You think Grant can handle Black Friday?”
“Are you kidding? Just look at him,” directed my sister, Merryn, to the couch where the men were watching the Lions’ game. “At six-foot-four, he’ll be heads and shoulders over the crowds. Not to mention, he has the strength to push his way through to the bargains.”
For my family, Thanksgiving was a four-day event. The gigantic feast was just a prelude to the main event, Black Friday. Then on Saturday, we hauled the artificial pine from the basement. Getting into the full swing of holiday spirit, we decorated and wrapped gifts. Sunday was a day filled with football and more food.
“He may be beefy, but he’s too much of a Boy Scout,” Merryn scoffed. “He’ll be holding the door for all those old ladies.”
“I hope not,” I sighed, remembering the day we met.
The wheel of fate started spinning with a flat tire on the expressway. I struggled with the jack; not only did I not know where to put it, I didn’t have a clue how to use it.
Turning, I looked up to sparkling blue eyes that contrasted with the stormy gray sky. My hand immediately clutched my chest. It was too late. I’d already lost my heart. With my hands stuffed into my pockets, I watched his tall, muscular form work on the tire. It was changed in no time, and I was wishing all four were flat.
“Thanks,” I murmured. “Can I pay you?” I chewed my lip.
“No. But since I’m not familiar with this part of town, could you tell me where the best place to get a cup of coffee is?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “If you take the next exit and make a left, there’s the Moonbeam Café.”
“Would you care to join me?” He rubbed his hands briskly, combating the cold March breeze. “You look frozen.”
“I could use some coffee.” A pang of guilt hit me. “You’ve been so kind. Am I keeping you from anything?”
“Nope,” he grinned. “I’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it.”
Grant and I have been together since. Who knew broken glass on a highway could lead to romance? Merryn’s excited squeal brought me back from my daydream.
“Hey, did you see the price on Elmo?” Merryn lowered her voice to a whisper. “That’s what Noel wants for Christmas.”
“Add it to the list.”
“Would you girls put those sales flyers away and help me out?” Mom complained. “Nico, you set the table. Merryn, mash the potatoes.”
The smell of roasted turkey and all the trimmings filled the house. The men—Dad, Grant, Merryn’s husband, Julian, and their four year-old Noel— had been clamoring for dinner. With the football game approaching halftime, it was best to get food on the table, and pronto!
“We’ll finish our strategy after dinner,” I said. “I think better on a full tummy.”
We all bowed our heads as Dad gave the blessings. Mom had outdone herself, again. Having raised daughters with picky eating habits, she was thrilled to cook for men with hearty appetites.
“More sausage apple stuffing?” she asked.
“Better load up on seconds,” Dad kidded Grant. “You’ll need your strength for tomorrow. That daughter of mine will run you ragged.”
“I’m to blame for starting them down that path,” Mom confessed. “I gave up Black Fridays when Noel came along. I have to admit, they’ve turned it into an art form.”
“Art form?” Dad chuckled. “Is that what you call staying up all night, standing in the freezing cold with hundreds of other lunatics waiting for stores to open, just to save a few dollars? I call that crazy.”
Mom raised an eyebrow and promptly put him in his place. “Peter Quentin Barama, you’re the one who’s up at the crack of dawn traipsing through the woods in all kinds of weather still looking for that elusive Kirtland’s warbler. Yeah, who’s the crazy one? Those nuts didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe I’m not to blame for the girls’ Black Friday obsession after all. Pass the mashed potatoes.”
Merryn and I exchanged knowing smiles. Mom and Dad had been lovingly jabbing at each other for thirty-five years. When I’m married, I wistfully think, hope it’s just wonderful.
“It’s one day out the year.” Julian winked at Grant. “Just do what they ask and no one gets hurt.”
“Uh-huh, you got that right,” Merryn agreed.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to shop online?” Grant asked.
“Yes, but this is tradition,” I explained. “It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
“Please tell me that nobody gets hurt?” Grant eyed me nervously.
“There’s no guarantee, my friend,” Julian laughed. “No guarantee.”
“Yep. Hit your assigned stores and get everything on your list,” Merryn grinned wickedly. “And I won’t have to break your kneecaps.”
“What did I get myself into?” Grant’s deer-in-the-headlights look had the rest of the table cracking up with laughter.
After the meal ended, the men retreated to the couch for more football. Merryn and I helped Mom load the dishwasher and quickly got back to our pressing business. Hauling the flip board from the closet, I drew a line across the middle, dividing north and south.
“You and Grant will take the north wing, leaving Julian and I with the Henrietta area. Sound okay?”
“Honest, Nico, it was an accident when I ran into Julian at the mall last year. I wasn’t spying on him.”
“Yeah, right.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. “The discounts are deeper this year because money is tighter. There’s no wiggle room for spying. You can peek once your gift is wrapped for all I care, but we’re talking about some serious shopping.”
“Okay, okay,” Merryn apologized. “No spying.”
While Merryn clipped bonus coupons, I filled in the flip board with a rough map of store names and opening hours.
“So this is the war room?” Dad asked.
“S.S.H.H.,” I pressed a finger to my lips. “Strategic Shopping Home Headquarters.”
