Christmas Spirit – A Free Short Story

It’s that time of year again… Holiday spirit, Christmas shopping, beautiful decorations–but at the same time, for ME, with the holidays come holiday stress. I’m an anxious person and Christmas has always been a stressful time, which adding to seasonal depression, isn’t very fun for me. Still, I love the holidays. In 2010 I got the idea for Christmas Angel, my holiday novella, because of a little ‘Santa’s Workshop’ thing done in our courthouse square. That story flowed easily.

But this year, when my Dad asked for a holiday story for his Christmas present…I froze up. I had no ideas, nothing that would be cute and festive; I had one holiday story in mind, but it was paranormal and try as he might, he probably wouldn’t enjoy a weredog holiday romance 😛 So after a little conversation, I turned to a family friend…and the first thing she came up with clicked–perfectly.

In the end, I wound up with a cute little story about a man who, after losing his beloved dog, decides that he’ll never own a dog again…it hurts too badly. But when a pup shows up in the middle of a holiday storm, he starts to see that it hurts worse to be alone. So, friends and fans, I give to you–Christmas Spirit.

Christmas Spirit
by Kodilynn Calhoun

One

 

“So you’d better finish up your holiday shopping because this winter storm will be hitting in the next few hours and I’m telling you, it’s gonna be a doozy.” The weatherman was dressed in an exceptionally ugly holiday sweater and wore a cheery grin despite the news of a possible blizzard.

“Great. Just what I wanted for Christmas,” Jay Colby muttered to his empty house. His house, of course, didn’t reply back. He clicked a button on the remote, killing the power to the ancient television set, and tossed it back onto the end table with a sigh.

It wasn’t that he hated the holidays—they were fine and dandy, maybe a little over-commercialized and maybe they played too many Christmas specials on TV, or maybe he just watched entirely too much television.

It was more the fact that here he was, fifty-two years old, single and not looking, sitting in the family room of a lake house far too big for one person. Not that he was complaining; it had been a dream of his to get his place on the lake, to be able to dock his boat in the water and fish whenever he wanted to. But, if he was being honest, Jay Colby was lonely. His daughters were all grown up and starting their own families, their own lives, and he didn’t begrudge them that.

This year wasn’t that much different than last year. Except last year, he’d had Frankie. Frankie was his old wiener dog, a rotund little hotdog he’d had since Frankie was a pup. He’d had him for twelve years and then, just like that, he’d had to say goodbye. A final farewell to a dog who’d seen him through divorce, who’d seen him through the good and the bad in life. And he’d told himself never again. Losing them hurt too badly. Frankie left a scar on his heart, the wound not quite healed yet.

So perhaps Jay was lacking a bit in Christmas spirit.

“Well, the shopping’s all done,” he announced aloud. “But the girls will kill me if I don’t decorate the house.” In his day, he’d taken pride in the sheer amount of Christmas decorations he could arrange out front. Now? Ella and Lena would have to be happy with an old strand of blue icicle lights and a blow up Santa whose pump only worked half the time.

Jay grabbed his coat out of the closet, stuck his feet in his work boots, and wandered out into the garage. He found his ladder and the cardboard box marked XMAS and, grabbing a few strands of lights, he went outside. The wind had already picked up, snow slicing past him in icy waves as he got up on the precariously balanced ladder and began to hang icicle lights on those little plastic doo-hickeys that attached to the gutter. By the time he was done, there was easily an inch of white covering the ground, and it just kept coming down. Jay took a few steps back, standing on the very edge of the road to look over a job well done. Good thing, too, because his fingers were locked up and numb from the cold.

A doozy was probably right on the dot.

Once everything was back in its rightful place, he locked the garage door and smoked a cigarette—his guilty pleasure, or rather a habit he hadn’t been able to kick—and then went inside to warm up and Jay knew exactly where he was going. Grabbing his robe, slippers, and a towel, he got into a pair of chlorine-faded swim trunks and made a beeline for the hot tub. The water bubbled and frothed around him as he slid in and let tense muscles slowly relax, let his body begin to warm up from its inner chill.

He was getting too old for this shit. Next year, he was going south. Someplace warm. Maybe Texas, or Florida. He wasn’t sure yet. The girls would probably give him hell if he left for the holidays, but sometimes you did what you had to do and in his case, it was getting away from the blistering cold winters of Indiana.

