It was an evening in early September in Salem. MJ McCormick paused on the sidewalk while the three Yorkshire Terriers, Duffy, Foster, and Webster, investigated a nearby bush. Zoey West, MJ’s favorite client, had called an hour earlier and requested she take her dogs for a walk as she was caught up at the architectural firm per usual. MJ didn’t mind. Zoey always gave her a hefty tip whenever she requested an extra walk for her dogs; she was afraid that these requests were impinging on MJ’s social life.
Unbeknownst to Zoey, all MJ would be sacrificing would be more time toward watching NetFlix with Oreo and Willie, her two Black Labs of murky lineage, curled up on either side of her. Or maybe she’d be missing out on another night of staring into the void of a blank Word Document, a bottle of wine uncorked and set beside her laptop on the table, waiting for the right idea to arrive. Sometimes none did, and other times, the stories poured from her fingertips into a bulleted list on the computer screen. But none seemed inviting, or maybe they all did. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time to settle down for the long haul with one story, one character, and believe that she’d be different when it was all typed out.
The dogs, upon finishing having their way with the bush, continued trotting down the sidewalk, their short legs moving quickly. MJ scanned the path ahead and noticed a kid smacking an empty refrigerator box that was sprawled across the end of his driveway with a wooden sword. A blue towel was tied around his neck and a bike helmet brandishing a fake mohawk rested on his head, the unclipped straps moving with every swing of the sword. Duffy, Foster, and Webster froze for a moment, their tiny bodies quivering at the sound of one particularly loud WHACK that left the box shivering.
“It’s okay,” MJ told them, giving the leashes a gentle tug and continuing to walk toward where the kid was. Despite the tired, ramshackle houses and ignored lawns running rampant with ivy, the neighborhood wasn’t unsafe. It was on the verge of a revival, or so Zoey had once told MJ. Her street of crisp, modern townhouses was only a few blocks away. The architectural vision seemed almost possible. Zoey would wave her wand over the surrounding streets and they’d change from black and white to Technicolor. The corner gas stations where stabbings had occurred would become neighborhood co-op groceries. The empty field below the power lines would become a community garden and a graffiti-free playground. There’d be a nice gravel path for walking dogs.
The dream flickered as a rusty pick-up with its bumper duct-taped on drove by, the engine sputtering and irritable. She reined in the leashes as an added precaution when they were one house away from the kid. Hoping to pass by unnoticed, she adopted a confident stride. The dogs didn’t notice, as they held their ground on the sidewalk by the edge of the driveway, and began to bark and growl.
The kid stopped, raising his head to look at them. MJ saw his cheeks were stained from tears. He dropped the sword and ran behind the dumpsters parked beside the back door to his house, peering over them occasionally.
“They won’t hurt you! Their bark is worse than their bite, I swear!” MJ called to the kid. He continued to hide. The dogs continued to growl and bark. She turned her attention to them, and said, “C’mon, guys. There’s nothing to see here.” She felt like a high school cafeteria monitor during a fight. They were still riled up, so she scooped Duffy and Foster up in her arms, knowing Webster’s jealousy would get the best of him, and soon had them on her way again. By the time they had reached the street corner, the kid had returned to slaying the refrigerator box.
The dogs had taken interest in the weeds surrounding the stop sign, and as they all took to marking the sign’s post, she glanced back at the driveway, recalling the afternoons of her own childhood when she’d pick up her oldest brother’s long abandoned hockey stick and hard rubber ball to strike against the line of garbage and recycle bins she’d chosen to represent everything that had made growing up confusing and frustrating. She’d promised herself that she’d produce no spawn of her own until she could guarantee its freedom from arguments in Walmart aisles and dinners marinated in the silent treatment.
A tug on her arm pulled MJ back to the present, moving her forward into the evening as the Yorkies trotted onward, fearless. She was happy to be twenty-six and on her own, and responsible for no one but the dogs she regularly cared for. The sense of freedom carried her through the rest of the walk. When she returned, she was surprised to find Zoey’s Prius in the driveway.
“Ohmygosh, thank you so much, MJ,” Zoey called from the kitchen as MJ hung the dogs’ leashes on their respective hooks by the front door. Duffy, Foster, and Webster had already hustled into the house, eager to investigate the smells wafting from the stove.
