JUST A LITTLE LOVE STORY

Emily pumped her strong little legs up and down on the pedals of her bike, wobbling dangerously on her brand new two-wheeler.

Noreen jogged behind her daughter, far enough away to make her feel independent, but just close enough that a sprint would catch Emily before she hit the ground should she turn too sharply.

So it was, that here, on the first warm day of May on the path that led between the park and the library, a dog sprang from behind a tree onto the path near Emily.

She shrieked. The bike tipped wildly and while Noreen was able to catch her, the pedal scratched a deep gouge down Noreen's arm. Emily, startled by it the fall, curled into a ball in her mother's arms, crying.

"It's okay, it's okay," Noreen chanted the mother's mantra, but her arm was burning and blood began soaking her daughter's white sweater.

The dog meanwhile, yipped and ran around them, thinking perhaps they wanted to play.

"Starbuck! Get over here!"

His owner grabbed the dog by the collar, snapped the leash back on. "Sorry," he said as he walked over, "I thought he'd stay by me if I let him off his leash; guess I was wrong…my God, are you all right?"

"She's fine, she's just a little scared is all."

"No, I mean your arm. It's bleeding."

Noreen placed a finger to her lips, hugging Emily's head to her chest. "Is that building still open?" She asked.

"No, the library closes at 2:00 on Sundays," he replied.

"I didn't bring any kleenex. I, uh, do you have anything I can put on my arm?"

Emily, who had been quiet until now, looked at her sweater and screamed. "She's bleeding! Mommy's bleeeeding!"

"Look, I'm the librarian. Let's go in and get you cleaned up. It's okay little girl, it's not as bad as it looks. Ever spilled a glass of chocolate milk?" She nodded yes. "Looks like more when it's on the floor, doesn't it? Well, it's the same with your mommy's arm. So let's go to the library and get you two fixed up."

With that she picked up her bike and a keeping a wide berth from the dog, rode up to the door, waiting for her mother and the man to catch up.

The man kept a friendly stream of conversation, saying nothing much really, and Noreen, whose arm was throbbing wasn't listening. She was busy trying not to heave.

He let them in, tied the dog to a doorknob, leaned the bike against a wall and steered Noreen to the washroom.

"So, would you like to look at some children's books?" Noreen heard him say as she leaned her head against the cool tile wall. She'd clean herself up just as soon as her head stopped spinning and her stomach…

Too late. She threw up on the floor. Oh God. This wasn't good.

She frantically grabbed paper towels to clean it up, wondering how she could hide the stink, blood dripping on the floor as she wiped. That done she grabbed some toilet paper and held it to her arm, but it seeped through the paper right away. She tried to stand up, her head whirling, she collapsed back against the wall.

A soft rap on the door. "Everything all right in there? Your daughter's looking at picture books. Won't tell me her name. Says I'm a stranger. Hello?" He opened the door slowly. "Good Lord, you're completely white. You need a doctor. Can you stand up?"

She shook her head.

"The girl. What's her name?"

"Emily," she whispered.

"Okay. Hang in there. Can Emily call home for you?"

She said no. There was no point. The King of Cellphones wasn't there.

"Emily," he called, "we need to take your mommy to a doctor. Can you be a good nurse while I drive?"

Emily came running. "But my book…"

He wrapped Noreen's arm tightly with wet paper towels and his tie. "Tell you what," he said as he was knotting the tie, " you may borrow the book while we wait when the doctor is looking at your mommy's arm."

Noreen was very faint. "Do you have your ID with you?" He asked her. She didn't. "Okay, you'll have to give me your name and address. I'm taking you to the hospital and just in case you feel sleepy or something, I need to be able to give them the information."

"Noreen McDonald, 2013 Elm Drive, 555-7294. I don't have my health card…"

"Don't worry, we'll deal with that when we come to it. Emily, you and I and your mommy are going in my car. You two will sit in the back and I want you to talk to her nicely and tell me how she's doing, 'cause I'll be driving, okay?"

"But my biiiike!" She wailed.

"Starbuck will guard it for you. Promise. He won't let anyone touch it."

"But what if he touches it?" She pouted.

"Emily, please…" Noreen said.

"Well, that's it, you heard your mother. Now we have to leave." He carefully lifted Noreen to her feet. "Just lean on me." He put his arm around her waist, being careful not to touch her wound. "Hold your arm up, can you do that? Try and keep it up. Hug it to your chest if you can. There, that's good."

