Authors: Amity Hope
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Her daddy always told her life was a never ending lesson in humility. Ava St. Clair decided that what she was doing today qualified as a crash course. She gingerly held the blue plastic bag in one hand and Hercules’ leash in the other.
Ava paced herself behind the Great Dane, trying to maximize the exercise potential of his daily walk before she returned him to Mrs. Fitz, his owner. She was a member of Pastor St. Clair’s parish. She was recovering from a hip replacement, leaving her unable to take her beloved Hercules for his daily constitutional. Ava had been volunteered for the job. Given that Hercules was used to being walked in the morning, he was vibrating with contained energy by the time she retrieved him after school.
For the past week, as soon as she got home she changed into running shorts and a t shirt, flipped her hair into a pony tail and slid on her running shoes. She would retrieve Hercules and off they would go, trekking block after block of the small town of Hunter Falls.
Ava’s family lived near the heart of town, only blocks from their church, which was almost at its center. Houses and shops of all varieties bloomed outward. Ava’s school, the candy shop where she worked and the movie theater were all within walking distance. She’d already passed them all on her jog, looping around in a circle she was nearly back home.
“We’re almost there, boy,” she told him in warning.
The spires of the church a few blocks away were visible behind the treetops as they approached Mrs. Fitz’s houscks and e. Ava’s feet rhythmically slapped the sidewalk and her ponytail kept up the same beat as it bounced off her back.
Hercules whined, as if he understood what her words meant.
“Sorry, Hercules, this is all the time I have for tonight,” she cooed, easily breathing despite the miles they’d covered. “I have a calculus test tomorrow and a paper due on
He whined again.
“I know what you mean. I’d rather run all night than write about
The Scarlet Letter.
Everyone in class gives me funny looks. Like, just because I’m a pastor’s daughter I should be taking particular offense to such an egregious sin. I don’t though,” she told him, clarifying her thoughts on the matter. “I mean, I’m not any more offended than anyone else ought—”
She cut herself off midsentence when her attention was snatched away from the enormous dog.
The St. Clair’s home was only a few doors down from Mrs. Fitz’s. Theirs was a lovely two-story home, neatly trimmed in gray siding, black shutters, a red door and white front porch.
An unusual occurrence was under way on the sidewalk between her home and Hercules’ master’s. Two young men, whom Ava had first assumed were just messing around, appeared to be in the midst of a rather boisterous fistfight.
“Hey!” Ava exclaimed. To Hercules delight, she quickened her pace to a full-blown run, covering the last half of the block in mere seconds.
The men appeared to be about the same size, though it was hard to tell as one was flat on the ground while the other was atop him, his back to Ava, administering brutal blows.
“Stop it!” she commanded as she administered a rather vicious shove to the male who appeared to be doing the attacking. She’d forgotten she was holding the blue bag of Herculean sized poo. She shrieked and jumped back out of splattering range as it exploded against the back of the assailant.
He let out a feral growl as he leapt to his feet, gave his victim a last brutal kick and shoved Ava as he flew by. She hit the ground hard enough to make her teeth clatter but she didn’t stay down for long. She scrambled over to the boy on the sidewalk. Hercules had beaten her to him and he was sniffing him invasively.
In a very ineffective maneuver, the boy groaned and attempted to swat the dog away.
Ava yanked on his leash with the same paltry results. Next she opted for shoving him with her entire body so as to clear the way between herself and this stranger who had beenptewho had attacked right outside of her home.
“Are you okay?” she asked as she knelt down beside him. “Oh goodness, you’re bleeding. You’re not okay.”
“I’m fine,” he mumbled as he moved into a sitting position.
“Hercules!” Mrs. Fitz cried from her front porch. The screen door slammed shut behind her as she scooted herself closer for a better view. “What’s going on?” she called to Ava. “I saw you run past and by the time I got my walker to peek out the window I saw that…that…hoodlum! I saw him push you to the ground! Should I call the police?”
“No!” Ava and the stranger called at the same time. “Everything is fine. He didn’t hurt me,” Ava said, trying to place a fair level of assurance into her tone. “If you could just take Hercules back inside…? I’ll help…” her voice trailed off.
“Gabe,” he told her.
“I’ll help Gabe. Don’t you worry about a thing, Mrs. Fitz. You just go back in the house and rest. I’ll get Gabe all fixed up.”
The elderly lady hesitated, clearly weighing whether or not she should interfere or simply trust Ava’s judgment.
“Come here, Hercules!” she called. The dog immediately bounded across the lawns and up the steps, his leash trailing behind him. “You’re a good girl Ava!” she called before going back inside.
“Ava,” Gabe mumbled.
“No. Nothing. It’s just…that’s your name?” he asked around lips that were starting to swell.
“Yes, my name is Ava, Ava St. Clair. I live right here,” she said, vaguely motioning to the house behind them. “If you come inside I can get you some ice for your lip…and your eye. Some antiseptic would probably be a good idea as well,” she informed him as her eyes drifted over his face, quickly assessing the injuries he had obtained.
