Early morning light streaked through the windows, hitting the two blue lines on the pregnancy test and making them look like they were moving. Positive.
Ravena supposed she could call a counselor, ask for advice, but even the thought made her tired. “I’m forty-three,” she imagined herself saying, and “I don’t know how I got here.”
Here was Lexington, Kentucky, the city where people came from her small mountain hometown for fresh starts. Two months after Stan died, it was where Ravena came to see if she couldn’t resurrect The Plan.
Back in the years when The Plan was something she lived by, Ravena had kept a list of things she wanted to accomplish pasted to her bathroom mirror:
- Go to college
- Do something wonderful
She hadn’t done any of them. Worse yet, she hadn’t thought about the fact that she hadn’t done any of them until Stan’s death startled her out of the fog she’d been living in.
The sunlight seemed to get brighter suddenly and she blinked against it. Her bedroom’s dull orange walls from the 1970s made even the brightest light look slightly muted. If Stan had been there, he would have said something like “The sun’s the keeper of a dying world.”
An amateur astronomer, he’d seen everything as a sign of some approaching apocalypse. “The sun can’t last much longer, babe; it’s running out of juice. And once it’s gone, we’ll only have a day before all life on earth dies out. What will we do, then?”
What indeed. At least Stan wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. It was the first thing that came into her mind the day she found his body stretched out on the couch, perfect except for the tiny stream of dried blood going from his nose down into his mouth. Brain hemorrhage, the doctors had said. Unusual in a forty-five-year-old man, but not unheard of. Nothing anyone could have done.
“I don’t have time for this,” she announced to the room full of boxes, not sure whether this was reminiscing about Stan, thinking about the pregnancy, or both. She scurried about, looking for her shoes. Today, at least, she was going to accomplish something. Today she was registering for classes at the local community college.
It was something Stan never would have understood. Years ago, when they’d first married, she’d broached the subject and he’d been confused. His pay from the factory was enough to give them a good life, he’d said, so why wouldn’t she want to just stay home and care for the house? And fresh from the grief of her parents’ car crash, she’d thrown the application papers away.
She’d met Stan when he’d been the backup deejay for her cousin’s wedding, an event so big it took up all of what passed for a society page in the twice a week Morehead News: “Daughter of prominent businessman to wed County Attorney,” the headline had read.
Ravena had been sitting alone at the reception, the way she usually was at gatherings involving her family. All successful in one way or another, her cousins treated her with that particular brand of politeness which screamed, You don’t belong but my mother says I have to be nice to you out of respect for Great Aunt Margaret.
For her part, Ravena tried to smile, look nice and friendly. Interesting. But inside she just felt lost. A late-in-life only child, she envied the closeness she saw between the brothers and sisters, the way one insignificant word or scent could send them off in private groans or spasms of laughter. After her parents’ death, Ravena felt her own memories were adrift, just waiting to slip away, be lost forever.
Why do I even bother coming to these things? she’d asked herself just before Stan sat down beside her.
She looked up into a face that wasn’t handsome and took in a slightly overweight body she immediately pegged as “not my type.” But the smile was friendly.
They hadn’t had much to talk about. Just comments on the bride’s dress, the music, how cute the ring bearer was. Ravena was shocked that he continued to sit there. When he’d asked for her phone number at the end of the night, she’d thought about saying no, but she hadn’t.
A week later, she and Stan shared their first, clumsy kiss in an almost deserted movie theater. After the awkwardness was over, he’d taken her hand as they walked back to the car. Throwing her jeans and sweater into the hamper that night, she’d figured that was the end of it. His late-night call telling her how much fun he’d had kept her up that night, trying to come up with a way to let him down without hurting his feelings.
The days turned into weeks without her saying a word, though. The attention was unexpected, flattering, and she could tell Stan was happy. He never seemed to notice the long silences which felt so heavy to her.
Ravena didn’t initiate anything in their relationship; neither did she object. It was enough to drift along, take Stan’s ideas as her own. She couldn’t have said at what point she agreed to share his bed, his apartment, his life. When he’d told her he didn’t think she needed to go to college—after all, he wasn’t going to go—she’d thrown away the admission forms. There’s plenty of time, she’d told herself. I’ll go in a couple of years.
A couple of years had turned into twenty. Her marriage to Stan had been a quiet affair; their lives had drifted into a comfortably predictable routine. And college had gone by the wayside.
It wasn’t a month after Stan died that she picked up the application papers again. Her hand had shaken as she had written The New Plan onto an index card and taped it on the bathroom mirror in the house she’d shared with Stan:
- Go to college
- Do something
Then, she’d packed up her things, moved to Lexington, and enrolled at the local community college.
