Bryan wasn’t exactly late for work but his arrival time did not meet the standards of Cedar Walk Pets. Employees were expected to arrive at work early enough to be clocked in and ready for their work shifts five minutes before their official start time. This was especially important in Bryan’s case because there was only one employee manning the store at his 9:00 p.m. shift start and that lone employee was metaphorically held captive until the night guy arrived, and since Bryan was the night guy four nights a week that meant him most of the time.
Bryan had been at the receiving end of some no show or late arriving employees and he knew it was never any fun to be at work and have your replacement show up late. Late arrivals meant calling the late person who was due in and if the tardy party didn’t respond to either call or text, then Cedar Walk’s owners Sonia or Lauren would have to be contacted and for Bryan that meant calling them a little after five in the morning. He knew it created tension when a relieving employee didn’t follow the rules and he hated doing that to the person who was at the end of a work-shift and ready to head for home.
His name badge combined with a pass code worked as a key for the electronic lock and admitted him access to the building. When he punched in his 12741 pin number the lock not only admitted him but also captured his arrival time and he knew that if he didn’t want to be truly late for work he’d have to hurry to the time-clock and punch in. Amy looked up from the forensic text she was studying, looked at her watch and made a tisking sound, “Better hurry or you’ll be late,” she said as her eyes went back to her reading material.
“Sorry,” he responded as he rolled his bike through the lobby and headed to the back office and the waiting time-clock. “Let me clock in and I’ll be right back.” Bryan breezed through the small lobby, opened an inner door, leaned his bike against the wall, grabbed his time-card and punched it just before the clock ticked to 9:01. “Well, at least I’m not officially late,” he muttered throwing his belongings on the break-room table and hurrying back to the front area to relieve Amy.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he repeated sincerely. “I was kinda caught in an important conversation. Were you worried that I wouldn’t show?”
“Bryan, you always show, so no I wasn’t worried,” she said as she repeated Bryan’s path to the break-room. He heard the distinctive clunk their time-clock made when someone punched it and Amy came back into the lobby with her jacket on. “Anyway, I heard the car pull up and sneaked a look through the window to see if Lauren was checking up on me. I didn’t recognize the car but I saw your bike on top and figured it had to be you and that you’d be in in a minute so I wasn’t worried that you wouldn’t show. You are late though, I mean you were out there how long, fifteen minutes?” She accompanied her mild chastisement with a crooked grin and an eyebrow raise to ease whatever sting her gentle rebuke might hold.
“Yeah, I was in deep conversation with a friend. Uhm, she lost her son in a car crash about the same time my folks got killed and we were talking about that. It got emotional and I really couldn’t just leave her. Anything I should know about here?”
“Nope. Same old same old. I left you some notes.”
“K. How’s the knee?”
“It’s fine, Lauren worries too much. I’m cleared to walk around, I just can’t run with the dogs like I like to. Sorry if my question about you being late was insensitive,” she added as she gathered up her text book and slipped it in her over-sized purse.
“What? No. I mean, how would you know what I was doing?” he replied.
“Well, you’re right, I wouldn’t. Still, it must be hard,” she said with a shrug and a conciliatory glance toward the floor. “Hey, did your blonde friend give you that big bruise on your forehead?” she quipped.
“Huh? Oh, crap! Does it really show?”
“Not too bad, but I am studying this stuff and it’s definitely visible and you’re walking with a little limp so something must have happened.”
“I fell on my bike and got a little banged up, nothing serious.”
“You’re kidding! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little scraped up, that’s all.”
“You should get rid of that skinny tired thing and buy something like my Minty Delight; comfy and secure,” she said over her shoulder as she put her hand on the door handle.
“You’re probably right. Goodnight. Drive safely.”
“Night, Bryan,” she replied as she exited the building.
Bryan went to the kennel area and made a quick visual sweep of the dogs. He said hello to some of the dogs that boarded at Cedar Walk regularly and petted them through the door if they came up to see him but was careful to be quiet in the dimly lit room. Many of the dogs were sleeping and he didn’t want to bother them.
The cat area was much smaller and the ratio of active cats to sleeping ones was much higher than had been the case with the dogs. When he saw the cats he assumed a poor Sylvester The Cat voice and sang a tiny snippet to Simon and Garfunkel’s tune but replaced the lyrics with, “Hello my little nocturnal friends, I’ve come to talk with you again,” as he did a spot check on the felines before heading to the work area where Amy had left him her notes.
He made his way back to the break-room, put his Johnny Zio’s food in the refrigerator, put his belongings on a shelf out of the way and moved his bicycle to its customary storage spot before he got to work cleaning out food dishes, thoroughly washing empty kennels and performing a few other tasks. Once he had the heavier and louder tasks completed he grabbed his phone and called Sandy.
