Leah had been scanning nearly identical orders for eight hours straight: rock salt, milk, cookies, cocoa, and toilet paper. When she’d punched in at 7:30 a.m., the front end had been calm. By 11 o’clock, after returning from her one and only break, she’d worked her way through a blockade of filled shopping carts to get to her register—instinctively sucking in her gut in the process, which did her no good at all. Now, as she rang up yet another order of comfort food and household staples, her feet throbbed, her back ached, and she was tired of hearing the same two comments over and over. Customers who stepped up to the register wearing grins inevitably said, “You know, the grocery stores start these rumors to drum up business,” to which Leah replied, “You’re right. You caught us.” Those arriving with frowns or furrowed brows expressed concern and/or sympathy. “How can you stay on your feet like that, in your condition?” They didn’t realize that standing was not the worst of it. Hoisting anything heavy into a shopping cart—rock salt, 24-packs of soda, cases of water, fire logs—had far more painful consequences, triggering muscle spasms up and down the sides of Leah’s round belly.
Everyone who flooded the front end of the supermarket had heard the same predictions: this would be the storm to top all storms, the blizzard of the century. Every building along the Eastern Seaboard would be buried in snow. Residents would be lucky to see their rooftops when it was over.
Hour after hour, customers brought her updates on the forecast and an ever-growing list of essentials that were rapidly disappearing from the shelves. Leah was grateful that Ian had gone to the hardware store earlier for a shovel and bag of rock salt; the supermarket had run out of both at noon.
Beyond these purchases, her husband had made other preparations. Last night, he’d brought his Flexible Flyer sled down from the attic and moved it into the garage. “I can’t wait to take her out on this,” he’d said, patting Leah’s round belly. “I used to spend all day on this when I was a kid, zipping down the hill behind my parents’ house.” When Leah thought about that steep incline, and the many stories he’d regaled her with about his near collisions into fences and trees, she narrowed her eyes. He quickly clarified. “I just want to pull her along the sidewalk out front. Very slowly.”
Leah was touched by his earnestness, by the frequency with which he talked about childhood experiences he would recreate, lessons he would teach, and wisdom he would impart to their daughter. She had trouble seeing beyond the next two months of gestation. As soon as a sonogram revealed the fetus to be a girl, Ian had started coming up with names. Leah shot down every one. “Too cutesy,” she’d say, or “too trendy.”
“What about Emma?”
The suggestion had made Leah gasp. “It’s beautiful,” she’d said, “but I just don’t know.” Emma was not the name of a helpless infant, an appendage of her mother; it belonged to someone capable of walking on her own two feet, of speaking her mind.
Ian had started imagining himself as a father from the moment a pregnancy test came up positive. He talked about beloved family traditions he wanted to carry forward, destinations he wanted to see through the eyes of his child. Leah concentrated on eating nutrient-rich meals, filling the nursery shelves with picture books and the closets with precious miniature outfits, as if her responsibilities as a parent would go no further than to provide the shelter of her body, food, and clothing.
A few weeks ago, Ian had walked into the nursery to find Leah in a rocking chair, humming, with the frilly collar of a pair of footed pajamas draped over her shoulder. “What if I can’t do this?” she’d said, finally giving voice to a fear that had crept in sometime during her second trimester.
“You’ll be a great mother.”
“I have no idea how to do this. Today I rang up this mother and daughter, a teenager, maybe 13 or 14. She was acting like the grocery store was the last place on earth she wanted to be, like her mother was the last person on earth she wanted to be with. And I thought, I’m not going to know how to deal with that. Teenage angst. Mood swings . . .”
Ian had laughed. “We have a long time before we have to deal with any of that. For now, let’s just focus on feedings and diaper changes. We’ll figure the rest out as we go along.”
Leah tried to absorb some of her husband’s confidence, to remind herself that they were facing this as a team, but it wasn’t easy.
Another mother-daughter pair stood before her now. The mother watched Leah scan boxes of cereal and brownie mix; the daughter tapped on her cellphone. Leah wondered if the girl would look away from her screen long enough to help bake the brownies, the way Leah had with her own mom.
“I’ll bet we don’t see a single snowflake,” the mother said. Leah had heard that same quip several times already. The man behind the mother said, “Yeah, and I won’t be a bit disappointed.” Leah looked up. The queue for her register stretched the entire length of aisle seven. Where the line bent at the meat case, four firefighters stepped into view.
Normally, when the local fire crew chose Leah’s line, the cashiers to either side of her looked over, but today her coworkers were overwhelmed by the pre-snow mayhem. The firefighters showed up in small groups, and their laughter-filled banter often led to descriptions of the meals they were about to prepare. Sometimes they were forced to abandon their carts and rush out the door. Whenever this happened, the staff would wheel the carts into a walk-in cooler until their return. It was the least they could do.
Leah wondered what the crew was planning to cook this evening, whether they would choose comfort food. They loaded the conveyor belt with packages of ground beef, hamburger rolls, frozen fries, and salad veggies. The oldest one, who wore an embroidered tag identifying him as Collins, said to her, “We need something we can fix up quick.”
The group of four appeared to be more subdued than usual this evening, perhaps bracing themselves for a barrage of emergency calls likely to come in later, once the snow started to stick.
“Be careful driving home,” Collins told Leah. “It’s gonna be low visibility out there.”
By eight o’clock, the weather banter had ended and the customers approached the checkstand with more urgency. Leah decided it was time to take advantage of the fact that she was seven months pregnant.
