“Mommy, I want that one and that one and that one,” Little Lisa said, pointing one after another to a succession of Barbie’s lined up among what seemed like hundreds of other dolls on display in the toy section of Target.
God, thought Megan, Little Lisa’s mom, I really should have thought this through a little better.
She’d come in with her daughter to warm up, not buy anything. But here it was nearly Christmas and the store was packed with shoppers, all vying for the latest and greatest gifts for Johnny and Susie, and the most perfect present in the world for whomever and it was becoming overwhelming. Man… All she’d wanted to do was to kill a little time and shake off some of that bone-chilling Minnesota cold, but her little girl had pleaded and pleaded to look at toys and, against her better judgment, Megan had given in thinking that maybe just a little peak wouldn’t hurt. Yeah, right, she was now thinking, watching Little Lisa gently caress one plastic package after another. Chalk that up to one more major league bad decision. They say you live and learn, she thought, and if that’s the case, I should be a genius.
Megan took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. Then she put them back on, knelt down and turned her daughter to face her. “No, honey,” she said softly but firmly, and could actually hear the strain of trying to sound patient in her voice, “Not right now, Ok?” Little Lisa gazed at her mom with big almond colored eyes, silently pleading, but too well behaved to complain out loud. Megan felt a tug in her heart and forced herself to push past her exhaustion, wishing things didn’t have to be the way they were. Then she had a thought, “Maybe you’ll get one for Christmas,” she said and forced a tired smile for her daughter who immediately responded by clapping her hands and jumping up and down, causing a few shoppers to glance in their direction and frown. “If you’re good that is,” she added, trying to appear cheerful and positive, but it was hard. She didn’t believe in filling her child’s head with any of that crap about Santa Claus and elves and red-nosed reindeer that flew around the world delivering presents, and all those other fantasies most people fed their children at this time of year. What good could it possibly do? Life was hard enough as it was, so why make it worse by encouraging her daughter with false hope? But, in the same breath, it was difficult for her, as a mother, to be cold hearted and not feel for her little five year old. After all, Little Lisa was all she had and it wasn’t her fault they lived in an old car and money was tight.
“We’ll talk more about it when we get home.”
That stopped her little girl right there. All around them holiday shoppers were rushing past, most with kids yelling and pointing and pleading, some even on the verge of tears. Parents, their tolerance meter red-lining, were doing their best not to lose control and freak out right there in aisle seventeen, the one packed with stacks of Star Wars Lego’s, Doc McStuffins characters, Peanuts figures, Barbie dolls and every other kind of kids toy and game you could possibly imagine for the under ten crowd. Megan loosened her scarf and unbuttoned her worn wool coat. For the first time in what seemed like days she was hot. She was getting dizzy, too, probably from lack of food. But she wasn’t in bad enough shape not to have heard her little girl say with her eyes wide open, “Home, Mommy. Really? We’re going to go home?”
Megan cursed herself for her slip up. Damn. This wasn’t the time nor the place to shatter her daughter’s world. It was the Christmas season, for god’s sake. “No, not tonight, Sweetheart, but maybe someday.” she said, giving the little girl a hug. But no, they weren’t going home. That was a given. They had no home to go to.
Like water rolling off her back, Little Lisa shrugged her tiny shoulders, said, “Ok,” and turned back to the massive display of toys, lost in her fantasy world of Barbie’s and Kens.
Happy to have dodged that bullet, Megan stood up, keeping a watchful eye on her daughter. Little Lisa was transfixed by the lure and enticement of the never ending rows of Barbie’s dressed this way and that: getting ready to ride a motorcycle or a skateboard, or go to a prom, or go shopping, or simply to hang out dressed to the nine’s just to have a luncheon with other Barbie’s that looked exactly the same. She couldn’t believe that her daughter loved those stupid dolls. Especially that Barbie Rainbow Mermaid, which was just what it’s name implied – a long haired, blond (of course) Barbie with a mermaid tail, and a body of colorful bright rainbow hues of pink, lavender, yellow, orange and red. It even had glitter on it. How her daughter could be attracted to something like that Megan had no clue. Little Lisa was olive skinned with dark, almost black, straight hair that Megan cut in a modified page-boy, just to make it easier to clean and care for.
