The cake sat on the table, candles burning to the nubs. The festive, edible confetti covering the top of the cake suggested hope, but the yelling from the other room was not promising.
A door slammed in the distance, rattling the old house, wavy glass windows shuddering at the disturbance.
Grace returned, tears streaming down her face. The house seemed to fold around her as darkness fell outside. The streamers and balloons lining the small dining room danced slowly overhead in the drafts from the windows. Some of the candles had burned out. She blew out the others, leaving the cake in the middle of the cheap, plastic tablecloth.
She sat in the semi-darkness. If someone had told her things would be like this, she might have made a different choice. She shuddered and retracted the last thought superstitiously. They were just going through tough times, she told herself. Things would get better.
She surveyed the room. Behind the cheery balloons and crepe paper streamers, the walls were covered with school pictures and awards. In the secondhand china cabinet, a baby picture stood proudly between tiny, white, patent leather shoes and a threadbare stuffed animal.
Grace thought back to the night, a lifetime ago, when she had told her then boyfriend of two years that she was pregnant. He had scoffed, then had gotten angry, then had insisted on an abortion. He was a lesser star on the football team, the son of a prominent town doctor. She was the daughter of a pastor. What would people say? There had been yelling and harsh words, and she had stormed off.
Abortion. The quick fix. Her parents would disown her. Frightened and alone, she sat on the park bench, knowing this decision was up to her. After Luke’s reaction, she couldn’t count on him for anything. How could she have been so trusting? How could she have been so stupid? She was barely seventeen.
A small spark awaited her decision, its life hanging in the balance. The realization gradually overtook her. She would have this baby, and she would work as hard as she could to give it the best life possible.
Three months before her eighteenth birthday, Grace gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Athena, after the goddess of wisdom – and warfare, she had found out later. Teenage Athena was now demonstrating her warlike aptitude. Perhaps wisdom was coming.
Athena had never been a calm child. As a fetus, she had pummeled her young mother from the womb. Grace sometimes blamed herself, thinking that wavering over Athena’s life had influenced her temperament. Once she was born, Athena had greeted Grace’s hopeful face with a wail that lasted for the next three months. She fussed at nighttime, never wanting to sleep. To calm her, Grace walked her up and down the road – a new road, in a new city, where no one judged a pastor’s daughter.
Yet Grace remembered the good times. Athena’s birth, though complicated and unexpected, had ushered her into the club of parenthood. She had looked down on her little, wailing daughter with her red, squeezed-up face and her balled up fists and fallen totally and completely in love. Those tiny toes, that shock of hair, the gasping breath between wails were all proof of a miracle. In an instant, the spark had flared into a flame. Where before no Athena had existed, a tiny, blustery, little presence now proclaimed itself to the world.
Standing, Grace smiled and wiped her tears. How could she ever second guess her choice? Today she would celebrate, even if she had to celebrate alone. Through the difficult past fifteen years, the depth and warmth that came from loving her child had filled every crack and crevice in her heart.
As she cut into the small, cheerful cake, the door down the hall creaked open. The streamers danced in the gust of air.
“Mom?” a hoarse voice called, hesitantly.
“I’m in here,” Grace called back, slicing through the frosting and into the rich chocolate center.
Athena stopped in the doorway, arms crossed. They looked at one another with red, puffy eyes, then both burst into laughter.
“Is that my piece?” Athena asked, enfolding her mom in an awkward, distant-yet-desperate, teenage hug.
“You bet it is,” said Grace, lighting a candle nub and placing it on top. “Now make a wish!”
But really, what more was there to wish for?