Abby Wilkes pulled the hood of her jacket over her head and tightened its Velcro strap. She hunched over, protecting herself from the frigid north winds, but still pellets of sleet stung her cheeks. Abby yawned, glancing up at the dark sky. It was so early in the morning, she was still feeling stuffed from her turkey dinner the day before!
Her son Justin, sweet little Justin, would be sound asleep curled up in his warm cozy bed. It was that very vision that made the whole miserable experience of standing outside a closed department store before dawn drenched in sleet worthwhile. At least to Abby.
A year ago, she never dreamed she'd one day be a young single mother. Abby, Blake, and Justin were the picture perfect family...
The doctor re-entered the office carrying Abby's file. He fell into his leather chair and pulled off his glasses with a stern look. Abby and Blake squeezed one another's hands.
Dr. Markham cleared his throat and prepared to deliver the news. "Abby, Blake, I have the results of the amniocentesis. You're going to be the proud parents of a baby girl."
It was wonderful news! "Justy's going to have a little sister!" Abby cried, opening the flood gate of happy tears.
But Dr. Markham looked anything but happy.
"What's the matter?" Blake asked, a panicked tone coloring his voice. "Is she okay?"
The doctor nodded somberly. "She is. For now."
Terrifying memories of Abby's high risk pregnancy with Justin filled their heads and knotted their stomachs.
"What are you saying?" Abby asked in a whisper, her happy tears dissolving into tears of fear.
"I'm saying there are no signs of the problem we saw with your son, so I'm cautiously optimistic for the moment. We'll have to keep a very close eye on the two of you though, because complications could arise at any time."
Pools of tears formed in Blake's eyes as he gazed at his wife and said a silent prayer that all would be well for Abby and the baby.
Dr. Markham continued. "But you both knew that going into this pregnancy. You also knew that I wasn't wild about your idea of trying to give your son a sibling," he directed to Abby. "It just seemed too risky to me. That said, I understand why you made the decision you did. Now it's my responsibility to make sure both mother and daughter survive the journey to birth."
Blake's jaw dropped. "You're saying Abby could die ?" he shrieked.
The doctor looked over at Abby, whose face had turned a delicate shade of pink.
In a near blind rage, Blake jumped out of his chair. "What in the hell is going on here?" His voice was loud and rough with agitation. When no one spoke, he turned his attention to the doctor. "Damn it, someone better start explaining!"
Abby worried her lower lip.
"Abby," the doctor began gently, "I think you should be the one to explain this to your husband."
She wrung her hands and tucked a stray strand of long blond hair behind her ear. How could she tell her husband what she had purposely kept from him for so many months? Blake wanted a big family more than anything in the world, and Abby wanted to be the one to give it to him. She wanted to give it to him so much that she was willing to sacrifice her own life to do it.
"Abby?" Blake barked, causing her to jump.
"First off, you have to realize that the odds are not very great that-"
"You could die from this pregnancy?!?" he interrupted frantically.
Abby nodded silently. "But Blake, you have to understand why it did it," she cried. "I wanted to give you the large family you always wanted. I love you, love you more than life itself!" A tear dropped from her cheek and fell onto her turquoise chenille sweater. Such a happy color for such a sad day...
Blake's eyes widened, wild with anger. "If you loved me so much, why in the hell would you even risk taking my best friend away from me?"
"Best friend?" Her voice was hoarse from the stress and tears.
"That's right," Blake spat back. "I consider you my best friend as well as my wife. When something goes wrong, it's you I turn to for comfort. When something great happens, you're the one I want to share it with!"
Abby never knew he felt that way. Blake was never an overly emotional man to begin with, but you'd never know that from the passion he displayed that day in the doctor's office. Abby covered her mouth. "Oh, God," she croaked. "I'm so sorry! I never knew you felt that way! I kept fixating on your love of children and wanting a large family..." her voice trailed off.
"Hey you two, let me interrupt here," Dr. Markham chimed in. "What's done is done. Stress will only aggravate the situation. We need to focus on keeping mother and daughter healthy and calm."
Abby looked up at Blake whose posture had finally relaxed a bit. Her eyes were sad and pleading at the same time. "I'm so very sorry..." she repeated. She stood up, looking him straight in the eye. "Will you ever be able to forgive me?"
After a few moments of tense silence, Blake folded Abby into his arms. As they clung to each other, they both burst into a sorrowful weep. Dr. Markham left the room quietly, giving them time to deal with their emotions.
