Donald saw the two lines first. He turned away, but his mother snatched the stick from him. She gasped and sat down on the side of the tub. She buried her face in her hands. Donald tried to wrap his arms around her but she pushed him away and wailed: “Fuck it all.” A few weeks earlier, he’d gotten in trouble for saying the words after he made the mistake of murmuring them to Mrs. Peabody when he failed the test on presidents.
Donald ran to the kitchen for a can of grape soda, his mother’s solution when he woke up crying from a nightmare. His mother never scolded him for having nightmares even though he knew eleven was too old to wake up screaming about monsters. Donald’s mother cradled him in her arms. She called him her baby.
When Donald returned to the bathroom, he found her vomiting into the toilet, the way she’d been vomiting for the past two weeks, admonishing Donald for bringing germs home again.
Those next few weeks, they took the bus to the abortion clinic three times. They stood in the CVS parking lot across the street while his mother sobbed. Donald clutched her hand. He missed the field trip to the planetarium and the annual visit from the entomologist who brought in tarantulas for his sixth grade class to hold.
On the third trip to the clinic, his mother said she couldn’t kill the baby and they went home. She climbed into bed and wouldn’t come out of her room even when Donald gave her apple pie, which he’d bought frozen from the corner store. He did a good job of defrosting it just enough and he dotted the top of her slice with whipped cream from the can. He even put mint sprigs on top like he’d seen her do before. He stole the herb from Mrs. Velasquez’s tiny patio garden while the mean lady fed tuna to the busted-up cats that snarled outside of their apartment complex.
Donald picked at the pie and watched television on the set in the living room. He tried to watch Awkward, but he got fuzz when he turned the channels. His mother hadn’t paid the cable bill again. The only way to drown out her crying was to play Grand Theft Auto, even though he’d played the game a zillion times. Donald felt like crying, too. He didn’t want a brother or sister. Mostly because they couldn’t afford it. His mother made seven dollars an hour at Jinx Video and could barely make their five hundred dollars a month rent. They lived on eggs, beans, and milk from the dollar store. Lunch was a browning banana and a bag of Taquis. He dreaded when his toes started to push against the top of his shoes because it meant a trip to Payless for another pair of sneakers that were not Air Jordans.
If only he could be Jonas Delvecchio, who lived in a real house just three bus stops away. Jonas had been adopted as an infant by an Italian couple who drove Porsches and took him skiing in Madrid every year. Because of his parents, Jonas knew things the other kids didn’t. Saline swimming pools didn’t dry out your skin as much as chlorine. The most comfortable pillows were made of down. Purebred poodles were better behaved than purebred Chihuahuas.
Maybe his mother would agree to give the new baby to a couple like the Delvecchios, so that it could eat school lunch and have its hair cut every six weeks. A part of Donald felt jealous thinking of the life this baby could have, a life that would be nothing like his own, but then he’d get his mother all to himself, which he wanted most. He and his mother, when she wasn’t dating someone, were a team. Best mates, she called them, an expression she’d heard on a British television show.
During library hour at school the next day, Donald found an adoption agency online called Safe Surrender, which was only a few bus stops away. Safe Surrender placed babies with families all over California and the adoptions were open, which meant his mother could be a part of the baby’s life forever. Donald printed out pages about the agency and brought them home that night. He waited until his mother had taken her bath and then he knocked on her door.
She sat on the bed, rubbing a cream on her skin that made her arms and legs glow like she’d just come back from a Caribbean holiday. Even though they lived in California and she could go to the beach any time she liked, no amount of Coppertone prevented her from turning pink all over. Having a tan meant you were rich and being rich meant you could sleep without nightmares.
Donald sat beside her and placed the pages in her lap. She flipped through them slowly, the way she looked through Donald’s school papers. Even after a twelve-hour workday or a fight with her latest boyfriend, she took time solving a fraction problem or reading about the rings around Saturn. She’d flunked out of ninth grade after she got pregnant with Donald and told him she could catch up by learning through him.
His mother put the papers down and sat back against the pillow. She pulled her knees to her chest. She looked much younger than twenty-five. With her face flushed from the hot bath and her thick hair still damp and smelling like caramel, his mother was way prettier than Jennifer Lopez.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It would be easier, but what if we got someone totally fucked? Someone who molested the baby or beat its brains out?”
“We can check up on it,” Donald said. “Every month or so…and you’d get thirty thousand dollars.”
His mother’s eyes widened when he said the last part. She flipped to the end of the papers. She stared at the bold number.
“I can’t give you an answer now,” she said. “I have to think.”
Donald climbed into bed beside his mother. He rested his head on her shoulder and she switched on the television. They watched a rerun of “Pretty Little Liars.” His mother pointed out the outfits she liked, how perfect the girls’ eyeliner looked. She liked shows about teenagers because she said she’d never really been one. Many times she told Donald if she could have one wish it would be to put on six-inch heels and a dress that sparkled and go to prom.
