Chapter Three

November 5th

Ashley clenched her teeth as she scanned the miles of parked cars, searching for an empty spot.

“Almost two months until Christmas. What the hell is the matter with people?” Ashley muttered under hear breath as she followed a family pushing two shopping carts full of junk they’d just bought. “You’re probably the same idiots who say my dad failed Gallagher’s. I bet you never parked at this end of the mall when Gallagher’s was here.”

Ashley scowled as they loaded their packages into the van. Once upon a time, Gallagher’s had stood tall and proud as the mall’s main anchor store, a sparkling jewel in her family’s now tarnished crown. The lampposts were garish with neon yellow signs boasting ‘even more price slashes’, so tacky compared to the elegant wreaths Gallagher’s always hung December 1st.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Ashley slammed the heel of her hand on the horn when the couple laughed and went back to the store. Gluttony was the only word she could think of that came close to describing the hoarders going in and out of the American discount department store. She finally found a spot at the back where Gallagher’s employees once parked.

She zipped her coat and grabbed her leather purse before climbing out of the car and shivering as a gust of wind whipped her hair into a frenzy. The sound of the alarm setting carried on the wind as Ashley hurried across the parking lot, her eyes already tearing from the icy gusts. She jammed her hands into her pockets as the wind whistled, her hair tangling as tendrils were forced free of the clip she’d tried to tame them with. Sharp pain hit her shin and she stumbled, her eyes stinging as ends of her hair lashed at her eyeballs. She righted herself and turned to see what had caused the throbbing pain. A huge trailer hitch jutted out from the rear of a shiny new Dodge pickup truck.

“Inconsiderate fools.” Ashley yanked her right hand out of her warm pocket and held back the hair blinding her. “Why on earth would someone in Toronto need a freaking pickup truck?”

She felt like Suze as she grumbled to herself about vehicles that guzzled gas like Suze’s mother guzzled gin. “Probably some small dude with a complex.”

She stepped around a huddled group of teenagers, the faint whiff of cigarette smoke burning her nostrils as she entered the store. When Gallagher’s ruled this location, this would’ve been the baby section (infant and toddler clothes on the right, cribs, strollers, and toddler bedroom sets on the left), not the acres of parking spots for shopping carts the masses filled with bargains they didn’t need but couldn’t pass up the fifty percent off savings.

She went through the second set of doors, wincing at the bleeps and whistles of dozens of cash registers, blinked against the sudden brightness of fluorescent lighting, so different than the gloomy skies outside. She didn’t spare a second glance for the cheap metal racks stacked with candles, bins of discounted Hallowe’en candy, or rows of pre-lit Christmas trees as she hurried through the store. She knew she made no sense; determined to park in the lot of the enemy yet anxious to get away from the ghosts of her family’s failed empire rattling their chains overhead in fury the instant she stepped inside.

Ashley knew this chain of stores had started the crumbling of her family’s Canada-wide empire and she tried not to let her anger show to the shoppers she felt were more to blame. As if her dark thoughts had conjured her, Ashley could hear Suze’s recent rant at a Society meeting. Suze, eyes flashing with fury, bemoaning excessive consumerism while stomping her feet. “We live in a throwaway world. No one buys quality anymore, they just throw it out and buy more. All this shit? Landfill fodder by months end.”

Ashley nodded her agreement even though Suze wasn’t there as her head gave a feeble throb. Passing through the metal anti-theft gates at the mall entrance (which always seemed to scream), she was glad to put the noise behind her. The drone of the crowded mall was far more tolerable.

She manoeuvred around the window shoppers and strode purposely towards the food court until she caught sight of herself reflected in a store window. Ashley didn’t care how she looked but if Sophie saw her windswept appearance, she’d drag Ashley to a salon and demand a total makeover. She peeked at her watch to make sure she had enough time to hit the washroom for a fix-up and almost careened into a huge group of teenagers watching a videogame presentation. She staggered and almost tripped on a discarded backpack near the crowd. She’d finally managed to right herself when she felt something hard hit the backs of her knees and she fell.

“Oof.” Ashley’s heart jackhammered in her chest and cold sweat prickled her brow as her knees and hands slapped the cold tile floor. She scrambled to her feet, resisting the primal urge to flee, as she registered the attention she was receiving. Humiliation warmed her cheeks. Torn whether to scold the careless person who’d tackled her or simply forget the incident and carry on, her swirling thoughts stilled when she saw her assailant. A young woman, only her eyes visible because her hands covered the rest of her face, stared wild-eyed from behind the stroller she pushed.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.” The woman’s big brown eyes filled with tears. “Are you okay?”

