She Calls Her Mom
by Kana Wu Genre: Women's Fiction, Romance, Mystery
A journey of shattered dreams, unexpected love, and a quest for self-discovery.
If you enjoy stories that delve into family dynamics, grief, love, loss, self-discovery, and navigating challenging circumstances, this novella is perfect for you.
Zoey Matthew is excited to celebrate her upcoming 21st birthday and begin building the life she’s always wanted. However, her dreams are shattered when her sister and brother-in-law die in a hit-and-run accident, leaving their baby, Ella, in her care. Suddenly she has to learn how to take care of an infant and juggle her new career while grieving the loss of her sister, who had been like a mom to her after their own mother abandoned them. And losing her dad at a young age right before her mom left without a word has Zoey feeling lost and less than adequate for the job of becoming a mother to Ella.
Encountering frequent challenges, Zoey gives up her career to care for her niece and throws in the towel on ever having a love life since she believes no man will be interested in her—a woman with a baby. Feeling alone and vulnerable, she finds hope and joy in the presence of new friends: a kind-hearted Claudia and a charming-baby whisperer, Derek.
Zoey realizes that her life can never truly be at peace until her sister’s murderer is brought to justice and she finds out who is behind the mysterious weekly grocery deliveries. Will she uncover the truth and find closure, or will the disclosures shatter her world even further?
Chapter 1With her hands over her ears, Zoey Matthew squeezed her eyes shut and imagined she was standing in a garden, surrounded by fragrant flowers, colorful butterflies, and chirping birds. The wailing from the corner of the bedroom grew louder and louder, seeping through her orange earplugs.
Next to the king-size bed, four-month-old Ella Dawson was shrieking in her crib. Her tiny fingers clenched, her feet kicked in the air, and her face was red. She looked ready to explode.
Zoey loved the baby to pieces, and wherever they went, people praised Ella’s angelic face, blue eyes, and curly blonde hair. They had no idea that little bundle of joy had the deafening scream of a banshee.
If God had remembered to make an off switch for babies, being a mom would have been much easier.
Leaning back against the window frame, Zoey massaged her temples. In desperation, she pulled at her brown hair, which was tied in a loose ponytail, until it hung in messy, wild strands around her face. She’d bounced, fed, and bathed Ella, then changed her. She’d checked to make sure the plastic fastener wasn’t sticking out and run her fingers across the diaper to make sure it felt smooth before putting it on the baby. Zoey had sung until her throat hurt, but the pitch of Ella’s wail kept rising. Right now, leaving her alone on the bed seemed like the best option.
Exhaling, Zoey turned to gaze out the window of the master bedroom. Her sister had bought this townhouse with her fiancé, Richard Dawson, two-and-half years ago before they were married. Zoey admired her sister’s choice to pay a high monthly mortgage in exchange for this incredible view.
She peered out into the green canyon and could make out the majestic Saddleback Mountains in the distance. The afternoon sunlight shone through the thick rain clouds as if the rays were attempting to push them away. It had been pouring nonstop for the past two days. After the first ten hours, a flash-flood warning had been sent out, and once the rain subsided, the local news broadcast footage of mudslides that had struck two coastal towns in Orange County.
In the room, the tiny baby had already flooded her polka-dot tunic with tears. Feeling hopeless, heat swelled behind Zoey’s eyes as she wished everything would return to the way it had been before, in her old life as a billing accountant.
She almost missed the bitchy payroll manager who never looked her in the eye when they bumped into each other in the hallway and the jealous tattletale coworker who seemed ready to broadcast her pointless mistakes. They seemed mellow compared to this tantrum-throwing baby.
Life was unfair.
Zoey would never forget the moment when police had knocked on the door of her apartment forty-five days earlier. It was seven in the morning, and she’d just finished her breakfast. Her stomach churned, and she almost threw up as the officer told her about the hit-and-run that had taken Katya and Richard Dawson’s lives. They’d been on California SR-14, on their way to Mammoth Lakes for their first trip as a family, when the driver lost control of the stolen F-150. Ella had survived because Katya shielded her with her body.
When the police brought Zoey to the morgue to identify the bodies, the bruises and wounds on her sister’s face and neck had been stitched up and cleaned. Her knees trembled when she received the bag of their personal belongings gathered from the debris. Zoey bawled her eyes out for days, although she knew that wouldn’t bring them back to life.
Katya had been more than a sister to Zoey. Zoey was seven and Katya was fifteen when their dad died from an overdose and their mom ran away without a word to them two weeks after that. Their maternal grandma, Evie, had taken them in. When she passed away four years later, she left the house to them. The sisters lived there for another year before they decided to sell it and use the money to pay for their education.
