Read Chapter One.
found myself at the outskirts of town, by the river. I had returned to the scene of the crime. The river had always been a sanctuary for me. I used to spend hours out here, alone with my thoughts. It was such a beautiful, peaceful place. It was such a secluded place, and it had betrayed me.
I watched the river rush past me, heard its music as it traveled on its way. I wanted to be part of it, able to escape to places unknown. It was there, calling to me. All I had to do was answer. I could escape. Everything would go away. It would be just me and the water. It would take me where I wanted to go – where nothing and no one could ever hurt me again.
I felt the cross around my neck. It had been a confirmation present from my parents. Suicide was a sin worthy of hell. There was no question of that. Yet, wasn’t that my destination anyway? Wasn’t I marked by my sin? I had kneeled in the confessional, tears streaming down my face. I had been forgiven, but there was no relief from my guilt. I still felt dirty. Every day the weight hung heavy on my heart. The world would be better without me.
I felt a twitch in my abdomen, and instinctively placed my hand there. Who was this child moving within me? I had denied the reality as long as I could. I had been able to hide my expanding waistline. “Healthy” was the kindest word people ever used to describe me. The past few months were the only time I had ever been thankful for my added weight. But now, there was no hiding it anymore. My loosest clothes were too tight. My abdomen had grown round and firm.
I had hoped for blood. I had prayed for a miscarriage that never came. God wasn’t going to take this cross away from me. Why should He? Why should God care about me? I had known that there were places that I could go to have it taken care of. The problem would have simply gone away. I never would have had to tell anyone. I was supposed to have been starting college the following week. Now, that was out of the question. My life would have gone on. Yet, I couldn’t do it. I knew it was a child. I was many horrible things—my shame filled every part of my being—but, I was not a murderer. I would not add that to my list of sins. And now the child moved within me. Boy or girl? I wondered.
It was my child. God had sent it. As punishment for my wrongdoing? Hadn’t I been punished enough? I had begged God to help me and He had abandoned me. My life was over. And, still, within me I knew a life was just beginning. My child. I couldn’t bring myself to kill my child, but the river was so inviting. What kind of life could I offer to a baby? The water called to me again and again. My name danced along the rocks. “Come to me,” it said. “I will take all your pain away.” The invitation was so tempting. It would only take a few steps. The current would take care of the rest. I wouldn’t fight. I had no reason to.
Except . . . my child. The fluttering continued. My child wanted to live much more than I did. I just wanted to disappear. I took off my shoes and stockings and dipped a toe into the cold water.
“Cheryl?” A woman called my name. I knew that voice. Who was it? I stepped back from the water and strained to see the dark figure walking towards me in the night. The moonlight illuminated her face as she drew closer to me.
“Sr. Marie?” She had been one of my favorite teachers in high school. She was young, only a few years older than me. She taught English, a subject I loved.
“Cheryl, you’re crying. What’s wrong?”
“Am I?” I touched my hand to my cheek. I wiped the wetness away. I hadn’t even realized I had been crying.
“I’m sorry, Sister. It’s nothing.” I turned away. I didn’t want her to know of my condition. I knew she would find out. Perhaps she could tell simply by looking at me. I wanted to escape. I could pretend it wouldn’t matter what people thought once I was gone. If only I had someplace to go. Anywhere was better than here.
“Cheryl, it is late at night,” she said. “You are standing here by the river, crying. Obviously, something is wrong.”
I shook my head. The tears fell harder. There was so much I had been keeping inside, locked away, hoping by some miracle that I would wake up and my nightmare would be gone. The river had offered my only answer. Now even that opportunity had been stolen away. Sr. Marie put her arm around me. I leaned against her.
“Come with me,” she said in a gentle, firm tone. “We’ll talk. We’ll work this out.”
I was too worn out to argue. What other choice did I have? It wasn’t like my life was full of options. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“We can go back to the convent. Sr. Mary Elizabeth made some wonderful apple pies for desert tonight. I’ll bet there is still some left. How’s that sound?”
“Thank you. That sounds delicious.”
The convent was less than a mile away. Thankfully, the road was dark and we didn’t encounter anyone en route.
“May I ask you a question?”
“What were you doing out by the river so late at night? I didn’t think that you were allowed to do that by yourself.”
“I’m a sister, not a prisoner!” she laughed, “I like to go out for walks. That is when I do some of my best praying and thinking. I’ve always enjoyed the river. Something about it brings me great peace.”
“I know what you mean,” I agreed.
“I don’t usually come out quite so late, but I had a feeling tonight that I should.” She touched my shoulder. “I’m glad that I did.” I was glad that she had as well. I felt safe with her.
Soon we were at the old brick convent, right beside Sacred Heart School where I had spent the past twelve years of my life, yet I had never been inside. It was always a secret, always forbidden.
Sister motioned towards the school. “School will be starting up in just a few days. I’m not ready for it,” she laughed. She held open the door of the convent. “Come on in.”
