Quarter Life Crisis: Step Eight: Self-Assurance

-30-

Sean tosses the bag with his guitar cables in it into Derek’s car and slams the trunk closed, turning and coming face to face with his mom. She stands staring at all of them skeptically.

“What’s this?” she asks, motioning towards the car.

About an hour ago, Sean specifically asked Marcus not to tell their mom and dad about their gig, because they’d inevitably want to go. And, of course, as their mom glances at Marcus, he steps forward and says:

“We’re playing a show tonight.” Grinning, he looks from her to his dad. Their parents look at each then at Sean like they don’t know who he is.

“Dammit, Marcus,” Sean says under his breath, glaring at his brother.

“What?” he says, then brushes Sean away. “It’ll be fine.”

“Well, good for you,” their mom says, turning to her husband. “We can make it, can’t we?”

Instead of answering, their dad points at the garage door.

“Is that why you’ve been making all that racket in there?” he asks.

“It wasn’t a racket,” Derek says, pouting.

“Sounded like the definition of racket to me,” Sean’s dad says.

“Are you coming or not?” Sean asks.

His dad grunts. Grunts mean yes.

Twenty minutes later, Derek, Marcus, and Sean walk into Dill’s and Sean’s stomach immediately turns over on itself, twisting and grinding and making him feel like he’s about to shit and puke at the same time.

The moment he sees the stage, Sean’s head spins, disoriented. Sober and coming in through the back door of Dill’s with his guitar and amp and wiring, he feels like he’s in the twilight zone. The bartender right now—Debbie, an older woman who Sean knows mostly as the only bartender here who’s ever cut him off before he got so drunk he could barely walk—is even talking to him like he’s an actual person.

The bar is pretty much empty, hazy with smoke and dim lighting, which actually helps Sean relax a little. With the five or six people in here who he can barely see, it seems less like he’s about to perform on stage for the first time ever and more like he’s just showing some friends what he’s learned on the guitar.

Then, while Sean’s setting all his stuff up, the lights come on above the stage and about 20 more people walk in, and Sean’s nerves are instantly all fucked up again. People he recognizes from work, people he recognizes from the one or two law school events Derek’s dragged him to in an effort to get him to stop sitting around the apartment in his underwear, people Marcus has introduced him to while hanging out at the mall or any of the other random places Marcus asks Sean to take him to, a couple of his coworkers from Shambles grinning at him and flashing thumbs up, couple more recognizable faces from where-the-fuck-ever, and his mom and dad standing in the back suddenly, like they teleported there, his dad holding a bottle of Bud. He tilts the beer towards Sean and nods. Sean swallows thickly as he nods back. His mom isn’t even trying to hide her excitement, grinning and waving and acting like she’s at his elementary school play.

Marcus fiddles around on his computer with his headphones on—uber-expensive Beats by Dre DJ headphones that he bought a few weeks ago with money that Sean’s decided not to ask him about. Derek tunes his bass and keeps glancing at the crowd, expressionless. Sean sets up the microphone and plugs it in then throws his guitar strap over his shoulder and across his chest, holding the neck of it like he’s trying to strangle the damn thing as he stares at the amp.

The clock in the back of the bar says it’s 7:55. Five minutes until show time. Sean faces the stool in front of the mic stand set up on stage. Another mic’s in front of Derek, and Sean notices it at the same moment Derek notices him noticing it. Sean raises his eyebrows. Derek shrugs.

“Figured you might need some back up,” Derek says.

Sean smiles and nods, facing the crowd again. Three band members. Two mics. One stage. The stage they’re standing on. They’re actually standing on a stage, doing all the same things they’ve been doing in the garage at his parent’s house for the past six months, only with about forty people filling Dill’s Tavern now, which is about twenty more people than Sean’s ever seen in this place at one time before. All waiting for them to do that thing they’ve only been doing in a garage up until now.

Now Sean really feels like he’s about to puke, and he turns back to Derek and Marcus.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” he says, the words barely loud enough for them to hear.

“Stop it,” Marcus says, opening his eyes wide and pointing at Sean. “Don’t start. You know damn well we’ve practiced this shit to death. You’ll be fine.”

Sean stares at his little brother for a little while then shakes his head.

“Aren’t I supposed to be the one saying that shit to you?”

“None of us do what we’re supposed to do,” Marcus says, shrugging and going back to clicking around on his computer. “Get over it.”

Sean closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, then opens them and looks at Derek.

“You ready?” he asks.

“Am I ready?” Derek says, snorting a little and looking at Sean like he’s crazy. “Are you ready?”

“I’m fine,” Sean says, looking at Marcus. “You ready?”

“I was born ready,” Marcus says.

“Really, Marcus?” Derek groans. “‘I was born ready?’ What is this, like, West Side Story or something?”

“Bro, shut up.”

“Same set as usual?” Sean says.

“Sean,” Derek says, leveling his eyes at him. “We only know twelve songs. I wouldn’t call it a set. I’d say it’s our whole repertoire.”

Sean’s about to tell him to stop being a dick when he finally recognizes Derek’s hostility for what it is: a side effect of his nervousness. Which makes Sean not feel so bad about the fact that he wants to run out of this place at full speed. He reaches over and pats Derek on the shoulder.

“Kristina coming out?”

“No,” Derek says, like Sean’s crazy.

“Cool,” he says.

“Let’s get this over with,” Derek says, sighing.

“Right,” Sean says, taking a deep breath and turning back to the mic. He taps it and the sound of his finger against the metal travels through the mic, through all the wires and into the speakers above their heads, set up on ceiling mounts, erupting in a burst of bass that makes Sean flinch. Forty pairs of eyes suddenly focus on him and the place goes quiet. The light shining right in his face makes it hard to see, but still he can feel those eyes, probing, hoping, waiting. For him to play. For him to fail.

Sean’s parents yell something he can’t understand and the crowd chuckles collectively. Sean squints, trying to see them. No use, so he closes his eyes and tries to figure out how to make his palms stop sweating, how to make the icicles in his heart melt away.

And suddenly, Sean gets an image in his head of the entire room disappearing, and wonders if he’s got enough imagination to open his eyes and pretend there’s actually nobody in here. Nobody alive at least. But imagining a room full of dead bodies seems kind of morbid, and distracting. Until he realizes that’s exactly what he’s seeing behind his eyes. Right there, behind his closed eyelids, the image of the room shifts and changes until he’s seeing people that aren’t supposed to be there. The faces drift in and out of focus, but the resemblance is unmistakable: Jimi Hendrix with his afro and lazy eyes; Kurt Cobain sitting with a glass of something brown and dirty-looking, his stringy hair covering most of his face; Janis Joplin laughing in the corner with Freddy Mercury; Bradley Nowell with a cloud of smoke around his head, grinning and nodding. And right up front, at the closest table to the stage: Leon, sticking his tongue out and raising his hand, fist closed with his index and pinky forming devil’s horns and pointed at the sky.

Sean opens his eyes and the image wavers, threatens to float away, then suddenly stabilizes, merging with the reality of it all to create a mirage, and in that instant Sean’s skin cools, this calmness coming over him like a cloak. He leans into the mic and it rings a little so he moves away from it, clearing his throat. The sound reverberates through the room and he forces a smile.

“Hi,” he says, and his voice sounds weird coming from the speaker overhead, bouncing off the back wall with an echo so delayed it sounds like somebody else is repeating his words right after him.

“We are,” he says, glancing at Derek, “Whatever.

There’s a round of applause loud enough to be encouraging. Sean tries to think of something else to say, but can’t think of anything so he just turns around to Marcus and Derek and nods. Marcus nods back, presses a button and drum sticks tap against each other, erupting from the speakers. Sean takes a deep breath and turns back to the crowd, raising his pick, arranging his fingers on the correct power chord and launching into Bush’s “Machinehead.”

Sean expects to fuck up—almost fucks himself up on purpose actually, so he can get it over with, apologize to these people for wasting their time then walk over to the bar and get shitfaced, avoiding everybody’s eyes for the rest of the night. His fingers seem to think that’s a stupid fucking idea though, and before he knows it his mouth is half an inch from the microphone and he’s crooning into it, making love to the thing is what it feels like as he belts out the lyrics: “breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in,” and he lets the chords ring, wiggling his finger against the strings after each riff and closing his eyes so he doesn’t have to see the people’s reactions, can just feel the music coming through his mouth and fingers.

