept at her house for three straight nights.
Lily was responsible when it came to the car, rarely missing a curfew, leaving the gas tank empty, or being late when she had to pick up Susan.
Hard-working. Loyal. Dependable. Responsible. And…pregnant? Susan might have bought into it if Lily had a steady boyfriend. Accidents happened.
But there was no boyfriend, and no reason at all to believe that Lily would sleep with someone she barely knew. Was sweet Lily Tate – who wore little makeup, slept in flannel pajamas, and layered camis over camis to keep her tiny cleavage from view – even capable of seduction?
Susan thought not. It had to be something else, but the possibilities were frightening. By two in the morning, her imagination was so out of control that she gave up trying to sleep and, crossing the hall, quietly opened the door. In the faint glow of a butterfly nightlight, Lily was a blip under the quilt, only the top of her head showing, dark hair splayed on the pillow. Her jeans and sweaters were on the cushioned chair, her Sherpa boots – one standing, one not – on the floor nearby. Her dresser was strewn with hairbrushes and clips, beaded bracelets, a sock she was knitting. Her cell phone lay on the nightstand, along with several books and a half-full bottle of water.
In the faintest whisper, Susan called her name, but there was no response, no movement in this still life. Girl with Butterfly Nightlight, she might have named it. Girl. So young. So vulnerable.
Heart catching, she carefully backed out, crept down the hall to the attic door and quietly climbed the stairs. There, at an oak table in the small arc of a craft lamp, she turned to a fresh page of her notebook, opened a tin of pastels, and made her first bold stroke. A fuchsia heart? Definitely. If anything could distract her, it was this. She made another stroke, smudged the ends, added yellow to soften a green, then navy to deepen a red.
Typically, she produced her best work when she was stressed – pure sublimation – and this night was no exception. By the time she was done, she had five pages, each with a unique swath of anywhere from two to five hues, undulating from shade to shade. These would be the spring colorways for PC Yarns. She even named them – March Madness, Vernal Tide, Spring Eclipse, Robin At Dawn, and, naturally, Creation.
The last was particularly vibrant. Violent? No, she decided. Well, maybe. But wasn’t creation an explosive thing? Didn’t creation have profound consequences? And what if Lily wasn’t growing a child but something darker?
Susan returned to bed, but each time she dozed, she woke up to new fears. By five in the morning, when she finally despaired of sleep and got up, she was convinced that her daughter had a uterine cyst that had been overlooked long enough to jeopardize her chances of ever having a baby. Either that, or it was a tumor. Uterine cancer, warranting a hysterectomy, perhaps chemotherapy. Terrifying. No child, ever? Tragic.
Keeping her fears to herself, she got Lily up as usual, dropped her at Mary Kate’s and went on to school. The girls would follow later, but this morning, Susan had two early parent meetings, both difficult, before she appeared on the front steps to greet students. It wasn’t until eight-thirty that she finally reached the doctor’s office.
The only appointment Lily could get was for late afternoon, which gave Susan the rest of the day to worry. That meant she answered email with half a heart, was distracted during a teacher observation, and what little work she put into her budget for the following year, which was due to the superintendent by Thanksgiving, was a waste.
She could only think of one thing, and any way she looked at it, it wasn’t good.
The doctor confirmed it. Lily was definitely pregnant. Learning that her daughter didn’t have a fatal disease, Susan was actually relieved – but only briefly. The reality of being pregnant at seventeen was something she knew all too well.
Susan had become pregnant in high school herself. Richard McKay was the son of her parents’ best friends. That summer, when he was fresh out of college with a journalism degree and a job offer for fall that he couldn’t refuse, something sparked between them. Pure lust, her father decided. And the chemistry was certainly right. But Susan and Rick had spent too many hours that summer only talking for it to be just sex. They saw eye to eye on so many things, not the least being their desire to leave Oklahoma, that when Rick dutifully offered to marry Susan, she flat-out refused.
She never regretted her decision. To this day, she recalled the look of palpable relief on his face when she had firmly shaken her head. He had dreams; she admired them. Had there been times when she missed having him there? Sure. But she couldn’t compete with the excitement of his career, and refused to tie him down.
His success reinforced her conviction. Starting out, he had been the assistant to the assistant producer of a national news show. Currently, he was the star, following stories to the ends of the earth as one of the show’s leading commentators. He had never married, had never had other children. Only after he became the face in front of the camera rather than the one behind was he able to send money for Lily’s support, but his check arrived every month now without fail. He never missed a birthday, and had been known to surprise Lily by showing up for a field hockey tournament. He kept in close touch with her by phone – a good, if physically absent, father.
Rick had always trusted Susan. Rather than micromanage from afar, he left the day-to-day parenting to her. Now, under her watchful gaze, Lily was pregnant.
Stunned, Susan listened quietly while Lily answered the doctor’s questions. Yes, she wanted the baby, and yes, she understood what that meant. No, she hadn’t discussed it with her mother, because she would do this on her own if she had to. No, she did not want the father involved. No, she did not drink. Yes, she knew not to eat swordfish.
She had questions of her own – like whether she would be able to finish out the field hockey season (yes), whether winter volleyball was possible (maybe), and whether she could take Tylenol for a headache (only as directed) – and she sounded so like the mature, responsible, intelligent child Susan had raised that, if Susan hadn’t been numb, she might have laughed.
Silent still when they left the doctor’s office, she handed Lily the keys to the car. ‘I need to walk home.’ Lily protested, but she insisted, ‘You go on. I need the air.’
It was true, though she did little productive thinking as she walked through the November chill. No longer numb, she was boiling mad. She knew it was wrong – definitely not the way a mother should feel; everything she had resented in her own mother – but how to get a grip?
The cold air helped. She was a little calmer as she neared the house. Then she saw Lily. The girl was sitting on the front steps, a knitted scarf wound around her neck, her quilted jacket – very Perry & Cass – pulled tight round her. When Susan approached, she sat straighter and said in a timid voice, ‘Don’t be angry.’
But Susan was. Furious, she stuck her hands in her pockets.
Susan took a deep breath. She looked off, past neighborhood houses, all the way on down the street until the cordon of old maples seemed to merge. ‘This isn’t what I wanted for you,’ she finally managed to say.
‘But I love children. I was born to have children.’
Looking back, Susan pressed her aching heart. ‘I couldn’t agree with you more. My problem’s with the timing. You’re seventeen. You’re a senior in high school – and expecting a baby at the end of May, right before exams? Do you have any idea what being nine months pregnant is like? How are you going to study?’
‘I’ll already have been accepted into college.’
‘Well, that’s another thing. How can you go to college? Dorm rooms don’t have room for cribs.’
‘I’m going to Percy State.’
‘Oh, honey, you can do better.’
‘You went there, and look where you are.’
‘I had to go there. But times have changed. Getting a job is hard enough now, even with a degree from a top school.’
‘Exactly. So it won’t matter. Anything is do-able, Mom. Haven’t you taught me that?’
‘Sure. I just never thought it would apply to a baby.’
Lily’s eyes lit up. ‘But there is a baby,’ she cried, sounding so like a buoyant child that Susan could have wept. Lily didn’t have a clue what being a mother entailed. Spending the summer as a mother’s helper was a picnic compared to the day-in day-out demands of motherhood.
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ she said and, suddenly exhausted, sank down on the steps. ‘Forget do-able. What about sensible? What about responsible? We’ve talked about birth control. You could have used it.’
‘You’re missing the point, Mom,’ Lily said, moving close to hug Susan’s arm. ‘I want this baby. I know I can be a good mother – even better than the moms we worked for this summer, and I have the best role model in you. You always said being a mother was wonderful. You said you loved me from the start. You said I was the best thing that ever happened to you.’
Susan wasn’t mollified. ‘I also said that being a single mom was hard and that I never wanted you to have to struggle the way I did. So – so think beyond college. You say you want to be a biologist, but that means grad school. If you want a good research position—’
‘I want a baby.’
‘A baby isn’t only for the summer, and it doesn’t stay a baby for long. He or she walks and talks and becomes a real person. And what about the father then?’
‘I told you. He doesn’t know.’
‘He has a right to.’
‘Why? He had no say in this.’
‘And that’s fair, Lily?’ Susan asked. ‘What if the baby looks exactly like him? Don’t you think people will talk?’
A hint of stubbornness crossed Lily’s face. ‘I don’t care if people talk.’
‘Maybe the father will. What if he comes up to you and asks why this child who was born nine months after the time you had sex has his hair and eyes? And what happens when your child wants to know about his father? You were asking by the time you were two. Some kids do still have daddies, y’know. So now it’s your turn to be the mommy. What’ll you say?’
Lily frowned. ‘I’ll go there when I have to. Mom, you’re making this harder than it needs to be. Right now, the baby’s father does not have to know.’
‘But it’s his baby, too,’ Susan argued. Desperate for someone to blame, she sorted through the possibilities. ‘Is it Evan?’
‘I’m not telling who it is.’
‘Do I know him?’ Susan wondered if Lily was stonewalling for a reason. ‘Was he the one who wanted the baby?’
Lily pulled her arm free. ‘Mom,’ she cried, hazel eyes flashing, ‘listen to me! He doesn’t know. We never talked about a baby. He thought I was on the pill. I did this. Me.’
Which, of course, was one of the things Susan found so hard to swallow. It was like a slap in the face, a repudiation of everything she had tried to teach her daughter.
Desperate to understand, she said, ‘Are you sure it wasn’t an accident? I mean, it’s okay if it was. Accidents happen.’ Lily shook her head. ‘You just decided you wanted a baby.’
‘I’ve always wanted a baby.’
‘A sibling,’ Susan said, because, when she was little, Lily had begged for one.
‘Now I’m old enough to have my own, and I know you might not have chosen to be pregnant seventeen years ago, but I did. It’s my body, my life.’
Susan had raised Lily to be independent and strong, but cavalier? No. Especially not when there were realities to face. ‘Who’ll pay the medical bills?’
‘We have insurance.’
‘With premiums to which I contribute every month,’ Susan pointed out, ‘so the answer is me. I’ll pay the medical bills. What about diapers? And formula?’
‘Which is wonderful if it works, but sometimes it doesn’t, in which case you’ll need formula. And what about solid food and clothes? And equipment. They won’t let you leave the hospital without an approved car seat, and do you know what a good stroller costs? No, I don’t still have your old one, because I sold it years ago to buy you a bike. And what about day-care while you’re finishing school? I’d love to stay home with the baby myself, but one of us has to work.’
‘Dad will help,’ Lily said in a small voice.
Yes. Rick would. But was Susan looking forward to asking? Absolutely not.
Lily’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I really want this baby.’
‘You can have a baby, but there’s a better time!’ Susan cried.
‘I am not having an abortion.’
‘No one’s suggesting one.’
‘I already heard my baby’s heartbeat. You should have listened to it, Mom. It was amazing.’
Susan was having trouble accepting that her daughter was pregnant, much less that there was an actual baby alive inside.
‘It has legs and elbows. It has ears, and this week it’s developing vocal cords. I know all this, Mom. I’m doing my homework.’
‘Then I take it,’ Susan said in a voice she couldn’t control, ‘that you read how pregnant teens are at greater risk for complications.’ It was partly her mother’s voice. The rest was that of the failed educator whose crusade had been keeping young girls from doing what she had done. That educator had failed on her own doorstep.
‘I stopped on the way home for the vitamins,’ Lily said meekly. ‘Do you think the baby’s okay?’
As annoyed as she was – as disappointed as she was – a frightened Lily could always reach her. ‘Yes, it’s okay,’ she said. ‘I was just making a point.’
That easily reassured, Lily smiled. ‘Think I’ll have a girl like you did?’ She didn’t seem to need an answer, which was good, since Susan didn’t have one. ‘If it’s a girl, she’s already forming ovaries. And she’s this big.’ She spread her thumb and forefinger several inches apart. ‘My baby can think. Its brain can give signals to its limbs to move. If I could put my finger exactly where it is, it would react to my touch. It’s a real human being. There is no way I could have an abortion.’
‘Please, Lily. Have I asked you to get one?’
‘No, but maybe when you start thinking about it, you will.’
‘Did I abort you?’
‘No, but you’re angry.’
Susan shot a pleading glance at the near-naked tops of the trees. ‘Oh, Lily, I’m so many things beside angry that I can’t begin to explain. We’re at a good place now, but it hasn’t come easy. I’ve had to work twice as hard as most mothers. You, of all people, should know that.’
‘Because I’m a good daughter? Does my being pregnant make me a bad one?’
‘No, sweetheart. No.’ It had nothing to do with good and bad. Susan had argued this with her own mother.
‘But you’re disappointed.’
Try heartbroken. ‘Lily, you’re seventeen.’
‘But this is a baby,’ Lily pleaded.
‘You are a baby,’ Susan cried.
