By Benjamin Winship

Greg pressed the brakes gently and pulled the car over onto the shoulder.  It glided to a stop at the edge of the guardrail.  Kelly was doubled over in the passenger seat, rocking back and forth, and clawing at her stomach.

As soon as she could, she opened the door and stumbled out.  She leaned over the sprouts of wild grass and rested her hands on her knees.  Greg watched her from the car.  His big brown eyes searched her frame wildly, caringly.  It was the only help he could offer as he wiped sweat away from his forehead.  It was hot.

A long thin web of saliva dangled from her lip and plopped into the dirt.  Then a small waterfall of vomit chased after it.  Greg saw her body quiver as she gagged.  She spat again and then more vomit leapt out of her mouth.  It was milky white and Greg wondered what it was.  She hadn’t eaten anything in the past 12 hours.

She rested there for a minute, running her fingers through her hair and spitting.  Finally she stood up and let the soft breeze hit her face.  There were dark rings pressed into her pale cheeks just below her eyes.  She stumbled back to the car and sank into the passenger’s seat again.  She pulled the door closed, buckled her belt, leaned her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes.

Greg’s lips quivered.  He was about to say something but he wasn’t quite sure what it was.  He rubbed his hands up and down on the steering wheel in indecision.  Then he finally turned the key in the ignition and pulled back out onto the empty highway.

Their windows were cracked and the warm air rushed into the car and swirled around.  They were both silent for a while.  Greg started drumming his fingers on the steering wheel absently.

“Please don’t do that,” said Kelly.

“What?  Oh, sorry.”  He set his right hand in his lap and gripped the top of the wheel with his left.  Kelly wrapped her arms around her stomach.  “Should I stop and get you something?” Greg asked.

Kelly shook her head.  “I don’t want anything.”

“But maybe it will be better for you.  You haven’t eaten all morning.  What about just some juice… or water.”

“I’m fine, Greg.”

“Here’s an exit.  I’m just going to get something just in case you change your mind.”

“Greg don’t…”  The car veered off the highway and onto the exit ramp.  Kelly ended her sentences with a sigh.  There was a Shell station on the right side of the road.  The car turned in and parked.

“I’ll be right back,” said Greg, stepping out.  He slammed the door and walked into the Kwik-Stop.

The bell rang, and conditioned air greeted him.  The clerk glanced up from a newspaper.  He was thin and dark skinned, with reading glasses halfway down his nose.  Greg offered a slight smile and wandered down the snack aisle.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket and glanced at it.  It was 10:32 in the morning.  He considered the breakfast burritos stacked in the freezer.  Then he looked over at the rack of doughnuts spinning slowly.  Finally he stepped in line at the counter with two doughnuts and a V8 Smoothie.  He felt good about his choice.

There was a small boy next to his dad in front of Greg.  The boy was looking at the baseball cards.  Greg watched him for a minute as the dad dug around in his wallet.  “Can I get these, Dad?” asked the boy.  “Please?”

“Not today,” said the dad without looking.  “Maybe next time.”  Greg watched the kid frown and blow air out through his nose.  He tossed the pack of cards back onto the stack and kicked the floor with his toe.

The two of them meandered toward the door.  Greg set the food on the counter with a $10 bill.  He glanced at the cards, and picked up the pack that was still warm and greasy from the kid’s hands.  He set it down with his trove of food.  The clerk scanned it indifferently.

Greg took his things and stepped outside.  The father was there, smoking.  The boy was in a pickup truck nearby with his head down.  Greg strolled over and flipped the pack of cards through the window and into the boy’s lap.  He watched his eyes light up and then look, expecting to find his dad.  Then the joy mingled with confusion as he tried to figure out who Greg was.  Greg just winked at him and started walking back toward his car.

Kelly was asleep.  She had leaned the chair down like a bed.  There was a slice of shade crossing her eyes.  Drool glistened against her lip.  Greg chuckled and set the food by her feet.  He started the car and pulled out onto the road.  It was a quiet morning.  There was nothing more to do but drive.  Greg liked that.  He liked propelling the adventure forward.  He was happy when Kelly had agreed to make the trip to California.  Adventures were born and died there.  He flipped on the radio and let the music drone against his skull.

The Nevada sun got hotter as it rose.  It hit the ground and the rocks that looked like the bones of long-dead giants.  Then it jumped back off the ground and simmered in the air.  You can’t get away from it because it hits you from the top and the bottom.  Greg didn’t try to get away from it, though; he liked the hot dry feeling.  There was wind coming through the window and it kept everything dry.

Kelly stirred.  She snorted and rubbed her eyes with balled-up fists.  Then she stretched her fingers and ran them through her greasy brown hair.  Finally, she pulled her seat up and crossed her legs Indian style.  “Where are we?” she asked groggily.

“Nevada.  We should hit Vegas in a few hours.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Just like 30 minutes.  How do you feel?”  Greg reached across and rested his hand on her neck.

“Oh, you read my mind.  Can you just rub it right there?  It’s killing me.”

