Suddenly the teenage girls of Woodmont were pregnant.
Sandy Stickles counted off on her fingers six names – all Woodmont High girls – to Paula as they speed-walked around the Community Park track as they did every Sunday morning. It was early April, when the weather in Connecticut could be warm or freezing, and today was somewhere in between. Both Sandy and Paula wore zippered microfiber vests with their spandex capris and tees.
“Well, two of them graduated last year, I think,” Sandy amended, “but they’re
still living at home with their parents. They’re not adults.”
“Right,” said Paula.
“Certainly not ready to be mothers.”
“Of course not.”
Sandy gave her head a disgusted shake, her ponytail flicking like a dark switch from the back of her white baseball cap.
“Is that a lot?” Paula asked.
“Six pregnant girls? Is that a lot more than usual?”
Sandy’s eyes widened beneath her visor.
“Are you kidding me? I don’t remember any girls being pregnant last year. Or the year before. Do you?”
“Hmmm. I guess not.”
Actually, Paula didn’t have any idea what was going on at Woodmont High. She’d given up pretending that she had anything to do with her stepchildren’s education. Hale was a junior now at Woodmont; Allie had gone out of state for her first year of college. When they were younger, Paula had made such an effort to be involved. She’d attended Allie’s dance recitals and Hale’s soccer and baseball games, always stepping back deferentially while David, her husband, handed over the congratulatory bouquet or bottle of Gatorade and chatted as cordially as possible to his ex-wife. If it was Dave’s turn to take the kids, Paula would wait till they were in the car to chime in with, “You were super!” or “What a great game!” At best, she would be sulkily ignored; other times, the kids actually screamed at her to shut up, and once Hale had splashed his red sports drink right in her face. But after all, she’d broken up their parents’ marriage, and eventually she’d accepted the fact that they would never forgive her for it. It had been ten years now. She let David do the parenting, and Hale and Allie tolerated her occasional presence without the ugly scenes of their younger years. And anyway, Paula had her own son to take care of now. Brendan. She felt her chest constrict just thinking of him, and she slowed down to take a breath.
“And now this spring, it’s BOOM! They’re everywhere!” Sandy was saying, swiveling her head to look back at Paula.
Paula bore down, flapping her arms with forced vigor to catch up.
She said, “Maybe it’s some kind of social trend.”
“Well that’s the thing! That’s what I was asking Cassidy about. I said, Cassie, is there some kind of crazy pregnancy clique starting at Woodmont High? Are these girls happy with themselves?”
“What did she say?”
Sandy lifted her shoulders and let them drop.
“Nothing much. She said she didn’t think so. She said the pregnant girls aren’t friends or anything.”
Sandy picked up the pace to a jog, and Paula followed suit, unzipping her vest and tossing it to the side of the track.
“A few of them are town girls,” Sandy said. “But a couple are Fountain Hill and
at least one of them is Meadowlark.”
David’s ex-wife and children lived in Fountain Hill, a housing development built during the nineties when Woodmont, tucked in the northeast corner of Connecticut, had become a popular commuter suburb. Paula had assumed that when David finally got his divorce that the two of them would continue to live in Paula’s condo in Providence, a ten minute drive to their offices at Citizens Financial, but it turned out that David wouldn’t leave Connecticut. His lawyers had to fight aggressively to win him joint custody, and part of the bargain was that the children’s schedules would not be disrupted. So David and Paula had bought a custom home in Meadowlark, the newest subdivision in Woodmont, with specially designed bedrooms for Hale and Allie that they almost always refused to sleep in.
During Paula’s first week in Connecticut, Sandy Stickles had appeared at her front door with an assortment of muffins purchased at a local bakery with a card printed by the town hospitality committee: Woodmont Welcomes You. “Wow! I’m impressed!” Sandy had exclaimed as she eyed not only the gleaming beech cabinets and artisan tile in the kitchen as Paula fixed them tea, but also Paula herself: tall and blonde, carefully put together. She’d had years to work on herself while she was single: a nose job in her late twenties, dental work, Pilates and yoga, expensive haircuts with highlights. Now, Paula had yet to lose the weight she’d gained during her high-risk pregnancy. Enforced bed-rest had been a good excuse for quitting her job and letting herself go, but that was five years ago now. She spent most of her time these days taking Brendan from one appointment to the other – the pediatrician, the neurologist, the occupational therapist, the speech therapist. Often her Sunday walk with Sandy was the only thing she did for herself all week. Sandy, on the other hand, had returned to her work in real estate law and taken up ballroom dancing; with her children both in high school, she looked trimmer and younger than ever.
