Content warning: mild foul language and substance abuse
Judd took a long drag from his cigarette. Warm air passed between his lips and filled his lungs. An instant buzz ran through his skull, making the midnight sky no longer seem as dark. A car pulled up behind him, its lights reflected off the wet pavement like a flash of lightning in a black sky. The hum of the engine quieted and for a moment, a blissful sense of peace came over him.
The car door clicked open and the sound of heavy boots hitting the pavement followed. Judd did not turn around to look. He had been expecting his younger cousin, Adam, to meet him over fifteen minutes ago. Late as usual, that kid…
“So, what are we doing out here?” said Adam, followed by a car door slamming shut.
“You can’t already tell?” Judd said, his voice distorted by the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Adam locked his car, and the lights from his car flashed. Water splashed up on the ends of his jeans after accidentally stepping in a black puddle hidden on the pavement. “Man, why’d you want to meet here? Everything is closed. This a drug deal or something?”.
“No, I don’t do that shit anymore,” Judd said. There was a hint of hurt in his voice. “I’m turning a new leaf. That’s the sayin’ right?”
“No man, it’s turning a new lead.”
Judd looked over at Adam. His greasy face shined like the streetlight above them. “I swear on my kid that it’s leaf.”
“Doesn’t matter when you gonna tell me why we’re here?”
“Well look,” Judd said while holding a handout to the building they stood in front of. Inside was pitch black and the neon store front display that read ‘Hoy’s Toys’ had long been turned off.
“Yeah, it’s a toy shop. What about it?”
“Tomorrow is Gabby’s birthday. I’m gettin’ her one of those Cabbage Patch dolls kids are going nuts for.”
“I’m surprised you even know when her birthday is. Anyway, it’s closed man, go tomorrow,”
Judd took another drag from his cigarette, then let it fall from his fingers. Glowing red sparks flung from the tip as it hit the pavement. His heavy boot stepped on it, then twisted, snuffing the last bit of glow. “Those things don’t come cheap.”
Judd could feel Adam’s eyes like razors on the side of his face. He had no interest in his judgement, so he kept his eyes forward. Eyes on the prize.
“No way dude, you have got to be joking.”
A smile grew on Judd’s lips. “It will be easy peasy.”
“I thought you just said you were turning a new leaf… or lead… whatever. You wanna go back to jail?” Adam’s eyes never left him. He could see from the corner of his eyes there was a hint of excitement. He knew Adam wanted the thrill.
“I am, and the first step is being a real dad for Gabby.”
“You can’t seriously be suggesting we rob a toy store for some stupid doll, a doll dude. Let that just sink in.”
Judd finally looked over at Adam, who now had almost shrunken down to his knees. “Not just a doll. A Cabbage Patch doll. You know people are selling them on the black market for top dollar? This is for my Gabby. The look on her face when her dad comes over tomorrow with a Cabbage Patch, she’s been jonesin’ over… I can see it in my mind already”
“Seems like a dumb idea to me. You get caught, and it’s back to jail. Think your daughter wants that?”
A tinge of irritation came over Judd, and the urge to pull out another cigarette grew. “We won’t be caught.”
“I’m sorry, we?”
“Yes we, it’s a toy store, dude. They ain’t got any security. Who would think about robbing a toy store?”
Judd took a step forward and looked back at Adam. “Well, come on then.”
Adam sighed, shook his head, then followed his cousin.
Judd cupped his hands to the store front window and peered in. Only a dim light in the back was left on. “I don’t see no security cameras, easy pickings.” The glass fogged up as he spoke. He then pulled away and the outline of where his hands touched the glass could still be seen. Adam rolled his eyes, took off his shirt and wiped away the prints left on the glass. “Idiot,” he said under his breath.
From his pocket, Judd pulled out two pins and had already begun fiddling at the lock.
“You know how to pick locks?” asked Adam.
“I’ve seen em’ do it the movies. Easy peasy.”
Several minutes passed by and the usual relaxed demure of Judd turned to one of frustration. His forehead and cheeks both turned beat red, and his tongue hung out of his mouth. Adam leaned on the wall with one of his legs bent.
“Easy Peasy…” Adam said while staring up at the sky.
“Can you not right now? I’m almost there, I can feel it,” Judd snapped.
“It’s going to be daylight by the time you break that lock.” Adam pushed off the wall and came up behind Judd. “Move,” he said while pushing him out of the way.
Judd glanced up at him with a hint of fury in his eyes. “I almost had it, dude,” he said, holding back the urge to yell.
Adam sized up the door and extended a leg out. After a few practice kicks, he took a step back and whipped his leg forward. A loud crack came from the door, and it pushed inwards. Where the deadbolt had been, splintered wood stuck out like barbed wire. He looked over at Judd, who’s jaw had dropped, and eyes were wide.
Not wanting to waste any more time, Adam took a step inside the store. “You coming?” he asked.
