I was sat on the floor of the bathroom in the back of the Rite Aid, slumped against the wall, staring at the plastic stick in my hand.
2 minutes and I’d know.
I tried not to think about what it would mean if the test come back positive. Instead I started to create a new pie in my head, the ‘I don’t want Riko’s baby’ pie: a sausage and cheddar cheese quiche with a savoury short crust base, take you sausage meat and cut it up, add it to some grated cheese and layer it on the bottom of the pie crust. Mix the eggs and the cream together then add a little bit of hot sauce. Pour the egg mixture over the filling and bake it it the oven for 40 minutes.
I was startled out of my daydreaming by the beeping of my alarm. The 2 minutes were up. I took a deep breath and looked down at the stick.
Two distinct lines stared back at me.
I slumped back against the wall staring at those two infernal lines, ‘Shit.’
Shocked. I was probably feeling shocked. I’d never been pregnant before and it took me a moment to figure out how to react. Second feeling I felt was the fear. The slow building, inevitable fear. Then came the guilt, the inescapable, heavy guilt of being responsible for bringing an innocent into this fucked up world.
But underneath all of those roiling terrifying emotions there was something quiet and bubbling that sat just behind my heart, a spark of something brighter I didn’t dare name. Then I caught sight of the bruises around my forearm, the purple and blue finger prints circling the skin there and the spark was extinguished. I thought of the map of blue and green and purple and yellow that had littered my body in layers, left there by the man I had once thought I loved. I was starting to realise that loneliness and a desperate need to get out of my fathers house did not equal love. Suddenly, all I could think of was the tiny thing covered in bruises too.
I had to get out of that house. A steady protective resolve settled into my stomach. I may not have been thrilled about impending motherhood but Riko was never getting with in 100 miles of that kid. Better yet he would never know about it.
With a plan starting to take shape, I stood up and straightened my jacket. I paused momentarily over the pregnancy test. Part of me thought I should hold onto it as a keepsake from this earth shattering moment in my life. But that was impractical. Where was I supposed to keep it? If I brought it home riko could find it. Finally I shook myself and pushed it to the bottom of the small trash can in the corner.
I had never been one for sentimentality before and I wasn’t going to start now. As I was washing my hands, I caught sight of myself in the cracked mirror. I didn’t look any different, same red hair. Same tired eyes. Same narrow face. But I felt like I should look different, like the fact that it wasn’t just me anymore should have irreparably changed my external make up.
I was going to have a baby.
Fuck, I hadn’t the first idea how to raise a kid. What if I accidentally killed it? I had a thought that I should probably stop calling it it as the first step but I didn’t know what else to call it. I thought back to the stories my mother had told me, about how, even before they went to the doctor she just knew that I was going to be a girl. I had no sense of anything like that. I could barely even imagine the weird little blob growing inside me, let alone gender it. I shook off imagining and started adjusting my clothes, checking they weren’t showing any of the damaged bits of skin. Once I was satisfied that nothing was amiss, I swung my bag over my shoulder and left the bathroom.
The cashier was staring at me with beady eyes and mock sympathy. A gossip. She couldn’t know the test was positive in case it got back riko. The rite aid wasn’t that far from our house and gossip traveled fast in small towns. I smiled back at her and walked into the aisles. I made a beeline for the sanitary products and grabbed a pack of tampons at random and turned to head back to the register. The cashier lady looked vaguely disappointed when I dropped the tampons onto the counter adding a bar of chocolate and a packet of gum for good measure. The cashier started to scan the items and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
‘How did the test go sweetie?’
‘Oh well I’m sorry to hear that.’ The cashier paused in her work and the beady eyed sympathy returned.
‘It’s alright.’ I said, faking a reserved disappointment, ‘I think we’re both a little young still. My husband works so hard and he’d want to help,’ more lies, ‘I just think it’s not our time to start a family yet.’
‘Of course, yes I think you’re right.’ The lady simpered, ‘you’re so very young. But your time will come. Don’t you worry about that.’
She said this as she scanned the last item through and rung up the total, ‘alright that’ll be $7.99, would you like to pay by cash or card?’
‘Alright...Enter your pin please... and you can take your card now.’
I took back the card—the one riko didn’t know about. The one I’d taken out when I first started to consider leaving him, and scooped my purchases off the counter.
‘Thank you.’ I said to the cashier as I turned to go.
‘You have a nice day now.’ Came the response.
I nodded at her and hurried out of the shop. Once I’d turned the corner I stuffed the the tampons and chocolate into my bag, took out and piece of gum then exchanged the packet for my phone.
Quickly dialling the number, I put the phone to my ear and waited for the call to be picked up.
‘Hello darling.’ My mother’s voice came over the line, ‘how are you?’
‘Mom, hi. Uh yeah I’m alright, kind of. Listen I-uh, I need your help.’
