She pulled the mulberry-tinted satin dress over her head and shimmied it onto her hips before sinking down on to the bed. From there, Claire could see her face in the vintage hanging mirror. She studied it for a moment, wondering how she would hide the vacant look in her eyes. Her hand fluttered over her midsection.
It had been two years and eleven months since she’d last seen her baby boy. She’d named him Ryder, kissing him gently on the forehead before the nurse plucked him from her arms. If she closed her eyes, Claire could still imagine his soft skin brushing against her own.
A muffled knock tore her gaze away from her reflection.
“Come in,” she said.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Claire’s mother, Violet, pushed into the room. “We’ve got to be at the rehearsal dinner in half an hour.” Violet huffed and shut the heavy wooden door behind her, moving in front of the mirror. Her heels clacked against the hardwood floor, and the sounds echoed through the room, bouncing off the towering wardrobe and the floral-printed armchair. Claire’s aunt had hired a sought-after interior designer to decorate their massive colonial home in a traditional style, but with a modern flair complete with contemporary lighting and the latest appliances.
“I’ll be right down,” Claire said.
“Well, hurry up. Everyone’s waiting for you,” Violet said, smoothing back her dyed brown hair. She turned to face her daughter, her eyes softening. “That’s a lovely color on you.” Violet took a step toward her, reaching a hand out to her face, “You’ve just got your lipstick a little….” She trailed off, her hand falling to her side. “There’s a smudge. You’ll want to fix it.”
As her mother stepped out of the room, Claire rolled her eyes at her wide backside. They hadn’t gotten along since Ryder’s birth, not that they had been particularly close to begin with. After everything that had happened, her mother’s little attempts at kindness always felt useless.
Getting up, Claire pulled a pair of heels from under the bed and slid them on, deliberately ignoring her mother’s request as she headed out.
Her eyes scanned the crowd as she entered the foyer, picking out the faces of miscellaneous cousins and wrinkled relatives she only ever saw at Christmas. A crystal chandelier swayed above their heads.
“There you are!” Claire recognized Alexa’s voice as she bounced up to her. “Thank you so much for taking care of Levi. Ryan and I are so appreciative.” Alexa dropped the toddler into Claire’s arms. “I can’t believe the sitter would cancel like that. I mean, she knows we’re getting married tomorrow. Ryan says I should look at the positives though, because now we can have the whole family together, can’t we?” Alexa pinched Levi’s little fingers in her hand, shaking them happily. “I can’t wait to officially be this little guy’s mom!”
Claire didn’t even bother to attempt her half-hearted smile; Alexa was already gone, turning to shepherd her fiancé out the door and into the cars. “Alright everybody, let’s go,” Violet called out. Before retiring, she had worked as an event planner for a company out of Brighton, and the chance to work on her niece’s wedding had sent her into an excited frenzy.
Claire settled Levi firmly on her hip, refusing to look at his face. He and Ryder would be about the same age now, and Claire cursed her mother for putting her on baby duty. Scooping the polka-dotted diaper bag off the floor by the front door, she followed the crowd out.
“Smile, dear,” her mother said tightly as she held the door open for her.
Claire didn’t think she’d mustered a real smile since the day her son had been born. Once outside, a cousin herded her into the back of her uncle’s silver Buick, where she was squished in between a car seat and one of her great aunts. She fastened the buckles around Levi’s torso. “Car wide,” he gurgled.
“Yes, it is a car ride,” Aunt Heidi cooed, reaching over Claire’s lap. “What a sweetheart. It’s too bad his mother turned out to be such a flake, don’t you think?”
Claire shifted uncomfortably in her seat, murmuring in agreement. She couldn’t imagine why any mother would willingly give up her baby.
“Ryan is such a saint,” her aunt continued, “To raise a child as a single father? Alexa sure did find a good one.”
Claire stiffened, remembering what her mother had said as Claire stood before her, five months pregnant with a child of her own. That she’d be called a slut, an embarrassment to her family. She’d have to leave school and hide away so no one would know.
It wasn’t the first time Claire had listened to praise for Ryan’s bravery, but she still sparked with anger when she heard it.
Aunt Heidi chattered on about the wedding, Claire nodding occasionally so that it looked like she was listening. Instead, she was staring at Levi as he dozed off in his car seat. His mouth hung open, a trickle of drool pooling at the edge of his lips.
