by Maryetta Ackenbom
This story has never been published.
Big Jim Chambers shuffled along the sidewalk, saving energy and shoe leather, making time to pull together his emotions before he greeted his son again. He had nothing to offer the boy.
Christmas season approached, the first since the accident. Eight-year-old Jimmy, in a wheelchair and destined to stay there all his life, would have nothing for Christmas. Big Jim had spent his last dollars on a meager Christmas dinner, buying a couple of chicken drumsticks and some cupcakes. That would have to do. Pain medications for Jimmy and the ten dollars a week he gave his landlady for looking after the boy ate up the pittance he earned as a janitor in the nearby elementary school, the school where Jimmy could no longer attend. Big Jim’s dark brow furrowed. He slowed his pace.
How could he care for his boy? How could he raise him, give him a way to earn a living, when he couldn’t even find the means to get him to his third-grade class?
Jimmy was so smart. He’d aced out his second-grade classes, and he’d run home to show his proud dad the report card. Not smart enough to look both ways before running across the street, and not quick enough to dodge the delivery truck. The driver hurried on. Likely he didn’t even know he’d hit the child. No one noticed the logo on the truck, or its make or model. Many noticed Jimmy, lying in the street as if dead, both brown legs bent at an unnatural angle. An ambulance arrived, and before Big Jim got home, Jimmy was being treated at the emergency room a mile away.
The minimal insurance Big Jim’s job offered paid a lot of the hospital and doctors’ bills, but left nothing for the continuing care the boy needed. And nothing for celebrating Christmas. Nothing for the psychologist the doctors recommended, to raise Jimmy out of the depression he fell into when he realized he’d never run across another street.
Sherry hurried along the same street, shivering a little through her thin coat, a half-hour before Big Jim shuffled by. She stopped by the library to see if a Walter Farley book she had not yet read appeared on the shelf. She paused, inspecting the other books grouped together on the Black Stallion shelf. She’d read them all. Not in a hurry to face the cold, she dawdled a bit at the library, unworried about being late—her parents usually arrived from their offices an hour after she left school.
Sherry let herself into the red brick house and stooped to hug Sugar, the young white Spitz. Sugar greeted her with enthusiasm, dancing in front of her, but she was in a hurry to go outside, so Sherry opened the back door into the yard which ran along the side of the house. “Hurry, Shug,” she told her dog. Her dog, she thought, the only dog they’d ever had which chose her instead of her mother to be her number one human. She stayed and played with Sugar for a few minutes, then dashed back into the house.
Sherry poured a glass of milk, brushed back her blond bangs and changed her clothes. Then she returned to let Sugar in. But the dog was not waiting there to escape the cold outdoors. Sherry called, “Come on, Shug, hurry. It’s cold out here.”
She looked around the corner of the house toward the street. The dog wasn’t in sight. Sherry ran toward the front gate, hugging herself against the cold. Sugar was not there.
“Where are you, girl?” she called.
She checked the gate—it was closed and locked, as usual. Stooping, she pushed back the leaves of the shrubs planted close to the fence and the wall of the neighboring house. No white dog lingered there. Leaning over the fence, she looked up and down the street. No dog, no human was there. Did Sugar climb over the fence? Was she—a sob came to Sherry’s throat—was she stolen?
When her mother and father arrived, they found Sherry crouched on the sofa, hugging one of the pillows where Sugar liked to sleep, and crying.
“Sugar’s gone!” she wailed. “I let her out, and she didn’t come back. Where is she?”
Mom sat beside Sherry and put her arm around her, and Dad went to check the yard. When he came back in, he asked, “You didn’t unlock the gate, did you, Sherry?”
“No, no! Could she climb over? Did someone take her?”
“No, she couldn’t have got out by herself. I’ll report her stolen.”
Sherry sobbed harder.
Big Jim coaxed the white Spitz to come to him. She was friendly and had no guard-dog tendencies. She leaned against the fence, and he reached over to pet her head. Then, reaching down further, he grasped her underneath her front legs and lifted her over the fence.
What am I doing? Big Jim hugged the dog to his chest and hurried down the street, arguing with himself. I am no thief! It’s for Jimmy, for my poor crippled boy. A pretty, friendly dog. He’ll love it! I’m not stealing the dog, I’m just borrowing it—for a Christmas visit to my boy.
