Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Story 2019!


BACON-MAS TIME
Part 1
The forest was quiet except for the creak of trees groaning under the weight of ice they wore like a clinging lover. The large black cat strode purposefully through the dusting of snow; he was angry hed been sent on this fool’s errand.
“I’m a Gate Guardian, not a bloody babysitter,Sebastian hissed. He had just become Aziles familiar; it was strange that one of such importance as himself would be relegated to what amounted to indenture, but, the powers that be had been determined it likely she could become one of the very strongest to wield the craft. It was important that she should have a wise and powerful guide beside her. Puh, Sebastian thought. “Wise and powerful my whiskers; it’s wasted on her. Shes a young girl pining away for a man she cant have and a family thats already forgotten about her. How long must I stand watch over these commoners?He looked at the seemingly daunting wall to the compound and casually licked a paw before dematerializing and materializing inside. Not as safe as you think, humans.He walked to the home hed been watching for the past two weeks. 
He was sitting still as death, in a hedgerow, hidden from all but the most adept and diligent searcher.
Hey, you!” Ben-Ben yipped.
Sebastian hissed, startled he smacked the top of his head on a low hanging branch. He spun quickly to glare at the little dog. The Yorkshire Terrier was all mouth and wagging tail.
You a cat?
Before Sebastian could answer the animal, asked if he had any bacon. Then he launched into a rapid succession of questions that became more and more inane.
Sebastian's whiskers could grow no tighter. Shut up,he commanded quietly as he smacked his paw across Ben-Bens face.
Patches does that, but she usually uses her claws! Do you know Patches? Shes a cat, too!
Not all cats know each other, lowly creature. Dog, right? Well? Do you know every dog?
Every dog I need to," he answered proudly.
“We’re done here,Sebastian said as he winked out, landing himself once again in the peace and quiet of the forest that surrounded the base. He returned the next day, careful to find a new spot to watch from. Hed just settled in when he was once again set upon.
Did you know its Bacon Eve tomorrow?
How are you doing this!?Sebastian queried.
You smell like charcoal and charcoal means cooking meat and Im very, very, very crazy about cooking meats.Long lines of drool were dripping from his mouth and pooling on the ground as his thoughts swept him away.
I do not smell like charcoal!Sebastian answered indignantly.
Just like it,Ben-Ben said as he sniffed the cat’s tail.
I will rip your face off, puny creature!”
Patches says the same thing! You sure you dont know her?
I don’t, but she seems wise, and perhaps I should confer with her. Maybe she knows how to get rid of you.
Rid of? Were best friends! Well besides Riley, Henry, Chloe, Holly, Tracy, Michael, Justin, Travis, Nicole, Wesley, BT….”
I get it, I get it.”
But shes the one that told me about Santa Claws and how he hides bacon all over the place on Bacon Eve. Bacon is glorious!
Bacon Eve?
Its the day before the two-leggers celebrate Christmas Eve. I miss my Winke Santa.” Ben-Ben’s head sagged. He died.
Got a secret for you, dog.”
“Ben-Ben.”
Whatever. All of you are mortal and quite capable of dying. Its easy, in fact.
Ben-Ben tilted his head. I know that, cat.
“Sebastian.”
Ben-Ben sighed. Whatever. I realize that our lives are but a fleeting moment, therefore, I will do all in my power to enjoy each and every moment I am granted on this most wonderful of planes. And that, my feline friend, involves eating as much bacon as I can possibly find.
Sebastians head tilted at an answer he hadnt been expecting. Strange to see a canine with more than three working brain cells. Well, as you can see, there is no bacon or cooking meat here, so I will need you to leave, preferably never to return.”
Stop smelling like charcoal then.
Sebastian got angry. I do not smell likeforget it.” An idea dawned in his mind to get rid of the pest, if only for a little while. I know of where this hidden bacon is.
Ben-Ben eyed him suspiciously. Youre willing to share?
“I’m a vegetarian,” Sebastian lied.
The place where they poke you with needles?Ben-Ben shuddered. They never have bacon there; it always smells like fear and urine.
Apologies; I misspoke when I said you had a working mind. Come with me.
Sebastian led the smaller dog to the wall.
You going to go over and bring it back? Ben-Ben was craning his neck to look up. I could probably jump over it…but I dont know whats on the other side.
Really? You can jump twenty feet?
Twenty, what now?
Just reach out with your paw and touch my back.
This a trick?
Sort of.
It doesnt involve your claws because I touched you, does it? Because Patches is very particular about being touched, especially when shes sleeping, and Ill tell you what, she sleeps a LOT! Like, so much I eat her food most of the time. Tastes horrible! But I get worried about it going to waste. Usually get a stomachache then throw up on the soft inside floor, sometimes it’s better if I get to eat it again before the two-leggers shoo me away and pick it up. Did you know they throw it away!? Makes me sick even thinking about it.
You have problems, dog.
Ben-Ben. Did you know Im a rescue dog?
Makes sense someone would try to get rid of you.
What?
Rescue dog. That means someone tossed you out with the garbage and another human foolishly brought you back inside, along with all your issues.

