Michael was walking down the road alone. It was a cold, overcast day. He had to walk briskly to keep himself warm. It was a miserable day, which matched his mood perfectly. It was also Christmas.
Christmas, to Michael, was the single most depressing day of the year. He always approached the holiday season with a sense of dread. It only served to remind about his family, or rather, lack thereof one.
Hank didn't even bother to get him gifts. He never had. They did nothing special to celebrate. Michael wasn't even sure if Hank had been sober enough to even realize it had been Christmas half the time over the years. For Michael it was always a day like all others. Worse, even, because he was aware of the fact it was supposed to be special.
He wasn't sure if Max and Isabel realized this or not. They would always invite him over for Christmas dinner, but he never accepted. If he went, there would only be one painful reminder after another that Isabel and Max fit in in a way he never could. There would be family moments that he would awkwardly watch. When they were over, everyone would realize an outsider has witnessed it and be embarrassed. Michael didn't think he could stand to go through that.
Max and Isabel weren't even around that year. They were in Buffalo, visiting their grandparents for the holidays. Michael didn't even have that option this year.
They gave him a gift each year, like usual. Max had left it with him before they left with the strictest instructions that he not open it until Christmas day. Of course he ignored them and opened it as soon as Max left.
So he was walking around town aimlessly, no idea whatsoever where he was going. The streets were unnaturally quiet, considering the time. Michael knew from experience that soon they would be filled up with kids. The kids would be laughing and playing, bragging about what Santa had brought them that year.
Michael planned to be off the streets long before this happened. Maybe he would go to a diner for a bite to eat. Diners were usually safe. They were filled with other lonely people, just as pathetic as he was. The ones with no families or no lives. The ones who had nothing better to do on Christmas. The ones like him.
A sudden sharp wail broke him out of his thoughts. Following the sound, Michael turned down an alley way. Lying there, in an old, worn baby car seat, was a baby.
Michael sucked in a deep breath, not quite a gasp. He knelt down beside the carrier and picked the baby up. The blanket that had been covering it fell off. After Michael was finally able to wrap the blanket around the baby again, he rocked her none too gently and little bit desperately, trying to stop the crying.
It was a she, Michael decided. He was quite sure of it, actually. He had no proof, but something about the child screamed female to Michael. Apparently the erratic rocking motions Michael was making were comforting to the infant, for she stopped crying.
Michael noticed a diaper bag half hidden behind the baby seat. He also caught sight of a piece of paper in the car seat and bent over to pick it up. He clumsily tried to open up the folded note with one hand while cradling the baby in the other. She stirred at the jarring movements, but to Michael's great relief, did not cry.
Finally he got the note open and read:
Her name is Sara. Please take care of her.
He was right, it was a girl. Sara, and she had been abandoned. With hardly any hesitation and definitely no thought, Michael carefully placed Sara back into the baby seat, making sure to tuck the blanket around her tightly, then picked up the carrier by the handle, swung the diaper bag around his shoulder and quickly walked home.
"Hank?" he called out cautiously at the door before going in. There was no answer, for which Michael was very glad. Setting Sara on the table, he sat down, pulled the diaper bag onto his lap and opened it.
Inside was a bag of diapers, a couple of changes of clothes and some bottles and formula. It looked to Michael like he would be set for a couple of days. By that time he would have figured something out.
Telling the police was not an option. They would just turn Sara over the social services, who would put her in a foster home. Michael couldn't bare to think of the sweet innocent little girl sleeping beside him going through the hell he had been through.
Keeping her in the same place as Hank was out of the question, too, for obvious reasons. Michael wasn't sure how long he could keep her a secret from his foster father. He contemplated bringing her over to the Evans'. They were away, but that wouldn't stop Michael. He would have to stay there with her, of course. You can't leave a baby alone, even Michael, who was extremely ignorant when it came to babies, knew that.
The only problem there was some of the neighbours might see movement in the house and call the police. Not only would that result in yet another offence on Michael's record, but he would also be right back where he started: with Sara in the hands of a social worker.
While he was trying to decide whether or not the cons of that plan outweighed the pros, there was a knock at the door. Before he could react, he heard the door open. A feminine voice called in hesitantly. "Hello?"
Michael jumped to his feet. It was Liz. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I tried knocking," Liz said, motioning behind her to the door.
"You could've waited two seconds for me to answer instead of just barging in here," Michael snapped.
"I did," Liz explained. "I knocked a couple of times. The door was open a bit, so I came in to make sure nothing was wrong . . . " Liz unexpectedly trailed up. Michael followed her gaze to Sara, who was still fast asleep.
Michael quickly stepped in front of Sara, blocking Liz's view of the baby. It didn't do any good, she had already seen everything.
