“Soon, pal.” I stroked his fur.
We put on our winter coats, gloves, and scarves and loaded into Mama’s car for the short drive to Lincoln High School. I went to this high school years ago, and from the outside, it looked exactly the same. We piled out of the car and waited in line at the front entrance, where a few students were collecting tickets.
A young girl of about seventeen looked at Thor, then at me, with a worried expression. Here we go again, I thought, and felt my stomach tighten.
But this time Mama stepped to the front. “Merry Christmas, Melissa,” she said in a friendly yet firm voice. “Have you met my son Taylor? He’s a Marine,” she said with pride. “And that’s his service dog. I’m sure you know it’s the law that people with service dogs can go anywhere, right? Yes, I’m sure you do. Now here are our tickets. Thank you. And Merry Christmas!” Mama concluded with a cheery wave and led us all past the stunned girl at the door into the school auditorium.
“Mama would make a great drill sergeant,” I said to Miller as we followed her in.
I gawked like a tourist as I followed my mother through the halls that I would have been able to navigate in my sleep. I’d spent four of the happiest years of my life in these halls. It seemed like a lifetime ago since I was that kid who didn’t have a care in the world. How much had changed since then, I thought. How much I had changed.
“Hey, Taylor!” came a shout from across the hall. Thor sensed me startle and stood in front of me, blocking.
It was Jack, my old friend. He was wearing the lowcountry man’s uniform of tan Dockers pants and a navy blazer. I nodded and waved. I was getting more comfortable being out in public with Thor, but I wasn’t ready to start talking at length with anyone.
The school band mercifully began making noises.
Mama said, “We’d better hurry and get some seats.”
“I’ll call you again after Christmas,” Jack shouted with a parting wave as he guided a petite blonde carrying an infant past the double doors.
We found seats in the back which allowed Thor to sit in the aisle. Miller wanted to sit by him and hold his leash, but I held firm. I needed Thor tonight. I didn’t want to make a mistake and cause a scene or have Thor bark and interrupt the play. As the curtain went down and the room darkened, I clutched the arms of my seat and knew a moment’s panic. But when I felt Thor’s muzzle on my knee, I took a deep breath and began petting him repeatedly. The dog and I were connected at an almost cellular level. Thor could sense my needs and I his. I was beginning to understand what Clarissa meant when she said the leash was more an umbilical cord. Thor had faith in us. I needed to have faith, too.
I relaxed more and enjoyed the program. I didn’t hear a peep from Thor. He could’ve been asleep for all we were aware. The young players did an admirable job with their roles, especially old Jacob Marley when he rattled his chains and moaned for the soul of old Scrooge. I nudged Miller in the ribs when we heard the familiar lines, and he glanced back at me with a smirk. He’d received an A on his book report. I wished our father could have joined us. He always enjoyed these special family occasions. And I wanted him to be proud to see me getting out more.
When we drove home, we were all hungry and in good moods. The night had been a success on many levels. As usual, Mama turned on the station that only played Christmas carols. This time I didn’t mind. When we pulled into our driveway, we saw that Mama had turned on the exterior Christmas lights before she left. The house looked festive, and Miller and I complimented her.
“Yes, sir, our best Christmas Forage yet,” Mama said, looking at Miller.
The house was still dark when we entered, and the smell of garlic was mouthwatering.
“Your dad must still be out,” Mama said. “Well, let’s go ahead. It’s too late to wait. Take off your coats and we’ll eat our dinner.”
I was starved and my stomach growled for the savory pork. We pulled off our heavy coats and boots, and together we set the dark wood dining table that had been in the McClellan family for generations. It still gleamed, and the scratches and nicks in the wood “gave the table personality,” Mama always said. In short order Mama had warmed a crusty loaf of bread and set it on the table beside a dish of butter and some hard cheeses. She served the sliced roast and gravy on heaps of egg noodles with a green salad on the side. We feasted happily on our late dinner, talking about the play. Thor sat quietly at my feet and only once lifted his head to look woefully at me and then let his gaze shift to my plate in an obvious beg for some meat.
After we finished dinner, Miller brought out the ornaments we’d purchased at the Arts Council. We watched as Mama opened each one, taking great care. She oohed when seeing them: a delicate wooden carving of a shrimp boat, an acorn made from the paper of road maps, two red felt birds decorated with sequins, and a blown-glass dolphin.
Mama held each one up to let it hang from her finger as she admired it. Each was pronounced “lovely” and “perfect.”
Miller looked over to the corner of the living room where a few cartons labeled CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS and XMAS LIGHTS were stacked against the wall.
“When do you think we’ll get our tree?” Miller asked.
“Pretty soon.” Mama reached for her coffee cup.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve!”
She took a sip and set it back on the saucer. “We’re waiting on Daddy to finish that house job,” she explained in a tone as if she’d given that explanation many times before. “He’s been working so hard. Why, you know how he loves going out to cut the tree. It’s tradition.”
“All the good ones will be gone,” Miller muttered with impatience.
“Does it matter?” I asked “Once we get the ornaments and lights on, it’ll be beautiful.”
This appeared to appease Miller because his face softened and he nodded with a half smile. “Yeah, I reckon.”
Mama glanced at the clock and frowned. “It’s awfully late. I wonder what’s keeping your father.”
“He must be earning a lot of money,” Miller said, clearly relishing the prospect.
Mama smiled wistfully. “I hope so. Well”—she stood—“these dishes aren’t going to do themselves. How about we get started? The sooner we get done, the sooner we can go to bed.”