It was warm and inviting. I’m not sure what I expected – stone cold monastery cells perhaps. They had a cozy living room with a few comfortable looking chairs covered with homemade quilts. A large cross hung on the wall, along with a beautiful painting of our Blessed Mother holding baby Jesus. There were bookcases full of old books begging to be read. A gentle breeze came through the windows.
I knew several sisters lived there, but I saw no one else and it was silent. Sr. Marie seemed to read my mind. “The other sisters are in their rooms. They like to read or pray or go to sleep by this time of night. We all get up early so we can gather together for morning prayer. Me? I’m more of a night owl. My clock runs on its own schedule,” she laughed. “Thankfully, I can function on rather little sleep.”
I followed her into the dining room, which held two large tables. “Have a seat,” she instructed. “I’ll be right back.”
I did as I was told. The chair was wooden, but I collapsed into it as if it were the softest recliner. I had been so tired lately that I could have clunked my head down on the table and gone to sleep right there. I resisted the urge. I sat up straight and forced my eyes to stay open.
“Here we are,” Sister said as she entered the room carrying two plates piled high with apple pie and ice cream. “One for you and one for me.”
“Thank you, Sister.”
We both made the sign of the cross and then began to eat. I hadn’t even realized how hungry I was until the food was set before me. I let the sweetness melt on my tongue. It was comfort food and I was sorely in need of comfort.
“Good, wasn’t it?” Sister asked me once I had cleaned every last crumb off of my plate.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Would you like some more?”
“No, thank you,” I replied. To be honest, at that moment I could have eaten the whole pie. I had always been somewhat prone to drowning my sorrows in food, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“So, would you like to talk about what is going on?” She looked at me with her kind brown eyes. I evaluated my options and decided that they were few and far between. I would have thought she’d been able to tell simply by looking at me. I had nothing to lose by speaking the truth.
“I’m pregnant,” I whispered.
She nodded, “I see. How far along are you?”
“About four months.”
“Have you told your mother?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Is it Gary’s?”
“Did you tell him?”
“And what did he have to say?”
The encounter had taken place just a few days earlier. The wound was still fresh in my memory. It had taken me a lot of courage just to tell him. It was against my better judgment, but I thought that he should know. I thought that maybe he would marry me. I don’t know why. It was crazy. We had dated for nearly a year, but he hadn’t spoken to me since prom night when he had forced himself on me. We had been kissing, but then he tried to go farther. His hands kept traveling. I kept saying no. I begged him to stop and he didn’t care. He said if I really loved him, I’d make him happy. He said that all the girls were doing it; that I’d enjoy it. He said he knew it was what I wanted. He said if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have worn such a sexy dress. When I resisted, well . . . in the end it didn’t matter.
Still, he was my one hope that maybe things would be all right. I thought maybe, despite everything, he would do the right thing. I thought that he’d ask for my hand. Not that I really wanted to spend a lifetime with him, but it would have been better than where I was now. Instead, he laughed and had said that there was no way to be sure that it was his; that it wasn’t his responsibility; that if I was stupid enough to get pregnant then that was my own damn problem. He told me to get rid of it. He had already left for college. His life would go on without complication.
“He doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
A momentary flicker of disgust crossed Sister’s face. She pressed her hands hard onto the table.
“Would you like me to come with you to tell your mother?”
“It’ll break her heart. How can I do that to her?”
“What alternative do you have?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know.” I thought about the river. “I thought about leaving town.”
“Even if you left, you’d have to tell your mother something. Don’t you think that would break her heart as well – if you just up and left?”
“I guess so. It doesn’t matter what I do. Everyone’s life is over.”
“Your life is not over. I know that it feels that way right now, but it’s not.” She took my hands in hers. “God has plans for you and that child.”
I wanted to believe her.
“It’s getting late. I’m sure your mother is wondering where you are. Come, let me walk you home. We’ll tell her together what’s happened.” She got up from the table. “I know your mother. I don’t think her reaction will be as bad as what you are imagining.”
Sr. Marie and I walked slowly back to my house. My next-door neighbor was sitting on his front porch having a smoke. He stood up as we passed. “Good evening Sister, Cheryl.”
“Good evening, Mr. Ferguson,” Sister replied.
“It’s a beautiful evening to be outside,” he said.
All I could do was nod. A few more steps and we were at my house. I hesitated before climbing the stairs. I wanted to turn around. Sr. Marie gently touched my arm, “It’s going to be all right. You can do this.”
We climbed the stairs and I opened the door. My mother was sitting in the living room, working on her knitting. “Cheryl, I was wondering when you’d get in. . . .” Then she looked up and jumped to her feet. “Sr. Marie,” she said, surprised, looking from Sister to me and back again. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Can I offer you some tea? It’ll just take a minute for me to put some water on.”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Callahan. I’m fine. Cheryl and I just had a night snack at the convent. I ran into her while I was out for my evening walk. Maybe we could sit down and talk a bit?”
