Thursday, December 28, 2017

Puppy Christmas Passage by E. B. Davis

“Mom, how do you spell puppy?”

My shoulders slumped along with my sinking heart, but I cloaked my dismay with instruction. “Sound it out, honey.”

My son, Jared, and I sat at the kitchen table. Fresh from the tub and clothed in his red and blue checked pajamas, he was working on his Christmas-wish list, my suggestion to encourage him to write. He wasn’t an enthusiastic writer, laboring, afraid to make a mistake. I wished he didn’t take it so seriously. I pretended to read the newspaper while I watched him concentrate, his tongue caught between his teeth poking out of the corner of his mouth, his fingers pressing down with enough pressure to break the point.

Jared pushed his list across the table. “Here. Tell Santa that’s all I want.” He scooted off the chair and ran into his bedroom.

“I’ll be in to read you a story,” I said.

“I can read it myself.”

Self-sufficiency. What every mother hopes for her children, but I’d miss that time snuggled together reading his favorite stories. “Okay, but I’ll tuck you in soon.”

“K.” Text-speak, but at least he’d agreed. Soon, he’d just grunt a quick “Good night” when he thought getting tucked in was too babyish.  

I read his list. Just two items. A computer game and a puppee. Out of the mouth of babes. Yep, just what I wanted in my house. A pup, who would pee in every corner. Like every other baby, the puppy would need time, training, love, and nurturing—and forgiveness and patience for all the “mistakes” he would make. It didn’t seem long ago I’d heaved a sigh of relief when Jared succeeded basic training. Could I go through that again with a dog?


The next morning, I walked Jared up the road to the bus stop. After he got on, I refrained from waving goodbye, a gesture sure to embarrass him, when the bus pulled away. My shift as a Deputy Sheriff for Dare County’s District “C” Sheriff’s office on Hatteras Island started in fifteen minutes—enough time to walk back to the house, grab my gun out of the safe, and don my hat. As I passed my neighbor’s house, Ellen Potter waved to me from the upper deck.

“Sue, there’s something suspicious in the swamp. I don’t think it’s good.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are three large packages tied up in the middle of the swamp. Someone must have dumped them there. Maybe it’s garbage, but there are flies. Buzzards are circling.” She pointed up at the sky.

I looked to where she pointed. Three turkey vultures, their red heads distinctive, flew over the swamp, which bordered Ellen and Greg’s property on one side. From the road, I could see the cattails and swamp grass parted and bent over revealing a path. Jared and I had walked past the swamp on the way to the bus stop. I’d failed to notice the path due to Jared’s monologue, sounding more like a defense attorney’s closing argument, to convince me this was a “puppy” Christmas.

Someone had dragged those packages back into the swamp. A gut feeling told me they weren’t filled with garbage. I doubted I’d find footprints. Not only was the swamp wet enough to fill in any impressions, but covered in vegetation, no prints would stick. “I’m going to check in with the station and get my boots, Ellen. I’ll be back in a minute. Would you take pictures on your phone from the top deck and send them to me?” Getting an overview of the scene could reveal evidence.

“Sure,” Ellen said. She clutched her robe, turned, and disappeared into the house. I noticed she walked with a slight limp.

I radioed the dispatcher about Ellen’s summons so it would get officially on the record, and then called my boss, Sergeant Perkins, who, after I explained my task, logged me in on the timesheet. My waterproof boots and CSI kit were in the trunk of my squad car. I had a feeling I’d need both. My cell phone rang and buzzed as I parked on the road by the swamp. I answered the call first.

“Where are you?” Woody, my intended asked. He was also a Deputy Sheriff.

“Didn’t even make it out of my road this morning.” I told him what I was investigating. “May be nothing.”

“I’m on Cape Hatteras Drive. Seems someone rifled through some cars—Christmas shopping. I’ll swing by on my way to the station.”

“K.” Seemed I was adopting Jared’s text-speak.

After clicking off from Woody, I checked my messages. Ellen’s pictures had arrived and looked much as she described. Not good. I pulled on my boots and walked through Ellen and Greg’s yard laterally to where the packages lay. If there was evidence left by whoever dragged them through the swamp, I’d rather approach from the side or back to avoid obliterating it. The smell of death increased the nearer I approached as did the quantity of blowflies. I tied a handkerchief around my face and pulled on gloves. The first package held a large dead dog. The second package held another large dead dog, nearly identical to the first. The third package revealed a dead man. He looked about forty-five, Caucasian, dark hair, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt. I aborted my mission, covered the bodies, and retraced my steps to the yard.

Ellen stepped onto the grass dressed in sweats.

“Is this the first time you saw the packages in the swamp?” I asked.

Creases formed on her forehead. “Of course, Sue. I would have reported them as soon as I saw them—and I did.”

I nodded. I’d known Ellen and Greg for about eight years. They’d bought the house as a vacation home, but two years ago decided to move to Hatteras Island permanently, having retired from their mainland jobs. I knew Ellen had been an English teacher. To adapt to the island economy, they worked for a pool and spa company servicing rental homes “Did you hear any vehicles last night?”

“No, but then the wind started up after the sun went down. Our deck furniture blew around clanking. Greg came out about nine and brought a lot of it inside. After that, we conked out. I heard the garbage guys pass through about five a.m., got up around six, but I didn’t go out on the deck until just before you came by. I would have called the station if I hadn’t seen you.” She paused. “Well, what did you find?”

