Issue #23, Honorable Mention #2

Jordan spends most of his time delivering barbecues and making stuff up. He’s originally from Oshawa, Ontario, and has just received a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He’s been published in Nebula Rift September 2012, Swept Media, Circa Journal 1.2, Strong Verse, and Allegory eZine January 2014. When he’s not writing he enjoys drawing, soccer, reading, cycling, and maintaining his beard. Follow him on Twitter at @JordanLegg2.

 

Sharpie Stones

by Jordan Legg

 

Connor Durham wrenched his overstuffed backpack out of his locker and zipped it open, accidentally knocking the locker door against the girl beside him.

“Sorry,” he said, probably too quietly for her to really hear. She pushed the door back.

“Hey man,” Blake said, “you ready to go?”

Connor crammed a wad of papers into the bag. He zipped it back up, closed the locker, and he and Blake walked down the hallway towards the nearest exit.

Connor pushed through the doors and walked onto the concrete dais, heading toward the sidewalk. Blake chased him outside and caught him by the school bag. “Where you goin’?” he asked. “Practice starts in ten minutes. I don’t wanna spend the first half hour doing push-ups.”

Connor nodded. “Then you’d better get going.”

“You’re not coming?”

Connor shook his head. “Sorry man. Something’s come up.”

“Okay,” Blake nodded, confused. “You still down to work on scholarship applications at the library later?”

“You can do that yourself, can’t you?”

“Dude, I am barely passing English as it is. I’m not gonna come up with a decent essay without help. Besides, I thought we were gonna do this together.”

“Sorry man,” Connor said slowly. “It’s gonna have to wait.”

Blake’s brow furrowed. “Hey, you okay? Something wrong?”

Connor didn’t answer.

Blake took a couple of steps closer and stood beside his friend. “Hey, c’mon man. It’s cool. You can tell me.” Connor avoided his eye, and glanced around at the front of the school. “What’s up?”

Connor tilted his head back and sighed again. He didn’t want to talk about it. He also didn’t want to keep it to himself. He looked around, discerning whether or not anyone was within earshot, and then said quietly, quickly, “Daphne’s pregnant.”

Blake’s eyes widened. Connor glared at him, willing him not to visibly react. Blake looked around, placed his hand on Connor’s shoulder, and led him onto the sidewalk and toward their neighborhood.

“How’d you find out?” he whispered.

“She told me last Monday morning,” Connor answered.

“When did she find out?”

Connor shook his head slowly. “Not sure. I didn’t have time to ask her before the bell rang. Haven’t really seen her since. Been avoiding her, I guess.”

Blake nodded. “You think she’s telling the truth?”

Connor stopped and squinted at him with irritation. “Yes.”

“Sorry,” Blake breathed sheepishly. Connor half-expected a follow-up question about whether he was sure the baby was his. But it never came. “How are you feeling?”

“I dunno,” Connor said. “Been thinking about it all this week, trying to figure that out. Scared, I guess. It’s a lot of… I mean, I know I’m not ready to be a dad.”

Blake nodded. “Well. Hey, at least you’ll be pretty much out of here by the time the baby comes.”

Connor’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“We’ll be at school.”

“Blake… I don’t think I’m going to school next year.”

“Sure you are, man. Playin’ football. Livin’ the college life. Florida State, baby! We had scouts comin’ in all this fall. They know our work, they’ve seen us play. That’s all we’ve—Hell, that’s all you’ve been talkin’ about the last four years! And it works out perfect—Daphne’s still got another year of school left. Her mom won’t let her go anywhere. You got an easy out.”

“An easy out?”

“Yeah, out from bein’ a dad.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I mean, if I were you I’d get out now, save her the heartache. You know—make it easier on everyo—”

“Shut up.”

Blake looked up at Connor. His eyes were hard, unblinking, still; his mouth was thin and level. Connor swallowed. They had been friends for a long time, but Blake had never seen Connor this angry. He waited nervously for him to speak again. But no sound came.

