Sean opens his eyes and stares down at scarred wood. When he looks up he sees he’s in the same bar he went to after his failed dinner date with Lauren, sitting on the same stool with a shot of Patron and a beer in front of him, the beer half empty, condensation dribbling into a puddle around the bottle.
Blasting from the jukebox in the back of the room: Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle.” Sean nods his head to the beat while the bartender stands to his left near the sink, wiping the same glass over and over again with a dirty dish rag, not making any progress and not really seeming to give a shit. Sean totally gets it.
Sean touches the beer mug in front of him then picks it up, takes a sip even though he doesn’t remember ordering it, much less drinking half of it. In fact, he doesn’t even remember coming here. Which is never a good sign.
There’s a sudden presence to Sean’s left, like the electric pull of static drawing his attention. He turns to it and almost falls out of his chair when Leon takes a seat on the stool next to his, holding a vodka tonic in one hand, jiggling change in his pocket with the other. Just like he always used to. He’s wearing exactly what he was wearing the night he died—dress shirt and slacks from Express, top two buttons on the shirt undone so his chest hair and the silver chain and crucifix around his neck are visible—and he’s got his sunglasses on even though there’s like one light on in this entire place.
Leon’s head hangs towards his drink as he pulls his hand out of his pocket and drops a quarter on the counter, letting it spin as he rubs his fingers through the condensation settling on the glass. Then he suddenly flinches towards Sean and yells:
And Sean can’t help it. He jumps and lets out a yelp.
“Aaaaaaaaah,” Leon says, laughing and pointing at him. “Gotcha. Bitch.”
Sean’s mouth hangs open and he reaches out to touch him. Leon jerks away from him, frowning and brushing his hand across his sleeve.
“Threads, man,” Leon says.
“Leon,” Sean whispers.
“Alright,” he says, smiling and rolling his eyes. He takes a quick sip of his drink then turns to Sean. “Guess I’m going to have to get this started then. Hi, Sean. Hi, Leon. How are things, Sean? Oh, good, Leon, very good. You’re lying to me, Sean. No I’m not, Leon.” He pauses, levels his eyes at Sean. “Sean, I’m dead. I know when you’re lying to me.”
“Leon,” Sean says. “What. The. Fuck.”
“I expected you to be a little happier than this.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Having a drink with my best friend,” he says, giving Sean a hurt expression.
“Holy shit, man,” Sean says, looking away and holding his hands up to his temples. “You’re fucking with my head, bro. I can’t deal with this shit right now.”
“Tell me about it,” Leon says. “Not very much you can deal with, huh? Hence the reason I’m here.” He puts his hand on Sean’s shoulder and Sean almost shits himself. “I’ll get straight to it. You’re doing the right thing right now. But I know you. I know how you are. You’ve really got something going here, a little—streak, let’s call it? A little productivity streak that could kind of grow into a big one”—he grins—“Maybe even a lifelong one, if you know what I’m saying.”
“No, Leon,” Sean yells, shrugging his dead friend’s hand off his shoulder. “I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. What the fuck are you doing here?”
“It’s just,” he continues, as if Sean didn’t say anything. “You found something you genuinely love, and genuine love can be a hell of a helpful thing when people are as fucked as you are. It could bring you out of this shitbox you’ve been calling your life for the past two years.” He shrugs.
“Leon, what the—”
“Possibly just to drop you into some other shitbox, of course,” he continues, seemingly talking to himself now. “But hopefully one that isn’t as shitty as this one.” Leon puts his thumb and index finger together and points them at Sean, emphasizing his words. “Improvement, Sean. Improvement. That’s what I’m talking about. Not fame and fortune or anything like that but happiness. True happiness. You just have to resist the urge to give up. And, like I said, I know you. You will get the urge. You’re getting it right now, actually. Which is why I’m here to tell you to stop being a fucking pussy.”
“Leon,” Sean says, but he can’t really articulate his feelings right now so he just shakes his head and says, again, “what the fuck.”
“Holy shit, bro,” Leon says, throwing his hands in the air. “Get over it! Yes, I’m here and no, I’m not real. I’m a manifestation of your subconscious, part of a bunch of other manifestations you’ve had tonight, though I take a bit of pride in the fact that this is the only one you’ll remember when you wake up later.” He takes another sip of his drink. “So, you see, I’m not the one fucking with you. You’re fucking with yourself.”
Sean can’t keep his mouth closed, his bottom jaw hanging uselessly like a door with busted hinges.
“Huh?” he finally manages to spit out.
Leon sighs loudly, pointing at Sean’s chest.
“At least look at yourself,” he says.
