Her feet slammed into the pavement as she ran down the hill from her house. Her head bobbed from side to side, desperately searching for a glimpse of brown fur as she called the same name, over and over.
Evelyn hated running. Despised it. Whenever she had to run a mile in gym class, she faked cramps. The irony was not lost on her now as her side cramped painfully.
Her father was the runner in the family. Every day that she could remember, he was up at dawn to run, and sometimes ran 10 miles before Evelyn even got out of bed. Once, when Evelyn was 13, he asked her to come with him. Evelyn agreed, thinking it would be better than running in gym class, but minutes in, her chest felt like it would explode. After she nearly collapsed, her father had to carry her home. Her legs were sore for days; it hurt to even put on pants. Her father asked her to go again a week later, but Evelyn shook her head and cheerfully popped a spoonful of cereal in her mouth. “Never again,” she said through a mouthful of Cheerios. Her father looked sad, but he smiled anyway and left on his own.
Evelyn may not have gone running with her father again, but she liked to visit the animal shelter with him. Ostensibly, these were visits to donate old blankets and toys. Once there, however, they felt it would be rude not to say hello, and so they would slowly make their way to each cage, conversing with the sad-eyed dogs and cats confined within them. These trips were not something they did often, perhaps once a year, because they almost always ended the same way:
They would come home together, whispering all the way from the car to the front porch, up until Evelyn’s mother yanked open the door and stared at them.
“Hi, Bridget,” her father would say. Evelyn would give her mother a bright, innocent smile.
Her mother’s eyebrows would rise as she said, “Hello, Evelyn, Andrew. Do you want to tell me where you’ve been?” She’d use the same tone she reserved for Evelyn’s brother, Nate, who often came home at midnight on the weekends, smelling of smoke and unsteady on his feet.
Evelyn would look at her father, who’d simply shrug. “The animal shelter,” he’d say, casually. Evelyn would watch her mother’s eyes narrow as she turned without another word and walked back into the house.
“At least she left the door open this time,” Evelyn might say.
“Should we tell her?”
“Of course not.”
“She’ll find out.”
Evelyn would wink at her father and walk into the house. “Not from me, she won’t.”
And then a few days later the call would come, always from the same cheerful woman who informed them that they had been selected to adopt whichever poor creature had stolen Andrew’s heart. No matter what her mother thought, Evelyn was not as sentimental as her father, and she was the one who prevented him from bringing home the whole shelter.
Over the years, they had adopted nine dogs, seven cats, two guinea pigs, and one rabbit. Some had passed away from old age (except for one cat that had been tragically hit by a car), leaving them with four dogs and three cats for the time being. Most recently, they had adopted a small terrier named Millie. Millie had dull brown wiry fur, greenish eyes, a comically large underbite, and very few teeth, so that she perpetually looked like a grumpy old man who had forgotten his dentures.
After Millie had adjusted to life in her new home, Evelyn offered to take her on her first walk. Evelyn and Andrew had devised a schedule for walking the dogs, and Evelyn was determined to have Millie on her schedule. Nate didn’t like to walk the dogs because of an incident years ago when he forgot to bring a baggie and an elderly neighbor yelled at him for not cleaning up after his dog; and Bridget sighed loudly whenever Evelyn or Andrew left for a walk, saying, “Why did I even bother with this nice fenced in yard?”
They hadn’t gotten around to getting a harness that would fit Millie, but Evelyn figured her collar would be fine for a short introductory walk. Millie would probably be too scared of the cars to even make it down their street. Evelyn clipped the leash to her collar, called to her father that she was taking Millie, and stepped out the door.
Things went wrong quickly. Millie yanked on the leash and pulled Evelyn down the driveway. Feet scrambling to keep up, Evelyn managed to step on her shoelace and undo the knot. She wound the leash around her hand and knelt to retie her shoe. As she finished up a double knot, she felt the leash go slack and looked up to see Millie racing down the street, her collar left behind and dangling from the leash like a dead fish on a fishing pole. Evelyn felt panic rising in her stomach and cursed quietly. She spared a glance at the house, but she didn’t have to time to tell her family; she would have to do this herself. When she looked back at the road, Millie was nowhere in sight. For a small, mostly toothless dog, she was awfully fast. At least she had run deeper into the neighborhood, and not towards the main road. Taking a deep breath, Evelyn checked her other shoelace and took off running.
Fueled by adrenaline, she flew down her street, past the playground, and by houses that all blurred together. She was flying, running faster than she ever thought possible and calling Millie’s name as she went. She passed a family on their lawn, and slowed briefly to shout, “Have you seen my dog?” Four blank looks, and four heads shook in unison. Evelyn ran on.
Ducking onto side streets and peering into backyards, Evelyn went deeper into the neighborhood, but still saw no sign of Millie. As suddenly as she had started running, she became aware of the pain in her legs, her side, her chest. Her whole body was on fire. She slowed down and reached out to steady herself on a nearby pole. Her lungs finally revolted, and she started coughing, a fit worse even than the kind that could prompt a teacher to say, “Do you need to get a drink?” She tried to walk but had to stop again when her coughs became so bad that she felt as though she would literally spit out a lung. As she gasped for air, she didn’t notice the figure approaching her until a hand waved in her face and a voice said, loud enough to be heard over her coughing, “Are you okay?”
