Makayla softened her worried expression, flashing a brave smile. “I’m being silly,” she said to Cat. “If any good came from that business with Paul, it’s that you reconnected with your inner strength.”
“Uh, thanks Oprah!” Cat said, raising an eyebrow, and offering a wry grin. The women broke down laughing.
“I tease, but I’m grateful. Now scoot! It’s Valentine’s Day. Dean deserves a date with shaved legs and clean hair. Go have fun.” Cat turned and crunched over the sticks and leaves on the trail. “Love you!” she called over her shoulder. Mongo frisked in circles like a pup.
“Love you more!” her best friend answered. The sound of the car door, and wheels rolling away made her stomach clench for a split second. Walking into the veil of mist, under the vast green canopy of trees, Cat suddenly felt alone. She willed herself to walk forward down the path, as the memory of her cheek being hugged against the safe warmth of Paul’s navy cashmere overcoat, scented by his understated cologne, flooded her brain. ‘What if compromise is the trade-off for being part of a couple? Is anyone perfect?’
Mongo barked, beckoning her from her reverie. She spied a rabbit gnawing off a tender shoot from an early crocus. It made bold eye contact with her before streaking past the huge hound, and down a hidden hole. ‘Safe!’ she thought.
Spring was around the corner. Cheered by the tiny creature’s resourcefulness, Cat picked up her pace. The faster she walked, the stronger she felt. Soon, she burst into a run, Mongo galloping at her side. Before long, she saw the faint shape of the cabin in the distance.
Lungs expanded, her limbs worked in concert like a well-oiled clock. She felt a surge of power. Thoughts of Paul dropped away like the beads of sweat from her brow. Slicing through the air, she felt an absence of resistance. “Don’t stop running till you cross the finish line,” her high school track coach always said. She leaned in.
Suddenly, her boot made hard contact with a rock. A jolt of force rocked her skeleton. In slow motion, she felt herself flying. She had time to feel the temporary disconnection with the earth, but not to see the tangle of bushes she was hurtling toward. Then, everything went black.
She resurfaced to Mongo whining and licking her face. Opening her eyes didn’t seem possible. She’d just rest awhile. Her right arm throbbed. With dread, she gingerly felt it to see if the bone was broken. Her bracelet! It was gone. She lay her head back down.
Rhythmic thumps ricocheted through her cheekbone, worsening her headache. Footsteps. Mongo yipped urgently. She wished everyone would be quiet.
“Good dog,” she heard a rich, low voice say. A rough hand cooled her forehead. It was heaven. “I’ll just sleep here awhile,” she thought.
With effort, she half-raised her eyelids.
“Hey. I’m Jed,” the man said, his knitted brow slowly melting into a smile.