Chapter Two

November 2nd

Ashley dropped onto the cream-coloured sofa (the one her mother sniffed at every time she saw it because it was inferior to anything Gallagher’s once sold), and leaned her head back, positioning the re-warmed beanbag on her head. She knew the cover of the Toronto Reporter had triggered this never-ending headache (and the nightmares that plagued her sleep), but knowing the root didn’t alter the outcome. The silence, the heat of the beanbag, and exhaustion ruled her life at the moment.

Knock, thump, bang.

Ashley’s heartbeat picked up at the loud sound, picked up even more when her eyes popped open and she couldn’t see. The beanbag slid off her head and the gloomy grey light filled her apartment. Not night yet.

Rap-rap-rap.

No one from the security desk downstairs had called to request permission for whoever was at the door to enter, so that meant whoever was making all the noise was someone on her approved list. Unless someone managed to get past the vigilant team? Ashley willed the intruder to leave, but the knocking continued. Getting to her feet, she tossed the beanbag onto her coffee table and padded silently in sock feet to the door.  

 Every knock made the blood pounding through her brain audible, painful. She pressed herself against the cool metal door and peeked out the peephole. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry tears of relief or frustration when she saw the top half of Char’s head, her brow creased in impatience. Ashley unlocked the deadbolt and slid the chain free before pulling the door open as Char lifted her hand to knock again.

“You look like shit.” Char’s gaze swept from head to toe before she slipped around Ashley to enter.

Ashley quickly relocked the door, uttering a silent prayer for strength before forcing a smile and turning around. “Hey, Char, I wasn’t expecting you,”

Char glided to the sofa and sank onto one of the cushions without a sound. Char’s exotically beautiful pale skin had a red tinge to it, and her scowl reminded Ashley that Char was perfectly capable of biting.

“Nice to see you too, hope you’re well.” Ashley muttered under her breath.

“I’m going to kill her. With my bare hands if I can reach that swan neck of hers without a ladder.” Char grumbled as much to herself as to Ashley, her eyes flashing.

Instinctively and immediately, Ashley knew Char was talking about Sophie. She didn’t need the ladder reference because it was always Sophie that someone wanted to kill, slap, or otherwise do harm to. “What’s she done now?”

“Protesting the Christmas thing.” Char rolled her brown-black eyes.

“Of course she is.” Ashley nodded, resisting rolling her own. “Let me guess — why can’t we just give a bunch of money instead? Hire someone to do it?”

Char laughed. “Nailed it in one. Or two. Or both, whatever. She wants us to donate fifty turkeys and hire people to dish it out so she doesn’t have to leave the comfort of home to be a good person.”

Ashley struggled not to laugh as her head thumped meekly. Of the five women, best friends since childhood, it was mostly Sophie that took exception to their Society’s goal of giving back. ‘Not that I mind,’ Sophie’s speech always began. ‘But I don’t see how my getting up early, getting dirty, disrupting my schedule makes me a better person. I have no objections to paying someone to do what needs to be done and be done with it.’

“What do you think of my plan? Did you read the papers I gave you last night?” Char’s scowl morphed into hope as she studied Ashley.

“I did.” Every time she’d woken from another nightmare, she’d read a few pages. “I love the plan. I also know why Sophie won’t do it. The parts where you spelled out dress-code. No dressing flashy, rich, fancy. No heavy make-up, no jewelry? No way will she be seen in public looking like anything less than royalty.”

“Oh, she’s doing it,” Char huffed, gathering her long black curls and wrapping an elastic she always wore on her wrist around them. “I don’t care if she cries, stomps her feet, or offers tens of thousands of dollars, she will be there.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “How do you plan to make that little Christmas miracle happen?”

“Publicity, baby.” Char batted her long, mascara-free eyelashes. “Sophie can’t say no to publicity, especially since she’s the president of her own publicity company and can claim a write-off for company taxes.”

“I can,” Ashley muttered as her head squeezed tighter than a small child held mommy’s hand on the first day of school. “And I say, hell, no.”

“I knew you’d give me a hard time,” Char groaned. “Why is it that the five of us grew up together, practically raised together, and yet you and Sophie are so completely different and the constant bane of my existence?”

Ashley bristled, stung. “I’m a hell of a lot more co-operative, but I insist on no publicity.”

“I knew you’d say that, but you haven’t even heard what I’m going to do.” Char held up a jeweled hand to stop Ashley from speaking. Unlike Sophie’s jewelry, Char’s was mostly silver, handmade, and as exotic as the woman who wore it.

Ashley narrowed her eyes at her friend and crossed her arms over her chest. “I am not going to be there Christmas day if there’s publicity. I don’t care what you say.”