Sean does, and notices two things right away: 1) he’s wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas, and 2) judging by the pajamas themselves and the size of his hands as he holds them in front of his face, he’s eight years old again. Sean looks at Leon and he shrugs.
“Don’t ask me, bro,” he says. “You’re the psych major. This shit is all your baggage.”
“I don’t understand,” Sean says.
“Nothing to understand,” Leon says. “I just came here to tell you not to give up on this.”
“Give up on what?”
“This music thing,” he says, then frowns. “You disappointed me, by the way. I thought you’d handle shit way better than this. Fuck happened to you, bro?”
“What happened to me?” Sean yells. “Leon, you’re fucking dead.”
“I know, man,” he says, nodding solemnly. “Sucks, kinda. Being alive was the shit too. Imagine how much more pussy I’d have gotten if I hadn’t kicked it so early? I was just starting to get that grown man primo ass too.”
“I’m serious,” Sean says.
Sean sucks his teeth and turns back to his beer, reaching up and holding the mug with his two tiny, young hands. He sips it and Leon chuckles.
“You look ridiculous.”
“Fuck you,” Sean grumbles, wiping his upper lip.
Leon lets that sit for a moment, sipping his drink.
“You realize by getting pissed at me you’re actually getting pissed at yourself, right?”
“No,” Sean grumbles. “I’m pissed at you.”
Leon pauses for a long time, until Sean turns to him.
“I miss you, bro,” Sean whispers.
“I know,” Leon says, suddenly uncomfortable. “I, uh, miss you too…bro.”
“I just”—Sean looks away, shakes his head—“I don’t know what I’m doing now. It’s like a day-to-day thing. Sometimes I wake up happy and the day goes by and I’m fine. But then, most of the time it’s like—things are so much different now than they used to be.” He turns away, staring at his beer. “People stop giving a shit about what you do with your life after college.”
“I’m pretty sure nobody gave a shit about it while you were in college,” Leon says, and Sean can’t help snickering. Leon puts a hand on Sean’s shoulder. “Life is never easy, man.” Sean looks up at him and Leon gives him a weak smile. “But I’d live it again in a second if I could. Please don’t waste yours.”
They watch each other’s facial expressions go through the transformation from depressed to happy, then Sean smacks Leon lightly on the back and reaches for his beer again. He’s about to sip it when Leon suddenly grabs the mug out of his hand and pushes it down the bar.
“What the hell?” Sean says, watching it slide away.
“Enough of that shit, man,” he says.
“I thought we were drinking.”
“First of all, you’re not old enough,” Leon says, looking Sean up and down and smirking. “Secondly, there’s been a change of plans.” He stands and opens his arms. “You’re about two seconds away from falling out of bed, and I want to say bye before you go.”
Sean stands shakily and embraces his dead best friend, taking in a near-lethal whiff of his Calvin Klein cologne and feeling the fabric of his designer clothes against his cheek before something hits him in the face and he opens his eyes to stare at his bedroom floor, his left arm tingling with numbness and his legs tangled in bed sheets. For a second he feels like he’s about to puke until he realizes he was drinking in his dream, not in real life. The nausea disappears almost instantly at the thought, leaving only one thing in its place; a single thought:
Two things happen on the evening of Friday, July 26th.
- Lauren’s water breaks, and
- She becomes one hundred percent sure that Sean needs to know about his child. ASAP.
Lauren doesn’t know why this thought jumps into her mind so suddenly and securely, but once it’s there it’s firmly entrenched, the conviction sending a sharp seed of terror through her spine that—for a second—completely distracts her from the warm, wet sensation in her pants.
About ten minutes before this happens though, Lauren’s sitting next to Caitlyn on the living room couch watching Law and Order and sucking on a popsicle while Justin sleeps on her lap. Caitlyn’s taken to spending the afternoons with Lauren and Justin these past few weeks, waiting until Rick comes home before pretending to like him for five minutes then going back to her apartment.
During this period of time, Caitlyn’s insisted that Lauren ask her for the things she needs. Every time Lauren protests, Caitlyn points out that she’s in nursing school and therefore qualified to take care of a pregnant woman (and Lauren’s had to keep pointing out to her that she doesn’t actually need a nurse until the baby’s on the way).
Lauren admits, though, that her stomach’s expanded enough now to make it slightly difficult to stand up and do certain things for herself. But she doesn’t want to sit around like a dead beached whale, bloated from the sun. The weight gain during this pregnancy has been less than the last; nevertheless, she won’t be walking around in a bikini any time soon.
Caitlyn’s been a blessing in her own way, but most of the time that she’s been here asking Lauren questions and getting her things, Lauren’s really just wanted to be alone. Last pregnancy, Caitlyn was the worst: unsupportive, unavailable, unbearable. She was a freshman at UM then, partying and occasionally studying and generally being as self-possessed as most college freshmen tend to be. Lauren was the same way, so she didn’t blame her much.