There was nothing in The Plan, new or old, about being pregnant.
Her advisor wrote “Undecided” on the forms and told Ravena to come back when she’d figured out a major. She wanted nothing more than to escape back to the privacy of her new apartment, but she forced herself to walk around the campus until she’d found each one of her classes. She stopped by the bathroom and was startled by the image she saw in the mirror. When did your hair go gray? she asked herself. In the stall, someone had written “God is…” and people had filled in the blank with “Everything, dead, my savior.”
Ravena laughed. It was the same kind of graffiti she saw in the bar where she and Stan had sometimes gone back in Morehead. Stan had often joked that drunks were some of the most philosophical people on Earth. Guess he never met many college students, she thought with a smile.
She dug a pen out of her purse and held it up to the wall, but stopped when she realized she had nothing to say on the subject. She idly wondered what Stan had thought of God. It wasn’t something they had ever talked about. She wondered sometimes if they had ever talked about anything.
She walked through the campus, watching the other students (many of whom, she was relieved to see, appeared to be her age) mill about. On the grass in between the buildings, students were gathered around a man playing a guitar. Ravena didn’t recognize the tune, but from the occasional “Praise Jesus” she heard from the onlookers, she gathered it was some sort of gospel song. The man was maybe in his thirties and handsome in a lanky, not-Stan kind of way. He was humming gently, his eyes closed, and she stopped to listen. When he began singing, she was taken with the gentleness of his voice, the melodies coming out like those of children in choirs she’d heard on public television stations.
His eyes opened suddenly and zeroed in on hers. She wasn’t surprised by their intensity—something about him had told her his eyes would be dramatic—but by their stormy gray color. It contrasted with the gentle nature of the song he was singing and she was immediately drawn to him. She stayed, mesmerized, with the rest of the crowd as he sang song after song about Jesus’ love. She still wasn’t sure what she thought about Jesus, but she certainly appreciated the man’s passion for him.
Much later, when the crowd thinned and the man was putting away his guitar, Ravena reluctantly turned to leave. “You don’t have to leave on my account,” the man called out to her. She could hear the smile in his voice. She turned back around.
“You into Jesus?”
“No,” she said honestly and then bit her lip. Stan had always said what she considered honest was actually rude.
The man just laughed. “Good,” he said. When she looked at him with surprise, he added, “That gives me an excuse to try to convince you over coffee.”
The man’s name was Aiden, she learned, and he was originally from San Francisco. He’d come to Kentucky to live in an intentional community designed, as he put it, “to impact Lexington for God.” Ravena nodded as if she understood what he meant. She learned that Aiden was recently divorced, though he and his ex still remained friends and lived in the same community, and that he played guitar for a church service in one of the community members’ houses. “You should come sometime,” he offered.
Emboldened by his obvious amenability to seeing her again, Ravena ventured that she didn’t live too far away, that she’d chosen her apartment based on how near it was to her classes. All it took was an “I’d love to see your place” and she found herself inviting him home with her.
Aiden didn’t mention a car, so Ravena packed him and his guitar case into her Honda and off they went. Whenever thoughts of What am I doing? came into her head, they were immediately pushed aside by some gentle question Aiden would ask. “What is your favorite flower?” or “What was your favorite story growing up?” Questions she didn’t think Stan would have known the answer to after twenty years of marriage.
He didn’t ask about a husband or boyfriend. Why should he? Ravena thought to herself. An attached woman wouldn’t be doing this. Thinking of herself as unattached was a freeing thought. She could do anything, be anyone. She could even follow The Plan.
“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out to Aiden, as they climbed the stairs to her garage apartment that overlooked Mrs. Aply’s kitchen full of roosters. “I haven’t told anyone yet.”
“Then that’s one less thing we have to worry about,” Aiden responded. When the door closed behind them, he leaned in for a kiss. His lips were firm like a handshake, certain of the reception they were going to face. She took his hand and led him to the bedroom.
Their lovemaking was slow and gentle, more that of longtime lovers than the frenzied event it had always been with Stan. Afterwards, Aiden held her in his arms and whispered, “Talk to me.”
And she did. She spoke of her childhood, the favorite dog she still missed, the last book she could remember loving. She talked more, she felt, than she had in years. She didn’t mention Stan. It was as if he’d existed in another life, one that no longer had any connection to her.
Except for the baby.
“What are you going to do?” Aiden asked her, his fingers absently stroking her arm.
Her “I don’t know” was the only discordant chord in the evening.
The next morning, she awoke to the smell of brewing coffee. “I hope you don’t mind,” Aiden said. “I knew you had to get to work early.”