He drove her to the hospital, chatting with Emily the whole time. And when they were there, he got a wheelchair and signed her in. He stayed with them, gave Emily money for the Coke machine, and waited the interminable wait the undying do - four hours in all with a cranky five year old and a now ruined library book and when it done and her husband still wasn't home, he drove them home and helped Emily into her p.j.'s and bed, left Noreen on the couch under blankets after reassurances she would be fine and in the end she realized she had forgotten his name.

The next day the bike stood outside the front door with a card saying, get well soon! with a picture of Snoopy that Emily promptly cut out and glued to her wall for safe keeping.

Life went on as normal after that. Spring slipped into summer and the stitches on her arm turned into a scar. Her husband's busy conference season began; the long nights turned into weeks, and as it seemed it that the mistress his job had become was now turning into his wife, Noreen carried on, being everything to her daughter, filling the empty spaces. And if she'd thought about it, she would have wondered whose spaces she was trying to fill. But she didn't. The bills were paid, he wasn't a drunk, and he wasn't a beater; that he didn't have time to be a lover anymore, well, she was a mother after all, and constantly tired herself. She knew in her heart that once the babies arrive it's down to business, the thrill of it all wears off in time…didn't her own mother say that? And who could blame him? It's hard to be the siren when he's seen you sounding like one, crushing his fingers as the baby comes out, everybody in the world probing you, announcing the state of your dilation. It does tend to kill some of the mystique. Instead she applauded his increasing success, silently wishing for some of her own, and loving her daughter all that she could.

She tried to stay away from the park; she was too embarrassed to think that she might run into the librarian again - she'd never said thank you, didn't remember his name and now it was too late to be respectable.

On a muggy day in July he came by, walking his dog past the house. Emily rushed up to him to say hello, and Noreen, sitting alone on the porch put down her book to join them.

"Hi," she said shyly, "I, did I ever say thank you?"

"Don't worry about it," he replied, "I'm just glad you're all right. That was a nasty cut you had there. Is it better now?"

"Yes it is, thanks. I, um, do I owe you anything? Like for the gas? I hope I didn't put you out."

He laughed. Starbuck was straining his leash trying to reach the tree on the lawn. "Mommy, he has to pee!" Emily announced to the world.

"Can we walk with you?" Noreen asked him. Sure, he said and Emily grabbed her bike.

They walked around the block and then on to the next one and in that time she learned his name was Tim and that he had no children, just a dog, was married a long time a-foolish-go when they were young but no harm done and he convinced them they needed a library card and that Starbuck really was a good dog if a little fiesty . One hour and half later, tired girl napping on the couch, toes black from the dirt, Noreen sat down with a cup of ice tea and sipped thinking of sapphire blue eyes and black black hair and a nice man named Timothy.

The phone rang to tell her not to hold off dinner, he'd be late again, don't wait up and she thought, why did you call me? Aren't you always late? Instead she said fine and hung up and pondered her dinner.

Later, while she lay in her bed, listening for footsteps in the hallway in the dark, she told the hint of smile to fly from her mind and leave her alone.

It wasn't that easy. Emily decided she liked books and she liked dogs and why wouldn't they just go visit the library and she didn't buy it when her mother told her it was closed after work. No, it wasn't that simple.

On sunny evenings a man and a dog would walk by and they'd join them, good neighbours after all and while a young girl ran after a dog who was running after her, mom and master sat on the parched late summer grass talking, sometimes about books, and sometimes about children, and mostly about nothing at all, and there would be spaces of time where she pulled at the grass and he would lie back and stare at the clouds, silent, which said something more than the words that could fill the spaces.

And at night all would be right with the world; if her husband was home they would talk about work and about how beautiful their daughter was becoming and she would retire to bed with a book borrowed from the library while he ran over his figures just one more time and a tear would fall silent on a scar on an arm and no one would be the wiser.

Late August when the last breath of summer still hugs the horizon and fickle old trees show the odd red leaf to remind you of what is to come, Emily packed up for a week with the cousins at the lake. "I'll swim, I know I can this time!"

Husband left for his annual sales convention and Noreen welcomed her week of quiet contemplation and bubble bath evenings. She'd miss them, sure, but not quite as much as they thought. She took her vacation at this time when she could finally read a whole book in a day, maybe clean the carpet, that sort of thing.

That very first night the moon was full and lighting up the street. She sat on the porch nursing a cold glass of wine and savouring the quiet and the subtle chirp of a faraway cricket. She heard footsteps on pavement and a familiar yip! and looked down the street. He was there, at 12:15 a.m., walking his dog past her house. He was as surprized to see her as she was he, and joined her on the porch to gaze at the clear black sky and the pinpoint stars. She wanted to ask him, how did you know I was here on my own but she didn't because she knew the answer would be that he didn't, he just wanted to breathe the pleasant night air so instead she offered him a glass of wine and he took it.

