Juno meets Heartstopper in Jen Bailey's Unexpecting, a poignant and emotional story about found family, what it means to be a parent, and falling in love.
Benjamin Morrison is about to start junior year of high school and while his family is challenging, he is pretty content with his life, with his two best friends, and being a part of the robotics club. Until an experiment at science camp has completely unexpected consequences.
He is going to be a father. Something his mother was not expecting after he came out as gay and she certainly wasn’t expecting that he would want to raise the baby as a single father. But together they come up with a plan to prepare Ben for fatherhood and fight for his rights.
The weight of Ben’s decision presses down on him. He’s always tired, his grades fall, and tension rises between his mom and stepfather. He’s letting down his friends in the robotics club whose future hinges on his expertise. If it wasn’t for his renewed friendship (and maybe more) with a boy from his past, he wouldn’t be able to face the daily ridicule at school or the crumbling relationship with his best friends.
With every new challenge, every new sacrifice he has to make, Ben questions his choice. He’s lived with a void in his heart where a father’s presence should have been, and the fear of putting his own child through that keeps him clinging to his decision. When the baby might be in danger, Ben’s faced with a heart-wrenching realization: sometimes being a parent means making the hard choices even if they are the choices you don't want to make...
Release date: August 22, 2023
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 298
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“Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Everything about this moment is eerily familiar. Like I did two months ago, today I sit facing my mom and stepdad, hands hanging between my knees, fingers clasped.
“Another big announcement, Ben?” Mom asks with an awkward chuckle.
Though she’s making light of it, she’s closer to the truth than she could ever imagine. She too recognizes the similarities to the last time I initiated such a conversation. And, like last time, Mom and Roger, Stepdad #3, watch me with a combination of worry and confusion.
I can’t make myself look her—or Roger for that matter—in the eye. Instead of meeting her gaze, taking a deep breath, and saying “Mom, I’m gay,” this time I take a deep breath and brace myself for the shitstorm I’m about to unleash.
I stop to swallow. My mouth is dry and anxiety is throwing a pool party in my gut.
“Mom, I’m going to have a baby.” Crap crap crap. Wrong word choice. My having a baby is a physiological impossibility. “I mean, I’m going to be a dad.”
She stares at me for a really long time.
Roger glances between Mom and me like a spectator at a tennis match. Back and forth. Back and forth.
I bring my hand to my mouth, tugging a sliver of thumbnail between my teeth. Why is this so hard? I’d thought coming out to my mom and my new stepdad was going to be tough. It wasn’t bad, just supremely awkward. But this … this is so much worse.
A beam of late-afternoon sunlight sneaks through the gap between the two halves of the front window’s navy-blue curtains, spilling over me. I sit on the center cushion of the worn suede couch, but it might as well be center stage at the school’s auditorium given the spotlight treatment and Mom and Roger’s scrutiny. Even though I requested this conversation, I’ve never felt so exposed.
The coppery taste of blood hits my tongue and I cringe. I’ve chewed my thumbnail down too far. I shove my bleeding hand under my thigh, brushing past the thick packet of papers I’ve crammed into my pocket. My knee immediately starts bobbing. Up and down. Up and down.
Okay, so things could definitely be worse. I mean, she isn’t laughing at me. There’s no screaming or tears. All she does is fall back into her matching suede chair, hand covering her mouth, which is her “I’m thinking” pose. Roger scrunches his face up, which is his “I’m thinking, but I don’t quite know what’s going on” pose.
Finally, Roger asks, “How is that possible?”
Roger’s a nice guy, and he’s great to me and Mom, but sometimes his common sense comes to the party late.
“Well, I had sex with a girl.”
“But aren’t you gay?”
I look to Mom. Does she seriously expect me to answer that? She’s still got her thinking pose going on. I’m not sure she’s even paying attention.
I shrug. “I wanted to make sure.”
Roger scrunches his face again. I decide to let him work things out on his own, and look back to Mom. She stands. “Well, it sounds like we’ve got some figuring out to do.”