Zoey couldn’t recall her mom’s face because Katya had burned all their family pictures and memorabilia in anger. Never had it crossed her mind that her gentle and thoughtful sister could be so violent. Her face was distorted in rage as she threw a burning stick upon the piles, watched the fire swallow them up, and threw the ashes into a garbage can. Zoey never mentioned her mom in front of her sister because she was afraid it would ignite Katya’s rage all over again. Still, she remembered their mom had beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes, like Ella. But other than that, Zoey didn’t have any memories of her. Perhaps she’d buried them deep in her mind.
The thing she regretted most was that she hadn’t answered the phone the morning Katya left for that deathly trip. Zoey had already been late for work and ignored her sister’s call. Now, she’d never know what Katya wanted to say.
Once the news of the couple’s death was announced, people—mostly friends of Katya and Richard and some close neighbors—began rotating in and out of the townhouse, giving Zoey their condolences. She didn’t know them, but it didn’t matter because every day was a blur.
After the cremation and memorial service, Harold Young from Young Law Firm, LLC, invited Zoey to his office and introduced himself as the executor and attorney for the Dawson living trust. The sixty-year-old man read the will, which stated that Ella was her parents’ sole beneficiary. All their assets would be given to her when she was twenty-five years old. In the event that Ella was underage when they died, her guardian would manage all the liquid assets until she reached that age. Katya had chosen Zoey as Ella’s guardian.
Speechless, Zoey had frozen in her seat. She was barely twenty-one, and her career had just begun. How could she be a mom to an infant? What about the dreams she wanted to pursue? Should she sacrifice them all? What about her love life? Was there any man who could possibly be interested in her—a woman with a baby—even though the baby wasn’t hers?
She was haunted by these thoughts and, after leaving the attorney’s office, drove four hundred miles north instead of going home. She ignored the congested traffic when entering downtown Los Angeles and navigated the orange barrels around the highway work zone on autopilot. Gorgeous beach scenes and the tunnels of Pacific Coast Highway always caught her eye when she would drive through there, but not this time. Her mind focused on only one thing: driving as far as possible from home.
Near Monterey, she stopped at Lover’s Point and stayed in a budget hotel for several nights. She switched her phone off because she didn’t want anyone to reach her.
On her fourth day there, Nora Oh—her best friend since elementary school—found her sitting alone on the sand by the seashore, watching the ebb and flow of the waves. Zoey’s ex-boyfriend, Terrance Jensen, also known as Tian Jie—his Chinese given name—or TJ, had brought her, then waited patiently a little off to the side for Nora to go talk to her.
Zoey shouldn’t have been surprised TJ had figured out where she was. He’d taken her to explore Monterey the day after her graduation, and they’d found Lover’s Point. Zoey had fallen in love with the place instantly and begged TJ to take her back there. Alas, their relationship had ended. Zoey decided to leave TJ and began dating her coworker, who she thought was more mature. In the end, that courtship was as short as a burning candle.
“Why are you out here without telling anyone? Is it because of what the attorney said?” Nora asked, her voice soft as she sat down next to her on the warm sand, studying Zoey’s troubled face. Normally, Zoey would have made a comment because, for once, her best friend didn’t seem concerned about having beach sand stuck on her feet and short pants. “What did he tell you?”
“Katya wants me to be Ella’s guardian because I’m her only kin. My grandparents passed away years ago. Both my parents are only children. My first cousins live outside California. Richard’s adoptive parents live in Sydney, and they’re already eighty.” Zoey looked at Nora, then beyond, to TJ sitting on the sand with his back against a big rock just a few feet away.
She continued, the desperation in her voice growing. “If Ella were older, taking care of her would be easy. But she’s a baby and won’t understand what I say, just as I don’t understand her. I don’t even know how to change a diaper. How can I raise her? I love Ella, but I can’t be her mom.”
“But running away isn’t the answer.” Nora touched her arm. “I know you’re upset and everything seems hopeless, but do you feel peaceful right now?”
Zoey choked back her tears and lowered her head, considering her friend’s question.
“Is there another option if you don’t want to be Ella’s guardian?” TJ asked after a moment’s silence.
“Yes, giving up my right of custody to the state. If I do that, Harold will find a good family to raise her. I can even help him interview them, so I’ll know what kind of people they are,” Zoey whispered.
“I think that’s a good idea, right? Lots of people aren’t able to have kids of their own. Ella is a sweet baby, and someone will happily take her,” Nora said.