Sean takes this energy into the guitar solo, stepping away from the mic and concentrating not just on getting every note right, but on getting them out loud and clear, letting the ones that are supposed to expand ring through the room, jerking through the fluttery notes to create this hard, somber flow, then closing his eyes again to really feel the vibrations, the tremor from Derek who’s beating the bass out of his guitar, pounding Sean in the chest, then he’s back at the mic and now there’s not just an echo but an amplified substance in his voice and it takes Sean a moment to realize Derek’s mouth’s pressed against his mic, eyes closed, singing along with him, so Sean closes his eyes again and fills his lungs with air and lets it all out.

By the end of the song, Sean’s forgotten they’re in Dill’s. He’s back in his parents’ garage, with his best friend and little brother making music and loving every fucking moment of it. He lets go of his guitar and it hangs loosely around his neck, the echo of that last power chord and beat of the bass guitar ringing through the room. Sean opens his eye, his ears humming, and turns to Marcus and Derek who are doing their thing—Marcus fiddling with his computer as usual, Derek pretending to retune his guitar as usual, both of them grinning and sweating.

Then Sean hears something that makes the skin on the back of his neck tingle: a clap.

Just one at first, then a few more, and when he turns back to the crowd he sees a couple of people playing darts in the back, another couple playing pool, a group talking in a corner booth with a couple of beer mugs surrounding them, and a whole lot of eyes on him, Marcus and Derek. Eyes attached to smiling faces, and now there’s a lot more than just one clap. The applause that breaks out rises and falls as one entity, and the energy in the room is unmistakable. The message is clear: there’s no disappointment here. Sure, it’s not Madison Square Garden, and they’re not Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it’s enough. And now that he thinks about it, it always will be, as long as he feels the way he just felt playing that song.

Sean glances at his parents and his mom is hopping around, both thumbs up. His dad looks more relieved than anything. With confidence flowing through Sean like electricity, like he’s the one connected to the amp, he walks up to the mic again.

“That was Bush’s ‘Machinehead,’” he says, clearing his throat and looking around the room. He tries to think of something to say, some witty banter like all the good performers do, but he draws a blank. So he just turns and points at Marcus. “Marcus Easton, my little brother, on the”—Sean pauses—“Synthetic drums, I guess you’d call it. And Derek over here on bass and backup vocals. I’m Sean Easton on lead guitar and vocals and again, we are Whatever.”

A couple of hoots and claps and Sean turns back to Derek, shrugging. Marcus starts the drumsticks tapping and they launch into Radiohead’s “Creep.” Then it’s the rest of their set: Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” and “Faith”; Korn’s “A.D.I.D.A.S.”; Chevelle’s “Point #1”; Puddle of Mudd’s “She Hates Me”; Offspring’s “Self Esteem”; Green Day’s “Brainstew”; System of a Down’s “Aerials”; Sublime’s “Santeria”; Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams”; wrapping it up with Sean’s favorite: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

There’s highs and lows. Sean fumbles the strings a couple of times on “Aerials” and “Sweet Dreams”, and Marcus’s computer has a brain fart or something at one point and stutters through a drum solo (which actually ends up sounding kind of cool, like they meant for it to happen, so Sean just rolls with it). In those moments, Sean can feel the heat of embarrassment rising up his neck to the top of his head, threatening to consume him and force him to fuck up a lot more than five seconds of a single song, but then he imagines dead rock stars again and pushes through the haze and it’s like he never fumbled at all. Like he added his own little twist to each track.

Sean wonders, at one point, if that’s how it is for actual rock stars. Then he stops caring and just enjoys the ride.

When they’re done, Sean takes the guitar from around his neck and puts it on the guitar stand then steps back up to the microphone. He rubs his fingers together, the grooves where the strings ground into his fingertips hurting so fucking good. He coughs a little, his throat raw, and smiles at the people smiling back at him.

“Thank you,” he says. “Again, we are Whatever. Hope you enjoyed.” He pauses for just a second before he speaks again, not really knowing what he’s going to say until it’s out: “We dedicate this show to our lost friend, Leon Jimenez. Love you, bro. Miss you always.”

The applause that breaks out startles Sean, way louder than he thought this small group of people could be. It’s enough for him, Marcus and Derek to just stand there for a minute and bask in.

The applause ends soon enough and Marcus and Derek pound each other’s fist then pound Sean’s. Marcus closes his computer and Derek turns to put his bass back in its case and they all silently pick up their stuff and head outside as Dill’s settles back into the normal hum of random conversations, and just like that it’s over, almost like they never played to begin with. And at the same time, things feel so much different. After they’ve put their stuff in the car they hurry back inside, weaving through congratulatory handshakes towards the bar where Sean and Marcus’s parents are still standing. Sean’s mom runs up to him and throws her arms around his shoulders, squeezing him.

“That was amazing, honey,” she says. “I didn’t know you had such a voice.” She tilts her head to the side a little, thoughtfully. “A lot of screaming, and I didn’t really understand most of what you were saying. But it seemed to entertain your friends.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Sean says, rolling his eyes.

“Was so damn nervous,” Derek says, laughing and looking more insecure than Sean thinks he’s ever seen him.

“Me too,” Sean says. “But that shit was amazing.”

Derek nods as Sean’s dad steps up next to his wife and puts a hand on Sean’s shoulder, squeezing gently and smiling. He stares at Sean for a moment before clearing his throat.

“You know I used to play the guitar,” he says, then nods at his mother. “Before I met her and she made me stop. Said guitars were for hippies.”

Sean’s mother slaps his dad lightly on the arm, and Sean knows that’s his way of saying he liked their performance. And he realizes then that this banter with the people he loves—this acceptance of what he’s been wasting his time on for the past seven months—is what he was searching for all along.

There’s a few more pats on the back from other people milling around the bar, telling him it was fun, glad they came, things like that. Sean’s parents leave after a moment, Sean coaxing them into letting Marcus stay with them as long as he promises not to let him drink (one beer won’t hurt, Sean thinks). Two chicks from the back who Sean’s never seen before buy him and Derek a couple of shots and Sean gets one of their numbers and—for like half a second—he feels like he’s got groupies.

And though it’s not blatantly stated by any one person in the place, Sean can tell Whatever’s debut performance wasn’t a blockbuster event. They’re a cover band who performed non-original material in a tiny bar in South Miami. There are no talent agents in the building, no contracts for three-album record deals on the horizon, and Sean feels both disappointed and stupid for entertaining the faint thought that this thing would cause them to blow up overnight. But still—nobody booed them, and everybody looks happy, and as Sean stands there next to his parents and brother and best friend, listening to people’s compliments, he feels enough motivation to want to keep this thing going for the foreseeable future.

Sean turns to the bar and asks Debbie the bartender for a shot of Patron and a beer and she smiles, disappears then comes back a moment later to drop the shot and a Bud in front of him.

“On me,” she says.

Sean raises an eyebrow, glances at the drinks then looks back at her.

“Thanks,” he says.

“You guys sounded good,” she says, winking and shaking her head. “Whatever. Like the name.”

Sean raises his glass and she nods then walks away. And hearing somebody else say it, it finally hits him that they’re officially a band, that they’ve done everything that an actual band does. There’s a huge paradigm shift that takes place in that moment, and Sean realizes that up until now he’s been thinking of Whatever as him, Derek, and Marcus pretending to be an actual band. He always associated rock music with fame, success, platinum records and articles in Rolling Stone and groupies and stacks of money and drugs and alcohol.

But a band is exactly what its definition says it is: a group.

In this case, a group of people playing music together.

They are a band.

They are Whatever.

Derek, grinning ear to ear, throws Sean a thumbs up sign. Sean throws one back and chugs his beer, orders one more, and he’s so fucking happy he doesn’t even know what to do with the overflow of emotion.

Then his pocket vibrates and the mood of the night suddenly shifts. He pulls his phone out and sees a number he doesn’t recognize, presses Talk and puts it to his ear.

“Hello?” he says.

“Sean?” the voice is strong, gruff, but definitely feminine.

“Yeah,” he says, realizing he’s tipsy and taking another sip of his beer.

“This is Caitlyn,” the voice says. “Lauren’s sister.”

