The Unprotected: A Novel

The Unprotected: A Novel

by Kelly Sokol


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A compelling debut novel exploring postpartum depression—for readers of suspenseful women’s fiction and fans of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

They say motherhood changes you.

As a driven advertising executive, Lara James has always put her career before any plans for a family, preferring professional chic to stay-at-home style. But after her father’s death, she realizes she’s ready. More than ready, in fact. Yet pregnancy—something other women seem to accomplish effortlessly, even accidentally—doesn’t come easily to Lara. What began as an adventure quickly becomes a nightmare as she and her husband endure endless IVF treatments, hormone therapy, and devastating miscarriages.

When Lara at last becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, Auden, she believes their determination has paid off. But Auden cries day and night, ear-shattering screams that strip Lara of her nerves and energy. Her life as a sleep-deprived new mother is unrelenting, and, guiltily, Lara can’t help but mourn for what she once had. With her marriage crumbling, Lara is increasingly driven to alarming thoughts and destructive actions she would never have imagined possible before now. Hanging on by a thread, it’s only in her darkest moment that Lara will discover the true depths of her love and devotion—and what she’s willing to face for the family she’s so desperately sought.

At times disturbing, The Unprotected is a bold, unflinching novel for anyone who’s ever wanted children—and wondered what they might have to sacrifice along the way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510718326
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 04/25/2017
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kelly Sokol is an MFA-Creative Writing graduate with a concentration in fiction from Goddard College, where she studied with John McManus, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Darcey Steinke. She has been featured on NPR, discussing the portrayal of motherhood and postpartum depression in fiction. She teaches creative writing at The Muse Writers Center. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She resides in Norfolk, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt



"No." Lara stomped the slush off of her boots on the mat just inside her father's room. She'd already cleaned them at the hospital entrance but she felt like stomping. She felt like stomping and holding her breath until she got her way.

The oncologist pushed past her, his goodbye a terse grip of her shoulder and an avoided glance.

"No," she said again, louder. "There is more we can do. I heard him, Dad. If ..." If you give up it's over. But she wasn't going to say it aloud.

"It's not any use. We all know it." Her father's voice was a whisper.

He'd always looked more like a lumberjack, stocky, almost rectangular in bulk, but it was his voice that could command a classroom or an auditorium or a bookstore. Not quite six feet tall, he gave the impression of height. But he wasn't a lumberjack. He wasn't a professor anymore, either. Her father was a whisper. The withering had begun before his diagnosis and it accelerated each time cancer was found in another part of his body.

Despite his quiet voice, his eyes were an unmedicated bright. She'd forgotten the real color and liveliness of his eyes before the drugs dulled them. Clear again, they appeared almost alien, retouched, without his thick eyebrows and dense lashes, chemotherapy's last trophies. But she didn't want to look right at them. She wouldn't let him convince her. Instead, Lara picked at flecks of orange glitter on the pumpkin and candy corn garland still wrapped around parts of the bed. Halloween was almost two weeks ago. It shouldn't still be there: festive didn't belong in oncology. And no one needed reminding about death.

"Beth, come on." Lara's will could out-muscle her mother. She'd done it for years.

"If it's what your father wants." This was Beth's form of declarative sentence.

"Teddy, Bea, we should all get a say. I — I can help with more," Lara said.

"La," her father said. He hadn't spoken that nickname aloud since she was a child, though he addressed every letter he'd ever written to his La. "La" had been Bea's first word. "We've talked to the other kids. And you've helped more than you should already."

"Dad —"

"I'm not going to beat this, but I don't want to die in this hospital. Even if you can't understand that, I need you to stop fighting me."

Lara wasn't fighting her father; she was fighting his cancer, fighting his dying when everyone else had surrendered. Ted Jennings had taught Lara how to fish, taught her to drive a stick shift, to negotiate a fair rate at the mechanic, how to follow up on a resume and land the job, how to slow her breathing while running, get over her first broken heart. One foot in front of the other, one stride and then the next. Find forward and walk through it, her father had always said. And now he was giving up.

