by Katrina Funk
Juliet threw out her hand, catching her balance on the metal bathroom stall wall as a wave of dizziness and nausea crashed over her. A stringy thread of blood trailed down her wrist towards her elbow, a match to the blood smear on the stall wall and the red handprint above it. The sharp tang of blood mixed with the too-sweet perfume of air freshener and who knew what else made Juliet’s stomach lurch.
Juliet swallowed. Tried. Her throat snagged, her breath hitching in uneven puffs as she forced her gaze towards the ceiling. This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t real. She wouldn’t look. If she didn’t look down, it would just disappear. It wouldn’t be real.
Please, god, make it go away.
Another uncontrollable tremor seized her body. She pressed her hand harder against the cold metal wall, trying to brace herself, but it did nothing to still her body. Her legs. She couldn’t make them stop. The shaking. She reached down. Grasped her knee, trying to force her legs still. Her hand hit something wet and warm. She looked. She tried not to but couldn’t stop herself.
Mottled skin, purple and red. Mucous. Blood. A whitish, rubber-like cord protruded from its stomach, wrapping around one of its legs before disappearing between her legs.
It squirmed, its tiny feet jerking out and pressing into her abdomen. The baby flung out its arms and coughed, followed by a weak cry.
“Shhh, shhh. Don’t,” Juliet pleaded. She reached her hand toward the baby and flinched back. She couldn’t touch it. What if someone heard? What would they say?
Oh god, this couldn’t be real! It didn’t make any sense. She wasn’t pregnant. But apparently, that didn’t matter because a baby had just come out of her. Here. In this bathroom. A nebula of swirling pain and pressure had blended in an incoherent eddy of confusion as some instinct as old as humanity took over, forcing her to reach down and pull the thing out from the grasps of the toilet bowl.
Sure, she’d gained some weight, but that was just because of her schedule. Since taking the job at one of the biggest law firms in the country seven months ago, she hadn’t had time for exercise or eating healthy or all that other stuff she used to do. She slept at the office half the time, her workload making the thirty-minute commute home a drain of time she couldn’t afford.
All she’d wanted was some ibuprofen. And maybe some chocolate. Just the basic needs of any woman starting her period. No woman went into a grocery store hoping to walk out of the bathroom with a baby!
In eight hours, she’d be presenting her project – her project she’d given up five months of her life building – to two of the most prominent partners in the firm. The future of her whole career depended on her being there. She hadn’t killed herself in law school, drudged through three years at a no-name law firm, gotten her dream job, and sacrificed her whole life for the job, to lose it all by having a baby in a public bathroom the night before the most important meeting of her life. She was going to be at that meeting. And walking in with a baby wasn’t an option. Juliet wasn’t one of those people. One of those people who had so little control and purpose in their lives that they ended up on some stupid reality show. She had her life together, each hour accounted for. Her life was carefully mapped out: a five-year plan, ten-year, twenty. A baby wasn’t part of any of it.
The door blurred in front of her as a shock of pain spasmed in her abdomen. She bit down on her teeth, grinding them together. The pain intensified, sharp and hot like a knife slicing her from the inside. She leaned back and closed her eyes as the pain slowly subsided.
A speaker crackled in the ceiling above the next stall over: “Barney’s Grocer will be closing in fifteen minutes.”
The baby's wane cry intensified. The ceiling spun, the metallic stall walls collapsing inward as Juliet tried to slow her breathing. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be real.
Breathe. Breathe. One thing at a time. She only had to concentrate on one thing: getting out of this bathroom without anyone noticing her. That was it.
And then what? The baby was still attached to her, and she couldn’t just walk out with a naked, blood-covered baby. She’d be seen. And the blood. Handprints. Blood streaks. She didn’t even dare look into the toilet.
The baby’s face turned bright red as its cry morphed into a full-on wail.
“Please stop,” Juliet said, choking back a sob. Flinching, she set her hand on the baby’s chest. It was warm and slimy and a string of bloody mucous clung to the side of its head. Juliet had to look away. The crying abated. Some.