He was almost completely relaxed, letting the jets and bubbles do their thing, when there was a sound. Soft, barely there, but a sound. He opened one eye, did a sweep of the room, and closed it again. For a minute there was quiet, and then a soft scratching followed by the most pitiful of whines. Grumbling to himself, Jay dried off and bundled up in his robe and went off in search of the sound.

He swung the front door open—nothing. He peeked his head out, the cold like ice against his damp skin. “Hello?” No answer. With a sigh, Jay moved to shut the door when the bushes out front wiggled and a small black nose peeked out. “Hey,” he said, his gruff voice softer, and from beneath the bushes came a dog. A puppy, probably not even five months old, tall and gangly with long legs and droopy ears and sad brown eyes. She was solid white with a black splotch across one eye and a slowly wagging tail.

He did not need or want a dog…but he wasn’t heartless. He couldn’t just leave her out there in the ice and snow and cold. Her fur was sleek and thin; she wasn’t made to withstand temperatures below thirty degrees. For a long moment he just stood there, arms braced in the doorway, looking down at the pitiful excuse for a dog.

Then he let out a long sigh and shuffled out to get her. She hunkered down when he reached for her, as if afraid he would hit her, and he gathered her in his arms and went back into his house. He shut the door behind him to seal the cold out, flipped the deadbolt, and wondered what the hell he was going to do with a dog. Not like he could pack her up in his truck and dump her at the shelter tonight; it was closed, and if it kept coming down out there at this rate, he’d be snowed in by morning.

The pup shivered in his arms, her entire body stiff from the cold and it made him wonder how long she’d been out on her own. She wasn’t one of his neighbors’ dogs. Had someone just taken her out on a country road and dumped her? Right before Christmas? Jay shook his head and placed the pup down in the center of his kitchen and for a moment, she just stood there, looking up at him with doleful eyes.

Well duh, she was probably hungry. He rummaged through the cupboards until he found an old margarine tub, washed but still a bit greasy. Soap just wasn’t what it used to be nowadays. In the garage he found his leftover bag of dog food from when he had Frankie and, hoping it hadn’t gone rancid, scooped the pup a big bowl and set it down in front of her.

Slowly but surely, that tail began to wag until it was like a propeller, spinning almost in a circle it was so fast. She gobbled the food, barely taking the time to crunch it, pushing the bowl around on the linoleum as she tried to eat those last few kibbles. When she’d finished, she looked up at Jay with a happy look on her face—and let out a very unlady-like belch.

“Excuse you,” Jay muttered. The pup wagged her tail. He stood there for a moment, studying her. She was small but sleek with an athletic, muscular build. Pitbull? Jay wasn’t well schooled in dog breeds, but if he had to guess, he’d guess she was a pit. Just his luck—didn’t they tend to be killers, bred to fight to the death?

Hopefully they wouldn’t get a full-blown blizzard. He could take her into town and drop her off at the shelter tomorrow morning and wash his hands of it. He’d done his good deed by bringing her in out of the weather. He didn’t want another dog, and even if he did, a pitbull would be the last thing he’d get.

Just for tonight.

Jay put on a pair of sleep pants and shrugged off his robe, flopping down on the old sofa to watch some TV. As soon as the television clicked on, the pup was climbing up beside him on the sofa, her whole body wiggling as she tried to plant sloppy doggy kisses on his cheek. He blocked her with one arm. “No. Off!” he barked. She dropped her ears and he nudged her back to the floor. She placed a paw on his knee, gave a little whine. He nudged that off, too. “Go lay down.” He pointed to the carpet and the little dog seemed to sigh as she begrudgingly curled up at his feet.

He watched television until his eyes were blurry and sleep tried to claim him sitting up. He turned off the set and stood up, almost tripping over the pup. He pulled out an old blanket and laid it down on the floor near the heat register, enticing her to lay down. She just sat there and stared at him, cocking her head to one side. “Time to sleep. Sleep. Lay down.”

He shut himself up in his bedroom and crawled into bed and it was no sooner than he got comfortable that she began to whine. It was soft at first, breathy and thin, but it soon turned into full-blown wailing like a sad hound dog. “Go to bed!” The wailing stopped, just for a moment, before the pup launched into another midnight serenade. “Ah hell.”