“With your father as my date,” she told him. The few things Donald knew about Donald Senior came from his grandmother the one time they’d visited her when Donald was seven years old. While Donald’s mother floated in the pool, his grandmother told him about how his mother had only been fourteen when she fell for twenty-one-year-old Donald Senior, who, his grandmother said, “stole my baby’s soul.”
Donald’s grandparents pressed charges against Donald’s father and the night before he was supposed to be arrested, Donald’s mother ran off with him to Los Angeles. A few days later Donald Senior got shot coming out of a liquor store. Donald’s grandmother showed Donald the Los Angeles Times article with a picture of a body under a blanket.
Donald’s grandmother squeezed his shoulder.
“There’s the asshole,” she said. “We got lucky.”
Donald asked if he could keep the article. He never showed it to his mother, who spent too much time scrolling through old pictures of his father on her phone. Though Donald couldn’t see any resemblance, Donald’s mother promised him that he’d inherited Donald Senior’s hands and laugh.
Donald’s mother wanted Donald to go away to college, as far away from Palmdale as possible. Each month she set aside eighteen dollars in an envelope marked “Donald’s future.” As far as Donald knew, she’d never borrowed any money and she’d always kept it a secret from her boyfriends.
“This is for your fresh start,” she told him the day she got the idea for the envelope, two years earlier.
“I just want to be with you,” Donald had told her and she’d put her arm around him and pressed her nose into his hair.
“You won’t always feel that way,” she said. “I promise.”
But, so far, she was wrong.
Donald took the bus to Safe Surrender and spoke with a white-haired woman named Cathy. He explained that his mother was still feeling very sad about the baby and that she wanted him to get all the information for her. Cathy insisted his mother had to come in herself, but then Donald told her how weak she was from the night the baby’s father had threatened to kill her when she didn’t get all the dust out from underneath the bed. Donald didn’t like remembering the time, but he knew the story would get him what he wanted. Cathy got tears in her eyes. She gave Donald a Twix and sent him home with a folder full of forms and a fat book with a teddy bear holding a rattle on the cover. For the next few nights, while his mother sat at the kitchen table filling out forms, Donald pored over the book.
Black couples, white couples, Asian couples. They all had stories about trying for years to become parents and were now desperate for a child of their own. Many of the couples sent along DVDs and Donald watched them with his mother. They ate sliced mango and made fun of the couple who performed a rap about how they’d be the most “rockin’” parents ever. Donald’s mother made them skip the gay and lesbian couples. Though she never made him go to church, in her eyes being homosexual meant you were on the fast track to hell.
After a few days of watching DVDs, his mother grew tired of the search. She told Donald she trusted him.
“Just pick people who are smart,” she said. “I want this kid to go to college.”
Donald read about the top schools in the country and only looked at couples who’d attended Ivy League universities. For an hour or so it was a toss-up between Mary Alice and Jeff, who’d met at Yale and operated a garlic farm in Gilroy, and Leo and Sofia, Columbia graduates who worked in Hollywood. Donald settled on Leo and Sofia because Leo had directed Donald’s favorite action movie about the pit bulls who take over the world. But then, during a last flip through the book, Donald found Nina and Christopher. They lived in Colma.
Donald had become interested in Colma at the beginning of sixth grade when Mrs. Peabody made each student pick a city to study for the year. The end of the year would culminate with a presentation on the chosen place. The only criteria was that you’d never been there. Mrs. Peabody hung a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board and Donald watched each day as it filled up. New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas. Donald had never thought about traveling before. The only place he’d ever been was San Diego and he didn’t care about going there because he had no intention of ever seeing his grandmother again.
He learned about Colma from researching Vince Guaraldi, the composer for A Charlie Brown Christmas, for a music class assignment. His mother had gotten an old DVD copy of the movie from Goodwill and Donald watched it all the time when he was little. On Vince Guaraldi’s Wikipedia page, it listed Colma as the site of his burial and when Donald clicked on the word Colma, he discovered that it was called “the silent city” because dead people outnumbered the living ten to one. A town full of corpses. It must’ve been really haunted. Donald wanted to go there and have a séance. He might be able to contact his dad.
The next day Donald wrote Colma next to his name on the bulletin board.
“We’re not giving the baby to people from a town like that,” Donald’s mother said after he made the mistake of telling her why he’d made his choice.
She stood at the stove, flipping hissing bacon with a fork. She always turned up the gas too high. Donald walked over and took the fork from her and twisted the knob to low.
“They offered to give us ten thousand dollars more,” Donald said.