It take him a second to find Lauren’s name in his memory banks. Apparently a second too long for Lauren’s sister.

“Lauren?” she says exasperated. “The woman you took to your place after work and fucked nine months ago? And I swear if you say ‘which one’ this conversation is—”

Somebody yells something in the background and there’s a bunch of rustling and a muffled conversation and when Caitlyn comes back on the line, she sounds calmer. Sean just stands there with the phone to his ear, extremely confused.

“Do you know who I’m talking about?” she asks.

“I know who Lauren is, Caitlyn,” Sean says. “What does she want?”

“We need you to come to the hospital,” she says. “It’s an emergency.”

Sean feels a lot of conflicting emotions at that, the most of which is instant anger. This is not what he wanted to hear after he just had the biggest rush of his life.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because it’s your duty as—”

There’s a bunch of static and it sounds like something smacks into the phone and Sean pulls it away from his ear. There’s a beep and the call disconnects and Sean stares at the blazing Call End sign displayed on the screen. Derek puts a hand on his shoulder.

“What happened?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Sean says, shrugging. “Nothing, I guess.”

The phone rings again and Sean picks it up, puts it to his ear without saying a word. Caitlyn doesn’t hesitate.

“My sister would like me to ask you—kindly—if you’d please pass by Baptist Hospital at your earliest convenience, as a favor to her.”

“Why?” Sean asks again, feeling like a prick though he really has no idea why he should.

“Because—” she starts to yell, then pauses, her voice leveling out. “Because it would be a generous thing to do, and because Lauren really wants you here.”

This makes Sean frown so hard his forehead hurts, even while it’s making him feel kind of warm inside. Why Lauren would want him at the hospital while she’s being admitted for whatever reason is a question he can’t see there being a sane answer for. But it seems oddly sweet in its own way, considering he’s only hung out with the girl twice, and only one of those encounters ended in any sort of desirable fashion.

“She wants me there?” he asks.

“Yes,” Caitlyn says, then there’s more talking in the background. “She says she’ll explain when you get here.” Caitlyn pauses. “Is Derek with you?” she asks.

“Derek?” Sean says, and Derek looks up at him. “Yeah, he’s here. Why? You want to talk to him.”

“No,” she says quickly. “I just—” She clears her throat and there’s another muffled conversation in the background. “Just hurry up. Room 1298.” Then she hangs up and Sean’s left wondering what the fuck is going on.

“What the hell was that about?” Marcus asks.

“I don’t know,” Sean says, looking at Derek. “That was Lauren’s sister.”

“Caitlyn?” Derek says, and he sounds so surprised and…happy that Sean almost forgets why she called. He doesn’t get what’s going on—the haze of alcohol and the continued high of tonight’s performance are making shit even harder to understand—but he’s feeling like there’s a lot of things happening here that he doesn’t know about, things that other people do know about, and this withholding of information is starting to piss him of.

“Yeah,” Sean says slowly. “She wants us to meet her at Baptist.”

“Is she ok?” he asks, and no doubt about it: there’s fear in his voice.

“Yeah,” Sean says. “She asked about you actually. She’s not being admitted, Lauren is. She wants me to come through.” Sean pauses. “I have no idea why.”

“Oh,” Derek says, and he’s definitely avoiding Sean’s eyes. “She probably just wants to see you.”

He goes quiet again and doesn’t comment on Caitlyn asking about him.

“Caitlyn asked about you,” Sean repeats.

“Oh,” Derek says again. “That’s weird.” He doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s weird at all.

“What the hell’s going on?” Marcus asks.

“Good question,” Sean says.

“Are we going?” Derek asks. “I’ll drive.”

“Going where?” Marcus asks.

“The hospital,” Sean says.

“Why?” Marcus asks, a look of concern touching the corners of his eyes. “Everything ok?”

“Yeah,” Sean says. “We’re visiting Lauren.”

“Who the fuck is Lauren?”

“Somebody,” Sean says, still watching Derek. “Nobody. We’re just going.” He points at Derek. “At some point you are going to tell me what the fuck this is all about.”

“I don’t know what this is all about,” Derek says, standing and shaking his head. “But I’m pretty sure we’ll all find out when we get there.”


-31-

Lauren’s filling out the paperwork and lying back on her bed wearing a hospital gown when her mom comes storming into the room with Rick groaning behind her.

“I really wish you’d called me before you let them admit her here,” her mom says to Caitlyn. Caitlyn rolls her eyes.

“What happened?” Lauren asks Rick.

“Nothing,” he says. “The receptionist mixed up your info and sent us to the wrong room. Then when they put us in the right direction, one of the doctors told her you were in good hands so she should stop causing a commotion.” He gives her mother a steely stare. “Said she was disturbing the other patients.”

“Mail order degrees do not qualify you to be a doctor,” she says flippantly. “This place is running like we’re still in the 60’s.”

“How’s Justin?” Lauren asks Rick, ignoring her mother.

“He’s watching some movie in the kid’s area,” Rick says. “They’ve got an attendant, but I don’t want to leave him alone too long. How you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Lauren says.

“You’d be much more fine if they actually acted like a first rate medical center,” her mother says, “and not some third world hole-in-the-wall abortion clinic. How long have you been here now? When’s the last time somebody even poked their head in to see how you’re doing?”

“Mom,” Lauren groans. “Please don’t start with this. Everything’s fine. They’re taking care of me. I’m not dilated enough yet, there’s nothing anybody can do but wait.”

“It’s not right though,” she grumbles. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. They’re not doing something they should be doing.” She points at Caitlyn. “She told me you were in an unusual amount of pain. Are they doing anything about that?”

“The doctor’s said the baby’s positioning caused very brief oxygen loss,” Lauren says. “That’s all. They shifted around a little and I’m fine now. Please, calm down.”

She grumbles something then falls quiet, relenting. Caitlyn, standing in the corner of the room with her arms crossed, looks at her mother with a mixture of awe and disgust. Lauren chuckles in spite of herself. Rick chuckles too, patting her foot.

“So happy right now, babe,” he says. Lauren’s smile immediately drops. Rick takes a seat in the chair he set up earlier next to her, grabs hold of her hand and kisses it. His eyes are clearer than Lauren’s ever seen them. Over the past couple of months, they adopted this perpetual remorseful tint whenever he looked at Lauren. Now he actually looks happy. Lauren feels so bad for him in that moment that she has to look away. He doesn’t deserve what she knows is about to go down. He doesn’t deserve anything but happiness. Nobody deserves anything less. Lauren knows that now. She wants to release him from this purgatory, give him the freedom to go out and live the rest of his life without regret.

Rick notices her getting emotional and squeezes her hand.

“So happy,” he says again, with less conviction. He knows something’s up, but he thinks it has to do with the baby. Which, Lauren guesses, it does. Caitlyn hasn’t said a word to Rick, not since she called him to come over here. Which would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that she won’t even look him in the eye. Lauren wishes she would at least be her normal bitchy self. Right now she’s like a statue in the corner though, not speaking to anybody. After she got off the phone with Sean, then Rick, then their mother, she shut her mouth and has said maybe five words to Lauren since. In this, she is exactly like their mother: anger leading to either rants and raves or the silent treatment. She’s obviously opted for the latter.

Lauren doesn’t blame Caitlyn for being mad at her though. Her sister’s all about trust. Part of the reason she’s so skeptical about men is because she believes it’s impossible to trust a “creature that thinks with its genitals; genitals have no sense of loyalty” (her exact words).

So Lauren gets it. Caitlyn feels betrayed. The idea that Lauren would wait this long to tell her something as important as the father of her child not being who she thought it was doesn’t sit well with her, though Lauren would like to point out that nobody knew, and Caitlyn was technically the first to find out.

Lauren’s mother and Rick have been hovering every since they showed up though, making it impossible for Lauren to reconcile with her sister without telling them everything, which she’s not ready to do yet.

Lauren’s mother paces the room, touching instruments she shouldn’t be touching and tsking every few seconds. With that going on, Rick sitting next to her with dreamy eyes, and Caitlyn standing in the corner fuming, it’s eerily silent in here. Awkwardly silent, and depressing, like Lauren’s seconds away from being euthanized rather than bringing new life into the world.

“Did you finish the paperwork?” Rick asks.