Jay swung out of bed and wrenched the door open, ready to kick some furry tail, but the look she gave him made him pause. She lit up like a Christmas bulb, dancing around him in laps, her tail wagging and slapping the doorframe. With a sigh, he called her into his bedroom, shut the door, and pointed to Frankie’s old dog bed that he hadn’t had the heart yet to throw away.

Then he turned his back to her and fell asleep.

 

Two

 

He was jolted awake at 6:22 am by an ice cold puppy nose on the back of his neck. He reached up to swat the dog off, but she just yipped and pounced again, her warm tongue swiping across his face. “Get off,” he mumbled, placing a hand over her chest and pushing back, rubbing his free hand over his face to wipe off the slobber. Her tail made a swishing sound on the comforter as she stared into his soul.

“Seriously?”

She barked again, too high pitched for this early in the morning, and made a flying leap off the bed. She ran to the door and scratched at the wood, then turned around to look at him like, ‘Come on! I have to pee!’

Jay groaned loudly. “Alright, alright. I’m coming.” He got up and opened the bedroom door and the pup shot out like a rocket, straight to the front door. He swung that open and several inches of snow fell into the entry way; outside, snow had stopped falling, but overnight it had turned his front yard into a drifting winter wonderland easily several feet high in spots. The pup took two steps onto the porch, the snow tall enough to touch her underbelly, and then looked over her shoulder at him.

“Go potty. Go on.” He shooed her out further, crossing his arms over his chest. “Hurry up, it’s freaking cold,” he hissed but she just stood at the door and wagged her tail, sending up a spray of snow. Jay looked up at the sky and asked the lord above for a little patience before he opened the door. She obviously wasn’t going to go. “Come on.”

He poured her another heaping bowl of kibble—she was too skinny—and got his morning coffee out of the pot. After finishing his first cup and a smoke, he got dressed and bundled up in his boots and coat and together, he and the puppy went out back. He trudged through the snow drifts while she leapt over them, barking and dancing in a way that reminded him of a little kid, overjoyed by the magic of winter.

She ran down the length of the yard at full speed, skidding to a stop as she reached the iced-over lake, and she turned around and ran back to him, ears flapping behind her. She made a circle around him and then grabbed a stick out of the adjoining woods and hurried to greet him. She gave a soft growl but Jay just shook his head. “Go on. Go potty.”

She would have none of it. The next ten minutes were spent with her dragging the stick around, poking it into the backs of his legs, wedging her head between his legs, trying valiantly to get him to play as she walrused around in the snow. God she had the cutest face… “Why not?” he finally said, his breath a puff of white as he bent down to retrieve the stick. She barked, sharp and excited, and he threw the stick as far as he could. It sailed through the air to land in the snow, disappearing from sight, but that didn’t deter the pup and two minutes later, she was back.

They played fetch until the pup was panting and Jay’s fingers were like ice cubes. They were both happy to go back into the warmth of the house and when the pup flopped down on her side with a soft but happy groan, Jay had to smile. She was definitely a character. He shook his head, knowing he’d be taking her to the shelter the minute the roads cleared. She’d make someone a good pet.

He was flipping through the newspaper when his phone rang, caller ID showing his eldest daughter’s number. “Hey there, sis,” he said, picking up the phone. Lena’s voice was bubbly on the line as she excitedly told him that she was getting him the best present for Christmas. She and Ella always tried to out-do each other every year and he had to admit, it was priceless.

“So what’s new with you? Meet any new ladies?” she teased him.

“Well.” He eyed the pup, snoozing on the blanket on the floor. “Actually…” He told her about the pup that he found out in the cold, hoping maybe Lena would take her on so he wouldn’t have to dump her in the shelter. Lena was ga-ga for dogs of all breeds, being a dog trainer and all.

“Oh, Dad! That’s awesome! I was just telling Ella the other day that we should buy you a puppy for Christmas. Looks like Santa is looking out for you, huh?” She laughed.

He sat up straighter in his chair, jolted. “What? No! I’m not keeping her. I can’t.” Jay frowned and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“Why not? Because of Frankie?”

“I don’t have time for a dog, let alone a puppy. No. I’ve already made up my mind; once the roads are clear, she’s gone. I just couldn’t leave her out in the cold.”

“Dad. Come on.” Lena’s voice softened, the laughter fading into earnestness. “You live alone. You don’t have a girlfriend. You’re lonely. You need a dog to keep you company.”