His mother didn’t answer. She went over to the sink and poured a glass of water and drank it fast. She said she hadn’t been this thirsty with Donald. This new baby was wearing her out. She poured another glass of water. Gulped it down. Turned back to him.
“Growing up around so many dead people, Donald. I don’t know.”
“With that money, we could definitely move into a house.”
His mother pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Can we meet them?”
Donald drew in his breath.
“Next week. They want to have breakfast with us.”
Donald had never eaten breakfast in a real restaurant before. Going out to eat meant hamburgers at Denny’s back when his grandmother used to send them a twenty. Nina and Christopher picked Idle, a coffee shop on Atlantic Donald had walked by many times but never imagined he would step foot in. He and his mother arrived fifteen minutes early and stood by the lighted dessert case, studying baked goods with names they’d never heard of. Brioche, croissant, financier.
His mother wore her only dress: purple, too short, a low neckline. She looked ready for a night at a club and not a serious meeting. But Donald was afraid if he said anything, she might call it off. She’d ironed Donald’s jeans and his Spiderman T-shirt and he’d slicked back his freshly trimmed hair.
Donald’s mother turned around. Then Donald did, too.
Nina had shoulder-length copper-colored hair and wore a green top and jeans. Unlike Donald’s mother, who’d spent an hour applying false eyelashes and lining the outside of her lips just so, Nina’s face was makeup-free. Christopher stood at least six feet tall. He had a handlebar mustache and his hands were stuffed into the pockets of his baggy pants. They looked younger than their pictures, maybe only a few years older than Donald’s mother.
After everyone shook hands, Christopher asked if he could get them coffee or something to eat.
“I read on Yelp that this place has killer eggs Benedict,” Nina said, winking at Donald as if he’d ever heard of eggs Benedict.
Donald shook his head. His mother shook her head. They’d agreed they wouldn’t let the couple buy them anything in case the meeting didn’t work out.
“If they seem freaky, we’re running,” Donald’s mother had told him on the walk over.
“Well, I want that,” Christopher said. “And a decaf cappuccino.”
Nina winked at him and walked over to the register, where a long line had formed.
Christopher led them to a table in the corner of the café. Once they were seated, Donald’s mother folded her hands in her lap and smiled a very phony smile, the kind she reserved for Donald’s grandmother the few times she’d paid them visits, bringing Donald pants that were too long and tubes of Colgate.
“You own a funeral parlor?” Donald’s mother said in a rush, after a few moments had passed.
Christopher smiled. “Family business. And my wife teaches piano. It’s a small town but we love it.”
“Do you ever get scared?” Donald’s mother asked.
“Of what?” Christopher asked.
“Ghosts,” Donald blurted out and then felt ridiculous when Christopher threw back his head and laughed.
“I don’t believe in that nonsense,” Christopher said.
“Are you religious?” Donald’s mother asked. Even though they’d only attended church with Donald’s grandmother, believing in God was important to his mother. She had a crucifix over her bed.
“Nina is. She was raised Catholic and still attends mass every month or so.”
Donald’s mother let go of his hand. Her eyes lit up.
“We go sometimes, too,” she said.
Nina returned holding two large mugs. She placed one in front of Christopher. He opened three packets of sugar and swirled them in the foamy liquid.
“Your son is beautiful,” Nina said. Donald felt his face heat up. He’d never been called beautiful before. Wasn’t that a word used to describe girls? Donald could tell by his mother’s real smile that the compliment made her feel good.
“Thank you,” she said.
Christopher took hold of Nina’s hand on the table. “We’d like to ask you some questions. I mean, we read your application. But there are other things we’d like to know.”
“Like what?” his mother asked.
“Were you born here?” Nina asked.
“In San Diego.” The one time they went to his grandmother’s house she gave Donald a seventh birthday party, filling the lawn with people from her church. Ten kids he’d never met before sang to him and prayed for God to grant Donald his wish. But their prayer hadn’t worked because thirty minutes later his mother yanked him back on the bus to Palmdale after Donald’s grandmother said her own prayer to the group. She asked the Lord to forgive her daughter for making Donald with a bad man.
“Did you go to college here?” Christopher asked.
Donald stared down at his lap. She hadn’t graduated high school.
“I took a cosmetology class once.”
The summer before Donald had sat in an office for an hour each week while his mother perfected spiral curls on wigs and mastered the perfect way to blow wavy hair straight. But then she met Leonard, the baby’s father, and quit.
“Is your family supportive of your decision to do this?” Nina asked.
Donald heard his mother draw in her breath. Then she put her arm around Donald’s shoulder.
“I don’t have family. Just my son.”
Nina leaned forward and whispered quietly: “I hope you don’t mind my asking…what happened with the baby’s father?”
