This is an entry in the Valentine's Day Contest 2008 — if you enjoy the story, please take a moment to cast your vote.
There was a sickening sound of screeching tyres followed by a dull thud. Ominous silence sent ice-cold fear racing through Maddie's veins and she ran blindly across the street, the gravely tarmac shredding her bare feet - although she barely noticed. Another car stopped and voices buzzed like mosquitoes on the edge of her consciousness.
Sasha was lying in the road, deathly still. Maddie dropped to her knees, dirt scraping her flesh. She touched the familiar silky fur, trying to convince herself that this nightmare wasn't really happening. Not tonight of all nights.
"Come on, girl," Maddie murmured frantically, but Sasha didn't respond. Warm, sticky wetness coated Maddie's fingers and panic seized her chest in a vice like grip. She began to shiver violently.
"I'm sorry, love, I tried to stop, honest I did."
Maddie ignored the annoying man leaning over her, his face a ghostly caricature in the harsh glare of the street lamp. She dimly recognised that none of this was his fault, but she didn't have the energy to assuage his guilt right now.
"We need to get her to a vet," she tried to say, but her teeth were chattering too much and the words didn't come out right. There was a small movement beneath her hand and Sasha stirred, her leg twitching a little. This tiny glimmer of hope instantly goaded Maddie into action and she stared wildly at the man still standing there impotently.
"Vet!" she shouted at him, hoping he would understand that there was still time.
"Err..." He hesitated, no doubt contemplating the potential damage to his cream leather seats. But since he now had a dog-sized dent in his car, bloodstains on his upholstery were probably the least of his worries.
"Okay," he said, nodding his head. "I know where the vet is," he confirmed before glancing discretely at his watch.
"Help me then!" pleaded Maddie, trying to slide her arms beneath the limp body of her dog without doing any more damage
The man grudgingly assisted and between them both, Sasha was lifted carefully onto the back seat of his car. She was barely breathing now and Maddie could feel her slipping away, but still she clung on to hope that the vets might be able to save her.
The veterinary practice was apparently closed for the evening, but as there were still lights on inside, Maddie hammered on the door frantically, praying that somebody would come to assist.
Eventually a shadowy figure appeared behind the frosted glass and the door was unlocked. "Surgery isn't until tomorrow now..." The man dressed in a green surgical gown broke off when he saw Maddie's tear stricken face.
"My dog!" she sobbed hysterically, pointing towards the car.
Not needing any further explanation, the man came outside and ran towards the parked car. Carefully lifting Sasha out, he carried her back inside the brightly lit building. Maddie followed him through the open door of a consultation room. He laid the dog gently on a table and turned to face her.
"What happened?" he asked as he placed his stethoscope on Sasha's chest.
"A ... a ... car hit her," Maddie said, biting her lip painfully in her attempt not to fall apart. "The side gate wasn't shut properly and she chased a cat on to the road."
She'd been meaning to fix the latch on the gate for weeks as it didn't always catch properly; now it was too late. Fresh tears threatened to fall and she hurriedly wiped her eyes with the edge of her shirt.
The vet removed the stethoscope and shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry," he said gravely. "There's nothing I can do - she's already passed away."
Maddie heard the words, but they didn't sink in immediately. She reached out and touched Sasha. He must have made a mistake — Sasha hadn't gone. No. She was going to be okay. The dog's eyes were half closed and she just looked as if she was falling asleep. She still felt warm when Maddie stroked her soft ears, salty tears soaking into the matted, bloody fur.
"She probably never even knew what happened," the vet said gently. He walked round the end of the examination table and touched Maddie's arm compassionately. "Here - have a tissue," he said, pulling one from the box resting on the worktop nearby.
Maddie took it numbly and sniffed. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she continued to relive the ghastly moment Sasha had seen the damned cat and run heedlessly out into the road. Over and over again Maddie heard the screech of tyres and sound of her own voice screaming.
The vet passed her another handful of tissues and Maddie made a conscious effort to stem the tide of emotion. Get a grip, she told herself. Now was not the time to lose the plot.
"What'll happen to the..." She couldn't bring herself to say the word 'body'. That made it real. Still she clung on to a vain hope that Sasha might miraculously wake up.
"Don't worry about that," the vet replied kindly. "We'll take care of everything. I just need a few details from you before you go."
Maddie sobbed anew.
"But there's no rush!" he added hurriedly. "You can stay as long as you wish. I don't need to leave just yet — I still have plenty of things to do."
"Thanks," mumbled Maddie. What she really wanted was to be left alone for a few minutes. She needed some space to say goodbye to Sasha properly.