"Michael," Liz asked in a strangled voice, "Is that a baby?"
"You shouldn't be here, Liz," Michael said coldly.
Liz snapped out of her trance. She looked at Michael, concerned. "Why do you have a baby here?" she asked.
"It's none of your business."
Liz refused to be swayed. "Michael," she repeated for the third time, quite firmly this time, "Why is there a baby sleeping in your kitchen."
Michael sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "I found her. Her mother abandoned her."
Liz's hand flew up to her mouth. "That's awful," she cried.
Michael nodded. "It is," he agreed.
"But why is she here?" Liz asked, confused.
"I told you, her mom abandoned her."
Realization dawned on Liz. "You can't keep her, Michael."
"Why not?" Michael demanded.
"You're sixteen!" Liz exclaimed. "you go to school. You can't take care of a baby."
"Well, then, what am I supposed to do?"
"You have to bring her to the police," Liz told him.
"No!" Michael's refusal was adamant and he almost sounded frightened.
Liz jumped at the emotion in his voice. "Michael," she started out shaky. Liz paused to gather her nerves. "Michael, you can't keep her."
"Why not?" Michael asked again.
"Why not?" Liz repeated. "'Cause you're sixteen. 'Cause I'm willing to bet you know nothing about taking care of babies. 'Cause taking care of a child is expensive. It costs much more than you have. 'Cause she isn't yours. 'Cause it's insane," Liz said bluntly, knowing it was the only way to get through to Michael.
"I'll learn," Michael said. "I'll get money. I'm not giving her to the police. She may not be mine, but mother left her laying in an alley, so I don't think she'll care."
Liz wasn't about to give up. "Where, Michael," she asked insistently, "Where will you get the money?"
"I don't know. I'll get it somehow," Michael said, annoyed. Why was Liz being like that? She was acting way too much like Max for Michael's tastes. Max was always trying to poke holes in Michael's ideas, too. Michael silently snorted. Those two were perfect for each other.
Liz was mad. "No," she said. "Michael, you won't just fine some money to pay for that baby."
Michael interrupted her. "'That baby' ha a name, you know. It's Sara."
Liz was so surprised that she forgot what she was saying. "You've already named her?" she exclaimed.
"No," Michael said patronizingly, "I haven't already named her." Then he mumbled, "Her mother left a note."
"Did her mother leave anything else?" Liz asked curiously.
Michael nodded. "She left enough stuff to last a couple of days."
Michael handed Liz the diaper bag. She opened it and looked inside. "Michael," she said. "This stuff won't even last the day."
"What are you talking about? There's like five changes of clothes."
Liz smiled indulgently. She asked him amused, "Do you know how quickly a baby Sara' age goes through clothes? Believe me, the stuff in this bag will only last you the day."
"Then I'll go but some more stuff," Michael said stubbornly.
"Where?" Liz exploded. "It's Christmas. Nothing is open. Give it up. You can't take care of Sara." She offered him an ultimatum. "If you don't bring her to the police, I will."
"You can't do that," Michael said desperately.
Liz studied him. "Why are you so afraid of bringing Sara to the police?"
"Iím not scared," muttered Michael.
Liz continued as if she hadn't heard him. "She'll be better off with the police."
"They'll just hand her over to social services." Michael became mad at himself when he heard the desperation in his voice.
Obviously Liz had heard it too, judging by the way she was frowning at Michael. "What the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing." Liz waited, not saying anything until Michael relented, "Social workers are incompetent. They'll kill her there."
Liz's eyes widened in horror. Guessing she misunderstood him, Michael sighed. "I don't mean literally," he said, exasperated. "but she'll be put in a foster home and be bounced around all her life. That's no way to grow up."
If Liz knew Michael was speaking from experience, she gave no indication. She didn't have the chance. Sara chose that moment to wake up. She started to scream at the top of her lungs. Michael and Liz both winced. Her screeches were painful to the ears.
Liz handed Michael the diaper bag and took a step back. "Okay, then. If you think you can handle a baby, go ahead.
Michael stared at Liz in disbelief. It wasn't like her to refuse to help a person. Then he shook his head and turned to Sara, determined to prove Liz wrong. He could take care of Sara. He picked her up and rocked her gently. "What's wrong?" he murmured softly.
The smell told him almost instantly. Michael made a face and held the crying baby at arm's length. "Diaper," he said
Liz merely nodded, not saying anything. She watched as Michael lay Sara down on the table. The little girl kicked and screamed as Michael tried to take off her clothes.
Michael couldn't understand how such a tiny baby could fight back that much or make such a loud noise. "Shh . . . Quiet down." Amazingly enough, Sara seemed to listen. Her screeched quieted down to softer sobs.
"Need any help?" Liz asked.
