story a month challenge: january
When I first heard of Susan Dennard's Story-A-Month challenge, I knew I had to participate. Not that I don't have so much going on already. Line edits, short stories for submission, my newest novel WIP. But I loooove stretching my muscles, so I'm always looking for ways to do that, and I love a good challenge. I also really like writing to prompts. So, without further ado, here is a meet cute based on the image prompt below!
I knew better than to not pay attention to the ice. I knew better than to not watch the way I walk, to not be careful with my tread. To not do the penguin waddle if it’s super bad. But I didn’t think about it when my phone lit up with a text from my ex-girlfriend, and I stumbled in my haste to unlock the device to see the whole thing. As soon as I read the words tori, i miss you, my right boot slipped.
I couldn’t stop it. I flailed, falling forward and using my arms to cover my head from impact. My knees hit first, and then my elbows, and I yelped with pain. My phone flew out of my hand, and so did the dog’s leash.
By the time I right myself, chill seeping into my leggings, I look around and begin to panic because I don’t see Dolly anywhere. “Dolly!” I get up slowly, wincing with nearly every move, and keep calling for the puppy as I retrieve my phone. The screen has a crack, a perfect spiderweb in the corner, but that’s the least of my fucking worries right now.
Dolly’s only a few months old, and this was the first time I’d taken her for a walk. She doesn’t know the area, and she’s still being trained to listen to my commands. I’ve messed up so badly. How am I supposed to find my precious white Samoyed in this snowy landscape?
The panic builds as I start walking swiftly, but more carefully, down the path again, calling out for Dolly about every ten seconds. Another text chimes on my phone, and this time I stop to dig it out again. More texts from my ex. We broke up just before the holidays descended, after months of constant fights and petty arguments. It was for the best, but apparently she’s feeling some regret and sadness over it. I almost open the texts and read them, but no, I have a dog to find. She can wait.
If I decide to give her some attention, that is, and I’m not sure I want to. It’s probably just a post-holiday reflection on her part, the way spending time with loved ones can make you start to think about your pasts and the people you didn’t have to set a place for at the dinner table. A part of me wants to open up the communication between us when I get home, but another part of me knows what’ll happen. She’ll sweet-talk me into giving her a second chance, or at the very least, into staying friends, which will eventually lead us into firing up the old passions again anyway. We’ve been down this road before.
Still, that ever-present pain from our relationship lingers in the air as I search for Dolly, who is quite possibly the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
When my moms saw how much my loneliness was getting to me, they very gently suggested I get the dog I always said I would. I’d always made excuses for why I couldn’t; I lived alone and dogs needed so much more attention than I could give, I didn’t have the money, Eliza didn’t like them. If I’m being honest with myself, my ex is really the reason I never got one. We hadn’t moved in together yet, but she was over at my place all the time. We’d talked about her moving in, about marriage, about spending the rest of our lives together. And she’d very adamantly refused to compromise on the dog thing, said she would tolerate a cat, if you must have a pet.
Eliza was like that about everything, and I didn’t see it until I’d given her more second chances than she’d ever deserved from me. Her very presence was so consuming and loud and bright, I’d made myself as small as possible, had compromised more often than I should’ve, and couldn’t remember who I was when I was with her.
I still miss her, sometimes, but I don’t miss the way the relationship made me feel.
I pull my hood up as a cold gust of air blows through and have to shove my hands in my pockets to keep my fingers in my fingerless gloves from freezing. I knew I should’ve grabbed a different pair. But it’s too late now for all those regrets, and my throat starts to grow hoarse from calling for Dolly. She’s nowhere to be seen, and I don’t hear any yaps or whines. I grab for my phone again, needing to hear the voices of my moms and ask them for advice, have them tell me what to do because I’m lost. Not literally lost, I know this park so well. I’ve been running down the meandering paths and taking walks in the fall foliage ever since I moved here for college six years ago and stayed because I love the city so much.
But what do you do when your dog runs away? What can you do? Go back home once you’ve exhausted yourself and hope fervently that someone will find her and bring her to you? She’s got a collar with her name on it, along with my phone number. If I don’t find her here, I’ll have to go home and just wait for a call, and I hate the idea of sitting around in my warm house while Dolly's alone in the cold.
Tears fill my eyes and spill down my cheeks, and I wipe them away furiously. As I’m drowning in a sea of anxiety and panic, I hear a soft bark. I look around sharply, eying every mound of snow as if Dolly’s going to burst out of one at any second. The bark comes again, louder this time, and I start to run in the direction of it. It could be anyone’s dog, a lot of people use this park, but I have a strong feeling in my chest that I’m going to find my Samoyed beyond this next bend of trees.