In fact, everything Megan did was centered around making life as easy for them as possible. Living in a car wasn’t the most desirable of living conditions, that was for sure, but it was all they had, so they had to make the best of things. The thirty one year old Ford Hatchback had been their home since June; ever since she had left that idiot, violent boyfriend of the last ten months for her own safety as well as that of her daughter. Best move she’d ever made.
She was briefly congratulating herself on taking that drastic, but oh so necessary action, when she had an idea.”Little Lisa, come with me,” Megan said with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, gently tugging her daughter away from the display.
“No, Momma,” Little Lisa’s quiet pleading (rare for her) caused some of the other mothers to look quickly at the two of them and then, just as quickly, look away.
Megan saw it. Maybe one or two were possibly sympathetic, but most, she could tell, were happy to see the two of them leave. Megan got it. She knew what they looked like and she hated the term, but there it was: street people. Bums. Homeless. Whatever. Maybe they all applied, but that didn’t mean Megan had to accept it. She was trying her best. She really was.
She had a job, for one thing, working at MacDonald’s on Lake Street in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. And she had a place to sleep at night, even if it was in their old car parked in a big box store parking lot out in Minnetonka. There were gas station restrooms all over the Minneapolis metro area that she used to sponge the two of them off, brush their teeth and wash their hair. When all else failed, there was always one of the shelters in downtown Minneapolis where she could spend the night and get a meal. It wasn’t the best world, but they were out of the horror of Darren’s escalating drug use, temper tantrums and physical assaults and that was the main thing. They might be poor, but they were safe. At least for today. Tonight she worked. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
Her heart warmed and suddenly went out to her little girl. “Come on, kiddo,” she said gently, kneeling down and giving her a hug. Then she stood to leave, but before they did she had one thing left to do. She quickly looked both ways. All the other shoppers had turned away trying to ignore them, probably in embarrassment for them, and for a brief moment no one was watching. With practiced stealth she picked one of the Barbie Mermaids and stuck it in her oversized shoulder bag. It took a second at most. Little Lisa didn’t even catch it – Megan was that good and that fast. Done and done, she smiled to herself. My little girl deserves something special.
“Let’s go look at Christmas lights,” she said cheerfully and took her daughter by the hand as they made their way into one of the extra wide aisles which was even more packed and crowded than the toy aisle. Megan congratulated herself at the idea she’d had, “Come along now, Sweetie, we’ve got some decorating to do.”
“For our new home, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked, Barbie’s now forgotten, clapping her hands and actually skipping as she walked next to her mother.
Megan ignored the question, but could no longer contain her smile, “It’s a surprise, Honey,” she said, affectionately, bending to hug her daughter with one arm as they walked, “You’ll see.”
“Oh, goodie, goodie,” Little Lisa giggled, and she took hold of her mother’s hand tightly, barely able to contain her excitement.
Off they went then, winding their way through the ever growing crush of the crowds of holiday shoppers and eventually all the way to the other side of the store – the side where it seemed like every possible Christmas decoration in the world was on display, ready to adorn festive homes with the joy of the holidays and the spirit of the season. For those who could afford it, at least.
Donny Eisenberg was with security and had been watching the young woman and her little girl ever since they’d entered the store. He’d seen her slip the doll into her purse and almost grabbed her then, but held back. He’d been a Floor Walker for eight years now, ever since he’d retired as a bus driver for Metro Transit, and after all these years he could just tell.
Like he recently told Helen, his wife of fifty one years, “They just have a look about them. You know. Trouble.”
To which Helen slapped down her newspaper and stared at him , “All of them Donny? Every single one of them?” She glared at him, frowning.”You know they’re people, don’t you, not things? Each one is a person. A living breathing human being who just might be down on their luck. Can’t you sometimes give them the benefit of the doubt? Cut them a little slack?”
Donny knew she was getting angry but he snorted his answer anyway, “Never.” It seemed they were having this argument more and more often these days and he didn’t know why. “That’s not what they pay me for. The company makes the rules, I enforce them. I’m supposed to stop them if they shop lift, call the head of security and turn them over. That’s my job.”
“So you’re paid not to think, huh? Is that it? Have no feelings? Well, it sounded like a stupid policy to me when you were hired and it still sounds stupid,” Ellen spat out her words, making her point perfectly clear. Then she stared at him long and hard, waiting for Donny to say something. Anything. Donny stared back at her, his mind suddenly blank.