“All I meant was—”

“Shut up,” Connor said again. “I’m not gonna ditch my pregnant girlfriend in nine months to train for college football. I mean, the fact that you would even think that I would do that.” He shook his head. “You know what, forget it. I don’t have time for this. You gotta go to practice, and I’m going to Daphne’s to face the music. We’ll talk later.” Connor turned and walked silently the other way.

Connor realized he shouldn’t have been surprised at Blake’s reaction. He had applauded Connor when he and Daphne had first started dating—she was hot, after all. The kind of hot that wasn’t easy to forget, even after only a few seconds of contact. But Blake had never really understood the relationship. He’d always had the kind of approach to girls that assumed you won the dating game by locking in a high score. Ever since they had first met in the seventh grade. He knew his friend well enough that he should have seen his reaction coming. But Blake’s predictability didn’t soften the offense. The more he played the suggestion over in his mind, the more the prospect repulsed him. He walked over to the other side of the school and crossed the street.

Connor’s anger with Blake distracted him from the terror that would have otherwise plagued his journey to Daphne’s. It was a terror that had beset him most of the past two weeks. He had already played out the impending conversation about a hundred different ways in his head. He knew her well; well enough to predict most of her reactions, he thought. She would be angry with him, probably. Scared and confused, and silently indignant that he had been too scared to talk to her since that morning. He had meant to, but he had told himself that he needed that first day to force the facts to sink in. And he needed the time afterward to begin letting go of the dream. Hopefully skipping practice would lend him some credibility.

Blake was more right than he knew. Connor had wanted to play football. He was good, too. He’d been pretty certain that he’d made a few impressions in training camp that September. He remembered what it had felt like watching scouts scribble observations onto their clipboards every time the team had run a play he had been proud of. He remembered the smell of freshly mown grass under his cleats. The thick perspiration under his shoulder pads. The rush of adrenaline that came after a catch. The mad bolt down the field, ducking and weaving around tackles, ball tucked in the fold of his elbow like a treasure. The eternity he crossed every time he ran into the end zone. The applause of his coach.

Daphne’s applause from the sidelines.

It was all so intoxicating.

But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t go.

Connor had come home two weeks ago trying to reconcile football with fatherhood. For a moment he had wanted to believe that it wouldn’t be that hard. But he immediately checked himself at the thought. He had heard his parents talk about how jarring the change had been for them when he was born. It had sounded exhausting. Still, he had spent the evening trying to come up with a way to go to college and be a dad at the same time. He had spent hours that week at the problem, but all of his solutions had him making demands of Daphne that he knew would never fly. Even if he played football locally, the sport would eat up too much of his time. Daphne had to come first. Daphne and the baby.

He had tried to imagine what it would be like to be a father. At home during the day. Working late nights at the grocery store. No school. No football. No leisure time. Vomit. Shit. Claustrophobia. Pressure. Responsibility.

Connor arrived at Daphne’s house and walked up the empty driveway. Her mom had been away for the week, he remembered. She wouldn’t know yet.

He mounted the porch and rang the doorbell. A few minutes passed. No response came. He rang again. Finally, the door opened, and he found himself staring at the angry expression of Daphne’s older sister. Vicki.

“What do you want?”

“Is Daphne here?”

“Why?”

Connor hesitated. He didn’t really want to talk to anyone else about it. He had barely wanted to talk to Blake.

“Look, I’m not here to do anything stupid, alright? I just… I just want to talk to her. Please?”

Vicki glowered at him, then finally opened the screen door and let him in.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to sound as sincere as possible. He walked into the kitchen and found Daphne sitting at the table, in a tank top and sweat pants, her hair tied up, staring at the fridge. Vicki walked in behind him, still glaring.