At sixty, Ellen had me by twenty-five years. She expected an answer, as if I were a student of hers. I deflected her question with one of my own. “Is Greg home?”


“Get him, and then wait here. I may have a few more questions for you.” She nodded and left, walking with a limp. I walked to my car, phoned in my findings, and asked for the medical examiner.

Woody pulled up behind my car, and I explained what I’d found. He sat in the car seat, pulling on
plastic shoe covers and gloves. We approached the drag path from the opposite side of the swamp and followed it. No footprints. Woody wanted to look at the corpses. When he pulled back the wrap over the man’s body, I noticed the cover. It looked familiar to me. “The plastic cover looks like bubble wrap—sort of. It’s something else, though. What?”

Woody tried to snap his fingers, but the plastic gloves he wore hampered the gesture. “Pool cover. Remember those?”

“Yep, don’t use them much anymore. Before pool heaters got popular, people used them at night to retain solar energy warming the water during the daylight.” It sounded like a green solution, but I’d also heard they were labor intensive. Perhaps what the pool covers saved in energy was lost in labor. I examined the cover. “Looks frayed. It’s old.” I shifted my eyes to examine the corpse. “Looks like a single shot through the heart. Close range.”

“I’d say so,” Woody concurred. His eyes shifted to something glinting on the pool cover.

I bent my knees into a squat to look closer. “Get me a tweezers and vial out of the CSI kit, Woody.”
I opened the vial, handed him the top, took the tweezers, and focused on the light, picking up the
object and showing it to Woody. “A diamond?”

“We’ll find out. Looks like a diamond, maybe cubic zirconia.”      

“So, whose is it?”

“That’s the question, along with who is missing a pool cover.”


Ellen and Greg waited for us, sitting on the steps leading up to their first floor. I greeted and introduced them to Woody. “You work for a pool and spa company?” I asked, addressing both of them.

Ellen and Greg nodded. “Happy Island Pools and Spas,” Greg said.

“Do any of your pools use the old bubble covers?”

“One and only when the cheap owner is in residence. Wind Breeze. It’s an Avon ocean-front house on Gulls Cry.”

Ellen grimaced when Greg said the street name. I lifted my eyebrows and tilted my head.

“Oh, don’t mind me. But that street name is all wrong. It should either be ‘Gull’s Cry’ or Gulls’ Cries,’ but that just the grammarian in me.”

I had to laugh, knowing Ellen’s former profession. “Have you had any problems with dogs on your route?”

Ellen sputtered and smacked her hands on her thighs. “Problem with dogs—you betcha—just this week. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of this renter. I know the island’s leash law is only enforced in public places and that rental homes are considered the private property of the renter, but really—if the tenant rents a house with a pool and spa, wouldn’t you’d think they’d welcome the crew servicing them? We clean and make sure the chemicals provide sanitation. It’s for their protection. A few years back, an elderly man in Nags Head caught Legionnaire’s disease and died.”

“Was this at Wind Breeze?”

“Nope. We service three houses on that road. Wind Breeze has the old pool cover. The rental house with the dogs is named Ocean Annie’s,” Ellen replied.

“What happened?”
“On the first visit, the renter’s two dogs raced ahead of him and started growling at me. Greg was
safely behind the locked pool gate. I’d been on the deck where the spa is located on the side of the house. I asked the renter very nicely to please take hold of his dogs. He looked at me as if I were nuts. When he didn’t react, I asked him a bit more vehemently to take hold of his dogs. He finally did it, and I scooted behind the pool gate and slammed it shut. But when we had to go back on Tuesday—“

“This past Tuesday, two days ago?” I asked.


“What happened then?”

“Greg and I decided to service the house early to avoid the tenant, but no! It was as if he anticipated us coming and was waiting for us. As soon as we got out of the car, we heard a loud crack, like someone clapping their hands together loudly—like a gunshot—the dogs ran out of the house toward us without restraint. It was like the renter purposely sicced the dogs on us. Greg went into “fight mode.” I went into “flight mode.” I dove into the car and ended up injuring my leg. I was so mad. We heard him laughing at us. Then I called our boss, Haley Zagorsky, and told her I wouldn’t service that house.”

“Did you go back?”

“Nope, I don’t know if Haley serviced the house herself or let it go. It was a midweek check, not a full service, but I bet she did. We’ll have to go back on Saturday to do a full service, but we’ll wait until the renter checks out and is gone—packed up with the dogs—and off the island.”

The rumble of the medical examiner’s van on the road broke up our questioning, but I thought we’d gotten all the information we could from Ellen and Greg. I knew my neighbors. They aren’t stupid people. Ellen wouldn’t have been so forthcoming about the dog incident on their work route if they’d been guilty. What concerned me—why had the bodies been dumped in the swamp beside Ellen and Greg’s house?


Before leaving Ellen and Greg, we received directions to Haley and Burt Zagorsky’s residence, where they ran their home-based business. We parked Woody’s cruiser at my house. Absorbed in the investigation, I asked Woody to drive, so I could think aloud. As usual, we spoke in short hand to each other mapping our way and following our instincts on what to investigate. Theft was the most common crime on the island. Murder was rare.

“We’ll have to go over that pool cover for fingerprints,” I said.