Lily drew herself up and said quietly, ‘No, Mom. I’m not.’
Susan was actually thinking the same thing. No, Lily wasn’t a baby. She would never be a baby again.
The thought brought a sense of loss – loss of childhood? Of innocence? Had her own mother felt that? Susan had no way of knowing. Even in the best of times, they hadn’t talked, certainly not the way Susan and Lily did.
‘Don’t be like Grandma,’ Lily begged, sensing her thoughts.
‘I have never been like Grandma.’
‘I would die if you disowned me.’
‘I would never do that.’
Turning to face her, Lily grabbed her hand and held it to her throat. ‘I need you with me, Mom,’ she said fiercely, then softened. ‘This is our family, and we’re making it bigger. You wanted that, too, I know you did. If things had been different, you’d have had five kids like Kate.’
‘Not five. Three.’
‘Three, then. But see?’ she coaxed. ‘A baby isn’t a bad thing.’
No. Not a bad thing, Susan knew. A baby was never bad. Just life-changing.
‘This is your grandchild,’ Lily tried.
‘Um-hm,’ Susan hummed. ‘I’ll be a grandmother at thirty-six. That is embarrassing.’
‘I think it’s great.’
‘That’s because you’re seventeen and starry-eyed – which is good, sweetheart, because if you aren’t smiling now, you’ll be in trouble down the road. You’ll be alone, Lily. In the past, we’ve had two other pregnant seniors and one pregnant junior. None of them wanted to go to college. Your friends will go to college. They want careers. They won’t be able to relate to being pregnant.’
Lily’s eyes widened with excitement. ‘But see, Mom, that’s not true. That’s the beauty of this.’
Susan made a face. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Cute,’ Kate Mello told her youngest and proceeded to pour dry macaroni into a pot of boiling water. ‘Lissie?’ she yelled upstairs to her second youngest. ‘When are you going? I need that milk.’ She stirred the macaroni and said more to herself than to Mary Kate, who stood beside her at the stove, ‘Why is it that I’m always out of milk lately?’
‘I’m serious, Mom. I’m pregnant.’
Holding the lid in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, Kate simply touched her forehead to Mary Kate’s and smiled. ‘We agreed that you had the flu.’
‘It’s not going away.’
‘Then it’s lactose intolerance,’ Kate said, setting the lid on the pot. ‘You’re the one who’s drinking me out of milk. Lissie? Soon, please?’
‘I’m drinking milk,’ said Mary Kate, ‘because that’s what pregnant women do.’
‘You are not a pregnant woman,’ Kate informed her daughter and reached for her wallet when Lissie appeared. There wasn’t much in it; money disappeared even faster than milk. She found a twenty among the singles, and handed it over. ‘A gallon of milk, a dozen eggs and two loaves of multi-grain bread, please.’
‘Alex hates multi-grain,’ Lissie reminded her as she pulled on her jacket.
Kate put the car keys in her hand. ‘Alex is twenty-one. If he hates what I buy, he can get his own apartment and buy what he likes. Oh, and if there’s money left over, will you get some apples?’ As Lissie left, she handed Mary Kate a stack of plates. ‘Eight tonight. Mike is bringing a friend.’
‘I conceived eight weeks ago,’ Mary Kate said, taking the plates.
Kate studied her daughter. She was pale, but she was always pale. Same with looking frail. The poor thing had the delicate features of an unnamed forebear, but her hair was all Kate – sandy and thick, wild in a way that the child never was. Kate tacked hers up with bamboo knitting needles. Mary Kate tied hers in a ponytail that exploded behind her, making her face look even smaller.
‘You’re not pregnant, honey,’ Kate assured her. ‘You’re only seventeen, you’re on the pill, and Jacob wants to be a doctor. That’s a lot of years before you two can even get married.’
‘I know,’ Mary Kate said with a spurt of enthusiasm, ‘but by then I’ll be older and getting pregnant will be harder. Now’s the time for me to have a baby.’
Kate felt the girl’s forehead. ‘No fever. You can’t be delirious.’
‘Mom, did Lissie leave?’ This from Kate’s third daughter who, not seeing her twin, snatched a cell phone from the clutter on the kitchen table.
‘That’s mine, Sara,’ Kate protested. ‘I’m low on minutes.’
‘This isn’t a social call, Mom. I need tampons.’
‘I don’t,’ Mary Kate said in a small voice, but with Sara calling Lissie and Mike choosing that minute to duck in and ask if he could have two friends for dinner, Kate barely heard her.
‘It’s only mac ’n cheese,’ she cautioned him.
‘Only?’ her twenty-year-old son echoed. ‘You said it was lobster mac ’n cheese.’
‘Is that why they’re coming?’
‘Definitely. Your lobster mac is famous. The guys hit me up every Wednesday morning for an invitation.’
‘And if your uncle decides to pull his traps on Friday?’
‘They’ll switch to Friday. So two is okay?’
‘Two’s okay,’ Kate said, and remarked to Mary Kate when Mike and Sara were both gone, ‘Lucky the catch is up and the price is down.’
‘I’m trying to tell you something, Mom. This is import ant. I stopped taking the pill.’
Hearing that, Kate turned. Her daughter looked serious. ‘Are you and Jacob cooling it?’
‘No. I just decided I wanted a baby. Did you know that a woman is more fertile right after she goes off the pill? I haven’t even told Jacob yet. I wanted you to be the first to know.’
Something about her serious look gave Kate pause. ‘Mary Kate? You’re not joking?’
‘I keep doing tests, and they’re all positive.’
‘For how long?’
‘A while. I mean, I would have told you sooner, only I wanted to make sure. But I’m really on top of this, Mom. I bought books, and I’m getting more info online. They have a support group for teens, but I don’t really need that. I already have a support group.’
Kate frowned. ‘Who?’
‘Well…well, for starters, my family. I mean, we normally have seven for dinner. Tonight it was eight, and now nine. What’s one more?’
Kate would have sent Mary Kate to the back porch for another folding chair, because that was what one more meant in their cramped dining room, if she hadn’t been struggling to process what the girl had said. ‘Is this true?’
‘Yes. Anyway, you love kids. Didn’t you have five in five years?’
‘Not by design,’ Kate said weakly. ‘They just started to come and didn’t stop.’ Not until Will had had a vasectomy, though that wasn’t something they often discussed with the kids. They would have discussed abstinence, if they believed there was a chance the kids would listen. More realistically, they talked up responsibility. ‘But wait, back up, I was twenty-one when I had my first child, and I was married.’
Mary Kate didn’t seem to hear. ‘So now this is the next generation. I like being the first one of us to have kids. I’m always last in everything else.’
‘The decision to have a child should involve both parents,’ Kate said. ‘You need to ask Jacob before you do anything rash.’
‘Oh, Jacob is just so serious sometimes. He would have said no, and he’d have given lots of reasons that made sense, but sometimes you have to just go with your gut. Remember Disney World five years ago? You piled Dad and us in the car and drove us to Florida in the middle of winter, and we didn’t have hotel reservations or anything, but your gut told you the trip would be good.’
‘That was a trip, Mary Kate. This is a baby. A baby is for life.’
‘But I’ll be a good mother,’ Mary Kate insisted. ‘Last summer was such an eye-opener – seeing what those moms did? Like, no patience with their kids, wanting to palm them off on us while they sat way off at the other end of the beach. I’ll never do that with my baby. If it’s a boy, it’ll be a little Jacob. That would be awesome.’
Kate was speechless. The quietest of her five, the most passive and deferential, Mary Kate was rarely this effusive. And what had she just said? ‘A little Jacob?’
Mary Kate nodded. ‘I won’t know the sex for a little while, and I know it could be a girl…’ Her voice trailed off.
Bewildered, Kate looked around. The kitchen was small. The whole house was small. ‘Where would we keep a baby?’
‘In my room. Co-sleeping is big right now. By the time my baby outgrows that, Alex will probably be out of the house and maybe Mike, too, so there’ll be more room. And then once Jacob graduates from medical school—’
‘Jacob hasn’t graduated from high school,’ Kate yelped, struck again by the absurdity of the discussion. ‘Mary Kate, are you telling me the truth?’
‘About being pregnant?’ The girl quieted. ‘I wouldn’t lie about something like that.’
No, she wouldn’t. She was an honest girl, a bright girl, perhaps the most gifted of Kate’s five kids, and she had a future. She was planning to marry a doctor and be a college professor herself.
‘I mean,’ Mary Kate went on, speaking faster now, clearly sensing her mother’s horror, ‘you always said “the more the merrier”, that a noisy home makes you happy, that you’d have had more children if we’d been richer.’
‘Right, but we’re not,’ Kate stated bluntly. ‘Your father and I barely finished paying off our own college loans in time for your brothers to start college, and now with the twins there and you next year – but you won’t be going to college if you have a baby, will you? How can you be an English professor without a college degree – without a graduate degree?’
‘I’ll get one. It just may take a little longer.’
Kate couldn’t believe what her smart daughter was saying. ‘May just take a little longer?’
‘And in the meantime I’ll have Jacob’s baby.’
‘Where? How? Jacob’s dad drives a PC truck, and his mom teaches first grade. They’re as strapped as we are. If Jacob loves you like he says, he’s going to want to be with you and the baby, but his parents can’t support the three of you.’
‘I’d never ask them to,’ Mary Kate said. ‘Besides, I don’t want to marry Jacob yet. I want to stay here.’
‘So we can support you and the baby?’
‘Fine,’ the girl said. ‘Then I’ll move out.’
Kate grabbed her daughter’s shoulders. ‘You will not move out, Mary Kate. That isn’t an option.’
‘Neither is abortion.’
‘I agree, but there are other choices.’
‘Like adoption? I’m not giving my baby to someone else.’ She plucked at her sweater. ‘See this? It was Sara’s, and these jeans were Lissie’s, but this baby is mine.’ The hand on her middle was pale but protective.
Yes, Kate acknowledged. Mary Kate often got clothes from the twins – okay, usually got clothes from the twins – but didn’t large families do that? She was a hand-me-down child in everything but love. Kate had always thought that would make it okay. ‘Your sisters outgrew those things,’ she argued. ‘They were good clothes.’
‘That’s not the point, Mom. This baby’s mine.’
‘Just like you and your brothers and sisters are mine,’ said Kate. ‘When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a vet. I love animals. But I loved your father more, and then you kids came along really fast, and I loved you all so much that I wanted to be a full-time mom, which was lucky, because there was so much to do for the five of you that our house was chaotic even without my having an outside job. And by the time you all were in school, we didn’t have the money for me to train to be a vet. Do you think I work just for kicks?’
Mary Kate was subdued. ‘You love your work.’
‘Yes, but I couldn’t do it if it didn’t pay. We need every extra cent.’
‘My baby won’t cost much,’ the girl said meekly.
Kate took her shoulders again, holding onto a dream that was fading fast. ‘It isn’t the money,’ she pleaded softly. ‘I want things to be easier for you when you have kids. I want your children to have rooms of their own. I don’t want you to have to choose between music lessons or ballet because you can’t pay for both.’
The door opened, and Kate looked up, fully expecting it to be Lissie. But it was Will. Who had worked his way from the PC shipping dock to foreman of the department, losing hair and gaining girth, but remaining Kate’s rock.
She always felt a weight lift from her shoulders when Will came home, but her relief had never been greater than it was now. ‘Here’s your dad. Will, we have something to discuss.’
Five blocks away, Sunny Barros was nowhere near as relieved when her husband came home from work. ‘She’s what?’ Dan asked her. Their daughter stood nearby, but he was looking at Sunny, who was absolutely beside herself.
‘Pregnant,’ Sunny mouthed. She couldn’t say the word again.
‘Jessica?’ he asked and turned to the girl. ‘Is this true?’
‘Who’s the boy?’
‘You don’t know him, Dad.’
Dan looked at his wife. ‘Who is he?’
Sunny shook her head and pressed her mouth shut. It was either that, or scream.
‘Mom’s angry,’ Jessica said calmly. ‘I’ve been telling her that it’s fine. People have been having babies since Adam and Eve. She’s convinced it’s the end of the world.’
‘Excuse me, Jessica,’ Sunny cried, but stopped when her ten-year-old daughter skipped into the room. ‘Darcy.’ She pointed upstairs. ‘Violin practice. Ten more minutes.’
The child looked wounded. ‘I’m just saying hi to Daddy. Hi, Dad.’
Sunny pointed again, waiting only until the child left before eying Jessica. ‘Tell him what else you told me.’ She looked at Dan. ‘Jessica planned this.’
‘Planned to get pregnant?’
‘Decided she wanted a baby,’ Sunny specified. If the girl had gone looking for the one thing that would dismantle the tidy life Sunny had so carefully crafted, she had found it.
‘Is this true, Jessica?’ Dan asked.