“I need a digital photo frame for your mother.” Dad lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Got it.” Merryn opened a flyer. “Will this do?”
“Perfect!” He smiled sheepishly. “Can you load photos in it, too?”
“You give me the pictures and I’ll get it all set up,” I promised.
“What are you getting Grant?” Merryn asked after Dad went back to the game.
“A laptop,” I told her.
“Wow! That’s expensive.” She eyed me curiously. “Should we be expecting an announcement?”
“No announcement.” I felt a blush creeping onto my face. Even though I moved in with Grant two months ago, we hadn’t discussed marriage. Not that I would turn him down. I loved him with all my heart, but Grant was an old-fashioned kind of guy. He needed his ducks in a row before he settled down. He suffered many sleepless nights over his still pending promotion.
“Back to business.” I ended that conversation. “Where are the envelopes?”
Each envelope was clearly labeled with the store and sale items. Bonus coupons were inside. The envelopes would be divvied up among the shoppers: Grant, Julian, Merryn, and me.
“Time to call the guys in?” Merryn asked.
“Time for pie,” Mom interrupted. “Who has the best price on camcorders?”
“Check it out,” I motioned for her to sit.
Once again, we all gathered around the dining room table. Digging into pumpkin pie, we went over some of the finer details. “What’s the weather forecast?” I asked.
“Cold and a chance of snow,” Dad answered.
“Grant, you’ll come from the west. Your first stop is the electronic store. It opens at four a.m., which means you’ll have to be in line no later than two-thirty,” Merryn explained, ignoring his shocked expression. “Then proceed to the super center, and finally, the mall.”
“Two-thirty?” Grant gulped. “Just to shop?”
“Hey dude,” Julian spoke up. “Real men don’t shop, we buy!”
“That sounds better.” Grant and Julian knocked knuckles.
After Mom loaded us down with leftovers, Grant and I headed back to our apartment. “We should go to bed.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” He pulled me into his arms.
“That’s not what I meant,” I kissed him playfully.
“Just what did you mean?” He returned my kiss and turned up the heat.
“I mean, we’d better get some sleep.”
A few short hours later, I nudged him. “Wake up, Grant.”
“Huh?” He opened a sleepy eye.
“It’s one o’clock. Jump in the shower.”
“Oh yeah, Black Friday, but the stores don’t open until four.”
“You have to be in line,” I reminded him, “or you don’t stand a chance of getting the door-busters.”
“Five more minutes, Nico,” he pleaded.
“No way.” I pulled back the covers. “Into the shower.”
“Hey, no fair,” he grumbled, stumbling to his feet. “At least make some coffee.”
“Nope, can’t chance it. You’ll be standing in line and won’t be able to go to the bathroom.”
Minutes later, Grant was showered and dressed. I handed him the master list with a couple of lines blacked out. “In case one of us has trouble getting our assigned merchandise, keep this copy on you.”
“It’s not enough that I have to get everything on my list, now I may have to work on someone else’s list?”
“Don’t worry. There shouldn’t be any problems. Keep your cell phone on just in case.”
Kissing goodbye, we went our separate ways. A light snow had fallen, but the roads were clear. Within minutes, I was at my first destination. Darn! I wasn’t going to be the first in line. There were at least ten people ahead of me. Pulling my knitted cap over my ears, I rushed to stake my place in line.
Chatting with the other shoppers made the time pass. “What are you after?” one woman politely asked.
“A laptop for my boyfriend; he’ll need it if he gets his promotion,” I told her. Before I knew it, I was pouring my heart out to a stranger. The promotion was bittersweet. Though it would provide more security, it would mean Grant would have to travel. Time apart can be rough on any relationship.
“Don’t worry.” She soothed my fears with sage advice. “Worries are like weeds—they’ll take over if you let them. True love can withstand separation. With cell phones and computers, it’s much easier to keep in touch than it was in my day.”
We huddled, our backs to the cold, stiff wind. I mentally mapped the location of the laptops and DVD players. Ten minutes max, and I’d be on my way to the super center.
My cell phone rang. Three-fifty five, Merryn was checking in from the toy store. “Hey, what’s up?”
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it. I have to pee.”
I slapped my forehead. “You had coffee!”
“One cup,” she moaned. “Everyone is here for Elmo.”
“Hang on. A few more minutes and the doors will open.”
“Yeah, and I’m heading straight to the bathroom.”
Minutes later, the doors opened and the stampede began. The crowd gave a mighty shove, and I almost lost my balance. Sheer determination and adrenaline kept me on my feet. Rushing to the DVD players, I double checked the model number and snatched one up. For the laptop, I needed assistance, but I was still in the checkout line just shy of ten minutes.
Merryn called me as soon as I exited the store. “They sold out in less than five minutes.”
From the tone of her voice, I could tell she wasn’t one of the lucky ones. “I’m on my way to the super center. Maybe they have some left. Keep to your schedule and check in.”
As I backed out of the parking space, I dialed Grant. “Any luck?”
