[I never thought I’d be on this page to post again, but the free time that the holiday season has given me has done a few things. One, it has made me sentimental. You may or may not know this, but December 26, 2013 will be the three year anniversary of me starting Amber’s challenge. I can’t believe it has been three years already, especially considering the self-improvement I’ve undergone. I started writing in the Sims world as an awkward, self-loathing 13 year-old, and now here I am, an even more awkward but a little less self-loathing 16 year-old. No, but seriously, the free time granted by the holidays has really inspired me to finish writing this chapter and publish it as a sort of “thank you” to all of my loyal readers who may or may not still be around. I know that in my previous post from August I said that I was done posting for good, which I still am, but this chapter was already half-written when I wrote that. Now that I’ve had time to finish it and approve of it, I think you all deserve a little Denis/Valerie drama in your holiday break. This is my gift to you all, dear readers. I missed you. :)]

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                “This was a stupid idea,” I muttered. Delilah, one of my newer friends that I made through my long-time friend Ande, led me out of the house with a bright face.

“It was not a stupid idea! I’ve always loved photography, and the guy teaching this class is legit. We had to bring a partner, so can’t you just help a sister out?”

“You should’ve asked Ande,” I groaned, dragging my feet. Delilah faced me, huffed, and then continued walking.

“And I think you should check your attitude.” I cocked an eyebrow at her, and she just laughed and continued walking. “Plus, I think it’ll be nice for us to spend time without Ande. You know I love you, right?”

“Well, I mean, when you make me do things like this…it could go either way.” As the late summer heat fell on to my face, I idly wondered why we were walking to the park as opposed to driving. It was finally September, so the typically bustling streets emitted nothing short of silence as we walked. A bead of sweat broke out on my forehead, and as it did I indignantly glanced at my friend’s cute outfit. “I didn’t know we were supposed to get dressed up.”

“We didn’t have to, but I’m trying to impress this teacher, you know?”

“I didn’t know you liked photography that much.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Delilah wiggled her eyebrows and chuckled again, high and sweet. “That’s why today’ll be good. So now that you know something about me, tell me something about you.”

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I glanced over at her shorter stature and sighed. “You already know my biggest secret.” She shook her head knowingly, but it was also a look that said I’d have to do this. The first time we met was organized by our mutual friend Ande in an extreme effort to get me to admit what had been eating away at me my entire life. I confessed to my rape, Delilah confessed to hers, we bonded, and the friendship had been formed.

So now, the biggest question was this: how in the world do you reveal something bigger to someone who already knows your biggest secret?

“I…went through a gothic stage when I was a teenager?”

Delilah giggled, then replied in a faux accusatory tone. “Oh, who didn’t? One time I wore black eyeliner around my entire eye day and night, seven days a week, for three months.” She shuddered, then continued walking. “A dark time in my life.”

I laughed out loud to this. I realized then that I adored spending time with her because she radiated calmness, clarity and optimism. Her face, however, had taken a dark route after mentioning her teenage years. “Are you…are you alright?”

She paused to think when we came to an intersection. Though there were nothing but late workers storming to work on the road, she still hit the crosswalk button and waited patiently. It wasn’t until we’d arrived on the other side of the road and walked for a few minutes that she finally answered my question.

“When I was a teenager, it sucked. Just everything…well, sucked.” She paused again. “I guess I just don’t like talking about it.”

Now it was my time to think. “You know, I understand that. We obviously have one major thing in common, but my teenage years didn’t only suck because of that. There was also this girl who I thought was my best friend, and then she started dating this guy…” I idly wondered if I wanted to wander into these dangerous waters. Without another moment of thought, I decided I didn’t care. “…and I was kind of in love with him. But he never noticed me.”

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And just like that, without another moment’s hesitation, my mind went somewhere else. It went to a beach, where I’d always imagined we’d spend our honeymoon if the fates ever allowed us to be married. I thought of the one date we’d had on the boardwalk, the way he’d regarded me and the torrential downpour that’d nearly ruined our first kiss. Then I thought of the way the light caught his structured face the first time I’d seen him again, the way he’d regarded me then, and then, finally, the last time I saw him. I had lost so much a few months ago, but nothing hurt more than knowing that on top of never being able to see my child, I would never feel love from a man that I’d once sworn to be the one ever again.

“Valerie!”

“Huh?” I shook my head, breaking out of the daze. “What?”

“I asked you,” she said, annoyed, as we rounded the corner into the park entrance. “Was he cute?”

“He was…” I thought of so many adjectives, the most tempting being cute, adorable, handsome, chiseled, or even perfect. But when it came to give one to Delilah, I decided against using any of those. Complimenting him would only make forgetting him harder. “He is nonexistent to me.”

Delilah gave me a sidelong look, sighing in the process. “One of those?”

As we came to a halt by some other students, I nodded my head solemnly. “One of those.”

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We quieted as the professor began to dispel directions for the day. “For today’s class, I’ve asked you all to bring a partner.” There were a few whoops and hollers of over-excited teenagers, as well as some dispersed grins. Delilah simply grabbed my hand and waved it in the air for half a moment before I tore it away and blushed. “Ah, very excited I see. Well, for today’s class I was planning to give ya’ll a long list of particular shots to work with, but then I got pretty drunk last night and decided against it.” Delilah and a few other older people chuckled, but I stood quietly, patiently. “I’m just messing with you guys. In all seriousness, today is going to be a reward for all of the hard work you’ve all been putting in down at the community college. You’re all free to spend the day about the park, taking photos together, alone, of nature, the sky, the grass…really, anything you want. You’re to have a portfolio of properly edited photos using techniques from throughout the semester. Don’t forget that that list can be found both on my webpage as well as the notes outline you received on the first day of class. Any questions?” He paused for a moment to make sure we were all listening. No one raised their hand. “Well alrighty then! Go ahead and get started, and we’ll meet back here at three!” I looked down at my phone, which displayed the time of day as 9:30…in the morning.

“Five and a half hours?” I asked, bewildered, as Delilah began strutting across the park. “Couldn’t we just snap a picture of a couple flowers, your cute outfit, and maybe an attractive guy who walks by and then move on with our…” My voice trailed off as I caught a glimpse of brown hair rounding a tree. After a second, it was gone.

“Are you alright?” Delilah only asked half-heartedly since her head seemed to be somewhere else. Her eyes scanned the area relentlessly as I pondered an answer. “You look like you saw a ghost.”

“Uh, yeah, I think I’m alright. I just…I thought I saw that guy I was telling you about earlier.”

“Nonexistent?”

“Nonexistent.”

She nodded her head tightly, breathing a hefty sigh of relief when we came upon a green-flowered tree. “You see, this is perfect,” she mused. “If I could get actually in the tree and take a picture down of you…”

“Of…of me? Of me?” Delilah attempted but failed to hoist herself into the tree. “Um, I didn’t exactly dress for this-“

“Enough with the excuses, sassy. You look gorgeous, as always.”

“As always? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know how pretty you are.” She’d managed to hook herself on to a low branch and begin her climb. She paused to look down at me with a half-frown on her face. “You’re telling me you don’t see the way people stop and ogle at you at literally all hours of the day?” I frowned deeply. “You see? Frowning, and you’re still pretty. Now quit that and help me up.” I sighed heavily and helped push her up.

“You stable?” She wasn’t very high up, but that didn’t mean I wanted her to break her neck. And plus, the comments she was making had thrown me off so much that I was having a hard time saying anything past pointless small talk.

“I think…I think I’m goo-“ She nearly fell, but caught herself. Only after letting go of the camera, though. “My camera!” she cried out, nearly falling again.

I ushered quickly over to it, inspecting for any damage. I didn’t see any.

“My mom…” Delilah’s face looked flushed and just about ready to burst into tears. “That camera was my mom’s, and if it’s ruined…oh my god, I’m the worst person ever.”

I held up my hand, feeling the immediate need to make her feel better. “It’s good, Lilah! Nothing happened. Good for you, you picked a really grassy area. Are you…is it okay for me to hand it back up now?”

She nodded her head slowly, picking back up the pieces of her breakdown. I made a mental note to ask her about this later, when she was more stable, both mentally and physically.

She took a few minutes to calm herself, but she told me that she was, “Finding the right angle.” I stood still and waited until she needed me.

“Okay, so I think if you could just…” she raised the camera to her eye and looked through, messing with the zoom a bit. “If you could just sit below the tree…like, cross-legged or something…” I sat down as so. “Yeah…and just look, like…innocent, right? Like, untuck your hair from your ears and let it fall around your face. Yeah…like that…”

I interpreted the following pause as her taking the pictures, so I tried to stay as still as possible. However, a few seconds in I noticed a daisy right in front of me. Absent-mindedly, I picked it and began playing with it, twirling it in my fingers, smelling it. Delilah didn’t intervene. After a few minutes of this, she hopped down from the tree, grinning.

“You’re a natural!” she boasted.  “The flower thing was totally cool. You looked amazing!”

I half-smiled, dropping the flower on to the ground. Delilah was quick to pick it up, remove the stem, and hand it back to me. “Put it behind your ear,” she smiled. “You deserve it, miss model!”

I laughed, placing it behind my left ear. “This good?”

“Perfect.” She found herself another one and put it behind her ear. “Now we’re matching! Here, let’s take a picture to document it…”

She turned the camera around and centered it on our faces. I leaned in close to hers and grinned as she tickled my side with her free hand. She smiled when she laid eyes on the photo, but she shielded it from me.

“What, I can’t see?” I asked, pouting.

“I’m practically an artist.” She winked, moving on from our location. “You can’t see it until it’s complete.”

“Even if it is my face?”

“Especially if it’s your face! For goodness sakes,  Valerie, it’s like you know nothing about being an artist!”

“Woops,” I muttered.

We spent the rest of the day in and about the park. We were mostly isolated from the other pairs, but every once in a while we’d run into them taking a really good picture and I’d hear Delilah growl under her breath. Every time she did, I outright laughed and pulled a smile back on to her face. The summer sun felt glorious, and I could practically feel the beginnings of a tan creeping on to my skin. It felt like the perfect day.

Until, that is, I saw that flash of brown hair again.

“You’re making that face again,” she noted, leaning down to get a picture of a flower on the ground.

“What face?” I stuck my neck out, following the path of the hair until it was once again out of my sight.

“The same one you made earlier, about one of those guys. Don’t tell me I’m boring you so much that you can’t even remember this morning!” I tensed, but then she laughed and I let it go. “I’m kidding.”

“I hope so! I’m having fun today. I’m really glad you pulled me out of my room. I’ve been…uh, going through kind of a thing, a funk I guess, and I needed this. So thank you.”

“Care to talk about it?”

The care and concern in her voice was clear, but I still resisted. Maybe it was something from my childhood, but to this day I still couldn’t shake my hesitancy to connect with someone. “That’s alright.”

“For once, and I hope you don’t hate me for this, I’m going to force you to do something.” I eyed her warily, but she shrugged it off and pushed further. “I want you to tell me what has been on your mind! I’ve asked you probably thirty times in the past month to do something like this, and you’ve always said no. I understand when you’re going through something, but if you could get yourself out of the house finally, then maybe you need to take the next step and talk it out. Maybe after today, you could just be a little bit better after whatever happened.”