Oh, god, she had to get out of here. But how, and then what? Her eyes dropped to her cell phone lying on the top of the toilet paper dispenser. She swallowed, a new type of pain rising.
She couldn’t call him.
She couldn’t. She’d left. Seven months ago. Three years together, and she’d gone. Clean break. That was the easiest. Her new job would be too demanding. It wouldn’t have been fair to drag things out, and it wasn’t like she’d completely blindsided him. She’d warned him. The night they’d met. He’d asked her out, and she’d told him straight up: she was on the career path. No kids, no family. She could still see him standing there, hands in his jeans, his dark curly hair looking like he’d just pulled his hand through it, stubble for a beard.
“It’s just a drink.” He’d said with that little half-grin of his.
It was never supposed to be more than that.
But then suddenly it was three years later, and somewhere along the way, it had stopped being her life, but theirs. Where work had become something she’d done to get to the weekends. Where evenings had become a bike ride or cuddling on the couch or watching a movie instead of squeezing in a few more hours of work.
And then she’d gotten the call.
Another wave of pain. The phone faded in and out of focus as the throbbing peaked. The baby’s wails intensified again, shattering her restraint.
Juliet grabbed the phone, her fingers scrolling through her contacts before she was even aware of what she was doing. Her finger only hovered a second over his name before pressing call. Not looking down, she pressed her other hand more firmly on the chest of the crying baby. The crying wavered and then slowly subsided as the phone rang.
“Please pick up,” she whispered. Her hand shook, her knuckles hitting her cheek in a stuttering rhythm as the phone rang again and again. The baby whimpered. The speaker above crackled and then went quiet again. Juliet’s heart raced. It was almost midnight. Was he awake? Would he even answer if he was?
Juliet nearly dropped the phone. Mark. Her chest tightened at the sound of his voice in a way she didn’t think was possible anymore.
“Mark.” Juliet’s voice cracked. The shiny metal of the stall walls wavered. She clung to the phone, her hand aching from the pressure. She opened her mouth to say more, but her throat swelled. Her head dropped as a cavern opened inside her, the sound of his voice releasing a torrent of suppressed ache and yearning. Everything she wouldn’t let herself feel since she’d left. Everything she’d tried to bury under her projects and clients – anything to not think of him – rose to the surface in a massacre of emotions. Seven months.
A gulf of silence expanded on the other side.
“I’m here.” His voice sounded wary and distant.
“Mark, please. I don’t know who else to call.” Juliet’s hands trembled, and she realized her whole body was shaking again. Another wave of pain clamped onto her abdomen. She sucked in a breath, trying to hold in the moan that gripped her.
“Look, Juliet. This isn’t really a good time.”
The line went silent again. Juliet bit her lip, choking back a cry. She wouldn’t cry. Closing her eyes, she gritted her teeth against the war inside her. The words were right there: I’ve had a baby. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. But they wouldn’t come.
“Juliet? You there?”
“Mark, I need.” She sucked in a breath the wave of pain expanded.
“Juliet? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Juliet shook her head, unable to get any words out.
“Etty.” Mark’s voice softened into a plea etched with the weight of everything that had existed between them. Everything their life had been, the good and the bad and everything since. Juliet closed her eyes, aching for his touch. His warmth. Knowing that if he was just here, maybe they could somehow fix it all. Juliet swallowed.
“I need help.”
Juliet took another shuddering breath as she tried to keep the pain contained.
Juliet’s phone buzzed. She yanked it from her ear just in time to see an image of a dead battery flash before going dark.
“No, stop. No, no, no, no.” She held the power button, but the phone didn’t respond.
A woman’s voice crackled from the speaker above: “Barney’s Grocer will be closing in ten minutes. Please bring your items up to the nearest register.”
Juliet closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the metallic stall wall. The baby began to cry again, weak and stringy as if it didn’t have the heart or energy to really try.
Juliet’s trembled as she wiped her hair away from her face with the back of her blood-stained hand. Her chest hitched as the weight of her situation fell over her all over again. She was alone, the store was closing, she had a meeting to get to in eight hours, and no one would be coming to help her.
