Chapter 1: May 1993
It honestly didn't occur to Carole that she might be pregnant. She thought girls who got pregnant would just start throwing up, and that would be the clue. Based on every television show or movie she'd ever read, everybody got nauseated and dizzy and tired. She didn't have any of that. Her boobs were kind of tender, but it wasn't enough for her to worry about it. She missed her period, but when she was deep in track-and-cross-country season, that happened every now and then anyway.
It was her best friend Rebecca who made the comment that caused her to wonder. It was while they were trying on dresses for prom.
"I thought you were a six?" she said, when Carole came out of the changing room.
"I am," she said, holding out her arms in front of the mirror, inspecting herself in the red strapless. "What's wrong with it?"
"Tummy bulge," Rebecca said, and reached around to pat her stomach. "Try the eight, unless you don't think your tits can fill it out."
"My tits will manage just fine, thank you," she said absently. She stared at the body parts in question. Was she heavier? It could just be water weight, lurking before her late period.
Rebecca didn't even think to ask if it could have been something else, because everybody knew just how devout Christopher was, and that he and Carole had decided to wait until they were married to have sex. But Carole knew better.
She thought about it all through lunch. By the time they'd finished their frozen yogurt, Carole took a deep breath and turned to Rebecca. "I have to stop at the drugstore."
"Mmmkay," Rebecca said.
"For a pregnancy test."
She stared at Carole, her eyes widening, and then she clutched at her arm. "You're shitting me," she gasped.
"I don't know," Carole moaned, hiding her face in her hand. "I mean – yes, we are, and yes, I could be, but… we've been really careful, and –"
"Carole!" Rebecca shrieked, drawing attention from the neighboring tables. "You decided this and you didn't tell me?"
"He asked me not to." She gave Rebecca a pleading glance. "You can't tell anyone."
"Girl, if you're really pr-"
"Shhhh," Carole hissed, flailing her hands.
"Pregnant," Rebecca whispered, "then there ain't anyone going to need me to tell them in another month. You're a stick." She wrinkled her brow. "Did this happen on spring break?"
She nodded. "I counted the number of days since my last period, and everything, but…"
"Carole." Rebecca's accusing eyes bored into her. "Are you saying you didn't use condoms?"
The word condoms traveled three tables away, and Carole glanced around nervously. "Christopher said – come on, Rebecca, you know we're Catholic."
"Not Catholic enough not to have premarital sex, but Catholic enough to do it stupidly?" Rebecca sighed loudly. "You are such a moron."
"Gosh, thanks for your support," Carole muttered. Rebecca took her arm and pulled her to her feet, dumping her empty yogurt container in the trash.
"Come on, let's get this over with. Maybe it's nothing." She gazed at Carole. "But you don't think it is, do you?"
"No," she admitted. "But it could be nothing."
But it wasn't nothing. Carole took the positive pregnancy test home with her, and did another one the next day just to be sure, and when that one was positive too, she thoroughly hid them from her parents and ignored the issue for the next few days.
In the end, though, Carole wasn't one to hide from anything for long, even something as complicated and incendiary as this. She told her mother first, and, white-lipped and shaking, they told her father together. He took it about the way she thought he would.
"We're going to take care of this, Carole," he said quietly, his face still as stone, and he laid a hand on her shoulder. "There's no reason this should cause your family grief. You'll stay with your grandmother Daniels until the baby's born, and then we'll find a home for it, and you'll come home."
Rebecca cried when Carole told her about it. "Aren't you furious, being sent away?" she asked.
Carole thought about it. "Not exactly," she said. "I'm just kind of relieved."
"But Atlanta," Rebecca persisted. "That's so far away."
"I can put off college another year."
The truth was, Carole didn't much care about college right then. All she could think about was getting out of Dayton, for a whole summer. For the rest of the year. It was completely, unconscionably appealing.
"What about the baby?" Rebecca asked.
"What about it?" Carole wasn't particularly interested in waiting out the pregnancy, but there was no way she was going to kill her unborn child. "I'll put it up for adoption. I'm just not ready to be a mother. Christopher and I can have babies after college, when we're both ready."
Christopher's reaction was, unfortunately, entirely opposed to her father's. "Carole, we should get married," he said adamantly. "Right now. We're both graduating in a month. There's no reason for us not to raise this baby together."
"My father said no," she said, and for Carole, that was pretty much the way it was going to be, because if her father said something, that was as close to absolute truth as one could get. "You can come visit me, when you're on leave."
Christopher had joined the Marines in February, ready to serve in Iraq as soon as he was allowed to go. Carole was proud of him, but she wished now she'd talked him into waiting.
"Do you think you could defer it for another year?" she said hopefully. "I'm going to miss you so much."
"I can't do that." He really sounded sad about it, but for the last two weeks of school, his affections with her seemed hesitant, even perfunctory. She could sense that he was pulling away. They went to prom together, and they danced and smiled and did all the things they were supposed to do, and then they had their finals, and then there were three more days before graduation.
Christopher came over for dinner that Wednesday night. Her parents had always approved of him, but her father's manner was decidedly cool now. Her mother helped them with the dishes afterwards and gave Christopher an apologetic shoulder squeeze.
"We're looking forward to having you as part of our family," she whispered, sounding hopeful, and he smiled and nodded. But that was the second to last time she saw Christopher before she left for Atlanta.
The last time was in her bedroom. Her trunk and suitcases were nearly packed, had been for days. She was slowly taking down the detritus of her highschool years and packing it into boxes, knowing that even after she returned to Dayton, she wouldn't be making this her home anymore. Time to put away childish things, she thought, holding her stuffed Dalmatian close to her chest, and felt a stab of unease. Or maybe that was the baby, making her nauseated at last?
"Carole," she heard, and looked up to see Christopher in the doorway, taking a tentative step in. He held out a bouquet of flowers.
"Lilies," she said, and smiled as she took them.
"I know they're your favorite." He didn't come any further. She realized he was wearing his uniform.
He nodded. "Tonight." She thought he looked like he might want to bolt right then, but he didn't. He just stood there, not speaking, not smiling. Her hand automatically went to her stomach, as it had been more and more lately. He watched her touch her belly.
"It doesn't bother you at all?" he wanted to know. She frowned.
"Bother me that my father wants me to have a life, instead of being tied down with a child right away?" She shook her head, setting the flowers on her desk. The stuffed dog she'd been holding went on top of the pile of memorabilia to pack away. "How can I feel bad about that? Besides, he's my father. He wants what's best for me."
"What's best for him, maybe. Not what's best for us." Christopher looked annoyed, which was an uncommon expression for him. She wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
"You think we should get married tomorrow? Run off together? You can't even do that, honey. Why should I pretend otherwise? I'm going to have to wait for you, no matter what." She sat heavily on the edge of her bed, and he joined her, the suitcase between them. They could have moved the suitcase, but it wouldn't have changed anything.
She took a deep breath. "Am I going to see you again?"
His eyes were solemn. "Do you want to?"
"Yes," she said. "Of course I do. I still want all the things we promised to one another. I still want to marry you and have children with you."
"Five," he said, with a little smile. "Four boys and a girl. And the girl should be youngest, because –"
"She'll take care of her big brothers," she joined in on the last few words, and they laughed together. He leaned in and kissed her.
"I have your grandparents' address," he said. "And you'll have your cell phone with you?"
The last thing he said to her before he walked out was, "That stuffed dog – I gave you that, right?" She nodded, and he picked it up from the box. "Can I have it?"
Carole hadn't planned on crying, but she blinked back tears as she nodded again, trying hard not to say But I wanted it. After all, she had a piece of him with her already, inside her, growing into a tiny human being. He deserved to keep the dog, if that's what he wanted.
After he left, she decided she was done packing for the night, and she lay down on top of the covers, hand on her still-flat belly, and closed her eyes, resolving not to feel alone.
Chapter 2: June 1993
The airplane flight was exciting, traveling by herself like that. When she stepped out of the terminal, though, she nearly went right back inside again: even at 9:30 in the morning, it was already over ninety degrees. Carole wasn't sure she could handle a summer of temperatures that high. She hoped her grandparents had air conditioning. She'd only ever visited them before at Christmas and Easter.