There was nothing worse than when someone spoke with so much reason and truth. I hated that someone could predict exactly what I needed but was too afraid to say.

So I did. I told her everything from our first and only date at the carnival, to him going to war, to us meeting again, to the complications with Adan, to how we now weren’t talking. As I told the story, I felt myself becoming completely invested in “our story.” We’d been through so much, said so much, not said enough, and now here were, not talking. As my face grew flushed and my heart sped up as I finished telling Lilah, some things started to occur to me. The one that hurt my head the most was the fact that I knew I couldn’t go on like this. Not talking to him wasn’t an option, but I had no clue how to reverse that. Then Delilah, knowing the situation for a total of about two minutes spoke more truth than I could muster up in my head in the past months.

“Why don’t you just lay it all out on the table? Tell this guy what his options are? Either he accepts that you wanted him while you were dating someone else, and that was a mistake, or he lets you know that he’s moving on.”

“That’s what I tried to do last time we saw each other. He turned me down. Did you miss that part?” I turned to her, pouting, but she remained determined.

“No, but things were different then. You were still dating Adan. Now you guys are broken up and you’re free as can be! Believe it or not, he’ll probably react differently this time around.”

Everything she was saying made sense, but I think that’s what convinced me not to buy into it. There were just too many things that could go wrong for this to be the perfect solution. There was no perfect solution. I’d convinced myself that things had been messed up beyond repair, and that was a mindset I could live with.

Or could I?

“Okay,” I mumbled, still pouting. “Suppose this is the perfect plan.” I tried to hide my sarcasm, but judging from her sidelong look, she could sense it from a mile away. “How exactly am I getting into contact with him? He stopped answering my phone calls a long time ago, and I’m not about to show up on his doorstep. I’m telling you, it’s not meant to be.”

“All I’m saying is that if this is meant to be, it’ll happen. If it’s not, then you need to move on. I know it’s not exactly what you wanna hear, but that’s all there is to it.” She smiled sympathetically down at me. “I’m gonna go get us some lemonade, it got pretty hot out. What size do you want?”

“A small is fine, thanks.”

She turned to walk away, but last second she turned back around. “Sorry, but can you hold my camera? Judging from my klutzy day today, I’ll probably ruin the camera before I can make it back.” I agreed and took the camera from her. “And hey!” she called over her shoulder. “Maybe you can take some pictures while you’re at it!” Her sweet, simple laugh filled the space between us until she was out of sight.

I tried to sit in the shade for a while, but when it got too hot to even do that, I realized that I would need to busy myself until she got back. I fumbled with the camera, sneaking glances at the pictures she’d been taking all day. The ones of me, despite my protesting, had actually turned out alright. Twenty-five years old, and it was still a rarity that I would look at a photo of myself and think, “Wow, I actually don’t look half bad.” However, with these, I could. It surprised me how in a few photos, she was able to capture the essence of my being. Suddenly, her passion for photography made sense to me, and I wanted a taste of what it was like to capture something so perfect.

I laid on my belly across the plush grass. The camera was positioned so that it had a few lonely blades of grass were in the shot, but the background was blurred. I struggled, playing with the controls, to put the background into focus for a little while. Then, suddenly, it did. I grinned, looking into the camera’s viewfinder. I felt so creepy looking into it, taking photos of unsuspecting people walking by. I idly wondered what it’d be like for someone to take photos of me like this, but then I shrugged it off, realizing that no one was looking at me.

And, as usual, I was wrong. I felt a pair of eyes on me through the camera. I leaned down further to get a glimpse of the person watching back, sure they couldn’t see me, until I realized who it was and that they knew exactly what I was doing.

Then, I captured the perfect picture.

Moving On

Hey ya’’ll.
 
So before I get to the real point of this note, I want to give you a
little backstory.
 
I always enjoyed The Sims. I started playing it when I was as young as
6. I remember that when the Sims 2 came out, I’’d watch my older brother play it in his room. Now, in all honesty, he was a pretty evil
dude when he was a teenager. I’’d often end up watching him speed up
his Sims, leaving them to fend for themselves. I honestly still believe that those tendencies of his not only rubbed off on me to give me my dry sense of humor, but it also began our continuous love-hate relationship that we still have today, ten years later. Him introducing me to The Sims, however, is something that I probably owe him my life for. Sound dramatic? Let me explain.
 
I was a child with an interesting mix of personality traits. I had a butt load of opinions that I wanted everyone to know, but I hated the mindless drama that came along with telling them.  I was shy, yet I wasn’’t afraid to make a joke (offensive or not). I shut people out, but all I wanted
was attention. I was creative, but I had no way of showing it without
being shut down. I struggled so much to find my place among so many
judgmental, angsty teenagers that I was facing off-and-on depression
from as young as ten years old. To people who haven’’t faced depression, do you know how terrifying it was to wake up, hating myself, at the age of ten? Having the only thought in my mind as I struggled to get through the pointless day being, “”Why am I alive?”” I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew was that every time I tried to tell someone about it, they’’d tell me I was being dramatic, or brush me away with the simple parting statement of, “”You’’re just having a bad day.””
 
At about this point in my life, after battling what I can honestly
look back at now and say was a severe depression, I was 12 years old. The Sims 3 had just come out. I was entering seventh grade, which was the worst year of my life in terms of school, changing personalities, and my self-image. I couldn’t talk to anyone about how upset I always found myself, and so I could just toss being a happy and carefree pre-teen out the window. When people joked around at the lunch table, I couldn’t form a laugh. When people asked me if I was alright, I told them everything was fine. I could only speak in a monotone. I cried every night over something that I couldn’’t understand. I had no one.
 
That’’s when I found myself at home more often, playing The Sims 3. I
would play all the time, and when I ran out of creativity for my characters I moved on to read some Sims 3 blogs, which blew my mind. How did I not know that an entire community of people who enjoyed a video game as much as me were all friends, creating stories and characters and content? I was overjoyed, and I wanted a way in. But I had no idea how.
 
So that’’s when I started reading 100 baby challenges. I started out
with Della Wriner’’s first challenge, then Cadence Sierra, then Violet
Newbie, and from there I was completely immersed in the world. I loved spending my evenings alone, reading and snacking and enjoying
something so intensely that I didn’t think there could be anything more joyful. On December 26th, 2010, a day I don’t think I could ever forget even if I tried, I spent the entire day in my room creating a Sim. And her name was Amber Lights.
 
As long as we’’re putting everything out in the open here, Amber was
created from a Sim I’’d downloaded from the exchange. And, if you guys
know anything about the exchange, she came with a lot of crappy custom
content that really screwed with my game through time. But Amber, with
her personality and looks and story, was completely mine. I don’’t know
how to put it into perspective for you, but having something that was completely mine, something that I could channel every ounce of my
creativity into and spend my long nights up tinkering with and writing
about, was the best thing I could have possibly done for myself in a time that was paved with darkness and self-loathing. I was finally excited about something again. I wanted to tell all my friends about my new story and character, and I started to fear their judgment less and less. This was mine. This was me. This was all I needed to get a bit better each day.
 
And so began Amber’’s year-long story. Her baby challenge, which I am
still astounded ended in 2011 as we head toward 2014, was all me. I
put so much of myself and my personality and language into Amber that I am honestly still surprised none of you called me out on making her act like a rebellious 13 year old (which I was at the time). My blog blew up with comments, followers, excitement and more. I made friends with so many endless friendly people through Amber’’s FaceBook, like Vanessa (Cait), Della (Karni), Maci (Laura) and more. They were so kind to me in years where I was on the brink of full-on depression and being a normal pre-teen. They kept me balanced, happy, and will always be a
massive part of who I am and who I will go on to be.
 
Generation one of Amber’’s legacy was fun. It was so care-free and
relaxed that it just felt like a less-cramped 100 baby challenge to
me. When I began Valerie’’s story, by which point I was 14 years old, I
started to enjoy this a little less. It became just a bit too difficult for me to find enjoyment in my writing anymore. I was struggling to find a voice in a character that, in all honesty, was so much like me. That doesn’’t make sense, right? That I would struggle to
find a voice in a character just like me? Well, I did. I feared with
every post that I was giving away just a bit too much of my lingering
depression. And as I began to feel a bit better about myself and gain
confidence through 2012, I suddenly had the issue of becoming less
like Valerie. Suddenly I didn’’t know how to write from the
point-of-view of a severely depressed person. Everything was beginning to spiral down from the excitement of my 100 baby challenge into a pit of blackness. Through the entire year of 2012, I lost more and more interest in her story. I have wanted so badly to finish it, but with so much more to go and an increasingly busy schedule, I didn’’t think it’’d be possible for me to ever finish. And that is the reason I am here, writing this letter for you, on August 20, 2013 at 11:30 in the
morning.
 
Unless I find myself writing for Valerie again in the very, very far
future for some odd reason, this is it. I am no longer going to feel
obliged to be active whatsoever on any of my social networks,
including Instagram, Tumblr or this blog. I am ending my relationship
with a game that pulled me out of my worst and kept me above water.
But it’s a calm, friendly parting. This is a tear-free, guiltless ending to a fantastic three-year journey.
 
I started this when I was twelve years old, in one of the darkest
times of my life. Now I am sixteen, heading into my sophomore year of
high school, and moving on with my life. I made so many friends
through this experience that I wish I was still in touch with, and memories that I will always hold on to. I am not afraid of what’’s in front of me, as terrifying as it feels to know that my entire future is resting in my hands, because of every single experience I have had since I began this all. I am so glad I got to grow up with this
community. I love each and every single one of you, and if you ever
need to talk to me, I promise I will check my email: amberlightssims@aol.com
 
I’’ll see you guys in another life. ❤Image

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“Headed out?” my mom asked me as I poured myself some coffee. The sun shone brightly in through the window, so I had to adjust my eyes to her face before I could answer.

“Yeah, I have to run a few errands.” The smell of fresh coffee wafted up to my nose and nearly sent me into a full blown daze right then and there. I was tired and stumbling, but considering where I was actually headed today, I didn’t think anyone could blame me for not being able to sleep.

“In that outfit?”

I looked down to my outfit choice following my mother’s accusatory tone, but I found very few faults in it. Yes, it was nice, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from this outing. I figured it was better to dress up as opposed to dress down to the bum I used to be.

“I didn’t think it was that nice,” I muttered, mixing creamer and sugar in the coffee. I hastily put a lid on it and grabbed my purse to go, but my mom hesitantly grabbed my arm.

“You know you can tell me anything,” she insisted. Her earnest teal eyes that were so similar to mine bore into me, but I was a little surprised to notice the glimmer of a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. What was she finding so amusing?

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“I know,” I said slowly, raising the burning coffee to my mouth. I took a big sip in order to break up the closeness, but all that did was burn my tongue and send me into a small fit of pain. In a hasty and regrettable moment, I spit the coffee up on the counter and immediately went to grab a paper towel and clean it up. This action, however, prolonged my stay at home and, therefore, within talking distance of my mom.

“Well, I mean, you’re fairly dressed up for running errands.” She threw some obscene air quotes around this part that made me do a double take. Did she…did she think I was-

“Mom, I’m not going on a date, if that’s what you’re implying. “ Her face fell immediately.