She’d told him, in the wee hours of the morning, about her job. It didn’t pay much, but didn’t require her to do much either. She just had to sit at the hospital or the doctor’s office with elderly patients from the nursing home who didn’t have anybody to go with them to their appointments. She didn’t have to drive them back and forth and she wasn’t allowed to go see the doctor with them because of some privacy rule. All she did was sit in the waiting room and make sure they didn’t wander off before or after their appointments. Once it was all over, she took them out to a van waiting to take them back to the nursing home.
The worst part of it was trying to make small talk with these strangers who were so helpless, so alone in the world that they had to hire people to sit with them. “My name is Ravena, Mr. Stephens,” she’d shouted at a man on her first day, blushing when the other patients turned to stare. “I’m going to be staying with you today.”
The man had stared at her blankly for a second and then pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. “You got a light?”
“You can’t let him smoke in here.” The receptionist said smoke like she was saying something dirty.
She’d nodded at the woman. “Mr. Stephens, you can’t smoke in the doctor’s office. It’s against the rules.”
The old man repeated the words slowly, “Against the rules.” He appeared to be thinking about it, trying to link sounds and meanings in his head. “You mean I can’t smoke?”
“No, Mr. Stephens, you can’t.”
He looked at her, his eyes locking on hers for the first time. He didn’t say anything else, but he took his cigarette and put it back in his pocket. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Stephens.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall.
He didn’t speak to her again. Not when he rose to follow the nurse into the examining room. Not when he came out and let her take his arm, leading him to the parking lot. Not even when the attendant buckled him in and asked, “Don’t you want to thank the nice young lady?”
Ravena had cried all the way back to her apartment.
When she’d told Aiden all that, he’d held her closer, but hadn’t said anything. Stan would have tried to cover her tears with empty words, so Ravena was thankful for the silence.
When Aiden kissed her, the faint taste of her toothpaste under the coffee made her smile. She and Stan had never used the same kind of toothpaste—she had only used cinnamon; he, mint—and it felt strange to taste some part of herself. “Did you use my toothbrush?” she teased.
Aiden murmured some sort of response as he kissed her again. He’d told her the night before that he was glad Jesus brought them together. She asked him about Jesus and how he could believe that someone who’d lived thousands of years ago could be in charge of the minutia of his everyday life. She’d expected him to be offended, but Aiden simply chuckled and told her that a lot of people wondered about that. “I just can’t believe that life is all about chance,” he’d said. “Somebody up there has to be in control.”
Ravena showered alone that morning, despite Aiden’s protests. All the togetherness was overwhelming for her; she hadn’t had a chance to think through the previous night. She wondered if Jesus was as okay with what had happened as Aiden seemed to think he was. Her mountain grandmother, she felt sure, would say no.
She tried to imagine Aiden fitting in with The Plan, but the picture she saw was of her standing behind him while he sang to crowds. And wasn’t Jesus supposed to be first for those who believed?
For that matter, weren’t children supposed to be first? She sat on the toilet, the water still running to keep Aiden out, and stared at the pregnancy test in the garbage. What was she supposed to do with a child? She’d never been obsessed with the idea of being a mother the way some women seemed to be; now, at forty-three and alone, the idea of bringing a child into the world just seemed exhausting.
“Jesus,” she said softly, “if you’re real, tell me what to do.”
She waited, listening to the steady patter of water on the bathtub, but she wasn’t blinded by a light or overwhelmed with the feeling of peace she’d heard people talk about. She sighed and rose from the toilet, turned the water off, and headed back into the kitchen, where clattering and smells told her Aiden had found her pans and was scrambling eggs.
After breakfast, Ravena walked down the stairs in front of Aiden, imagining Mrs. Aply’s sharp eyes and a disapproving shake of her elderly head. At the bottom of the stairs, Aiden stopped so abruptly Ravena could feel it. She turned back to look at him.
“Did you hear something?” His head was cocked to one side.
“No.” His insistence on taking his time irritated her. She wanted both of them to get in their cars and drive away before her neighbor decided to come out and say hello. She kept walking.
Aiden stayed right where he was. “I’m sure I heard something.” He took one step, paused, and said, “See? There it is again.”
This time Ravena heard the slight cry. She looked toward Mrs. Aply’s front door and from the back of a flower pot, she saw a tiny, black kitten emerge. “Your neighbor must have gotten a kitten.” Aiden sounded relieved to have the cause of the noise identified.
Imagining Mrs. Aply’s gruff manner, Ravena wasn’t so sure. Before she could consider what she was doing, she called “Here, little one” to the kitten. It viewed her solemnly for a moment, blinked, and then mewed again, taking a tentative step toward her.
When she picked up the kitten, she could feel its ribs. “I don’t think it has a home,” she told Aiden.
