by Lisa Phipps
Keri glanced at her reflection in the rear-view mirror one more time before leaving her car. She missed her long, blonde hair. But getting it cut and colored was the easiest way to conceal her identity. She allowed the shoulder-length curls to fall forward, hiding her face as she climbed the church steps in the cold March wind. Luckily, the back pew was empty; Keri quickly claimed it to avoid mingling with any overly friendly parishioners.
She was probably vain to think anyone would know her in this remote Montana town. Her debut single had only been released in September, and the follow-up single had been somewhat of a disappointment. Still, as the congregation began the opening song, Keri remained silent; she couldn’t risk anyone recognizing her voice. She had come here to work on her next album in solitude; she did not want to be bombarded by curious fans.
As the song ended, a teenage girl slipped into the pew beside Keri. So much for avoiding people, Keri thought, moving over a little farther than necessary. But she needn’t have worried. The girl seemed as eager as Keri to ostracize herself. Neither one even acknowledged the other’s presence during mass, except that Keri’s eyes slid sideways just once, drawn by the motion of the girl rubbing her swollen belly, which was straining against the buttons of a maternity top.
Keri spent the next week secluded in her rented cabin at the end of a desolate, mountain road, trying out melodies on her guitar and scribbling down lyrics. She didn’t leave her temporary home until church the next Sunday. She again chose the last pew, and again, the same pregnant girl silently joined her. The girls continued to ignore each other. Both left church immediately after mass, ahead of the throng of amiable church-goers.
As April sunshine arrived to melt the lingering snowdrifts, Keri grew confident in her disguise. On the rare occasions when she ventured to town for groceries, no one paid much attention to her. This was what she had wanted, but the isolation was taking its toll. Kerry needed a friend, someone to talk to, someone to share a pizza or go shopping with. Her thoughts kept returning to the pregnant girl. She seemed lonely and sad. Maybe she needed someone, too.
So the next Sunday after mass, Keri rushed to catch up with her in the church parking lot. “Hey,” she began, “we both seem to be strangers in this town. I was wondering, would you like to get together?”
The girl already had her hand on her car door. She opened it without answering. But Keri persisted. “I could cook you dinner. I make pretty good tacos. And I personally guarantee my cheesecake is the best you’ll ever eat.”
The girl hesitated, battling indecision. Finally, she acquiesced.
Keri smiled. “How about Wednesday? Around 5:30? I’m renting the hunter’s cabin on Wagon Train Road. It’s nothing fancy, but the price is right, since it’s the off-season.”
“I’m renting a cabin, too,” said the girl. “I’m on Hulton Road. Wednesday sounds great.”
“By the way, I’m Keri.”
“I’m Mandy,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
On Wednesday afternoon the enticing aroma of cheesecake filled the cabin as Keri chopped lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Then she simmered ground beef on the stove amid frijoles and enchilada sauce, stirring it occasionally while she played her guitar.
She meant to have the guitar hidden when Mandy arrived, but she was concentrating so hard on her music that she didn’t hear her guest pull into the driveway. She jumped at the knock on the door, then saw Mandy waving timidly through the glass.
“Oh! You play guitar!” Mandy exclaimed as she entered. “I’ve always wanted to. What were you playing?”
“Nothing really. Just kind of messing around.” Quickly changing the subject, Keri asked, “When’s your baby due?”
“Six weeks,” Mandy said softly, avoiding Keri’s eye.
An awkward silence followed. Then Keri said, “I hope you’re hungry.” She crowded the small table with the Mexican buffet, grabbed two cans of icy Coke, and sat down across from Mandy.
“Do you have any milk?” Mandy asked timidly. “I can’t have caffeine. It’s bad for the baby.”
“No problem,” Keri said. She replaced one can of Coke with a tall glass of milk. Then the girls overflowed their taco shells with beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese, olives, guacamole, and sour cream. Keri slathered a huge dollop of salsa on hers before passing the jar to Mandy. “You have got to try this,” she said. “It’s peach mango.”
“It sounds good, but I can’t even look at salsa anymore. Heartburn. It’s bad this late in the pregnancy.” The conversation stalled, and the girls focused on their tacos.
“I am so full,” Keri said as she finished.
“Not me,” Mandy replied, almost apologetically. “I’m always starving these days.” She looked longingly at the food still on the table.