“Well, are you sure? You’re so dressed up for this early in the morning, and I was just hoping that it was a man…or maybe a job?” She looked so hopeful, but rather than feeling encouragement, I simply felt…well, annoyed, to be honest.

“I don’t need a boyfriend,” I said indignantly, wiping up the mess.

“I never said you did-“

“And it hasn’t even been three months since I lost my baby, broke up with my boyfriend, and not to mention it’s hardly been four years since the previous ordeal. Can’t I just…I don’t know, detox? For a little while?”

I stared at her until she responded, with an impatient expression on my face and a cool tone in my voice. When she replied, I threw the dirty paper towels into the trash and attempted to salvage what was left of my coffee.

“If I start dating someone, I’ll tell you. Does that make you feel better?”

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“No, sweetheart,” she said quickly, dismissing my question. “It’s nothing like that…I trust that you’d be honest with me. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re…stuck, or something. Do you know what I mean? I mean, it took me so long and so much drama to get with your father, but the decision to be with him has made the past 33 years of my life so wonderful.” A blissful expression captivated her face. I cocked an eyebrow and rolled my eyes at her.

“Thanks a lot mom, seriously, but I think I’m good for now.” I thought briefly of Denis but then shook away the feelings that came rushing in with that. That was all over now. He wanted nothing to do with me because I lied.

“What about…would you mind if I set you up with someone?” I rolled my eyes again, which empowered her to keep going. “No, I mean, my old friend from my challenge days has a son who is single, like you. She wants to see if you’d be interested in going out with him-“

Mom,” I sighed, frustrated. My purse was once again slung over my shoulder as I prepared to leave. I needed to get out of here. “I don’t need another blind date. Please.”

“Well, what if it’s someone you know? I heard from someone who heard from someone else that Denis…Levi, was it? Well, I heard he’s back from duty and has really grown into his face and body. Y’know, you two kids were pretty close when you were younger…didn’t you even go on a date once when you were sixteen?” I hadn’t realized it, but with every word she said my hand gripped the coffee tighter and tighter and tighter until it was about one more comment away from bursting. My other hand wouldn’t stop shaking. “Maybe you should give him a call-“

The coffee gave way to my hand and exploded all over the floor around me. I stared straight at my mom until I was sure the burning had stopped hurting and my heart had stopped beating so rapidly. Then, in a decisive moment that I was sure I’d regret later, I placed the scalding, half-empty coffee on the table and left the house.

Half an hour later, as I sat in my car in front of the park with a coffee from the local shop in my hand, I wondered why I’d been in such a rush to get out of the house. Compared to what I was about to have to do, I would’ve taken my mother’s prying in a heartbeat. I watched the park entrance so intently that when my phone finally buzzed in my pocket, I nearly dropped my coffee again. I muttered obscenities as I reached for it. This was becoming a messy habit.

here.

The text was so simple, but it said so much. In one word, I was taking a full step backwards and into the door of my past. Meeting with Kristy would set everything I’d worked so hard to forget back in motion. And since there was no turning back and I was shaking wildly, I figured it best to leave my coffee in the car this time.

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Fresh air, while supposedly refreshing and rejuvenating, only made me sick as I stepped out of my car and set foot on to the freshly-mowed grass. The trees, which normally offered protection from the sunlight and a beautiful view, only mirrored the darkness building up inside me. And the sky, while typically bright, blue and encouraging, did a fairly good job making me feel like it was crashing down around me.

Nature, as it seemed, was not my thing today.

Once I’d found my way to an empty bench in the park, I found it easy to pass the time. I listened intently to the cries of joy and happiness coming from early-morning tots, the gentle chatter of a part-time dog walker on the phone, and ecstatic stay-at-home moms gossiping in the distance. All of these things, I thought happily, were normal sounds. These were things I’d appreciate and turn to for grounding once I was with company today.

“Valerie?”

It looked like my company had finally arrived.

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“Kristy.” I said her name with a sigh, like I knew how this conversation was going to go. For all I knew she was a messenger, here to relay news to me that I was being requested to come back after all these years. Or, perhaps, Shane was already here stalking me and waiting for a time to come out and drug me and bring me back with him. A park, however, probably wasn’t the best place for any of these scenarios. So what did she want to see me about?

She sat down next to me and looked down at her hands. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah, you’re telling me,” I said after a few moments of debating my choice of words. Silence quickly followed, giving me a brief moment to assess her appearance.

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Kristy looked much more aged and filled out than she had in her sixteen-year-old frame that I’d originally known her as. Her skin looked cleaner, more lived in, and most definitely darker. Her eyes, while they were once dark, eyeliner-rimmed and brooding, now simply held a hint of kindness and most definitely sobriety. Her outfit wasn’t as nice as mine, which made me feel a bit like a showoff, but it was definitely a step up from what I remembered. Overall, she looked healthy, which was…unexpected. There was also something else different that I couldn’t quite place, but I figured it’d come to me eventually.

“You look good, Kristy. Like really good. I almost…well, I almost didn’t recognize you.” There was no nice way to say it, and I figured it best to head into troubled waters now to get it over with. It had to be said.

“You too.” She looked back down at her hands, then nervously over to me.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked shyly, wanting to make her feel comfortable. She was around four or five years younger than me, and I knew that nervous look anywhere. It was the same one I held when I was her age.

“Nothing, it’s just…” I met her eyes, urging her to continue. “Well, I left the club.”

“Are you serious?”

“Dead.” This time she met my eyes, and I could tell how much this decision troubled her. I suppose I was the only one who she could really talk to about it…as far as I was concerned, I was the only woman to successfully get out of the club.

“How long ago?”

“About two months ago. I…I’ve been trying so hard to do what you probably did. Y’know, get a job, boyfriend, move on. I tried, but I can’t. I’m running out of money, and I think…well, I’m thinking of going back.”

My breath caught in my throat. I didn’t know why, but I felt protective of her. We’d bonded effortlessly when were younger, and since I was never an older sibling…well, this was my “younger sister.”

“Don’t do that.”

“But what else can I do?!” she tried to argue.

“You can get a job.” I decided that it wouldn’t be a very good idea to mention that I still didn’t have a job and had been mooching off my boyfriend and family for the past five years. No, not a good idea at all.

“With what skills?” she pouted. “For the past seven years, my best skill has been my flexibility! I don’t think I’m going to get too far with that in the job market.” She seemed so helpless, so I decided to offer my hypocritical advice, which I assumed was better than nothing.

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“Well, do you have family you could stay with?”

She looked down and shrugged. “My mom…died.” I winced, remembering that I knew that. How could I be so insensitive? “And I don’t know who my father is. So…I guess not.”

Well, that was, like, half of my advice gone down the drain.

“Do you have any idea of what you could pursue?”

Kristy seemed to ponder this for a moment. Then her face brightened and she looked up excitedly. “Well, I’ve always loved acting. The girls at the club always said that I had to have a gift for sleeping with all those unattractive, gross rich men who wandered my way. They said I looked absolutely in love with them.” She paused, biting her lip as she gauged my reaction. “Do you think I could be an actress?”

Considering I was in no place to turn her down, I slowly began nodding my head. “I…I could see that.”

“Really?”

“Um, yeah! I think so.”

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“Oh, Valerie, thank you so much!” she squealed. She showed more emotion in those few words than I’d ever seen from her, which clued me in to just how she was, and just how young I had been when I thought I was all grown up. Time encouraged reminiscing, and all I had to say about those years was simple: I was more naïve than a lion attempting to domesticate in the suburbs.

She hugged me tightly and then stood up. She let out a huge grin as she looked down at me.

“Y’know,” she noted, stretching her arm. “You’re somewhat of a celebrity down at the club.”

“Celebrity?” I tried to hide my confusion with a question.

“Us girls? We look up to you like a role model.”

“Most of the women in that place were years older than me…” I looked down as I tried to process this strange addition of information. Who’d of known? Valerie Masons, role model.

“Doesn’t mean we don’t look up to you. Since you left, so did one other girl, but I didn’t know how to reach her. I only found you because someone mentioned that you lived in the area.”

“Well I’m glad you did.”

I stood up as well, and we looked to one another with pleased countenances. And that’s when I realized something.

“How much money do you have exactly?”

She looked down, worried.

“You can tell me how bad it is. Trust me, I’ve done some…pretty bad things to get money. Just tell me how much.”

“Like, $40.”

“Out of the hundreds you made?” She looked embarrassed. “What did you do with all that money?” No response. “Kristy, tell me or I can’t help y-”

“I spent it on a boob job right before I quit, okay?” Oh, so that was the one difference I couldn’t quite place earlier. Huh. “The girls said it would increase my income, but then I quit, and now it’s just one huge mess…I’d take it back if I could.”

Sighing, I reached into my bag and pulled out my wallet. I leafed through the bills until I had $400 in my hand. I barely knew her, but I knew her position, and that was all I needed. I held it in front of me. To my surprise, Kristy stared down at it, and when I pushed it more her way, she backed away a bit.

“You don’t owe me anything,” she said earnestly. “I wanted to meet with you to see how you’re doing and get some advice. I don’t…I didn’t want your money.”

“No, I don’t owe you anything. About that, you’re right.” I picked up her closed palm, opened it, and put the money on top of it. “But for me to feel like you’ll be alright, I need you to take this, okay?” She looked so nervous, so I closed her palm for her, solidifying the transfer of money. “This is yours now. You’re going to use it to go to an audition or two and buy some clothes that make your boob job look good.” She laughed out loud, crisp and clear. Finally, I felt like we were like everyone else in this park…just two friends catching up, not two ex-strippers, one with a new boob job and the other with a foggy head, discussing old times. I liked normality. “Oh, and also?” I muttered, reaching into my bag and pulling out a strip of paper and a pen. I scrawled my number on it and handed it to her. “Call my cell if you ever need anything again, or just want to talk. My mom was awfully confused last time you called.”

“…mom?”

Shit. There went my zen-like, masterful wisdom and advice about moving on and being independent.

“Um, yeah. I’m staying at home for a little while…uh, family issues and stuff. But seriously,” I continued, attempting to change the subject, “call me whenever. I’m here for you, okay?”

She smiled, gently placing the paper in her back pocket. “You got it. And thanks again.”

I smiled, gave her one last hug, and began to walk away. As I did, she called over her shoulder one last thing.

“And Valerie?”

“Yeah?”

“You seem really happy.”

I smiled, turning and continuing on my way. I wasn’t all the way there yet, but today? Today I was happier than the day before, and maybe tomorrow would be better than today. It was slow, yes, but the transformation was happening.

And maybe, just maybe, the next step would be a boyfriend.

But I decided against telling my mom that revelation.

My family and I Amber and James have been on vacation in Isla Paradiso! Here are some pics to prove it (they went for their “33rd wedding anniversary”).

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Nah, in all actuality guys, I was busy with finals in June, went on vacation into July, and only now do I finally get to be home and truly enjoy what summer means…in other words, doing absolutely nothing.

I’ve got summer work for school as well as sport workouts for school as well as personal training sessions, so that’s been taking up my time…but in reality, yesterday I spent the day playing Animal Crossing, Mariokart and Sims. Truly a dedicated worker, aren’t I? 😉

I’m piecing together the next post piece by piece. I’ll make it my goal to have it out by Sunday. If not, expect it Monday.