Ashley’s terror eked away as her concern for the other woman rose. “I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

The woman bit her lip as she dropped her hands to the handle of the stroller. Shaking her head, her chin trembled. “I’m fine. I’m just stupid, and I should’ve been going slower.”

Ashley stepped closer, her gaze darting to the carrier anchored to the stroller. A baby fussed, the chin trembling as the young woman’s did. “I’m fine. Honest. Where’s the fire?”

The woman’s face changed from horror to confusion to amusement. “No fire. Temper tantrum building in three…two…”

As if on cue, the baby began to howl. “Diaper change?”

Ashley fell into step beside the anxious mother, assuming they were both heading to the washroom.

“Feeding time.” The mother made cooing noises as she steered the stroller down the long corridor that led to the washrooms. They passed the men’s room and the row of payphones no one used (though many people were on cell phones near them). They had to wend their way around the people waiting to use the ATM.

“These benches are more comfortable than the ones in the mall and the food court will be rammed.”

Ashley spied the padded seats outside the women’s washroom and they veered around the women waiting. “Quieter down here, too.”

The mother nodded as she parked the stroller. With deft moves, she unstrapped and lifted the baby, grabbed the bottle sitting on the seat of the stroller, and settled on the bench. “I already had the bottle heated.”

The mother shook a drop on her wrist, adjusted the pink blanket around the baby in her arms, and popped the nipple in her mouth before she could holler any more.

“She’s beautiful.” Ashley fibbed (the baby was all scrunchy, red faced, and angry) as she settled beside her, watching with a sense of awe and wonder. As the only child of only children, she hadn’t grown up with siblings or cousins. No one in her circle had kids yet, either. Babies and children intrigued (and scared) her.

“Thanks.” The mother offered a nervous smile. Ashley noticed dark shadows under her eyes, and a weariness she knew well from a couple of the women’s shelters she’d been involved with.

“My name is Ashley.” Ashley was about to hold out her hand but realized the other woman’s hands were full of baby.

“I’m Jennifer, and this is Penelope. Penny for short.”

“That’s not very common, is it?” Ashley asked, smiling down at the suckling baby. She was sort of cute now that her face wasn’t such an angry red.

Ashley glanced up when she heard Jennifer sniffling. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I know, it’s stupid. I was like the fourth Jennifer in my class, and two of my friends are Jennifer. I wanted something pretty, but not something that every third girl was called. My mother says it’s a stupid name. Pennies are worthless, tarnish easily, and are cheap.”

“That’s just stu–” Ashley bristled, her defenses rising, before she stopped herself. Ashley rarely butted in with her opinions, especially with strangers. That was Char’s forte.

“That’s the way my mother is. She wasn’t the greatest for me, and she isn’t happy about being a grandma. That’s why Penny and I are here. We’re always here.” Jennifer’s brown eyes blinked furiously as she gazed down at her daughter.

Ashley frowned. “Always here?”

Jennifer darted a glance at Ashley, nodding. She bit her lip again. “The best thing I’ve ever done in this world was have Penny, but as my mother always points out, it was also the dumbest. I didn’t have a great job to begin with and I doubt they’ll hire me back when my mat leave is up. Not that I can afford to take the full year. Then again, as my mother constantly reminds me, I can’t afford daycare anyhow so it won’t matter. She tolerates us sleeping there but wants her peace during the day, so here we are.”

“What about Penny’s father?” Ashley peered closer at the baby drinking. Faded pink outfit, oft-washed blanket. She glanced at the stroller, saw the worn wheels, the tear in the carrier seat.

Jennifer laughed but there was no mirth in the sound. “As I said, getting pregnant was the dumbest thing I could’ve done according to my mother – unless you throw in the man who fathered her. He knows he’s won. I can’t afford a lawyer to force him to pay support because he’s denying paternity. He’s married – something I didn’t know until after I found out I was pregnant.”

Jennifer’s tears flowed and Ashley dug through her purse hoping to find a tissue. She found a wrinkled one and shook it out.

“Here, it’s clean, just not sure how long it’s been in the depths of this purse. I didn’t clean it out last spring, and just shoved my wallet in it this morning.” Ashley gave a sheepish grin as she gestured to the black leather purse she preferred to use in the winter.

Jennifer dabbed at her streaming eyes. “Imagine, having more than one purse. I don’t even own one, but I do have that bottle bag under the stroller and matching diaper bag that my friend gave me. She doesn’t use them anymore.”

Ashley felt an overwhelming urge to help this young woman. “You know the government will force him to pay or they’ll take away his license, don’t you?”

