ONE MORE BREATH

Women’s Fiction / 90,000 words / Pamela Kopfler

Three minutes of counting. Three minutes of praying. Three minutes of wishing she’d stayed a virgin, at least until she finished high school. 

Jana Tyler didn’t own a watch, so she counted the seconds as she waited for the stick to show a plus or a minus sign. They’d used a condom, for Christ’s sake. She was just a little late.

One hundred seventy-three, one-thousand, one hundred seventy-four, one thousand

. Keeping time, she rapped what was left of her fingernails on the worn Formica countertop.”I gotta pee,” her five-year-old brother said, pounding on the locked bathroom door of her mother’s trailer. Josh was the only thing her step-dad had left her mother when he walked out. Better than the black eye he’d left Jana.

One hundred seventy-six, one thousand. I can’t be pregnant. I’m not ready. I’m going to college.

“Pee outside. I’m busy in here.”  Busy finding out if life as she knew it was over.

“Mama said she’d whip me if I peed outside again.” He yanked on the knob until the hollow-core door rattled. “I’m gonna tell Mama when she gets home you was hoggin’ the bathroom again.”

“Go away,” she shouted.

Josh whined. “I’m gonna pee myself.”

One hundred seventy-nine, one thousand.

A pale, blue line formed on the stick. A line. A single line. No plus. Relief flowed through her like a dip in the bayou on a hot day. She blinked as another faint blue line crossed the first.

Pregnant.

Her legs weakened and tears stung her eyes. It couldn’t be. She snatched the instruction sheet from the countertop. The letters blurred into a soupy river of indistinguishable words. It didn’t matter. Even she couldn’t screw up reading a plus or a minus sign. As she sank to the linoleum floor, the paper slipped from her fingertips.

Jana grabbed two fistfuls of her hair and pushed against her skull. They’d used a condom. It wasn’t fair. Her throat tightened around sobs. Jana knew her choices, but she never thought she’d have to make that choice. But she did. And soon.

Her heart skittered and threatened to stop. “Blake,” she whispered. He’d dumped her. How could she tell him she was pregnant?

“Mama,” Josh yelled. He whacked the door. “Mama’s home and I’m tellin’.” Bare feet slapped the linoleum floor as he ran down the hall.

Jana squeezed her eyes shut. Mama. Oh, God. She’ll kill me if she finds out. “Jana Marie Tyler, you let your brother in right now. You hear?” her mother shouted from down the hall.

Mama’s voice launched Jana from the bathroom floor. “Yes, ma’am.”

She raked the pregnancy kit into the Walgreen’s bag and then stuffed it in her purse. She glanced in the mirror. Bloodshot, puffy, blue eyes looked back at her framed by stringy blond hair. “Oh, shit.” If Mama saw her like this, she’d ask questions Jana wasn’t ready to answer.

Jana splashed her face with cold water then dried it with Josh’s Spiderman towel. She slipped the rubber band off her wrist and gathered her hair in a ponytail.

The doorknob jiggled. “Ma—”

She jerked the door open. “I’m out already.”

Josh stood with his Spiderman pajama bottoms around his ankles, his winkie in his hand and an urgent look on his face. “Move, Sissy,” he said, pushing past her.

Jana stepped aside as Josh shuffled in short, quick steps through the door. She shook her head. I absolutely cannot have one of those.She dug her sunglasses out her purse and then shoved them over her bloodshot eyes. Plastering a fake smile on her face, she rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Hi, Mama.”

From the back, Mama could pass for a teenager. Sometimes people mistook them for sisters. But no teenager would be caught dead in a Big Boy’s 24-7 Diner uniform and nurse-white tennis shoes.

Mama pulled a box of Cheerios from a grocery bag. “Hungry?” she asked, turning to Jana. Her mom shook the box and smiled. “Breakfast of champions.”

“That’s Wheaties, Mama.” Jana scooped her mother’s car keys from the counter. “Sorry. Gotta go. Saturday swim practice,” she lied. She wasn’t going. She couldn’t. And she couldn’t hang around her mother, or she’d know something was up.

“Wait.” Mama crossed the kitchen to the pile of bills and junk mail overflowing a shoebox beside the telephone. She plucked out a letter. Her tired eyes danced like they used to when she talked about going back to school. “Guess what was at the post office?”

Jana hoisted her purse on her shoulder. “Mama, I’m going to be late.”

Mama waved the letter in the air. “It’s addressed to Miss Jana M. Tyler.”

“I gotta go.” She couldn’t bear to think of what might be in the letter. What she’d prayed would come true.

“The postmark says Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” Mama passed the letter under her nose and grinned.

Jana marched to the door.

“Smells like chlorine.”

She stopped but didn’t turn around. “You open it.”

Paper tore. Then silence.

Jana wheeled around. “Well?”

“You’ve got a swimming scholarship to LSU.” Mama jumped up and down and ran to Jana, dancing her in a circle. She could hardly breathe because Mama squeezed her so hard. “You’re going to be the first Tyler to go to college.” Mama stopped and held Jana at arm’s length. “LSU!”

Josh trotted in the room with a piece of paper. He jumped up and down mocking Mama. “Look! Look!” He waved his paper in the air. “I got a letter too.”

Mama glanced at Josh. “That’s great, baby.”

Josh pointed his chubby finger at the paper. “Mine says E-P-T.”

“Give me that,” Jana said as she broke free of her mother. Jana snatched the pamphlet from Josh.

“It’s mine,” he said, stretching his arms toward the letter and whining.

Jana crushed the pamphlet to her chest as though hiding it would make everything go away.

Mama’s face morphed into a mask of confusion and disbelief.

Trapped between lying and confirming her mother’s worst fear, Jana hid behind her dark glasses. Her heart thumped like a time bomb, ready to blow. She bolted from the trailer and dashed to her mother’s ten-year-old Toyota.