I really just wanted to compensate for my absence by sharing these pics though, guys! And I also have news. For those of you who don’t know, I have a Tumblr account called Pixlesque, where I post my sims pictures for others to enjoy. More recently, I got another account for people on the go! That’s right guys, I got a Sims Instagram. It’s under the same name, so you can find me as Pixlesque on there. And yup, it’s me! I hope ya’ll have a safe and happy weekend, and I’ll catch you in a few days or so! ❤

J

Every morning started the same way.

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I’d wake up around 6:30 to the sound of my parents moving about in the kitchen, starting the coffee, making small talk and occasionally slamming the refrigerator door shut. I never told them that they were the main reason I got up so early on a daily basis…I think seeing me so bright and early made them think that I was better than I felt most of the time.

Usually I’d brush out my hair or throw on some makeup before I went downstairs, but on some days, when perhaps I hadn’t gotten nearly the same amount of sleep as the night before, I’d skip that ritual all together. I’d pull up my sheets until they resembled a semi-made bed and then head downstairs to get some coffee.

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At this point, I usually pulled my legs up on to a bar stool in the kitchen and sipped at my coffee for the next 45 minutes or so, until my dad left for work. If I didn’t talk to him for at least a little bit each day, he would think I was ignoring him and create a fiasco that my mom usually got pulled in the middle of. I figured it best to avoid that altercation altogether by just talking in the morning while I was still delirious and half-asleep and could ignore our impaired relationship.

After my dad left, my mom usually would go outside to tend her age-old garden, mow the lawn, paint, write, or just about anything else. She found creative ways to fill her time. I, on the other hand, always did one of two things: either babysitting Alice or walking aimlessly throughout the house. I preferred the former because it occupied my mind and helped me not to think of the baby I’d lost just two months before. It also reminded me of what should have been and the heart I broke.

Even worse than all of these memories was the realization that my heart had been broken as well, but I hadn’t done anything about it. I just moped, as my mother always said.

But, thankfully, on days when Alice was around I could try to forget all of these things and move on with my life. Two months hadn’t gone a long way to helping me get over my issues, but it was slowly happening. Very slowly, but I was getting to a better place.

It all started the day after Adan and I had buried James. Adan insisted that I stay with him for a while while I sorted everything out for myself, but I knew that if I did I’d become trapped once again. I needed a clean break, and because of that I spent the next day in a cheap motel, watching reruns of I Love Lucy and eating anything and everything in sight. That night, I called my mom and asked if I could come home. She said yes.

So, the next day I moved back home. I felt kind of pathetic, being 25 and still living with my parents. But I knew it needed to happen. Being on my own was going to only make things worse, and being with Adan would’ve been…well, I think we all know how that would’ve turned out. With a foggy head and tear-stained cheeks, I moved back in to my old room. My parents had long since sold my furniture to meet some mortgage-payments, but they were able to scrounge up furniture from the basement in order to put together a decent room. It now consisted of the bed I had for a year when I was 5 and fell in love with unicorns, an unmatching dresser pressed against the wall, and some various rugs, posters and mirrors attending the walls. I didn’t mind the different room. It was probably the least odd thing that had ever happened in my life.

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I thought of all this as I stood in front on my mirror, brushing out my blonde hair on a hot August day that summer. I’d dyed it soon after moving back in. My mom and I had been drinking a few glasses of wine together late into the night, after I’d retold everything that had happened with Adan and the pregnancy, when she suddenly asked me why my hair was still dark. I’d thought about it through an even foggier mind before finally realizing that I had no idea why. In a poetic sense, my dark hair used to represent the suppression of my feelings and thoughts. Now that everything was pretty much out in the open, the symbolism no longer pertained to me. With this thought, we’d hazily dyed it and in the morning there was no turning back.

I actually kind of liked having blonde hair again, I thought. It reminded me of simpler times when I was younger, and it also made me feel like I could finally have the fresh start I’d wanted since I was 21. I felt like I’d lived a life time in the matter of a few years, and I was ready for things to start slowing down. Of course, I was still stuck with my parents, but I occasionally would search for a job. So far I’d found none, but I always stopped and took a particular interest in hosting jobs. None so far had fit what I wanted to be, but I’d keep looking.

I was just about to start my makeup when the doorbell downstairs rang. My mom was knee-deep in her garden today, so I took it that she hadn’t heard the doorbell. I set down my brush and trudged down the steps. I smiled when I saw through the glass that it was a flustered-looking Jaimee with a bubbly Alice on her hip.

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“You look professional,” I chuckled when I opened the door. “Big meeting today?”

“Actually,” Jaimee cut in. “I didn’t want to tell anyone until anything was official, but I got that English position over at the University that I was pining for. Today’s my first day as a professor!”

“Oh my god, congratulations!” I replied, matching her ear-to-ear grin. She smiled back, shifting Alice off her hip and offering her to me. Once she was secured in my arms, Jaimee readjusted her bag and added a few more things. She bid us farewell and bounded happily to her car. I could only imagine her excitement to get back into the game after being a stay at home mom for three years; it was similar to the feelings I had now, only mine hadn’t paid off quite yet.

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“Well, what are we going to do at the festival today?” I asked Alice. She sat on my bed with a book she was flipping intently through. I started putting my makeup on, sure to glance back every few seconds. After a little while, I noticed her watching me apply the mascara, foundation and eye shadow.

“What’re ya doin?” she asked with a slight southern twang, completely ignoring my question. I didn’t think any of us had an accent, but maybe Alice was picking up on others’ pronunciations of different words. Regardless, the accent was adorable and I didn’t mind listening to it.

“Me?” I asked absent-mindedly, finishing up one eye. “I’m putting on makeup.”

“What’s makeup?”

“Just something I put on to make me feel a little bit better…about me. It’s not that cool, don’t worry about it sweetheart.” I felt pathetic in my explanation, so I silently prayed she wouldn’t push it as I continued along.

“Can I have makeup?” Alice’s voice was so sweet I could hardly resist, but I learned.

“Uh, well, makeup is a big-girl thing. For grown-ups.”

“I’m a big girl,” she protested. “Mommy says I am.”

“Uh, you are a big girl!” I replied quickly. “But I don’t think your mommy would be very happy if I gave you some. It’s messy.”

“I want makeup.” I noticed her arms cross through the mirror. I decided to ignore it.

“I’ll buy you makeup when you’re a little bigger.”

“How big?”

“Well, how old are you now?”

“Thwee.”

“How about I’ll buy you some and even teach you how to apply it when you’re 14?”

“Fotween?!?” She was in absolute shock.

“Hey, that’s the deal kiddo. Take it or leave it.”

She seemed to ponder her response for a while before she gave me an answer. It took so long that by the time she replied, I was ready to get changed into my outfit for the day. I picked up my clothes and stood in front of the bed, tapping my foot. She indignantly met my eyes.

Fine.”

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An hour later, after much babbling, giggling and detours, Alice and I arrived at the day’s destination: the summer festival. It came around every year, but I hadn’t been here since I was seven for…reasons. It was her first time here, and I think anyone could tell that from the massive grin that appeared on her face at the first sight of all the activities and goodies.

“This is so pwetty!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down on my shoulders as I struggled to keep her in place.

“Yes it is, sweetheart! What do you wanna do first?”

A silence cut into the conversation as I sensed her looking around to all the options.

“What do you wanna do?” she asked me. Surprised, I shrugged.

“Your choice, big girl.” I pulled her off of my shoulders before she could fall off on her own, cradling her in my arms. She was three, but she was a shortie. “We could go face painting…take pictures…eat yummy snacks…” Her eyes grew wider and wider with every idea. “Or,” I continued, “the tickle monster could come for a visit!”

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I tickled her mercilessly as she laughed hysterically, begging me to stop. I laughed until my stomach hurt, and then a ghost of a thought wiped the smile completely off my face. Is this what my baby would’ve been like? I wondered. Would he have loved being tickled? Would he have loved me? Alice stopped laughing too and stared at me until I met her eyes.

“Pictures,” she said, grabbing my face with both her hands. “Okay auntie Val?”

I struggled to pull my head out from the cloud of dark thoughts that had taken over. I looked down to her, forcing a smile. “Pictures it is.”

After the picture booth and then face painting, Alice wouldn’t stop complaining that she was hungry. So, naturally, I decided to buy her some food. When I was paying for two snow cones and popcorn, pulling out the cash while holding Alice became too much. I set her down and told her to stay near me while I paid. I did so as quickly as I possibly could, and then when I turned around to hand her the treat, she…well, she was gone.

And then, when my eyes didn’t pick her up anywhere around me, the panic set in.

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“Alice!” I called out desperately, dropping the food into the nearest trashcan as I frantically whipped my head around. “Alice! Uh, Alice, if you hear me, come out! We’re not playing hide and seek! We can later, though!”

I looked around more and felt my heart drop as I saw strangers’ faces all around and none familiar. A sea of unidentifiable faces stared at my frantic episode, and yet none offered to help. I shook with anger as I pulled back the curtains to every booth at the festival and checked the babies in people’s arms. None had black hair, blue eyes and the fairest skin you’ve ever laid your eyes on. If I lost Alice, I thought, then there was no way I’d ever have kids. Not to mention that Soren and Jaimee would kill me…oh my god, what if Alice was dead? What if someone kidnapped her since I didn’t watch her for one second? Wouldn’t she have asked me who it was? For god’s sake, I thought I’d raised her better than this! Wouldn’t she have half the mind to-

“Um, excuse me ma’am?” I whipped my head around at the sound of a voice and a gentle touch on my shoulder. “Are you alright?”

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“I’m looking…” I had to take a moment to catch my breath. “I’m trying to find my niece. She’s, uh, three, she’s got dark hair, blue eyes, an adorable…” this time I trailed off out of remorse. “…smile.”

“Hm, okay. Well I’ve got three kids of my own, so I get it…oh, wait..” His eyes seemed to catch something in the distance. “Is that her…over there?”

I followed his line of sight and saw her instantly. My feet started moving before I could thank him, so I muttered my appreciation as I neared her. As soon as I was within a few feet, I could hear her giggles and excitement over watching the cars and people pass by on the road just a few feet away. God, a few feet away. She could’ve been hit by a car if it’d taken me just a second longer to find her.

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“Alice!” I screeched, collapsing on the ground and pulling her into my arms. I hugged her tightly until I was sure she was alright, and then she pulled away.

“You okay?” she asked, touching my cheek and admiring my face paint. She’d been too scared to get her own done, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t fascinated with mine. A few tears escaped my eyes that she just as soon wiped away with her tiny thumbs. “Don’t cwy.”

I grinned, pulling her in for another hug. “I just thought I lost you, baby girl.”

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“But I was wight here!”

“I see that now, just…just don’t do that again, okay? Don’t ever leave me, your mommy, your daddy, or any adult, okay? You scared me.”

“I’m really sowwy. But pwease don’t cwy…”

“It’s okay, they’re happy tears. I love you.”

“I love you too. You’re the best , aunt Val.”

This time she gave me a hug, and I accepted it with open arms and an elated soul. I still thought I was far from being a suitable parent, but this was definitely progress. That didn’t mean I wanted Jaimee to know about this, though.

“Okay, so what next?” I glanced at a clock across the festival and saw that it was nearing 4:30. “We only have time for one more thing, so make it count.”