‘What’s wrong sweetheart?’
‘Well nothings exactly wrong per se it’s just, well, I’m leaving.’
‘Leaving what? Leaving that husband of yours?’
‘Oh bravo! It’s about time. What finally got you to do it?’
I scrunched up my nose and braced for impact, ‘Um...the baby?’
‘Mine. My baby?’
‘Your baby? Wait are talking about that mangy old stray you were always going on about? Because I’ve told you—’
‘No mom, I mean my baby as in the foetus that’s growing inside of me, as we speak.’
‘Oh my god!!!’ Mary shrieked, ‘I’m going to be a grandmother!!’ Then I heard the dawning horror in her voice, ‘Oh my god I’m going to be a grandmother. I’m too young to be a grandmother.’
Despite the stressful situation, I snorted, ‘yeah sorry about that.’
I could hear her mother smiling, ‘water under the bridge darling. So you’re leaving him.’
I sighed, ‘yeah I am. Riko can’t know I’m pregnant.’
‘Ok kiddo, what do you need me to do?’
A week later I was making dinner when my husband got home. Riko Moriyama was only a few inches taller than me. His dark hair excessively neat, and a sharp calculating look in eyes that never quite warmed up. He hung his coat at the door and walked over to me unfastening his tie.
‘What’s for dinner?’
‘What’s the occasion?’
‘Nothing in particular. You’ve just been working so hard that I thought you might like a pick me up.’
Riko walked up and kissed me on the cheek, ‘thank you.’
It was times like this that I could almost see the man I married.
We got married less than a year ago just after I turned 18. It hadn’t started out bad. He had been almost sweet. I knew even then he wasn’t perfect, that he had a temper, but back then he used it to protect me and I needed protecting. Not physically, I mean could hold my own in a fight but after the horror and pain of my fathers house I needed someone to have my back. Not that my mother didn’t take care of me as much as she could, but she had it worse than I did. I always wondered why she didn’t up and leave when she found out she was pregnant, why she didn’t go to her own family. Until the day she explained what her family—our family—did. They were in organised crime and yes they would have taken care of us but there would have been a price to pay and she didn’t want me to have to pay it. That’s where mom is now, with my uncle. As soon as I got married she left for England and got my father sent to jail.
Mom never really liked riko, even from the start when I couldn’t see it. But he hadn’t hurt me and I thought I loved him and it got me out of that house, so she didn’t kick up too much of a fuss. Riko didn’t get violent right away. It happened so subtly that I was in the middle before I knew it had begun. It wasn’t until he came home drunk one night and shoved me into the wall that I realised my mistake. But I reasoned that my father was worse. That if I could survive him, I could survive this. And he never hurt with the purpose my father had. It was always almost accidental. Enough so that I could technically reason that it was an accident. Except I never quite could believe enough. So I pretended. Until I couldn’t anymore.
And now here I was 10 months later pretending like nothing had changed. A small part of me still wanted to pretend this was ok because the alternative was the unknown and surviving the unknown was ten times scarier than surviving the known, even if the known hurt. But I had to go because the unknown at least offered a chance of a better life.
And it wasn’t just my life I was dealing with anymore.
I turned my head slightly towards him and plastered on my best smile. ‘Of course.’
He smiled back and was about to turn away when his eyes caught on my fore arm, the fresh bruises there. Annoyance flashed across his face and he yanked my sleeve down, ‘what makes you think I want to see that?’
He turned and stalked towards his office. With out turning around he snapped, ‘come get me when the food is done.’
Irritation coiled in my veins and I had to tamp down biting words of my own. If he didn’t want to see them then he shouldn’t have grabbed me so damn hard. But I couldn’t risk making him angry. Not now. I just had to get through one more day and then I was free.
So instead I kept my smile in place, said, ‘Sure thing.’ and turned back to the pan.
After a tense dinner Riko went back to his office. I was feeling antsy but I couldn’t do anything until he left for work tomorrow so I focused instead on the familiar task of washing the dishes. While I was washing and rinsing, I thought over what I was going to do.
My mother had come through. I’d stopped by an ATM on my way home from the store the other day to check the balance of my secret card. She had transferred more than enough money to get me a bus ticket, an apartment and a new ID. It would also hopefully stretch to cover the inevitable medical bills that would come with the pregnancy. In short it was enough to get me started on a new life.
After Riko went to work tomorrow I’d pack my bags and head to meet my mothers contact. Then I’d get on the first bus out of here. It was kind of thrilling not knowing where I’d be sleeping tomorrow night. I washed my hands and left the dishes to dry. It was also kind of terrifying.
Sitting down at the table and dropped my head into my hands. What if this was a mistake? I didn’t know where I was going to be sleeping tomorrow night. What if there wasn’t anywhere to stay. What if I was mugged or murdered or worse?
