It was an odd day at the gym, Tucker thought as he changed the oil on his Harley. Several trainees had called in sick, another injured his wrist during practice, and the electricity went out for nearly an hour. That made practice in the basement nearly impossible, even if his students would have made their appointments that day.
He looked forward to coming home tonight, and to do something familiar. He thought about taking his bike for a ride, but he noticed it had been a few too many miles since the last oil change. He started draining the tank while he grabbed a bite to eat and a cold beer. By the time he was finished with his sandwich, the oil was empty and he removed the filter in preparation of installing the new oil filter.
More predictable than an alarm clock, the blonde beauty came speeding down the sidewalk at precisely half an hour before sunset. Maybe he’d ask her to go for a ride with him tonight. The thought of her lean, sleek body pressed against his as they toured the back roads brought a grin to his cheeks. She arrived at a much faster pace than normal, and he barely had time to stand and wave before she had sprinted past.
Fine. She most likely wouldn’t want to go for a ride before her run anyways. He’d just wait for her to finish the loop, and maybe she’d be exhausted enough to agree in about thirty minutes or so… he checked his watch, plenty of time to pour in the new oil and be ready for her.
He finished up, cleaned up, and waited. Only this time she hadn’t been back past his place like normal. This was strange, but he gave it another ten minutes. Maybe she had run into an acquaintance, or took a longer path, or finally decided to feed the ducks at the pond. The seconds ticked by, agonizingly slowly. Still no mystery beauty. As he watched the clock slowly sputter out ten more minutes, each minute feeling like an eternity, his stomach started to sink. If he knew anything about this angelic beauty, it was that her habits were predictable. She drove past his gym at precisely 7:35 each morning, presumably for work, and returned no later than 5:25 that evening. He would close up the gym around six and head home. She was always scooting past his place at precisely half an hour before sunset, and she always returned around the loop before the sun sank behind the pines.
He knew something just wasn’t right, he could feel it in his bones, so he backtracked her path a bit. He remembered that she always came back down the street from the duck pond, so he started looking for her that way. It didn’t take long to find her, and even this far off in the distance he could tell she was clearly limping. Yes, he was doing the right thing. Looking for a stranger seemed odd at first, but not as odd as her not returning from her run at her usual time, especially at the rate she had taken off at.
He calmly made his way to the pond, noticed she had made a beeline for the water, and followed her down the embankment.
She was rigid. Something wasn’t right. The usual ease and confidence she exuded wasn’t there, and he had seen her favor her left leg on her way down to the water.
“Hello” he started with, trying to be the least intimidating as possible with his giant frame.
“Oh, hey, hello.” She replied nervously, only looking up at him for a second before quickly turning around and fidgeting with a stick in her hand.
“Are you all right?” he couldn’t help but ask, his voice purposely soft and friendly.
“Yeah, fine, just enjoying the view.”
Hmm. Normally people enjoy the view when the sun is out a little brighter… Something clearly wasn’t right, but she didn’t seem eager to share it with him. “May I enjoy the view with you?” he continued, hoping to diffuse her tension before pressing the topic again. She straightened her back, nervously fidgeted with the stick, and nodded. Taking this as permission, he slowly, cautiously sat down a few feet from her. She was like a cornered, injured animal with eyes wide and he didn’t want to spook her. He could take it easy. He could be patient.
“This is beautiful” he started, “the way the moon reflects off the water is breathtaking.” He studied her out of the corner of his eye while waiting for her response. He was thankful for the full moon and the street lights behind them. It illuminated her well enough that he could assess her without being too obvious. He could see that her forearms were red, her right elbow was bloody, and the knuckles on her right hand were bloody. Defensive wounds he knew all too well.
“Yeah, I love it.” She replied, her features relaxing a bit. “This is a great little town, and the views are terrific.” She turned and gave him a mischievous grin. So there was some humor under that façade of focus. He had hoped she was also referring to him. He definitely thought the view of her each night outside his fence was terrific, to say the least.
“Yes, yes they are” he responded, meeting her in her humor. “They have definitely improved the past couple of weeks” he challenged.
Her jaw fell open and she let out a laugh, immediately sensing he was flirting with her. “You’re too much” she giggled.
“It’s a family trait. My mom says the same about my Dad” he said in a jokingly braggish tone. This, however, caught her attention. She turned to look at him, to really study his face, and he was chagrined to see the bruise forming over her left eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked again.