"Fine, then I'm moving home."

Her father's back straightened at her words, but only just. "Absolutely not. You've only just gotten started in New York."

"You make your decisions, Dad. I'll make mine."

He was trying to look stern for her, but he smiled anyway.

She was only gone for two and a half weeks, long enough to pack up her apartment, sign over her only months-old lease, and empty her desk at DDB, where she wouldn't work anymore.

"I'll be back as soon as my dad gets better," she told the woman who shared a cubicle wall.

Standing inside the footprint of where her bed had been, Lara could touch three walls standing still. Without a mattress and bedframe, the space seemed even smaller somehow, where before she had felt infinite — the city, its people just beyond her touch, energy humming on the other side of the plaster. All of her kitchenware was miniature, New York apartment–sized: a four-cup coffee pot from a market for all manner of items manufactured to fit inside a postage stamp. Even the smallest apartment in Virginia would be twice as large as this one. She would be enormous and reduced at once.

As she surrendered her key, she knew she would immediately change her cell phone number. She wouldn't cling to the 917 area code like someone who could never move on. Holding onto it would be too sad. She'd only lived in the city for five years, not long enough to call herself a New Yorker, barely longer than the starry-eyed farm kids who arrived after college, ambitions bulging their suitcases, kids the city spat out by the hundreds. New York hadn't finished with her — that was some satisfaction. She left far more established than she'd arrived. Lara wasn't finished with New York. Still, she would never come back as anything more than a tourist; it was clear.

Her New York dream stillborn, she mouthed her goodbyes.

She didn't have time to wallow. Her father hadn't looked well before she left. She wasn't going to miss out on any more time with him.

Her dad sent her one email while she was gone: Don't give up on your life because of me. Mine's already over. I can't take you with me.

Her time in Manhattan was one long correspondence with her father, first on paper and then electronically. He typed the way he spoke, the way he wrote longhand. His letters were block-angled and sturdy, and his words, across either medium, were fluid, deep. Unrushed. The sudden brevity of his emails, once seven paragraphs or more, signaled his failing. Would she have realized sooner if he were still writing in ink, trying to move a pen in a trembling, tired hand? Could she have saved him?

Lara's response: I'll be home soon! Love you, La.

Two phone calls later, Lara was employed again. From account manager to assistant partner. Kathy O'Malley, a visiting professional Lara had met as a student at Syracuse, was starting her own public relations and marketing firm in Richmond on the heels of a campaign that helped turn around a national transportation franchise. Kathy wanted a partnership, offered Lara equal stake in the company. As she was paying for her father's experimental and expensive treatments, Lara had to pass. Still, Kathy never treated Lara like an employee.

Kathy and Lara picked their clients, focusing on who they loved and what accounts were profitable. No politicians — no money to be made there, no space for creativity. You could only do so much with red, white, and blue, and there were only so many ways to say, "I'm not like him, I'm like you." Strange how much easier it was to make products more exciting than people.

They hand-selected corporations, museums, restaurateurs, promoters from New York to Miami to brand and market. O'Malley Media was born and thrived.

When Lara and Kathy renovated the old shipping office in a corner of the massive Nolde Bros. Bakery, transformed it into O'Malley Media, the conference room was their showpiece. They punched through the outside wall and installed a ten-foot by eight- foot leaded glass window with 108 thick square panes. They peeled the paneling from the walls to expose the intricate chevron brick pattern. The room was light but private. From every vantage point, you could see the smallest detail on the screen that stretched down over the inside wall, in high resolution. For six months Lara searched for the right conference table. She decided on a large wooden door from an old fire-curing tobacco barn. She sealed it with polyurethane. Even the wormholes gleamed with every brush stroke. The twelve chairs around the conference table were nimble, small, and modern; they kept your posture in line and the client comfortable.

