Carefully by Brittney D Herz

Brittney D Herz's character drives through the Virginian night reflecting on her relationship with her wayward husband.

Dads leave all the time. I say this to myself over and over as I turn the key in the ignition, praying the rumble of the engine doesn't wake anyone in the house. I read an article in Parent Magazine just this morning that said one out of every three children lives without their biological father. My coffee burnt the tip of my tongue as my eyes skimmed over the words. The image for the article was a small boy sitting looking longingly out the window and I couldn't help but think, is he looking for his dad or wondering why his next door neighbor had a bigger tree house than he did. Maybe it's the same thought after all. The night is too quiet so I turn on the radio. Radio DJ Delilah fails me with her romantic gibber gabber so I change the station.

Wise men say, only fools rush in...

Jesus, shut up Elvis. Poor Priscilla. I read somewhere that she used to dress up like the women Elvis was having affairs with in order to keep him by her side. Sooner than it feels an hour has passed and I'm almost at the state line heading into Virginia. The reflectors in the road shine up at me as I remember our first trip to Virginia.

I had found a cheap cabin online during the off season so Darren and I just took off one weekend with no notice, no worries. The whole ride was filled with endless chit chat as I let the cool air sneak in through my cracked window and playfully toss my hair around. We pulled up to the cabin late that first night. It was small but cozy. One queen sized bed with a garden trellis for the headboard, fake flowers strewn through it. The comforter and sheets were mismatched rose prints. There was a bathroom, a coffee machine, and little deck for us to sit on and listen to the nearby stream. We were there for five minutes before our clothes were off and we were sweating on top of that ugly bouquet of cloth.

We spent the weekend driving to nowhere, talking about the future, and eating at little hole in the wall restaurants. When we got back we even spent a night or two looking for homes in the area. I had made a moving schedule so Darren would be able to give work notice and we planned a grand party to part ways with all our friends. But the excitement faded in a few short days.

The reflectors catch my attention again as they go under my tires. I am drifting into the other lane. Northern Virginia did not have much to offer to a passerby in the night. Broken down homes sit lonely and decaying only accompanied by overgrown unattended fields. Not many options for a place to rest. Most likely I would wind up in an old hotel and leave with bedbugs as a souvenir.

I remember when I thought we had gotten bed bugs. Darren's family was from Pennsylvania so we decided to take a trip to visit. Most of my time was spent on a plush navy couch, sitting with his mother, looking at old photos of Darren in different Halloween costumes; an astronaut, a fireman, and my favorite, a wrestler. He spent most of the time catching up with his high school friends at a local bar that I didn't make it to. I insinuated I was up for a drink as well but he said that I would just be bored as they talked about their old football days. After sleeping for two nights in a hotel I was so happy to be home. We collapsed in bed, had quick sex out of principle, and didn't get up for twelve hours. When I did wake I noticed small little bumps around my pelvis. I asked him if he noticed anything and he said no. I started to Google "little red bumps" and saw "hotels" appearing quite often. The doctor assured me it wasn't bed bugs, it was pubic lice.

Straight up now tell me are you really gonna love me forever, oh oh oh...

No Paula there's no such thing as love forever, geez girl get a clue. My eyes are getting blurry as one hour moves to two. I see a flicker of red to signal me that my fuel is low. How long had that been on? I feel a flutter of panic not knowing when the next gas station will appear since all I have seen for the past twenty miles are trees and fields. Some of the grass is starting to shimmer under my headlights from the early morning frost. Winter is definitely on its way.

Our Christmas after the lice was supposed to be like all the others. We had moved on. We had grown as a couple. We were going to make it because we were beyond such petty things as a one night stand. Our tree was "rustic" themed with brown bells, white lights, gold bulbs, and vintage ornaments from our childhoods. Underneath I made sure all his gifts were wrapped in the same color paper as to not throw off the look of the tree. The few that he had wrapped were just a mash up of whites, reds, and greens. I put mine out in front as to appear in order. We had a small gathering Christmas eve. I had made all the decorations in our house and the guests commented on how I was a little Martha Stewart. Luckily I had whitened my teeth because they were showing all night through my wide smile. He would smile too, and nod in agreement, then dart his eyes to another part of the party.

