February 8 was cold and windy day, dust blowing along the road in clouds that bit into the flesh like ice. Chris pulled his coat more tightly around himself as he made his way along the boardwalk, lowering his head so that his hat could protect him some from the sand, and so that it wouldn't blow off. The door to Potter's Store was closed, and he had to wrestle with it to get it open and when he was inside, he had to slam it to get it to stay closed.
Gloria Potter turned from where she was talking to Mrs. Hawthorne, frowning at the noise.
"Sorry," he said, touching the brim of his hat and feeling grit under his fingers.
"It's all right," she said, her frown lessening. "Wind's really picked up in the last little while."
He nodded and looked toward the shelves along the wall, searching out what he had come for. Coffee and beans, down the aisle and on opposite sides. He made his way along, looking at the things she had there. Most of it was familiar, but every now and then, he'd find something he hadn't seen before. That was how he ended up with a tin of pears and a tin of sardines. It had been a long time since he'd had fish, and even though these would be salty, he'd be glad of them.
When he turned, the aisle was blocked by Mrs. Hawthorne and Gloria, who were discussing the vagaries of dried beans, so he turned the other way and walked to the far end of the aisle. Wouldn't hurt him to see what else she had added to her stock. So he ended up with a new pair of machine-knit socks, which looked warm enough, and a bar of soap that promised to keep his skin from being so dry, something he welcomed this time of the year.
As he neared the counter, he saw a display of sweets, little boxes of confections and candies, laid out on a red cloth. 'For your Sweetheart' was written in an elegant cursive on a sign nestled among them. And it was outlined with a heart.
He took a deep breath, feeling a tightness in his shoulders and chest. Of course. St. Valentine's Day. How could he have forgotten? But of course, he knew how. He tried to forget it, this day to celebrate love.
"Just got those in," Gloria said, startling him. "I was afraid that they wouldn't make it, especially those fancy chocolates. But they did, and they've been selling right well." She walked behind the counter and smiled at him, but it didn't reach her eyes.
He put his goods on the counter and watched as she sorted through them, looking at the prices. "I just got these in, too," she said about the pears and the socks and the soap. "Let me know what you think of them. If they're good, I'll reorder them."
Chris nodded his agreement, digging into his pocket for his bills.
The door slammed shut behind him and he turned to see who had come in. Gloria's son leaned on the door, trying to hold it closed against the wind. He looked to be putting all of his effort into it, but he was small, and despite his coat, Chris remembered him being thin, just at the gawky age.
Chris moved forward, reaching out to push at the door until he heard the catch of the knob click. The boy looked up at him, his eyes wide behind a fringe of dark bangs. His eyes were blue, startling against his pale skin, but like Gloria's they were wary. Sad.
"Wind is bad," Chris said, nodding to the boy. "Good thing you got inside."
"Yes, sir," the boy agreed, his voice soft.
Chris nodded, stepping away and turning back to the counter.
"Thank you," Gloria said as she caught his eye.
He nodded, searching again for him money. As he pulled it from his pocket, Mrs. Hawthorne called from the far aisle, "Gloria? Could you come here? I need some advice on these new threads you got in."
Gloria called out, "Just a minute, Arnell, let me finish up with this." She looked back at the paper she had, frowning as she tried hurriedly to add up the figures.
Chris drew a breath, and his eyes once more fell on the confection display. Just to the side of the handmade sign, he saw a small locket on a gold chain, draped decoratively beside a square box of the candies. There was a black and white photograph in it, of a couple on their wedding day. It didn't take him long to recognize Gloria and her husband, the man who had died the day Chris and the others had ridden back in from the Seminole Village. She looked so young, so happy, her hair done up on the back of her head, a lace veil not quite hiding it or the smile on her face. And on his.
Chris hardly remembered him, the pale little man in the glasses, but in this photo, he smiled wide and happy, his eyes the same shape as the boy's.
"Gloria!" Mrs. Hawthorne called again.