Finally shook her head in disappointment and stood up, taking her newspaper into another room. Donny watched her walk away, all his arguments suddenly coming back to him. But they were unsatisfying and did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was left with contemplating for what seemed the millionth time in their long marriage, why his wife was always so mad at him. He turned and looked out the window, seeing nothing but Helen’s disappointed frown, and wondered if maybe, in the long run, she really might be right.
Now, as he followed the young woman and little girl through the crowded store, he pictured Helen admonishing him with a flinty gaze and steely eyes boring into him like two overheated drill bits. He knew she’d be disappointed in him (again) but he shrugged it off. To hell with her, he thought. He had a job to do.
It was the day before Christmas Eve and the place was packed, especially today, a Saturday: parents pushing carts full of toys, most of it crap that kids would open and lose interest in before the new year began if not sooner. Harried adults, wound up children, everyone talking twice as loud as normal just to be heard over the incessant Christmas music pouring through the sound system. Most people would be driven nuts, but Donny had learned to tune it all out just to keep his sanity; but he swore if he heard ‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells’ one more time he’d…Well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he was sure it wouldn’t be pretty.
Up ahead the young woman (he guessed she wasn’t more than twenty one or twenty two) turned into the first of what was probably ten aisles loaded to over flowing with displays of Christmas lights of every type and style and decorations of every shape, size and color. Donny slowed and walked past her to a look at a row of indoor Christmas tree ornaments, keeping a surreptitious eye on the two of them. She had unbuttoned her ragged coat and even though she had on at least one sweater and a turtle neck, he could tell she was thin. Her skin was pale and her non-descript brown hair was cut short and he noticed that in spite of her street worn appearance, she looked clean. What struck him, though, were her eyes. Even from where he stood and even though she wore glasses, he could see they were bright and blue. Attractive, almost.
Definitely not a drug user, he thought to himself, assessing the situation. He knew that for a fact. He’d seen enough of them in the store to know – wild eyed and manic. Not this one, though. She was calm and under control. And pretty good with her little girl, too, he thought, now that he had watched her for what, he glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes or so. Lots better than a good majority of the other shoppers milling around him, some of whom even bumping into him without so much as even a ‘pardon me.’ Rude people.
He kept a casual but watchful eye on the two of them. Were they a mother and daughter? If so, the young woman seemed…what? Conscientious, maybe? Or thoughtful? Something like that. Not rude, anyway, that was for sure, and that might count for something, even though she was a thief. He found himself hoping she wouldn’t take anything more.
Megan visually scanned through what seemed like a hundred different styles of Christmas lights before she found what she’d been looking for. She’d seen them in a catalog once someone left behind at work – battery operated white, twinkle lights. They’d be perfect for what she had in mind. She calmly glanced around and, seeing no one but an old man looking at ornaments, she quickly slipped the small package into her shoulder bag – the bag she had lined with tin foil to get past the electronic security at the exit doors. It was a trick she’d learned from her friend, Alyssa, at work. ‘Yeah, you do that, girlfriend, you’ll be golden.’ And it did work. Megan always felt the slightest twinge of guilt whenever she shoplifted, but managed to push the feeling back down by saying that she’d eventually pay the store back. And she meant it, too. It just wouldn’t be today.
Donny went back to his pretend browsing, glancing over every now and then before moving a few steps. He was disappointed to see her slip a small strand of some kind of lights into her purse. Too bad. Now she’d have to suffer the consequences. He made a mental note: she’s got the doll and the lights. He started to get himself ready. One more item and he’ll blow the whistle on her. Just one more.
“Mommy, can we get this, please?” Little Lisa asked, interrupting Megan’s thoughts and tugging excitedly on her sleeve.
She looked at the object that held her daughter’s interest and tried to hide her grin. “Not right now, Sweetheart, but maybe some other time.”
“Please, please, please.” It was unlike her to beg like she was doing.
Little Lisa had selected a baseball sized snow globe with a picturesque scene of a quaint cottage and a decorated pine tree next to it. A little red bird (a cardinal? she thought) sat on a branch. You shook it up and the snow exploded inside, hanging suspended momentarily before drifting to the ground, covering the objects in sparkling white. Megan had always wanted one when she was growing up, but times were tough in her family with just her mother and Megan’s little sister and brother – no father and not much money (and, of course, no snow globe), the story of her life. Now her daughter wanted one, just like she had. Funny how things like that worked out.
“I’m sorry, Honey, but we can’t afford it, now,” Megan told her firmly, “We’ll have to wait.”
