We left the shop calling out our thanks. I still had to get something for Miller, but the sky was already darkening. It had been a long day for Thor, and Miller and I were both eager to get to our rooms and hide our treasures.
Suddenly a car backfired. I plunged into a crouching position with my back against a brick wall. I was back in the war, my eyes wildly searching the roofs of buildings, my heart pounding in my ears. My blood raced and the whole world started spinning. I swung my head from left to right in a panic, seeing my Marine brothers’ faces, hearing explosions in my head.
A sound. A feeling. Moist. Comforting. It took me a minute but gradually I processed that it was Thor’s licking my face, whimpering in worry. His paws were on either side of my legs, his chest braced against me as he stood guard over me. Slowly I realized where I was and my breathing returned to normal. After a few minutes my hand was still shaking but I could move it.
“Good dog.” I reached out to pet Thor. I took a few more deep breaths, then moved him a few steps back from me and felt the wintry air enter the space. I gulped mouthfuls of it.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up to see Miller standing near, watching me with those fearful eyes again. I felt a stab of disappointment. He clearly didn’t know what to do with his crazy brother crouched on the sidewalk. Nor did I. I thought I’d been doing so well, and bam! One loud noise and I was back in Afghanistan. I was a walking powder keg.
A couple walked past me, looking over their shoulders with suspicion.
With a hefty grunt I rose to my feet, using Thor’s strong back as support. Then I leaned against the building while my nerves settled. I was still shaking and dizzy. Meanwhile Miller went about collecting my packages.
“How’s the painting?” I was worried I’d torn it.
“Feels okay.” He shrugged.
“Good.” I felt embarrassed. I looked at my feet. “Sorry I freaked out.”
I sighed and met his gaze. “No. It isn’t okay. But I have to deal with it.”
“Yeah. It’s that PTSD, right?”
My brows rose. “Right.” In truth, it was nice to talk about it with his knowing the facts about the disorder and accepting it.
“I thought Thor was supposed to make that go away.”
“He’s trying.” I patted the dog’s great head. Thor was still watching me intently, worry shining in his beautiful eyes. “But it takes time. I mean, without Thor I’d never have come with you to town. I’d still be hiding out in my room. Hell, without Thor I’d still be a shivering mess on the street.”
I tried to make a joke of it and looked at Miller. His blue eyes, barely visible beneath his fringe of brown hair smashed down on his forehead by his knit cap, were serious. He was mulling over what I’d said. That wasn’t disgust I saw in his eyes. It was sadness. For me and my troubles, I realized with a pang of affection. I was humbled and thought I was damn lucky to have such a brother.
“What do you say we go home?”
Miller was more than willing.
Without further stops we made our way home through the small village, a man, a boy, and a dog, past houses now aglow with holiday colors, a biting breeze at our faces, our arms filled with our purchases. I looked down at Thor, walking by my side, nose in the air, alert. He was working. I understood now what my Marine brother in the hospital meant when he’d said his dog had changed his life. All the reports I’d read online from servicemen with PTSD claiming their dog had helped them rebuild their fractured lives I now knew were true. I’d tried so many different therapies, but it was this dog, Thor, who gave me back hope for a normal life.
“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
—A Christmas Carol
With the shopping expedition under my belt, on the twenty-third we tackled the next outing—the high school play. Miller had just begun his Christmas vacation and complained that it was grossly unfair that he had to go see a school play, but it was A Christmas Carol and for extra credit he obliged, putting on his thick corduroy pants, a navy sweater, and his new boots. I teased him that if I could go to the play with my PTSD, he had to man up and go, too. It was good to talk openly about my PTSD. It didn’t feel any longer like some dirty secret I had to hide behind a closed door.
Unspoken, however, was a strange new bond we’d formed over the book, A Christmas Carol. Knowing we were both reading it, we frequently checked on each other’s reactions to different scenes or carried on a running debate about which ghost was the best. I preferred the Ghost of Christmas Past—the distant past. I found comfort remembering times when I was as young and carefree as Ebenezer was when he’d danced with the pretty ladies at Fezziwig’s party. Miller was behind the Ghost of Christmas Present. The ghost’s feast cinched it for him: turkeys, geese, game, poultry, prawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch. But also because he liked Tiny Tim. That gentle-hearted character had a lot in common with my little brother.
I put on my best jacket and a freshly ironed shirt. Thor had a good brushing and his fur was gleaming. Mama wore her best red wool dress, which set off her cap of chestnut hair, and the green silk scarf decorated with holly that she’d received from Daddy several Christmases ago. She always brought it out for the holiday parties. Mama never wore much makeup. She didn’t need to. Even with all the extra hours of work she’d taken on this past week, her green eyes glittered with the expectation of a night out. I thought she’d never looked more beautiful. Daddy was unable to join us because he was once again working late, getting a house job finished by the Christmas Eve deadline. I had to respect him for that.
When I came downstairs, I paused at the landing to sniff the air. Ecstasy! Mama had a pork roast in the slow cooker, and the delectable scents of garlic and rosemary permeated the house. I knew there’d be roasted potatoes, too. My stomach growled. Thor gave me a piteous glance, then turned to the kitchen, clearly wanting to head in that direction.