Paige juggled the baby on her hip while blowing strands of sticky, blond hair out of her eyes. Her flip-flops slapped against the hot pavement as she hobbled across the parking lot while trying to keep the handle of her bag from slipping off her shoulder. She had forgotten to zip up her purse, again and she knew that if it fell off her shoulder and crashed against her leg, all of the contents would spill out onto the burning asphalt.
And that would mean she would be forced to put her daughter down so she would have a hand free to pick up the contents.
Even though it was a warm 80-degree summer day, the thought of having to chase her darling daughter through a busy parking lot brought goose bumps to the surface of her flesh.
“You’ll be a good girl, right?” she asked the chubby, curly headed baby in her arms.
The baby squealed her answer and smacked a clammy hand against her mother’s mouth. Paige could smell apple juice permeating off her daughter’s fat fingers.
“I’m guessing that’s a no?” she asked weakly and concentrated on making it through the grocery store doors and into the relative safety of the building before she lost her grip on the baby, her bag and her sanity.
Her purse slipped a few more inches down her shoulder and she bit her lip as she hurried toward the entrance; she was virtually walking sideways by the time she stepped through the doors. She snatched a nearby cart and carefully placed her daughter into the seat. As her thick, diapered bottom plopped into place, the handle of her bag slid completely off her arm and crashed against the cart. Several diapers, her wallet, a small, stuffed purple dinosaur and two tampons scattered across the floor.
Her daughter clapped her hands and chortled in delight as Paige scooped up the items while simultaneously dodging incoming traffic. Several customers walked past her, but none of them offered to help her pick up her belongings.
Paige swallowed her irritation and stuffed the items back into her bag, save for the dinosaur, which she absently handed over to her daughter. She wasn’t sure what she was more annoyed with – the fact that no one helped her or the fact that she still didn’t have this whole mommy routine down.
She sighed and looked down at the wide-eyed little girl staring back at her. Her face was perfectly still and her moist mouth was slightly open as if she were about to ask a question, only she had forgotten what the question was supposed to be.
“Destiny,” Paige sighed, addressing the baby, now happily swinging her legs at the mention of her name, “it’s a good thing you’re cute or I would be wearing a strait jacket right about now.”
The child offered a wide smile and a large spit bubble in response to her mother’s exasperation.
Paige chuckled and shook her head while carefully maneuvering the cart out of the corral and into the dark recesses of the store. She glanced at her watch – she had exactly 45 minutes to get her shopping done and drive to the elementary school to pick up her nephew. She had agreed to watch him every week day so her sister could work in the afternoons. Tony, her sister’s husband, had been laid off from work two months earlier and they were struggling to make ends meet.
She gently worried her lip. She was glad she was in a position to help her sister out, but she had her own stresses to deal with, too. Her own husband, Lane, and just been deployed to Iraq and she missed him terribly. She also worried about him, and she prayed for his safe return constantly. And she was scared, not just for him, but for herself as well.
Destiny’s quiet babbling brought her back to the present. The baby was content to hold and cuddle the dinosaur for several aisles. Whenever they passed anyone, the child would hold up the animal and proudly show it to the other patrons and babble nonsense, as if she were trying to explain what it was. Most of the customers smiled and responded, one man patted her softly on the head and an older woman gently pinched her cheek.
“She’s adorable,” the woman said with a nod in Paige’s direction, though her eyes remained fixed on Destiny.
“Thank you. She’s a handful, though,” said Paige.
The woman laughed and gave her a knowing nod and a wink before moving past them.
“Okay Destiny,” Paige muttered ten minutes later while she stood in front of the baby food display studiously studying the 101 choices of every pureed flavor under the sun. “Which will it be, prunes or bananas?”
The cart suddenly jerked and Paige turned her head just in time to see a strange woman catch her daughter just before she toppled out of the cart.
“Oh my God!” Paige gasped and immediately dropped her shopping list to grab Destiny from the woman. It all happened so fast that Paige’s brain froze and she wondered why a strange woman was touching her baby.
“You know,” the woman snapped while willingly relinquishing control of the baby, “people like you should NOT reproduce!”
“Excuse me?” Paige sputtered out, too shocked to do anything but hug her daughter close to her breasts and blink at the woman.
“Are you crazy?” the woman asked with a sniff.
“What the … ” Paige allowed the rest of her sentence to dangle in mid-air mindful of young ears close by.
The woman reached around Paige and jerked on the seat straps in the cart. “Do you know what these are? What you’re supposed to use them for?” The last syllable of each word was neatly clipped off with verbal shears.
Paige glanced down at the straps and could feel her heart plummet to her stomach. She had been so distracted with her thoughts she had forgotten to buckle Destiny into the cart. “Oh my God,” she repeated and with shaky hands, gently placed her daughter back into the cart and carefully strapped her safely in.
