It was a brisk walk to the dog park. The beautiful day meant the park was packed. Dogs chased each other from one end of the park to the other. Dog owners were scattered throughout the area. They settled into packs, chatting as they watched their dogs play.
Zach, Spencer, Clare, and Odin made their way into the dog park. Odin’s tail wagged, nearly knocking Zach down to the ground. Then the giant dog rushed forward, eager to join the fun with the other much smaller dogs.
“Where do we start?” Zach wondered.
“Anybody see Heather?” Spencer asked. “I’m going to go look for Heather. Maybe she knows something.” Then without waiting for a rebuttal Spencer walked off.
“And we lost him,” said Zach.
“I got your back,” said Clare.
“Thanks,” said Zach with an uncontainable smile.
“With Humphrey around all the time, I get even less time to see you,” said Clare.
Zach didn’t know what to say. His smile was too strong to even open his mouth.
“Let’s ask these people,” said Clare, oblivious to Zach’s excitement. She pointed at a group of dog owners talking amongst themselves. Clare then grabbed Zach by the hand and rushed them both forward to join the group.
“Hi!” she called out.
But before she could get out another word the group of dog owners scattered. Clare and Zach were left in the dust.
“Was it something I said?” Clare thought out loud.
“No,” reassured Zach. “They’re just a bunch of jerks.”
The people that were once in the group bee lined through the park, some joined other groups, some simply got their dog and left the park.
“Let’s try these people,” suggested Zach. He took the chance to grab Clare’s hand and rushed her to the next group of dog owners.
They made their approach and just like last time, the group turned their backs and scattered into the crowds of the dog park.
“What is going on?” Zach asked. “Why are they running away from us?”
“Let’s try another group,” said Clare. “Something farther away.”
She grabbed Zach’s hand and she rushed them across the park.
But it was the same on the other side.
As soon as Zach and Clare approached any group, the people turned their heads and ignored them.
One group after another. Eventually, the park began to thin out because many of those Zach and Clare tried to talk with disappeared.
In the center of the park, Odin rushed from one dog to another looking for new playmates, but his choices were growing slim. The giant dog howled in his loneliness.
“There has to be somebody that will talk with us,” said Zach.
“Guys!” shouted Spencer. Heather was beside him. They rushed to Zach and Clare. Muddy paw prints covered their shirts and pants. “We found somebody.”
“How?” asked Zach. “We can’t even get anybody to talk to us.”
“Heather helped,” said Spencer. “This is Heather by the way, everybody!”
“Hi!” said Heather.
“You know Humphrey?” Zach asked.
“No,” said Heather. “But I know some of his friends. I can introduce you.”
“That would be amazing,” said Zach.
“Yeah, Spencer says you want to plan a surprise party,” said Heather. “I think that’s awesome.”
Zach flinched at Heather’s explanation, but he didn’t correct her. Spencer stood behind her and shrugged.
Heather turned around to lead the way to some of Humphrey’s old friends. Clare was close behind. Zach and Spencer hung back.
“A surprise party?” Zach asked.
“I couldn’t say we were trying to get rid of him,” said Spencer. “That’s not a good look.”
“But you lied to her,” said Zach.
“It’s a tiny lie,” defended Spencer. “We’ll laugh about it when we are married.”
Zach just nodded. He wasn’t going to argue further. Heather and Clare were already headed in the direction of a lone dog owner on the outskirts of the park.
“That’s Peter,” said Heather. “I’ve seen him with your friend.”
When they got closer, Spencer rushed up and grabbed Heather’s attention. “Let’s go see what Gerbil is up to.”
“What about your friends?” asked Heather.
“They can handle the details,” said Spencer. Then the two of them left, leaving Zach and Clare to talk to the cornered dog owner.
Peter kept his head down and despite the warm and sunny day, wore his hood over his head.
“Hi, Peter,” called out Zach. “How’s it going?”
Peter looked up. His eyes darted from one direction to another. When he saw it was only Zach and Clare coming up to him, his stance relaxed.
“Okay,” said Peter.
“Sorry to bother you,” said Zach. “I had a question.”
Peter nodded, still unsure about his two visitors.