When the car pulled up to the restaurant, a high priced venue called the Ivy Lounge, Claire carefully unbuckled the sleeping toddler and lifted him into her arms. The party filed through the double glass doors out front, where they were promptly escorted to an elegant banquet hall in the back of the building. A long table set with delicate silverware and heavy china plates commanded the room. Two small commodes had been placed on opposite walls and were topped with swathes of lace and vases filled with red roses.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Grandma Ruth set her frail hand on Claire’s shoulder. “Oh,” she breathed, looking down at Levi. “You’re a natural with him, aren’t you?”
Claire clutched Levi a little tighter to her hip and swallowed hard, giving a small nod to her grandmother.
“Don’t be so sensitive, Claire.” Violet whispered harshly when her mother moved on. “It’s your cousin’s big night. Don’t ruin it.”
“If you hadn’t offered me up as a babysitter you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“I thought you’d enjoy spending some time with Levi. Besides, she’s your cousin, and she needed help. It’s what family does.”
“Does family also make their daughters drop out of school and ship off their unwanted babies to the nearest adoption agencies?” Claire snapped, her face hard.
Violet spun on her. “You shut your mouth.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s not my fault you decided to be careless. I am trying my best, Claire. But you just refuse to accept it.” Violet swallowed hard. “And I refuse to let you be the one to cause trouble at this wedding. So you will put a smile on your face, take this boy to the table, and enjoy the evening.”
Violet turned abruptly toward the crowd, donning a bright smile and making small talk. Claire stared at her family. It wasn’t fair. Ryan was just like her. So why did he get to have everything she couldn’t?
She glanced down at Levi. He was awake now, his blue eyes taking in the activity of the room. Claire caught the attention of a nearby waiter, requested a high chair, and began settling herself and Levi in for family dinner. Maybe if she kept her eyes on her food she could avoid uncomfortable conversation with her relatives.
Her hopes were dashed almost immediately, when Aunt Bee sat down across from her.
“There’s my little soon-to-be grandson,” she chirped, smiling at Levi. “Claire, your mother tells me you’ve started a new job!”
“I have,” Claire answered. “I started with Mayflower Media last month. I’m working as a marketing assistant.”
“Hmm, I don’t think I’ve heard of them.”
“They’re an older company, based out of Fair Isle.”
Aunt Bee thought for a moment. “Still nothing,” she said. “They must be one of the smaller operations. Your uncle has mentioned most of the companies he works with, but nothing called Mayflower. Then again, I’m sure it was difficult enough to find something, what with you having to get that online degree.” She said the last few words gravely, as if it were some huge, embarrassing secret.
Claire smiled sarcastically. “Oh yeah,” she agreed. “Really tough.”
Oblivious to Claire’s growing irritation, Aunt Bee raised her hand to her heart. “Well I am just so glad things are working out for you dear.”
Before Claire could answer, Levi grabbed at the fabric of her dress. “Potty,” he whined.
Claire shot her aunt a pinched smile. “I’d better take care of this. Come on, buddy.”
After about two hours and nine forced conversations, Claire was relieved to see the dinner winding down. Relatives were saying their goodbyes, kissing Alexa and Ryan on the cheeks and squeezing their arms.
Levi was focused on a plastic toy plane that he kept calling Howie, zooming it up and down the edge of the table. Claire cleared his leftover animal crackers, scooping her hand along the table to ensure she’d gotten all the crumbs.
When most of the guests had made their way out, Claire turned to Levi. “Ready to get out of here, bud?” She gathered him into her arms and collected his things before heading over to Ryan and Alexa.
“Oh, thank you again, Claire,” Alexa gushed when they approached. She fingered the beaded necklace around her neck. “Levi was so good during dinner. You did great with him.”
“It was no problem” And it hadn’t been. Levi had turned out to be a great way out of conversations with the people around her. Between running him on potty breaks and preventing toddler-sized meltdowns, she wasn’t left with much time for chatting.
“And you’re sure you’re okay getting him to bed tonight and ready in the morning? He can be a bit difficult about his suit.”
“Alexa, she’ll be fine,” Ryan interjected. “You saw her at dinner. She was great.” He set his hand against the small of his fiancé’s back. “Really Claire, you should have kids of your own.”