They were waiting on the curb, her grandparents, looking as stiff and formal as her father did on his worst days. "Carole," her grandmother said, and kissed her cheek. Her grandfather nodded at her and offered her his arm.
"You probably have a lot of bags," he said gravely. He smelled like cigars, even though she knew he hadn't smoked since before Carole's youngest brother had been born. It was a familiar, comforting smell.
"Just three," she said. "And my trunk, and a couple boxes coming in the mail."
He didn't say anything else to her, but she didn't mind. Neither he nor her grandmother were big talkers. They drove the forty miles from the airport, exchanging very few words along the way.
"Are you allergic to cats?" her grandmother asked. Carole wasn't. "I'm taking care of the neighbor's house next door while she's visiting her grandchildren, and she has six."
Carole's parents never let her have animals in the house. Once they had a dog, a white fluffy Alaskan puppy, and it was the cutest thing she'd ever seen, but it shed like nothing else, and eventually her mother said they had to find it another home. She'd been sorry to see him go.
"I wouldn't mind feeding them," she said.
Her grandmother's hair was nearly white now. Carole watched it curl down her back in tendrils, escaping from her bun. "There's something about toxoplasmosis and cats and tiny little babies," she added, pushing the curls behind her ear, "but I don't remember it, exactly. We'll have to ask at the clinic on Monday when you go in for your first appointment."
Carole didn't really want to think about visiting a clinic. She still didn't feel any different than she had six weeks ago, although she had to admit that her stomach wasn't quite as flat as it had been. She could still run a mile without any trouble. When will I stop being allowed to do that? she thought, and felt a tiny thread of concern.
"I guess I do have a few questions to ask," she said, and fixed her gaze out of the window on the passing scenery, her hand resting on her belly.
Her grandparents' house was large and sprawling, like most of the ones in the neighborhood, but it was nothing compared to the house next door, where the eight cats apparently lived inside or outside as they chose. Carole watched a black shorthair and a ginger tabby wind their way between the bushes and the fence, but they didn't come any closer than that. She wanted to bend down and call one of them over, but she didn't exactly know how, and after what her grandmother had said, she wasn't sure it was safe, anyway. Toxoplas-whatsit?
"Hugh, show Carole to her room," said her grandmother, drawing the curtains. Carole thought it would be upstairs with the rest of the bedrooms, where she'd always stayed when she'd visited as a little girl. But instead, her grandfather led her through the dining room and the kitchen, past the pocket bathroom to a room on the back of the house.
Room was a matter of definition. It was more a porch, enclosed entirely in glass. For a moment, she wondered about privacy, but the room itself was so surrounded outside by hedges and flowering bushes that there was no question of anyone outside seeing in. A ceiling fan moved air around above the bed. There was only a small lamp on the nightstand, but Carole could see she wouldn't be needing an overhead light.
"It stays cooler back here," her grandfather rumbled, setting down two of her bags. "Upstairs gets pretty intolerable in the middle of the summer. Your grandmother thought you'd be more comfortable here."
"Thank you," was about all Carole could say. She set down her purse and sat on the edge of the bed. "I – suppose I'll unpack?"
He nodded. "I'll bring the rest of your things."
Carole got our her cell phone and plugged it in to charge. It was lucky her parents had let her keep it; the roaming charges would be expensive. Her mother, at least, had understood about staying in touch with her friends. It sat there, tempting her, but she ignored it.
For one desperate moment, she wished she'd packed a poster or a figurine or something, some kind of tiny ornament to make this feel like her space. But they were all in storage at her house in Dayton. She'd have to find some other way to make her mark on this strange garden room.
Her grandmother drove her down to the clinic on Monday morning. "You can take the bus yourself, if you need to," she told her, and showed her where the bus stop was. There wasn't much of a public transportation system in Dayton, so Carole was a little startled by the idea.
"I can drive," Carole said, but her grandmother shook her head.
"Not while you're pregnant, please. There are precious few things I can promise your mother to keep you safe, but that, at least, is one of them. Riding on the bus is far safer."
The building bore the sign Ursula R. Newman Memorial Clinic. They walked to the back, into the office marked Prenatal Care. Apparently there was a prohibition on smiling in the waiting room, because not one of the four other people inside showed any kind of emotion on their faces. There were two other girls sitting there, both obviously pregnant, neither of whom made eye contact with Carole.
"Don't people in Atlanta smile at each other?" she said, a little too loudly, and her grandmother stifled a grin. Carole felt immediately better, eliciting that grin from her somber grandmother.
"That could be asking a lot from girls like these," she murmured. "This is a clinic that serves low-income pregnant teens. Many of them are homeless, with no health insurance."
Carole frowned. "I have health insurance."
"Not if you don't live with your parents. On short notice, this is our best option." Her grandmother glanced around herself calmly. "It's a Catholic-run organization. No one's going to pressure you to… do anything, with your child."
The woman at the desk smiled at Carole, at least, and handed her a clipboard. "Your first visit? We have lots of paperwork for you to complete."
"Joy," Carole said, quirking an eyebrow, and the woman giggled. "It's okay. I don't mind. I filled it all out at the last place in Dayton."
"I was guessing you weren't from around here," she said. "You have a cute accent."
It was the first time anyone had suggested Carole might have an accent. She kind of liked the idea. While she filled in the boxes for name, address, birth date and race, she thought about the way the woman said the word accent, leaning on the e to turn it into an ay, and the u in the word guessing. She'd always thought her midwestern way of speaking was the ordinary way, but around here, she was the anomaly.
Last known period. Previous pregnancies. Number of live births. That gave her a chill, to think that any birth might end up... not alive. Forty weeks was a lot of time to wait for something that might not work out. She handed the clipboard back to the woman at the desk and browsed a terrible magazine for women with far too much time on their hands.
"Carole Daniels?" called the nurse.
"Do you want me to go in with you?" her grandmother asked. She wasn't smiling now.
"I think I'll be okay on my own," Carole said. She felt compelled to add, "I mean, not that I have anything to hide from you."
"All girls deserve some privacy." Her grandmother stayed where she was and opened her own magazine. "I'll be here when you're done."
Carole followed the nurse inside to the exam room and sat on the table where the nurse indicated. She waited while she took her blood pressure and her pulse and her temperature. "Fit as a fiddle," the nurse said cheerfully. "You eat your veggies, I bet."
"I run track," she said. "And I eat pretty well. But I don't care much for vegetables."
She nodded. "Well, whatever you're doing, keep it up. Take a prenatal vitamin, if you're not already."
They went over Carole's health history, which was really pretty boring - no drugs, little alcohol, no cigarettes, regular exercise, no health problems, no allergies. "Just the way we like it," said the nurse as she eased Carole down onto the table. "This stuff is a little cold on your belly."
She glopped some gel onto Carole's stomach, then ran what looked like a large electric razor across the surface of her skin. Carole heard an immediate loud whooshing noise, and then, in the midst of it all, a rapid thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa. She felt a chill travel down her spine.
"Healthy and strong, just like its momma," said the nurse.
Carole held her breath. "Is that - the baby?"
"Heartbeat," nodded the nurse. "We won't be able to see anything on the ultrasound for a while, but we'll listen every time you come in. Usually we suggest weekly visits for our girls, but you're doing just fine, and you're only nine weeks; you don't need to come back until July unless you have any difficulties. Now, you'll be seeing..." She checked Carole's chart. "Irene, one of our counselors, next. She'll talk with you about how you're feeling about being pregnant."
Carole really wasn't sure she wanted to talk about being pregnant. Mostly she wanted to live through it, find the baby a nice home, and go back to her formerly quiet life in Dayton. But she figured it would be better not to rock the boat, and really, there wasn't anything wrong with talking about it. "Okay," she said, hopping down from the table, and followed the nurse back into the hallway and around the corner to a room with couches. There was a playpen in the corner and a bunch of toddler toys, and another pile of awful magazines. Carole picked one up and leafed through it.
The door opened after a few minutes. The woman who walked in had dark skin and what looked like long, fuzzy braids that brushed her shoulders. She didn't smile, but her face looked kind, and she moved in silence from the door to sit beside Carole on the couch.
"Anything good in there?" she asked, indicating the magazine Carole held. Carole made a face.