This time, however, Caitlyn’s older and she’s been there for her sister, even when her sister hasn’t wanted her to be. It’s one of the small signs that Caitlyn’s actually growing up, and Lauren will take them when she can.
It’s not just Caitlyn though. As of late, Lauren’s just wanted everybody to leave her alone, if anything just so she can think in peace. She’s done a lot of thinking the past few weeks. Months, actually. This pregnancy’s been like one long meditation, and Lauren’s totally getting her monk on.
Anyways, at some point during the Law and Order rerun, Caitlyn turns to Lauren and motions to Justin, drooling on her pants leg.
“Gotta pee,” she whispers. “Help me move him.”
Lauren picks Justin up a few inches so Caitlyn can slip out, and Justin smacks his lips, opening his eyes slightly then falling right back asleep as Lauren lays him on the couch. Caitlyn steps towards the bathroom and Lauren makes a move to get up and Caitlyn freezes.
“Where you going?” she asks.
“To get some milk,” Lauren says, sighing. “If that’s okay with you, Mother.”
“Fuck you,” Caitlyn says. “And don’t move. I’ll get you milk when I get back.”
Lauren rolls her eyes and Caitlyn rolls hers back exaggeratedly then walks away. And the moment Lauren hears the bathroom door close she stands and heads to go get herself some goddamn milk. Alone.
So Lauren’s in the kitchen when it all happens, standing in front of the fridge and trying to maneuver around her belly to get the bottle of milk. The bottle has been placed annoyingly in the very back of the top shelf so she has to bend over to reach it. She’s in the motion of this when there’s a sudden release, like her bladder’s just quit, punched out and left the building. She hears the drip of liquid before she feels it, and when she looks down it’s all over the front of her spandex pants and on the floor. It’s warm and baffles her even as she recognizes it for what it is.
Lauren opens her mouth to say something, anything to notify Caitlyn that it’s time, but right then she’s stuck with an image of Sean, sitting in his car smiling at her as he drops her off at Shambles. She’s instantly saddened by it, and even more saddened by the image that follows: an older Sean being contacted by his faceless eighteen-year-old son or daughter, finding out then that he missed his child’s entire life. Lauren’s almost absolutely sure that her kid will blame Sean for this, even though it wouldn’t be his fault. And she realizes then that she can’t let that happen. She won’t survive the next couple of decades with that floating over her head.
“Caitlyn,” she finally squeaks.
It comes out so soft that she doubts Caitlyn will hear it, but she does. There’s the sound of rapid footsteps and her steadily elevating voice as she crosses the living room from the bathroom.
“I thought I told you to fucking wait, Lauren,” she says, stopping to turn on the light in the kitchen. Lauren didn’t realize that she’s been standing in the dark this whole time, and squints as she turns to face her sister. Caitlyn stands in the kitchen entrance with her lips pressed together tightly, hands on her hips and eyebrows creased with confusion as she studies her sister—who’s hunched over and holding her stomach—then notices the damp floor beneath her.
“Oh,” she says, the realization hitting her. Her eyes widen. “Oh,” she says again. “Oh, shit. Shit, ok. Ok.”
Caitlyn’s about to walk out then turns and takes a few steps towards Lauren, turns to leave again, then stops with her hands waving in front of her like a blind woman.
“I forgot what I’m supposed to do,” she says.
“The bag,” Lauren says, grimacing. There’s a familiar prickle of pain below that she knows will soon grow into gut-wrenching contractions, and she really wants to be sitting down when that shit starts up. “Get the bag and bring the car near the elevator downstairs.”
“Right,” she says. “Right.” She turns to leave again then stops, looking Lauren up and down. “Don’t move. I’ll help you in a little bit.”
“Caitlyn,” Lauren says, breathing deeply, slowly.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” she says. “Please, just relax. I can’t relax if you’re not relaxed.”
Caitlyn nods and Lauren can’t help but smile when she mimics her breathing method and shuffles out of the kitchen. Lauren stands there and keeps on breathing slowly. Then she decides she doesn’t want to stand in her own bodily fluids anymore, so she makes her way out of the kitchen to the front door and grabs a coat, the longest one hanging in the closet. She puts it on to cover the big wet stain in the front of her pants which—regardless of the circumstances—still makes her uncomfortable with its visibility. She makes her way to the coffee table and grabs her cell phone and sits down slowly next to Justin who’s still asleep, oblivious to what’s going down around him.
Lauren pulls the contacts list up on her phone and scrolls down to Rick, pausing with her finger over the call button. Before she realizes what she’s doing though, she presses the scroll button again and passes Rick’s name, moving right on to the S’s.
