Sliding Doors meets Life After Life in Sarah Adlakha’s story about a wife and mother who is given the chance to start over at the risk of losing everything she loves.
A second chance is the last thing she wants.
When thirty-nine year old Maria Forssmann wakes up in her seventeen-year-old body, she doesn’t know how she got there. All she does know is she has to get back: to her home in Bienville, Mississippi, to her job as a successful psychiatrist and, most importantly, to her husband, daughters, and unborn son.
But she also knows that, in only a few weeks, a devastating tragedy will strike her husband, a tragedy that will lead to their meeting each other.
Can she change time and still keep what it’s given her?
Exploring the responsibilities love lays on us, the complicated burdens of motherhood, and the rippling impact of our choices, She Wouldn’t Change a Thing is a dazzling debut from a bright new voice. It will be available on August 10th, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
Bienville, Mississippi, 2010
It was the laughter she would remember, years later, when she thought about that moment, even though she couldn’t hear it. They were too far away, or perhaps she was too far away, tucked beneath the canopy and sheltered from the sun, listening to the waves roll onto the shore as they tried to lull her to sleep in chorus with the gulls that soared overhead. Her family danced along the beach, her husband crashing through the surf with a daughter tucked under each arm, their laughter searching for her over the expanse of sand. It was useless; it never found her; and as the image of her family faded from her mind, panic took its place.
That couldn’t be right. Her alarm was set for 6:30 and it hadn’t gone off yet. She reached across the bed for her husband, but the sheets were abandoned and cold. Why didn’t he wake her up? She rubbed her eyes and took another look at the clock.
The shower was running in the bathroom. She thought she’d managed to rein in her frustration, but the door slammed against the wall when she pushed it open.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
Her husband wiped away the droplets of water from the shower door and smiled at her. “I thought you were taking the day off,” he said. “So I let you sleep in.”
A thousand things were spinning through her head—kids, school, work, hair, clothes, teeth—but she couldn’t stop hearing, I thought you were taking the day off. When had she ever just taken a day off ?
Her husband’s smile faded back into oblivion behind the fog of the tempered shower glass as Maria got to work with a toothbrush in one hand and a hairbrush in the other. She was thankful she could no longer see him. It was impossible to stay mad at Will when she could see his face.
By the time she got her teeth brushed and her hair wrangled into a ponytail, there were a dozen spiky grays sticking out of her head at all angles, but there was no use trying to tame them. There was no time for hair spray; no time for makeup, though she could have used a gallon of concealer for the bags around her eyes; no time for the cocoa butter belly lotion that was supposed to have prevented the stretch marks that were already streaked across her belly. No one expected these things from her anymore. Makeup and hair spray were for single women or newlyweds, not a pregnant mother of two with a full-time job and a husband whose work hours stretched long into the night.
“Did you wake the girls up?” she asked, but she was already on her way out the door. She could hear her husband mumbling something about letting all of them sleep in, as she waddled down the hallway like a beleaguered penguin. This pregnancy was nothing like the other two, though she couldn’t say why. There were no complications, and chromosomally their unborn son was perfect; they had the results of genetic testing to prove it. But there was an uneasiness that had clung to her throughout this pregnancy, like she hadn’t appreciated what she’d been given and was pushing her luck thinking she could pull this off at her age. Forty felt too old.
Emily was already awake. She sat like a statue in her toddler bed, and Maria could smell the urine before she even reached her daughter’s side. She pulled back the waistband of the soaked pajama bottoms, knowing what she’d find.
“Why aren’t you wearing your Pull-Ups, baby?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.” Emily’s lip trembled as tears filled her mahogany-colored eyes. Maria wanted to feel sorry for her, but it was the third time in three days that her daughter had taken off her bedtime Pull-Ups, and there was no time for pity. “I’m a big girl. I don’t wear diapers.”
“Okay.” Maria kissed the top of her daughter’s head as she pulled her off the bed with more force than she’d intended. “Don’t cry. It was just an accident.” The urine spot on the mattress was bigger than seemed possible and was an unpleasant reminder that she’d forgotten to put on the waterproof mattress cover when she’d changed the sheets the previous night. Just one more thing to deal with after work.
