Series: Snapshots of the Past (part eight of this series)
Disclaimer: The characters depicted in this story belong to NBC, WB, and Aaron Sorkin. We're just borrowing them for some fun :)
Story Summary: As Jed and Abbey prepare for the birth of their child, Abbey's stress in the aftermath of the attack jeopardizes her pregnancy; Lizzie wants to be a leader; Ellie doesn't want another brother or sister; when Jed campaigns for change, he faces threats of being voted out of office
Elizabeth awoke with a jolt, cringing with every buzz from the alarm clock above her head. She silenced it with a forceful slam of her hand before snaking her arm back under the covers.
It's an age-old custom that spans beyond the barriers of time. In every house in America, children crawl further under their blankets, they dig themselves deeper into their beds, and tune out the rest of the world. Anything to avoid the inevitable reminders that it's the first day of school.
Denial is a wonderful thing, as long as parents don't get in the way.
"Lizzie," Jed called out softly as he knocked her door. No reply. "Lizzie, time to wake up." He waited and still nothing. He opened it a crack, just enough for his voice to carry through the gap. "Lizzie, Sweetie, it's time to get up."
Her pillow was pressed hard across her face and her hands muffled her ears. But she could hear his footsteps. He was getting closer, so she rolled away from his prying eyes. "I'm not ready yet. Five more minutes."
So predictable. "I'll give you three." About as predictable as Jed's chuckle as he left her room.
"Hey!" Abbey approached him dressed in her sweats, her wet hair tied with a clip. "Are they up?"
"Oh yeah. Up, showered, and ready to face the day," he replied sarcastically.
"I was just asking." She returned his grin.
"Tell you what, you work on your Baby Doll. I'll get Ellie." He turned from her and in that split second before he took his first step, Abbey lowered her hand and playfully swatted his rear. Caught off-guard, he flipped his head over his shoulder to throw her a flirtatious wink. "Don't do it unless you mean it."
"Oh, I mean it. You'll find out how much tonight." Abbey cocked her head to the side and disappeared behind Lizzie's door, leaving Jed with just a twinge of excitement.
Shrugging himself back to reality, Jed donned a warm smile as he entered Ellie's room. The little girl's small frame was completely buried under her blanket. A few strawberry blonde curls peeked out over the top, the only visible sign that she was there. He walked quietly to her bed and sat on the edge.
"Sweetie, are you ready to wake up?" He shook her lightly. "It's time to get ready for school." He applied gentle pressure to her forearm to roll her onto her back. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty, open your eyes." He noticed they were already open.
She creased her brows and immediately rubbed her face as if she had been awake for a while. "I don't wanna go, Daddy."
He was a bit surprised. Lizzie and Abbey had spent weeks getting her ready. No other little girl would be as well-dressed, well-groomed, and more prepared for the first day of kindergarten. "Why don't you want to go?"
"I don't feel good," she said sadly as she curled her arm over her tummy.
"Do you have a stomach ache?" She nodded. "Can I see?" She nodded again as he glided his hand under the hem of her shirt and tenderly pressed her abdomen the way Abbey taught him. "Does it feel like you're going to get sick?" Yet another nod. "Okay, Princess, just relax. I'll get Mommy."
As he entered the hallway, he couldn't help but laugh at the sight of Lizzie walking sluggishly out of her room, her movements directed by her mother's hands glued to her shoulders.
"Why are you so mean to me?" Lizzie asked with a voice still groggy from sleep.
"It's my job," Abbey answered before spotting Jed standing just a few feet away. "Where's Ellie?"
"Sick?" Ellie was rarely sick. "What's the matter?"
Abbey let go of her older daughter and joined Jed. As they both turned their backs, Lizzie spun around to head back to her room.
"Don't you dare go back to sleep!" Abbey called out.
"I won't," Lizzie called back.
It was an obvious lie. The slamming of the door pretty much made that clear. Abbey led out an exasperated breath, then continued her trek to Ellie's room.
Ellie sat up as soon as she saw her parents. "Mommy, I don't feel good."
"I know, Sweetie. Lie back." Abbey pushed delicately on her shoulders to help her rest against the pillow as she lifted the bottom of her shirt and pulled on the elastic on her pants. "Does that hurt?" she asked, pressing her fingers against the lower right side of the little girl's stomach.
Ellie shook her head. "No."
"How about when I let go?" She lifted her hand. "Does that hurt?"
Again, Ellie shook her head. "No."
Jed stood above mother and daughter and watched his wife intently as Abbey checked for a fever. "What is it?"
She didn't know. "Can you show Mommy where it hurts?"
Ellie ran her palm over her midsection. "All over."
"It feels kinda weird, huh?" Ellie nodded. "It's not really painful though, is it? Just very shaky?"
Abbey smiled as she leaned forward to lovingly clear Ellie's face of intruding strands of hair. "Sweetie, you have butterflies in your tummy."
"Get them out!" Ellie ordered with a look of outrage that amused Jed.
"Not real butterflies. It's just a feeling and it's perfectly normal, Sweetheart," he interjected, taking a seat next to Abbey. "Everyone feels that way when they're nervous. Are you a little scared about your first day of school?"