A girl in pigtails appeared, holding two plates full of steaming food. Christopher pointed to himself and Nina and she placed the plates in front of them. Donald had only seen so much food in commercials. The eggs were covered in a thick yellow sauce. Bunches of grapes and fat strawberries nestled against a pile of blueberries. Donald felt his stomach growl. Maybe he shouldn’t have turned down breakfast. This could’ve been his one shot at normal people’s food.
Christopher elbowed his wife. He looked at Donald’s mother.
“Grace, we’re sorry about that last question. Don’t feel like you have to answer it. Nina can be very nosy.”
“It’s okay,” Donald’s mother said. “I’ve had to learn about men the hard way.”
“What do you mean?” Nina asked.
“Nina,” Christopher murmured.
“They take you dancing all night, pay your cell phone bill, and send you tulips. And then you ask them one time to buy your kid Dimetapp and they lose their shit…excuse my language.”
Christopher waved his hand. “You can say whatever you want.”
Donald’s mother pointed to her belly. “He hit me here,” she said. “When he found out I was pregnant.”
A terrible memory. One Donald tried to block out. His mother locked them in the bathroom until they were sure Leonard was gone. Then they packed up their clothes and their mop and broom and moved into a run-down motel on Avenue 26 until his mother could get a new job and a thousand dollars from a friend, money she would pay back after they got the check from Christopher and Nina.
Nina looked at Donald. “Where’s your father?”
Christopher put down his fork. “That’s really none of your business, Nina.”
Donald’s mother shrugged. “If we’re going to do this thing, you should know about the dead bodies in our closets. And we’ve got a few. Donald’s father,” she paused and Donald knew her eyes had filled with tears the way they always did when she talked about him. “Got shot in LA.”
“That’s terrible,” Nina whispered.
“Worst day of my life,” Donald’s mother said, wiping her eyes. “I was only fourteen.”
Nina’s eyes looked like they might explode from her head. “You were just a baby.”
“My mom kicked me out and I moved here. Made money under the table working at a bar until I was old enough to get a real job. Spent a couple of years at CVS. Now I’m at Jinx Video. Might make manager soon.”
There was a strange energy to his mother’s voice as she told the story, almost as if she liked telling it.
“I’ve only had one dream my whole life,” she continued in a wavery voice.
Donald squeezed his eyes shut. If she talked about prom, he might die of embarrassment.
“What’s that?” Christopher asked. He’d put down his fork again. Donald wished he would slide his plate across the table. Donald was so hungry he would’ve eaten the food with his hands.
“I want to be a good mother. For as long as I can remember. Since I played with my doll babies. And I know I’ve fucked up with Donald.”
His mother stared down at her lap.
“I mean, we never have any money and I’ve wasted my life chasing assholes. Even though I loved his father, my worst nightmare would be for Donald to end up like him.”
Donald had never heard his mother say anything bad about his father. What did she mean—“end up like him”?
Tears dripped down her mother’s face. Tears dripped down Nina’s face, too.
“Your money will give us a second chance,” Donald’s mother said.
Christopher reached over his plate of food and touched her hand.
“You’re giving us a second chance, too. We’ve lost three babies. Stillborns. All we want in the world is to be parents. It’s our dream.”
Nina’s shoulders were shaking now and she’d pressed her napkin against her eyes.
After hugging Nina and Christopher goodbye, Donald dragged his mother to the taqueria where he devoured a burrito. While he ate, he thought about how he could ask her about his father without making her cry again. Springing a question on her seemed like a terrible idea. When they got home, he pulled out the article from inside his notebook. He brought it to her room, where she sat on the bed, flipping through channels on television. He said he needed to ask her something and he placed the article in her lap. Her eyes ran across the page.
“Was he bad?” Donald asked. Nothing in the article gave any details about Donald’s father other than his name and that his murder was the latest in a series of crimes in Highland Park.
Donald’s mother turned off the television. She touched Donald’s chin and stared into his eyes.
“He wasn’t bad, but he got mixed up with bad people. They told him to forget about me and you. He left us the night he died. I hope he would’ve come back. But I don’t know.”
Donald’s mother was quiet for a moment, stroking his hair. Then she said: “You can’t ever turn into a bad man, Donald. You have to be nice to women. Treat them right, okay?”
“And buy them Shalimar,” she said, smiling.
She had a bottle of the perfume, a gift from her mother, from years back. She kept it on the floor beside her bed no matter where they lived. She was unable to finish the bottle because she couldn’t afford to replace it. Sometimes, on a night his mother stayed out with one of her boyfriends, Donald would lie in her bed, holding the bottle up to his nose, breathing in the sweet scent she loved, praying for her to return home safely to him. Now, with the money from Christopher and Nina, she could buy as many bottles as she wanted. Donald reminded her of this and picked up the bottle from the floor. He told her to hold out her arm and when she did, he squeezed the last drop onto her wrist.
