Olivia went to bed early that night, curling under the covers with Apricot snoozing at her feet. She hoped that an early night would chase away her thoughts, allow her to wake up refreshed – no such luck. When Olivia fixated on something she fixated hard, and something as simple as a night’s rest wouldn’t get rid of those thoughts.

She woke the next morning with an ache in her neck, the pillows scrunched up into one corner of the bed. With a low groan, she rolled over, feeling her short hair stick to her face, and closed her eyes again. It was too late, though, because Apricot shifted at the end of the bed and shot up, a low woof leaving her.

“I’m awake,” Olivia mumbled. She forced herself to sit up, casting a glance toward her digital clock. Six twenty-five glowed dimly in the darkness. Apricot watched her from the end of the bed, head cocked and ears flopping into her face. Rolling her eyes, Olivia came to the conclusion that she wasn’t getting any more sleep tonight. Thankfully it was Sunday, so she had nowhere to be, meaning a little sleep deprivation wouldn’t kill her.

As if in response to her thoughts, Apricot let out a cheerful bark.

“You just want to be fed,” Olivia chastised – but she was up now, trudging toward the big, walk-in wardrobe that housed her clothes. Most of the things she owned were respectable work clothes, but there was a little compartment for comfortable house clothes. Digging around, she produced a pair of loose jeans and a long-sleeved fitted top. It was a soft orange-red, her favourite colour, with buttons down one side so she could wear it as a jumper dress or gather it up into a loose ruffle around her hips.

The top had been a gift from Christine, almost ten years ago now. It was past its best – which was why it was now stuck with her other comfy, but less attractive, clothes. Once, Olivia had worn it almost constantly. Then the fight with Christine had happened, they cut contact, and the beautiful top had been retired from her wardrobe.

It was just a piece of clothing. Shouldn’t have mattered at all, really. Except for the fact that Olivia had been thinking of Christine only the night before, and now the memories had settled firmly into her brain. Refused to leave. With a sigh, Olivia tossed the top back onto the pile and chose something else instead. A boring navy blue t-shirt.

As she got dressed and started her morning routine, Olivia’s mind drifted back to the topic of the day before. Her friends, their unique circumstances, and how she fit into it all. Once, Darpan had said that she was the glue holding the group together. Not everybody was close, or even knew each other that well, but if Olivia was there none of that mattered because she made them all feel like best friends.

Well, not any more. She hadn’t spoken to Elise or Christine for some time now. Darpan was too busy trying for a child to go out any more. Julian had recently taken up online dating and couldn’t talk about anything else. It seemed as if everyone else’s lives revolved around family and children, or their desire for that, and Olivia was losing touch with the rest of her friends.

How could she talk to them, when all they wanted to discuss was their spouses and children, or their latest failed date, or how much they wished for romance? Olivia couldn’t relate if she tried. Remembering the incident with Christine and her fights with Elise, only reinforced that.

Somewhere in the hall, Apricot barked. She was awake early, which meant she wanted food early, and Apricot was not a patient dog. Actually, none of her past pets had been patient. Poorly trained, some might have said. Needy, perhaps. With a roll of her eyes, Olivia ran a brush through her short hair and ambled into the hall.

Her friend Joseph had once said that her last dog, Sadie, had attachment issues. Something about Olivia being away too often and leaving Sadie alone in the big house. Good thing you don’t want kids, he had joked, because they’d forget what you look like after a while. He had said it as a joke, nudging her shoulder and holding back a grin. At the time, Olivia had rolled her eyes and shot back some sarcastic comment she didn’t care to remember.

Now, she wondered if that was true. If she couldn’t even be the best for her dogs, a child wouldn’t have stood a chance. Why does it matter? she chastised, you don’t even want kids. True, but the hurt she felt at the thought of being a terrible mother? That wasn’t imaginary.

Apricot’s heavy footsteps stomped on the floor as she thundered downstairs. Into the kitchen, where her food bowl waited. Olivia swore she could hear her tail hitting against the kitchen counter, her excitement growing with every moment. At least someone was having a good morning.

Downstairs, Olivia padded across the cold kitchen floor, scooping up the bowl to dump in a fresh packet of wet food. Then she refilled the water, fetched her own bowl, and poured in a healthy amount of cereal.

All the while, her mind kept wandering back to the same old thing. She was done with it now honestly, her frustration growing, but that didn’t help. If anything, it only made her focus on it more. Slowly, month by month, she was losing touch with her friends. Even her sister, Nina, was thinking about family. Her baby sister, who Olivia still thought of as a child. She was hardly even old enough to be thinking about that!

As Apricot tucked into her breakfast, Olivia’s own appetite waned. She prodded at the cereal with a glare, watching as it soaked up the milk. Another few minutes and it would be a soggy mess, but she hardly noticed.

She wished it wasn’t her day off. Work was the one distraction that never failed. When she threw herself into a story, into the research, she was lost in it. Hours could pass without notice, her mind focused on one singular thing while the rest of the world faded away. In the end, nothing much else mattered except her work. Tempted by the promise of distraction, Olivia reached for her laptop sitting on the corner of the kitchen table. She disregarded it almost immediately, though, knowing it was only a temporary solution.

