You Would Have Told Me Not To
By Christopher Coake
Just after midnight, Suzanne stopped for gas on the Indiana-Ohio border. Next to the gas station was a liquor store; without much hesitation, she went inside and bought a handful of miniature whiskey bottles. She drank one in the parking lot, then checked her phone one more time: still no messages—from Abby, Sean, a doctor, any- one. She called the hospital one more time, and received the same runaround: Sean had been admitted, and that was all they’d reveal. She said unkind things and hung up. When she’d gotten her Buick back to speed on the interstate, snow swirled past her windshield in a manner she could only describe as malevolent. The liquor burned her in her belly, and she focused on it, used it as a platform from which she could step back into her best and most rational self.
Fifty more miles of mostly empty highway, though, and she was back to remembering herself and Sean at their worst: what she had sworn she would not do, since her son’s girlfriend Abby had called two hours ago, and left a message that he’d had been shot.
She hadn’t spoken with Sean since early August, when he had called to tell her he was quitting his graduate program in anthropology. There was a reason to want a drink: the last conversation she might ever have had with her only child had been an argument, an ugly one.
From the tone of his voice (too honeyed and placating; he’d learned that trick from his father), and the over-solicitous way he’d asked after Miguel and the bank branch that she managed, she’d known what he was calling to tell her. She began to rage, not only because of Sean’s irresponsibility (though, god, definitely because of that), but because of his predictability.
Sean told her his reasons—his heart wasn’t in it; the work wasn’t engaging him—but she filled in the real answers: You’re quitting because grad school asked you to work very hard, and you don’t like to. Because I wrote you several large checks last year to make grad school hap- pen, and some part of you takes joy in wasting my money. You’re quitting because you know I wanted this for you.
You’re quitting because you asked your father first, and I just know he told you to follow your heart, and your father is full of shit.
She said none of this aloud. What had she expected? She’d been too eager to help him, after all. Too eager for him to make something of himself, too eager to write him the checks, too exultant the night she’d toasted him in front of Abby, calling him “Dr. Sypes.”
Finally she couldn’t listen to any more. She’d interrupted, and told Sean she was disappointed in him. That he was twenty-seven, and too old to be leaving things like this unfinished. That sooner or later he’d have to make up his mind about who he was. She couldn’t decide that for him— “I never asked you to!” he said. “Jesus, Mom—you’re a really awful person, sometimes. You know that?” He’d hung up, and she had never called him back.
They often went weeks without talking, but this last silence had lasted nearly three months.
Abby’s message had been frantic, tearful—Sean’s been shot, we’re going to Riverside Hospital, come quick. She’d not called again, and her phone went right to voicemail. Suzanne had tried calling Sean’s father, Rick, in London, but he didn’t answer, either. Sean could very well be dead by now, a long pale form beneath a sheet. Suzanne imagined a doctor, tall and serious, wearily stripping off bloodied latex gloves.
No, remember something else. Remember him as a baby again, as fat at birth as he would someday be tall, squalling wetly in her arms, smelling both sweet and ob- scene, her body turned inside out and given to her to hold.
She had loved him—let no one ever doubt that she had loved him!—but she was someone (Be honest, she heard her therapist say) for whom relationships were complicated, and even then, even when he was a baby, the love she’d felt for her boy had been tinged with a bitter doom. I can’t, she’d thought, feeling him begin to nurse. I can’t do this. I’ll ruin him.
More than once she had thought, He’ll ruin me.
She could still feel the weight of him, then, the breath trickling out of him, the delicate redness of his skin. How fragile, how impermanent he’d seemed. She could have cut him open with a fingernail.
Sean was not only alive; when Suzanne entered his room an hour and a half later, she found him sitting up and laughing.
Abigail leaned across the bed, her hands clasped on his stomach; in her dazed, puffy face Suzanne saw, at least, some evidence that another human being had been put through hell tonight, too. Sean was drawn—skinnier! He’d lost weight—and his right arm was in a sling. He was pale, his chin coated by several days’ stubble. A long brown scribble of dried blood rose from under his gown and ended in a smear below his earlobe.