“Aw,” Little Lisa said, frowning. Then an idea clicked inside her and, not wanting to give up just yet, she smiled coyly at her mom and asked, “How about…maybe…tomorrow?”
Megan couldn’t help but let her heart go out to her daughter. Pretending to give the matter some hard thought she finally said, “Well…maybe, Honey. Maybe,” she said, smiling at her daughter’s persistence, thinking to herself, what does it hurt to have something for a little girl to look forward to? Then she said, “Now, give me the globe please.”
Happy that at least her mother didn’t say ‘No,’ Little Lisa lovingly handed it to her and then turned away to gaze wishfully at a display of candy canes. Megan took the globe from her, but instead of setting it on the shelf, she slipped it into her bag while Little Lisa’s eyes were averted and then said, “Come on, kiddo, we need to get going. Mommy’s got to get to work pretty soon.”
Little Lisa sighed, “Ok, Mommy,” she said, and took a last long look at the display of pretty snow globes (now, minus one) before she turned away, taking her mother’s hand uncomplainingly and, for at least the tenth time that day, left Megan to wonder what she had done to deserve such a sweet natured, agreeable child.
Donny watched as they made their way through the frantic crowds jamming the aisles, the little girl holding her mother’s hand tightly. He was the tiniest bit heavyhearted she’d taken the snow globe and that he’d have to bust them, but there you were. It was his job and he was good at his job. He decided to wait until they left the store to make his move. Maybe other shoppers would see him nab them and it would set an example not to mess around shoplifting in this store. At least not while Donny Eisenberg was on duty anyway.
He followed discretely fifteen feet behind, eyes roving side to side watching what seemed like hundreds of people at a time, all the while zeroed in on the young mother and her little girl. They were making their way past the long checkout lines (without paying, of course) and heading for the exit. Once they went through the doors and were outside, he’d grab them. He’d get them for the doll, the lights, and now the snow globe. Steal on my watch, Donny thought, not a chance.
He was watching carefully, moving step by step toward them when, just a few feet before the exit doors, the little girl stumbled on one of the big thick floor mats meant to soak up water and slush from outside. Donny made a quick mental note to get on the damn maintenance crew. They should be cleaning and changing those mats out every half hour. Then he re-focused on woman. The young mother was only a few feet from the doors. He started to move toward them.
“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Little Lisa said, tears welling up. Megan had grabbed her to keep her from falling and getting wet, and fought to hold her up by the hand, trying to keep her off the soaking, soggy mat. “I tripped.”
Megan struggled for a moment before finally getting the little girl straightened out and her feet firmly planted on the floor, “That’s alright kiddo. I’ve got you, but just try to be more careful next time.”
Little Lisa snuffled, “I’ll try Mommy. I’m sorry.”
Megan moved them over by the wall, off to the side of the flow of the crowd now surging to leave the store, pushing overloaded carts, clutching packages and bags and struggling to get into their coats and jackets. She dabbed the tears from Little Lisa’s eyes talking quietly to her to help get her calmed down. Then she glanced outside and her spirits sank. Flurries were coming down and she could see them already blanketing the ground. The problem was that the snow would make the drive to work slow and she couldn’t afford to be late. It would also make it treacherous. The treads on her tires weren’t the best and she’d have to be extra cautious to stay in her lane and not slip into another vehicle. Megan shook her head – it seemed like there was always something to contend with.
She knelt on a dry spot to the left of the exit, zipped up her daughter’s coat, tightened her scarf and put on her knit stocking hat and mittens. Then, in one quick movement, she folded a strip of foil over the top of the inside of her bag, the final step in making sure she didn’t set off the security alarm. Now she was all set.
She was just standing up, buttoning up her own coat when, through the maze of people she heard, then saw, a Salvation Army bell ringer. He was on the sidewalk outside the door; a stocky black man dressed in heavy boots, an insulated jacket, tan Carhart overalls and a purple Minnesota Vikings stocking hat. He was also wearing a cheerful smile in spite of the cold and snow.
Little Lisa had finally calmed down and was back to being in a good mood. She saw him too. “Mommy, can we give him some money? Please? Please? Please?”
Megan didn’t have to think twice. She knew there were people out there in much worse shape that she and her daughter. After all, the two of them at least had a car to live in. “Sure Sweetie,” she said, reaching into her shoulder bag for her pocketbook and taking out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Here, give this to the nice man.”