It was shaping up to be a battle of epic proportions as a line of people started to form outside the store. Abby glanced at her watch. 4 a.m. Just two short hours to go, she sighed to herself, leaning up against the building.
"Name's Paul Clark," the man standing next to her said, extending his gloved hand.
Abby reached for his hand reluctantly. "Abby Wilkes," she mumbled, avoiding direct eye contact at any cost.
"Nice to meetcha, Miss Wilkes," he smiled.
She nodded and mumbled something that sounded like "likewise". Finally deciding that two hours was an awfully long time to stare up at the dark sky, Abby spoke. "Nice day to be shopping, isn't it?" She smiled as she turned in the direction of the stranger. Her mouth fell open at the sight of him. Stray thick brown curls of hair peeked out from under his stocking cap, and even in the dim light of the store's big sign she could see that his eyes were gentle and kind.
"No kidding," he laughed, pulling the collar of his coat closer to his neck. "So what brings you out on such a lovely morning?"
"Duh," she responded with biting sarcasm. Seeing his hurt look, her pursed lips softened. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "You didn't deserve that."
"You're right, I didn't." How conceited, she thought to herself. But he continued speaking. "However I suspect a lady like you has a reason for being in such a mood. Some women are just that way you know." He banged his foot against the store's brick building to shake off the snow from the top of his boot.
She smiled at that. "Well thanks for not just assuming I'm a bitch!" Abby laughed, the sound muffled by the thick layer of sleet and snow.
He smiled back, his eyes narrowing into contented slits. The time was going to pass much more quickly than she thought...
That evening, Abby, Blake, and Justin cuddled up on the sofa with a huge bowl of buttery popcorn. "Finding Nemo", Justin's Christmas gift from Abby's sister Katerina, was the movie of the night. It was a favorite of Justin's, but Abby had never had the chance to see if from the very beginning. Not until that night.
Her breath caught when in usual Disney form the mother was killed off early on. Blake reached over and held her hand, fighting a wave of nausea himself. They hadn't told Justin about the potential problems. He was only five years old, and Abby and Blake didn't want to scare him unnecessarily.
When they decided to take a potty break in the middle of the movie, Abby stood up at stretched. A rumble gurgled deep within her stomach. How could she still be hungry? She had just eaten a massive quantity of popcorn. Abby lay her hand on her slightly protruding abdomen, trying to decide if the faint movement she felt was the baby or her growling stomach.
"Hungry, Babe?" Blake asked as he came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her.
"I shouldn't be. Not after all that popcorn."
"What do you crave?" Blake asked. "Anything." Abby closed her eyes and thought about it. "Come on, tell me," he insisted, kissing her silky neck.
"Hmm... I've got it! Cookies and cream ice cream! Has to be Edy's though," she grinned.
"Piece of cake. I just picked up a fresh tub after work last night." Abby looked at him guiltily. "Let me guess... it's gone?" She nodded with an impish grin. Blake released her and grabbed his coat from the brass hall tree near the front door. He walked back over to Abby and took both of her hands in his. "We'll get through this," he promised, squeezing her hands for emphasis.
He placed a tender kiss on her lips, told her he loved her, and then called out, "Be back in a few minutes, sport. Love ya, buddy!" And with that he was out the door.
"Need some Chapstick, Miss Wilkes?"
Abby startled back to the here and now. It was Paul's voice asking her the question. "Uh, no. Why?"
Paul gestured toward his lips. "I saw you touching your lips... Thought they might be sore from this nasty weather."
"Ah," Abby responded, finally putting what had happened together. She was touching her lips where Blake had kissed her that night. "I'm fine. Thanks." If only the real problem were as simple as merely having chapped lips, she sighed. "By the way, call me Abby. The Miss Wilkes stuff is kind of formal for a department store parking lot, don't you think?"
He chuckled. "You've got a feisty sense of humor," he observed. "I like that in a woman."
If only he knew it was more of a coping strategy than anything else...
The sky was just starting to lighten in the west. Upon glancing at her watch, Abby was shocked to discover that she and the handsome stranger had burned up over an hour engaged in idle chit-chat.
Oddly enough, the topic of why they were both there on such a dreary morning hadn't even come up until that very moment. "So what brings you out on such an ugly night... morning... whatever you wanna call it?" Paul asked.
Abby shrugged. "It's pretty simple really--my son."