Connor looked at Daphne and suddenly thought guiltily of all the things he had just said to Blake, all the anger he had felt at Blake’s suggestion. His stomach felt like lead. He swallowed as he realized how easy it was to spend two weeks in melodramatic internal turmoil about a problem and come out of it resolved to make the right choice. It was a hell of a lot different when she was sitting in front of him for the first time since he had heard the news. It made his situation all the more real. Imminent. Dangerous. He looked at her carefully, silently. Her eyes were dead with resignation. He felt a sickening weight in his gut shoving against his conscience, like a linebacker against a line of scrimmage. He thought about how easy it would be for him to wash his hands of all this. He hated himself for it.

“Hey,” he breathed.

She said nothing.

“I’m… sorry I haven’t talked to you. You… told me on the Monday, and I… I dunno, I guess I just got scared.”

“You could have said something,” she said.

He paused. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. That’s no excuse. I should have talked to you about it sooner, and I didn’t, and that’s my fault, and I’m… I’m sorry.”

She relaxed in her chair a little. A good sign, Connor thought. Still, she said nothing.

“C’mon. Talk to me, Daph. What are you thinking?”

She turned her head and locked her reddened, near-watering eyes with his. “I’m not ready to be a mom,” she said quietly.

Connor nodded. “Yeah,” he said. He sat down on a nearby chair, pulled up beside her, and slid his hand over hers. “Yeah, I know. Baby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this happened.”

“My mom’s gonna kill me,” she said, trying to hold in a sob. “She’s gonna kill me. And people at school are gonna know, sooner or later. They’re gonna know. I can’t be a mom and do school, I can’t drop out, I have to go to college. Damn it, I can’t….” Her head fell towards his shoulder. He moved up closer and wrapped his arm around her. He had done it a million times before, but this time felt different. It felt irrevocable. Like a pair of handcuffs snapping into place. He tried to ignore the dry, dead feeling that cracked across his tongue.

“I know,” he said. “I know you’re scared. I am too. But I want you to listen to me, alright? It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna get through this. You and me, we’re gonna make it work.” She looked up at him, confused. He kept talking. He was scared he might change his mind if he stopped. “We’re gonna be parents, and in nine months we’re gonna have a baby.”

She looked up at him and shook her head. “No. No, you have to go to school. Florida State. Connor, you have to play football—”

“I took the time to think about it,” he interrupted. “I… skipped practice. I’m not going to Florida State. I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna stay. Here. Help,” he swallowed, “help raise our baby.” The words tasted like cement in his mouth.

“I can’t owe you that.”

“You won’t owe me anything. I’m doing it. My choice.”

Still, Daphne shook her head. “I can’t, I can’t…”

“You can,” Connor countered, forcing as calm a tone as he could. “You and I, we’re gonna do this. Together. And you know what? We’re gonna rock it.” He tried to force a smile. “We’re too awesome not to. C’mon. Hey. It’s gonna be okay. I promise.”

She paused. For a moment he was afraid that he had made a promise he wouldn’t be able to keep. Still, he thought. It had to be okay. He had to stick with her.

“Hey,” he said again. “Just think about it. You have a little life inside you right now. And I mean… we both know we want kids someday. Maybe that’s now. Maybe… I dunno, maybe one day, years from now, we’ll look back, and this will be the story of best thing that ever happened to us.”

She gave a subtle nod. It looked to Connor like she was putting on a brave face. For now, he was okay with that. He was doing the same thing. Vicki looked unimpressed.

*

Connor didn’t meet up with Blake at the library later.

The following Monday he walked into Coach Claybourne’s office to quit the football team. It wasn’t a fun conversation. The coach raised an eyebrow and asked him why.

“I need more hours at the grocery store.”

“Connor, if you need money for school, there are plenty of scholarships that’ll do the job for you. You’re a good receiver, son, I’d hate to lose that right at the end of the season.”

Connor shook his head. “I’m sorry sir. I just can’t play football anymore.”

“Alright.” Claybourne furrowed his brow. “You alright, Connor? Everything okay?”

