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Never Too Much

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The first time Lucy Preston saw him, the trees were just beginning to drop their leaves and the crisp chill in the autumn air had become permanent. He stood out to her, on the sweeping sidewalks and fading green spaces dotted with families and couples, as a man walking alone. He pulled her attention as if he were the only speck of light in a vast endless darkness. Why she noticed him that day, of all the countless days she had driven past the same tree-lined park on her way to work, she’d never know.

He was tall. That part was impossible to miss. Dark hair, neatly parted, from what she could tell driving by at 25 miles an hour. His long dark pea coat was slim fitting, and depending on how far he was from the road, Lucy could usually catch a glimpse of a burgundy scarf or turtleneck peeking above the coat’s collar. She liked to imagine if she could only see him up close, she’d be able to verify that he was devastatingly handsome, but not in a conventional way. That he had a nice smile. Was blessed with kindness and witty humor. Was highly educated and intelligent. Respected women. 

He was also probably happily married, with a gorgeous partner, a stunning house, and 2.1 beautiful children with straight A’s and straight teeth. In other words, Dr. Lucy Preston would never have occasion to speak to him. 

And how could she, really? Every day, she drove this residential two-lane road to her job as an associate professor in history at Longmont College, her small city’s liberal arts college. The park was mid-way between home and work, and short of parking on a side street and running into his path while waving her arms about to get his attention, she wasn’t going to be the object of his attention let alone his affection any time soon. 

Clearly she was finally in the right head space to date again if she was day dreaming about accosting strangers in a park.

She started to see him nearly every day during her commute. November shifted into December, and the pea coat was replaced by something thicker on colder days. When frost covered the ground, he’d wear a burgundy hat and black gloves with his coat. Boots when it snowed. Just the possibility of him seemed to fill a void in her life. Weekends began to feel a bit lonely, without him in them. When she didn’t see him on a work day, it was as if something was missing, the way one feels when the sun dips behind the clouds during a day at the beach. 

After several weeks, she realized he was always alone. Perhaps his partner didn’t like walking in the cold, or was with their kids, who were still tucked into bed. Or maybe the assumed family and four-bedroom house she pictured him returning to after his daily walk did not exist?

Lucy told Jiya about him at work, feeling lucky to have a friend who knew her well enough she wouldn’t run for the hills when hearing of her friend’s obsession with a man she’d never spoken to. Jiya understood the depths of Lucy’s loneliness. It had been two years since Lucy’s mother had died from lung cancer and two months since her sister Amy had moved to California for her dream job. Lucy truly enjoyed the time she spent with Jiya and her boyfriend Rufus, both professors in the physics department at Longmont. But despite their welcoming Lucy into their lives without one moment of ever making her feel like she was intruding, she sorely missed no longer having… her person. The one human in the whole wide world who mattered to her as much as she mattered to them. Who would drop everything to grab coffee with her… or keep her company at the DMV. Someone with whom time spent together was effortless. Lucy’s person had moved to California with her infectious optimism and sweet smile, leaving behind a vacuum that Lucy yearned to fill.  

As the holidays approached, Lucy and Jiya began plotting ways Lucy could run into the man without looking like a stalker. Given that what she was doing pretty much fit the definition of stalker to a T, the task was difficult. The two would dissolve into giggles as they tried to outdo each outlandish idea with another one even more ridiculous. 

“What if you run your car over the curb into the park just as he’s walking by and he runs to help?” Jiya was in Lucy’s office for a rare lunch together, given how much work they both had to do with semester finals approaching. 

“Jiya, he’d probably think I was drunk. Or texting while driving. With my luck, I’d hit him with my car. I was thinking maybe I could… walk into the park with coffee one day? With two coffees, rather? Offer him one?”

“You’d just walk up to a stranger and give him coffee? And then what would you tell him, that you were a wandering coffee cart or something?”

“Yeah, that’s stupid. I could…”

“I know! You can borrow Rufus’s little brother and take him to the playground there, and then…”

“And then…?”

“And then you could lose him? Ask the man for help?”

“Oh yeah, great idea! He’d just think I was the world’s most irresponsible human. That’s a good way to start!”