Juliet shoved open the door of the bathroom stall and stumbled forward. Each step sent a shot of burning pain radiating from her abdomen. Her legs wavered beneath her as she reached for the bathroom sink to steady herself. She barely recognized her reflection in the mirror. Sweat covered her face, and her brownish blonde hair had matted against her head. Smears of blood crisscrossed her forehead. Pressed to her chest was her blue cardigan where the baby and placenta were concealed. The placenta she’d just ripped from her body, the pain so intense she’d almost passed out. She didn’t think it was supposed to hurt like that, but she had no time to think about it. She had to get out of here. She could already feel the blood seeping through the ball of toilet paper she’d wadded in her underwear. Her grip tightened on the edge of the sink as her vision swayed.
The next step. She’d gotten out of the stall. Now she needed to get to her car. But the cardigan, the baby beneath, felt like a beacon. A bright light displaying to the world her shame.
A tall brown trashcan stood next to the sink. She froze. A hazy, fog-like idea forming, thick and disjointed. Her gaze dropped to the mound wrapped inside her cardigan. She swallowed and shook her head. No. She couldn’t.
The baby wriggled. Part of the cardigan fell away, revealing the reddish purplish blob of the placenta. Juliet jerked her head away as her stomach churned. She released a huff of breath. Oh god, what was she going to do? Even after she got out of here, the baby wasn’t going anywhere. She couldn’t take care of a baby. She had a job. A plan. A future.
Her eyes landed back on the trash can, the sickening pit in her stomach roiling.
No one knew. Not a single person. Not even she’d known she was pregnant. What if no one ever knew? She could walk out of the bathroom as if nothing had ever happened. Her life wouldn’t need to change. She would wake up tomorrow, nail her presentation, and her life would go on just as she’d planned it. Her gut tightened as the whole thing played out in her head. Her heart beat frantic against the tiny warm body pressed to her chest.
She reached a hand towards the garbage, and suddenly it was like she was in two places at once: in her body and watching from above. She saw herself taking off the garbage lid, pulling out the brown crumpled paper towels, and setting them in the sink. She grabbed another handful and another until the sink was overflowing, and the top half of the trash can lay open and inviting.
“Barney’s Grocer will be closing in five minutes.”
Juliet’s breath stuttered as she stared at the gaping hole in front of her. And then, without hardly even thinking, she held out her blue cardigan and let it slide right into the garbage.
And. Nothing. No cry. No jostling. Juliet stared at the blue cardigan lying amidst the crumpled paper. And then, almost mechanically, she began to place the paper in the sink back into the can one handful at a time. In moments, the cardigan was completely buried. Juliet set the lid back on top.
Just like that, it was done.
The world swayed as Juliet took a hesitant step back. No sound came from the trash can. She took another step, then another. A shriek of pain shot through her whole body. She nearly fell, barely catching herself on the edge of the sink. Black spots prickled at her vision as she tried to straighten back up.
“You have to promise not to laugh.”
Juliet’s head jerked up. Mark. That was Mark’s voice. She tried to stand, her vision blackening again as she did. But that wasn’t possible. He couldn’t be here.
“I won’t,” someone else said. A far distant part of her recognized the voice.
And then Mark was at her side. But it was all wrong. He wasn’t in the bathroom but sitting at a bar, and she was sitting next to him, the details around them hazy as if looking through a frosted window. It was the night they met. A night that even then hadn’t seemed real. It had been too natural, too right. Like they were two old friends reconnecting after years apart.
Mark raised his eyebrows as if he didn’t remotely believe her.
“Come on, it can’t be worse than me trying to create my lemonade empire,” Juliet said, already regretting the admission.
Mark looked down, rolling the bottom of the glass around the coaster, the grin on his face – boyish and embarrassed – spreading wider than ever. “I wanted to be an animal rescuer.”
Juliet tried not to laugh. She really did. “Like the crocodile hunter guy? What was his name?”
“Steve Irwin. And I don’t think he rescued animals, but no. I was much more macho than that.” he smiled, looking away again. “You know, like birds and squirrels in my backyard. My pet dog.”
“Your dog needing rescuing?”