“Goody, goody.” Little Lisa took the dollar bill, held it tightly between her mittened hands and ran through the door right up to the guy. “Here, mister,” she said, giving the money to the man who helped her put the dollar in the bucket.
“Why, thank you very much, and happy holidays to you, young lady,” he said kindly, giving her a big grin and pretending to tip his hat but never once stopping the rhythmic ringing of his bell.
Megan took a quick look around, noticing only the relentless crush of the crowd and, for some reason, that old guy who looked like the old guy she’d seen earlier. But her attention was drawn back through the doors outside to Little Lisa, who was now happily standing next to the bell ringer, chatting away like they were old friends. Megan wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, put on her own stocking cap and mittens, and walked through the doors, momentarily holding her breath, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it didn’t and she sighed with relief.
She walked over to her daughter, took her by the hand and smiled a polite smile to the volunteer, wishing him a happy holiday. She had bought clothes from Salvation Army before and she was happy to give something back, even though it was only a dollar. Then they made their way through the slippery, slushy snow to her car. Little Lisa got into her car seat in the back and buckled herself in while Megan used a brush to clear the snow off. Then she got inside and started the old Ford. She let it warm up a few minutes before putting it in drive and slowly making her way through the snowy parking lot out to the street and then to the highway where she settled into the long drive to work, the snow falling ever faster.
Back in the store Donny had been waiting, watching their every move and he’d seen the young mother give her little girl the dollar for the donation. It made him hesitate. It was a gesture from her he hadn’t expected and it touched him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. He stood in place, oblivious to the crowd pushing past him and the dirty looks some people were giving him. He was thinking about the young mother and her little girl, seeing Helen’s face in his mind watching him, almost willing him to think for himself for a change. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments and surprised himself by coming to his decision rather quickly. What the hell? Maybe it was his good deed for the season. Maybe it was the disarming vision of Helen in his brain. Whatever…sure he was breaking the rules but big deal. There was something about the young mother and her daughter. They seemed alright to him- not career criminals, that was for sure. Maybe they were just down on their luck. Maybe it was the little girl. She seemed so well behaved and the way she was with the Salvation Army guy was…well, kind of cute. Whatever the case, he decided to let them go and, he had to admit, immediately felt pretty good about his decision. He wondered if he should bother to tell Helen about what he’d done when he got home. He thought about it as he watched the mother and daughter trudge through the snowy parking lot out to their car, surprised to find he was holding his breath until they made it safely. Then he turned back to the store, thinking that maybe he would tell her. And, if he did, and she took the time to listen to him, maybe, for once, she wouldn’t be so damn mad at him. It was worth a try. Stranger things could happen.
He started to walk back into the store, taking out his two-way radio and making the call to maintenance about changing out the entry mats. Then he saw another person he might have to keep an eye on. A black woman and a bunch of kids all under the age of ten. Suddenly, though, the thought of trailing them through the store seemed pointless. Sure, if they didn’t have money and couldn’t pay for their stupid toys and crap, they shouldn’t be in the store in the first place. But, what the hell, maybe Helen had been right – who was he to be playing god? All of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe it was that young mother and her daughter. Maybe it was the image in his mind of Helen’s ongoing disappointment in him. Who knew? But he decided to let the black woman her kid go past him without bothering to follow. Instead, he took out his two-way again and made a call, “I’m going on break.” He walked to the back of the store and through a door that said, ‘Employees Only.’ He sat down and stared into space, suddenly very tired. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and then it’s over, Donny thought. Thank god.
Megan’s shift at MacDonald’s ended at eleven. The night manager, Kevin, a skinny white guy around thirty with a bad complexion and a pleasant disposition had a philosophy that Megan liked: he didn’t mind if Little Lisa stayed while she worked. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he told Megan four months earlier when she’d been hired, ‘Just don’t let her bother the customers.’ And Little Lisa never did. In fact, she kind of grew on all the employees, especially Kevin.
One thing the little girl was good at, and that was entertaining herself. Tonight she colored an old ‘My Little Pony’ coloring book someone had left next to the trash bin using some crayons Kevin had bought and kept for her back in his office. When Megan found the book and brought it to Little Lisa (along with Kevin’s crayons) it was like someone had given both of them a fancy present, reminding Megan for the millionth time that when you didn’t have much, every little thing was important, seen almost as a gift, and nothing, not even someone else’s trash, was ever taken for granted.
