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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Greenfield Estate – No. 77

Helen flicked the light switch, dousing the amber bulb at Jill's bedside. "Good night, honey."

" sure?" Jill scrunched deeper beneath her blankets, pert nose, bright blue eyes, and tawny bangs peeking above the periwinkle comforter. 

"I am, Jill." Helen stepped over the bedroom's threshold and inched the door closed. 


"I'll leave the hallway light on if you want."

She smirked when Jill stiffened, her memories of childhood squeamishness evident.

"No. You don't have to do that again."

Helen's lips faded from their curve at Jill's deepening soprano. "That's my girl."

Jill smiled and with an uncertain sigh, rolled over. Moonlight streamed through the far window’s watery panes and the branches of the barren chestnut outside, tinting her profile in shades of silver.

After a final glance, Helen crept into the hallway but left the door cracked. Jill's breathing tapered into a gentle rhythm and once certain she slept, Helen padded down the corridor, stepping lightly on the hardwood planks. She winced when the stairs creaked during her descent and held her breath at the base, making sure she had not woken Jill. Up above, the sputter of electricity trickling through the ancient wires and the gusts fingering the roof tiles echoed through the corridors, but none of the noise teased Jill from bed.

"Sleep tight," whispered Helen.

Turning from the stairs, Helen froze when a young man appeared against the mahogany walls. He scurried in a silent dash toward the kitchen and vanished through the shut door.

Staring at the kitchen's entrance, Helen waited for him to reappear. The swing door remained unmoving and nothing crept out of the shadows.

"Jill...." she whispered.

Rubbing her eyes, Helen sought to disperse visions of her daughter's quivering lower lip and the stories of what she'd seen during the day. It's your imagination, she heard herself reply.

"And now it's mine."

With a lengthy exhale, Helen headed toward the kitchen, bent on the familiarity of dirtied dishes left in the sink. She slowed at the door and her hand trembled when she put her palm against the wood.

"You're being crazy," she whispered.

Gathering her nerves, Helen pushed the door and stepped inside.

"Put the eggs—" 

When she looked up, the spindly woman by the kitchen's center island stopped short. Tendrils of gray hair wavered around her long face from where they had escaped the bun tucked at the base of her skull but above the ruffled collar of her blouse. Her rolled sleeves disrupted the garment’s silvery stripes and flour seemed to dust her ropey forearms.

"Excuse me, Miss, I didn't realize it was you."

Helen's mouth fell open while the other woman beamed a smile and scrubbed her hands on her apron's slack. 

"Can I get you anything?"

"No thank you," said Helen, ingrained manners rebounding.

"Have a seat then, Miss." The woman gestured to a stool nestled by the island, one with a high back and woven seat Helen didn't remember unpacking, let alone ever owning. "It'd be a pleasure to have your company."

"Ah...."  Helen strode forward and set her hands on the chair's backrest, half expecting it to dissolve beneath her touch. The wood resisted, however, its worn edges smooth and cool against her skin. "Who...who are you?"

"Forgive me," said the woman, "I'm forgetting myself with all of this excitement." She pinched her skirt in both hands and dipped into a brief curtsy. "My name is Molly Jenkins."

"And you are?"

"I've been Matron of the Greenfield Estate since...." Her grin stiffened. "For a long while now."


"Please sit. I'll have these done in a few minutes and we can have a proper chat." She hefted the wooden spoon resting against the rim of the massive clay bowl before her and began stirring. "Jacob?"


"Pour Miss Helen a glass."

Helen caught her balance on the stool when the same young man she had seen from the stairs crossed the kitchen, placed a basket with eggs onto the counter, and then opened the corner cupboard. Moonlight from the double windows glittered on the shelves decked with unfamiliar crystal and china, silverware and platters. A huge punch bowl occupied a shelf with decanters, each filled with various shades of brown and black. 

Selecting the darkest of the lot and a small port glass, Jacob came to the island, and poured to the rim.

"Thank you," said Helen, as she took the offered glass. 

"My pleasure, Miss."

Jacob ducked his head in a quick bow, the brim of his derby cap shading his nervous smile.

"Make yourself at home, Miss," said Molly as she began spooning lumps onto a baking tray. "And you," she said to Jacob, "best get to your chores."

