You’re never ready for it. All hell breaks loose and your brain suddenly feels like swiss cheese. Women are better at dealing with it than men are, sure. Specifically mothers, like there’s some sort of mechanism born within the mind of a momma when she gets pregnant. But the feeling is the same. “What the fuck do I do now?” It’s a universal thought process.

When you add trauma to the chaos, that’s when momma’s really shine. Take a black woman in her kitchen making dinner for her kids when she hears thumping bass notes turning onto her street, that first pop barely reaches her ear before she’s pulling those babies into the basement stairwell, screaming at them to get down. Like she knew it was coming. But then a bullet aimed at the neighboring dump ricochets off a shovel sitting on their porch and bursts right in through her living room window and catches her neck as she’s hunching down to follow her kids on the steps. She doesn’t immediately have that next step ready at the front of her brain to call out to her 12 year old now watching her momma slide down the steps with blood seeping from a major artery. Nope. She thinks to herself, “What the fuck do I do now?”

Holding a hand to the wound, pressing as hard as I can, staring into my oldest baby’s face as I tried to unfold emergency plans in my head, I felt as stupid as the dummy I married who is now rotting in a prison cell up state. Fortunately for me, it’s my daughter who inherited brains from someone else in my family who had the plan.

The 911 operator’s voice seeps from the phone calm and authoritative, and I thank heaven for that. “My mom’s been shot. We’re at 62 Hanover St. It was a drive by and I think the bullet is still in there because I’m pretty sure it hit an artery but the blood is just sort of leaking out.” I raised an eyebrow at my little science junkie. “Don’t press too hard, Momma. Just keep your hand there.”

I watched her bark orders at her younger siblings, her beautiful eyes focused on me until she heard the sirens outside. As she stood on the step beside me, peeking out the basement door, I cursed myself for never getting us out of this shitty neighborhood.

“Make sure it’s cops first, baby. Don’t open the door until the cops are here.” I grabbed her wrist with my left hand, “And keep your hands way up in the air, you hear me?”

She shook me off, “I know, I know.” I could see the lights, but my vision was getting hazy. “Hang on, Momma. Just hang on.” I imagined her with babies of her own in some big house in the suburbs with a two car garage and one of those kitchens with a double oven. She’s smarter than me. She would take her brains to college, instead of getting knocked up at 18. I prayed every day of her life that she would be smarter than me.

The police pounded on the door, and she walked out of the stairwell with both hands straight up in the air. “I’m coming to unlock and open the door. I have a phone in my hand, but only a phone.” As she unlocked the door, I prayed some more for God to keep her safe. It was getting hard to hear over the heartbeat in my ears. Oh why couldn’t I have just gotten us out of this hell?

My vision went black and I felt as though I were floating, carried by something free of form. Light began to flood in all around me. Blinding light. But then, suddenly, I was standing in my kitchen. I looked around at a frozen moment in time. Raybecca stood at the front door, hands high, in front of a familiar looking cop. I turned to the stairwell, my crumpled body lay on the top two steps, Miandra and Michayla hunched around my legs. Watching their momma die. And Tobias sat with his back to it all on the bottom step. Good boy, Toby. You keep your mind and memories safe.

I turned back, the cops eyes were on me. I blinked and he smiled. “Hey, Dahlia.” His voice was familiar too. And his skin glowed like amber coated bronze. I did know him.

“Lonnell?” I took a step forward but stopped as an invisible band held me in place. “How- Am I dead?”

He laughed, and the sound went straight through me. It was rich and deep, and something that had been frozen within me for a long time melted. “No, baby girl.” He stepped around the statue of my daughter. Nothing else moved. There was absolutely no sound but his voice. “This isn’t death. This is a choice.”

He came to stand in front of me, and part of me wanted to reach out to grab him. But if the choice was between going wherever he came from and staying alive for my babies, I could never choose him.

“I know.” He gave a sad, hopeless smile as he stood before me. “But if you had chosen me all those years ago, we’d be in a different place now, wouldn’t we?”

I blinked up at him. “How could I have known Ray would do what he did?”

His eyes narrowed, and his smile disappeared. “You believe that you didn’t see that side of him? The day I met you, he’d backhanded you right in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. Knocked a beautiful, pregnant woman to the ground. You didn’t know then what he was capable of?”

Some loyal part of me stretched to defend him. But Lonnell’s point was valid. “I loved him. I was about to have his daughter.”

“I can’t fault you for giving him the second chance, Dahlia. But the others?” He pointed to the steps, and I started down at the frozen figures of the only other things Ray ever gave me. “Eh, I’m just salty because you didn’t feel what I felt back then.” He stepped forward and his warmth invaded me. “This is a new choice though, baby.”

He took my hand and spun me on the spot. As my vision cleared, I stood in a sunny kitchen before a broad, pine table with benches on either side where 12 children sat eating breakfast. I looked at their faces and realized that the twins were sat at the end, teenagers now and laughing as their brother sat across from them. His preteen face sulky, but his hazel eyes lit up like I’d never seen before. The rest of the faces were unfamiliar until I turned around to see Becca standing at the kitchen island with a forty-something version of Lonelle.

She was a woman, three massive textbooks in her arms. “She’s just finished pre-med. But that smile on her face that looks so much like yours is because my wife, Liza just told her that the scholarship program she started when she graduated high school is going to put 4 kids into college.”