“When I was a teenager,” Paula said, breathing heavily now, “we got birth control. And if something went wrong, we got abortions. Nobody wanted to have a baby.”
Sandy smirked. “I had one of those stupid purity rings.”“Did it work?” Paula was panting now.
Sandy rolled her eyes. “I mean, I tried to be careful, but still. I took some chances that I wouldn’t want Cassidy to take.”
They ran for a few minutes in silence, Paula willing herself to keep stride, sweating under her sports bra even though the air was chilly. Daffodils planted around the outskirts of the track had started to bloom last week but now held back, poised for warmth, the yellowing buds stiff and pointed like the heads of many snakes.
“The thing is, Cassidy’s got real options.”
Paula recognized sincere worry in Sandy’s voice, in the way she bit on her lower
lip and breathed through her nose.
“Now that we know her PSAT scores,” Sandy said, “we’re looking at Ivy League. Or at least the Little Ivies. Seriously, in two years, she could be playing soccer at Brown! If she screwed it up somehow I’d be devastated.”
“She won’t. Don’t worry.”
Paula stopped to pick up her water bottle, and Sandy jogged in place beside her,
pumping her knees.
“If Cassidy somehow got herself pregnant like those other girls, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t think of anything worse.”
With a sigh Sandy turned and launched her last lap; she usually sprinted one or two on her own while Paula started her cool down. How about injecting yourself with hormones month after month, Paula thought, stretching in a forward fold, slowly lifting to see Sandy’s accelerating figure take the track’s turn. How about lying with your legs spread on the gynecologist’s table while he fills you with doomed embryos for the fifth time. Thirty-five. Paula remembered so clearly how she and her college friends all decided together one night how that would be the perfect age for their first babies. Who knew it would be so hard and take so long for Paula to accomplish what the teens of Woodmont were now producing with such ease? A baby.
Sandy raced over the line, letting out a small whoop, and then joined Paula for
their usual stretches, lowering herself into a runner’s lunge.
“Guess what!” she said. “I thought of two more! While I was running that last lap it came to me.”
“What?” Paula flexed her heel and leaned sideways.
“Two more pregnant girls. Can you believe it? Marina McGann and Meagan what’s-her-name. Fowler. Meagan Fowler.”
Paula straightened abruptly from her side stretch. “Are you sure?”
“Seriously, I’m calling the principal. Or the school board. I mean, there needs to
be some kind of task force. This is an epidemic.”
“Do you know who she is? With the long red hair? All curlicue? Lots of
Paula brought her water bottle to her lips, even thought she knew it was empty.
“Oh my God,” she mumbled.
Sandy stood and windmilled her arms. “What?”
Paula trusted Sandy. They walked together every Sunday, and during the months of Paula’s bed rest when she was pregnant, Sandy had been the one who stopped by most reliably to cheer her up with a People magazine or a decaf latte from Starbucks. Hale, on the other hand, had never treated Paula with anything other than scorn, and yet now she felt herself instinctively protecting him. He was David’s son, after all.
“Nothing,” Paula said. “I just feel bad for all those pregnant girls.”
“And their parents! Not to mention their babies. These girls,” Sandy pursed her
lips and gave a small snort. “They don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.”
The entire drive home from the track, including her detour to the drive-thru at Dunkin Donuts, Paula couldn’t stop thinking about Marina McGann. She remembered clearly the day they met last year. It was a weekend, a Saturday, in the fall of Hale’s sophomore year. Paula had been slowly unloading the dishwasher, dawdling, while Brendan played on the computer. At the sound of the doorbell Paula had startled, wondering if she’d forgotten to write down one of Brendan’s home sessions; she’d hurried to answer it, expecting she might see Ken, the muscular physical therapist who kept popping up in Paula’s dreams lately with his shaved head and lightning bolt tattoo, or perhaps kindly Mrs. Oliphant, the speech therapist.
But when she opened the door, it was a girl with stunning hair: long and curly, the seasonal hue of pumpkins and falling leaves. Paula couldn’t help gawking at it for several moments before she noticed the truck idling on the curb. The girl turned to it and waved; the man behind the wheel nodded and drove away.
“Hi, I’m Marina.”
She smiled eagerly at Paula like a child who’d arrived early for a birthday party. With both hands she held a plate covered with aluminum foil. She wore a corduroy skirt with leggings and clogs; her long-sleeved blouse, gold and green plaid, ruffled at the cuffs.