PART 2

Thats not what Riley says. She says I rescued our family who took me away from the cold-cages.
Just touch me so I can drop you off.
With the bacon.
With the bacon,Sebastian added.
Ben-Ben placed his paw on Sebastians hindquarter. The cat immediately took them outside before the dog could move away.
I told you I could jump it!Ben-Ben did a small circle and yipped excitedly.
Yes, you did it. Congrats. Now, if you look straight ahead, youll see one tree that is much larger than the rest.
Oh, I see it. I must mark that to show how mighty I am!
You do that. But be careful of the bacon; it is close to the base.
“Bacon-topia!” Ben-Ben was off and running.
Powerful witch or not, this is ridiculous. I will let her know exactly how I feel about this.Sebastian headed back over the wall to the house, convinced he would not be bothered again. He summarily fell asleep, awakening as the first of the snowflakes fell upon his nose. None of this cold nonsense where Im from.He shook his head and stood. He did not think at all of the dog hed led outside as he trudged through the burgeoning snow to his shelter, where he could get warm.

TALBOT HOUSEHOLD

Hey Holly, have you seen Ben-Ben?Riley asked. I have checked around the entire dwelling but I cannot find him.
He was looking for bacon the last I saw.Holly stood and stretched her front legs.
“He’s always looking for bacon; that doesnt help.
Riley went over to Michael, who was sleeping on the floor, his head propped against the couch and a book on his lap. She barked directly into his ear. Need you to get up!she told him.
Holy shit!He sent the book flying as he sat up. Whats going on, girl?Riley was peering at him from less than a foot away.
“I’m thinking she wants to play.Tracy had come into the room to see what was going on.
Naw, thats not it,” he told his wife. She looks serious.
When did you become the dog whisperer?
“Don’t need to be one with a dog this smart; she’s a people whisperer. Whats going on, pup?” he asked, gently grabbing both sides of her face.
Riley pulled away and barked a command. Holly nudged Chloe and they both came further into the room and sat down next to Riley. Henry replied from the kitchen where he had been dining on the scraps of a salad Tracy was preparing. Patches padded silently into the room. Whats all the noise about?she asked.
Mike looked around the room in bewilderment. I wish I knew what this.wait, where’s Ben-Ben?”
Riley barked at that. Mikes attention snapped to her. Thats it, right?
Seriously, Mike? Who are you? Dr. Doolittle?Tracy laughed.
Again, its Riley thats the smart one; I’m just trying to figure it out.
Not going to argue with you there.
Have you seen the little monster?Mike asked her.
Funny…no, and I was just thinking about how quiet the house was. He sure does make a lot of noise for such a small dog. Probably locked himself in a closet again.
Without saying another word, they separated and began searching throughout the house, calling his name repeatedly.
“Shit.” Mike was back in the living room, running his hand through his hair. He opened the front door and was looking at a particularly nasty snowstorm. He cant be outside; I didnt let him out.
Any luck?Tracy asked as she came from her rounds. Did you let him out and forget?
No, I took them all out earlier, and you know how he is when he comes back in. Fifteen-pound dog pushing to the front to get his good-boy cookie. I even laughed more than usual because he sent Chloe skidding headfirst into the wall.He absently rubbed the wronged dogs head.
Riley turned to Patches.
What?
Patches.
He wouldnt leave me alone! I just wanted to take a nap. I told him about Santa Claws and how he leaves bacon around for all the good little dogs.
Leaves bacon all around, where?
Outside, of course! How could I be expected to get enough sleep if he was overturning furniture looking for something that wasnt there?
And how did he get out?Riley asked.
I dont like your tone,Patches turned away and began grooming herself.
Youll like a lot less about me if you dont tell me.
Patches sighed loudly. Theres a window in the basement that opens up if you push against it.
Its too high up.Riley was suspicious.
We may have moved a few things around so he could reach.Patches said, moving deftly to a higher perch, should Riley want to express her disapproval in a more physical manner.
If anything has happened to him, Patches…” She left the rest unsaid.
You should all be thanking me. Tell me, have any of you slept that well recently?
Riley had turned back to Michael. She barked and stood, heading very deliberately for the basement door.
Oh good...is he down there, girl?” Mike opened the door, expecting to be greeted by a small dog whose entire rear end would be swinging back and forth in merriment. His countenance slipped when that wasnt the case. “Ben-Ben?” he called out as he turned the light on and descended the stairs. Shit, why is it so cold down here?He immediately spotted the reason. Snow was pouring in through an open window, and even more troubling was the makeshift ladder comprised of boxes and a table that led to the opening. He stuck his head out and called. When he heard nothing in return, he quickly dashed upstairs and began to dress for the weather.
Whats going on?Tracy asked.
He got outside, crawled through a basement window.
Ben-Ben did? Are you sure? Thats not something hed do.