Connor nodded silently. “Thanks,” he said. He turned and ducked out of the office.

He told his parents a week later. They took it with a kind of slow, stern silence—the sort of disapproval too strong to be expressed in words, the only kind Connor had ever received from them since he had turned thirteen. It was a disapproval laden with expectation, clear in his mother’s eyes as she looked across the dinner table: You will take care of this girl. Connor sometimes wondered if he would have still been willing to stick it out if not for that pressure.

It was another week before they told Daphne’s mother. Connor tried to take the lead, to shoulder the blame as much as he could. The kitchen rang that evening with a lengthy, curse-heavy lecture. Daphne’s fear had been well-founded.

For the next six or seven weeks, Connor divided his time between the grocery store, homework, and preparation for parenthood with Daphne. Fighting for shifts took constant haggling with his manager and coworkers, but he was making it work as best he could. When he wasn’t stocking shelves or checking carts, he was at the library. He used his library card more in those first three weeks than he ever had before. He would spend hours poring over articles about gestation, and clicking through pages of X-rays, photographs, and diagrams on Google Images. They helped, he realized. They made it easier to be okay with being a father.

There was an upside to his reclusion, he realized—this way, neither he nor Daphne were likely to tell anyone at school what was going on. Blake was the only one he had told about the pregnancy, and Daphne had told a few close friends, but beyond that, they were able to keep it quiet.

Winter break was a welcome relief. Connor didn’t have to see anyone he didn’t want to see. Little was said at Christmas with his family. Or Daphne’s. Neither of them really wanted to talk about it more than they had to. Daphne’s mom was embarrassed, Connor figured. She didn’t want the rest of the family to know.

When school returned, people began to ask about him. Why he had quit the football team. How he was spending the days. Every conversation started to scare him—the memory of the conversation with Blake haunted him, and though Blake later promised that he hadn’t spoken to anyone about it, he couldn’t help but wonder if someone knew that Daphne was pregnant.

By the eighth week, people had started to talk. It had gotten out somehow. No one knew for sure, but at lunch one day Connor thought he overheard someone talking about it in hushed tones as he and Daphne walked past. His first instinct was to lash out, but he refrained—he couldn’t be sure they were talking about Daphne, and even then, that would only confirm the suspicion. They had known knew people would find out sooner or later, but apart from the select few they had already told, they would prefer to put off the announcement as long as possible.

It was around ten o’clock one night that Connor came by from the grocery store to see how she was doing. Vicki and Daphne were standing against the counter talking when he walked in. Daphne looked like she’d been crying.

“Hey,” he said quietly. Daphne raised her hand in greeting. “Where’s your mom?”

“In bed,” Vicki said. “It’s been a long day.”

Connor nodded.

“How’s it going?” he asked Daphne.

“It’s okay,” she said. “They know.”

“Who knows?”

“People at school,” she said. “Somehow it got out. They know. People know I’m a teen mom.”

Connor swallowed and walked over to give her a hug. “We knew that would happen sooner or later,” he whispered.

Daphne pulled away and nodded. “I know,” she said. “I know we did.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” she sniffled, “I’m okay. Um, Vicki and I have been talking, and Mum too, and I—Connor, I don’t think I can do this.”

“Baby, it’s okay,” he said. “It’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna make it through this together, you and me—”

“No,” she interrupted. Her eyes started to water again. “No, I mean… Connor… Connor, I can’t. I can’t have a baby. I can’t be a mother.”

Connor stared at her quietly, stunned, trying to decide what to say. “So… so what, you want to put it up for adoption?”

“No,” she shook her head again. “No, I mean… I can’t have a baby.”

“You… you what?”

“I thought I could, I thought I could be ready for this, that it would be okay, but I just—I can’t—”

“We already made an appointment,” Vicki said dispassionately. “She’s gonna think about it some more, and then we’re going in for an appointment.”