When her shift was over, Megan and Little Lisa were bundling up, getting ready to head outside when Kevin ran up and stopped them. “Hey you two, don’t forget your dinner.” He handed a sack to Megan. After every shift Kevin gave them each a free Full Meal Deal. He knelt down so he was eye level with Little Lisa, “And I’ve got yours all special for you, just the way you like it: six chicken nuggets with no sauce, small fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.”
He really was a nice guy.
“Thank you, Kevin,” Little Lisa said politely, holding her meal tightly to her chest.
“See you tomorrow,” Kev, Megan said.
“Yep,” he mock saluted, “Until then…stay warm and don’t take any wooden nickels.” Megan rolled her eyes at him, appreciating his attempt at humor. Then he turned and went back behind the counter to check on the remaining two helpers. They stayed open until 2am and he had a long three hours ahead of him.
“What did he mean by that, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked as they made their way to their car. The snow had quit falling, but there was maybe three inches on the ground and on her car.
“He was just kidding, Sweetie,” she said, getting the little girl settled in her car seat before setting to work sweeping off her car. It took her about five minutes. She was diligent and careful to get it all removed so she could see clearly. When she was finished she got in, buckled up and started the car. They chatted together for a few minutes, eating their dinners while the car warmed up. When they were finished they dumped their leftover paper and wrappers in a trash can and then pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a little where the snow had compacted. At times like these Megan was conscious of every move she made – from making sure not to fall down and injure herself when walking on icy snow, to being watchful and careful with her driving – everything she could to be conscientious and safe and not do anything that might jeopardize the tenuous hold she had on her life with her daughter. A stay in the hospital or medical bills was something they could ill afford.
The drive from Minneapolis out Highway Seven west to Minnetonka took forty-five minutes; nearly twice as long as normal due to the snow clogging up the roads, slowing the late night traffic to a crawl. The big box store they were heading for closed at midnight and they barely made it in time to rush inside and make their way quickly to the women’s room where they washed up and brushed their teeth. Then they bundled up and headed back outside. The temperature was dropping and the cold was settling in. It might even dip into the single digits overnight. Megan shivered and held Little Lisa’s mittened hand tightly.
She had parked the car way off to the side, half way from the store out to the service road that ran along the far end of the parking lot. She was able to spend the night because the store had instituted a policy a few years ago of letting people similar to her situation park their cars overnight as long as they were gone by six in the morning . And also, most importantly, as long as no one caused any trouble they were welcome to come back. For Megan, it was exactly what she needed. In the five months she’d been staying at the lot no one had ever caused her or anybody else any trouble. In fact, it was just the opposite. More than anything, she was finding that homeless people like her mostly just wanted to be left alone. During warm weather there might be up to fifteen cars scattered around, each leaving as much space as possible between themselves and the nearest vehicle. However, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, the number of vehicles had dwindled to maybe three a night at the most. Tonight, it looked like Megan’s old Ford would be the only vehicle there.
“Come on, honey,” Megan said, reaching the car and opening the front door, “Let’s get you settled.”
Little Lisa knew the routine well: she climbed into the passenger side while her mom went around and opened the back hatch where the few belongings they owned were stored (mostly clothes stowed in a single Tupperware container). She grabbed their blankets for the night and then went around to the front driver’s side where she climbed in, securing and locking their doors. Then she pulled up the latch that let the seat slide back as far as possible. She had learned through trial and error that sleeping in the front seat was roomier and easier on both of them, especially in the winter, where they could take advantage of the car’s heater if they ever needed to. But running the Ford at night cost money, so they rarely did.
Megan helped Little Lisa get settled in. She took off her snow boots and set them on the floor in the back. Then she pulled an extra thick pair of wool socks over her feet, rubbing her toes and joking with the little girl, making her laugh. Megan always felt it was a good way to go to sleep – with the sound of her daughter’s laugher in the car, drowning out any depressed feelings they might have about their living situation. Then she put her in a snowsuit and a kid’s sized sleeping bag before finally putting ‘Lambie’ her favorite stocking hat on her head and wrapped a scarf around her neck and face. Then she covered her up with a thick quilt she had bought at a Dollar Store just after Thanksgiving. By morning the temperature in the car would be the same as outside, and although it would be cold, at least wrapped up like she was, Little Lisa would be warm.