“Yes, of course, Sister. Please, have a seat.”
We gathered around the kitchen table and folded my hands on top of the lime green table cloth. I focused on the vase of flowers set in the middle. Even though it was just the two of us since Daddy died, Mom always tried to keep things looking lovely. She tried so hard to do everything. She worked and had raised me on her own for the past nine years. We had our moments, of course. All mothers and daughters do, but still, I knew I had been lucky to have her. My heart was breaking that I had to tell her the hardest thing ever.
“Cheryl has something she needs to tell you,” Sr. Marie said. “I came along for moral support.”
“Oh?” My mother looked at me, her eyes full of questions.
“I’m not going to be able to start college next week,” I began.
“I don’t understand. You got good grades. You have a scholarship. Why wouldn’t you be able to go?” She looked at Sister and then back at me.
“Well, you see, umm . . .” The words just wouldn’t come. Sr. Marie smiled at me and nodded. My mother looked confused and scared. I pushed on, “I can’t go to school because I’m pregnant.” The last two words came out as a whisper. Somehow telling my mother made it all too real. I couldn’t hide or pretend any longer. I could see the pain register on her face as she struggled to compose herself.
“It’s Gary’s, isn’t it? I should march right over to see Mr. and Mrs. Field right now to tell them what their son has done.”
“Please don’t,” I pleaded. “It would just make things worse.”
“How could things be worse?”
“Everyone could know.” I feared public humiliation almost as much as I feared the baby.
My mother shook her head. “I never did like that young man. He always seemed a bit too cocky.”
He got straight A’s, was captain of the championship basketball team, and was one of the most popular boys in school. I always figured he had earned the right to be self-confident. When he had asked me out, I felt so lucky. I had been amazed he had any interest in me. However, at that moment I had to agree with my mother. I didn’t like that young man much either. In fact, I despised him.
I could see that my mother was trying hard to find the right words to say. She was taking this much better than I thought she would. I couldn’t imagine what was going through her mind.
“Mom, you need to know . . . to understand. I didn’t want this to happen –”
She held up her hand to cut me off. How could I explain?
“Have you decided what you are going to do?
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just know I can’t stay here. I can’t have everybody knowing, whispering behind my back, staring at me. I just can’t.”
My mother thought for a moment. “Maybe I could see if you could stay with my sister for a while. People would think that you went away to school, just like you were supposed to. No one would need to know the truth. You’ll give the baby up for adoption and then you can come back.”
“I’m not sure.” The baby moved again. It was my baby. How could I give it away? “I just don’t know.”
“That doesn’t need to be decided tonight,” Sr. Marie said. I was so thankful that she was there.
The three of us sat in uncomfortable silence, the kitchen clock ticking away the minutes.
“It’s late,” Sr. Marie said. “I really should be going before the other sisters notice I’m gone and decide to send out a search party.”
“Yes, of course.” My mother rose from her chair. “Thank you for coming.”
I walked Sister to the door. She took my hand and placed a Miraculous Medal in it, then closed my fingers around it.
“Mary was an unwed mother, too. She understands. She’ll help you. I know everything seems hopeless right now, but things will work out. You’ll see.”
I nodded and tried to swallow my tears as she smiled and headed out into the late summer night. When I turned around, my mother was furiously sweeping the already immaculate floor.
“I’ll do that for you, Mom.”
“No, thank you. I could sweep this floor all day and night and it would never be clean. I’ve always hated this tile.” She was shaking and wouldn’t look at me.
“Mom, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” she said in a soft voice. “What’s done is done. I’ll call Meg first thing in the morning.”
I barely knew my Aunt Meg. I had only met her a couple times in my life when she had come from Wisconsin to visit. The last time she had come was after Daddy died. She was much older than my mother and her children were all grown and out of the house. She always seemed kind enough, if somewhat worn out by life. She and my Uncle Norm owned a dairy farm. I tried to imagine my life in the middle of nowhere milking cows in the morning. It was a daunting prospect, but given the circumstances, I could not be choosy.
My mother beat the broom hard enough to dig a hole in the tile. “I’m thankful your father isn’t alive to see this. He would have been so angry, so disappointed.”
“Go on up to bed now. It’s been a long day. I’m sure you’re tired.” Her voice was painfully polite and controlled. If only she’d yell at me. That would be better. That’s what I deserved.
I wanted so much to reach out to her, to hug her, to somehow make this better. I wanted to turn back life four months. I would break up with Gary, skip the prom, and everything would be all right again. Now, nothing would ever be right.
I loved my mother. She was all I had, but at that moment, it felt like the Grand Canyon was standing between us and there was no way to cross the chasm. I headed up the stairs to my room, placed the medal on my bureau, and collapsed onto my bed. I placed my hand protectively on my swollen abdomen and surrendered to the sweet bliss of sleep, praying to God that morning would never come.