“There could be a lot of prints. None of which could point to the identity of the killer.”

“True, but if we get other evidence, maybe it will corroborate it,” I said. “Wonder if we’ll get bullets from the bodies or if they went straight through?”

“Wonder where the shootings occurred?”

“We’ll have to go over to those rental houses and scan for evidence.”

“Bet whoever did the shooting sloshed pool or spa water over the blood.”

“We can get traces.”

“Have to talk with the medical examiner about time of death. I’d guess Wednesday, maybe late Tuesday. Ellen and Greg saw the renter on Tuesday morning, and today’s Thursday. After we talk with Haley and Burt, we’ll head up to the rental houses. Find out if the pool cover to Wind Breeze is missing.”

“Is that a stupid name for a house, or what?”

I laughed. Many of the homes’ names were redundant, convoluted, or just plain corny.

Woody changed the subject when he asked, “What are you getting Jared for Christmas?”

I answered with a strangled moan. “He wants a dog! A puppy.”

Woody smiled, and I would have hit him if he hadn’t said, “Join the club. Cindy wants a puppy, too.”

His comment brought to mind an apparition I’d experienced the last few Christmases. I sure didn’t consider myself Scrooge, but for some reason Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, visited me. I never told a soul for obvious reasons, but at this time of year whenever Christmas wishes abounded, Pam was sure to haunt me. I didn’t fear her, but I questioned my sanity. Was she a figment of my imagination or did she exist? If so, did sprites have spirits? Did she work with Santa Claus? Of course, I no longer believed in Santa, but why did she appear at Christmas? Did she work for the Big Guy? With angels? I stopped my spinning thoughts and put my mind on the case.

We slowed down on Route 12 trying to find the entrance to the Zagorsky’s home. Woody turned onto an unpaved road leading through the woods to cleared land where we found the home and the Zagorskys outside cleaning spa filters. They looked up as we parked, dropped the filters on the grass, and walked over to us.

After introducing ourselves, I told them we’d had an incident involving one of the rental houses they serviced.

Their faces inquisitive, Haley asked, “Which one?”

“Ocean Annie’s,” Woody said.

Haley inhaled and put her hands on her hips. “Did Ellen Potter make a complaint?”

“Complaint?” I asked.

“Ellen said the renter sicced his dogs on them. She wouldn’t service the house. She claimed the renter wouldn’t control his dogs, and she threatened to sue the guy. I guess reporting the incident was her way of getting a complaint on record when she sues.” Haley shook her head. “I think Ellen is paranoid of dogs.”

“Did you go to the house?”

“No. It was just a midweek chemical check. That pool hasn’t had any issues all summer, and since the temperatures are cooler now, I doubt if it’s been used at all. I let it go.”

I was about to ask her about the spa service when a car drove into the driveway. A young man got out. His eyes questioned our presence. Haley gestured him over. “This is our son, Ian.”

“Did someone turn in your missing diamond, Mom?”


After tucking Jared in for the night, I wandered out to the dock behind my house, which backed up to Pamlico Sound. I shook my head and looked out over the mirrored surface of the water illuminated under the moon’s light. The case had been solved in record time.

Out of the mouth of babes—again. Poor Ian. I wondered if he’d ever forgive himself, but the fact was that Haley hadn’t known where she’d lost the diamond so she just told him “no” without having a clue that it would implicate her.

The missing diamond was probable cause enough for the judge to sign and take a picture of the search warrant. She sent it to me via text messaging. The ring setting we found in their house matched the diamond. The old pool cover not only had Haley’s fingerprints, but the victim’s blood had also served as ink for them. The handgun we found hidden in the Zagorsky home matched the medical examiner’s statement on the bullets’ caliber.

Haley claimed Ellen was dog-phobic, but I knew that story was a lie. I’d seen Ellen give snacks to my neighbors’ dogs from the treats she kept in her car. She even gave milk bones to one neighbor’s rescued pit bulls, who I’m apprehensive about approaching.

Once confronted with the evidence, Haley was remorseful about trying to frame Ellen and Greg for the murder by dumping the bodies next to their house. Her claim of self-defense was substantiated by the bite marks on her ankles. Woody took pictures of the bites. I didn’t know if it would hold up in court, but then that wasn’t my job.

I sat down and lay back on the dock looking up at the stars. Like a gift to its residents, Hatteras Island was free of light pollution, one of the few places on the East coast left from which to view the stars. A light show of Christmas reds, greens, blues, and golds appeared in the sky. I should have been delighted, but I knew what was coming—or should I say—who.

 I sat up fast. Pam, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, descended from the sky with a zip of squiggly light. I
was glad that the case had been solved and without Pam’s “help.” The slinky red dress she wore showed every curve and bulge. There ought to be a law, I thought—one I’d be willing to enforce. I smiled thinking about handing her a ticket. Her booties matched the dress, and on the top of her gray curls a Santa’s hat sat, complete with white pompom, but she wasn’t alone. A large dog, who reminded me of Nana from Peter Pan, alighted the dock beside Pam. She saw my smile. “Sue, glad to see you’re in a good mood.”

“Just dreaming, Pam.”

“Sugar plum fairies?”

“Nope. Who’s your friend?”

“Oh, this is Nana, the island dogs’ guardian angel.”


“Who do you think they based the character on?”