We move our discussion from the living room to the kitchen table. Important conversations happen in the living room. Plans of attack happen in the kitchen. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that way. Mom tells me she’s going to get married? Living room. When Mom and Stepdad #1 get divorced and we have to divide the assets and find a new place to live? Kitchen. Tell Mom I’m gay? Living room. Identifying the next steps of a soon-to-be teenage dad whose experiment in heterosexual relations has a serious side effect? Kitchen.
Mom sets a cup of tea in front of me. I don’t like tea, but since she’s just found out she’s going to be a grandma when she’s not yet forty, I accept the drink without comment.
“Who’s the girl?” Mom asks after she settles in across the table from me.
Mom nods as though the answer doesn’t surprise her, as if this conversation is completely normal. Her hand trembles as she stirs sugar into her tea, so maybe it’s not so normal after all.
“I thought you two were only friends. Is it more than that?”
I shake my head. “It isn’t like that. We…” The words get caught on my tongue. I can’t get into that right now. I need to deal with the forms burning holes in my pocket and psyche. I pull out the sheaf of papers and try to smooth the creases. God, I hate these papers. The stupid papers that started this whole thing. Papers giving away my parental rights so the baby can be put up for adoption.
“Can I see?” Mom gestures at the papers. Her face is impassive. Neutral. Mom is rarely neutral around me.
Even looking at that stack has my nerves jittering and nausea roiling through me. I pass them over.
While Mom reads through them, I watch her face, desperate to catch her thoughts. My knee starts to jump again. I want to shout at Mom, What are you thinking? I’m not always good at reading emotions on people, but Mom is usually the exception. Not today.
I’ve read and reread those pages a hundred times since my friend Maxie gave them to me on Tuesday. Over the last forty-eight hours I haven’t been able to think. Not about school. Not about anything. I haven’t even been able to fully process the bomb Maxie dropped in my lap. I’ve been living like one of the projects my high school robotics club creates. Following the basic programming, moving from one task to the next, without thought or plan. I need time to think, time to wrap my head around the impossibility of … everything. But Maxie’s parents want these forms returned by the weekend.
It’s as if finally passing the documents to Mom broke the automation I’ve been relying on over the last two days. Everything I’ve been holding back, every thought and emotion that I’ve suppressed, crashes into me in a whirling, swirling, chaotic mess.
Maxie’s going to have a baby. A baby she’s putting up for adoption. My baby. A baby she—or more likely her parents—assume I’ll want nothing to do with. Like I’ll be fine with the whole thing. But it’s not okay. I’m not fine with it. I’m being sucked into a black hole and I can’t breathe, can’t think. I’m consumed by unfamiliar and overwhelming emotion. I’m suffocating and I can’t figure out why no one else is suffocating with me.
Mom doesn’t say anything. I want—need—her to say or do something to make this okay, to make things better.
Mom flips to a new page in the document.
Roger jumps in his seat, and Mom’s head jerks up. Crap. I close my eyes, count to ten, and try again. “Sorry. I just…” The words get caught in my seizing throat. I need Mom to understand. To recognize what I can’t even put words to myself.
Mom sets the pages down. I think she sees some of the panic on my face. Her expression softens, becomes less neutral and more compassionate. Mom is a compassionate person by nature. She’s always picking up strays, usually men who are emotionally broken, and fixing them. She helps them heal, and then they move on. I never wanted to be one of the broken men she had to fix.
Roger, Mom’s current fixer-upper, fidgets, clearly out of his depth. But he’s present, he’s trying. Pretty sure he didn’t sign up for all this drama when he and Mom decided to get married.
“I’m not sure where to start.” She tucks a wild orange curl behind her ear. “This,” she says, gesturing to the paperwork in front of her, “is not something I ever expected to have to deal with, especially after our conversation two months ago.
“This is a big deal, Ben. A lot to process.”
“No shit.” I didn’t mean to say it out loud, but luckily Mom is too distracted by more important matters to worry about me cussing.
“A lecture on safe sex seems too little, too late at this point. Though, I reserve the right to revisit the topic at a later date.” She trails a finger over a block of black text on the papers in front of her. “How did this happen, Benny?”
