A special thank-you to BradBigBrain for editing as well as estragon, copy editor. I greatly appreciate the time and effort they both take in order to help me polish my work. Please vote and comment, if you feel so inclined, most of all enjoy. Thank-you, Red
The sounds of morning came unfiltered into Cecilia's home. She sat on the couch as the local news played out on the television, while she looked out one of the living room windows. Much like it always did, her gaze rested on the house across the road from hers. It was a two-storey home, painted yellow, and for the most part in relatively good shape, though she knew some people would stick their noses up at it. It served its purpose, though, for the man and his dog that lived there.
Chuck and Buddy, a single man and his beast. Chuck was in his fifties and looked to be about six foot five. He sported a full beard and mustache, which he kept well groomed. His hair was long, often held back in a ponytail. She'd never really spoken to him at any great length, but she wanted to. Whenever she saw him at the gas station drinking coffee she forced herself to keep her eyes downcast in case he called out to her and said "hi". He only did when she happened to catch his eye.
Cecilia watched as Buddy, the dark brown and black German Shepherd ran off the sidewalk and into the meadow behind Chuck's house. Chuck soon followed and for a moment Cecilia shrank down in her seat. Just as quickly she chastised herself and sat up, looked out the window and watched as Chuck picked up his morning paper and watched his dog chase after some small woodland creature.
The man was wearing his customary boots, jeans and T-shirt. Once again his hair was pulled back and she knew he'd smell of the woods and campfires. It was the scent she always caught when she walked past him or his home. She glanced at the fire pit in his yard and remembered the first time she'd ever spoken to her neighbor.
She had just moved into the neighborhood. It was a small rural community, where everyone knew everybody and everything. Cecilia, however, knew no one. She had chosen this place because it was close to her parents' jewelry store, but far enough away that she wasn't forced to endure her mother visiting every day. Her divorce had left her with enough money to put a down payment on a home, as well as take a hiatus from her position working as an accountant for one of the city's law firms. She had wanted --- needed the peace that came with country living.
Her parents had helped her move into the small two bedroom home and her first night there had been spent tossing and turning in her bed. She wanted to blame the mattress because it too was new. In the end though, Cecilia pushed away the covers, took a deep breath and donned her robe. She pulled on a pair of sneakers, tied the sash of the robe over her nightgown and marched over to her neighbor's house. It was his fault she hadn't fallen asleep. He had several guests over, all of them drinking and laughing. She was spotted and, when all eyes turned away from her and onto the large man who was rising from a chair, Cecilia's throat constricted on her words.
He had come over, pausing briefly to turn down the radio that had been blaring some old rock melody. She watched him with wide eyes full of apprehension and a touch of fear. Her tongue darted out and when he reached her side, Cecilia was forced to look up into his eyes. To him she must have looked like a rag doll. He towered over her five foot four frame. She blinked several times and thanked God she had not fainted from fear of this big man. He lifted his hand in a greeting of friendship, she winced stepped back and whispered that his "music was too loud".
Chuck apologized, pulled back his hand and she left. Cecilia rushed back into her house, locked the door and sank to her knees; she imagined the big man's hand coming up and grabbing her throat. She shuddered violently and sobs racked her small body as memories of her ex-husband rushed over her.
The screeching of tires brought Cecilia's thoughts back to the present. She jumped from her seat and hurried over to the window. "Oh my God," she said out loud and hurried out the front door, down her steps and across her yard.
The driver of the car was already rushing to the front of his vehicle. Chuck was on his knees, his hands running over the trembling figure of his beloved pet. Cecilia dropped to the ground, resting one hand on the big man's shoulder. She reached out and stroked the dog's head. Blood pooled from the animal's mouth, nose, and ears. A pair of coal hued eyes stared at Chuck, until all signs of life left them. Cecilia watched Chuck's hand move over Buddy's face, closing the soft fur-covered lids. Without thought, Cecilia wrapped her arms around her neighbor and felt his body shake.
After a minute Chuck began to rise, and Cecilia realized the position they were in. She pulled away, tucked her arms under her chest, her hands under her armpits and looked at the driver of the SUV that had claimed Buddy's life. She stepped back fearful of the confrontation between Chuck and the man who looked just as scared of Chuck as Cecilia had been the first time she'd met him.