She turned to the window instead, enjoying the sunrise as it cast a soft, pinkish hue across the kitchen. The sun always rose above the apple trees in her back garden, casting elongated shadows across the grass. Then light streamed through her window as the sun grew higher, a beautiful haze of pink and orange and bright, beautiful yellow. It was going to be a scorching hot day, Olivia realised, looking out across the garden. There wasn’t a single cloud, the sky clear blue.

Leaning back in her chair, Olivia let out a sigh. Her cereal was a soggy mess, but she found herself uncaring anyway. Leaving it sitting in the bowl, she made coffee instead. As the kettle began to hum, she turned to stare back out of the window.

Maybe she should phone someone. Talk it out with somebody she trusted – like Nina or Darpan or hell, even Molly. Although they didn’t always see eye to eye, she had known Molly longest of all.

The ding of the kettle startled Olivia and she jumped, only to curse herself quietly. She was too jumpy today, her nerves getting to her. Now that was rare. Rolling her eyes, Olivia poured the coffee and retreated into the living room.

The neighbours were already awake. Sam worked early shifts on Sundays, although she wasn’t entirely sure what his job even was. She saw him now, climbing into his car with a wave to his two young daughters. Dani and Melody waved back, sluggish and sleepy, as he pulled out of the drive.

It brought a smile to her lips, at least. They were just any ordinary family living ordinary lives – it could have easily been Julian, or Molly, or even Olivia herself. Which brought her back to one thing; if she did have children, how would her life have turned out?

She wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in her job, for one. Journalism was tough and competitive. Domineering. The idea of a day off was a lie when she could be called into work at any time. New stories came in all the time, but the good ones were rare. Olivia had worked hard to get where she was, spent sleepless nights hunched over her laptop and slept in the office more than once.

Secondary to that, she wouldn’t live alone. Kids and – presumably – a husband, would have left her with very little privacy. As an older sister, she hadn’t grown up with that, to begin with, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. Even so, Olivia liked the freedom to do what she wanted (as work permitted) without the responsibility of having to ask other people.

Lastly, there was the fact of children themselves. They demanded so much time, so much attention, and Olivia couldn’t imagine how exhausting it must be for parents. Especially single parents. The thought alone made her wince, hands tightening around the coffee mug. Olivia was used to responsibilities, but that was something else entirely.

As Joseph had pointed out, she wasn’t the type to be responsible for another life. Taking care of a dog was difficult enough – never mind a human with thoughts and opinions and the ability to talk back.

Olivia scowled. This was exactly why she was drifting away from her friends. Exactly why people talked about her behind her back, thinking she was strange. She had broken up with Julian because his desires didn’t match hers. Now here she was, thinking about children anyway because no matter where she looked she couldn’t get away from them.

All of this had made her think. Think about things that, before, she hadn’t cared much to figure out. Yet now it was painfully obvious that her decision hadn’t just affected her, but the people around her. The idea of families was important to her friends, absolutely essential to some. Why couldn’t Olivia empathise more? Or at least try to understand?

With a groan, Olivia dropped her head against the back of the sofa. Staring up at the ceiling, she wondered if it was too late to call Christine. To apologise for what happened those years ago. It wouldn’t fix everything, certainly not the thoughts swirling through Olivia’s mind – but it would at least put her mind at ease.

Besides, Christine deserved to know that she was sorry. While she was at it, she should apologise to Elise and Molly, too. She’d been rude to them all in the past, all over the discussion of children.

Then again, was dredging up the past going to help anyone? They had probably moved on – forgotten all about Olivia and her stupid mouth. Talking about it again, supposing anyone even agreed to it, was just as selfish as continuing to ignore what she’d done. In the end, there was no easy answer.

Just like there was no easy answer to whether Olivia had chosen the right path in life, or been right in not having kids. It was impossible to know because it was the only decision she knew. Maybe things would have been different if she’d stayed with Julian or married someone else. Just like her life would have been different if she’d picked Psychology over Journalism, or if Christine hadn’t asked her to be a surrogate and they hadn’t lost contact.

Short of developing psychic powers and looking into alternative worlds, or something equally as ridiculous, there was simply no way to know how things might have been. Maybe it was for the best, because Olivia wasn’t sure she wanted to know, anyway. It was too much responsibility.

She didn’t have kids. Most of her friends wanted them, or already had. That was fine. Her life took a different direction from what most people expected. That didn’t mean she was wrong. There were other friends, too, who took a different route. Like Connor and Darren, who married last year and were thinking of adoption. Or Lindsay, who had her first child at thirty-two.

In the end, Olivia supposed, nobody was the same. She chose an untraditional path, but what defined traditional, anyway? In a world with so many people and so many ways to live, the lines were blurred.

Of course, though, that didn’t put her mind at ease. Because, as her friends might have argued, Olivia was an overthinker. And that meant she couldn’t put the past behind her.

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