“It’s a good thing I was here,” the woman spat and began to move past them. “Or your daughter’s brains would be splattered all over this floor right about now.”
Paige gasped and watched the woman stomp off, the heels of her flats slapping smartly on the hard tile.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob and leaned into the cart. How could she be so stupid? What was wrong with her? She was a terrible mother. The woman was right, she shouldn’t be allowed to have children, she was a danger to society. She looked down at Destiny who grinned up at her totally oblivious to her mother’s distress.
“Oh baby,” Paige said with a soft whimper. “If I can’t even take proper care of you, how am I going to take care of your brother or sister?” She gingerly ran a hand over her still flat abdomen and longed for Lane so much that her heart actually skipped a beat.
It took her several long moments to catch her breath after the near accident before she felt normal enough to continue with her shopping. She finally took a steadying breath and glanced at her watch – she had fifteen minutes to finish her shopping and get to the school.
She looked down at her shopping list, only she didn’t have it in her hand. She looked on the floor, where she dropped it earlier, but she vaguely remembered picking it up shortly after the woman who saved her child’s life (she swallowed hard at that thought) had walked off.
She blew out a breath of irritation and could feel her temper rise. This was ridiculous. She was an intelligent woman, why couldn’t she get her act together today? She was human. She made mistakes. Okay, a lot more mistakes recently, but still, she wasn’t perfect. Though she was grateful to the woman for catching Destiny before she fell, did she have to be so rude about it? And why exactly did Lane have to join the Army anyway? Why couldn’t he have gotten a regular job like every other normal guy? That way, he would be close by and he could help her through all of this chaos.
And why did her sister’s husband have to get laid off? Just so some corporate fat cat could line his pockets and to hell with everyone else?
She grit her teeth and tried to tamp down on her temper. She knew she was being unreasonable, and she knew that she was just reacting to the shock of Destiny’s near accident, but she couldn’t help herself, she was sick and tired of living in her personal Twilight Zone.
She was searching her bag for the now stupid grocery list when she heard paper crumpling. She glanced at Destiny just in time to see a corner of her now soggy grocery list disappear into the baby’s mouth.
“Oh for pete’s sake,” she hissed and dug the paper out of her daughter’s mouth. Since she was in a hurry, and feeling a little sorry for herself and her situation, she was a bit more rough trying to remove the paper than she would have normally been and Destiny cried out in protest. “Oh hush, you,” she said and balling the remains of the useless list in her fist, she began to move forward once more.
“You’re going to be the death of me, little girl,” she muttered while leaning down to her daughter’s level. She tried not to smile in response to Destiny’s mischievous grin.
She was frantically ticking off the items on the list from memory when she turned down the soap aisle. She knew she was forgetting some things and would probably remember them as soon as she got home, but for now, she knew she at least needed some baby shampoo. Her eyes quickly scanned down the labels on the shelf and zeroed in on her target.
And of course, there was an old man standing right in front of the spot she needed to get to. She swallowed a long-suffering sigh and moved in to stand close to the man, hoping he would get the hint and move to one side for her.
Paige shifted her weight from foot to foot and pretended to examine the labels of nearby products while shooting daggers at the old man in her peripheral. “Move it, old man! I don’t have time for this!” she screamed in her mind. She discreetly looked down at her watch, she had seven minutes to check out, buckle Destiny into her car seat, (no small feat!), load up her groceries and get to the school in time to pick up her nephew.
She moved in next to the man. “Excuse me,” she said out loud and the man turned to give her a startled look of surprise.
Paige smiled politely at him and was shocked to see he had tears running down his weathered cheeks. Her irritation and anger promptly deflated and a wave of compassion for the poor old man squeezed her heart. Her expression softened and she placed a hand lightly on his arm. “Are you all right? Do you need some help?”
“My wife,” the man pleaded, his light blue eyes swimming in tears, “I can’t remember what brand of soap …”
“Oh well,” Paige said with a soft smile while digging out her cell phone, “let’s call and ask her.”
The man vehemently shook his head and impatiently wiped moisture from under his eyes. “We can’t,” he sobbed while looking longingly at the shelf of soaps. “I can’t remember …”
“It’s okay,” Paige soothed and flipped her phone open, her thumb poised above the keypad. “What’s the number …”
“No,” the man gasped, “you don’t understand. She died over a year ago and I can’t remember what soap she used. I miss her smell. I just want to smell her again,” he sobbed and turned his head away from her to hide the raw emotion seeping from his soul.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. And with the tap of a small mallet, Paige’s fragile heart shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces and she cried alongside the old man while staring at the array of pastel-colored soaps.