PART 3

Not unless someone told him to,Riley growled, looking at Patches, who was now slouched into a small, humped furball.
It doesn’t, but hes not in the house and there was an open window. It’s snowing pretty hard out. We need to search outside; I’m going to scold the hell out of him when I find him.
As if. Youre going to give him cookies until his belly drags on the floor.
True," he answered as he pulled his boots on. Riley was nearly attached to his hip as he went for the door. I take it you want to go?Now he was looking at the entire pack. The dogs generally listened to him, but not always, and he was already looking for one lost pup. Sorry, girls, just Riley.Henry let out a savage bark. Mike got on one knee to hold the large dogs head in his hands. You sure? Its cold out there.Henry barked again. Good enough. Hon, Riley and Henry are coming with me.
“I’ll call the squad to keep a lookout,” she replied from the transition between the kitchen and living room.
Mike and the dogs slogged through the snow, looking for some signs.
“I’ve got a faint scent of him,Riley told Henry.
And something else,Henry added as he was next to her.
I dont see anything,Mike said as he watched the two dogs investigate a nearby hedgerow.
Something was just here; see where the ground is disturbed?Riley stated.
Henry was looking at the pushed away snow, but was confused when he saw no prints leading away.
“Bird?” Riley asked.
Henry shook his head. It would still have to hop out from underneath before it flew,he told her.
Riley put her nose to the ground and followed Ben-Bens scent.
You got something, sweetie?Mike stayed close behind.
Riley stopped at the wall and looked up before whining. She did a few circles, trying to locate another trail but was unsuccessful. He was here, right here.
And so was that other scent,Henry said suspiciously.
Did a two-legger take him?she asked. 
This is different; I’ve never smelled anything like this.Henry looked up as well.
Whats going on guys?Mike asked; both dogs were staring at the top of the wall.Theres no way he went up there.
Riley went over and placed her paw on the barricade.
Are you sure?Mike asked.
Henry barked in response. Mike hurriedly headed back to the house. If he was going outside the gate, he was going to need a hummer and his rifle.
Nothing?Tracy looked distressed as Mike came in and shook off the excess snow.
I think, well, the dogs think hes outside the gate.
They tell you that?
Pretty much, yeah.
What are you going to do?
Mike merely looked at her.
Not even sure why I asked. This is supposed to be a nasty storm, Mike—it’s not safe out there.
Even more reason to go now. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve; how am I possibly going to enjoy myself if I know hes all alone in the cold?
Tracy bit her tongue; she knew how much Mike loved his dogs. He’d no sooner leave one of them to fend for themselves than he would his family, friends or squad.
Want me to tell, BT?she asked.
Mike was surrounded by the dogs. Chloe and Holly were not going to let him out without them this time. I think all the seats are going to be taken.”
Are you coming?Riley asked Patches.
Youre the ones with the big noses; what could I possibly do besides get wet?
You could help look for your friend.
“Friend? Fine. Stop looking at me that way. My eyesight is better than all of yours; I’ll look from inside the vehicle.Patches leapt gracefully down from her loft.