Lauren picks up the clipboard on her lap. She filled out all of the sections of the birth certificate but the lines asking for the father and the baby’s name. The former she can’t write because she doesn’t want Rick to find out like that; the latter she can’t fill out until she finds out the sex of the baby. She’s spent the better part of six months trying to figure out what to name this child, running over both boys and girls names in her head and coming up with nothing. She doesn’t know what that means, if it means anything.

“I’m almost done,” Lauren says. “Just resting a little.”

“I can fill it out for you,” he says.

“No, I got it,” Lauren says.

Rick shrugs and smiles.

“You look so worried,” he says. “Everything’s going to be fine, babe. The doctor says all your vitals look great, and the baby’s fine.”

“I know,” she whispers. Rick fake pouts a little, sticking out his bottom lip and rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb in a gesture that is so mushy and sweet it makes her nose tingle. Lauren closes her eyes and suddenly wishes more than anything that this baby was Rick’s. Not out of love, but out of pity. Because this is going to kill him. Which is exactly, she realizes in that moment, the real reason she never told him the truth. The moment she told him she was pregnant, standing in the doorway of their apartment eight months ago, his face changed. He instantly aligned himself with the identity of fathering a second child, and she was so angry at him and the world for putting her in that position that she just let him think it, knowing eventually she’d be able to bring his world crashing down.

Apparently her subconscious mind has a touch of sadism.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she says, echoing him. She pauses for a long time, opening her eyes and making sure to catch his. “Eventually,” she adds.

Rick smiles, seemingly not noticing her tone. Lauren looks to Caitlyn for some sort of help, reassurance, anything. Nothing from that end though. She won’t even look in Lauren’s direction. Lauren closes her eyes again, feels the baby squirming around in her belly, anxious. Lauren wants to tell him—or her—not to rush it. You can’t go back once you’re out, and it’s a one way street to death after that. No choice but to weather the storm.

She also thinks that this may be the most depressing childbirth ever.

A contraction hits her then and Lauren sits up, sucking in a deep breath and grabbing Rick’s hand. When it passes, she leans back and a mist of sweat pops up on her forehead. Rick leans back in the same manner, shaking the hand she just squeezed. Lauren’s grateful when the hospital room door opens and the nurse comes in, walking briskly over to the beeping machines hooked up to her arm and belly.

“About time,” Lauren’s mother says, and Lauren glares at her. The nurse ignores her, poking at the beeping monitor next to Lauren.

“Everything’s in order,” she says. “A little faster than I thought, to be honest. But that’s fine. Your contractions are getting closer, so it shouldn’t be long. When they reach about five minutes apart, we’ll start prepping. Doctor Sanchez will be with you in a moment. Until then, just press the button if you need anything.”

“She presses that button and you respond immediately,” Lauren’s mother says, less a question than an order. The nurse nods and walks out without elaborating, and Lauren’s pretty sure her mother’s managed to piss off the entire staff in this place.

Lauren thinks about what “five minutes apart” means, the pain she just felt occurring at intervals moving down to every four minutes, then three, then two, ultimately becoming one constant, pelvic-pounding hurt until her baby’s born. It almost seems fitting too, some sort of penance for the circumstances in which her child was conceived.

Lauren pauses, realizes what her thought just implied, and is suddenly overcome with shame.

Stop this shit, she tells herself.

Do not do that.

Do not turn this pregnancy—the miracle of birth—into an act of penance. This isn’t biblical times. She’s a woman who acted out of emotion, which most human beings tend to do. It was perfectly normal what she did with Sean, a reaction and an action she needs to stop beating herself up about.

And with that thought, Lauren not only forgives herself, but finally realizes that she’s done nothing wrong, that—up until now—she’s been berating herself for how she got pregnant when, in fact, it’s nothing she could have controlled. And nothing she would have wanted to control even if she’d been able to. It was life, happening. And she already loves this baby more than life itself.

Lauren touches Rick’s shoulder. He smiles at her and she opens her mouth to tell him the truth just as the room door opens again and in walks Sean with his roommate and another teenage kid who she assumes is Sean’s brother by the resemblance. Sean takes one long look at Lauren, then Rick, then glances at everybody else. Sean’s roommate’s eyes head straight to Caitlyn, as do the kid’s. Caitlyn chuckles humorlessly.

“Took you fucking long enough,” she says, clapping her hands together. “Let’s get this party started.”


-32-

The moment they get in the car Derek plays the Kevin Hart station on Pandora, so by time they get to Baptist the three of them are giggling like drunken school girls surrounded by hyenas, stumbling through the corridors and getting all types of looks from doctors, nurses, and patients alike. After asking around for a while, they’re finally pointed in the right direction, headed towards room 1298.

When they get to the hall where Lauren’s room is, Sean stops and turns to Marcus and Derek, suddenly serious.

“Alright,” he says. “Chill out. This girl’s hot. Don’t fuck it up for me, go in acting all stupid and shit.”

Marcus gives him a fake, exaggerated look of seriousness and Derek busts out laughing and Sean realizes he probably would’ve been better off just staying quiet. He sighs and walks up to Lauren’s room door, knocks once and opens it and there’s Lauren, lying on a bed with a guy he doesn’t recognize sitting near, her sister standing against the wall next to an older woman he assumes is her mother (seeing as how she and Caitlyn are almost identically hot as shit, like, it should be illegal how hot these women are).

The scene isn’t what Sean expected, but he recovers quickly (thank you, alcohol) and turns to say hi to Caitlyn but she’s looking past him at Derek, smiling. Sean looks at Derek and he’s got a goofy grin on his face too, the two of them staring at each other like they’re on a soap opera. Once again Sean gets that mixture of annoyance and confusion, then Caitlyn points at him.

“Took you fucking long enough,” she says. “Let’s get this party started.”

“Caitlyn!” her mother yells.

“What?” she says, shrugging. “I called them like an hour ago.”

“We couldn’t find the room,” Derek says. “The signs in here are confusing.”

“The lack of direction in this entire place is a travesty,” her mother says, then approaches Derek and Marcus. “I’m Katherine, Lauren and Caitlyn’s mother.”

“Derek,” Derek says, taking her hand and nodding at Sean. “Sean’s friend.”

Marcus reaches his hand out, his eyes never leaving Caitlyn (more specifically, Caitlyn’s tits).

“I’m Marcus,” Marcus says. “Sean’s brother.”

Katherine turns to Sean and he waits for her to hold a hand out or something but she crosses her arms and eyes him suspiciously.

“I’m Sean,” he says, glancing at Marcus. “Just…Sean.”

Nobody says anything for another couple of seconds and Sean looks at Lauren, who is definitely avoiding his eyes. The guy sitting next to her has his arms stiff at his sides, turning his head from Lauren to Sean and back with a look on his face that’s definitely asking why Sean is here. And Sean would love to tell the dude that, just lay it out in front of him, but Sean has no fucking clue why he’s here either.

“So I guess this has turned into a little party,” Katherine says.

“Whoop dee fucking doo,” Caitlyn grumbles, then smiles tiredly at Derek. He smiles back and approaches her and Sean opens his mouth to say something to them but Lauren clears her throat, drawing his attention back in her direction where she’s now staring at him with a smile and watery eyes. Sean approaches the bed, watching Lauren as she takes slow, deep breaths. And it’s during this approach that he finally notices.

“Holy shit, you’re pregnant.”

Lauren nods, still smiling, though the expression looks painful now.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hey,” Sean says. “What’s up?” He cringes a little. “I mean, obviously that’s what up,” he says, pointing at her stomach.

“Yeah,” she says, chuckling. She touches the swell gingerly. “Not too long now.”

“I didn’t know,” he says, his head swirling a bit as he starts to sober up.

“I know,” she says, glancing cautiously at the guy next to her, who’s still staring at Sean with a look of supreme confusion on his face. “Kind of why I called you here.”

Sean raises an eyebrow at that and the guy next to her clears his throat. Sean turns to him and holds his hand out.

“Sean,” he says.

“Rick,” he says, taking Sean’s hand and dropping it all in one motion. “Um, sorry to be blunt, Sean, but, seeing as how nobody else is asking…who are you and why are you here?”

“Rick,” Lauren says. “Be nice.”

“I’m just asking,” he says, keeping his eyes on Sean.

Sean opens his mouth to respond but he still has no clue what to say. As far as he knows—as far as this situation goes at least—he’s nobody. So he shrugs, turns to Caitlyn.