“Was that your dad?” Paula asked.
When Paula didn’t say anything, Marina said, “Noel. My stepdad,” as if Paula
should already know this information.
“Are you a friend of Hale’s?”
Marina blinked her green eyes in slow motion. “I’m his girlfriend.”
The words sounded musical, like a lilting phrase from a familiar song. Waves of pink liquid seemed to wash across her cheekbones beneath her skin; a pulsing vein in her throat quickened.
“I brought him cookies.” A high melody, tones of chimes.
Oh God, thought Paula. Here it was. Love. Right before her eyes, emanating from every pore of this poor girl’s being.
“Hale isn’t here,” Paula said.
Marina stood clutching her foil-covered treats, her eyes glittering.
“I’m Hale’s stepmom.”
Marina nodded politely, leaning slightly to look beyond Paula into the hallway.
Paula stood still for a minute, listening for the click click of Brendan’s computer mouse.
“He doesn’t usually live here, hon,” Paula continued, needing to fill the awful silence before the girl’s body combusted like a meteorite. “He usually lives with his mom in Fountain Hill.”
“I know, but today…” Marina’s orange eyebrows pinched, transforming her whole face from ebullience to confusion. “We had a date today. At my house. We were going to watch Manic. We’ve both seen it before but not together. It’s so good. But he said he couldn’t get a ride. He said he had to stay at his dad’s this weekend, by law, and his dad wouldn’t let him leave.”
Technically, Paula supposed, it might have been David’s turn to have his son for the weekend, but they hadn’t imposed any schedule on Hale for years now. The house was always open to him, and he came and went as he chose, helping himself to food and the keys to David’s sports car.
Marina looked behind her at the street, and then back at Paula. “I wanted to
“It sounds like a communication mix up.”
Marina stared down at the plate; the lower lids of her eyes stiffened.
“You should call your stepdad.”
“Noel is driving to Home Depot in Danielson. He’s coming back for me at 3:30.”
Marina’s bottom lip wobbled; she seemed about to cry. “Hale told me he was going to be here all day.”
“Well, come on in.” Paula stepped back from the doorway, glancing at her wristwatch. 3:30 was almost two hours away. “Come sit down. Maybe you can track Hale down. I’m sure there’s some simple explanation.”
Marina followed her to the kitchen, where Paula said, “Brendan, say hi to
Brendan didn’t look up from the laptop. He was crouched on his booster seat, cradling the mouse with both hands, his tongue sticking out as he concentrated. Marina texted on her cell phone, then held it in her palm, waiting for Hale to respond.
“Well, it’s a beautiful day,” Paula said loudly. “Time to go outside, Brendan!” Brendan ignored her. To Marina Paula said, “It’s something we’re supposed to do. For his routine.”
“No outside.” Brendan’s serious voice spoke to the computer.
“What are you looking at, Brendan?” Marina put her phone next to the plate of cookies and sat next to him.
“I’m looking at Hondas today.”
“I like that one,” Marina said, pointing, and Brendan clicked the mouse to bring the image to full size. Marina said, “I like the way the headlights slant. Like fox eyes.”
“CR-Z Hybrid Coupe,” Brendan said.
“My gosh, Mrs. Strawn, he’s so smart! He’s so little and he can already read.”
Paula said, “He’s linguistically advanced.”
“He’s so cute, Mrs. Strawn.”
For a few moments, Paula allowed herself the pleasure of gazing at her son along with Marina, admiring Brendan’s blond curls and soft cheeks and the round knobs of his small knees. But she had to get him outside. She clapped her hands. “Time for fresh air.”
Brendan shook his head violently. “No.”
Marina said, “You know what? I’m pretty sure I saw a Honda parked on the street when I came here. Not a CR-Z but a different kind.”
Brendan said, “What kind?”
Marina stood. “I’m going to go see. Do you want to go see it with me, Mrs. Strawn?”
And when Paula walked to the other side of the table and Marina said, “Come on, Brendan,” he lifted his arms for Paula to help him off his booster seat. They walked down the driveway with Brendan in the middle, each of them holding one of his hands. He didn’t cry or protest, to Paula’s surprise. When they reached the sidewalk, Marina pointed down the block at a parked car, and Brendan said, “I see it!” It took a long time to reach the car because Brendan’s legs were short and he didn’t move very quickly; at age five, he was still about the size of a small three-year-old. But he kept going. “Honda Pilot!” he called out as they got closer.