"Not really," Carole admitted. The woman chuckled. Carole wondered how she could do that without smiling.
"I hate those goddamn magazines," she said. Her voice was smooth and low. "Pardon my French. You're not going to learn anything about being a momma in those pages. Those editors just publish them to make you feel bad about yourself and want to buy shit."
Carole grinned at her. "I guess. I'm not going to be a momma anyway."
She raised a fine eyebrow. "Really? Then I think you might be in the wrong building."
"No," she laughed, tossing the magazine on the table. "I mean... I'm not keeping it. It'll be somebody else's baby. I'm just going to... like, grow it until it's big enough to live on its own."
The other eyebrow went up. "So you're, what, a marsupial?"
Carole cracked up. "Sure, yeah. I was thinking more like... a garden."
"Mmmm." The woman leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. "Okay, I could see that. Maybe a running vine. Oh, or a beanstalk?"
"I suspect it'll be closer to a pumpkin," Carole said, putting a hand on her flat belly. "And I'm trying not to freak out about it."
Her face went pensive. "Well, you're young. And you look fit. I don't think you'll have any trouble going back to your original weight, after the baby's born. You're a runner?"
"Long distance." Carole considered the words after the baby's born. She imagined a baby inside her, and what that would do to her slim frame. She tried not to grimace. "I was kind of wondering about that. When should I stop?"
"Running?" The woman shrugged. "I'm the wrong person to ask. I'm just a counselor. The doctors can tell you for sure. But my cousin's wife was lapping Coast Guard men on the track at the CG station in her 8th month."
Carole felt a surprising flood of relief. "Really?" She shifted in her seat, quelling a desire to get up and move.
"Sure. I mean, like I said, I'm not a doctor, so you'd better check to be sure, but I don't see any reason you couldn't." The woman held out her hand. "I'm Irene."
Carole shook her hand. "Carole. Daniels."
Irene nodded solemnly. "What brings you to Atlanta, Carole Daniels?"
"My parents. I mean - my grandparents live here, and my father, he told me I should come down here until the baby's born."
Irene got a sour look on her face, like she'd smelled something bad. "He sent you away?"
"Not - exactly." Carole felt uneasy, hearing it like that. "I wanted to come. It would be too weird, to be pregnant at home. My family's pretty strict, and my boyfriend..." She stopped. It hardly mattered what he thought anymore, because he'd gone away.
"What's his name?"
"Christopher." She said it carefully, like it might break her, but she didn't feel anything as the name left her lips. "He joined the Marines in February."
"Oh." Irene leaned back and let out a thoughtful breath. "So you're here with your grandparents. How do you get along with them?"
"Fine. They're nice, I guess. Kind of quiet, like my dad? I mean, I hardly know them." She stretched her legs, wishing she could walk around, but she figured it would be impolite.
"What do you suppose they think about you being pregnant? Are they strict, too?"
"I don't know," said Carole. "I don't think they're going to judge me. I mean, they're good Catholics, and I think that matters more to them than making me behave. They wouldn't treat me bad just because I'm... because I made a stupid choice."
Irene nodded slowly. Carole felt oddly exposed under her placid gaze. "You think you made a stupid choice, by having sex with your boyfriend."
Carole thought about that, but finally she had to shake her head. "No... I think I made a stupid choice by doing it without condoms."
"And you did that because you're Catholic?" Irene's expression didn't change. Carole felt another strange rush of relief, and it seemed to be connected to her words, because they poured out of her after that in a flood.
"Christopher's Catholic. I'm... I don't know what I am. I always thought I was Catholic, too, but... I'm not so sure anymore. I mean, what kind of God would ask His people to wait until marriage to have sex, and then make it so interesting?"
Irene laughed. It was such an unexpected sight that Carole had to pause and stare in fascination at her. She had a wide, expressive mouth, and straight, white teeth, and her smile completely transformed her face.
"That's a very good question," Irene said. "I've always wondered that myself."
"It just seems like a sneaky thing to do to humans," she went on. "We always said we wanted to wait, but really, it was Christopher who wanted to. He thought it would be a sin. He said it didn't matter that we were planning to get married anyway, and we had to wait until we'd actually been married." Carole huffed her annoyance. "Like God cares about a piece of paper. Isn't it what's in our hearts that matters?"
Irene didn't answer. "So what's in your heart? You love this young man?"
Carole nodded. "I really do. He's a good person, really. And I don't think I would want to marry without love, but he's going to be a great dad. I think that matters to me even more than the love part."
"And he loves you?"
"Yeah, I think so. Yes. He does."
Irene's face was calm again. "Well, Carole Daniels, you're a far cry from the girls we usually see in this clinic. I'm going to suggest you come back in a month, but you're welcome any time. There's always somebody to talk to. Here's my card; it has my hours on it. If you need anything, or if you're just wanting someone to talk to, give me a call."
"Thanks," said Carole, and she meant it.
Carole wondered if her grandmother would say anything about Irene being black, but she just shook her hand and gave her a polite smile. "Is there anything I should be feeding her?" her grandmother asked.
"Fertilizer, possibly," said Irene, completely deadpan, and her grandmother blinked as Carole choked on a laugh.
"She's an odd person," her grandmother said, after they were in the car. The shadows cast by the trees on the street made patterns on Carole's legs through the windshield.
"Yes, and I like her," Carole decided. "She didn't care for those awful magazines, either." And she understood about being a garden, she wanted to add, but her grandmother already thought Irene was odd enough, already.
"I asked about the cat litter disease. While you were in the office." Her grandmother turned the car smoothly into the driveway and parked the car in front of the garage. "The nurse said you may care for the cats as long as you wear gloves when you're handling their litter. And you should wash your hands afterwards."
Carole wasn't entirely thrilled with the idea of taking care of a half dozen of somebody else's cats, but she figured it was part of her responsibility to her grandmother in return for being her houseguest for the next eight months. "Okay," she said.
They walked through the yard to the heavy gate that led to the house next door. Carole's eyes took in the drooping willow trees, the unkempt yard, the long-ignored statuary, the murky fountain.
"Grandmother?" It felt formal to call her that, but also seemed oddly appropriate, in the midst of the wild, sprawling estate. "Can I... Do you think they'd mind if I took care of their garden, too?"
"I don't see why they'd object." Her grandmother regarded her curiously. "Were you planning to plant something?"
"Maybe. Just something small. Flowers." Not pumpkins. She kept her hands resolutely away from her belly. "Something pretty. Just to watch it grow. The weeds... they're choking the soil. It just seems a shame to have all this beautiful yard and not let it do what it was meant to do."
Her grandmother's smile was gentle. "Yes. It does."
Chapter 3: July 1993
Apparently Irene and Carole is my new guilty pleasure when I should be finishing my school year. Warnings in this chapter for mention of an eating disorder and mild D/s. Enjoy.
Carole woke up early with panic in her throat. She struggled to calm her breathing, to hold on to something, but there was nothing to grab onto except for the sheets on her too-soft bed. For several long minutes, she just sat there, waiting for her heart to slow down. She counted her respirations. In… out… in… out.
I have to get out of here.
She stepped to the floor, picking up the pair of shorts and the exercise bra she'd worn yesterday. It was already tight; she could tell she wouldn't be able to wear it much longer. At this rate, she'd be in a stupid double D by August. Christopher had loved her breasts, but it was so much easier to just bind them against her chest and quiet the constant movement, the jiggling of her flesh. Her hand brushed against her thickening middle, and she shuddered.
She shoved her feet into her running shoes and slipped out the front door as quietly as she could, closing it behind her. There was enough light to see by, but the world was still wet and quiet, and other than trills of birdsong, Carole thought she might be the only one in the neighborhood awake.
Maybe not the only one. The little orange tabby with fluffy fur appeared beside the stone mailbox on the corner. She paused, stretching, and the cat approached. The tiny meow made Carole smile.
"Hey, Fuzzface," she said, holding out a hand. Neither she nor her grandmother knew the names of the six cats next door, so she'd made up admittedly unoriginal names for them. Fuzzface rubbed her fingers repeatedly with the side of her face, purring. "You're all alone here." The cat was on the wrong side of the house, away from the neighbor's estate, but she didn't look unhappy to be on someone else's sidewalk. Eventually Carole left her there, walking backwards for a little while, watching her sit placidly in the grass by the mailbox.