“She called me here,” he says.

Rick nods absently and pats Lauren on her hand. And now she just looks fucking terrified.

“Rick,” she says.

“What is it, babe?” Rick says, leaning in. Hearing the man call her babe gives Sean a sudden flash of jealousy that he tells himself is unwarranted and irrational. Then again, jealousy’s rarely rational as it is.

“You know,” Lauren says, speaking slowly, carefully. “I’m thankful for everything you’ve done these past few months.”

“I try,” he says, smiling and nodding.

“I know,” Lauren says, and as she does, a tear slips down her cheek. “And that’s why it was so hard. Why it is so hard. I didn’t know how to tell you.” She glances at Sean. “Or you, Sean. I still don’t, actually. I didn’t think you’d come if I told you over the phone and I didn’t think you’d understand, Rick, if I told you before. I didn’t want to, don’t want to, even though I always knew I had to.” She swipes at her cheeks and takes a deep breath, her bottom lip quivering. “And at first it was easy because I wanted to hurt you, wanted to save it for the right moment, for”—Lauren motions around the room—“this moment. But then I wasn’t so angry anymore. And then I didn’t tell you because I was just…scared. You too, Sean. Either way, it was wrong, and I want you both to know, before I say anything else, that I don’t mean to hurt you, either of you right now. I really don’t.” Lauren pauses, absently picking at her fingers. “I know it’s going to hurt you, Rick,” she whispers. “But I promise you that isn’t my intention.”

“Babe,” Rick says, his head cocked to the side a little, his face contorted into something between a smile and a grimace. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Yeah,” Sean says, and even though he’s sobering up he’s still tipsy, so there’s no fighting it when he opens his mouth and says “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Yo!” Rick yells suddenly, turning on Sean so quick he jumps back and brings up his hands defensively. “With all due respect, Sean.” He clenches his fists and growls. “Don’t fucking talk to my wife like that.”

“Your wife?” Sean says, then turns to Lauren and yells, “your husband? You’re fucking married?”

“Lauren, who the fuck is this joker?” Rick says, glaring at Sean and then at her. “I want him out of here.”

“Please, Rick,” Lauren says.

“Joker?” Sean says, then laughs and turns to Derek, who’s standing next to Caitlyn and—are they fucking holding hands?—watching this screwed up situation unfold. Caitlyn’s still standing against the wall, fixated, like they’re on a TV screen, Marcus smiling and looking around the room at each person like he knows what’s going on even though it’s obvious he doesn’t. Lauren’s mother has her hand against her forehead and is muttering something. Sean turns back to Rick.

“Joker?” he repeats. “You have no idea buddy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks.

“Rick,” Lauren says.

“Ask her,” Sean says, turning on Lauren. “See what your trusty wife has to say.”

“Boys,” Katherine says from behind them.

“God,” Caitlyn says to Derek. “I can’t believe I actually thought there was a way for this not to be dramatic.”

“Sean,” Lauren says.

“Dude,” Marcus says. “I’m so fucking confused right now.”

“You know what?” Rick says, planting a fist into his palm, which doesn’t look nearly as threatening as he obviously thinks it does. “I don’t care who you are or who told you to come here, I want you all out. Now.”

“My pleasure,” Sean spits. “I didn’t ask for this shit.” Sean turns to Derek. “Fucking up my buzz anyways, should be celebrating right now.”

“Sean’s the father!” Lauren yells.

The silence that hits the room in that moment has substance, expanding the moment the words leave Lauren’s mouth and growing until the room’s practically about to burst with the awkward nothingness that inevitably rides on the coattails of revelations of this magnitude.

In Sean’s mind, he thinks of absolutely fucking nothing for a full ten seconds. Literally, ten seconds of mental blankness. He doesn’t process the words or anything; instead, he tucks himself away and the words just sort of sit outside the door of his mind, knocking lightly at first then more violently until they’re finally trying to break down the fucking door, screaming outside the window like some FBI task force while Sean’s inside his head, rocking back and forth and muttering consoling words to himself, pretending nobody’s out there.

Derek finally stops paying attention to Caitlyn, his eyes wider than should be possible. Marcus is still smiling with his mouth open like somebody just told him a joke and never got to the punch line, like he’s ready to laugh his ass off as soon as he figures out what there is to laugh about.

The silence is quickly demolished when Rick lets out a hoot. Sean turns to him and he’s bent over Lauren’s legs, and Sean thinks he’s crying until Rick stands up straight and Sean sees that he’s laughing so hard his face looks like it’s about to burst. He turns to Sean and laughs even harder, looks over at Caitlyn and her mother and Marcus and his eyes stream tears, his mouth opening wider as he looks at Derek, and puts a hand against his chest.

And unfortunately, the shit’s infectious. Especially when Sean sees how funny the situation actually is, how climactic this all seems and how much it discredits everything that’s been going on with him the past two years, and before he knows it he’s laughing his ass off too, stumbling to the bed. Soon, both Sean and Rick are fucking hysterical, Rick coughing between heaves, Sean swiping at his face like he’s got pink eye or something. Nobody else in the room says a word throughout any of it, which sort of makes things awkward after a while so Rick and Sean have to stop laughing gradually, the madness dying down in levels until they’re both just breathing hard and letting out occasional guffaws.

When it’s completely gone, the silence comes back double time, an ocean of silence rushing in for all of a moment before Rick takes two steps towards Sean, cocks his fist back, and knocks him the fuck out.


–33-

Everything happens kind of fast after that.

Sean hits the ground. Hard.

Lauren hears the slap of his skin against the floor and she can’t help it: she screams.

Then Sean’s roommate takes one step towards Rick and punches him with the same arcing downward strike Rick just punched Sean with. His fist connects with a crack and Rick hits the ground too, and Lauren can’t help it this time either: she screams again.

Lauren’s mother stands next to her with a hand on her forehead, shaking her head.

“This is bad, so bad,” she says, over and over again.

Sean’s roommate bends over after hitting Rick, groaning and holding his punching hand. Sean’s brother screams something inaudible, some sort of primitive warrior battle cry and attempts to finish Rick off, but Sean’s roommate stands quickly in his way, grabbing him and restraining him while grimacing and holding his injured hand in the air.

“Derek,” Caitlyn yells, showing an uncharacteristic and oddly intimate amount of concern for Derek as she hops over to him. She gingerly checks his hand, elevating it and hugging him a little as she helps him and Sean’s enraged brother towards the door. Lauren absently wonders how long that’s been going on, a little upset that Caitlyn didn’t tell her and has the audacity to be mad at her for not revealing who the father of her baby was.

And while all of this is happening, Lauren lies immobile on the bed, trying to slow her breathing because her contractions are coming with increasing frequency now. Before the trio of Caitlyn, Derek, and Sean’s brother can leave though, the door opens and the nurse comes back in. She surveys the room and sees Rick on the floor groaning, Sean staring at the ceiling and blinking rapidly, Caitlyn holding Derek’s hand up as it quickly turns purple, and Lauren on the bed hyperventilating.

“What’s going on in here?” she asks angrily.

“Forget the details,” Lauren’s mother says loudly. She points at Sean, then Rick, then Derek. “These men all need medical attention.” She turns back to Lauren. “And I believe my daughter is about to have a baby.”

“Ok,” the nurse says sternly, putting a hand on her hip. “I need everybody out of here. Now, before I call security.”

“No,” Lauren says. Breathe in, out. “She stays,” she gasps, pointing at her mom, who steps towards her as Lauren reaches out for her hand. The affection Lauren sees in her eyes then is something only a mother can muster.

Lauren doesn’t know if Sean and Rick hear the nurse’s order or not—both of them continue to lie on the floor, moaning and rolling around—but after a moment the nurse sighs and rolls her eyes, finally calling somebody to come in and help them out of the room. As they leave, Derek follows behind with Caitlyn and Marcus. Then Lauren’s alone with the nurse and her mother. A few moments later Dr. Sanchez comes in and almost the moment he approaches her Lauren’s hit with one final gut-wrenching contraction that seems to last for days, her mother next to her the whole time holding her hand. Lauren swoons in and out, the pain alternating between bearable and unbearable, and Lauren is vaguely conscious of Dr. Sanchez’s head between her legs. He keeps disappearing beneath her gown, popping up every few seconds, gently coaxing her along in a voice that never used to bother her but is unnerving now.