"But the girl—"

"Is asleep," said Molly.

"Girl?" Helen tightened her grip on her drink’s stem. "You mean Jill?"

"Yes, Miss," said Jacob. His smile quirked and his eyes seemed to lose their focus on her face. "I wouldn't want to scare her again."

"Scare her." Helen plopped onto the stool as her knees failed. "You were the one she saw by the gazebo."

"Yes Miss. It's where I do my work."

"It's where you dawdle," said Molly.

Chagrinned, Jacob sent his gaze into his hands, now twiddling before him. Charcoal stained his fingertips and smudges disappeared up the sleeves of his canvas jacket.

"It's where I draw," he whispered. "I didn't mean to startle her, but I guess she saw me watching her in the garden." He lifted his chin and his back straightened. "I didn't mean her any harm, Miss, I just wanted to see her clearly, so I could sketch her later on. When she came inside though, I...." 

The wan pallor on his cheeks warmed. 

"You ran," said Molly.

He winced as she slid the dotted tray into the oven.

"I guess I did." He held up two hands, revealing calloused palms. "But I'm sorry if I bothered her any."

"She's fine," said Helen. "She was just a little confused by what she saw." She glanced at the glass in her fingers, the port within rippling. "I guess we both are."

"Well, we'll give you a chance to settle in and make yourselves at home." Molly shut the oven and checked the face of a pocket watch pinned to the belt of her apron. "We can be a bit to absorb."

"Are there more of you?"

"Of course," said Molly. She tucked away her pocket watch and rested her hands on Jacob's shoulders. "There's Mr. Benedict, the butler, who has every Friday off. Mr. Martin, the gardener who this boy helps out from time to time." She squeezed Jacob's shoulders until he winced. "And Tulip Grandee who'll be tending to your linens and the dusting. Oh, and there’s Sir Renning who manages the stables with his boy, Oliver. They usually stay in the carriage house." 

"But we don't have horses," said Helen.

"You don't, but the Estate does."

Helen gaped. 

"I can introduce you if you like Miss," said Jacob, squirming beneath Molly’s hold.

"Maybe tomorrow," said Molly. "I think Miss Helen's had enough for the moment."

Jacob's timid smile returned. "Sorry Miss." 

Molly shoved him at the door. "You should be at those weeds."

"Yes, Ma'am."

He tipped his cap and then Helen watched him pass through the door, his passage as silent as his footsteps.

"I should be going myself,” said Molly. “Tulip has a tendency to lose herself in the library."

"The library?"

"Where you've put your musical instruments."

"Oh," said Helen, recalling the shelves and their dusty tomes. "Will the piano be in your way?"

"Not at all. We had one in their three, no four families ago. The books are on the wall, so the middle is yours to do with as you like."

"Good to know," said Helen.

"But I should check in on Tulip before these cookies are done and make sure she moves along."

Molly plucked an egg timer from the sill by the sink, overlooking where the evening’s dishes, now clean, had been stacked. After turning the dial, she set the globular device beside the dirtied bowl.

"I won't be long."

With a silent sway of her skirts, Molly passed through the opposite door, the one leading toward the front hallway and the music room. 

Or is it the library? wondered Helen.

The ticking of the egg timer dominated the quiet and Helen stared at the small arrow making its way around the face. She counted down fifteen seconds before drawing the glass to her lips and taking a sip. Oaky port coated her lips and slipped down her throat like a warm bath. Licking her lips, she set the glass down before the urge to chug became overwhelming. She nearly knocked it over, however, when the kitchen door groaned.


Helen peered over her shoulder and blinked at the vibrant blue of her daughter’s bathrobe. "Jill!? What are you doing up?"

"I thought I smelled cookies," said Jill. She frowned and plodded forward, her robe tight around her budding frame. "Why are you baking in the middle of the night?"

"I'm not," said Helen.

She swiveled around, following Jill's stare at the bowl, its spoon, and the ticking timer. Meanwhile, the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar began wafting from the oven.

"Then who is?"

Helen dragged the timer over, the next seconds speeding by. Setting it between them, she wrapped an arm around Jill's reedy waist, pulling her close, and  felt comforted by the arm Jill slung around her shoulders.