Jessica eyed him levelly. A tall girl with long brown hair and Dan’s verbal skill, she spoke with confidence. ‘Bringing a child into the world is the most important thing a person can do. I want to leave my mark.’
‘Age doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside. I’ll be the best mom ever.’
‘At seventeen,’ Dan repeated. Looking at Sunny, he scratched his head. ‘Where did this come from?’
Sunny didn’t answer. Folding her arms against the coming storm, she waited. Dan was smart, well beyond the contracts he negotiated for Perry & Cass. He saw cause and effect, and was eminently predictable. Sunny had always loved that about him, but it was about to work against her.
To his credit, he considered other options first. Looking at Jessica again, he said, ‘Is it school pressure? Fear of college?’
Jessica smiled smugly. ‘My grades are great. That’s one of the reasons I knew I could do this.’
She had her father’s brains – tenth in her class without much effort – but this had nothing to do with grades, or apparently with brains, Sunny decided. ‘Do you have any idea—’ she began, but stopped when Darcy whipped back in.
‘My lamp just blew out. It needs a new bulb.’
‘I’ll replace it in a minute,’ Sunny said and turned her around. ‘Until then, use the overhead light.’
‘I don’t like the overhead light.’
‘Use it,’ Sunny ordered and turned back to the others. ‘And there’s another problem. What do we tell Darcy so that she doesn’t do this herself in seven more years? This is the worst kind of example to set.’
Dan held up a hand and returned to Jessica. ‘You talked about going to Georgetown.’
‘Percy State will do.’
‘Will do?’ He lowered his voice. ‘Is it Adam?’
‘Maybe. Maybe not.’
‘Jessica!’ Sunny shouted.
Dan lifted his hand for quiet. ‘You are dating Adam, are you not?’
‘I have been, but he isn’t the love of my life.’
‘He has to marry you if he’s the father of this baby,’ Sunny argued.
‘I haven’t said he’s the father,’ the girl insisted. ‘Anyway, the donation of sperm doesn’t make a man a father. Involvement does, and the father of this baby won’t be involved. I’m raising it myself.’
‘Raising it yourself?’ Dan asked. ‘That doesn’t make sense.’
‘Maybe not to you and Mom. When everything in your world is as neat as this kitchen—’
‘What’s wrong with this kitchen?’ Sunny asked in alarm. Their kitchen – their house – was larger than many in town, reflecting Dan’s position as head of the PC legal department and Sunny’s as manager of Home Goods. She had decorated every inch of the place herself and took pride in seasonal additions from the store, like the hand-blown glass bowl of pine cones on the table. Their kitchen reflected everything they had worked so hard to achieve. She hadn’t expected an attack on this front.
‘Nothing’s wrong with the kitchen, Mom,’ Jessica replied serenely. ‘That’s the problem. Nothing is out of place. Nothing clashes. Our lives are very, very organized.’ She looked at Dan, who looked at Sunny.
‘Where is she getting this?’ he asked, sounding mystified.
‘Not from me,’ Sunny vowed, but she knew what was coming.
‘From your mother?’
It was the only possible explanation. Sunny didn’t have to study Jessica’s cell tab to know that she talked with her grandmother often. The girl made no secret of it. She and Delilah had always gotten along, and no warning from Sunny could change that.
Delilah Maranthe was the embodiment of all Sunny had tried to escape. Her parents had been the eccentrics of the neighborhood, bent on doing their own thing. Born Stan and Donna, they went to court to become Samson and Delilah. They bought a house in suburbia and, under the guise of returning the property to its natural state, refused to mow the lawn. Ever. They spent weeks before Halloween baking cookies and rigging up elaborate electronics, though the local children were forbidden to visit. To Sunny’s utter mortification, they appeared at her high school graduation dressed as graduates from the century before.
To this day they remained odd, and though some people found a benign charm in their behavior, Sunny did not. Had her parents ever been benign – had they had an ounce of caring or foresight, they wouldn’t have saddled their children with silly names. What kind of mother named her child Sunshine? Sunny would have gone to court to change it herself if she hadn’t been adamant against following in a single one of her parents’ footsteps. And Buttercup? That was her older sister, who had simply shrugged it off and gone through life as Jane.
Sunny had been more vulnerable, suffering the taunts of schoolmates, and though no one in Zaganack knew her as Sunshine, the fear of discovery haunted her. She had raised Jessica and her sister to be Normal with a capital N.
Now Jessica was pregnant, saying that sperm didn’t make a man a father, and that their lives were too ordinary – and Dan was looking at Sunny like it was her fault. But how could she control Delilah Maranthe? ‘It’s not enough that I had to escape my mother when I was a child, but now she’s corrupted my daughter!’
‘This has nothing to do with Delilah,’ Jessica insisted, which irritated Sunny all the more.
‘See, Dan? Not Grandma. Delilah.’ She turned on her daughter. ‘A grandmother shouldn’t be called by her first name. Why can’t you call her Grandma?’
‘Because she forbade me to. She just isn’t a Grandma.’
‘There’s our problem,’ Sunny told Dan.
‘Why are you always so down on her?’ Jessica argued. ‘Delilah happens to be one of the most exciting people I know. Face it, Mom. We are totally predictable.’
‘I have a job other people would die for,’ Sunny reasoned.
‘We follow every rule to the letter.’
‘I’m respected in this town.’
Jessica raised her voice. ‘I want to stand out!’
‘Well, you’ve done it now. What are people going to think?’
‘They’ll think it’s fine, Mom, because it isn’t just me. It’s Lily and Mary Kate, too.’
Sunny gasped. ‘What?’
Susan waited only until Lily had gone upstairs before opening her cell. Seconds later, without so much as a hello, Kate asked, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’
‘Not me. I was hoping you would. You’re my guru.’
She heard a snort. ‘I’ve mothered my kids through broken bones and head lice, not pregnancy. How’s Lily?’
‘Same with Mary Kate.’
‘How could this happen?’ Susan asked, bewildered. ‘We taught them the right things, didn’t we?’
Kate interrupted the conversation to say, ‘No, Lissie, she is not a loser. There’s a solution to this.’ Back to Susan, she muttered, ‘But I haven’t a clue what it is. I have to go, Susie. Mary Kate is being crucified here. It’s going to be a long night. Can you come to the barn tomorrow morning?’
Susan had a lineup of morning meetings, but would gladly reschedule a few. ‘Be there at ten.’
The prospect of talking with Kate was a comfort. Likewise, perversely, the idea that Susan and Lily weren’t the only ones with a problem.
But the more Susan thought about it, the more frantic she grew. Three girls pregnant by design? There was a word for that, but the mother in her couldn’t say it. And the school principal? She couldn’t even begin to think it.
One pregnancy could be hidden. Not three.
One might be accidental. Not three.
One would quickly be last week’s news. Not three.
‘Mom?’ Lily’s whisper came through the bedroom darkness. ‘Are you sleeping?’
‘If only,’ Susan said quietly. If only she could close her eyes and make it all go away – find it was just a bad dream, a relic of the panic from her own past – I can’t do this, I’m alone, HELP! No, she was not sleeping. ‘But you should be,’ she said quietly. ‘You’re sleeping for two.’
‘I’m also peeing for two. Did you talk with Kate?’
Susan glanced at the door where Lily stood backlit, a stillslim silhouette against the frame. ‘Only for a minute. We’re meeting in the morning.’
‘Mary Kate says her mom’s really upset. It’s the money issue.’
‘It’s more than that,’ Susan said. If money ruled the Mellos, Kate and Will would have stopped after the twins. But Kate would be upset, like she was, about the consequences of what their daughters had foolishly done. ‘Any word from Jess?’
‘No. She’s not answering my messages. I think she’s mad at me. She told Mary Kate that Sunny went berserk. Jess blames me.’
‘Because we had agreed not to tell. Only I got pregnant before they did, so I was farther along, and I knew you knew—’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘You may not have known you knew, but you knew,’ the girl insisted, ‘and once I told you, the others had to tell their moms, even though they wanted to wait.’
Susan didn’t argue about what she had known when. She was already beating herself up about what she should have seen but hadn’t. Girls like theirs didn’t do things like this.
But they had now. And waiting to tell moms? ‘Funny thing about being pregnant,’ she mused, wrapping her arms around her knees. ‘Before long, it shows.’
‘But by then, it would be too late to do anything about it,’ said Lily. ‘Jess is worried they’ll make her have an abortion. If they do, she’ll run off to her grandmother. I have no one but you, Mom. If you didn’t want me here, I could call your Aunt Evie, but she’s like, what, eighty now?’
Susan put her chin on her knees. ‘Sixty, and you’re not calling Aunt Evie.’
‘Well, if I had to, I would – or I’d call Dad’s sister. She likes me. I mean, it’d only be for a little while.’
‘You’re not going anywhere.’
‘I’m sorry if I’ve messed things up.’
Susan wanted to say that she hadn’t. Only she had. The fact of Susan sitting in bed, missing Lily’s warm body but unable to open the covers for her to snuggle, spoke of a huge mess.
‘Don’t be angry,’ the girl whispered.
‘Why not, Lily?’ Susan shot back. ‘My signature accomplishment last year was the establishment of a school clinic where students can be treated for things they don’t want to discuss with their parents. That clinic is staffed by a real nurse, with a real doctor on call, either of whom could have given you birth control if you’d wanted to have sex. Do you realize that I pushed for this specifically to minimize student pregnancies?’
Lily remained silent.
‘Mm,’ Susan concluded softly, ‘I’m speechless, too.’
‘You’re missing the point. This is not an unplanned pregnancy.’
‘No, you’re missing the point,’ Susan parried with a spike of outrage. ‘This town lives and breathes responsibility. This family lives and breathes responsibility. What you’ve done is not responsible. You can talk all you want about knowing what you’re doing and being a good mother, but you’re seventeen, Lily. Seventeen.’
‘You did it,’ Lily said meekly.
And that, Susan realized, would haunt her forever. She had worked so hard to get past it, but here it was again. And now she had no idea what to do. She certainly couldn’t call Rick. He had trusted her to raise Lily well, and she had failed.
Heartsick, she turned away from the door and curled into a ball. She didn’t know how long Lily stood there, only knew that she couldn’t reach out to her, and by the time she rolled back to look at the clock, the doorway was empty.
Susan rarely called in sick, but she would have done it the next day if she hadn’t planned to meet Kate at the barn. Inevitably, someone would see her going there. But Zaganack looked out for its own. If you were sick, people knew; likewise, if you were supposed to be sick and showed up elsewhere.
The prospect of leaving school at ten kept her going, and when she finally ran down the stone steps and climbed into her car, she felt better for the first time that day. She would have walked if she’d had time; the barn wasn’t far, and the November air was crisp, still fragrant with the crush of dried leaves. But she didn’t want to lose a minute.
No ordinary barn, this one had a past. Originally built on the outskirts of town to house horses, it had also hidden its share of escaped slaves heading to freedom north of the border. For years it had housed nothing but cobwebs and mice, but for Susan, Kate, Sunny and Pam, who saw PC Wool as their own personal ticket to freedom, it held an appeal. When the last of the Gunn family died and the property went up for sale, the women lobbied for the barn. Envisioning it as a tourist attraction, Tanner Perry, grandson of Herman Perry and husband of Pam, had bought it and moved it closer to the rest of Perry & Cass. The tourist part had never quite materialized, but the success of PC Wool more than compensated.
Parking beside Kate’s van, Susan ran inside, past stalls of raw fiber, shipping cartons and computers, all the way to the back. There, tubs for soaking fiber and shelves of dye lined the walls. A separate section held newly painted wool, now hung to dry, while ceiling fans whirred softly above. A skeining machine stood nearby.
Had she not been preoccupied, Susan might have admired a mound of finished skeins. A blend of alpaca and mohair, these were the last of the holiday colors she had conceived the summer before. Rich with dozens of shades of cranberry, balsam and snow, they were the culmination of a year in which sales had doubled. Not only had PC Wool earned its very own section in the Perry & Cass catalogue, but after becoming the darling of the knitting blogs, it had experienced an explosion in online sales.
A large oak table stood at the heart of the work space. Old and scarred, it was the same one on which they had put together their first season of colors ten years before. Back then, the table was in Susan’s garage, and PC Wool had only been a dream, conjured up during child-free evenings with a bottle of wine and good friends who loved to knit. Even now, a large basket in the center of the table held small knitting projects, while the bulk of its surface was covered with skeins waiting to be twisted.
Dropping her coat on a chair, Susan went to Kate. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Been better,’ Kate replied. Her eyes were heavy, her hair a riot of ends sticking up around the bamboo double-pointeds at her crown. She opened her arms.
This was why Susan had come. She needed comfort. Petite Kate, with her big heart and can-do approach, had always offered that. ‘If it had to be anyone,’ Susan whispered, ‘I’m glad it’s you. What are we going to do?’