Christopher and Nina made the six-hour drive down once a month. They loved trying new restaurants and took Donald and his mother to try food they’d never eaten before. French, Italian, Chinese, Indian. Donald loved the leftover containers that filled their refrigerator for days after one of the visits. It was a wonderful thing to have a refrigerator with food on every shelf. No more lonely bottle of moldy mayonnaise next to a rotting banana.
Nina liked to drive twenty miles to a fancy garden. The first time they went Donald’s mother said she and Donald should wait outside because of the $10 entrance fee, but Nina insisted they go in. While Nina and his mother strolled through the rows of roses, Christopher brought Donald to the area filled with spiky cacti and orange-and-pink plants that looked like they could eat your hand if you got too close.
Donald read the placards listing the places where the plants had come from. Africa and Asia. Australia and South America. Christopher told Donald about all the places he’d traveled on a backpacking trip after he graduated from college. Sri Lanka had water that glowed green at night because of fish that swam just beneath the surface. The waves in Costa Rica were the best for surfing.
Soon, Donald told Christopher he wished he could travel the world too, and during the next visit Christopher presented Donald with a globe that had a light inside it that made the continents glow. Using a permanent black marker, Donald drew dots on the places he most wanted to visit.
Nina sent Donald’s mother to a nutritionist. Soon leafy greens Donald had never heard of spilled over the refrigerator shelves: kale, chard, bok choy. The nutritionist gave his mother a cookbook and she began using coconut oil instead of vegetable to sauté carrots and onions. Mrs. Velasquez from next door brought over a handful of Italian parsley and commented: “Your house smells like a restaurant.” Donald felt like his chest might bust open from pride.
Every morning at seven, his mother drank a glass of warm distilled water mixed with two tablespoons of lemon juice and three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. She screwed up her face when she drank it, but the nutritionist said it would load up the baby’s bones with strength.
“Maybe if I drank this when I was pregnant with you, you would’ve been good at baseball.”
Christopher thought it was funny that Donald had chosen them because of Colma and promised to bring Donald home with them a few months after they got the baby. Christopher gave him a laptop computer that weighed so little Donald had to be careful not to drop it. At night, Donald turned off all the lights in his bedroom and stared at the pictures of the gravestones in Colma, shivers racing down his spine as he thought about all those dead people living in one place. He couldn’t wait for the day he got to see the city himself.
Donald’s mother zipped around their house, claiming that all the healthy food had given her more energy. She got Most Valuable Employee at work, a sure sign that she’d make manager in a few months. Most of the time, Donald swore he’d never seen her look happier. But then, they’d run into a wrinkled-up granny in the produce department at Ralph’s who’d smile and ask: “When are you due?” and “Do you know what you’re having?” After one of these occurrences, Donald’s mother would go into her bedroom and close the door.
During her seventh month, Donald’s mother found out she didn’t make manager when they hired Samuel, a blonde man with a buzz cut who’d just returned to Palmdale after a two-year deployment in Iraq. At first his mother said she hated her boss for passing her over and promised she would quit. And then one night Donald returned home to find Samuel in the kitchen, waiting while Donald’s mother whipped up turkey burgers.
Unfortunately she was too busy smiling at Samuel and burnt the burgers. They ordered samosas and chicken tikka masala, which Samuel paid for even though Donald’s mother had just gotten a check that morning for seven hundred dollars from Christopher and Nina. Donald’s mother stuffed a lot of the money they sent into the envelope for Donald’s future. He loved watching it get fatter and fatter.
Samuel made Donald’s mother laugh hard. He’d never seen her laugh like that for anyone but himself. Samuel rubbed her feet and brought her yellow tulips. He took Donald to an exhibit about Paris at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Samuel was the first man his mother had ever dated who’d gone to college and he encouraged her to study for her GED, which he helped her do.
Samuel had nightmares and Donald would spring up wide awake when he heard Samuel screaming. Donald listened as his mother soothed Samuel with a calm voice, a gentler voice than she used with Donald after his nightmares. Donald remembered the voice from when he was a baby. Sometimes her calm words soothed Samuel back to sleep, but when it didn’t work, cigarette smoke wafted in under the door and Donald couldn’t fall back to sleep because of the smell.
One afternoon, alone in the apartment with his mother, Donald complained about Samuel’s smoking and his mother said when you were in love you had to make compromises.
“Samuel is the first good man who has ever loved me. I don’t want to ruin it.”
That night Donald woke to his mother’s voice coming from the living room. He could tell by the way her voice kept cracking that she was upset. He pressed his ear to his bedroom door.
“I can feel him kicking,” his mother said. “And I’ve been dreaming of watching him learn to ride a bike or go on a roller coaster.”