I yawn so widely it hurts my bottom jaw. I give my head a little shake to try and keep myself together, both hands reaffirming their grip on the wheel.

Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep...

Both our parents were ecstatic when I told them the news. I found out when I was about six weeks along. Darren lavished me in foot rubs, chocolates, and even started to move his study into the smaller room so we could make that the nursery. I stood there holding my stomach, watching him box up some small black and white photos he had hanging by the front door. They were dwarfed by his massive matted degrees from Duke University. I noticed the picture from our wedding day still sitting on his desk. It was in a simple silver frame, I was staring longingly into the side of his face while he gave the photographer a very sly smirk. The photographer was quite attractive if I recalled right. The picture was hidden behind several envelopes that leaned against it like the black wooden cut outs of the sleeping cowboy.

Exxon, the sign lit up a few hundred feet away from me. I pull in, the chill in the air is a little thicker than when I left my home three hours ago. The man working the cash register looks much too old to be working and I want to tell him to go home and go to bed. Instead I put a Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos on the counter then ask for twenty on pump six. He smiles his three teeth at me and says to have a good night and be careful. I smile back and say I always am. As I pump the gas I look at the bag of Doritos in my other hand. Her hair was that color.

That ugly fake orange-red color that women think makes them look younger. They sat on my couch, her perfectly manicured porcelain hand sitting so nicely into his strong tan ones. She's pregnant too he tells me. And I'm keeping it she tells me. I asked to be excused and went to the bathroom to vomit up the lasagna I had made Darren and I for dinner. He tells me I don't have to leave. She has her own apartment. He can be dad to both children. He will stay with me more, at least at first since I am due in only a week. But then he would have to go to her house. It's only fair he tells me.

I looked down at my hand that had that orange hair in it and then back up at her as she held her head with her mouth open in shock. I don't remember pulling her hair out; feeling the strands in my fingers made me feel ill. No amount of shaking could get them off of me, they just seemed to tighten around my fingers like I was trying to shake free of a miniature octopus that coiled tighter the harder I shook. The more I struggled with them the tighter they became until I was sure they had embedded themselves into me and I would permanently be attached to this woman.

I slam my car door shut and breathe in deep. Dads leave all the time, I say again. After a few more moments I get back out and throw the Doritos in the small trash can next to the pump. I start my car again.

I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go...

I wonder what that is like. To be asked to stay. After the orange haired woman left I screamed. I screamed, then threw things, then yelled; I think there was some crying, then more screaming. I threatened to leave. He said I needed to do what I thought was best. I packed a bag, although it wasn't a strong argument of a bag. There was a toothbrush, three pairs of socks, one pair of underwear and about six t-shirts. Apparently where I was going you didn't need pants. I got to the door and I waited to feel his hand on my arm. Waited for his voice to tell me no, come back. I heard and felt nothing and yet my bag still slipped out of my hands. When it hit the ground I felt water splash up onto my ankles. I looked down to see my socks and sneakers were soaked and a puddle had formed around me.

I feel a pang in my stomach. I hadn't eaten dinner, or breakfast. I should have just eaten the damn Doritos. I watch the green signs off to my right waiting for one that says "food". Waffle House shows after a few minutes. I exit and follow the long curved road to find the source of the small bright yellow sign stuck up above the trees.

The waitress smells like cigarettes and her face looks like one that has been beaten a few times. I order a waffle and an ice tea. I sit and wait, rereading the menu just for something to pass the time. Then I notice some music coming from a small radio propped up by the grill. The cook is swaying his large bottom back and forth to the song.

Ah, shhh push it! Push it good!

Push, the doctor yelled, the nurses yelled, Darren yelled, I yelled. It was just a small room full of yells. I tried focusing on the beeping monitors and the green and pink wallpaper to block them out but their voices were overbearing. Push! I bore down hard, as hard as I could, over and over again. My vision started to get dark, my head too heavy to lift, my legs too heavy to hold. I heard a nurse say "C-section". I tried to say, "No, we want to go naturally," but I didn't hear anything come out of my mouth. I already had an epidural and before long there was a light blue curtain blocking my sight from the bottom of me. No one was yelling now except for our little baby boy who came out kicking and screaming.