“In my seven-year-old imagination, yes,” he said. “She’d been attacked by a bear. Not a real bear, but you know, I’d convinced myself she needed doctoring anyway. I had her wrapped up in a dozen of those ace bandages, toilet paper when that ran out.” He shook his head at the memory. “I even hung a sign above the front door of my house: ‘Mark’s Animal Rescue Service’.” He held out his hands like he was spreading a banner.
“You ever get any business?”
He gave her a sideways glance. “I knew you’d laugh,” he said, his own soft laughter joining hers.
“A neighbor girl found an abandoned kitten once.” He paused. “We thought it was dead. Practically just bones, but when I picked her up, she opened her eyes. Took three weeks of waking up every two hours through the night, feeding her with this tiny dropper.” His face had become serious, his eyes distant as he looked down at his glass. “The thing lived for nearly twenty years. She died a few years ago. I’d gone home for Christmas.” He paused. “It was almost as if she’d been waiting for me to come back.”
Mark’s voice faded in and out like a weak radio reception and then was gone. The bathroom walls filled the gaps until the memory had dissolved completely. Juliet grabbed the edge of the sink, her arms shaking as she pulled herself back up to her feet. Her head spun and gut twisted. She looked to the door and back to the garbage can. Mark.
The car jerked as the tires hit the curb, coming to a halt. Juliet rammed the gear into park and leaned her head against the steering wheel. Even with her eyes closed, the spinning didn’t stop. Slowly, she turned her head. A row of townhomes stood just beyond the sidewalk, an even line in both directions, the light next to each front door glowing bright. Seven months and everything looked the same as the day she’d left. Almost all the windows were black, but not the one directly in front of her. A soft glow filtered through gray curtains.
Juliet pushed back from the wheel, sending her vision spiraling even more. Her hands trembled as she reached for the doorknob and pushed it open with a lurch. As she grasped the car door and heaved herself up out of her seat, her pants clung to her, sticky and wet. The ground beneath her rolled, the lights fading in and out as a gush of warm liquid flowed from between her legs.
Blood. So much blood.
Juliet clung to the door, trying to force her mind on what she needed to do. Up the sidewalk, onto the porch, to the door, and that was it. Only thirty more feet, and this would all be over. She was almost there. Closing her eyes again, she focused on her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. She had to do this. There was no other choice. Meetings. Clients. Her future.
She ducked back into the car and pulled the cardigan towards her from the passenger seat. The baby inside jerked, its arms splaying outward and escaping the wrapped folds. It didn’t cry as she awkwardly pulled it into her arms. She didn’t look at it, just wrapped the cardigan back around it, blocking it from her view.
Memories came back in flashes: stumbling back to that garbage, throwing out crumpled paper, nearly fainting with the force of pulling the cardigan-wrapped baby out of the garbage, everything else a blur. Stumbling to the door. Down the hall. The sliding doors. Freedom. Her car. Buzzing. Everything buzzing and shady, nothing looking and feeling quite right.
Mark. All she had to do was get to Mark.
A steady flow of fluid seeped down her legs as Juliet stumbled around her car, leaning into it to keep herself standing. The edges of her vision blurred, the light coming in and out of focus as she staggered up the sidewalk. Each step felt like climbing through thick mud, her feet slow and unresponsive. Figures flitted in and out of the shadows of her periphery. She turned, nearly falling, but there was nothing but shadows cast by the porch lights. Wisps of laughter twisted through the branches of a giant oak tree, dying and turning cold. Juliet’s head spun, and despite everything looking right, it felt as though she were seeing at the world from upside down.
Juliet clasped onto the railing of the front porch, the black iron slick against her wet palms. Two steps. That was all, but it felt like mountains. She teetered up, her breath coming in staggering bursts. Her eyes locked on a bench they’d picked out the summer before. It was still there, perfectly proportioned beneath the window. In front of it, a bright red stain shone bright against the gray wood stain, clearly visible even in the dark. It was her fingernail polish. She’d accidently dropped the wand the very day they’d bought the bench. Mark had said he’d sand it off. Not to worry about it. But it was still there.