“Hmmm…” Alice obnoxiously pondered the decision, glancing all around to see what her options were. She finally seemed to make one when her eyes locked on something just across the pond we sat on the side of. Her finger lazily but decisively pointed at a table. On the table were four plates piled high with hot dogs and glasses of water. A sign above the table read HOTDOG EATING CONTEST-4:30. My face fell as I saw the grin that had taken over her face. Defeated, I stood up and grabbed a hold of her hand.

“You’re sure this is what you want?”

She nodded excitedly.

“Well, when I’m forty years old and fat and the only friends I have are my thirty cats, I’ll be able to thank you for starting me down that path.” She stared blankly up at me. “Alright, let’s just do this, kiddo.”

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To make sure she didn’t get out of my sight, she stood right in front of my position at the table. With her hands knotted adorably around her back, she watched me intently.

“It’s starting soon!” she said excitedly. “You’re gonna win, wight?”

I shrugged, watching the clock in the judge’s hand. Then she counted down from three and shouted, “Go!”

I had planned on taking a deep breath and maybe taking my time, but as soon as the others were off, my competitive side and Alice’s sweet face told me to just go as hard as I could. I felt gross as I shoved the hot dogs down my throat and grabbed the occasional sip of water. Alice responded with excitement and anticipation. She cheered my full name as best she could, which in between heavy breaths I could tell simply sounded like gibberish. She wasn’t the best speaker for her age, but she was getting there.

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I found it funny that I was able to think so clearly about so many things as I shoved hot dogs in my mouth. I found it so funny, in fact, that as I thought of the weirdness and the circumstances of the day I lost track of how many hot dogs I had eaten. It only came to my attention that I’d won when I reached down to my plate and hit cool glass as opposed to a hot dog that I now found completely repulsive.

“We have a winner!” declared the judge, grinning as she grabbed my arm and raised it in the air. “You were the first to eat all ten hot dogs. How do you feel?”

“Honestly?” I asked after a few quiet moments. I gripped my stomach as I stared indignantly at Alice. “I feel…sick, among other things. Would you excuse me for a second?”

“Sure thing, could you jus-“

I didn’t let her finish before I grabbed hold of Alice’s hand and walked as quickly as I could to the bathroom. After a few good minutes of dry heaving and complaining in between about how I couldn’t believe I was letting a three year old dictate my life, I was ready to finish out the evening. I tried to leave, but then Alice noticed there were going to be fireworks.

So, like had become tradition, Alice dictated my life once again. You know, maybe I actually would have been a terrible parent. Maybe it was good after all that I lost…

I bit my tongue as tears sprang up in my eyes. I wished I could, but this couldn’t be a joke to me quite yet. It’d take much more time and healing.

But, for now, I had my niece and that was all I needed.

Well, at least I thought it was.

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Later in the night, after I’d long since dropped Alice off at home, gotten pulled into gossiping with Jaimee for an hour, went grocery shopping for our Father’s Day barbeque and then finally come home, I found myself gazing at the picture Alice and I had taken in the photo booth. It was so cute, and I couldn’t wait to laugh over it one day when she was in her twenties. Maybe one of my own children would laugh over it with us. Who knew anymore?

As I thought of this and became lost in my thoughts, my mom walked into my room after a light knock on the door.

“Sweetheart?”

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I turned around slowly, giving her a small smile. Just like with my dad, I had to make sure everyone thought I was okay all the time. “Yeah?”

“Was everything fun today?”

I sure as hell wasn’t going to mention the major mishap of the day, so I laughed as usual and told her it was great. She believed me, as usual.

“Good to know.” She smiled at me before bowing her head as if trying to recollect her thoughts. “Oh and, um, I wanted to tell you that someone called the house phone for you today…”

“House phone?” I asked curiously, walking over to my dresser and leaning on it as I pulled off my heels. My bare feet on the ground felt glorious and I reveled in it as I awaited an answer. “No one calls the house phone these days.”

“I know, but there was a girl…god, I cannot remember her name. It was something with a K.”

I didn’t think much of it, so I absentmindedly asked, “Karen?”

“Nope.”

“Katie?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Katherine? Kia? Kristy? Kar-“

“Kristy!” my mom exclaimed. “It was Kristy.”

“I don’t know a Kristy.”

“Then how’d she get the number?”

I paused getting changed to stare blankly at my mom. “Really, mom? I don’t know.  Prank caller? Telemarketer? Who knows.”

“Well, I mean, I won’t make you do anything you don’t want, but she seemed terribly insistent.”

“Like what? What was she saying that’s making you take her so seriously?”

“Well, um, she said something about needing to meet with you about…”

“About what?” I resumed getting changed, pulling sweatpants on under my skirt and then undoing the skirt over the pants.

“About a guy named Shane.”

I stopped undoing the buttons and met my mom’s eyes immediately.

“U-uh, ex…excuse me?”

“She said she was in trouble. Here, I have the number if you-“

“Give me the number now.”

I stood anxiously as my mom copied down the number, my foot tapping wildly. When she finally finished, I dismissed her and called the number once I was sure she was gone. She answered on the first ring and I could hear her heavy breathing. As soon as she spoke, my worst fears were solidified.

“Valerie, is this you? Oh, thank god. You probably don’t remember me, but we met down at the…strip club a few years back, and listen. I’m in big trouble with Shane, and I need to meet with you. Now. Please.”

It had finally happened. My worst fear had decided to make an appearance just when I thought I could survive everything else that had happened. I pushed my hair away from my face as a bead of sweat broke out on my forehead. It had been so long that I’d almost forgotten about it. But now it was here, real and threatening.

My past had finally caught up with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I know I’ve called a hundred times, and you may have been ignoring every single one, but I’m just going to leave another…you know, in case your voicemail is broken or something.

“Well, I mean, first I want you to know that Adan doesn’t know anything about us…or whatever us is, but still. He doesn’t know that we had lunch. As far as Adan is concerned, I think, the last time we were together was on your doorstep the first night you came back. So there’s no concern there, you’re safe. Which, I mean, by the way…if the reason you’re ignoring me, which I totally understand, is because of Adan, you have nothing to worry about. I mean sure, you guys got off on the wrong foot, but I don’t think he’d hurt a fly. I mean, he’s totally harmless. It’s just Adan.

“I guess, um, the main reason I called was just to make sure you know that when I went to your house, you weren’t put into any sort of danger or anything. Why would you be, right? Nothing happened between us…which I know, and I hope you know too. You seemed kind of freaked out that night, but I totally get why-wow, I sound really chaotic right now, right? I don’t mean to come off that way, it’s just that I’m getting closer and closer to, uh, having this baby, and I don’t think I can do it alone. I think…I think I’m going to leave Ad-“

Beep beep.  

                “You have reached the maximum recording time for your message. If you’d like to send this message, press one. If you’d like to delete this message, press 2. If you’d like to rerecord, hit three.”

I hit two, sighing. Then, I grew startled when I heard a cough from a few feet behind me.

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“A-Adan…” I said through my teeth. “So good to have you home, uh, honey. Want some food? A drink?” I tried to move toward the kitchen, but he moved his feet to block my way. “Uh, what’s up?” I asked desperately.

“We need to talk. I recommend you sit.”

“Sit?” I asked, moving toward the couch. It took me a few extra seconds to sit at nearly 5 months into my pregnancy. My belly was large enough to tell what the deal was, and I was waiting for the day when Adan would ask about it. He, however, had about the attention to detail of a bumbling housewife with seven kids. That perception of him was the exact reason I was so taken when he said the next part.

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“Phone bills,” he said slowly, placing behind the couch. I didn’t dare look back, but I could just imagine the face he held. “I pay them every month, and every month it costs the same…about $150.” He paused for effect. “So, you can imagine my surprise when I was paying them last night and it went up by about $75 this month.”

I bit my lip, praying that this was a nightmare and I’d wake up any second. Then, as I felt the fear clench in my heart, I knew that this wasn’t a dream. You’re never this consciously scared in a nightmare.

“I was naturally curious, so I decided to check up on what the deal was. First, of course, I blamed the phone company. I thought…no, I knew that it wasn’t you who was taking up so much data and going over the limits. I mean, why would it be, right? You’re you, you never ask for too much and you keep quiet. It’s what’s so charming about you.” Adan leaned against the back of the couch, so I turned my head as far from him as I could without actually moving my body. “But when I did find out it was you…well, I figured there had to be a reason. Extended calls with your mom, a pen pal in China, a telemarketer who wouldn’t shut up. But then, I noticed, the new bill came from countless calls, all going to one number.

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“So, curious again, I looked it up.” Yup, there it was. Definitely not a dream. “And guess whose number it was?”

I stayed quiet for a moment, until I realized he wanted an answer. “Um, who?” I asked as innocently as possible, trying to smile as he peered over at me. Then, he frowned.

“Oh, I think you know who.”

And that’s when he lost it.

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“I mean, I honestly don’t get it!” He shouted, coming to stand in front of the couch. His tight-clinging work shirt showed his bulging veins. “You see this guy a half a year ago, whatever. I get mad, I let it go, we move on. But then, months later, I find out that you’re talking to him thirty times a day?”

“Adan, it’s not like that-“

“Oh?” he asked, crossing his arms as he peered down at me. “Then tell me, please. What exactly is it like?”

“Um, well, first off,” I began, standing up and attempting to meet his eyes. My back immediately started throbbing, but I had to hold my own in this argument. “He wants nothing to do with me.”

“Huh,” he scoffed. “That’s a load of bullshit.”

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I gripped on to my shirt hanging around my belly, begging for my baby to center me and help survive this fight. “No, really,” I pleaded, continuing. “He hasn’t returned any of my calls. I just…when I first met him, it was on the day his mom moved into a home. She, uh, was an alcoholic most of his life, and he finally was able to put her away in a place that’d be good for her.” Adan stared at me through bored yet fuming eyes, but I trudged on. “And so, uh, I’ve been calling just to see how she is…he’s been really concerned about her-“

Been concerned?” Shit. “Hm, that’s a lot of knowledge to get from someone’s recorded voicemail greeting. Does it say, ‘Hello, this a dick who flirts with everything that moves, and I have an alcoholic mother. Oh, by the way, I’m very concerned about her. Leave a message at the beep!’”

All desperateness fell from my expression. As opposed to feeling defensive, I suddenly had a new feeling: pure, red-hot anger.

Don’t you talk about him that way,” I seethed, taking a step forward. “You can push around anything or anyone, or push around me, but don’t you dare talk about his mother and him like that.”

“You sure don’t sound like you’re in love with the guy,” Adan continued, amusement briefly masking the anger he had toward me. “No, not at all. Well, I’m glad this is all cleared up. Great talk, honey.”

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He moved toward the steps, and as he took the first one I shouted back, “Well I’m done with this relationship!” My voice shook, but since I’d begun I couldn’t back out. “You, this apartment, this lifestyle of don’t-ask-I’m-busy-working? I’m done. With all of it.”

I swore I saw a brief flash of pain on his face, but it was gone before I could place it. He pulled his look from me as he walked slowly up the stairs, and once the shadow of his body was gone, I was left to myself and the dim apartment. I did it. I really did it, just like I told Denis in a deleted voicemail I would.