Before I could respond, Pam said, “Be a good hostess and get Nana and me some of that Evan Williams and Christmas cookies.”

“Dogs drink?”

“This has been an especially trying season for Nana. I’ll explain once you return with our refreshments.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I lurched off the dock wondering what fresh hell awaited me with this visit. From instructions I’d received previously from Pam, I poured Evan Williams whiskey into a shot glass, cut a straw to shorten its length and put it in the glass, then I got a bowl from the cupboard and poured two shots into it. Balancing a plate of cookies and the drinks, I reported for duty and set the treats on the dock.

Pam and Nana wasted no time diving into the cookies and slurping up the whiskey. Once they had finished, I dared to ask, “What’s up?”

“I ran into Nana at our Christmas party last night. She must place two new puppies in homes for Christmas, and since Jared and Cindy have asked for puppies for Christmas, I assured her that you and Woody would be great dog parents to these unfortunate dogs.”

I didn’t respond right away since I was imagining a Christmas Party for sprites and angels, but I expunged those thoughts with a blink. “You went out of your way to help.” I turned my back to them and hid my rolling eyes, but then spun around to face them. “Why unfortunate?”

“The puppies are old souls who had violent and disturbing deaths.”

“Here on the island?”

“Yes, just this week.”

“Oh no, those were bad dogs.” I blurted and crossed my arms.

Nana lifted her large head and started to growl. Was my statement politically incorrect or was she was a bad drunk?

Pam leaned down to Nana and gave her a reassuring pat. “Now, Sue, you know good and well there are no such things as bad dogs. Bad dogs are the result of bad owners. They may develop bad habits if they aren’t trained properly, but I know you and Woody will do great jobs as dog owners. And I know you’ll train Jared to be a good dog owner just as Woody will do with Cindy.”

“Are they the same breed as those other two dogs? They were almost identical.”

“No—new life, new bodies. I’ll leave it up to you to tell Woody of my decision. They’re so cute!”

Her decision? I shook my head. I didn’t want to see the dogs, but before I could protest Nana untucked two puppies from her legs on the dock. Cute bundles of cuddly fur pierced my defenses, and I stooped down to pet them. The German Shephard stumbled over his paws in his effort to lick my hand. Cindy would love the Corgi. I put my hands on my hips and faced Pam. “This is blackmail, you know.” 



Pam smiled. “You’re so full of it, Sue. I know you’re smitten. Now be sure to get all the supplies you need for the puppies. They’ll arrive early on Christmas morning. I’ll sign you and Woody up for dog obedience training. The specifics will be in your stocking. Take the kids so you’ll all learn together. Merry Christmas!” She clapped her hands together and rose, taking on speed as she disappeared in the sky. Nana lumbered to her feet, tucked the puppies beneath her, and gave me a defiant glare. Squatting, she doused the dock before bounding into the sky like a shaggy, fat reindeer. Her editorial comment was received.

I rolled my eyes. “Merry Christmas, Pam, Nana.” I scooted around the dog pee and figured it was meant to be, a sign of the New Year. The renter’s arrogance and poor stewardship of his dogs resulted in all of their deaths. Maybe those dogs needed forgiveness and redemption. After all, wasn’t that a Christmas lesson? I walked into the house. A shot of Evan Williams awaited me.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Chistmas Cookie Thief

Granny LaVerne stood at the bottom of the steps and yelled, “Hannah and Teddy, you get down here right now.”

Pretty soon the nine year old Davis twins came out of their bedrooms still in pajamas.  Hannah stared at Teddy. “Granny sounds pretty mad. What do you think is wrong?”

Teddy shrugged. “I don’t know, but we’d better get down there and find out.”

When they came to the kitchen, Hannah put on her winning smile and said sweetly, “What’s wrong Granny?”

Their great-grandmother wearing her normal house dress covered by an apron scowled. Their granny might be short with white hair and quite old, but she was no one to be messed with. “Don’t act like you don’t know.”

Hannah widened her brown eyes, and turned to her twin. “Do you know what Granny’s upset about?”

Teddy shook his head.

Granny LaVerne took a deep breath. “You two deny knowing anything about what happened to the big pan of Christmas cookies I made last evening and left to cool on the counter so I could decorate them today?”

They both shook their heads, Hannah a little more actively than Teddy so her head full of numerous beaded black braids bounced around her head.

“And you didn’t pour yourself a glass of milk to drink while you were eating all the cookies, and leave the empty glass on the counter?”

“Granny, we’d know better than that. If Teddy or I had a glass of milk, we would have rinsed it out and put it in the sink,” Hannah said. “We know how much you like a clean kitchen.”

 “Hmph!” Granny snorted. “I suppose next you’re going to blame your mom or dad for eating the

“Could it have been a cookie thief?” Hannah sounded excited now.

“And how was this thief supposed to have broken into the house? I checked the downstairs doors and they were still locked.”

“Could mom or dad have taken them to work?” Teddy asked.

“Linc and Lizzy wouldn’t have done that without asking first, you know that. Or at least I think they would have.” Granny looked a little uncertain now. She sighed. “Go back upstairs and get dressed while I fix you breakfast. That is if you’re not already stuffed full of cookies.”

Great-aunt Claudia was just coming out of her room. “What’s all the commotion about?” She was almost as old as Granny, but taller.

