Stepping out of the car was like opening a hot oven and climbing inside. The sun beat down on my head while a burst of fiery air engulfed me, coating my skin in stickiness in five seconds flat. Even the tiny sundress I wore didn’t help. Not during the worst heat wave Ohio had seen in years. Not when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the air was sticky enough to curl even the straightest hair.
“Thank God for air conditioning,” I said as I slammed the door shut.
Only Michael’s head was visible from the other side of the car, and under the brilliant summer sun, his golden hair shone enough to blind someone. He shot me a smile that made the already bright day seem ten times brighter, and my knees wobbled just like they had when we’d first met. You would think I’d be over that by now. That a surprise pregnancy and the drama we’d been through with his family would have killed the butterflies that had taken up residence in my stomach. But it hadn’t, and I was starting to think nothing could, because I loved this man more than I could have ever thought possible. It was so intense that it felt like something out of a fairy tale or a Nicholas Sparks novel. A love that would transcend time and death and any other obstacle that got in our way.
“It isn’t even that hot yet.” Michael lifted his head toward the flawless blue sky. It was the same color as his eyes, although not nearly as breathtaking. “It’s only June.”
“Great,” I muttered as I headed to the back door, thinking about our shitty little apartment and the nearly useless window unit.
The thing worked in the broad sense of the word. It sputtered out cool air well enough, accompanied by a fine mist of water most of the time. It was all we could afford at the moment though, and even that was only because Michael had given plasma three days a week last summer so he could save up for the thing. Of course, back then we’d had it in our bedroom because I’d been big and round, and so hot that I’d found it impossible to sleep most nights. After he’d installed the little window unit I’d stretched out on the floor in front of it—totally naked—and sighed in contentment as it pinged me with icy drops of water. It had been such a relief that I didn’t even care that I was covered in goose bumps.
Now the window unit was in Cassidy’s room because she needed it more than we did. Although, with this heat wave sweeping the state, I had been seriously considering moving her crib to the master bedroom for the summer so we could all enjoy the bought air.
The back door squeaked in protest when I pulled it open. I leaned in, smiling so big that it made me feel like that freaky cat from Alice in Wonderland, and my eight-month-old daughter smiled back me. She squealed and her blue eyes shimmered the same way her father’s did when he was happy, while on her head the blond ringlets bounced back and forth.
“Hi, princess,” I said as I worked to get her out of the secondhand car seat we’d lucked into.
She squealed again, this time kicking her feet as well. She actually reached out for me, and it did something to my insides. Caused this pang in my chest that made it feel like she was holding my heart in her hand, squeezing it gently the way she did when she wrapped her fingers around one of mine. It was the most beautiful feeling in the history of the world.
I scooped her up and planted a kiss on her forehead as I turned. Michael was ready and waiting with the shitty umbrella stroller I’d managed to scrape up enough money buy. It was from Wal-Mart, so at least it wasn’t secondhand, but it was nothing compared to the fancy things I saw other moms pushing around at the park. Strollers that were made of chrome and converted for all the different stages in your baby’s life, that had baskets underneath so you didn’t have to lug bags around, and cup holders for that five dollar caffeine fix from Starbucks. Luxuries I knew nothing about.
None of that matters, I told myself as I strapped Cassidy into the stroller. One day things will be better. We have time to make something of ourselves. This is just a pit stop in our lives.
Michael was much better with the pep talks than I was.
I stood so I could look him in the eye, the man I loved so much. Our beautiful daughter was between us, strapped into the cheapest stroller money could buy. Next to us the rusty piece of junk that represented our only form of transportation sat baking in the sun, which wasn’t doing the already faded and chipped paint any favors. It had once been red, but now looked more on the pink side, which was a constant source of teasing between Michael and me. I loved pointing out how manly he looked driving around in a pink car. Not that he cared or complained.
“Tell me this is only temporary,” I said.
He couldn’t read my mind, but he knew what I was talking about. We had this same conversation several times a week. Every time a bill came in that I couldn’t pay or we had to spend the last of the money in our checking account on diapers. We were struggling, but we were getting through. Together.
“It’s only temporary.”
