Jackie struggled against the ice underfoot, holding onto her car door as she fought to keep steady. She hadn’t bought new boots yet- they’d just finished moving to the Chicago suburb in early March and, thinking the winter season was over, hadn’t bothered to buy any since. What self-respecting place snowed the first week of April, anyway?
Her feet stilled. Jackie looked down, seeing her two feet finally steady on the sheen of ice. A pent-up breath gusted out of her and she relaxed against the car door, thinking her ordeal was over. That was her mistake. Her weight shifted and she looked back down at the ice, her glasses sliding down her nose. Out of habit, she pulled one hand off the car door to push them up and sealed her fate. Jackie fell to the ground, glasses flying off her face and bouncing off the blacktop of the parking lot.
“Shit!” she cursed, wrists stinging from catching herself. Her eyesight wasn’t terrible, but she needed the glasses to drive. Being farsighted made it hard to read signs.
And grocery labels.
“Shitshitshitshitshit-“ she whispered. She reached out over the ground with her hand, gliding and hovering, gliding and hovering, feeling for the frames. Nothing. A heavy sigh whipped around her, turning to steam in the cold air. Resigning herself to calling Michael, she pushed herself off her knees and onto her butt so she could safely scooch herself to dry ground.
There was a crack.
Jackie sat with her head in her hands as her heart sank to her stomach. Again! She’d broken her third set of glasses in two weeks! First the good pair when she tried to help move the sofa. Then the backup pair when she slipped going down to the mailbox. Now this.
Maybe Arizona had cursed her as she crossed the border.
She couldn’t sit in misery in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Jackie pulled herself up and grabbed the bent glasses frames. One lens was completely gone, pieces scattered on the ground. The one still hanging on had spiderwebbed.
Frustration got the best of her and she tossed them with a grunt into her driver’s seat and slammed the car door. She’d just stand at the other end of aisle to read the packaging or take guesses based on the colors. Michael would have to get creative with whatever she brought home.
She marched, arms crossed in her winter jacket, towards the warm glow of the grocery store. The air felt thick, which was strange considering how cold it was. Not a puff of breeze. So much for the weatherman’s insistence on a blizzard tonight. Though the sky did seem awful dark.
Hot air buffeted her as she passed through the second set of automatic doors and into the store proper. It was a small store, local; a maximum of three cashiers at a time, and that was only on weekends. As it was Thursday, there was only one cashier texting at his station and a stocker sweeping the aisles. Music ten years too old crackled over the speaker system. An old woman, her hair high enough to be half her height, walked out with a bag of groceries. Jackie hadn’t known her long, but from a guess, she thought that was Mrs. Calloway from two blocks over. She didn’t think that crazy old bat could drive.
Jackie pulled out her list and then immediately crumpled it back up. Right. Couldn’t read it anyway, unless she wanted to stand like an idiot, leaning her head back and holding the list as far away from her as possible. She’d just have to remember what Michael had written.
“Cheddar slices, for lunch,” she muttered, walking down the aisles, “Multigrain bread. Baby spinach. Pasta sauce.”
She did her best. She stood back against the shelving, deciphering the wording on the packages across the aisle. There were a few easy ones, like the cheddar slices. They were orange, while most of the other cheese was white or yellow. The baby spinach and bread were disasters. She didn’t have a clue whether or not she picked the right brown loaf from all the other brown loaves, but she sure hoped she did.
Jackie turned down the next aisle, the freezer section, determined to find herself some ice cream to deal with her bad day. Whatever she chose, it was ice cream. She couldn’t really go wrong. Her eyes caught a glimpse of movement across the store and she looked up from her task to see TV static covering the entire front wall.
No, not TV Static. Snow. The blizzard was here.
Jackie withheld an audible groan. How had that happened so fast? She hadn’t been in the store more than ten minutes! Paying zero attention, she grabbed two pints of ice cream and speed-walked to the last aisle. She’d nearly forgotten Michael had asked for some cough drops.