She didn't dare utter those words. How could she admit to any kind of fear when all summer long her head was filled with stories of how her big sister embraced the idea of starting school?
Ashamed of her feelings, Ellie avoided his stare until she felt her mother's hand cupping her chin to lift her head. "Yeah." A soft-spoken admission.
"Why are you scared?" Clearly, Dad just didn't understand. "You're going to have so much fun today! Ask Lizzie. The first day of kindergarten was the best day of her life." And there it was again.
Jed never meant to hurt Ellie's pride or tarnish her confidence, but, unbeknownst to him, his enthusiasm and constant praise of Lizzie pulled at Ellie's heart. She wasn't excited. She wasn't happy. She wasn't like Lizzie. She was different and in her youthful eyes, 'different' wasn't acceptable.
Abbey twisted her head towards her husband. "Speaking of Lizzie, can you make sure she's up?"
The arduous task he hoped to avoid. Elizabeth may have loved the first day of school at age five, but by age eleven, the novelty had worn off. The night before had been spent marking the days on a calendar displayed prominently over her bed, a countdown to Christmas vacation.
Jed and Abbey had struggled enough. This time, Jed stood outside her door and simply raised his voice. "Elizabeth Ann, if you don't get yourself up and dressed in the next five minutes, your mom's going to make you eat cantaloupe for breakfast." He looked to the side, expecting that Abbey would poke her head around the corner of Ellie's doorway to shoot him an incredulous stare. He wasn't disappointed. "It always works on me," he teased in response.
Like father, like daughter. Only seconds later, Lizzie opened her door and headed to the bathroom without another word of protest. Jed grinned triumphantly in the face of Abbey's disapproval as he brushed right past her to start breakfast.
Meals in the Bartlet household were not as structured as some might expect. With Abbey's hectic hospital schedule and Jed's commute to and from Concord during the legislative session, the dining table provided little consistency for solid conversation. But all that would soon change - if Jed had his way.
"Can I go to Amy's after school?" Lizzie asked as she poured syrup over her French Toast in that hurried manner her father detested.
"Maybe. Call me after school," Abbey replied.
"You have to be home for dinner." Jed looked squarely at his two daughters. "We're trying something new this year."
"From now on, we're all going to come to dinner ready to discuss more than just went happened at school."
What else is there, Lizzie thought. "Like what?"
"Like politics, news, current events, something more substantial than who had the best lunch box." He looked to Abbey, who gave him a reassuring nod.
"Dad, I'm in sixth grade now. Next year, I'll be in junior high." It was important that everyone remember that. "No one has a lunchbox."
Jed gasped in horror, feigning tremendous regret. "My mistake."
The move didn't draw a laugh from Ellie. Instead, she dropped her fork in confusion. "But I don't know that stuff."
"You can talk about anything that interests you and I'll help you, Sweetie," Abbey offered. "We'll come up with all kinds of fascinating things."
"When do we have to start?" Lizzie wasn't excited by the prospect.
"Tomorrow night." Abbey exchanged a glance with her husband as he waited silently for an explanation. "Tonight, we have something else we have to discuss."
Definitely enough to pique Liz's interest. "What?"
"We'll tell you tonight."
"Why can't we know now?"
Now he understood. With the first trimester safely behind them, it was time to tell the girls about the baby. "Because she said we'll tell you tonight. Go get your backpack. You're going to miss the bus."
As Lizzie left the table, Abbey followed Jed's gaze over to Ellie who sat quietly and scribbled her fork around the syrup. "Aren't you hungry, Sweetie?"
She shook her head. "I still don't feel good."
"Okay. Why don't you go grab that brand new bag Daddy bought you and I'll pack you an apple to take along?"
Jed watched Ellie stand up and reluctantly retreat into her bedroom. "Do you think she's okay?" Hearing no response, his attention faltered, settling on Abbey suspiciously eying his mug. "Abbey?"
He curled his fingers tighter around the center. "Give me a break. It's been four months!"
"It's harder than you think, Jed."
"Are we really going to go through this every morning?"
"Every morning you drink coffee."
"Well, lucky for you I usually drink it at work." He took a quick sip before approaching the sink.
"You're right, I am," he chuckled as he dumped the rest of the coffee. "From now on, no more coffee for me either. Not until you have this baby."
"Oh please. You can't possibly be serious."
"A little thing called willpower, Jed. You have none."
He was insulted by the accusation. "I bet you I can stay away from coffee for the next five months."
"What are we betting?"
"Something good. You come up with it."
"Okay, but coffee's too easy. You really want to make a bet that proves to me you have willpower..." Her eyes fell to his shirt pocket.
"No! No way!"
"I thought you were out to prove a point. What does it say about you if you can't part with your beloved cigarettes for a few months?"
He held his chest protectively, shielding her from the pack. "That isn't going to work and you know it."
"You're just lucky men don't get pregnant." That old stand-by. Jed would never win this one. Luckily, he didn't have to try.
"Ready!" Lizzie announced, halting the conversation.
Ellie stood beside her, her expression bleak and unhappy. "Me too."