“Yeah.” Claire locked eyes with her mother, who was standing just a few feet away, discussing the dinner’s success with Claire’s aunt. “I should.”
Violet must have sensed her daughter’s animosity, because she suddenly came sweeping over to the trio. Her long navy blue dress fluttered around her ankles and its intricate beading stretched across her breasts. She’d had her hair done at the salon earlier that day, and now a few ringlets hung out of place, having managed to escape the confines of her slick up-do.
“It was a lovely dinner, Alexa,” she said as she squeezed her way between the cousins. “Just lovely. But the two of you should be getting off to bed. Tomorrow’s the big day and you’re going to want to be well-rested, believe me.” Without giving the couple a chance to respond, Violet announced to the remaining crowd, “Come on everyone. Let’s get these lovebirds home.”
It didn’t matter that neither Alexa nor Ryan was one of her own children. Alexa wasn’t even on Violet’s side of the family; she was Violet’s husband, Frank’s, brother’s daughter. Taking charge was just what Violet did best. Her family was firmly rooted in tradition, and anything less than perfection was bound to be a scandal. Usually, Claire just did as she was asked, even if she did so with a fair amount of sass. Claire and Violet had always argued, but their relationship hadn’t been far from average until Claire got pregnant.
She was twenty, in the middle of her third year at Fair Isle College. Claire hadn’t been a bad student, but she wasn’t the best either. She majored in business administration because, frankly, there wasn’t anything else she was interested in and it seemed like the sensible thing to do.
Fair Isle was only about fifty minutes from her childhood home in Wilmington, but Claire had opted to stay on campus. She wanted the college experience, and her parents were just glad she’d gone to college at all.
She started seeing Trevor in the spring of her sophomore year. He was an ecology major with a head of bushy brown curls that Claire liked to play with when she got bored. Trevor’s camera acted as an extra limb, and everyone knew he’d rather be an art student. He’d have been the next Ansel Adams if his parents would have let him.
Trevor was in love with the earth, always telling anyone nearby about its beauty and power. Claire would smile and lean back into his chest, and he knew she wasn’t really listening but he kept talking anyway. He was the kind of guy that was easy to be around. Trevor and Claire weren’t exactly dating. It was more of a steady fling, taking one another to parties and occasionally meeting up on the commons to lay in the grass and study. Neither of them wanted to take things too seriously, so when Trevor announced the next fall that he was transferring to a private college in rural New Hampshire, neither of them were too broken up. Whatever they had would have ended eventually. This just gave them a more concrete expiration date.
They continued seeing each other on and off for the remainder of the semester and ended things casually with a kiss and a, “Good luck!” just before they left on winter break.
It wasn’t until early February that Claire realized something wasn’t right. Her periods had always been irregular, but the nausea was what made her wonder. She tried to call Trevor when she found out, but the number she dialed was out of service. She didn’t have an email address, and he had been strictly opposed to social media, calling it useless and brainwashing.
There really hadn’t been anything to do but go home. Claire had never gotten close to her roommate or any of the other girls on campus. She thought about getting rid of it, but had no idea where to go. Besides, she’d been raised Catholic, and though she hadn’t been to church since her confirmation, she didn’t think she’d be able to set foot inside an abortion clinic. She was scared, and her instincts led her down I-75 and right up to her front door. Looking back on it now, Claire wished she had gone anywhere else.
Their party slowly began to shuffle out of the restaurant, following Violet dutifully. She had taken charge of thanking the staff for them, so all Claire had to do was flash a grateful smile as she passed by.
Once at the cars, Claire let out a deep yawn as she settled Levi in. He’d passed out on her shoulder during the after-dinner niceties. Her uncle pulled the car out of the parking lot to head towards home. The family was all staying the night at her aunt and uncle’s to make things easier in the morning. Claire listened to the engine hum and closed her eyes.
Her alarm blared at 5AM the next morning, eliciting a deep groan from Claire. Levi was old enough to sleep through the night, but that didn’t stop him from being an early riser, and she knew he’d already be wide awake in his bed. She sat up in the unfamiliar room and rubbed vigorously at her eyes. Still bleary from sleep, she shivered when her bare feet touched down on the cool hardwood floor.