He flashed me another smile and I marveled at his straight, white teeth. Teeth that had seen the best orthodontics money could buy as a young teen. Teeth that represented someone who’d had parents who wanted perfection from their child. So much so that when he’d made a mistake they’d decided the only appropriate response was to cut him out of their lives and focus all their efforts on his younger brother.
“You’re happy?” I asked even though I knew he was.
“I’m happy.” He pulled the umbrella stroller back a few steps, maneuvering it behind our piece of shit car. “I don’t need a big house or lots of money. I just need you and Cass.”
When he held his hand out I took it, allowing him to pull me up next to him. I snuggled into his side, loving his body heat even though we were both sticky and gross from the hot summer day. He kissed the top of my head and I pulled back just enough so I could look up into his eyes.
“I love you,” I said.
“Love you,” he replied, and his grin stretched wider. “Now can we please get out of this damn heat?”
I laughed. “Yes. Please.”
He let me go so he could push the stroller and I linked my arm through his as we walked. The mall was packed today and we’d had to park near the back of the lot. In the stroller Cassidy kicked her feet excitedly and squealed. She was a happy baby, thank God, and had only gone through a few bouts of extreme fussiness during her eight months of life. Michael and I had been told by numerous people how difficult this would be, and they’d all been right. Having a baby at the age of eighteen with no help or support was hard, to say the least. But no one had told us how amazing it would be. No one had warned me that this little girl would steal my heart the first time I held her, or that seeing Michael rock her to sleep would make me love him more than ever. No one had told me that all I really needed to be happy were the two people at my side, and that cable and internet were a luxury I wouldn’t miss as long as I told myself that I was doing all of this so I could be with the man I loved and we could raise our baby together.
Michael could have made a much different choice, an easier one that would have had him at Harvard right now—his family Alma Mater—instead of struggling through community college while working forty hours a week. He could have chosen his family over me. But he hadn’t, and I was determined to never let him regret that choice.
I leaned my head against his arm as we walked. “Thanks for choosing me.”
“Thanks for being so amazing,” he replied.
Even with the heat it felt like a picture perfect moment, which of course couldn’t last when you had an infant in tow. We’d just reached the door to the mall when Cassidy spit up. I tried not to groan, but it wasn’t easy, especially knowing that I wouldn’t have the money to go to the laundromat for at least another three days.
Michael stopped outside the mall entrance and knelt in front of the stroller while I dug through the diaper bag I’d slung over my shoulder. Of course, I knew it was pointless. The bag was the only thing I could afford and it was way too small to fit everything I needed, meaning the extra clothes we had were in the car.
“I’m going to have to run back,” I said, holding the bag out for Michael to take. “Get her inside and out of the heat.”
He stood as he took the bag. “I can go.”
I shook my head just as someone passed us on the way into the mall. When they pulled the door open a burst of cool air swept over me and I almost groaned. All I wanted to do was walk around the mall in the AC for a few hours.
“It’s fine,” I lied and held my hand out for the keys.
Michael frowned as he slipped them into my hand, but he didn’t argue. I knew he was tired. He’d worked yesterday after staying up late so he could study for a calculus test, and then he’d been nice enough to let me sleep in when Cassidy got up at six in the morning. The man was a saint, so the least I could do was hike back to the car and grab the extra clothes. Heat or no heat, I owed him that much.
“I’ll be right back,” I said as I walked backward. “Go inside.”
Michael gave me one last smile before heading toward the door.
I turned my back on him and headed across the parking lot, dodging pieces of gum that were baking in the heat and a now melted pile of ice cream that some kid had probably dropped. The sun was directly over me, beating down on my head like it was trying to scorch my scalp. My body was so sticky from sweat that I knew when I finally did make it inside the mall the first burst of cool air would feel too cold and uncomfortable. I could already imagine how the goose bumps would pop up on my moist flesh and how my already wet clothes would cling to my body, almost as if they had been suddenly frozen to my skin.
I unlocked the trunk when I reached our car and the hinges groaned in protest. A woman with two kids under the age of ten passed and gave me a disgusted look. I knew what her expression said, what she thought when she saw me standing beside this piece of junk. I knew that she could somehow tell my clothes were from Goodwill. I did my best to ignore her judgment, but it was impossible. It wasn’t easy getting used to being trash.
