Prompt: "You were supposed to come after me. That's how it works. I leave and you come after me. Why didn't you come after me?"
Penny's Plush Pooch
Hank Marshall still thought about her. It was hard not to. Her image was captured in several of the photos that hung on the walls of the business and her laugh hung in the air, six years after she walked out of his life. Hank still couldn't believe Kiona actually left. She had been hanging out with Robinson for months and she inferred several times that she might take a summer road trip with the guy when they graduated from high school but Hank never thought she would be that bold and reckless until the moment he watched Robinson's van leave the driveway that fateful day when he lost Kiona for good.
It struck Hank as ironic that he was still at Penny's Plush Pooch even though it was Kiona who loved the job more than any of Hank's friends hired by his mom to work at the doggie groomer parlor and kennel. Penny was Hank's mom. She walked away from a twenty year nursing career to start the pet grooming business, enlisting young teen Hank and his friends to help out with the tasks, especially cleaning out the kennel cages and tending to the boarding animals.
Now Hank ran the business, his parents taking early retirement after his father's lucrative buyout from the national insurance company he had been an executive with for thirty-five years. The folks moved to Florida, leaving Hank as sole proprietor of Penny's Plush Pooch (and Kennel). They also sold him the family home at a gifted price and Hank rarely left Hillsboro for even a long weekend anymore. It was Kiona who got out of town and only the teenaged version remained, smiling in the various framed photos on the wall during happier times. She loved the dogs and she loved the business and Hank loved her, even if he never came right out and said it.
Hank was numb and miserable all that summer, hoping against hope that it was all some foolish joke or that Kiona would realize what a horrible mistake she had made and return apologetic and remorseful, ready to pick up where they left off - as special friends and beloved co-workers. Only she never came back and Hank wasted his life waiting for her to show up or call or e-mail or text or Facebook Friend Request letting him know she was sorry, that she missed him terribly, and that she was on her way home. Hank's pals said he was still wasting his life away waiting on a dream that turned into a nightmare long ago.
Hank spent his nights alone in the dark house, sitting on the couch staring out the front window waiting for her to return. Sometimes he went out and sat with the boarding dogs in the kennel, his only real friends (it often felt like). There were times when Hank forgot about her - for an hour or two (or maybe a half day)- but it never lasted and he would soon find himself thinking about her and waiting for her all over again.
Hank still didn't understand why she left. Kiona was happy growing up in Hillsboro and she loved Penny and the plush pooches, never missing a day even on days when she wasn't scheduled to work. Hank thought they had a secret unspoken thing going on which is why he didn't give Robinson much thought when he came upon the scene half way through senior year. Yes, he was popular, well liked, good looking, and came from a well off family on the Hillsboro Hilltop, but Hank knew that what he and Kiona shared was special and unique and meaningful.
All of that special friendship and growing up together stuff was gone now and Hank never recovered from his broken heart and sense of betrayal, still mystified all these years later that she had left in the first place. Hank never truly trusted women after Kiona's rejection which was the major reason he rarely dated. He lost himself in the business and the warmth and comfort of the client dogs and other visitors who kept him distracted and offered a different kind of love for him. Nights were the worse, of course, lonesome and empty and the routine of Hank's life weighed on him with each passing lonely day without Kiona. He rarely mentioned her name aloud anymore.
Penny's Plush Pooch never closed (except on the rare Sunday when there were no boarders in the kennel). Grooming took place Monday-Saturdays but there was still work to do on Sundays if there were dogs boarding. There were only two 'guests' on this particular Sunday so Hank tended to their needs alone, making sure the dogs were fed, exercised and offered 'quality time'. He heard the car in the driveway just as he finished tending to the dogs and he stepped out of the building in time to see a woman climbing out of the compact. He recognized her instantly, of course, as Kiona had unique features and a special attraction. She used to joke that she was a 'mutt' and not a 'pooch' because of her mixed heritage – her mother was part African-American and part Native-American, her father was born of an Anglo mother and a Hispanic father. Her skin was light copper-tan with thick black hair which she still wore long. He would have recognized her in a sports stadium filled with sixty thousand people.
Hank was caught off guard, momentarily stunned – not sure if he was seeing a vision or having a hallucination. He waited six years for this moment but now that it was actually happening, he found himself uncertain and detached, his heartache suddenly replaced by suspicion and resentment.
"Kiona." His voice was devoid of emotion.
"Hank." Hers was tentative, as if she was having second thoughts about coming.
"I wasn't expecting you." That sounded kind of stupid. "I didn't know you were back in town," he clarified.
"I am," she verified. "Couple of weeks now. "My mom's been having some issues."
"I heard you ran this place now."
"Congratulations," she smiled.
She glanced around. "It hasn't changed a bit."
"Don't fix what isn't broken," Hank explained.
She smiled and nodded with understanding but then there was a moment of awkward silence between them.
"Would you like to see the shop?" Hank finally asked.
"Okay," she agreed and Hank led her into the grooming parlor which was basically the same as the last time Kiona had been there.
She floated around the space taking in all the old memories and she seemed surprised when she saw the photos on the wall, many featuring her.
"How's your Mom doing?" Kiona asked.
"Fine," Hank assured her, still trying to come to terms with the reality that Kiona was really back. He had been fantasizing about this for six years but now that she was standing in front of him he was surprised at how guarded and reserved he was, almost forgetting that they had once been such close friends. A part of him wanted to tell her to leave – there was no point in her being there now because it was too late to pick up where they left off.
"Have you had lunch yet?" He asked instead.
"No," she answered.
"Would you like to stay and have a bite to eat?" He offered.
Kiona nodded. "It would be nice to catch up."
He brought her into the house which was different from the last time she had been in there after Hank's parents took most of the furnishings and other possessions. Hank had slowly refitted the place over the years, mostly with used and discounted furniture that looked slightly out of place in the rustically built abode. He covered the walls with various dog photos, paintings and images but the place was otherwise non-descript and absent of the feeling of home Kiona remembered.
They went into the kitchen and Kiona sat at the picnic table in the middle of the room while Hank warmed up some left over homemade chili and gave her a beer while discussing the business and how it was basically the same as it had always been with most of the same cliental along with new folks. He had a half dozen part time workers and the business was doing well.
"I'm glad everything worked out," Kiona said with sincerity.
"Not everything," Hank noted as he put a bowl of chili in front of her. Leaning in close like that, he could see that she was as beautiful as ever.
She ignored his remark and broke some of the crackers into her chili. Hank said nothing as he took a seat across from her with a bowl of his own chili and a beer. Was it too much to expect that either of them wouldn't have changed in the six years they were apart? Would it be tempting fate to try to pretend nothing happened and all was well? They ate in silence for several long moments until Kiona finally looked up and stared at him.
"How come you didn't come after me?" She asked bluntly.
"Huh?" Hank asked with confusion.
"You were supposed to come after me. That's how it works. I leave and you come after me. Why didn't you come after me?"
Hank stared at her, dumbfounded and speechless.