Surely Riko wouldn’t actually hurt the baby? His own flesh and blood? I mean he’s a little messed up but he’s not a complete monster. Maybe it would be better not to go anywhere. I mean they say babies need stable environments to grow up in, right? If I’d had that, maybe I wouldn’t of gotten married to the first guy to show me an ounce of kindness. A guy, I reminded myself, who turned out to only be a little better than my father. I raised my head enough to see the bruises on my arm. I knew there where matching ones on my shoulder and ribs.
I was being ridiculous. I was just scared, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t doing the right thing.
I needed a distraction. If I let myself dwell on this I’d chicken out, so I did the one that always calmed me down.
I took out flour, yeast, salt and water. I measured out each and mixed them until they came together. I dusted the counter top and dumped out the dough, and then beat the ever loving hell out of it.
I punched out the stress of the looming future, the uncertainty that I was making the biggest mistake of my life and most of all the crushing suffocating fear that I was going be a terrible mother. I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t even ever thought about having children. Hell, I hadn’t even held one. And I couldn’t say that I was all that naturally maternal, either. And I knew how easy it was to screw up a kid. I mean I did have a fairly good template of what not to do but that wasn’t going to be enough.
The timer went off, drawing me out of my spiralling panic. I shaped the dough, and put it in a bowl covered with a tea towel. I had two hours before I could do anything with it and I still couldn’t shake the anxious energy crawling along my limbs. So I went into the bedroom, changed into a sweatshirt and workout pants, and grabbed a hair tie off the dresser. Walking back through to the kitchen, I swept my hair up into a pony tail an wrote a quick note to Riko—saying where I was going. I grabbed my keys and phone and left.
I ran until my legs were on fire. When the stress of the day washed away and my mind was finally quiet, I slowed to a stop, leaning my hands on my knees as I caught my breath.
The cool night air hurt my lungs but it felt good. Looking around the neighbourhood, at the houses I passed almost everyday, I thought about how I’d probably never see them again. I didn’t know the people living in them. I knew some of my neighbours closer to home but out here not so much.
It struck me that I likely never would.
I don’t generally like people and I’d never gone out of my way to introduce myself but there was something in the finality of never, that made what I was planning feel alarmingly real. I wouldn’t live in this neighbourhood anymore. Which was a stupid thing to get hung up on, I hadn’t even lived here that long. But however shitty it was, for a little while this was my home. Saying a silent goodbye, I set off back the way I came.
When I reached my street, our next door neighbour was taking out the trash. Kevin Day was one of Riko’s business partners. They went to college together and were both hired by Riko’s family’s company right out of it. I’d known Kevin almost as long as I’d known Riko. He was tall with dark hair, tan skin and green eyes.
He was taller than Riko.
Riko hated it.
He smiled and waved when he saw me, and started heading my way. I nodded in return and met him in the middle.
I liked Kevin well enough. He was obsessed with work and wouldn’t shut up about it once you got him started, but he was kinder that riko. When he smiled it actually reached his eyes.
I didn’t talk to him alone that often cause riko didn’t like me having guy friends. I mean he didn’t like me having friends at all, but he was worse about men. He would get crazy jealous. Seemed to think I was too pretty for guys to actually want to be friends with me. Like if he left me alone with them for more than five minutes, they’d seduce me away. It’s funny cause after him I really don’t see my self getting into a relationship anytime soon, even without the kid.
‘Hi Nat, glad to see you’re staying active!’ He said.
Kevin’s a health nut. Like he’s the type of health nut that will take a bag of chips right out of your hands, throw them in the trash and proceed to lecture you for half an hour about how if you keep eating crap like that you’ll be dead by 40. He thinks he’s gonna live to be a hundred. He did not take it well when I pointed out that meant he was a quarter of the way through his life already and he’d wasted it eating stuff that tasted bad.
Riko didn’t take it well, either.
‘Yeah, Running helps me sleep.’
‘Hm, cool. So anyway I wanted to talk to you about what your brining to the company’s summer pot luck jamboree because you usually bring a cake or pastries but I wanted to suggest that this year, you maybe bring some fruit and granola bars instead. You know office workers have very sedentary lifestyles and it’s important to off set that with a healthy diet and regular exercise. And as most of the guys we work with don’t do regular exercise it’s even more important there diet stays clear of saturated fats and processed carbs, you know? And no offence but I really don’t feel like your usual contribution fits that descriptor at all-‘
As Kevin rambled on, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Glancing to the side I saw riko coming out of the house. Time to wrap this up then.
‘You know what Kevin. How about I make my banana peanut butter chocolate chip muffins. They’ve got protein and potassium and antioxidants and all that. Nutritious, without also tasting terrible.’
