Oh my goodness! That woman reeks, thinks Annie Breyer. She burrows her offended nose into her turtleneck sweater and tries not to think about the old lady standing next to her in the card aisle of the Bracebridge Rexall.
Even through the fabric softener fresh scent of her handmade sweater Annie gets whiffs of sour wine and caesar salad. Yucky! The woman is right beside her, rifling through the For My Husband valentines. It’s exactly where Annie wants to be. There’s nobody in the whole aisle, nobody but her and the stinky lady, both crammed together looking at the same valentines.
Annie perseveres. This is her first Valentine’s Day as a married woman and she wants to get the mushiest card she possibly can. She’s so excited. The diamonds on her ring finger sparkle under the pharmacy’s fluorescent lights. She plucks another card from the rack, pushes her long blonde hair behind one ear and smiles broadly as she reads “To My Darling Husband,” in golden raised script, on a background of red roses and scarlet hearts.
“Since I met you
I have fallen in love with you
a thousand times
in a thousand different ways.
As each day passes
I find a thousand new reasons
to fall in love with you all over again.
My husband, my heart, my love, my life.”
Annie presses the card against her chest, sighs happily and closes her eyes. It’s perfect, she breathes, perfect! And with that breath the sour smell of wine and garlic assaults her again and she giggles and glances at the old woman, who gives her a look as sour as her winey breath.
“Sorry!” Annie blurts out and she lifts her shopping basket off the floor and hurries to the till. She’s got a bottle of Diet Pepsi, some of the toilet paper that’s on sale and a bendy-fresh package of strawberry licorice for Derek, the kind he likes best. And the valentine, of course. She digs through her coin purse for the $14.71 that the bored clerk requires of her. She says please and thank you and have a nice night, and she waltzes out the front door and into the purplish snowy dusk of a Thursday evening in February.
“Oh geez it’s cold!” she says out loud, shivering and fumbling through her purse, trying to find her keys. The wind gusts hard and she winces as she puts the key into the lock, throws open the driver’s door and tosses her stuff inside.
“Brrrrrrr!” she says, settling her self behind the wheel and praying her little Sunfire will decide to start. “Please, please, please, please,” she cajoles, the tip of her pink tongue poking out from between her cotton candy glossed lips. The car starts, but not without complaint, and Annie does up her seat belt and guides it through the parking lot and onto Manitoba Street.
It’s snowing hard and it’s everything Annie can do to see through the windshield. She putters up the big hill and decides to turn in at KFC. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the valentine on the passenger seat but she thinks it would be nice to splurge and pick up a bucket of chicken for Derek for supper. She is always trying to surprise him. It’s what drives her, this simple, guileless desire to make him as happy as he has made her.
She orders some chicken and his favourite macaroni salad and takes a seat to wait the 10 minutes or so the waitress says it will take to fry up a fresh batch. She unbuttons her pink coat and looks out the window as traffic fights its way through the storm.
A harried mother and three young boys come through the door in a flurry of stomping boots and blowing snow. The waitress takes her order as the boys scuffle and argue about what size the fries should be and what pop to buy. Annie watches them with a smile. She imagines what her and Derek’s children will look like. She wants four or five. Derek wants three. They talk ceaselessly about saving up for a bigger house and starting an education fund.
The wail of an ambulance stops the boys’ tussling. They go to the window, press their faces against the glass, and watch the lights of the paramedics’ vehicle light up the snowy night. The waitress and the mother watch silently. Annie does, too. It’s a small town and a rushing ambulance is a rare enough thing that everyone stops to watch.
Annie thinks immediately of Derek, hoping he is alright. He works in a body shop in Port Sydney, 15 minutes north. Not much of a drive, not normally, but it can be nasty on bad nights like this one.
Annie feels worry creep over her. She immediately pictures Derek in the back of that ambulance, and a police cruiser in her driveway, with an officer waiting to tell her bad news.
“You always think the worst.” This is her mother’s voice, in her head.
It’s true. She always does. If there’s a worst case scenario, Annie has no trouble imagining it. While she waits for the chicken her fear grows.
But then the three boys resume their roughhousing and their mom and the waitress strike up a conversation about the hockey game on TV tonight, and Annie lets the warmth of the restaurant and the smell of frying chicken melt her burgeoning panic.
It’s a winter wonderland out there, she thinks. Pedestrians with shopping bags, heads bent against the wind. Streetlights ringed with halos of falling snow. She relaxes. Her naturally buoyant happiness surfaces and by the time the waitress calls her over to pick up her order, she is smiling again.
“Drive careful, now,” the waitress says as Annie steps into the howling wind. Her little Sunfire complains again but starts and she heads for home, thinking of the valentine she has picked out for her husband – husband, how she loves that word – and what he’ll say when he reads it.
Annie doesn’t have to worry about Derek. His four-wheel-drive pick-up cuts a swath down the highway. He’ll be a little later than usual but it takes more than a snowstorm to slow him down at suppertime.
Unlike his young wife, Derek never thinks the worst. Which is why he doesn’t give his wife’s trip home a second thought. Not until he turns onto their street and sees a police cruiser in their driveway.