She broke the eye contact, and brushed the grass off her pants. He noticed her legs were scratched from the bottom of her capris down to her ankles, as if she had ground them into the trail. Maybe she just took a spill.
No, his gut and experience knew better.
“I’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about” she said, almost as if she was still trying to convince herself of that fact as much as she was trying to convince him. He took that as she didn’t want to talk about it, not to him at least, but he wasn’t quite ready to let her go.
“Are you new to the area?” he asked.
“Yes, I’ve just been here a couple weeks, as you seem to recall” she said with a smile. “I am working down at MBC Global, temping in their front office as they transition into their larger building. It’s great, watching a small town guy turn his business into something incredible yet still keeping his roots firmly planted. He liked how I had decorated the front office, and he asked me to decorate a few other public areas of the business. I can’t wait” she said with a satisfied smile, seeming to drift off into a pleasant thought or memory.
“Sounds great. Is that what brings you to town, decorating for corporate businesses?” he asked, sincerely wondering what brought her here.
“No, but it’s a nice opportunity. You know what they say, when opportunity knocks…” she said with a sardonic laugh. “I love taking something ordinary and making something beautiful out of it. Taking something grey and dreary and turning it into something you look forward to going to, or returning home to. Making a necessary space into something memorable and pleasing.”
Suddenly getting shy, a blush crept up her neck to her cheeks. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s what makes my heart beat a little faster, something that helps me spring out of bed in the morning and tackle the day, rather than trudge through it. How about you?” she asked, facing him again, “What makes you get out of bed in the mornings?”
That was simple. “Boxing.”
A surprised look spread over her face, replacing the distant look from a moment ago with a smile, “Boxing!?”
“Yep. Boxing. I love taking a young kid, a wild rebel at heart, and teaching him to focus on his goals. To work hard towards what he wants, to strive for something better than he currently is. Turning a young kid into a young man, capable not only of defending himself or taking on bigger opponents, but disciplined enough to make a decent husband, father, and member of society is amazing to watch. It’s not always, easy, but I like the challenge.”
She seemed impressed by this. Shaking her head in agreement she added, “Yeah, it is incredible what a bit of self-control can do for you. Something I also had to learn the hard way” she said with a sad laugh. This intrigued him, but she continued, “So where do you do the boxing? Your front yard? Garage? Maybe here at the duck pond?” she teased, coaxing an answer out of him.
“I could teach you, right here at the duck pond, if you’d like, but most of my clients prefer to train at my gym” he said with a dare-you-to grin on his face.
Not taking the bait but recognizing it, smiling at the humor, she trudged on. “That would make sense. Where is your gym?” Her smile was intoxicating. It came easy despite whatever just happened a bit ago, and is so incredible. It curves her sweet cheeks up to her beautiful blue eyes, and makes the light dusting of freckles shine just a bit brighter over her nose.
“Just down the street, about three blocks thatta way” he said and pointed down the street, unknowingly just a couple blocks past her apartment.
The conversation flowed easily for nearly two hours. She was such a genuinely sweet human being, and he loved getting to know her as much as he loved looking at her. With a noticeable shift in mood, she tried to finish their conversation. “I never caught your name” she mentioned.
“Tucker. Tucker Johnson.”
“Nice to meet you, Tucker Johnson, I’m Ann.”
“Nice to meet you, Ann” he replied, and instinctively reached his hand out to shake. She tentatively moved her hand, which had been propping her up on the slope, and shook his hand. When he took her hand, he noticed that despite his purposefully gentle touch she still winced. She never said anything, and immediately diverted the attention to another subject, but he noticed.
“May I ask how you plan to get home?” he inquired.
“I can walk, just as I have done every other night.” She said self-righteously. He knew that wasn’t possible. He saw her ankle, bruising already and swollen. Nobody this side of the Mississippi would want to walk on that, and he wasn’t sure why she was keeping it so secret.
“Ok. May I walk with you?”
“No!” she said with finality. “I’ll be fine. Really, don’t worry about me.”
“OK,” he continued, challenging her, “I’ll just walk with you to the corner.” He saw the panic creep into her face. This shouldn’t’ be so alarming. They were getting along fine for hours, but now she wanted him to leave. It didn’t quite make sense.