She turned the corner and stopped, alone in the last aisle but for over-the-counter medicine and a strange bundle on the yellowed tile. Jackie squinted, the shape of the bundle familiar somehow. She took a few cautious steps forward, looking for movement. When there was none, she approached the bundle quickly, the familiarity unnerving and frightening her. She crouched down and did her best to focus.
Jackie stood and swung her head in every direction, looking for someone. No one around. Hell, the only person she’d seen in the store besides the two workers was Mrs. Calloway and that bird had to be nearing a hundred. She’d seen no new mothers, no grandparents, no children. Yet here was a baby, swaddled in what looked like at least two blankets, laying on the floor of the pharmacy aisle. She squatted back down and reached out one hand to touch the baby’s pink blankets. The touch revolted her and it took everything in her not to fall backwards in fear.
The baby didn’t move at all.
It struck her that the baby hadn’t made a sound the entire time she’d been in the store. If no one knew it was back here and it wasn’t moving-
Jackie scooped up the bundle and felt the baby’s face. It was cold and stiff. Panic rose in her chest like a bird trapped in her rib cage. A high-pitched whine was building in the back of her throat. Leaving her shopping basket, Jackie ran towards the cash registers, rubbing the baby’s body through the bundle, trying to push circulation.
“Hello? I need some help!” she yelled across the store. The teenager at the cash register looked up from his phone, eyes wide. Jackie ran forward, tears in her eyes, her breath whistling with the strain of her keeping it together.
“Please, please,” she said, hugging the baby close to her, “Please, I need help, I need you to call an ambulance or the cops or something-“
“Ma’am, please calm down-“
“There was a baby in the last aisle! Just laying there! It’s cold,” she said, chest heaving as she rubbed the tiny, stiff limbs through the blankets, “Please, I think it was left outside, it’s so cold.”
The teenager looked ready to bolt. After a few tense seconds of silence, the stocker ran over. “I’m going to go get our manager, you stay there,” the stocker said. Jackie bounced the baby in her arm, looking for some sort of reaction, some movement. Nothing. The cashier remained frozen, staring at them both.
The manager appeared from behind a partition, the stocker close at his heels. He turned towards the cashier and said, “Go to the back, Alfonse, and get some of those handwarmers.” He turned towards Jackie, stern face a blur. “Ma’am, let me see the child.”
Jackie pulled back from the manager’s hand at first. Then, slowly, carefully, she turned the baby’s face towards the manager and held out the swaddled bundle.
The manager’s face didn’t flinch. The only reaction she could parse was that his cheeks were redder. Behind him the stocker bounced on the balls of his feet, eager to get a glimpse of the child. Wind howled at the windows behind them, snow stirring in little tornadoes.
Silence hung between the three of them until the cashier returned with handwarmers. The manager looked surprised when the cashier disrupted his gaze, and angry when he looked at the handwarmers. He finally looked Jackie in the eye, furious.
Jackie pulled the baby back. Her mind didn’t quite register the words, but she felt the intent.
“I said get out,” the manager repeated.
Jackie looked at the unmoving bundle in her arms, at the handwarmers, at the manager’s face. Her brain blanked and she stammered, uncomprehending, “B-but the baby-“
“Get out. Your baby too.”
“But it’s not my-“
Jackie cowered, holding the baby close to her chest. All three of the store workers stared at her, two in complete awe and one in a hellbent fury.
“Don’t make me call the cops on you,” the manager hissed. A bit of spittle landed on Jackie’s cheek and she recoiled. The cops? But they’d help! They’d be able to get the baby to safety or find its mother! She opened her mouth to argue but the manager took a step towards her.
Her own step backwards was unplanned, but the realization that she looked guilty finally hit her. A random woman who they’ve only seen in passing shows up with a dying child they claim was just laying on the floor of their store? Of course it was suspicious. This was a small town, regardless of its proximity to Chicago. Everyone knew everyone. And they didn’t know her. Or the baby.
Deciding she’d take her chances with the hospital, Jackie bolted from the three workers and into the blizzard. Her purse banged at her hip as she shuffled as quickly as she felt was safe in the new, thin layer of snow that coated the ground. She couldn’t afford another slip. Her cargo was more than just her backup-backup glasses.