And I immediately felt like shit.

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I didn’t feel regret, I thought, as I paced around the kitchen an hour later. The clock read one AM, but I read it as I can’t sleep quite yet. I felt…well, I felt relieved in a lot of ways. And sad. And desperate, again, because now I was more than halfway through a pregnancy that the father didn’t know about, nor never would if I had anything to do with it. I felt all these things in extensive depth, but the overlying feeling was simply nothing.

I felt blank and stoic as I walked around. One, probably the most accurate reason, was probably that I was wandering around the kitchen of a guy I just broke up with. All of my clothes were upstairs, and I didn’t have a car that I owned anymore. I would’ve snuck up, but with my aching back and new addition of weight? Well, let’s just say my ability to sneak around was worsening by the day.

The second reason I felt nothing was probably because my future, which before I could almost convince myself would work out, was now a big, blank, open space. I used to think that before I gave birth, I’d muster up the courage to tell Adan, and then he’d buy a crib and Denis would move away and our relationship would reach levels of perfection. That hope had too faded within the past hour.

I was left to think and wander for the rest of the night. I stayed up until three, but then I could no longer control the tiredness. I passed out on the floor of the kitchen, my hand draped across my belly in a form of self-defense. At that moment I felt the tiniest kick and then nothing. I smiled as I dozed off, grateful that my baby was letting mommy sleep.

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I awoke at five in the morning to Adan’s footsteps pounding down the steps. I felt groggy and like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, but then again…didn’t I?

I looked over to meet his eyes. He blatantly ignored me until he had to step over me to get to the coffee maker, and that was just about the point that his half-closed eyes shot open and finally looked at me.

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“Uh, Adan?” I asked, wiping my eyes. “I think…I mean, I know you’re mad, but I think we should talk-“

“Valerie, I think you got your…your, ya know…”

I looked after him, confused as to why his voice was so shy after such a crazy night. He stepped over me to get the coffee maker, and as he poured some coffee grounds in, I finally saw it.

Blood. There was blood everywhere.

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My heart immediately started racing as I checked everywhere on my body for cuts or wounds. I didn’t feel anything, but I continued to search as I wondered: had I accidentally dropped a knife last night? Or, worse, had Adan cut me before I woke up?

No, I thought, immediately dismissing that crazy thought. It’d never reach that magnitude. And besides, as I concluded my search and my heart began to slow, I realized that there wasn’t a single cut on my body. Adan peered curiously down at me as I frantically looked around.

And then, as if hit in the head by a boulder, it occurred to me. The baby wasn’t kicking, and the baby always kicked when I first woke up. Every day for the past three weeks, that is. I tried adjusting my position, which usually worked. I felt nothing. Then, in an always-guaranteed method, I pressed the side of the stomach. The baby always pressed back in the same spot, making me feel like we’d high-fived. I always did it when something awesome happened.

And, I felt…absolutely nothing.

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I got to my feet as quickly as I could, tears beginning to stream down my face. “Adan,” I said quickly, attempting desperately to shove the first pair of shoes I saw on to my feet. My hair fell out through the process, but I eventually got them on as the frustration and worry and anguish built up in my chest. “Adan, I know we’re fighting but I need you…I need you to take me to the hospital. Something’s really wrong.” He gave me a curious look.

“Isn’t it just your…your, uh, period?”

“No, it’s not,” I said as another sob racked my body.

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He looked so desperately confused, but he took his own sweet time pulling on a t-shirt he’d brought down and grabbing his cup of coffee.  “The hospital?” he asked as we traveled down in the elevator. “What could possibly be so wrong that you need to go to the hospital? You seemed fine to me last night.”

Though the baby wasn’t responding, I still found comfort in putting my hand to my stomach. I continued to cry, but now that I was the butt in Adan’s jokes, I kept to myself.

He took his time, but we eventually got to the hospital. I was continuing to bleed, but less now. Cramps began in my lower abdomen, and it really just felt like a period. Maybe this was a part of pregnancy that no one ever talked about because it was so painful, like the back aches or the bloating.

But I quickly learned, as I was wheeled into my maternity doctor’s office, that this was most definitely not normal.

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“Back so soon?” she asked, concern laced in her face.

“I think…I think something’s…wrong…with…the baby,” I managed to get out between sobs. “I think-“

“Okay, calm down sweetheart, it’s probably something routine. Is the baby kicking more than usual? That tends to happen, but it shouldn’t hurt.” She wrote something down on her clipboard and then peered at me until I answered.

“No,” I said quietly, my voice the ghost of a whisper. “The baby…it’s not…kicking…at all.”

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Whatever confidence and calmness she’d portrayed the moment before was gone as soon as the words escaped my lips. She told me to wait a moment because she needed to go grab someone. I was left to my own thoughts in those few minutes, and they were the worst of the entire night. Alone with my thoughts, many things occurred to me, the most predominant of which being that something was terribly, terribly wrong, and I may have caused it.

When the doctor came back with another physician, she put to rest some of the scary thoughts I was having…and, when I saw who else she brought in, rehashed some others.

Adan, now terrified and sweating at the sight of me on the table, immediately came to my side.

“Doctor…what’s the issue?” he asked as he looked at me curiously, but concerned. He grabbed my hand.

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“Would you like me to be completely honest?” The question was directed at Adan, but knowing that I had yet to tell him about the baby, she looked at me. Before Adan could answer, I nodded very slowly. She lowered her eyes when she saw the gesture.

“Sir, we believe that your partner may be facing some…complications with her pregnancy.”

Adan, clearly not expecting that, shot his head up. He looked behind him first, as if to make sure that the doctor wasn’t surrounded by a camera crew of some practical joke game show. Then, as he started to believe what the doctor said, he turned to me. The first thing he asked was something I wasn’t expecting. I would’ve thought the first question would be Why didn’t you tell me? Or, better yet, How long? Or How have I not noticed?

No, none of these were what he asked. The question came from a little green monster.

“Is it…is the baby mine?”

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I looked at him incredulously. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, mustering all my strength to rip my hand from his. He glanced up, hurt. “If you even have to ask if it’s yours, then clearly you don’t know me.” I idly noticed the new physician poking at me down there as the familiar one watched the quarrel unravel, but I was stuck in this moment with Adan. I flipped my tired head to the other side, pointedly ignoring him.

“Do you want me here?” he asked, standing up. I could tell he was looking down at me, but I didn’t acknowledge him with a glance. I nodded my head no.

He took his time, as had become routine, walking to the door and turning the knob. I could sense him about to leave the room when the new physician spoke up and Adan whipped his head around to listen eagerly. I think I even noticed a tear.

“Miss…Masons?”

“Yes?” I asked, throat dry.

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“It seems to me that what you’re experiencing is a late miscarriage. See, it’s very rare, but if we take action now I believe that you’ll be able to hold your baby for a little. I just need your permission to give you some labor-inducing pills, and you can give birth to the baby tonight. However, there are some things you’ll need to know before we go into this…”

After that, I stopped paying attention to what the new doctor was saying. All I knew was that he brought bad news, the worst possible news, and I was going to be giving birth tonight. I said yes to the pills and was asked to take them immediately, and as I did so I noticed Adan walk back into the room. He sat by my side again, took my free hand again, and gripped tightly. I needed someone, I knew that much, and I didn’t care who it was. I didn’t know how I would survive the next few hours.

“Just breathe,” the doctor reassured me. I nodded tightly.

I shut my eyes tightly, allowing the tears to flow freely for just a moment, just before the doctor asked me to lift my shirt for an ultrasound. Adan and I shared equally pained looks as it began, and I knew, in that moment, that I’d been so, so wrong to keep this from him for so long. I’d betrayed someone again, someone who trusted me to be eternally honest. And now I was betraying someone whom I’d promised a life full of happiness to, someone I’d never even truly met. And that was the worst kind of betrayal.

~Now play this as you read~

                Three hours later, as I gripped Adan’s hand for dear life, I gave birth to our baby. It came out as quickly as I’d conceived it, and it was immediately taken across the room for cleaning and to check up on it. I started reaching out to ask to see the baby, to touch it, to see what we’d created…my head was foggy, but I could tell something was happening. The many doctors talked in hushed whispers that I didn’t have the energy to try to translate. They kept sneaking peaks back at Adan and me every few seconds. As they seemed to be approaching a decision, Adan turned to me.

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“You did great,” he whispered earnestly. A tear slowly traveled down my cheek as I looked upon him. He was there when no one else was. He was as destroyed by this as me. And now, after so long, we had something in common.

“So did you,” I replied slowly. I couldn’t smile, but I tried to put on a strong and sympathetic look. He squeezed my hand. When the doctors approached us, we shared one more look and then turned to face them-together.

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“Miss Masons, Mr. Sheridan,” said the familiar doctor. She looked down at us with so much anguish and pain that I felt sorrier for her, looking in on this, than us, looking out and living with it. “I’m afraid we have some bad news.” She paused for a moment, then continued. “But we have good news as well.” I let out a small breath. “The good news is…well, it’s a boy.” Adan let out a startled gasp, the perfect mix between pride and regret. “And the bad news…the bad news is, we were not able to save the baby.”

I knew she had to say more to us, to explain this a little better, but as soon as I heard the outcome of all of my months of pain only to end like this…I lost it.

I was tired, yes. I was unbelievably sore and mourning. But I still managed to beat my fists against the table so many times, tears storming down my cheeks and pouring on to the bed like a waterfall by dusk, that it took three doctors to get me to meet them levelly in the eyes.

“Ma’am, I know you’re grieving, but we need to-“

“The only thing you need to do,” I shouted back, breaking free of their grips, “is to stop talking and get back to saving my baby!”

Adan tugged at my hand, begging me to stop. I ignored him.

“Well!” I shouted again, slamming my other fist against the table again. “Get back! A child is dying and you’re just giving up! I’ll sue! I’ll this whole god damn place because you killed my baby! You killed it! You killed it because you knew I’d be a terrible mother and I’d fail this child like I’ve failed everything else! You knew from the start! You killed this baby, you hear me! You!

The familiar doctor came over and injected me with something in the arm.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she muttered, meeting my eyes. Person to person. Woman to woman. Mother to mother. As a single tear fell down her cheek, and I began to doze off, there was only one more thing I needed to say.

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“Adan?” I asked quietly. He looked over at me with the pain of a lifetime etched in his expression. His eyes were unbelievably tired and puffy, but he awaited my voice.

“What is it?” he asked.

“James,” I muttered.

“Huh?”

My eyes began closing, and as they did, so did the grief I was trying so desperately to hold on to make sure I was still alive. “I was going to name him…James.”

                ~

                So many times before in my life, when something brand new and heart wrenching would happen to me, I would pause and think: now, this is what true pain is. The first time was when I fell off of my bike when I was five and had to get stitches. The second was when I was thirteen and failed my first test. The third, I remembered all too specifically, was with my eighth grade teacher Mr. Farver.

But in the past day, when I’d given birth to a deceased child and lost every bit of self-control I’d worked so long and hard for, I knew that this was it. This was the ultimate test of how much pain I could take in, how far I could be pushed. The feelings I felt, as I walked the final long corridor to the end of the hospital with a small, ornate wooden box in my arms, I knew would be the worst I ever felt. Nothing would ever exceed the pain of holding your own lifeless child in your arms, a child you never even got to meet but did everything for you.