Carole ran on, still not exactly sure where she was going, but knowing by now there weren't too many places to get lost in this neighborhood of winding roads. Most of the houses and trees and gardens still looked unfamiliar, and yet she could tell how everything fit together: a community of curved lines, so different from the north-south-east-west grid in Dayton.
She kept running long after sunrise brought forth the morning traffic, down Peachtree Hills, all the way up to Lindbergh and into town. Main Street was bustling with cars, but few pedestrians, and Carole was the only one waiting on the street beside the Ursula R. Newman Memorial Clinic as the nurse came to the door and unlocked it.
"You're early," she said, looking surprised. "There are no appointments until the shelter stops serving breakfast at nine-thirty. Are you here to see someone?"
"I was looking for..." Carole paused to catch her breath. "Irene. Is Irene here?"
"She's not here until ten." The nurse peered at her over half-glasses. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I just... I ran here. Could I get a drink of water?"
Carole didn't mention feeling lightheaded, but the nurse seemed to know she was anyway, because she guided her over to a chair and sat her down firmly before bustling away. She returned with a juice box and some crackers. "Eat these," she said. "You look like you're about to pass out. Have you eaten anything today?"
"Not yet," she mumbled through the crackers. "Not hungry."
The nurse clucked at her, and waited there until she'd finished every bit of the crackers and juice. Now Carole felt nauseated, but she didn't want to say she wasn't accustomed to eating breakfast at all, because she knew the nurse would chastise her.
"I have to get back to the shelter," said the nurse. "You can come sit in there, if you want, but I can't leave you here alone."
Carole followed her across the hall and through the double doors into a kind of sitting room. She watched as girls her age and younger, most with babies and children in tow, came through into the dining hall. They looked for the most part exhausted and cranky. "What is this place?" she asked the nurse.
"Shelter for teen mothers. The clinic's next door. Dining room here; rooms upstairs. You should eat."
Carole shook her head, but she stayed there, watching the steady stream of tall and small forms for several minutes.
"Can I..." She hesitated, glancing down at her scanty workout attire. "Could I help serve?"
The nurse got her an apron and showed her where she could sit, behind the table across from the shuffling line of eaters. None of the teenagers looked her in the eye, but the children did, with soulful, desperate expressions. She stared back at them, uncertain how to respond.
"I want syrup," said one little boy, and his mother shook her head.
"Is it real butter?" she asked Carole. "He's allergic to artificial colors and flavors."
"Um... I'm not sure." Carole glanced around for the nurse, but she wasn't anywhere to be found.
"I'll get some from the back," she heard a familiar low voice offer. She spoke right behind her, but instead of being jumpy, Carole immediately felt her shoulders relax. She turned and "Deshawn, are you tryin' to get some of that syrup again?"
"It's good," the boy whined. Irene grinned at him, then at his mother, who smiled back.
"I think I might have some of the real maple stuff hidden behind the coffee maker," she murmured. She put a hand on Carole's shoulder, letting it rest there for a few seconds. "Back in a jiff."
Carole crouched down so her eyes were even with DeShawn's. "One of my brothers is allergic to corn," she confided. "It's really hard for him to eat anywhere except at home. I bet you have that problem."
He didn't respond, but snuggled closer to his mother's leg, hiding behind her thigh.
"It's freaking impossible," said his mother, wrangling him to the front again. Carole guessed she was about her own age. "I've got the same allergy as DeShawn. Sometimes it's just easier not to eat, but he can't do that. He's little enough as he is."
"Oh, I don't know. I think little can be big, too. I just planted some tiny things in my garden." She showed DeShawn her two fingers, pinched together. "Here's how big they are now. You know how big they're going to get?" She stood up on her tiptoes, reaching high above her head. "That big."
DeShawn gazed up at the ceiling, his eyes round. "Whoa," he said. "That's freaking tall."
Carole and DeShawn's mother were still giggling when Irene appeared, bearing a small half-used bottle of real maple syrup and a few pats of butter. She handed them to DeShawn. "Don't lose them," she ordered. "And if you break my syrup bottle, I will whip your behind."
DeShawn didn't seem to think anything of this declaration, and just nodded, scrambling across the dining hall to an empty table. Carole handed his mother two plate of pancakes; she shook her head when Carole tried to add bacon on top of it.
"MSG," she said regretfully. "I haven't had bacon in a long time. Thanks, Irene."
"Don't mention it, girl," she said, waving as she walked away. Then she turned her eyes on Carole, and they hardened. Carole swallowed.
"You haven't been eating enough," she said.
"Sorry," Carole replied. "I haven't really been hungry."
"Mmmm." Irene scanned the dining room. "I think you can take a break long enough to eat something. They're almost done here. And since when do you volunteer at this shelter."
"I was just waiting for you," she said. "They told me you wouldn't be here until ten, so... I was waiting."
Irene brushed her fuzzy braids behind one ear, regarding her in silence. "I'm going to get some coffee," she said at last. "I shouldn't ask if you want some, but I will, because apparently you're already doing things you shouldn't."
Carole felt the chill stiffen her spine. She tried not to feel too guilty. She couldn't know, she told herself. "I don't drink coffee," she said. "It's disgusting."
"There are all kinds of vices," said Irene cryptically. "But all right. Get yourself some pancakes, and some of that bacon, if you want, and a bowl of oatmeal."
Carole slowly pulled off her plastic gloves and took the kerchief out of her hair. She went through the motions of serving herself a plate of breakfast, but every step felt like it was taking her closer to her sentence. Let me get away to the bathroom, she prayed.
But Irene was watching her closely, and she called her over to an empty table before Carole could make a move. She spread butter on her own pancakes while Carole cut up hers.
"You were looking for me," she said. "How's your summer going?"
"Fine," said Carole. She glanced across the room at DeShawn, happily stuffing his face with pancakes, and his mother on her cell phone. "She's homeless?"
Irene directed her gaze to where Carole was watching. "Makayla? She's in transitional housing. Getting her high school diploma, making ends meet, taking care of her son. Not too different from most young parents. She'll be okay. DeShawn, he's got some medical conditions that make it expensive to care for him, and Medicaid doesn't get him everything he needs, so most of her money goes to pay for that." She chewed thoughtfully on a bite of pancake. "You're not eating."
Carole made a show of eating a big bite of pancake, trying to chew normally instead of counting the number of times on each side. Trying not to calculate the calories in the bite she'd just put in her mouth. "I've been feeling nauseated," she said.
"Yeah, it's common in the first trimester," Irene said, nodding. "I don't think you get to stop eating entirely, though. Even pumpkins need plant food."
Irene grinned, feeling herself flush despite herself. "You remembered."
"Sure," Irene said easily. "You're the garden. And you didn't like the magazines."
Carole took another bite. It wasn't so bad, especially without the butter. Irene watched her, then nodded to herself.
"How are things with your grandparents?" she asked.
That was a hard question to answer. She barely saw her grandfather, except at dinner, when he silently ate his food and went to his chair to read the newspaper. Her grandmother, she saw on and off every day, and they spoke, but it was almost as though her words were skaters on a smooth pond, and her grandmother was under the ice, never to be touched by anything she said. Carole swallowed the pancakes, with difficulty, and said, "They're fine."
Irene's expression didn't change, but she leaned forward slowly, and Carole felt herself shrink back an equal distance. "Really."
"Uh..." said Carole.
"Because that doesn't sound much like the girl I met last month, who talked to me so openly about hard things, like God and her commitment to family. That sounds like you're trying to brush me off."
"I wouldn't..." she tried, but Irene interrupted again.
"And I really don't get why a girl would run all the way downtown to talk to me, three hours before my shift started, if all she was going to do was brush me off." That eyebrow was pointed right at her, and Carole quailed. "Can you explain that to me? Because I'm a little stuck."
She couldn't move from her chair, as though she were pinned there - even as her brain was calling out for her to run, get the hell out of here, this crazy woman has got your number. All she could do was look away and remain silent. Irene sighed.
"All right," she said, sounding matter-of-fact. "You're really asking for it... and I've got limited options, here."