Claire grabbed at the soft gray robe on the back of the door and slung it around her shoulders. Aunt Bee was a perfectionist who always kept her guest rooms so well stocked that it felt more like staying in a luxury hotel than in a home.
Cinching the robe tight, Claire padded down the hall and poked her head into the room her aunt had set up for Levi. He was lying in his bed, his blankets kicked haphazardly off of his small body. He stared mindlessly at the ceiling, humming a tune to himself and kicking his feet.
“Hey, bud,” she said softly, pushing the door open.
“Care!” he said happily.
Claire stepped into the room and sat down on the edge of his bed. “Whatcha doing?”
“I sing.” Levi grinned and reached for his toes, still lying on his back. His head bobbed back and forth and he continued to mutter songs under his breath as Claire got him out of bed and began to ready him for the day.
When she’d finally managed to wrangle him into his clothes and had helped him brush his teeth and make his bed, the two headed downstairs for breakfast. Claire felt Levi’s tiny hand reach up to grip her fingertips as he followed her out of the room. Her own son had never gotten the chance to hold his mother’s hand, and Claire couldn’t help but feel the reminder hard and fast.
Violet was already in the kitchen, dressed and sipping a hot cup of tea. “Good morning,” she said brightly.
“Can you say ‘hi’?” Claire prompted, wiggling Levi’s hand.
“Hi,” he said shyly.
“Why don’t you go play in the living room while I make us some breakfast?”
Claire watched as Levi nodded excitedly and toddled onto the carpeted floor. He plucked a shiny truck from his wicker basket, filled mostly with cars and planes, and began running it across the ground.
“Hey, Mom,” Claire said. She pulled a box of pancake mix out of the white cupboard and fetched some blueberries from the fridge. As she lay out her ingredients, Claire turned up the stove and set a pan out to heat up. “Where’s Aunt Bee?”
“She’s down at the church already. Wanted to make sure a few things were in order before she got herself all ready.”
Claire nodded and reached for the hot pot of coffee, pouring herself a mug. She was quiet while she cooked, not very eager to be alone with her mother. The kitchen was much larger than the one in her cramped flat. It had been all she could afford when she first moved out of her parents’ house, just a few months after Ryder had been born. Her new job payed more though, and if she saved up, Claire would probably be able to find something bigger soon, if she wanted to.
She ran her hand along the clean stone countertop and looked around. The upper cabinet on the far end was paned with a glass front, and Claire could see a myriad of wine glasses and champagne flutes. A bowl of fruit sat on the island in front of her mother.
When she turned away from the stove to check on Levi, she caught Violet staring at her. Hoping to avoid having to make conversation, Claire returned to her work. She hummed as she mixed the batter, Levi’s song stuck in her head.
“Thank you, Claire,” Violet said suddenly. “For looking after Levi. You’re very good with him.” Her voice was serious, but Claire sensed a quiver of nervousness. All of their conversations were like that now, either laced with bitter malice or trembling with caution.
Claire paused at the counter, her stirring slowing to a stop. Her mother was always trying to make up for what she’d done, but as far as Claire was concerned, no amount of compliments would ever be enough.
“Maybe,” she said quietly, the word hard and deliberate, “I would have been good with my baby, too.”
“What, Mom?” Claire spun around, suddenly infuriated. “What?” she spit. “No. You don’t get to tell me how good I am with him. Not after what you did. What you made me do.”
Violet shushed her. “Don’t make a scene.”
“Why not? You don’t want anyone to know your daughter got herself knocked up? That I got pregnant and that’s the real reason why I took all those online courses? That I really had to stay home and hide because you were too embarrassed?”
“Or do you not want them to know what a hypocrite you are? That you forced me to give my baby away, but Ryan, Ryan’s just great isn’t he? What a good guy, keeping his baby like that.”
“I was trying to protect you,” Violet snapped. “You can hate me if you want, but I was only looking out for you.”
Claire scoffed. “Yeah, I’ve heard it a thousand times. You were protecting me.” She shook her head and turned back to the counter. There was a bright window above the sink, and she stared out over her aunt’s gardens. A hummingbird buzzed over the flowers, zipping in and out of her view. “Or were you just protecting yourself? God forbid your daughter be the one with the big family scandal.”
“You weren’t.” Violet clanked her mug down on the table.
“What?” Claire turned, spatula raised in her hand.