You, too?Mike asked as Patches padded for the door.
Mike helped Henry up into the passengers seat; the rest piled in the back. Chloe and Holly were giving Patches as wide a berth as possible, given the confines of the vehicle.
“Captain Talbot? Umm, strange day to head out to the dog park.Sergeant Ventz had bent down and was eyeballing all the occupants.
I know. I’ve got my reasons.
“I’m going to have to radio this in.
Can you give me an hour? One of my pups has gone missing; I’m just trying to find him.
How many you have?
Its been an adoption process.
You seriously think the dog is outside? In this shit storm?
I do.
And this isn’t just one of your crazy ass ideas or something?
It isn’t.”
One hour, Captain, and then Im going to have to notify the boss. Dont go getting your ass killed while youre out there or Im going to get in trouble.
Nice to know you care.
Oh, I care, sir. I care about that 12-year-old bottle of Scotch youre going to get me on your next run.
“Deal.”
And sir, bring your dog back safely.
Mike nodded before speeding off as the gate opened. He immediately went to the place in the wall where Ben-Ben had disappeared. He noticed when he stepped out, that the snow completely covered his foot.
Riley, you going to be able to smell anything?He opened the back door.
I dont see anything,Patches was peering through the snow.
Henry, he was here,Riley barked, waiting for Mike to help the other out. And so was the other thing. Could it have flown him over?
His trail leads away.Henry was doing his best to peer through the burgeoning blizzard.
The fur on Patches neck bristled. She turned quickly to see what had caused it; she immediately froze when she saw it. “Uh, oh.” She was looking at a huge black cat, peering at the group. “Riiiiiiley!” she meowed, hoping the dog could hear her through the closed door.
Riley wanted to ignore the cat; she was still mad at her for letting Ben-Ben out, but when she looked up and saw the fear in her eyes, she knew she needed to check it out. Once Patches got her attention, she looked to where Sebastian had been, but the strange cat was gone, leaving Riley to question what had got her riled up.

PART 4

BEN-BEN

Ben-Ben ran off in happy search of his holiday prize. His tail moved quicker the closer he got to the tree, and faster still as he circled the trunk. It was only on his third loop that he began to slow his wag. “I dont smell anything.He looked up and then back to the cat, who was no longer there. Its got to be around here; thats two cats that told me I could find bacon. What are the chances theyd both be lying?And he wholly believed his thoughts. Maybe he meant that tree!He padded off quickly, his tail picking up steam. He was on his ninth tree when he looked around and realized he had absolutely no clue where he was. It was then that the snow, which had been threatening, began to fly and Ben-Ben suddenly found himself chilly.
I need to get home, snuggle with Riley for a while!He yipped excitedly and then whined; he had no clue how to get home. He should have been able to pick his own scent up and work his way back, but he began to panic when he figured out he was alone and beyond the gate. The wind had picked up significantly, and he was having difficulty seeing through the thickness of the snow falling.

