GRATITUDE – a short story


Andrew turned slowly. Myrtle sat still, her body crushed, her mouth half open, frozen in time.

His nostrils flared from the acrid odor of slowly swirling cornstarch powder and he flinched from the sporadically pirouetting snowflakes.

He turned his head back forward slowly, neck bobbing as cold air slapped his face. He could feel the backs of his eyes.

Andrew drew in a ragged breath, sensing the cacophony as it competed with a throbbing ribcage trying to blindly escape his chest.

He shakily touched his face, the backs of his fingers resisting the inflated airbag pushing up against them. Below the airbag his right foot slowly moved up and down his left calf, then in reverse.

All OK.

His eyes turned slowly back to where Myrtle lay trapped, a mess of seatbelt and unnatural angles, not responding to the snow steadily filling up her half-open mouth.

In the unnatural silence, Andrew shuddered in gratitude.

***

“You’re wearing it!”, she snapped. Andrew stood on the porch.

He pulled the bill of his cap snugly over his forehead, stuck his hands in his pockets, and shuffled down the steps, moving steadily away from the porch as casually as he could muster.

“It’s been nominated for several awar..”, he began, as he neared the small gate, but stopped short, a worry line cracking out on his forehead. He’d just realized his inner coat pocket was empty.

“They’re in here”, Myrtle intoned irritably, jerking her purse as she bent down to lock up the door.

***

On the drive to the cinema, Andrew hummed in short, sharp bursts of breath, while Myrtle’s pale knuckles, clutched her purse ever more tightly, offering an unwitting percussion as they shone in the light of passing street lamps.

Andrew drove around the back for basement parking and joined the queue of idling cars, not hearing their discordant rumbling as their exhaust fumes curled carelessly into the cold air.

Inside the car, Andrew began tapping out a beat on the steering wheel to accompany his breathy humming. He self-consciously faced forwards, blocking out the rising heat he felt on his right ear.

Myrtle was glaring. She opened her mouth to say something, but decided to grit her teeth instead, and snapping open her seatbelt, she swiveled out of her seat, banging the door loudly behind her.

Errant snowflakes blew about in seeming indecisiveness before settling gratefully onto the ground.

Andrew’s shoulders relaxed. He turned the radio up. Myrtle hated having to compete with it.

***

“I just couldn’t make out the second half, nothing made sense”, Andrew lamented, as they made their way down the stairs back to the basement parking.

“Serves you right for lingering about at the concession stand …oh and thanks for getting me a cola instead of a Snapple”, Myrtle sneered, tossing her half-drunk soda into a nearby trash can.

“Why were you so late getting back anyway?, Myrtle continued as they entered their parking floor.

A woman in a dark grey coat and bright red lips walked past, hugging herself, smiling at Andrew.

“Who the hell is that? Is that why you were late getting back? Do you take me for an idiot Andrew?”, Myrtle said, her voice rising, her hands flying to her hips.

Andrew looked nonplussed and tried to mumble something, but nothing came out.

He straightened his back, inhaled deeply and putting his hands up in a gesture of reconciliation, tried again. “I’ve never seen that woman before”.

“Really Andrew? Myrtle raged on. “You think I don’t know what it means if a woman like that smiles at…you….like that?”

“I was getting your drink”, Andrew stammered, “I don’t know what…the popcorn machine was broken, the till guy didn’t have change for my fifty, there was a queue!”, his words spilling out one over the other in his desperation.

Myrtle ignored him and marched to the car. Andrew watched her hands fly up in exasperation upon reaching it. He anxiously stuck his in his pockets and bit his lip.

He knew the routine, it came standard issue with his foolish utterance all those years ago – “I do”. He should have turned the car around when he parked, reversing it out would be tough now, with the queue of exiting cars already building up, it was going to take…

”…….ages!!”, Myrtle was screaming.

Andrew hastily pressed the remote to unlock the car and let Myrtle get in. He traced a line on the back windshield of the car as he made his way to the driver’s side, then once seated, he fastened his seatbelt and fussed with the heating.

Woefully, he watched the queue of cars passing by slowly in the rear-view, their wheels nudging forward like a funeral cavalcade, slowing to a halt now and again, then picking up as the queue moved forward.

“Romantic isn’t it”, Myrtle said sarcastically, “the two us stuck in the car, waiting and waiting to make a move..”

Andrew licked his lips, forming them in preparation for the mandatory apology, but only a non-committal whimper came out. He turned slightly to look at Myrtle from the corner of his eyes, but he could already see her lips were pursed, her fingertips twitching as she rehearsed her next zinger.

Fortunately, a gap appeared in the line of cars passing behind them and Andrew gratefully backed out of their spot. He focused on steering the car out of the basement, his insides parched from the heat of Myrtle’s glower.

They drove on in a familiarly uncomfortable silence and Andrew grimaced at the chaos on the roads. The snow was coming down in larger sweeps now, accenting the vast darkness, traffic lights turning red indifferently in the dark distance. Windshield wipers groaned and wheezed as they reluctantly performed their duty.

At the red light, Andrew tapped his foot idly on the gas pedal, watching the snow pouring from the invisible skies, mesmerized by the tithe offered to the bed of the pick-up truck in front of them.

“Are you listening to me?”, he heard in the faraway distance, pulling him out of his reverie – he turned to look at Myrtle.

“Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot!”, she said, “I want to get home in one piece”.

“We’re not even moving”, he replied.

As he said that, the pick-up truck in front began moving. Andrew shrugged and followed it through the crossing, noticing – only as he was passing through it – that the light was still red.

It wasn’t that, however, which caused his eyes to widen in horrified regret and slam his brakes in sheer panic.

It was the words he heard escaping his lips, the words that would unleash pure fury and drive the final nail in this evening’s coffin.

“I wish you’d calm down”, he’d just said.

Myrtle’s eyes were bulbous, her mouth a fluid cavern. “You…want me…to calm down? After all these years I’ve wasted on you, you should be crawling in gratitude, you fucking swine”, she screamed, “do you kno…”, and stopped short, her voice replaced by a loud crash and two pops in quick succession.

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