“Appointment for what?” Connor asked. “For—for an abortion?” He could feel his chest tighten. “You wanna kill our baby?”

Slowly, Daphne walked towards the stairs.

“Daphne,” he said, following her a few steps. “Daphne please.” His breath caught in his throat for a moment. “Please don’t do this. If you’re not willing to raise the baby, give him to someone who will.” Daphne walked softly, indifferently upstairs. “I meant what I said, I’ll stay here and raise it with you. I’ll raise it alone if that’s what it takes. Give me that at least, Daph, it’s my kid too. Please. Just please don’t kill this kid.”

Vicki inserted herself between Connor and the staircase. “I think you should go now,” she said sharply.

“Please Vicki. I know you don’t like me very much, but please, for the love of God, don’t let her do it. That’s a little kid in there, Vicki, just as much mine as it is hers. At least give me a chance to talk to her out of it, please—”

“Shut your mouth, Durham,” she said, stepping closer to him than he was comfortable with. “It’s bad enough you already suckered my sister into sleeping with you, but you do not get to tell her what to do with her body. This is her decision. Not yours. Back off and get out.” He pursed his lips and looked back towards the front door.

“What to do with her body,” he gasped. “What to—what, and you do? You and your mom? How is that not what you’ve just done?”

“Shut your mouth.”

He threw his arms wide in frustration. “Just let me talk to her, Vicki! It’s been what, less than three months that I’ve known I might be a father, and what I want to happen to that kid is written off just because you don’t like me?”

Vicki crossed her arms. “I’m not going to force my sister into a world that’ll see her as a slut five months down the line. Especially when there’s no guarantee that she’ll be stable enough to take good care of the baby when it comes.”

“I’ll help her!”

Vicki grunted in frustration.

“When have I ever given you a reason to believe that I won’t?”

She looked away from him.

“Look. Vicki. I know you’ve got some trust issues. You’ve known some bad guys, and you don’t want your sister to get hurt like you were. I get that. It’s why I’m glad you’re her sister. I’m glad she’s got you looking out for her. But if you’re really not willing to trust me, at least let me be the reason for that. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that kid’s provided for. I’ll say it was all my idea if that’s what it takes. Take the fall for her pregnancy. I don’t know what else you expect me to do.”

“You really think the world will let you do that, Connor? She’s the one who’ll carry a brand on her belly. She’s the one with the scarlet letter. Not you. There’s nothing else you can do.”

“So, so what, just… just kill it? That’s the solution?”

“Best one I’ve got,” Vicki whispered coldly.

“That’s a human life in there!” he retorted. “A little kid!”

“A clump of cells.”

Connor tried to keep calm and turned his head towards the door. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He walked down the entrance hallway and looked down the drive. His hand touched the doorknob. Then he took one look back at Vicki. “What if the situation were reversed?” he said. “What if she was the one who wanted it and I was the one who wanted out? You’d call me a deadbeat. A coward. Too afraid of taking responsibility for my actions that I left my girlfriend out in the cold with a baby because I was selfish enough to put my convenience before hers. You’d look at me as a monster. Oh, but when it’s the other way around—when I’m in it for the long haul, ready to put my dreams on hold, I’m just as much a monster for wanting to stick with her and do the right thing.”

“So my sister’s a monster now?”

Connor wagged his head. “I didn’t mean that. I just—”

“Get out, Durham,” Vicki said.

Connor glowered. He was loath to leave, but he knew that staying would get him nowhere. He turned around and made for the front door.

Connor didn’t sleep that night. He didn’t do much of anything, besides try and think of ways he might convince Daphne to keep the baby. But he couldn’t come up with anything. She was scared. He had seen it in her eyes. And Vicki would interpret any encouragement, any promise, any offer he might make as a means to control her sister. There was nothing he could do.

