Connor Durham wrenched the backpack out of his locker.
“Hey man,” Blake said, “you ready to go?”
Connor closed the locker, and they walked down the hallway toward the exit. He pushed through the doors and headed for the sidewalk.
Blake chased him outside. “Where you headed?” he asked. “Practice starts in ten minutes. I don’t wanna spend the first half hour doing push-ups.”
“Then you’d better get going.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Sorry man. Something’s come up.”
Blake lifted his eyebrows. “Hey, you okay? What’s wrong?”
Connor didn’t answer.
Blake took a couple of steps closer and stood beside his friend. “Hey, c’mon man. You can tell me. What’s up?”
Connor didn’t want to talk about it, but he didn’t want to keep it to himself. He looked around, checking if anyone was within earshot, and then said quietly, “Daphne’s pregnant.”
Blake’s eyes widened. Connor glared at him, willing him not to react. Blake looked around, placed his hand on Connor’s shoulder, and led him toward their neighborhood.
“How’d you find out?” he whispered.
“She told me Monday morning.”
“When did she find out?”
Connor shook his head. “Not sure. I didn’t have time to ask before the bell rang. Haven’t really seen Daphne since. Been avoiding her, I guess.”
Blake nodded. “You think she’s telling the truth?”
Connor stopped and squinted at him irritably. “Yes.”
“Sorry,” Blake said. “How are you feeling?”
“I dunno,” Connor said. “Been thinking about it all week, trying to figure that out. Scared, I guess. It’s a lot of … I know I’m not ready to be a dad.”
Blake nodded. “Well at least you’ll be out of here by the time the baby comes.”
Connor’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“We’ll be at college.”
“I don’t think I’m going to college 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. 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, 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 everyone.”
Blake looked up at Connor. His friend’s eyes were hard, unblinking, his mouth thin and level. They had been friends for a long time, but Blake had never seen Connor this angry. He waited for him to speak. No sound came. “All I meant was …”
“Shut up,” Connor said. “I’m not gonna ditch my pregnant girlfriend to train for college football. I mean, the fact you would even think that I would do that. You know what, forget it. I don’t have time for this. You gotta go to practice, and I’m going to Daphne’s. We’ll talk later.” He turned and walked away.
He shouldn’t have been surprised at Blake’s reaction. His friend had applauded when he and Daphne had started dating; she was hot, after all. But Blake had never really understood the relationship. Connor knew him well enough that he should have seen his reaction coming, but that didn’t soften the offense. The more he thought about Blake’s suggestion, the more the idea disgusted him. He crossed the street.
Connor’s anger was a welcome distraction from the terror that would have otherwise dogged his journey to Daphne’s, a terror that had plagued him the past week. He had played out the impending conversation a hundred different ways in his head. She would be angry with him, confused, and hurt that he had been too scared to talk to her since that morning. He had meant to, but he needed that first day to let the facts sink in. And he needed the rest of the week to begin letting go of the dream. Hopefully skipping practice would lend him some credibility.
Blake was right about one thing: Connor had wanted to play football. He was good, too, and sure he’d made a good impression in training camp that September. He recalled what it felt like watching scouts scribble on their clipboards every time the team ran a good play. He loved the rush of adrenaline that came after a catch, the mad bolt down the field, weaving around tackles, ball tucked in the crook of his arm like a treasure. And Daphne, whooping with joy and shouting his name from the sidelines.
It was all he wanted in the world right now. But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t go.
Connor had wandered through his classes in a daze, trying to reconcile football with fatherhood. For a moment he’d wanted to believe it wouldn’t be that hard, but immediately checked the thought. He’d heard his parents talk about how jarring the change was for them when he was born. It sounded exhausting. Still, he’d spent that first evening trying to come up with a way to go to college and be a dad at the same time. He’d struggled with the problem all week, but 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 – at home, at school, working late at the grocery store – what it would be like to be a father. No school, football or leisure time. Vomit, shit, claustrophobia, pressure, responsibility.
Connor arrived at Daphne’s house and walked up the empty driveway. Her mom wasn’t home – she’d been away all week. She wouldn’t know yet.
He mounted the porch and rang the doorbell. A minute passed. No response. He rang again. Finally, the door opened, and he found himself staring at the angry face of Daphne’s older sister, Vicki.
“What do you want?”
“Is Daphne here?”
Connor hesitated. He didn’t 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, all right? I just … I just want to talk to her. Please?”
Vicki glowered, then opened the screen door and let him in.
“Thanks,” he said, trying to sound as sincere as possible. In the kitchen, Daphne, in a tank top and sweat pants, hair tied up, was sitting at the table, staring at the fridge. Vicki walked behind him, still glaring.