Juliet stared at the stain, trying to make sense of it. But her thoughts gurgled about in her head, sloshing and uncoordinated. The door. She needed to get through the door. Only a few more steps. She lurched forward, seizing the doorknob by instinct. She turned. It stuck. The door. It was locked. Why?
The floor rolled. Juliet teetered to the side. She tried to catch her balance, but her arm wouldn’t move. Something was holding it down. Her cardigan, something heavy was wrapped in her cardigan. A flash at the edge of her vision. A bathroom. A baby. The world swayed, and she threw out her free hand, a hollow thud sounding through the darkness as she caught herself on the door. The darkness crept in around her vision, and her stomach twisted. That baby let out a weak cry, or maybe it was her. She swallowed, trying to fight the burning in her throat.
The door swung open, and Juliet toppled forward. The floor bowed, and she barely managed to get her feet back beneath her. The light shuddered as her vision narrowed into a tunnel. Mark. His face. He wasn’t smiling. Why wasn’t he smiling? Juliet reached out, tried. Her arms were like lead. If she could just get to him, but her feet didn’t respond.
“I made this for you.” She heaved her cardigan towards him, her words barely more than a slur. She wanted it to be funny, to make him smile the way he used to when he saw her, but there was nothing.
Mark lunged forward, barely catching the bundle before it fell. A sharp cry. Juliet tried to step but couldn’t find her feet. She had to tell him something. Something important, but all her thoughts felt as loose and slippery as butter. The floor. Why was she on the floor? Mark, his knees hitting the floor next to her. And then everything went dark.
Juliet jolted as if startled from a dream, her chest hitching as if catching her breath. An orangish pink haze surrounded her, making the gray stained porch look a sickly brown. The red fingernail polish stain beneath the wood bench was gone. Had Mark sanded it down finally? The edge of the wooden bench dug into her shoulder blades uncomfortably. Where was Mark? He’d been sitting right here next to her, hadn’t he?
A high-pitched squeal cut through the air, dissolving into a fit of laughter. Juliet stood, walking to the railing of the porch. Just beyond, a little girl, three at most, swung from a swing hanging from the tall oak tree that sat between the two townhouses. The girl’s hair was pulled back into pigtails, two whiffs of curly brown hair.
“Higher, daddy!” She giggled, her voice rapturous with glee.
And there was Mark.
Time seemed to freeze, the haze fading a bit as he came into focus. His hair just as curly and messy as ever, though longer than she remembered.
He was smiling. Not his half-smile, not his polite smile. His real smile. The one that was so rare. The one that Juliet had always felt was just her own. But Mark wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at the little girl.
The little girl kicked in glee as Mark grabbed the swing, pulled it back into his chest, and then let go, his deep laughter blending in with hers. A warmth filled Juliet as she watched, a warmth she couldn’t quite place. Foreign, but at the same time, familiar and safe.
Juliet was about to step out to join them when a phone rang, the tone high and shrill. Juliet looked down, surprised to realize her cell phone was in her hand. It rang again, the vibration sending a shiver up her whole arm. She turned it over, exposing the screen to the strange light. The numbers were blurred, but somehow, she knew who it was: work. Her meeting. She was supposed to be at her meeting. They must be wondering where she was. Juliet took a step back from the railing. They’d all be sitting there, waiting for her presentation.
Mark looked up, his eyes meeting Juliet’s. His smile faded. Juliet’s grasp tightened around her phone as it rang again.
“Daddy, more!” The girl called, but Mark didn’t move to push her again. The swing slowed, the girl’s laughter fading. Mark pulled the girl up from the swing, cradling her into his arms. The girl wrapped her arms around his neck, nuzzling her head into his neck. Mark set his hand on her back and leaned his head into hers, his eyes finally dropping. And then he turned, not towards Juliet and the house, but away.
They were leaving.
“Mark, wait,” Juliet called. The phone rang again, so loud now it pressed into her eardrums. Mark didn’t turn. Juliet tried to silence the ringer, but there were no buttons. She just needed Mark to wait, just for a moment, so she could explain. This meeting was important, but it would only take a couple of minutes. She needed to tell him, them, to wait for her. That she’d be right back.
