The next afternoon, MJ arrived at Zoey’s house. Her Prius was absent from the driveway. She unlocked the front door and stepped inside, calling into the empty house. “I’m back, boys! How have you been?”
Instead of the usual skittering of nails on the hardwood floors from Duffy, Foster, and Webster collectively clambering to greet her, a large, black and white spotted Great Dane appeared in the archway between the foyer and the kitchen. It let out a deep woof, but wagged its tail.
“Hello, there. You must be one of Jacob’s dogs. Do you want to go for a walk, too?”
The dog tilted its head as she spoke, but gave an excited jump at the sound of “walk.”
MJ smiled and offered out her hand for it to sniff. It bent its head down and investigated her hand, its large, wet snout pressing into her palm. “What’s your name?” she asked, reaching for the tags that jangled from its collar. “Nice to meet you, Sgt. Pepper.” She gave him a scratch on his chest and he leaned into her, enjoying it. She tried not to topple over from his weight. He wagged his tail when she stopped scratching. “How about we go see where everyone else is?”
She walked into the kitchen, Sgt. Pepper at her side. The kitchen was vacant as well as the dining and living room, which were visible from over the island. The silence of the house was rather startling as she was accustomed to three small dogs incessantly barking at her while she got them ready for their walk.
“Hello?” A voice called from another room. It couldn’t be Frederick. She’d never heard him talk.
She wandered around, discovering a door to the backyard and the laundry room. MJ had never been this far into Zoey’s house before; she’d never needed to. She heard scratching and yipping coming from behind another door, and opened it to find Duffy, Foster, and Webster in a bathroom. “Why are you in there?” she asked them. They scuttled out excitedly, running in all directions.
“Who’s there?” she heard faintly through the bathroom wall.
There was a second door in the bathroom. She opened it and found herself in a small hallway. There was an open door to her right.
“Hello?” She peeked into the room. Sgt. Pepper and the Yorkies were gathered by her.
The room was illuminated by a large TV screen. A soccer game was paused on the screen. Across the room from the screen was a hospital bed with someone lying under several blankets. She could just make out the shape of a dog lying on the floor by the bed.
“MJ?” The voice responded.
She found a lightswitch on the wall and turned on the overhead light. “Jacob?” she said with surprise. She could tell there was some bruising on his face. There was a brace on one wrist and his right leg appeared larger under the blankets, as if it was in a cast. Between the faded Nike Just do it shirt, bedhead, and unshaven face, he looked worlds different from when she’d seen him at Zoey’s reception almost a month ago.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he greeted.
“What happened to you?” She remained standing in the doorway, unsure how to proceed. Over the past few weeks, she’d been disappointed that he never called, her desire for him never fully waning since the kiss. She wanted him still, but the intermittent time had apparently rattled his life too, making her unsure if the promise in their first meeting was still possible.
The other dogs hurried into the room. Sgt. Pepper rested his head on the edge of the bed so Jacob could pet him. Duffy, Foster, and Wallace explored under the bed. The dog lying by the side of the bed had moved to its feet, and made its way over to her. It was a tan-colored greyhound. She read the tag on its collar, saying, “Hello, Lucy.” She gave her a gentle pat on the head.
“You should probably take a seat,” Jacob said. “Not the one by the wall. Frederick’s sitting there. We were just playing a game of FIFA.”
MJ gave him a quizzical look.
“I’m on a lot of painkillers. They’ve done wonders for our friendship.”
She saw that there was an Xbox controller resting on the armrest of the chair. She sat down on the chair in the corner next to the TV screen. The Yorkies ran toward her, the three of them managing to pile onto her lap. She pet them absentmindedly, waiting for Jacob to respond.
“The short of it was that I was mugged.”
“The Hot Flash Muggers?”
“The police aren’t sure, but it looks that way. The security camera footage from nearby stores didn’t really show much.”
“Is there any hope they’ll catch them?”
Jacob gave a slight shrug. “I’ve just gotten a lot of excuses about there not being enough evidence or that police work takes time.”
“That sucks. When did this happen?”
“Walking back from Zoey’s celebration.” He looked down. “Sorry for not calling. My phone was smashed.”
“Why not ask Zoey for my number?”
There was silence for a moment before he responded. “Equal parts afraid that I’d taken too long to call and that it would be douchey of me to ask my sister who’s taking care of me to set me up on a date.”
“She does seem to be taking very good care of you.”
“Almost too good. There’s a nurse that comes. She locks up Zoey’s dogs–she hates them.”
Jacob gave her a slight smile. “I keep telling Zoey that she’s overdone it, but she won’t chill out. It was hard enough to get her to go back to work.”
“I didn’t realize you two were so close.”
“We haven’t always been, even though we’re twins. Now that both of our parents passed away, she tends to have trouble not acting like she’s losing her other half whenever something happens to me.”
“I can imagine. I bet she hates every girl you’ve shown interest in, too.”
“Yeah… she’s been known to take a while to warm up to them. Then again, I haven’t always had the best taste. But you…” He stopped his sentence.
MJ could tell he was nervous to finish it. She wasn’t sure if she could handle however the sentence ended anyways. “I have some dogs to walk,” she said, standing up. “How are your dogs on the leash?”
“Sgt. Pepper’s an old man and Lucy’s retired, so they’re happy for a walk, but they won’t pull any moves.”
“From racing. I drove down to Florida a couple years ago to pick her up from one of the organizations that rescues retired racing greyhounds.”