Feeling better after his self-justification, and now having a Christmas gift actually in hand for his son, Big Jim no longer shuffled, he ran, as best he could while holding a twenty-pound dog in his arms. Now he was anxious to greet his boy.
Sherry’s father notified the police and placed a classified ad in the local newspaper. An officer stopped by the house and agreed that the disappearance of Sugar was likely a theft, but there were no further results. Days passed, Christmas came and went, and Sherry continued sad and weepy.
Jimmy’s Christmas was a happy one. “Dad,” he said when his father arrived bearing Sugar, “you mean you can just bring a dog for a visit? I didn’t know that.”
Big Jim sat in the worn armchair and pulled Jimmy’s wheelchair close to him. He held Sugar in his lap, then put her down close to the boy.
“I didn’t either, son,” he said, “but I met this family going away on vacation. They needed someone to take care of the dog while they were gone.” He ruffled his son’s wiry black hair and choked back a sob.
“Oh, I wish we could keep her. What’s her name?”
Big Jim thought for a minute. “She’s as white as snow, Jimmy. We could call her ‘Snow.’
“I know!” sputtered the boy. “She’s ‘Snowdog.’ Maybe she’ll bring snow for Christmas.”
Snowdog immediately showed her affection for Jimmy, jumping to put her feet on his leg. The boy encouraged her, and with a leap, she landed in his lap the first time she saw him. Big Jim wondered if she missed her lost family, but he was so pleased with his gift to Jimmy that he did not worry about that detail. He’d never seen Jimmy so happy, even before his mother sickened and finally died of cancer two years ago.
It did snow on Christmas day. Jimmy was thrilled. His dad fastened a piece of clothesline onto “Snowdog’s” collar and took Jimmy, holding the leash, for a long ride through the snowflakes in his second-hand wheelchair. Snowdog seemed to love it, too.
In their apartment, Big Jim and Jimmy had no access to a yard, so Big Jim walked Snowdog in the mornings before he went to work, and then took Jimmy and Snowdog both for a walk in the evenings when he came home.
Big Jim did not read the newspapers, but one of his neighbors did, and Eugene mentioned the ad he had seen to his friend. “That there dog sure looks like the one in the paper, Jim,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Found her in the street. Look, Eugene, Jimmy needs her. I sure hope she doesn’t have family missing her.”
Sherry’s family also often walked in the evenings. One of their neighbors mentioned to them that he saw a similar dog walking with a man and a child in a wheelchair, but several weeks passed before the family spotted Big Jim with his two companions. Dad started running to catch up with them, and Sherry sped after him.
“Mister,” shouted Dad. “Hold up. We want to see your dog.”
Sherry ran past Big Jim and Jimmy and stooped by the dog. Snowdog-Sugar was overjoyed, leaping around Sherry with smiling face and wagging tail and tongue. The dog obviously was Sherry’s pet.
Big Jim decided that even though he had committed a sinful and illegal act, it was for the benefit of his son. He had to lie a little longer.
“Mister, I found this dog on the street a few weeks ago. Look how she loves my boy.”
Indeed, Snowdog-Sugar couldn’t decide which way to jump. Although frightened and puzzled at a situation, he didn’t quite understand. Jimmy knew his Snowdog showed a lot of affection for the girl.
He reached out to touch the dog. “Hey, Snowdog, quit jumping and come here.”
The dog obeyed, for a moment, then turned and jumped toward Sherry, on her knees beside her dog.
Sherry’s mother, jogging along on her low heels, caught up with the group, and quickly grasped the situation. It didn’t matter how Big Jim “found” Sugar. His boy needed the dog.
Sherry was crying. “Mom, these people took my dog.”
Mom’s blue eyes searched her daughter’s. “Sugar is enough dog for everyone, isn’t she? Let’s all talk about this situation.” Mom pulled Sherry up, put her arm around her and spoke to her in low voice. “You see what’s happened here, don’t you, dear? The little guy has fallen in love with Sugar. And she loves him. They are poor people—let’s think about it.”
“No! I want my dog back!” Sherry shouted.
