This came out of an assignment from my writing group in February 2008:
His feet hurt. Collapsing back into the chair, he gave a sigh of content. Even Rolly, his German Shepard, looked tired. In hindsight, such a long walk hadn’t been a great idea. The weather had been nice, though, with enough breeze to keep him from sweating too much. And it had gotten him out of the house, and kept him from thinking of … that.
Now of course, thinking about not thinking about it, was making him think about it. With a much less contented sigh, he reached for the phone and punched the speed dial for Brenda’s number. She picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me. Have you thought about where you want to eat yet?”
“Yeah. There’s this little coffee shop I discovered a while ago. They make the best grilled cheese.” Brenda was a bit of a cheese aficionado. He’d given her a cheese sampler as one of her Christmas presents, back before it all happened.
“Sounds good. Where is it?” Brenda started to give him directions. They were a bit more complicated than he thought and he had her hold on while he found a pen and paper. It required getting up and walking on his poor sore feet. After getting the directions, they exchanged a few more slightly awkward words and hung up.
Now what? He had two hours until he needed to leave. He could go early and wait for her there. That idea wasn’t appealing, though. Instead he got up on his sore feet again (Rolly lifting his head and watching him with a soft thud, thud of his tail on the floor) and flipped on his Playstation. Dan flopped back into the chair, controller in hand, and guided his ninja through the many perils of his imaginary world. It would be distraction enough, for a little while.
He was still early getting to the coffee shop. Choosing a table near the back that felt a little more private, he ordered a sandwich and waited. Every time he glanced at his watch, only a minute or two had gone by. Anxiety set it. What if she didn’t come? What if she’d changed her mind? What if she decided he wasn’t worth the trouble? Damn, he should have picked a table closer to the door. What if she looked in and didn’t see him, and left?
He was distracted by the waitress returning with his sandwich, and when she left he saw Brenda approaching. Tension eased out of his body and he gave her a warm smile. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she returned, sitting across from him. “How was your day?”
Dan knew what she was really asking. Instead of acknowledging that, he said, “I slept in, which was nice, and I went for a long walk around the lake with Rolly.”
“That’s good. Is work still okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Although his current job was far from his first choice, it was better than no job. And better than flipping burgers. “How about you?”
“Aside from Kathy still trying to get me to do most of her work, things are fine.” Brenda glanced down at his sandwich. “You ordered already.”
His anxiety shot up again. He should have waited for her! How was this going to work if he couldn’t think of a simple thing like that? “Sorry. I should have waited.”
She waved a hand. “No big deal. I just hope the waitress comes by soon. I’m starved.”
They fell into an awkward silence. “So, have you heard my brother’s latest?” Brenda asked.
“What is it now?” Dan asked, some of the awkwardness forgotten. Brenda’s brother was full of crazy ideas.
Brenda leaned a little closer. “He thinks the FBI is bugging his house.”
“Because tracking his internet usage isn’t enough?”
She was smiling. “Don’t you know, Dan? They bug everyone’s house.”
Dan chuckled as the waitress came over to check on them. Brenda ordered her grilled cheese and a lemonade. She didn’t drink Diet Coke anymore. Her brother’s lectures on aspartame had finally gotten to her. “Do you want to go to a movie or something tonight?”
Brenda hesitated slightly. “Sure. There’s a new comedy out that sounds good.”
It turned out to be okay. There were a few good moments that had Dan clutching his side. On the way out of the theater, Brenda reached for his hand.
It was dry and hot. Even the few plants that dotted the landscape looked like they would turn into sand at any moment and blow away. Everything had a yellow sheen to it, from the blazing sun above to the scattered rocks around him. In the distance, heat shimmers danced. Dan was walking. He didn’t know where or why. The sand under his shoes crunched, echoing in the endless landscape. A rattling started up, the sound squeezing his heart with fear. From behind a group of rocks a snake slithered, moving toward him. Dan couldn’t move, could only watch the snake approach. A few feet away the snake rose up, a hood flaring out around its head. The snake was huge. It watched him, head weaving slightly, eyes like bright rubies.