“Just breathe, Lauren,” he says, repeatedly. “Breathe in, out, in, out, breathe.”

“I am fucking breathing,” Lauren yells, squeezing her mom’s hand even harder and yelling at her, “Tell him to stop fucking telling me to breathe, I am fucking breathing.”

“I know, baby,” she says. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” Lauren screams. “Get this thing out of me.”

“Almost there, baby,” her mother says, stepping over to where Dr. Sanchez’s head is, and the look of disgust on her face is very clear, even as she tries to hide it with a smile that looks very much like a scowl. “Just breathe,” she echoes.

Lauren groans loudly, a sound that doesn’t taper off at the end like it normally would but seems to evolve into something ancient, guttural, until it feels like her lungs are about to explode out of her mouth at the same time everything below her lungs is seemingly going to explode out of her vagina. This is not just the feeling she has, but the thought, the vivid image that travels through her head and is so horrifying she’s reminded of every slasher film she’s ever seen, along with all those Alien and Predator movies, and then the thought of the Alien films makes her think of those face-huggers in the movies that plant alien eggs in the ship crews’ lungs, leaving them there to incubate and mature and grow until they’re ready to hatch by bursting out of the infected person’s chest, and at this point she realizes she’s screaming so loud her voice is cracking and failing, dying more and more with each breath she takes. The pain that began in her lower abdomen—what seems like years ago—spreads throughout her entire body now, reaching every nerve ending of every appendage until it’s like Lauren’s no longer Lauren, no longer a single human being but part of some much larger organism: the embodiment of “Pain.”

And at that moment, in that instant of total immersion in the sensation, Lauren can’t help but also feel a sense of wonder at the completeness of the experience. Because right there, right now, for the first time in as long as she can remember, there is nothing outside of her, nothing outside of this. She opens her eyes and she’s in this room, her mother staring at her with wide eyes, Dr. Sanchez raising his head and his mouth forming the word “Push”—she can’t hear anything over the wailing in her ears, which on some level she understands is her own voice still screaming—but there’s nothing outside of this room, almost as if this entire area has been transported to the vacuum of space. And as her stomach ripples and she involuntary clenches everything within her, she has the fleeting thought—even as she’s wishing for it just to be over, for this pressure and pain to just go away—that she could be content here, in this moment forever. Because it is whole, free of worry or expectation. Just emotion and pain, raw and natural. Nothing more, nothing less.

Then there’s a release and suddenly the pain and pressure’s gone, and it’s so sweet that Lauren wonders what the fuck she was thinking.

She blinks a few times, spots swimming in front of her eyes, slowly disappearing to reveal Dr. Sanchez’s face, his smiling mouth as he hands Lauren a beautiful, squirming, oily baby girl, and Lauren immediately forgets everything that just transpired. Her mother wipes her sweaty forehead with a cool towel and her eyes glisten. Lauren stares at her daughter, slowly glancing up at her mother, who looks back down at Lauren, smiles and nods.

“You’ve got a mouth on you,” she says.

Lauren keeps staring at her, not having the energy to respond.

“You won’t remember it,” she says. “Which is probably for the best. But you were very inventive. I’m glad that Sean fellow wasn’t here to hear it. I don’t think that would be a good way to start a relationship.” She pauses. “If that is, in fact, what you two plan on doing. Not necessary, of course.” She crosses her arms and shakes her head, then looks away. “You could have told me.”

“I didn’t tell anybody, Mom,” Lauren says hoarsely, smiling at her. “In case you didn’t notice the chaos.”

Her mother’s eyes search Lauren’s, and she brushes a lock of hair out of her face.

“Doesn’t matter,” she says, putting a finger against the bundle in Lauren’s arms. “She’s beautiful.”

Lauren readjusts her daughter in her arms, trying to imagine what she’s going to name her. Then she stops thinking and enjoys the feel of her gentle body, her legs involuntarily kicking beneath the blankets.

“Welcome to the world, baby girl,” Lauren whispers, and she starts crying and smiling at the same time. “Hope your time here’s less stressful than mine’s been so far.”


-34-

Sean wakes up in darkness, so he doesn’t really know he’s awake until a door opens and a light turns on, blinding him and bringing all his senses back in one swift burst of:

“Fuck,” he whispers, closing his eyes again.

The left side of his face feels like it’s trying to separate from the rest of his body, and when he opens his eyes again—squinting—he can’t see anything but a hazy silhouette of a person in front of him. It takes him a moment to realize the figure is talking to him.

“Sean,” it says. “Sean, can you hear me?”

Sean grunts and rubs his eyes, curses again when his hand brushes his swollen cheek. When he brings his hand down he can see again, and surveys the room.

First pertinent point he notices: Derek and Marcus standing in the doorway, Derek’s arm in a sling, his hand wrapped in gauze. Marcus is next to him, chewing on his lip and shuffling his weight from foot to foot.

They both look worried, and Sean can’t figure out why until he looks down and notices the second pertinent point: he’s lying on a hospital bed. It’s a double occupancy room, a middle aged guy sleeping restlessly on the other bed. The man keeps twitching and muttering something, a white blanket covering him up to the waist.

The third thing Sean notices: the figure in the room, standing next to the bed, wearing a doctor’s coat and holding a clipboard. He feels an inkling of familiarity, and as his vision focuses Sean’s throat clamps shut and he’s barely able to squeak out:

“Maria.”

Maria smiles. Sean dated the girl for three years, so he knows her facial expressions. This is her I’m going to act like everything’s okay for the sake of the other people in this room, but really you’re fucking pissing me off, Sean smile.

“What happened?” Sean asks, even as the memory slides into his mind and he sees Rick’s fist coming at his face. He winces again. “Shit,” he says.

Derek and Marcus keep staring at him.

“What day is it, Sean?” Maria asks him.

Sean thinks about it for a second and remembers Whatever’s performance earlier.

“Friday,” he says.

Maria pulls a pen out and puts it in front of his face abruptly. Sean flinches away and she clicks something and suddenly there’s a light in his face.

“Follow the light,” she says.

“It hurts,” Sean says.

“Your head?”

“No,” Sean says. “I mean, yeah. But the light.”

“Just follow the damn light, Sean.”

Sean does what she says, and soon there’s another click and the light goes out, leaving spots in front of his eyes. Maria puts the pen away and puts her palm to his head. Her hands are still soft.

“Any nausea?” she asks.

“No,” Sean grumbles.

Maria nods and takes a step back, crossing her arms.

“I should have just let them arrest you,” she says, glaring at him so hard he swears he can feel it in his forehead, like a laser. “I work here, Sean. This is my job.”

“Shit,” Sean says again.

And you’re drunk,” Maria adds, wrinkling her nose. “You stink.” She shakes her head and uncrosses her arms, putting her hands on her hips. “Did it occur to you that getting a call that my ex-boyfriend just got in a fight in the maternity ward would reflect badly on me?”

“I didn’t start it,” Sean says, sitting up and wincing at the cracking pain that rushes through his head. “The guy decked me. Believe me, I didn’t ask for that.”

“Actually, you kind of did,” Marcus says, glancing at Derek. “When you…uh…got his wife pregnant?”

“Kid’s got a point,” Derek says.

“Shut up,” Sean says.

“What?” Maria says, eyes wide.

“Thanks for telling me by the way, asshole,” Marcus says. “Thought brothers shared shit like that.”

“I didn’t know she was married,” Sean says. “Or pregnant.”

“Doesn’t really change it though,” Derek says. “I’d have hit you too.”

“You’re not helping,” Sean snaps, glaring at him. He shrugs and Marcus laughs.

Maria looks from Derek to Sean to the ceiling.

“I don’t want to know anymore,” she says, throwing her hands up. “Just keep it down. There are people trying to rest around here.”

As if on cue, the old guy in the other bed lets out a snort, grumbles something about pecan pie then quiets down again.

“Put some ice on that and take some ibuprofen,” Maria says, pointing at Sean’s cheek. Sean studies her face and she seems a little older. Not like old-woman older, just more experienced. It fits her. Concern touches her eyes, crinkling the corners. “And stay out of trouble, Sean. You’re better than this.”

“You sure about that?” Sean asks, and Maria smiles, shaking her head and turning away.