Before they knew it the sun was peeping up over the roof tops, the dog was asleep on the stairs and she realized that in all of those hours they'd perhaps said one hundred words between the two of them, but then, there was something else. Something unspoken and honest and true. She didn't know why but as they watched the sunrise she told him she was home all alone and he asked her, would you like to have dinner tonight? She said it before she could stop herself, yes.

All day long she convinced herself that it was only two friends, they were doing nothing wrong, there'd never been even a hint of anything to say that his intentions or hers were nothing less than two people with an interest in books. So why did she spend twenty minutes deciding which jeans made her look thinner, and why did she put that mousse in her hair? She told herself that it was because it was only that she hadn't been out in six years and it was a treat, that was all.

The dinner was nice, they danced and they laughed when the waiter asked Tim would your wife like some more wine, and the night was still young and knowing her husband was likely too busy to call she said sure, she would look at his paintings and she did.

They had some more wine, more than she'd had in a long time. His paintings were good but not great, the music he played eclectic and sweet. She sat at one end of the sofa, and he the other. Starbuck lay his head in her lap while she stroked his soft ears and they talked about things there were special to them as the time quietly ticked by on the clock on the mantle.

Then, she, sleepy from the wine and the food rested her head on his shoulder and he turned his head and kissed her. She wasn't thinking, she was just here with a feeling she'd forgotten since her child was born and her husband's job became his lover. She kissed him back.

His hand on her shoulder was shaking and she looked into his eyes and thought she was falling into a deep blue sea she leaned over to kiss him again and then she remembered. There were eyes as brown as the earth that did this once long ago, deep enough she'd said yes to his proposal and small green eyes that loved her more than she loved herself and a little house on the corner that lay empty tonight that was filled with toys and shaving cream. She had to leave.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, eyes brimming with tears, "I think it's time for me to go."

And with legs as quivery as a foal's she let herself out the door, ignoring his protests that he should walk her home. She knew that he should, but she needed the cool to clear out her head. When she got home she checked the phone. No callers. She didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

It's hard to explain things to a five year old, harder still to convince the King of Cellphones to forgo the glory of salesperson of the year. Life went on as it had before, nights full of a few more figures, walks around the block with shy smiles and averted gazes, after the heartfelt apologies.

Summer turned into fall. The bike was put away. School began full time and the library was not the place they had the time for. It got too cold to sit on the porch. By Hallowe'en she realized they hadn't seen Tim in a month; by November the conferences happened so often she had to admit there was somebody else, by the end of the month they were called Angela. The long nights became hers and hers alone, though she'd grown used to them and liked the silence the darkness brings.

She didn't think of Tim. She couldn't. It had been a mistake and to appease her daughter they had played the game for a while, and just for a little bit she remembered what it was like to be twenty again and beautiful and wanted and free and it scared her. But that was all it was, she convinced herself.

At first she kept it quiet what had happened between her husband and her. She had no hard feelings, they'd just grown apart. And he was good. He kept up his portion of the house payments and visited Emily, who at six thought everything was an adventure and loved her special weekends with daddy and all the toys that he bought her. One day she told a friend who told her mother who told a friend. There were a couple of "so sorry" telephone calls that Noreen fielded nicely, saying, no problem, we're fine. Really. And so went their January 2002.

On February 14th Noreen bought herself a bottle of wine and rented a weepy video. She needed the comfort and the release. She needed to feel like a woman. Just before midnight, long after Emily was asleep and not late enough for Noreen to be feeling sorry for herself she thought she heard a small tap on the door. She wasn't sure.

She rewound the video, put her glass on the counter, the remaining wine in the fridge for cooking, poured herself a glass of water and filled the coffee maker. As she turned out the light and checked the front door lock, she peeked out the window and saw something on the step. Seeing no one around, she opened the door.

There were three roses, two red and a pink, tied with a golden bow. Beside it a note was tucked in an envelope. She brought them inside and sat down.

The note said simply, Love knows when to slow and when to go with the tide. Love knows that maybe sometimes, a kiss is a hint of tomorrow or a sad goodbye. Okay, I'm no poet, but I know. Will you be my Valentine? Tim.

She smiled. He wasn't a poet. And yes, maybe she would.

2000 Catherine M. Harris Davies. All rights reserved.