Char heaved a sigh. “Would you hear me out before you shoot me down? I’ve got it all figured out. I’m sending out an announcement to the three major papers, the two free dailies, and five of the major networks announcing what we’re doing. I’ll give them a copy of the Society’s mission statement, how our group feels that everyone should have a feast on Christmas Day, how we’re going to accommodate anyone who doesn’t believe in Christmas. That part you suggested last week? About how religion doesn’t change hunger, blah blah blah? Brilliant. Working that for the media to encourage donations so we can feed everyone, not just Christians. I’m inviting them to look at the time we’re putting in – the prep work we’ll be doing in the weeks leading up to the big day, the work that will go into preparing the meals, serving the food. How we plan to set up, staggering serving times so that there’s constantly people moving in and out, no one stuck outside waiting. What we’re going to do to make sure that not a single person goes away hungry. It’s win-win. Add another win because Sophie can handle all that and she’ll love being in the spotlight the whole time. The public will see what a great thing we’re doing and start sending out cheques to the shelter.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes even more, feeling her brow crease. “Where will I be during all this?”

“Well, most of the publicity will be done before Christmas to get the ball rolling for donations. On the big day, you’ll be in the kitchen – you’re the best cook out of all of us. You might happen to be in a shot or two, but I’ll try to prevent them from coming into the kitchen while you’re cooking. Is there a health code violation or something I can claim? Hell, I can do a great job on your make-up again, make you look like your grandmother if you want, on the off chance someone sneaks back there.”

“Oh, yeah, that would go over well. You know how Nan is about this stuff. She thinks we’re a bunch of fools as it is.” Ashley pursed her lips and cleared her throat to mimic her grandmother, a formidable woman who scared everyone from politicians to church leaders. “Why do you insist on wasting your time on a bunch of freeloaders? Don’t you know what welfare is for? Those homeless bums could be off the streets and living off our tax dollars, abusing welfare like the rest of them if they were willing to conform to the rules of society, but they won’t, so why are you wasting your money, time, and beautiful manicure to help out the ungrateful dregs of society?”

“God, you do sound just like Agatha.” Char shivered. “I get you a blonde or brunette wig to hide that red hair of yours, do your make-up and you could serve the old battle axe and even she wouldn’t recognize you.”

Ashley thought about Char’s offer. The media could be their biggest boon. All the fundraising luncheons with their peers they’d considered hosting over the next few weeks could be avoided if the public took an interest and donated enough. “I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will, and I know you’ll do the right thing. You and Suze always do.” Char winked. “Now that’s settled, get me a drink.”

Char usually helped herself to Ashley’s food and drink but Ashley leapt at the chance for a moment alone to think. Char was right. Ashley would do whatever it took to help the Society succeed in their goals. In the kitchen, she found a bottle of wine on the fridge door and hoped it wasn’t too old.

Pouring the wine into the glass, she felt her headache pick up as her pulse did. Media. Any time one of their deeds involved the media, Ashley was guaranteed a headache until the event was over. Almost two months until Christmas, was she really prepared to deal with a headache lasting that long?

Ashley left the bottle on the counter and went to peer out the window. The gloomy greyness did little to ease her worries. She watched someone on the sidewalk below as they weaved around a bicycle rider and a newspaper box before jogging up the two steps into the little store. Would she ever be normal? Would the media ever let her live her life without watching her, waiting for her to slip and fall so they could make her headline news again?  A BMW pulled up to the curb in front of the store and Ashley whirled around. The car reminded her of Michael, reminded Ashley that the media was on his side, and always would be.  

“I guess Suze is over the moon about this project?” Ashley forced a note of cheer into her voice as she returned to the living room with Char’s wine.

“She is now. I had to make a lot of compromises with her, too.” Char took the glass Ashley offered and sipped, nodding her approval. “I promised we’d use only compost friendly plates, that we would make the compost and recycling program part of the publicity, and that we wouldn’t use disposable foil roasters. I’d already figured we’d have to buy a bunch of roasting pans anyhow, so that wasn’t much of a sacrifice. We’ll make the pans we buy and donate part of the publicity. Let Soph figure out how to spin the whole ‘now they’ve got top of the line roasting pans forever and won’t need to invest in disposable foil products that harm the environment and cost a fortune’. Oh, and she’s allowed to make up pamphlets to hand out on biodegradable paper about the importance of taking care of the planet. I nixed the blurb about cigarettes since she doesn’t so much care about the dangers of second-hand smoke and more about the litter the butts create. And – you tell her I said this, I’ll call you a filthy liar – those pamphlets will save us on napkins because I’m sure the flimsy paper will be mistaken for napkins and people will wipe their mouths with them.”

Ashley chuckled, sitting on the sofa at the opposite end from Char. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want the public scrutiny, but it was for a good cause. Sighing heavily, she stared at Char. “If you promise no one knows it’s me, I’ll go along with it.”

Char jumped up, sloshing wine onto the carpet. “Shit, sorry, but thank you!”

Setting her glass down on the glass topped table next to the cooling bean bag, Char glided into the kitchen. Ashley let her eyes close and her body tense in her friend’s absence. She didn’t care about white wine on the dark area rug. Her mind was racing with worries that something would go wrong at Christmas, and she’d have to face the media again.