Greg pressed his fingers into the flesh between her neck and shoulders.  He waited for her to respond but she just closed her eyes and felt the massage.  “How do you feel?” he asked again.

“Like shit.”

“I got you some breakfast.”

“Don’t want it.”

“Maybe you should just try it.  You don’t even know what it is.”

“Okay, okay.”  She reached down and pulled the bag up.  She took out the doughnuts and grimaced.  Then she twisted the cap off the V8 and took a gulp.  “This is good,” she offered.  Greg smiled.

“Now you have to eat a doughnut.” Greg said playfully.

“Pff.”

“I’m dead serious.  You have to.”

She pulled one of the rings out of the plastic and held it in the light.  The white glaze glistened against the blue of the sky.  “They probably made this years ago and it’s been sitting in the heater ever since.”  Greg smiled and kept looking at the road.  “I’m not going to eat it.”

“It’s not for you, Kelly.  It’s for the baby.  He is like me.  He likes doughnuts.”

“It’s not a he.”

“Fine then.  She.”

“It’s not a she either.  It’s nothing.  It’s just a little lump of cells.”

“It has to be something.  It’s going to be anyway.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Well, call it a craving, or a last meal.  The baby wants the freaking doughnut.”

“Why do you do that, Greg?”

“What?”

“Just slough it off like it’s no big deal?”

“I’m not sure what you…”

“You know what I mean!  Don’t act like you don’t.”

“Look, babe.  I’m not sloughing, honest.”

Kelly tossed the doughnut back into the bag, rolled her head against the window and pretended to go to sleep.  Greg squeezed his fingers against the steering wheel and let out a noise halfway between a growl and a sigh.

Miles of desert later, Kelly really was asleep.  They hadn’t spoken a word since.  Las Vegas passed by like a bright carnival.  Greg thought it seemed less mysterious in the daytime.  There were no lights, only the high gaudy buildings.  The people out were the ones hopelessly pumping blood into their winner-take-all dreams of fortune.  Then he had an idea.

He turned off the highway and followed the loopy white signs.  A few minutes later he pulled the car to a stop in a parking lot.  Kelly stirred and sat up.  “We there?” she asked.

“No,” said Greg.  I wanted to ask you something.

“What,” she said more annoyed than curious.

“Kelly Marie Williams, will you marry me?”

“What?  Where the hell are we?”

Greg smiled.  “We’re at a wedding chapel.  Think about it.  We could get married, have the baby, I’ll find a job in LA.  Life would be pretty nice.  We could settle down.”

Kelly pressed her hand against her stomach and the blood dropped out of her face.  She yanked on the door handle and fell out of the car.  Greg heard her moan a few times as she heaved dryly.

Finally she finished and lifted from her squatting position.  She looked up at the building she had been heaving in front of.  “A wedding chapel?” she asked without looking at Greg.  “You thought we’d just get married in Vegas and live happily ever after?  Bravo, Greg, bravo.”  She glared at him.  “My parents will be thrilled.”

“They’d be happy.  Christians like the whole marriage thing,” he said defensively.  “I just want to take care of you.  Both of you.”

“There is no both of us.  If you would keep driving like you said you would, this baby will be gone by tonight.”

“I know.” Greg looked down.  “It just seems like the closer we get, the more and more I feel like we are…”

“What?”

“Murderers,” he whispered.

Kelly laughed.  “Well, Greg, I don’t see you throwing up.  I don’t see you gaining weight either.  It’s not like you are the one who has to trade financial security for unbearable guilt.”

“I’d never leave you,” he said quietly, with furious determination.  “I would be miserable with you, if you kept him.”

“It.”

There was silence, like a thick wall between them.  A woman opened the door to the chapel.  “Ya’ll lookin’ to get married?” she asked.

“No, thank you,” Kelly yelled to her.  She shut the door again.  Then Kelly climbed into the car.  Greg pulled out of the parking lot and they were silently on their way again.

“We don’t have to make choices because of them,” Greg said.

“We agreed together to go to California, do this, and stay with my cousin to just get away for a while.  It was a good plan.  Let’s stick to it.”

Greg worked his jaw back and forth.  He was picking his words out slowly, but he was having trouble finding them.  “I know we can’t afford this now.  People say that all the time when they have babies, but we’ll find a way. I promise.”

“We won’t.”

“Our parents will get over it.  It’s not like we are the first people to mess up.  They can’t hold it against us forever.”

“I’m not so sure.”

Her responses came like blows to his solar plexus.  Each one draining the oxygen from his chest, each one pulling a little bit of life out of him.  He wished they could forget the whole thing.  He wanted to be happy again.  He wanted to laugh with Kelly they way they had laughed a month ago.  She was beautiful when she laughed.