"Huh?" said Carole, startled, as Irene stood and slid into the seat next to hers. She plucked Carole's fork from her hand and speared a piece of pancake off her plate.
"Come on," she said, moving in closer and holding up the fork. "Open up."
Carole was too shocked to do anything but comply. Irene tucked the bite into her mouth and tapped Carole's chin. "You'd better swallow that before you tell me why you're not eating."
The bite went down in the midst of her surprise, and she opened her mouth to reply - and Irene filled it again with another piece of pancake. Her smile was far too sweet.
"Hey," Carole protested, around the second bite, and Irene brandished the fork at her, suddenly fierce.
"No words. Eating. You're growing a baby. You're not permitted to skip meals. Understand?"
Carole just nodded, mute, and when Irene leaned in with another forkful of pancakes, she ate them without any complaint. Irene gave her another smile, this one more gentle.
"That's a good girl," she murmured. "Another."
It didn't occur to Carole to worry about the shelter staff thinking that it was at all weird that a grown woman was feeding her breakfast, bite by bite like a child, until half the plate was empty. It was more food than she'd eaten before one o'clock in months.
"You doing okay?" Irene sat back and considered her. "You're not going to puke on me, are you?"
Carole touched her chest gingerly. "I don't think so," she said. "But I really need to get up and move. Can we take a walk? I mean - I could go home, if you're busy."
"No way. You think I'm going to let you walk out of here after the crap you just pulled? I'm way too intrigued for that." She stood and held out a hand to Carole. "Come on. You did just fine here. Let's clean up your plate and we'll take a jog around the block. Not actually jogging, though, because really, I'm allergic to exercise."
Carole grinned, letting Irene help her out of her chair. She did actually feel better, but she wasn't sure if it had more to do with the pancakes or Irene's quirky sense of humor. "I'll go slowly."
Irene wasn't referring to the speed of her conversation. By the time they'd made it to the corner of Lindbergh and Main, she'd managed to get Carole to tell her about her entire family, including all of her older brothers and sisters, as well as Christopher.
"So even after growing up in a big family, you still want to have kids?" Irene shook her head. "That's something. Usually it's the other way around. People from big families want small ones, and vice versa."
"Hey, after growing up with eight siblings, five kids is a small family." Carole stretched her arm over her head as they waited for the light to change.
"I'm the oldest of three, and I've got a shitload of cousins. I practically raised Darius myself - he's twelve, now. I'm pretty sure I'll pass on having my own kids."
"Really?" Carole gave her an appraising glance. "I think you'd be a great mom."
"Yeah, well, I'd make my kids' life a living hell, that's the truth." Irene gazed down the block. "Anyway, it's a lot of work, getting pregnant. At least for people like me."
"People like you?" She wasn't sure what Irene meant.
"Well." Irene gave her a weighted look. "I don't exactly have any men in my life."
Carole nearly opened her mouth to say But you're pretty - before she got it, and she closed her mouth again, her face heating. They crossed the street and walked another half block in silence. Irene gave her a cautious glance.
"Come on, now," she said at last. "You're killing me here. Tell me I didn't read you wrong. You're not freaking out about that, are you?"
"No," Carole said quickly. "No. It's - it's fine. I'm not... it's fine."
"Sure." Irene gave her a wan smile. "Tell me, exactly how many other lesbians have you met?"
"Well... I'm pretty sure you're my first," she admitted. "But I don't have a problem with it. Honestly, nobody gets to decide who they're attracted to. It just happens, or it doesn't. Right?"
Irene nodded. Now she looked satisfied. "That sounds more like the plainspoken girl I met last month at the clinic."
Carole didn't have a response to that, and they spent another few minutes without conversation, but Irene didn't seem to be bothered by it. She measured her steps on the sidewalk, Irene keeping pace.
"You're going to tell me eventually," she said.
"Tell you what?" asked Carole.
Irene stopped, facing her on the sidewalk, her gaze implacable. "You know what."
The light changed, and Carole tried to continue walking, but Irene stepped in front of her, blocking her way. "Hey," she said, trying to duck away, but even she couldn't pretend she was putting any effort into it. Eventually she stopped trying and just stood there, staring resolutely at Irene's shirt collar.
"Carole," Irene said. She didn't sound angry, but Carole felt herself cringing to hear her name, said like that. "Whatever it is, it's long overdue to come out. You can tell me here, or you can come back with me to the clinic and tell me there, but one way or another, you will tell me."
"I can't," she whispered.
"Yes, you will. I'm right here. Just take a deep breath and say it."
But Carole couldn't. She just shook her head, feeling the miserable silence settle over them, there on the sidewalk.
"All right. We can do it that way." Irene stepped away from Carole, and for a moment, she staggered, losing her balance. Then Irene took her hand and marched her forward, back toward the clinic. They took a flight of stairs up to the second floor, Irene holding the worn wooden railing with one hand and Carole's hand with the other, and made their way down the hall to a cramped, tidy office.
"Irene?" Carole heard, and a girl sporting a shaved head and a nose ring peered around the door frame. "Oh - didn't realize you had company."
"Carole's waiting for an appointment, Janice," said Irene. She handed Carole off to Janice, who gave her a quizzical smile. "She can wait in the toddler room; I'm sure they can use an extra pair of hands there."
"Sure thing," Janice said, guiding Carole out of the room and back across the hall. Carole was starting to feel like a badminton birdie, the way she was being passed around, but somehow she couldn't find it in her to be upset with anyone about it.
Janice stopped in a brightly-painted room filled with toys. A preteen boy was sitting on the floor, playing with a tiny girl in a blue flowered dress. She wobbled over to the bench and grabbed Carole's leg with one hand.
"Sorry," said the boy, retrieving the girl, lifting her up and depositing her in the center of a pile of Duplo blocks.
"I'll come get you when Irene's ready for you," said Janice. "She has an appointment at ten, but she has some time in her schedule after that. Can I get you some tea or coffee?"
The pancakes Carole had consumed earlier were threatening to make a reappearance. She grimaced. "Nothing, thank you."
"Okay. Holler if you need anything." Janice vanished around the corner. Carole sat in one of the adult-sized chairs along the wall and watched the boy play with the tiny girl.
"Is she your sister?" Carole asked after a minute. The boy shook his head.
"I watch the kids when their moms are seeing Irene and the other counselors," he explained. "You're gonna have a baby?"
Carole glanced down at her bare midriff and huffed. "I'm not that obvious," she muttered.
"Nah," said the boy. "All the ladies around here are having babies. I just guessed."
It was only small comfort, but she nodded. As the tiny girl made her slow, determined way across the floor to pull up on another chair, two more small children ran into the room and tackled the boy, squealing, "Darius!"
He grabbed one in each arm, smiling big, and wrestled them to the floor, pausing only when Janice popped her head back in and chastised them for being too loud. "You don't get to interrupt your cousin's appointments," she scolded. "Pipe down, okay?"
"Sorry," he said, with a toothy grin, and released the children. As they descended on the pile of toys, Darius seated himself in a chair next to Carole.
She stared down at the tiny toddler, barely walking, but still holding her own among the older kids. "How old is she?"
"Fourteen months," Darius said.
Carole mentally added the forty weeks of gestation to fourteen months of life. The little girl would probably have fit into her two hands at birth. Now - she was walking. Carole closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head.
"Not so little, I guess," she whispered.
"Born premature," said Janice from the door, as Carole looked up. "And malnourished, but she's doing okay now. She'll probably catch up to other kids her age."
Malnourished. Carole blinked away the sudden unexpected tears that threatened to overwhelm her.
"Irene's ready for you now," Janice added gently.
Carole went where she was directed, staggering a little as she moved through the hall and across to the other side, into the cramped office piled with books. To her surprise, Janice ushered her through this space, too, into an adjacent room, and Carole found herself standing in the midst of what looked like an indoor topiary garden.
"Bonsai trees," Irene said from the opposite doorway, making Carole start. She'd been standing still enough that Carole hadn't even seen her. "My concession to working in the city."
Carole looked around herself, feeling muddled. Irene gestured at a chair. "Have a seat."
She did, sinking into the cushions. Irene was watching her carefully, and as Carole stumbled, she reached out a hand to steady her. That contact was all she needed to descend into helpless, uncontrollable tears.
