Keri glanced at her reflection in the rear-view mirror one more time before leaving her car. She missed her long, blond hair. But getting it cut and colored was the easiest way to conceal her identity. She allowed the shoulder-length curls to fall forward, hiding her face as she climbed the church steps in the cold March wind. Luckily, the back pew was empty; Keri quickly claimed it to avoid mingling with any overly friendly parishioners.
She was probably vain to think anyone would know her in this remote Montana town. Her debut single had only been released in September, and the follow-up single had been somewhat of a disappointment. Still, as the congregation began the opening song, Keri remained silent; she couldn’t risk anyone recognizing her voice. She had come here to work on her next album in solitude; she did not want to be bombarded by curious fans.
As the song ended, a teenage girl slipped into the pew beside Keri. So much for avoiding people, Keri thought, moving over a little farther than necessary. But she needn’t have worried. The girl seemed as eager as Keri to ostracize herself. Neither one even acknowledged the other’s presence during mass, except that Keri’s eyes slid sideways just once, drawn by the motion of the girl rubbing her swollen belly, straining against the buttons of a maternity top.
Keri spent the next week secluded in her rented cabin at the end of a desolate, mountain road, trying out melodies on her guitar and scribbling down lyrics. She didn’t leave her temporary home until church the next Sunday. She again chose the last pew, and again, the same pregnant girl silently joined her. The girls continued to ignore each other. Both left church immediately after mass, ahead of the throng of amiable church-goers.
As April sunshine arrived to melt the lingering snowdrifts, Keri grew confident in her disguise. On the rare occasions when she ventured to town for groceries, no one paid much attention to her. This was what she had wanted, but the isolation was taking its toll. Kerry needed a friend, someone to talk to, someone to share a pizza or go shopping. Her thoughts kept returning to the pregnant girl. She seemed lonely and sad. Maybe she needed someone, too.
So the next Sunday after mass, Keri rushed to catch up with her in the church parking lot. “Hey,” she began, “we both seem to be strangers in this town. I was wondering . . . would you like to get together?”
The girl already had her hand on her car door. She opened it without answering. But Keri persisted. “I could cook you dinner. I make pretty good tacos. And I personally guarantee my cheesecake is the best you’ll ever eat.”
The girl hesitated, battling indecision. Finally, she acquiesced.
Keri smiled. “How about Wednesday? Around 5:30? I’m renting the hunter’s cabin on Wagon Train Road. It’s nothing fancy, but the price is right since it’s the off-season.”
“I’m renting a cabin, too,” said the girl. “I’m on Hulton Road. Wednesday sounds great.”
“By the way, I’m Keri.”
“I’m Mandy,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
On Wednesday afternoon the enticing aroma of cheesecake filled the cabin as Keri chopped lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Then she simmered ground beef on the stove amid frijoles and enchilada sauce, stirring it occasionally while she played her guitar. She meant to have the guitar hidden when Mandy arrived, but she was concentrating so hard on her music that she didn’t hear her guest pull into the driveway. She jumped at the knock on the door, then saw Mandy waving timidly through the glass.
“Oh! You play guitar!” Mandy exclaimed as she entered. “I’ve always wanted to. What were you playing?”
“Nothing really. Just kind of messing around.” Quickly changing the subject, Keri asked, “When’s your baby due?”
“Six weeks,” Mandy said softly, avoiding Keri’s eye.
An awkward silence followed. Then Keri said, “I hope you’re hungry.” She crowded the small table with the Mexican buffet, grabbed two cans of icy Coke, and sat down across from Mandy.
“Do you have any milk?” Mandy asked. “I can’t have caffeine. It’s bad for the baby.”
Keri poured a tall glass for Mandy. Then the girls overflowed their taco shells with beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese, olives, guacamole, and sour cream. Keri slathered a huge amount of salsa on top before passing the jar to Mandy. “You have to try this,” she said. “It’s peach mango.”
“It sounds good, but I can’t even look at salsa anymore. Heartburn. It’s bad this late in the pregnancy.” The conversation stalled, and the girls focused on their tacos.
