I thought that I’d been ready to take this next step. I had gotten sober, married the woman I loved more than life, gotten off my anxiety medication, established myself in my career, and had already spent hours weighing the positives and negatives of such a decision and every time, the positives outweighed the negatives.
So, of course, I had agreed. It’s honestly what I wanted. I wanted to take that next step with Candice. I wanted to expand our family. I wanted to make my wife happy.
So it was a surprise to me that, even though my mind had seemed to be on board with the decision, it soon made it pretty clear that it wasn’t…not even a little bit.
At first, life had been pretty okay after Candice’s announcement that she was pregnant. She continued to work from home, Joanne ran around the house excitedly for about twenty minutes after hearing the news, and I continued to work on my latest novel. No problem.
However, as it became more and more obvious that Candice was indeed pregnant, my mind and body slowly began to turn on me, launching an insidious rebellion that gradually emerged from the deepest depths of my memories. The rebellion would reveal itself by shooting flashes of Maddie, heavily pregnant and miserable, into my head. It would reveal itself by reminding me of the stress that we had both gone through. It would reveal itself, by reminding me that although I knew now that it wasn’t my fault, there was no denying that Maddie’s pregnancy had been the last marble to tip the cup, ultimately resulting in her suicide.
At first, this rebellion was, at best, distressing. The images would flash before my eyes, my lungs would feel as if they were seizing up, and then I would have to stop whatever I was doing in order to go through my old breathing exercises and soothing mantras, but eventually, this stopped helping.
It was at that point when the rebellion went from distressing, to downright destructive, and at that point, I did the last thing I could think of…the last thing that I ever thought of: I began to pull away and shrink into myself.
I thought that maybe, I could get through the pregnancy like this. It was clearly the pregnancy that was tearing my mind apart, not the idea of a baby, so if I just stayed away from everyone, perhaps I could get through it. That was my reasoning.
It was faulty thinking though, and I should have realized it, but I didn’t until Candice cornered me one evening, sick to death of my self-imposed solitary confinement.
“Come HERE, James,” Candice scolded, annoyed because I had just jumped off the couch as soon as she walked into the room. “I’m not a bomb. I’m your wife for god’s sake.”
“I know,” I said, rubbing my neck and avoiding her gaze.
“Do you, really? Because lately whenever I walk into a room you dart out faster than I can even say ‘hello’.” She paused, wringing her hands for a moment, and then finally asked, in a much softer tone, “It’s the baby, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said quickly, shaking my head and taking a half-step back. It really wasn’t. Please believe me.
“So then why haven’t you interacted with him or her at all?” she asked, cutting me a suspicious look. Her eyes darted to my feet, her mouth tightening when she noticed that I was still trying to get away.
I took a breath, halting in my steps. I just needed to relax and get through this conversation—then I could go hide out in my office. “I have interac—” I started to insist, but then trailed off as I saw the withering stare Candice shot in my direction. I went for a different angle, ignoring the anxiety that was already crawling across my skin.
“Okay….fine, look,” I said, quickly closing the space between us and placing my hand gingerly on her growing stomach. “Happy?” I asked, as my heart began to pound.
I moved to pull away, but Candice grabbed onto my wrist, holding it in place. I winced, shutting my eyes and trying to ignore the fact that my lungs were suddenly freezing up. I took in a slow breath—one, two, three, four…..
Candice sighed, letting go of my hand and shaking her head. “I don’t understand,” she said quietly, her brow furrowed. “I thought you wanted this.”
I took my hand off Candice’s belly, taking another slow breath before responding. “I do want this,” I insisted, feeling desperate to make her understand. “I’m happy, I’m—”
“Terrified,” Candice interjected, looking right at me. Her gaze was soft, but there was something else in her eyes that I couldn’t quite identify, something that was making me grow steadily more uneasy. “I’m not stupid, remember? Even when I told you I was pregnant you looked scared out of your wits before you managed to paste on a smile, and even then you were pale the rest of the night. Well, paler,” she noted with a bit of an attempt at humor.
I tried to smile, realizing that she was just trying to understand what was going on, but I couldn’t maintain it. I sighed in frustration, looking away. “I don’t know what it is, exactly.” I finally admitted. “I am happy about this baby, but seeing you…and remembering….” my voice died out on me. I felt so angry with myself.
I wasn’t lying. I did want a child with Candice and I was excited that we would soon have a baby in the house, but I honestly felt like I did when I quit drinking—like my very own body was revolting against me. The more visually obvious it was that my wife was pregnant, the worse I felt. I hated how something that happened years ago could still affect me like this. Why did I have to be so damaged?
