‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

thirty-three

Image


I cradle Declan against my chest and open the cupboard by the stove. The line of mugs is almost as wonderful a sight as the full coffeepot. A slender hands stops me before I can pour a cup of coffee, and I frown at Amber. She knows damn well I need my caffeine fix.

She shakes her head, featuring at the baby sleeping on me. “Not while you’re holding him. Do you want to scald him?”

A wave of guilt crashes over me at the reminder that I’m failing at being a mother. This is just another shred of evidence. I swallow down my tears and turn away from the coffee that screams my name.

I didn’t sleep well last night. At all, actually. Even my husband’s warm and solid body next to mine couldn’t dispel the gaping chasm that sticks around in my gut. I’d tossed and turned for hours before finally giving up around three.

The time after that was spent in the chair in the corner. Chosen for its rocking ability and comfort, it hadn’t been the best place to sit with my thoughts. I watched Declan sleep for an hour before he woke with a cry. Niall slept on, undisturbed with the sound, and I felt even worse. He’s juggled so much responsibility, while I did nothing but dwell on my own issues.

I changed and fed Declan without a sound and rocked him back to sleep. Holding him hadn’t been nearly as awkward in the dark of night. It felt almost... right. As if I could actually do this.

But now, in the bright early morning sunshine that fills the kitchen, every insecurity I have comes back with a vengeance. They punish me for foolishly thinking I was good enough.

The doorbell rings, breaking the silence, and I take a step toward the entryway. Niall beats me to it, waving a hand to let me know he can handle it. Natalie’s voice sounds louder than normal as she steps inside. Grumbling about something Louis has done, she nears the kitchen with a demand for coffee.

My brows furrow as I stare at her. First, Amber showed up first thing this morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take over with anything they needs done. Her hands had been empty except for a gift bag she shoved in Niall’s direction, before heading to the sink to wash our breakfast dishes.

Now Nat’s here at eight?

It clicks just as she reaches for the coffeepot. Louis follows him into the room, and Levi coos in his father’s arms. Niall takes Declan from me with gentle hands.

“Have fun today, love,” he whispers against my lips, pulling away with a self-satisfied smile.

“You’re a sneaky jerk.”

Niall shrugs without remorse and carries our son into the living room, motioning for Louis to follow. Natalie pushes a mug into my hands, runs her fingers through my hair, and I force a smile. A swooping fills my belly as I realise exactly what this means.

I know Niall thinks he’s doing the right thing by involving my friends, but this isn’t something I want announced to the world. I can barely admit it to myself unless I’m in the middle of a panic attack. Now that I no longer have Declan to cling to, I can’t put off whatever plans Natalie and Amber have.

So I push myself to my feet and carry my coffee upstairs to the bedroom. Both of them trail after me, talking quietly, and I examine their outfits once I’ve shut the door behind us.

Natalie’s dark-washed jeans make her legs look even longer than they really are. She unzips her sleeveless hoodie to reveal a Complete Irrationality tank-top. I giggle even as the heartbreak fills my chest. It reminds me too much of Jem. He’d done the artwork for our albums.

Amber is dressed in a simple sundress patterned with tiny flowers, her feet in a pair of ballet flats. She reclines on the bed while I rifle through the closet for something, anything, to wear. Clothes, I can do. Clothes are easy. My emotions? My doubts? Not so much.

I emerge with my old Poison T-shirt and the yellow skinny jeans Amber gave me before our first show on the overseas tour. Before I fell in love, lost, then fell in love again with Niall. Natalie laughs, and I look away from the wire I’m trying to shove back into the cup of my bra. Sticking my tongue out at her, I resume my task.

“Dude, you have, like, so much money. Buy a new one.”

My lower lip juts out as I toss the bra toward the bin. “This one fits me perfect. Better yet, it makes my boobs look fucking amazing.”

“Well, we know what we’re getting you for Christmas, then,” announces Amber, laughing when I flip her off.

I can feel the weight of their gazes while I struggle to squeeze into my jeans. They barely reach the tops of my thighs, and I can’t pull them up any further.

“Um, sweetie,” starts Natalie.

I yank the jeans off my legs with a growl, tripping over the denim when it wraps around my ankles. “I know, I know. Don’t need to tell me I’m too fat for my old clothes. Fuck, I thought I’d be able to fit in them by now.”

“Erin, it’s only been a month. Give it time.”

“I don’t want to wait anymore. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of how much my body has changed, and I’m sick of the panic attacks. I’m so damn tired of fucking everything up, no matter what I do.”

Natalie opens her arms, and that’s all I need before I’m falling into her hold. Amber rubs my back gently, murmuring quietly as I break down into tears. Voicing my thoughts, losing my temper, it isn’t what I wanted. It isn’t what they deserved. They don’t need to hear this.

That’s not why they’re my friends.

My mother is sat in a chair, flipping through a magazine, when Natalie and Amber lead me through the doors of the spa. She glances up and smiles. I scratch the back of my neck awkwardly even as she embraces me tightly.

“I take it you heard about last night,” I mutter when she steps back.

“Yeah, Niall texted me this morning. He actually texted all three of us.” She frowns and pushes my hair out of my face. “You were blindsided, weren’t you?”

“He didn’t tell me until Natalie showed up,” I admit with a shrug.