“I’m perfectly fine. You worry too much,” Jay replied sharply. “I don’t want another dog. This conversation is over.”

She sighed over the phone line, a hiss of static. “Alright. Ella and I will be over around three in the afternoon Christmas Eve—and we expect a tree. It’s not Christmas without a tree and I know you. It’s not up yet.”

“It’s not,” he agreed, glancing to the place where he always set up the old artificial tree they’d had for years. “Alright. I’ll see you soon, Lena. I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

Jay hung up the phone and guzzled the rest of his coffee, grabbed a granola bar out of the cupboard, and crunched it. Guess he’d put the tree up then. The next hour was spent hauling boxes into the living room and arranging the stand, sticking branches into the little pegs on the base until, slowly but surely, a Christmas tree began to form.

The pup made it her duty to follow him from the house to the garage and back again for smoke breaks, her tail wagging all the while and when he finally sat down to start decorating the tree with bulbs and lights, she was right there beside him. Not like Frankie, who had been a bit clingy and whiny in his elder years, but close enough and as he strung the lights, he began to talk to her, about nothing and about everything and she just sat there and listened.

When he turned to see where she was, he found her sprawled on the couch, a goofy doggy grin on her face. “Come on, now. Seriously? Get off, no dogs on the couch. Off.” She hopped down and he continued to hang bulbs, but when he looked over again, she was back up there. Persistent little shit. “Off. Don’t make me get up.”

It wasn’t until the last ornament that Jay felt that first twinge of sadness. In his hands was a small red wiener dog figurine that held a striking resemblance to his Frankie, which was the reason Ella had bought it for him. This would be his first Christmas without that old codger… Taking a deep breath, he hung Frankie’s ornament and the lights made a halo around him. “Didn’t expect for it to hurt so bad.”

The pup replied by cuddling up to him, kissing him on the whiskery cheek, and instead of pushing her away, he wrapped an arm around her side and gave her a squeeze. “Good dog.” Her tail wagged and he got up to admire his handiwork. The tree looked nice—a little old, maybe a little lopsided, but…nice. Familiar, and it made him smile.

Still feeling a little melancholy, Jay set hamburger out to thaw and got trussed back up in his coat and boots. The only thing that ever seemed to cure the case of the blues was fishing and just because it was winter didn’t mean he couldn’t fish. He grabbed his trusty red ice auger, his favorite pole, and a few other things and went out the back door. Just as he was making his way down to the lake, the sound of claws on the sliding glass door made him pause.

The pup sat there, looking mournful that he was going to leave her behind. With a grunt and a sigh, he went back and opened the door and she danced out, happy to see him all over again even though he hadn’t even been gone five minutes. Together they trekked across the frozen lake in search of the perfect fishing spot.

Brushing snow out of the way, he set his equipment down and then began to drill through the ice with the spiraling auger, hand-sawing a hole out of the ice. When he was done, he sat down on an upside-down bucket and began to fish. The pup wandered off into the woods, probably searching for another stick, and Jay shook his head. She would make a family with a couple of kids the perfect pet.

Next thing he knew, she was running across the ice at full speed, sliding and skidding and kicking up snow, barking and carrying on. “Hey! Shush,” he told her, but she just looked at him, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. Then she took off running again, in pursuit of a bird.

Let’s just say Jay didn’t get very far, fishing-wise. The sun in the sky beginning to fade into twilight, he packed up his stuff and headed back to the garage with the pup dancing along at his heels. He opened the garage door and pulled out his grill, burning off the excess while he pattied up the hamburgers, thick and juicy, just like he liked them.

She was glued to his side the entire time he grilled, hoping he’d drop something, her tail swishing against the cement floor, kicking up dust. He shooed her away, but she would have none of it and in the end, when he sat down at the kitchen table to assemble his burgers and she looked at him so hopefully, drool dripping from her jowls, he couldn’t take it anymore.

“Aw, what the hell,” he said with a chuckle, breaking off a chunk of burger and offering it to her. The pup was in doggy heaven. When they were done, he took a nap on the couch, the pup snuggled against his cold feet, and it was nice.

 

Three

 

Christmas Eve dawned bitter cold and blustery, snow falling, floating, drifting and as much as Jay didn’t want to leave the warmth of his home, he had to go to the grocery store for some last-minute shopping. He and the pitbull pup piled into his four-wheel-drive truck and began to traverse the slick roads into town. The pup rode like a pro, just like Frankie used to; the only difference was, when he pulled into the parking lot of Wal-Mart, the pup wasn’t barking at every single person who walked past.