Some little boy comes running by the table hitting the back of my chair. Why is this kid up this late? Mathew will not be allowed up this late. I guess I won't know if he is though. The waffle comes out with a single serve butter and syrup in a glass container. All this sugar, Darren would be appalled.

After the birth he was adamant that I eat a strict diet while breast feeding. He reminded me daily that I had physical inadequacies which lead to the C-section. The other woman wouldn't have those I thought. I did smile a little pathetic smile when I heard him on the phone telling her he couldn't leave me, I was too delicate. Too pale, too weak. He couldn't bring her a sundae right now. Mathew sat so perfect in my arms. If I hadn't actually seen him come out of me I would have sworn Darren had him all by himself. His nose, his mouth, even the weird little dent in his left ear marked our child.

I don't wait for the check, I throw out a twenty on the table and get back on the road. Another hour goes by and I start to wonder when the sun will start to come up. My breath hangs in the air before I finally feel how cold it is and turn the heat on high. The hot air blows hard making my hair fly up before I turn it back down on the one setting.

Don't turn around...

Mathew rolled over when he was only three months old. I yelled to Darren to come look, look at our son. His little butt was just sticking up, I'm sure it wasn't on purpose and he had no idea what he had just done but to me it was the most amazing thing I had seen in years. Darren did run down but not because of my yells. He had to go he said. He didn't know when he would be back. She was in labor and needed him. I pointed to Mathew and Darren gave a small smile before rushing out the front door. My hands were shaking as I rolled him onto his back. Several days later Darren reappeared with bags under his eyes and spotted facial hair making his face look like a poorly drawn map. The moon cast a shadow on him as he got undressed and crawled into bed next to me. His hand instinctively went under my shirt and started foundling my still very used and very tender breast. I twitched my shoulder to push him off and he made a small sigh before rolling over. Every night that week ended the same way. His hands on me, me pulling away, him seeming baffled before passing out with his mouth open.

A blue sign for the Bay Bridge Tunnel appears to my right. I made much more ground than I expected. I could just get over the bridge, ring up a nice hotel under Darren's credit card which I had grabbed on my way out, order room service, sleep for days, and then start a new life with a handsome surfer named Jim. I go under the water in the concrete tunnel, the echoing of my tires following me. After I come back above ground I decide to stop at the lookout. No one else is there as I get out and walk to gaze at the water. The cold hurts the tips of my fingers so I shove them under my armpits. Even the seagulls that usually plague this bridge are smart enough to be somewhere else right now.

Mathew will love the water I'm sure. Darren enjoys the occasional trip to the beach but I could just float in the ocean for days. That weightless, careless feeling you get when you dive through a large wave and pop out the other side like you're Ariel gliding up a rock with the water splashing behind you. Mathew will love that because I'll teach him. Dads leave all the time I say again. I smell the salty air one more time before getting in my car. I get to the end only to make a U-turn and pay the man with Darren's card to head back north.


  1. This story really packs an emotional punch. It is simply told but exploring so many issues around gender privilege, and conflicted feelings about power/control and love and responsibility. A fine read,thank you,

  2. I found this very powerful and moving, with an understated writing style.
    It´s a story that causes one to think, especially about our relationships.
    You really can´t take anything for granted.
    Well done!

    Mike McC

  3. I really enjoyed this, as I was being taken on a journey full of interjections that gave the reason for the trip. A good read.

    James McEwan

  4. Thank you for the comments I really appreciate it. I'm glad you liked it, it was a long process for a short story.

  5. Great short story. Liked the conflict in the main character, liked not knowing if she was running away, chasing her husband or something else. And the 80s flash back music - nice touch. Well done.

  6. Very good, strong story. The character never slides over into just being a victim.

  7. Very believable and just the right touch in penning this story. Leaves the reader with so many questions. To some extent we've all experienced something similar by way of loss and the way we react to it, and the strength your character shows in this regard was touching. Well done!

  8. I really loved this story, I felt for the main character and her conflict in staying with her husband while feeling betrayed, and trying to put her child's best interest the past and present go between and the music touches...looking forward to more from Brittney

  9. 'Jesus, shut up Elvis.'

    Irritation, resignation and indifference. Nice touch.


  10. Strong character development, good pacing.