I looked up at Candice and my heart immediately sank. She was biting down on her lip, hard, her face tight as she clearly struggled not to cry. Her warm brown eyes were shining unnaturally bright. She was trying to stay strong through this. She was trying to stay strong for me…but it was clearly proving to be too difficult.
I could feel my own eyes burning now and I let out a sharp breath, looking away. I wanted so desperately to be happy with Candice in this, and I knew that a part of me was, but for some reason I couldn’t access it. It was as if the happiness was buried within centuries of heavy sediment and no matter how far down I dug, I just couldn’t find it.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Candice finally whispered, her soft words coming out strangled. She put her hands up, distancing herself from me, and then took a large step back.
“Candice, don’t!” I exclaimed in a panic, taking another large step to close the space between us once again. “I can do better. I will do better. Please. Just—give me a chance.”
“I HAVE been!” Candice shouted, her voice finally breaking then and her walls coming down. “I’ve tried to get you to talk to the baby and I’ve taken you to checkups with me and I’ve even just completely ignored it and not mentioned it at all in case I was making it worse by bringing it up and nothing is working!” she cried, tears escaping her eyes.
“Candice….” I started to whisper, but then stopped, the words sticking in my throat. I looked down. I could feel tears falling down my face.
“I just wanted to have a baby together,” she whispered, her gaze looking forlorn, “and now I’m wondering if this was all just a huge mistake.”
“It’s not,” I cut in sharply, grabbing ahold of her hands tightly. “Stop. Don’t say that. Don’t even think that.” I took a deep breath and then gently pulled her toward me. Fresh tears appeared on her cheeks, but she didn’t say anything as I reached up to cup her face, using my thumbs to gently wipe them away. “I love you,” I murmured, letting go of her face and dropping my hands to her belly. I took another steady breath and then pressed my forehead against hers, my heart racing and my skin suddenly feeling cold and clammy. “I love you,” I repeated, “and I promise I’ll do better. I just—need some space. …and time,” I finished with a sigh.
As soon as I finished speaking, I felt a gentle bump against the hand I had on Candice’s belly, light as a whisper, and in the same moment I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut, flashes of Maddie pulling away from me in this exact situation zipping through my mind. I felt a tight squeeze on my other hand just as soon though and looked down to see that Candice was gripping it tightly.
“God…” Candice said softly, looking up at me sadly and gently placing her hand on my cheek. “What goes through that head of yours, James?”
I reached up to grasp the hand that she had on my cheek, slowly pulling it away from me. “What doesn’t?” I said quietly, and then slipped out of her grasp, leaving her alone.
Why did I have to be so goddamn broken?
I wish I could say that I kept the promise I made that night. I wish I could say that I was better. I wish I could say that I was a stronger person. But I wasn’t.
It made me so angry, so frustrated with myself. I hated being the person that I was. I hated being this broken thing that Candice and Joanne constantly had to look over, and yet here I was, again—still in this constant struggle to be better, but never quite succeeding.
It all made me wonder—would I ever be able to stop fighting?
“Surprise!!! Happy birthday, Jo!” Candice cried when our daughter raced through the door one afternoon.
“Oh, wow!” Joanne said, looking from me, to Candice, and beaming. “Thank you!” She ran up to Candice and hugged her tightly before stopping and turning to me. She looked hesitant, as if trying to read me, so I just bent down and initiated my hug instead. Stop bothering to read me, Jo—just assume I’m not doing well, but don’t treat me any differently because of it.
“Go on, blow out the candles,” Candice said, breaking the awkward moment. Joanne pulled away from me and nodded before heading over to her cake and standing before it.
She seemed to think for a long moment, as if trying to figure out the perfect way to phrase her wish. Her pale face was lit up by the soft glow of the candles, her jade eyes particularly striking as she suddenly locked eyes with mine. Once she had, she seemed to make up her mind, closing her eyes and then gently blowing out the candles.
Beside me, Candice burst out into cheers of encouragement, but I could feel myself slowly sinking into the ground. The odds of that wish being somehow related to me and my well-being were astronomically high…and I just couldn’t foresee it ever coming true at this point.
Joanne was such an eerie mix of Maddie and I. I could see Maddie clearly in her jade eyes and her soft, round face, but her nose was unmistakably mine. I couldn’t believe how fast she’d grown up. I was barely touching 30 now and my daughter was entering high school. Sixteen years apart…in some families, we could have been siblings. Hell, Joanne and her siblings would already be about fourteen years apart, what was another two years? It was all too surreal.
