Dana unclipped Max’s leash once the park’s gate clanged shut. He romped along the gravel trail, the long hairs on his tail whipping about like russet streamers.
“Max,” said Dana, slinging her backpack forward.
As she exchanged the leash for the blanket squished by her textbooks, Max woofed and trotted back. Circling her legs, he settled at her knee and peered up, watery brown eyes intent.
“That’s my boy.”
A pale pink tongue drooped from Max’s jaws, his muzzle curving in a pleased, doggy grin. She scratched behind his flopped ears and then adjusted the backpack on her shoulder.
“So where should we sit?”
Max trotted beside her as Dana started into the park.
In the sunny spots before them, pairs and quartets dressed in shades of red bunched while clusters of teenagers in similar holiday hues lay along the grassy hillsides whispering and laughing. Subdued families and picnickers squirreled themselves in shady patches beneath budding cherry trees, and couples perched along the granite rim of park’s main fountain, a few with roses in their hands.
Sighing Dana ran her fingers through Max’s coarse fur. “You’re still with me right?”
Max leaned into her leg, his body warm and solid.
“Thanks.” The renewed wag of his tail brought a smile to her lips and Dana thrust her arm at the expanse. “Go on.”
Max bounded off and swung into the grass, nose to the blades. Squishing the blanket into a ball, Dana headed after him and tried to ignore the flirtatious giggling and hands holding hands. She veered into section of sloped lawn above a flat stretch where a trio pitched a Frisbee and unfurled her roll of powder-blue tweed. Doffing her pack, she sat and scoped out Max’s progress.
She found him snuffing around the base of a tree, and then followed his nose to a family picnic.
“Shoo,” said the mother.
She clutched a little boy in ruby overalls against her carnation blouse as if Max might gobble the child whole. Oblivious, the boy laughed and offered Max, who stalked tentatively closer, a carrot stick.
“Max,” said Dana.
His ears perked when he looked over his shoulder, then he swiveled back to the wide-eyed mother, the drowsy father propping up on an elbow, and the little boy’s treat.
“Max,” said Dana, threading her voice with a sterner tone.
She patted the blanket, and hanging his head Max padded across the lawn, up the hill and belly flopped at her feet.
“Leave them alone, okay?”
He woofed and set his chin on his paws. His eyes swept across the park, darting every now and then to the little boy and his newest edible acquisition.
Leaving Max on guard, Dana lay on her stomach and brought out her textbooks. She angled her notebook alongside, slipped the pen from its spiral spine and ejected the tip with a press of her thumb.
“Where were we,” she whispered as she flipped through the glossy pages.
She’d found her place among the Renaissance painters when a high pitched voice called out in her direction.
“Honey, look at this one!”
Max rose up on all four and cocked his head. Glancing past him and into the lawn below, Dana spied a blonde in a short denim skirt, crimson halter-top and matching pumps. She knelt, her hand extended like the little boy in overalls, her red fingernails waggling.
“Up to you,” said Dana.
She swung back to the pages after Max flared his nostrils and padded toward the blonde. The woman awed, the saccharine coo curdling Dana’s stomach.
“Isn’t he adorable?”
The man’s uncertainty further soured Dana’s gut and made the text between her elbows blur. Max’s bark, a joyous and familiar sound once following the slip of a key and turn of a lock, twisted the mid-February warm spell into ice.
“Do you think he can do a trick?”
“Give me your hand sweetie,” said the blonde.
Dana rolled and sat upright while the blonde held out her hand, palm up. A scowl marred her heart-shaped face when Max passed her by and lifted his head to look up at Linus. Backpedaling, Linus stuffed his hands into the pockets of his pleated slacks, but Max crept forward, his low whine escalating.
“Max,” whispered Dana, the name nearly catching in her throat.
Linus’s head snapped up while Max glanced backward. His tail developed a metronomic sway when Dana came to her feet and strode near, planting each sneakered stride with care.
