Miss Always Write

Enter Stage Left: Chapter One

Enter Stage Left is a work-in-progress novel about Harper Prewett, a 17-year-old who is heading back to her performing arts boarding school with a secret she’s desperate to keep. She wants to have a normal senior year: going to homecoming with her boyfriend, landing the lead in the winter musical, and preparing to audition for college. All of this normalcy hinges on her ability to keep her unexpected pregnancy a secret from those around her.

The selection below is an excerpt from chapter one. It is unedited, so there are bound to be errors. #sorrynotsorry

Chapter One

“Can you keep a secret?”

The mirror, unsurprisingly, isn’t quick to offer me heaps of reassurance.

I stare at my own wide, hazel eyes reflecting back at me; I’m challenging the girl in the mirror. There has to be some certainty in there somewhere, just a speck of clarity about the future mixed with the green and gold and brown. I spend a long moment searching for invisible confidence before the realization dawns that I’m going to have to create it for myself. I nod at the Harper in the mirror, slowly, with an arched brow. It’s an unconvincing affirmation, but it’s a start.

For the love of Sondheim, I’ve been acting in front of crowds since I was knee-high to our family dog. How hard can it possibly be to act like my normal, 17-year-old self for the next six-ish months?

Keeping a secret… it’s not even really acting. It’ll be more like a character study.

On myself. And everyone around me.

I take a deep breath in through my nose, then let it out through my mouth with a judgmental nose-scrunch in the general direction of my past-self. At the beginning of the summer, I was so excited to find a bar of soap that smelled like vanilla cupcakes–now it smells more chemical every day. It’s a simple scent that I’d bought because I thought it’d be great to get a cupcake craving every time I washed my hands, but now it just makes me want to wrap myself around the toilet.

Poor Past-Harper. She’s been getting a lot of flack from Present-Harper these days.

I wash my face with a blessedly unscented foaming cleanser. My bangs are a bit unruly, so I straighten them before rolling up the cord and tossing the flatiron through the bathroom door. It just barely misses my bed, clattering to the floor. I’ve never been good at sports. When I turn back to the mirror, I study the splotches on my cheeks where the late August heat is already mixing with my nerves to make me look flushed. If I put on a full face of makeup, I’m only going to sweat it off as soon as I walk out the door. Still, I consider it for two full minutes before settling on a quick application of mascara. Act natural, right?

Everything is going to be fine.

I’m being way too critical about how I look today. Realistically, nothing about my appearance has changed. My bangs are a little longer than I’d like them to be. They’re like an orange firestorm creeping in on my eyebrows. I’ll have to give them a trim in a few days, but that’s the same every year; forgetting a back-to-school haircut is an annual oversight. This year, I’ve had a bit more on my mind than previous years.

But it’s been a good day so far. To be honest, any day that doesn’t start with crippling nausea these days is A+. Red letter. I ate breakfast, it stayed down. That’s a new thing.

I tap the frame of my bathroom door three times at the thought, just in case I’m jinxing myself. I have to be cautiously optimistic about the rest of the day. I can’t remember the last time I dared to eat more than toast before noon, but this morning I was so anxious I risked cheesey eggs and toast. And some bacon. Dad makes the thickest, crispiest bacon–I won’t be able to get that on campus. Breakfast was my last home-cooked meal until I come home at Christmas. Go big or go home, right?

I can hear my parents downstairs, loading up the car with my copious bags and boxes in preparation for the six-hour drive to upstate New York. I always, always, always pack too much for my dorm room. And Dad always, always, always gripes about it, as if it’ll ever change.

“I saw her bedroom–I know there’s still stuff in there! How are there this many boxes when there’s still so much clutter upstairs?” His voice carries up through my bedroom window from the driveway. I can picture his face exactly: practically cross-eyed with challenge, tan cheeks turning pink in the heat, a smile on his lips. He’s good-natured about it, of course. Probably standing with his hands on his hips, shooting a side-eye to the already-overstuffed Volvo while calculating how to fit the rest of my baggage in there. The truth is that Harvey Prewett not-so-secretly enjoys playing a physical game of Tetris at the beginning and end of every summer. From experience, I also know he’ll complain the whole drive up to school (Traffic! New York drivers! Cops in speed traps!), but then he’ll get emotional as soon as the door to my dorm room closes and I send them off one last time.

And really, there are going to be more challenges to face today than just keeping my breakfast down or getting the car packed or getting past a few speed traps ticket-free. Those are going to be easy as knocking down sandcastles with a tsunami compared to what’s coming later.

No, the hardest part of today is going to be seeing Ciarán O’Carroll.