Paula and Marina stood nearby on the street while Brendan traced with his finger the patterns on the Honda’s front grill.
“He sure loves cars,” said Marina.
“For now.” Paula shrugged. “A few months ago it was flags. I think he knew every flag from every country in the world. I didn’t think he’d ever get tired of looking at them, but then one day it just stopped. Then, it was cars.”
“I guess cars are better, though, because he can see them all around.”
“I suppose so. For now, anyway. Who knows what’s next?”
They watched him a few more minutes as he traced a pattern on the fender with two fingers, up and down, and Paula said, “I’m not supposed to let him do that. I should stop him. I get lazy sometimes. Sometimes I just want to stand still and let him be.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Marina asked.
“NLD. Nonverbal Learning Disorder,” Paula said. “It’s similar to Asperger’s but not exactly. He gets stuck, sort of, in his own mind. And SPD. Sensory Processing Disorder. It makes him very sensitive to sounds and textures and temperatures. And DGS. Delayed Growth Syndrome. Next year they’ll be starting him on hormone injections.”
Paula had gotten used to the skepticism and advice of friends and family members when she talked about Brendan and his various diagnoses, as if his conditions had been concocted by high-priced doctors and Paula was using them, somehow, to excuse her own ineptitude as a mother. No one had said that to her directly, of course, but she felt it. Marina, though, just nodded and said, “That’s a lot.”
Paula could have hugged the girl.
The next week when Hale stopped by to borrow David’s car, Paula mentioned to him that Marina had come over. “She seemed to think you had a date.” Paula saw his shoulders stiffen.
“She was great with Brendan. The way they played together! I’m thinking you
could give me her number and I’ll ask her to babysit.”
Hale’s face flushed. “That girl’s crazy. I wouldn’t leave my kid with her if I
“She seemed very nice.”
“Her mom is mental. For real. Her mom can’t even drive a car because she takes
meds for crazy people.”
Hale looked away as if Paula had suddenly sickened him. “Why are you hassling
“I’m not — ”
“Don’t call people I know!”
So Paula had never contacted Marina to babysit even though she’d wanted to. Eventually, she’d forgotten about her. That is, until last month, when she’d found Marina weeping on their patio. It was about 9:15 on a Thursday night. Paula had stopped at the kitchen sink to rinse her wine glass and had seen her through the window; immediately Paula had recognized the back of Marina’s head, the darkened yet distinct outline of her frizzy long curls cascading over the back of the patio chair. Alarmed, Paula had hurried out the sliding arcadia door to the deck and asked Marina what she was doing out there all alone in the dark. When Paula flicked on the patio light, Marina blinked her green eyes, the lids swollen from crying. She said, “Hale and I had a fight. He’s coming back. He said he needed to drive around for a while to cool down. It was all my fault.”
“I should take you home,” Paula said, trying to calculate in her mind how much
wine she’d actually consumed over the last couple of hours and whether or not she should get behind the wheel.
“Mrs. Strawn, can I see Brendan?” Marina smiled weakly, sitting straighter in her
chair. “Can I play with him a little?”
“Marina, he’s sleeping. It’s after nine.”
“Oh, right. That’s okay.” She twirled one of her long curls around her finger.
“You’re lucky Mrs. Shawn,” she whispered. “Don’t you think? He’s such a little doll. I love his tiny little hands.”
“I should drive you home,” Paula repeated, but Marina convinced her to let her
wait just a little longer, half an hour maybe, and if Hale didn’t come back, she would take
Paula, bleary from wine and an exhausting day of appointments with Brendan, had agreed. She’d fallen asleep on the couch, and when she woke up and checked the patio, Marina was gone. Now, as Paula pulled into the three-car garage of her home in Meadowlark, she wished she knew what had happened with Marina that night after Paula had left her there on the patio. Had Hale had come back for her? Paula doubted it. Seized with guilt, Paula wondered if Marina had walked home alone so late at night, in her braided sandals and flowered dress, pregnant with David’s grandchild. Paula moved quickly from the garage through the mud room and into the kitchen, where Brendan sat on his booster seat at the table with his laptop. David, breathing heavily, hovered beside him, and Paula had the distinct impression that David had just jumped up from the couch and rushed to Brendan’s side when he heard garage door open. She controlled her desire to go the family room and place her hand on the TV screen, checking for warmth from ESPN.
“Hey guys,” she said evenly.
“Hi.” Brendan didn’t look up from his screen.
“Good run, hon?” David’s eyes also remained fastened on Brendan’s laptop.