I dreaded the fact that she would be attending high school now.
Not because I thought she wouldn’t be liked, but because I thought she would be liked too much. This fact just added to my anxiety. After all, look how my high school experience had gone….I hoped she wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did.
“Your dad has a surprise for you, you know,” Candice said with a smile as we all sat and ate slices of the birthday cake.
Joanne glanced at me, but I didn’t say anything. It’d been a last minute purchase, but it was one that I figured she’d enjoy. “What is it?” she pressed, looking excited, but restrained.
“You’ll seeeee!” Candice sang out, causing Joanne to laugh.
“Oh my goodness! I LOVE IT!” Joanne cried out, folding her hands and holding them to her chest.
She approached the brand new keyboard in front of her cautiously, gently running her fingers over the keys. “Wow,” she said in a hushed voice. “You…you bought this?” she asked, turning her head toward me.
I nodded slowly. How could I not buy it? Joanne spent hours after school just so she could play on the keyboards there and I knew how much she’d wanted one of her own, even though she never actually asked.
“Thank you,” she said softly, and then slowly sat down on the bench. She poised her fingers over the keys, hesitant, before finally starting a soft melody. It began slowly, a few scattered notes and then the sound of silence. I could feel goose bumps beginning to rise on my skin. Then, the notes began to quicken, falling into each other like so many people running toward something they could not find. Running toward something they could not see.
Joanne’s voice joined in soon after, a bright light for the notes to follow as they bounced and rose up into it and all I felt were the pieces of my existence crumbling into dust.
I let out a slow breath, leaving the room, but still I could hear Joanne’s voice and all those notes following it.
I just couldn’t take this anymore—the constant pain, the constant struggle of getting through each day. I paced. I stopped. I tapped my foot. I walked over to my easel. I walked away.
I just wanted to quiet my mind. Just for one night.
“James….where are you going?” Candice asked. One of her hands was on her belly. The light in her eyes was dimming before I even answered.
“Out,” I stated. My hand was already on the doorknob. “I’ll be back later.”
I took a slow breath, and then opened the door, pausing for just a second longer before I added, barely audibly, “I’m sorry.”
She hurried out the door after me. Of course, she did—this woman who inexplicably, and quite unfairly, loved this damaged thing.
But this time, I hadn’t forgotten the keys.
God how deliciously wondrous it felt to finally not feel.
I’m home and you’re done now and I don’t blame you.
You’ve given everything, and I wanted to as well, but in the end I’m just not strong enough.
I’m so sorry that you thought otherwise. I’m so sorry that I thought otherwise.
Why not just kick me out? Why leave me here? I’m a poison feeding on poison feeding on people who deserve much more.
Leaving me here and ignoring me can’t feel better for you. Staying and being ignored doesn’t make me feel better either.
I know that, whoever you are, if you’re reading this, you must hate me right now.
But that’s okay, because god knows: I hate me too.
I wanted to drink more than I could. I’d have a few, and then something deep within me would unfurl, slinking its tendrils into my stomach and up my esophagus, making the thought of drinking any more nauseating.
But still, I stayed at the local bars for hours, too ashamed to face Joanne and Candice at home. Both of them refused to talk to me…and all of us knew that I deserved that.
Candice was getting so big. There were days when I wanted to go up to her…when I wanted to place my hands on her belly and feel our child’s light kicks against my palms, but then I’d remember…I forfeited that right with a swig from a glass. My mind’s rebellion had won.
Drinking quieted my mind, but now my heart was screaming.
They would never forgive me.
“And what calls you to this emergency meeting, James?”
“I slipped,” I whispered. My therapist was quiet, watching me patiently. “I drank. I-I’ve been drinking,” I clarified, pained. I looked up after I realized my therapist was still silent, only to find that he was also still looking at me, a small smile on his face.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked, appalled. Did he expect this? Did everyone know how fucking weak I was?
“Because now you’re here.”
“Well, yeah. I need help! I…I want help. I want…I want my family,” I said, my throat tight as I avoided his gaze.
“Exactly,” he said softly, leaning back in his chair. “Now, tell me what happened.”
“What happened?” I asked, as if in a daze.
“Only if you want to.”