Lauren’s about to press the call button when a sharp pain rips through her stomach and she doubles over. She’s not aware she makes a sound, but Caitlyn’s in the living room within five seconds, her mouth open in an O.
“Ok,” she says, arms up in blind-woman stance again. “Ok, ok, ok, ok.”
The pain recedes and Lauren straightens up, standing slowly and reaching out for her sister as she seems to be falling into the grip of a panic attack.
“Caitlyn,” Lauren says.
“Ok, ok, ok, ok.”
“Mm hmm,” she says, eyes closed, not speaking to Lauren but seemingly to herself.
“Caitlyn,” Lauren yells, taking another step towards her, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. Caitlyn’s eyes open wide, focused on Lauren, who pulls her close. She looks her sister in the eyes, holds her gaze for a few seconds before speaking. “You’re freaking me out,” Lauren says softly.
“Sorry,” Caitlyn whispers.
“We’re fine,” Lauren says, “I’ve done this before.”
“I haven’t,” she whimpers.
“Caitlyn,” Lauren says. “You’re a nurse, remember?”
“Not yet I’m not,” she says.
“Well,” Lauren says. “Lucky for you, all you’ve really got to do is get me to the hospital. And relax.”
Lauren smiles and Caitlyn forces a smile back and there’s a noticeable release of tension, not all of it but enough to get this show on the road. Caitlyn wakes up a confused and disoriented Justin, speaking to him cheerily and urging him to get his own pre-packed book bag.
Soon Lauren’s in the elevator and moments later she’s standing on the sidewalk gritting her teeth through the increasing pain in her stomach as Caitlyn pulls her car up to the handicapped parking spot. Lauren waddles over to the passenger’s side and loads Justin into the car then gets in and looks back at him as he smiles up at her groggily from his car seat.
“You okay, baby?” she asks.
Justin nods and Lauren raises a fist with the pinky out. He grabs it and the feel of his skin is comforting. He sits back and within a few seconds his eyes start drifting closed again. Considering how long it usually takes her to get him to sleep, the fact that he’s able to relax through all this commotion baffles Lauren. Kids.
Lauren turns back to face the front and she’s just putting her seatbelt on when another searing pain rips through her stomach. She must make another involuntary sound because she hears Caitlyn moan beside her.
“Lauren,” she says. “I know I’m supposed to be ok with all of this and helpful and all that but—you’re my sister and this is freaking me out, ok? I can’t have anything bad happen to you or this baby. I won’t be able to handle it. So you—I—I’m not ok over here, ok? I’m not ok unless you’re ok, so—yeah, you gotta—you know, let me know you’re ok. Ok?”
“I’m—” Lauren starts, pausing to grit her teeth against more pain. When it passes, she grabs her phone out of her pocket and takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “I’m fine. Just get me to the hospital. Quick. And do me a favor.”
“Yes,” she says, nodding as they squeal out of the parking lot. “Anything.”
“Call him,” Lauren says, handing Caitlyn the phone. “Tell him to meet us at the hospital.”
“And don’t tell him why,” Lauren adds, closing her eyes. “He can’t find out over the phone. That’s unfair. I want to tell him. Just say—tell him I’ve been admitted to the hospital and I want him to come.” She pauses, takes a deep breath. “He’ll come.” She hopes.
“Sure,” Caitlyn says, looking at her sister skeptically. “But why wouldn’t Rick know why we’re at the hospital.” She chuckles, sneers a little. “You forget to tell him you’re pregnant, or does he think that’s a tumor in your stomach?”
“Not Rick,” Lauren grunts. “Him.” She points at the phone. “And Rick. And Mom, after. But him first.”
“Ok,” she says. “No problem, but who’s”—she glances at the phone, frowns. “Shambles?”
“It’s not Shambles,” Lauren says. “It’s Sean. Shambles is Sean.”
Caitlyn looks confused, then her eyes light up.
“Sean the bartender?” Lauren nods and Caitlyn glances at the phone and recognition spreads across her face like a sunrise. “Lauren. No.”
“Yes,” Lauren says.
“Sean the bartender?” she repeats, then thinks for a moment. “Holy fuck, that night?”
Lauren nods again, deep breath, in and out.
“Oh, Lauren,” Caitlyn says, grimacing and shaking her head as she presses the call button and puts the phone to her ear. “This is unreal.” She lets out a quick burst of laughter that doesn’t have any humor in it. “Holy shit this is—not even—I couldn’t make this shit up.”
“Glad you’re entertained,” Lauren says, barely getting it out before a fresh wave of pain hits her again and she forgets everything but the life struggling to free itself from her uterus.