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It’s Not Like It’s a Secret Chapter 1


The longer the doctor takes to return to the exam room, the more I perspire through the thin hospital gown. I’ve become a watering system of sweat, with rivers running down my back. A stream streaks from my hairline and across my cheek. With all the humidity my body is putting out, my beach waved hair is wilting.   

My thoughts spiral back to the last time I sat panicking in an exam room. I was seven and my older sister decided she would make me a basketball star. I was tall for my age, and besides height, there wasn’t much else to the sport, right? She took me out to the driveway, and without warning, threw a basketball at my face to see how I would respond. I didn’t. The ball broke my nose and gave me two black eyes. 

Mom took at least a hundred pictures and scrapbooked a fifteen-page spread of the catastrophe. The first few photos are of me bawling, blood gushing from my nose, into my mouth, and down the front of my Phineas and Ferb T-shirt. The next page shows the rush to the hospital. I’m still crying, but I have a bloody kitchen towel and a frozen bag of peas covering most of my face. 

In the last picture, I’m standing in the hallway of InstaCare just before we leave for home. My bandaged nose looks like a beak, and mottled, purple bruises surround my eyes. From then on, Dad called me his Little Owl. It would’ve been sweet if it wasn’t so ironic. There is nothing little about me. 

I haven’t touched a basketball since the tragedy, not even for gym class, much to the disappointment of every coach from middle school through college. Instead, I joined the cross-country team, a sport that promised to never throw balls at my face. 

The doctor’s knock brings me back to the present. She enters wearing a big smile. My nerves settle because her expression lets me believe there’s no serious problem with my health. My relief lasts as long as the silence. When she begins speaking, I find out that everything is worse than I could ever imagine. All I can think about is the long-ago basketball fiasco, the shock of that awful orange ball hitting me, and the pain and panic that followed. 

My hand shakes as I reach up and rub the bridge of my nose. 

“What did you say?” I ask. 

The doctor’s still smiling, not at all annoyed at having to repeat herself. “I want you to come back for an ultrasound as soon as possible.”

“No, before that.”

She tilts her head and purses her lips. “You’re pregnant?”

My hand drops to my lap. I squeeze my eyes closed, wishing it was enough to shut out this conversation. “That isn’t possible.”

“Obviously it is possible because you’re pregnant.”

She needs to stop saying that word. “I can’t be.”

“It does explain your heartburn, nausea, and recent weight gain.” 

And my boobs. They’re so tender. I swear they’ve doubled in size. A lot of men are eye-level with my neck, and I don’t need to give them any more reason to look down instead of up. 

There must be another explanation because I’m not…you know, the p-word. 

“Lay back and let me do a pelvic examination.”

This gets better and better. 

I obediently unstick myself from the paper and lay down on the table. I don’t know what I expected when I came in today with a list of complaints. Cancer. Celiac disease. Polio. But this diagnosis isn’t an option.  

I wait for the doctor to say, “Oops, I guess I made a mistake.” It doesn’t happen. Instead, she says, “Based on your hCG levels and your measurements, I’d say you’re about nineteen weeks along. Does that line up with your last menstruation?” 

I have no idea. My periods have always been erratic and I don’t pay much attention. But the last time I saw my ex, The Liar, was almost five months ago, so the timing would line up…except that I am not carrying his mini-me. 

“Your baby is about the size of a mango,” the doctor says in a chit-chatty voice. “Next week a bell pepper.”

That sounds delightful. Whose great idea was it to determine the size of a fetus by comparing it to food? The doctor drones on with useless bits of information, but I can’t process what she’s saying. My problem must be wheat. I’ll stop eating gluten and that will make me feel less tired and irritable. 

After the exam, I dress slowly. My white button-up blouse is snug but at least there aren’t any gaps, and I just manage to zip up my blue pencil skirt. Using the compact from my purse, I check my make-up, then put my long hair into a ponytail. Now that my armor is in place, my confidence increases. As I leave the exam room, I shove everything that just transpired into a corner of my brain where it can hang out with memories of The Liar. I have no need to remember. 

I leave with a bottle of prenatal vitamins, an information packet on pregnancy, and an appointment for an ultrasound in a week. I imagine the doctor feeling sheepish when she discovers her mistake because I am definitely not pregnant. If I were, that would make me just like my sister. 

I am not my sister. 


By the time I pull into the parking lot of Baldwin-Dickson Pencil Company, the heat of the morning has settled into my bones. Ladybug’s AC can’t seem to cut through the hazy heat. I should rename her Slow Cooker. I pat her dash, repentant. No need to give her any cause to give out on me now. I place the blame where it belongs: the Tucson, Arizona sun in August. 