Damn, she was married, Paul thought, a tinge of disappointment making him swallow hard. Even bundled up in her coat Abby was beautiful. And he didn't just mean physically either. Her personality and soulful eyes were nothing short of adorable. "Well, your son and husband are two very lucky men!" Paul thought he was so sneaky. With a comment like that, he could learn the state of her personal life and deliver a compliment. It was a no-lose thing to say he decided.
She bowed her head slightly, clearly embarrassed by his flattery. :Well, my son's lucky at least," Abby smiled. "And you? Why are you here so early?"
Paul had no idea what to say. "Picking up a few toys for my boss," he finally revealed. It wasn't exactly a lie.
"How sweet of you!" Abby was truly touched by his kindness.
"So what are you picking up for the little man?"
"You know those new action figures about this high?" Abby held her hands three to four inches apart. "The Village People I think they're called?"
Ah, Paul knew them well. Those blasted plastic jointed figures were causing him a good share of trouble as well. "Yeah, you mean Greg the Grocer, Dan the Doctor, Hailey the Hairstylist and all those guys, right?"
Abby nodded. "I heard this store was putting out a huge display of them this morning for their after Thanksgiving sale, or there's no way I'd be standing out in this shit."
"So who ya after?"
"Frank the Fireman," she responded.
Great, Paul sighed to himself. The figure that came only one to a case and started fist fights in store aisles nationwide... He didn't have the heart to tell her she was most likely going to be in for huge disappointment. "Is he the only one your son doesn't have or something?" Paul asked, hoping to change her mind about which figure to go after.
"Oh no," Abby smiled. "Justin's five, so he only wants to play with the boy figures." She couldn't help but laugh a little at that herself. "But the biggest reason for wanting Frank the Fireman is that Justin's father was a fireman."
"Was?" Paul picked up on her use of the past tense almost instantly. "What happened?"
Abby looked down at the wet sloppy ground, a single tear making its way down her cheek.
"Where's Daddy?" Justin asked when he returned from the bathroom. He looked up at his mother with wide eyes of wonder.
"He went to get us some ice cream, honey," Abby answered, rubbing her belly to indicate the 'us' meant she and the baby. "Daddy'll be back in a few minutes." She sat down on the sofa and patted her lap. "Come on, why don't you and I watch a little more of Nemo while we wait?"
Smiling, Justin grabbed his favorite blanket and stuffed dog, Buddy, and then crawled up on to his mother's lap. He snuggled into her as she hit Play on the DVD player.
The movie had ended and Justin had fallen asleep in her arms, yet Blake still hadn't returned. Abby would've been worried had she not been a fireman's wife. If he passed by an incident on the way to or from getting ice cream, odds were he'd stop to see if he could help.
Abby drifted off to sleep on the sofa hugging Justin. The harsh chime of the doorbell woke her up with a start. Justin rubbed his sleepy eyes as she settled him over to the other end of the sofa and walked across the room. "What's the matter, Blake? Forget your keys again?" Abby had to laugh. Blake was always forgetting his keys. She pulled the door open and, instead of Blake, stared into the somber eyes of two policemen.
Nausea overwhelmed Abby, whose stomach was already a bit touchy from the pregnancy. Her knees weakened as she stood in the doorway, silent.
"Are you Mrs. Abby Wilkes?" the shorter of the two men finally asked.
She nodded, not wanting to hear what he had to say next. It couldn't be good, of that she was certain.
"May we come in?" the second officer asked.
"I guess so," she answered reluctantly, motioning them into the house.
"Excuse me a moment..." She turned to Justin who was sprawled out on the sofa. "Justy, honey, can you hop into bed for Mommy?" Abby summoned all of her strength to keep an even expression for her son. "I need to talk to these men for just a few minutes, and then I'll be in to tuck you in, okay?"
With a sweet smile, Justin said, "Okay, Mommy. See you soon!" and then blew her a kiss and a hug.
Abby settled into the big overstuffed chair, leaving the sofa for the two policemen.
"What can I do for you guys this evening?" she asked in a carefree tone that was either forced nonchalance or denial pure and simple. She folded her hands in her lap.
The shorter office, Officer Carter, swallowed the lump which grew in his throat. He hadn't realized the fireman's wife was pregnant. The news that he had to deliver was never terribly well received, but the pregnancy would undoubtedly make it worse. "Uh, Mrs. Wilkes... we came to tell you something... something about your husband."