She was wiping the urine off her daughter when Will walked into the bathroom. He was going on about a car servicing appointment that was scheduled for that afternoon.
“Three o’clock,” he said. “And you can get a rental if you can’t stay. Just let them know when you get there.”
“Three?” she mumbled. “That’s not great timing.” Did she already know about this? It seemed like something she would have put in her calendar, but her memory was unreliable these days. Pregnancy brain. That’s what people called it, but she didn’t remember battling with her mind like this during her previous pregnancies. Maybe she’d already cleared out her afternoon schedule and had just forgotten.
“It’s okay if you can’t make it,” Will continued. “I can do it early next week, after I get back from the conference.”
“No, it’s fine. I can do it.” Maria shrugged it off, as if one more thing on her plate wouldn’t break her, as if she wasn’t about to crumple under the weight of her responsibilities, as if she hadn’t forgotten that her husband would be gone to a medical conference for the next two days. “Can you help me get Charlotte ready?” she said, filling the sink with water and tossing the wipes into the toilet before remembering they weren’t flushable.
“Sorry, hon,” Will said. “I can’t this morning. I have an eight o’clock patient scheduled.”
Maria paused for two seconds, time she didn’t have to spare, amazed at how effortlessly her husband could pawn off the responsibility of their kids onto her. Was this the nature of all men?
“I have an eight o’clock patient, too,” she said, but Will was too smart to follow her down that road. It was an ill-fated path. So instead of reminding her that his eight o’clock patient was sitting in the operating room with a team of medical staff who were all anticipating his arrival, whereas her eight o’clock patient was sitting in a cozy waiting room with music and coffee—maybe even doughnuts if her secretary had thought to pick some up—he leaned down and kissed her belly.
They both turned at the same time to see their five-year-old standing in the doorway, pointing toward the sink, where Maria was dipping her little sister’s backside into the water.
“I’m not brushing my teeth there.”
Will laughed and leaned over to land a kiss on Charlotte’s head before he walked out the door. “I don’t blame you, baby.”
“Not helpful,” Maria called out to him as he disappeared down the hallway. She could hear him laughing as he descended the stairs and she felt the tension briefly lift from her chest. Her husband’s laughter always did that to her, eased her worries, though she still felt envious that he would get to drive to work in silence. Just once, she wanted to experience that. She wanted to know what it felt like to leave her husband behind to fight the battles she fought every morning.
Charlotte’s hair was a mess of tangles, and Maria didn’t realize she was talking about cutting it all off until her three-year-old offered to help. “I can cut really good,” Emily said, looking up at Maria with pleading eyes.
“I know you can, baby, but you’re not cutting your sister’s hair.” Maria tossed the brush onto the counter and gathered Charlotte’s hair into a tangled mess that somewhat resembled a ponytail.
“Why not?” Emily whined.
“Because you’ll cut my ear off!” Charlotte screamed, covering her ears with her hands, backing away from her sister, and almost falling into the bathtub. “And then I’ll bleed to death!”
“Mommy, I won’t do that!” Emily was scrounging through the bathroom drawers in search of a pair of scissors, pulling out empty toothpaste tubes and broken headbands and long-lost hair bows, while Maria trailed behind her with the brush.
“Enough!” she yelled, slamming one of the drawers shut to get their attention. “No one’s cutting anyone’s hair. Or ears. Or anything else. We have to be out of this house in five minutes, so downstairs now.”
She caught Charlotte rolling her eyes before she turned off the light and wondered where a kindergartner would pick up that habit.
The dishes hadn’t been run the previous night, so Maria picked out two of the least filthy plastic bowls she could find and wiped them down with a damp paper towel before dropping them onto the counter. She was trying to remember the last time she’d been grocery shopping—the pantry shelves were almost barren—when Charlotte startled her from behind.
“Annabelle’s mommy makes her a proper breakfast every morning.”
