First I carried a tray to Miller’s room. I knocked and entered, finding Miller sitting on his bed sullenly reading Dickens.
“I’m not hungry,” he said when he saw the tray.
“Uh-huh,” I replied in good cheer. “It’s here in case you change your mind.” I left without another word, closing the door behind me. If I knew my son, that tray would be clean in an hour.
The second tray I carried to Taylor’s room. I knocked and opened the door, not waiting for his usual “Go away.” Unlike before, there was obviously some attempt at tidying the room. The dirty dishes and clothes were gone, as was the bottle of bourbon on the bedside table. I knew he’d cleaned up for Clarissa’s inspection and hoped he’d keep it up. Taylor had always been a neat young man.
Taylor was sitting on the floor with Thor’s head in his lap reading a book. My heart melted at the sight. A boy and his dog, I thought. Yet I knew something more important was going on. I could see Taylor was pensive.
“I thought Thor left with Clarissa?”
“Why would you think that? Thor’s my dog now. He stays here. Clarissa comes back only to train.”
“Oh.” I was glad to hear it. Already I could see the dog was having a positive effect on Taylor. “I thought we could all use some quiet time tonight.” I swept into the room, carrying the tray to his desk. My prying eyes noticed the pamphlets and books on dog training scattered.
“What are you reading?”
“A Christmas Carol.”
“Oh, really? Miller is reading that for his book report.”
“I know. I thought I might be able to help him.” Taylor closed the book abruptly and moved it aside, seemingly embarrassed. “Or not.” He stroked Thor’s long neck in thought. “How’s Miller?”
I set down the tray and turned to face Taylor. “As you’d expect,” I replied honestly. “Hurt.”
“I can understand those feelings.” Then in a lower tone he added, “I feel terrible about this.”
He let his arm drop from Thor. “How can I not? I got a dog and he didn’t. That’s a kick in the teeth for anyone, much less a kid only ten years old.” He paused. “You know”—Taylor rubbed his forehead with his fingers—“he told me how much he wanted that dog. I wanted to get it for him. Real bad. I walked to Mrs. Davidson’s house that same day to buy it. But she told me the dog was already sold. All the puppies were all sold.”
I was stunned that he’d walked all the way across town to the Davidsons’ house. Taylor, who never left the house. “You should tell Miller that.”
“Why? What good would it do? It’d only rub salt in the wound. Too little, too late. Damn, this is such a mess.”
Thor heard Taylor’s tension, and I was mightily impressed to see the dog immediately rise and turn to bring his face to Taylor’s and begin licking it. Taylor had to stop talking and began petting Thor, murmuring, “It’s all right. Good dog.”
I watched, for the first time understanding the remarkable sensitivity of the service dog. Thor really could sense Taylor’s anxiety levels and calm him before they went out of control. Taylor wasn’t even fully aware that he’d stopped to focus on petting the dog.
“Taylor, you can’t take blame for the fact you got a dog,” I told him. “Just like you can’t take blame for what’s happened in Afghanistan.”
“Daddy thinks I deserve the blame.”
“What? How can you say that?”
“He hasn’t spoken a word to me since, since . . .” Taylor paused and looked away. He didn’t need to mention the incident with the gun. We were both thinking of it. “He can’t stand to even look at me.”
I licked my lips, unsure of what to say. I’d noticed Alistair’s avoidance, too. “He’s just so worried about getting his job done,” I said lamely.
“Whatever.” Taylor shook his head.
My heart broke for him and I resolved to talk to Alistair when he returned home.
“Here’s the thing,” Taylor said. “I can’t keep the dog.”
“What?” I asked with alarm.
“At least not while I’m here. It’d be too hard for Miller. He’s the one we have to worry about. Not me.”
“I’ll be the judge of who I worry about, thank you very much.”
Taylor furrowed his brows, intent on saying his piece. “I can call Clarissa,” he said, pushing forward with his thoughts. “I’ll ask if she’ll take Thor back, just until after Christmas. Then I can find a new place.”
I didn’t like where these plans were heading. Give back the dog? Leave home after Christmas? “A new place?” I asked. “Taylor, where will you go?”
“I’m not going back to Quantico. I left that hellhole of an apartment. It was only temporary. I want to find someplace that’s good for Thor. And for me.”
“You know you can stay here for as long as you want. We want you to. This is your home.”
He bowed his head. “I know. Thanks.” He looked back up. “But I can’t keep Thor and live here under these circumstances. The last thing I want to do is hurt Miller.”
I saw the decision forming in his mind and feared it. This was the Taylor I knew and loved. He put others before himself. Self-sacrifice and a strong sense of duty were some of the reasons he’d joined the Marines. I could already see the calming effect the dog was having on my son. I couldn’t let him make this mistake.
“I almost lost you and I won’t do it again.” Emotion made my voice wobble. “I know you’re having a hard time. I want to help in any way I can, to help you deal with your condition now that I understand it better. . . . Yeah,” I said self-consciously when he appeared surprised. “I studied up on PTSD. There’s so much information out there. Academic and lay. Even I could understand it,” I added with a self-deprecating laugh. “And I know now that you need that service dog.”
Taylor looked at the dog, then reached out to scratch behind Thor’s ears.
I knew he was listening so I pressed on. “But we can do better as a family, I know we can. Even if it just means bringing you a grilled cheese sandwich in your room instead of having you join us at the table.” I met his gaze and smiled. “I know it’s going to take time. I want to help you get your life back, and I know that includes your relationship with your brother and father. Give us time, Taylor. We will get through this and be a family again.”