Sure enough, after I round the small copse of bare limbs, I see Dolly in the arms of a gorgeous man. He’s holding her gently, laughing, as he nuzzles her nose and murmurs something I can’t hear.
I’m stunned into silence, but then Dolly barks again as if telling the stranger all about her day, and I’m jolted back into action. “Dolly!” I shout her name and walk briskly toward the man.
Dolly looks over at me, but then goes back to licking the stranger’s dark beard because she can’t get to the rest of his face from her vantage point. The little traitor!
I’m so exasperated; never mind that this was my fault. She’s been getting cuddled by a beautiful man while I’ve been crying with worry, and it’s not fair.
The guy glances over with a smile that falls as he catches sight of my expression. He holds my dog out to me quickly, as if he thinks I’m upset that he’s touching Dolly without my permission. “I take it she’s yours?”
To his credit, he ignores my red eyes and the tear tracks on my face as I take Dolly from him and snuggle her close. She licks my cheeks and barks, as if greeting me. I check her over, but she’s no worse for wear, and I’m just so happy to have her back that I nearly crumble to the ground in relief.
I finally look up to thank the man, but am caught once again with his looks. Up close, he’s even more gorgeous. He’s got brown eyes and a dark brown beard that makes him appear just a little bit rugged with the flannel pattern of his coat. I can’t see his hair because he’s wearing a beanie, and his coat hides his figure, but he’s lean and only a few inches taller than me. And when he smiles again, wider and less distracted, the words I was going to say get stuck in my throat.
“I’m glad I found you,” he says in the lingering silence.
It snaps me out of my fog, and I’m grateful for the cold so I can blame my flushed cheeks on it. “I’m glad you found her.”
He chuckles a bit. “She just came right up to me, trailing her leash and barking like she was telling me a story.” She’s good at that, I think. “I assumed her owner was close by, so I didn’t want to move and risk losing you.”
The park is big, with dozens of different paths snaking through it. If he’d gone looking for me, we might’ve missed each other. “Thank you,” I say finally. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if she’d kept running off or found a different person altogether.”
“She’s a beautiful dog,” he says a bit wistfully.
“Do you have one of your own?”
He shakes his head. “I work long hours.”
“I understand that. I did too, before I got the job I have now.”
“I also live alone, and I don’t want a dog to be cooped up inside all day when I can’t take her out very often.”
As the words register, it’s on the tip of my tongue to ask if he’s single. But it’s too soon, isn’t it, since Eliza? And what if he’s not single? The embarrassment of finding out he’s got someone is enough to stop me. But he’s not in a hurry to leave the conversation, and I want to prolong this as much as I can even though most of my body aches from the fall and chill. “Well, I’m sure Dolly would love to see you again.” Since she’s had her mouth all over your face already, unlike me. I can’t believe I’m jealous of my dog.
He grins. “Oh yeah?” He looks at Dolly, with her tongue hanging out of her mouth and her eyes so bashful and sweet. “I would love to see her again too. Of course, if her owner doesn’t mind that.”
I go to answer, when my phone chimes in my pocket. I try to dig it out, but with Dolly in my arms, I struggle. The man wordlessly takes her from me, and I smile gratefully. I’d texted Mom #1 before I heard Dolly’s bark, and I’m expecting a response. When I see Eliza’s new message on the screen, I swallow the curse building within as I read stop ignoring me, please.
The man’s looking at me carefully when I put the phone away. I’m done sparing Eliza my mental energy, and I focus solely on him now. “Her owner does not mind, by the way.”
His smile is dazzlingly bright. “I’m Gideon,” he says as he hands Dolly back.
I’d let her keep snuggling Gideon, if I still wasn’t slightly panicked after losing her. I always feel better after pressing my face into her coat, letting her warmth chase away the cold and anxiety. “Tori.”
He stuffs his hands in his jeans pocket. “Say, my favorite coffee shop is just outside the park and serves the best hot chocolate. You and Dolly wouldn’t happen to have any plans just now, would you?”
I haven’t felt these feelings bursting in me in so long; the excitement of a first meeting, a chance encounter, flirting with someone new. With Eliza, it was good in the beginning. Better than any other relationship I had. But then it shifted so slowly I wasn’t aware that the love I thought I felt for her wasn’t actually love. It was comfort in the familiarity of who she was, and who we were together.
Looking at Gideon now, rocking on the balls of his feet and making cute faces at Dolly, I realize that it doesn’t matter if it’s too soon. I want this feeling back, the sheer joy in being with someone who smiles at me without reservation.
“Dolly and I would love some hot chocolate.”