"In about three minutes," whispered Helen, "we'll find out."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Thorny Breakfast - No. 74

The snap of breaking branches woke Sam. Staring at the swirling cedar panels of their bedroom’s ceiling fan, he waited for another crunch, another grind, another press of hooves into soil. Munching drifted through the open window, blending with the perfume of roses and earthy-scent of disturbed mulch.

"Damn it."

Tossing back the sheets, Sam slammed his feet onto the carpet and glared through the honeysuckle curtains billowing before the window’s screen. Rays of morning light poured in, riding a soft bleat from outside. With a growl, Sam rose, stirring the mattress. 

Behind him, Adele shifted, the pillows scrunching beneath her ruddy curls and drowsy squint. "Where are you going?"

"He's back," said Sam, yanking on yesterday's jeans.

With a long yawn, Adele curled beneath the sheets. "Let him alone."

"I planted those roses for you, not to feed the neighbor's pets."

"Umm hum."

While Adele drifted back to sleep, Sam marched out of their shadowed bedroom and jammed on the flip-flops waiting by the front door. Sunlight warmed his face when he plodded outside, down their brick stoop, and along the flagstone path leading into the garden.

The rose bushes quivered beyond the plot of herbs beneath the kitchen window and Sam stormed forward, his flip-flops slapping, his arms waving.

"Get out of here.”

White and grey bolted from the rose bushes’ clipped branches and into the blackberry vines covering Clay's picket fence. Following the primal dash, Sam dragged the prickled curtain aside, the heaviest fruits splattering at his feet.

Under the thick vines, a stave swung back and forth, revealing Clay’s brown grass and his backyard’s muddy patches. Flustered chickens resumed their clucking and pecking but Webster's knowing bark made Sam wince.

"What is it boy?"

Sam backpedaled when the bloodhound snuffed over and Clay's thumping steps approached. Crossing his arms and spreading his near-bare feet wide, Sam waited for his neighbor's leathered face shaded by his molded ball-cap to appear.

"Sam!” Clay beamed, deep furrows curving his cheeks. “Morning."

"He's been in my bushes again, Clay."

Clay's caterpillar brows knitted together. "What? Who?"

"That damn goat of yours."

"Sheila?" Clay planted his hoe and glanced over his shoulder. The chickens tittered while the rows of vegetables encased in their wire barricade glistened under a fresh watering. "I don't see her."

"I did," said Sam. He thrust a finger at the nipped section of bush where the house's siding peeked. "I saw her right in there."

Clay shook his head. "She wouldn't. She couldn't. The fence here'd keep her in, like it does my other girls." He thumped the picket with the end of his hoe. "Solid as a rock."

"Not down here."

Reaching through the blackberry’s lush foliage, Sam earned another set of scrapes on his forearm as he swung the loose plank. The last nail holding the stave in place groaned. 

Clay dropped to a knee and, tipping back his cap, scratched his receding widow’s peak.

"Oh...I see." With a grunt, he straightened, adjusted his cap’s brim, and leaned again on the hoe. "But she couldn't make it through such a tight space."

"Something did. Something that looks a whole lot like her."

"Maybe it was the rabbits. They've been doing havoc on my radishes. Lost all my peas up to my knees too."

"Rabbit's don't bleat, Clay." Sam shook the nibbled section of rose bush, now void of blooms and leaves, with stems marred by teeth marks. "And they can't eat something at waist height."


Webster huffed and rose onto all fours, his tail curved and still. His ribbon of pink tongue disappeared behind his jaws as he swiveled his head toward Clay's paint-mottled ranch house.

"What is it boy?"

With a whine, Webster pivoted, nostril's flaring and body rigid from muzzle to the black tip of his tail. The chickens seemed to sense his focus. Their clucking quieted and even the winds stirring the blackberry vines and the garden of leafy greens calmed. 

A pained bleat rippled through the silence.


Using his hoe as a staff, Clay headed across his patchy grass, Webster at his heel.

The bleat echoed again, the sour note dispelling the irritation stewing in Sam's gut. 

"Is she all right?"