‘Well, I suppose that could be alright.’ Kevin said looking vaguely offended on behalf of his beloved granola bars, ‘but I’ll need a list of the ingredients and quantities so I can calculate the nutritional info-‘
‘Yep!’ I said, already backing away. ‘Absolutely. That sounds great. I will do that.’
I only got a few steps before an arm came round my waist stopping me in my tracks. Riko’s hand tightened around my hip as he smiled at Kevin and I grit my teeth against the spark of pain, keeping my face pleasantly blank.
‘Hey there, Kev! What are you two gabbing about?’
‘Oh, well’, said Kevin, completely oblivious to the strain in my smile or the bruising fingers on digging into my side. Sometimes I hated him a little for not seeing it. ‘I was just making sure that Natalia wasn’t planning on bring anything too unhealthy to the pot luck jamboree in July. It’s only a couple of weeks away and I needed to know what her plan was.’
‘Oh lighten up Kev!’ Riko’s laughter had a mean edge to it, ‘It’s a party. And if there is one thing my wife can do, it’s bake. What do you care if those fat fuckers at the office eat themselves into early grave? You need to relax and live a little.’
I could see Kevin ramping up for a lecture about civic responsibility, which would only piss riko off more, which would make it worse for me when we got back inside so I quickly intervened.
‘Speaking of parties, Riko’s mother wanted to know if you were coming to thanksgiving this year.’
‘No, I’m afraid I can’t this time,’ Kevin said, calming a little, ‘I’m spending it with my father. Please give the senior Mrs Moriyama my apologies.’
‘Oh that’s alright,’ said riko, his voice still and an edge to it but he didn’t push it, ‘family come first’
‘Absolutely. So true.’ I said casting around for a way to get riko back inside before tensions ran too high again, ‘oh my goodness, I just remembered! I’ve left a loaf proving inside. I can’t leave much longer or it’ll be ruined. You’ll have to excuse me, I’m so sorry.’
‘No worries’, Kevin said, ‘I’ll let you go. But don’t forget to give me the ingredient list for those muffins.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’
I used Riko’s iron grip on me to subtly steer him back towards the house. I’d gotten good at that; making Riko think doing things were his idea.
As soon as the front door closed behind us he let go of me, fingers flexing. ‘What we’re you two really talking about?’
‘He really did just want to talk about the jamboree. He was taking out the trash, and as soon as he saw me he started going on about the importance of diet and exercise for office workers and that seeing as most of the people in your office don’t exercise, regulating their sugar and fat intact was imperative. He wanted me to bring granola bars for christ sake. You know how he gets, sweetie. As soon as he starts taking about healthy living there’s no stopping him. You actually saved me from having to listen to him lecture me more.’ I gave a coy little laugh that scraped on the way out, placing a gentle hand on his cheek. ‘He’s insisting I give him the ingredient lists so he can calculate the nutritional information, I mean the mans got issues.’
Riko huffed, derisively. ‘Alright. I believe you.’ He brushed his lips over my temple. ‘But give the ingredient list to me and I’ll give it to him. I love Kevin like a brother, but your just too pretty to be trusted around. I can’t be too careful.’
‘Of course.’ I said, squeezing my toes in my boots, where he couldn’t see. I focused on the pain of it as I said, ‘I’ll put the list in with your lunch tomorrow.’
‘Good. What are you going to do of the rest of the evening?’
It was an innocuous enough question for a husband to ask his wife, but I knew him well enough to know it was less about an interest in my hobbies and more about keeping track of what was his.
Tomorrow, I reminded myself.
‘Well I have to get that loaf in the oven, and then I’ll probably turn in early. I think running tired me out.’
‘Alright, well. I’ve got an important presentation I need to prepare for so don’t disturb me. And shower. You stink.’
I nodded, giving him a convincingly sweet smile, ever the blushing bride, while in my head, I imagined pushing him down the stairs.
I kept the smile on my face right up until I heard his office door shut. Scowling, I stuck my tongue out at the closed door.
I did go shower, even though I barely broke a sweat. I couldn’t afford to piss him off, especially when he’s already on edge from what happened with Kevin. Not when I’m so close to escape.
Once I dried off, I looked down at my stomach. It doesn’t look any different, but I feel like it should. There should already be some outward sign of something this earth-shatteringly huge. I ran my hand over the flat expanse of skin, hesitantly. It suddenly seemed very fragile. Just an inch of skin and muscle, all that stood between the thing growing inside me and the world, and I for one was all too aware of just how cruel the world could be. How easy flesh was to damage.
If Riko had a presentation to work on he was unlikely to leave his office again until he went to bed, so I changed into pyjamas rather than getting dressed up again.
I made my way to the kitchen and let the lingering irritation and fear infusing my bones flow into kneading the ball of dough as I worked and shaped my pain into something useful.