The blonde set one hand on her hip and gestured the other at Max. “Is he yours?”
“Yeah,” said Dana, her gaze locked on Linus and his reddening cheeks.
“Does he do any tricks?”
“His loyal,” said Dana, patting her thigh, “and he can shake hands.”
With a final glance at Linus, Max trotted over. Dana offered her hand and Max dutifully sat and shook.
“That’s so cute!” The blonde clapped and then slipped her arm through Linus’, adding a fresh rumple to his dress-shirt. “We should get a dog like that.”
Burying his gaze into the grass, Linus fidgeted with his tie-less collar.
The blonde squeezed his limb into her breast, making him teeter. “Shouldn’t we, hon’?”
“I think we should go, Brooke.”
“What!?” Brooke glanced between them and realization bloomed in her mascara-lined eyes. “Do you…do you know her, Linus?”
“Yeah,” he whispered before drawing a deep breath and lifting his gaze. “How are you doing Dana?” He tipped his chin at the splayed books beyond. “Still got your nose to those pages?”
“Graduate school pages now.” Dana crossed her arms, crushing her tee-shirt against the butterflies swarming her belly. “You?”
“So I see.”
Brooke extracted herself and smoothed her flawless skirt. “How do you know each other?”
Cocking an eyebrow, Dana waited for Linus to reply.
“We…used to study together in college,” he said.
Brooke glanced at Max who followed the conversation with swings of his elongated snout. “And the dog?”
“We sort of lived together, too,” said Linus.
“And got a dog?”
“I got Max,” said Dana, laying a protective hand on the Max’s head.
“Because you thought he’d fix things,” said Linus.
Linus cringed and Brooke’s question hung in the air like a tossed up ball waiting for gravity to remember its flight.
“Nothing,” he whispered. Cupping Brooke’s elbow, he tugged her back toward the trail. “Let’s go.”
Brooke pulled her arm free. “Fix what?”
Dana met the blonde’s startled blue eyes and felt a surge of sympathy at the panic glinting in their depths.
“We lived together,” said Dana, “but it never really felt like we were together. I stupidly thought Max might help. Might make us feel more like a family.”
Shaking his head, Linus hid his hands back in his pockets. “I didn’t want a dog.”
“You ended up not wanting me either,” said Dana.
He winced despite her even tone, but neither could obscure the truth settling between them.
“People change,” he whispered.
“They sure do.”
The Frisbee’s whoosh and the giggle of the boy in overalls dominated the following seconds.
“Well…,” said Brooke. “He’s adorable.”
“I know,” said Dana, thumping Max’s ribcage. “I should get back to my books.”
“As always,” said Linus.
“Something’s never change.”
With smirk, Linus drifted down the hill, sauntering toward the trail with his head bowed.
“Good luck,” said Brooke, “and Happy Val—“ A quirked grin twisted her ruby lips as she glanced at the vacant blanket and back again. “Have a good one.”
With a fling of her blond curls, she spun and traipsed after Linus.
“You too,” whispered Dana.
As she watched them making their way across the lawn, Max pressed against her rigid leg. She scratched his head absently while Brooke jabbered, her words lost in the distance. The bow of Linus’ head, however, never shifted. His shoulders too remained hunched, as if the weight of an invisible world, or she suspected a pending conversation about needing space or feeling trapped, rested upon them.
“Same as always,” she whispered.
From out of the past, a scarred burden hooked through her heart and Dana closed her eyes. Turning, she marched blindly back to the blanket and stretched out on her stomach. She clasped the pen and traced her shaky finger beneath the last line of text.
When Max flopped next to her, as he had the night she’d slammed the door in Linus’ face for the last time, the words before her ran together. She sniffed and Max nudged her elbow with his nose, leaving a damp patch on her skin. With a sad chuckle, Dana burrowed her face into the nape of his neck while he licked the unexpected tear streaks from her cheek.