Clay didn't stop, and rounding the coop, he squatted, his flannel covering the rump of his dirt and grease spattered khaki's. Beside him, Webster lifted his head and Sam stiffened when the bloodhound’s sad brown eyes spotted him over the blackberries.


Webster woofed and his tail began an anxious wag.

"Damn it," said Sam. 

Pushing aside enough of the branches to grasp the top of the fence, he clambered over. Mud squelched around his bared toes and he trudged through the turned earth, taking big strides to save the hem of his jeans from being completely soaked. The chickens resumed their flustered pecking when he passed their coop and Webster woofed in greeting. The bloodhound then skittered back, giving room beside Clay who cradled Sheila's head in his hands. Blood dotted her muzzle in fat, wet globs.

"She's hurt."

"I see that," said Sam. He knelt at Clay's side. "What is it?"

"Thorns I think." 

With a tender finger, Clay worked under Sheila's upper lip. The goat's bleat turned into a whimper. Her glassy eyes circled in their sockets like rolled marbles and she shuddered, making the red-tipped rose thorns imbedded in her gums and piercing her cheeks tremble amid gushes of rust-scented blood.

The "I told you so" evaporated from Sam's tongue. He laid a hand on Sheila’s throbbing side, his fingers arching across the delicate ribs straining beneath her coarse hide. Sheila's frantic pulse worked into his veins, charging his heartbeat.

"What do you need, Clay? Pliers?"

Clay lowered Sheila's lip and stroked the goat's neck with bloodied fingers. "I...I don't know.... I don't know if I can get them out. There're so many. There's so much blood." Clay's voice began to quiver like the goat beneath Sam's hand.

"It's okay." Reaching around Clay, Sam worked off the other man's flannel and balled the fabric into a loose wad. "See if you can stem the bleeding until I get back."

Clay nodded as he did as instructed. He looked up though, when Sam stood. "Get back?"

"We're taking her to the vet."

"The vet...." The uncertainty in Clay’s eyes cleared and his head’s bobble firmed with understanding. "Yes, the vet. Good idea."

Sam thumped Clay on the back and then started back across the yard.

"Adele!?" Vaulting the fence, he called out again. "Adele!?"

Her face, surrounded by a frazzled mane, appeared in their bedroom window above the pruned rose bushes.


"Hand me my keys."

"Where are you going?"

"To the vet."


"Sheila's hurt."

"Sheila?" Adele vanished from the screen, and fabric rustled as change clanged. "Who's Sheila?"

"Clay's goat."

Returning to the window, Adele raised the screen, her head cocked. His key ring dangled from the hand she held out of reach.

"You mean The Goat?"

"Yeah," said Sam. "The thorns have made a mess of her face."

Adele balked with a sudden gasp. "Is she going to be okay?"

"I hope so," said Sam as he held out his palm. 

Adele tightened her fingers on the key’s ring. "You do?"

With a wince, Sam grabbed for the keys but Adele kept them in her grasp.

"I'm not a monster, Adele. I want her to stop eating my plants, not get killed by them." 

Grinning, she released the keys and followed them up with his wallet. "Get going then."

Stuffing his wallet away, Sam palmed the keys and headed for his truck. A quick reverse, short jaunt, and turn into Clay’s drive, and he leapt out again, leaving the engine rumbling and the door ajar while he trotted toward his neighbor’s backyard.

Clay met him at the gate cradling Sheila who he'd wrapped up in his flannel. Ushering them onto his pickup’s backseat, Sam closed the mini door and hopped behind the wheel.

"Sorry about your roses," said Clay.

Sam waved him off as he pulled onto the main road. "Don't sweat it."

"And the...ah…mess."

A glimpse in the rearview mirror revealed the wet stain spreading on the back seat's cushions from beneath Sheila’s rear end.

With a gruff sigh, Sam cinched his fingers around the wheel and sped toward the first intersection.

"Fix the fence, Clay, and we'll call it even."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harvest's Bounty - No. 70

I slouched in the passenger seat of Barney’s truck, running my fingertips along the creases in my jeans. The flannel overshirt I’d borrowed from him rustled with each stroke, hiding a tee shirt as pristine as the boots laced to my feet. My skin, however, itched under the leather, denim, and cotton, the textures so different then the lab coats and flats, the business skirts and protective gloves I'd been used to donning each morning, but never in all those years, this early.

