Palo Alto Weekly 36th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

Ready or Not

by Monica McHenney

Author Bio

Monica McHenney moved from Michigan to Palo Alto in 1973. Since then she's lived and worked on both sides of the San Francisco Bay. In 1987, she and her husband settled in Palo Alto where they raised two sons. Trained in social work, she taught for twenty-five years in PAUSD's parent education program, PreSchool Family. She retired in 2014. Monica has published several pieces of fewer than a thousand words. She took second place in the Weekly Short Story Contest in 2019, sometimes reads short shorts at San Jose's Flash Fiction Forum, and posts hundred word stories at


Bianca and Katerina in Taming of the Shrew were always at odds. “What if they'd been closer?” was my question going into Ready or Not. Intended as part of a linked collection, Ready or Not started with two sisters. In my first try at this story, a hiking accident required Kat to accept help from Lily. But that wasn't working, so I jettisoned it and reworked the story around a boat trip and Lily's pregnancy and miscarriage. That opened the story to explore marriage, family, and the importance of emotional support in those relationships.

That morning, Lily didn't gag at the disagreeable smell of rotting algae when she opened the car door at the boat rental place. She was done with morning sickness. She and her sister, Kat, picked their way along the gravel path through boulders to a beach strewn with rowboats that could be reserved by the hour. Among a desultory collection of peeling wooden crafts, they selected one stenciled with a black number ten on the hull. Maneuvering between worn rocks that jutted from the pebbled sand, they sloshed into the cold water and clambered aboard. A slight wind swept over them, riffling Kat's dark curls. She caught her hair under a scarf and offered a blue kerchief to Lily.

“No thanks, I'm good.” Lily twisted her long blonde hair in a knot.

Poling into the shallows, they reached a depth where they could float free. Lily faced ahead. Kat sat behind her, steering. Within minutes, they were tracking each other's movements in an efficient rhythm. The nose glided in a silence that was broken only by the sound of crows. The raucous noise faded as the sisters pulled away from land.

“So whose fault was it?”

Lily picked the words out of the wind. She stopped rowing and looked back to see a big grin on Kat's face. “What?”

“The baby.” Kat pulled with even strokes.

“You're a tease,” Lily said.

Kat maneuvered her oars to rest on the gunwales, holding her finger against her lip. “So you're happy. A mortgage, a husband, and a job with maternity leave.”

Lily winced. “You make it sound so boring. We both wanted it, just didn't think it would happen so soon.”

Lily started rowing harder and faster, counting aloud by fives as the splintered dock and blistered boats receded into the distance. Kat took up the chant. When Lily and Kat reached the lake's center, Lily turned with a high-five, like they'd won a relay. They smiled and laughed together as they lifted the oars from the thole pins. Facing each other, they tucked the flat wide paddle ends under Lily's bench.

Kat held her phone up. “Let me get this shot with the mountains behind you.”

Lily felt a cramp. She let it pass, but the pain must have showed in her face.

Kat lowered the phone. “Are you okay?”

“Just a stitch.”

“Maybe we should go back.”

“I'll be okay. I've been having these for a few days. Probably my stomach doing back flips because I'm eating again.”

“It doesn't work that way.” Kat frowned. “Let's go back, just to be on the safe side.”

“No, let's go further.” Lily smirked.

“Is that what you told Gil?”

“What if I did?” Lily shifted on the wooden seat. She shaded her eyes against the sun, but she couldn't spot any osprey diving in the lake. Usually there was at least one. Her shorts felt damp, her leg felt sticky. Splashing herself with water from the bottom of the boat thinned the blood to a red trickle.

“Sit still.” Kat looked up from the screen.

Lily didn't mention her discovery. Nothing abnormal. A scratch, she thought. Then a painful cramp. Lily's vision blurred and the slight forward movement of the boat made her nauseous and lightheaded. “I'm gonna pass out.”

“Put your head between your knees.”

Lily closed her eyes. As she bent over, her hair cascaded into the wet at the bottom of the boat. Wood rot filled her nose. When she came to, Kat had hold of her wrist and was counting out a pulse.

“I'm going in.” Kat repositioned the oars and dipped past the surface, leaving ripples as witness.

Lily prayed that holding tight would help her focus. She gripped the gunwales and breathed like she'd learned in yoga for expectant mothers, but drawing the air in and forcing it out in a counted breath made her dizzy. When she stopped, the contractions took over.