"I'm so sorry," the man said. He kept his hands in his pockets, and his eyes on the ground. His head moved back and forth as if he were trying to come up with a reason for not seeing the beloved pet.
Chuck took a deep breath and Cecilia waited for the fist, clenched at his side to come in contact with the man's face or stomach. Her gaze grew wide when Chuck opened his hand and offered it to the other gentleman. "It's not your fault," Chuck said. "It's mine. I wasn't paying attention and I didn't notice him take off until it was too late."
The driver stared at Chuck's hand, extended his own and the two men shook over the dead body of Chuck's pet. Cecilia stood dumbstruck as she watched the bear of a man, bend down, pick up his dog and head toward the woods at the end of the meadow. She listened to the driver talk about having to leave and apologizing again, but Cecilia basically ignored him. The driver left, while she tried to comprehend that Chuck had not reacted as she'd expected him too.
Chuck felt her eyes on him and wished he could talk to her and that their second meeting in one year had been over better circumstances, but he had other things to do. The first being trying hard not to cave in to the emotions that were trying to burst from his soul. Buddy had been his companion for almost ten years and it had taken all his will-power to not drop the man who had killed him with one punch, like a rock.
The German Shepherd had been given to him from a litter raised by his niece. He was his best friend and traveling partner when Chuck took to the road delivering campers. Now his partner was gone and a beautiful woman was watching him, most likely judging him to see if he were weak or strong.
He felt very weak.
With his back to her, he walked across the meadow. His tears fell freely, blinding him to the path he'd trod many a time with his friend beside him. At the edge of the woods he lay Buddy down, positioned his body so that it would look more natural and less mangled. There was blood on his arm and shirt, but he didn't care. He remained in a squatting position until he heard footsteps behind him. Chuck looked over and saw a pair of feet stuffed into a pair of tennis shoes. Once again she was running around without socks on. Chuck smirked at the one detail that seemed to always make him smile when he thought of his next door neighbor.
He sat up and looked down at her tearful eyes.
"I saw this leaning against the house," she whispered, offering him his own shovel.
His chest tightened, as he took the tool. "Thanks. I was planning on putting a new Japanese Maple in the yard."
"I saw that," Cecilia said as she glanced back to Chuck's house and the new sapling. "I'm really sorry about Buddy," she whispered, giving her attention back to her neighbor.
Chuck took a deep breath, expelled it and nodded his head. "I was thinking about something else and just wasn't focusing on him," he told her. He shook his head and looked down at his friend. "I've had him for ten years. He's my best friend," he admitted.
He felt her hand on his back, rubbing it as if she were a mother trying to comfort her grown son. He would have loved to tell her that he was not her son. "Thanks again for the shovel," he said and waited for her to leave. When she didn't, he looked back at her. Chuck shrugged his shoulders and began to dig a deep hole for Buddy's body. He couldn't help but feel Cecilia's presence. She had never told him her name; he had discovered because he'd been home one night when a man had been banging on her front door, shouting and screaming "Cecilia!"
He had gotten out of bed, grabbed his 9mm, slipped in the clip, chambered a round, and headed toward the front door of his home. Before he got there, Buddy was scratching at the wood and barking his head off. Chuck opened the door, peeked out and noticed the red and blue lights coming up over the hill. Chuck watched as the man pounding on his new neighbor's door stepped away and turned to head back to his car, which was immediately blocked by the police cruiser.
Chuck closed the door, yet remained close to the window until the man drove away and the police went inside to talk to his neighbor. He went back to bed, carefully ejected the round and removed the clip and placed them all back in the drawer. Under his covers he thought of the woman and how timid she had been the first night he'd met her. He had noticed her and her family, or what he assumed at the time to be her family, moving her in. There was no one else living with her, not even a dog or a cat, just her.