Kate held her for another minute. ‘I do not know.’
‘That’s not the right answer. You’re supposed to say that everything will work out, that this is just another one of life’s little challenges, and that what happens was meant to be.’
‘Aha,’ Kate barked dryly, ‘at least I’ve raised you well. You can keep telling me that. Right now, I’m not a happy camper.’
‘What does Will say?’
‘Pretty much what you just did. But boy, this came from nowhere. How can smart girls do something so stupid?’ Reaching for a hank of yarn, she deftly twisted it until it was tight enough to double back on itself. ‘My daughter’s neck,’ she murmured as she tucked one end into the other.
‘I’ll ditto that,’ Susan said, and the angst of the past thirty-six hours poured out. ‘I can’t get past the anger. I can’t ask Lily how she’s feeling. I can’t hold her. She’s been my little girl for so long, but now there’s this other…other…thing between us.’
‘It’s not a baby to me yet. It’s something unwanted.’ She waved a hand. ‘Bad choice of words. What I meant to say was that this is not what we needed at this stage in our lives. Lily was supposed to have all the choices that I did not. What was she thinking?’
‘She wasn’t alone.’
‘Which blows my mind. I’ve always loved that our girls did things together. They’re all good students, good athletes, good knitters. I thought they’d keep each other from doing dumb things.’ She had a new thought. ‘Where’s Abby in all this?’
Kate leveled her a gaze. ‘Mary Kate refused to say.’
‘She’s pregnant too?’ Four would be even worse than three – though three was surely bad enough.
‘Mary Kate just stared at me when I asked.’
‘Meaning that Abby is either pregnant or still trying.’
‘All I know,’ Kate said, ‘is that Mary Kate begged me not to tell Pam.’
‘But if Pam can keep this from happening to Abby—’
‘That’s what I said, but Mary Kate said Abby would do it anyway, and she’s probably right. Of the four girls, she’s the least anchored.’
Like her mom, Susan thought. She didn’t have to say it. Kate knew. They had discussed it more than once.
‘Besides,’ Kate said, ‘it’s not like Pam can lock her in a chastity belt.’
Susan snorted. ‘Not many of those around these days, and what do we have instead? The Web. Information enough there to make naive seventeen-year-olds feel they know everything. What was Mary Kate’s excuse for wanting a baby?’
Kate twisted another hank. ‘She’s been a hand-me-down child. She wants something of her own.’
‘Isn’t Jacob that?’ Susan was generally skeptical of high school pairings, but she liked Jacob Senter a lot. He was a kind boy, dedicated to school and devoted to Mary Kate. Lily had no one like that.
‘But between school and loans,’ Kate explained, ‘it’ll be years before they can get married. She wants something now. Something her sisters don’t have.’ She screwed up her face. ‘Did I miss this?’
‘She had love,’ Susan argued in Kate’s defense.‘When I wasn’t busy with the others. She has a point, Susie. Her solution may be misguided, but I see where she’s coming from. Lily, now, Lily had you all to herself.’
‘But only me. She wants family.’
‘She has Rick.’
Rick. Susan felt a little tug at her heart. ‘Rick is like the wind. Try to catch him.’
‘Have you called him?’ Kate asked cautiously.
Susan pressed her lips together and shook her head.
‘Do you know where he is?’
‘I can find out.’ Not that it mattered. His cell number was linked to network headquarters in New York. He could be anywhere in the world and her call would go through.
Reaching him was the easy part. Telling him what had happened would be harder.
She practiced on Kate. ‘When Lily was little, she wanted a brother or sister. That was before she realized her daddy wasn’t around. Once she understood that Rick and I weren’t together, she turned matchmaker. You’d really like Kelsey’s daddy, and Kelsey has a sister and two brothers, and they need a mom like you.’ Susan smiled briefly. ‘It was sweet. Sad. She always wanted a big family, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to get it.’ Grabbing a hank of yarn, she twisted it as she, too, had done hundreds of times. ‘She keeps reminding me that I was seventeen when I had her, but it’s because I was that I know how bad this is. They’re not ready physically. They’re not ready emotionally.’
‘Neither am I,’ Kate said tiredly. ‘For years my life was a blur of diapers, runny noses and interrupted sleep. I hyperventilate when I think of it. I can’t go back.’
Susan wasn’t as worried about going back as moving ahead. ‘At least you know it’s Jacob. Lily won’t tell me who the father is. She says he doesn’t know. How crazy is that?’
‘You have no idea?’
‘None.’ And it bothered Susan a lot. ‘She told me when she had a crush on Bobby Grant in second grade. She told me when she got her first kiss. That was Jonah McEllis. She gave me a blow-by-blow of her relationship with Joey Anderson last year. And in each case, I wasn’t surprised. A good mother would know if her daughter liked someone, wouldn’t she?’
Kate snickered. ‘Like she would know if her daughter planned to get pregnant?’
‘How did I not see something?’ Susan asked, baffled. ‘I look now, and, yes, there’s a difference. Her breasts are fuller. Why didn’t I notice before?’
‘They weren’t fuller before,’ Kate reasoned. ‘Or her clothes hid it. Or you thought she was just filling out. Susie, I’m asking myself the same thing. My daughter is two months pregnant, has been drinking milk by the gallon, has thrown up lots of mornings, and I thought it was the flu.’
Susan actually smiled. Pathetic as the situation was, she felt better. Venting always helped, especially when the person on the other end was in the same boat. Kate would love her regardless of what kind of mother she was.
‘Have you and Lily talked about options?’ Kate asked.
Susan could only think of three, and abortion was out. She reached for more yarn. ‘I mentioned adoption this morning.’ She twisted the hank and looked up. ‘Lily threw the question back at me. Could I have done that? We both know the answer.’
‘What was it like?’ came a third voice. Sunny unbuttoned her coat as she approached. ‘Having a baby at seventeen.’
Susan didn’t have to pull at memories. She had been reliving the experience in vivid flashes since dinner at Carlino’s Tuesday night. ‘It totally changed my life. My childhood ended – was over, just like that.’
Sunny joined them at the table. Clearly on a break from work, she had her hair in a plum bow that matched her sweater and slacks. ‘I know you’re estranged from your parents,’ she said to Susan. ‘I don’t know the details.’
They weren’t something Susan dwelt on. ‘My parents couldn’t deal,’ she said, ‘so I went to live with an aunt in Missouri while I had Lily and finished high school. Aunt Evie was great, but she had no kids. She didn’t know what I was going through, and I didn’t dare complain. It was scary. My doctor was one step removed from my father. He delighted in telling me all the risks of having a baby at seventeen.’
‘Like a seventeen-year-old’s body isn’t ready to carry a baby to term. Like I was at risk for anemia, high blood pressure, preterm labor, and my baby could be underweight and have underdeveloped organs.’
Kate looked frightened. ‘Is all that true?’
‘I believed it. Now I know that most of these problems arise because teenage moms typically don’t take care of themselves. But my doctor didn’t say that. I was terrified. There were no classes at the local hospital. I had some books, but they weren’t reassuring. I was only seventeen. I dreaded childbirth, and then, if I survived that, I was going to have to take care of a baby who would be totally helpless and who might have developmental issues because I was seventeen.’
Sunny scowled. ‘There must have been someone who could help.’
‘My pediatrician’s nurse. She was an angel. I talked with her every morning during call hours. It was like she had two patients, an infant and a seventeen-year-old – well, eighteenyear-old by then. We still keep in touch.’
‘Are you in touch with your aunt?’
‘Occasionally. But it’s awkward. She never wanted to buck my father, either. The deal was that I’d stay with her until I graduated high school, then leave. My dad put enough money in a bank account for me to buy a used car and pay for necessities until I got Lily and me to a place where I could work.’
‘They disowned you,’ Sunny concluded, ‘which is what I may do to my daughter.’
‘You will not,’ Kate scolded.
‘I may. I don’t believe she’s done this. Do you know how embarrassing it is?’
‘Not as embarrassing as when I got pregnant,’ Susan said. ‘We lived in a small town of which my dad was the mayor – just like his dad before him – so the embarrassment was thoroughly public. My older brother, in contrast to me, was a town hero. Great student, football star, heir apparent – you name the stereotype, and Jackson was it. I was the bad egg. Erasing me from the family picture was easy.’
Sunny seemed more deliberative than disturbed. ‘What about Lily? Weren’t they curious?’
‘My mother, maybe.’ A fantasy, perhaps, but Susan clung to the belief. ‘But she was married to my father, and he was tough. Still is. I send cards on every occasion – birthday, anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas. I send newspaper art icles about Lily or me. I send gifts from Perry & Cass, and yarn to my mom. She sends a formal thank-you every time.’ Susan held up an untwisted skein. ‘She thought these colors were very pretty. Very pretty,’ she repeated in a monotone, startled by how much the blandness of the note still stung.
‘I’m trying to decide if Jessica can survive,’ Sunny said. ‘How did you make it with an infant and no help?’
‘I didn’t sleep.’
‘Seriously,’ Susan insisted. She learned to multitask early on. ‘I was studying, working and taking care of a baby. After I graduated from high school, I babysat my way East. Babysitting was the one thing I could do and still have Lily with me, because I sure couldn’t afford a sitter. When I got here, I did clerical work at the community college because that got me day-care dirt-cheap and classes for free. I was halfway through my degree when I met you two.’ Their girls were in preschool together. ‘That was a turning point. Friends make the difference.’
‘Exactly,’ Sunny cried. ‘If our girls hadn’t been friends, this wouldn’t have happened.’
Susan was startled. Of the three girls, she saw Jessica as the one most ready to rebel. ‘If not with our two, then with another two friends,’ she said quietly.
Sunny calmed a little. ‘Tell that to my husband.’
‘Uh-oh.’ This from Kate, and with cause. Dan Barros was mild-mannered, but there was no doubt who ruled the roost. ‘He’s blaming our girls?’
There was a pause, then a half-hearted, ‘Not exactly.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Oh, he doesn’t say things. He implies. He infers. I’m telling Jessica that she needs to tell us who the father is, so that they can get married, which would lend at least a semblance of decency to this, but Dan keeps grilling me. How did this happen – where were you – didn’t you see anything? Bottom line? It’s my fault.’
‘It isn’t your fault,’ said Kate, though she was looking at Susan. ‘Is it?’
Hadn’t Susan asked herself the same question? She picked up a PC Wool tag from a pile that lay beside the skeins. A striking little thing, the tag carried the PC Wool logo, along with the fiber content of the skein, its length and gauge, and washing instructions. ‘We gave our daughters the know-how to prevent this,’ she said as she absently fingered the tag. ‘But they didn’t consult us.’
‘They consulted each other,’ Sunny charged. ‘They gave each other strength.’
‘Bravado,’ Kate added.
‘That, too,’ Susan said. After touching the tag a moment longer, she looked up at her friends. ‘I’m forever telling parents that they have to be involved. They have to know what their kids are doing. Kids aren’t bad, just young. Their brains are still developing. That’s why sixteen-year-olds are lousy drivers. They don’t have the judgment – actually, physi c ally, don’t have the gray matter to make the right decision in a crisis. They don’t fully get it until they’re in their early twenties.’
‘And in the meantime, it is our fault?’ Sunny asked.
Susan didn’t answer. She was suddenly wondering what all those parents she had lectured would say when they learned her daughter was pregnant. Given her age and what some saw as a meteoric rise in her field, she had always been on shaky ground. Now, she feared for her credibility.
She must have looked stricken, because Kate took her hand. ‘What our daughters may have lacked in gray matter, they made up for in parental influence. We taught them right from wrong, Susie. They’ve never before given us reason to doubt them.’
‘That’s what makes this so absurd,’ Susan wailed. ‘I could give you a list of girls at school who are at risk of doing something like this. Our daughters’ names would not be on it.’
‘Now there’s a thought,’ Sunny said, sounding hopeful. ‘No one expects it from our girls, so no one will know for a while. That gives us time to figure out what to do.’ She looked from Susan to Kate and back. ‘Right?’
Susan was thinking that time might not help, when Pam came striding back from the front of the barn. ‘Hey, guys,’ she called when she was barely halfway past the stalls. ‘Were we supposed to meet?’ She was unwinding a large scarf as she reached them. ‘I bumped into Leah and Regina at PC Beans. They said you kicked them out, Kate.’ Leah and Regina were Kate’s assistants that day, two of eight parttimers who helped get PC Wool out in the quantity dictated by recent demand.
‘I gave them money for coffee,’ Kate said after only a second’s delay.
But Pam caught it and looked around. ‘What’s up? You all look like someone died.’