Abby tilted her head and looked back at him, very focused on his mouth.
"I'm not sure how to say this..."
How hard could it be to just say the guy's dead, Abby thought bitterly, sensing what was ahead.
"There was a robbery..." Officer Carter explained. "Your husband was at the convenience store at the time. The robber grabbed a young woman and her baby, holding them hostage." Before he said another word, Abby knew what had happened. But the officer continued just the same. "Mrs. Wilkes, your husband did an incredibly heroic thing. He rescued the woman and her baby, and freed them from their captor."
Abby smiled, her tears coming more freely. That was so like Blake...
"Unfortunately it..." The officer choked up at the sight of her tears. "Unfortunately it cost him his life." Officer Carter waited for the sobbing to begin, but it never did. Abby sat in her chair, hands folded--the vision of calmness except for the tears. "I'm so sorry Mrs. Wilkes," Officer Carter added somberly, briefly bowing his head in respect for her deceased husband. "Is there anything we can do for you and your son?"
Yeah, bring him back from the dead, she wanted to shout. But Abby knew that wasn't an option. "We'll be alright," she said flatly. "Just give us time..."
Seeing that the newly widowed woman clearly wanted time alone, the officers stood up and headed for the door. "Please let us know if we can be of any help," Officer Carter reminded her.
The second officer spoke up for the first time. "I knew your husband, ma'am." He squeezed his eyes shut to shut off any potential tears. "He was one helluva guy. Everyone loved him. Blake was the first person people turned top when they needed help because they knew he cared and could be counted on." He took off his police hat. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Wilkes."
She probably should have thanked him, but she couldn't find the energy within her to do it. With a nod of acknowledgement, she let them out the door and wandered back to Justin's room. How in the world was she ever going to tell him that he no longer had a father?
Abby looked down at the sleeping angel, all snug in his bed. She'd deal with that another time. In the meantime, she kicked off her slippers and crawled into the bed with her son where she finally fell asleep holding him tight.
"Wow, that's an intense story," Paul said, letting a puff of air whistle through his teeth. "How long ago was that?"
"Back in January," she replied.
Paul's cell phone rang. "Shit, I'm sorry, Abby, but I have to take this." He pulled up the antenna and punched the Talk button. "Paul Clark here..."
"Yo, PC, just got a call from another desperate parent. This one's willing to pay $200 for Frank the Fireman."
"Are these people nuts?!?" Paul shrieked into the phone.
"Save the judgment calls for later, just find one. Get it back here today, and it's worth a handsome bonus to you." The cell line went dead.
Paul bit his lower lip. The beautiful woman he had just started to like had gone from potential love interest to primary competitor in one brief phone call! Abby was no match for him, though. He knew all the tricks, the tricks that only years in the toy hunting business could teach you. But after hearing her story, the thought of going up against her for one stinkin' toy made his insides curdle. If only he didn't know what she was looking for, then he could live with the guilt.
"The employees are starting to arrive," Abby observed, pointing to a small snow-covered sedan making its way through the parking lot to the rear of the store. "We must be getting close," she added with a smile. "Hey, Paul, do you know anything about eBay?" Abby had talked to the spunky older woman standing on the other side of her while Paul was on the phone. The lady suggested considering eBay for the harder to find toys.
"It's an online auction house," he responded noncommittally.
"I know," Abby persisted. "But would you ever shop there? For hard to find toys I mean?"
Paul shrugged. "I guess so. If I had no other alternative that is." The last thing he needed her to do is go online and end up spending a ridiculous amount of money for the figure on eBay from his toy broker boss. He was sure she'd ditch him in a New York minute if she knew he was involved in such activity. Sure, it wasn't dealing drugs or anything, but many people hated toy hunters. They felt toy hunters were single-handedly responsible for ruining Christmas by taking the most desired toys out of the immediate grasp of the average person. Toy hunters were like the modern day Grinch, and their presence and subsequent success just proved the point that money could solve just about anything-not a lesson many of today's parents wanted their children exposed to. He hoped Abby would let the subject drop, but he should have known better. She was not one to give up easily.
"So what other options are there then? I mean besides using eBay or burning up a hundred dollars in gas and two pairs of shoes hitting every store in a 50 mile radius."
Paul didn't really want to mention the local toy shows, but he had to leave her with at least some hope of finding Frank the Fireman. Especially after hearing the sad story she shared with him. "Let's just hope your daughter's gifts are a bit easier to find," he said, rubbing his hands to warm them.