When Megan was satisfied her daughter was all set, they did their final bedtime ritual. “Do you want me to read you a story?”
“Yes, Mommy, yes,” Little Lisa exclaimed, her breath showing as she spoke. It was already getting cold in the car. “Can you read me about Elsa and Anna?” Little Lisa was hooked on ‘Frozen’ and anything having to do with their characters would be sure to bring her joy. This book was a favorite.
“Yes I can, Sweetheart,” her mother said, reaching under the seat for the book and taking it out of the large zip-loc she kept it in for protection. The lighting from the parking lot flood lights gave her enough light to read by. She began the story, watching her daughter’s eyes go from excited to heavy almost immediately. It had been a long day. After a few minutes her face relaxed, her breathing deepened and she soon fell into a peaceful sleep, transported by the story to a world of fantasy far away from the one in which she was living.
Satisfied Little Lisa was sleeping comfortably, Megan put the book in the zip-lock and stored it back under the seat. Then she moved her hand around until she felt the envelope in another zip-lock that she kept hidden there. She thought of it as her ‘Special Envelope’ because it contained her savings. She got paid every two weeks, and she put ten dollars of each and every paycheck into the envelope and secured it in the zip-lock. Without fail. And she never touched it either, except for times like now when she permitted herself a moment to feel it’s contents and look toward the future. One day she would have enough saved up for their own apartment. It might take a while, but she was determined. She didn’t plan to spend the rest of her life living like they were. One day she and Little Lisa would have their own place to really call home. A place they could decorate anyway they wanted and it’d have a real bed for each of them and a real kitchen to cook in. And she was committed to making that dream come true, too, no matter how long it took. Until then, though, they would make the best of what they had. Even though every day was a challenge, they were doing the best they could. And she never, ever forgot that no matter how bad things were, they were never as bad as they’d been with Darren. That and the fact that Little Lisa and I are together, she thought. That was the main thing – the best thing.
Satisfied her savings were secure and safely hidden, Megan sat for a minute staring out the front window. Gusts of wind were blowing, keeping the windshield clear. The parking lot was empty except for two cars parked by the front entrance. It was the cleaning crew: Tim and Ramon, two twenties something guys who would spend the night getting the store ready for when it opened at six in the morning on today, already, Christmas Eve.
Then the snow started falling again, a sure sign it wouldn’t be getting too cold tonight, maybe ten degrees or so. She watched, mesmerized by the way the flakes drifted past the tall flood lights, sometimes swirling like tiny ballerinas dancing in the night. Soon she felt her eyes getting heavy so before she nodded off she roused herself. There was one more thing left to do.
She reached over the back seat for her shoulder bag and took out the twinkle lights, snow globe and doll. She ever so carefully took the lights out of their packaging and strung them around the inside of the car and turned them on. The snow globe she set on the dash. She was surprised to find that it was also a little music box. She tried it out for just a moment, not wanting to wake her daughter. The song was ‘Silent Night.’ Perfect. Finally, she took out the Rainbow Barbie and looked at it, grinning to herself and thinking, ‘How she comes up with these things, I’ll never know.’ Smiling now, in a good mood, she wrapped the doll inside the special stocking cap she had bought a few weeks earlier at the Dollar Store. It was an ‘Elsa’ hat and had long golden braids hanging from it just like the main character from the movie. She wrapped both items in a Target plastic bag as carefully and as quietly as she could, and set the package on the dash panel next to the snow globe. There, she thought to herself, all set.
Then she slipped off her boots, put on her own thick socks and pulled her feet up onto the seat and tucked them under her for warmth. She looked out over the parking lot. The snow falling was peaceful, nearly obscuring what little traffic there was a quarter mile away on the highway. The world was shutting down. Megan went through the list in her mind of what she would be doing tomorrow, Christmas Eve: she had to work from three in the afternoon until ten. Until then she and Little Lisa would go to a public library she knew would be open from ten in the morning until noon. It would be the highlight of their day. Little Lisa liked the children’s section and they could read books together until closing. Then, before going to work, they would go to a nearby big box store and wander around, staying warm and, hopefully, not drawing any attention to themselves. And, most importantly, she promised herself to resist any potential last minute holiday temptation and not take anything.
But there was one final thing to do on this late, wintery night. She leaned over and shook Little Lisa gently. “Hey there, sleepy head,” she said rubbing her hand over her daughter’s tiny shoulder, caressing her softly, “Look what happened while you were asleep.”
