"Up you go, Pixie," I say as I pat the back seat of my Kia SUV so that the Great Dane will jump on it. I run a dog-training business, and Pixie is my latest success. Because much of what I do is help canines get along with others, I also have dog-walking sessions. On this early morning, I'm taking out a group of big dogs.
"Thanks, Nina!" calls out Nancy, the Dane's owner, and I look at her on her front porch and wave. I lean in to hook a seat belt into Pixie's harness, and her tongue tickles my face as I let her lick me. It makes me smile, because she's a relaxed, happy version of the dog that used to be extremely anxious. Nancy told me Pixie whines at the door now when she knows it's time for her morning excursion with the other dogs.
The golden retriever next to Pixie pushes against me for attention, and I lean down to nuzzle with Daisy before I shut the door and walk around to the driver's seat. Once I'm behind the wheel, I glance in my rearview mirror at the four dogs I have as passengers. Besides Pixie and Daisy, who are curled up with each other like best friends, I have a black Labrador named Puck and a Bernese mountain dog named Duncan.
"You guys are in for a treat," I say. "Anyone want to swim?"
I take the tilted heads and lolling tongues of the dogs as a yes, and I pull out onto the road to head toward a small lake in the area. Because it's after Labor Day, I can let the dogs loose to chase after the balls I throw for them.
Even though it's late September in Maine, the temperature today is warm enough I'm wearing shorts, and the wind blows my hair as I crack the windows to let in some air for the dogs. I moved here last spring with my friend Sammy, who came to get her master’s degree in education at the University of Maine. Our friend Elise, who already lives here with her husband and two girls, begged us to come, and I'm glad we did.
The three of us initially met on a witchcraft forum when we were still in high school, and we became even closer when we met in person at Witchfest a few years later. So close that the three of us formed a private online group to keep in touch and talk about more than just magic. So when Sammy mentioned she wanted to get her master’s in education, Elise pushed her to come do it here. Since I was bored with my life in New Jersey and couldn't imagine my two besties being able to see each other without me, I decided to move to Maine too.
Pixie whines impatiently, and I say, "It's okay, girl. We'll be there soon."
It was a wonderful decision to come here, because for the first time in my life, I'm around people who love me for who I am. It's not that my parents didn't approve of my powers—my father has magic too—it's that I never fit in with the other kids I grew up with. It didn't take long for me to realize I was different as a child. While my classmates were pursing music, arts, or team sports, I was more interested in mixing potions and practicing spells. Because I didn't feel normal, I was a bit like Pixie with my social anxiety. So instead of thanking someone for holding a door open and wondering all day if I said it in the right tone, I chose to ignore the people around me.
Change rattles in a pocket of the car console as I bounce over small potholes and ridges on the dirt road that leads toward the lake. I realize now my behavior as a child made me seem as if I disapproved of everyone around me. Kids called me Wednesday, for the famous character in The Addams Family, and even though I hated it and was never cruel, I have to admit it was appropriate considering my penchant for black clothing and usual sour expression.
And then there was the little problem of what my magic does when I'm angry. Until I learned how to ignore what people said or how they treated me, I was known to have magical explosions happen around me. It can still happen in extreme situations, but it's not often.
I turn slowly into a parking spot and put my car in park before I turn it off and get out. When I graduated from high school, I took my knack for potions seriously and went to college to major in chemistry, and I got a part-time job working for a dog-grooming business. That's when I learned that I may not be great with people, but I have a calming effect on animals. It was only natural that when I came here to start a business revolving around pups I thought I'd found my calling.
I unbuckle the dogs, and metal tags rattle when the pups jump out and twirl around excitedly as they wait for me to lead them to the water. I slip on a backpack full of balls and grab my lacrosse stick before I close the car door, and we head out toward the lake. One of my powers is that I can communicate with animals. It's not quite talking, but I can sense their mood and am able to put intentions into their heads, so it's easy for me to keep the canines close without leashes.
I take them around to a section of the lake away from where people might go should they come while we're here, and my backpack thuds on the ground when I set it down. I laugh as Puck races for the water in anticipation of the ball he knows I'll throw. Daisy and Duncan splash in right behind him, while Pixie leans against my leg and looks up at me.
"Go ahead, girl," I say. "It's okay."
I toss the first ball and call out, "Puck! Go get it, buddy!" That's enough for Pixie to trot into the water too. She won't actually go after a ball yet, but she enjoys chasing after Daisy and sometimes will venture close to the boys too. Moving to retrieve three balls from the dogs and throwing them out again is exercise, and it doesn't take long for me to heat up with the exertion. But since this kind of adventure usually ends with me almost as wet as the dogs, I stay cool. I laugh when Duncan shakes near me and offers me a refreshing shower. Pixie prances over as Daisy brings me her ball.
"Can I get one too?" a guy asks from behind me, and my heart stops when I jump in surprise. My magic sparks in me, too, as I turn around with my hand on my chest to try to contain my powers as anger bubbles in me. Pixie begins to growl, and it makes Daisy bark. Not to be left out of the excitement, Duncan begins to bark, too, and Puck rushes out of the water to join in.
"Whoa," the guy says as he backs up.
My burst of anger is a result of being startled, and it quickly fades. But the fact the dogs don't like this guy makes me anxious. I place my hand on Pixie's head. "Shhh. It's okay, girl."
I take stock of the man before me. He's huge and has bulging muscles in a professional-football-player way, which is both intimidating and fascinating when you're only five feet tall. He's also super-hot, with dark hair, green eyes that are mesmerizing, and strong cheekbones that make me want to trace them with my fingers. And then there's the rock-hard body. Whew. I pluck at my shirt to fan myself.
As Puck growls and moves toward the guy, he asks, "Any chance you could call him off?"
It would be easy for me to send the dogs a calming intention, but then this gorgeous vision before me would probably want to make conversation, and since I'm flustered by how attractive he is, I'd say something stupid. I glare at him. "He won't attack as long as you keep backing away."
"Wow." The guy chuckles as he keeps moving backward. "Sorry I bothered you."
Guilt tugs at me because this man doesn't deserve my wrath, so I communicate with the dogs. Calm down, guys. He's okay.
The barking ceases, and I turn away from him toward the water again as I ask, "Duncan, where's your ball?" As he goes to retrieve it, I look at the golden. "Daisy, go get it." I toss her ball back out into the lake.
When I look over my shoulder to see if the guy is still around, I find that's he's gone. An unexpected wave of disappointment washes over me. I swore when I moved here I was going to stop worrying about what other people think and be who I am. No excuses. I wish I'd made the effort to give the handsome stranger a better impression of me.
I let out a sigh because I'm caught in my loop again. Free college counseling taught me I need to let the little things go. Chances are the man has already forgotten about me, and I can be darn sure he won't give what happened today a tenth of the energy I'm tempted to. So I employ a therapy technique; I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly as I imagine the awkward situation with the guy is leaving my body. And then I tell myself the memory of him is gone for good. I hope.