At the door she pauses, surveying Marcus and Derek.

“Nice seeing you again, Derek,” she says. “Sorry about you and Kristina.”

“Don’t mention it,” he says, shrugging and glancing at Sean.

“Things always happen for a reason,” she says.

“Yeah,” Derek says quietly.

“Marcus,” Maria says.

“Maria,” Marcus says, holding his chin higher than normal and meeting Maria’s eyes with wavering confidence. Sean feels pride knowing that the gesture’s meant for his benefit, even though it’s totally unnecessary.

“You look good,” Maria says.

Marcus’s eyes drop and he smiles.

Around a woman as beautiful as Maria? The kid didn’t stand a chance.

Sean watches her as she steps around Derek and Marcus, who opens the door for her. Sean waits for the sinking feeling in his stomach as he watches her walk away, the same one he felt almost two years ago when she walked out of their apartment. But instead there’s only relief. He has no idea where the relief’s coming from. All he knows is he’s been beating the crap out of himself for a really long time over things he never had control of, and now he’s done. Just like that.

Maybe that’s what grief actually is, a mask of shitty existence that covers up the inside of a person’s psyche, where all the actual recovery work is going on. Then one day you wake up and the grief is gone and you’ve got a scab where it used to be. And soon, the scab turns into a scar, one of those faint marks somebody notices on your arm or leg and asks you where you got it and you have to think about it for a really long time before you remember and tell them about the incident like it’s something that happened to somebody else.

Sometime in the past few months, Sean actually got over Maria. And—on a smaller scale—Leon. He was just spending too much time getting fucked up to notice.

Sean lies back on the bed as the door closes and Derek and Marcus walk over. Marcus stands next to him and stares at his face with a look of disgust.

“You look like shit,” he says.

“Thanks,” Sean says, chuckling and wincing at the same time.

“Seriously,” Marcus says. “This is like the craziest night. That was fucking intense.”

“How is she?” Sean asks.

“Who?” Marcus says, and Derek looks at him like he’s stupid. Marcus shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “Oh yeah, Lauren.” He pauses, his eyes getting all cloudy. “Her sister is so hot.”

Derek smacks him in the head and Marcus winces.

“She had the baby about an hour ago,” Derek says.

“How long have I been out?” Sean asks.

“You woke up for a minute in the room, then when we put you here you fell asleep for like an hour.”

“Shit,” Sean says. “That dude Rick’s got a fucking hook.”

“Guy was a prick,” Derek says.

Sean points at Derek’s bandaged arm in the sling. Derek flexes his hand a little and grimaces, then shrugs, giving Sean a crooked smile.

“Seriously,” Derek says. “A prick.”

They both laugh at that, then groan in pain, then laugh again.

“You guys sound old,” Marcus says.

“Fuck you,” Derek says, then looks at Sean. “Let’s go see your daughter?”

“It’s a girl?” Sean squeaks, his throat clamping shut again, this time with so much force he starts coughing. His balls shrivel up so fast they feel like they’re jetting up into his stomach. When the coughs subside he looks at Derek. “I have a daughter?”

“Yup.”

Sean lets that sink in for a moment as he stands up from the bed, his head getting light.

“I have a daughter,” he repeats, whispering.

“Yeah, dude,” Marcus says, hopping to the door. “How the fuck did that happen?”

“Well, you see, Marcus,” Derek starts. “Sometimes, when a man and a woman like each other, they do this thing where—”

“Screw you, man,” Marcus says, opening the door and trudging along behind Sean and Derek, Sean’s heart hammering so hard in his chest he’s scared he might have a heart attack before he even gets a chance to see his fucking daughter.

His. Daughter.

Shit.


-35-

Lauren sleeps for a long time and dreams she’s in a room with her daughter in her arms. The place is enormous, one of those aquarium rooms like the ones they have at Sea World in Orlando, surrounded with thick glass so you can look out into the body of water on the other side and see all the animals swimming around. Only, rather than animals in this one, there’s a sea of swimming faces. There’s Lauren’s mother. Caitlyn and Justin. Her boss, Steve, and both the morning and night cashiers from CVS. There’s Sean, his brother and Derek. Lauren’s dad floats past and winks at her and she chokes up. Even Rick is in there, and he’s smiling. She’s surrounded by everybody she’s ever cared about and her baby is peaceful in her arms. And she knows babies can’t see when they’re first born, but she swears her daughter’s looking up at her with recognition in her eyes, and Lauren wants nothing more than for her to grow up with as normal a life as possible.

At the thought, Lauren’s suddenly back in her hospital room. Her mother’s sitting in the corner next to Caitlyn, fussing over her granddaughter swaddled in blankets. Lauren clears her throat, winces a little at the soreness, and moves herself into a more upright position. Caitlyn stands and comes over, smiling and brushing Lauren’s hair out of her face.

“She’s beautiful,” Caitlyn says, sitting in the chair next to Lauren’s bed.

“You, her, and Justin can stay with me for the first few months,” he mother says. “At least until you get back on your feet.”

Caitlyn opens her mouth to say something then pauses, staring at her mother then looking back at Lauren and rolling her eyes.

“Up to you,” she says.

“Can I hold her?” Lauren asks, and her mother brings her daughter over.

Looking at her, Lauren suddenly realizes she hasn’t named her yet. There’s still nothing coming to the forefront of her mind, but in thinking about names, Lauren starts looking back at everything that led to her birth, everything that’s happened in the past nine months, all the ups and downs, the self-doubt and dramatic situations. Lauren thinks about the seemingly chaotic nature of it all, of the train wreck that is her family and life and everybody’s life in general, and how it all still came together to create something as beautiful as the child lying in her arms right now.

“Harmony,” Lauren says.

“What?” her mother asks.

“Harmony,” Lauren repeats, looking up at her sister and mother. “Her name’s Harmony.”

Her mother and Caitlyn both roll the name around.

“Har-mo-ny,” her mother says, slowly.

“I love it,” Caitlyn says.

“Me too,” her mother says.

Lauren looks at her mother, and she can’t help it.

“I wish Dad was here too,” Lauren says.

Her mother’s face drops for a moment, as does Caitlyn’s. Lauren waits for the outburst, for somebody to say something that will destroy this rare, tender moment between the three of them. Instead her mother swipes at her eyes and smiles again.

“He would have loved it too,” she says. “He would have loved her.” She glances at Caitlyn. “The way he loved you both.”

Her voice cracks on that note and she turns away. Lauren rearranges the warm bundle in her arms as her mother walks towards the door, taking one look back before pushing it open and ramming into a startled and bruised Sean. He lets out a yell and there’s a commotion at the door as he bends over, Lauren’s mother saying sorry over and over again as she leans towards him and reveals Derek and Sean’s brother, waiting in the hall with smirks on their faces. Caitlyn waves at Derek with her fingers lingering in the air, a move Lauren knows but rarely sees from her sister outside of her job at Hooters, as it is so clearly flirtatious.

“Apparently,” Lauren says, catching Caitlyn’s eyes. “We’ve all got secrets.”

Caitlyn shrugs and smiles and sticks her tongue out. Lauren smiles back as Sean recovers from the collision and enters the room with a hand against his face. His eyes immediately jump to the bundle in Lauren’s arms and he lowers his hand. Lauren glances down at her daughter.

Their daughter.

“Harmony,” she whispers. “Meet your father.”

And Sean’s face in that moment—the right side slightly swollen and his eye puffy—is so transparent, his entire demeanor making it so obvious he’s scared out of his fucking mind, that Lauren can’t help but laugh.


-36-

Caitlyn waves at Derek, smiling shyly and Sean throws his hands up.

“Ok,” he says to Derek. “That’s it. How long’s this been going on?”

“What?” Derek asks.

“You two,” Sean says. “Don’t play with me, Derek. I’ve known you forever, I can tell when you’re lying.”

Derek opens his mouth then closes it as Caitlyn walks over, her mother watching them all with this mixture of amusement and annoyance on her face.

“Things are complicated enough right now,” Caitlyn says, and Sean’s surprised when she takes a step towards Derek and entwines her hand in his. She rubs a finger across his sling, then pats it gently. “We don’t want to make it more complicated.”

Sean holds his hands up, waving them off.

“Whatever,” he says. “None of my business anyways. Just one thing: what about Kristina?”