Paula felt the familiar tightening of her ribcage, the dull thumping taking hold in her temples. She said, “How long has he been on the computer?”
Slowly David’s humped shoulders straightened, his neck uncurled, and his head, like a dead weight, lifted to meet her accusing stare. He was dressed in his khaki shorts and peach golf shirt, his jaw clean-shaven and graying hair damp from a recent shower, ready for his noon tee-off. She followed him into the living room, watched with her arms folded as he picked up a Connecticut Living from the fan of magazines arranged on the maple coffee table. He sat on the sofa and pretended to read a page while she stared at him.
“I thought you were going to do his outside time.”
David flipped a few pages. “You agreed to stop interrogating me about what I do
or don’t do with Brendan every time you come home.”
“Well YOU agreed that I wouldn’t have to ask you because you would just do the
things that we’re supposed to do with him. But you don’t. I don’t see it happening.”
“You don’t know what we did when you were gone. You’re crazy.”
“So what did you do?”
“There you go again! Questioning, questioning!”
They were both yelling now, but in a lackluster manner, both going through the motions of the familiar argument. Even while they were fighting, Paula could see David stealing a glance at the Nike sports watch on his tanned wrist, just waiting till enough time passed so he could go to the club.
“All right. Fine. Save up your tips on fatherhood for Hale. He’s going to need
David had rolled up Connecticut Living in a tube, tapping it against his leg, staring blankly at the carpet.
“I said. You should save up your tips on fatherhood for Hale. He’s going to need
David’s magazine baton paused above his kneecap. “What are you talking
“Hale. He’s gotten a girl pregnant.”
David kept the rolled magazine in his hand. He brought it to his mouth like a megaphone, but he didn’t say anything. When his eyes tented with confusion, Paula felt ashamed.
“It’s not just Hale,” she said as if she could soften the blow. “It’s something happening, apparently, at Woodmont High. There’s all of these pregnant girls all of a sudden.”
David let his hands drop limply, the magazine unfurling on his lap. “And Hale’s
girlfriend. Chrissy. Kassie?”
Paula shook her head. “Kylie. But it’s not her. It’s a different girl. Marina
“Oh, God.” David pressed his fingers to the sides of his head. “Just when things
were finally settling down with him. Just when…”
He slumped on the love seat, still clutching his skull. “How far is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jesus. Another thing we’ll have to take care of.”
“Apparently,” Paula said, “they’re keeping them. These girls. They’re having the
babies and keeping them. It’s the thing to do.”
“Christ! In Woodmont?”
Paula lifted her hands.
“And that’s what this girl wants to do?”
“I don’t know,” Paula admitted.
“Who told you about this, anyway? I can’t imagine it was Hale.”
David stood and began pacing. “Oh, great. The town crier is letting it be known
that Hale’s knocked up one of the school sluts.”
“Sandy didn’t say it was Hale.”
David stopped and looked at her, his eyebrows lifted.
“Marina was here at our house about a month ago, Dave. I found her on the patio. She was crying.”
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
“Quiet a minute.” Paula held up her hand; David stood frozen with his mouth
open, waiting while she listened to the absence of Brendan’s computer mouse clicking. She hurried to the kitchen to check and found him sitting under the table moving his finger back and forth in the grout line of the ceramic flooring. She crouched down, but didn’t touch him yet, hoping not to set off one of his tantrums. “Come on out, Brendan. It’s time to play, honey.” Brendan didn’t respond, but his finger moved harder and faster.
David followed her to the kitchen doorway. “Do you see how your mind works now, Paula? Do you? It’s automatically worst-case scenario. As far as you know, this girl could have slept with the whole lacrosse team, but you’ve already decided it’s our problem, that Hale’s to blame.”
Paula looked up to see David gripping the doorframe. “And you’ve already decided he’s innocent.”
“We don’t know anything about this Marissa girl.”
“We don’t really know anything at this point.” David sighed. “We just have to
wait and see.”
Paula crawled under the table. Brendan’s eyes had gone blank, looking in instead of out. She put her index finger very lightly on Brendan’s wrist and his whole arm froze, like someone waiting for a landed bee to fly away or sting. Slowly she removed her finger. She would wait a few more minutes, and then try again to coax him back from wherever his mind had taken him. Behind her, she heard David’s golf shoes padding away.
The next afternoon, she left Brendan at his social skills playgroup instead of waiting in the lobby as usual and drove to the high school. Wearing sunglasses and her jogging visor, she crouched behind the wheel, trying to catch a glimpse of Marina’s distinctive hair. And what would she do if she spotted her? Jump from the car and chase her? She wasn’t sure.