“I am so full,” Keri said as she finished.
“Not me,” Mandy replied, almost apologetically. “I’m always starving these days.” She looked longingly at the food still on the table.
“Have another one,” Keri offered, “or I’ll be eating leftover tacos all week.”
Mandy eagerly helped herself. In between bites, she asked, “How come you play guitar but you don’t sing?”
“I do sing,” Keri replied without thinking.
“Not in church.”
“Oh, that. I had a sore throat,” she explained lamely.
“Every single Sunday?” Mandy looked skeptical.
“It was a really bad one.” Hoping to avoid further questions, Keri asked, “Do you know if your baby is a boy or a girl?
“Girl,” said Mandy sadly, staring at her empty plate.
“Do you have a name picked out?” Keri persisted.
Mandy was quiet for so long Keri thought she hadn’t heard her. Then she noticed a tear trickling down the girl’s cheek.
“I don’t get to name her,” Mandy answered. “I’m giving her up for adoption.”
“Is that why you’re staying in a cabin all by yourself? You’re hiding out because you’re pregnant?”
“But isn’t that kind of old-fashioned?” Keri asked. “There are lots of pregnant teens these days.”
“It’s not that simple.” Mandy’s voice trembled. “My dad is the chemistry teacher at my high school. He started a student organization called My AP. It stands for Abstinence Pledge. He’s really proud of the decline in pregnancies at our school. Mine is the first in three years.”
“I’m sorry,” Keri said gently. “I shouldn’t have asked so many questions. If you feel like talking, I’ll listen. Otherwise I can show you a few chords on the guitar,” she offered spontaneously, hoping to comfort her new friend.
Mandy rested her hand protectively on her huge belly. She drew in a long, shaky breath and began her story.
“It was the first home football game last fall. We were playing the Wildcats, and my best friend Becky was going out with their quarterback. After the game they introduced me to one of his friends, and the four of us drove around together. They had some beer. I don’t even drink, but he was so gorgeous I didn’t want him to think I was a nerd. So I had one. I was so stupid! After a while, Becky and Tim met up with some other friends, and Brian and I were alone. He kept offering one more beer. After the first one, it was easier to say yes. Then that song came on the radio:
It’s just you and me, it’s just tonight
Don’t think of tomorrow or the morning light
You’re here right now, too good to resist
I know it won’t stop with just one kiss
“He sang along looking right at me. I’ll spare you the details. I was so ashamed of myself. I never told anyone — not even Becky. When she asked about Brian, I told her I never wanted to see him again.
“A couple weeks later I missed first hour three days in a row because I was home throwing up. Becky started teasing me saying, ‘Sounds like you’re pregnant.’ I finally realized she could be right. Mom cried when I told her. This is tearing her apart. Dad was furious — I mean raging mad. He’s so disappointed in me. I can’t blame him. I’m disappointed in me, too. I’d give anything to be able to take back what I did that night. Dad arranged for me to come here after Christmas, when bulky sweaters weren’t enough. He’s telling everyone I’m staying with relatives in a college town to take some advanced classes. A prestigious façade, but I won’t even graduate. I’m studying for the GED. I’ll have to work a year to save up some money. Then I’ll start applying to colleges. I want to be a counselor to help pregnant teens.”
When Mandy finished, there was almost a full minute of silence before Keri said softly, “I wrote it.”
“What are you talking about?” Mandy asked.
“That song,” Keri said. “I wrote it. It’s my song.”
Mandy stared at Keri in disbelief. “You’re Keri Sheraton!” she said. “You look different in person.” Her eyes flashed angrily as she added, “I hate that song! What do you think when you write one like that?”
This wasn’t the reception Keri had anticipated when her identity was revealed. “You can’t blame everything on a song,” she said defensively.
Mandy sighed, taming her temper. “No, I suppose you’re right. It’s just easier to blame someone else.”
“I’m sorry about everything,” Keri said. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Actually, I’ll take you up on those guitar lessons,” Mandy replied, brightening a little. “If I can reach it past my gargantuan belly.”