“OK, maybe not. All right, this is kind of crazy, but hear me out. What if you… just go take a walk, like he does every day?”

Silence. Lucy slurped her leftover ramen perhaps a bit louder than was necessary, but she was trying to make a point here, that maybe, just maybe… Jiya was making sense. 

Lucy sighed. “I mean, yes. That does seem like the most normal option, but doesn’t that make me a stalker? To go for a walk in the same park as a man I stare at every single day as I drive by, for no other reason than he walks there?”

“There are much stranger ways to meet, Lucy. People meet online every day, which 30 years ago, we would’ve called insane.”

“Look, it’s the best idea we’ve had so far, but then what? Do I just follow him? Chase him through the park until he realizes he has a tail? Bump into him and spill my coffee all over his… very well fitting… pea coat?” She scowled at Jiya's smirk. 

“I was thinking you could just smile and say hello as you walk past him, but I suppose bumping into him would work as well.” Jiya shrugged as she scooped up the last bits of tabbouleh from her bowl. 

“Jiya, you know how awkward I can be. You’re talking to the person who once had an entire conversation of repeating back to someone every single thing he said, and all because I thought he had a nice smile. Can you imagine what I’d do if I came across Tall Man in the park?”

The glum silence that followed was depressing, and spoke to just how ridiculous this whole thing was. 

“Lucy, we are going to think of something. You see him almost every day. It has to be the universe intervening in your life, right?”

“Yeah, I just wish it would intervene into an actual conversation with him.” 

“You have to step foot in the park for that to happen. Look, I’m just happy you’re ready to move on. That last guy you dated… Wyatt?… was not right for you. You had nothing in common with him. And you were by far his intellectual superior.”

Nine months after their break up, and Lucy’s stomach still flip flopped, not in the good way, any time she thought back on that relationship. 

She smiled at Jiya. “You realize how lucky you are you found Rufus, right?” She couldn’t imagine a more compatible couple if she tried. 

“Every day,” Jiya said softly. 

~ ~ ~ 

The holidays came and went. Lucy spent them with her sister in California. The weeks off were a much-needed respite after a difficult semester, and though she’d desperately needed the time away from work, Lucy had been surprised to discover the Tall Man popping into her thoughts, even while away from her usual routine. It was as if he had found something he liked after wandering into the recesses of her brain and didn’t want to leave. 

Sitting in her office over lunch her first day back from break, Lucy took a bite of her grain bowl as she sent the last email of the hour. Dozens of messages had been waiting for her upon her return, as well as some tasks she’d been putting off. She’d been avoiding scheduling a meeting to discuss her faculty track in the department, and couldn’t delay it any longer. There was no question she loved her work, but some days, the hoops she had to jump through to stay at Longmont, let alone advance, just seemed overwhelming. She was about to close her inbox and try to make it through a few more pages of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan when her laptop pinged the receipt of another email. Startled, she clicked on it, thinking she’d be scheduling this meeting sooner than she had hoped.

Lucy usually deleted emails from her college health care plan’s wellness program without reading them. Even though she agreed that stress reduction, nutrition education, and health risk assessments were important, she seldom had time to do more than give a nod at her computer as she deleted the email, knowing an exercise routine was far beyond the limits of her time and motivation. But something in today’s subject line grabbed her attention:

Step Challenge - Walk Your Way to Good Health and Great Prizes!

Apparently, the wellness program was hoping to encourage its sedentary employees to get up and move a bit more, like a New Year’s resolution of sorts. Lucy knew only too well the health risks of a life committed to academics - long hours writing (and grading) papers, teaching classes, and doing research left little time for exercise if one wanted to spend any time at all with family or friends outside of work. When Amy had moved away, Lucy had thought she’d fill her free time with getting back in shape. She was growing tired of getting winded after one flight of stairs, annoyed that her legs felt like Jello after two. The half marathon she’d trained for her senior year of college had decreased to occasional 5Ks throughout grad school, and then basically nothing once she’d started working as a professor. She’d been meaning to check out the gym on campus, maybe get back into moving her body gradually, indoors where she wouldn’t freeze her ass off. However, the motivation to make her hazy plan a reality never quite materialized.