I thought I’d left behind these dawn awakenings when I’d first packed my bags, but as the sun woke, the truck thumped in and out of a pothole and tossed me against passenger window, proving the truth of the situation. I braced my hand on the flaking dashboard while Barney chuckled.

"Want to turn back?"


I slipped my fingers around the door's handle, determined not to unplug its lock or open it wide and dive to safety. Even if I had, we were miles away from town and the thought of trudging down the maze of muddied roads winding between the orchards made my feet ache.

"You sure?"

I nodded, forced my hand to relax and laid my intertwined fingers in my lap. Channeling my last round of explanations before the board, I exuded an outward calm I desperately wanted to imbibe.

"You might like it you know," said Barney. "The fresh air."

"The sweat."



Barney smacked the truck's signal and turned us down an unmarked right hand lane. I winced when we crossed a canyon-sized rut and the whole truck bounced. The seatbelt cinched across my torso and I rubbed the crown of my head after it smacked against the ceiling. A glance at my fingertips proved nothing more than a bruise would remain but the smooth palm and tapered fingers facing me seemed wounded nonetheless.

"What am I doing?"

"This was your idea, Paige."

"But is it a good one?"

"You won't know until you try," said Barney.

I rolled my eyes at his optimistic rejoinder and stared at the passing trees. Lush clumps of leaves clung to the branches, shading the damp ground and the plump apples ripening in their midst. The crooked limbs seemed to yearn for a climber and echoes of my own laughter when running between the trunks and scampering like a squirrel into the canopy called out from the past. I remembered the scrapes and cuts treated with iodine and the frosty showers with the garden hose when I’d stumbled home too muddy to be let inside.

Regardless of what fresh layers of dirt, blisters, or muscle strain today brought, I knew one thing was certain: At the end of the week I'd have my first paycheck in months.

Taking some solace in the logical course I'd begun, I straightened and watched the ruddy planks of the warehouse near.

Two trucks were parked outside: a pale blue one dotted with rust and a backseat I recalled smelling like hay, and a newer green pickup with muddied flaps. My heart thudded when I noted Carl and Maddie standing between them. In their worn jeans and plaid shirts faded by days in and out of the surrounding fields, they seemed a part of the scenery, a painting crafted for my reminiscence. Unlike streaks of watercolor or oily globs, the two of them chatted amicably between chomps on powdered donuts and sips on covered coffee cups. Carl's shaggy mop of hair swayed with a headshake and Maddie's wrinkles, too numerous for her age, deepened with her smile. The vicious thump of my heart sped, however, as they turned to watch us approach.

"Did you tell them?"

"Why would I do that?"

Barney veered into a parking spot, hiding me for the moment behind the cabin of Maddie’s green truck.


"We need an extra hand and I'm bringing an extra hand." Killing the ignition, he adjusted the ball cap perched on his globular head. "We're here to work, not dredge up old times."

Shading his tanned face with the cap’s brim, Barney stepped out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him.

"I hope you’re right."

With a sigh, I tightened my ponytail and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Exiting the truck, I raised my hand, blocking a gust swirling jagged grains into my face. The smell of the night's rain and the damp earth the autumnal weather had left behind nearly obscured the sweeter undercurrent from the fruit and the musk of machinery. When the winds died, I could almost hear the swelling flesh amid the soft hush of leaves and Maddie's chastisement.

"...not like you to be running late."

"I had to run an errand," said Barney.

Sensing the opportunity to make my entrance, I rounded the bed of both pickups but stopped at the brake lights. My feet refused to move any further, like Carl's square jaw around his mouthful and Maddie's arm as she took her next sip.

Barney pivoted, his face a mask of innocence. "You two remember Paige?"

Maddie lowered her hand, taking the cup from her pursed lips. "I seem to recall the name."

Turning her back to me, she fetched the last cardboard cup from the tray resting on her pickup's hood and handed it to Barney.

"We better get started."

"Lead the way."