“Yeah, I found the digital frame and bought two more, one for my mother, and one for us. It was a great deal.” He sounded upbeat. Upon hearing about the missed Elmo, he promised to keep an eye out. “Nico? Nico? Are you still there?”
“Traffic is getting scary.” Slamming on my brakes, I barely missed a car that cut me off. “I’d better hang up.”
The congestion on the streets was no comparison to the congestion inside the stores. Shopping carts jammed the aisles as frustrated bargain hunters searched for the best deals. With my list, I was two steps ahead of them. I knew exactly what I wanted. No time was wasted dilly-dallying. Unfortunately, the checkout lines were long and agonizingly slow.
Tapping my foot, I glanced at my watch. The mall stores would be opening soon. My stomach growled. I threw a Snickers into the over-flowing cart. The cashier called for a price check and my blood sugar took a nose dive. I tore into it and added another one.
Thirty minutes later, along with a million other lunatics, I was inching my way to the mall. Carefully, I picked up my cell and checked in with Grant.
“Hi, Nico. Guess what? I found Elmo!”
“That’s terrific! Are you at the mall?”
“Not yet. It’s snowing and Ridge Road is a parking lot.” Frustration crept into his voice. “There must be an accident.”
“What lane are you in?”
“The right-hand lane. Why?”
“Get off Ridge as soon as you can.” I gave him directions via residential streets. “It’ll get you into the backside of the mall.”
“Thanks, sweetheart. Talk to you later.”
Finding the closest parking space near the department store, I joined the crowd outside to countdown the early opening. Past experience told me that the larger crowd was inside the mall, out of the weather. With any luck, Julian should be at the other end of the mall with his list while Merryn and Grant would be doing the same at another mall.
The doors finally opened. I streamed in near the end of the line, but still received extra bonus coupons that were being handed out. Plowing through the crowds, I took the escalator to the lingerie department. Only after I’d picked out Nan’s fleece robe did I turn to the sexy nighties. A sheer black peignoir with lacy trim was my gift to myself.
“Gift boxes?” the clerk asked.
“Just for the robe.” I felt my face redden as the clerk gave me a grin that suggested I was going to rush home and try out my new uniform of seduction. Was the clerk psychic?
Making two trips back to my car, I safely locked my purchases out of sight in the trunk. Since this was the prime season for car break-ins, I was relieved to see extra security in the parking lot.
Catching my second wind, I went after the last few items on my list. It was close to noon and all the early sales were over, but cars continued to stream into the parking lot. I couldn’t wait to snatch up those odds and ends and escape.
Pressing Grant’s number into the phone, I got no response. Either the battery was dead or he’d turned it off. Merryn picked up on the first ring. “I’m already home,” she confessed. “Mom has her famous homemade turkey noodle soup on the stove. Better hurry before it’s all gone.”
“I’ve got a few more things to pick up and I’ll be there. Save some soup for me,” I pleaded.
A “forty percent off” sign caught my eye. Darting into the Bath & Body store, I filled up on stocking suffers. My shopping bag weighed a ton, and I wore my weariness like a heavy coat. I had hit the wall, head-on, like Wile E. Coyote. Over eight hours of solid shopping had gotten the better of me.
Merryn and Julian’s cars were in our parents’ driveway. I was disappointed not to see Grant’s. He’d never forgive me if he got stuck in a traffic jam for hours. Guilt consumed me as I remembered how I had to badger him into participating in this shopping spree. It would have been easier to nail Jell-O to a wall, but I wore him down.
I gratefully accepted the steaming hot coffee Mom offered, but waved off lunch. “I’ll wait for Grant.”
“Nonsense,” Mom said. “You’ll eat now. I’ve saved enough for whenever he gets here.”
I hadn’t realized how hungry I was till I took that first bite. The soup was delicious, and the grilled cheese hit the spot. With my second cup of coffee in hand, I began pacing, checking out the window.
“He’s probably at the airport catching the first flight out, if he’s smart,” joked Julian.
“Maybe he stopped for lunch,” Merryn said.
“No, he knew Mom was cooking.” I chewed my lip. “I’m going to bring my stuff in.”
“Great, I’ll help,” Merryn offered.
“Not on your life. You just want to snoop.” Most of the presents went to our old bedrooms to be sorted out the next day. We were on the honor system, but Merryn was easily tempted. “I’m taking your present back to my apartment.”
An hour later, Grant finally arrived. I rushed to meet him. He caught my wrist, holding me at arms length. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing, I just want to look at you.”
My heart lodged in my throat. Was he getting ready to tell me he was fed up with my silly tradition?
“Are you hungry?” I choked out the words.
“Yeah, but I can wait.” His eyes were locked on mine.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” I stammered, brushing a lock of his sandy brown hair off his forehead. I was vaguely aware of my family gathered around. What I was aware of was the pounding of my heart.
“There’s something I want to ask you.” Grant sank to one knee. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a black velvet box. “This was the one purchase I couldn’t resist today. Nico Lynn Barama, will you be my wife?”
Tears of joy streamed down my face as I tried to force air into my lungs. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“Don’t keep the man waiting.” Dad’s thunderous voice prompted me to speak.
“Yes. Yes,” I whispered, as my family applauded. “I will.”