‘No one died,’ Sunny said brightly. ‘We were just taking a last look at the holiday yarn. It was a great color-way. People are raving about the freshness of the colors – very holiday, but not totally traditional. I told you that we’re giving the spring line a major Mother’s Day push in Home Goods, didn’t I? Do we have colors, Susan?’
‘We do,’ Susan said, trying to hide the horror that the mere mention of Mother’s Day brought. Lily would be in her ninth month then and would be huge. Picturing it, Susan could only think of pink and blue, not PC Wool colors at all.
She couldn’t say that, of course. Going along seemed the safest thing. But Pam was a good friend, and her daughter was very possibly pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Tell her, cried a little voice in Susan’s head.
But no one else spoke up. If Susan did, she would betray the others – and Lily.
So she said, ‘I’ll work out the dye recipes Saturday. Do we have a deadline for the catalogue?’
Pam was their mail-order link. At least, that was what she called herself, though on that front she did little more than pass data to a manager. More crucial to the operation, she was a lobbyist for PC Wool, the women’s link to the powersthat-be. If there was a conflict of interest, given that she was a Perry herself, no one cared. PC Wool had shown a higher percentage of growth in the last year than any two other departments combined.
‘End of January,’ she said. ‘That means we need samples painted and photographed by mid-month.’ She lit up. ‘Can we do another spa weekend before Christmas to write copy? I loved that last year.’
They had driven an hour inland to Weymouth Farm. The spa there had a reciprocal arrangement whereby Perry & Cass would provide them with PC Bath Soaps and Gels in exchange for free use of vacant rooms.
‘I may have trouble with that,’ Kate hedged. ‘My Percy State four have finals then. They’ll need extra care.’
Sunny shook her head. ‘Dan has every weekend between now and Christmas planned.’
Susan was silent. In another month, Lily would be showing. Word might be out. Pam might hate them for not telling her sooner. Worse, Abby herself might be pregnant, in which case Susan would feel doubly guilty.
But Pam looked so eager that Susan dredged up her only excuse. ‘Rick may be coming,’ she said apologetically. ‘He’s waiting to see how his assignments pan out for December. Until he knows, I don’t dare commit.’
Pam was crestfallen. ‘What fun are you guys?’ she pouted. ‘So I have to settle for Saturdays here? What are we doing this week?’
‘Tagging skeins,’ Kate answered. ‘And looking at Susan’s magic notebook to see the colors she’s picked.’
‘Bring your WIP,’ Susan told Pam, referring to her work in progress, a cashmere sweater coat that only Pam had the time – or money – to tackle. ‘How’s it coming?’
‘The back’s almost done. The yarn is exquisite. We need to add cashmere to our line.’
‘Too expensive,’ Sunny warned.
‘But wouldn’t you love to have it in the store?’ Pam asked.
‘For me? Yes. I just don’t know how many people off the tour bus will buy cashmere.’
‘Maybe not tourists, but die-hard yarnies? Online buyers? Bloggers have asked for it.’ She looked at the others. ‘A cashmere shrug or a lace-weight scarf would be perfect for spring. Can I research where to buy it undyed?’
‘Great,’ Pam said. ‘Let’s talk more on Saturday. And on Sunday,’ she added, turning to Sunny. ‘What time did you want us?’
Brunch at eleven, Susan thought. It was Dan’s birthday.
‘Actually, Dan changed his mind,’ Sunny said, looking pinched. ‘All he wants is a quiet breakfast. He’s feeling old.’
Dan was turning forty-three, not old by any standards.
It wasn’t age, Susan realized. He blames us, too.
Sunny didn’t make it to the barn on Saturday morning, and, given that she was their ear to the ground when it came to Perry & Cass customers, Susan was hesitant to discuss colors without her. Fortunately, Pam didn’t stay long anyway, so they spent the time alternately affixing tags to skeins and admiring the sweater Pam was knitting. The minute she left, though, Susan said guiltily, ‘That was bad. We have to tell her.’
‘How can we?’ Kate argued, and ran through the arguments about loyalty to the girls.
‘But if we can save Pam from facing this—’
‘Abby’ll do it anyway.’
‘Maybe not if Pam gets to her first. What if I made her swear not to tell the world?’ Susan tried.
‘And you trust she wouldn’t?’
No. Susan did not. Pam wouldn’t tell anyone intentionally, but she was so desperate to be relevant that it might just spill out. ‘The problem,’ Susan made her final argument, ‘is that she’ll find out sooner or later, and when she does, she’ll be hurt.’
‘And in the meanwhile, we have to suffer through Saturday mornings like this one? I don’t know if I can do that, Kate. It’s bad enough that I’m not calling Rick, but Lily wants to wait. Am I using her as an excuse? I’m such a coward.’
Kate put a comforting hand on her arm. ‘You are not a coward. You’re respecting Lily and Mary Kate and Jess by not telling Pam. Besides, there’s reason why Lily wants to wait to tell Rick. The first trimester is crucial. What if she miscarries?’
Lily didn’t miscarry. She passed the next week as she had the eleven previous – going to school with no one the wiser, falling asleep at night with her books open and waking later to study, texting often with Mary Kate and Jess, though Jess was at their house more now, escaping her own.
Susan struggled to come to terms with her daughter’s condition. She alternately obsessed over Lily’s future and refused to think about it, but all the while, there was a pain in her gut. She felt betrayed.
Naturally, Lily sensed it, which perhaps explained why her morning sickness continued. At least, that was what Susan concluded guiltily when she got a call from the school clinic the following Thursday morning. Leaving a meeting in the center of town, she quickly headed there.
The clinic was in the basement of the school. Susan’s prefer ence had been for something more open and bright, but, with so little available space, the basement was a necessary concession. Its proximity to the locker rooms was a plus; sports injuries were a fact of life in a school that fielded fiercely competitive teams. A direct entrance to the back parking lot also helped when a communicative disease was involved.
Using that back entrance now, Susan passed two students at the nurse’s desk and checked the cubicles. She found Lily on a bed in the third cubicle, looking pathetically young. Her knees were bent. One hand lay over her middle. Her other arm covered her eyes.
Lily moved the arm and, seeing Susan, immediately teared up. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.
One look at her, and Susan’s heart melted. ‘What happened?’
The words came in a breathy rush. ‘I was feeling sick, so I went to my locker for crackers, and Abby was there and she announced, I mean, in a big loud voice, that what did I expect, being pregnant? It was a nightmare, Mom. There were kids everywhere, and they all stopped walking and stared. I wanted to tell them she was wrong, only I couldn’t. I was so upset – I mean, how could Abby do that? I’ve never actually thrown up before, but I did it then, in front of everyone.’
She looked green enough to do it again, but Susan didn’t care. Sitting on the edge of the gurney, she pulled her into her arms. Lily was going through what she personally knew was trial by fire. A good mother didn’t feel anger when her child was in this kind of pain.
Besides, Susan blamed herself as much as Abby. She had been distant and cool when her daughter needed support. Rocking gently, with her chin on Lily’s head, she tried to think.
Just then, the nurse opened the curtain. Amy Sheehan was in her mid-thirties, attractive in sweater and jeans, and softspoken. Eminently approachable, she had been Susan’s first choice for the job, no concessions there. Her voice was gentle now. ‘Lily told me. She said she saw a doctor.’
Susan nodded, but her mind was racing. She had hoped for time. Now what?
Lily looked up. Her eyes were haunted. ‘I had last lunch. I thought if I got something in my stomach, I’d be able to make it till then. I didn’t expect to feel so sick. The books said it would stop after twelve weeks.’
Susan recalled suffering from nausea well past the magical date. ‘What do books know? But it is what it is. Time to go to Plan B.’
‘Beats me.’ She eyed the nurse. ‘Any thoughts?’
Amy was apologetic. ‘You really can’t deny it. Not if Lily’s keeping the baby. It’ll be obvious soon enough.’
She didn’t have to go on. Deny the pregnancy now, and when Lily begins to show, the denial itself will be an issue. Especially for the high school principal.
Lily looked at Susan again. ‘What did you do?’
Susan didn’t have to fill Amy in on her history. Her age and Lily’s, both, were a matter of record. Besides, Susan had laid it out when she hired Amy to head the school clinic. I hid my pregnancy for five months. I risked my own health and my baby’s because I didn’t know where to turn. I want our students to have a place to go when they can’t go to their parents. I don’t want any sexual problems ignored.
In answer to Lily now, she smiled sadly. ‘I was lucky enough not to throw up in public, so I had a little more time. My sport was track. I wore my top loose. But it’s hard to hide things in a locker room. My teammates saw it first. They were my Abby.’
‘Why did she do that?’ Lily cried, but Susan could only shake her head.
‘It’s done. There’s no going back.’ She took the car keys from her pocket. ‘I think you should go home for the day. Let things settle. We’ll have more perspective later.’
What she was hoping, of course, was that Abby’s announcement hadn’t actually been heard. It was pure denial on her part, the mother in her. With her emotions seesawing between present and past, a part of her just wanted to hide.
But she had barely returned to her office when the questions began, first from the teacher whose class Lily had just missed, then from another teacher wanting to report what her students were saying. By the time she reached the lunchroom, the looks she received said that word was spreading fast.
Mary Kate and Jess avoided her – but they generally did at school, and with Susan’s approval. They had discussed the issue of their relationship when Susan was first named principal. Her closeness to these girls was almost as tricky as her being Lily’s mother.
The fact that Mary Kate and Jess were with other friends now – and that none was looking at them strangely – told Susan that Lily was the only one who had been outed. For now. Knowing Mary Kate and Jess as she did, she figured they were stressing about that.
Abby never made it to lunch, which wasn’t unusual. A student whose schedule was tight often wolfed something down while running between classes. Not that Susan would have been able to talk with her here. What could she have said without making things worse? How could you do that to a good friend – and knowing about this all along – and trying to get pregnant yourself?
She couldn’t possibly be objective, not with her heart bleeding for her daughter. Lily would be on display, all alone, when she returned to school tomorrow. Susan could only imagine who else would know by then.
It was a long day. Only a few other direct questions came, which made Susan nervous. She knew her staff; news like this would fly through the faculty lounge. Friends might be keeping their distance from Susan out of understanding or perhaps respect, but others – her detractors – would be gloating.
She met with two teachers after school. Both, new hires, were in her office for evaluation conferences. Neither mentioned Lily – but, of course, they were more worried about their jobs than about Susan’s pregnant daughter. After the teachers came a pair of parent meetings, one about a drug problem, the other about an alleged plagiarism. They, too, had greater worries.
It did put things in perspective, Susan thought, but by the time she got home, she was discouraged. She wanted to protect her daughter but couldn’t, and though she knew that the girl had brought this on herself, her own heart broke.
Lily had been studying, as evidenced by the scatter of books on her bed, but she was sleeping now. Letting her be, Susan went to the den and turned on the TV. She had to wait through stories on the economy, a celebrity murder and a report on global warming before Rick appeared.
He was covering post-cholera Zimbabwe, in as sobering a report as Susan had heard. Poverty, homelessness, hunger – more perspective here. Lily wasn’t poor, homeless or hungry. But that didn’t mean they weren’t in crisis.
Remote in hand, she waited until he was into his signoff before freezing his image on the screen. Then she tossed the remote aside, picked up the cordless, and, with her eyes on his handsome, sunburned face, punched in his number. There was one ring, then another of a slightly different tone as the call was transferred. After five more rings, he picked up.
‘Lily?’ he asked with endearing hope, his rich voice remarkably clear given how far away he was.
‘It’s me. That was an amazing piece you just did.’
‘Sad that someone has to do it,’ he said, but he sounded pleased to hear her voice. ‘Hold on a sec, hun.’ She im agined him pressing the phone to his denim shirt while he spoke to whomever – his producer, a cameraman, the WHO agent he had just interviewed. When he returned, he spoke in an uneven cadence that suggested he was walking, probably looking for privacy. She imagined he stopped on the far side of the media van.
‘We thought things would be better after the cholera epidemic,’ he said. ‘It seemed like the world had finally taken notice of what was happening here. But conditions now are worse than ever. Tell me something good, Susie. I need to hear something happy.’
Susan had only one thing to tell. ‘Lily’s pregnant.’
The silence that followed was so long, she feared they had lost the connection. ‘Rick?’
‘I’m thinking you wouldn’t joke about something like that.’
‘Well, it isn’t cholera or poverty. But it is an issue.’
There was another pause. Then a frightened, ‘Was she raped?’
‘Oh God, no.’
‘Who’s the guy?’
‘She won’t tell. And no, she hasn’t been dating anyone special,’ Susan rushed on before he could ask. ‘I see her at school. I see her on the weekends. Usually, if I miss something, I hear it from someone else.’
‘Why won’t she tell?’
Because she’s stubborn? Misguided? Loyal? Susan sighed. ‘Because the guy was only a means to an end.’ She filled him in as best she could, but even after nine days, the story seemed bizarre. ‘She and her friends just decided the time was right to have a baby. Mary Kate and Jess are pregnant, too.’