Barney motioned toward the warehouse and Maddie marched on. Her dirty-blonde ponytail jolted from side to side in time with her walk and twitched like a hooked fish when she shoved open the warehouse’s door, revealing a shadowed interior. She and Barney disappeared inside, and I jumped when Carl appeared beside me, his presence as quiet as an oak.

"I think she's still pissed about Garret Adams."

"Gar...."  With my mouth gaping, I stared up at him. "That was junior high."

Carl shrugged and peered beyond me, into the orchard. "Around here, some things stick around."

I gulped down the insinuation I heard in his soft tenor, and felt thankful for the cool dawn keeping my cheeks from blazing.

"Some things don’t," I whispered.

"Sometimes." His smile rebound and he cocked his head. “And maybe you’re here to prove me right. What’s all this about you being back?”

Leaning against the rail of Maddie’s truck, I crossed my arms and stared into the warehouse where tools clanked.

"My grant expired."


When I looked back, I found Carl's brow furrowed.

"The money for my project ran out," I said, "and they had to let go of our whole team."

"And you came back here?"

Rubbing at my sleeves, I warded off second thoughts. "I wasn't sure where else to go. Everyone's in the same boat so jobs are hard to come by."

"But weren't you almost finished?"

I stilled my hands. "How did you know?"

"Just because I live out in the boonies doesn't mean I don't hear the news."

"Of course," I said, suddenly conscious of my cleaner attire, "I didn't mean to sound so shocked."

Hanging his head, Carl kicked a piece of gravel with the toe of his boot. "'s your Mom really. She talks about you every chance she gets."

"You've see her?"

"At Barney's from time to time. Your Uncle's been looking after her since...." He winced and his focus drifted back into the trees.

"Since Dad?"

He shook his head. "Since you."

I grimaced but couldn't find the words to argue with his whisper. Anything I said would be a hollow excuse or an outright lie and Carl knew me too well to be fooled, or at least he had.

From the warehouse, the guttural rumble of a picker shook the loose pebbles around my feet. The rattle pulled me from my guilt and the decisions I'd made, and my hands suddenly yearned for something to do.

"What’s the plan?"

"We're harvesting today." Carl tipped his chin at the eastern rows where a hazy sun peeked over the treetops. "Seven through twenty-two."

"Two teams?"

"That's the idea."

A second warehouse door opened, creating a silhouette of daylight around the first picker trundling toward the waiting rows. Putting my feet into gear, I stalked inside as Maddie and my Uncle made their exit. My eyes adjusted after a couple of blinks and the second hulking machine with its angled arm and tires curving above my shoulders came into focus. Gripping the handles by the steps, I hauled myself into the driver's seat and eyed the controls.

"You remember how to ride this beast?"

I stroked my fingers along the steering wheel and the knob atop the clutch. "It's coming back to me."

Carl's contagious grin brightened the warehouse's gloom. "Then let's see it, Doctor."

"Strap yourself in."

Carl perched on the frame behind me as I fired up the motor and floored the gas. At a pace I remembered once finding laborious, we lurched out of the doorway and along the path marked by the first picker's tires.

“Hey,” said Carl.

I glanced behind me and found him pointing.

“Watch out for—"

His eyes widened as we tipped into a bottomless pothole hidden beneath a pool of murky water. Mud flung into my face and splatters coated the front of my tee shirt. I sputtered and the picker decelerated while I wiped my eyes clear and spat out hunks of brown saliva.

Beneath the engine's rattle, I heard Carl stifling a laugh. He reached both arms around me and steadied the wheel as we continued our trundle along the rutted path.

"You okay?"

I stared at the muddy pools in my palms, the water rippling from the droplets falling from my bangs.


Carl's concern whittled through my stupor and I met his worried gaze. The picker, however, took advantage of our distracted stare.

I yelped when we thudded through another sequence of puddles and a crisp shower drenched my back. Drops trickled beneath my collar, traced my spine, and headed for my waist, and I shivered while Carl steered us back onto level ground.

"Do you want to turn back? Get cleaned up?"

"No," I whispered.

He glanced my way and I palmed his face, smearing mud across his pristine cheeks and the skepticism in his eyes.

"Feeling better, Doc?"

"I am now," I said, joining in his laughter.

