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The first thing I noticed was the gray of her eyes, so much like the November sky outside I half expected tiny, frail snowflakes to start falling out of them at any moment. I supposed that’s what it was like when she cried. She stood behind a rack of used sweaters, one hand slowly flipping through the clothes, the other lightly tucked into the front pocket of her heavily-faded jeans. Her expression was wistful and restless, reminding me, once again, of the weather outside – a shifty, cool New England day that wasn’t even pleased with itself. As she reached for a pale, green turtleneck, I noticed a folded five-dollar bill about to slip out of her back pocket.
“Excuse me, miss. You’re about to lose your money.”
“I’m sorry?” she asked, her voice sweeter and softer than anything I’d ever heard in my life.
“Your back pocket,” I said, “Your money’s falling out.”
“Oh, thank you.” She smiled shyly, tucked the bill back into her pocket, and returned to her search.
“Is there anything specific I can help you with?” I wasn’t letting her go that fast. I’d gotten her to talk; now all I had to do was get her to marry me.
“No, I’m just looking around,” she replied, “But thank you.”
I told her it was no problem at all and that if she needed anything, I’d be just around the corner putting out the new shipment of shoes we’d gotten that morning.
“My name’s Adam,” I added.
“I’m Emmalee.” She tucked a strand of long, white-blonde cornsilk behind her ear. It was all I could do to keep from reaching out and wrapping it around my finger. I’d never met someone so pure. She actually seemed to glow. She contrasted sharply with the harsh surroundings of Thrif-T-Mart and its grubby little parking lot filled with broken beer bottles and weeds growing through the cracks. Every customer there was at least twenty years older and had at least four fewer teeth than her. They shuffled through the aisles like lost cattle searching for something to chew on. Though their gazes were shifty, their beady eyes kept returning to the one pretty face in the store. No one could seem to stop looking at her, including me.
“Are you okay?” she asked suddenly, jolting me out of my reverie. I realized I’d probably been staring at her for a full minute now.
“Sorry…yeah…I’m fine,” I stammered, my cheeks beginning to burn. “I was just…spacing out. Let me know if you need anything,” I managed before ducking around the corner to the safety of the shoe department.
“Man, you’re gone!” I felt a hand on my shoulder and leapt a foot off the ground. I whipped my head around.
“Damien! Don’t f***in’ scare me like that, man!”
“Sorry, dude,” he replied with a frown, “Who is she?” He nodded in the direction of the girl.
“Her name’s Emmalee. Gorgeous, huh?”
Damien laughed in agreement, “Yeah, I’d hit that.”
“No! Dude! That’s not what I mean! I’m gonna f***in’ marry this girl! I’m serious, man. I can feel it.” He snickered. I knew I sounded ridiculous. I knew I’d get ragged on mercilessly for this, but somehow I didn’t care. Something had drawn me to her and I wasn’t backing down.
“You’re a goner.” He laughed again, shook his head, and wandered back toward the register to ring out a man with long, greasy brown hair, eighties-style black jeans, and a dirty, brown suede jacket that smelled heavily of cigarettes.
A week later, I showed up at Emmalee’s home on Washington Street, a nice area in the outskirts of town. Her parents drove a shiny, green Forester. The lawn was neatly raked, and perfectly-shaped pumpkins decorated the front stairs. On the door hung an autumn-coloured wreath and on the top step lay a small, red mat with maple leaves painted on it that said “Home Is Where the Heart Is”.
I rung the doorbell and was greeted by a well-dressed, middle-aged, scowling man. His beard was graying and his arms supported a thick stack of what looked like academic journals.
“What do you want?” he growled from behind his load.
“Hello, sir, I’m Adam. I’m here to pick up your daughter. Would you like help with that?”
“Emmalee?” he asked, ignoring my offer of assistance.
“Yes, sir.” I tried to sound upbeat and confident. “Didn’t she tell you she had a date tonight?”
“Emmalee doesn’t date,” he replied simply but sharply, “She’s studying tonight. She has a physics test tomorrow and she’s not leaving her room until she’s learned every bit of it.”
“But…sir, we were supposed to go out tonight. I have reservations…” I spoke slowly as though that might make him understand. “She told me she was free tonight…”
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted, “but she’s not. She obviously made a mistake. Please leave now. We’ve really got to get to work.” He turned toward the stairs, slamming the door shut with his boot as he went.
I called her the next day; no one answered. I left a message; no one called back. For five weeks, I heard nothing of her. I was disappointed but I figured she just wasn’t interested. It was a terrible way to end things, but what could I do about it? I tried to move on. Damien introduced me to a friend of his. We went out on two dates. Her name was Katherine. Her hair was a flat, dull brown. Her eyes didn’t look anything like the sky. I told Damien I wasn’t ready to date other girls. He reminded me that I’d only met Emmalee once. I told him I didn’t care.
Things went on that way, day after day. Shipments came in; I put them on the shelves. Customers came in; I rung them out. I woke up; I went to bed. November blew away one day in a giant gust of wind and in came December, with its own fresh batch of crazy, mixed-up New England weather. Life was life, but that was all.
Then, finally, on the coldest day so far, she showed up. I was working the register that day. I had just rung up an obese woman in a pink sweat suit that, unfortunately, hugged her every ‘curve’. I looked up and there, standing by the shoes, was Emmalee. Her back was turned to me but I would’ve recognized that hair anywhere.
She wore a thick, white parka and had a pink-and-red-striped scarf wrapped around her perfect neck. She looked like Christmas candy. I was so afraid I’d lose her again that I almost didn’t approach her at all. Then my reasoning set in. She knew I worked here. She wouldn’t have come back if she really never wanted to see me again. I decided to go for it.
“Emmalee!” I called. She didn’t move. I walked toward her. She continued her inspection of the shoe rack, as though completely oblivious to my approach. I reached her and stood directly beside her.
“Emmalee?” I said, a little nervous now. She turned slightly, a blank expression on her face.
I gasped. Her left eye was swollen shut and the skin surrounding it was a sickening purplish-gray colour. A three-inch gash ran along her cheekbone. She wouldn’t look me in the eye but mumbled something about tripping down her stairs. She apologized for not having called and said she’d been really busy with school. For the briefest moment, she raised her face to me, smiling as though she thought I might actually believe her story.
“Damien!” I yelled. “I gotta get out of here! Can you hold down the fort?”
“What’s up?” he asked, jogging toward me. Then he saw Emmalee. “What the…?” he trailed off. “Go ahead, man! Get outta here. I got it.” He thumped me on the back as I lead the girl out of the store and through the parking lot. She protested a little but quickly realized I was stronger and that I was not letting her go.
We sat in the car, silent for a moment.
“Is it your father…?” I asked carefully. As soon as I started talking, she fell apart.
“It’s been years. He said he’d kill me if I told anyone. I… don’t… know… what… to do,” she whimpered, her words jolted between heavy sobs.
“Well you’re not going back there,” I said with as much resolve as I could muster. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t let that man ruin any more of this girl’s life. I’d go to the police, I’d take her home with me, I’d never leave her side for the rest of my life if that’s what it took. I wouldn’t mind.
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s get out of here.” I put my arm around her shoulder and she collapsed. Her head fell softly into my lap as she reached for my hand and squeezed it in thanks. Her sobs became real tears just as I noticed the first snow starting to fall outside the car. I swear I saw a few flakes flutter down her pale face and land in the safety of my lap.