“Forget it.” Violet stood to dump her mug into the sink. “I’ve tried, Claire. But you’re hell-bent on making me bad guy here.”
“Maybe because you are!” Claire flipped her pancakes over, crushing the edge of one in her angry rush. “You’re a mother yourself for Christ’s sake. Or would you have given me up, too?”
“I was married.”
Claire scoffed. “Oh, great. So if you hadn’t been married I would have been out on the street, right?”
Violet sunk back down into her chair at the table. “It was almost three years ago,” Violet said firmly. “I know you’re mad and I know it’s my fault. But—”
“I’m mad? I wish I could say I was just mad, Mom. But I’m not mad. I’m furious.” Claire’s voice cracked. “I’m furious and I’m broken.”
Violet stared at her daughter’s crumpled face. “I know.” Her head fell into her hands and she sighed. “I know, and I’m sorry.” Her shoulder’s sagged, defeated.
Claire swallowed. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument. In fact, she didn’t think she could count all of the times they’d done this, screaming at one another from opposite sides of a room. But this was the first time Violet had ever broken, letting her hard exterior deteriorate.
A tear slipped down her mother’s wrinkled cheek and Clair shifted uncomfortably against the countertop. It was easier when her mother was the enemy. When they were just yelling at each other, she knew that she was the wronged party. She was the one who had lost her son. There didn’t have to be any guilt in that, at least not for her mother.
“I just didn’t want you to end up like her,” Violet whispered.
Claire raised her eyebrows. “Like who?” She moved the pancakes off the burner and leaned against the counter. “What are you talking about?”
Violet sat for a while, head still in her hands. Finally, she sighed heavily and lifted her watery eyes to meet Claire’s. “My sister.”
Claire’s head snapped up, her arms crossing defiantly over her chest. “You don’t even have a sister.”
“See,” Violet smirked sadly at her daughter’s challenging stance. “This is why I never say anything. You’re so aggressive.”
“Oh my God, really?” Claire rolled her eyes. “Fine. Go ahead. Tell me about your mystery sister. I’m all ears.” She banged her elbows onto the island, leaning in with fake earnestness.
Violet looked down to her aging hands. “Her name is Eliza. She’s nine years older than I am, and when I was little, she was my hero.”
“Cute,” Claire said dryly.
Violet shot her a sharp look. “She got pregnant when she was eighteen. It was her high school boyfriend’s baby. Your grandparents were horrified. They wanted to send her away, but she wouldn’t go. All of those places your grandfather was looking at would have taken the baby. But she said she loved Schuyler—that was her boyfriend’s name. She wanted to keep the baby. Raise it with him.”
Claire had never heard her mother speak so tenderly. Her voice was raw and sad. “And?” Claire asked, trying to remain stony. “So what?”
“Your grandparents wouldn’t allow it. They disowned her. Made it as if she never existed,” Violet replied simply. “No one in this family has seen her since.”
“Your grandparents are very conservative. You know that.” Violet looked worn down.
“Who cares what Grandma and Grandpa think? You still could have let me keep Ryder.” Claire wasn’t budging. “If that’s true, then you could’ve righted their wrongs. You could have been better.”
Her mother shook her head, staring down at the table. “If I’d let you keep that baby, your grandparents would have been furious. The thought of it probably would have killed Grandpa on the spot. I thought giving up the baby would be easier than giving up your family. I didn’t want you to live that life.”
“What life, Mom?” Claire asked. “How would you know?”
“Just because I haven’t seen her doesn’t mean I haven’t kept tabs on her. When I was finally old enough, I tracked her down. It wasn’t good. Schuyler was killed in a car accident about a year after Lizzie left. She was on her own, no education. She worked three or four jobs and they lived in this dingy little apartment.”
Claire was quiet. “That’s awful,” she said after a while.
“She was miserable.”
Claire paused. “How do you know, though?” she asked. “She was with her child. Maybe that was enough.”
Violet looked at her daughter. “I guess I don’t.”
Claire peered over her shoulder at Levi, toddling around with a dump truck in each hand. Faintly, she could hear the groaning of the garage door as it creaked open. Aunt Bee was home.
She turned back to the pancakes, sliding the pan onto the burner.
“Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess not.”
“How She Ended Up” was first published by The 3288 Review in November 2016.