Dad put his hand on her shoulder. “We have a problem, Sherry, which we can work out. Pay attention, I think we’ll all learn something here.” He spoke quietly, but Big Jim understood him.
Jimmy also began to cry, trying not to show it. He was too old to cry. Except when he was in pain. But would he lose his dog, his companion?
Dad turned to Big Jim, “I’m Arthur Belson, this is my wife, Marie, and my daughter, Sherry. Do you live close by?”
“Right up here, Mr. Belson.” He pointed to the nearby apartment building. “It’s cold out here. You’re welcome to come up, and we’ll talk. It ain’t much, but it’s our home. I’m Jim Chambers, and this is Jimmy. We call the dog ‘Snowdog.’”
“Her name is Sugar!” yelled Sherry. She saw Jimmy cringe when he heard her, and her hands flew to her face.
Big Jim turned to the girl. “This dog is good enough to have two names, don’t you think?”
Through her tears, Sherry attempted a smile.
The group went to the Chambers’ apartment on the second floor of the apartment building. Big Jim lifted Jimmy out of the wheelchair and carried him up the dingy stairs and into the apartment. Dad carried the chair.
The apartment was small and a little shabby, but neat and clean. Big Jim tried his best to keep it in order. He watched Mom nodding as she looked around.
Dad’s mind was working. “Is Jimmy at home during the day? Does he go to school?”
“Not right now. We can’t afford to make the arrangements he needs. Yes, he is home all day. The landlady checks on him every once in a while.”
“Let’s think about a plan,” said Dad. “I know it’s a little expensive to care for a dog. We can contribute to that. What about letting Sugar, or Snowdog, stay with Jimmy during the day…”
“No!” Sherry wasn’t yelling now, but her voice showed her unhappiness.
“Wait, Sherry, we’re trying to work something out here.” Her dad clutched her shoulder and hugged her. He continued, “Sherry’s at school during the day and no one’s at home with Sugar. Sherry could pick Sugar up on her way home from school and bring her back in the morning.”
Sherry sobbed quietly.
Jimmy rolled his chair close to the girl and put his hand on her arm. “Sherry, I’m sorry you lost Sugar. I feel like crying for you. But now you know where she is, and if we can make a plan, you’ll have her with you a lot.”
Sherry stared at Jimmy. He felt sorry for her! She knelt beside his chair. “I can tell you love Sugar—uh—Snowdog—too, I can see your eyes when you look at her. And she loves you too, look at her!”
Sugar had joined the conference of the two children, placing her front feet on Jimmy’s knee.
Big Jim’s eyes watered, and he worried that what he was about to say might take Snowdog away from Jimmy forever. “Folks, all of you, I have a confession to make. I’m no thief, I’m an honest working man. Just before Christmas, I walked slow getting home because I didn’t have anything for my boy. I’d seen this little dog before, in your yard. I stopped to pet her. She’s always friendly. I was so upset, temptation took hold of me, and I lifted her out of the yard. I thought—just for a visit. When Jimmy fell in love with her, I didn’t know what to do. I was torn in two. I’m torn now, watching your sweet child, and I see how much she loved and missed the dog.”
Jimmy’s head swung back and forth between his father’s face and Sherry’s frown, and the disturbed looks on her parents’ faces. Big Jim looked like he was hurting. Jimmy knew that feeling. What had happened? Was he going to lose Snowdog? Tears came to his eyes, rolled down his cheeks. He pulled the dog toward him, rubbing her ears.
Big Jim put his arm around his son and continued, “I beg of you, forgive my weakness. I’ll make it up to you however I can, and I will be forever grateful, and Jimmy will be too, if we can share this wonderful dog.”
Sherry listened, and her face cleared. “Dad, Mom, Jimmy,” she said. “If we share Sugar, she’ll be happy and will have new friends. We’ll all have new friends.”
Dad reached out to Big Jim, and with his other arm he drew Mom into a hug with him. Sherry knelt by Jimmy’s chair, and Sugar-Snowdog found a comfortable spot on Jimmy’s knees. Everyone cried, everyone was happy. Including Sugar-Snowdog.
Watch for more Christmas short stories here in KRL coming up in the next couple of weeks, and check out our the latest episode of our mystery podcast which features the first chapter of a mystery novel that takes place at Christmas time.