My phone beeps with a text just as I exit my car. 

Tamra: What did the dr say?

Of course, my best friend has to text me while I’m still feeling shaky from the ordeal. My visit rears up and wants to make itself known, but I beat it back into its corner. 

Avery: Celiac. I’ll call you tonight and give you all the details. It’s pretty funny so be prepared to laugh until you pee

Tamra: giving up bread is no laughing matter!

Which makes me laugh. When I realize I’m rubbing my nose, I force my feet toward the building. Oh, man. It’s only Tuesday and I’m ready for the weekend. I love my job, but right now I want a nap. To get through the day I’ll do what I’m good at: focus on the immediate future and banish everything else. I have six hours until quitting time. I can handle six hours. 

I let myself in through the staff entrance with my keycard. I usually love the first big sniff I get of cut wood, but today it’s the AC that makes me happiest. It blows against my damp skin and I shiver with relief. If I wasn’t already late, I might stand under the vent for an hour before going up to the third floor, where all the hot air goes to live. 

Around the corner, I see Mary from HR with some guy, probably a new hire, waiting for the elevator. I can’t handle Mary right now. I take a step back, hoping to slip into the stairwell before she sees me, but no luck. My size-eleven flats squeak against the linoleum before I can hide. 

“Avery!” she calls out. “Come meet our new factory employee!”

I reluctantly step forward and shake the man’s hand. I peg him at five feet, nine inches. He’s one of those guys where his attention goes down before heading slowly up—and up—to my face. Some men have the decency to blush when they realize I’ve caught them introducing themselves to my chest before my eyes. He’s not one of them. His grin grows.

“Paul,” he says with awe as if he can’t believe my height. Or maybe my cup size.


“I’m so glad I found you!” Mary says. “I’m trying to get the final count for the company picnic next weekend. You didn’t RSVP, but I put you down anyway. I was wondering if you were bringing any family? Or a date?”

Not only do I find her enthusiasm exhausting and her sickly-sweet falsetto voice irritating, but she’s also the company Gossip Girl. If she finds out any interesting information, within ten minutes, so does everyone else. I try to avoid her like I do karaoke, cranberry juice, and bootcut jeans.

“Sorry, but I won’t be able to attend.” I try to soften my rebuff with a smile, but my cheeks feel stiff. Probably the mixture of foundation and sweat, now dried by the AC into a salty, lumpy mask. 

The elevator arrives, and I slip inside. Mary and Paul follow.

“The picnic is a great way to get to know the other employees outside of the accounting department. You should come.”

My smile remains as I shake my head. “No, thank you.”

I should attend to show company pride, but I can’t bear to watch Sandra Baldwin, the owner’s daughter, flirt with Theo, who is my best friend and coworker. The idea of it makes me feel sick. And, well, socializing isn’t a talent I possess.

Gossip Girl plows forward, ignoring my silence. “Can I set you up with my brother for the picnic? You never know when you’ll meet your soulmate.”

Mary’s a petite five feet, four inches. Her brother might be taller but I’d bet my pristine Louboutin heels he isn’t taller than me. I already walk through life feeling like an anomaly because of my height, I’d hate feeling like one on a date. Especially if I’m to have an audience—like every employee at BD. No, thank you. 

I shake my head. “That won’t be necessary, since I won’t be attending.”

Just as the elevator stops on the third floor, Paul blurts out, “How tall are you?”

I get that question a lot, but usually from kids. Paul looks at me with unabashed curiosity. It isn’t like it’s a secret, so I answer as I exit, rounding down a half-inch. 

“Five feet, fourteen inches.”

I get perverse satisfaction at the wrinkles around his eyes as he tries to do the math. 

Gossip Girl leads him to the right toward HR, but not before saying, “Let me know if you change your mind about my brother.”

Not going to happen. I go left toward the accounting department which consists of a nook off the main hallway, large enough for three desks, two that face each other and a third that runs along the side of the first two. No partitions. No door. Even the copy machine across the hall has its own four walls and a door. Yes, I’m jealous of an office appliance. 

The other two accountants don’t look up as I plop down into my squeaky chair and bang my drawer open to stash my purse. We’re all familiar with interruptions.

I log into my workstation, and a second later a message pops up at the bottom of the screen. I glance up and see Theo looking back at me over the top of his computer.

Theo: How was the dentist?

So yes, I lied to work about my appointment for no other reason than I didn’t want to get into the particulars of my symptoms. Of celiac disease. 