Taking the wheel back from him, I floored the gas once more. We accelerated down the row, the wind playing with my soggy hair, the rising sun drying the splatters on my face, Carl’s presence a fire against my back. I didn't bother wiping the rest of the dirt away with my flannel’s sleeve or the bandana I'd stuck in my back pocket. I’d end the day dirtier than I had been in years, but seated on the split cushion with its duct tape repairs and surrounded by the trees my great grandfather had first planted, I savored a sudden and unexpected sense of home.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Study Time - No. 68

Dana unclipped Max's leash once the park's gate clanged shut.  He romped along the gravel trail, the long hairs on his tail whipping about like russet streamers. 

"Max," said Dana, slinging her backpack forward. 

As she exchanged the leash for the blanket squished by her textbooks, Max woofed and trotted back.  Circling her legs, he settled at her knee and peered up, watery brown eyes intent.

"That’s my boy.”

A pale pink tongue drooped from Max’s jaws, his muzzle curving in a pleased, doggy grin.  She scratched behind his flopped ears and then adjusted the backpack on her shoulder. 

"So where should we sit?"

Max trotted beside her as Dana started into the park. 

In the sunny spots before them, pairs and quartets dressed in shades of red bunched while clusters of teenagers in similar holiday hues lay along the grassy hillsides whispering and laughing.  Subdued families and picnickers squirreled themselves in shady patches beneath budding cherry trees, and couples perched along the granite rim of park's main fountain, a few with roses in their hands. 

Sighing Dana ran her fingers through Max's coarse fur.  "You're still with me right?"

Max leaned into her leg, his body warm and solid.

"Thanks."  The renewed wag of his tail brought a smile to her lips and Dana thrust her arm at the expanse.  "Go on."

Max bounded off and swung into the grass, nose to the blades.  Squishing the blanket into a ball, Dana headed after him and tried to ignore the flirtatious giggling and hands holding hands. She veered into section of sloped lawn above a flat stretch where a trio pitched a Frisbee and unfurled her roll of powder-blue tweed.  Doffing her pack, she sat and scoped out Max's progress.

She found him snuffing around the base of a tree, and then followed his nose to a family picnic. 

“Shoo,” said the mother.

She clutched a little boy in ruby overalls against her carnation blouse as if Max might gobble the child whole.  Oblivious, the boy laughed and offered Max, who stalked tentatively closer, a carrot stick. 

"Max," said Dana.

His ears perked when he looked over his shoulder, then he swiveled back to the wide-eyed mother, the drowsy father propping up on an elbow, and the little boy’s treat.

“Max,” said Dana, threading her voice with a sterner tone.

She patted the blanket, and hanging his head Max padded across the lawn, up the hill and belly flopped at her feet.

"Leave them alone, okay?"

He woofed and set his chin on his paws.  His eyes swept across the park, darting every now and then to the little boy and his newest edible acquisition.

Leaving Max on guard, Dana lay on her stomach and brought out her textbooks.  She angled her notebook alongside, slipped the pen from its spiral spine and ejected the tip with a press of her thumb. 

"Where were we," she whispered as she flipped through the glossy pages.

She'd found her place among the Renaissance painters when a high pitched voice called out in her direction.

"Honey, look at this one!"

Max rose up on all four and cocked his head.  Glancing past him and into the lawn below, Dana spied a blonde in a short denim skirt, crimson halter-top and matching pumps.  She knelt, her hand extended like the little boy in overalls, her red fingernails waggling.

"Up to you," said Dana.

She swung back to the pages after Max flared his nostrils and padded toward the blonde.  The woman awed, the saccharine coo curdling Dana's stomach.

"Isn't he adorable?"


The man's uncertainty further soured Dana's gut and made the text between her elbows blur.  Max's bark, a joyous and familiar sound once following the slip of a key and turn of a lock, twisted the mid-February warm spell into ice.

"Do you think he can do a trick?"


"Give me your hand sweetie," said the blonde.

Dana rolled and sat upright while the blonde held out her hand, palm up.  A scowl marred her heart-shaped face when Max passed her by and lifted his head to look up at Linus.  Backpedaling, Linus stuffed his hands into the pockets of his pleated slacks, but Max crept forward, his low whine escalating.