“Is that so?” Maria could feel her eyes rolling, before she stopped herself halfway through. At least now she knew where her daughter picked it up.
“Yes,” Charlotte replied. “Eggs and bacon and toast. And always fruit.”
“Annabelle’s going to have cholesterol problems by the time she’s ten,” Maria mumbled, ripping open a package of Pop-Tarts and throwing one into each bowl before handing them to her daughters. “And I give you fruit. These are blueberry Pop-Tarts. Now go hop into the car and I’ll help buckle you up in just a minute.”
“But I need lunch, Mommy.” Charlotte spun around as she spoke, dropping her Pop-Tart onto the floor. Maria picked it up and brushed it off before placing it back in the bowl. The crumbs on the floor would have to wait until after work.
“There’s money in your lunch account, sweetie. Just get a school lunch today.”
“But there’s a field trip. Mrs. Nelson said to pack a lunch. And you need to sign the paper.”
“What?” Maria snatched Charlotte’s backpack off the kitchen counter and dug through the pile of loose papers and food wrappers and sweatshirts that hadn’t been cleaned out in weeks. “Why didn’t you tell me about this last night?”
“It’s in my take-home folder. You’re supposed to look in my take-home folder every night.”
The unsigned permission slip was at the front of a stack of neglected papers that must have been sent home daily for the past few weeks. It was decorated with sticky tabs and highlighter marks showing Maria exactly where her signature was required, along with a reminder stapled to the top, also colorfully highlighted, that the children would need a sack lunch.
She pulled the bread off the shelf in the refrigerator and mumbled a profanity under her breath that she hoped her daughters didn’t hear. There were only two pieces left, besides the end pieces, which she tossed into the garbage, and as she was slathering peanut butter across the bread, Charlotte gasped.
“Mommy! No peanut butter!”
Maria jumped, almost dropping the knife into the sink, and turned to her daughter. “I thought you liked peanut butter.”
“Jackson can’t have peanuts, so nobody can bring peanut butter for snack or lunch.”
Maria thought about all the boxes of peanut butter crackers she’d sent to school with Charlotte over the last few months and wondered where they all went. There was probably a letter in the take-home folder informing the parents about Jackson’s peanut allergy, and she expected Mrs. Nelson found her quite obnoxious. Or hopefully just oblivious. She could feel Charlotte’s eyes following her as she reached into the garbage and pulled out the end pieces of bread.
“I’m not eating that!” Charlotte screeched.
“They’re still in the bag,” Maria replied. “They haven’t touched anything in the garbage. They’re fine.”
“Ew!” Emily scrunched up her nose and looked at her sister. “You have to eat garbage.”
“I’m not eating that, Mommy!”
“I have nothing else.” Maria waved her hand up and down the length of the open refrigerator in front of them. “We’re almost on Empty here, sweetie. It’s this or nothing.”
“Nothing,” Charlotte said, with her hands crossed firmly across her chest.
“I can’t send you to school with nothing.” Maria held the two end pieces in one hand and rifled through the back of the refrigerator for something to put on them, eventually pulling out an old jar of jelly. She wondered if jelly ever expired. “Strawberry?”
By the time the trio made their way out the door, Maria was already fifteen minutes late for her first patient of the day and both of her daughters were mad at her about something, though she couldn’t remember what. She was too busy running through a checklist in her mind of what she needed to get done before the weekend: groceries, laundry, dishes, bills, and the baby who was due any day now. She couldn’t forget about him, and while she’d never been one to shy away from a challenge, she couldn’t even begin to imagine how she was going to pull this off.
Her husband had offered to hire a nanny to get the kids to and from school and to fix dinner for them on weeknights, maybe even run some laundry and straighten up the house. But what kind of a mother couldn’t do those things for her own children? Something would have to give. She couldn’t hold it together forever, and if she didn’t make some changes soon, Maria knew the dam was going to break and there’d be no salvaging what was waiting downstream.
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Adlakha
Pre-order a Copy of She Wouldn’t Change a Thing—available August 10th!