The following story is by Michelle Chalkey. Michelle writes romance, women’s fiction, and young adult fiction. She has short stories published on Short Fiction Break and Wordhaus and is currently drafting her first novel. Michelle also writes articles for Iowa Living Magazines and for 4-Layer Cake, her blog about desserts, fitness, books and writing.
“Young man, you can’t tell me those aren’t the two prettiest girls you’ve ever seen,” Sam gazed ahead at his objects of affection rolling each other around in the mud.
“I can’t deny that,” Jake shook his head. “Shila! Come here, girl.”
Their four-legged friends unwrangled their paws from each other. The black lab, her soft and shiny coat now splattered with mud, ran through the overgrown grass toward Jake with an urgency only his dog, it seemed, had for him anymore.
Shila wagged her tail repeatedly before sitting tall at Jake’s feet. He held out a treat, and the dog raised her paw.
“Good girl,” Jake said, fluffing the lab’s head as she ate her biscuit.
“Pretty, and they listen,” Sam said. “You can’t find women like that anymore.” The old man’s golden retriever, Milly, still lay in the mud preoccupied with a stick.
“Got that right.” Jake thought of his wife and their three little girls. Pretty, yes, but they sure as hell didn’t listen to him.
Jake breathed in the cold morning air, hoping to swallow in the nature around him and let it linger in his lungs. He could walk out in these woods for hours with his old friend before realizing his household was waiting for him. His Saturdays consisted of dropping Emma off at soccer practice, Jane at ballet, then racing across town to Rosie’s softball game. Out here, he lost track of his busy world for at least sixty minutes every sunrise.
Before the sun fully rose, he endured the dewy smell of the branches and embraced the morning chill. Runners and bikers hadn’t begun to flood the trails yet. The only hint of other life was the 80-year-old man walking alongside him.
“What’s your lady got you doing today?” Sam asked as they continued along the trail.
“The usual with three kids,” Jake said. “Run, run, run.”
Sam chuckled, shaking his head. “Man, I remember those days. Run, run, run…and what do you get at the end of it? Eh, you might get yourself a kiss on the cheek, but I’d bet on you not getting laid.”
The old man’s candor always took Jake by surprise, but he found him humorous. Jake never forgot how fortunate he was to have run into Sam and Milly five years ago, when he first brought Shila to Strausser Woods.
“You’re right, Sam. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I am not getting laid tonight.”
“Don’t worry, young man. I’m not either. But I am taking that beautiful blonde home with me.”
Trotting toward Sam was Milly, stick in mouth and bushy golden tail wagging. Jake knew Milly and the old man would go home to an empty house. He sometimes envied the silence that filled Sam’s home life. It was just the man and his dog, the way Jake’s own life had been before he met Kari.
Sam cut his thought. “I shouldn’t be saying things like that, not with everything you guys have going on right now.”
Jake thought of his wife, her wild locks of curls appearing more beautiful the messier they lay, just like on each of his daughters, and those big brown eyes that lured him in no matter how distant he felt. Yet, he found himself walking further and further away from her each morning he came out here.
“Any word from the doctor?” Sam asked.
“Not yet,” Jake replied. “We were supposed to hear back a week ago. Seems like it can’t be good news now.”
“Those doctors are assholes. They make a woman and her family wait day after day to find out something that just might destroy them because, what, Doc was scheduled to go on vacation? That’s horse hockey.”
Jake picked up a large stick and snapped it in half, gaining the attention of the muddy dogs. He threw it into the woods and watched the two sprint after it.
“You know,” Jake said, “it seems like everything we do, we’re always so hurried. We’ve got to get here by this time, get this slip turned in, get something else fixed right away. But since Kari found that lump, it’s like the days can’t go by any more slowly.”
“I know what you mean,” Sam said. “And if she does have it, Jake, the days will go by faster than you’d ever want them to.” Jake noticed the crack in Sam’s voice. It was the tone, he realized, Sam took whenever he spoke of his wife.
Jake wondered why he was out here now. He needed this time outside with Sam, now more than all the other fruitless mornings, but he knew he should be there when Kari woke up. He always used to be, before their lives were overtaken with responsibility. He remembered pulling her in close to him every morning when she first woke up. They had had the time to lie there, her fragile body wrapped tightly in his arms, the vanilla scent of her hair awaking his senses.
Shila darted out from a row of trees. She stopped a few yards in front of the men and shook out her wet fur. The dog never failed to bring a smile to Jake’s face.
Life was much simpler when it was just me and the dog, the way Sam’s life has been for so many years.
The sun made its way overhead as the dogs ran on and Sam and Jake continued their daily walk and bullshit session. Having almost reached their sixty minutes, Jake wished for just a few more moments of solitude. The vibrating alert on his phone instantly brought him back.
Please come home.
The text sent a shudder down his spine. He’d received that text while sitting at the bar several times, but never out here on his walks.
“It is a nice morning,” Sam said. “Should we make another loop around?”
Jake imagined going home to Sam’s life. He and his lab would return home to nothing but silence. No blasting pop music to wake everyone. No little girls bouncing through the house looking for the sock they’re missing or fighting for the first piece of toast to pop out of the toaster. No warm welcomes from three high-pitched voices, then getting pinned down with kisses and hugs. No extra petting for Shila either.
And no embrace from his wife, or the vanilla scent of her hair gathering in his face.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I need to be at home.”