“Sssurender,” it said. “It’sss sssweet, ssso sssweet!” The snake’s tongue flicked. “Ssso easssy.” Dan took a step back. “There isss no running. The sssky will ssstill burn.”
Dan turned and ran, stumbling over rocks. He could hear the snake coming after him, hissing and rattling its tail. And Dan was going slow, so slow. There was a large body of water in front of him and he jumped into it. The water was warm, uncomfortably warm, and he couldn’t swim.
He woke covered in sweat and flung the sheets off him. For awhile he lay in the dark, trying to banish the dream. Rolly poked his nose over the side of the bed and gave a whine of concern. “It was just a bad dream, boy.” He felt a sense of deja-vu. How many times had he woken in the night like this, haunted by dreams?
Crawling out of his moist bed, Dan went to the kitchen for a glass of water.
“Monday, Monday,” he sang quietly as he walked down the stairs. “Can’t trust that day.” Walking over to his car, he noticed a new piece of graffiti on the wall. SHAZ was proclaiming his name to the world in bright blue letters No matter how many times the landlord cleaned off the spray paint, another delinquent tagged it again. It was oddly comforting, in a way, the consistency of graffiti on his building. Dan mused about it as he started up the car and made his way through the morning traffic.
At work he was distracted by last night’s dream and what he knew to be the cause of it. He wondered how long he would have to deal with this. The rest of his life? That was a depressing thought. No. It couldn’t always be like this. Things had been getting better bit by bit. Someday he would be able to put it all behind him.
When he got home he took Rolly out for a quick walk before calling Brenda. “Hey, I was thinking about going out for something to eat. Do you want to come?”
“Ok. Where are you going?”
He named a chain restaurant.
“Ok. Should I meet you there, or do you want to come pick me up?”
Dan jumped at the chance. “I’ll come pick you up.”
He hung up and bent down to ruffle Rolly’s fur. “Things are looking up, boy!” The dog wagged his tail in agreement.
The meal felt much more like a date than the other times they’d gone out over the past few weeks. The awkwardness was fading, and their conversation started to fall into the easy familiarity they’d once shared. Tension flared up a few times when Brenda tried subtly to bring It up with him. She got the hint, though, that he didn’t want to talk about It. He wasn’t ready yet. It was still too fresh.
“Would you like to come to the art festival on Saturday? The weather should be nice.”
“Sure,” he said. “Maybe we can bring Rolly. The park allows dogs.” The three of them could spend the day together, like a little family.
“You could have him wear his pink bandana,” she said. Brenda had bought Rolly the bandana as a joke, and it was as if in some vague doggy way he knew he should be embarrassed by it. He would tolerate it well enough for a while. As soon as both their backs were turned, off came the bandana.
“I’m sure he’d love that.” Dan laughed and took another sip of his Coke.
They stayed a little longer than they intended. Neither of them minded. The conversation stayed pleasant on the drive back to Brenda’s apartment. He pulled up and she unbuckled her belt. “Want me to walk you up?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s ok.” Brenda reached for the handle and paused. Turning toward him, she smiled. “It’s good to have you back, Dan.” Leaning over, she kissed him.
Before he could say anything, she was out of the car and walking up the sidewalk. At the door she turned and waved at him. Dan waved back and watched her disappear into the building. Reaching down into his pocket, his thumb slid gently over the gold ring he kept there. Even when things had been at their worst, he hadn’t sold it. The ring was a promise to himself, and to her, even if she didn’t know about it. Not yet, and maybe not ever.
“I’m sorry for what I put you through …” His words from a few weeks ago echoed across his memory. She’d accepted his apology. She’d allowed him back into her life. She hadn’t forgiven him, yet. That could take a long, long time.
One day at a time, he reminded himself. One day at a time.