“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” he told her, giving her a pat on the head before hopping out of the truck. He patted his back pocket to make sure his wallet was there, then went into the store. He already had a turkey thawing in the fridge, but he didn’t have anything he needed for a green bean casserole or any sort of dessert. Plus he needed gravy—you couldn’t have a turkey without gravy.

On the way to the checkout lane, he paused in the pet aisle. It was Christmas after all. He grabbed a large rawhide bone off the rack and stuck it in the cart. Frankie loved those things and it would give the pup something to do besides pester him. Pleased with his cartful of items, he went to Lane 5 and paid for it all.

The pup greeted him as soon as he opened the door of the truck; he hid her rawhide bone among the bags in the back seat, but she was already sniffing at the air like she could smell it. “Not until Christmas,” he said with a laugh, reaching out to ruffle her fur. “Let’s go home, shall we?”

Soon the house was filled with the mouth-watering scent of roasting turkey. The pup never left the kitchen, her nose up in the air, sniffing like mad with an ever-present tail wag, but she stayed out from under his feet. When he did stumble over her, just the once, all he had to do was point and she went and lay down under the kitchen table. At least she had manners—that was more than he could say for some dogs.

Jay was in the middle of making the mashed potatoes when the doorbell rang. The pup jumped to her feet and, to his surprise, let off two loud barks. He shuffled past her, ushering her back as he opened the front door to reveal Lena and Ella in festive holiday sweaters, their arms filled with gifts. “Merry Christmas, Dad!”

“Oh God, it smells amazing,” Ella announced. “You’ve outdone yourself this year!”

She tucked her gifts under the tree, Lena following suit, and then the house was filled with squeals and coos of delight as the girls bent down to greet the pup. The pup, of course, turned into a wriggling ball of happy as she bounced between Lena and Ella, her tail wagging so hard it slapped against the wall and then the Christmas tree, sending an ornament sailing.

“She’s soooo cute!” Lena said, rubbing the pup behind the ears. “And she is one happy pup. Look at that tail!”

“She’s perfect,” Ella agreed, which surprised Jay; his youngest daughter wasn’t the biggest fan of dogs. She’d downright disliked his Frankie, but then again, the feeling had been mutual since Frankie had liked no one but Jay. “What’s her name?”

Jay pursed his lips, looking between his daughters and the black and white puppy flopped between them. He shrugged and turned back to the food. “She doesn’t have a name.”

“What?!”

“I just call her pup.”

Lena shook her head. “Dad, she’s your little Christmas Spirit!”

“Spirit’s a cute name,” Ella agreed. “Spirit? Hey, Spirit!” The pup wiggled into her arms to lick her chin and Ella laughed. “Aw look, she loves it.”

Jay sucked in a deep breath, frustration pooling inside of him, then he let it back out again. They didn’t get it. “No. You don’t understand—she’s not staying.”

“Dad…”

“She showed up on my doorstep and it was cold and I couldn’t turn her away, but I’m not keeping her. I don’t need a dog, especially not a dog like her.”

Lena narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”

Damn it. He was digging himself a shallow grave. “She’s one of those pitbulls. Don’t they grow up to be killers?” He knew it was a cop-out as soon as the words left his mouth; he couldn’t imagine that happy-go-lucky puppy doing harm to anyone; even if someone broke in, she’d probably just lick them to death. He turned his back on the girls, shuffling back into the kitchen to stir the gravy.

“Judge the deed, not the breed, Dad,” Lena said. “Yeah, some pitbulls are used for fighting, but that’s the way they’ve been raised. Spirit’s not that way.”

“Come on. I know you don’t believe that this little dog would ever hurt you,” Ella said, though her voice was softer. Ever the peacemaker. “You’re just afraid of getting attached again. You have to open your heart up to a little pain, to be able to love again. Maybe that’s why little Spirit was on your porch to begin with? Maybe Santa’s giving you the gift of unconditional love?”

Jay swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “I’m not keeping her,” he said firmly. “The day after Christmas, I’m taking her up to the shelter. She’ll be a good dog for someone. Just not me. Now please, it’s Christmas, so drop it.” He glanced up again and when both girls nodded, he let out a sigh of relief. “Would you set the table? I just need to cut the turkey and we’ll be ready to feast.”