She'd come over the first night, wrapped up tight in a robe wearing shoes with no socks. He hadn't seen her at first, and had it not been for one of his friends, he doubted he would have noticed her at all. She was so short compared to him and he suspected she was easily lost in a crowd. He had wanted to shake her hand, apologize for the music and offer her some help unpacking or moving furniture, but when he lifted his hand in greeting, she had paled, shrank back and looked terrified. Instantly Chuck had known why, and anger toward this unnamed man grew thick and heavy in his chest. She had turned and practically ran back to her little house.
From that day on Chuck tried to find out as much as he could from the neighbors and gossips. Most of what he learned came from the realtor who had sold her the house, an older woman that loved to gossip. Normally Chuck wasn't fond of second hand knowledge but he had a feeling he wouldn't get a lot of answers from the woman herself.
He learned the rest of her name, Cecilia Witherby, and he learned she was a new divorcee, thirty years old and had no kids. The realtor was also quick to tell him that her parents were worried for her safety and Cecilia's mother, it seemed, was a chatter box like the realtor, because the realtor learned quite a lot from the woman. Naturally she was more than willing to share it with Chuck. And anybody else with ten minutes and the price of a cup of coffee.
Cecilia had been married for ten years, and most of the ten she'd spent in and out of hospitals. It wasn't until he caused her first and only pregnancy to end in a miscarriage that Cecilia finally left him, filing for divorce and running as far as she could, back to her parents' home in Austin. She'd taken a break from her job and the money from the divorce and found a quiet town to call home. Her mother had been against her moving out to "no-man's land" as she'd called it, but her father was all for it.
Chuck now kept an eye on the house, and the woman inside it whenever he was home, more so after the ex-husband had showed up. The morning after the incident, he hooked up with one of the officers and did a bit more questioning into the girl's past. The man had indeed been the cause for Cecilia's skittish nature. She promised the officers she'd look into a restraining order and Chuck learned later on that she had indeed done so, and as far as he knew he hadn't ever returned.
Now he had her closer to him than she had been in almost twelve months and he couldn't do anything but try and show a stronger side to himself than he felt like showing. He wanted to mourn Buddy, but to do so now would only show weakness in the woman's eyes. He swallowed the lump in his throat, placed the shovel on the ground and lifted his dog's hardening form into his arms. He hugged him tight, before placing him in the dirt and beginning the task of covering him up with the freshly turned soil.
Cecilia stood just behind Chuck and watched silently as he took care of the burial of his dog. She wiped at the tears that fell and knew that the man was hurting. There was a part of her that told her she should leave, but another part told her to stay. When the task was over, she stepped back and waited for him to walk back to the house. He glanced at her, thanked her again for her support and picked up the shovel.
Together they walked across the meadow, awkward silence accompanying them. When they reached the house Cecilia chewed nervously on her lower lip. She took a deep breath and sighed heavily before offering one last condolence to her grieving neighbor. "I really am sorry about Buddy," she told him, reaching out and squeezing his left arm. Her fingers felt the corded muscles and she pulled away, hoping Chuck didn't notice the blush on her cheeks. She dipped her head and walked around him.
"Cecilia," Chuck called out to her as she headed back toward the road and her house. He watched her stop and face him. He placed the shovel against the house, closed the distance between them and looked down at her face. He noticed her freckles, blue eyes and slightly pink tinged cheeks. "Would you have dinner with me tonight?" he asked suddenly. Chuck glanced back at Buddy's grave and sighed. "I know it's an awkward way to ask a girl out, but --- well, I don't get to talk to you that often and figured it'd hurt my pride to have you turn me down in front of the guys at the gas station."
Cecilia blushed. When he called her name she wasn't sure what she was expecting, she just knew she didn't want to walk away from him. For the few seconds she had been walking back toward her house, she'd been trying desperately to come up with a reason why she needed to stay. She looked up at him and tried hard not to turn away. Every bone in her body told her to lower her head and mumble something like 'no', but something inside her forced its way up through her throat.
"I'd like that," she said, in a breathless throat-clenched squeak. Her face grew brighter and her skin, she knew, would be hot to the touch.
Chuck smiled and she answered back with a grin all her own. They stood there like that for several seconds before Chuck broke the spell. "I'll pick you up at five?" he asked, already thinking where to take her.