“Someone took all the Christmas cookies Granny baked yesterday evening,” Hannah said. “We think there’s a cookie thief who came in the night.”

Aunt Claudia cocked her head looking skeptical. “Anything else stolen?” she asked.

Hannah’s mouth dropped open, and she looked at Teddy. “We didn’t check to see if anything else was stolen.” Then she smiled. A mystery for them to solve.

Before Aunt Claudia started downstairs, she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if my sister already packed them up in containers last night and forgot she did that.”

After the twins got dressed and brushed their teeth, they met at the top of the steps. “You know what I’ve been thinking, don’t you?” Hannah asked in a low voice.

Teddy nodded. “You’re thinking it was Caleb.”

She nodded. “But we can’t go to the tunnel until Granny and Aunt Claudia take their afternoon naps, or maybe go to the grocery store.”

While they were eating, the twins were thrilled when Granny told them, “Claudia and I are going to the grocery store now. We expect you to be on your best behavior and don’t let anyone in. Also rinse your dishes and put them in the dishwasher.”

They both nodded. As soon as Granny and Aunt Claudia were on their way to the large Packard parked in what had once been a carriage house for horses, Hannah and Teddy hit their hands in a high five.

“We need to get down to the cellar and the tunnel before they come back,” Hannah said.

Teddy nodded. After they rinsed their breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher, Teddy took several flashlights out of the drawer where they were stored. Once they’d been lost in the tunnel that was once a part of the Underground Railroad between the house basement and the carriage house. They’d lost their way when their flashlights went out, and didn’t want that to happen again.

They crawled through the small hole behind the furnace into the tunnel and headed down to where the tunnel split. They aimed their lights at the tunnel on the left where some blankets were. It was where Caleb lived.

“Caleb? Are you there?” Hannah called out.

Gradually, he started to appear a little at a time until there was a black boy still in his ragged clothes from when he’d been left behind when his family and others were escaping on the Underground Railroad. He’d broken his leg so they couldn’t take him with the others because they would risk capture.

“We have another mystery to solve, but I don’t think you are part of it this time,” Hannah said.

He smiled at them. “Is it cookies?”

Teddy stared at him. “Yes, but how did you know?”

“I thought you couldn’t eat any more,” Hannah said.

“I can’t, and I didn’t take them, but I know who did,” Caleb said.

“Who?” they both asked in unison.

“I don’t know his name, but he’s a young boy a little older than you. He came through the tunnel from the trap door at the end of this tunnel,” Caleb said.

“I thought the ladder was taken down so no one could use it,” Teddy said.

“He came down on a rope he had fastened up above. It wasn’t the first time he’s come, either.”

“Is he stealing things from our house?” Hannah asked.

“Only food,” Caleb said. “He’s rather skinny. He’s not aware that I’m here although sometimes he seems to sense me. I followed him upstairs to see what he was up to, and he always stayed in the kitchen. Sometimes he fixed himself a sandwich and often another sandwich to take with him. Sometimes he takes a can or two of soup and once a peanut butter jar that was almost empty from what I could tell. Another time he took an almost empty gallon of milk, but there was a full one still in the ice box, what you call a refrigerator, so maybe it wasn’t noticed.”

“How long has this been going on?” Teddy asked.

“You know time runs by me so I’m never sure how many times he’s been there. I’d say about three
times.” He paused before going on. “I wish he could see and hear me. I feel kind of sorry for him
I think maybe he gets lonely like I do,” Caleb said.

“We’d like to spend more time with you down here, but we’ve been told to stay away from here
after that time we got lost,” Hannah said.

“Couldn’t you come upstairs more often to visit us?” Teddy asked.

“I do sometimes,” Caleb said, “but I’m still hoping someday my mammy and pappy will return. I know they’re dead like I am, but it would be so nice if they did come back someday.”

“We’ll try to come down here more often when there’s no one at home, but that doesn’t happen very often,” Hannah said. Suddenly her eyes lit up. “Do you know how to read?”

Caleb shook his head. “No, I never did learn.”

“Well, it’s time Teddy and I taught you. The next time you come to one of our rooms, I’m going to teach you to read, and then you can read books. That should make life a little more interesting.”

Caleb smiled. “I liked it the time I came up and you were watching people in that box, the one where they can’t get out. They must have been having fun because they were laughing. And then there was that time with strange colorful animals like none I’ve ever seen before.”

Hannah laughed. “Those are cartoons. They’re not real, only pictures that move. The other one was real people who were being filmed.” She looked at Teddy then. “Do you think we could take a video of Caleb on our cell phones?”

Teddy shrugged. “We could try, and if he doesn’t show up, we can take videos of each other and show Caleb what we mean.”

“We need to get back upstairs before Granny and Aunt Claudia get home. Dad will probably be coming home soon, too, because he only had a few things to take care of at school. We’re on Christmas vacation, you know,” Hannah said.

“Thanks for your help, Caleb,” Teddy said as they turned to leave. “I brought you another
flashlight with fresh batteries. I’ll take the one I left before and put new batteries in that one.” He
put down the flashlight he’d brought and took the other one that was now dead.

 He turned to follow Hannah, and then looked back and saw Caleb had somehow managed to turn the flashlight on. Teddy smiled. He wished Caleb and he could be real friends, and go places, and do things together.

