Chapter 5: Christmas Morning
Jake clung to Morpheus’ collar with all his strength and begged the dark dog for mercy. “I’ll change! I’ll change! I promise. I don’t want to be weak and cruel. I want to be strong and gentle.”
Morpheus’ canines clamped down on Jake’s wrist. He pleaded a final time.
“Just let me go back. I’ll show you. I’ll be nice to her. I’ll be nice to everyone!”
Through his sobs Jake opened his eyes to look at the dog a final time. He knew this was it. The fall would be long and deep. And he hoped it would not hurt. But instead of the familiar, chilling black face, Jake saw something white. Was it a white dog? Or a white dog without a face? It was formless. Shapeless. Perhaps he was looking at the inside of the pit and had already fallen.
Jake slowly became more coherent and realized there was no dog. Morpheus was gone. Jake was now staring at a white surface, or wall.
Through his sobs he pulled hard on the collar and still felt it in his hands. Only now the dog was gone. Jake was completely disoriented. As he slowly steadied himself, he looked down at the collar and noticed it was now a familiar-looking dull brown. He recognized it as the strap on his guitar case.
Jake was back in his bedroom, kneeling on his bed, face up against the white wall over his bed.
He could scarcely believe it. He was home. The dogs gave him a second chance after all. His heart soared and an overwhelming sense of relief washed over his entire being. The clock, set to dim at night, was difficult to read in the bright daylight. Jake cupped a hand over it to see better. 8:35 am. December 25. Christmas. He was alive and didn’t miss it after all.
Jake threw off the covers and ran to the window to look outside. The grounds were covered in fresh snow. He looked around his room and felt chills as he recalled the black German Shepherd yanking him to and fro like a rag doll during the night. He was so glad that was over.
But he felt good. So good! He wanted to rip open the window and shout joy to the world! But that would be weird and his friends might hear it. So he didn’t. But he thought it. And more importantly, he felt it. And that was all that mattered.
Jake hurriedly got dressed and ran downstairs to begin his new day. There was so much to do! So many opportunities. As he rounded the circular staircase and hit the main floor, he took in the beautifully lit and very large Christmas tree. And he could smell fresh bread baking in the oven. His mother always loved to bake. But he never appreciated it…until this very moment.
Seeing his mom standing in the kitchen, Jake ran to her and hugged her tight. He had never been so happy to see her. And for the first time, he was struck by how pretty his mom looked. “I love you, mom,” Jake said as he continued his warm embrace. Mother just froze. She looked across the room to Jake’s father, who was standing just a few feet away. He, like her, wore a look of genuine shock.
“What happened, Jake?” his mom asked uneasily.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s Christmas.”
“Well. Yes, I am…well,” his mom stammered. “Me too. Merry Christmas, Jake.”
“Merry Christmas, mom,” came a muffled reply as Jake held his mother tight. She shot a look over to her husband, hinting that he should chime in. Husbands are usually a little slow and this one was no different. But he got the hint. Clearing his throat awkwardly, “Oh right. Yes. Umm Merry Christmas, son.”
When Jake finally released his hug, his mother looked him square in the eye and saw tears welling up in them. But he looked happy. And different somehow; his face was a little pale.
“Is everything alright, Jake? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jake chuckled and nodded strangely. Then he composed himself. “I’m fine,” he smiled. “Everything is fine.”
Mom and dad exchanged glances. “Well…okay,” she said. “Then would you like to go to the tree and open your present?”
Jake felt a pang of guilt at this. Each year, he had taken pride in making gift giving as difficult for his parents as possible. He would never tell them what he wanted, what he liked, or even what he could use. He had done this because he could see the distress in their eyes when he did so. He’d felt a little more in control this way.
But now he really regretted it. I have a lot of undoing to do, he mused.
“Sure, mom. But I didn’t help you much, did I?”
She looked him in the eyes. A very sincere, soul-searching look. And for the first time ever, Jake noticed she had really deep brown and caring eyes. They kind of reminded him of each dog that visited him in the night. Were they in there somehow? Nonsense…
“That’s okay, Jake. We worked around it and got you something anyway,” she said in a warm, loving tone.
Mom draped an arm around her son and together they walked towards the Christmas tree in the other room. Dad was still shell shocked at what had just transpired. And not ready to move yet.
Under the tree were several wrapped gifts, but only one with Jake’s name on it. It was very small, almost paper thin. Jake’s mother went over and picked it up, then presented it to Jake. “Thanks, mom.” Jake said.
She giggled and shrugged. “You don’t even know what it is yet.”