But. 

She could certainly consider bundling up and being more active outdoors. At a park she knew of, not far from home. A park she conveniently drove by every single day. The fact that a tall mysterious stranger she could not get out of her mind happened to walk there, too, was an added bonus. 

So the man was a great motivator. The only problem was finding the time. 

As she drove home that day, Lucy thought about the man she had not been able to stop thinking about for months. He walked every morning. Maybe before going in to work... could that work for her? Lucy would be teaching an 8 AM class Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, so walking before that was unrealistic for her, but maybe she could walk Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, when her first class of the day was at 9? It would be easy to bring her sneakers with her and stop at the park to walk one or two laps three mornings a week. She would do that, for her health. Yes, for her health. 

~ ~ ~

“This might be the universe intervening on your behalf after all!” Jiya had called Lucy the second she’d stepped into her home that day after work. Lucy was not surprised. Jiya had apparently seen the wellness email and had the exact same thought Lucy had. Lucy was touched that even after winter break had put a pause on their scheming, Jiya was still thinking of ways to get Lucy into the park to meet the man. 

“Yeah, maybe.” Lucy was distracted at the moment by her old sneakers, which seemed pretty stiff with old sweat and not at all up to the task of chasing after handsome gentlemen. “I, uh, might need to buy some new shoes. My running shoes from my 5K years are looking a little… sad,” Lucy said as she tossed them into the trash. 

“We’ll go this weekend!” Jiya’s excitement made Lucy laugh. 

“Didn’t you say your family would be in town?” As much as Lucy would welcome Jiya’s company, she’d never pull her friend away from her parents, especially not for something like this. And she certainly didn’t want them tagging long with her and Jiya, as lovely as they were. They were good-natured to a fault, always up for anything, but Lucy suspected the limits of their generous kindness might be tested once they heard their daughter’s friend was a stalker. 

“They had to reschedule, something about a last-minute dinner party,” Jiya replied. “It wasn’t a great weekend from my end either. I have a lot to catch up on after break, and I did just see them.” 

“Don’t waste your time helping me find sneakers, Jiya! I know you have a lot on your plate. Maybe I’ll order a bunch from Zappos and call it a day.” Lucy wasn’t sure she had it in her to visit the mall alone so soon after the holidays. 

“Lucy, one thing I need to catch up on is you! I want to hear all about Cali and how Amy’s doing. We’ll get you some good shoes for walking, maybe a haircut while we’re at it?” 

“Jeez, Jiya, what are you trying to say?” Lucy harrumphed into the phone. She wasn’t going to go crazy now that meeting the man in the park seemed more a possibility than a wish, but she had to admit she was way overdue for a trim. Beauty upkeep just hadn’t been a priority for her after Amy moved and Lucy’s social scene shrank considerably, excluding everything but home, work, and the grocery store. Maybe some self car wasn’t such a bad idea after all if she was going to expand the space of her existence to include a certain park. She realized she was really looking forward to a change of scenery.

That Saturday found Lucy and Jiya at the mall as soon as it opened to purchase Lucy a new pair of running shoes, followed by brunch with a mimosa (or two). They made it to the arts district of town just in time for the last-minute haircut Lucy had been able to snag, and Lucy kept her eyes squeezed shut as her stylist added a few balayage pieces to her dark hair. “I love it!” Lucy gasped, surprised, angling her head to admire it when the woman revealed her new and updated hair. It seemed silly, but just getting a trim and slight color upgrade made her feel like a new woman, ready for the next exciting phase of her life that would include getting more fit and maybe, just maybe, meeting new people. 

The pair met up with Rufus at the art museum to see the Degas exhibit Jiya had been excited about for months, then they grabbed takeout tacos from their favorite taco restaurant and a box of wine and settled in at Lucy’s modest ranch to watch “Practical Magic”. Rufus complained bitterly about the choice of movie, saying it was “too much of a chick flick” and “that Jimmy Angelov character is creepy” until Jiya reminded him they could have let him spend his Saturday night alone. Then he apologized, snuggled closer to Jiya, and admitted that creepiness aside, Jimmy Angelov was one fine-looking man (his words). Lucy and Jiya were so busy rolling their eyes they almost missed their favorite scene. “Midnight margaritas!” they cheered with the Owens sisters, toasting one another (and Rufus) with their wine glasses. 