This is only temporary, I told myself again.
It took a few minutes of digging through the trunk’s contents to find what I was looking for, but only because I had so many just in case baby items crammed in there that finding the onesie was like going on a scavenger hunt. I held it up to make sure it was clean and a pang twisted my insides. I’d window shopped at baby boutiques countless times, wishing that I could get Cassidy one of the adorable ruffled rompers in the window or the frilly dress that was as impractical as it was beautiful, but this simple onesie was the best I could do. At least it had flowers on it. At least the pattern was pretty and the fabric was soft instead of stark white and scratchy.
I sighed as I slammed the trunk shut, still picturing the romper with the lacy butt and imagining what my little darling would have looked like crawling away from me in that precious little outfit.
One day she will have that, I told myself. One day Cassidy will have everything.
For just a moment, I truly believed it was true.
The blast happened just as I turned to face the mall. The violence of it threw me through the air in a burst of pain and heat, and I landed so hard that all the air whooshed out of my lungs. I couldn’t move, and all around me the world was engulfed in deafening sounds that made it impossible to think. The crunch of metal and glass came from all sides, and above that was a roar I couldn’t comprehend. It was so loud that I had to cover my ears, but that did nothing to block out the noise. It felt like it would crush me with its strength. Like the world was imploding and I would soon be sucked into the heat and noise surrounding me.
Above me, the previously cloudless sky had turned dark. Black and gray clouds bubbled up as if from nowhere and stretched across the sky, growing bigger and darker with each passing second. There was nothing natural about them. They seemed to be centralized, as if they were all coming from the same spot and pushing their way out in hopes of engulfing every inch of blue, and they were darker than even the darkest storm cloud. Threatening. Terrifying.
I had to gasp a few times before I was finally able to fill my lungs, and even though the air was grimy with dirt, it helped bring my mind into sharper focus. My heart was pounding in my ears as I took stock of my body, wiggling fingers and toes, moving limbs. Everything hurt, but there didn’t seem to be any major damage, and once I was sure I was basically okay, I forced myself to sit up.
That’s when the mall came into view. Or at least the spot where the mall had once stood.
“No,” I mumbled as I scrambled over rubble and glass to get to my feet. “No!”
My legs were shaking as I hurried forward, and more than once I fell to the ground, cutting my knees in the process, but I made myself get back up. I couldn’t trust my eyes. I knew it had to be a mirage and that if I could just get there I’d discover that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. So I ran, passing mangled cars that had been thrown during the blast and heaps of rubble that had come from nowhere. The cars were now on top of one another, reduced to twisted pieces of metal and glass that looked nothing like the vehicles they had once been, and all around me there were piles of rock or mangled metal that had to have come from the blast.
The sky grew darker by the second, and my heart pounded harder with each step I took. The closer I got, the less I was able to deny what I was seeing. It was as if the mall had been blown off the face of the earth or sucked into the ground. There was nothing but a crater now. A hole in the pavement that when I dropped to my knees in front of it and peered down, seemed to go on forever. It was deep and wide and black and crushing in its magnitude.
“No,” I said again, this time covering my face with my hands.
My body shook with sobs, and when another explosion rocked the ground beneath me, this time further away, I was only half aware of it. It wasn’t until another one exploded through the air that I pulled my hands from my face. In the distance, a fireball lit up the sky. Above it there was a mass of dark clouds, just like the ones over my head right now. The little bit of sunlight that was still able to penetrate the darkness glinted off cars as they went flying, and a few seconds later another explosion sounded to my right, and then another to my left, and another behind me until it felt as if I had been sucked into a war movie.
I knew I wasn’t safe where I was, but I couldn’t bring myself to care or leave. The sobs shaking my body were too violent, too devastating. It felt as if I would explode just as the mall had, and I couldn’t find it in me to care. Not even a little.
It wasn’t until I squeezed my hands into fists that I realized I was holding something. I looked down and blinked, but I had to force my fingers to relax so I could open my hand. The little purple flowers on the onesie felt like knives in my chest, and in that moment I knew I would never be the same.