The vet must have read her thoughts. "I'll give you some time on your own," he said. "Just shout me when you've finished." He left the room and closed the door behind him.
Now Maddie was all alone with her chaotic thoughts and the acrid smell of disinfectant. As she stood crying silently, her phone suddenly blipped from within her cardigan pocket and she belatedly remembered James and their romantic Valentine's meal for two.
He had sent a text message some time ago. Realising what time it was and sensing it wasn't a note she'd want to read, she tearfully read it anyway.
Since u couldn't be bothered to show — I've gone to a club with the lads. Lets just forget it Mads, its not working is it.
Happy Fucking Valentines to you too, she thought bitterly.
One Year Later.
Maddie grimaced when she glanced at her wall calendar and remembered what day it was. She wasn't the most romantically inclined person in the world at the best of times, but Valentine's Day held a special place in her heart as the absolute worst time of her year.
Every year, without fail, something bad always happened on 14th February. Last year she'd lost her beloved Sasha. The year before, her car had been broken into and taken for a joy-ride round the local council estate, before being set alight. The year before that she'd lost her job.
The list went on ... and on ... and on.
So it was unlikely that this year would prove to be an exception to the rule. With a stomach-churning sense of trepidation, Maddie left her small house and headed for work. In an ideal world she would have stayed in bed and buried herself beneath the duvet, but since Maddie's spiteful boss needed no encouragement to sack her, she decided it wasn't such a clever idea.
As it happened, the dreaded day passed fairly uneventfully for a change. A couple of the girls in the office received bouquets of red roses during the morning, but as per usual, Maddie decided that any secret admirer she might have had was probably languishing in a police cell after being arrested the previous night for drunk and disorderly offences. The only male attention she received was when the DHL man gave her a lecherous ogle as she signed for a parcel, but she didn't count him as a potential suitor; frankly she wasn't THAT desperate.
Maddie ignored the sympathetic glances from a few of her colleagues and buried her head in her work. Because she ended up staying late to finish typing a report, by the time she turned the lights out and left the building, the place was like a graveyard.
Not that it matters terribly much, she thought miserably. It may have been Friday night, but unlike the rest of the population, she had no reason to rush home. No dog to feed and take out for a walk. No boyfriend to dress up for. No ... anything. She sometimes wondered what she DID have to look forward to. Certainly nothing sprang to mind easily.
Actually there was a film on the television she wanted to watch, she remembered as she turned the key in the ignition. The old Fiat spluttered uneasily for a few moments and she swore at it loudly. Verbal abuse seemed to do the trick. With a cough, the engine fired into life and she pulled out of the car park carefully, ever mindful of her annual curse.
There were temporary traffic lights along Maddie's usual route home, so she took a diversion to avoid the queuing traffic that stretched for miles in either direction. Whilst this seemed an excellent idea at the time, she soon realised she was becoming increasingly lost after driving round in endless circles for what seemed like forever. Familiar landmarks had given way to run-down housing estates and derelict shopping precincts and she had no idea where in the hell she was.
Eventually Maddie pulled into a side street and stopped the car. She knew she didn't have a map handy, but her SatNav was in the glove compartment. Or at least it SHOULD have been. Unfortunately a quick inspection showed it to be conspicuously missing, and with a sinking heart she remembered lending it to her sister the previous weekend.
"Damn you, Laura!" she yelled in frustration, thumping the dashboard hard for good measure. "Ouch!" she cried when she belatedly realised that hitting rigid plastic hurt quite a lot.
A couple of hooded teenagers were lurking nearby, smoking, and Maddie saw them pointing towards her car. Since there was nobody else in the vicinity, she suddenly decided that sitting here, all alone, was probably not such a clever idea.
Just to make her feel even more vulnerable, the streetlight that was currently providing yellow illumination above her car flickered before dying. The dingy street was immediately plunged into gloomy darkness, but for the small orange glow of two cigarettes heading in her direction.
Carjacking was a new misfortune even for her, so she hurriedly rammed the car into first gear and sped back out towards the main road. Because she was too busy watching the teenage thugs out of the corner of her eye, Maddie didn't pay a whole lot of attention to oncoming traffic.
When the sleek black car appeared from nowhere, she had no way of avoiding a collision. There was a crunch on the passenger side and she felt her car being shunted sideways alarmingly. Oh shit, she thought with a sense of déjà vu.
A quick check was enough to determine that she had no injuries at least. Not that the same could be said for her car. No doubt the insurance company piranhas would write it off and send her a measly cheque after making her wait for at least six months. That was usually how it worked; she had plenty of experience in 'claims' — particularly at this time of year.