“That’s really awesome. Anyways, I’ll be back in a bit.” She headed for the door, but paused. “You want me to get you anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
MJ nodded. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said, and all the dogs followed her. The Yorkies were distraught when she didn’t hook leashes on them. “I’ll be back for you, boys, don’t worry.”
Just as Jacob had said, Lucy and Sgt. Pepper were well behaved on the leash. They wandered the streets for a while before heading back. A wave of nausea hit MJ as she was unclipping their leashes. She bolted for the bathroom near Jacob’s room and threw up the contents of her stomach.
“How’ve you been?” he asked when she finally appeared in his doorway. The Yorkies were curled up around him.
MJ wasn’t sure how to respond. “It’s been… crazy?” She leaned against the door frame.
“Are you okay? I did just hear you throw up, right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She waved it off. “So how long until you’re back on the field?”
His expression waned. “Maybe never.”
“That bad, huh?” She felt bad for asking.
“Yeah. Doctors are amazing, but the body can only do so much.”
“You’d be surprised.” She looked around the room, trying to rest her gaze on anything that wasn’t him. “I need to walk the rest of the gang.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked as she collected the Yorkies from his bed.
After putting on their sweaters and hooking on their leashes, she led them out the door and around the streets. All the while, she wanted to believe this was just another afternoon. There was no Jacob in Zoey’s house. There were no muggers. There was no friendship with Zoey. She wanted to unwind all those complexities, remove them from her life. Dog walking was never meant to be this emotionally complicated. She just wanted to walk dogs, take them down the same streets, feel like there was some pattern to things, some consistency that she could depend on. But that was a lie she couldn’t let herself believe. Even the dog walking routes had to change to keep things interesting.
When she returned, Jacob called out her name. She dropped the dogs’ leashes and hurried to his door. He was lying on the floor by the bed. “Are you okay?! What happened?!” She asked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just not as mobile as I hoped.”
She helped him back into his bed.
When he was comfortably under the blankets again, he said, “Now I’m embarrassed.” He looked down.
MJ didn’t know what to say, so she just stood beside his bed looking at her feet. Finally, she managed, “I’m just glad you’re okay.” She began to make her way to the door.
“You don’t need to leave.”
She paused and looked over her shoulder at him.
“Come. Sit. Tell me what’s up.” He patted an empty spot on the mattress.
He was like a puppy crying from at cage at the SPCA. She couldn’t resist. “It’s a very complicated story.”
“All good stories are.” He gave her an encouraging smile.
“This isn’t a story. This is real life and you’ve already got so much going on. You don’t need a dog walker dumping her shit on you too.”
“If we had gone on a date, would you have told me?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so. It would be the right thing to do.”
“I still want to go on a date with you.” He looked away for a moment, bashful. “So tell me.”
She paused. He was so nice, the kind of nice that you didn’t want to lose. She feared the next words would turn him away. “I’m pregnant,” she finally said.
There was silence for a moment. Then Jacob said, “Go on.”
So she told him about the pregnancy tests. She told him that there was no way there could be a father. She told him about her family. She told him that she didn’t know what to do.
Duffy appeared at her feet, still in his sweater, his leash dragging behind him. Her conversation with Jacob had distracted her from doing her job. “Excuse me, I need to go undress them,” she said, before getting off the bed and leaving the room.
When she returned several minutes later to see if Jacob needed anything before she left, he said, “I could be your way out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I could be the Joseph to your Mary.” This was not what she had expected. The world did not hand out favors like this. The trust she had placed in Jacob waned. It must be the painkillers talking.
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“MJ, I don’t know what to do either. No one wants to say it, but I know I’m not going to get back on the field. At least not for a professional team. My career is over. I need to start a new chapter.”
“You can’t even walk and you think you’re going to be able to care for an infant in less than nine months? Get real.”
“We can make it work.”
“You’re already making you and me a ‘we?’”
“I like you, MJ. I’m bummed it’s taken this long to see you again. I want to give ‘us’ a shot, even if it means there’d be some obstacles in the way.”
He was saying everything the movies had taught her to want, but she knew it wasn’t what she needed right now, let alone could handle. “This isn’t a movie, Jacob. This is real life. A relationship is hard work. Recovering from a serious injury is hard work. Raising a child is hard work. Do you really want all that?”
“I know I want to give us a shot and if helping you raise a child is what that entails, then I’m willing.”
“I don’t know, Jacob. I don’t know if you really want to commit to that.”
MJ disappeared from the doorway.
Jacob heard the faint sound of the front door shut. He let out a sigh and sunk into his pillows. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine a finish line with MJ there. Imagining the finish line, just like his mother had told him to do before each soccer game as a kid. Imagining the finish line, just like she did before each marathon. Imagining the finish line, like his father had done, but never made it, a car striking him on a bicycle before he even made it to the race. Too many times the finish line had looked like a hospital bed. His dad living his last five years in a nursing home. His mom dying from cancer three years ago. Himself waking up in a hospital bed, barely lucid, his body a dulled scream. Zoey had always done the imagining better, understanding what there was to work with and how they could make it better. She’d been drawing and redrawing cities and skylines for as long as he could remember. He wished she could redraw everything. Erase the Ford Explorer that collided with his father, make his mother’s tumor benign, reroute his night to ending at MJ’s. He had started to question the point of imagining the finish line if it never ended the way he wanted it to.
MJ felt bad, juvenile for leaving Zoey’s house like that. It felt like a movie quality storm out, and Jacob was too nice for that. She could do better than that for him. Certainly she could find a way to be nice back. She pulled out her phone and called someone who she knew might be able to help.