"Can we go see Wee Jake before you drop me off with Jeb, Mom?"
Sheila Mason's five-almost-six-year-old son spoke through a mouthful of brown sugar oatmeal. They'd stayed up late wrapping presents and making gingerbread cookies. She sipped her coffee.
Never believe he stayed up late, she thought affectionately as she gazed at Devlin. Not those wide-eyed baby blues.
"It's not polite to talk with your mouth full, Doc," she said affectionately, reaching over to smooth down bed-head hair. "I don't think Melina and Scott are up yet."
In a heartbeat, Dev was out of his chair. Sheila leaned back in her own to see him peering through the windows bracketing both sides of the front door.
"I see the light upstairs," Dev exclaimed.
Shelia's cousin and his wife lived in the deluxe cabin across the street from them. Dev raced back into the kitchen, a tiny ball of fire. Though he was smaller than most of his Kindergarten classmates, he had more energy than anyone she knew. He'd started school this past year, and he loved being around other kids his age instead of just the adults Sheila knew.
"Can we, Mom?"
She patted his chair, and he sat obediently, picking up his spoon again.
"Maybe they're just changing a diaper and wanna go back to sleep, Spud."
Scott and his wife of nearly two years had a nine-month-old baby, whom they'd named after Sheila's father Jake. Scott had considered her father his own for most of their childhoods.
"But if they don't go back to sleep, can we see 'em?" Dev pressed optimistically.
It was Christmas-time. He'd already had so many disappointments lately. She couldn't be the one to add to them, even on something this small. Especially when there was a chance her tips at the truck stop today wouldn't be enough to provide her with the last hundred dollars she needed to get him the puppy he'd been asking forever for. This Christmas, she'd vowed, she would give her son what he wanted most. "Okay, Doc, but I can't be late for work. Let's hoof it now."
"I wish you didn't have to work today," Dev said again, shoveling a bite into his mouth. He'd said this before. Often.
Sheila watched him bend down to feed the scentless skunk at his feet a wedge of apple. She cringed, waiting for the "Ouch" that never came. The animal's teeth freaked her out, but in all the times Dev had hand-fed it, he'd never been bitten. "Mhm good, huh, Homer?" he crooned with an affectionate stroke before sitting up again. "I'd take you with me, buddy, but Jeb's got a dog and Ranger might scare you. Ranger's a Golden Retriever, you know, just like the puppy I want."
Dev didn't dare look at her when he dropped the blimp-sized hint, and Sheila experienced a twinge of leftover guilt that she hadn't been able to get the puppy for him last Christmas or for his birthday. Not that her son needed more pets. With fish, frogs, snakes, spiders, birds, mice, rabbits, a raccoon and the skunk he'd adopted after finding the thing half-dead in the woods. The poor thing had been mauled by a larger animal. Luckily, the local vet, Stanley, hadn't charged her for that "field call". Homer's scent glands had been damaged beyond repair from the attack, leaving him defenseless in the wild. Sheila still experienced a shock whenever she saw the thing in the house. Someday she might get used to it. After all, it was harmless, and it loved Dev as fiercely as he loved it.
"How long are you workin' tonight?" Dev asked, picking up his small glass of juice. He'd asked this question before and often, too.
"Just 'til four-thirty."
The popular truck stop she worked--about forty minutes away--was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Although she'd worked for a while in the café in their hometown of Amethyst, Wisconsin after her husband walked out on her, she couldn't make enough to make ends meet. She'd gotten the job at Ernie's Truck Stop, and the tips she got there couldn't be beat. With overtime and working holidays, she could take care of her son and herself without help from anyone. Unfortunately, Ernie's was in Eau Claire, a city she couldn't afford to live in. Truthfully, Amethyst was the only home she'd ever really known. She'd live here even if she could afford Eau Claire's high cost of living.
"Come on, Doc. Let's clean up and get going."
She and Dev made their usual toast of final bites, then brought their dishes to the sink for a quick rinse.
"Race ya," Dev said predictably.
She laughed, following his wiry little body out of the kitchen at a jog to his zip.
While she put on her uniform in her bedroom across the hall from Dev's, he called over his progress in a fun-challenging tone. Despite their usual routine, she couldn't stop remembering where it was she was dropping Dev off today--very unroutine-like.
Dev was spending Christmas Eve with Jeb Duncan, Amethyst Chief of Police. Jeb, her first love and, sometimes she thought, her biggest regret. Actually, she could no longer decide if marrying Travis or betraying Jeb to do so was her biggest regret.
Jeb had never held any of it against her--he'd been as friendly and persistent as ever since she moved back to Amethyst almost seven years ago. She'd never understood how he could still want anything to do with her after the crappy way she'd treated him. Yet he did. She knew he did. She even knew he wanted more than her mistakes allowed.
Why didn't I cancel this with Jeb even one of the hundred times I told myself to? Scott and Melina would take Dev gladly today while I'm working, the way they do every day I'm on the schedule. Why did I agree to spend Christmas Eve, after work, with Jeb Duncan?