The girls spent the rest of the evening singing, playing guitar, talking, and laughing. It was late when Keri finally opened a can of cherry pie filling to top slices of creamy cheesecake. Mandy had three pieces. “This is the absolute best cheesecake ever,” she declared appreciatively.
“I told you. It’s my great-grandma’s recipe. Family secret.”
Keri gave the leftovers to Mandy, and by the time the pregnant girl left, she was smiling for the first time in months.
The next day, Keri picked Mandy up at 7:00 a.m. sharp. The girls had made plans to drive to Billings to buy a guitar and some beginning song books for Mandy. Keri insisted on paying for everything despite Mandy’s protests.
Before leaving town, they went to Wal-Mart for a few essentials. As they passed the baby section, the excitement of the day dissipated.
“Can’t we just buy her a little outfit or a teddy bear or something?” Keri asked. “Baby clothes are the absolute cutest.” She reached for a pair of impossibly tiny, fuzzy pink pajamas with an adorable rocking horse on the front. Then she noticed the words: “I love my Mommy!” Keri quickly put them back, but not before Mandy read it.
“It’ll just make it harder,” she said, fighting back tears, and the two girls walked to the checkout line in silence.
On the way home Keri asked, “Are your parents making you give her up?”
“No,” Mandy said, “it’s my decision. What kind of life could I give her? I’m seventeen. I don’t even have a high school diploma. I want to go to college, hopefully get married someday. Then I’ll have a baby, but it will be for the right reasons. Besides, the couple who is getting her has been on a waiting list for almost seven years. This baby is an answer to their prayers. That’s more than you can say for me.”
“I’m glad you didn’t have an abortion.”
“Believe me, I thought about it. It would have been easier than telling my dad. But I knew it would haunt me forever.”
“I think you’re very brave,” Keri said. After a long pause, she continued, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that song, and you’re right — I shouldn’t have written it. My next album is going to be different. Maybe someday someone will tell me I had a positive influence on her life instead of what happened with you.”
“I think you’re very brave, too.” A newfound respect for her friend was reflected in her eyes.
“Put your hand right here,” Mandy said as she began her guitar lesson the next day. She guided Keri’s hand toward her stomach. “Can you feel that?”
“Oh, my gosh!” Keri exclaimed as the baby kicked sharply against her hand. “Does she do that a lot?”
“All the time. Sometimes she wakes me up at night. It’s funny — in the beginning I was desperately hoping for a miscarriage; but now if she goes too long without moving, I panic, thinking something’s wrong.”
The baby gave another great kick, and the girls smiled.
From then on, Keri and Mandy found an excuse to get together or at least talk on the phone every single day. Their friendship flourished. They played guitar, cooked, and went on long walks through the serene pine forests surrounding the cabins. They taught each other their favorite card games, watched movies, and ate popcorn. They even drove all the way to Billings one day because Mandy was craving the Three-Cheese Chicken Cavatappi at Applebee’s.
One afternoon Mandy just couldn’t get the A chord Keri was demonstrating. She seemed distracted and distant. Finally, she gave up and set her guitar aside. “Would you go with me when she’s born?” she asked.
Keri was momentarily speechless.
“Say you will,” Mandy pleaded. “I’m scared, Keri. I don’t want to do this alone.”
“But I don’t know anything about it. Do I have to help you breathe and all that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before either. But the doctor recommended some YouTube videos on labor and delivery. We can watch them together. I’ve got some books you can read, too. My parents will be so relieved if you go with me. Dad called last night. He said he was sorry about everything. He wants me to come home so he and Mom can take care of me. I’m glad they called, but I’m not going back. Not now. I don’t want the whole town staring at me, gossiping behind my back. I’ve made it this far; I only have a week left. And I’ve got you, right?” She looked at Keri, the question in her eyes.
“You’ve got me,” Keri answered, hugging her friend. “Of course I’ll go with you.”