She heard a bewildered oath, then an astonished, ‘They made a pact?’
There it was, the word she didn’t want to hear. ‘I wouldn’t call it that.’
‘What would you call it?’
She tried to think of a better word. An agreement? A promise? A deal? But that was just a way to pretty things up. ‘A pact,’ she finally conceded.
‘What do we know about pact behavior?’ asked Rick the journalist.
‘Mostly that Lily isn’t your typical candidate,’ replied Susan the educator. Pact behavior was a school administrator’s greatest fear. One kid with a problem was bad enough. But three? ‘Kids collaborate with one or more friends to do something forbidden. They do it in secret, and it’s usually self-destructive.’
‘But Lily is strong. She’s self-confident.’
‘She’s also a teenager with very close friends. They convinced each other that they could be great mothers, better than the ones they worked for last summer.’
‘They did it because of a summer job?’
‘No, but that was the catalyst.’
‘They’re only seventeen,’ he protested. Susan pictured his eyes. They were blue, alternately steely and soft, always mesmerizing. ‘How far along is she?’
‘Twelve weeks. She only told me last week. And no, I didn’t see anything. There’s still practically nothing to see. I would have called you right away, only she asked me to wait. I don’t know if that was out of superstition or fear.’
‘That you’d suggest she terminate the pregnancy.’
Quietly, he asked, ‘Is she there? Can I talk with her?’
‘She’s sleeping.’ Susan explained what had happened at school.
He swore, echoing Susan’s feelings exactly. ‘It’s all over school then?’
‘Not yet. But soon, I’d guess.’
He let out a breath, audible over the many miles. ‘How does she feel about that?’
‘Upset. She wanted to wait.’
‘But she isn’t considering abortion.’
‘No. She’s keeping it. She’s been firm about that.’
‘What about you? You think she should?’
That was the question closest to Susan’s heart, the dark one, the one she couldn’t discuss with anyone else. ‘Oh, Rick,’ she said tiredly, ‘this is where I agonize. You know what I did back then. Once she was inside me, I couldn’t bear the thought of not having her, so a part of me understands where she’s at now.’ She paused.
‘And the other part?’
‘Just wants this to go away,’ she confessed, feeling like the worst person in the world. ‘Abortion, adoption – I don’t care.’
‘But you haven’t said that to Lily.’
‘No, and I won’t. This is the ugly me speaking. How can I ask my daughter to do something I refused to do? And so what if keeping it changes our lives? We can deal. Who said there was only one way to live a good life?’
There was a longer pause this time, then a quiet, ‘Your dad.’
Rick always got it. ‘Right. So now you’re the dad. What do you say?’
‘I say right’s the word. She has a right to want it, you have a right to want it gone—’
‘But I don’t want it gone,’ Susan broke in, feeling sinful, ‘at least, not all the time – only when I think about what a mess this will make of her life, or when I dwell on what an absolutely, incredibly stupid thing this was for her to do. I mean, are you proud of what she’s done?’
‘This minute? No. In five years, I may feel differently.’
‘Forget five years,’ Susan cried in frustration. ‘We’re at a crossroads – here, today, now. If she’s going to not keep this baby, this is the time to decide. What do I do?’
‘You just said it. How can you ask her to do something you refused to do? She keeps it.’
As simply as that, Susan felt a tad lighter. ‘What do I do about the part of me that resents that?’
‘You work on it. You’re a good worker.’
‘Like I’m a good mother?’
‘You are. A good mother does her best, even when her own dreams are shot to hell. So, Lily keeps the baby. Does she have a plan?’
‘To raise the baby? Well, she says she had a good role model in me.’ Her voice rose. ‘Honestly, Rick, I never imagined this. She knows how hard it was for me. She knows what I gave up. I wanted everything to be perfect for her. Maybe I wanted her to be perfect.’
‘No child is perfect.’
‘Right, so why do I feel betrayed?’
She imagined him considering that, frowning, using a forearm to push dark hair off his face. ‘That won’t help her,’ he said softly. He was right, of course. This would have to be Susan’s mantra. ‘Think of what you needed back then.’
‘I do. All the time.’
There was a brief silence as the weight of the problem sank in. He might have cursed in the buzz of static that followed, but when he spoke next, there was no mistaking his words. ‘Will you tell your mother?’
Tell Ellen Tate that the daughter who had disgraced her by getting pregnant at seventeen had let her own daughter do the same? More than at any time in the last week, Susan felt defeated. ‘This isn’t something I imagined sending in a newsy little update, though it might bring a response for once. She’ll totally blame me.’ She pressed the phone to her ear. She had to ask it, bluntly this time. ‘Do you?’
‘Try, blame myself,’ he said, sounding stricken. ‘I haven’t exactly been a hands-on dad. Besides, I’ve seen you in action. You’re the best mother.’
‘Whose seventeen-year-old daughter is now pregnant and unmarried.’
‘Like her mom was at seventeen. Maybe Lily’s just as stubborn as you were. I offered to marry you, and you refused.’
‘A decision for which I am grateful every time I see you on TV,’ Susan told the face on the screen. ‘You wouldn’t have had this career if you’d been saddled with a wife and child.’
He made a guttural sound. ‘Days like today, I’d have preferred the wife and child. What I do can be downright depressing.’
‘Same here,’ she cried. ‘I’m the principal of the high school, where everyone will know my teenage daughter is pregnant. How depressing is that?’
His pause was more thoughtful this time. ‘Will it cause trouble for you at work?’
Susan rubbed her forehead. ‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’
‘What can I do to help?’
‘Strangle the guy who did this to her?’ she suggested. ‘But how foolish is that? She says she seduced him. He didn’t know what he was doing.’
Rick snorted. ‘Oh, he did.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I used to. But this is my daughter, too. Lily has always been innocent.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Susan remarked, folding an arm across her middle.
The face on the screen was unchanged. ‘So what was he thinking? Was he coming on to her for months? Did he just wear her down? Did he ask if she was on the pill? Did he offer to use something himself?’
Touched by the spate of questions – loving him for loving her, dark side and all – she actually laughed. ‘Rick, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And no, I didn’t ask. If the horse is already out of the barn, what’s the point?’
‘So, here’s my next line of attack. Did she pick him for a reason? Like you picked me?’
She smiled. ‘I didn’t pick you. You took me by storm. There was no forethought.’
‘No.’ His voice was soft, poignant. ‘There never is, is there?’
Lily’s cell rang at nine that night. It wasn’t the first message she’d received. Mary Kate and Jess had texted to rant about Abby, leaving Lily agitated. Half hoping Abby was calling so that she could rant herself, she tore open the phone. ‘Yes.’
‘Lily?’ came a cautious male voice.
She knew it well. Its owner was a fixture in her life – never demanding, just there. Her heart raced. ‘Hi.’
‘Is it true?’
She didn’t have to ask how he knew. Everyone at school must know. Part of her wanted to lie, to make it all go away, to take herself out of the glare. But it would only be worse when she started to show.
Lying back on the pillow, she stared at the front window and said, ‘It’s true.’
There was a pause. She imagined him looking puzzled, maybe scratching the top of his head. Finally, unsurely, he asked, ‘Is it mine?’
The question hit her the wrong way, like he was suggesting she slept with just anyone. ‘Why would it be you?’ she snapped. ‘You aren’t the only guy around.’
‘I know. But that night…’
‘Once. We were together once. Nothing happens once. Do you know what the chances are of it happening once? Do you know how long some couples have to wait before they get pregnant?’
‘You weren’t with anyone else.’
No unsureness there. Calming a little, she asked, ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I know you. And there was blood.’
‘Women bleed every month,’ she said, crawling over the foot of the bed and closing the blinds. Easier to fudge things when no one could see. ‘Really, Robbie. Don’t let your imagin ation go wild.’
‘It’s hard not to,’ he said, sounding upset. ‘I was way on the other side of the school when you got sick, but by the time I got out of English, kids were talking about it. They know we’re good friends, so they asked me. I didn’t know what to say.’
‘Just say you don’t know. That’s the truth, isn’t it?’
He didn’t reply at first. Then he said, ‘How are you feeling?’
Back on the bed again, Lily stared at the closed blind. She’d been just fine until he called. Remembering the scene at school, she felt sick again.
But everyone would be asking her this. She had to get used to it. ‘I’m really good. Happy. It’s incredible, creating a life.’ She put a hand on her belly, jiggled it a little to wake the baby up and let her know she was being talked about.
‘When are you due?’
‘Late May. The timing’s perfect,’ she rushed on. ‘I’ll finish exams, have my baby, do the mom thing over the summer, and be ready to start college in the fall.’ Mary Kate and Jess were a little behind her and would have less time to recover before classes resumed.
‘How can you do college? Who’ll take care of the baby?’
‘I’ll put her in PC KidsCare.’
‘Her? You know the sex already?’
Lily laughed. ‘No. It’s too soon. I’m just guessing it’s a girl.’ Like she was guessing that Mary Kate and Jess would have girls, too. She wanted her daughter to be best friends with theirs, a third generation of best friends. ‘Right now, my baby has hands and feet. And ears. Doesn’t that blow your mind?’
But he was still focusing on the future. ‘Isn’t PC KidsCare only for PC employees?’
‘I knit samples for PC Wool trunk shows, so technically I am one. Besides, I have an in. Mrs Perry will make it happen.’ If Lily ever spoke with Pam’s daughter Abby again, which, at that moment, was questionable.
‘I still think it’s me,’ Robbie said.
‘That’s because you’re sweet.’
‘Lily, I have a right to know if it’s me.’
‘So you can drop out of school to support the baby? You’re not going to do that, Robbie. Besides, I told you. It isn’t you.’
‘Why do I not believe you?’
‘Maybe,’ she tried, ‘because it’s macho to think you’ve fathered a baby.’ Macho wasn’t a word that she would have used to describe Robbie – but it wasn’t totally wrong, she realized. He had grown in the last year and had to be sixtwo now. Granted, he was still the lightest guy on the wrestling squad, but what he lacked in muscle, he made up for in determination. He definitely knew the moves.
‘Forget macho,’ he said. ‘It’s pure math. If you’re due at the end of May, you conceived at the end of August, and that’s when we did it.’
‘I won’t tell you again,’ she said quietly.
‘Then whose is it?’ he asked. When she said nothing, he pleaded, ‘Tell me something, Lily. If you think my questions are hard, just wait till tomorrow. Whether or not I’m the father, I’m a friend. Let me help.’
Lily’s eyes filled with tears. The books said she would be emotional. And Robbie was a friend. And she was dreading going to school.
But if he helped, people would think he was the father, and she didn’t want that. This was her doing alone.
Well, not exactly alone. Mary Kate, Jess and Abby were in on it, too. But no one knew yet about Mary Kate and Jess, and Abby was sore because she was way behind.
What to tell Robbie? She needed time to think.
‘If I told anyone,’ she finally said, ‘I’d tell you. Next to Mary Kate and Jess, you’re my oldest friend.’ Since they were six. It was poetic.
No, she had no regrets about Robbie. Abby, yes. But not Robbie. He was loyal. If she did need help, he would be there.
That thought brought little comfort as she dressed for school the next morning. Mary Kate and Jess would help out if questions got bad, but she felt best when she thought of her mom. Susan had done it, and look at her. She was educated. She was successful. And she had Lily to show for it.
Standing at the mirror, dressed in slim-as-ever jeans, Lily touched the place where she guessed her baby to be and whispered, ‘You’re mine, sweet thing. I’ll take care of you. Let people talk. We don’t care. We have something special, you and me. And we have my mom and my dad. They’re gonna love you to bits. Trust me on that.’
At school, there were few questions, just stares.
Her mother wasn’t so lucky.
Susan was on the phone with a headhunter, who she hoped would locate a replacement for the retiring director of athletics, when Pam showed up at the door and, none too softly, said, ‘What did I just hear?’
Finger to her lips, Susan waved her in. ‘Yes, Tom. Male or female. Our current AD coaches football, but that isn’t a prerequisite. My priorities are administrative experience and the ability to work well with kids.’
‘Susan,’ Pam whispered urgently as she closed the door, ‘what did I hear?’
Susan gestured her to a chair and held up a hand for the minute it took to finish the call.
Pam didn’t wait a second longer. The phone was barely in its cradle when she said, ‘Word’s going around that Lily’s pregnant. I’ve had three calls this morning – three moms asking me the same thing – and I couldn’t answer, even though I’m your friend, which was one of the reasons they were calling me. I couldn’t even call Abby, because you don’t allow kids to use phones during school. Is it true?’
Pam was a Perry by marriage and, as such, a member of the town’s royalty, but she didn’t often pull rank. Susan wasn’t sure what she heard in Pam’s voice – whether it was arrogance, indignation or hurt – but she felt a quick anger. There would have been no calls, no questions, had it not been for Pam’s own daughter.
