This story is by Bronwyn Miller and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Caroline had wanted a baby since she herself was a baby. Five years old, playing with dolls, she had looked up at her mother, wide-eyed, and told her ‘someday I will be a mommy like you’. Caroline spent family gatherings playing with younger cousins, and when she turned 16 she found a job at a daycare. She was responsible, so she knew that she was too young to have a child. She needed to be a real grown-up, have a real grown-up job, and a car to take them places. She realized, in a sort of half-hearted way, that she would also need a man.
Her opportunity came in the form of Winston Davis, her sophomore year at Butler University. She was learning how to open a hair salon, and Winston was working toward an MBA. They initially sat beside each other because they were both late and the only seats open in the classroom were in the back row where no one wanted to sit. Her laugh enchanted him and he looked at her like he really heard what she was saying, so they sat together the next Wednesday, Friday, and the next Monday too. Then came winter break, when they flipped a coin and he came home with her to her family. Her parents looked at him with rose-tinted glasses. ‘What a man’, they said, ‘he dresses well, he’s motivated and he’s even handsome. What more could a girl want?’ Caroline’s father joked that if his wife wasn’t married, she would have him herself, and then laughed at his own joke. Winston fidgeted; Caroline planned their future in her head.
A year into their courtship, Winston took Caroline to her favorite restaurant and got down on one knee when she dug a perfect ring out of her strawberry mousse. The wedding was set for the summer after they graduated, and in a tent on his parents’ estate, they said their solemn vows, walked down the aisle triumphantly. The guests blew bubbles because Caroline’s mother had read her an Ann Landers column that said that rice killed birds, and it made Caroline cry, even when Winston told her it was a myth. They danced for hours, ate expensive cake, and went to Hawaii for their honeymoon.
A month later, she frantically took pregnancy tests, hoping for the baby that her friend Holly had come back from her honeymoon with. When Winston came home from work, there lay Caroline amid a mass of negative pregnancy tests, and he spent an hour consoling her. ‘Don’t worry’, he said, ‘we’ve barely been married two months, we’ve got so much time, why rush?’. It was the worst thing he could have said to her, and she cried harder. He didn’t understand. Of course he didn’t.
She cut the ribbon to her hair salon and opened the doors, a pit of sadness in her stomach that did not go away. They were not newlyweds anymore; two years had gone by, and still, every test was negative. Every night, she was inconsolable. Winston pulled his hair out, stayed at the office longer, and said it was to make more money for the expensive treatments she insisted they needed; but even when he came home he sat in his car in the driveway before coming inside. Two more years, several doctors visits and one $15,000 loan later, he said that maybe they should accept that they were not having children. Bags were packed into the trunk of his Lexus, and both of their signatures graced a settlement that had seemed impossible just a few years before. Caroline had taken a gender studies class in college, though, so she now knew that she did not need a man to have a baby.
She took out a second mortgage on her salon and worked eighty hours a week, picking through a catalog to find the perfect donor. When she found him, it was only a matter of a week and several syringes full of hormones. She was fulfilling the one dream that time and hard work hadn’t been able to make happen. She cut back her hours immediately, just in case, and when the first test came back positive she was convinced that it had been Winston that had been the problem, and she shouldn’t have wasted all those years with him. The baby shower her mother threw for her was the most lavish party the town had seen in years, and everyone celebrated with her. The nursery was well stocked and well decorated. No child of hers would want for anything.
Months later her child made a bloody entrance into the world, as she hemorrhaged and had to be rushed into emergency surgery. Days later, she left the hospital, clutching her hard-won bundle of infant. She told herself that it was okay that she had to leave the hospital without her uterus because this child was perfect enough that she did not need another one. She named him Asher, which Google told her meant ‘blessing’, and she put him in his giraffe-themed nursery and for the first time in her life, she felt completely whole. He was not an easy baby, but she didn’t mind. Her mother stayed with her for a time to pick up some of the midnight feedings, and he grew up strong and tall for his age, and every time she took him to the doctor, Caroline preened with pride and joy as he stacked up against all the percentiles. She tracked his milestones in a leather-bound journal and lay awake for hours just watching him, mesmerized by the rise and fall of his tiny ribcage. Her boy would be the smartest, the strongest, the most successful. She just knew it.
She did everything right, she thought. She took him to classes and held his hands and sang softly in his ear, never getting frustrated the way the other mothers did. She sang him the alphabet while she took him to the grocery store to get only the best organic food, and when he said his first word, it was ‘mama.’ He went to an exclusive, expensive school, of which she was on the board and in the parent-teacher group. She was at every sports meet, cheering him on and taking him out for dinner afterward. Asher did not have any interest in other children, but she tried her best to get him involved. She hosted the best birthday parties, though Asher angrily threw the gifts when everyone had left, despite her best efforts to soothe him.
The constant was that it was him and her against the world. She knew that every mother was jealous of her and her son, and she reveled in it, inviting them all to brunch to boast. ‘All while running her own business’, they would say, ‘and all without a man!’. She was not ashamed. She was proud of the fact that she did not need a man. Asher was more than enough for her, and he continued to exceed her expectations, even as he went to high school. The counselor said that he surely would ace an IQ test, but he wouldn’t take one. She could no longer afford private school, so she memorized the statistics of the public school that he went to, so that if anyone asked her, she could explain that even though it was public, it was good enough for her star boy. Asher had stopped spending time with her when he turned twelve, and she told herself that it was just because he was coming into his teenage years. The fact that he spent all his hours locked in his room just meant that he was spending time finding himself. It broke her heart though, and she cried into a bottle of red wine more than once a week.
Nothing could amount to the tears she shed the day the police came to her door. A drizzly day in April, a few hours past noon, she was nursing a hangover in her bathrobe when she opened it cautiously, hoping to god it was just a package she ordered instead of a neighbor that could possibly see her in this disarray. ‘You need to come with us’, they told her, ‘there’s been an incident’. She sighed, said it must be a mistake, and told them to give her a moment to change into something respectable. There was no time, they said, and ushered her to their cruiser. When she reached the station, rows of accusing eyes turned to face her. Red rimmed eyes of her neighbors and coworkers, shaking in each other’s arms, staring her down as she marched through the station with her head held high.
“There’s been a shooting,” the officer told her, once she was safely in a soundproof room. Her heart dropped to her belly immediately, and then shattered.
“Your son shot several of his classmates, and then himself.”