Cecilia nodded her head. "I look forward to it," she admitted, and knew the words she spoke were true.
She headed back to her house, crossing the street and grinning from ear to ear. Once inside she rushed to her bedroom and opened her closet door. She stared at her clothes, guessing what she would wear. Chuck was the first man she'd been out with since her divorce, not to mention in the past ten years when she was married. Prior to her marriage, she'd only gone out two other times. Her experience was limited and her clothes seemed outdated for dating.
She reached back into her closet and pulled out a few dresses and silk tops, along with slacks that had seen better days. She thought about the last time she'd worn each one. All of them had to have been worn sometime before her husband had turned violent and abusive. None of them were torn, patched up, or stained with her blood. She also doubted she could fit any of them anymore. She hadn't put on an excessive amount of weight, but she was not the same woman who'd bought the pieces.
Cecilia sat down on the edge of her bed and looked at the small pile of clothes. She then eyed the ones still hanging in her closet. All of them had been picked out by her ex-husband and all of them screamed ownership of her person. She left the room with a determined air, and returned with two black garbage bags. She filled the first with all the clothes on her bed and in her closet. She emptied her dresser drawers, tossing in socks, panties and bras.
A quick trip to the laundry room had the clothes from the dryer tucked into the second bag along with several pairs of shoes. Her jewel box was next and the contents dumped into a satchel that he too had purchased. By the time she was done Cecilia realized the only thing left to throw away that he'd given her were the things she had on. She looked at the clock on her bed and reached for the phone next to it. It was early, but not so early that her mother wouldn't be awake.
She invited her mother to lunch, grabbed her keys and headed out the door. The bags of laundry were left behind and the satchel with the jewelry was placed on top. Once outside she climbed into the front seat of her car and pulled out of the drive. She had several hours before having to meet her mom for lunch and for the first time she felt excited about shopping. Cecilia wasn't a fool, not any more, she knew her date tonight was the reason she felt spontaneous, but she didn't want to question it, not yet. It felt too good to simply have a reason to rid herself of another piece of her ex's influence.
Chuck happened to glance up from the hole he'd been digging and waved to Cecilia as she pulled into the street. He watched her car disappear and went back to setting the tree into the ground. He had determined that nothing overly dramatic would happen on their first date. He was much older than her and he knew she hadn't been dating anyone. At least according to the girls at the gas station and their local librarian, they never saw her with another person, nor had he witnessed anyone but her parents visiting her. He hadn't dated anyone seriously in years and the few dates he'd been on never made it past the second or third. He hoped for something different with Cecilia but he really didn't know why.
Later on that morning, Chuck thumbed through the telephone book and placed a reservation at one of the city's restaurants, normally unnecessary, but he didn't want to take any chances that they'd have to spend an hour or more waiting on a table. Next, he called one of the local florists and arranged for a small cluster of flowers to be ready for him just before heading to her home. When he was done, Chuck sat down and called for Buddy. It took only a second for him to realize his mistake. He closed his eyes and finally let the tears fall.
After several long minutes Chuck was able to collect himself. He headed to the bathroom, took another shower to wash away the sweat from digging the two holes. He then took some time to trim down the size of his beard, and groom his mustache. Once his basic needs were done, he headed out the door. Chuck felt the absence of his dog as he climbed into his truck and headed to the barber's to get a fresh cut on his long hair.
He pulled in, parked and headed into the town's barber shop. Years ago it had been a bakery, years before that a bank. Chuck waved hello to a small group of men, all his age, that were sitting there. Most smoked cigars, a few drank coffee. Chuck took a seat on an empty trimming chair and waited for the owner and resident father of the town to come over and begin his customary work.
While he was being taken care of, Chuck joked and laughed with the men that were milling about. His words came and went when expected, but his thoughts were on Cecilia. He hoped she wouldn't mind a simple dinner at the local Italian restaurant. It wasn't either high end or low end, but it was something he considered to be good for a first date. He also considered having most of his hair cut, after all he wasn't a young buck and maybe long hair on an old guy wasn't all that attractive. He looked at his reflection and decided to keep things as they were. After all, it was this Chuck that asked her out, not someone else.