Jennifer snorted as she put the bottle down on the bench and held Penny to her shoulder, patting her back. “He’s fighting everything. My friend says they’ll make him pay for the paternity test but that it’ll take forever for them to get everything sorted. Penny will probably be in school before that happens. He wouldn’t even buy me diapers when I begged him. My mat leave unemployment hadn’t kicked in yet, my mother said the only help she’s willing to provide is a roof over our heads so long as we’re not there but to sleep, and I had to go to my friends and ask them to help me. I was nursing Penny in the beginning, until she refused my milk, so I had the food part covered, but I couldn’t even buy her diapers. My mother was right, I should’ve put her up for adoption.” Jennifer kept patting her daughter’s back as the tears began to fall in earnest.

“One sec.” Ashley jumped to her feet and rushed past the line of women waiting to use the toilets. She glanced by the sinks but saw nothing but hand dryers.

“Hey!” Ashley grabbed the arm of a woman leaving the first stall. “Can you pass me a handful of toilet paper?”

The other women in line grumbled but Ashley didn’t pay attention. The woman jerked a large wad of tissue free and thrust the paper into the hand Ashley wasn’t clutching her arm with.

“Thanks.” Ashley smiled and darted back out of the washroom, not bothering to apologize to the woman who was next in line.

“Here.” Ashley sat down breathlessly beside Jennifer, who had adjusted Penny to continue feeding her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer sniffed as she wiped her face before putting the bottle back to her daughter’s lips. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where all this is coming from. I’ve never dumped on anyone like this, let alone a total stranger.”

Ashley watched Jennifer, saw the love shining in her eyes as she watched Penny drinking. She put her hand on Jennifer’s, the one holding the bottle, and squeezed. “Sometimes we bottle stuff up so much that the seal breaks and everything spills out. I’ve been there.”

Jennifer nodded, her eyes closed. “You ever felt like you were going to lose your mind because you can’t figure out a single thing you can do to change anything?”

Her eyes popped open as she turned her head. Ashley saw the depths of her despair drowning out the love. Ashley’s senses went on overload and she looked away as she nodded. There were lines of people everywhere and all of them were oblivious to the two women and the baby on the bench.

“I’m sorry.”

Ashley blinked, her attention shifting from a vaguely familiar man standing with his back to her as he waited for the ATM and glanced at Jennifer. “Pardon?”

Jennifer shifted Penny and put the nearly empty bottle on the bench beside her before she looked at Ashley again. “I thought, when I bumped into you, that you looked like who I wanted to be – you know, together. Rich.”

Ashley snorted. “Only half right.”

Jennifer’s cheeks flushed but she smiled. “I heard something in your voice, saw something flicker on your face just now, and I was reminded that money doesn’t fix everything.”

Ashley nodded, but her thoughts warred. Jennifer had no money and that was the root of her trouble. Ashley had tons, trust funds and inheritances and investments galore, but all the money in the world wouldn’t fix her issues. Yet the Golden’s, with all their money, were living the life of Riley, using that money to keep their foes down. The people they walked on – stomped on, crushed – just lifted them higher, like some decaying mountain for their pedestal to climb higher into the clouds.

“I’m just a fast-food worker that got herself knocked up by the first man to pretend at love, so don’t listen to me.” Jennifer’s cheeks turned pink and she shifted Penny in her arms.

“Sorry, I was lost in thought there. My grandmother would say woolgathering.” Ashley smiled at Jennifer.

“Diaper change time.” Jennifer sniffed and made a face before sighing when she saw the women lined up like cattle. “Ugh, the line just gets longer and longer.”

“Do you have to wait in line to use the change table?” Ashley’s mind whirled trying to remember if she’d ever noticed lines of mothers waiting to change their baby’s diaper.

“No, but they grumble and moan when I try to squeeze past with the stroller.” Jennifer shrugged, getting to her feet. “Thanks so much for not hating me for hitting you.”

Ashley grinned back. “Thanks for letting me sit with you. Do you need the stroller? I can sit here with it while you go change Penny.”

Jennifer eyed the women as she bit her lip. “You don’t mind?”

Ashley glanced at her watch and shook her head. “I’m early to meet my friends.”

Jennifer sighed, the sound wistful. “Friends at the mall? I don’t know that I’ve ever had that luxury, not even in high school. I come here because it’s warm and not my mother’s house, but the few friends I have don’t have time for the mall life. If you’re sure you don’t mind watching the stroller?”

Ashley shook her head as she freed the diaper bag from the stroller handle. “I assume you need this?”

Jennifer slung the strap over her shoulder. “I’ll be quick.”