Ciarán and I are both rising seniors at Ashford Academy, a boarding school for the fine and performing arts in New York. Unlike me, Ciarán is from Ireland, and had to go home for the long and torturous summer break. Even though I’d made a pretty compelling case for my parents to send me off for just one week, they’d resisted, citing the fact that they couldn’t send their 17-year-old daughter to a foreign country so she could “hang out with her boyfriend.” I’d shot back that they have no problem sending me to an expensive boarding school where I can also “hang out with my boyfriend,” but they’d been unrelenting.

And that had, in retrospect, been a pretty weak argument.

We spent the summer texting and FaceTiming about as constantly as a five-hour time difference would allow. We talked about everything from the weather (miserably hot in New Hope, miserably rainy in Galway) to our dream shows for the coming term (he wants to do The Crucible, and I want nothing more than the Scottish play). And, of course, Dad picked on me relentlessly for how dorky it was to put on movies and press play at the same time so we could watch them together while on the phone. Now that it’s almost over, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to be separated by a full 3,118 miles. For the most part.

He texted me this morning to let me know that he was boarding his flight. I keep re-reading it and checking for updates. It’ll be hours before he lands, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to hear from him. I need planes to get on board with the whole free WiFi thing.

Shutting off my phone. See you on the other side! <3

When we kissed goodbye two months ago on the last day of spring term, it really seemed like the distance would be the greatest challenge our relationship could ever face. Ever. More difficult than conflicting class schedules, more complicated than being cast in different shows so we couldn’t sit together backstage and hold hands in the dark. I can still feel the flutter of butterflies I felt the first time he slipped his hand into mine last October when we were backstage at Little Shop of Horrors. We’ve come so far since the awkward days of literally dancing around each other. Everything was coming together so perfectly. There was a plan. We’d talked about it. We’d rock our seniors shows and recitals, we’d both get into NYU or Carnegie Mellon, we’d ace those theatre programs, and then we’d move into a tiny apartment in New York City and become Broadway stars. It was a simple, five-year plan.

Obviously.

Now I’m reasonably sure the whole dream could come unraveled because of the secret I’m keeping under my t-shirt.

I toss my phone onto my bed in the general direction of my messenger bag, and then I flop back onto the comforter with a muted thud. My knees dangle over the edge, bare toes just barely brushing my navy shag rug. I focus for a minute on the things I can feel rather than the many, many things that feel like they’re outside of my control. There are threads coming undone on my comforter, tickling at the backs of my thighs. I can feel them on the back of my neck and along my calves. It’s warm in here, even though the air conditioning is on. Dad probably turned it down because we’ll be gone all day, and then I’ll be gone until December. I’m the one who likes to keep it cool in the house–he likes heat. He probably set it somewhere in between until he can get home and turn it off altogether.

I’m trying to distract myself with trivial things, but it doesn’t last. The palms of my hands are practically itching to touch my stomach and further pull down the grey Academy t-shirt I’m wearing. It’s a fidgety feeling, growing anxiety that maybe everyone can already see.

It’s too soon to tell, but that won’t last forever. And then what will I do?

I’ve done a lot of Googling in the last few weeks. Mostly under the covers, of course. With private browsing enabled on my iPad. And the door locked. And then, obviously, I clear all of my browsing history. If my parents got their hands on my iPad (which they probably wouldn’t; I’m almost ashamed of how much they trust me while I’m simultaneously harboring this secret), the most scandalous conclusion they’d come to was that I’d been browsing porn. That’s normal, teenager behaviour, right? Realistically, they’d probably prefer a full-blown porn addiction to the honest truth.

And the honest truth is that at 11 weeks, the baby is about the size of a fig.

I know this because every pregnancy website is obsessed with fruits and vegetables, as if produce is the only universal system of measurement.  My running theory is that people like to have something tangible they can pick up and hold in their hands to estimate the size of their babies. I, in my entire 17 years of life, had never seen a fig until I Googled it. A fig, it turns out, is the same size as a lime–which seems much more universal than a fig, if you ask me. The sites also say things like “If you’re approximately six weeks along” or “if you think you’re eight weeks along” as if no one ever knows for sure when they got pregnant.

That’s the one thing I wish I didn’t know for sure, but it’s the also the one thing about this whole ordeal that I never needed to Google.

I was there. I know when it happened.

Despite how the movies always seem present boarding schools, it’s not like a big, wild party all the time. There are no orgies (at least none that I’m invited to). You’re not exactly afforded a myriad of opportunities to sneak off and have sex. The dorms are gendered and policed by a team of Community Assistants who spend their entire days making sure people aren’t being scandalous. And, honestly, the theatre program is so all-encompassing, most of us are more worried about memorizing our lines and passing our general education classes to add “finding a love shack” to the list of priorities. In the almost-year that Ciarán and I have been dating, we’ve only managed to do it three times, and all three times were literal months apart. Unlike Hogwarts, Ashford doesn’t have a room that magically appears when you need a secret place where no one will bother you (as far as I’m aware). Sneaking off takes a lot of effort and planning.