The December day Lara closed on her new row house, she drove the U-Haul from the storage unit to her parents' house first. All of her New York self fit into the small truck, furniture included. She had asked to take her dad to his last chemotherapy appointment. She hadn't meant to gasp when she saw him, helping him to the car, but she flinched at his papery touch, his cold fingertips. He'd always been ruddy in complexion, the same red she had tried to balance out in her own skin, but he wasn't red anymore. He was raw scallop-colored and nearly as translucent. It was disconcerting to see life and illness moving beneath his skin.

He shivered beneath three blankets during his last treatment, his eyes closed most of the time, the veins at his temples like a mountain range on a map.

"Goodbye, Mr. Jennings," the nurse said as she hugged him. Lara hoped she did that at every visit.

"Straight home, Dad?" Lara asked.

He shook his head. "We've got to make our last stop, like always." Ukrop's for a mint-chocolate chip milkshake, his weekly post-chemo treat.

"You sure?"

"It'll help get this horrible taste out of my mouth."

Once they arrived at the store, he refused to stay in the car, away from all of the people and their germs. "Not this time," he said.

He winced after his first bite. Unable to use a straw, he spooned the shake into his mouth. He shuffled more quickly to the sliding doors. As he hinged over the metal trash can beside the entrance, Lara gingerly pressed her palm against the knobs of his vertebrae after each retch. Neck burning, eyes stinging, she glared hard at anyone who stared — the women who shepherded their children closer to their sides. Lara set her mouth stiff, daring someone to speak. Her stomach shuddered. Anger was easier than watching the avian hump of her father's spine over the trash can that had to be filled with cigarette butts, half-empty beer cans, condoms, the poison that wasn't killing his cancer.

Thinned like the birds he so loved and shaped like the letters that filled his life, Ted was a spectacle for shoppers and passersby. Queasy to her bowels, Lara wouldn't show her father her revulsion. Once he was upright again, she dabbed bits of spit, flakes of chocolate and bile from the corners of his mouth with a Kleenex. She massaged his knuckles as she helped him back onto the sidewalk, closer to the car. Breathed only through her mouth.

"Brett, hold your sister's hand," a woman told her son, making a stop sign of her palm. She walked briskly to Lara and her father. "Can I give you two a hand?" She smelled like a fragrance department — too much, but it covered the stench of chemical puke. Lara was afraid he might faint. Could she catch him before he hit the concrete? She started to nod, but her father's head dropped. His grip tightened.

"We've got it covered," he said, releasing Lara's hand and walking on his own.

Lara smiled at the woman for not pressing it. Once the woman took her children into the store, Lara again offered her father her hand. He batted it away.

She hurried to the car and opened his door. He was winded by the third attempt to buckle his seat belt. As Lara closed the door she knew it was the last time they would drive home together.

Lara wouldn't speak with the gravel in her throat. He spoke for her. "You don't have to do this."

"I know," she said, turning on her blinker. "I want to."

"Since when does your mother have a better poker face than you?" he asked, turning to study her face.

She smiled, but kept facing the road. "Please, I play all my cards very close to the vest."

He cough-laughed. "I'm dying, La-la. I know that. But if I didn't, I'd realize it every time I looked at your face."

"Dad ..." She couldn't refute him. She was trying so hard.

"You're trying so hard," he said. Had she spoken aloud? No. "You always try so hard. Your mother lives for this stuff. Don't deny her." He touched her shoulder. His fingers were the weight of a child's.

"You're not getting rid of me," she said.

"I don't want to. But go home. Get settled. Let your mother and the nurses perform the laying on of hands. Come back and read to me later. I'm going to ask a lot from you, things that would be impossible for your mother or Bea or the boys."

"It's a deal."

Her relief was acrid. She'd hate herself for it later, how he made her special and also dismissed her. But once back in her U-Haul she rolled down the windows to the damp winter cold. At her sink, she scrubbed her hands raw to get the stink of cancer and chemo and hospital solvent out of her skin.