Jake began to unwrap it, and by now his father had mustered the courage to join them in the room. He sipped his coffee, which contained a little extra “Christmas Cheer,” a little harder than normally. He continued to look on quietly.
Jake finished tearing open the paper and the envelope within and stared at his gift with a broad grin. It was a gift card, usable anywhere. And it was for a large amount. A significantly large amount. Jake was deeply appreciative. And for once, speechless.
“Mom. Dad. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
Jake began thinking about ways to spend his Christmas money. And then a thought occurred to him. Mindful of the first dog’s lesson, an idea flashed into Jake’s head that made him smile even more. It was an idea about having a loving and giving heart. About becoming more like them and less like us. And then he made a soft “Wooooooo wooooo” howling sound under his breath. Then a little louder. To his ear, it sounded much like that white-faced Golden Retriever.
Jake laughed at the silliness of it all and fell over onto his back, still making howling sounds and laughing. His parents froze and watched the show. It was over as quickly as it began and there was total silence for a moment. But Jake broke this quickly.
“Mom?” he asked. “Would you mind if I gave this to someone as a gift? A girl who lives around the corner?”
Jake’s mom looked perplexed. “You want to re-gift your present?”
“Yeah. If it’s not going to make you mad or anything.”
She began slowly, eyes darting over to Jake’s dad then back at Jake again. “No. It’s not going to make us mad. But it’s for you. Why would you want to give it away?”
Jake didn’t exactly know how to tell her this. So he just spoke from the heart. “I’ve been really bad to her and need to make things right. Plus, her family is in really bad shape. They don’t even have lights on their Christmas tree.”
“And just how do you know that?” Jake’s father asked, finally locating his voice.
Jake realized he was talking too much. “I, well, I just looked in their window the other day and noticed. That’s all.”
A few moments later, Jake was bundled up and headed down the street to little Diana’s house. He had his big gift card stuffed securely in his front pocket. He kept touching it with his hand as he walked, just to make sure it was still there. In his other hand, he carried a metal tin of homemade cookies his mother had given him “as a peace offering,” as she had put it.
Jake now stood in front of Diana’s home and shuddered at the memories of the previous night. He pictured looking in the window with the dark-faced dog that liked to doghandle him from window to window. He also pictured the depressing site of the home in the future – one possible future. All boarded up and sad. Jake thought it looked much better now, covered in snow and no ugly official-looking signs on it.
Jake walked up the short driveway to the front door. With butterflies in his stomach, he knocked loudly. Just a second later, the door swung open and Diana’s mother was standing there. She had probably been watching him walk up from the street. And now, she had fire in her eyes. Jake’s heart pounded again. She pushed open the rickety storm door and immediately challenged Jake.
“What do you want here? Back to finish her off?
“No, I…I came -”
“Get off my property now. Or I’ll call the police,” she threatened. She was already clearly emotional. And he hadn’t even said anything yet. How would this go?
Jake swallowed hard. “Ma’am,” he began nervously. “I came by to say I’m sorry.”
Diana’s mom looked like a ton of bricks had just hit her in the head. “What? You’re sorry? Sorry for what?” She clearly wanted specifics.
“I’m sorry for being so mean to Diana. Every day at school. And on the bus. And…just everywhere,” Jake said with full remorse.
There she stood in the door, just looking back at Jake. Completely bewildered. And a little suspicious.
“And what, may I ask, brought about this change of heart so suddenly? Yesterday you were throwing her to the ground and made her cry for an hour. I was planning to go to the principal on Monday.”
“I know,” Jake said. “And I wouldn’t blame you if you still wanted to. But it would mean a lot if I could apologize to her in person. Do you think she’ll even talk to me?”
She relaxed a little, and decided to trust him. “Okay. Come on in. She’s watching TV in the other room.”
“Thank you,” Jake said sincerely. “Thanks so much. And Merry Christmas.”
“Same to you,” Diana’s mom said, with a raised eyebrow. She was still a little surprised by this unusual turn of events.
Jake was led down the foyer and could hear the sounds of a television as he neared Diana. Jake got chills as he passed through the rooms he’d spied on last night, through the windows.
And then, there she was. Sitting there in a huge blanket wrapped around her. Jake suddenly noticed how cold it was in the home. Little Diana’s eyes became as wide as saucers when she saw Jake. But her mom was right next to him so she relaxed a little.
“Hi Diana,” Jake began. “I just came by to wish you a Merry Christmas. And say I’m sorry for all the stuff I’ve done.”
It was an awkward moment. But the message got through. “And I’ll never do it again,” Jake added, handing over the tin of cookies.