"I'm sorry," she sobbed, trying to cover her face, but Irene took both her hands and pulled them down, holding them tight.
"No apologies in this office," she said. "For anything, but especially not for having emotions. Now... are you ready to tell me?"
There was no point in pretending anymore. "I - I can't."
"Oh, yes you can," Irene declared. "Let's have it. Start from the beginning."
Carole didn't even know where the beginning was. She just shook her head miserably. "It doesn't matter. None of it matters. I failed my parents - my boyfriend - I can't even do this right."
"Do what right?" She wasn't angry, and her words were calm and firm, just like her hands.
Carole couldn't say the words, so she just whispered them. "Have a baby."
It made no sense, and Carole knew it, but Irene nodded as though she understood. "And who are you failing by not doing that?"
"The baby." She thought of the tiny fourteen-month-old, wandering through the toddler room with Darius, but when she closed her eyes, the baby in her mind was fair and blonde, not dark and curly, and she was holding onto Carole's shirt with one chubby fist. She struggled to take a complete breath. "I'm - she needs to grow. She needs... nourishment."
Another nod. Irene didn't let her hands go, but she moved to sit beside her on the couch. "But you think you can't give her that."
"I know I can't," she burst out. "How can I feed a baby if - when -"
She closed her mouth, refusing to say any more. Irene gave a very soft, gentle sigh.
"You're having a hard enough time feeding yourself," she said. "And I don't think that's likely to change overnight. But you're going to stop this denial business right now. You think the other girls downstairs are running 5ks on no breakfast? Hell no." Irene's reproachful frown stung Carole, and she felt the tears starting up again. Irene didn't say one word about them. "You tell me if you think those are normal eating habits for an eighteen year old girl."
Carole felt the panic rising up in her, and she stared back at Irene, unable to respond.
"Carole," she snapped.
"No, ma'am," Carole responded automatically.
Irene sat back, her eyes wide. Then she brought Carole's hands forward into her own lap, and released them, drawing away. Carole looked at her hands. The panic was gone, but she was... disappointed? Hurt? For what reason?
"Okay," Irene said, and nodded. "Okay. That's right. They aren't normal." Her eyes flickered to the table, and she steadied her shoulders with a sigh. "The director of the shelter, he's knowledgeable about helping kids with eating disorders. I think you should meet with him. I'll schedule an appointment for you, if you'll agree to it."
Eating disorder. Carole regarded the word from a distance, not quite willing to pick it up and look at it too closely. But - she bit her lip. "I like talking to you," she said. "Can't I keep doing that?"
Irene cracked one of her startling and infrequent smiles, and looked away. "Yeah, I like talking to you, too. We can keep doing that, if you want."
"I would," said Carole. "I've never talked to anybody about - this - before."
"I'm glad you're finally trusting somebody. You're going to need that." She relaxed against the arm of the couch. "And I'm listening."
In fits and starts, Carole painted a picture for Irene about herself in relation to food and exercise. It wasn't comprehensive, by any means, nor was it sequential, but rather was like a patchwork quilt of memories, tiny moments of her life. The running; the portion control; the fear of her body changing shape - Carole realized that when she put them all together like that, they told a disturbingly stark story.
"I don't put more on my plate than I can cover with my hand," she said at one point. Irene nodded, her brow knitting, and Carole added, "I guess that's - kind of crazy."
"Honey, we're all of us a little crazy," said Irene. "It's just what we do with it that matters."
Irene's questions focused mostly on the pregnancy. Carole grimaced when she said something about normal weight gain.
"I can't deal with the way it looks," she said. "It's not so much how it feels, but I can't look at myself in the mirror."
Irene snorted. "Well, that's just bullshit. Because, girl, you're beautiful. Ain't nothing going to change that."
You really think so? she wanted to say, but that felt like fishing for a compliment, and Carole wasn't going to do that, especially not with Irene. She shrugged. "Sometimes I don't mind so much what I see, but I know what it's going to be like, before the end, and -" She could hear her own hysteria starting again. It was enough to make her sick to her stomach.
But Irene just touched her knee, and Carole felt the cycle of fear and guilt stop right where it was. Irene nodded in satisfaction. "Your baby's growing, one day at a time. There's no way to rush that, or slow it down. You just have to give in."
Carole ran nervous hands over her legs. "I don't know if I can do that."
"Well," said Irene obliquely, "I might be able to help."
By the end of the session, Carole found herself breathing a little easier, and even joking back in response to Irene's quirky sense of humor. "I can't thank you enough for cutting into your day for me," she said, as they stood. Without one hesitation, she hugged Irene. "I can't believe I'm talking about this."
"I hope you continue," she said, looking a little surprised, but not unhappy by the friendly gesture. "With Gregg or Janice, if not with me. I can set you up an appointment for next week, okay?"
"But I - " Carole reached out to touch Irene again, but the way she was pulling away, she thought better of it. "You said we could keep talking. You and me."
"Sure." Irene opened the door to her crowded office. "I think, though, we should move it to a less formal setting. Just two women talking."
"You mean, like... coffee?"
Irene laughed. "Coffee would work. But you said you thought coffee was disgusting."
Carole ventured a tentative smile of her own. "I guess I'm willing to be persuaded?"
Chapter 4: August 1993
The barista smiled at Carole as she approached the counter. "Your usual?"
Carole smiled back. "Mmmmm... not today. I think I'm in an Italian soda kind of mood. Lime? And a cup of the oolong, please."
She watched Irene shuffling papers around and adjusting the spacing between the couches and the coffee table, and felt the smile lingering. In this temporary city, temporary house, temporary life, it was more comforting than she'd expected to have some things that were stable.
Her visits to the shelter, for example. She'd met Gregg, the director, and there was Janice, who reminded her of her big sister Anne. She had appointments to talk with both of them, about different things. Some days she'd come early and help serve breakfast, or stuff envelopes for a mailing. Other days she'd hang out with Darius in the toddler room, fielding the children who needed a babysitter while their mothers were seeing Irene and the other counselors. On days when traffic in the room was light, she and Darius would play checkers or talk about movies or other things. She'd never had a little brother, but Darius was about the nicest kid she could think of to have as a pretend one.
And there was coffee with Irene, a couple times a week. Coffee wasn't a very accurate name for it, because neither of them actually drank coffee. Irene had hot tea, even on very hot days. Carole had decaf chai, iced, or made into a slushie. Except for today, apparently, when she'd decided to try something different.
"Here you go," said the barista. "I hope you like the Italian soda. Lime is one of my favorites."
Carole took the drinks, nodding. "I'll let you know what I think."
Irene was muttering over the papers, glaring at them like she expected them to resist. "All the same questions they asked me last month when I applied for the other grant," she complained to Carole, hitting them lightly with the back of her hand. "You'd think they'd come up with some way to avoid me having to write it all over again every time. Such a stupid system."
"Bureaucracy," said Carole, setting Irene's teapot down several inches away from her stack of forms.
"Yeah, or just idiocy."
She shrugged. "Same thing, right?"
She wasn't really as fed up with the system as Irene was, but Carole knew a comment like that would make her laugh, and Carole tried to do that as often as she could. Irene was frequently stressed about her job. Carole heard more than she probably should about what went on there - nothing about clients, but about the nature of the organization, and the expectations the government put on them to follow strict guidelines about codes and reporting. It sure seemed like a lot of work for not a lot of money.
Irene did laugh. "Sometimes feels like it." She wrinkled her brow at Carole's drink. "What in hell's that?"
"Lime." Carole swirled the ice around in her soda, and sipped. It was tangy and tart, with a hint of bitter. She drank some more. "I hear pregnancy makes you crave all kinds of things."
Irene's expression was hard to read, but she went on filling in boxes on her form. Carole watched her work for a few minutes before she spoke again.
"Actually, it's not the pregnancy that makes you crave it. You always wanted those things. Your body just didn't know how to demand them quite so emphatically before."
"Your body, you mean." Irene's voice was quiet, but Carole heard her clearly.
"My body," she acknowledged. "Or anyone's, I guess, who's been through this."
The protrusion of swelling stomach didn't feel quite as abhorrent as it used to. She could accept that the being inside her wasn't doing it on purpose, and that it was getting something essential from her. That actually felt pretty good, to be able to know she was giving the essence of herself to create something new. She took another sip of her soda.