But Lily would still be pregnant. Resigned, Susan nodded.
‘How?’ Pam asked in dismay. It was a silly question. Susan’s expression must have said as much, because her friend hurried on. ‘Who?’
Susan shrugged and shook her head.
Pam was sitting on the edge of the seat, her cardigan open, a paisley scarf knotted artfully about her neck. ‘You have to know. You’re just not saying.’
‘Pam, I don’t know.’
‘That’s impossible. You and Lily are as close as any mother and daughter I know. She must have told you she was sleeping with someone.’ When Susan shook her head again, Pam said, ‘How could you not?’
Susan was duly chastised. She had prided herself on being one better than the parent who didn’t notice her Vicodin running low long before it should. It was a humbling experience.
‘There comes a point,’ she said in her own defense, ‘when our children choose not to share some things.’
‘Some things. This is major. When did you find out?’
Unable to lie, Susan said, ‘Last week.’ It felt like years ago. She kept flashing back to Lily’s conception. Even this morning, reliving her own nightmare of going to school on the day after the whole world suddenly knew, she half expected Lily to show up at her door in tears, looking for a shoulder to cry on.
But either Mary Kate and Jess were walking the halls beside her, or Lily was tougher than Susan had been. And perhaps that was for the best. Lily had become pregnant by design – and in agreement with friends. She had way more to answer for than Susan had.
Pam Perry didn’t know the half. Innocently, she exclaimed, ‘Last week? Omigod, Susan. This is awful. What was she thinking?’ When Susan simply gave her a look, she said, ‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’m trying to figure that out.’
‘She’s keeping the baby? Of course she is. Lily loves kids, and there’s no way you’d make her abort it. So the guy has to come forward,’ Pam decided. ‘You have to find out who he is.’ When Susan said nothing, she added, ‘Well, some guy made this happen.’
‘Obviously,’ Susan replied, ‘but does his name matter?’
‘Wrong. It’s a woman’s body, a woman’s baby.’
‘You say that because you’re a single mom.’
‘I say it because I’m a realist,’ Susan insisted. ‘Even moms in traditional families do the brunt of the child-care. The buck stops here.’
‘Some of us see it differently,’ Pam argued. ‘The father has to share the responsibility.’
‘Maybe in an ideal world,’ Susan conceded. ‘You’re lucky, Pam. Not only is your husband a gem, but he’s from a wellknown family. Perrys don’t divorce, and they don’t go broke. But Tanner doesn’t change diapers or fold laundry or make school lunches, and that drives you nuts. Remember the time you and Tanner both had the flu? Who was crawling out of bed to take care of Abby?’
There was more to the story, of course. Pam did all of those things without complaint, though she could certainly afford a maid. But with one child and no other full-time job, these chores helped define her.
‘So, basically, you’re having another child yourself,’ Pam said. ‘Isn’t that the bottom line?’
Susan considered it, pressed her lips together, nodded.
‘You can’t do that,’ Pam argued. ‘You know the work. You have a whole other job now that is very demanding.’
‘What would you have me do?’ Susan asked. Frustrated, she rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. ‘She wants the baby, Pam. She’s heard the heartbeat. She knows the options. She wants the baby.’
‘And you’ll just let her have it?’
‘What can I do? Put yourself in my shoes. This has happened – past tense. It’s done. Maybe you can do better and talk with your daughter about not getting pregnant.’ There it was; the closest Susan could come to disclosing what she knew.
Pam frowned at the papers on the desk, then at Susan. ‘This is what you three were talking about at the barn last week. You told them. Why couldn’t you tell me?’
Susan felt another stab of anger. At Lily for getting pregnant? At Abby for outing her? At Pam for playing the victim? ‘They already knew,’ she explained. ‘Mary Kate had told Kate, and Jess had told Sunny, but clearly Abby hadn’t said anything to you, or you would have mentioned it. Has she yet?’
Pam raised her chin. ‘No, but she considers Lily one of her closest friends. She probably feels it wouldn’t be loyal.’
‘Loyal? Abby was the one who shouted it all over school!’ Pam looked startled, but Susan couldn’t stop. If Pam wanted to be a friend, she had to hear this. ‘Abby blurted it out yesterday in the hall filled with kids, so maybe you should be talking with her, not with me. But those moms who called you this morning didn’t tell you that, did they?’
‘No,’ Pam said, subdued. ‘They heard rumor. They know we’re friends, and since I’m on the School Board, they thought they were killing two birds with one stone.’
Susan felt a hitch at mention of the School Board. It had seven members. All were elected; most had served for years. At thirty-nine, Pam was the baby of the group, elected largely because of her name. The closest to her in age was the Board chair, Hillary Dunn, at fifty-five. The other five members were men, four of whom were particularly resistant to change. Susan had had to argue for hours, working them individually and as a group, before they gave the school clinic a green light.
They would all be upset when they learned Lily was pregnant. And when they heard about the other two girls?
But first things first. Susan was tempted to ask Pam the names of those who had called – only she could guess. Zaganack was a close community. Its members had a good thing going with Perry & Cass and knew it, and while some were open to innovation, others believed that you didn’t tamper with the status quo. Those were the ones who phoned Susan to complain about the slightest curriculum change. They were the ones who would have phoned Pam.
‘Were they calling to complain?’ Susan asked.
‘Mostly to know if it was true.’
‘And then to complain.’ When Pam didn’t deny it, she asked, ‘What did you tell them?’
‘I said I’d check it out – I tried to make light of it. When all three carried on, I said that if it was true, it was a private matter. Only it isn’t, Susan. This could really screw things up. For starters, there’s the PC Wool Mother’s Day promotion. Boy, does that take on new meaning. Lily will be big as a house.’
Susan had thought this herself, but it was offensive coming from Pam. ‘Were you planning to photograph her in profile for the catalogue cover?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘No, I don’t. Our clients don’t have to know about Lily. What she does with her life has nothing to do with PC Wool.’
‘She knits for us.’
‘So do Mary Kate, Abby and Jess.’
‘They’re not pregnant,’ Pam pointed out.
Tell her, that little voice in Susan cried. Tell her out of friendship and concern. But her loyalty was to Kate and Sunny. Pam was a latecomer to the group and, given her role as a Perry, a sporadic member. That said, when she was with them, she was a devoted friend. The group gave her focus, which she craved. She loved belonging, which added to the guilt Susan felt in keeping silent.
‘What should I tell Tanner?’ Pam asked. ‘He’ll want to know who the father is.’
‘Tell him I don’t know.’
‘Hey,’ she drawled, ‘if it’s hard for me to believe that, he never will. Same with the School Board. They’ll be looking for a scapegoat when they hear about this. The principal’s daughter? I mean, it really puts me in a bad place. I recused myself when it came to voting on you for this job, but talk about conflict of interest. What am I supposed to do now?’
Wait till she hears about the others, Susan thought, and her uneasiness grew. ‘Buy me some time?’ she begged. ‘That’s all I ask. A little time.’
But Pam was no sooner out the door when Susan’s assistant, Rebecca, appeared. A capable woman with thick white hair, she was the school’s resident grandmother. ‘Dr Correlli’s on his way over. He asked if you had a few minutes to talk. I tried to tell him you were scheduled to observe sophomore English, but he said it was urgent.’ She was apologetic. ‘I’m sorry. Have you told him yet?’
‘Not me,’ Susan murmured, and tried to gear up, but there was only one thing she could imagine the superintendent wanted to discuss.
Phillip Correlli was a stocky man who often ran with the cross-country team to try to lose weight. Having risen through the ranks as Susan had, albeit in a different school system, he liked being with kids. Even more, he liked turning life’s trials into lessons – the one for the cross-country team being that if you ate badly, you gained weight.
He appeared at her door now with an apology for interrupting, but he didn’t sit, and he didn’t waste time. ‘The phone’s been ringing. Tell me that what I heard isn’t true.’
Susan tried to stay calm. ‘I can’t.’
‘Your Lily? She’s the last one I’d have expected to be pregnant.’
‘That makes two of us, Phil.’
‘How did it happen? Lily is a good girl, and I’d have heard from the police if there was a rape, so it must have been someone she knew. Was she forced?’
‘No,’ Susan said and, leaving the desk, sank into a chair.
He continued to stand. ‘Careless?’
Even that would have been easier to swallow, Susan knew. But what could she say without betraying her daughter’s confidence?
‘I’m a friend,’ Phil reminded her gently. Only it wasn’t as simple as that. He was also a colleague, a mentor and, as superintendent of schools, her boss. He was the one who had pushed her to apply for the principalship, the one who had championed her when the Board questioned her youth and lack of experience. He was the one who had shown up in person to offer her the job, his pride genuine.
‘That’s one of the reasons this is so hard,’ she tried to explain. ‘I’ve just learned about it myself. It’s still raw.’
‘I understand, but we don’t have much of a window here. You’re in a public position. To judge from the calls I’m getting, you won’t have the luxury of time.’ He scowled. ‘I wish we were talking about someone else’s child. We’ve dealt with pregnancies before. But you’re our principal, so the playing field is different. I was caught flat-footed this morning. It would have been better if I’d had a heads-up.’
Susan was sorry to have let him down. ‘In hindsight, you’re right. But I’ve been agonizing over this on a personal level, and I needed more time. I didn’t expect word to spread so fast.’ She explained how it had.
‘A friend, huh? That stinks. Did you know Lily was sexually active?’
Either way she answered, Susan was damned. So she said, ‘Lily and I have discussed sexual responsibility more times than I can count. Right now, we’re just trying to plan for the future. She claims she can study and have a baby and go to college.’ Feeling an old shame, Susan added quietly, ‘Who am I to contradict her?’
‘Yup,’ he murmured. He scratched the back of his head and asked a puzzled, ‘Is she having trouble in school?’
‘Scared about next year?’
‘No. Phil, it just happened.’
Leaning against the desk, he asked meekly, ‘Can I say she was forced?’
Susan caught his drift. He needed a story that would sit well with the town. It was about damage control.
He elaborated. ‘See, I need a reason why this could happen to the daughter of my principal. It’d be best if I could say Lily was forced or even that she’s in love.’ He paused. ‘Otherwise, they’ll blame you.’
Blame her? After all she’d done with her life in the last seventeen years? And the goodwill she’d built up in the last two – was it worth nothing?
‘I had no say in this, Phil,’ Susan argued. ‘I’ve been a hands-on mother. I’ve taught Lily all the right things. But she didn’t consult me. She –’ consulted her friends, Susan nearly said, but caught herself – ‘she didn’t consult me,’ she managed to repeat, shaken. She hadn’t thought about the others until now, but it was a staggering omission. The idea of a pact made things ten times worse. It might spread the blame around a little, but Susan was still the most promin ent of the players. The town would be obsessed with the story. Phil would not be happy.
‘But you’re her mother.’
‘She isn’t five,’ Susan cried in a voice heightened by panic. ‘Would you have me be one of those parents who wait at the curb to whisk their kids off the instant classes are done? Or who email their kids’ teachers five times a day? Or stand over their kids’ shoulders the whole time they’re doing homework to make sure they don’t get a texted answer from a friend? That’s micromanaging. We’ve discussed this, Phil. We both hate it. I’ve talked with parents about it. I’ve addressed the issue in bulletins. At some level, parents have to trust.’
‘And when they perceive that the trust is betrayed by someone in a position of authority?’ he asked, but quickly relented. ‘…Look. You’re a role model for our students. That’s one of the reasons I fought to give you this position. You’re an example of what a woman can do when life takes a wrong turn. Only it’s taking the same turn again, and that won’t sit well. Once, okay. Learn from the lesson and move on. Twice?’ Lips compressed, he shook his head.
‘The situations aren’t the same,’ Susan argued, though if he had asked how they differed, she would have been in trouble. But she was in trouble anyway. There was so much he didn’t know.
‘You were seventeen,’ he remarked. ‘She’s seventeen.’
What could Susan say to that? He was right.
She must have looked stricken, because his face gentled. Bracing his hands on the edge of the desk, he said, ‘See, if it had been anyone else getting pregnant, there would be no issue. Because it’s Lily, we need a plan. The best we can say is that there was an accident. That’ll give us an excuse to talk about the consequences of being irresponsible. We can involve the school clinic, maybe conduct a series of lectures about the downside of teenage pregnancy.’
‘We already have.’
‘Well, the circumstances call for more, because here’s another flash. With you principal and Lily a model student, there could be copycatting. We don’t want that. Get a doctor in to paint the dire consequences of teen pregnancy. It’ll be a good use of the clinic, maybe convince a few doubters on that score. We have to hit this hard.’
‘At my daughter’s expense.’
‘Who told her to get pregnant?’ he asked.
