This was my final short fiction assignment for FutureLearn’s “Start Writing Fiction” Course. The primary objective was to fully develop a character in under 1200 words.

Emily kept her head down as she trudged through the parking lot pushing a cart full of diapers, baby food, and five boxes of Little Debbie snacks. Tristan wailed and thrashed in the front of the cart, inviting glares from the nearby customers loading their cars. Emily had stopped trying to apologize for his behavior. Her shoulders caved under the weight of yet another sleepless night. By the time she reached the car  — a rusty slate-colored minivan — she was on the verge of collapse. After loading in the groceries and pinning the child down long enough to buckle him into his car seat, Emily’s knees gave out. She steadied herself on the edge of the door, inhaled deeply, and promised herself that her life wasn’t over just yet.

Tristan cried the entire length of the ride home. He didn’t stop as she carried him and the groceries up the five flights of stairs to their apartment. He didn’t stop as she put him in his crib and shut the door. She winced against the pain in her back as she lowered herself onto a folding chair in the kitchen, which creaked under her weight. The apartment had seen better days. The lock on the door hadn’t been fixed since a burglar broke in and stole what little cash she had saved up four months ago. The stove never turned on, not that she had the energy to cook. And the one tiny window was not enough to break the haze of heat that choked the room. She couldn’t stand the sight of this place. There was nothing she could call her own, no shred of herself visible on the dingy, peeling walls. Even at her core, Emily was not the attractive, bright girl she was when she entered college. After Ryan, a defeated young woman, who looked at least a decade older than twenty-two, took her place.

She hugged her arms tighter as her stomach growled. The shame of the memories sent a tremor through her body. She could see his face, the face of a television anchor, with a smile whiter than plaster that always looked genuine. When she saw him on the first day of her internship with the campus news station, she figured she would fall in love with him. When he said to her after a few drinks, “You should be my co-anchor,” she knew.

They were the picture-perfect couple, so everyone said. They always paired up in production classes, always held hands during screenings, and always smiled brighter than the morning news jingle. Ryan was always a perfect gentleman whenever they went out, and Emily simply glowed. It was there in his arms, out in the city, basking in the vibrance of all life had to offer, that she felt true bliss.

In the year since Tristan was born, each day was the same hell as the day before. She woke up, if she slept at all, wrestled pureed peas down the baby’s throat, dragged him off to daycare, and went to work waiting tables for half the tips that the pretty college girls made. Emily found herself hating them, with their optimism, their parties and boyfriends, and the whole world at their feet. She had those things once. These days, she could barely see her feet, much less pick up the napkins that the middle school boys with impish smirks threw on the ground in front of her.

As soon as she came to pick him up, Tristan would start to cry again, even though he had been “so good all day,” as the sitters always said. They only told her that to make her feel better, she was sure. It didn’t help.

The cracks in the ceiling seemed to mock her as she laid awake. Tristan’s screams sunk into her shirt as she halfheartedly cradled him against her. She traced the cracks in the darkness and wondered where she went wrong.

It didn’t surprise her that Ryan wanted more than just a kiss in front of her door. All the same, her uptight Midwestern upbringing left her no choice but to shut the door every time he asked to come inside. It was the smile that deceived her. He always smiled and said it was okay. So she believed him.

He finally convinced her over a beer that she wasn’t old enough to drink. Her head spun as he drew nearer. His hands wandered where she couldn’t follow. Before she could figure out…

It was nearing Tristan’s second birthday when Emily knew she couldn’t take it any longer. Student loan bills for the two and half years she managed to finish were piling up. Half her money went to the daycare, the other half paid the rent, and Tristan ate the rest. Emily could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to coax a spoonful of carrots into his mouth. She had given up long ago on trying to talk to him. The sound of her voice only made him scream louder. As Tristan kicked and moaned in his highchair, he knocked the bowl and spoon out of her hands and sent them crashing to the floor. A sickening rage boiled in the pit of her stomach. She remembered wanting to claw him out of her the bigger she grew. “I have an image to keep up,” Ryan said before he left. This thing inside her, this monster, had robbed her of everything. But it was so fragile. She could drop it, shake it, do just about anything and it would be out of her life for good…

Emily gasped and scooped Tristan up out of his highchair. She cradled him in her arms though he scratched and bit at her. She had done her best, but now she had no choice.

Tristan cried for the entire length of the car ride, but Emily could barely hear him anymore. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t done this sooner. The headlights of her rusty minivan pierced the darkness, casting an eerie glow on the familiar streets. There were no other cars on the road, since the rest of the city was happily dreaming. Emily had dreams once. Maybe she would dream again, have a life, fall in love….

She stopped outside a squat brick building that she had driven past too many times. A weather-beaten sign above the flickering streetlight read “Clarke Orphanage”. Tristan thrashed against his blanket, but Emily tucked it tighter around him. She unlatched the car seat and carried it to the sidewalk. The iron gate creaked as she pushed it open, and the gravel walk crunched under her steps. She said nothing as she placed the car seat on the front step, walked back to the car and drove away. For the first time in nearly two years, Tristan stopped crying.