As my eyes moved around the kitchen and found Liza, my absent insides twisted. Liza-Marie had been Ray’s girl before me. In high school, she’d dumped him because he had disrespected her father. And now she was married to Lonell, the boy who’d promised to save me from all that I’d made myself endure. He’d married her and was going to take in my four parentless kids?

“They are all foster kids. Liza and I can’t have our own. So we try to give a better chance to kids who grew up like we did. Show them there’s another way.” He stepped up next to me and took my hand again.

I looked up at him. “This is my choice? Die and give them to you or keep them… And what? Fuck them up forever?”

“No, baby girl. That’s not the choice at all.” His fingers came under my chin. “Think bigger.”

I felt this world falling away. He didn’t spin me this time, just lifted my face, and when he let go, I stood in the parking lot of Becca’s elementary school, holding the hands of my tiny toddler twins and pregnant with Tobias. I remembered the day vividly. I’d stood there with my babies waiting for their older sister and trying to think what to do. Seven months pregnant with a swollen, bruised face, two broken ribs, and nothing to call my own, I was about to decide to stay, just until the baby was born. But I never left.

“You could choose differently this day. Decide not to go back. Move into that woman’s shelter. You could have had Ray arrested for this, instead of that terrible thing he did after this. Your friend Natalie from Becca’s school would’ve taken you in and gotten you a part-time job at the school, helping kids who don’t have computers at home learn how to use them.”

He squeezed my hand again, and I opened my eyes to the nursery where the twins spent their first fragile days of life. Ray had disappeared for 29 days and Becca was being looked after by Ray’s sister, who I was pretty sure was a heroin addict. But I hadn’t known what else to do. There was a nurse, wheeling me into the NICU 26 hours after my precious babies had been taken out of me in a emergency C-section. I was still swollen and weak from preeclampsia. But they’d finally let me out of bed to go meet them. I didn’t even remember my babies being born.

“She’d asked if she could go get Becca for you, do you remember?” I nodded but not looking at the nurse. I stared at myself. So puffy and stubborn. I wouldn’t even accept help when it was offered. “She would’ve helped you get into a better house, too. Her mother’s house in Reynoldsburg. She would’ve let you live there and helped you get that IT certification you’d wanted. When the girls were two, you would’ve moved into your own home where Becca would’ve been mentored by an amazing science teacher and even graduated early.”

I looked down at our feet, “Why are you telling me this?”

He slipped his fingers under my chin to look up at him, and when he dropped them, we were back in my crappy house on Hanover Street, right after we’d moved in. I stood at the bedroom door with Becca on my hip, watching her Daddy, naked on the bed with another woman. “He turned this around and made the whole thing seem like my fault,” I said in a tight voice, remembering all of the times between then and now that Lonell wasn’t showing me. All the moments I should have walked away.

I turned away, and as I did, a park shelter house materialized, where he’d shown up drunk to his daughter’s first birthday. My expression frozen in horror as I watched the path of his fist coming straight at me. The first of many full, facial punches over the years. “Stop, please.” I covered my face, but there were no tears.

Until I heard my own voice.

“I can’t Lonell. I know I’m probably making a mistake, but you won’t love this little girl like he will.”

Lonelle at 21 was softer than he was at 35. His kind, coffee color eyes scanned over me. My face had healed from the night in the parking lot, but I’d seen him every day since that night. “That’s where you’re wrong, baby girl. I could love her more.”

I shook my head. But he kissed me. The whole world was right that night.

“You know I was right back then.” The 35 year old Lonell locked his fingers with mine as we watched our younger selves make love.

I turned toward him, “But I can’t go back. I can’t choose you now.”

He stepped close to me. “None of this has happened yet, Dahlia. I’m not real. You’re not dying on the steps to your basement. Ray doesn’t exist here. You have the chance to make a different choice right now. Any choice. But only one. And you won’t remember anything else once you’ve made it. Your life will simply move forward from that point, with a different trajectory.”

As I turned away from him, I saw them all. Options on a wheel of fortune. I could spin around and walk into any of them, deciding the opposite of what I’d decided before. I could decide not to let Carson Donovan put my hand in his pants when I was 12. I could say yes to going to prom with Stephen, our class valedictorian. I could walk away from our neighbor Mr Quintez when he asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him in his basement.

I could decide to go to college and get that degree in IT.

Making the entire circle, I turned back to Lonell. “But there were good things, too.” I closed my eyes and pictured my babies’ faces. I remembered the day Ray told me he was going to turn himself in, and try to turn his life around. I remembered the night we’d talked all night about how we could make things better. I remembered only a few days ago when I went to see him, and he cried fat, heavy tears about the things he did to me. “There were so many moments I will lose if I decided anything differently.”

Lonell’s smile was full and bright. “That’s right.” He nodded and held his hands out to me. “That’s what makes it so hard. You know what you know, but if you give one moment up, everything could be entirely different.” He put his hands together and opened them again to reveal a bubble. Like a crystal ball. I stepped close to see inside.

It was me. A foggy, different version of me, wearing an expensive looking flowered blouse with navy slacks. My hair was cropped short and flecked with gray, and I wore chunky jewelry that I always loved, but wouldn’t afford. I stood in a beautiful sunny office, writing on a whiteboard. But as I squinted to try to see more clearly, the bubble popped.

“Sometimes, the choice is simply to see yourself in a different life. And go there.”

I looked up into his eyes. And I saw the scene reflected there. My daughter’s face contorted with fear and anger in front of him. I turned and saw myself. The woman I’d let myself become, covered in blood. “Can I survive this?”

“If you make that choice.” He stepped back, his voice growing distant. “All you have to do is decide.”

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