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It wasn’t going to work. It almost never worked. But they would try, and I would smile and act surprised. That’s the way these things happened.

Over there, on that bed, that’s my mom. She’s thirty-two, and I’m twelve. Do the math, and you won’t be surprised to know that, a lot of the time, she acts like I don’t exist. Or maybe I should say that she acts as if she wished I didn’t exist.

I can’t really fault her. She does try, and she does know that I’m supposed to be he very center of her existence. She even manages to say all the right things. But even when she’s in the middle of saying them, just by listening to her, by looking at her, you can tell that she doesn’t mean them, not deep down.

So now, they’re going to try to pop a surprise on me. Typical. Today is my birthday, so why wouldn’t they? Both mom and grandma, usually up before dawn seem to have overslept. Mom is lying in a darkened room, curtains closed tight.


I guess all I can do is put on my best face and take it like a big girl.

“Hi mom. You all right?”

She rolls over and mumbles something, which means they’re going to go all out on the theatrics. “Should I call a doctor?”

“No… I think I’m all right. Come over help me up, will you?”

I walk over and wonder where they might be hiding the presents, or the puppy or whatever extravagance they’ve decided to lavish on me this year.


I try to jump, but my mother’s hand on mine plus what seem to be a pair of slippers beside the bed conspire against me and I stumble onto the floor, dragging the covers down on top of me in a heap. I can feel my face burning, red, but not because of the fact that, this year, they have well and truly surprised me, but because of the fact that they managed it even though I should have seen it coming miles away.

The only excuse I really have is the fact that there are so many of them that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have guessed even if I’d tried. I count eight people. Irene, Marianne… Oh, no, they didn’t.

But of course, they did.

Todd is standing in the suddenly lighted closet, blinking and looking in any direction but mine. For a second I forget that I’m furious, but then I think of him speaking to my mother… and it all comes back. I can only imagine the kind of things she would have said to him, and I just hope grandma wasn’t involved. If that was the case, I know he’ll never talk to me again.

The worst part of it was that for him to be here, one of the girls had to have betrayed me to mom. Irene was the most likely, mainly because she’d be oh, so sure that she was doing me a favor. But Marianne might have been behind it as well, and with her, it was generally a lot harder to tell why she did anything. She was smarter and better company than Irene, but that came at a price.

So I smile through the morning, even so far as to sing along with the birthday song and to wear the silly hat. Only after the girls – and Todd, mercifully – are gone do I have any inkling that my charade might not have been quite as successful as I believed.

My mom isn’t impressed. She never is, but then, she never has been the quickest learner out there. Never able to recognize patterns at all. “What got into you? We went to all this effort to do something nice for your birthday, and all we get is another sulk. Sometimes I just don’t get you!”

“She’s getting to that age.” And then grandma does something that she never, ever does. She smiles, fondly at both my mom and myself. “In a way, it’s only fair. I recall you were quite a handful yourself – even before your hormones kicked all the way in. Can you spell ‘poetic justice’?”

“Mother, that isn’t here or now. And besides, I was always civil at least. I wouldn’t growl at people who just threw me a surprise party.”

This interests me. It’s always seemed to me that mom and grandma had a tacit understanding between them never to talk about anything that came before my birth. I’ve always wondered about that – but my family really isn’t the kind in which you ask about stuff, especially touchy-feely stuff. You just don’t. I have this image in my head of my mother, abandoned by grandma, growing up alone in the woods or something – but that’s not their way. She was probably spoiled as only the worst of the baby boomer’s brats were spoiled.

I don’t think she ever meant to be distant, or otherwise lacking as a mother… It’s more likely that her worldview just made it impossible for her to accept that the screaming, needy kid was actually hers.

I wonder how much grandma has had to drink. Despite my mother’s warning, she goes on.

“Ha. You were even worse. Anything you didn’t get turned into a tantrum. And you never got over it, even when you should have been acting like an adult. Did you ever tell her why you called her Mercedes?”

A long, uncomfortable silence ensues. Mom starts to talk, once, twice, but stops each time. I guess they both think that the conversation has long since gone over my head, but from where I’m sitting, all I can see is an old woman who doesn’t look like she fully understands what she’s done and a less old woman who is about to break down.

“What? Why am I called Mercedes? And why would that be a secret? It seems like a nice name.” I ask innocently. I regretted it almost instantly: I always liked my name. The kids at school like it, too. They call it ethnic – and the fact that I’m probably whiter than the whitest Swede only adds to the charm. I really don’t want it ruined in that way my mom always manages to ruin everything… by making it tawdry and just a little tarnished.

She makes the effort to avoid the question. She almost has to, doesn’t she?

“Oh, come on, are you really going to spend your birthday thinking about that? Why don’t you choose a good place for dinner, instead? Somewhere we can dress up all nice and fancy.”