“Well, c’mon. I know a lovely mother who needs some pampering. And you, I suppose.” She winks, and I can’t stop my giggle.

The hours drift by with manicures and pedicures, face masks and massages, even a sit in the steam room. I feel like the Erin I used to be before my existence became about Declan. Before I became nothing more than his mother and the wife of Niall Horan.

I feel like myself for the first time since I found out I was pregnant.

We stop by the cafe for lunch. Denny beams as soon he sees me and promises to get our drinks ready. He doesn’t even have to ask what I want - he knows as well as I do that I’ll drink an entire pot of coffee to myself.

My mother sighs once we’re sat, her hands fiddling with the napkin. “Sweetheart, I… I need to apologise. I overstepped with the articles, and I definitely wasn’t supportive enough through the pregnancy. I was, well, I was an awful mother. I was my mother,” she admits as she scrunches up her face.

“But I thought Grandma was thrilled to find out you were pregnant with me.”

My mom laughs and shakes her head. “I lied. She detested your father, said he was no good and I’d do better to leave him. All the way up to our wedding day.”

She continues to explain that my grandmother was happy - once I was born, and my mother refused to give me up. Grandma still loathed my dad and made sure everybody within hearing distance knew it. But she doted on me, even though I held his genes.

My mother never told me because she didn’t want me to not have a relationship with her mother. “She may not have approved of my choice to marry Patrick, but she loved you more than she hated him. For what it’s worth, I think you and Niall are absolutely perfect for each other. You are both such amazing parents, and I’m so proud of you.”

I sigh and sip at my coffee, set before me in the middle of my mother’s explanation. “I’m going to sound terrible, but… I don’t like being a mom. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m always so exhausted. I do everything wrong.”

“Baby girl, you think I was good at it from the start?” My mother snorts. “You fell off the bed at nine months old, and I thought I’d damaged you permanently. I left you in your carseat for hours because it was the only place you would sleep. I even ignored you crying because I couldn’t handle the sound. Your dad took care of you that night because I just, I couldn’t.”

Hearing about my grandmother’s postpartum depression and her own doubts eases the tension in my chest. Raising four children while pregnant with another was what was expected of Grandma. Back then, Mom says, you raised your family while the men worked, and you didn’t say a damn word if you were struggling.

Natalie chimes in, admitting that she’s not struggled quite so much with the motherhood aspect. “It was an adjustment, sure, but I had Goose and Mom and Garrett and Louis helping me out. You... As much as I adore Niall, he’s been leaving for the studio during the day.”

“He helps out in the evenings so I can relax,” I protest, though it’s feeble. “He even does nighttime feedings and changes.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re the one who does the most work during the day. I will admit that I had an issue with my body, though.”

“How’d you get rid of that?”

“Easy.” Natalie shrugs and steals my coffee. “I remember I grew a fucking human.”

I can’t help it - I dissolve into watery giggles at the unashamed smirk on her face. Leave it up to Nat to know what I need to hear. Wiping my damp cheeks with a napkin, I clear my throat and thank her and my mother for being honest. Amber raises her hand.

“I don’t have kids, or even body image issues, but can I say that you both are smokin’ fucking hot and I’d still do you?”

The rest of us stare at her for a long minute before we lose control. The patrons of the cafe jerk around to glare at us, but we don’t care. This is the first time I’ve felt like laughing like this since before Declan was born.

I follow my mother and friends out to the car park, chewing on my bottom lip. They say I can be a good mother - that I will be a good mother. Niall says the same. It is impossible to believe them, no matter how desperately I want to.

“Hey, sweetie, I have something for you.”

I cock my head as my mom ducks into the backseat of her SUV. When she emerges, a gift bag swings from her grip. She holds it out to me with a soft smile, one that grows larger when I frown. Natalie takes my coffee, and Amber opens her hands for the tissue paper.

In my hands is Bun-Bun. Her fur is clean, fluffier than I remember, but it is undeniably the stuffed bunny I clung to after my father left. My fingers trail over the shiny new ribbon, purple and silken beneath my touch. Yellow thread forms the curved letter of my son’s name. Declan. My lips quiver, more tears for a different reason.

“Mom?”

“I was hoping you’d have that reaction. I found her in the attic when I was looking for your baby blankets. Decided to clean her up a bit for the baby. You forced me to wait by not having a name picked out before Dec was born.”

“Gods, Mom. This is, it’s amazing. Thank you.”

“Don’t you think it’s about time Bun-Bun got a new human to love her? I mean, it’s been a literal decade since you were carrying her everywhere with you.”

I hug my mother as hard as I can, sniffling against her shoulder, and she holds me just as tightly. She will never know how much this means to me. She’d apologised for her reaction, the lack of support, with both my marriage and pregnancy. This, though, this is evidence that she really does support me. Niall. The both of us.

My mother promises to call me when she gets home. I watch her car disappear from sight then follow my friends to Natalie’s car. The dark weight in my chest has disappeared, replaced by the stability of knowing I’m not alone. No matter what, I have a great support system. I just have to reach out for them.

Getting home to see that both babies are in their carseats while Louis and Niall play FIFA, on the other hand… That dims the happiness just a little. I exchange a look with Nat, one that clearly says Men. Can’t trust them with video games around. Shaking my head, I remove Declan from his carseat and kiss his hair, breathe in the scent of baby wash.

I can do this.

I think.