Jed reached for the camera sitting on the counter and flashed a picture of his daughters, hand-in-hand. Ellie struggled to keep a hold on the gray and pink shoulder bag that kept slipping off her outfit. The pink knitted dress with white piping, white ankle socks, and shiny pink maryjanes was an ensemble she had picked out all by herself, one that was supposed to help calm her nerves. Sadly, it didn't.
Lizzie looked a bit more grown-up in her blue and purple plaid skirt and white ruffled blouse. Both smiled wide enough to show their sparkling teeth. One looked forward to the challenge of a new year in a new grade. The other barely held herself together to avoid the flood of tears that simmered inside.
The foursome made their way towards the bus stop, a short trip just around the corner from the house. Too short a trip for Ellie. She trailed behind her sister, each agonizing step bringing her that much closer to the muddled emotions that threatened to erupt. As she witnessed the other kids laughing and chasing each other down the grassy knoll, her anxiety became more prominent, more noticeable to her parents.
"Ellie?" Abbey kneeled down in front of the frightened girl. "What is it?"
"They're so big." Her aqua-colored eyes, twice their normal size now, were transfixed on all the other children.
"It's elementary school. There are some kids your age..." she pointed to another little girl. "...like her, and there are others who are Lizzie's age."
"They're all nice, Ellie. I'll show you." Lizzie tried to take her hand, but Ellie let go in favor of her mother's.
"Don't you want to go wait with Lizzie?" Ellie shook her head.
"Sweetheart, we talked about this, remember? Lizzie's going to help you find your classroom. You have to go with her." Jed's prodding didn't seem to help, despite the loving voice he used to sweet-talk her. He crouched down beside Abbey, eye-level with his daughter.
"I don't wanna go!" she snapped at her father.
"Eleanor, you have to go," Jed insisted, still using a gentle tone.
She swung her waist away from Jed. "Mommy, I don't wanna go."
"Look, Ellie, the bus is coming!" Lizzie made one last attempt to take her hand out of Abbey's, but Ellie pulled away and clasped her fingers in front of her. "I'll let you sit by the window."
"Okay, okay." Abbey intervened when she sensed Ellie's discomfort growing. "Lizzie, you go ahead. I'll be here to walk you home this afternoon."
"You said I can go to Amy's after school."
Awfully brazen of her, Abbey noted. "No. I said you can call me after school and ask me. Now I'm saying I want you to come home."
"Don't argue about it now. Go to school and we'll talk about it later." Jed gave her a kiss goodbye.
"Okay. I'll call Mom after school to ask," she cheerfully declared as she ran to board the bus.
Jed tried to direct Ellie in the same direction. "Don't you want to get on the bus with your sister? You're a big girl now."
"Stop," Abbey instructed as she took Ellie's hand and began walking back to the house.
"Abbey, she has to go to school."
"She's going. I'm going to take her."
"Let her get on the bus."
"She doesn't want to."
Ellie lowered her head in hopes this wasn't the start of a fight.
"She'll be fine once she gets on." Ignoring him, Abbey continued walking. "You're not doing her any favors!" Jed's voice had strengthened considerably.
"When Lizzie started kindergarten, you and I WANTED to take her to school. She insisted she wanted to ride the bus and she loved it. Every minute of it."
Abbey bit her lip to avoid the confrontation she didn't want to have in front of their young daughter. As they entered the house, she let go of Ellie's hand. "Go wash your face, Sweetie." After hearing the bathroom door click shut, she turned to face Jed. "Would you please stop it?"
"Stop comparing them! You've been doing it all summer and all you're doing is hurting her feelings!"
"Whose?" Abbey repeated. "Ellie's!"
He was dumbfounded. "How am I hurting her feelings? She walks around here all the time saying she wants to be just like Lizzie."
"SHE says it. It's one thing for her to say it. It's quite another for you to be gloating about Lizzie all morning, making her feel that if she doesn't live up to your expectations and get on that bus just as bravely as her big sister, you're going to be disappointed."
"I never said that!"
"You don't have to say it to a four year old for them to believe it." She softened her approach as she stared into his glassy blue eyes. "I know you're not going to be disappointed in her. But, Jed, she's just a little girl. Don't count on her knowing it too."
Genuinely astonished by Abbey's words, he bent down to scoop Ellie up into his arms the moment she left the bathroom. She resisted at first, but eventually surrendered to the kiss he placed on her cheek.
"You want Mommy to take you to school?" he asked.
He wiggled her slightly when she turned her head away from him. "Hey, look at me." She obliged. "Can I come too? Would that be okay?"
Her hesitation broke his heart, but seconds later, Ellie nodded. "Yeah."
"I love you, Princess."
"I love you too."
Abbey smiled as she stroked Ellie's back. No, she wasn't like Lizzie. She was her own person with her own likes and dislikes, her own personality far removed from her big sister's. It didn't make her any less acceptable to either of her parents. But while Abbey was able to embrace both her girls freely, Jed struggled to understand their vast differences.
Regardless, to him, Ellie was no less worthy of his love and adoration. But to four-year-old Ellie, this incident was just the tip of an iceberg that would lead to a lifetime of chilly misconceptions.