“Are you sure?”
“Yes! I took two different tests from two different brands and they all said the same thing!” Mary says into her iPhone, biting her lip to trap a sob. It’s not fair to cry during a phone call - the other person is forced to silently bear your auditory snot, unable to give much real comfort. Mary sits on the toilet, knees to chest, back curved, a disheartened queen upon her porcelain throne.
“Who’s the dad?” Lily asks from the other side.
“Oh. Does he know?”
“No, and he’s not going to. God! I can’t believe I was that stupid.”
“Well, you know there’s ways to get rid of it.”
“Yes, Lily, I know but… I just can’t believe I’m even having this conversation.”
Three loud bangs echo on the bathroom door.
“Mary! Are you still in there? Hurry up, I gotta tinkle!”
“One sec, mom!” Mary replies to her mother, and then whispers to Lily, “I gotta go. Please, don’t tell anyone.”
Mary tucks the phone into her shorts’ waistband, and buries the pregnancy test beneath the wads of tissue piled like snow in the waste bin. The hotel maids will be her unknowing accomplices in disposing of the evidence when they make their daily rounds.
Mary leaves the bathroom and plops down on the couch, next to her Aunt Carol, who sits tranquil and cross-legged like a souvenir Buddha, eyes glued to a 10 am rerun of Jeopardy. A menthol cigarette dangles from her overlined lips and Bono the rat terrier dozes in her lap.
“I thought mom booked a ‘no smoking room.’” Mary says, watching the smoke curl up and away into nothingness. Aunt Carol silently points up, to the water-stained ceiling where a single smoke detector juts down, wrapped in a plastic bag.
“Huh. Clever.” Mary says. Aunt Carol nods.
“But what about Meemaw? Isn’t the smoke bad for her?” They both look at Mary Helen Smith, the grandmother for whom Mary is named, now rechristened as Meemaw and currently slumped in her wheelchair, pallid and fish-eyed. Her oxygen tank quietly whirs away; her face droops like a melted candle.
“She’ll be okay,” says Aunt Carol with a shrug. Her attention has returned to the television as a Jeopardy contestant lets out a stream of expletives after getting a question wrong. The half-broken air conditioner whines away in some remote corner.
“So, Bono seems unusually calm,” Mary says, desperately trying to ignite some conversation, not wanting to be left alone with her suffocating thoughts, “I don’t remember the last time I saw him sleep. Usually he’s all over the place.”
“Yeah, well,” Aunt Carol slaps the sleeping dog’s flank, “He’s on Prozac now. The vet said it should help with his aggression.”
“We take the same dose. Except his is more expensive. Oh, you dumb whore!” she exclaims at the television, “The answer’s obvious! It’s ‘Who is Gwen Stefani?’ God!”
Aunt Carol flips the TV off and springs up, accidentally flinging Bono to the floor.
“Let’s go for a swim,” Aunt Carol says, stubbing the cigarette butt on a couch cushion. Mary nervously thinks of her bikini and of the thing growing inside her. She knows it’s much too early for anything to show, but she feels heavy, bloated, obvious to even an untrained eye. But Aunt Carol has already peeled off her ruffled blouse, revealing the neon green swimsuit beneath. It clashes horribly with her jagged dyed hair, one swoop of which comes down like a purple wave over her eyes.
“Beth!” she calls out to her sister, who has just emerged from the bathroom, “Mary and I are gonna go swim. Can you watch Bono? Make sure he doesn’t chew up Meemaw’s power chords.”
The hotel has a minimalist architecture, not due to any artistic genius but rather budgetary insufficiencies. The walls are garish, yellow, rough to the touch. The pool gapes open behind it, small and shaped like an artificial watering hole. Beside it is a hot tub. Aunt Carol wastes no time disrobing and submerging her gourd-shaped body into the swirling jacuzzi jets. Mary is more hesitant, eyeing the Hot Tub Rules sign, more specifically Rule #7: “Pregnant women should consult doctor before use.” She opts to sit on the concrete and dangle only her toes in the water. Aunt Carol moans with pleasure as the hot water massages her skin folds, and Mary grimaces.