He didn’t have a clue how loaded the question was.
The minute he was gone, Susan opened her cell. Her hand shook. Even the sound of Kate’s ‘hey’ did nothing to soothe her.
‘We have a problem – I have a problem,’ she said, head bent over the phone. ‘Correlli just left. He knows about Lily, but not about the others. He’s worried about copycat behavior, when what he really needs to worry about is pact behavior. But it doesn’t stop there, Kate. This situation is reflecting on me, my character, my job.’ She hadn’t imagined this a week ago. Back then, the extent of the problem was Lily’s pregnancy. ‘You’d think there’d be some understanding – everyone knows teenagers act out. Don’t I get cut a little slack? School Board members who will be the most critical of me are the ones whose kids did God-knows-what behind their backs. But forget the Board,’ she hurried on, fingertips to her forehead. ‘I have to tell Phil about Mary Kate and Jess. He’ll find out anyway, and the more he goes ahead with damage control for one pregnancy, the more he’ll look like a fool when it turns out there are three. Phil is my boss, Kate. He hires and fires. I need him on my side.’ She swore softly. ‘What a mess.’
‘That’s a kind word for it,’ Kate mused. ‘All it would have taken was one of them saying, No, Don’t do this, Bad idea. But my daughter went right along. Whose idea was it anyway? Which one of them dreamed it up?’
‘I haven’t asked Lily that,’ Susan said. ‘But the immediate issue is Phil. What am I supposed to do, Kate? He’ll learn about Mary Kate and Jess soon enough, and it had better come from my mouth, or his faith in me will be even more shot than it already is. Have you talked with Mary Kate about when she’s planning to tell people?’
‘She wants to wait.’
‘And let Lily be strung up alone?’
There was a pause, then a defensive, ‘It’s not easy for us, either.’
Susan softened. ‘I know. But what if I told Phil in confidence? What if I prefaced it by saying that I was sharing this with him because there is serious damage control to be done, and he needs to be in the loop? I’ve shared information on students with him in the past, and he’s always been good for his word. He can be trusted.’ The other end of the line was silent. ‘Kate?’
‘I’m wishing you weren’t principal of the high school. I’d have preferred to fly under the radar.’
Susan wondered if that was resentment she heard. Unnerved, she said, ‘Right now, I’m wishing it, too. But don’t be angry at me, Kate. I didn’t dream up this scheme.’
She waited for Kate to say more – Kate, who could always go with the flow, believing that everything worked out in the end. But that Kate was silent.
‘It’d be nice to have a little control over what happens now,’ Susan argued. ‘That’s another reason to share this with Phil. And about Mary Kate – how long can you hide it – maybe two months?’
‘No one cares if my daughter is pregnant. I never finished college. No one expects great things of my kids.’
‘Excuse me? Kate, your kids are all at the top of the class.’
‘But no one’s watching us. Alex was pulled over once and ticketed for having open beer in the car, and no one cared. I like being anonymous.’
‘Do you honestly think that if one of your twins had made a pregnancy pact with friends when she was in high school, no one would care? Come on, Kate. It’d be on the front page of the paper!’
‘Omigod,’ Kate shrieked. ‘Is that where we’re heading with this?’
Susan couldn’t answer. At every turn, it seemed, there was another layer to the horror. Trying to stay calm, she focused on Phil. ‘That’s another reason to tell Correlli. He has an in with the paper. If he can’t keep it out of the press, at least he might be able to control what they print.’ Tired as she was, frightened as she was, she had to convince Kate. ‘Look. I won’t say anything unless Sunny agrees, too. There’s no point in telling Phil half the story. It’s either all or nothing.’
‘What if you told him without using our names? Wouldn’t that solve your problem?’
‘It might solve mine, but it wouldn’t solve yours. He’d guess right away it was Mary Kate, and if he didn’t, one question to any of Lily’s teachers would bring up her name. That teacher might ask another, who might mention it to a third, and before you know it, speculation is rampant. Far better that I tell it all to Phil in confidence. And here’s the thing. Phil is really good with kids. He might be a help with our girls.’
Kate sputtered. ‘How can he help? It’s not like he has a say in whether Mary Kate keeps her baby, and he sure as hell won’t help pay its way. Oh, we can manage, Susie, I know we can. But I wanted my kids to do more than just manage. I keep asking Mary Kate what she was thinking when she took it upon herself to do this, and each time, she goes off on a long discussion of how she’s looked at it from every angle and knows it will work. But she hasn’t looked at it from my angle or from Will’s – or from Jacob’s. I can’t imagine what he’ll feel when he finds out. Our daughters didn’t look past themselves. They didn’t consider us.’
Relieved that they were on the same side about this at least, Susan said, ‘No. And Phil will know eventually. Let me tell him now.’
‘I should ask Will. He works for the company. What if the company has a problem with the pregnancies? Will Pam cover?’
Once Susan would have answered in the affirmative, but there was so much yet to play out. ‘I don’t know. She stormed in here earlier, angry that I hadn’t told her about Lily. She doesn’t know about Mary Kate and Jess yet, and I couldn’t warn her about Abby, for which I will be eternally damned. Believe it or not, Pam isn’t as worried about Perry & Cass as she is about the School Board. Our being friends puts her in a vise. Honestly? If push comes to shove and she has to take a stand, I’m not sure whose side she’ll take.’
‘She’ll take yours. I’d put money on that. She loves you. You represent everything she wishes she could be.’
‘Unmarried?’ Susan asked dryly.
‘Your career, your focus. She looks to you for advice. I’ve seen it even when Sunny and I are right there. She asks you, not us. By the way, what does Sunny say about this?’
‘She’s my next call. I can wait until you talk this over with Will. Or I can test the waters with Sunny,’ she said, taking a lighter note. ‘I can pretend you’ve given me the okay – you know, take a page from our kids’ book – the old my mommy says it’s okay trick. If Sunny agrees, you won’t have much of a leg to stand on.’
Kate snorted. ‘Like I have much of a leg to stand on now? I still wish you weren’t such a big cheese. But go ahead. I don’t have to ask Will. He’ll know you’re in a bind. Just make sure Phil doesn’t blab until we’re ready. I’m counting on you, Susie. Don’t let us down.’
One of the advantages of being principal was that Susan’s schedule was more forgiving than if, say, there were twenty-five juniors waiting in a classroom for her to discuss Jane Eyre. Emergencies were part of her day. She could postpone a teacher meeting or class visit, and the world accepted that she was dealing with something urgent.
So, asking her assistant to reshedule sophomore English observation, she ignored a computer screen filled with pending email and left school. She walked quickly; it was a cold day. The wind was blowing dried leaves from branches, whipping others up from the ground. When her hair flew, Susan tucked it into her collar and double-wrapped her scarf, leaving a hand in the wool for its warmth. The scarf was of sock yarn from the fall collection – called ‘Last Blaze’ – and perfectly matched the reds and oranges the leaves had so recently been. They were faded now, but her scarf, knit double-stranded in flame-like chevrons, was as bold as ever.
Head low against the wind, she pushed on to Main Street. She trotted past a tour bus that was pulling up at the curb, crossed diagonally, and continued on another block to Perry & Cass Home Goods. One foot in the door, and she was enveloped in the scent of spiced pumpkin. Thanksgiving was coming on fast, with autumnal tableware, wood carving boards and ceramic serving pieces prominently displayed. Seasonal candles and potpourri were on one side, cookware on another, but it was at the back of the store, where yarn filled huge baskets, that Susan spotted Sunny.
She wore dark green today, coordinating slacks, sweater, and hair bow. Susan immediately recognized the sweater as one Sunny had knitted the summer before when the first of the fall colors had been painted and skeined. A rich hunter shot through with tiny wisps of russet and gold, it was one of Susan’s favorites. Sunny was an exquisite knitter, the only one of the four who could be trusted doing straight stockinette. Every stitch was precise.
She was talking to a display designer, seeming engrossed until she saw Susan, at which point she was immediately distracted.
‘Um, that might work,’ she said to the designer, ‘um, it probably will – but don’t line the baskets with anything dark. I want this part of the store to be, um, bright. Excuse me, I’ll be right back.’ Hurrying over, she guided Susan to a nook where mounds of goose-down pillows and comforters would be a buffer, and even then, kept her voice down. ‘What’s happened? Does someone else know?’
‘No. That’s the problem,’ Susan said, and told her about Phil. She hadn’t even finished before Sunny was shaking her head.
‘Uh-uh. I refuse. This is too humiliating. It’d be one thing if Jessica was in love with someone, like Mary Kate is. She could get married and be part of an adorable young couple who, by the way, is having a baby – but that’s not the case at all. Jessica has no intention of getting married and every intention of keeping this baby. I’m so angry with her, I don’t know what to do.’
‘I’m angry at Lily—’
‘Not like this. Trust me. I don’t want my daughter around, and she knows it. Why do you think she’s been at your house so much?’
‘I know, but this doesn’t solve the problem,’ Susan argued. ‘We need help.’
‘I can’t go public.’
‘Not public. Just Phil.’
‘Phil is public,’ Sunny cried in a frantic whisper, gripping the laces that framed her V-neck. ‘You can’t imagine how I feel. I swear, this is in the genes. Jessica called my mother last night – my mother, the queen of quirky – and she’s just fine with her teenage granddaughter being pregnant, or so Jessica says. I have to take her word for it, because I am not about to discuss this with my mother.’
‘It is not your fault.’
‘Dan blames me.’
‘That’s because he needs to blame someone, but he’s wrong.’
‘Is he?’ Sunny asked. Her V-neck was narrowing as she clenched the laces. ‘He says I never confronted the issue of my mother head-on, and maybe he’s right. I’ve talked to Jessica until I was blue in the face about the right and wrong way of doing things, but did I ever come out and say my mother is a misfit? Did I ever call her unbalanced or selfish or…or evil? Well, she isn’t evil, just totally outrageous – but no, I don’t call my mother names in front of the kids, because a good person doesn’t do that. Oh, and Dan blames you and Kate for not controlling your daughters, because Jessica would never have done this alone.’
Susan felt the same qualm she had earlier with Kate. These friends meant the world to her. With so much happening, she needed them on her side. ‘Going after each other won’t help. Playing the blame game is destructive.’
‘Tell that to Dan.’
‘Is he going after Adam too?’
‘No, because Jessica won’t confirm that it was Adam, and Dan won’t confront anyone on the outside yet. He wants to keep this as quiet as possible. In the meanwhile, he has me to upbraid.’
Susan loved Dan for enabling Sunny to create the structured life she needed, but he had strong opinions and was judgmental without ever raising his voice. ‘Speak up, Sunny. Tell him he’s wrong.’
‘Easier said than done.’ She continued to tug at her neckline. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to have a husband.’
Coming from a stranger, it might have been a slap in the face, but Susan knew Sunny wasn’t criticizing her; she was simply complaining about Dan.
Susan covered her friend’s hand lest she choke herself. ‘He’s being unfair.’
‘He’s my husband.’
It wasn’t anything new. In all the years Susan had known her, Sunny had deferred to Dan on every major issue. There had been times, even during the creation of PC Wool, when he had been an uninvited presence, second-guessing every decision. Much as the others coached her, though – much as Sunny promised not to ask his permission when she wanted, say, to buy a new coat – she always fell back to the default.
But Susan didn’t have the strength to argue. ‘I just think we should get Phil on our side.’
‘You’re worried about your job,’ Sunny hissed, ‘but what about mine? What about Dan’s? Fine for you to act in your own best interest, but what about ours? Your daughter may be making waves, but mine is barely seven weeks pregnant. I don’t need to go public yet. It’ll be another three months before anyone even guesses.’
‘I thought the same thing about Lily, and look what happened,’ Susan pointed out. Yes, she was acting in her own best interest, but the line between what was best for her and what was best for her friends was fluid. She squeezed Sunny’s hand to soften the words. ‘Who’s to say Abby won’t blab about Mary Kate and Jessica, too?’
‘You need to be talking to her, not to me.’
Not a bad idea, Susan realized. But the basic problem remained. ‘This month, next month, the month after – it doesn’t matter, Sunny. You can put it off all you want, but sooner or later the story will break.’
‘Later is better. At least the holidays will be over. Next week is Thanksgiving, for God’s sake. If this comes out now, with us going to Albany to see Dan’s family, it’ll ruin everything.’
If it wasn’t Thanksgiving, it would be Christmas. There would never be a good time for this, Susan knew. But she could wait a week.
News of Lily’s pregnancy spread. Back in her office, Susan received a call from the middle school principal, who was ostensibly more curious than disapproving, though Susan imagined the latter was there. When she stopped at PC Beans for coffee on her way to a varsity football game, she felt other customers staring. And when she went to the supermarket on her way home, she knew the checkout clerk was darting her questioning looks.
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