Christmas dinner was filled with chatter and the sounds of happiness as everyone dug into their plates piled high with food, passing dishes around the table. The pup sat quietly beside Jay, her chin resting on his knee as he ate, hoping for some scraps and when the girls weren’t looking, he slipped her a piece of turkey. It was their little secret.

Jay was stuffed and by the time he sat down on the couch, he was ready for a nap. The girls would have none of it. They piled around the tree just like they had as little kids, handing presents out to each other and to him, laughing and joking around. For each and every gift opened, the room went silent so they could ooh and ahh over the gifts. They’d gotten him a blender, a new wet-dry vac, and the last three seasons of one of his favorite TV shows, as well as a box of chocolates, as was their own little tradition.

The pup, on the other hand, was having a hay day with the scraps of wrapping paper, yipping and pouncing and crinkling the paper like a total goof.

“Oh! It’s the new Mario game!” Ella squealed as she unwrapped her last gift. “Thanks, Dad! You know exactly what I like.”

“You like old Italian guys in suspenders?” Lena teased, which resulted in Ella slapping her.

“How old are we again?” Jay asked with a grin. The girls just laughed.

Lena offered him the last package, a small box done up in silver paper and shiny blue ribbon. “Last one,” she said, pressing it into his hands. “This one’s from both of us.” She and Ella shared a conspiratorial look and Jay began to unwrap the gift. He lifted the lid off the box—and let out a loud groan. Seriously?

Inside was a black leather dog collar, complete with silver tags engraved with the name ‘Spirit’.

“I told you, I am not keeping the dog!”

Ella frowned. “Dad, come on. Why not? She’s perfect. She needs a home and you need someone to talk to. It’s a win-win situation!”

“You seem so much happier than usual and the only difference is Spirit,” Lena agreed. “I know she’s not Frankie—there will never be another Frankie and that’s fine—but you should love her for her.”

Jay fingered the smooth leather of the collar, but his mind was already made up. “Sorry, I just…can’t.” He stood up and hung the collar on one of the branches of the Christmas tree, ignoring the way the colored lights glinted off the dog tags. Then he began to pick up the mess of papers covering his floor. “She’s a good dog. She’ll be good for someone.”

“She’d be good for you…”

He shook his head. “Not this time.”

After what seemed like a very awkward forever, the girls gathered up their things and said their goodbyes, both to him and to the pup. He wrapped Lena and Ella in his arms and squeezed them tightly. “Have a good Christmas,” he said, trying to ignore the twinge of sadness in his heart.

“You too, Dad.”

Then they were gone and it was just Jay and the pup in that big old lake house. He sat down on the couch and kicked up his feet on the ottoman and she came up and placed a paw on his leg. He looked down at her, looked into those milk-chocolate eyes, and he smiled, though it was sad. “So. Spirit, huh?” he said, testing out the name. The pup pricked her ears and tipped her head to the side, wiggling her tail, and he nodded.

Spirit it was. At least for now.

 

Four

 

Christmas day dawned bright, the sunlight glinting over the snow to make it sparkle like diamonds. Jay woke up and poured himself a cup of coffee and Spirit a bowl of kibble and they ate their breakfast to the sound of sips and crunches. Afterwards, the two of them trekked out into the snow, boots and paws crunching over white crust, and after Spirit ran laps around the yard a few times, they retreated into the warmth of the house.

Jay reached up into the cabinet, where he’d stashed the large rawhide bone, and when the pup saw it, her eyes lit up. “Merry Christmas,” he told her, offering her one end. She gently took the bone, trotted across the living room to flop down on her blanket, and began to gnaw away.

He spent the day at home, eating leftovers and pawing through his box of chocolates to pick out the maple-flavored ones, watching re-runs of holiday specials under the glow of the Christmas lights. The whole time, Spirit was right there, leaving her bone behind to accompany him to the bathroom or to follow him to the garage or the kitchen.

While eating a sandwich, Jay slid the pup more than a few bites of turkey. It was the least he could do and it was Christmas, after all. But maybe because he was feeling a little guilty as well. He knew the shelter would open in the morning, knew that he’d be packing Spirit up in his truck and dropping her off there. Some nice family would give her a home, a place where she could be loved. A place that wasn’t his place.