“Doesn’t it feel weird putting your own mother in a retirement home?” Mary asks, wanting the noise to stop.
“Mary, I don’t know if you know this, but I do not have the best relationship with my mother. In truth, we haven’t spoken for a few years prior to this trip. Do I feel weird putting her in a retirement home? Sure. But it’s not a remorseful kind of weird. And even if your Meemaw and I were on good terms, there’s not much of her left in there. Kind of like the empty husk a cicada leaves behind when it molts. And besides, this facility she’s going to is really nice and it’s by the beach. It’s better than any life she had before, even if she is gonna be too unconcious to experience it.”
Aunt Carol raises one foot above the bubbling water, wistfully inspecting the purple-polished toenails.
“Gotcha,” Mary replies, unsure of what other reply the situation could call for.
The Florida sun makes its lazy arc over the horizon line, beaming down unbearably hot. Mary can practically feel the boils popping up on her exposed back. Aunt Carol’s face, forehead to wrinkled neck, has turned an alarming cherry pink, and after too-long a time, she finally pulled herself out of the water, grunting softly.
Four are gathered around the motel’s plastic-laminated table. Steaming in the middle is a bucket of freshly fried chicken, courtesy of the local drive-thru. Meemaw stares at it lazily with two watery irises.
“Who’s gonna say grace? Mary? Would you like to?” Beth asks.
Mary obeys, bowing her head, closing her eyes, mouthing the words at a barely audible whisper. Three heads snap up as she finishes, and six hungry hands reach for greasy thighs, breasts, wings, depositing them gracelessly on paper plates. Beth rips a particularly juicy chunk and tears it into ever smaller parts, shreds it into white fibers, then places those fibers on Meemaw’s plate. Mary does not quite understand why, for Meemaw has not fed herself for months now, no matter how finely degraded her food is.
“So the plan,” Beth says, pausing to place pieces of crispy breaded skin into her mouth, “Is to drive Meemaw down to Sunny Dunes tomorrow, around noon, get lunch in town, come back to the hotel and spend one more evening at the beach before we head back. Sound good?”
Smacking, chewing sounds come as response.
“Yes?” Beth says with more force.
“Mhhm,” Mary and Aunt Carol reply.
“Alright,” Beth continues, “That will be good. It’ll be good for her. They have saunas down at Sunny Dunes, and golf courses and pools and tennis courts. There’s chess tournaments on Thursdays and Bowling Night is on Friday. She’ll fit right in.”
Aunt Carol scoffs softly. “Yeah, I’m sure Meemaw will really enjoy Bowling Night in her geriatric state. Good thing she’s spending all her days lounging around in a wheelchair with a breathing machine, it’ll have her all rested up just in time for the championships.”
“Carol, she’s right here,” Beth hisses, daring a quick look in Meemaw’s direction, “Stop all this slander, she can hear you!”
“Beth, don’t be delusional. The woman lost her hearing years ago, and even if she could hear, I doubt her brain could process what we’re saying. It’s a vat of jello bobbing around in there.”
Beth’s response is interrupted by a hysterical yapping.
“Bono? That you, baby?” Aunt Carol asks, rising from her chair. Her eyes go wide: “Crap! I forgot to give the dog his pills. He’s about to go crazy.”
Indeed, the rat terrier was in a frenzy, making speedy circles around the hotel room like a wind-up toy on rocket fuel. Quite literally, he was bouncing off the walls, his teeny paws ricocheting off the couch and into the door and back again.
“Beth, help me catch him, will you?” Aunt Carol says, approaching the dog slowly, “Go open the bathroom door and I will shepherd him in there.”