Still dumbfounded, Judd couldn’t think of anything snarky to say to his cousin. He peeked into the store and saw rows and rows of shelves filled with colorful toys. One side was distinctly pink and filled with various dolls and more fluffy things than he ever imagined. The other side of the store was mostly blue and gray and filled with fake weapons and action figures. He took a step in, and his boot squeaked on the shiny floor.
Near the check-out counter, a big red and yellow sign that read ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ hung from the ceiling. Judd’s face lit up, “there!” he said while pointing at the sign.
His feet couldn’t move fast enough on the slick floor. Each step brought a loud screech that made him want to cringe. When he reached the Cabbage Patch stand, he stopped in his tracks and felt his stomach drop.
Across an empty stand read a sign in big black words ‘out of stock’.
Laughter came from behind him. He didn’t have the heart to face Adam. “Would you look at that? We both are risking jail for what? Nothing.”
“I…” Judd couldn’t find the words to say. For a moment, his eyes burned, threatening to spill tears.
“Well, sorry man… I guess grab her something else. Maybe one of those giant doll houses.”
Judd glanced down at the floor. “Fuck it, let’s just go.”
They both stood in silence in the dark store. Adam kicked at the perfectly waxed floor. “You sure? What is she, like four? She won’t know the difference.”
Judd shook his head. Truth be told, he didn’t remember how old she was. Another failure of me as a father, I suppose. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Sunlight warmed the top of Judd’s head through his thinning hair. The sound of laughing children echoed from the back of a single-story ranch-style house. Pink balloons lined the walkway and swayed in the slight breeze. Off to his left, a big pink sign read ‘party in back’.
Judd adjusted his white t-shirt with permanent yellow sweat stains on the armpits. Maybe it would be better if I just walk away. I can look for one of those stupid dolls and give her it later. He turned to head back to his car when a woman’s voice called out his name. In front of the house, holding a large sheet cake with lit candles, was his ex-wife.
“Cindy… I…” Judd stammered.
“Help me with this cake, won’t you,” she interrupted him and held out the cake.
Judd rushed forward and took the cake from his ex. The flames flickered and threatened to go out.
“Thank you,” she said with a warm smile, then strutted forward and led him towards the backyard.
“Oh, yeah, happy to help,” Judd said while adjusting his grip on the large cake. He could feel it titter in his grip. The last thing he needed was to not only shop up without a gift but to also drop her cake. Worst father of the year award will have my name on it.
Cindy glanced back at Judd. Her eyes twinkled in the afternoon sun. “I mean, thank you for showing up, I.”
Judd took a sharp breath in. Ouch, he thought to himself. I guess its been a few years since I made it to one of Gabby’s birthday parties. I’ve got to do better
“Actually I thought you were still in jail, I told Gabby you weren’t coming.”
Judd stared down at his feet, in part to make sure he didn’t lose his footing but also he couldn’t bare to look at her. “No, been out for a few months now.”
“You should have told me, at least so I could have let Gabby know.” She paused and looked back at Judd. “Then again, sometimes I feel like it’s better just to leave her in the dark. That way she doesn’t get her hopes up.”
He had no response to what she had just said, he knew she was right. She was always right about him. Maybe someday I can prove her wrong.
Children were running about in the backyard like wild animals, laughing and screaming, making his ears ring. Gabby, who was wearing a pink frilly bathing suit, was mid leap through a sprinkler when she saw Judd holding her birthday cake. She froze, and her eyes widened in awe. He wasn’t sure if she was staring at him or the cake he held. In the next beat, she sprung forward with her arms out to her sides and ran towards him like a cat bounding for its prey.
Out of instinct, Judd braced himself and squeezed his eyes shut. He then felt little wet arms wrap around his waist and he looked down. Gabby’s big blue eyes were peering back up at him and she smiled. She was missing a few of her front teeth. Great, another thing in her life I’ve been MIA for. I Can’t believe she’s already losing her baby teeth.
“Daddy! You’re here,” she said while tightening her arms around him. Her voice whistled as she spoke due to gap in her teeth.
Judd wanted to say something about not getting her a gift. He figured it would be like taking off a bandage, better to just get it done and over with.
“I can’t believe it,” Gabby’s voice rang out from under him. “I told Mommy you would be here. She said my birthday wish wouldn’t come true, but she was wrong… And here you are.”
More than anything, Judd wanted to drop the cake and hold his little girl. His vision blurred as tears formed in his eyes.
Judd’s chest tightened, it suddenly occurred to him that it was time to do things different. Maybe he didn’t have a fancy gift for her, but at least he was here at all. That’s what Gabby really wanted anyways, just for him to be there and to actually be a part of her life. “Glad I could make your birthday wish come true, baby girl.”
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What a nice ending!
Thank you for this story. It was a pleasure to read. The language was balanced and agreable. Also, the story was well measured and not too long. The ending was sweet and caring.