“I’ve been here for over 12 hours,” she said, when her manager, Jay, stomped past her register for the hundredth time.
He attempted humor. “You’re not going into labor, are you?”
The customer standing at the checkout rolled her eyes. “This can’t be good for her.”
Leah, exhausted, was now spurred on by the customer’s unsolicited support. “I don’t know,” she said to Jay. “I might be. My back is killing me.”
“Fine. When Tami comes back from break, I’ll send her to you.”
Leah wondered whether he meant for Tami to relieve her for a break, or for the rest of the shift; she chose to believe the latter. Once she’d turned in her register drawer, she grabbed her coat from the break room and slipped out as stealthily as a woman in her third trimester possibly could.
Despite predictions from several customers that this blizzard would be a false alarm, snow had already covered the cars in the parking lot. Leah breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with icy air. Inside the supermarket, whether passing the flower department while lilies were in bloom or the bakery while a rack of bread rotated in the oven, she could not escape the pervasive odor of floor wax. Out here, the air was pristine. She turned her chin upward and watched thousands of tiny flakes speed past the floodlights at an angle. After 12 hours of loud conversations, 70s rock, beeping scanners, thumping bags of groceries, and Jay’s ridiculous jingling keys, the world became quiet and peaceful.
She extracted her scraper from beneath the driver’s seat. While the car was warming up, she texted Ian: On my way.
He replied: Great!
When she suggested grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner, he sent her a thumbs-up emoji. She hoped that meant they had the ingredients and he would get started on it. She’d been craving grilled cheese for hours, ever since ringing up the components of this meal for a middle-aged couple who held hands while their groceries were being scanned.
Then Ian texted: Be careful.
He’d sent her this message before, during other storms, but this time she needed to bring two people home safely. She felt the sensation of ice in her lungs as her breathing slowed. She brushed the snow off her windows, only to watch white crystals immediately recoat them.
Leah climbed in and checked the rearview mirror, glimpsing a slight indentation in the backseat, where Ian had tested out the car seat last weekend, before deeming it safe and bringing it back into the house. She put the car into reverse and briefly cupped her belly.
She backed up slowly; so far, so good. She had traction. Pulling out of the parking lot, she fishtailed into the turn. A horn sounded. Leah wasn’t sure where it was coming from, if it was directed at her or someone else.
She felt as if she was maneuvering through a video game, as though the streetlamps were laser beams attacking the windshield from above. The windshield wipers provided a squishy metronome in sync with her racing heart.
A memory landed in her periphery: the day her mother had insisted on driving her to a winter session class, due to a forecasted ice storm. En route to campus, the sky had been clear; by the time class ended, the roads were glistening and treacherous. Driving home, her mom had asked Leah about class, and chatted about how peaceful the wait at the university library had been. Her mom had exuded such confidence on that icy drive home. Perhaps her composure had been a means of reassuring both of them. It had not occurred to Leah, until now—with two lives to protect—that her mother may have felt frightened.
As the firefighter had forewarned, Leah’s visibility extended only as far as the taillights before her. She made out the high, illuminated glass doors of the firehouse. She wondered if the crew was gathered at a table on the other side, eating burgers and fries.
An interminable two miles later, Leah reached an intersection. Blurry lights transitioned from amber to red. Leah pressed on the brake but her car spun through a cyclone of snowflakes, silently, weightlessly, like a carnival ride. It finally came to a stop facing a pair of headlights.
For several seconds, she heard only the wipers, and the sound of her own breathing, loud and labored. “It’s okay,” she said, still hyperventilating but regaining control. “I’m okay.”
Leah’s hands moved, briefly, from the steering wheel to her belly; she felt several hard, spasmodic kicks.
The cars in the next lane advanced, some honking as they passed. The light had turned green. She couldn’t stay here, with her foot on the brake. The driver behind her backed up slowly. Leah turned the wheel and brought her car around so it was facing forward.
She passed beneath the traffic lights and through the intersection. Another mile ahead, hazard lights blinked, and as Leah approached, she saw a minivan had swerved to the curb at an angle. She gripped her steering wheel, willing her car to stay in the lane, to safely reach the next intersection.
The sensation of tires skittering through slippery tracks felt at once familiar and unfamiliar. In the past, driving in a snowstorm, Leah had only been responsible for bringing herself home safely. Now she had her daughter in the car with her, who depended on her, who had depended on her for the past seven months and would continue to do so. Leah spoke aloud in a voice that sounded surprisingly like her mother’s. “I’ll get us home, Emma.” she said. “Don’t you worry.” She engaged the turn signal and the baby kicked.
Once she’d reached the backstreets of her neighborhood, her breathing slowed. She had no more traffic to contend with here, though she still felt the pressure of maintaining control and completing her journey home. The next three turns sent her car into a skid, prompting her, each time, to reassure her daughter that they were safe.
When her lantern-shaped porch light came into view, she released a happy sob. Tears filled her eyes as the garage door ascended.
As she walked toward the door connecting the garage to the kitchen, Leah noticed Ian’s Flexible Flyer leaning against the cinder block wall. She envisioned a snowsuit-clad toddler sitting atop its polished wooden slats, being transported through the snow first by Ian, then by Leah. She imagined the tug of the rope in her hand, the laughter of her husband and daughter, the silence of the snowfall.
Cradling her belly with a trembling hand, she opened the door and inhaled fragrances of simmering tomatoes and melting butter.
Emma turned ever so slightly; the next kick came as a soft tap.