Connor looked at Daphne and swallowed as he realized how easy it was to spend a week in emotional turmoil over a problem and emerge resolved to make the right choice. It was 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. 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 since you told me. I … I dunno, I guess I just got scared.”
“You should have said something.”
He paused. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. That’s no excuse. I should have talked to you about it sooner, and I didn’t. That’s my fault, and I’m … I’m sorry.”
She relaxed in her chair a little. A good sign, Connor thought. “You tell anyone else?”
She nodded. “Two or three people.”
“C’mon. Talk to me, Daph. What are you thinking?”
She turned her head and locked her reddened 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 it 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. “We don’t have the money to raise another kid. And people at school are gonna know sooner or later. 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 toward his shoulder.
He moved closer and wrapped his arm around her. He had done it a million times before, but this time felt different, like a pair of handcuffs snapping into place. A dry, dead feeling cracked across his tongue.
“I know,” he said. “Me too. But I want you to listen to me, all right? It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna get through this. You and me, we’re gonna make it work.”
She looked at him, confused. He kept talking. He was scared he might change his mind if he stopped. “We’re gonna be parents, and in eight months we’re gonna have a baby.”
She looked up at him and shook her head. “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 concrete 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 manage. “You and I, we’re gonna do this. Together. And you know what? We’re gonna rock it.” He forced a smile. “We’re too awesome not to. It’s gonna be okay. I promise.”
She paused. For a moment he was afraid that he’d made a promise he wouldn’t be able to keep. Still, he thought, it had to be okay. He had to stick with her.
“Just think about it,” he said. “You have a life inside you right now. And I mean … we both know we want kids someday. Maybe that’s now. Maybe one day, years from now, we’ll look back, and this will be the story of the best thing that ever happened to us.”
She nodded. It looked to him like she was putting on a brave face. For now, he was okay with that. He was doing the same thing.
The following Monday he walked into Coach Claiborne’s office to quit the football team. It wasn’t a fun conversation. The coach raised an eyebrow and asked him why.
“Do I have to give a reason?” he mumbled.
“You made a commitment at the beginning of the year to play for us, Connor, a commitment to me, Coach Braddock and every other member of this team. If you’re going to quit right before finals, you’d better have a good reason for it.”
Connor nodded, and stared at the tips of his shoes. “I need more hours at the grocery store.”
The coach nodded. “If you need money for school, there are plenty of scholarships that’ll take care of you.”
“It’s not for school, sir.”
“All right. Then what?”
Connor didn’t answer. His chest knotted. The silence rang in his ears. He hated the sound, but at this point, he knew speaking would make everything worse.
“Well,” Claiborne said, sounding disappointed, “I can’t force you to play.”
“Thank you, sir.” Connor turned to leave.
“You okay, Connor?” the coach asked. “Anything wrong?”
“I’m fine,” he answered, then ducked out of the office and made for his locker.
Daphne’s mother came home that evening. Daphne was reluctant to tell her, but Connor insisted it would be better to get ahead of the story and make sure she didn’t feel they were keeping it from her. He tried to take the lead, shoulder the blame for their irresponsibility as much as he could.
The kitchen rang with her mother’s lengthy, curse-heavy lecture about how hard she’d tried to raise her kids right, how often she’d told them to be better than she was at that age, and how Daphne and Connor had made a mistake that threatened their future.
He told his parents a day later. He would have preferred to put it off, but he understood they would want to know why he wasn’t at football practice. They took it with slow, stern silence, the sort of disapproval too strong to be put into words, the only kind he’d ever received from them since he turned thirteen. It was a disapproval topped with expectation, clear in his mother’s eyes as she looked across the dinner table: You will take care of this girl.
For the next month, Connor divided his time between homework, the grocery store, and preparation for parenthood. He spent lunch breaks holed up in the library, as much to avoid the inevitable questions about why he’d quit the team as to get ahead in classes. The few conversations he did share with friends started to scare him, and there was always the unsettling possibility that Blake had told someone Daphne was pregnant. At work, 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 doing research. He spent hours scrolling through articles about gestation and clicking through pages of X-rays, photographs, and diagrams on the internet. They helped, he realized, made it easier to be okay with being a father.
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. None of them really wanted to talk about it more than they had to. Daphne’s mom was embarrassed. She didn’t want the rest of the family to know. Daphne told him stories about being sent upstairs some mornings to put a hoodie on over her top.
By the first week back at school from winter break, people had started talking. No one claimed to know for sure, but at lunch Thursday Connor overheard someone talking in hushed tones to a cluster of seniors gathered around a locker as he and Daphne walked past. His first instinct was to lash out, lay into them, but he couldn’t be sure they were talking about her and, even then, a shouting match or a fight would only confirm the suspicion. They knew people would find out sooner or later, but apart from the select few they’d already told, they hoped to delay the announcement as long as possible.
