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     This was the third time Bryan and Sandy had seen one another in two days and what was supposed to be the shortest date in history had gone from fun to terrible in ten seconds flat. The first time they’d met by accident, the next when they’d gone for a chilly early April bicycle ride together and now they were sitting in Sandy’s car eating Johnny Zio’s takeout lasagna with just ten minutes to go before Bryan had to report for work. The conversation had been pretty light until Bryan asked what he thought was a safe and polite question, “Is Ninja your pet or your child’s?”

     Sandy’s face fell at the question and she got a far away look, “Ninja is my cat. I’m afraid my son died in a car crash two and a half years ago,” she whispered, sighed deeply and then forced a tiny crooked smile.

     “Oh my God,” Bryan whispered, mortified that he had unknowingly touched what was no doubt an exposed and raw nerve, “what happened?”

     “He was driving home from school, it was just before Christmas break,” Sandy managed to get out before gasping with a sob. “I don’t know why he was on Miller Road, he only had a school license so he was supposed to come straight home-” she stopped speaking and her face collapsed into a mask of complete despair. Bryan thrust his drink into the car door’s cup holder by his knee, shoved the Styrofoam carryout container on the dash and reached over and awkwardly put his arms around Sandy. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, “you took me by surprise and I responded badly. I’ll be okay.”

     “Don’t be sorry,” he whispered in her ear. “I lost both my parents February of ’13 in a car crash,” he managed to say before his voice cracked with emotion and he croaked out, “I think I have an idea of how you feel.”

     Bryan’s head was spinning. Sandy had had a son who was old enough to drive two years ago? And he’d died in a car crash about the time his parents had? He knew her pain must be as terrible as his but the question of Sandy’s age that had been tickling his brain since they met was now pounding in his head in rhythmic beat with the pain he felt from his earlier bicycle crash. He knew it was petty to worry about age right now but what he wanted to say was, “I’m really sorry about your son, but how old are you!?”

     “It’s terrible, isn’t it? You wake up one day and figure you have a lifetime together and before the day is over you’re all alone. I’m sorry to do this to you; nice date aren’t I?” she asked as she gave him a small hug and pressed her face into his before releasing him.

     In spite of himself Bryan flinched and grunted. With concern in her voice Sandy gently pushed him away and looking in his eyes asked,  “Bryan, are you alright?”

     “Uhmm, yeah. A funny thing happened on my way home from this afternoon’s bike ride,” he said, returning her hug and then moving back to a more comfortable position in the passenger seat. “A couple of guys and their dogs got tangled up on the bike trail. They got untangled before I got to them so I figured I was safe to go around them but one of them walked right in front of me with his dog leash stretched over the path and we got all tangled up and went down. Knocked me out for maybe a minute and when I woke up they were all gone, both men and both dogs.”

     “Oh my God, that’s terrible! Are you alright!? Did you go to the hospital? Did anybody stop to help?”

     “It is terrible, I mean, you take somebody down from stupidity and then you run away? And these guys weren’t kids, they were old, at least sixties if not seventies.”

     “And what did the E.R. doctors say? You’re okay, right?”

     “To tell you the truth, I didn’t go. I know I should because I banged my head but I can’t afford a big medical bill.”

     “But you can afford to wake up dead or brain damaged? Won’t your insurance cover it?”

     “My insurance doesn’t kick in until I’ve paid like 10,000 dollars. I can’t pay some big hospital bill.”

     “I hate to sound like your mother but this is more important than money, it’s your health, maybe your life. Besides, the hospital will let you pay over time, you know.”

     “They will?” Bryan asked incredulously.

     “Yes. They submit the bill to your insurance and if you can’t pay it all at once you can arrange payments. You didn’t know that?”

     “No, I haven’t had anything come up like this since my folks died, something big, some expensive medical thing. I go to the doctor for a checkup or the dentist and it costs me a hundred, couple hundred bucks but I know it’s coming so I save up. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money.”

     “You should definitely see a doctor right now, before you go to work and certainly before you go to sleep.”

     “Now? There’s no way! I have to go to work, I can’t afford to lose this job!”