Their dad came in singing the song Winter Wonderland. The twins knew the words to the song because it’s one their dad sang to them a lot so Hannah started singing along, and Teddy hummed a little.

Linc Davis laughed.  “What have you two been up to while I’ve been gone?”

Hannah widened her eyes putting on her innocent face. “Why, nothing, Daddy. We have been very good while waiting for Granny and Aunt Claudia to come home from the grocery store. We’re going to go outside and carry in the groceries for them,” she said.

Their father narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve been up to something?”

She took her finger and made a cross on her chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die, Daddy. Teddy and I have been oh so good today,” she said.

Linc looked at Teddy, who was studying his hands for some reason. Then Teddy wiped them on the back of his pants. He looked at his dad and smiled. “I cleaned my room while you were gone,"
he said. Well, he sort of did, and only hoped his dad wouldn’t go to check it. Not that he ever did. It was more likely that his mom would or Granny or Aunt Claudia. He guessed he’d better go up there and make sure it looked like that’s what he’d been doing.

Hannah looked at Teddy and scowled a little. She turned to her father and smiled. “We’ve both been working hard on our rooms because we want to make sure Santa will visit us this year,” she said. Then she stuck her lower lip out and put on a sad face and sniffed. “I’m worried that maybe Granny will tell Santa we’ve been naughty and not nice because someone took the Christmas cookies she baked, and she thinks it was Teddy and me.” She sniffed some more and wiped away nonexistent tears from her eyes.

Her father looked closely at her. “And you didn’t eat any of those cookies?” he asked.

Her eyes wide with innocence, she said, “Daddy! Do you really think Teddy and me would eat all or most of Granny’s Christmas cookies?” She put both hands over her heart and bowed her head.

Her father rolled his eyes and shook his head. What a little prima donna his daughter was. In spite of the fact their mother tried to curb it, he found his daughter delightfully funny. His wife Liz said it was his fault she acted like that because she knew her dad enjoyed her behavior and comments. Still he got the feeling they had been up to something while everyone was gone. Whatever it was, more than likely it was Hannah who was the one who started it. Teddy never seemed able to refuse to go along with whatever idea Hannah thought up. Since it was close to Christmas, maybe they were making Christmas gifts or something like that. He hoped that was all it was.

After everyone had gone to bed, Teddy felt someone was in his room. Before he turned on the light,
he whispered, “Hannah, is that you?”

“No. It’s me, Caleb. The boy has returned,” he said.

Teddy still had his clothes on because he’d been hoping Caleb would come to warn him when the boy came. Whispering, he said to Caleb. “Let me get Hannah and then we’ll go downstairs.”

Hannah was ready, too, and quietly they followed Caleb downstairs avoiding the step that squeaked. They tiptoed towards the kitchen. There was only the night light left on over the stove.  They heard a noise in the pantry off the kitchen and waited to see who would come out.

Soon a skinny boy, about twelve years old, Hannah guessed, came out holding a bag with something in it. His blond hair was shaggy and fell into his eyes. The jacket he wore was thin and rather ragged. Hannah and Teddy watched him. He went to the refrigerator, and took several things out and put it in the bag. Then he went over to the counter and picked up half a loaf of bread.

“What are you doing here?” Hannah asked in a low voice.

The boy jumped and dropped the bread. “Umm. Just getting a little food,” he said and swallowed. He looked at them wide-eyed. “I don’t mean no harm.”

“Are you the one who took our Granny’s cookies last night?” Hannah asked.

He nodded. “I’m sorry about that.”

“And food from the night before?” she asked.

He nodded. “You’re not going to call the police are you?” His voice trembled.

Teddy said then. “No. You’re only taking food cause you’re hungry, aren’t you?”

He nodded again. “And for my little brother and sister, too. I can’t bear seeing them hungry.”

“Where’s your mom and dad?” Hannah asked.

“I don’t know where my dad is. He left a long time ago. My mom, well she got fired cause she has this problem and was always late to work. Not that she made much money, but at least we had some food, and she was on food stamps, but then her car broke down and there was no money to fix it, and she couldn’t get to the place to get the food stamps or go to the grocery store since we live some ways from the grocery store.”

Hannah looked at Teddy and raised her eyebrows.“You think we should. . .”

Teddy nodded yes, and left the room.

“Where’s he going?” the boy asked.

“Don’t worry. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Paul Newman. I was named after some movie star my grandmother liked.”

“Does your grandmother live with you?” Hannah asked.

“No, she died a long time ago.”

Hannah glanced over at Caleb, and saw the sad look on his face. Maybe because he was thinking of the death of his family.

“How did you get here if you live out in the country?”

“I have an old bike. I leave when my mom is passed out, or I mean sleeping on the couch, and Bobby and Barbie are asleep in bed.”

In a few minutes, Hannah and Paul heard footsteps coming down the stairs and murmuring.

When Paul’s eyes widened, and he got a panicked look on his face, Hannah turned around. Her dad and mom stood there staring at the boy. Behind them were Granny and Aunt Claudia.

“Well, who do we have here?” her dad said smiling.

“My name is Paul Newman, Sir,” he said.

 “Ahhh. Nice to meet you Paul.” He held out his hand.

Paul put down his bag of food and shook his hand still looking scared.

“I think you need to tell us why you’re here,” their mother said softly.

Paul looked up at the two tall, dark, adults and licked his lips and swallowed.