He eyed her house hesitantly. “That’s okay. Maybe if I just sit here a second…”
“It’s no trouble,” Ava insisted. “And you’re hurt.”
“Right,” he said as he swiped at his lip. Crimson smeared across the canvas of his hand. “I’m bleeding. I wouldn’t want to get blood on your carpets.”
“Don’t be silly,” Ava told him as she stood. She reached out a hand to help him to his feet. He refused it, staggering to his feet on his own. Now that he was vertical Ava realized how incredibly tall he was. “You can come in,” she told him as she looked up at him.
“No,” he said determinedly. He was looking at her house in a way that made Ava think of dilapidated buildings or,buildin sinister haunted mansions.
“Alright,” Ava said carefully. “Would you wait here?”
He shifted from one foot to the other, giving her house another pessimistic glance. “Sure,” he finally decided.
She slipped through the front door, gathering what she needed as quickly as she could. She returned, her arms overflowing with a myriad of first aid supplies. She had convinced herself Gabe would be gone by the time she returned. He wasn’t. He had seated himself on the bottom step of the porch. She sat down next to him.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, leaning in to swipe some of the blood away with the cool washcloth.
He flinched when her antiseptic laden finger swiped across his cut lip. “No, not at all,” he muttered.
“Sorry,” she said with a shake of her head, letting what she assumed to be sarcasm make sense of his denial. “That was a stupid question. Of course it hurts.”
“Didn’t I just say it
?” he asked.
“Of course you would say that. That’s what guys do. Talk all tough. Act all tough. So, just to warn you, this will sting,” she advised. She held his cheek in one hand to steady his head as she swabbed the alcohol drenched cotton ball against the gash.
He drew a sharp breath and winced before taking her hand and setting it on her knee, a safe distance away from him. “This isn’t really necessary. I’m sure it looks a whole lot worse than it is.”
“Here,” she said, taking the hint that he didn’t really want her, a stranger, touching him. He took the ice pack she was offering. “For your eye?” she offered up when he didn’t move to use it.
“Right,” he said with a sigh, resting it over the swelling.
“So, what happened?” she asked, scooting over to give him some space.
The look of relief he gave her was instantaneous. She had to wonder if she’d worked up more of a sweat than she’d thought when she was running with the dog. For a moment she thought maybe she ought to scoot even further away but then Gabe started talking.
“I saw that guy. He was sneaking around the house, looking in the windows. Creeping around, you know? It seemed like he probably didn’t belong there or he would’ve just gone up to the door. So I watched him a minute.” Gabe shook his head. “I just had a feeling he was up to something. I walked up to him and asked him what he was doing…and he took a swing at me.”
“Do you think we should file a police report?” Ava asked. She was thinking maybe she should’ve had Mrs. Fitz make the call, after all. “I mean, snooping around is bad enoughthis bad e but the fact that he assaulted you really does make it sound like he was up to something.”
“Nah,” Gabe said with a shrug. “Chances are with the scene he caused he won’t be coming back any time soon.”
“Okay,” Ava agreed, though she wasn’t entirely convinced. “At least your injuries don’t look as bad as I first thought. I mean, now that they’re cleaned up they don’t look nearly as serious.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Gabe said. He got to his feet as a car came to a stop at the curb. “I better get going.”
“Right. Well, thanks, for you know, chasing the guy away. I’m sorry you ended up in a fight.”
“Not a big deal,” Gabe told her. He was already making his way down the sidewalk. He was warily eyeing the car that had parked a few houses down. An elderly gentleman emerged from the front seat. Ava recognized him as a friend of Mrs. Fitz. When Gabe saw him, he quickened his pace.
“See you around!” he called over his shoulder to Ava.
“Bye!” she called back, thinking that since she’d never seen him before, seeing him around was unlikely.
“Who was the bloody boy on the porch?”
Ava jumped in surprise at the sound of her foster-sister’s voice. “Grier! Where did you come from?”
Grier shrugged. “I was at the church. I walked home through the alley. Who was the boy?” she asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion as she watched him saunter away.
“His name is Gabe.” Ava gave Grier the condensed version of what had happened. She explained how Gabe had seen someone snooping around, had tried to talk to the man and had ended up being attacked.
Grier swung her suspicious gaze toward Ava. “You believed him?”
“Of course,” Ava said, gently. Grier, she knew, had had a rough childhood. She did not trust easily. “Why would he lie?”
“Why would he tell the truth?” Grier countered. She craned her neck to peer down the sidewalk but Gabe had already vanished from their sight.
That was close.
Gabe looked down at the gash on his hand. It was already beginning to heal. Of course his face would be healing now as well. He had some time before the wounds would be gone completely but it was imperative he play his part and then get the hell out of there. It was a risky plan, but it had worked. Ava St. Clair, notorious do-gooder, the cloyingly sweet daughter heret daugof a pastor. She had fawned all over him, just as his own father had predicted.