     “They wouldn’t fire you if you called in sick,” she said emphatically.

     “Probably not, but there goes 25 percent of my work week, too. It’s a big deal.”

     “Well, as much as I’d like to argue with you I’m not going to. Open the glove compartment and pull out the little flashlight, would you please?”

     Bryan opened the glove box and found the flashlight in the neat and nearly empty compartment. He handed it to her and checked his watch, “I hate to say this but I’ve got like three minutes before I have to go in.”

     “No worries, I want to check your pupils,” she replied as she gently took his jaw in her left hand and turned his head toward her.

     “For what, a concussion? Are you a doctor?” he answered looking at her directly.

     “No, Jim, I’m a realtor. George was in Scouts and the Crew he was with did a lot of first aid training. I got certified for wilderness emergency medicine and a lot of other emergency prep. Troy would take the kids to some pretty remote spots and he insisted that they have first aid and that the adults were well trained too. We were going to head to Alaska with them but George was killed before we could go.”

     Bryan’s eyes became huge in his head. “Troy? Troy Carter? From Venture 1846? Your son was in the Venture Crew that Mr. Carter leads? Wow.”

     “Bryan are you alright? Hold still and look me in the eye so I can check your pupils. You know Troy?”

     “Yeah. I was in Venture 1846 from 2004 until 2010. George is your son, right? When did he join?”

     Sandy put the flashlight down but did not let go of Bryan’s face. “Yes, George was my son. He joined in 2011 at the end of eighth grade. My God, Bryan how old are you?!”

     “I’m twenty four, how old did you think I was?”

     “I don’t know, thirty? How old did you think I was?”

     “About that, maybe early thirties. This is a bit weird, isn’t it?” he asked.

     “You think!?” She picked up the flashlight and zapped it across his eyes quickly. As she examined him she talked: “Well, your pupils aren’t dilated, they’re nice and round, not raggedy edged and they’re responding correctly to light, expanding and contracting equally and at a good rate, which is good. You should still see a doctor though. Jesus, I’m old enough to be your mother! Sorry, that was insensitive.”

     “It happens. And there is no way you are 54 years old,” he replied, putting the flashlight back in the glove box.

     “No, no I’m not. I turned forty last year and God knows that’s old enough. I feel ninety right now. Is this too weird for you? I mean if it is now’s the time to say so because it seems as though I really like you but I didn’t realize what an age difference we have. This is too strange but, what do you think?”

     “Well first of all you’re only what, 16 years older than I am? Which isn’t that much. My great grandmother was born in 1930 and Great Grandpa was born in ’39. Secondly, when we didn’t know how old the other one was there wasn’t a problem so I don’t see why there should be one now. Maybe we should just see how things go without getting all weirded out about something that doesn’t really matter. I mean, hey, who else do you know who tries to get in and out of the Target Store without letting the electronic doors open, right?”

     “You know it was George that started playing that game? Jon wouldn’t play it with him but I would. Every time I go in there I think of George and playing that silly game is like a little memorial to him.”

     “My mom and dad would play with me too! Even when we were older we’d laugh trying to get in and out without letting the automatic door open. Uhm, is Jon your husband?”

     “Ex. The marriage was a little rocky and didn’t survive George’s death. Jesus, what time is it?”

     Bryan checked his watch, “Oh, crap! I’ve got like two minutes! I gotta’ go! Can I call you later tonight? Like around ten, or is that too late?”

     “No, it’s not too late, I’ll look forward to it!”

     Bryan opened the car door and started to get out, “Wait!” Sandy said, “Grab the lasagna and take it with you. I’ll get the bike down for you.”

     Sandy got his old Schwinn off of the roof rack and wheeled it around the car and handed it to him. “Hey, your hands are full but before you go I’ve got to give you one more thing,” she said as she gave him a pleasantly warm and inviting kiss. “Don’t forget to call me! I’ll be waiting up!”

     “I’ll call! Thanks for dinner!” And with that Bryan rushed into Cedar Walk Pets at 8:58 feeling like a prize fighter who had gone nine rounds but who had won with TKO.

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