"Daughter?" Abby asked, stunned.
"Yeah. You said Justin was going to have a baby sister."
Abby's eyes grew dark, and filled with puddles of tears.
He rubbed a leather gloved hand against her rosy red cheek. "What happened, Abby?" he whispered, hoping it was nothing major, but sensing that it was truly something significant.
"She was never born," Abby responded, her voice catching.
Why did Paul get the feeling that what she was about to say was going to make him feel even worse about being her competitor for Frank the Fireman? "Jesus, didn't anything go right for you this year?"
"If it has, I sure don't know about it," she grinned sardonically. "I lost her shortly after Blake died," Abby explained. "I guess I didn't cope with his death very well."
"Who the hell could have?" Paul defended.
"It was basically my fault the baby died," she said with a sniffle. "I cried for a week straight, didn't eat, didn't sleep, and my blood pressure went through the roof. The doctors saw the trouble coming, but there was little they could do about it." Her head bowed as she squeezed her eyes shut to hold back the tears. "Justy's little sister died inside of me..."
Paul wrapped his arm around her shoulder, comforting her as much as he could. He couldn't think of a thing to say to make her feel better. What could a person say to someone who had lost a spouse and a baby within a short window of time?
The horizon grew pink with the rising sun. Paul looked at his watch. "Okay, Abby, five minutes to go and counting. We need to devise a plan..." They huddled together to establish their plan of attack. In short, the determined duo decided to take two separate routes to the toy section, figuring that one of them could at least beat the crowd. Since they were going for small figures, they decided to make the sprint without a cart. Better mobility, Paul pointed out, since you can squeeze your body into tight spots sideways. A bulky cart merely limits your options.
As soon as the doors swung open, Abby and Paul began their mad dash. Abby ran around the jewelry counter and was stalled by a group of old ladies smelling every perfume sampler on display. With a groan, Abby re-routed herself through house wares, and continued on toward toys. She arrived in the action figure aisle just in time to see a tall man pluck the last Village People figure from a peg high above his head. Either someone had loaded their cart with them, or the store never received their shipment.
Whatever the case, Abby was disappointed. She wanted more than anything to make this Christmas special for Justin. While neither of them felt like celebrating the holidays, friends and family felt it would be the best thing to do as part of their healing process. In some ways Abby agreed. But that didn't mean she had to be excited about it!
She scanned the area for Paul, but saw no sight of him. It was just as well, she thought to herself. Abby had no intention of starting anything with another man. Not now, and probably not ever.
With a deep sigh, she turned around and headed for the front of the store. Still no sign of Paul or the Village People-filled cart. With an indifferent shrug, she exited the store and sloshed her way through the parking lot to her car.
What in the world was she thinking? She knew all of the gimmicks stores pulled the day after Thanksgiving to get shoppers out, but still she fell for it. What a mother won't do for her son, Abby thought with a warm smile as she settled into her car.
Over the following week, Abby stopped at various stores on her lunch break and after work, but still no luck in finding Frank the Fireman.
Some two weeks after the post-Thanksgiving sales, Abby got a tip from a cute young stocker at the local discount toy store. With an irresistible smile and quiet whisper, he informed her that a new shipment of figures would be in the following Tuesday.
Abby's attitude brightened considerably over the weekend. This time she had inside information, and she was sure she was going to get lucky in finding the action figure.
Tuesday morning was cool and drizzly. Abby poured a piping hot pot of coffee into a high-tech metal thermos, vowing to be prepared for the elements this time.
As she pulled up to the front of the toy store, she noticed the parking lot was mostly empty. A quick scan at the doors revealed no line of people waiting to get in, so she opted to stay in her car and sip hot coffee rather than stand out in the cold.
The car windows fogged up as she sat there dreaming about finding the elusive figure. She could literally see Justin's happy grin and hear his squeal of delight. This time, she was determined to get the job done.
A rap on the driver's side window startled her. Upon rolling down the window, she was met by Paul's face.
"Hey, gorgeous, we have to stop meeting like this!"
The line was so cliché, but it made Abby laugh anyway. "Get your butt in here," she ordered, hitching her thumb at the passenger side door. "You'll catch pneumonia!"
Paul rounded the car and slid into the passenger seat obediently. "Oh, coffee," he groaned, looking enviously at her thermos cup.