And occasionally bribery when your best friend has a car and your girlfriend has a license (as in Ciarán’s case, but we’re an exception).

This, obviously, means that I can pinpoint conception almost down to the minute.

And since that fateful moment, my life has been an unending rabbit hole of Google searches and lurking on message boards to find the perfect home remedy for morning sickness. (Spoilers: There isn’t one.)

I’ve read about all the random symptoms I can look forward to: headaches, swelling, random forgetfulness and crying. My body is essentially going to spend the next seven months having a hormonal party and my attendance is mandatory. I frequently find myself wondering what people did in the days before the internet was widely used–or, God forbid, the days before the internet.

On the bright side of things, I do have the internet, and it happens to be an unending treasure trove of practical tips for concealing baby bumps, including anecdotes from new moms who had done so successfully. It’s all about sweaters, apparently. Big sweaters. Baggy dresses. Flannel. So many people chimed in about using sweaters and dresses to hide their pregnancies.

None of them, as far as I could tell, were also 17 and about to go back to boarding school. But what’s that saying about there being a “first time for everything”?

I clench my hands in the quilt and close my eyes. Everything is going to be fine.

There are still a good handful of weeks before anything down there could even start to show–and that’s just if I’m unlucky. For the first time in my life, I’m actually a little happy about the fact that I’m a bit chubby. It means that gaining a few pounds won’t be immediately noticeable to the people around me; my weight always fluctuates as I get back into the groove of eating dining hall food at school. Typically, there’s a week or two at the beginning of term where 98% of my meals are toast with peanut butter and cinnamon sugar. It’s a terrible diet as far as nutrition goes, but once I get sick of it, I’ll revert to eating real foods again. I genuinely don’t know what the draw of it is. It’s so simple–I could make it at home, but I never have. I got the urge to make it on my first morning on campus freshmen year, and it’s become a staple in my back-to-school diet ever since. Campus comfort food. And, thankfully, most of my research points to pregnancy typically being a bit less obvious in chubby ladies, so I can (try to) eat normally and people won’t think anything of it. Bonus number two is that fall is coming, so I’ll be able to hide under giant sweaters and sweatshirts to my heart’s content. They’ve always been a staple in my wardrobe, anyway.

Nothing to see here. Harper Prewett has zero secrets.

Everything is going to be fine. The mantra has been going on in my head like an old record since I saw a pair of pink lines on three different pregnancy tests.

Papa knocks twice on my door before poking his head in. “Harper?”

I sit up and pull my t-shirt down. It’s a new habit.

“Almost time to go?” I hop down from my bed and slip my feet into the simple black flats I left out when packing.

“Dad just got the trunk shut. You definitely gave him a challenge this year with the dorm essentials.”  He chuckles to himself, probably thinking of Dad cursing at the car. He lets the laughter trail off, and then takes a step toward me, suddenly serious: “Now, I have a very serious question for you.” His hands land on my shoulders, his gaze is intense, and for a moment, I think he knows. My stomach starts to do flips while I simultaneously try to look casual. It takes conscious effort to control my breathing and maintain eye contact. His hazel eyes stare back at my own, and I wait a lifetime of three seconds before he finally spits it out.

“Are you ready to get going for your senior year?”

The intensity drops away like a discarded mask and I let out a breath, putting my hand over my heart. “Don’t scare me like that. I thought I’d done something terrible.” Or, more accurately, that you found out I’d done something terrible. Like lying. Remember all those things you taught me about lying when I was little? Well, I’m lying. Right this second. And I don’t foresee stopping until I figure out what to do. I wish you could tell me what to do. Tell me what to do.

Jesus, the unspoken monologue gets out of control sometimes.

He steps back, dropping his hands from my shoulders. “Oh, honey, I think we’ve determined by now that the sun rises and sets on you to me and your dad. There’s nothing you could do that we’d think was terrible.” He kisses me on the forehead, lips pressed above my brow for a long, lingering moment. When he pulls away and turns to go back downstairs, I feel conflicted for the thousandth time this summer. It’s killing me to keep this from them. And this would be the perfect moment to tell him. Just him. We’re alone, I could tell him, and we could figure out what to do.

But I can’t find the words to even start that conversation, haven’t been able to for almost three months. I was a very planned, very wanted baby. Adoption wasn’t an easy process–they’d truly fought for me. He was right: in 17 years, I’ve never knowingly disappointed them.

I don’t want to start.

And I’m still in denial about the fact that maybe I already have.

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