On the day of the Halloween pet parade, Mayor Peggy Brightwell surveyed the crowd on Pittsburgh Street in downtown Finch's Crossing. It wasn’t exactly the stampede of shoppers she had been hoping for, but it was a start. A strong start. It was Halloween afternoon, and the trick-or-treaters were out in their bright, and often strange, costumes, many tugging their dogs on leashes, anxious to line up and start marching.
The pet parade had been Meg’s parents’ idea, so she was forced to present the proposal at the Merchants Association meeting where the reception was lukewarm. But when Meg pointed out that the canines and their children would be accompanied by parents who had money to spend in their stores, the merchants had agreed.
Peggy had asked Kyle, the town's new marketing consultant, to manage the publicity, and he obviously knew what he was doing. As each day passed, Peggy was more and more convinced that she had made the right choice in hiring him to assist with the town's social media presence and digital marketing activities.
Kyle stood not far from where Peggy was standing, and scanned the shoppers on the streets, noticing a lot of people he didn’t recognize as locals. A steady stream of traffic flowed in and out of the shops, and Kyle was delighted to see people exiting with bags holding their purchases. He craned his neck to look through the windows at Miss Elsie’s Tea Room and smiled at the full tables and waitresses scurrying about. His work was showing a return on investment, and he hoped that would please the mayor. He needed to win her over completely if his plan was going to work. After the holiday season, he would show the merchants the increased traffic on their websites and ask them to compare last year’s sales to this year’s. He still had a long way to go, though. He couldn’t build ten websites overnight. Eleven, actually, he reminded himself as he spotted the beautiful, but grumpy Meg Overly trying to corral a group of children and their pets. All were dressed in colorful costumes in celebration of this much-loved holiday.
“You look like you need some help,” Kyle said, as he went over to offer a hand.
Meg looked up only briefly. “No, thanks, I got it under control. Hey there, you, kid in the purple wizard cape, park it and make that dog sit.”
Kyle watched, dumfounded, as the young wizard child did exactly as Meg said. Even the dog obeyed.
“You don’t have such a good bedside manner,” he suggested.
“Don’t need one. This isn’t a hospital.” Meg looked away so she could roll her eyes without him noticing. “Kids respond to authority. You, Little Red Riding Hood or whatever you are, stop petting Little Mermaid’s dog. It bites.” The poor child snapped her hands back and buried them into her costume’s pockets. “Cinderella! No prince will ever marry you if you don’t get that beagle under control!”
Kyle chuckled, raising his camera and clicking off a few shots before Meg realized what he was doing.
“If you really want to help, put the camera down and help me get these little hoodlums into a straight line," Meg grumbled, relenting to Kyle's offer. "Dogs on the left. Leashes short and tight.”
Kyle obeyed, happy that she was at least acknowledging him.
“Parents!” Meg barked. “Stand to the side but close enough to step in if your dog goes wacko or decides to share his business with the rest of the world.”
As the children and dogs merged into what was probably going to be the straightest line they could hope for, Meg paused where a German Shepherd puppy sat at attention on the sidewalk, seemingly in the care of her best friend Autumn Hamilton. Meg looked at Autumn, gave her a half smile and a full wink, and then fixed her gaze on the pup. Meg gave a barely audible command, and the little cutie came over and sat next to her. Kyle raised his camera and began to shoot as Meg crouched down to pet and cuddle the puppy and allowed him to lick her face and nuzzle her neck. She then scooped him up, and with the pup comfortably in her arms followed the kids down Pittsburgh Street, barking orders and pointing her fingers as she went. Kyle scrolled back through the pictures he had just taken, all of which had captured a Meg so different than the one she pretended to be. He felt a surge of emotion rise in him. Meg was radiant, completely enraptured in the moment with her dog, with everyone else’s dogs, and all the excited kids, The expression on her face was pure joy, despite her crusty demeanor. She had no inkling of how beautiful she was.
Kyle followed the children and dogs as they marched—more in a clump than a line—down Pittsburgh Street. There was a lot of barking and tail wagging, but Kyle kept his eyes on Meg’s cowboy hat, trying to catch up to her, not wanting to miss another opportunity to talk with her.
The parade ended at the post office, where the Mayor announced the winners for best costume and cutest dog and then handed out dog treats for everyone. Kyle caught up with Meg across the street in the IGA parking lot, where she was sitting on a low wall, her puppy by her side, watching the awards ceremony. Kyle sat down beside her.
“Hey,” Kyle said.
Meg looked at him with a disinterested glance. “Hey.”
“I’ve been working on your website,” he told her. “I think you’re really going to like it.”
“I told you I don’t need one,” she said ungratefully, but her ungraciousness did not deter Kyle. Meg was only half paying attention to him, her mind grousing silently about all the time she had wasted organizing the pet parade. Her parents may have turned the management of Ten Oaks Kennel over to her, but they were still full owners, and if they wanted to sponsor and organize a pet parade then she was duty bound to do it.
“I’m thinking you probably need about five pages to start with," Kyle was saying. "Nothing fancy, just a basic site that we can expand later.”
“I’m not paying you,” Meg shot back without looking at him.
“I didn’t ask you to. Anyway, back to the site. You could have a page about the pet parade, you know, to show your pro bono work for the community. I’ve got some great pictures.”
He had purposefully left a shot of her smiling with the puppy, her cowboy hat pulled low on her brow, on the viewfinder so it would be the first one she saw. He wanted her to see herself the way he saw her. He held out the camera, and she took it, rolling her eyes, and began to look. She scrolled slowly through the pictures of herself without saying a word. After the last one, she handed the camera back to Kyle and spoke to him coldly.
“I didn’t give you permission to take my picture. Don’t you ever do it again.” And with that, she scooped up the puppy, got up from the wall and walked hurriedly away.
Kyle ran to catch up with her.
“Meg,” he said, surprised and confused. “They're beautiful photos of you. You look so happy and natural. Don’t you see?” He held out the camera to her again, but she kept walking, ignoring him. After a few blocks of silence, he stopped, but she kept going.
“All right then,” he called to her disappearing back. “It was great to see you. I’ll let you know when I get your website finished. Maybe we could get together and look at it over dinner?"
He had hoped for a wave. Heck, he’d even be happy with a nasty look, thrown over her shoulder. But there was nothing, which only doubled Kyle's determination to get to know this beautiful, cranky, and stubborn woman.