Please see my profile for an explanation of my Subway Stories/101 in 1001 challenge. These stories are purely from my imagination, and any connections to the real people and/or their stories are completely coincidental.

Prompt: Fantasy
Chapter title: Angel
Person: Woman with empty baby stroller

One week ago her baby died. She was eight months old. She was born with a weak heart and a bad liver, both of which deteriorated before she made it to the top of the transplant list. The last few weeks they just kept her comfortable, comforting her when she cried. She couldn't talk so she couldn't tell them where it hurt, and this time Mommy's kisses weren't enough. It was so hard to watch her deteriorate and know they couldn't do anything about it.

It had been tough on the family. Big sister and brother had been so excited to have a baby sister. When they found out she was sick, they kept their distance at first, afraid to hurt her. Afraid to get attached. Even at five and seven, they somehow comprehended that their baby sister wasn't going to stick around forever. They knew that when someone died, people got really sad and cried a lot. Without really understanding death, they knew that it meant the person was not coming back. But after a few weeks they changed. Their young minds knew that some time was better than no time, so they played with her, included her in their games and parties, treating her as though she was a breakable china doll.

Dad hid his pain like a father would. Strong and sturdy for everyone, but in the moments alone, the tears fell. The sadness never really left his eyes. He'd try to drink it away. He wouldn't go out and get drunk. He never became abusive. But he would drink bourbon or scotch or vodka until he felt ill, then pass out into a dreamless sleep, only to wakeup with a hangover, which would take his mind off his dying infant.

Mom cried a lot at the beginning. Slowly over the months the tears dried and she made the best of a poor situation. She treated the baby like a normal child. Dress her in cute clothes, take her on a walk, give her tummy time. She even got to swim a few times and go to a petting zoo with her siblings.

It was the last few days when it really started to happen. Mom went to an alternate reality. Something in her snapped. Part of her was aware that her baby was dying. She was at the hospital, crying with the rest of the family, trying her best to keep her comfortable. But after they left, it was as though they had never stepped foot in the hospital.

She died on a Thursday, surrounded by her parents, siblings, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, a few cousins, and close friends of her parents. No doubt she was surrounded by love in her final moments. Funeral arrangements were made. The church would not be available until Wednesday. A headstone was selected, the proper words, the right verse. The service itself was perfect. For such a heartbreaking situation, the pastor made it touching and beautiful and peaceful.

It really started on the way home from the service. The kids thought she was playing a game at first, but by the evening they knew something was wrong. She was pureeing vegetables and dividing them up into baby food jars. She yelled at the kids to play quietly so they wouldn't wake their sister. Then later she yelled at them again and told them they needed to include her in their playing. She sat in the rocker and read a book out loud, then rocked an invisible baby to sleep. She woke up several times in the middle of the night to feed the baby or to change her. She was convinced she heard the baby crying, and tried to convince the rest of the family they could hear it, too.

The next day it got worse. Her husband thought it was just residual shock brought on by the service, and that it would wear off, but it didn't. The next morning she lay out an outfit and dressed a baby that wasn't there. She went through the motions of changing a diaper and putting on clothes, even though they fell to a heap on the changing table. He tried to talk to her about it, gently and quietly, but her wall was too thick. Right now she was too deep into her fantasy world to fully come back to reality. Not yet. If this was a real psychotic break, he would get her help. But if this was how she was going to deal with losing their child, then he would ride it out.

So, when she announced she was going to go to the park and take the baby, he didn't object. He didn't suggest she take the other two. He just made sure she took her cell phone.

She had dressed up the baby in a purple onesie with lime green socks and little white shoes. She wore a yellow polka dot skirt and had a little lime green headband in her hair. She pushed the stroller down the block and carefully carried her down the stairs to the subway. Three stops later and they got off, heading toward the best park in town. The kids always loved playing here, and the baby's smile was always bigger at this park. She was too little to play, of course, but it was nice to sit on a sunny bench, watch other kids play, see the joy cross her baby's face, and talk with the other moms or nannies.

She parked at a bench next to two other ladies. Their smiles slipped away when they saw her stroller.

"I'm Marianne!" she said brightly.

"Carol, and this is Audrey," the brunette said.

"Which ones are your kids?"

Audrey hesitated before she answered. "Josiah and Elijah are my twin boys. They're on the jungle gym right now."

"Annabelle is mine. She's the redhead on the swings."

"Oh they're so adorable! This is Gabriella. She's eight months old. She'll be nine months in ten days," she said, nodding at her stroller.

The two women shared an uncomfortable glance. They weren't sure what to say. "You're joking, right?" Audrey finally said.

"About what?" Marianne asked, clueless.

"Your stroller is empty."

"No, she's right there. Are you joking?"

"There is no baby in your stroller, Marianne. There are clothes in there, but no baby."

Her eyes grew wide with panic. She jumped up and began running around the park, screaming her baby's name. Kids and parents alike stopped what they were doing and watched as this woman tore around the park, looking in every crevice for an eight month old baby girl in a purple onesie. Finally another mother was able to calm her down and bring her back to the bench. She was relieved to see her baby back in her stroller as if she never left it. She was angry at Carol and Audrey for causing her to panic like that.

The same mother called her husband to pick up their son, and then sat with her for a long time. She listened as she shared stories about her baby and slowly began to return to reality. Nobody had really been willing to listen the last few weeks. Suddenly this complete stranger was willing to listen to stories of a baby she'd never meet. And when reality hit and Marianne began sobbing, the stranger provided comfort. She even called her husband, who showed up thirty minutes later with their children in tow.

As the kids dashed to the playground, he thanked the stranger, who promptly disappeared, and the two of them hugged and cried in the middle of the park. If anyone noticed, they pretended not to.

After an hour it was time to pack the kids up and head home. There was still a long journey of healing ahead of them, but at least they were now on the same page.