“We broke up,” Derek says.

Sean throws his hands up again.

“Does anybody tell me anything anymore?”

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Derek says.

“Yeah,” Sean says. “Because she’s a bitch.”

“No,” Derek says, sternly. “I mean, me telling you was bound to happen. You were just so focused on the band and all, I didn’t feel like getting into it.”

“And her?” Sean says, motioning at Caitlyn as if she’s not even there.

“Sean, I didn’t want to distract you,” he says. “We’ve been over this.”

“So you knew about this?” Sean says, turning to look at Lauren, who’s smiling and looking at the kid, oblivious to the commotion in the room.

“I knew she was pregnant,” Derek says. “Not that it was yours.” He glances at Caitlyn. “Apparently nobody did until tonight.”

Right then, the huge pile of blankets on Lauren’s lap catches Sean’s eye and his skin prickles. Lauren—smiling wide, the gesture rising the corners of her eyes—looks so beautiful Sean’s breath catches in his throat. She looks at him, and he stares at her, totally forgetting the conversation he was just having.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” she says back.

This seems to be some sort of cue. Lauren’s mom heads down the hall and Caitlyn and Derek and Marcus—stopping to pat Sean on the shoulder and shake his head—all follow suit. And then Sean’s suddenly alone in the room with Lauren and the baby.

Sean approaches the bed, swallowing thickly. Lauren looks thin and small under the hospital blanket, but her cheeks are rosy, full of life. Her eyes display a fatigue, though, that Sean thinks makes her look even more beautiful for some reason.

A small hand flashes in and out of the little hole in the blankets and Sean’s heart skips a beat. He scratches the back of his neck, itchy with anxiety. When his fingers touch his skin, he feels the sweat and wipes it away.

“How you feeling?” Sean asks.

“A little sore,” she says, her voice hoarse. She looks down at the blankets and smiles again. “She wasn’t easy. Think that’s a good sign.”

Sean chuckles and Lauren smiles up at him.

“You don’t have to stand over there, you know,” she says, adjusting the bundle in her arms. “We’re not going to bite you.”

“You sure about that?” Sean asks, and she laughs, the sound finally breaking Sean out of his paralysis. He takes another few steps towards the bed, sitting in the chair next to her. He still can’t see in the blankets, and can’t bring himself to look.

“I’m really sorry about all of this, Sean,” Lauren says.

“Not your fault,” he says, then smiles nervously. “Takes two, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” she says, looking away. “But I should have told you earlier.”

“I wish you had,” Sean says.

“I tried. At Friday’s that night.”

“That’s what you wanted to talk about?” Sean asks, and when she nods the entire situation replays in his head. He thinks about everything that took place that night—sitting in the restaurant with Maria and her boyfriend to his left as Lauren stormed out—and he feels like the biggest douche on the planet. He’s suddenly reminded of sitting with Marcus in a Starbucks at the mall the day he bought his guitar, realizing much too late how fucked up Leon’s death had left his brother.

“I’m selfish,” Sean whispers, then laughs contemptuously. “Holy shit, I’m a selfish, self-absorbed prick.” He says it without anger, as if it’s some new artifact he recently discovered.

“What?” Lauren says, her eyes widening. “No. No, don’t do that. You didn’t know. You couldn’t have known.”

Sean looks up at her, and he wants to explain it all to her. Explain what it’s like to be rubbed so raw, to have your emotional threshold exceeded day after day, your psyche beaten so completely that you have no choice but to turn inward, shunning any and everything that’s ever brought you comfort. He wants to explain that—up until the past month or so—he’d been existing in a black hole, a mental abyss that he only recently realized he put himself in.

But watching Lauren’s face—the concern in her expression, so pure and complete, considering he’s technically still a complete stranger—he realizes he doesn’t have to explain anything. She knows what it’s like. Everybody does.

We’ve all been there.

I’m sorry,” Sean says. “I’m so, so sorry, Lauren. You just”—Sean pauses and chuckles, shaking his head—“You just caught me at a really bad time. I just wasn’t…all there.”

“No need to explain,” she says. “I get it.”

Lauren adjusts the bundle onto one arm and moves her free hand towards him. He hesitates at first, then puts his on top of hers, and he doesn’t know if it’s the fact that they’re in a hospital or that there’s a baby in the room or the fact that this perfect stranger is giving him such a familiar look—like they’ve known each other forever—but it sends a shiver through his body, and his bruised and battered cheek starts pulsing.

The moment passes soon and he leans back in the chair as Lauren adjusts the bundle back into both hands. The TV in the corner’s playing a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.

“You can get a test, you know,” Lauren says.

“What?” Sean asks.

“A paternity test. If you want to be sure. I won’t be offended.” She looks him in his eyes. “I’ll completely understand if you’re skeptical.”

Sean takes in all her features, all the parts of her that are foreign to him, which is pretty much every single part of her. Her large green eyes, long brown hair, full and pouty lips. To him, right now, Lauren looks more beautiful than any woman he’s ever met. Soon after thinking this, he realizes it’s partly because of the bundle she’s holding, and he stands.

“Can I hold her?” he asks, before he even really knows what he’s doing.

For a second, a hint of doubt creeps into Lauren’s eyes, but it’s gone in the next instant as she smiles and nods. Sean leans over as she lifts the bundle up to him. He takes it, awkwardly at first, trying to find the right placement in the crook of his left arm with his right arm supporting it. When he’s steadied, he finally peers into the little opening near his elbow. His mouth drops open, a little gasp of air coming out.

What’s—who’s—inside the blankets is striking beyond belief. A face barely bigger than his palm, eyes closed, mouth set in that way that makes babies look like old people sometimes. Her skin has a light caramel tone, like coffee with a lot of cream, and her head is covered in a soft layer of hair that looks so fragile it’s like he could brush it off with his pinky if he wanted to. As he watches, her hand comes out from beneath the folds of the blanket and grasps at the air as she opens her mouth and lets out a yawn, never opening her eyes.

“What’s her name?” Sean whispers.

“Harmony,” Lauren says.

Sean can barely see her, she’s all blurry. Takes him a moment to notice it’s because there’s tears in his eyes.

“Harmony?” he asks.

“Harmony,” she repeats.

Sean doesn’t like it. Fucking hates it in fact. Who names their daughter Harmony?

“Harmony,” he says again, then laughs and coughs at the same time. “Harmony.”

“You like it?” she asks.

“I love her,” he answers.

Sean sits back down in the chair, holding Harmony tightly and firmly, determined not to let her go. It’s twenty minutes before he gives her back to Lauren, and when he does, he feels like he’s letting somebody else hold something vital to his health, like his heart or liver or kidneys, like this baby has the power to fucking kill him just by not surviving herself. Lauren and Sean talk for a little while, about nothing either one will remember because neither of them are ever really paying full attention to anything but Harmony.

Soon the door opens and in walks a doctor, followed by Derek, Marcus, Caitlyn, her mom, Rick, and a little boy Sean assumes is Lauren’s son. Sean tenses when Rick approaches, but he seems to have calmed down—probably having something to do with his left eye and cheek being just as swollen as Sean’s right one—and he mutters something about taking Justin home. The little boy rubs his eyes tiredly and hugs Lauren, who hugs him back tightly. He pokes at Harmony and briefly gets excited as all hell when Lauren tells him it’s his sister, but then Rick grabs him and pulls him out of the room and they’re both gone. Sean can see from how long Lauren watches the door after they leave that this situation is messing with her—which, for some reason, makes him like her more—until Harmony cries and her attention is instantly back in the room. The doctor checks Lauren’s vitals before informing them all that visiting time will be over soon and only the father can stay.

The father. Sean.

Derek pats him on the back and winks at him and everybody gathers around the bed oohing and aahing at Harmony for a few more minutes. In the middle of all the excitement, Sean leans over to Lauren and whispers in her ear:

“I don’t need a test.” He leans back a little so he can see her eyes, and there’s definitely something there, something that could possibly grow into a bigger something. Sean’s not too sure, but it’s nice to think there’s a possibility. He smiles. “Let’s just make sure her life isn’t as complicated as ours,” he adds.

“Sounds like a plan,” Lauren says, laughing.

And Sean rubs his daughter’s forehead gently, his other hand touching Lauren’s arm.

Click to Read Step Nine

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