“Try puffs,” Kat said.

Puffs for contractions, normal breathing in between. Lily stayed conscious until they reached the shore. The attendant helped Kat pull the boat from the water. He was young. “Something wrong, ladies?”

“Just help us to the top,” Kat said. The boy hesitated, then wrapped an arm around Lily's waist while Kat held her from the other side. Lily counted her breath again, willing her body to relax as they staggered up the trail to the lodge. Close to the parking lot, she and Kat rested on the hard surface of a warm metal bench waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

The first few times her period came after the miscarriage, Lily sat at her desk with her head down, hot tears burning her eyes. In between bleeding days, she felt ambushed by everyday reminders of loss. A box of tampons. A baby on the train. A pregnancy test next to prenatal vitamins in the drawer with her hairbrush.

She couldn't talk to Gil about it. Their relationship was too new. She hadn't talked to anyone but Kat. At the end of the summer, Gil and Lily went to the cabin for a long weekend with the rest of the family. Before supper each night, Lily sat on the ramshackle porch next to Gil and across from Kat, all of them in wicker chairs. Lily held Gil's hand, but it was Kat she watched, imagining that her sister might find a way to take the sting out of losing the baby. Kat always seemed to know what to say. Growing up, a nine year age difference had made Kat seem like an adult. By the time Lily finished college, the gap had shrunk to nothing, but now Lily felt less confident, more in need of comfort. Kat listened to her in a way no one else could, reminding her she'd done nothing to deserve this. “Your body wasn't ready. Not your fault.”

Lily's mother told her it was God's will. But for Mom, everything was God's will. Her father said, “You'll try again when you're both ready.” But Lily wondered what readiness had to do with it.

She had been sure she was ready when she and Gil conceived the child she lost, sure of her love for this man. She was determined to have sex without God's blessing, without any ceremony. What more blessing could there be than the longing she felt? When she found herself six weeks pregnant, her body and mind seemed in sync.

But not now, not today. Today, Lily had stayed home to bleed in private. From behind the closed door of the study, she heard the doorbell ring more than once. She didn't answer. The gong stopped only to be replaced by the tinkle of a descending musical scale from the cell phone in her pocket. Lily answered.

“I know you're there,” Kat said. “Let me in.”

Lily opened the recessed door, glad for an excuse to neglect her work e-mail. She crossed onto the Berber carpet in the hall, slowing at the coffee table to clear Gil's breakfast dishes and the newspapers scattered on the surface. She dropped the detritus in the kitchen. Lily flipped the deadbolt and threw the door wide. She squinted into the morning sun, then stepped aside for her sister.

“Gil said you might like company.”

Lily looked at the bakery bag in Kat's hand. “And you thought you'd feed me.”

“Yes.” Kat breezed in. “I'll start some coffee.”

The energy that arrived with Kat lifted Lily's spirits. The cascading sound of beans falling into the metal space inside the grinder jolted her to action. She took two table settings to the dining nook. Just the act of directing her thoughts to a task made her feel better. They would need jam for the pastries, butter, milk for the coffee. She filled a pitcher and set the metal container next to the hot carafe Kat set on the table.

Kat transferred the breakfast rolls to a plate. “Gil said you're not feeling well.”

Lily sat down. “How do you know I'm not contagious?”

Kat snorted. “It never occurred to me.”

Lily brushed at her cheek. “Cramps.”

Kat dug out a packet of tissues from her pocket and pushed it across the table.

As if making confetti, Lily tore at a croissant. The crumbs littered her plate.

Kat said, “You seem a little hormonal.”

“If Gil said that, I'd punch him.” But he wouldn't. He'd been great, him and his love handles. He rolled with it all, buoyant and unflappable.

Gil had been excited when she told him she was pregnant. They had grown close while they made detailed plans for the wedding and beyond. When they slept in the same bed, she had imagined the strands of their DNA twisting together in the act of creation. Even now, Lily sometimes felt the baby move inside her, but she knew it wasn't true


Kat looked up, pouring a second cup of coffee. “You don't need to try again. It might be better to wait.”

Lily said nothing. She wadded a wet tissue. “Isn't it just supposed to happen?”

