It was the key that would change everything.
He only found it because Cooper, ever disobedient, had slipped the leash and ran off the trail and into the thick of the woods. Again.
Deena thought his walks in the forest were cruel.
“It is his breed’s nature to hunt scents,” she’d inevitably complain about the leash, ruining what calm there was to be had in an afternoon walk. “How can you chain him to you when he’s meant to run where his nose leads?”
In Leigh’s view, walking the canine on paved sidewalks where there was no loam or crushed insects or chipmunk poo for Cooper to breathe, was actually far crueler. And so, like they often did when it came to disagreements, they ended up taking the easier way out by splitting the walks between them.
Deena would walk Cooper in the mornings in the neighborhood, where the most the dog could sniff was garbage cans and the occasional fellow leashed-pooch’s butt. Leigh walked him after work, and almost always in the direction of the woods, where in some ways they were both of them at home and both straining against some kind of leash.
It wasn’t perfect and sometimes it was lonely, but he preferred it that way. Quieter. With none of Deena’s nattering about minutia that he found excruciatingly boring to listen to and only slightly less indecent to ignore.
Not that he’d say that to her. Life was better when some observations were kept to oneself.
Like about keys …
He’d been running after Cooper when he tripped on an exposed root. A stream of words he’d learned while serving on a Navy ship spilled out of his mouth, when a shape manifested on the leaf-strewn forest floor. And it was as if a switch flipped and turned his mouth dumb.
He swallowed but there was nothing. His body shuddered with the memories of how quickly a mouth can turn devoid of moisture. That, too, he’d learned while serving on the ship.
He shook it off to make the involuntary shaking into an act of volition. Still his heart whooshed in his ears as he took a knee to the wet ground and reached for the key.
He didn’t know how long he remained frozen, fingers hovering without actually touching the bit of metal. Long enough for Cooper to return to investigate. Because the next thing Leigh was aware of was Cooper’s wet nose, sniffing at the object of his master’s interest, licking Leigh’s fingers, breathing on his cheek.
“Move,” Leigh nudged the canine gently out of the way.
And Cooper, for once respectful without bribery, obeyed, and stretched with head on paws, his tongue dangling and his long body smeared with something Leigh noted to himself in passing would need scrubbing off with soap before being allowed back indoors.
“It’s the key, Cooper,” Leigh whispered. He was awed. He was aghast. “But how?”
It’s been eight years, five months, and two days since he’d lost it. On a different continent, in what felt a different world, in the middle of a battle, and not two hours after he’d sworn to his dying best friend that he would guard it with his life and bring it home to the fiance Mark had left behind.
“It was to be my wedding gift to Deena,” Mark had gasped, fighting for every breath. “She doesn’t know about it. I was waiting to tell her. It’s the key to my safe.”