"Max," whispered Dana, the name nearly catching in her throat.

Linus’s head snapped up while Max glanced backward.  His tail developed a metronomic sway when Dana came to her feet and strode near, planting each sneakered stride with care.

The blonde set one hand on her hip and gestured the other at Max.  "Is he yours?"

"Yeah," said Dana, her gaze locked on Linus and his reddening cheeks.

"Does he do any tricks?"

"His loyal," said Dana, patting her thigh, "and he can shake hands."

With a final glance at Linus, Max trotted over.  Dana offered her hand and Max dutifully sat and shook.

"That's so cute!"  The blonde clapped and then slipped her arm through Linus', adding a fresh rumple to his dress-shirt.  "We should get a dog like that."

Burying his gaze into the grass, Linus fidgeted with his tie-less collar. 

The blonde squeezed his limb into her breast, making him teeter.  "Shouldn't we, hon'?"

"I think we should go, Brooke."

"What!?"  Brooke glanced between them and realization bloomed in her mascara-lined eyes.  "Do you know her, Linus?"

“Yeah,” he whispered before drawing a deep breath and lifting his gaze.  "How are you doing Dana?"  He tipped his chin at the splayed books beyond.  "Still got your nose to those pages?"

"Graduate school pages now."  Dana crossed her arms, crushing her tee-shirt against the butterflies swarming her belly.  "You?"

"Good.  Busy."

"So I see."

Brooke extracted herself and smoothed her flawless skirt.  "How do you know each other?"

Cocking an eyebrow, Dana waited for Linus to reply.

"We...used to study together in college," he said.

Brooke glanced at Max who followed the conversation with swings of his elongated snout.  "And the dog?"

"We sort of lived together, too," said Linus.

"And got a dog?"

"I got Max," said Dana, laying a protective hand on the Max’s head.

"Because you thought he'd fix things," said Linus.

"Fix what?" 

Linus cringed and Brooke’s question hung in the air like a tossed up ball waiting for gravity to remember its flight.

"Nothing,” he whispered.  Cupping Brooke’s elbow, he tugged her back toward the trail.  "Let's go."

Brooke pulled her arm free.  "Fix what?"

Dana met the blonde’s startled blue eyes and felt a surge of sympathy at the panic glinting in their depths. 

"We lived together," said Dana, "but it never really felt like we were together.  I stupidly thought Max might help.  Might make us feel more like a family."

Shaking his head, Linus hid his hands back in his pockets.  "I didn't want a dog."

"You ended up not wanting me either," said Dana.

He winced despite her even tone, but neither could obscure the truth settling between them. 

"People change," he whispered.

"They sure do."

The Frisbee’s whoosh and the giggle of the boy in overalls dominated the following seconds.

"Well...," said Brooke.  "He's adorable."

"I know," said Dana, thumping Max’s ribcage.  "I should get back to my books."

"As always," said Linus.

"Something’s never change."

With smirk, Linus drifted down the hill, sauntering toward the trail with his head bowed.

"Good luck," said Brooke, “and Happy Val—“  A quirked grin twisted her ruby lips as she glanced at the vacant blanket and back again.  “Have a good one.”

With a fling of her blond curls, she spun and traipsed after Linus. 

"You too," whispered Dana.

As she watched them making their way across the lawn, Max pressed against her rigid leg.  She scratched his head absently while Brooke jabbered, her words lost in the distance.  The bow of Linus' head, however, never shifted.  His shoulders too remained hunched, as if the weight of an invisible world, or she suspected a pending conversation about needing space or feeling trapped, rested upon them.

"Same as always," she whispered. 

From out of the past, a scarred burden hooked through her heart and Dana closed her eyes.  Turning, she marched blindly back to the blanket and stretched out on her stomach.  She clasped the pen and traced her shaky finger beneath the last line of text.  

When Max flopped next to her, as he had the night she’d slammed the door in Linus’ face for the last time, the words before her ran together.  She sniffed and Max nudged her elbow with his nose, leaving a damp patch on her skin.  With a sad chuckle, Dana burrowed her face into the nape of his neck while he licked the unexpected tear streaks from her cheek.