SEBASTIAN

Meanwhile, Sebastian had entered into the dream world seamlessly, the blackness enshrouding him, quickly evolving into a scene more to his liking. An endless field unfolded before him, resplendent with tall grasses and his favorite flowers.
Catnip, my dear Sebastian? How quaint,Azile laughed as she walked toward him, dragging her fingertips across the tops of the bright green perennial.
Theres a problem.
The smile quickly faded. Is Michael all right?
Yes, yes, the half-vampire you adore for some misaligned reason is fine, as is his wife, should that be of some concern to you.
I wish none of them ill-will. Don’t start, Sebastian. Tell me why you are here and what the problem is.
I lost his dog.
What? You lost Henry?
Not the oaf; the noisy one. Len-Len or something.
Lost him? How? Forget it. Just get him back.
Oh yes, you are correct. Now why didnt I think of that?
You cant find him.
I can see your wisdom is beginning to catch up with your skills.
‘Get a familiar,’ they said. ‘Theyll guide you and watch out for you,’ they said. Not once did they say theyd cause you sarcastic grief, which I didnt think was a thing until I met you. How did you lose the dog?
I dont see how that is relevant.
Its relevant, Sebastian, because maybe if I know how you lost him, I might be able to help you figure out where to find him.”
He would not leave me alone.
Tell me you did not send him to the underworld.
Sebastian hesitated as he thought upon that. It would have been easier had I done that, but no. I merely led him away so he would stop bothering me.
“Sebastian!”
“Fine. They are living within a walled community now, which I dont think will hold up against a sustained attack, by the way.He noticed the scowl Azile was giving him. Oh, for purgatory’s sake. I brought the dog outside to look for bacon, of all things. He followed, like a daft dog is apt to when food is involved. Nearly as bad as human men being led by their…”
Azile waved away the catnip. In its place was a lava field. Sebastian was now perched upon a small outcropping; all around him, thick flows lapped against the edges.
I can almost feel the heat,he stated, staring passively.
Its real. Or real enough.
Sebastian, who was about to test the illusion, wisely thought better of it. Oh, alright. When I realized your Michael was frantically looking for the smelly beast, I decided it would be for the best if I brought it back. Except when I went to get him, he was gone, something had grabbed him.
A person? A zombie? A wolf? What grabbed him?
Thats the thing, I dont know what it was; I have never smelled it before. There was some familiarity, a mixture of many things, perhaps, but nothing I could identify.
One thing, Sebastian, I asked you to do one thing.Azile was looking off into the distance, the lava field faded away to a purplish sunset. She left without saying another word.

BEN-BEN

Ben-Ben had begun to shake in earnest, his teeth clacking together. Need shelter, then maybe bacon.He began to look frantically for something that could be used to keep the worst of the weather away. With his sight limited to ten feet, he wasnt having much in the way of luck. The snowfall was accumulating quickly, the powder already scraping the bottom of his belly, making the onset of hypothermia quicken. He spun in a circle, clearing the precipitation away until he was staring at the frozen ground consisting of pine needles and dirt. Instinctually, he knew his only chance lay in using the snow as a cold thermal blanket between himself and the howling wind. He let out a long sigh as he curled up, covering his face as best he could under a paw and tucking his snout into his shoulder. “So…cold.He couldnt stop shivering as the snow began to pile atop him, coming up over his sides. “R…R….Riley…where are you?