But then…why did it give him a stomach ache when he thought about it?

Shoving it out of his mind, Jay went to bed early that night, turning off all the Christmas lights one last time, and when Spirit climbed up in bed with him, he let her. She snuggled in close, licking his face in a subdued manner, like she knew something was going to happen, she just didn’t know what.

He was barely able to sleep.

In the morning, he got up and went through routine—take a leak, pour some coffee, feed the dog, go outside for a potty break-slash-cigarette break, play some fetch, go back inside—but he felt numb, as if he was somehow set on auto-pilot and someone else was controlling his body. Minutes ticked by slowly, yet too fast and then it was time.

“Come on, girl,” he said, bending down to pat her side, roughing her up a bit. She danced around as he looped Frankie’s old leash around her neck, then she pretty much dragged him out to the truck. She climbed into the passenger seat, nose smearing up his window. He chain-smoked two cigarettes on the drive to the shelter, unable to look over at the simple little dog he’d somehow grown fond of. He couldn’t give her what she needed. She needed a family, a couple of hyper kids to dote on, not a grumpy old man who lazed around on his couch all day. She was young, spirited, energetic…and he was not.

Still, when he pulled into the parking lot of the animal shelter, his heart began to ache. He reached over and wrapped his arm around Spirit, drawing her close. She bumped her cold nose against his neck, swiped her wet tongue across his face, her tail hitting the dashboard with a thunk-thunk sound. “You’ll find someone perfect,” he told her, hating the way his voice wavered a little at the end. “I’m doing this for you. So, Miss Spirit…this is goodbye.”

She docked her ears back and looked at him. He quickly looked away, then killed the engine and together, they walked up to the front doors; inside, he filled out paperwork and then after one last goodbye, one last scratch behind the ears, he handed her leash over to a young woman in Snoopy scrubs. “We’ll make sure she gets a good home,” she told him, but he just turned away because he couldn’t stand to see that look of betrayal in Spirit’s eyes.

He knew, without a doubt, that she watched him leave.

Walking back out to his truck, winter pulled at his coat, chilling his body and his heart, and he drove with the heat cranked on high and rock music blaring out of the speakers so he wouldn’t think about her because when he thought of her, his eyes began to burn and he wasn’t going to cry over a damned dog.

So he went back home, to his empty lake house, which seemed even more empty now. Pouring himself a tall glass of spiked eggnog, he pulled the dog collar Ella and Lena had given him for Christmas off one of the branches and without a second glance, shoved it in a kitchen drawer to be forgotten about like the rest of the odds and ends there.

Then he began to dismantle the Christmas tree, taking all the lights and ornaments off the branches before stuffing everything back into a box. The box went into the garage. He smoked a cigarette and then swept the carpet where the tree had shed little fake pine needles onto the floor, and he continued to sweep until the entire house was clean. If anything else, because it gave him something to do.

To shake the blues, he braved the cold and went ice fishing, but as he sat there on the overturned yellow bucket, all he felt was loneliness. Nothing dared to nibble on his hook so he gave up early. He went and soaked in the hot tub and while it warmed him back up, the only sounds filling the house were the bubbling of the water and the hum of the furnace kicking on.

The house was quiet. Empty. No happy tails slapping against doorframes and walls, no arguing with the dog to get off his damn couch. He was back to being alone—but wasn’t that how he liked it? It never really bothered him before; in fact, he used to like the peace and quiet, but… Now it just felt hollow, like a piece of him was missing.

He went to sleep and he dreamed of Frankie, of all the good times they’d shared together, revisiting the past, feeling all the love he’d felt for that little red hound, from the day he brought him home to the day he let him go. In his dream, Frankie was young again, but whenever Jay would get close to him, Frankie would take off running and by the time he caught up to the dog, Frankie was no longer alone.

Spirit was there, sitting beside Frankie, both their tails wagging in unison. Frankie had never liked other dogs, but somehow, in this dream world, it seemed natural for Frankie to nuzzle up next to Spirit like they were good friends. Jay suddenly saw the similarities between the two dogs—the floppy ears, the wet black noses, and those soulful chocolate eyes.

“Frankie.” Jay’s voice was an echo as he started to walk towards them, but with each step he took, Frankie began to fade away, the edges of his existence going blurry. Jay jerked to a stop and bent down. “Come here, boy.” Frankie just tilted his head and barked—once, sharp—and then nudged Spirit forward. For a long moment, Frankie and Jay stared at each other. “I love you, boy,” Jay said around the lump in his throat and Frankie seemed to understand.