In reply, Evelyn attempted to nod and let out another succession of coughs in the process. Some people could look dainty while nearly coughing themselves into another dimension, she supposed, but she was not one of them. When she finally caught her breath, she saw that her savior was a boy about her own age. She noticed two things about him. First, he was the cutest boy she’d ever seen, with a head of loose brown curls, expressive hazel eyes, and a smattering of freckles across his nose. Second, he was holding her dog.
Both realizations threatened to take the air back out of her lungs, but Evelyn braced herself against the pole again and willed herself to breathe. “You caught my dog!” she said.
The boy glanced at the dog casually tucked under his arm as if he’d forgotten about her entirely. “Oh! Is she yours?”
It was kind of him to pretend he hadn’t seen her flailing about and screaming for a dog, Evelyn thought. “Yes, this is Millie.”
“That does explain why you were shouting ‘Millie’ over and over.” He shifted Millie to rest on his chest and scratched her head. Evelyn thought Millie looked rather smug, or as smug as a toothless dog can look. He tilted his head to the side as he examined Evelyn with a concerned gaze. Her heart stuttered. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Straightening to stand without the aid of the pole, Evelyn reached up to smooth her hair and said, “Uh, yeah, I’m just not much of a runner.” She gestured towards Millie and explained: “This was her first walk.”
With his free hand, the boy picked up the leash Evelyn had dropped and slipped the collar back over Millie’s head. “I don’t have any dogs, so I’m not sure, but I would say it didn’t go very well?”
Evelyn laughed, and it came out as a wheeze. “No, not at all. Here, hand her to me. I think I’ll carry her home.”
Millie didn’t look pleased to be returned to Evelyn, but she settled in her arms as Evelyn wrapped her in a strong grip. The boy bent down to scratch Millie’s ears, and Evelyn was acutely aware of the proximity of his hands to her arm. To Millie, he said, “Are you going to be a good girl for…” He straightened up and spoke directly to Evelyn. “That’s funny. I know your dog’s name, but I don’t know yours!”
Evelyn hoped that her cheeks were already red from her run, and that he couldn’t see them flame again. “I’m Evelyn,” she said.
He nodded and looked pointedly at Millie. “Are you going to be a good girl for Evelyn?”
Millie didn’t reply, so Evelyn said hurriedly, “What’s your name?”
He smiled and his eyes crinkled. “Miles. Actually…” He bit his lip, as if he were deciding whether to say more. “Well. Sometimes my sister calls me Millie, so I may have thought you were her, calling for me. I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed when I realized it was a dog.”
“If it makes you feel better, we have a cat named Evie and I always think my dad is talking to me when he’s actually talking to her.” Evelyn smiled at Miles, then frowned at Millie. “And, now that I think of it, Millie probably doesn’t even know her name yet. She’s lucky you were there.”
Miles laughed and said, “Millie doesn’t look happy about it, but she also doesn’t know what can happen out here on the road.”
Evelyn squeezed Millie in a relieved hug, and the dog growled. “I guess I should take her home.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Miles offered.
“You don’t have to. It’s not far.”
“When I got here, you looked like you were about to die. I think—”
Evelyn cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Fair enough.”
Together, they walked back to Evelyn’s street. Even at a slow pace, it only took ten minutes. Evelyn was embarrassed to see how short a distance she had run. They chatted as they walked, and Evelyn learned that Miles and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. He was on a walk to learn his way around when he saw Millie sniffing a bush and snuck up behind her, which was how he’d been able to catch her.
When they reached Evelyn’s house, Miles stood at the bottom of the driveway. “Well,” they both started. Evelyn gestured for Miles to continue. He said, “I’ll see you around, I guess. Hopefully not when you’re chasing your dog.”
“Or dying from endless coughing?”
His corner of his mouth twitched up into a smile and he scuffed a shoe on the ground. “Maybe…I could come with you some time?”
Evelyn ducked her head and tried to make intense eye contact with Millie. Millie did not cooperate, so Evelyn was forced to reply, “On a walk, yes.” She paused. “No runs.”
“No runs,” Miles said in a gravely serious tone that he tempered with a quick wink. As he started to walk away, he looked back over his shoulder and called, “132 Stonegate! That’s my house! Just ring the doorbell!” With one last wave, he turned a corner and disappeared back into the neighborhood.
Feeling buoyant, Evelyn carted Millie back inside, and deposited her on the floor. She collapsed on the couch, one arm dangling off the side and the other draped dramatically across her forehead. Her father, hearing the door close, entered from the kitchen and sat beside her to ask, “Rough first walk?”
Evelyn didn’t sit up. “Very rough. She got away. But I got her back, obviously.”
Andrew rubbed his temples. “Oh no. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you go without a harness.”
“It’s okay,” Evelyn said, looking across the room to smile at Millie, who had settled into a dog bed and was gnawing on a bone. She glanced up and curled her lip in a snarl, as if Evelyn were going to steal her bone. “We had help.” Her father nodded and they sat in silence for a moment before Evelyn added, “I think I should start coming on your runs with you. Just in case, you know?”
Andrew’s face split into a brilliant smile as he ruffled Evelyn’s hair. “I would love that, Evie.”