She stumbled to a stop in front of him.
"Hey," he said, bending down to kiss her.
She kissed him too long, too hard, clung to him, then finally forced herself to draw back.
Mrs. Haynes was looking at her with understanding. "Hello, Lauren. Angie. Conlan."
For the next few minutes, they stood there, talking about nothing. When the conversation fell into an awkward pause, David said to her, "You want to come to the beach after this?"
"No." She found it hard to say the word.
His relief was obvious, but he said, "Are you sure?"
She couldn’t even blame him. She’d looked forward to grad night for years. It was the talk of Fircrest. It just … hurt. "I’m sure."
They talked for a few more minutes, then headed for the car. It wasn’t until later, when they were pulling into the driveway, that she realized that no one had taken a picture of her and David.
All their years together, and there would be no senior grad day photograph.
At the house, Lauren got out of the car and went to her room. She thought she heard Angie and Conlan talking to her, but there was a white noise in her head, so she couldn’t be sure. Maybe they were talking to each other.
She sat on the bed, staring at the bedpost for a long time. Remembering.
When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she went downstairs and walked out to the porch.
The rain had stopped, leaving a scrubbed, robin’s egg blue sky behind.
She stood at the railing.
There, down on the beach below, was a bonfire. Smoke puffed into the air.
It probably wasn’t the senior party.
Certainly it wasn’t.
And yet …
She wondered if she could lumber down the steps to the beach and walk all that way across the sand …
Angie came up behind Lauren, put a heavy woolen blanket around her shoulders. "You’re freezing."
She turned around, saw Angie’s worried face. "Oh," Lauren sighed shakily. Then she burst into tears.
Angie stood there forever, holding her, stroking her hair.
When Lauren finally drew back, shuddering, she saw that Angie had tears in her eyes, too. "Is it contagious?" Lauren asked, trying to smile.
"It’s just … you’re still a little girl sometimes. I take it David is going to the grad night party alone."
"Not alone. Just not with me."
"You could have gone."
"I don’t belong there anymore." She pulled free and went to the porch swing and sat down. She wanted to tell Angie that lately it felt as if she didn’t belong anywhere. She loved this house, this family, but once the baby was born, Lauren wouldn’t belong here anymore.
What had the lawyer said to her?
A baby needs one mother.
Angie sat down beside her. Together, they stared down the tangle of overgrown yard to the sandy beach below.
"What happens after?" Lauren asked, leaning forward. She was careful not to look at Angie. "Where will I go?" She heard the fissure in her voice; there was no way she could sound strong.
"You’ll come back here. To the house. Then, when you’re ready, you’ll leave. Con and I bought you an airplane ticket to school. And one to come home for Christmas."
The word was a dart that pierced deep in her heart. This wouldn’t be her home anymore, not once the baby was born.
All her life Lauren had felt alone. Now she knew better. Her mother had been there, and when Mom ran off, Angie stepped in. For these last few months Lauren had felt as if she finally belonged somewhere.
But soon she’d know what truly being alone felt like.
"We don’t have to follow someone else’s rules, Lauren," Angie said. There was a tinny, desperate edge to her voice. "We can create whatever family we want."
"My counselor doesn’t think I should be here after the baby’s born. She thinks that would be too hard on all of us."
"It wouldn’t be too hard on me," Angie said slowly, drawing back slightly. "But you need to do what’s best for you."
"Yeah," Lauren said. "I guess I’ll be looking out for myself from now on."
"We’ll always be here for you."
Lauren thought of the adoption plan they’d come up with–the letters and photographs and consent agreements. It was all designed to keep the two of them at arm’s length.
"Yeah," Lauren said, knowing it couldn’t be true.
CONLAN, ANGIE, AND LAUREN SAT AT THE SCARRED, old dining table, playing cards. The music of Angie’s youth pounded through the speakers, forcing them to yell at one another. Right now, Madonna was trying to remember how virginity felt.
"You guys are in trouble now," Lauren said, taking the trick with the eight of diamonds. "Read ’em and weep." She slapped down a ten of hearts.
Conlan glanced at Angie. "Can you stop her?"
Angie couldn’t help grinning. "Nope."
"Aw, shit," Conlan said.
Lauren’s laughter rang above the music. It sounded young and innocent, and at that, Angie felt a catch in her chest.
Lauren shot the moon, then got to her feet and did a little victory dance. It was slow and ponderous, given her stomach, but it made them all laugh.
"Gee. I think I should go to bed now," Lauren said with a wide-eyed innocence.
Conlan laughed. "No way, kiddo. You can’t dump us with all those points and then just walk."
Lauren was halfway across the room when the doorbell rang.
Before they’d even wondered who it was, the door opened.
Mama, Mira, and Livvy stood there. Each of them held a big cardboard box. They rushed into the cottage, already talking, and went straight to the kitchen, where they set down the boxes.
Angie didn’t have to go over there to know what was in the boxes.