“Cats like that are full of disease,” he said, his nose crinkling up with distaste.
Ravena had never had a cat, but Cats like this need love was the first thing that came into her mind. “I’ll see you later,” she told Aiden, suddenly realizing that she was never going to call him. “I want to get this little guy settled upstairs before I go to work.”
She didn’t wait to watch Aiden drive away.
She called in late so she could go to the pet store. She walked out with two bags’ worth of cat supplies, including a book that the clerk assured her contained everything she needed to know to raise a healthy kitten and the phone number of a local vet.
When she opened the door to her apartment, the kitten came running. It rubbed itself against her leg and mewed until she picked it up. She held it while she fixed its litter box and then laughed as it lunged toward the food she put out. Once it seemed to be occupied, she closed it into the bathroom and started back downstairs, feeling more pleased with herself than she had since she could remember.
On the way home from work, Ravena passed a sign she’d never noticed before: Psychic Readings. She pulled the car over on impulse. The woman who came to the door wasn’t the gypsy-like person she’d been expecting. Instead, she looked like a soccer mom about Ravena’s age, with perfect hair and makeup.
“I’m Adelita; you’ve come for a reading?”
Ravena nodded, suddenly conscious of the gray hairs sticking out from her temples. She followed the woman into a room that seemed more appropriate for business meetings than seeking the dead. Adelita motioned for her to sit down in an overstuffed chair.
“Who would you like to contact?”
“My husband, Stan.”
Adelita appraised her, although not unsympathetically. “This isn’t your first time losing someone, isn’t it?”
“That obvious?” She looked down at the carpet, embarrassed.
Adelita’s laugh was gentle. “No, it’s just that a lot of people come to me after repeated losses, especially if they were unexpected.”
Ravena’s head shot up. How did she know that?
Again, Adelita laughed. “You don’t have to be psychic to guess that your husband probably wasn’t a 90-year-old man with heart disease.”
This time, Ravena laughed, too. “I guess not.”
“Shall we get started?” Adelita closed her eyes.
Ravena just stared at her. “Shouldn’t we hold hands or something?”
The woman didn’t bother to open her eyes. “We can,” she said, “but that’s really only necessary in the movies.”
“Oh” was all Ravena could think to say.
Suddenly, Adelita opened her eyes. Ravena, startled, didn’t know where to look. Adelita smiled at her.
“Your husband, he was a quiet man.”
Ravena didn’t know what was expected of her, so she nodded. Stan had seemed more talkative than most of the men she’d known.
“He liked blue.”
Did he? Stan was color-blind, but he had liked the University of Kentucky Wildcats and their school color was blue, so she guessed he did.
“He had a favorite blue shirt he spent practically every weekend in.”
Inwardly, Ravena shook her head. Stan had had three favorite shirts, ragged old T-shirts he’d held onto from high school, but all of them were red. I guess that was his color blindness. He probably didn’t know what colors those things were. After Stan died, she’d thrown the T-shirts away, not deeming them fit even for Goodwill.
“He appreciated you agreeing to spend part of your life with him. He’s glad he was in a relationship with you when he passed on.”
Ravena was so caught up in thinking about how unlike Stan it was to say “passed on” instead of “died” that she almost missed the frown that went over Adelita’s face.
“That’s odd,” the woman said.
Ravena panicked. Had her lack of reverence for the process broken the medium’s connection with Stan? “What’s odd?”
Adelita looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “He says he doesn’t have a message for you.” The medium seemed perplexed. “I’m sorry; I’ve never had anyone say they didn’t have a message for their loved ones before.”
Maybe I’m not one of his loved ones.
“There won’t be any charge, of course,” Adelita hastened to add.
She walked Ravena to the door and hustled her out as if Ravena’s mere presence was enough to lessen her spirit mojo.
When she was back on the road, Ravena let herself think about what had just happened.
“Stan didn’t have a message for me,” she said, drawing the words out as if that would make them make more sense.
The first burst of laughter surprised her, but she embraced the second like an old friend. How like Stan it was to have nothing important to say! She laughed so hard she had to pull into a parking lot as tears streamed down her face.
When she could breathe again, she put her hand on her stomach for the first time and smiled. Then, instead of directing the car toward home and her new cat, she pulled out into traffic. The bright sun made all the cars look as if they were glowing.
A “Walk-Ins Welcome” hair salon was around the corner, and she put on her turn signal, considering what color she’d like to dye her grays.
Elizabeth Burton lives in Lexington, KY, and works for a nonprofit agency. Her writing has appeared in The Notebook: A Progressive Journal about Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots, the Peculiar People’s Postcard Project anthology, and other journals. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction from Spalding University.