Anne Marie Andrus
“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” I shouted at the six lanes of southbound traffic that slowed to a miserable crawl and then ground to a complete stop.
Never should have agreed to go in on this ridiculous shore house with my friends. Never.
I unbuckled an antique lap belt and hoisted myself through the old car’s sunroof. Red brake lights snaked ahead for miles.
Way back in January, “No thank you,” had been on the tip of my tongue. But everyone insisted I get out more—find a man—up my game. I’ve met every doctor, lawyer, accountant and stockbroker in this state. Boo, not interested.
Across the median’s concrete barrier, the northbound lanes were eerily empty.
That’s a lousy sign. Looks a bit like my love-life.
I slumped down in my seat just as sirens blared and strobes lit up the rear-view mirror. Police cars wove down the gravelly shoulder followed by firetrucks, wreckers and a lone ambulance.
If one ambulance is all they need, maybe it’s just a fender bender?
I fished for a tablet in my backpack and scrolled to the traffic app. Bright red lines in both directions were punctuated by a slew of orange circles with lines through the middle. I banged my forehead on the steering wheel until a muffled bark and wet nose brought me back to reality.
“Oh, puppy. It’s you and me against world, right?” I rubbed fluffy ears. “And I’m sure you have to pee.”
Buried under folding chairs, a mini barbecue grill and my bundle of beach towels, I found a leash.
The car sputtered and stalled.
Damn jalopy. At least it won’t overheat.
I reached out and checked the pavement with my hand. “Too hot for you, little Bonnie.” I hoisted the tawny furball into my arms and knocked the car door shut with my hip. Two lanes away, the grassy median beckoned. I squeezed past a conversion van covered in bible-verse bumper stickers. Inside tightly rolled up windows, the driver blasted show tunes and conducted an invisible orchestra to his own private musical. A silver-haired woman in the car next to him pointed and laughed. I giggled and waved to her with one of Bonnie’s paws.
While I looked around, the puppy sniffed the grass, investigating the scent of every soul that had stopped here before.
What is that rumble? Can’t be thunder. Maybe a dragon?
I swallowed hard as if I were on a plane, trying to relieve eardrum pressure. A few seconds of silence fell over the crowded highway before the crystal-clear sky exploded into chaos.
One—two—three! Medevac choppers roared overhead, low enough for me to read the numbers on their bellies. I spun to check for another as the leash snapped against my wrist. Searing heat shot through my ankle just before my shoulder crashed against the edge of the pavement.
Screams and slamming doors echoed in my skull as I scrambled, desperately searching for the leash. Invisible hands came from all directions, sitting me up and brushing me off.
“Bonnie!” I pushed everyone away. “I lost my dog!”
“Don’t worry dear.” A lady in hospital scrubs handed me an ice pack for my ankle, took my pulse and looked deep in both eyes. “A young man ran after the pup.” Apparently satisfied I would live, she peered past me. “And . . . he’s got her.”
“Small miracle I didn’t hit my head.” I accepted a gauze pad from over my shoulder and held it against my skinned elbow. I turned to see the four-pronged base of a cane and followed the trail of oxygen tubing to a tan, smiling face.
“I have a first aid kit, dear.” The silver-haired woman patted my good shoulder. “For just this situation.”
“How klutzy am I? A blind person could see that—” I gestured toward the rough curb.
“Here you go, miss.” A silken baritone voice swept over me as calloused palms placed a wiggly puppy in my lap. “What a perfect angel. Half terrier, half collie?”
“She’s a rescue so, probably a little of everything. Thank you so much for—” I kissed Bonnie’s fuzzy head and looked up at the good Samaritan who retrieved her.
“Thank you…” I read the letters on his navy-blue work shirt. Beveled Edge Blacksmith Shop. Is that even a thing? My gaze wandered over his sculpted biceps, past his perfectly trimmed goatee and up to dancing emerald eyes. “Ummm, you’re totally covered in dog hair.”
“You’re very welcome.” The man started to brush off his chest and tossed his arms up. “Mud, dog hair, horse hair…all day. Everyday. I may be hopeless.”
“You can’t be from around here.”
“Of course, I am. Born and raised.” The man offered his hand and helped me to my feet. “I’m Justin.”
“I’m Grace.” I looked at my bruised knees and handful of bloody gauze. “Just a name, not a description.”
“Come on, Miss Grace. I have water and snacks in the cooler. Enough for everyone.” He waved all the bystanders toward his shiny pick-up truck, stopping to make sure the silver-haired woman’s cane was firmly planted on flat pavement. “Ma’am, what’s better than a Friday night Parkway Picnic?”
Butterflies swirled in my stomach and tiny sparks danced in my throat. I hoisted Bonnie in my arms and whispered in her ear. “Okay, so I maybe I haven’t met every man in New Jersey.”
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