Diana was speechless. Her little hands – the same one’s he’d ripped her sandwich from at lunch yesterday – reached out gingerly for the tin. She clutched it against her chest.
“Okay. Thank you,” she said shyly.
Jake heard the voice of the Shepherd dog clearly in his mind. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong…
Jake now felt very strong. And realized that if that dark dog could see him now, he’d probably be treated very differently. Might even get a paw shake.
“And I wanted to give you this,” Jake said as he slipped an envelope out of his pocket. “But only open it after I’ve gone, okay?”
“Okay,” Diana said quietly.
And at that, Jake flashed a warm smile to each of them, then respectfully departed the home. He had only gotten as far as the sidewalk when he heard screams of joy coming from both Diana and her mother. And Jake never felt stronger. He was glad he didn’t stick around to receive thanks and praise. That would have been a little selfish. As he continued down the street back to his home, Jake realized he could not solve all of Diana’s family’s problems. He was only just a boy himself. But he could offer an encouraging word, uplifting support, and material help here and there.
And of course, stop bothering her. That would be a great start.
Jake decided he would do what he could. And do it with the cheerful heart of a dog.
When he arrived home, his mother was standing just inside the door. She had apparently been waiting for him, because the door swung right open. Just as it had yesterday when he had arrived home from school. Jake instantly had a flashback to the previous day and recalled his mother had said she and his father wanted to talk to him about something. But he never gave her the chance.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Really good,” Jake answered happily. Then he asked, “What did you want to tell me yesterday? You said we needed to talk, and then I just went up to my room. What was it?”
The smile eroded from her face and she suddenly looked serious. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s not a big deal.”
Jake was curious. “I would really like to know, mom. What was it?”
Through mixed emotions of sadness and happiness, Jake’s mom explained. “Jake, your father and I have been having some problems lately. With each other.”
Jake was surprised to hear this. He had never noticed anything. But then, he had never really paid much attention, either.
“We felt like we had failed as a partnership. There’s a lot more to it and I don’t want to reopen old wounds. But basically, we saw that you were never happy. I blamed him for being too strict. He blamed me for being too lenient. It escalated to the point where angry words were exchanged. Almost every day.”
“Mom no. You guys are good together. Don’t say-”
She interrupted. “But this morning, you came downstairs and made us realize how blessed we are. And how maybe we’ve been too hard on each other. And maybe we shouldn’t give up so quickly. If you can give such a big gift away like you did, maybe we can sacrifice our pride and move on together. And we – ”
Jake’s father was coming downstairs now. Mom stopped talking and placed a finger to her lips, indicating what she had just shared with him was to remain their secret. Mother and son.
Jake nodded in understanding and smiled. He didn’t need to think about it anyway. It wasn’t going to happen. Like the second dog had said, if you change the way you look at people, the people you look at will change. Jake’s parents had changed in the twinkling of an eye. That dog was right. How did she know? And did Jake’s change in attitude towards them have such a profound effect?
Only the dogs knew. The dogs always know.
From that day forward, Jake was a ray of sunshine in the lives of all he met. He connected with almost everyone and he touched many. He ate lunch alone many days, his old friends deciding he was no longer as cool as he once was. Sometimes he ate with Diana, when she was available. But she’d developed a new confidence of her own and had many new friends. Her lunch table was now usually full.
If you change the way you look at people…
Jake never saw any of the visiting dogs again. But he remembered well the lessons they had taught him. Whenever faced with a choice, he based his decision on one of those three lessons. The Retriever with the white face, who taught him about having a giving heart. The Leonberger who taught him the way he looks at people can literally change them. And the Shepherd who made his point so vividly, that if one is cruel, it is a sign of weakness.
Jake vowed never to forget it. Any of it.
And each Christmas, Jake heard the sounds of squeaky wheels churning down the street, just after midnight. He recognized the sound as the cart of Calvin, and wondered what mission that soothing Leonberger was off to now. Sometimes he rushed to his window to see if he could catch a glimpse of the brown dog with the black face. But he was always too late.
No, he never actually saw those dogs again – in this life. But he sometimes felt they were near. There were many times he found tennis balls in the strangest of places, both in and out of the house. And there were a few evenings when he looked out the window and thought he caught a glimpse of a black-faced Leonberger gazing into his life, as well as the lives of others. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, he awoke to a gentle breeze hitting him on the face. He knew it must be the bushy tail of that dark Shepherd.
Jake also knew Brownie was always close to him. He knew because somehow, in their own mysterious way, the dogs had all told him. Told him that all dogs who cross the Rainbow Bridge are never far from us. They are always close. And that they take great interest in the affairs of people. Especially those they loved and who loved them back.