Once outside, I was guided to place the box in the trunk. Adan sat in the back seat with a black dress, and I took it from his arms. As the driver drove us, I suddenly realized that I would never forget the feeling of that silky, smooth fabric beneath my fingertips. It would be the dress I wore to my child’s funeral.

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We were silent as we walked up the hill to a grave we’d managed to plot in the past day. The sun fell deeper and deeper into the sky as we walked, but I didn’t mind. The darkness was more comforting than ever now that all approaching daylight would remind me of was the sight of blood and intense pain with no reward. I knew that this would be a moment I would never forget, but I so desperately wished it could be.

Once we finally met the grave at the top of the hill and buried the child, I placed a single, white rose on top. Adan, standing several feet from me, placed a single yellow tulip. Neither of us had much to say. I wanted to thank my baby for helping me through so many lonely months and never asking for anything in return. I knew he was an unborn child, but he was a part of me that would never, ever leave. I’d cried so long in the past ten hours that I had no more to give. All I had was my throbbing heart and Adan to my side.

“You can stay at my place tonight,” he said silently, turning away from the grave and peering across the town of Appaloosa Plains. “We can talk about everything that’s happened. Everything I said…I believe you. If I’d just known you were…I don’t know. Maybe things could have been different.”

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I didn’t reply for a little bit. I needed some time to think about what he’d said, and I think he was alright with the extended silence. We didn’t need to talk when so many things had already been said. He’d been there for me today, but that was it. After much thinking, I finally had gathered up the courage to say what I had to.

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.” My stuffed nose made it difficult to breathe, and every time I accidentally glanced back I felt like I belonged in that grave, and not our son.

“Why?” Adan faced me with so much pain that I nearly caved.

“We’re no good for each other.” I’d been thinking that for so long, and I felt horrible that it’d taken this to make me realize. But I had to say it. “We haven’t been for a long time.”

“But the baby…and you…will you be okay?”

“Will you be okay?”

Adan seemed surprised that I asked him, but he shrugged when I glanced over at him. “I’ll just be sad I never got to meet the little guy.”

“Me too,” I replied simply. “I think he would’ve had your hair color.”

“And I think he would’ve had your smile.”

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I met Adan’s gaze and didn’t turn away. I finally understood that, through everything, we had been a team. An unhealthy one, but a team nonetheless. He’d made me a stronger person, and I’d taught him to just let go.

So, I grabbed his hand one last time and faced the whole town. We shared one last look that made me realize that we now shared a bond that no one could ever break. I saw grieving and sadness in my future, but behind that a bright, white light that I was sure I could reach. A light that was so much better than anything I ever knew.

So, as I looked upon the town where I’d grown up, drank my first beer, reconciled with my mom and, now, suffered my own heartbreak, I was surprised to notice that my nose was a little less stuffed.

And maybe, one day, I could breathe again.

Light. I felt light as air and wonderful.

I swung my legs over to the side of the bed and just let them dangle. Sighing, I reached my arms up and stretched them. Just as I was prepared to lower my arms, something else-namely, someone else did it for me.

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“Well hello there little guy,” I muttered over my belly, rubbing where it’d just kicked. A small smile crept on to my face. Though it felt forced and slightly odd compared to my normal expressions, I still felt…well, less alone in that moment. And that was better than the usual.

I stood up with a new buoyancy that I’d adopted since becoming pregnant and, more recently, revealing my darkest secret to my parents. It’d happened just less than a week ago, and while I never thought that telling someone would help with the pain…well, it did. For the hundredth time in my life, I was wrong. Maybe it was because of my single-won battle against Adan, the battle to redo the entire apartment with warmer colors. This single change had me feeling better every day, but somehow I doubted that that was the case today. Perhaps it was even because, in terms of my pregnancy, it was almost like now that I had some purpose, some reason to force everyone else to think I was okay so they wouldn’t dig deeper, I had an easier time feigning my happiness. I wasn’t only protecting me now. I was protecting my new partner.

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When I finally gathered the strength to go and grab a bottle of water from the kitchen, I was immediately thrown off by something different. No, it wasn’t new curtains or chairs or different lights that caught my attention. It was…well, it was-

“Adan?” I asked quietly, my head leaned forward just a bit more than it usually was.

“Yeah?” Eyebrows lifted, Adan surveyed me from his position at the kitchen counter. He held the day’s newspaper in his hands as well as a cup of coffee he’d just prepared.

“I didn’t…I didn’t realize you were home. Um, what’s the occasion?”

“Oh.” Adan let out a small shrug as his eyes narrowed on something written in the paper and sat at the kitchen table. “Uh, I’m just going in late. Meeting got cancelled but I’ve still gotta put in a day’s work.” He gave me a cursory glance. I nodded as his head turned back to the newspaper. “Oh, and there’s extra coffee in the pot.” He didn’t bother looking at me. “You can have some.”

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“Um, I think I’ll pass…but, uh, thank you.” Ever since the conflict between Adan and me at my 25th birthday, we’d been struggling from even more strain in our relationship than usual. Most of the time, I could ignore it and pretend everything was alright. But, on some days, like today, I didn’t want to deal with it. I walked over to the fridge and grabbed a cold water, praying that he wouldn’t press the coffee-issue. A google search on pregnancy had revealed some key tips to me, one of the most important being the issue of caffeine. I didn’t want to hurt this baby any more than I wanted to go back to high school.

But he didn’t press it. In fact, as I came close to the base of the steps and prepared to walk back up, he didn’t even give me a single glance. As had become typical in the past week, I felt a tingling on my lips, the sensation of my deepest lingering secrets, words that just couldn’t form. I wanted so badly to tell him what I told my parents, to feel the same relief I had now over and over and over again until the day I died. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Adan, I knew, would despise me for it, even more so than he already did. And who would I be to bring a child into this world with a father who despises its mother? I messed up so many things, but this…this I couldn’t.

There were a million and one things that I had to do nowadays, but currently the monthly secretive doctor’s visits were of the most importance. I usually paid in cash so that Adan wouldn’t be confronted with logs of my frequent check-ups, but my cash flow from my job at the local book store was starting to prove incapable of upholding my new costs. So, rather than awkwardly waiting around the house until it was time for this appointment as I usually did, I decided to check-up with someone else…more specifically, my older brother.

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After checking and rechecking that I had the address right and nearly crashing my car twice, I finally arrived at their newest home. They’d moved in a bit over a month ago, and to my dismay this was the first chance I’d gotten to pay them a visit. I figured it was better to go now, while I could still cover up my rapidly growing belly, and then blame my absence on business later.

I locked my car as I walked up their pathway, meanwhile admiring the subtle beauty of their newly renovated Victorian home. It truly was beautiful, I thought, and I would love to own a similar one one day-

“Ah!” I gasped, nearly falling and breaking my neck on the ground. My foot had caught on something and, as I looked down, it wasn’t just anything­-it was a dog. A small, small dog who, to my distaste, peered up at me through sweet, large eyes that melted away my annoyance. With all revelations of Victorian magnificence disintegrated, I knocked lightly on the door. Jaimee, my sister-in-law, answered just a moment later.

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“Valerie!” she gushed at seeing my face, quickly pulling me into a hug. And I, as usual, arched my back just enough so that my belly was virtually nonexistent to her.  “What a surprise!”

“Yeah, sorry…hope I didn’t come at a bad time. I had some errands to run and thought today might be a good day to make up lost time.”

“Nope, you came at absolutely just the right time!” She beckoned me inside, softly closing the door behind us as she continued to talk. “You actually came at the perfect time. I just woke Alice up and was going to feed her a snack.”

I nodded, looking around the place. It was adorably cluttered and family-friendly, just as I’d expect from my brother and his wife. I smiled as I surveyed the ground, filled corner-to-corner with Alice’s toys and…dog toys?

“Wait, Jaim-that dog outside…is that yours?”

“Oh, Bunny?” Jaimee let out a soft laugh as she sorted through the fridge. “Yeah, you can thank Soren for that one. And his daughter. You know, I was against it, but him? As soon as Alice even hinted at wanting a puppy, he just melted and bought it for her.”

“That’s not too surprising,” I countered, walking toward the door. “Want me to bring her in?”

Him, actually,” Jaimee replied absent-mindedly as the blender started loudly mushing whatever meal she was preparing for Alice. “No matter how many times we told her it was a boy, she wouldn’t give up on naming it Bunny and, occasionally, Sally for short.”

“Sally?”

“Don’t ask me,” Jaimee sighed, turning to me with her hands on her hips. “And yes, if you wouldn’t mind calling him in…that’d be great. Thanks.”

I opened the door, but to my surprise Bunny was sitting patiently on the porch. He bolted inside as soon as I moved out of the way.

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Screenshot-47“Aw, hey boy!” I cooed, leaning down. He attacked me with kisses and soft yelps that I nearly melted on the spot at. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you? Oh yes you are! Oh yes you are!”

“Okay, seriously?” Jaimee laughed again, glancing over at my position on the floor. “I almost mistook you for Soren right there. You two sound identical when you’re around pets.”

“Not my fault,” I argued, smiling playfully up at her. “We grew up with two dogs, a cat and a horse. We were a little obsessed.” I thought for a moment, then continued. “Speaking of, where is that dork? Soren?”

“Ah, I guess he didn’t tell you,” Jaimee began as I stood up and sat at the counter across from her. “Right after we moved in, he got  a job coaching the Toddler’s soccer team down at the town park. It doesn’t pay much, but he adores it. I think he’s counting down the days until Alice can join his team.”

“Soren, mixing family with his competitiveness? That would never end well.”

“Thank you!” Jaimee blurted out, an unbelievable grin covering her face. “That’s what I keep telling him, but he won’t listen!”

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“Yeah, trust me, bad idea all the way through.” I smiled a little, returning the high five she offered. We both laughed and glanced over at Alice. I loved my niece with all my heart. “But it’s fine, I’m just really glad I finally got to get over here. The place is gorgeous.”

“You really think so?”

“Definitely,” I smiled.

“Thanks. We wanted to downsize after our first purchase. That house was absolutely stunning, but then the bills just kept piling up, and we didn’t have a single use for that pool in the backyard other than worrying whether or not Alice would fall into it. Well, you know, we would’ve gone in ourselves if we weren’t so busy all the time with her.”

Jaimee paused to smile toward her baby girl, to which Alice replied with a gurgled, “Mommy!” and then went back to eating.

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“Yeah, I totally get that. I’m kind of sick of living on the top floor of an apartment building, but I don’t think I’ll be out of there for a while.”

“How are…how are things going with Adan? Good?”

I blinked slowly up at Jaimee, surprised by the brazen question. Every time someone asked me how I was doing with Adan, I faced the same dilemma: be honest or lie?

As usual, I chose the latter.

“Things are going great,” I replied, adding a grin for measure. “I recently won a battle to redo the place, so now it’s a little more homey.”

“Well that’s good!” Jaimee looked down at me with a smile, and as I attempted to match her enthusiasm, I suddenly faltered. Big time.

“Are you…are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I muttered between scattered breaths. “I, uh-“ There it was again. “God, wow.”

“Do you want me to-“

“I’m home!”