Paula watched as a large stream of students exited the building, some getting into cars and some heading for the buses. She spotted two pregnant blonds in short skirts walking together in a center of a larger clique of girls, but Marina wasn’t one of them. Paula caught her breath when she saw Hale with three other boys in athletic shorts, carrying matching green sport bags, but they disappeared around the side of the building, headed to the track for practice. Marina was nowhere to be seen. That night, after Brendan finally fell asleep, Paula went in her stepdaughter’s bedroom. Paula couldn’t even remember the last time Allie had spent the night here. If she removed Allie’s empty vanity set, Paula thought, there would be plenty of room for a bassinet. A changing table.
On Wednesday, Paula found her. She had called a baby-sitter for Brendan and returned to the high school. She parked in about the same place, and just like the day before, at the blare of the bell students gushed from the front doors, then flowed and trickled into their various teen tributaries: sports fields, parking lots, buses. As she scanned the dispersing groups, she saw Marina. She was sitting alone on one of the wooden benches near the school sign that announced COLLEGE FAIR SATURDAY. Her hair fell in tousled loops from a thick ponytail tied with a ribbon. Paula didn’t have a clear view of her face, but there was no question that red hair belonged to no one but Marina.
Paula got out of her car and moved swiftly across the parking lot and up the grassy slope, calling Marina’s name.
Marina looked around. “Mrs. Strawn!” She stood up as Paula approached.
Yes, Marina was pregnant. It wouldn’t have been obvious if Paula didn’t already know, but under the folds Marina’s knit dress Paula could see the mound of her belly.
“What are you doing here, Mrs. Strawn?” Marina smiled at her, and Paula noticed the new plumpness of her cheeks, the oily sheen on her nose and forehead.
“I had to check something for Hale’s schedule in the office.” Paula waved at the high school entrance behind her. “And when I was walking to my car, I saw you here. So I thought I’d say hello.”
Marina twisted the toe of her pink canvas shoe on the ground. “How is he?”
Marina winced at his name.
“Well,” Paula said. “I guess that’s something I wanted to ask you about. Does
Hale know? About…” Paula gestured with a little nod at Marina’s stomach.
Marina hugged her elbows, nodding.
“Listen, sweetie.” Paula could barely stop herself from reaching out and embracing the girl. “Everything’s going to be okay. We should talk. You and me. Can you come sit in my car? Or we could go to Starbucks or somewhere.”
“I’ve got French Club. It starts in fifteen minutes.”
“We’ll be quick then. How about Dunkin Donuts, just around the corner? The
Marina shook her head, smiling apologetically. “I’m the secretary.”
“Marina…” Paula takes a breath. “There’s something I very much want to speak
with you about. Something I think you should consider.”
Marina touched the lavender bow on her ponytail; her brow furrowed, two freckles meeting above her nose. Paula found herself holding her breath the way she used to while waiting for the results of her home pregnancy tests to materialize before her eyes.
“Okay,” Marina said finally. “As long as I’m just a little late for the meeting.
We’re going over a whole bunch of fundraising ideas today. For the trip to Paris.”
At the drive-thru Paula ordered a strawberry smoothie for Marina and an iced latte for herself. She parked in a shady spot toward the back of the Dunkin Donut parking lot. For a few moments they both sipped from their big plastic cups.
“Is Hale mad at me?”
Marina spoke first, taking Paula by surprise.
“No,” Paula answered, although she had no idea what Hale really felt about
anything. “No one’s mad at you, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Is that what he said? Everything’s going to be okay?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, Marina. I can imagine this must all be pretty
overwhelming for you, but it’s going to be okay.”
Marina placed her strawberry slush in the cup holder. She turned her body sideways in the passenger seat, facing Paula more directly. “Mrs. Strawn? Did Hale ask you to talk to me for him?”
“I wanted to talk to you. About your pregnancy. You know, you’re not alone in
“I thought maybe Hale had a message for me. Something he wouldn’t want to say through any of his friends.”
“Well. I wouldn’t be the one that Hale would confide in. I’m not exactly his
Marina brought her hand to Paula’s elbow, touching it lightly. “Hale doesn’t hate you, Mrs. Strawn. He doesn’t blame you anymore for his parents’ divorce. Really. He knows relationships are complicated.”