Beth rolls her eyes but complies, opening the bathroom door and standing at the ready with one hand on the knob. Aunt Carol moves in towards Bono with unwavering eye contact and the dog gives flight as she approaches too close. He gallops away from his owner’s gentle hands and runs into the bathroom. Beth closes the door on him.
“It’s best if we leave him in there while we finish dinner,” says Aunt Carol, “He needs to calm down a bit.”
Loud thuds and tiny growls are heard from within as Bono continues to make his rounds.
“Oh! Carol, get in here! Your damn dog made a mess!” Beth exclaims from inside the bathroom, her hands covered with the chicken grease she planned to wash off. But Aunt Carol has already fallen asleep on the couch, draped over it like a thick piece of cloth. Exhaling sharp and bull-like from her nostrils, Beth opens the bathroom door and Bono trots out with his diminutive claws scratching the linoleum floors. He lies dutifully next to Aunt Carol.
Huffing as she gets on her knees, Beth collects the scattered contents of the bathroom trash can and places them back in the receptacle, wads upon wads of tissue and toilet paper stained slightly brown and black from Mary rubbing off her makeup. But then, something hard and plastic. A tampon? No. Beth inspects the object closer and feels her face flush with angry blood. She is holding a positive pregnancy test.
Mary wakes up to the sound of screaming seagulls beyond the windowpane. Slivers of sunlight are coming at an angle through the blinds, agitating her eyes. She sits up, uncomfortably aware of that particular quality of hotel rooms, being able to see from one’s bed at once the kitchen, the couch, the other bed, the television. No privacy, nowhere to turn away from fellow occupants’ gazes.
Bono is freshly re-tranquilized and lies in a tight bundle at Aunt Carol’s feet. Aunt Carol herself is sitting at the plastic table once more, facing Beth. Both their faces are drawn with intensely sharp lines and their tight mouths whisper mean words.
Mary rises from the bed and quietly pads towards the bathroom. Not quietly enough, for without even facing her, Beth commands, “Mary, come here. We need to talk.”
Mary’s heart thrashes in its ribcage: something is wrong.
“Come sit,” says Beth, her voice acidically sweet. Aunt Carol avoids eye contact with Mary, her purple hair shielding her gaze. Mary deposits herself into an available chair.
“Mary, yesterday, I was putting everything back in the bathroom trash can after Bono tore everything up,” Beth continues, narrowing her eyes to snake-like slits, “And I found a pregnancy test in there. Now, I know it’s not your Aunt’s, and it’s definitely not mine. So did some little fairy sneak into our hotel room with a surprising present, or do you need to explain yourself?”
Mary’s mouth goes dry, her tongue a heavy and immovable slug.
“I, well, uh…” only a few quaky syllables manage to leave her lips.
“I thought so.” Beth shakes her head, “What shame! What will the ladies at church think? My own daughter, a whore, pregnant as a teenager. Oh Lord! Do you even know who the father is?”
“Yes, it’s Cooper. I’ve only ever had one boy! I’m not a whore!”
“You are in the eyes of God.”
“Okay, Beth, maybe you need to calm down a little,” Aunt Carol interjects, “She’s a teenager, okay. They make mistakes at that age. It’s not that big a deal. There’s ways to fix this problem too, it doesn’t have to be permanent.”
“What are you implying?” Beth says, heat rising in her tone, “That we get rid of it? No, absolutely not.”
“So you would rather relegate your daughter and her child to a lifetime of misery?”
“Oh, stop acting so high and mighty for a second! Your evil influence probably caused this, you and your - your deviant lifestyle.”
“I’m the one who’s acting high and mighty? You’re the one always preached love and acceptance and then refused to come to her own sister’s wedding.”
“You called that a wedding? It defied the very sanctity of marriage. Two women! Who’s ever heard of such a thing…”
Mary does not hear the rest of the conversation. She has peeled herself away and snuck out the door. They are so involved in their argument that they do not notice.
