Auggie woke in a quiet place. His body tensed at the unfamiliar surroundings. He heard some sort of fan blowing air, and what sounded like someone shuffling on carpet. He stayed still while he tried to get his bearings. It only took a moment to recall that the soft bed he slept in was part of their Chicago hotel. He let out a small sigh and stretched to rid himself of the tension that appeared any time he awoke somewhere new.
"Good morning," he heard from his 10 o'clock as he released his stretch. He remembered from his quick tour of the room yesterday that there was a table and some chairs in that direction.
"Good morning to you, too," he said, with a smile on his face. "What are you doing up already?"
There was a pause, and he assumed Annie shrugged before she responded, "I don't know, couldn't sleep." Auggie waited to see if she was going to add more before he spoke again.
"Have you been up long?"
"Just a little while. We were both dangerously low on clothes, so I washed out our laundry in the sink. You know, make use of the indoor plumbing." She paused before she added, "oh yea, watch yourself if you try to take a shower. I hung most of it around the tub, and I don't want you to come out looking like a drying rack."
"You know they have laundry services for that sort of thing?" Auggie asked. He felt the smirk on his face.
"Eh," she responded, he could tell she was walking around the room again. "I figured I was up and I could do it."
A thought occurred to Auggie. "Where'd you get laundry soap?" he asked.
"Oh yea," she said in return, "before you take a shower, you'll also want to call down to the front desk for more shampoo." Auggie chuckled.
"Noted," he said, and he flopped down onto the bed. The traveling yesterday wore him out. He reached to the table next to the bed, and felt for his watch. The time read 5:30. "Hang on a second," he said in surprise. "It's 5:30 and you've been up 'for a while' already?" He knew her sleep schedule was erratic- he'd put that together in the last week when he woke at random times and found the bed cool beside him. It was different, but as someone who rarely kept a normal sleep cycle, he understood the feeling.
Auggie leaned on his elbow and patted the bed beside him. "C'mere," he said softly, and he hoped she'd listen. After a moment, the bed depressed next to him. He reached out and ran a hand along her leg. One leg was tucked under her, and he assumed the other was still dangling off. His hand rested on her thigh. He could tell she was tense.
"You seem wound up," he ventured.
"Yea," she said quietly. "I don't know, I guess I'm not used to being in one place for very long anymore." He nodded in response and stayed quiet. He didn't think it the right time to mention they'd only reentered the country 15 hours ago. "Not that I haven't enjoyed this time," she said quickly. He smiled and squeezed her thigh.
"C'mon," he said, and he rolled to a sitting position. He swung his legs out from under the sheets and over the side of the bed. He felt her stand as he did. He recognized that he was still naked and that he wasn't sure if he even had a dry pair of boxers to his name. "This would have been more suave if I knew where my pants were," he said with a smile. When she laughed in response, he smiled more broadly.
"OK, new plan," he said with certainty. "First, we find me some underwear and sweats. Then you can get dressed. Wear something comfortable. We'll stop for breakfast on the way." He flashed a mischievous grin at her. He knew she could never resist a surprise.
He accepted his clothes from her and dressed. He ran a hand through his hair, and moved to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He struggled to find a towel to dry his hands- it seemed that everywhere he would expect a towel he found damp clothing instead. After a few attempts, Auggie shook his hands and wiped them on his sweats. It wasn't worth holding up his plans.
Once they were dressed and ready to leave, Auggie put his cane in his messenger bag, took Annie's arm, and moved with her to the lobby. In the rental car, Auggie gave directions from their downtown hotel to the Western Suburb he grew up in. After a stop for coffee and breakfast at a diner Auggie still remembered from his youth, the two got back in the car. Auggie continued to navigate while Annie offered him landmarks.
"You're going to turn left on Main Street," he said, and he heard Annie name the streets under her breath as they passed them. After the click of the turn signal, he felt their direction change. "About a block down on the left will be Pleasant Lane Elementary School, home of the Pleasant Lane Eagles."
Annie chuckled. "Sort of hard to sound intimidating when your mascot has pleasant in his title."