I know she isn’t asking the same question Roger did. She isn’t confused about how a gay kid got a girl friend (two words—Maxie has been one of my friends for years, but definitely not a girlfriend) pregnant. She wants to know how I, socially awkward and too smart for my own good, ended up in a situation where a girl got pregnant. It’s a small but critical difference.
I need to tackle it like a science report. Details without the emotion. I think it’s the only way I’ll make it through this discussion. And, added bonus, it will give me a couple more minutes to figure out how I’m going to break the rest of my news to her.
Unfortunately, the explanation needs a bit of a foundation, and I have to go back a ways and delve into uncomfortable self-discovery BS. “I’ve suspected that I’m gay for a few years now.”
She acknowledges this, so I continue. “Last June, while the guys and I were at Camp Galileo, we were playing Truth or Dare”—because apparently that’s what you do when you’re at camp and there are no adults around, even if you’re a bunch of STEM-focused geeks—“and I chose truth.” It hadn’t occurred to me to lie about it when they asked. The guys (and I call them the guys, even though there are two girls in the group, including Maxie) don’t care about stuff like that.
They asked. I answered. I think so. Mo, my best friend, had leaned forward, real curiosity in his eyes, and asked, “You don’t know?” I’d shrugged and told him the truth: I’d never been interested in girls that way, so it seemed likely, but I’d never put it to the test or anything. Then Maxie asked if I was interested in any guys that way. I’d shrugged, said I think so again.
Mom interrupts my story with a laugh, an incredulous, not-really-amused laugh. “Benny, Benny, Benny. You really were trying to make sure. Let me guess, you had sex with Maxie as a scientific test.”
I shrug. She’s pretty much dead-on. “It seemed like something I should make sure of before I made any announcements.”
“And that is what Maxie wanted?”
I jerk my head up at the suspicion in her voice. She can’t think I’d pressured Maxie, can she? Or that I’d force her? “She was doing an experiment of her own. Some kind of TikTok social experiment thing.”
Mom’s face went pale. “Jesus, Ben, you didn’t record yourselves—”
“Of course not. How could you think that?”
“I don’t know, Ben. This is a lot to take in. I never thought you’d get a girl pregnant, either.”
Since I couldn’t exactly argue with that, I didn’t try. I’m not sure Mom would understand. Both Maxie and I had hypotheses, and neither of us could report any conclusions until we’d tested the hypotheses and analyzed the results. That’s how the scientific method works, and we were at science camp. It seemed very logical at the time.
There’s another question or some other worry behind her eyes, but I can’t decipher it. Finally, she says, “So you and Maxie had sex.”
Roger speaks up for the first time in a while. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re not … interested … in girls, how did you…” He waves his hand to finish the question. “I mean, you had to have”—another hand wave—“for her to be pregnant.”
I remind myself he’s really a good guy and he means well. “I’m sixteen. It doesn’t take much for me to—” I stop and copy Roger’s gesture, suddenly understanding the hand wave thing. Some things shouldn’t be talked about in front of your mother. But, yeah, despite the rather inevitable conclusion, I have no doubt about my orientation.
Orientation. I hate that word. It makes me feel like a compass or map or something that can be twisted or turned to point in the right direction. Like I’m something that needs to be altered to follow the right path. Or maybe I’m overthinking meaningless details in an attempt to avoid the bigger issue.
Roger’s eyes widen in understanding, and he blushes. Maybe he remembers what it’s like to be sixteen? He’s several years younger than my mom, so sixteen maybe doesn’t seem so long ago to him. I close my eyes. More meaningless details.
Mom shuffles the papers, drawing our attention back to them. Those damn papers that would mean my child won’t know his dad. My guts twist into greasy knots again. My dad—my biological father—is only a name on a piece of paper and a face in a photograph. I hardly know anything about him, and I’ve never had a relationship with him. He died before I got the chance. I can’t do that to a child—my child. I just can’t.
Copyright © 2023 by Jen Bailey
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