“Oh, no problem. I love these guys.” She scooped Webster up in her arms like she would a favorite nephew.
Zoey handed her a glass of water and an envelope with a check in it just as the music changed from some indie band with a female singer to what sounded like a pipe organ in an old church.
“Frederick must not have liked the music,” Zoey explained.
Frederick was the ghost who had taken residence in her house. He had died long ago in a battle nearby and had grown fond of her. Zoey thought one of her past selves must have been his lover. This had become more plausible when his destruction of her landscaping had turned into leaving roses on the welcome mat. Being a romantic, but without any time to sustain a real relationship, Zoey had no other choice but to let him inside. It had surprised her how respectful he’d been of her locked doors and windows, as if forgetting he was more ghost than human.
MJ had struggled to believe in Frederick’s existence at first. The upheaval of Zoey’s yard could have just been rebellious teenagers. Zoey had fought hard against her skepticism, pointing out how a couch cushion was dented ever so slightly, the pillows slumped to suggest the space was occupied. It wasn’t until one afternoon when MJ returned from the pantry with treats for the dogs that she saw a translucent figure seated at the breakfast bar wearing a Civil War era uniform. He smiled at her, as if to announce his harmlessness. She had set the handful of treats on the counter while internally renegotiating her belief system and how she might defend herself if his smile gained more malice. Her thoughts were then distracted by the sight of him collecting the treats from the counter and offering them to the dogs, who had gathered at his feet, their stubby tails wagging. MJ decided she didn’t mind him.
“So work is getting crazy, huh?” MJ asked, exchanging Webster for Duffy who had been pawing at her.
“When isn’t it? But yeah, especially now that my plan for the Armstrong Tower has been chosen.” She gave a small smile, turning her attention to Foster who had been circling her feet.
“Wait, what?” MJ asked, the information finally clicking. “A skyscraper you designed is going to be constructed?!”
“Yeah!” Zoey squealed, clapping her hands in excitement.
“Ohmygod! Congrats!” MJ returned Duffy to the floor.
Zoey pulled her in for a hug. When they pulled apart, she said, “They’re going to throw a reception at the end of this month once it’s finalized to celebrate. You’ll come, right?”
Zoey stood by the glass wall of the hotel’s banquet room, looking out at the city’s skyline, the skyline her building would alter. She wanted to believe the altering would be for forever, a forever like the post 9/11 skyline seemed. She knew better, though. This was America: they would rebuild and keep rebuilding, renovating, recreating, reimagining. She began to wonder who had stood here a hundred years ago wanting to believe they’d achieved their own architectural greatness, when some friend of a friend of a colleague placed a hand on her shoulder and congratulated her for being the first female architect to design a skyscraper worth building in this fine city–or at least that’s what she took from the way the congratulatory remarks oozed from his lips, barely making their way from between his slimy smile and polished persona as he looked her up and down. She wanted to wash her hands after shaking his, rid herself of these interactions where she was still a female, still just a body, but she was unable to escape as she found herself caught in a thicket of men in suit jackets who wanted to talk shop with her.
MJ watched from across the room as the chestnut colored head of Zoey bounced around the cluster of architects in their suits, holding glasses of something alcoholic and masculine on the rocks. She felt out of place in this crowd of professionals with their impressive degrees and their architectural terminology. Zoey didn’t look much more like she belonged: petite with a nose ring, floral dress, and combat boots. MJ knew Zoey’s attire had always brought contention to the workplace, but her architectural prowess could not be passed up. Much like athletes with drug habits and sexual assault charges, the firm had learned to look past the unsavory details in exchange for her above-average abilities. Of course, Zoey’s frowned upon lifestyle choices were mostly just her desire to be true to herself and not give into the stifling business suit uniform.
“So how do you know Zoey?”
She turned to see a guy who was too short to be a male model, but attractive enough to land the lead role in a Lifetime movie without having to utter a word. He seemed vaguely familiar, like she’d seen him in passing at a take-out Chinese place or caught a few seconds of a laundry detergent commercial he’d starred in. Maybe it was just how at ease he appeared. He wasn’t wearing a suit jacket, and the sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled up to his elbows.