And while Little Lisa woke up, Megan looked around the car: the white lights were on, casting a magical glow inside, reflecting off the snow that was covering the windshield. Some of the snowflakes outside on the glass even twinkled, adding to the feeling of wonder in the car. Megan was inspired to star humming, “Silent Night,” just like the snow globe.
“Momma, look at this,” Little Lisa pointed when she had finally come awake. “Look at the pretty lights.” She excitedly pushed out of her blanket and sleeping bag and pulled off her mittens, scarf and stocking cap, and sat up in stunned silence, gazing around, her face lit by the magical lights as well as her happy smile.
After a few minutes Megan showed her the snow globe, smiling to herself that, in all her daughter’s excitement about the lights, she hadn’t even noticed it. “Look at this, Honey,” she said, pointing it out to her.
“Oh, how pretty,” Little Lisa exclaimed. She took it carefully off the dash and shook it, then held it gently in her hands, hypnotized by the snow scene inside.
“And look at this,” Megan said, showing her how to operate the key. And when Little Lisa turned it they both sat back in childlike awe as the sparkling snow fell and ‘Silent Night’ played, filling their old car with a joy and wonder only brought about by the magic of dreams coming true.
When the song was over Megan next showed Little Lisa the package on the dash; beaming to herself when her little girl opened it, took out the stocking hat and squealed in delight. “Look inside the hat”, Megan told her, and the squeals got ever louder as Little Lisa pulled out her new doll, holding it to her chest and smiling a wide happy smile.
“Momma, how did all of this happen?” she asked, looking around the car in awe, with its white, twinkling lights, snow globe, Christmas music and her new doll and hat; taking in the transformation like it was now a scene out of a fairytale – a wonderland – a place she’d only glimpsed before in her imagination. Except now it was for real.
“It just did, sweetheart,” Megan said, hugging her little girl tightly, “Sometimes you just have to believe that things will get better. And if you believe it hard enough, sometimes they do.” Then before Little Lisa thought about it too much and started asking too many questions, she changed the subject, “Do you like it, Sweetheart?”
“I do, Momma, I really do.”
And that was good enough for Megan.
They stayed awake for nearly half an hour, looking at the twinkling lights, playing with the snow globe and the rainbow Barbie, singing along with Silent Night and enjoying the peaceful snow coming down, both inside the snow globe for fun and outside the car for real. Megan even started the old Ford, turned the heater on and ran it for a few minutes to warm them up. A special gift for both of us, she thought to herself.
Finally, when Little Lisa started yawning, Megan turned the car off and bundled her up again, making sure she had her new doll and was wearing her new stocking hat, before finally getting her calmed down and ready to go back to sleep. When Little Lisa was cozy and snuggled into her sleeping bag and blanket, Megan put on her own stocking hat and mittens and took a hold of her own blanket and stretched out on the car seat, holding her daughter in front of her. She then pulled her blanket around her and wrapped her arms around her little girl. Their shared body heat would help keep them warm.
Just before Little Lisa fell asleep she turned and said to her mom, “I love the lights, and everything, Momma, it’s almost like we have a brand new home.”
“Hush, sweetheart, you go to sleep now, Ok? I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Will our new home still be here,” Little Lisa asked, starting to nod off.
“Yes, it will sweetheart.”
“And you’ll still be here?”
“Always, Little Lisa. Always.”
Then Megan wrapped her arms just a little tighter and listened to her daughter’s breathing as it slowed, becoming deeper and deeper until she finally fell asleep, safe and secure in her mother’s embrace. Then Megan, too, began nodding off, her mind relaxing now for just a few hours; a brief respite before the process of making it through another day started all over again. She took a deep breath and softly let it out, remembering Little Lisa’s joy and happiness at the little bit of wonder she’d experienced. Things could be a lot worse, was Megan’s last thought before she finally fell into her own deep sleep.
The lights would be the first thing they’d see when they awoke in the morning. And the snow globe with it’s pretty song would be there, too. And her daughter would have a new doll, something that would make her happy. Like Little Lisa had said, ‘It’s like it was a brand new home.’ Megan had to agree. It wasn’t much but at least it was theirs. Outside the snow continued to fall, and the temperature dropped. The wind buffeted the car and it was getting colder, but inside mother and daughter slept peacefully and held each other tightly – they were as warm as they could be. And, for tonight, that was warm enough.