Juliet stepped towards the stairs, but an invisible pressure pushed back, halting her progress. A suffocating panic gripped Juliet’s chest. Mark and the girl were getting smaller as they walked away.
“Mark!” Juliet screamed, fighting against the force holding her, but the harder she pushed, the tighter it became. Her phone rang again, the sound becoming a part of the pressure, locking her into place. She tried to drop the phone, to throw it away, but it was stuck to her palm. She shook her hand, trying to break it free, but it wouldn’t budge.
Mark. She could hardly see them now. She had to stop them. They couldn’t leave her. Not like this. What if she couldn’t find them again?
The pressure around her thickened, the ringing now everywhere and constant. Juliet couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe. She tried to scream, couldn’t. She needed to get to them. To explain. She could fix it. She could make it right. She just …
A blur of noises and smells came in and out of focus, fading almost like an echo. Distant murmurs. Clatters. The sound of a cart rolling. A hint of lavender. Juliet blinked her eyes and closed them again as the white of her surroundings bled together into a blob. Her head ached, murky and dark, a choking grip of darkness pulling at her. Panic. Desperation. She’d been dreaming. The details bobbed up and down in the darkness, nothing clear. Mark had been there, and someone else. Something terrible had happened.
Juliet forced her heavy lids back open, and the room slowly came into focus: pale blue walls, a mounted TV, light shining in from a wide window. A blue and green patterned curtain hung from a rod connected to a tiled ceiling. Beeping. Slow. Even. Tubes flowed out from her hand to a metal stand where bags of liquid hung. She tried to lift her hand, but it felt like it had been filled with cement. She closed her eyes and tried to root herself, to ground herself as she grappled for the loose ends of her memory. But there was only a deep fog. She was in a hospital room, but how did she get there?
She opened her eyes, taking in the room again, looking for clues. A weighted urgency pressed against her ribs. She was supposed to be somewhere, somewhere important. She tried to lift her hand again, but it barely moved. She stared at it, trying to force it to obey, when she noticed someone in the chair next to the bed. A man, hunched over, his elbows on his knees, his face hidden behind his hands, dark curly hair rumpled.
“Mark.” The words escaped her lips, barely more than an exhalation of breath as her throat tightened, choking off anything else.
Mark’s head shot up. The skin around his eyes hung heavy and puffy, the whites of his eyes lost in a web of red.
Juliet breathed in the sound of his voice, the way he said her name. Years of emotions: memories, hope, peace, happiness flooded into her, all just from the sound of that one word. He was here. Oh god, he was here. The heavy pressure that held her chest loosened as Mark gently took Juliet’s hand, wrapping his hands around hers. A million questions filled her mind, but just for a moment, she wanted to feel him. His touch. So steady. So real.
“You’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” A gruffness reverberated through Mark’s voice. “You lost a lot of blood. But hey, they found you more.” The corners of his lips tilted upward, but the smile faded as quickly as it had come.
Blood? Edges of something pricked at Juliet’s memory but still too dull to understand. She tightened her grip on his hand as her chin began to quiver.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Mark said, squeezing her hand. “She’s okay. She’s small, early.” He swallowed, “But they say she’s going to be okay. She’s in the NICU. As soon as you feel up to it, you can go see her.”
The warmth of his presence vanished, and a sinking cold crashed into the void. Images crackled, breaking through her awareness like shattered glass. Metallic stall walls. Pain. Mark’s house.
Nausea rose in her throat. Her whole body felt like it was buckling inward, collapsing onto her spine, her lungs flattening as her airways cut off completely.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. Everything’s okay. I’m here.” Mark said, his voice soothing as if she didn’t do anything to him. As if she hadn’t abandoned him and then shown up a few months later with a baby. Juliet pulled her hand from his as hot streams of horror and shame engulfed her.
He shouldn’t be here.
She shook her head, pinching her eyes shut, trying to make it all vanish. If she could only go back in time and erase it all. Her chest, so tight. She opened her eyes to find Mark inches from her face. Black dots crept in around the edges of her vision.
“Etty,” he whispered as he pressed his hand to her cheek, his fingers tangling in her hair around her ear. His eyes latched on her own, refusing to let her go.