Spirit came closer and Jay wrapped his arms around her, finding her warm and solid and alive, even as Frankie began to fade away, ghosting into a strangely beautiful nothingness, and when tears began to fall down Jay’s cheeks, Spirit licked them away, and he was thankful to have her.

Jay woke up crying and reached out, but there was no Spirit to comfort him. Just an empty bed in an empty house. “Damn it…” he whispered, swiping at the tears, but they just kept falling, clogging up in his beard. He’d made a mistake. Ella and Lena had been right—she might not’ve been Frankie, but he needed Spirit.

That was it.

He jumped out of bed and got dressed and without even grabbing his morning cup of coffee, he started up the truck and drove back to the shelter. He burst through the front doors, startling a woman swiffering the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said, breathless from the cold. “I’ve made a mistake. I dropped a puppy off here yesterday and I didn’t realize until now, how much I need her in my life. I’m a foolish old man…” He just wanted to make things right. He wanted to wrap Spirit up in his arms and apologize, take her home and buy her all the bones in the world.

But as she flipped through his paperwork, the woman frowned. “I’m sorry sir, but it seems the dog was picked up yesterday evening,” she said and his heart dropped, way down into his gut, where it beat with a lonely ache.

“The girls that took her home seemed really excited to have her,” one of the other volunteers said. “If it means anything at all, I know that pup is going to a great home. I really am sorry.”

“Thank you,” Jay said. He turned around and left. For the longest time, he just sat in his truck, forehead resting against the wheel. Damn him. He didn’t want to go home; he couldn’t bear the thought of going back to an empty house, but that was all he had. Swallowing back his emotions, he put the truck in drive and pulled out of the parking lot. Why did it have to hurt so badly?

“Damn fool.” Wasn’t that how it always went? You never realized you had something special until it was gone? He shook his head and fisted the steering wheel, turning onto his road, and parked in his driveway was a little copper car. Ella’s car. He sniffed and rubbed his leaky eyes dry, then headed around to the front of the house—and stopped dead in his tracks.

On the porch, on his old red and black bench, sat his girls. Ella on one side, Lena on the other, and in between them, with a bright red ribbon tied around her neck, was Spirit. As soon as the pup saw him, she barked and made a flying leap off the bench, galloping over to him to dance around his legs. With tears in his eyes, Jay bent down and scooped that puppy up and squeezed her tightly, burying his face in the fur on her neck. “Spirit…”

Ella and Lena both wrapped their arms around him in a giant, squirming, laughing family hug and when they pulled away, both girls had tears in their eyes. “We couldn’t let it happen, Dad,” Ella said softly. “You need this dog just as much as she needs you.”

“I know,” Jay said softly, a smile twisting his lips up. “Thank you.”

“Guess this is our real gift to you,” Lena said. “El, go get the stuff.”

“What stuff?” Jay asked, but Ella only laughed and ran back to the car, and when she came back, her arms were full. She had a plush blue dog bed, a bagful of toys and treats, and a large bag of puppy food.

“Merry Christmas, Dad. For real, this time.”

They helped redecorate the house with all the doggy things, but Spirit wasn’t interested in squeak toys or rawhides. She didn’t leave his side once, her body pressed against his leg like she knew he needed her reassurance. His hand never left the top of her head, stroking the velvet of her ears. Once Ella and Lena felt that everything was perfect, they doled out hugs and took off, leaving Jay and Spirit alone.

“Spirit,” he said and her ears pricked up, head cocking to one side. He stood and reached into the drawer and pulled out the leather collar and tags. She wiggled over to him and he buckled it around her neck, the tags jingling a merry little tune every time Spirit moved. The house would never be truly quiet again, and that was okay with him. “There we go, girl. Perfect. Now who wants to watch some TV?”

He sat down on the couch and clicked his television on and Spirit flopped down at his feet. But something wasn’t quite right. With a smile and a small shake of his head, he patted the couch cushion beside him. “Come here, Spirit.” She looked at him, a little surprised, but when he called again, she climbed up beside him and flopped down, her head resting in his lap. “Good girl,” he whispered and he could’ve sworn she was grinning at him.

This would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Happy Holidays

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