Donald’s mother had never taken him on a roller coaster. One of her old boyfriends had taught Donald how to ride a bike. Donald felt a hatred growing inside of him for his brother. The hatred grew and grew until Donald couldn’t ignore it. He burst out of the bedroom. He didn’t care if he got yelled at for listening.
“Christopher and Nina will hate you,” Donald said.
Samuel dropped Donald’s mother’s hands and Donald cowered. He’d been hit by enough of his mother’s boyfriends to know when he’d met his match.
But Samuel smiled at Donald. “He’s right, Grace. You can’t do that to them,” Donald’s mother sobbed quietly. “And don’t forget what we talked about.”
“As soon as your mother is recovered, we’ll get married,” Samuel continued. “And with the forty thousand dollars, she can buy any dress she wants and fill the church with yellow tulips. Then we can start trying for a baby of our own.”
Donald didn’t like the sound of another baby, but he’d worry about that problem later. For now he needed his mother on his side.
Donald’s mother collapsed against the sofa.
“It’s all the hormones,” Samuel said and began to rub her head. When Donald’s mother closed her eyes, Samuel gave Donald the thumbs-up sign. Donald smiled at him even though he didn’t want this bossy soldier as his father.
A few weeks before her due date, Christopher and Nina showed up with pictures of the nursery on Nina’s iPhone. Nina had stenciled elephants and giraffes on the pale green walls. Christopher had built an almond-colored crib by hand. They planned to name the baby Andrew.
After Christopher and Nina left, Donald’s mother said Andrew was the name of the boy in her seventh grade class who passed her notes with dirty pictures drawn on the paper. She shut herself away in her bedroom. Not even a foot rub from Samuel could make her happy.
“I’m not giving the baby to those weirdos,” she told them.
Donald brought her a picture of the house they’d found on Craigslist in Spring Village, a neighborhood a few miles away that had tree-lined streets and a real park, not just a field with overgrown weeds like what Donald put up with at the end of his block. Samuel reminded her of all the money they’d get, how they could spend it on a honeymoon in New York City. Donald’s mother didn’t cry when Samuel packed up his army boots and his cigarettes and stormed out. She threw out the kale, flushed the apple cider vinegar down the sink and packed the cookbooks in a box for Goodwill.
Christopher and Nina visited the week before Donald’s mother’s due date. Donald waited for his mother to tell them the horrible truth, but she kept her eyes down in her lap and complained of a bad back. Nina got teary-eyed wishing his mother luck, promising to be at the hospital as soon as they could when the baby arrived. After they left, Donald asked his mother why she hadn’t told them about her decision and she started crying and closed herself in the bathroom.
Donald wanted to send them an email. But each time he started one he lost his nerve. He put his energy into writing the best report about Colma. He knew he’d get an A. He interviewed an old man over the phone who owned the town motel telling stories about the ghosts that haunted the rooms. The stories were sure to freak his classmates out and impress Mrs. Peabody, who liked “local flavor.”
But on the last day of school, just before his turn to give the report, his cell phone beeped with a text message. His mother: “Baby coming.” Fuck it all, Donald thought. Ten days early.
The bus dropped Donald off at the emergency room. He picked up his poster of Colma and his backpack and scurried into the waiting area, which he found jammed full. Toddlers wailed, a girl clutched her bandaged forehead, an elderly women screamed into her cell phone. Donald had stayed up all night finishing his report and he felt like he might collapse from exhaustion. He wished he could run. He stood, staring into the dense crowd, not sure where to go. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. Christopher had tears in his eyes and pulled Donald in for a hug, his mustache tickling the tip of Donald’s ear.
They broke apart and Nina appeared, hugging Donald and explaining that Cathy from the adoption agency had called when the hospital told her Donald’s mother had checked in. They’d flown down the 5, begging a cop to let them off after they got pulled over ten miles from the exit for the hospital.
“Grace is probably dying to see you,” Nina said.
“You should go back,” Christopher said. “But let us know what happens. Here—we got you an iPhone. You can text us pictures. My number is in there.”
Donald stared at the new device, dazzled by the bright colors and icons on the screen. He’d always dreamt of having his very own smartphone. Maybe Christopher and Nina, in all their shock, would forget about the gift and he would be able to keep it. Donald couldn’t wait to show the other kids from his neighborhood. He imagined all of their eyes lighting up with envy and the fear boiling up inside of him disappeared.
Nina led Donald through the crowd to a desk where a skinny woman took his name and then told him to follow her, leaving Christopher and Nina behind. The nurse led Donald down a long hallway. The air smelled like pee and strawberries. Men in white coats hurried past him, shouting to each other. The nurse stopped at a door marked “Delivery Room Two.” She helped Donald into a pale blue gown and mask that covered most of his face. Normally kids his age weren’t allowed in the delivery room, but the hospital had made an exception because of his mother’s circumstances.