“Good luck Monday morning,” Rufus said, giving Lucy a quick hug as he and Jiya left later that evening. 

“I’ll call you tomorrow so we can scheme some more,” Jiya promised, waving from her car. 

~ ~ ~ 

It snowed Sunday night. A lot. Classes were canceled Monday morning. 

Lucy couldn’t believe it. Yes, it was January, so snow was obviously a possibility, but the unseasonably dry December had spoiled her. Lucy hadn’t even considered that the general lack of snow and ice a month ago had contributed to the regularity of the Tall Man’s daily walks. 

She sighed into the phone as she said her goodbyes to Jiya Monday morning.  

“It’s just a minor hiccup, Lucy. It’ll happen,” Jiya tried to reassure her, but Lucy was feeling antsy and a wee bit forlorn. 

By Tuesday mid-day, most of the snow on the sidewalks and all of the snow on the roads had melted. Lucy checked the weather app on her phone no less than fifteen times between lunch and dinner that day as she tried to focus on her work. Wednesday looked like it would be a cold and sunny, below freezing in the morning, but nothing a coat and hat couldn’t handle. Lucy planned her cold weather walking outfit in her head as she went to bed that night, nervous but eager to finally see Tall Man up close the next day. 

She didn’t see him Wednesday morning. 

All this planning, the absurd schemes she and Jiya had concocted to put Lucy on the man’s radar, the prep the weekend before… it all seemed to have been for naught. She had seen him nearly every day since that first fateful morning she had spotted him while driving by in her car, with the exception of winter break, almost as if the universe were trying to gently nudge her towards him. And now that she had finally come up with a reasonable way to try to actually meet him, the universe seemed to be taking it all back, like it was playing a cruel joke on her. Lucy circled the park twice that morning, diligently adding to her step count, but not achieving the main goal for being there in the first place. Still, the walk was pleasant, and her step count at the end of the day was nearly twice what she had been averaging over the last several months. 

The forty-eight hours leading up to Friday morning seemed to last a full week. 

By the time Friday finally rolled around, Lucy had convinced herself that this wasn’t a big deal, more to protect her bruised and battered ego than because she actually believed it. She’d go to the park, get in some steps, mentally run through a lecture she’d been struggling to prepare, and call it a day. Locking up her car where she’d parked it on a small side street, she sighed as she walked to the main sidewalk that circled the large park. Pulling on her gloves, she realized the man could be anywhere, just out of her line of sight behind a row of trees, or behind the grassy knoll near the playground. She decided to stop focusing so much on him, which made her feel pathetic, and to pay more attention to the park itself. 

It really was a lovely space, although winter had painted everything that was so lush and green during the summer months a muted shade of brown. The remnants of the snow that had fallen Sunday night were well trampled by the footprints left by children, dogs, and the adults chasing them. The imprints were all that was left of the traffic the park had seen after the snowfall, and Lucy almost felt like she had the entire place to herself. She sighed, enjoying the peace, and watched the fog her breath created in the chill morning air dissipate. Despite the cold, she could hear birds calling to one another. Likely crows, but still a nice reminder that life went on even in winter.

The path meandered under a group of evergreen trees, and Lucy inhaled deeply, pulling the smell of pine into her lungs. Patches of untouched snow sparkled where the morning sun found an unimpeded path to the ground. Lucy smiled as a baby rabbit, startled by her approach, darted under a bush. 

Just then, a loud caw from right above startled her, and she looked up into the trees to try to locate the crow. She thought she could just see the flap of wings as a bird settled into the higher reaches of the tree she was under, and she took a few steps forward, stumbling a little as she tried to keep her eyes on the bird. 

A few steps too far, apparently, as she walked right into the tree. 

Very considerately, the tree reached out its branches to steady her, and she realized she hadn’t walked into a tree at all, but rather, a man. And as her gaze went up and up so she could make eye contact to apologize, her brain short circuited as it slowly dawned on her that the man standing before her was the very man who had occupied her thoughts since November.