The block in her rib cage released, and her lungs filled as something between a sob and groan escaped. His thumb stroked her cheek, pulling a tear away with it.
“She’s strong.” Mark’s words caught, but he didn’t turn away. “And beautiful.”
Juliet leaned her head back. The ceiling tiles blurred together above.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant.” The confession spilled out before she could stop it, shame warping her voice. Mark’s head dropped down, but he didn’t pull away.
“I was in a bathroom. In a grocery store.” It hurt to say the words. She kept her eyes on the ceiling so she wouldn’t see Mark’s reaction. She remembered the garbage can. What she’d almost done. A sickening horror clawed up, making her want to vomit.
“I didn’t want. I couldn’t.” Juliet’s throat constricted, cutting off the words she couldn’t find, an explanation she couldn’t give. Not for herself, and not for him.
Mark pulled away, both hands grasping his head as he turned toward the window.
The curtain around the door pulled back, the clash of metal sliding against metal, shattering the little world where, just for a moment, only the two of them existed. A nurse entered the room. She was short with a tight ponytail high on her head, giving her a severe look. Though she had a warm smile as she came to the side of the bed.
“Good to see you up,” she said, her fingers sliding over a tablet in her hands. “I just need to check your vitals, make sure everything is looking good. Then I’ll let the doctor know you’re awake. She’ll swing by to fill you in and answer any questions you have.” Her eyes darted to Mark, who hadn’t moved. His back was still to them, bright light shining in from the window beyond. Light too bright to be morning.
And then the last gear shifted into place, and Juliet remembered. Her presentation. It took only seconds to find a clock on the wall: eleven thirty-seven. She’d missed it. Five months of work. There had to be dozens of messages on her phone, each one becoming increasingly urgent. She waited for the panic, the crushing weight of what her blunder would mean. The partners weren’t the forgiving type. The job was cut-throat by design, thousands of junior associates fighting to be one of the few who would rise up above the rest. And this had been her chance.
But the panic didn’t come. Instead, something else niggled its way upward. Relief. But it didn’t make her feel any better. She wanted the panic. She wanted the desperation. She’d given everything she had for that job. She’d worked so hard.
At the same time, another image filled her mind: Mark. The little girl, both of them walking away from her. And she couldn’t stop them. No matter what she did, she couldn’t get them back. The feeling of darkness watching them go, the anguish of being left behind.
The nurse moved to the machines, little clacking sounds filling the emptiness of the room as she transferred data. “You had everyone worried there for a bit, but looks like things are leveling out.” More clacking. “Your baby is doing fine. She’s just having a hard time keeping her body temperature regulated, but once she’s figured that out, she’ll be good to go.”
Mark’s hands moved down to his hips, his head drooping.
The nurse adjusted the tubes in Juliet’s hand and checked the bags on the tower before turning her attention back to Juliet. “Is there anything I can get for you? Ice water, a heated blanket?”
Juliet shook her head, and the nurse left, pulling the curtain back closed around them.
“I thought you were dead.” Mark finally said, and the pain in his voice cut so deep Juliet felt it in her very soul. He turned back to her, his eyes red.
“I thought you were going to die, right there on my porch. The blood.” His words cut off, and he shook his head, a bit of color draining from his face. “And I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t save you.” He collapsed back into the chair, his face disappearing behind his hands.
Juliet swallowed, trying to find what to say.
“You left. You just left.” Mark’s words sounded like a groan. “No explanation, nothing. No returned phone calls, not even a text.”
Juliet couldn’t hold his gaze. “I left a note.”
“A note?” Mark scoffed. “As if three years was what, a one-night stand?”
“I didn’t think you’d understand?”
“You didn’t even give me a chance! And suddenly, you’re dying on my porch, and there’s a baby.” Mark’s words cut off as his chest heaved. “And I don’t know what to do with any of this. I thought you’d died. Right there in my arms, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. You were leaving me all over again, and there was nothing I could do.” Mark’s hands shook as he pulled them through his loose curls. He didn’t look at her.
“I was scared,” Juliet finally said, her voice trembling.