The phone rang twice before Sandy picked up. “Hello? Bryan?” was her greeting.
“Yeah, it’s me. Hang on, I’m going to put you on speaker phone. Can you hear me?” he asked once he had done so.
“Sure, loud and clear. How are you? Still weirded out?”
“Me? No, not really. I mean, I had no idea that you were uhm, the vintage that you are but as I said that doesn’t have to be a big deal, does it? Hang on, I’m putting my phone in my pocket so I can talk and work at the same time. Can you still hear me?” he asked, sliding the phone into his left front pant pocket.
“Yes. You’re a little muffled but I can hear you,” she replied.
“Cool. We have web-cams all over the place around here so people can view their dogs but I’m told there’s no sound so we should be able to talk in relative privacy. So what, are you changing your mind about us?”
Sandy emitted a little laugh. “Well, it’s hilarious that we’re even talking about an ‘us’ at this point. I mean, I met you what, forty or so hours ago and so far we’ve gone on two bike rides and eaten two bites of food together! But I felt a connection to you when we met at Target and now we have all this stuff in common.”
“I really feel connected to you too but you know some of this connected stuff is just because Rapida Cedro is such a small town. You shouldn’t let it weird you out.”
“What are you talking about? Oh! No, I don’t mean the Venture Crew stuff, that’s weird but you’re right, how many Crews are there around here? No, I mean the deaths of people that we’re closest to and that silly thing about the electronic doors at Target. That can’t be coincidence, can it?”
“I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not but I know I feel the connection and it isn’t just because you’re pretty and nice. Oh, hey! I forgot to thank you for dinner.”
Sandy laughed before answering, “Well, I’m not sure we can call that dinner, but you’re very welcome. Hey, do you usually eat dinner at that time or do you eat breakfast? I mean, if that’s when you usually get up how do you coordinate meals? Oh, and thanks!”
“Thanks for what? You bought dinner and drove, I just kinda made everything not work out so well. And I play meals by ear, I’m not that picky so long as I get fed.”
“No, Bryan, don’t say that! I was the one with the last minute plans, you didn’t screw anything up, we just took a chance and it didn’t work. Thanks for saying that I’m pretty and nice. I miss hearing that.”
It was Bryan’s turn to laugh. “Please! You must hear that all the time, I mean, you’re gorgeous.”
“Keep talking like that and next time I’ll spring for more than Johnny Zio carry out. No, I mean it. Like I said before, my marriage with Jon was on the rocks before George died and since I lost my son my life has been pretty void of affection or fun. I’m hoping we can work on that together.”
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” he said, suddenly embarrassed by both of their candor. “What do you like to do for fun?”
“Oh, a lot of fitness stuff. I even manage to teach a couple of classes by that gym just off the trail. I do triathlons and I’m really interested in local theater.”
“You’re kidding? My dad loved the theater stuff around here. He was always dragging us to something, some of it good and some terrible! I’d like to try a triathlon someday.”
“Well I know you have a bike. Do you run? Can you swim?”
“Yes to all three. I ran cross country in high school and even though my swimming isn’t great it was good enough for me to work as a lifeguard for three years.”
“You were a lifeguard here in town? I wonder if you were ever working when I swam. Did you ever work at Ellis?”
“Some, but mostly Noleridge. I’d do a triathlon with you.”
“Great. I’ll check my schedule. There’s a big one coming up the beginning of June but it’s probably full. You should do Camp Courageous with me. I know it’s in the beginning of August, I’ll have to get you the date.”
“Cool, that’s really cool. I think I’d like that. Uhm, I know this is a real downer to ask but, I know George is dead, but where’s your husband? Uhm, Jon, right?”
Sandy inhaled deeply before answering. “Jon moved to Chicago and he is my ex-husband. We tried to make it work after George died but our relationship just went from bad to worse. Even though we hadn’t admitted it to ourselves, George was what was keeping us together and once he was gone our bond broke and we slipped apart. We sold the house, split our assets and he moved to Chicago. We’ve been divorced just under a year and I wish him well. What about you? What was it like when you found out your parents were gone, that you didn’t have anybody to count on anymore? My God, how old were you? Twenty two?”
“Just turned. It was terrible and I didn’t even find out for days that it had happened.”
“Really? Forgive me but after our talk in the car earlier I went home and Googled your folks and the crash. I wasn’t trying to be snoopy, I just wanted to know more about you. The Gazette reported it the next day so you must have known right away?”
“No. I wasn’t here and my phone had died. I found out three days later when I got someplace that I could charge my phone and then I found the text my aunt had left me. It just said something like, ‘I have bad news. Call me right away.’ It was bad news, alright,” his voice choked as he finished speaking.
“My God, where were you?”
“Hitchhiking to South America.”