I spilled everything, but still ended up in bars. Sometimes I drank, and other times, I didn’t, sitting instead at a table alone and ordering a drink only if the bartender got annoyed. I wasn’t really supposed to drink while back on my anxiety pills anyway. I had really wanted to be through with them, but apparently going off them had been a huge mistake in the first place.
Even if I wasn’t drinking much, I was too afraid to face them. Better to stay out all day and sneak in late at night to sleep, only to start all over the next day.
Today was a drink. Just one, I promised myself. It was cold. Despite the fact that it was spring, snow fell steadily outside the window. The bar was nearly deserted. I wished that I was with my family, but I still had no idea how to fix this. What could I even say?
My phone suddenly vibrated in my pocket. I sighed, getting up from the bar to check it, but immediately felt my pulse quicken as I saw the name on the screen. She hasn’t talked to me in months.
I answered immediately. “Hello?”
“Jo!” I gasped, clutching my phone tightly in my hand. “Is…is everything okay?”
“Yes,” Joanne started, and then took a deep breath. “Look…I still don’t quite know what in the world you’re doing, or thinking, or even feeling, and I’m pretty freaking mad at you right now, but I thought you should know: Mom went into labor.”
“What?” I asked, feeling a cold sweat break out along my skin. It was a bit early, wasn’t it? She wasn’t due for another what, two, three weeks?
“We’re at the hospital now,” she continued, and then paused, as if rethinking her next words over and over again. “She’ll never say it—but she needs you,” she finally finished.
I nodded, forgetting that I was talking over the phone, and then disconnected the call, slipping my phone back into my pocket.
I wanted to go. I wanted to be with her, but I didn’t deserve that right.
I could hear the words clearly in my head, but they weren’t spoken in my voice. They were spoken in…..
I dug into my pocket, slammed some crinkled bills onto the countertop, and then raced out the door.
I stepped into Candice’s room at the hospital breathing heavily; sweat droplets beaded on my brow. I could tell that I smelled faintly of alcohol. I could tell that I looked like a complete mess, actually, but I couldn’t think of any of that. All I could do was look at my wife. All I could feel was the rise and fall of my chest.
Candice stared back. Her face was a movie reel of emotions—furious, and then hurt, and then a little happiness, and then just….defeat. I felt my heart sink, and my stomach lurched, but then, reluctantly, she held out her hand.
I let out a breath and rushed to her side, grabbing her hand in mine. She held onto it tightly, suddenly letting out a strangled yell as a contraction hit her hard. I remembered this situation, and yet, somehow, I wasn’t losing it. Instead, I held her hand tighter.
“I still hate you,” Candice gasped once the contraction had passed. Her hair was all fuzzy and tousled, her face covered in sweat as she panted, but still I thought she looked beautiful.
“I know,” I managed to say. I kept my grip on her hand firm, determined to stay by her side. She looked up at me then, her eyes overly bright.
“But I’m still glad you’re here,” she whispered.
It was six hours, several curses, lots of tears, and plenty of shouts later that Candice finally gave birth to not one, but two beautiful babies: a small little girl, and an even smaller boy.
We were both in tears when first, our daughter was placed in Candice’s arms, and second, our son was placed in mine. We were joined quickly afterward by Joanne, who the hospital finally allowed in the room. She looked unsurprised to see me, but stunned to see two new siblings as she walked over to them in a daze, hardly knowing which one of them to look at first. It was how I felt too.
Our girl, eldest of the twins, we named Gemma. Our boy, we named Augustus.
And as I looked down into both of their faces, I knew: however much it hurt, and however much I failed and hated myself for it, I needed to continue to fight—even if the fight lasted the rest of my life.
I owed my family that much.
I owed myself that much.
Welcome to the family, Gemma and Augustus Winters.
A/N: Since James and Maddie’s child was named after an author, I figured I’d go with characters from novels for James and Candice’s children. Gemma is named after the protagonist in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray, while Augustus is named after the male protagonist in John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. And also, sorry guys It’s just…James still had this one last demon to fight. On that note, I think he will have two chapters left before the end of this generation.
To make up just a bit for all the sad, here is a blooper:
This deer, I shit you not, BURST through the wall and then TRAMPLED all around their kitchen. James and Candice gave exactly zero fucks about this. Meanwhile, my left eye was twitching and I was fast forwarding the game and the deer was making all these noises and vibrating in place and it was horrible and I finally just reset it. On that note, its name was evidently Bambi. That’s right, kids; Bambi grew up to be a VANDALIZING SHITHEAD. ….UNTIL NEXT TIME, GUYS!