After several years of not trying, Gil asked, “Have we waited long enough?” He fiddled with the elastic band that held his pony tail back. “You're not afraid, are you?” Seagulls glided over the grass around the lake at Shoreline Park where the couple drifted in a paddleboat. An unseasonably warm breeze whipped Lily's hair from the knot she'd tied it up in.

“I'm not afraid.” That month, Lily finished the last ten tablets in the birth control packet and threw out the rest. They lit votive candles together at church on Sundays and prayed to Mary Magdalene for a new life. It took longer than expected.

The morning that double lines appeared on the pregnancy test, Lily doubted the results. Drinking tea instead of burnt smelling coffee, she looked across the table at Gil. She didn't interrupt while he scrolled the news. Even when they kissed goodbye at the door, she wasn't tempted to tell him.

On the train to work, Lily decided to get a real test from the doctor before mentioning anything. Within a few stops, a group of masked pre-schoolers and their parents boarded the San Francisco train. She took this as a sign that things might work out. She looked away from a slide she was preparing on her computer and paused to watch the children glimmer past, taking seats and filling the car with excited noise.

Lily closed the laptop and stashed it in her roller case. Two wiggly kids and their mother caught her attention when they squeezed into the two seats across the aisle from her. A boy and a girl, they crowded each other. They stood, pushing against the back of the seat, maneuvering to look out the window. Their mother gave them each a book from her library tote and sat them down.

The girl, who seemed older, quieted on the woman's lap. The boy squirmed in his seat and the mother surrendered herself to the job of narrating a blur of scenery passing by. Pointing to the platform in Menlo Park as the train approached the station, she said, “Maybe the Santa Train will come this year.”

The boy had settled by the time the train stopped. The mother glanced across at Lily. “Would you mind if Sarah takes the aisle seat? She won't be any trouble, will you Sarah?” The woman looked at the seat next to Lily. “It's an N-95 mask.”

Sarah stared at Lily. “I want the window.”

Her mother chuffed. “Sarah, be polite.”

Lily said, “It's fine.” She moved to let Sarah in.

The child settled herself, a slim picture book on her lap. She was moist, her curly brown hair stringy with the damp breath of a full train car, her mask pressed against the pane. The train sped past buildings and through the wooded enclaves of Atherton. Sarah turned to Lily. “My brother always gets the window seat.” She swiped her hair from her eyes.

“Isn't it nice that you both have one?”

“Yes, but I want to sit with my mom,” Sarah focused her attention on the brightly colored page in front of her.

The book was one of Lily's favorites. “I had that book when I was your age.” A house covered with vines. Twelve girls in two straight lines.

“I like it because there are no boys.”

“Oh.” Why had she liked that book? It was because Kat read it to her. “I have a sister. No brothers.”

“My friend is an only. That's the best.” Sarah turned the page.

Lily checked her phone messages, sorting them into folders, ignoring the feeling that she had somehow failed, wondering what she would have done if she and Kat hadn't gotten along.

When the train stopped in Burlingame, the children and parents disgorged in a messy heap. Motion resumed, the air ripe with salty sweat. A vague discomfort aroused by the disorderly exit of the children gave way to a memory of the truncated conversation with Sarah. Lily wondered if she was ready for a family of her own. If they were, she and Gil.

Gil planned ahead for everything, even the Dungeons and Dragons games he created for after hours play with friends at work. Maps and character lists from past campaigns occupied a file drawer in the garage. He'd said, “Having a baby isn't any different. You need to be prepared, that's all.” They'd been together through good times and bad, prepared and not. He'd be thrilled when she told him.

Lily stood as the train pulled into the Millbrae station. She squeezed her mask around her nose and smoothed her skirt, feeling for a bump that was months away. In July, the extended family would be at the cabin. She hoped she would be showing. That might make the baby seem more real, though she had come to believe there was no such thing as ready. Between them, she and Gil would get through this. Lily was sure of that.

Merging into the aisle, she pulled her roller case behind her. She stepped onto a concrete platform and took the escalator to the BART station. Twenty minutes to San Francisco, another ten to the office. Before her feet hit the walkway, she was thinking about the last slide for her eleven o'clock presentation. Past the ticket gate, the lighted sign for San Francisco flashed in front of her. The loudspeaker announced a list of stops, but she wasn't paying attention. On autopilot, she entered the waiting car through springing glass and metal doors, found a seat, and got to work.