"Combin' my hair," Dev shouted while she tossed on a thin layer of make-up she was convinced no amount of or skill in putting on would make her any more attractive. She didn't bother trying to tell herself she wasn't doing it for Jeb. She almost never wore make-up. Her face felt incredibly hot suddenly.
Okay, so she also knew exactly why she'd agreed to Jeb's invitation for Christmas Eve, why she hadn't cancelled. For Dev. After his own father's broken promises, she couldn't disappoint him again. He wanted to spend the day with Jeb--one of his best buds.
"Brushin' my teeth," Dev called, obviously with his mouth full of paste.
Sheila sat on the edge of her bed to put on her "granny shoes"--as Dev called them--that kept her on her feet through the long waitressing shifts.
Dev appeared in her doorway with toothpaste in the corner of his smiling lips and drooling down his sweater, which was inside out and backwards. "Slow-poke," he said on a beam of victory.
"You still have boots, coat, hat and mittens to put on, Spud. And don't forget to bring your snow pants."
Before he could dart out, she grabbed hold of him around the waist and drew him back to her. Crouching, she teased lightly, "I think the dinosaur on this sweater's supposed to be facing front and out. You don't want him eating your tummy, do you?"
Dev giggled while she straightened him out...between tickles. The phone rang, and she let her son go with a nudge toward his outerwear. Wondering who might be calling so early brought another wash of heat to her. Was Jeb checking up on her? He'd done that countless, unjustified times since Travis ran off with his secretary. But, when she heard Scott's voice wishing her a happy Christmas Eve, she got hold of herself.
"Jakey's asking for his cousin," Scott told her.
Sheila grinned. "Oh, he is? I don't know any other nine-month-olds who can do that."
"Jake's advanced," Scott said, proud as punch. "He's getting' used to seein' Dev's grinnin' mug in the morning. I know you gotta drop Dev with Jeb and get to work, but this bundle's gonna be out soon again anyway, so it'll only take a couple minutes."
"We'll be over ASAP."
Dev could hardly be contained until he was dressed for outdoors and she'd brushed her teeth and then snagged her purse and jacket.
"Okay, Devlin dude, go ahead and go over to Scott and Melina's. Look both ways before you cross the street." Not that there was much if any traffic out this way, especially at this time of the morning. "I'll start the car so it'll be warm for us."
When she got next door, she found Dev sitting on the couch with "Wee Jake" in his arms. Melina sat beside him.
"He smiled at me, Mom," Dev announced. "Aunt Melina said he pooped before, so it's a real smile."
"He's not a newborn anymore, Spud. He smiles for real at this age," Sheila told him. Who wouldn't smile at seeing Dev's adorably goofy face?
Who except his own stupid father? She surprised herself with her own bitterness. Holidays tended to bring it on, since Travis broke his son's heart most around those times.
Sheila asked her cousin about their plans for the day. Melina's father and sister would be coming over in the afternoon. Lona had married Reece Childs last spring and the two were expecting their first child.
The baby was yawning in seconds, and Sheila barely had time to hold him and breathe in his sweet, intoxicating baby scent before he conked out.
She couldn't help glancing at the clock while Dev opened the animal video and accompanying book from Scott and Melina. It was the eleventh in a favorite series they were collecting for him. Dev's excitement over it didn't match the blissfully happy couples' next announcement--Scott and Melina were pregnant and expecting another baby in June. A part of Sheila had known it because of Melina's glow and her Scott's loveable, perpetually dopey expression of late.
Genuine happiness for her closest family members took her through tear-filled hugs all around and out the door to their car across the street. It wasn't until they'd gotten a few blocks that she noticed the tears hadn't abated. A giant wad of regret settled in her throat like a roadblock. She couldn't possibly be happier for her cousin and Melina...for the love they shared, the family they were nurturing. Admitting to herself how petty it seemed to be happy and wildly jealous of them didn't make Sheila feel better about herself. She'd believed she and Travis would be in love forever. In truth, the "love" had barely lasted past the honeymoon. Stupid, of course, to bemoan it now that hindsight made it brutally clear to her that Travis married her because it was the only way he could come into the sizable inheritance his grandparents had left him with the stipulation that he had to be married to claim it. If he'd been dating any other girl at the time...
I'd probably be with Jeb now. Blissfully happy, just like Scott and Melina.
Sheila swiped at the tears, angry with herself for giving into them. Travis had given her Dev. Regardless of everything else, it'd been worth it a million times over for the miracle of her son.
"Are you happy?" Dev asked behind her in his booster seat.
Sheila glanced up into the rearview window at his question, aware that he must have been watching her emotions play across her face with her tears.
I'm not gonna let his day be spoiled by my...foolish wishes.
"About the new baby? Yeah, I'm thrilled for Scott and Melina. I really am, Doc."