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Soren provided a perfect distraction from the sensations I felt in my stomach. I noticed Jaimee glancing back at me every few seconds as she walked to greet her husband, but I just tried my best to put on a smile and convince her I was okay. It felt like someone was poking my belly lightly, but…from the inside. And then, just as I grew a little used to it, it went away. Just like that.

“Soren!” I grinned, standing up in order to greet him.

“Hey Val…what brings you over?” I kept noticing the worried glances Jaimee was giving me, but I smiled at her to let her know I was fine. “Come to check out the new place?”

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“Actually, yes,” I replied with the forced enthusiasm of a dog lover approached with cats. “And, of course, to see Alice.”

Soren, like Jaimee, looked down to his baby girl at the mention of her name and smiled.

“Yeah, she’s doing alright. Her fourth birthday’s coming up…I think we’re going to throw her a party here. You in?”

“Of course,” I smiled. “June, right?”

“Yeah, June.”

Screenshot-58 Screenshot-64I spent nearly the rest of the day with them, playing with Alice, touring their new home, and, finally, sitting down to lunch with them in their new garden in the back. They asked me to stay for awhile longer, but a glance at the clock quickly revealed to me what I already knew but forgot: my monthly prenatal appointment was approaching and I sure as hell couldn’t be late.

“I think I’ve gotta go,” I said to Jaimee as we finished up the dishes. Soren and Alice’s voices could just barely be heard over the sound of the radio, and I smiled as she let out a tiny, high-pitched laugh.

“Too bad,” she muttered, meeting my eyes. Her eyes quickly flitted down to my stomach as they had several times throughout the day, but she readjusted them on my face in a matter of seconds. “You need to visit again soon.”

“Well I think the next chance I’ll get is Alice’s birthday party in a month or so. Soren said you’re hosting something?”

“Oh, well, yeah. We talked about it. I think it’d be nice to fly in his grandparents so that they can see Alice. They haven’t seen her since Thanksgiving back a few years ago, so it’s probably an overdue visit anyway.”

“Yeah, I’ll be sure to get her a cute gift. Maybe-oh, wait. I almost forgot!

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“I brought this for you guys…it’s just something for the house. I hope you like it since I wasn’t able to get around here for so long.”

“Oh, Valerie…” Jaimee replied, grinning as she looked down at the present. “You didn’t need to get us anything. You’re family.”

“Well, exactly, that’s kind of-”

There it was again, that damn poking at my belly. It didn’t hurt, necessarily…just felt weird and caught me off guard every time. I tried to ignore it in order to finish up my conversation with Jaimee, but all too soon the repeating question of whether or not I was hurting the baby wouldn’t stop playing over in my head. I said hasty good byes, gave Alice a kiss on the cheek, and hopped in the car, so thankful that I had an appointment today. What if something was wrong with the baby?

Screenshot-68Well, as it turned out, nothing was wrong with the baby, according to my doctor.

“Does it feel like a tickling from the inside of your stomach? Almost like someone is tapping you?” she asked me after I finished voicing my concerns.

“Yes!” I screeched, then lowered my voice in fear that someone would think something was wrong. “I mean, yeah, that’s what it feels like. Is that normal?”

“Oh, sweetheart,” she murmured, smiling down at me. “That’s the baby kicking.”

Kicking?” Okay, that wasn’t what I expected. “At this point in the pregnancy? How is that normal?”

“Ms. Masons, you’re halfway through your second trimester…it’s not that surprising. The baby usually starts kicking right around when you really start to show.”

“Oh.”

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“Okay, now if you wouldn’t mind lifting your shirt…”

The doctor assembled her stethoscope and pressed the cold metal first to my chest, then stomach, then back, and then back to my belly.

“Has everything been feeling alright? Have you been gaining any weight, felt cramps, or had any spotting?”

“Uh, um, I think the weight gain thing,” I muttered, suddenly self-conscious to secretly be at the doctor about this. Yes, I’d been here several times throughout the pregnancy, but without Adan and especially without Denis, I was starting to feel the harder effects of being truly alone.

“Okay, well if you could stand up and step over on to this scale, we can check up on how your pregnancy is progressing.”

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“So the baby’s and your heartbeats are perfect, and you said you weren’t experiencing any cramps, right?”

“None.”

“That is absolutely perfect. And any spotting at all?”

“I mean, some times a little…is that bad?” My heart clenched up as I awaited her answer, but then once she replied I let out a sigh of relief.

“No problem at all. Just, you know, give us a call if it proceeds or gets worse, alright?”

“Will do.”

“Anything else you wanna ask about? Any irregularities or concerns?”

“Nope, I think…I think that’s all, doc.”

She smiled down at me, and as she did I swore I felt the loneliness I felt deep inside, both at being here alone and having no one I could trust, threaten to consume me.

“Alright, now get on home to your man,” she teased, clearly tired after a long day’s work. She let me know that I could leave whenever and walked out, and that’s when it really hit me.

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I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do it, even if I had someone by my side. But I needed someone…someone like Adan, who’d sit by and make sure I was okay during all of this. Maybe if I told him, it’d wipe clean all of the issues we were going through since he caught me with Denis. Maybe revealing that I was pregnant to him would make him realize how stupid we’d been in the past few months.

Or, perhaps, that wouldn’t solve our problems. Maybe I needed a different man to go home to. Someone like Denis.

But then, as I thought that idea through, I felt even more stupid than I had already. I’d hardly talked to Denis since our lunch meet-up forever and a couple months ago, and I highly doubted that, outside of short texts every once in a while, he wanted anything to do with me anymore.

But, no matter how many times I told myself I was an idiot, I still jumped in my car, started it up, and drove straight to his street.

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“You don’t want anything to do with me, do you?” I shouted upon the door opening. “You never liked me, not even in high school, but you’ve been toying with me all this time for…for what? Some sick prank you never get tired of? Some messed up bet with Freya?”

He stared at me blankly.

“Oh, yeah, real nice! Well, congrats! You succeeded! I have feelings for you, and now I’m destroying my nice, clean, happy relationship because of your sick jokes. Are you ever going to stop and give up on this? On making me think of you 24/7 with absolutely no reciprocation of my feelings? Denis, you are so unbelievably-”

A soft kick in my stomach stopped my tyrant rage for just a moment. Then, again when I felt another kick.

“Valerie, are you…oka-”

I shook my head, breathing beginning to scatter once again.

“Do you need to sit?”

Screenshot-95“Are you alright?” He asked, pacing, once I was seated on the couch. “Do you want some…have you been drinking?”

His question hit me like a brick, and it was almost…offensive. He actually thought that the only reason I’d yell at him was if I was drunk? Well, boy, was he wrong.

But, when I tried to get angry at him again, the words wouldn’t form. I couldn’t help the tears as I sat quietly, alone, on the couch.

“Okay, seriously, if you’ve been drinking, I don’t really understand why you’re here of all places. Valerie, you have a boyfriend. And to be quite honest, he’d probably beat the shit out of me if he knew you were here right now! Or…god, does he know you’re here right now?”

I kept my mouth shut.

“Or, wait, are you running away from him? Valerie, is he…is he hurting you?”

His voice broke as he spoke that word, and the simple sound of an unfinished thought drove home all of the feelings I’d been having for him. He talked in long strings, like me, and wasn’t discouraged by no replies. He was…well, he understood. And at a time like this, that’s all I needed to know before taking the next step.

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“Denis,” I said brazenly, standing up and meeting him where he stood. “Denis, if I asked you to do something, would you do it?”

“Valerie…” he muttered, meeting my eyes.

“Denis, what if I needed you to do it.”

He sighed deeply and turned away for only a moment. His eyes seemed to be searching the floor for some type of guidance that just wasn’t there. After a few moments, he seemed to have come to a decision and put on a firmer face. “What is it?”

The way he looked at me, with his deep green eyes that seemed to hold all the answers in the world, and his gentle, caring way of making sure I was truly okay, finally broke me. To mask the tears I knew I could no longer hold back, I wrapped my arms tightly around his shoulders and gave in as sobs racked my body.

Screenshot-92And, to my surprise, he returned the hug. The feel of his worn and battered arms, with so much anger and rage and time deeply imbedded in them, was the most reassuring thing I could have ever received in that moment. He gave me, in a single gesture, what I knew Adan never could in a lifetime, no matter how badly I wished he could. And that’s exactly why I asked the next question that I did.

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“Kiss me,” I murmured in his ear, though my voice was shaking. “If you could just…just kiss me…”

“You have a boyfriend,” Denis replied sadly, grabbing hold of my shaking hands. “I can’t kiss you, but I can…I can take away the pain. I promise.”

“It’s not enough…”

“It has to be-”

“But he doesn’t love me…Adan doesn’t-hasn’t ever-loved me….”

“I’m sorry, I just…I can’t.”

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“Denis, please, just kiss me,” I begged. Pleading was getting me no where, but all I wanted in that moment was a kiss like the first and only one we ever shared in the rain all those years ago. I leaned in, puckering my lips and waiting for him to meet me halfway. When he didn’t, I opened my eyes.
“Denis, please-”
“No!” he growled, stepping back. “Valerie, I’m not taking another man’s girlfriend away from him. I can’t, I won’t, and I-”
“I told you!” I yelled, frustrated. “He doesn’t love me anymore!”
“Then why the hell are you still with him?!”
I stood back, too, appalled. That was the question I’d been trying to avoid ever since I saw him again. I couldn’t handle answering it because I…well, I didn’t have an answer that he, nor anyone else, would understand. What kind of person was I? If I couldn’t be honest with him, the one whom I was gambling my entire future on, who could I with?
“Because…because…” I choked out. “Because there is…” I pointed to my stomach. “There’s a baby in there.”

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The sound that Denis made in reaction to the news was not human at all, and I swore his eyes would  pop out of his head. He reminded me exactly why I’d avoided telling anyone until now. With his head extended forward, he stared directly at my stomach.
My  hand fell limply to my side.
“H-how long?”
“Four months,” I replied simply, sighing.
“Then you need to stay with him,” he said quietly. “End of story.”
“But Denis-”
“No.”
He backed up and silently walked to his kitchen and started pouring coffee that I hadn’t noticed into a cup. Whatever happened to liking tea? He changed so much…
“Valerie, I-I-” he stopped talking for a second.
“I love you, I really do…god, I love you beyond words, but Valerie…” he buried his face in his hands, turning around. “That child…I won’t be the one to take that child away from the life it deserves, and I’d be damned if I did.”

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After a small, apologetic conversation from both our sides, I excused myself. Denis was so angry at me, so unbelievably angry over something that I wanted but never happened. I was surprised. I was shocked. But, most of all, I was simply…exhausted, both mentally and physically. But mostly mentally.

Because this relationship, this one single light at the end of the road that I had spent so many years relying on?

It had gone out because of the dim light I was currently with, and now I had lost, virtually, both.

A kiss, I knew, would have made every problem I had disappear. A kiss to let me know that this man, this bright light that I’d spent so long holding on to, was worth it all. But to him, this light, I was probably nothing. I was moth that wouldn’t let the light be.

And, like all moths, I eventually had to rest. I cried myself into oblivion for so long outside his house that I eventually lost track of time. I stroked my belly as I sobbed, repeating the same thing over and over again: If I lose you, I will be reduced to nothingness.