"Yea, well, we weren't exactly training Spartans," he responded with a smile. "But it did the Anderson's well. Well," he continued after a short pause, "probably better for the older ones. By the time I got there, my older brothers had done such a number on the place that the staff couldn't bother to learn one more name. I was 'the youngest one', or 'so-and-so's little brother.'"
He heard her laugh again, and smiled. He would do anything for that laugh. "Poor Auggie," she consoled, and her hand grabbed his. He pulled her hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss.
"I think I turned out OK," he said, and she squeezed his hand in response.
There was a comfortable silence between them as Annie continued down the street. "OK," he said after a few moments. "You'll continue straight on Main for a bit. This residential area will lead to downtown proper. When we cross the railroad, you'll make the first right onto Parkside." He paused so she could commit the directions to memory. "And, if the Dairy Dog is still on the right as downtown starts," he added, "you'll see the sight of my first job."
"I'm sorry, you worked at a place called 'Dairy Dogs'?" she asked, her tone incredulous. He laughed in response.
"I know," he said, "it's terribly Midwestern, but please remember we take our hotdogs very seriously in this part of the country, Miss Walker." It had been a long time since Auggie thought about his summers serving food. Yet he felt good about letting Annie know this part of him. With so much of his life split into pre-accident and post-accident, there were obviously more glaring things that defined him. Auggie liked that he had the chance to show Annie some of who he was before he even really was his pre-accident self.
Auggie felt the telltale bumps of the railroad tracks and the quick right after them. He hoped the place was still there. Last he knew it was, but every time he was home, his brothers went on and on about how many businesses came and went downtown. Auggie started to feel a bit nervous. He swallowed hard, to temper the nerves. It was silly, he knew, but it had been a long time.
"You're looking for a storefront, I think the number should be 820," he said to Annie, who slowed the car.
"Found it," she said, and the car continued to move forward. "There's street parking just ahead," she explained. Auggie nodded.
Once out of the car, Auggie unfurled his cane. He didn't mind being led, especially by Annie, but sometimes he wanted to take point. She seemed to understand, and once she fed the meter, she took the hand he extended to her, but stayed half a step behind.
"On your left," he heard her whisper, and he turned to feel the door handle. He pulled open the door and stepped inside.
Auggie paused just inside the doorway. He felt Annie slide in behind him and stand next to him, their hands still together. The smell was exactly the same. Sweat mixed with plastic, rubber, and the slight metallic quality of blood. A radio played top 40 in the background.
Auggie heard a booming voice get louder as it spoke, "Holy shit, Auggie Anderson, is that really you?" Annie's hand dropped from his just as he felt a large pair of arms envelope him and squeeze tight. "Are you really here?" the voice asked again. Auggie could only nod until the arms released him.
"Doug!" he exclaimed. "Good God, man, what are you benching these days?"
The booming voice laughed. "Holy shit, man, how long has it been?"
"Long time," Auggie confirmed with a nod. His last trip to this place was before his accident. He liked to imagine that everything still looked the same- same stained floors in the rings, same punching bags patched with duct tape, same old men offering unsolicited boxing tips from the sides. None of it may have been the same, but Auggie knew that was the image he'd always conjure up.
There was a pause before Auggie remembered why he was there. "Annie!" he exclaimed, as he recalled her presence. "I want you to meet Doug; the man who coached me in wrestling and gave me half of my self defense training before I could even enlist." He turned his body in the direction of Doug, "Doug, this is Annie." The two exchanged pleasantries.
"Are you in town long?" Doug asked. "Because I saw Ethan last week, and he didn't mention you coming in."
"We're not really here," Auggie explained, and hoped his secret would stay safe. "We're just driving through town on our way back to DC from Estes park." It was a lie, but hopefully convincing enough.
Doug must have considered their outfits. "Is this just a trip down memory lane, Auggie, or are you ready for a fight?" Auggie could hear the challenge in the man's voice.