"How much running did you do this week?" Irene asked, her eyes on her papers.
"I can still manage a couple miles before breakfast without too much trouble," said Carole.
Irene's head came up. "Every day?"
"Just about. My center of gravity's changing, and it feels different, when I'm pushing through the hard parts, but -" She paused, seeing Irene's tight expression. "What?"
Irene started to say something, but she stopped herself, shaking her head. "Nothing I think I'm qualified to comment on. You were saying, about it feeling different?"
Carole stretched her legs under the coffee table, shrugging. "I think before, when I'd get to a part of my workout I wasn't sure I could do, I had to hang on to the memory of another time when I could do it, and trust it was going to get easier? And it always does. But now..." She rotated her ankles, feeling the soreness that was starting to follow a day on her feet, the subtle swelling. "I remember the hard parts aren't just for me anymore. I'm doing it for somebody else."
Carole watched Irene's pen slow, stop, and her breath pause. Carole caught her own breath, waiting, though she wasn't sure why. Then she saw Irene's coffee-brown eyes on her, her subtle smile, and Carole felt her cheeks flush as she relaxed, smiling back.
"You, uh, think that's okay?" she was compelled to ask.
Irene raised an eyebrow. "Does it matter what I think?"
"Well, it sounded like you weren't sure if it was okay a minute ago."
She went back to her forms. "You didn't answer my question."
Carole sighed in frustration, stabbing her drink with her straw. "You didn't answer mine. I mean, you're the counselor, right? Can't you... counsel me?"
Irene shook her head again. "I'm not your counselor."
"Well, why aren't you?" Her voice came out a little louder than she'd intended, and Carole glanced up at the barista before returning to Irene, who was frowning now.
"I don't counsel friends," said Irene.
She looked like she might want to say more. Carole waited for it, for what seemed like way too long, and when Irene went back to her papers again, she felt an irrational desire to yank them out from under Irene's hand. Instead she just glared at her.
"I don't understand how it's different from what you're doing already," she said. "Giving me advice? That's what you do."
"No, it's not what I do," Irene replied testily. "It's what I try very hard not to do, especially when -" She snapped her mouth shut, and when Carole leaned forward, she turned away.
"When what?" Carole pressed.
Irene sighed. She gathered her papers and stacked them, tapping them on edge on the table. "I can't have this conversation, kid. You're very nice, and I like you a lot, but trust me, it's way more complicated than either of us is prepared to deal with. I'll see you on -"
"Hey!" Carole reached out and grabbed Irene's wrist, pulling her forward and her eyes up. Irene looked determined, but her eyes widened, and she wouldn't quite meet Carole's eyes. "You're not going to ditch me. I've been looking forward to tonight. Tell me what's wrong. What did I do?"
"You might want to talk a little quieter," Irene muttered, staring fixedly at the door, "unless you want Rose to be an intimate part of our social life."
"Who?" Carole glanced around, and saw the barista look away in a hurry. "What, her? I don't think she was -"
"Of course she was." Irene sounded tired, and the testiness was back. "Don't pretend you didn't notice. She's been checking you out for the past two weeks."
"I - what?" Now Carole couldn't help it. She turned around and looked hard at the barista, who was concentrating on dishes. Her face did look awfully red. "You mean she - you think she's -" She cut off, uncertain about how to conclude that sentence. "What makes you think so?"
"Well, first, I know Rose, and second, I know Rose's taste. And you're far too friendly for your own good." Irene shook her head, pursing her lips. "It's a wonder you don't have suitors for miles."
Carole gaped at Irene. "I'm pregnant, Irene. Who'd want to do anything with me while I'm like this?"
Irene shook her head again, with a disbelieving snort. "Really. Like we lose our sex appeal when we're pregnant? I think it's the other way around. And don't tell me you're not interested."
"I'm not looking for a date," she protested. "And not with her, especially! God, Irene."
"That's not what I said." Irene pointed her pen at Carole. "I said don't tell me you're not interested. I know how women get when they're pregnant. You're past your first trimester; I'm sure you're having all kinds of feelings."
It was Carole's turn to blush. She hadn't mentioned it to Irene, but maybe Janice...? "How did you know?"
"It's practically universal," Irene said, waving her hand. "Women get crazy horny during pregnancy. You're young, you're not having nausea anymore. Stands to reason."
Carole sank back down onto the couch, and Irene sat with her, watching her carefully. She felt like she was thinking a little too slowly to be able to handle this discussion. "I was... I mean, I am... well, not right now, but..." She felt her blush intensify. "You think the barista - Rose - she wants... something?"
"Sure," said Irene. She set the papers on her lap and picked up her tea. "I think I can say with predictable certainty that she's interested."
Carole thought of the dream she'd had only yesterday, involving soft hands and softer lips. It hadn't been at all clear, but there definitely hadn't been any boys present, and the sensations Carole had experience upon waking were both intense and very personal. "And you think I've been... what? Flirting with her? Giving her messages that I'm interested too?"
"I don't know. What do you think?" Her words were a little too curt, but Carole laughed.
"You told me you're not my counselor, but it sure sounds like you're giving me the runaround, just like Gregg does."
Irene didn't roll her eyes and respond like Carole expected she would. Instead, she sighed. "You don't really want to know what I think. If you're interested, you should talk to Rose."
"I am interested!" She spoke a little more loudly again, and Irene glanced up at the counter before looking back at Carole, her face closed.
"Fine. Explore your Sapphic side. Rose is very nice."
"I didn't mean - Irene, just sit down, would you?" It did appear that Irene was about to take flight at any moment, but she stayed where she was, fidgeting with her papers and her tea until there was nothing else to do, and she had to look back at Carole. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"No!" Irene looked scornful. "No way. You have no idea what I hear every day in my office, believe me."
"I'm sure. So what's the problem?" Carole waited, but Irene said nothing, still scowling at her lap. "Do you and Rose have... something? Or did you want something with her?"
"No. Look, Carole..." Now she just sounded tired again. "You're a strong, independent woman. Don't let anybody tell you what you should or shouldn't want. I'm just not sure I'm the best person to help you figure that out."
"Why not? You like girls, right?"
"Yeah. You know I do."
Carole watched Irene evade her eyes for another ten seconds before she got a clue. Then she just felt like an idiot. "Um. Irene, I... I don't know what to say."
"Nothing. You don't have to say anything. I'm really fine, and I don't want you to think anything that's happened between us has been about anything other than friendship. You're a very nice girl."
"A nice girl?" Carole's mocking echo made Irene sigh again, and she laughed, staring at her. "I'd like to think you know me better than that."
"I do, Carole. I do know you. You've got a lot going for you. You're smart, and clever, and pretty, and I'm sure you'll figure all this out without interference from me." But she didn't stand and head for the door this time. Instead, she sat there, letting Carole's eyes burn a hole in her forehead.
"Irene," she said, feeling her voice failing her.
Irene glanced up. "Don't make this a bigger deal than it needs to be. I'm your friend. That's what we've got. Unless you're telling me you don't want to be that anymore, I think -"
"No!" Carole felt the panic well up inside her. "I'm not saying anything like that."
"Yeah. I didn't think so. Like I said, I know you." Irene leaned back, tapping the papers on her lap. She quirked a smile. "You want me to get you a date with Rose?"
"Irene," she gasped, making Irene's smile grow. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Sure," she said again. "I bet you a hundred bucks she'd say yes."
Carole had no idea why she did it, but she heard herself say, "Okay. Try it."
Irene set her cup down with a little clink, pushing up from sitting to stand again. She set her papers down next to the cup, a little smile on her lips. "Hundred bucks?"
"Make it twenty, and you're on," Carole replied. She watched Irene walk across to the counter, then turned away, unwilling to see Irene... what? What was she doing? What could they be talking about?
Carole contemplated her nails, dirty from gardening, while trying not to listen to the quiet conversation Irene had begun behind her. She sounded calm and collected, the way Irene always did. Rose, the barista, on the other hand, was giggling. Carole frowned. She hated giggly girls. She had no idea what she expected from a lesbian, but giggling wasn't it.