“Mama!” Sean cried, holding out his free arm. “Mi madre!”
“Baby boy,” she said—she heard herself say it—and, helpless, rushed to him, buried her face into the crook of his neck, which was warm and smelled of blood.
* * *
He’d been shot through the biceps, she learned; she trailed a surgeon (not at all the tall white movie star she’d imagined; he was slim, Japanese, and very cheerful) out of the room and got the full report. The bullet had trav- eled cleanly through the muscle, missing arteries and major nerves—which, the doctor told her, had been the most advantageous path it could have taken.
“It could have missed him!”
“My understanding,” the doctor told her, smiling proudly, as though Sean were his own son, “is that Sean was shot protecting his wife. Shielding her, and the baby.”
She stopped herself from asking, His wife? Who’s that? And why had they been holding a baby?
When Suzanne returned to the room, Abby was standing up, and she saw clearly that Abby was pregnant, and well along, too. Oh. And Abby and Sean were both wearing rings on the proper fingers. Oh, again.
Sean was drowsy with painkiller. He smiled up at her, heartbreakingly sweet. “Mama,” he said, slurring, “you must be so mad at me.”
* * *
Sean was discharged only a couple of hours after her arrival, at four a.m., and Suzanne drove him and Abby home to their apartment. Abby sat in back with Sean, her legs across his, her fingers in his hair, and neither of them said anything about being married, or about Abigail’s belly.
“Please,” Suzanne said, watching Abby’s ring finger in the rearview mirror. “Tell me what happened?”
The shooting, Abby told her, had happened at the bar where Sean was working. (Her son, a bartender!) Sean’s shift had ended, and Abby had driven to pick him up—she didn’t like him walking so late at night, especially when it was nasty out. The parking lot had mostly been empty, and when she’d gotten out of her car to walk in- side the rear door and talk to Sean and her good friend Mikki, she’d heard a man yell at her. He was probably just a drunk, or even a bum, she figured—so she’d hurried to the door, but then the man had run up and pulled on her arm, dug his fingers in—“I’m bruised, I showed the cops”—and she was sure she was about to get abduct- ed and raped—
But at the exact moment the man grabbed her, Sean opened the door, and saw what was going on, and he’d acted so fast, Abby couldn’t even believe it; in an eye- blink—literally—Sean had yanked her away from the man and inside. And then he did something dumb–
“But very brave,” Sean said, his eyes closed.
“Dumb, but very brave”—Abby pecked wetly at his cheek, then rubbed the kiss away—and then Sean had gone back out into the parking lot, yelling. And right away the guy pulled a gun out of his jacket pocket and pointed it at the door, or Sean—no one knew who he was really aiming at, but it didn’t matter—Sean jumped at the door and slammed it, and on the other side Abby heard the gun go off, and part of her died, literally died, and she and Mikki started screaming, and she opened the door even though she knew she shouldn’t have, and Sean ran inside, and they locked the door, and that was when they realized he had been shot.
“It’s weird,” Sean said. His eyes were closed, but his voice was hale and engaged. “Getting shot. I’d just had a bullet go through my arm, and—I don’t know, my adrena- line was really going, and I’d had a couple of drinks—sorry, Mom—and I couldn’t even figure out where it hurt.”
“I was the one who felt it,” Abby said. “I felt the blood coming out right under my palm.”
“I was pretty numb then.”
“I got your blood all over me,” Abby said to him, in something like wonder. She’d begun to breathe too hard. Sean twisted to comfort her and groaned with pain, and then Abby was hugging him. “God, Sean, I was so scared—” And he was saying, “I know, baby, I know.” In the mirror Suzanne saw them clinging tightly together. Sean was comforting his wife. Then his eyes opened, and met Suzanne’s in the mirror.
“So, Ma, we’re gonna have a baby.”
Abby slapped his chest. “And she has to have a fucking father. You stupid stupid stupid asshole.”