Michael glared at her. "No," he said darkly. "I can do it."
"You can't even get her clothes off." Liz walked over and shoved him out of the way. She changed Sara's diaper and put her clothes back on. Liz picked Sara up and the baby immediately began to wail again.
"Give her to me," Michael demanded, holding out his hands.
Liz gave him the baby. To Liz's great surprise, Sara stopped crying.
"So," Liz asked. "Are you ready?"
"Ready for what?" Michael asked, avoiding Liz's gaze.
"To bring Sara to the police," Liz told him, matter-of-factly.
Michael glared at her. "I told you," I'm not taking her to the police. I don't want her to live with strangers."
"You're a stranger to her," Liz pointed out. Michael ignored her, instead cooing and tickling Sara, making her giggle, so Liz continued. "Do you honestly thing she's better off living with Hank?"
That stopped Michael. "No," he reluctantly said.
"So how do you expect to keep Sara and keep her away from Hank at the same time?"
"I was thinking of taking her to the Evans'," Michael admitted.
Liz frowned at him. "They aren't here," she said.
"I know that."
"But. . ." she trailed off, understanding what he was trying to say. "That's breaking and entering."
"So?" Michael asked. "They aren't going to press charges."
"That's not the point, Michael. What if someone else sees you? They'll call the police."
"You think I haven't though about that?" Michael asked. "Well, I have."
"And what did you figure out?" Liz wanted to know.
"Nothing," Michael admitted, embarrassed.
"That's because there's no answer. It isn't an option. Keeping her isn't an option."
Liz was beginning to reach him. He couldn't think of anything to say to her, so he remained silent. Seeing this, Liz approached him and put her hand gently on his arm. "Michael, I know you care about her, but she'll be much worse off if she stays with you."
"How do you know that?" Michael asked, his voice strained. "How do you know she won't get stuck in an abusive foster home?"
"How do you know she won't be placed with a family who loves her?" Liz shot back. Not letting him reply, she went on, "You don't."
Much as he hated to admit it, Liz was making sense to Michael. He stood still for a minute, thinking things over. Liz must have sensed this, for she said nothing to him, she just waited for him to make up his mind.
"Fine," he said at last. "You're right, I'm wrong. Is that what you wanted me to say?"
Liz shook her head. "I wanted you to realize Sara will be better off with the authorities."
"So, are we going then?" He placed Sara back into the baby seat and picked her up. Liz grabbed the diaper bag.
"C'mon," Liz said, beckoning to him. "I have a car."
Michael followed Liz outside to her father's car. Neither of them spoke during the ride. When she pulled up beside the sheriff's office, Liz put the car in park and looked over at Michael. "Are you ready?" she asked.
"No," Michael said. But he got out anyways and went inside. Deputy Owen was the only one on duty.
"Miss Parker, Mr. Guerin," he said, nodding his recognition. "How can I help you?"
"We found this baby," Liz said, motioning to Sara.
Deputy Owen raised his eyebrow. "Found it?"
"In an alley," Michael confirmed. "Her mom left a note."
"Can I see it?"
"Sure." Michael walked over to the counter and put Sara down. He dug around in his pockets for the letter. When he found it, he pulled it out and handed it to the deputy.
After reading it, the deputy said, "I see. Of course, you'll have to fill out some forms, but that can wait. It's Christmas, after all. If you can stop by tomorrow morning, we will sort things out."
Liz nodded and started to pull Michael out. He shrugged her off. "What will happen to her?" he asked.
"We'll try to track down her mother. If we can't, she will be placed with a foster family until more permanent arrangements can be made."
"Will she be okay?" Michael had to know.
"She will be fine."
"Come on, Michael," Liz whispered. He surrendered to insistent tugs and let her pull him outside.
The ride back to his place was just a quiet as the one to the sheriff's office. "Look," Liz said, trying to break the silence. "I'm sorry."
Michael didn't even look at her. Liz gave up with a sigh. After she reached his place, she exclaimed, "Oh, I almost forgot why I came over in the first place." She reached into the back seat and fished around through the pile of gifts that were laying back there. She pulled one out and handed it to Michael. "Merry Christmas," she said. "It's from Maria too."
Michael stared at her, then at the gift.
"Go ahead, open it," Liz coaxed.
He carefully started to unwrap it, making sure not to tear any of the paper. Inside was a hardcover, leather bound copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses." Michael stared at it, dumbfounded.
"Maria said it was your favourite," Liz explained. "I hope you like it."
"I do," Michael said. "Thanks."
He got up and went inside. Michael closed the door and watched Liz drive off. Then he went into his room with the intention of rereading his new book. He threw himself down on the bed and opened the book. Inside the front cover read:
Merry Christmas, Michael
Love Liz and Maria
December 25, 1999