“Your mother’s very scared,” the nurse said. “You be a good boy and encourage her.”
Donald’s mother looked tiny in the bed despite her mountain of a belly. Beads of sweat dripped down her red face. Her hair was wet and stuck to her head like she’d just taken a shower. Donald crept over to her. She grabbed hold of his hand so hard he thought it might break. Between all of the beeping monitors and the terrible pee-strawberry smell, Donald felt like he might be sick. The room swirled around him just as his mother began to moan. A nurse rushed in and told Donald to move. He stood by his mother’s head. The nurse dropped down a curtain from the ceiling that divided his mother’s body in half, so they couldn’t see what was happening below her waist.
A grey-haired man walked in the room wearing a white gown and mask. He introduced himself as Dr. Cole. The nurse held his mother’s hand. She said: “Push, Graciela. Push.”
“I can’t do this again,” his mother said.
The nurse shoved Donald toward his mother. He felt like his hand was going to be snapped in two from her grip. She looked at Donald with her big brown eyes, eyes that looked just like his own.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” she said.
Donald’s mother began to scream. Donald wished he could cover his ears and eyes. He hated seeing her in so much pain, beads of sweat running down her face, her mouth contorted into an “O.” She said “God” and “Fuck.” The nurse ran around the table to hold her other hand and repeated: “You’re doing a great job, honey. Just keep going.”
Donald wanted to tell his mother the same things, but when he tried to talk, his tongue felt too heavy for words. He felt ashamed, like when Mrs. Peabody called on him and he didn’t know an answer because he’d been daydreaming about zooming around the city in a Porsche or looking at the clouds from an airplane window. He wanted to be anywhere else but in that hospital room watching his mother, who seemed on the brink of death.
“Just one more push,” the nurse said, squeezing his mother’s shoulder. Donald held his breath, desperate. He would’ve given up his chance at ever seeing Colma if it meant she would stop howling.
His mother let go of Donald and gathered up the sheets in her hand. She let out one last moan and then Donald heard a desperate cry. The cry was so sweet and tender that it made him cry. He didn’t care that strangers saw him so broken up. Dr. Cole appeared, holding a wiggling, pink baby. He placed the baby on his mother’s chest.
“Meet your son,” he said.
The baby’s mouth opened and closed.
“Oh, Donald,” his mother said.
The baby reminded him of the roly-polys he used to trap in empty Ragu jars behind their old apartment complex. Donald loved watching them climb over the little piles of dirt and rocks he’d placed at the bottom of the jars. The roly-polys felt like family to him when his mother stayed away for days at a time, leaving him with containers of apple sauce and white bread and Grand Theft Auto.
Donald touched the baby’s cheek, which was slick with slime. He thought of Jonas Delvecchio, how he walked into school each day, arm in arm with his five-year-old sister. There was no way Donald would ever link arms with his brother—that would be pretty gay—but he could show him how to catch grasshoppers and where Bolivia was on a map. Maybe they’d go there together someday. And when their mother had a bad day and holed up in her room, Donald and his brother could play Call of Duty and make popcorn on the stove and pretend that her sadness wasn’t swallowing the apartment whole. Donald loved this new person, his brother.
The nurse came over to take the baby. Another nurse wiped his mother’s forehead with a washcloth and gave her a Styrofoam cup of water. She told Donald to wait outside. They had to clean his mother up and she would probably feel more comfortable if he wasn’t there.
“We did it,” his mother said. And though Donald dreaded breaking Christopher and Nina’s hearts, he knew his mother had made a good decision for their lives. Finally.
Donald sat in a plastic chair outside of the delivery room and watched as his new phone lit up with texts. How is she? How is the baby? Can you send a photo? Donald put the phone in his pocket. He needed to think about what to say to Christopher and Nina. His mother was in no position to talk to them. Maybe he should call Cathy at the agency and let her handle breaking the news.
A few minutes passed. The nurse brought Donald a Coke and a Twix and said he could go back in the room.
Donald took a seat next to her bed and devoured his snack while his mother cooed at Donald’s new brother, who’d been wrapped tightly in a striped blanket.
“Isn’t he perfect?” she asked. “What should we call him?”
“Donald Junior,” Donald said, giggling.
His mother giggled back. “You’d like that, huh? I always liked Robert. That was my brother’s name.”
Donald never knew she had a brother. He wanted to ask her about it, but he yawned and his mother told him he should close his eyes for a minute.
“Just get a little sleep,” she said. “Your eyes are bloodshot.”
Donald’s phone beeped from deep inside his pocket.
“It’s them, right?” his mother asked. She sighed. “Maybe I could call.”