Her car was still warm, so no snow had stuck to the windshield. She fumbled with her keys, unlocked the car, and discovered two new problems. She had no car seat and her glasses were broken. No way could she hold the baby while driving, she’d be pulled over or end up in a ditch and lose precious time. She opened the backseat doors and looked for inspiration.
The pet hammock. Normally reserved for her pitbull, Gus, she’d sling the hammock up and surround the baby with the emergency blankets from her trunk. Laying the baby on the seat, she got to work. It would have to do. There was no time for anything else and, if she waited for some better idea, the baby might die anyway.
Hammock secure and baby wedged with blankets, Jackie hopped into the driver’s seat and felt something under her. Right. Her glasses. There was still one lens, cracked as it was, but it was better than totally blind. She shoved the bent frames into place the best she could, put the car in reverse, and pulled out of the parking lot with slow precision, minding the snow.
The way home was easy under normal circumstances. Now, the snow whirling around the car and the roads slick, she wasn’t confident. She’d rather be booking it straight to a hospital, but she was hopeless without directions. Besides, Michael could drive in the snow. Without glasses. So home it was, as carefully but as quickly as she could manage.
Jackie pulled into the driveway, relief and terror occupying equal parts of her mind. Michael appeared at the door, hat and gloves on, ready to help with groceries.
She stepped out of the car and screamed his name. He ran over without hesitation.
“What’s wrong, Jack?” he asked, looking her over, “What happened to your glasses? Did you drive home like that?”
“I found a baby,” she blurted out.
He paused. “A baby.”
“It’s in trouble, but the manager wouldn’t help me, he thought I was some crackhead mom or something, and he was going to call the cops, but the baby needs help, it’s cold and it’s-“
“On the floor of the grocery store! It’s not crying or making any noise, I don’t even know if it’s moved-“
“You found a baby at the grocery store.”
“Ugh!” she cried, walking to the backseat door, throwing it open and pointing. “A baby, Michael, now drive me to the hospital, we might be able to save it!”
Michael walked over to look in the dog hammock and she watched as he gingerly lifted the child. He touched its face. Then its hair. Then he began taking the bundle apart.
“Michael, what’re you doing?”
He looked at her and started laughing. Was it a panic reaction? She’d only seen him under severe stress twice before, and neither time had he laughed. Her forehead crinkled and she was about to yell at him to get it together when he spoke.
“Honey. Come here. Try to look with your one lens.”
“I don’t see what this-“
Jackie leaned in to look at the child in Michael’s arms. She squinted, trying to see around the spiderwebbed lines in her lens, at the stiff features of the baby, the closed eyes, the lightly opened mouth, the silky hair.
“It’s one of those lifelike dolls women have. To dress up or deal with empty nest syndrome or whatever.”
Jackie stared at the cheeks, the painted, pale, lifeless cheeks.
“You know,” Michael said, “I actually ran into Mrs. Calloway the other day on my jog. The lady had a three-way stroller. One of these in each seat. I asked the guy across the street and, apparently, she has like, I don’t know, twelve of these things. All different hair and skin. Says she likes to take them on walks and talks to them like they’re real.”
The snow and wind bit at her cheeks. She saw a single snowflake land perfectly on the fake baby’s nose and stay there, unmelted and pristine.
She looked away from the fake baby, her body suddenly heavy. It felt as if all the lifeforce had been drained from her and there was nothing in her left to even comment. Still, Michael was waiting for some sort of explanation, some sort of long drawn out tale of her misinformed adventure. She couldn’t bear the thought of it. She thought of the manager, the eager stocker, the cashier with his arms full of handwarmers and winced. There was not a single ounce of willpower left in her body to formulate a response, let alone to acknowledge what happened.
At last she managed, “I hate Illinois.”
Michael laughed and shut the car doors. He put his free hand on her back and began ushering her inside.
“I’m guessing you didn’t get the groceries then?”
“Shut up, Michael.”