“Have another one,” Keri offered, “or I’ll be eating leftover tacos all week.”
Mandy eagerly helped herself. In between bites, she asked, “How come you play guitar but you don’t sing?”
“I do sing,” Keri replied without thinking.
“Not in church.”
“Oh, that. I had a sore throat,” she explained lamely.
“Every single Sunday?” Mandy looked skeptical.
“It was a really bad one.” Hoping to avoid further questions, Keri asked, “Do you know if your baby is a boy or a girl?
“Girl,” said Mandy sadly, staring at her empty plate.
“Do you have a name picked out?” Keri persisted.
Mandy was quiet for so long Keri thought she hadn’t heard her. Then she noticed a tear trickling down the girl’s cheek.
“I don’t get to name her,” Mandy answered. “I’m giving her up for adoption.”
“Is that why you’re staying in a cabin all by yourself? You’re hiding out because you’re pregnant?”
“But isn’t that kind of old-fashioned?” Keri asked. “There are lots of pregnant teens these days.”
“It’s not that simple.” Mandy’s voice trembled. “My dad is the chemistry teacher at my high school. He started a student organization called My AP. It stands for My Abstinence Pledge. He’s really proud of the decline in pregnancies at our school. Mine is the first in three years.”
“I’m sorry,” Keri said gently. “I shouldn’t have asked so many questions. If you feel like talking, I’ll listen. Otherwise I can show you a few chords on the guitar,” she offered spontaneously, hoping to comfort her new friend.
Mandy rested her hand protectively on her abdomen. She drew in a long, shaky breath and began her story.
“It was the first home football game last fall. We were playing the Wildcats, and my best friend Becky was going out with their quarterback. After the game they introduced me to one of his friends, and the four of us drove around together. They had some beer. I don’t even drink, but he was so gorgeous I didn’t want him to think I was a nerd. So I had one. I was so stupid! After a while, Becky and Tim met up with some other friends, and Brian and I were alone. He kept offering one more beer. After the first one, it was easier to say yes. Then that song came on the radio:
It’s just you and me, it’s just tonight.
Don’t think of tomorrow or the morning light.
You’re here right now, too good to resist.
I know it won’t stop with just one kiss.
“He sang along, looking right at me. I’ll spare you the details. I was so ashamed of myself. I never told anyone, not even Becky. When she asked about Brian, I told her I never wanted to see him again.
“A couple weeks later, I missed first hour three days in a row because I was home throwing up. Becky started teasing me saying, ‘Sounds like you’re pregnant.’ I finally realized she could be right. Mom cried when I told her. This is tearing her apart. Dad was furious, I mean raging mad. He’s so disappointed in me. I can’t blame him. I’m disappointed in me, too. I’d give anything to be able to take back what I did that night.
Dad arranged for me to come here after Christmas, when bulky sweaters weren’t enough. He’s telling everyone I’m staying with relatives in a college town to take some advanced classes. A prestigious façade, but I won’t even graduate. I’m studying for the GED. I’ll have to work a year to save up some money. Then I’ll start applying to colleges. I want to be a counselor to help pregnant teens.”
When Mandy finished, there was almost a full minute of silence before Keri said softly, “I wrote it.”
“What are you talking about?” Mandy asked.
“That song,” Keri said. “I wrote it. It’s my song.”
Mandy stared at Keri in disbelief. “You’re Keri Sheraton!” she said. “You look different in person.” Her eyes flashed angrily as she added, “I hate that song! What do you think when you write one like that?”
This wasn’t the reception Keri had anticipated when her identity was revealed. “You can’t blame everything on a song,” she said defensively.
Mandy sighed, taming her temper. “No, I suppose you’re right. It’s just easier to blame someone else.”
“I’m sorry about everything,” Keri said. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Actually, I’ll take you up on those guitar lessons,” Mandy replied, brightening a little. “If I can reach it past my gargantuan belly.”
The girls spent the rest of the evening singing, playing guitar, talking, and laughing. It was late when Keri finally opened a can of cherry pie filling to top slices of creamy cheesecake. Mandy had three pieces. “This is the absolute best cheesecake ever,” she declared appreciatively.
“I told you. It’s my great-grandma’s recipe. Family secret.”
Keri gave the leftovers to Mandy, and by the time the pregnant teen left, she was smiling for the first time in months.
Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Phipps