Donald knew he’d have to be the man of the family now. Teach his brother lessons. Handle important business.
“I’ll take care of them,” he said.
His mother laughed. “Are you sure?”
“Can you hand me my phone?” she asked. “I want to send your grandmother a picture.”
Donald knew this was a bad idea, but he did what she asked. He went back to the hallway, not ready to see Christopher and Nina. He thought about their reactions. Christopher would yell. Nina would do her best to stay calm. Donald sat down again in the plastic chair to think. He was really tired which made it hard. Maybe if he closed his eyes like his mother said, he would feel better.
Donald woke up to a dimly lit hallway and low voices. He stretched and turned around and peeked through the window. He didn’t want to barge in if his mother was breastfeeding Robert.
Samuel sat in the chair next to his mother’s bed. He stroked her hair and she cried. Donald’s stomach knotted up. He pushed open the door. His mother wouldn’t look at him.
“Where’s Robert?” he asked.
Samuel stopped stroking his mother’s hair.
“Christopher and Nina have him now,” Samuel said.
Donald felt like the room had been emptied of air. “He’s gone?”
“They left a few minutes ago,” Samuel said. “They wanted you to have this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded-up piece of notebook paper. He handed it to Donald.
“Dear Donald, Thank you for being a part of giving us the world’s most precious gift. We promise to give Andrew a beautiful life. We promise to love him with all of our hearts. We can’t wait for you to visit us in Colma. We can take you on a tour of the cemeteries. Maybe we’ll even see a ghost or two. Much love, Christopher and Nina.”
“How could you do this?” Donald asked his mother, who’d begun to sob into her hands.
“Hey, buddy, this was always the plan—your mom just got a little mixed up. All I had to do was remind her that we’re a family now. And your mother and I can make a new brother or sister for you in a few months.”
“But she wanted him!” Donald shouted. He hated that his voice cracked when he raised his voice.
“Pipe down, Donald. You’re upsetting her. Get out of here,” Samuel said.
“Shut up,” Donald said. “You’re not my dad.”
Samuel jumped up. He grabbed Donald by the shoulders and pulled him outside, slamming the door behind them.
“As far as I can tell, I’m the closest thing you’re ever gonna get to a father.”
Donald struggled to get away, but Samuel gripped his arm. Everything was happening so fast that Donald wondered if he was in the middle of one of his nightmares.
“We have to work as a team, buddy. Help your mom. That check will be here soon and we’re going to Wisconsin to visit my folks.”
“Wisconsin?” Donald said.
“That’s right. You’ll be in San Diego with your grandmother. I got off the phone with her a little while ago.”
So she could make Donald go to Bible study and polish silver? No way. Donald wriggled away. His mother wasn’t going to ruin his life the way she’d ruined hers. Donald picked up his Colma poster and backpack and ran down the hallway through the waiting room and out into the sticky June night.
Christopher answered on the first ring.
“Donald! Just the fellow I’d like to hear from. Did you get our note?”
Donald could hear Robert’s high-pitched cry in the background and he bit his lower lip hard to keep from bawling.
“Where are you guys?” he asked.
“We’re at a hotel. We’ll head back home tomorrow.”
“Can I come there? I mean, can you take me home with you, too?”
Donald realized how desperate this sounded, but it was too late to take back the words.
“Um well, Donald, that’s not really appropriate. We can’t do that. And besides, wouldn’t that make your mom sad? This can’t have been an easy decision for her. We’ll fly you up to Colma in a few weeks.”
Donald had started to cry hard and he didn’t want Christopher to know it. He hung up and slumped against the wall of the hospital. He looked down at his poster of Colma, all the dates and information and pictures he’d glued to the paper. For so long he’d dreamt of going there and now he knew he never would. He didn’t want to see Christopher and Nina again. Saying goodbye to his brother would be too hard.
Donald knew he needed to make a new life for himself. He remembered the fat envelope of money his mother had been saving for him. For his future. Even though he told her he wanted to go to college, he’d never really imagined a life without her. Because they were best mates. But they weren’t best mates anymore. She’d ruined their future. This time Donald wouldn’t wait for the day she promised to never date a bad man again. His father had left San Diego to make a new life in Los Angeles. The City of Angels. More promising than a city full of dead people. It hadn’t worked out so well for his father in LA, but maybe things would be different for Donald. He just needed to get the money. He wadded up the poster of Colma and threw it into the trash can. He put on his backpack and headed to the bus stop.
Jennifer Dickinson is a graduate of Hollins University. Her work has previously appeared in Blackbird, Causeway Lit, Word Riot, and Other Voices. The recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Jennifer works as a memoir book coach in Los Angeles. Get in touch with Jennifer through her website, jenniferdickinsoncoaching.com