“Do you know Humphrey?” Zach asked.
Then Peter straightened up. He tried to dart away, but Clare blocked his path. He was cornered.
“I just want to ask a few questions,” said Zach.
“He’s not here is he?” Peter asked.
“No,” said Zach.
Peter eyed the park anyways, not believing Zach’s word. He danced on his feet. He was ready to run at any moment.
“What do you want?” Peter asked.
“You were friends with Humphrey?” Zach asked.
“That’s how it started,” said Peter. “Then he wants to hang out every day. Every night. He waits for you to come home if he can’t come along. He is always there.”
“Yeah,” said Zach. “So you’ve been through it?”
“Yes,” said Peter. “A lot of us have.”
Then Peter started pointing at others in the park. Every time he pointed, his subject would turn away, ashamed of being known.
“They skated together.
“The beach was their hangout.
“Partners on the police force.
“Went to baseball games.
“They got an apartment together.
“I met him at the lake,” Peter finally admitted. “We were counselors at a summer camp. Then summer ended, and he still wanted to hang out. We were friends for months.”
“How did he find a new friend?” Zach asked. “Why is he not bothering you anymore?”
“You have to pass him along to somebody else,” said Peter.
“How?!” Zach wanted to know.
“They have to feed him,” said Peter. “Humphrey adores anybody that gives him food. That’s how it starts. Get somebody to feed Humphrey.
“You won’t have much luck here. We know about Humphrey. He’s been passed around the regulars. They won’t fall for it again. Go somewhere else. Find somebody that doesn’t know our history. Save yourself.”
Zach and Clare turned around. They looked wide at the park, and the unsuspecting people all around that didn’t know what they wanted to unleash on them.
They turned back around to ask Peter more questions.
But Peter was gone.
“What are you going to do?” Clare asked.
“I don’t know,” said Zach. “I don’t know.”
Later that day, Zach, Spencer, and Clare were back in Clare’s apartment. Zach had a decision to make.
“I can’t just pass him off to somebody else,” said Zach. “That’s not right.”
“There’s no other choice,” said Spencer. “It’s the only way to get rid of him. I hate seeing him at our place so much. He has to go. What if I bring Heather over? Humphrey is going to make it awkward.”
“But just passing him along isn’t solving the problem,” said Zach. “There has to be a better way. I can just tell him to go away.”
“Do you think that hasn’t been tried before?” Spencer asked.
“I don’t know,” said Zach. “Maybe not. Peter didn’t say.”
“Just ditch him to somebody else,” said Spencer. “Get rid of him.”
“I’m going to confront him,” said Zach. “It’s for the best.”
Then their conversation was interrupted.
A knocking on Clare’s door echoed through the room.
Zach’s time was up.
“Zach!” Humphrey yelled through the door. “I’m back!”
Zach shook his head. He didn’t want any of them to answer the door.
“Open up, buddy!” Humphrey yelled.
Clare quietly walked to the door. Zach tried to wave her away, but she didn’t listen.
She opened the door just a crack. Zach and Spencer dove to the kitchen to stay in hiding.
“Hi, Humphrey,” said Clare. “Can I help you? You know Zach’s apartment is the one across the hall.”
“Just meeting up with Zach,” said Humphrey.
“He’s not here,” she said with a smile.
“I can smell him,” said Humphrey. “Please, open the door.”
“Oh,” said Clare. Then she gave in. She opened the door just another inch and Humphrey pushed the rest of the way forward.
“Zach!” Humphrey shouted when he saw his best friend. “That was a horrible appointment. You would not believe it. It was so terrible. The doctors were so mean. I tried to hide from them. I wish you could have come along. You wouldn’t let them touch me like they did. Just thinking of you got me through it. I am so glad it’s over.”
“It’s okay,” said Zach. “I’m here.”
Humphrey put his arm around Zach. Zach didn’t fight it. He let Humphrey put a tight grip around him and even felt a couple of licks on the top of his head.
Zach looked over at Spencer and Clare. Spencer gestured for Zach to speak up. But Zach remained silent. He couldn’t confront the dog-man. He stayed in Humphrey’s embrace.
He could tell Humphrey to ease up on their friendship another day.
To be continued…