“But I can’t abandon her.” Zoey shook her head adamantly. “I can’t imagine Ella living in a stranger’s home.” She covered her face, sobbing.
Nora and TJ exchanged brief glances. They sat in silence, watching the waves crash against the shore as they waited for her to calm down.
She sniffed and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Katya must be mad at me. When my dad passed away and my mom left us, she stayed and raised me with Granny, but now that Ella needs me, I’m washing my hands of her.”
“You’re just scared.” Nora looked at her with sympathy. “If I were you, I’d be kicking, screaming, and throwing stuff.”
Zoey pushed her feet deeper into the sand. She wished she could do those things, but naturally, she wasn’t as explosive as Nora.
“Why don’t we go home, Zoey?” TJ suggested. “Once you calm down, you can make a decision. No matter what you choose, you won’t be alone. Nora and I have been your friends for years, so you can come to us whenever you need, including when you need a babysitter.”
Nora nodded. “He’s right. Let’s go home. But right now, the most important thing is getting changed. You must’ve worn the same clothes for days.” She put a bag in front of Zoey, wrinkling her nose.
Zoey took the bag and returned to her hotel to take a quick shower and change into the blue jeans and navy-blue T-shirt Nora had packed for her. Then she went back home with TJ and Nora.
Three days later, she drove to Harold’s office to meet with the attorney again and tell him about her decision to become Ella’s guardian. Tension built in her stomach as she caught sight of the five-story black glass building with red trim, and her hand trembled as she turned off the car engine.
Did she make the right decision?
Harold’s fatherly tone calmed her down as she sat in front of him in his office. “Every choice comes with a consequence,” he said. “To those who don’t know your story, you will be Ella’s mom, a young and unmarried woman. Although there are many more young, single moms now than a few decades ago, you should be aware that being a single mom isn’t an easy life. And some men won’t date a woman with a baby.”
Zoey was aware of these downsides, especially the last one. She figured it would be better for her not to think seriously about romance until Ella turned eighteen.
Harold arranged the paperwork and suggested Zoey move out of the apartment she shared with Nora and into Katya’s house. It had everything she needed to take care of Ella. Zoey would have preferred to have the baby come stay with her, as her sister’s house was a forty-five-minute commute away from her office, while the drive from the apartment only took ten minutes. After a brief debate with Harold, however, Zoey gave up and agreed to move.
Harold didn’t just brush Zoey and Ella off after he’d executed his job. He gave Zoey a list of support groups for young moms, where she could learn from these women’s experiences. He also arranged for Lena—the babysitter Katya had used—to help with Ella whenever she needed.
For two weeks, Lena taught Zoey about essential infant care, including how to make homemade baby food. She was a kind and patient instructor and didn’t mind repeating herself. Although she did cover her eyes with a hand and murmur, “Ay, Dios mío,” when Zoey put on rubber gloves before changing Ella’s diaper, or held Ella over her head after feeding one morning and she threw up all over her, or when she became frustrated over installing a car seat in a convertible stroller.
Nora also kept her promise to help whenever she was available. Sometimes, she and her boyfriend, Jared, came over to watch Ella when Zoey had to work overtime. Zoey didn’t want to ask for TJ’s assistance. She had her pride.
Aside from learning to care for an infant, Zoey had to deal with Rocket, Katya’s precious Shiba Inu. That dog was spoiled and knew he was handsome because whenever Katya took him out for a walk, people would say things like, “what a handsome Shiba Inu,” or “He looks like that dog in the movie Hachiko.” And Rocket would strut with his chest puffed out and little nose up in the air, enjoying the praises.
Zoey didn’t like him and wished he had never existed. Rocket, for his part, didn’t like her either since she always shooed him away like a pest.
Juggling her time between work and a baby was already challenging, and now she had to find time to walk Rocket twice a day for thirty to forty minutes each time. Hiring a dog walker would be expensive, but luckily, Lena didn’t mind walking him in the evening before she left for the day.
For a while, everything seemed smooth, but it didn’t last long. The odds were against Zoey…
Kana Wu is a bilingual author who writes her novels in English as her second language. She also enjoys traveling and incorporates the places she visits into her books.
Her debut novel, No Romance Allowed, won the Romance category for the 2020 TCK Publishing Readers’ Choice Awards Contest.
Her second novel, No Secrets Allowed, earned a 1st Place Blue Ribbon for the Chatelaine Book Awards for Romantic Fiction, a division of the 2021 Chanticleer International Book Awards.
Currently, she resides in beautiful Southern California with her husband, surrounded by her books and the occasional hummingbird or wild birds’ visitor.
Keep up with Kana's latest news and updates by visiting her website or following her on social media.