"Not with the boxing, no. But we actually met at the Krav Maga academy." Another lie, but Auggie had come up with the cover in the car. Last he knew, Doug didn't know much aside from wrestling and boxing- two areas he was extraordinarily well educated in, but a limited scope, nonetheless. "I just thought we could stretch our legs and spar for a bit."
"Yeah, man," Doug responded. "You know you're welcome here any time. There's some space back there," there was an awkward pause as Doug realized his mistake. "Shit- I mean, back to your left over there," he said quickly, and Auggie nodded. Although Doug had seen him once after the accident, the reunion was brief. Auggie knew that was the hardest part of being home- as tough as it was to interact with people in his DC life who assumed he needed kid gloves because he was blind, it could be equally awkward to handle the situations with people who thought of him as his pre-accident self until they said something they regretted. Most of the time, Auggie didn't mind the slip ups. He'd had enough practice with self-deprecation to forgive any naive comments. He gave a smile to Doug with his nod. He knew the man was kicking himself.
"Just let me know if you need anything," Doug said, and Annie thanked him.
"Pads still in the same place?" Auggie asked. Doug offered to get them for him, and Auggie agreed. He asked Annie to lead him to the bag closest to the area Doug mentioned. He held it steady and coached her through a warm up. Even with the bag between them, he felt the power behind her kicks and jabs. Clearly, she'd kept up her training.
With the pads in place, they moved onto the mats. Auggie held the training pads at his chest height. He felt each punch that she landed reverberate down his arm. She'd been good before, but it was obvious that now she was even more precise, her motions controlled and powerful. He thought about himself when he was at his peak, but shook off the thoughts quickly.
When his hands and arms could bear no more pounding, he took a step back. "Holds?" he asked, and a mischievous grin spread on his face.
"Fair enough," she responded, her breathing heavy from the exertion. He sensed her step towards him.
"Neck first," he said, and he felt her turn his back to him. He reached an arm around her neck and used his other hand to hold it in place. He was working out a smart-ass remark about the first time they'd practiced this move, but before he could formulate the words, she'd dropped her hips and jutted them back to him. She used her lower center of gravity to throw him off balance and then moved in such a way that she leveraged him off the ground, over her shoulder and landed him squarely on his back. It wasn't the hold he taught her, but it was clearly effective. Auggie coughed as he tried to regain his breath.
She was beside him in a moment, her hands on his arm. "Oh my god, Auggie, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to-"
"No, it's, OK," he gasped, each word punctuated by a breath. He grinned at her to show he was OK, and sat up as quickly as he could. He tried to mask a groan as he propped himself up.
"You've picked up some new moves, Walker," he said, and held out a hand for her to help him up. "You'll have to show me exactly how you did that." He was truly amused. It wasn't often that he was bested in hand to hand combat, especially by her.
Once he stood, he could tell she was hesitant, and reached out his hand. It landed on her bicep and he gave a squeeze. "Hey, I'm proud of you," he said quietly enough for only her to hear. He felt her use his arm to balance herself as she leaned forward and placed a kiss on his cheek.
"Thanks," she whispered in his ear.
After another dozen or so releases, they called it quits for the day, both seemingly exhausted. They said their goodbyes to Doug and made their way back to the car. They sat in the car and Auggie heard the jangle of the key as she slid it into the ignition. He wanted to ask if she enjoyed it, but didn't want to fish. He knew he was happily exhausted, and that she seemed more relaxed, and that was enough of a payoff for him. He turned his head to ask why she wasn't starting the car and her lips crashed into his, and he felt her hands in his hair. It took him just a moment to return the passionate kiss while his hands moved to her back, pulling her to him.
When the kiss ended, they remained in close proximity, foreheads connected. "I just wanted to thank you for that," she whispered. "It was exactly what I needed."
He smiled, proud of himself. She moved her head away, and he heard the ignition start.
"OK," she said, as she pulled out of the space. "New plan for today. Back to the hotel for showers, then we hit Michigan Avenue. I, for one, am tired of the same six outfits, and I need to get out of these sneakers and back into some heels." Auggie rolled his eyes for effect, but on the inside he beamed. This was his Annie, and he was glad he could help her find her way back.