You might not believe me, but the desert and the ocean are similar. They’re both immense in a way that defies comprehension. I’ve ridden in a Humvee across miles of endless sand under a merciless sun and sailed a shrimp boat on the dark sea when the dawn broke across the horizon, and in both places I felt the vastness. It made me feel small and insignificant. Isolated and alone. Both desert and sea are unforgiving terrain and don’t tolerate fools.
I’m proud that I’m a good leader. I don’t say that with conceit. I say this so you understand why I feel the burden of guilt for being sent home while some of my men will never make it back.
The Bible says that pride goeth before a fall. I’m here to tell you that’s true.
Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas season is beginning. Instead of joy, however, I feel the terror of my war memories lurking inside my brain like one of those damned IEDs just waiting for the right trigger to explode and tear me apart, the way one did on a dusty Afghanistan road. The bomb shattered my bones and burned my body and soul. Yet they call me lucky.
I’m going home because the doctors say I’m recovered. I can only shake my head and think, What fools. My fractured bones might be healed, but my brain certainly isn’t. The scars in my mind are the wounds that cut the deepest. I didn’t want to leave the hospital—I felt safe there. I’m more comfortable with other injured servicemen like me than I am with my family. But they said I had to leave, so I did. I got a cheap apartment near the hospital. I holed up, afraid to go out, to deal with the public. I grew isolated, lonely. The doctors told me to go see my family for the holidays. Where do you go but home when there’s no place else to go? So, as the song says, I’ll be home for Christmas.
I feel as if I’m heading for a fall.
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach. “Bah!” said Scrooge. “Humbug!”
—A Christmas Carol
There’s magic in Christmas. How else can you explain how excited everyone gets when December rolls around? Or the smile that pops on people’s faces when they hear a favorite carol or see Christmas decorations in shop windows? I don’t believe in Santa. I mean, I’m not a kid anymore. I’m ten. But I’m not ashamed to admit I still get excited about Christmas.
And I’m not the only one. As soon as Thanksgiving was over, before the smell of turkey had even left the kitchen, Bubba, Tom, Dill, and me started arguing about what was better to ask for for Christmas—an Xbox or a PlayStation. Personally, I’m on team PlayStation. But I’d be happy with either. All I’ve got now is my older brother Taylor’s hand-me-down Xbox. He’s been in Afghanistan and is letting me use it while he’s away. Dad said he doesn’t like those video games and I should play outdoors, but I know it’s because they’re expensive. Mama said those games cost the moon. Bubba’s dad is some big shot at the power company. They live in one of the fancy new houses on Jeremy Creek. Not that I’m jealous. But, see, Bubba knows he can ask for either game and get it. The rest of us just kinda hope.
Well, not all of us. I don’t even hope. My dad is captain of a shrimp boat. I guess I have to get used to saying was. Times have gotten tough for shrimpers. He held on as long as he could, but he couldn’t fight the high costs of fuel and the low cost of imported shrimp any longer. So after Thanksgiving he docked the boat for good. We don’t talk about it at home, but it’s what we’re all thinking about. What are we going to do now?
All Daddy’s ever been is a shrimp boat captain. And his father before him—for generations. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be when I grow up. My name is Miller McDaniel McClellan. There’s a lot of history in that name. I’m the son of a long line of fishermen going back to the founding of this here town we live in.
Daddy’s a hard worker and real smart. He’s good with his hands, knows his way around machines, and can fix anything. Sometimes he crews for another shrimp boat. But mostly he does construction jobs whenever and wherever he can. Mama’s working hard, too, out cleaning houses. She tells me not to worry: “We’ll get by.” But I can tell by the way she pays for groceries with cash and counts the change carefully that money’s tight. So I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a PlayStation or an Xbox this year. I expect I won’t even ask for one.
Besides, there’s something else I want. A whole lot more. I want a dog. And not just any dog—one puppy in particular. It’s a long shot, but this year I think I have a chance. See what I mean about Christmas? It’s a time you can hope.
After school, Dill and I got on our bikes and headed across town to his house. He’s my best friend. His real name is Dillard, after his mama’s family name, like mine is Miller, but I call him Dill. His daddy is a shrimp boat captain, too. We’ve both been working on a shrimp boat since the day we could walk the decks, and that gives us a special bond.
McClellanville’s not like anywhere else. Sure, I’m partial because of my name, but it’s true. Picture a small town that looks like it came out of an old movie, and that’s it. Most of the houses are white wood with fancy porches, one prettier than the next. Then there’s Mrs. Fraser’s house, the big tumbledown redbrick that’s hidden behind thick oak trees and shrubs taller than me. If you can see the porch, you’ll see cats sitting everywhere. We call her the cat lady because she’s always feeding the wild cats.
Daddy says folks here don’t like change, and it’s a good thing because we pretty much live surrounded by the wild. My house is on Jeremy Creek. It looks like a river to me and it winds through acres of wetlands clear to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s the path the shrimp boats take to the sea. On the other side of town is the Marion National Forest. Town is just a few blocks of shops on Pinckney Street—our main street—with the Art Center, and T.W. Graham & Co., the town’s restaurant. It’s been around forever and a day. The town is all spruced up for the holidays with shiny green holly and pine boughs and wreaths on the doors. As Dill and I rode our bikes through the streets after school, I coasted to check out the decorated windows.
“Come on!” Dill shouted impatiently.