“That was the first one.” I point an accusatory finger at the large heart-shaped box of candy Millie holds. “I found it under the porch swing.”
Millie hefts it in hands that are just as old as mine but not nearly as gnarled. Her gold wedding band glows dully against the vibrant pink satin of the box.
“Can you believe that? It was barely February. People still had Christmas lights up.” Valentine’s Day candy covers my dining room table. I waggle a big chocolate bar in the air between Millie and me. “And a few days later, this shows up under my newspaper.”
“You should’ve told me sooner.” The words are reproachful but her tone isn’t. We both know why I didn’t. Carmine’s death last summer rattled Millie to the very marrow of her bones. This first Christmas and New Year’s without him was spent traveling, visiting her children. She’s home now but still not herself. I miss my best friend.
“Yesterday, I found a chocolate rose tucked under the windshield of my car.”
“Aggie has a se-cret ad-mir-er.” Millie sings the words, teasing me the way she did when we were girls. She is the only one who has ever — or will ever — call me Aggie.
“More like a stalker.”
“You are the only woman I know who sees getting candy as an act of aggression.”
“You do understand some stranger is coming onto my property? You can see how that might be a bit unsettling?”
“Oh, pish. Unless the candy shows up on your pillow, I wouldn’t worry about it.” Millie drums her fingers on a box of caramels then juts her dimpled chin toward the small house next door. “Maybe it’s Mr. Rossi.”
“The man barely speaks English.”
She wiggles her eyebrows. “Ooo, an Italian lover.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“What about that young man down the block? The one with the pick-up truck.”
I stare at her. “He’s barely thirty years old.”
“So? Younger men go for older women all the time. You’d be a panther.” She pulls a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels closer. “No, wait. Not a panther. A leopard? No…a cougar. You’d be a cougar.”
“You’re not helping.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to help me catch this person. I can’t watch the front and back of the house at the same time.”
Millie’s face lights up. “You want me to go on a stakeout with you?”
“We’re not going anywhere. We’re staying right here.”
“As much as I’d love to go on a stakeout….”
“I don’t think it’s worth it. He’ll probably make himself known tomorrow, since it’s Valentine’s Day.”
“But if I wait until then, he might make some big grand gesture that will be horribly embarrassing for me. I want to head this disaster off at the pass.”
Millie sighs. “You are such a curmudgeon.”
I grunt my agreement. Even as a child, I was grumpy, boring. I played games by the rules. My dolls never went on adventures. I never had an imaginary friend. I didn’t believe in magic and mystery and dreams, and I still don’t. Now I only read nonfiction. I watch documentaries on TV. I am not given to fancy or fantasy or whimsy. I have Millie for that. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“How can I say no? In all the years we’ve been friends, this is the most exciting thing you’ve ever asked me to do.” Millie smiles and pats me on the arm. “I’ve never been on a stakeout. What to wear? What to bring? Hmm.” She leaves, taking the chocolate-covered pretzels with her.
When she returns that evening, she thrusts a set of walkie-talkies at me. “I dug them out of the attic. Aren’t they perfect for our stakeout? Now we can communicate from either end of the house.”
I roll my eyes but let her have her fun. She turns the walkie-talkies on then shows me how to work them. We take our places, Millie in the kitchen with a hot cup of tea, me in the front room with a small fire in the hearth.
“Aggie?” Millie’s voice, coming through the walkie-talkie, sounds far away.
“This is fun.”
“I’m glad you find my being stalked so amusing.”
“No, I mean this. Spending Valentine’s together. We haven’t done that since we were girls. Remember when I’d come over with that big box of candy my Dad always bought me? We’d curl up on your bed and giggle over those old bodice ripper books.”
I snort. “The ones you snuck out of your sister’s underwear drawer.”
“She never said anything about all those chocolate fingerprints.”
“She’d call herself out if she did.”
“Oh, and remember when I’d drag you to those dances?”
“Ha! Literally. That one time you yanked me into the gym so hard I fell out of my shoes.”
Millie laughs, loud enough so I don’t need the walkie-talkie to hear her. The sound sends a few fat tears rolling down my cheeks. I clutch the folded papers in the pocket of my old green sweater with a growing sense of certainty.
“And this… my first Valentine’s Day without my Carmine….” Her voice is soft, bent but not brittle, not broken.
I swallow hard.
“So this… this happening now, well, it’s good for me. Makes it a little easier. You know?”
I smile at the wad of candy receipts in my hand before gently tossing them into the fire. “I know.”
Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes, and breathes fiction in all its forms. She is the author of The People We Used to Be: A Flash Fiction Collection.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.