I pinched my lips to contain the gasp as I looked around and didn’t know where we were. I had never walked this far before. We had only turned once – I was pretty sure of that anyway – so it wouldn’t be hard to retrace our steps to the dog park. I limited myself to casual honesty about the situation. “Yeah, um… Paws has a lot of energy, but it’s fine if we turn around now.”
With three leashes that was easier said than done. We had to convince all the dogs that the new direction was better, and Baby wasn’t falling for it. Once I got the other two moving, she plopped her butt on the sidewalk and refused to budge. Tracker only spent a few seconds coaxing her before he picked her up and positioned her in the crook of his right arm while he still held the leash in his left.
I noticed a couple about to pass us on the other side of the street. They were holding hands. I began to panic that Tracker would think I was wishing I wasn’t holding leashes because I was getting ideas about him holding my hand and he wasn’t thinking anything like that and didn’t have any intention to ever be thinking anything like that and he was probably freaking out about me getting ideas like that when he only wanted to be friendly and hadn’t planned on walking halfway around the city with his lazy, or maybe just old, dog. I needed to say something. “My last name is Fenley,” I blurted.
“I noticed you didn’t tell me before.” He looked like a kid who just learned of a snow day. “What made you decide to tell me? Was it the band thing? You always wanted to know a guy who could play the drums, right?”
“I only decided you might not be an ax murderer.”
“It’s a start,” he said, still grinning. “By the time we get back to the park, you’ll be thinking I’m definitely not an ax murderer.”
“Sure of yourself, huh? How do you plan to convince me?”
“Hmm…” He used the hand with a bunched up leash handle to readjust his hat, setting the bill a bit higher and knocking himself in the face with the leash in the process. “I guess I’m going to keep revealing fascinating things about myself until you either trust me or think I’m too boring to be anything scary.”
“I’m looking forward to the next fascinating thing.” I think I managed to include some sarcasm even though I was feeling totally not sarcastic.
“Okay… I, um… I think I know how to knit.”
I’m not sure it counted as fascinating, but I liked the way he said it as though he really hoped I’d find it interesting. “You think you know how to knit?”
“Well, it’s been a long time. I may have forgotten.”
“So when did you learn how to knit?”
“A couple of my sisters were into knitting for a while and they showed me how. I was about… twelve and yarn made for cheap Christmas presents. I made a lot of scarves that year.”
Will you show me sometime? That was the first thought that came into my head. I’d like to see him try to remember, but I couldn’t say anything like that. I couldn’t say anything that implied I expected to see him again. I waited too long to say anything at all because he kept talking.
“My birthday is New Year’s Eve. That’s sort of… I guess easy to remember isn’t necessarily interesting. I… I like raisin cookies better than chocolate chip and I’ve been told that’s unusual. Actually, I’ve been told that makes me weird, but I prefer to say it’s unusual and not just weird. We had a cat when I was little and he ran in front of me and I tripped over him and thought I broke my arm. It was just a sprain, but I still had to wear a sling for a while. I’ve never actually broken a bone. Have you?”
“Because you’ve been careful or lucky?”
“Probably a little of both.”
“Okay.” Tracker drew in a long breath. It might have been the first one he’d taken in a full minute. “Let me ask you something random,” he said. “If you were at a restaurant and ordered, let’s say… a burrito with chicken and they made a mistake and brought you beef. Assuming you have no dietary or religious reasons for not eating beef, you just felt like chicken that day, do you send it back to get what you wanted or eat the mistake?”
That question is weirder than liking raisin cookies. “That is random.”
He nodded as though I had just complimented him.
“I would eat it,” I said, “because I hate to see food going to waste. But if you want total honesty, I would likely spend the rest of the day thinking about that chicken I didn’t get.”
“I see. So you might be the sort of person who’d be too nice to tell a guy if he was bothering you. But let me ask you this… how did you choose your dog?”
“Paws?” My eyes traveled down the gray leash in my left hand to my dog, who was trotting along happily with her tongue hanging out. I’d have brought water for her if I had known we’d be walking so long.
“Yeah,” he said. “Did you have a specific type of dog in mind or anything?”
“I wanted to get a bigger dog actually. I was nervous about living by myself and… well, I wasn’t looking for a real guard dog. I just thought one with a nice, deep bark would make scary people reconsider breaking into my apartment. But I went to a shelter and Paws was one of the first dogs I met. We clicked. She just looked at me like she was ready to be mine, and I took her home as soon as I could.”
“I’m sure she was grateful.” Tracker shifted Baby to his other arm. “Do you want me to hold one of those leashes? I could take Sampson for a bit.”
“Uh… okay.” It did sound nice to have a break. Sampson’s leash was looped around my wrist, and I let it slide to my fingers so I could pass it to Tracker. My brain didn’t understand that incidental contact meant nothing. It lit up an obscene number of nerve endings when he took the leash from me.
We managed the transaction without stopping, and Tracker managed it without even slowing his stream of questions. “Do you cover your eyes if something scary is about to happen in a movie?”
“Not necessarily scary, but gory yes. I hide if I think there will be blood.”
“Okay. What would you say is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged and pointed at Sampson. “Hold his leash?”
Tracker stopped walking. I got a few steps ahead of him before I noticed and turned back. He was giving me a very strange look. “I can’t tell if you’re kidding,” he said. “Tell me you’re kidding because if that is seriously the nicest thing you can think of then I need to have a talk with the people in your life.”
I started laughing. Only partly because he looked ready to beat some nice into people and that was an amusing thought. Mostly I laughed to cover how scared I was. That was the moment I knew I couldn’t fool myself any longer. I liked this guy. I liked him more than I liked anyone in a long time, and I didn’t want to admit that meant he could hurt me. “Yes, I’m kidding,” I said. “That’s just… that’s a hard question to answer in the spur of the moment.”
“All right.” He put Baby back on the sidewalk before he began moving and she was willing to walk, though we went slower when she wasn’t being carried. We walked in silence for at least half a block. I was sure he was making a deliberate effort not to bother me and his not talking was the only thing that was bothering me.
“Do you, um…” I wanted to try to ask him something random, but my mind was throwing out unrandom questions, all of them related to future possibilities that I wanted him to suggest first. I bent to pet Paws and clear my head. “How you doing, girl? We’re getting close to home now.” She seemed happy and I relaxed somewhat.
“Were you going to ask me something?” Tracker’s blue eyes were hopeful under his hat.
My mind unlocked the door to random. “Have you ever gone back and finished one of those books from high school?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the books you were assigned to read in high school but you hadn’t finished before the test so you quit reading them. Did you ever go back and finish one?”
He appeared scandalized and it was clearly an act. “What makes you think I didn’t finish all of them in high school?”
“It’s no fun to read a book someone else picked out for you,” I said. “No one finishes all of them.”
“All right. I’ll ask you something else.”
“No.” He looked a little worried. “I’ll be honest. I—”
“Too late.” I held up the hand that was free now that I had only one dog under my control. “You missed that question. Try this… If someone were to make pancakes and waffles using the exact same batter, which would taste better?”
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