Here it comes, I thought. Leaning forward on the table the words rushed out: “Oh, Mama, one of the puppies is the best dog I’ve ever seen. He’s a golden color, and he’s a real sweet dog. I call him Sandy Claws, get it?” I laughed nervously. She smiled but her eyes were sad. “And he likes me already. He always comes and lies right next to me. And he sleeps in my lap and everything! I love him, Mama. He’s the only thing I want for Christmas. I’ll take care of him and walk him and I’ll get a part-time job so I can help pay for his food.” My words were gushing from my mouth so fast I had to stop and take a breath. I looked at her and ended my outburst with my hands pressed together in prayer. “Please?” My whole body strained forward.
Mama looked at me and I could see a sorrow that went deep in her eyes. She didn’t speak, and I felt my body slowly release its tension as I slid back in the chair, like a deflated balloon. I could see what her answer was before she spoke the words. I could see that she’d already talked to Mrs. Davidson.
“Oh, honey. It’s not a good time to get a dog.”
The disappointment washed over me like a wave. I scowled, hurt and angry. “It’s never a good time.”
“That’s not fair.”
“You’re right! It isn’t fair!” I shot back at her, surprised by my own boldness. “You always say I’m too young or that dogs are too dirty or that maybe when the right dog comes along, or when I’m older. Well, I’m older now and this is the right dog. I love him, Mama.” I felt tears moisten my eyes and was embarrassed.
Mama sighed and her shoulders slumped. “You know things are tight since your daddy put the boat to dock. I don’t know . . .” She took a deep breath and said as a final excuse, “I suppose we could ask your father.”
“Ask me what?”
We both spun around. We’d been so intent on our discussion that neither of us had heard him come in. Daddy filled the threshold, his broad shoulders straining his worn jean jacket. His clothes were soiled with dirt and oil that spoke of a hard day’s work on a shrimp boat. His face was deeply tanned year-round and coursed with lines like the creeks he navigated. His pale eyes shone out in contrast like beacons that telegraphed intensity. The light shone on my mother, then on me.
The look in his eyes made me sit straighter in my chair. I couldn’t speak and turned and looked helplessly at my mother.
She was flustered by his surprise entrance and hurried to his side to offer him a quick kiss. “You’re home early.”
“The catch was lousy,” he said with a disappointed grunt.
“Want a beer?” Without waiting for a reply Mama hurried to the fridge to fetch him one.
Daddy opened the bottle and took a long drink. Then he fixed his gaze on me. “Ask me what?”
Mama came to my rescue. “Miller was just telling me what he wanted for Christmas.”
A shadow crossed Daddy’s face. He took another swig from his beer. “So what do you want?”
I licked my lips and rose to stand. “A puppy. One of Dill’s puppies.”
He didn’t speak.
I rushed on. “He’s a golden Lab. Pick of the litter, Mrs. Davidson says.”
“A dog?” he asked with a shocked expression. “You want a dog?”
I nodded, mute.
“Hell, boy, do you know how much it costs to keep a dog?”
“I’d work to help pay for his food and stuff. You know I’m a good worker.”
“You are that.” He conceded and rubbed his stubbled jaw. He glanced at my mother, then shook his head. “But it won’t be enough. Maybe next year.”
“Not next year!” I cried. My desperation made me bold. “I don’t want any dog, I want this dog! Sandy. I have to get him. Please, Daddy.”
“Not now, Son. I can’t afford to keep food on the table for you, much less a dog.”
“I have seventy-five dollars. I’ll give it all to you.”
Color flooded my father’s face. “I said no,” he shouted.
“Don’t shout,” Mama said.
“Don’t encourage him!” he shot back at her, anger sparking.
A moment passed between them, a message signaled in their eyes that I didn’t understand.
Daddy calmed and said, “Don’t let him get his hopes up.”
I could see I’d lost. I knew I should’ve been quiet, but I couldn’t stop myself. “I’d pay you back. Every penny. I swear.”
“No!” he bellowed, and swiped his hand through the air like a machete cutting wheat. “No dog! That’s the end of it, hear? Not another word.” He glared at me a moment, but more hurt than anger was in his eyes. Then he stomped out of the room, leaving me and my mother standing in a stunned silence.
I slid back into my chair and rested my head in my arms, trying hard not to let the tears loose.
My mother came to my side and rested her palm on my shoulder. “Aw, Miller, don’t feel bad. Daisy will have puppies again.”
“Not like Sandy,” I cried, my voice muffled by my arms.
“You don’t know that. She always has beautiful pups. I know for a fact Mrs. Davidson is breeding her one more time.”
She paused, waiting for me to say something. But I had nothing to say.
“Cheer up.” She gently shook my shoulders. “I have some wonderful news. The best news.”
I sniffed and raised my head. That’s the thing about hope. You can beat it down and crush it, but it’ll still bubble back up at the slightest chance. I wildly wondered if she’d heard of some job I could get, or that maybe she’d talked to Mrs. Davidson.
“Your brother is coming home!” Mama said with heart. Her eyes shone with the news. “Can you believe it? Taylor coming home is our family’s best Christmas present! Isn’t that wonderful?”
That was the big news? I loved my big brother, and I was glad he was coming home. But that was my Christmas present? No Xbox. No PlayStation. And worst of all, no Sandy.
I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and stepped away from the table, away from her. I roughly grabbed my copy of A Christmas Carol and stuffed it back into my book bag with an angry shove. I felt hurt roiling inside me like a storm.
“Miller, don’t be like that. It’s Christmastime!”