A waiter walked by with a tray of wine glasses. MJ grabbed one and took a large gulp before replying, “I’m her dog walker.”
He shook his head, half-smiling. “That’s Zoey for you. I don’t doubt she’d also invite the guy who works at the taco truck or her dry cleaner.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it either.” She started to think she would have been better off sending a generic greeting card and the cheapest option from Edible Arrangements, but stopped herself, mentally stuffing away the fear that being lumped with those people made her even less deserving to be part of this crowd. “So what great architectural accomplishments are under your name?”
“Do Lego towers count?”
“I don’t think so?”
MJ smiled. “So I take it that you feel just as out of place as I do here.”
He shrugged. “I’m not new to the press racket, but architecture is way beyond me. Fake it until you make it, right?” He laughed. “For tonight, we can pretend we belong…” His voice was warm and deep. Another glass of wine and she’d be ready to fall asleep in it.
“Easy for you to say.”
“It’s not so hard.” He straightened up and cleared his throat before adopting a snobby tone. “I don’t know about you, but the Smith-Reynolds Tower is absolutely tacky and completely detracts from the infrastructure.”
There was no Smith-Reynolds Tower as far as MJ knew. She cracked a smile, but quickly put on a straight face before saying, “It can’t be as hideous as the Wright-Jones Business Complex. I’d love to know what puzzle book they stole that maze of a blueprint from. Absolutely vile.” She let out a cluck of disapproval, a noise she’d learned from her mother’s incessant use of it during her childhood. Why won’t you wear tights to church? Cluck. Those skinny jeans are a little inappropriate, don’t you think? Cluck. Why did your friend dye her hair black? She looks like a drug dealer. Cluck.
He smiled at her, and picked up her hand, leading her across the room and over to the large window Zoey had been looking out earlier. Zoey was nowhere to be found, presumably lost in the crowd of big businessmen who’d funded the construction of the city and would be funding her amendment to it. They stood for a moment, his hand resting on her back, as they looked out at the lit-up skyline.
“This skyline will be even more impressive thanks to Zoey,” MJ said, unsure whether she was still pretending or speaking earnestly.
He had returned to his normal voice when he said, “I don’t know if anything could be as aesthetically impressive as her dog walker.”
MJ smiled, trying to hide her surprise. The last time she’d worn this dress was to a college friend’s wedding. The dress had never seemed to fit her quite right and the friendship had waned with her friend’s onslaught of mommy-centric posts on Facebook. MJ was a big believer in second chances, so she’d donned the dress for tonight’s festivities and made a note to send her friend a message.
“I’m flattered,” she managed to reply after sifting through the queue of comebacks she’d learned from NetFlix’s collection of indie rom-coms. Her mind drifted to how this moment should go, per movie rules.
He’d pull her close. She’d close her eyes just as his lips pressed against her. She’d run a hand over his hair, which was buzzed short on the sides and left a little longer on top. Her fingertips would nestle in the longer bits. He would kiss her slower. It would feel like they were having a breath-holding contest. She’d rest her other hand on his arm, feeling the muscles move beneath his shirtsleeve. He’d continue to devour her body with his hands before they escaped off to a desolate coat closet or janitorial storage room where they’d have the best sex of either of their lives.
MJ wished it would happen; it had been a while since she had gotten any action. A few months ago, she’d found herself making out with the landscaper for one of her clients in the client’s guesthouse. Despite the crowbar-like boner the handsy landscaper was sporting through his dusty jeans, MJ hadn’t been able to keep her mind off the howls coming from the door. Rufus the Doberman’s separation anxiety was nothing new to her, but the fact that his owner, Josie, was out of the house was. The howling had turned to whimpers from outside, and MJ pushed the landscaper away, apologizing for not being able to get into it.
He let out his own noise of displeasure, but quickly collected himself, saying, “Yeah, it’s hard to get in the mood with that beast crying. Josie usually has you take him for a walk while we bone.”
Giving him a disgusted look, MJ hurried out of guesthouse. She retrieved a milkbone from her pocket and tossed it to Rufus before she went through the gate by the side of the garage. Josie was just pulling up in the driveway and rolled her window down, “Sorry I’m so late! There was a horrible accident on the freeway. I hope he was well behaved. He gets a bit beside himself when he’s alone for too long.”