“No rush.” Ashley watched Jennifer head into the washroom. She wore pants that were too big, a sweater that had been washed so many times the original colour was a mystery, and shoes that Agatha Gallagher would shudder at the thought of ever wearing. Ashley glanced at the bottom of the stroller and saw no coat, just a baby’s snowsuit. Ashley opened her purse, pulled out her wallet, and rifled through the contents. She pulled out a wad of twenties, $380 in total, and curled her fingers around the money. She scanned the crowd, making sure no one was watching. She grabbed the bottle bag from the basket, picked up the bottle Jennifer had left on the bench, and dropped both the bottle and the cash inside.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up and Ashley froze, the bottle bag almost returned to the bottom of the stroller. Someone was watching her – rather, she felt an attack of the old familiar paranoia kicking in. She shook her head as she settled the bottle bag on the bottom of the stroller, her eyes darting through the throngs of people. The man at the bank of payphones had his back to her but Ashley felt the same familiarity flash through her as she had when she’d spied him in the line for the ATM — and an instant of pure female admiration when she noticed his jeans hugged his ass perfectly.

“Whew, thanks.” Jennifer settled Penny into her carrier, taking care to buckle her in before putting the faded blanket over her.

Ashley’s wallet was still on top of the purse nestled in her lap. Jennifer raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment and Ashley was struck with inspiration. She opened the side where she kept all the spare cards for the various charities she worked with and found the one she was looking for.

“I hope –” Ashley faltered, feeling her cheeks warm. She jammed her wallet back in her purse and inhaled. “I hope you don’t feel offended by this but this is the number of a good friend of mine. Aretha helps women in tough situations, knows all the legal ins and outs to help you with Penny’s father. She’s got connections to everyone and everything.”

Jennifer raised an eyebrow as she took the card. “A Woman’s Place. Why would I be offended?”

Ashley cleared her throat as she pulled out her brush. She wouldn’t normally groom herself in the open but she was feeling socially awkward and uncomfortable, the panic at the man’s familiarity drawing her eyes to the payphone as often as to Jennifer.

“I…we just met and you don’t know me. Aretha can help you, but some women would look at that card and see charity, not a tool to assist you. I didn’t want you to think I looked down on you –” Ashley felt her face sizzle, she was botching this horribly and the more she pedaled, the deeper she dug in. She finally gave up, shrugged her shoulders as she reclipped her hair. “Aretha was there for me many times, still is when I need a friend. She’s got answers, connections. Knows people, loves people. Talk to Aretha and I can guarantee you she’ll know what your next step should be. She’ll walk with you if you need her, she’ll push you if you get scared, but she won’t let you sit in the mall seven days a week because you’re not wanted anywhere else.”

Ashley put her brush back in her purse, her eyes darting to the phones but the familiar man was gone. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“She’s helped you?” Jennifer’s left eyebrow was still arched in disbelief.

Ashley stood, nodding. “I didn’t know I needed her help when I went to her. I thought I could help her, help other women, but Aretha saw my need and understood it, helped me, when I had no clue I was dying.”

A bit extreme, a little mellow dramatic maybe. Ashley hadn’t been physically dying, but Aretha, a sixty-four-year-old woman with a heart even bigger than her massive body, had seen the slow decay of Ashley’s mental health and had taken her under her wing. She was sure Aretha would do the same for Jennifer, as she did for hundreds of women in the city.

“I’ll call her.” Jennifer put the card in the diaper bag before frowning at the bench. “The bottle, I was sure –”

“Oh, sorry. I put the bottle in the bottle bag. I hope that was the right place?” Ashley was backing away, preparing to flee if Jennifer opened the bottle bag in front of her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer smiled, and Ashley was struck at the young mother’s appearance. She almost shone, her eyes sparkled. “I feel odd. I think it’s hope, and I can’t remember the last time I felt it. Thank you, Ashley.”

Ashley smiled as she felt her phone vibrate in her coat pocket. “Call Aretha.” She grabbed her phone and hurried away, glancing at the display. Char was attempting to park her car if the picture of the full parking lot she’d just texted was any indication. She grinned as she made her way to the main part of the mall. She glanced back at Jennifer and felt the faint stirrings of a headache when she spotted Jennifer talking to a man – the same familiar form she’d seen at the ATM and the payphone. Jennifer wore a puzzled expression as she bent to get the bottle bag. Whoever the man was, he must’ve seen Ashley putting the money in the bag. Before Jennifer could get the bag free, Ashley joined the crowd, hoping she didn’t bump into Jennifer again – and wondering who the man was and why he had been watching her.