Paula was flabbergasted, unable to imagine Hale – surly, self-involved Hale – discussing her marriage or the nature of family dynamics in a manner even close to thoughtfulness. “I find that very surprising.”
“That’s because he doesn’t show his real feelings to people. But he does to me.”
Marina turned her face to the car window. “He used to, before I ruined everything.”
“Don’t say that.” Paula fumbled with her iced latte, fitting it into the cup holder on the door. She unlatched her seatbelt and tried to embrace Marina in an awkward hug, but the strawberry smoothie on the center console came between them. “You didn’t ruin anything.”
“I made a stupid mistake,” Marina said.
“We don’t have to label it. We don’t have to call it a mistake. If we call it a
challenge, we can find a solution.” Paula hoped her voice sounded calm and inspiring.
“You didn’t get pregnant by yourself, after all. Hale is just as much responsible as you are, and Hale’s family is right here to help you. I’m here to help you.”
“Hale’s not the father, Mrs. Strawn.” She picked up her smoothie and took a slow
slurp, red liquid rising in the clear straw. “I thought you knew that.”
Paula stared at her. Marina released the straw from her mouth, her lips tinted
“No,” Paula said. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Marina frowned. “I’m pretty late for French Club, Mrs. Strawn.”
“I don’t understand. You came to our house. I found you crying on our patio.”
“I wanted to tell Hale. Before he heard it from someone else. I thought I could
make him understand.”
“Just let me make sure I have this straight, Marina. You’re absolutely sure Hale
isn’t the father? There isn’t any possibility?”
Marina shook her head.
Paula brought her hands to the steering wheel. “Who is it?”
Marina looked out the window again. “You don’t know him,” she mumbled.
Paula squeezed her fingers on the wheel. She said, “I can still help you, Marina.”
Marina pried open the plastic lid of her drink and dropped in her crumpled napkin. “I don’t think it will work, Mrs. Strawn. Hale knows I still love him. But he won’t even talk to me any more.”
“I meant with the baby. I can help you with the baby.”
Marina smiled slightly. “Oh, that’s nice of you Mrs. Strawn. But it’s okay. Noel’s sister is going to take the baby. She and her husband. They live in Manchester. They’re really religious. They said they want to adopt the baby.”
Paula let her hands drop from the wheel. “I see.”
“They want me to go to Paris next year with the French Club and go through high school like normal, and I can see the baby if I want to, but they’ll be the parents. They have two other kids already, and they’ve been wanting a third one.”
Back at the high school, Marina seemed apologetic as she got out of the car.
“You know if you want to help me, Mrs. Strawn, there is something you could do,” she
said, her tone placating.
“If we end up doing a walk-a-thon for French Club, maybe you could sponsor
Only a week ago, the air had been frigid, the track deserted except for Paula and Sandy. But today, sunshine had lured several Sunday walkers and even a quartet of tennis players to the adjacent courts. Yellow tongues of daffodils licked at the air. Paula and Sandy both wore shorts, the first time since winter. Random inky veins, like small purple worms, pushed at the surface of Paula’s pasty calves. Sandy’s legs, of course, were already waxed smooth, lightly bronzed with self-tanning cream.
“Leadership,” Sandy was saying. “Leadership!” She kept repeating the word, her face twisted in disbelief and fury, as they rounded into their third lap at the track. Paula was striding heel-to-toe in her new “Rock & Tone” sneakers, her Achilles’ tendons already aching from the bulky soles of the unfamiliar shoes. On impulse last night, she’d announced to David that she was leaving him in charge of Brendan and drove off to the mall. She’d wandered aimlessly, finally ending up in Lady’s Footlocker. She and David were coming to an end. She knew that. She just didn’t know what came next.
“You can’t tell me that insipid little Olivia Ouellette shows more leadership than
They moved past a middle-aged couple walking in the outermost lanes.
“It’s wrong,” Paula said. “It’s unjust.”
Sandy turned her head, her chin drawing in with surprise at Paula’s vehemence.
“Well, they said she could reapply in the fall. So she’d at least have her senior year. She could still put National Honor Society on her college resume.”
“Why should she have to reapply?” Paula could hear her voice rising. “She
deserves it! What can’t they just give her what she deserves?”
Sandy shrugged, taken aback, and they walked for a while in silence. Tree branches against the sky were dotted with lime green tips of new leaves. As they rounded the corner of the track, Sandy slowed down, lifting her hand in the direction of the parking lot. “Is that girl waving at us? Or someone else?” She swiveled her head to check the middle-aged couple on the other side of the track. Paula cupped her palm to her brow, shielding the haze of sun streaming over the pine trees that bordered the parking lot. From the shadow of their shaggy boughs emerged the figure of Marina: her billowy red curls, a long yellow dress with lacy sleeves.