The sun outside is blistering, unmerciful, with only a weak breeze providing some relief. It rustles through the spiny leaves of a few low-rising palmetto trees. To Mary, they resemble garden-gnome-versions of real palm trees. She sits beside one, on a broiling hot curb looking out to the hotel’s nearly empty parking lot. She thumbs her phone, flipping it over once, twice, thrice. There’s a notification, a text from Lilly: you doing okay?
Mary attempts to call her, but the connection goes to voicemail. She leaves a message after the beep, her words slurring together into one long phrase: oh lilly i really wish you were here with me right now my mom find out im pregnant and she’s freaking out and my aunt tried to defend me but then they started arguing about something else and i think they already forgot about me but now my mom is heated and i know when she gets back to me she’s gonna be even more mad and i’m so scared because i know she’s gonna make me keep it anyways please call me back when you get this.
Holding her phone like an injured baby bird, deep breath in and out, and she calls another number. He picks up on the fourth ring.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“I need to talk to you. It’s really important.”
“If it’s what I think it’s about, I already know.”
“Lilly told me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Look, Mary, I can’t really talk about this right now, okay? I’m a little busy.”
“What can possibly be more important than this conversation?” Mary asks, feeling her voice crack like a pubescent boy’s.
“Just… stuff. Look, I’ll get back to you, okay? But in the meantime could you do me a favor and like, not tell people I’m the father?”
“That’s what you’re worried about? Your reputation?”
“Just please do me that one favor, mkay? I’ll call you back.”
As Mary lowers the phone from her ear, her stomach twisted into a pile of snakes. She knows full and well Cooper has no intention of ever calling her back. Her spine curves further and further into itself and she puts her head atop her knees, feeling only the cruel sunshine turning her neck red.
A sudden yapping comes from behind. It’s Bono, his white paws flashing as he walks with the nervous urgency all little dogs have. Following close behind is Aunt Carol, her face contorted with absolute rage, her backpack aflung in her arms with underwear and plastic bags spilling out.
Beth’s voice comes from further away, from inside the hotel room: “So you’re really gonna do it, huh, you’re really gonna abandon your own mother when she needs you most?”
Aunt Carol yells back, “She did it to me first. You were always the favorite. Oh you two, with your Bible freak girls’ club. Sorry I couldn’t play bridge or hold a note in the church choir or do anything right. But the least she - and you - could’ve done was respect me and my life and my choices.”
Aunt Carol marches on, towards her beige Toyota Corolla baking in the parking lot. She flings her things and Bono inside the car, then pauses, looking down at her flip flops, crying hot, bitter tears.
“Aunt Carol?” Mary calls out from her perch on the curb.
The woman looks up, an automatic “I’m okay, don’t worry about me” smile on her face.
“Mary, oh Mary. My sweet baby.” She swoops down like a caring mother hen, enveloping the girl in her arms, rocking back and forth ever so slightly.
“It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. Call me if you ever need help or someone to talk to or anything.”
“Aunt Carol, you live in a whole different state. I don’t know how you could help me even if you wanted to.”
“You’ll be okay,” she repeats with more force.
“Are you leaving right now?”
“But what about taking Meemaw down to Sunny Dunes?”
“You two have it handled.”
“Please don’t leave,” Mary whispers, “Please don’t leave me alone with her, not right now.”
“I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry. I have to. You’ll be okay.”
And with that, Aunt Carol disentangles herself from Mary and nearly dove into her car. Mary watches her pull out from the parking space, the gravel scattering from the back wheels.
There is a sour breath on Mary’s ear - Beth has come behind her. She puts a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Let’s go inside, Mary. We have to get Meemaw loaded up.”
“But what about -”
“We’ll talk about everything later. You’ll make a fine parent, really, and we’ll show everyone that a teenage mother doesn’t have to be a delinquent. You’ll be okay.”
Beth’s hand digs deeper into Mary’s shoulder blade as she guides her back into the hotel room.