“Before he tells us his story, let’s all sit down and have some hot chocolate and some cookies,” Granny LaVerne said bustling around those in her way and filled the tea kettle with water and put it on the stove. Then she started getting out cups for all of them, except for Caleb, of course, because no one but Hannah and Teddy could see him.

Soon they were all sitting around the table drinking hot chocolate and eating Christmas cookies as Paul repeated his story to the adults and added more from their questions to him.

Yes, he went to school, but not as often anymore because someone had to take care of the little ones. He was twelve years old and wanted to join the Navy when he grew up.

“You know you need to get a good education before you can do that, don’t you?” Linc Davis said.

Paul nodded. “I like school. Or mostly I do except for some of the kids.”

“My husband’s a teacher. He’d be willing to tutor you if you’re behind in school,” Lizzy Turner, the twins mother said. “Also, I’m going to check in on the situation you’re in and help you and your family out.”

 “Mama’s a lawyer,” Hannah said beaming proudly.

“I’m going to fill up that bag you brought and some other bags, too,” Aunt Claudia said.

“As soon as you finish with your hot chocolate, I’ll drive you home. I have a bike rack on the back of my SUV so we can fasten it on the back,” Linc said. “By the way,” he said. “How did you get into the house?”

Paul told them he’d found the entrance several years ago when he’d went into the Carriage House and saw the old Packard in there. He liked to come and sit in it and pretend it was his car.

Linc found an old coat of his that still looked in decent shape and gave it to Paul to wear even though it was too large, it would be warm. Then he left the others to drive Paul home with three or four bags full of groceries and some Christmas cookies, too.

The kids were sent up to bed, and Caleb followed them, too. They settled into Teddy’s room to talk over things.

“Your mammy and pappy are so nice,” Caleb said.

“Even though they can’t see you, you can think of them as your mammy and pappy, if you want,” Hannah said.

Caleb looked a little wistful. “Do you think they’d believe it if you told them about me?”

Teddy looked at Hannah. “What do you think?”

Hannah shrugged. “We’d have to tell them and see.” She looked at Caleb then. “Even if they don’t believe us, we still want to be friends with you.”

“Teddy go to your own room now.  Hannah, you settle down and get to sleep now,” they heard their mother say.

Teddy jumped up and said, “Caleb, do you want to spend the night with me?” he asked.

Caleb grinned and nodded, and together they left.

Teddy was beaming. He loved his sister, but it would be so nice to have a boy as a friend, too.

Hannah settled into her bed, gave a little wiggle and smiled. It was nice having a friend no one but they could see. She didn’t mind that Caleb went with Teddy. Instead she thought of what fun it would be to read books to Caleb and teach him to read. It didn’t matter whether or not her parents believed in him, it was just enough that Teddy and her could see and talk to him. And she thought before she went to sleep, maybe there would be more mysteries that the three of them could solve.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Most Unexpected Forms

“’Cuse me, Mister. Do you know what time it is?"

Curtis looked down at the child standing next to him on the bridge. An odd question for a kid
to ask, but it was a distraction from Curtis’s contemplation of the choppy cold water below, and his wondering how long a person who fell into the water would survive. Or, more to the point, how long would they suffer if they didn’t survive?

He wasn’t planning to survive. He’d had enough, and saw nothing better in the future.

What was a kid who looked to be about ten doing walking by himself in the rain? On Christmas morning? With a dog?

Most people had fancy phones that told the time, but Curtis couldn’t afford that. Never really could, but especially not since the accident. He pulled up his sleeve and checked his watch. “About ten thirty.”

The boy nodded.

“Why do you need to know that?” Curtis asked.

“Well, last Sunday, the pastor said that at eleven o’clock today they were going to have a Christmas dinner at the church. It was mostly for the homeless, but everybody was welcome. Especially anybody who was going to be all alone on Christmas Day.”

That would be me, Curtis thought wryly. His stomach growled at the thought of food. He’d spent everything from the emergency SNAP card, and had no way of knowing when, or if, it would be renewed.

Right after the accident, when she discovered he wouldn’t be going back to work any time soon, Curtis’s girlfriend had moved on to greener pastures. And he supposed his so-called friends were really just drinking buddies or co-workers who really didn’t care. Why should they?

But how could this kid not have somebody to be with on Christmas?

“You’re all alone? On Christmas? How’d that happen?”

“Well, not all alone.” The kid pointed at the dog. “I got Arariel with me. But he can’t cook. And I can’t, really, either.”

“Where’s your folks?” Curtis asked. Even if he were a foster kid with no family, like Curtis had been, a social worker or somebody would make sure he had someplace to go. With adults.

The kid shrugged. A tear glistened in his eye.

Curtis couldn’t just ignore the kid. His plans would have to wait. “Tell me,” he insisted.

“My mom and dad had a big fight over where I was going for Christmas. I was supposed to go with my dad, but my mom wanted to take me to see my grandma in Ohio. We were going to go on an airplane. I’ve never been on an airplane.”


“My dad asked me where I wanted to go. I said I’d like to visit my grandma. So he got mad and dropped me and Arariel off at my mom’s house. But she was already gone.”

“He didn’t check to make sure she was home?”

“Nope. He just left.”

“So where have you been staying?”