Avery: no cavities

Theo: You missed Bob’s sister. He forgot his lunch and she brought it to the office. 

I look out of the corner of my eye toward Bob. He’s a bald, portly man who moved in with his older sister five years ago when his wife died. He says little and counts down to his retirement on a calendar on his desk. Only six hundred, thirty-nine days to go. 

The front of his desk butts up against the side of Theo’s and mine. I believe his sole goal each day is to ignore us as much as possible. We help him by messaging each other instead of talking out loud. 

Avery: Dang it! I can’t believe I missed her again. 

Theo: she brought me brownies

Theo lifts a plastic container so I can see it, then slides it across our desks. I lift the lid and the heavenly scent slaps my face. I’m starving. I lift one out and take a bite. It’s cakey on the outside, fudgy on the inside, and just a bit chewy. Perfection in a two-inch square of butter, sugar, and chocolate.

 I’ve heard a lot about Bob’s sister from Theo over the eleven months we’ve worked together, but I have yet to actually meet her. He once said she’s the closest thing he’s ever had to a grandma. I could use a grandma in my life. 

Theo: You’ll meet her at the company picnic. 

Theo assumes I’m attending the picnic, and I have yet to tell him otherwise. Meeting Bob’s sister is a better reason to attend than the one Gossip Girl gave me earlier. 

Avery: Mary just tried to set me up with her brother for the picnic 

Theo’s grin spreads as our eyes meet over our monitors again.

Theo: Did you know they’re twins?

I snort in laughter and earn the side-eye from Bob. Right, we’re supposed to be working. I take one more brownie before passing them back to Theo.

Besides Tamra, Theo is the only other person who makes me feel normal. Not a sideshow or an anomaly or a social project, because I’m not only Tall Girl, I’m Shy Tall Girl. Awkward, squared.

On my first day here, after my new hire orientation, Mary brought me to this desk and introduced me to my two accounting coworkers. At the time, my heart galloped when Theo stood and I had to look up to meet his beautiful green eyes. He’s around six feet, five inches. A rarity in my experience. He reached out for a handshake and his hand completely enveloped mine. I was officially smitten. 

Theo insisted Mary allow him to give me a tour of the building, and she reluctantly released me from her clutches. I got the impression that I wasn’t the only one who found Theo’s deep voice hypnotic. He showed me the factory and production lines, and then took me to lunch at a diner down the road, which I affectionately nicknamed The Pit.  

For those first few days, I daydreamed about him in a way that was not platonic. He was so friendly, I actually believed something might happen between us. I soon realized the way he treated me wasn’t special. He was kind to everyone. Thinking I would be anything to him other than a colleague was ridiculous. 

Especially after I met his girlfriend, now ex-girlfriend, a perfect specimen of womankind: Sandra Baldwin, The Model, daughter to the co-owner of the company. I realized what kind of girl he was attracted to: willowy, five-feet, eight-inch redheads with small hands who wore flowing dresses and high heels. 

They broke up in the middle of March and The Liar and I the following week. We were both left with broken hearts and empty schedules and one night he asked if I wanted to go to a movie. A few nights later we went on a hike. Now, we hang out after work almost every day. Our friendship developed so quickly that he was a best friend before I realized we’d left coworker territory. 

Still, we will only ever be friends. After Sandra, he was very vocal about not dating a coworker. There are quite a few women here who have tried to grab his attention and change his mind. I try not to be one of them. Why ruin a good friendship with kissing? 

Nowadays, I appreciate Theo’s friendship for what it is and don’t allow my dreams to get past my morning alarm.  

A sigh escapes. 

Theo: You ok? 

As if I would admit I have yet to perfect my ability to ignore my more-than-friend feelings for him. 

Avery: It’s this heat. It saps my life force

Theo: It’s cooler in the mountains. Want to drive the scenic byway tonight after work? We can pick up sandwiches on the way and have a picnic at the top

A few weeks ago we’d talked about all the things that tourists come to Tucson to do and that we’d never done. On my list was the scenic byway up to Mount Lemmon. He remembered. 

Avery: Yes!

Theo: I’ll swing by your place at six?

Avery: Perfect.

Theo’s friendship is one of the most important things in my life. I love my Tucson life exactly the way it is right now. My job working with numbers and formulas. The freedom I enjoy in my own apartment. I want none of it to change. Ever. 

I spend the afternoon lost in Number Land, barely taking notice of the hours passing. Hardly remembering my doctor’s appointment or the upcoming ultrasound. I definitely don’t remember my celiac disease when Theo offers me another brownie as we head out to our cars at the end of the day.