"Oh, for crying out loud," she muttered, rising to her feet with some effort. She wheeled around toward the counter and looped her arm through Irene's, steering her away from Rose. "Excuse us a sec, would you? Sorry."
"Carole," Irene said, looking positively irritated. "I was trying to get you a date."
"Don't bother. I'm not interested. I mean, I'm sure she's very nice, but she's really not... my type."
Irene reclaimed her arm from Carole's, sending an apologetic glance up toward Rose, then smirked at Carole. "I'm surprised at you. Knocking it before you've tried it."
"I heard the way she was talking to you, giggling like that. Girls are obnoxious. I can't believe you thought I'd be interested in her." Carole leaned away from Irene's amusement. "Do you like that? Stupid simpering girls?"
"I never said she was my type. Just that you're hers." She gave a little shrug. "They can be cute, I suppose. Just because a girl giggles doesn't mean she's not smart or interesting. Come on. If you're done here, we should get out of here, or Rose'll be waiting all night for you to make a move."
"I'm not going to - " Carole stopped. "Now you're just making fun of me."
"I'm not," Irene said blithely. "Let's go."
The evening was hot, though now that the sun had set the worst of the heat was over. They walked down the sidewalk and across the street toward the shelter. Carole watched Irene cross in front of her, her braids dancing across her back.
"What did I do?" Carole asked. Irene glanced over her shoulder, squinting at Carole.
"What do you mean, what did you do?"
"You said I did something. Something to show Rose I was interested. I didn't mean to. So I'm wondering what I did." She felt like her words were following Irene, chasing after her, elusive and frustratingly insufficient. "Would you stop for a second?"
"In the middle of the street?" But Irene kept walking once they hit the curb, until Carole reached out and took her shoulder.
"Here." Carole was seldom out of breath, but she found it hard to catch hers. She pressed Irene forward a few more steps, under the spreading limbs of a tree. "Right here. Can you tell me?"
Irene hesitated, but Carole wasn't backing down. "Well... you always smiled at her."
"I smile at everybody."
"You do not. Not like you mean it." Irene sighed loudly. "Carole..."
"What else?" she insisted. "Because clearly I'm sending mixed signals here."
"Clearly, you are," Irene snapped. "You don't look at a woman like that unless you're interested."
Carole took another step forward. Now her chest was a little tight again, making it hard for her to concentrate. "Like what?"
Irene's voice dropped to a low murmur. "Like... that, Carole."
She reached out and touched Irene on her bare shoulder, where her sundress met her brown arm. "I'm not interested in Rose," she said. "I don't want to go out with her."
Irene's hands came forward to rest lightly on Carole's hips, not pushing or anything, just touching there, a mere suggestion. Carole felt it anyway, that light touch, maddening and compelling. She swayed forward, so Irene was forced to grip her tighter, lest she fall.
"Okay," Irene said. "I hear you. You're not interested in Rose."
"No." Her hand curved around Irene's back, touching her braids, their rough texture unfamiliar to her fingers, and watched Irene's eyes slip closed. She sighed again. "I just wanted you to know."
"That's very clear, Carole." Irene's voice was soothing and low, still calm, even though her breath was punctuated by erratic pauses. "Can I... ask you a question?"
"Mmmm," Carole said, a noncommittal noise, following her fingers up Irene's back to her neck. She was warm, and her skin was soft. Just as soft as it had been in my dream, she thought idly.
"Your hands, your body, they're... telling me things, now. Things you might want." Irene opened her eyes, big and brown and wise, and gazed across into Carole's. They were nearly the same height. "Do you know what you want, Carole?"
"I think so," she heard herself say. "Is this okay, what I'm doing?"
Irene let her breath out slowly. "Yes," she said. "Yes, it's... it's good. You're fine. I just need to know." She reached out with both hands and held Carole's shoulders firmly. It startled Carole a little, and she gasped. "Are you looking for me to help you figure that out?"
"Figure that out?" Carole repeated.
Irene's fingers tightened a tiny bit, and a noise slipped between Carole's lips. It was as though this were a movie, and she were just playing her part. If it had been any different, she would have been embarrassed, mortified, even. But this felt right, between her and Irene, like this, with Irene's hands holding tight to her shoulders and Carole's tangled in Irene's braids.
"I can do that for you," Irene said, her thumbs pressing into the space between Carole's shoulder and her pectorals. It was sore, probably from gardening, but the pressure felt good, and Carole leaned into it, letting Irene's fingers knead her muscles.
"Yeah?" she said.
Carole watched Irene's lips, the very faint smile teasing at the corners of her expressive mouth, tugging upward. "You'd trust me to do that? How do you know I wouldn't talk you into doing something you don't want to do?"
"You wouldn't do that," Carole replied, unhesitating. "I know it."
Irene's smile grew, and Carole reached up to touch it, to feel the curve of her lips under her fingers. Irene let a gentle kiss land on Carole's fingertips before cupping them to her cheek. "That's a lot of trust to put in someone you hardly know."
"But you do know me. You said yourself." She licked her own lips, letting them part, and she laughed at Irene's wry expression. "You knew I wasn't interested in Rose."
"I... suspected," Irene confirmed. "But I wasn't going to bring it up. I'm not your counselor, and I can't be, not if... if you and me, if we're going to..."
"What?" Carole asked, feeling breathless again. "What are we doing?"
"Anything," Irene said. "Anything we do. It would mean we were... crossing a line. I knew how I felt, when we met. That's why I told Janice I couldn't counsel you, had to turn you over to her and Gregg. Anything I advise you in after that, it wouldn't be as a therapist. No matter how much you trust me."
Carole nodded, feeling Irene's fingers loosen on her arms, pulling her closer. Her round, firm stomach brushed against Irene's own flat one, sending shivers through her belly. "Okay."
"Okay." Irene brushed a hand across Carole's temple, into her short curls where they wisped against her face in the humid air.
"I still trust you. And I won't let you do anything I don't want."
"I'll hold you to that," Irene said, her eyes searching Carole's, and Carole nodded again, feeling unaccountably solemn. Then she took Carole into a tight embrace. It wasn't uncomfortable. Secure, she thought, letting Irene hold her. She felt a cascading pulse along the insides of her thighs, even though she wasn't being touched anywhere near there.
"Okay," she whispered again, against Irene's neck.
"Good girl," Irene said gently, touching her hair. Then she pulled away, looking much more calm, and smiled. She really did have the most amazing smile. "I'm going to drive you back to your grandparents' house now."
"I can walk," Carole said, shaking her head, but Irene stroked the skin along her neck with a finger, and Carole felt herself go quiet, attending to the path of that finger and the sensation it was producing in her chest.
"I'll take you back there," said Irene again. "I want you to eat something."
Carole was startled. She'd expected Irene to say something about going to her room, maybe, or even sitting together in the garden, but - "My grandmother put my dinner in the fridge," she said. "I couldn't finish it."
Irene nodded, her mouth tightening. "I know you're not eating enough. Do you hear what I'm saying? Are you going to listen to me?"
"Okay," Carole said.
"You're going to trust me to help you with this?"
"I told you I would," she replied forcefully, feeling the fire, like anger, in her gut. Irene just nodded again.
"Not as your counselor, or your therapist."
"No," Carole agreed, then paused, wrinkling her brow. "What are you saying?"
Irene leaned forward, pressing her lips against Carole's cheek. They lingered there as she spoke quietly into her ear. "I'm saying if I'm going to help you, girl, you're going to listen to what I tell you to do."
"Oh." Carole felt dizzy, almost faint, but Irene was solid there beside her, holding her up. "I think I - I can do that."
"Yeah?" The word was gentle, but it wasn't really asking. "That would make me very happy."
Oh, Carole thought, her heart gathering itself up and leaping into her throat. I didn't even know I wanted that.
She quivered there a long moment, tucked in safely, securely against Irene, held by her hands and her breath and the calm of her. Then Irene took her hand and guided her to her Cadillac, helping Carole into the passenger seat and closing the door behind her. When she climbed into the driver's seat, her eyes were gleaming.
"What are we doing, here?" Carole asked again.
"It's not what you would have gotten from Rose, that's for sure." Irene turned the ignition, and the big car purred to life under her hands. "I'm going to take care of you."