Gloria jerked, and the pencil point broke. She made a small noise, and Chris thought that she said something under her breath, but it was too soft for him to hear. Then she looked toward her son who was hanging his coat on the coat rack. "Daniel, could you finish up with Mr. Larabee for me?" It wasn't really a request, and both Chris and Daniel knew it. But she turned to Chris and smiled, the expression closer to reaching her eyes this time. "He's much better with his numbers than I am and - "
"Gloria? What is this aloe that's in these lotions? Did Nathan Jackson make these?"
Chris lifted a hand, waving her on.
She nodded in appreciation then called out, "He did make those – and you know how good he is with it." She moved through the opening that separated the counter from the rest of the store, her hands falling quickly on her son's shoulders as she passed him.
Daniel at her as she moved away and then he turned and walked down to where Chris was standing, picking up the pad of paper that had his mother's figures on it. He looked at the goods on the counter, and Chris knew he was counting them before he looked back at the paper and counted the list of numbers. With a slight nod that Chris suspected the boy wasn't aware he gave, the boy set the pad down and picked up the pencil. Then he noticed the point was broken and he sighed.
"Need me to sharpen it?" Chris asked, reaching for him knife.
"No, sir," Daniel answered shaking his head. He looked below the counter then pulled back with another pencil, this one sharpened to a fine point. "We keep spares." He set to working with the numbers and Chris nodded. As he waited, his eyes drifted once more to the display. To the picture in the locket.
"That'll be $1.45," Daniel said, putting the pencil down.
Chris nodded, counting out $2.00 and handing them to the boy, who once more looked below the counter. His arms moved as he made change, which he then counted back to Chris. "You want a bag? We got some flour sacks I can put this in."
Chris shook his head, putting the coins on the counter as he set about storing his goods in the pockets of his big coat.
He felt Daniel looking at him, felt the weight of those eyes, so like his father's. As he folded the socks, the last thing he had to make room for, he glanced at the coins on the counter in front of him. "How much for one of them candies?" he said, tilting his head toward the display.
Daniel blinked but he didn't hesitate. "Chocolates are ten cents each, but they got cream filling and they come with little sayings inside."
Chris knew that, he'd seen these chocolates before. He'd bought them before, but not anytime in the past few years. He looked at his coins and picked out a quarter and a nickel. "Reckon you know what they say on the inside?" he asked, pushing the coins across the counter to the boy.
Daniel looked at him and nodded. "There are a few choices. You want to see the list?"
Chris almost shook his head, but he caught himself and glanced over his shoulder. Gloria was still talking to Mrs. Hawthorne and though she was smiling, Chris could see the thinness in her lips. "Yeah," he said, turning back to the boy.
Daniel took out a small notecard and held it out to Chris. There weren't many, but then, there didn't need to be. He only need three.
He handed the card back to the boy. "You pick 'em. They're for your ma and you should give her something to show you love her."
Daniel's head came up, his eyes wide and bright behind the curtain of his hair. "What?" he said, and his voice was high and loud, too loud. Chris stopped quick and looked back to Gloria who was looking at him even as Mrs. Hawthorne spoke on.
Chris shook his head, once, and Gloria frowned but she turned her attention back to the woman who was plaguing her.
"They ain't from me," Chris said, bending a little over the counter. "They're from you to give your ma. 'Cause you love her. 'Cause it's been a hard time."
Daniel frowned, but he was smart and it didn't take him too long to figure it out. "I can pay you back - " he started, but Chris shook his head.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "Just pick out three good ones and - "
"Like what?" the boy asked, looking past Chris to his mother. "I don't know what to give her."
Chris drew a deep breath, annoyed despite himself. He glanced back to the display and once more his eyes fell on the locket. "There's one on that list about marrying in white," he said, hoping that he was right about the picture. "You give her that one and then you pick two others – hell, get your sister to pick one."
Daniel's eyes widened and his lips opened, but Chris was already walking past him and to the door. As he touched the doorknob, he thought that maybe he shouldn't have cursed in front of the boy, but it was too late now.
The wind was still whipping as he forced his way onto the boardwalk and struggled to get the door to close. It took a few tries before it caught as just as it did, he looked through the door's window to see the boy standing on the other side, pushing it to. Daniel's eyes met his and he mouthed 'Thank you'.
Chris nodded, but he was already turning against the wind, trying to forget that it had ever happened.