That didn’t stop him from trying. He tried to talk to her several times over the next few weeks, both on and off school property. He didn’t need to convince her to join a political party, or even win an argument, he figured—with every attempt, the goal was always to put off her decision. He had little success. He wrote her a letter telling her he still loved her and would hold her hand through the procedure if she wanted him to. He slipped it into her locker during the morning bell.

But there was no response. She was always with someone—usually the two or three girls who had known since day one. And neither she nor they were ever interested in what he had to say. At least they weren’t judging her the way everyone else would, Connor thought.

He hated the way she looked at him. Or maybe it was the way that she didn’t. She seemed to swing back and forth between contempt and indifference, with a preference for indifference. With every day of silence he felt an increased gnawing on the inside—a thinning, a wasting away, like what he imagined starvation probably felt like. It soured most of the time he spent at school and robbed him of the pleasure that came in getting a paycheck.

It wasn’t just the baby, either. He missed her. He missed the opportunity to tell her funny stories, and the way he could anticipate which kind of laughter would follow each one. He missed the fake bickering back and forth they would do in public sometimes, just to make other people uncomfortable. He missed the times she would call him out for doing something boyish and stupid, just to give him the opportunity to smile impudently and shrug his shoulders.

He would sojourn alone in places that were special to them. Sometimes they had gone on walks for hours along a creek trail running through a patch of woods. He would walk through it alone and throw pebbles in the creek, and try to imagine what it would be like taking his own kid there to throw pebbles. He imagined more, sometimes contradictory ideas of the child with every walk. A little boy. Dark hair, big brown eyes. Like his dad’s. Stumbling along in yellow rain boots, his head tilted upward everywhere he went, in the hopes that he might somehow unlock the mysteries of the adult world if he could just watch closely enough. Sometimes Connor would take a Sharpie and write baby names on the flatter, smoother stones, and then throw them in.

There was no life in those walks, he realized. But he felt like he was obligated to take them.

A month passed. Daphne stopped wearing makeup and started wearing hoodies. Connor wondered if she had done it by now. The times he saw her at school grew rarer. Sometimes he would go looking for her during lunch hour, but she wasn’t with anyone else. She was even distant from the girls who had shunned him on her behalf. Sometimes he would pass her in the halls between classes, and he thought he would notice something like sorrow in her eyes, veiled to anyone who wasn’t looking for it.

Connor and Blake reconnected, sort of. Connor hadn’t expected it, hadn’t really thought about Blake much after they had their argument. He hadn’t had time. Blake had begun by asking if he would still play college ball if there was no baby. Connor hadn’t answered. It seemed wrong to go; like if he went, it would prove he hadn’t really wanted to keep the baby. Or maybe if he went, it would be skipping out on the penance he had decided to obligate himself to fulfill. But he didn’t think Blake would understand that.

It was a month and a half after he and Daphne had broken up that Connor was down at the creek again, throwing pebbles. He had run out of good names, and the Sharpie was long gone, lost in his backpack somewhere. It had run out of ink.

After about an hour of throwing, he saw a figure walk into his periphery. Daphne was coming from the opposite end of the trail, wearing a black windbreaker and a thin scarf around her neck. Instead of throwing his next pebble he relaxed his arm and watched her approach. She stopped and stared at him. He stopped and stared back.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

A long silence. “I miss you,” she said finally.

“I miss you too,” he replied, nodding. Connor turned over the pebble in his hand.

They stood in silence there for a while, before she took a few steps closer and said, “I wish I hadn’t done it.”

Connor nodded and bit his lip in an attempt to restrain himself from asking why. “Me too,” he said.

She took a deep breath, and then asked, “Can things be okay?”

Connor nodded slowly, unsure of whether or not he meant it. He walked slowly towards her.

Presently she stood in front of him and whispered, “I want to get back together.”

Connor moved his hands towards her waist. He held her, and mourned for the baby he would never hold. Hot, streaming tears trickled out of his eyes. He let the unnamed pebble slip out of his hand.

 

Copyright 2014 by Jordan Legg