After I finish work for the day, the guys are still wrapping up some tile work in the shack, so I’m left with no place to go. I could stay in the farmhouse, but Jack still seems annoyed about his closet and I don’t want to impose on him. I already did yoga with Edith, so I don’t really need the exercise, but I decide I’ll take another stroll around the property anyway. When I was chatting with Chris earlier, he mentioned that there was a nice creek due west of the house. He said it was a quarter mile or so to get there, but there’s a trail to follow and it’s worth the trek.
I set out in that direction and am a few minutes into my walk when I get the feeling that I’m being tailed.
I turn and see Alfred trotting behind me at a distance. He tucks himself half behind a bush. If he could, he’d be wearing a pair of those disguise glasses with the comically large nose and mustache. I continue walking and so does he. I stop and he stops and sits, tongue wagging, eyes shining with stupid love.
“Go back home, Alfred!” I shout, assuming my words will hit their mark.
He doesn’t budge. His tail swings back and forth in the grass.
“Go on!” I wave my arms menacingly. “Get!”
I’ve become Frankie Muniz in My Dog Skip. Alfred is supposed to walk off dejectedly and the audience is supposed to cry, but Alfred, who promptly listens to every command Jack utters, seems to turn a deaf ear to me.
I sigh and tell him to stay—adding in a dramatic STOP hand motion—and then I continue my walk. He does stay for a little while, but then he hops right back up.
It’s not like I’m that scared of him anymore. In the last few days, I’ve even gotten used to having him around. He’s always in the farmhouse, sleeping on his bed or under the kitchen table, and I feed him and replenish his water bowl. Earlier, he came to lie down near my feet while I was baking, and I didn’t even notice until I nearly stepped on him.
Still, there’s a difference between tolerance and active friendship. I’d prefer the former; Alfred clearly disagrees.
He gets closer to me and trots along at my side. I glance down at him with pursed lips, and he nudges my palm with his nose, like he’s saying, See? I’m nice. Please love me.
He is pretty cute with his floppy ears and golden coat. Dammit.
I sigh and give in to him. We walk together for a few more minutes in silence before I ask him how he likes the weather. He ignores me. Then, because why the hell not, I start to tell him about my day, and then that somehow morphs into me explaining to him why it hurts my feelings that I don’t have a better relationship with Helen. I divulge the fact that even when we were younger, we didn’t get along that well. He’s the perfect listener, doesn’t interrupt me even once, and before I know it, we crest over the top of a hill and I spot the creek.
Except, it’s not a creek—it’s a river! Or at least it looks like one to me: wide, crystal clear, and rimmed with cypress trees, wildflowers, and ferns. The path I’m on dead-ends in a little clearing on the bank of the creek. It looks like a perfect, pebbly beach entrance.
Alfred and I step closer. Even though the creek flows pretty quick, I figure it’s not going so fast that it’d sweep me away to the Gulf of Mexico.
I can’t gauge how deep it gets in the center, which means it probably goes well over my head. To my left, there’s an overgrown oak tree with a rope swing hanging down. The knot at the top cuts into the tree’s limb, and it’s probably been up there for a while.
Even though it’s early evening, the sun is still blazing overhead. The temperature has to be in the high 90s, and our walk built up a nice layer of sweat on my skin. Swimming sounds heavenly.
I turn to Alfred and dab sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. “What do you think? Should we swim?”
Alfred leaps into the water before I even have time to remove my shoes, splashing and pouncing and lapping it up like he’s having the time of his life.
“Looks like we’ve finally found some common ground,” I say, kicking off my sneakers and stuffing my socks inside. “You go on ahead and make sure to scare off any snakes.”
I chance a quick glance behind us to confirm we’re alone then strip off my t-shirt and shorts—not that it even matters if a ranch hand sees us since my underwear and bra provide more coverage than most of the bikinis I used to own.
“How is it?” I ask after I stow my things on dry land and make my way to the creek’s edge. The water’s so nice and clear, I’ll be able to see my feet on the algae-covered pebbles. “Refreshing?”
My toes hit the water and I let out a wild “AH!”
Alfred turns and looks at me, head tilted.
“How is it so cold!?” I cry. “Is this runoff from a freaking glacier?”
He ignores me and goes back to leaping around in the water. Right. I take another few steps, hissing and huffing and puffing as I get acclimated to the temperature. I know I’m being a wimp, and I’ll never make it all the way in at this rate. There’s only one way to swim in cold water, and that’s by plunging under in one quick go. So, I inhale, hold my nose, and dive.
Cold water blasts me from all sides like I just dropped myself into an ice bucket. It’s so cold it burns, but then just like that, my body is used to it. I break the surface and whip my hair out of my face.
Alfred barks and doggy-paddles toward me.
We swim farther from the edge, but I’m still a few yards away from where the current looks the strongest in the center of the creek. Where I am, there’s nothing to worry about.
Alfred swims toward me with a stick then drops it on the water’s surface, nudging it forward with his nose. I take the hint and toss it toward shore, and he darts after it, fetching it back to me in record time. We repeat the cycle for a while. My arm starts to ache, but I push through the pain because he looks so damn happy. Eventually, out of desperation, I toss the stick into the current and say, “No more!” then flop back to float on my back. My arms and legs stretch out around me as I tilt my chin to the sky and close my eyes. He circles me like a shark.
“What do you think of your master?” I ask lazily.
“I know, handsome, but that personality—rough around the edges, to say the least.”
He licks my hand.
“Oh, you think he has a softer side too? Maybe. Edith seems to think there’s still some love left in him, but I’m not so sure. I wonder if he ate those cookies or if he just tossed them out the window as soon as I left the room.” He doesn’t say anything and I feel like a jerk. “Oh I’m sorry, Alfred! I just realized I didn’t give you any. How rude of me to bring it up.”
He forgives me because he’s a dog and he doesn’t speak English. Also, I think he’s my best friend.
We keep swimming and I lose track of time. My fingers turn into prunes. I’m starting to feel the temperature of the water again and I’m pretty sure my lips are purple by this point, but I can’t get out yet. All this alone time has given me the chance to reflect on how far I’ve come, how much I’ve accomplished since that cab driver kicked me out in the middle of nowhere. Additionally, I’m inspired by my progress with Alfred, how far I’ve been able to get out of my comfort zone. With that in mind, I have a mission before we head back to the house: test out that rope swing.
“Alfred, if I die, you can have all the money in my checking account.”
Meredith has done a complete about-face in recent days. Ever since Sunday morning, when she told me—with splotchy cheeks and puffy eyes—to not bother fixing up the shack, she’s been hardly recognizable. It’s like she’s walking on eggshells around me, and if possible, I find it more annoying than when she was giving me hell. I don’t have a problem with being nice; I have a problem with people being fake nice. I can tell she’s keeping herself restrained. When I snapped at her for color-coordinating my closet, I could see the shackled passion behind her eyes. I think she wanted to tell me to eat shit, but she just smiled and cowed.
Something isn’t right.
Edith swears she hasn’t noticed the change, but then again, I can’t really trust Edith when it comes to Meredith. She’s been on her side from the beginning.