On Sunday the girls took their usual spot in the last pew. The opening song was “Lord of the Dance,” Keri’s favorite. She just couldn’t keep quiet this time. She began the first verse quite softly, but each verse got a little louder until her clear, distinct voice filled the church. A few people were actually turning to look when Mandy’s urgent whisper abruptly halted Keri’s singing.
“I think my water just broke!”
Keri dropped her song book and sprinted out the door. Mandy grabbed her friend’s purse along with her own and slowly waddled after her.
Keri drove to Billings as fast as she dared, her eyes darting back and forth between Mandy and the road. Mandy remained amazingly calm, explaining that the contractions were pretty mild. But by the time the nurse helped her into the hospital bed and hooked her up to various monitors, the pain had intensified. She bravely faced contraction after contraction. Finally, the anesthesiologist arrived to administer an epidural. Keri shuddered and turned away when the long needle plunged deep into her friend’s spine, but Mandy relaxed visibly as the shot took effect.
The afternoon wore on, agonizingly slow. At last the nurse said, “You’re dilated to ten centimeters. Are you ready to push?”
Mandy nodded. The doctor was summoned, and the nurse gently coached the laboring teen, cuing her again and again to strain as the contractions escalated. The effort was exhausting Mandy, who lay sweaty and pale as she clung to Keri’s hand.
“You can do it!” Keri encouraged her. “You got this, girl.”
After what seemed an eternity, the doctor said, “Here she comes! A beautiful baby girl!” She was perfect, all red and slimy, with an awfully loud cry for someone so small.
“Can I hold her?” Mandy’s voice trembled. “Just one time, can I hold her?”
The doctor placed the tiny infant in the teenager’s arms. Tears streamed unceasingly down Mandy’s cheeks; for a fleeting moment, she experienced the miracle of a mother’s love.
Keri knocked softly before stepping into Mandy’s hospital room the next morning. “Hey,” she said. “These are for you.” She set a vase of pink carnations on the bedside table. “How are you feeling?”
Mandy looked so frail. “I can’t stop crying, but I guess I’m okay. The doctor said I can be released this afternoon. They named her Amanda, after me.” She handed Keri a notepad. “I’m writing a song for your next album. I’m done with the first verse already.”
I held you just for a moment
When you were so tiny and new
That moment will live with me always
For it is all I have of you
You won’t remember me at all
But each day that I go through
I’ll hope somehow you’ll understand
Why I gave them precious you
Keri’s tears mingled with Mandy’s as the girls clung to the comfort of each other and a friendship so real it would never falter.
* * * * * * * *
Like most college freshman, Mandy had the radio on just a little too loud as she drove home for Christmas break.
“It’s time once again for our Music Match Race,” the DJ’s voice blared. “You all know how it works. We play two songs. You call in and vote for your favorite. The winning song stays to meet a new challenger tomorrow. Our current champion has been undefeated four days in a row. The challenger today is Keri Sheraton. It’s been a while since we’ve heard from this young lady, but she’s just put together a brand new album. This is the title track. It’s kind of sad. It’s called ‘Mandy’s Song.’”
Mandy listened breathlessly as the familiar words came to her in Keri’s clear, melodic voice, “I held you just for a moment when you were so tiny and new . . .” Mandy had never heard her friend sound more beautiful.
Yes, she thought, her eyes brimming with tears, it is kind of sad. But it’s about real life, and real life is sometimes sad. She pulled to the side of the road, and with trembling fingers she reached for her iPhone to vote for “Mandy’s song.”
Lisa Phipps has written two children’s novels: Racing the Flame and its sequel Facing the Lion, both of which are featured on her author’s page, https://www.amazon.com/author/lisaphipps. Her picture book One Dinosaur, Please is available at www.meegenius.com. Her writing has been accepted by several magazines including Birth to Three, Focus on the Family Clubhouse Jr., The Friend, Wild Outdoor World, Equus, PKA’s Advocate, andIdeals. Lisa has a degree in elementary education supplemented by three creative writing courses from the Institute of Children’s Literature. She writes from her home on a cattle ranch in eastern Montana where she enjoys running, riding, and being a homeschool mom.