She scheduled movers to help her with the larger furniture the next day, but she placed each box in the center of the rooms in her new house and hung her clothes on the single bar in her bedroom closet. The rooms in the nearly century-old home were small but many, with an antiquated parlor for receiving guests, even a tiny maid's closet between the back door and the cramped kitchen. The textured plaster walls were painted in dark plum and earthy tans. The stately crown molding was peeling. She would start painting the next day: White Dove high gloss for the molding and trim and doorways, Fresh White for the walls. Clean, bright. Polished. She could work miracles on her home, but not her father's health. Home improvements were visible by the day. So was his decline.

Each time her father failed, weakened, lost himself, Lara felt the match strike of hunger, of want. She had a lifetime's experience of suppressing her appetite. Her college roommate, Karen, called her on it freshman year when they stumbled from their first frat party to Pizza Mart. Everyone else gulped their pizza, slopping oil. Lara dumped the cheese in the trash, blotted the remaining oil, and savored her allotted three bites. Her stomach twisting for more pizza, she was fed by her self-control.

"I don't know how you do that," Karen said, her freckled cheeks and nose red from a night drinking keg beer.

"I was a fat kid a long time ago," she said matter-of-factly. "No bite will ever taste better than the first."

The burn of loss she used as fuel. If necessary she could run so far and so long that food turned repellent. And boys, then men, could make her feel even better than food — sinew, hips against her, and the artful use of tongue. So could winning, success. The strategy worked for years.

She couldn't keep her father alive. His looming absence became less deniable by the day, with every soiled sheet, his wan complexion, the way his clothes seemed to grow larger on his frame. This loss had incisors that tore deep and down. She was unprepared for this hunger.

New Years Eve at her parents' house, Lara's father looked less ragged. His downy strands of remaining hair had been combed to one side. He had his glasses on, his favorite pajamas. She kissed him on the cheek.

"Grab the bourbon from the freezer," he said.

She narrowed her eyes but smiled.

"And pour us both some," he directed. "I've made it through the year," he said. "A new millennium. That's something."

When she returned with two rocks glasses, each with two fingers of Black Maple Hill and three ice cubes, Ted almost looked like himself, except that he took up almost none of the bed. At least his bodily failures now happened privately. Lara didn't miss the traffic flow of the hospital or the way it was clear that her father could never really rest with the bed articulating to try and prevent blood clots, and the regular check of his vital signs. Home was so quiet without the machines and cuffs, the whirring and beeps.

They clinked glasses and sipped.

"What will we be reading tonight?" Ted asked.

He'd banned poetry. Poetry, he'd read himself, aloud, when he had the energy. If it weren't the poet performing the reading, Ted Jennings wanted to shape the words with his own mouth. He asked for narrative. Transportation but with depth. Lara had searched for hours. Afraid her choice would not measure up.

"A Prayer for Owen Meany."

"Cheeky. Let's confront the many deaths and humors." He tried to yell, like Owen, in all caps. He achieved conversational volume.

"Always the comedian," she said.

In the stillness, Lara had to watch the flutter of the bedsheet as her father's breath hitched, when phlegm strangled his glottis. The quiver of his mouth after a cough, the phlegmy, then crusty, dry corners of his lips. The green hue of the sweat that beaded on his scalp after a hack, the few remaining strands of hair trembling like antennae. His wheezing attempts at breath, how his lips darkened purple to navy, and the hollows under his eyes. Even his skin had thinned.

So she read. When she read, an hour could pass under the spell of story. She trained her mind on inflection and meter and cadence and performance. As she read, her father's breathing would slow, as the hospice nurse silently slipped him more morphine.



In mid-January, after she had unpacked, repainted, and recycled her packing boxes from New York, Ted asked her to box up the books in his offices at home and on campus and to deliver certain titles to different members of the faculty. The fourth delivery was to the younger member of his department, Ted's favorite. Will James.

Lara studied the Post-It note, trying to camouflage her difficulty in reading her father's palsied script. "Both of these to office 206, right?"

"Yes, those are all for Will James. Hopefully you'll get to meet him."

"Why do you want to get rid of these now? Why not after —" She winced.


Excerpted from "The Unprotected"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Kelly Sokol.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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