“Oh my God!” Sandy said. “Do you know who that is? It’s Marina McGann.
She’s one of those pregnant girls.”
Paula sighed. “She must be here for me.”
Sandy grabbed at Paula’s wrist. “No. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me Hale turned
out to be the father.”
As Marina moved closer, Paula could see a bow pinned to one side of her hair that
matched her spring dress.
“If it’s Hale, my god, Paula, you can tell me. Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not Hale.” Paula shook her head. “It’s not our baby.”
Sandy eyed Paula skeptically. “Then what’s she doing here?”
Paula stepped off the track onto the damp muddy grass, moving toward Marina.
“Go on without me,” she told Sandy over her shoulder.
Paula and Marina reached each other halfway between the track and parking lot. Marina smiled and ducked her chin, as if embarrassed. “Sorry to bother you during your exercise, Mrs. Strawn. I went to your house, and your husband said I could look for you
“Are you okay?”
Marina nodded. She was wearing her braided sandals, Paula noticed, with her toenails polished pink. Beneath the lace-edged hem of her dress, her freckled ankles swelled.
“How did you get here?”
Marina tilted her head in the direction of the parking lot, behind the trees. “Noel and my mom are in the truck. We’re going to church after this. I told them I needed to give you a brochure for the French Club trip to Paris. I said you were one of the parent chaperones and there was a deadline.”
They both stood there for a few moments. Marina looked into Paula’s eyes. “Did
Hale tell you about my mom?”
“He mentioned something, but …”
“Noel and I both think she’s getting worse. They keep changing her medicine.
But Noel says not to worry.”
Marina turned her face toward the track, where Sandy was sprinting madly as if wolves were at her heels. They both watched as Sandy flung herself across an invisible line and threw up her arms, in either victory or defeat – Paula couldn’t tell which.
“Anyway, I wanted to ask you something, Mrs. Strawn. Something about
“I was thinking about how he didn’t like the wind blowing on his skin. Not just
the wind, but even a little breeze. You told me why. It was sensory something disorder.”
“Sensory Processing Disorder.”
“Is that going to go away, Mrs. Strawn? Or is he always going to be like that?”
“They don’t know.” Paula sighed. She pictured all of Brendan’s brightly colored, foam-covered therapy toys multiplying like giant exotic fungi in the finished basement of her and David’s home in Meadowlark. A surge of love swirled and knotted painfully in her stomach.
On the track, Sandy was bent at the waist, her hands propped on her quads. When she saw Paula looking, she tilted her head: are you coming back? Paula held up a finger: just one more minute.
“Well, I guess I should finish my last lap with Mrs. Stickles.”
Marina’s green eyes narrowed. “Okay, Mrs. Strawn. I should get back to the
truck. Noel will be wondering.”
They turned in their opposite directions. Back on the track, Paula and Sandy strolled, side by side. Their usual cool-down. Sandy waited for almost half of an entire lap before she said, “Well?”
But before Paula could answer, both of them saw her: Marina, running awkwardly toward the track in her sandals, her red hair bouncing around her shoulders, the yellow bow falling to the ground behind her. When she reached them, she was crying. “What if,” Marina said. She took a deep breath and lifted her chin, looking from Sandy to Paula. The breeze blew the gauzy fabric of her dress against the rounded contour of her belly. “What if I can’t leave him in Manchester with Noel’s sister once he’s born? What if I want to bring him home with me to Woodmont?” Sandy lifted her hand, like a teacher about to begin a lecture. But instead she placed it lightly on Marina’s shoulder, and they exchanged glances, Sandy and Paula, over the girl’s head. Paula knew what they were both thinking. No answer they could give her would be the right one.
Instead, Sandy’s hand slid from Marina’s shoulder to her elbow, giving it a slight
nudge, and the three of them began slowly walking, each in her own lane, following their parallel paths.
Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR, selected for anthologies, and published in literary magazines including The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Third Coast, december, Cimarron Review and The Flexible Persona. Winner of the 2017 Pushcart Prize, her work appears in the “best of Pushcart prose” anthology, Love Stories for Turbulent Times (Pushcart Press, Jan. 2018). Leslie teaches at the University of Hartford and conducts workshops for the Connecticut Office of the Arts. She is a recent recipient of the CT State Literary Arts Fellowship Grant.