“I know where my mom keeps the spare key. I got it and let myself into the house. There’s some food there, but…”

Curtis found himself grinning. “But it’s lonesome, right? And sometimes you need more than just a place to stay, even if you got food there.”

The boy nodded again.

“You gonna go get the Christmas dinner at the church?” Curtis asked.

“Yes. Can you come with me? They might not let a kid all by himself in. But they would for sure if I had a grownup with me. You could get a dinner, too.”

“Yeah.” Curtis glanced down at the river. He could come back later. After he made sure the kid was all right. And had dinner. Didn’t even condemned men get a final meal?

He held out his hand. The boy took it and together they walked off the bridge, the dog following.

The wind from the river was picking up and the rain changing to sleet. Curtis tried to pull his jacket closer around him, but it didn’t help. He could feel the dampness on his shoulders and back where the rain had soaked completely through.

The kid, at least, seemed to be dressed for the weather, with snow pants and a hooded jacket.

They got to the church as the doors were opened. Warm light spilled out onto the wet sidewalk.

A woman looked down at Arariel and frowned. “No dogs allowed,” she snapped.

Curtis thought about saying Arariel was his service dog and they’d have to let him in, but it seemed like a mean thing to lie to these church people. After all, they were fixing this dinner for anyone who needed it. He turned to the kid. “You go get your dinner. I’ll stay with Arariel. Then, when you’re finished eating, you can come and stay with him while I get something to eat.”

Reluctantly, the kid agreed. He pulled open the door and went inside.

They are going to notice a kid by himself, Curtis assured himself. Then they’ll make sure somebody steps in to take care of him.

He hoped wherever that was would take the dog, too, or at least make arrangements for him to go somewhere safe.

The last thing he needed was to be responsible for a dog. Not now, when he couldn’t even take care of himself. And when he’d decided it was time to end this charade of a life. He couldn’t do that if he had to take care of a dog.

They moved to a narrow niche on the church fa├žade by a corner. Arariel pressed himself back against the wall and lay down. Curtis squatted in front of him. They were sheltered from the wind and the sleet. With his heavy fur, the dog was probably warm enough.

Curtis wasn’t. He shivered, and a few seconds later, shivered again, harder. His feet were wet, all the way through his boots and the several pairs of socks. He pulled his watch cap down over his ears, but the bare skin at the back of his neck was exposed to the cold.

Even if he went back to his tiny rented room, it would be cold. And dark. It only had one light that worked sometimes, and the heat shut off at dusk.

He closed his eyes and rocked gently on his heels, trying to warm himself.

“Would you like something to eat?”

He hadn’t heard anybody approach, and looked up, startled. In front of him stood a man with a tray of food. Fragrant steam rose from it. Curtis inhaled. Gravy and turkey and spices.

The man smiled encouragingly and held out the tray.

Curtis took it. A plastic fork was stuck in a mound of mashed potatoes. A slice of turkey and a slice of ham next to it. Corn and beans and stuffing. He couldn’t take his eyes off it.

The man spoke. “I’m Pastor Williams. They told me someone was out here. I figured if you wouldn’t come in, I’d bring some food out.”

With his mouth full, Curtis didn’t bother to try to explain about the dog.

“You know,” the pastor said. “We’ve got a clothes closet here where you can find some warm, dry things. Even boots. And take a shower if you need to.”

There was a bathroom down the hall from Curtis’s room where he could wash up, but the water never got really hot and in this weather, he didn’t shower much. He probably smelled bad. Just as well that he hadn’t gone into the church to eat.

“We’ve got a program, too, to help you find a job.”

Curtis swallowed. “I was in an accident. I’m in pretty crummy shape.”

The pastor smiled once more. “That’s all right. Some of them are pretty crummy jobs. But they all pay something. And they’re a start.”

“Thanks.” Curtis thought about the bridge. As soon as he finished here and got the kid and the dog settled, he planned to go back. Would it be a waste if he got a warm jacket and some dry boots just to go to the bridge and jump? “I’ve got plans for the rest of the day.”


“Yeah. I just have to make sure somebody takes care of that kid.”

Pastor Williams frowned. “Kid?”

“Yeah. This kid’s a boy, maybe about ten years old. He’s by himself. Somebody needs to help him.”

“I’m sure the church ladies won’t let a child go without help. I’ll check when I get back inside.”

“Thanks, Pastor.”

Curtis looked down at his empty tray in dismay. He hadn’t saved anything for Arariel. Maybe the kid would bring the dog something.

He stood up and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Perhaps you would come in out of the cold for a while?” Pastor Williams said. “Help with the serving and the cleanup?”

“Well…” Inside would be warm. And maybe he could really help out a bit. That would be a nice change from feeling so useless. And hopeless.

The cold dark river water wasn’t as appealing when he thought about the warm church hall. The river and the bridge would still be there, though, if he decided to go through with ending it all. No hurry on that.

“But they said no dogs in the church,” he said.  ‘I can’t leave the dog out here by himself.”

Pastor Williams looked thoughtful. “What dog?”

Curtis turned around to where Arariel had been lying just a few minutes ago. No way was there enough room for him to have squeezed past without Curtis noticing.

But there was no dog.

“He was right here…” Curtis looked around in confusion.

Pastor Williams looked grave. “You know,” he said, taking Curtis by the arm. “Sometimes when we need them the most, angels show up in the most unexpected form.”