As Charlie and I walked toward the quad, a couple of students came over to meet Charlie. She was thrilled and ate up the attention until they moved on. There were some students playing ball in the quad. I spotted some coeds grabbing some sun on blankets and others reading in the shade of the trees. I skirted around the ball players with Charlie in tow and headed for the arboretum. The crime scene tape was gone and without any hesitation I started us down the black path.
I could see the Virginia bluebells already and some of the other spring bloomers. Soon along the arboretum paths would be combinations of bluebells, anemones, lady slippers, and azaleas. Surprising how deadly some of these beautiful plants are and I kept a good watch over Charlie to be sure she didn’t eat any. I stopped to look at some buds and tried to identify them before starting to jog again. I could hear some voices up ahead and assumed others were enjoying the flora and spring weather as well.
Charlie barked as we turned the corner. We walked into a small clearing and stumbled on a group. All conversation stopped, replaced with intense silence. Four males and one female stared at us. The way they stood, they effectively blocked the path ahead. They looked a bit tense and that tension was contagious.
“Hi! Nice day for a walk, don’t you think?” I offered as a friendly gesture though the tension wasn’t exactly conducive to friendliness.
The others looked to the oldest looking male who responded with a glare and snarled, “What are you doing here?” His snarl and tone drew growls from Charlie.
Soothing Charlie, I answered, “Just taking my dog for a run and checking out the flowers. With all the excitement this week, I didn’t get to come see what was blooming.”
I hoped that my increased discomfort and distrust of this group wasn’t obvious. I concentrated on appearing calm. I soothed Charlie some more rather than make eye contact. I certainly didn’t want to appear to be a threat. Besides, while I soothed Charlie, I could observe them.
The leader of the pack looked to be in his early thirties, average height, on the muscular side. He had a heavy beard. His hair was long and messy, falling into his face. It looked coarse and he was definitely in need of a good barber. All in all his piercing blue eyes amidst all the dark hair were intimidating.
The other three males seemed younger, maybe mid-twenties. Still, none of them looked like the typical Cold Creek students I saw every day. A little too rough around the edges for the private college. Although they also sported facial hair, they didn’t look quite as rough and scruffy as the lead man though. They stayed quiet, fidgeted some, and kept their eyes down.
Only the female, also probably in her twenties, made even fleeting eye contact with me. She had a tattoo of a rose on her wrist and her cropped black hair was frosted with hot pink and chartreuse stripes. Not the norm at this college for sure. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, the only sign that she too was nervous.
With what I hoped was a non-threatening expression, I stepped forward. “Well, Charlie and I are going to be on our way. I hope you enjoy your visit to the arboretum.”
I held my breath and focused on the trail straight ahead. The two guys blocking it moved slightly and I rushed Charlie through. She still emitted a low growl and I kept up with comforting words. I never looked back, but Charlie did a couple times. That and the occasional twig snap suggested to me that one of them followed us at least for a few minutes.
Thankfully, there was another curve in the path and another cutout about ten minutes later. I sat down on the bench and pulled Charlie into my lap. Although she’s a miniature sheltie, Charlie weighs about 35 pounds. I held her in my arms and took some deep breaths. I was aware that my heart raced. I was drenched from sweat and Charlie licked the sweat from my neck. Realizing now how scared I was, I was glad I hadn’t wet my pants.
Charlie panted and I pulled out my water bottle and her collapsible bowl. We both drank and I tried to calm down. I didn’t hear any noises to suggest anyone was on the trail behind us. The silence made me feel better. Unfortunately, I had to figure out how to get back to the quad without using the path behind me.