“Scared of what?” Mark said, a flash of anger piercing his words.
Juliet took a breath, steadying herself, fighting against the urge to run, to shut down, to change the subject, to do anything but have this conversation.
“I’d just been offered my dream job,” Juliet said, fighting to keep her voice steady. She could still feel the emotions, all of them. It was as if she were still standing on his back porch seven months ago, phone in hand, exhilaration draining into a cold ache. Hesitancy, fear, sadness, resolve, desperation. The mix of emotions inside her swirled, so intense she could hardly wrap her mind around them. “I’d just gotten my dream job, and I didn’t want to take it.” Juliet closed her eyes. “I’d worked so hard for so many years. And I had it. Finally. And suddenly, I didn’t know if I wanted it.” She looked at Mark, yearning for him to look back. “Because of you.”
Mark shook his head like he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“We had this life together, and it was good,” Juliet said, the words coming out now in a rush. “It was so much more than good. We were happy. I was happy. And everything between us worked. So perfect, so easy, and what are the chances of something like that lasting? What if in a year, or two, or five, it wasn’t like that anymore? What if, somewhere in between, we broke completely, and then what? I would’ve given up my dream, and I would’ve been left with nothing.”
“So that’s what I was? A placeholder?”
“I told you, the very first day. My career came first.”
“Three years. I never once asked you to change. You don’t think that if I wanted something different, I would’ve said something?”
“But I wanted something different!” Juliet took a deep breath. “All I’d wanted for most my life was to be some big shot lawyer, and then.” Juliet shook her head, not knowing how to make him understand. “Suddenly, I wanted that life with you. The whole thing. And that scared me. It wasn’t what I’d planned or expected. I didn’t know what to do with it all. I knew the job. It had a clear trajectory. It was safe.”
“So you left?”
“I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t be the job and have a relationship or family. I wouldn’t have been fair to anybody.”
“You didn’t even give it a chance.”
“I didn’t see any other way.”
“So you just left?”
“I was wrong!” Juliet’s chest heaved. And suddenly, she could see it all: the past seven months as clear as if she’d lived it. Their life if she’d turned down the job and stayed at that small law firm, stayed with Mark. Finding out she was pregnant, being terrified, both of them, but coming around. And that fear turning into joy and anticipation. Moving in with Mark. Transforming Mark’s spare room into a nursery. All of them here in this hospital, so overjoyed and happy, their baby daughter between them healthy and safe.
“I chose wrong,” Juliet said, the weight of the words so heavy she felt they would bury her. She turned away, unable to bear the pain any longer. The pain she caused. The life they could have had together, all of it sitting there in the space between them. The life she’d traded in for a job at a firm that cared only for their bottom line, churning through junior associates as valuable and expendable as coffee filters. The ache of the past seven months, the memories of the past three years, solidified like a jagged stone and sunk slowly into Juliet’s chest, each edge catching, then shredding, as it dropped deeper.
“I never stopped loving you,” Juliet said, the words nothing more than a whisper.
The silence between them spread. Mark made no reach for her, wouldn’t even look her in her face. Juliet closed her eyes, trying to hold the tears, but couldn’t. The best thing in her life, gone. She’d ruined it, and there was no one else to blame.
One minute. That was all she’d allow herself, and then she had to get herself together. It wasn’t just about her anymore. She had a baby. A little girl. She didn’t know how it was going to work. There were no plans for this. She had no idea what the next hour would look like, let alone tomorrow or a month or year from now. She was more scared than she’d ever been in her life, but she wouldn’t run. Even if she had to do this all on her own. No more running.
Mark sniffed, exhaled slowly, and then cleared his throat. “Our daughter. She have a name?”
Juliet shook her head. “I haven’t had a chance to think about it.”
Mark nodded, sniffing again.
“Maybe we could get drinks sometime, talk it over.”
Juliet’s heart stuttered, and for a second, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “There’s a good chance I’m unemployed, and I have no idea what I’m doing next or where my life is going.”
He shrugged, the shadow of his smile lifting the corner of his lips. He reached over, wrapping his hand around Juliet’s.
“It’s just a drink.”