MJ gave her a slight smile, and shrugged. “Well, dogs will be dogs.” Silently she swore never again to get handsy with anyone even slightly associated with one of her clients.
“Jacob! There you are!” Zoey was headed toward them. Jacob turned toward her.
MJ leaned against the wall, unsure of her place in the conversation. She began to slink away, realizing that she could fake belonging only for so long.
“MJ, have you met Jacob? He’s my brother. He plays for the Brigade.”
MJ was pretty sure that was a soccer team. She turned to Jacob. “Nice to meet you, Jacob,” she said, extending her hand. Maybe faking it wasn’t so hard.
“It’s a pleasure,” he replied. His smile seemed genuine, almost bursting as if he was going to laugh at the fact that Zoey hadn’t noticed they’d been talking for who knew how long.
“Anyways,” Zoey said, “the speeches and stuff are about to start. The press requested you be there too.” She let out an exasperated sigh, before grabbing Jacob’s arm and leading him away.
MJ watched them walk over to where the press had gathered in a corner of the room, a small cluster of people in formal wear wielding cameras and tape recorders. Jacob stood smiling beside Zoey, playing a First Lady like role. It was strange to see the two fabled West twins together. They’d gone to the public high school, so MJ had never had anything to do with them, but she could remember their parents had made appearances in the news every so often for their own athletic accomplishments. Their fame had died out in recent years and it had taken a while for MJ to realize who Zoey was when she’d first started walking her dogs.
Suddenly aware of how she was just a dog walker, MJ headed for the opposite end of the room where the bar was. Alcohol was a great equalizer. Unfortunately, she realized, she would have to forgo another glass of wine as she remembered she’d driven here, a precaution against the muggers who’d started to plague the city. She didn’t know the exact details. The news had only been relayed to her by the wife of the police chief when she’d come to walk their two pomeranians. The case was in its infancy; the details were hush-hush; and the most the police chief’s wife could do for her was to give her a pink can of pepper spray–“For Breast Cancer awareness,” she’d said in explanation of the color, adjusting the scarf covering her bald head.
MJ looked up to see Jacob place a hand on Zoey’s shoulder, say something, and then leave the halo of lights, heading in the direction of the bar.
“Sorry about that,” Jacob’s voice greeted her.
“No worries. I take it your presence is no longer needed?”
He shrugged. “I figured it was best if I gave Zoey the limelight she deserves. I never intended to steal it from her.”
“Yeah, but my talents are often unnecessarily lauded.” He shrugged. “Can I get you a drink?”
MJ looked at her watch. “I should probably head home. I need to walk my dogs.”
“Are you just making an excuse to get away from me?”
“No,” she said defensively. “I have my own dogs who need one last walk before bedtime. But it does make for a great excuse.”
“Well, excuse or not,” he said before deepening his voice into the jokingly snobby tone he’d used earlier to say, “do let me walk you to your car.”
MJ played along. “That would be very nice of you, good sir. Thank you.”
He offered her his arm and she looped hers through it. When they passed Zoey, she looked at them, their passing distracting her mid-sentence. MJ was unable to tell if it was a positive or negative reaction.
When they were outside on the street standing by MJ’s car, a few blocks from the venue, Jacob asked for her number. “You know, in case I need a dog walker.”
MJ began to search for a spare business card in her clutch.
He smiled. “I’m kidding. I’d like to see you again, when you don’t have any dogs to walk.”
She closed her clutch and leaned against her car. “I’d like that.”
He handed her his phone and she added her number. He returned the phone to his pants pocket before saying, “Good night.”
“Enjoy the rest of the party!” She got into her car and started it, the headlights illuminating Jacob.
“I’m not sure I’m going to go back to the party. I might just walk home.”
She rolled down her window. “What about the muggers?”
He shrugged. “Do you really think that’s something I need to worry about?”
“Oh, right, I forgot. Male privilege. Enjoy your freedom.”
He walked back over to her car and leaned on the window. “I will.” He gave her a warm smile. “But it has its limits, you know. My hands are tied if anyone says I’ve fathered a baby.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me filing for paternity. We haven’t even kissed.” She looked him in the eyes. Before she could think of how it would play out in a movie, he leaned through the car window and kissed her.