Food, frozen in Tupperware, ready to be heated at a moment’s notice and served. No doubt each of them had been cooking double dinners for a week.
New mommies didn’t have time to cook.
Angie’s chest tightened again. She didn’t want to go over there and see the evidence of what was coming. "Come on over," she yelled to her sisters and mother. "We’re playing cards."
Mama walked across the room and snapped off the stereo. "That is not music."
Angie smiled. Some things never changed. Mama had started turning off Angie’s music in the late seventies. "How about some poker, Mama?"
"I hate to take advantage of you all."
Mira and Livvy laughed. Livvy said to Lauren, "She cheats."
Mama puffed up her narrow chest. "I do not."
Lauren laughed. "I’m sure you would never cheat."
"I’m just very lucky," Mama said, pulling up a chair and sitting down.
Before Mira got to the table, Lauren said, "I’ll be right back. I have to go to the bathroom for about the fiftieth time today."
"I know the feeling," Livvy said, rubbing her own big stomach.
"How is she?" Mira asked as soon as Lauren left the room.
"It’s getting close, I think" was Angie’s answer. A silent look was passed around the table. They were all wondering the same thing. Would Lauren be able to give her baby away?
"We brought food," Mira said.
Suddenly the bathroom door cracked open. Lauren ran into the living room and stopped dead. She stood there, looking pale and terrified. Water ran down her legs and puddled on the hardwood floor. "It’s starting."
"BREATHE," ANGIE SAID, SHOWING HER HOW. HA-HA-HA.
Lauren lurched upright in bed, screaming, "Get it out of me." She grabbed Angie’s sleeve. "I don’t want to be pregnant anymore. Make it stop. Oh, God, aaah–" She flopped back onto the pillows, panting hard.
Angie wiped Lauren’s forehead with a cold, wet rag. "You’re doing great, honey. Just great." She could tell when the contraction ended. Lauren looked up at her through tired eyes. She looked impossibly, heartbreakingly young. Angie fed her some ice chips.
"I can’t do it," Lauren whispered in a broken voice. "I’m not–aaah." She was stiffening up, arching in pain.
"Breathe, honey. Look at me. Look. I’m right here. We’re breathing together." She held Lauren’s hand.
Lauren melted back into the pillows. "It hurts." She started to cry. "I need drugs."
"I’ll find some." Angie kissed her forehead, then ran from the room. "Where’s our damn doctor?" She raced up and down the white corridor until she found Dr. Mullen. He was the doctor on call tonight; their regular obstetrician was on vacation. "There you are. Lauren is in pain. She needs medications. I’m afraid–"
"It’s okay, Mrs. Malone. I’ll check her." He motioned for a nurse and headed for Lauren’s room.
Angie went to the waiting room, which was filled to overflowing. Mira’s family, Livvy’s family, Uncle Francis, Aunt Giulia, Conlan, and Mama all stood in the tiny area, taking up too much space.
Along the other wall, sitting alone in a mustard-colored plastic chair, was David. He looked dazed and scared.
God. He was so young.
Angie stepped into the room.
The crowd turned to her. Everyone started talking at once.
Angie waited. When they finally fell silent, she said, "I think it’s close." Then she crossed the room.
David stood up. He was so pale; he appeared almost translucent against the white walls. His blue eyes held the gloss of unshed tears. He moved toward her in jerky, uncertain steps. "How is she?"
Angie touched his forearm, feeling how cold he was. As she looked into his watery eyes, she knew why Lauren loved this boy so much. He was all heart. Someday he would be a good man. "She’s doing well. Would you like to see her now?"
"Is it over?"
"I can’t." He said it in a whisper. She wondered how long this decision would haunt him. It would leave a mark, she knew, but most of this day would. On all of them. "Tell her I’m here, okay? My mom is on her way, too."
They stood there, looking at each other, saying nothing. Angie wished there were words for a time like this. She felt Conlan come up beside her. His big hand curled around her shoulder, squeezed. She leaned into him, looked up. "You ready?"
They made their way through the family and back toward the birthing room. Conlan stopped at the nurse’s station and picked up some scrubs.
The minute they walked into the room, Lauren screamed Angie’s name.
"I’m here, honey. I’m here." She ran to the bedside and took Lauren’s hand in hers. "Breathe, honey."
It tore Angie up, that kind of pain in Lauren’s voice.
"Is David here?" she asked, starting to cry again.
"He’s in the waiting room. Do you want me to get him?"
"No. Aagh!" She arched in pain.
"That’s it. Push," Dr. Mullen said. "Come on, Lauren. Push hard."
Lauren sat up. Angie and Conlan held her upright as she grunted and strained and screamed.
"It’s a boy," Dr. Mullen said a few minutes later.
Lauren flopped back in bed.
The doctor turned to Conlan. "You’re the father, right? Would you like to cut the cord?"
Conlan didn’t move.
"Do it," Lauren said tiredly. "It’s okay."