He felt sad for her.  She couldn’t break free into the happy Kelly that she used to be.  If that Kelly were here, she would think differently, and Greg would know how to talk to her.  He would know what to say to the carefree Kelly because he was accustomed to her and he loved her.  He didn’t know the one in the car with him.  She was a stranger that didn’t care for him much.  She was surrounded by thick mist and couldn’t seem to find any answers.  She had all the painful responses he couldn’t bear to hear.  With her, the road was thinning and thinning until there was only one solution left.  But it was the solution they had seen on the horizon all along.  Greg knew he wasn’t supposed to let doubt creep in once the decision had been made, but it had been far off then.  It had been fragmented and emotionless.  The closer they got, the bigger it was.  It towered over him and cast a long shadow.  It made them fight and say things they didn’t mean.

And every minute that ticked by, the thing that was inside Kelly was becoming more and more human, and Greg was feeling more and more like a father.  He could be a father.  It was harder, but it was less scary.  It was happier.  He wondered about Kelly.  Did she feel like a mother?  The new Kelly didn’t.  The old Kelly would have.  Moisture welled up into his eyes.  Kelly wasn’t looking and he wiped it away.  Water from his eyes: the only liquid for a thousand miles.  The car raced along the highway.  Greg pressed the gas harder and the car muscled forward.  He felt reckless.  If the police stopped them what would happen anyway?  It would be that much longer that he could be a father, and find the real Kelly underneath the new one.

Greg rested his hand on the shifter.  He watched the white lines on the road pass by quickly and slowly all at once.  Then Kelly moved her hand and rested it on top of Greg’s.  It was a small “I’m sorry” gesture.  It was the old Kelly breaking through.  Greg’s mind raced.  What should he do?

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too.”

Then the silence resumed.  There wasn’t much else to be said.  They loved each other, but neither person’s views had changed.  There was nothing else to do.  There was no other fate, no other destination.  The pea’s seconds of life ticked away slowly.

The sand turned into scattered houses and gas stations.  The hours passed and they clustered closer together.  Then they were all clumped piles of concrete that went on and on for endless miles into the distance.  The smoggy downtown was there somewhere, but they couldn’t find it.

The lonely stretch of highway turned into a busy freeway, a California freeway with angry drivers and police cars.  It was a beehive of action, but inside the car was silent as death.

Greg wanted to say so many more things.  He had perfect arguments and theories building up in his brain, but they ran out of steam as they sprinted to his mouth.  No matter how many he fired, none of them ever escaped.

Finally they were in front of the building.  Their destination.  It wasn’t the way Greg had pictured it.  He had imagined something metallic with spidering crossbeams and barred windows.  This was a cozy little square building with eggshell walls and a nice glass door.  It was in a business lot near a Mama’s Pizza.  Greg smirked and wondered which business had come first.

Kelly got out of the car and walked toward the glass door.

The cool clean wash of hopelessness came into Greg.  Now the end was coming no matter what he said.  That freed him to finally say what he liked.  What he meant.  “Kelly?” he asked.  Her name was familiar and light on his lips.

“What?”

“We’ll be happy.”

“Will we?” She asked, unwilling to give in to his game of hopelessness that she, no doubt, had known would come.

“I’ll find a job,” he continued, “We won’t fight.  He’ll have your eyes and my hair.  We’ll all sit around the dinner table at night laughing.  It won’t matter that we’re poor, we’ll be together.”

“Are you coming in with me or not?”

Greg looked around the car seat, searching for a lost thought, a missing idea that was hidden in the upholstery or the glove box.  He searched deep into the tiny crevices of the steering wheel leather.  He checked the radio and the windshield but it was gone, too small and afraid to be spoken.  It was too fragile to make sounds and vibrate across the air.

Finally, he stood up and let the sun hit his face.  There was one small green tree in the parking lot and it rustled a little against the breeze.

“Don’t I have any say in this?” His voice bordered on a scream.  Kelly looked at him.  She looked at him deep and strong.  For the first time that day, and maybe for the first time in a long time, there was compassion glowing against her cheeks.  It was the old Kelly.

“No,” she said gently.  “You don’t.”  Then she turned and walked through the glass doors and into the building.

Greg muscled all his thoughts together, all his memories of the little red lump that was only a month into existence.  Like a giant whirlpool the feelings were spinning spinning spinning and soon there was a black hole that would suck them all away.  He didn’t want to think that it was Kelly’s fault because she couldn’t see the way he could.  She saw the problems, the pain and the hurt.  She saw the horrible life that might happen and the tall, cold, angry people looking down at them.  It was a window shutter with glorious sunlight waiting to pour in, but for its life, she could not see past it.

She was inside reading a magazine.  She was sitting in one of those blue chairs with yellow armrests reading Vogue and trying not to think, doing anything not to think.  The baby was still alive.  It was still pumping tiny blood through tiny vessels, or even less, it was pumping water through little cell vacuoles.  It needed him, Greg, Father more than ever.  And where was he?

“Miss Williams, the doctor will see you now.”

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2 Responses to “Choice-less”


  1. […] Benjamin Winship’s work has appeared in Underground Voices, Static Movement, Bartleby-Snopes, The Absent Willow Review and The Nautilus Engine. Read his short story “Choice-less.” […]


  2. What a compelling wonderful story. It left me with tears in my eyes.


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