She knows me well, but then she’s my mom. I waver, not wanting to let her get away with it, but knowing that an opportunity like that isn’t something that will come along again for a long while – she might go overboard sometimes, but she’s still a single mom, and making ends meet can be a problem sometimes.

“Do you really think you can avoid the question forever? You’re going to have to tell her someday.” My grandma has really had too much to drink, but I’m grateful to her for taking the decision out of my hands.

Mom starts talking. She stops. She starts again. Eventually, she takes a deep breath. “I was in an accident,” she says.

I know this. She has a scar on her leg, and when I asked about it, she said it came from a car crash from before I was born. I’ve always assumed that it wasn’t too important, since, other than when I ask, mom never bothers to talk about it. But I don’t say anything. Who knows, maybe this will finally be a worthwhile birthday for me.

“It was horrible. The man who hit me was driving an old car, old enough that it didn’t even have airbags. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.”

Oh. No wonder she never wanted to talk about it. I knew the answer, but I had to ask. “Did he die?”

Mom nods, and looks like she’s holding back tears. But, true to form, she bounces back. “He also landed me in the hospital for three weeks, and in a cast for six months after that. I was lucky to survive.”

“Dearest,” grandma says, suddenly not as drunk as she was just a few moments ago. “Maybe you shouldn’t bore Mercedes with all the details.”

So, there’s sex in the story. I wonder if it’s something I can’t find on the net, or if it’s just the typical grown-up attempt at protecting me from things I already know. I don’t know why mom even bothers. After all, she has her boyfriends – when she has a boyfriend, anyway – over all the time. I know they take care not to make any noise, but the bed squeaks. I guess she’s usually too busy to worry about it… and her collection of guys probably don’t care.“

“Anyway,” Mom continues, “After I got out of the hospital, I had a lot going on inside my head. I was thinking about the guy. Everyone, even the cops, told me that the crash was his fault. He’d been drunk, and had run an intersection. And if he’d been wearing his seatbelt, he probably wouldn’t have been killed. Actually, my car was in worse shape than his.”

“It was his fault,” grandma says.

Mom gives her a tight-lipped smile and turns back to me. “You have to understand that saying that is one thing, and believing it is another. Someone had just died in an accident which I’d survived. I’ve gone over it a million times in my head, and I’m still not sure I wasn’t at least a little responsible.”

She takes my hand. I’m not expecting it, and definitely not expecting her to be cold and clammy.

“When I got pregnant with you—”

“You didn’t want me, did you?”

Got her. I feel her arm jerk, but she catches herself in time, and keeps holding my hand. The fingers relax slowly.

“I wasn’t expecting you. I wasn’t thinking too clearly about anything. I was drunk, maybe a bit stoned, and feeling guilty because I’d murdered this guy. He was so young, and so good-looking. I still have his pictures.” She takes a deep breath. I’d always suspected that she hadn’t wanted to get pregnant, but even that admission paled beside the realization that my mom had just admitted to being drunk, at the very least. I’d never seen her even go near a beer. And drugs? I would have bet my life against it. She was always so… boring. “I never told you this, but I was in a cast nearly up to my waist for the first six months when I was carrying you. It was just after the accident.”

“Tell her about the name, sweety. There will be time for all that other stuff later.”

That’s my grandma, of course. I’m much too confused to say anything at all.

“All right. I know you think that when I got pregnant, I was sad, or mad, or just freaked out. I wasn’t, that just wasn’t where I was then. I thought it was a sign. I thought that the baby would be a boy, and I was ready to name it, to name you, after the dead driver. I was in such bad shape that I refused any scans, and went into labor convinced that you were a boy.” She chuckles. “You should have seen my face when the obstetrician told me you were a girl.”

“So first I ruin your life by existing in the first place, and then I ruin your delusion. No wonder you hate me.”

She holds my hand harder.

“Never say that. Never.” She wipes away a tear. “Look, I know you could never understand this. Hell, I hope you never get to that place, but I need you to know that if you’d been born a boy, you really would have ruined my life, and yours, too. I would have been reminded of a man who I’d never known, other than after he was dead, every single day of my life. It would have killed me.”

Looking into her eyes, I believe her. There isn’t much room for argument there – I can almost see the old pain. But I still don’t understand. “And what does this have to do with me? What about my name? Was he called Mercer or something? “

“Brian,” she whispers. “Brian Ostermann.”

“Then why Mercedes?”

A single tear works its way down my mother’s cheek. “I was in a bad state…”

“Why, mom?”

“His car.” She looks away.

I don’t give her a chance to look back. I stand, avoid my grandmother’s gaze and walk to my room. The world is spinning, but I still haven’t decided whether I’m angry or not. Or whether it even matters.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over eighty stories published in ten countries, in four languages. His first collection, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places was released in October, and his short novel The Curse of El Bastardo in November.  His third book, a second reprint collection, Virtuoso and Other Stories, was published in 2011 by Dark Quest Books. His website is


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