After work the next night, Connor went by 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. She raised her hand in greeting. “Where’s your mom?”
“In bed,” Vicki said. “It’s been a long day.”
“How’s it going?” he asked Daphne.
“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.
“Yeah,” she sniffled, “I’m okay. Um, Vicki and I have been talking, and Mom 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 … I can’t. I can’t have a baby. I can’t be a mother.”
Connor stared at her, stunned, trying to decide what to say. “So … so what, you want to put it up for adoption?”
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.
“Appointment for what?” Connor asked. “For … for an abortion?” His chest tightened as he said the word. “You wanna kill our baby?”
Slowly, Daphne walked towards the stairs.
“Daphne,” he said, following her. “Daphne please.” His breath caught in his throat. “Please don’t do this. If you’re not willing to raise the baby, give him to someone who will.” She walked softly 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.”
“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, 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, Connor,” she said, stepping closer to him than he was comfortable with. “It’s bad enough you 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?”
He threw his arms up in frustration. “It’s been what, about 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?”
She crossed her arms. “I’m not going to force my sister into a world that’ll see her as a slut six months from now. Especially when there’s no guarantee 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. I know you’ve got 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 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. 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.
“That’s a human life in there! A little kid!”
“A clump of cells.”
Connor tried to keep calm. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He walked down the hallway. His hand touched the doorknob. Then he looked 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 put my plans before hers. You’d see 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?”
“I didn’t mean that. I just … ”
“Get out, Durham.”
He glowered. He didn’t want to leave, but he knew staying would get him nowhere. He turned and left, slamming the 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. Nothing worked. She was scared. He’d 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 talking to her several times the next week, in school and out. He didn’t need to win an argument, he figured; with every attempt, the goal was always to put off her decision. He had no 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.
There was no response. She was always with someone, usually the two or three girls she’d told on day one. And neither she nor they were interested in what he had to say. At least they weren’t judging her the way everyone else was, 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 disinterest. Mostly disinterest. With every day of silence he felt an increased gnawing on the inside – a thinning, a wasting away, like what he imagined starvation felt like. It soured most of the time he spent at school and robbed him of any joy in getting a paycheck.
It wasn’t just the baby, either. He missed her. He missed telling her funny stories, anticipating which kind of laughter would follow each one. He missed the fake bickering back and forth they did in public sometimes, just to make other people uncomfortable. He missed the times she called him out for doing something stupid, just to give him the opportunity to smile and shrug his shoulders as if they both knew he was invincible. He missed the sound of her cheering him from the football field sidelines.
He sometimes walked alone in places that were special to them. When they’d first started dating, before Connor got the job at the grocery store, they’d gone on walks for hours along a creek trail running through a patch of woods. He wandered through it alone now, throwing pebbles in the creek, trying to imagine what it would be like taking his own kid there to throw pebbles. He imagined the child with every walk: a little boy, with dark hair and big brown eyes like his dad’s. Stumbling along in yellow rain boots, head tilted upward everywhere he went, hoping he might unlock the secrets of the universe if he could watch closely enough. Sometimes Connor took a Sharpie and wrote baby names on the flatter, smoother stones, then threw them in.
There was no life in those walks, he realized. But he felt like it was his duty to take them.
Two more weeks. Daphne stopped wearing makeup and kept wearing hoodies. Connor wondered if she had done it by now. He rarely saw her at school. Sometimes he would go looking for her during lunch hour, without success. 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 saw sorrow in her eyes, hidden 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. Connor hadn’t answered. It seemed wrong to go, as if going would prove he hadn’t wanted to keep the baby. Or maybe if he went, it would be skipping out on the penance he had forced on himself. But he didn’t think Blake would understand that.
A month and a half after he and Daphne parted, Connor was down at the creek again, throwing pebbles. He had run out of good names, and the Sharpie was lost in his backpack somewhere. The ink had gone dry.
After an hour, he saw someone, a figure in 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 stared back. A long silence.
“I miss you,” she said finally.
“I miss you too,” he said, nodding, turning over the pebble in his hand.
They stood in silence for a while, before she took a few steps closer and said, “I wish I hadn’t done it.”
Connor nodded, biting his lip in an attempt to keep from asking why. “Me too,” he said.
She took a deep breath, and then asked, “Can things be okay?”
He nodded slowly, unsure he meant it. He walked towards her.
Soon he stood in front of her and she 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.
Jordan Legg is originally from Oshawa, Ontario, and holds a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He has been published in Strong Verse, Allegory eZine, and several anthologies, and has recently received Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When not writing he enjoys drawing, soccer, reading, and cycling. (Twitter: @JordanLegg2)
Originally published on Heart of a Man.
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