PART 5

MIKE

“Shit!” Mike stuttered. “It’s cold out here. How are you guys doing?he asked his pack of dogs.
“I’ve got a scent!Chloes nose was coated in snow as she lifted her head from the ground. She shoved her face back down and was following the trail. Sometimes she had to backtrack to pick it back up before heading off in a new direction.
You hanging in there?” Mike petted Henrys head.
Not a fan of the snow,Henry barked back.
Riley made sure she could see Mike and Henry behind her while also keeping an eye on Chloe. Not too far!she warned the young dogs.
Holly was keeping a lookout for her sister, like shed been doing their entire lives. She nosed the others’ hindquarters to let her know to stay close.
“I’ve got him!Chloe barked much too loudly, not realizing her volume because of her lack of hearing.
Inner head voice, Chloe,Holly told her.
Chloes tongue was lolling as she happily sought out the funny little dog. Getting closer!She sniffed hard, shooting snow out of her mouth. She made a large loop before settling back to an empty depression. Right here, Holly, he was right here.She had her head up and was looking around.
And now?Holly asked.
Just gone. He was lying down here—I’m sure of it.
Riley got to the two dogs first, then Mike and Henry caught up.
I can see where he was laying low, but there are no paw steps leading away. Theyd still be visible, if this depression is. Where you at, pup?” Mike placed his hand on the disturbed snow before standing. His gaze was pulled to what looked like two, human-sized footprints, but they were alone in a sea of pristine snowfall. What the hell is going on?Mike grabbed his rifle off his shoulder. He looked to the trees around him. Other than a helo rescue, not much of this made sense. “Riley?” She looked and whined; that was all the answer he needed.
We cant stay out here much longer; I didnt realize it was going to be this bad. Shit. Where are you at, Ben-Ben? We’ll never find him in this mess, and I cant risk losing you guys, too.Mike was weighing his options. He knew he would have stayed until he couldnt take it anymore, but this wasnt like being out with his squad; he couldnt order the dogs to go home. He would bring them back and strike out again.
I was just about to report this," the sergeant said as he waved Mike in. Any luck?
No.
“I’m truly sorry, sir.
“I’m dropping them off and heading back.
Not going to happen, sir, the base is on lockdown.
Maybe we can do the same deal?
Sorry, sir. It’s a shitty thing to lose a dog, but Im not going to compound it by having you get lost or me getting caught breaking the curfew. Military food is bad enough; I’m not going to start eating jail food.
There a less conspicuous way for me to get outside?
You could get a ladder, but are you going to start walking around in this? Youd get turned around in twenty feet.
Dammit.Mike pounded the steering wheel.
Go home, sir, get warm. Tomorrow when this blows over, Ill get half the base to join you to look for him. Hes probably fine.
I hope so," he said before reluctantly heading back empty-handed.
Tracy was standing at the window as the Hummer pulled up; she didn’t have to ask how it had gone. The defeated body language of each of them as they exited told her everything she needed to know.
Mike opened the door, gently letting Patches jump from his arms as the dogs padded in.
Anything at all?she asked, hopefully.
We saw where he had been, but its like he vanished.
She didnt press him on it. Why dont you get your wet clothes off, get warm.
Mike went to do as his wife suggested.
Okay, out with it,Riley said to Patches.
Yeah, you look like youve seen a ghost,Henry added.
I always see spirits; thats nothing new. This was different, though.
“We’re listening,Riley told her.
I think it was a Gate Guardian.
A what?Holly asked.
Ethereal beings that are tasked with watching the gates between realms.Patches shivered. She looked like she wanted to crawl up into a dark hole and hide for a while.
Whats it doing here?Chloe asked.
More importantly, did it have something more to do with Ben-Bens disappearance?” Riley’s tone let Patches know she was still angry about the cats part in all of this.
How could I know any of that?
I smelled something funny when I found Ben-Bens bed and the Mike saw something, too.
“Just, Mike.” Riley corrected.
Just Mike or The Mike?Chloe asked.
Forget it,Riley said.
The Mike saw footprints like a two-legger.
That your guardian?Riley asked of Patches.
Its not my guardian, and no, they appear as cats in this realm.
Something strange is going on. A small dog somehow got over a huge barrier and then left a spot without leaving any paw prints. None of this makes sense,Henry said gruffly.
Mike came down a few minutes later wearing sweatpants, heavy socks, and a hoodie, yet none of that could keep the chill from his heart. He stopped short when he saw all the animals in a circle.
“I’m so sorry," he told them. I thought wed find him.He sat down next to Henry and gripped the big dog before burying his face into his fur.
We just havent found him yet,Henry offered as his Mike softly cried.

BEN-BEN

Well, what do we have here?
Ben-Ben was surprised hed heard anything, with how violently he was shivering. He shook the snow off his head to look at a large pair of black boots that transitioned into a red camouflage-patterned pair of pants. He had to crane his neck even further to look up at the ruddy face peering down at him.
You look cold, little fellah. Whats a good doggo like you doing out in a storm like this?
Ben-Ben lapsed into unconsciousness just as an impossibly-sized pair of white gloves reached down and picked him up. He didnt remember much beyond the sensation of floating; he thought this perhaps was the feeling one got just before they went to the Forever Field.

PART 6

TALBOT HOUSEHOLD

Come and eat some dinner,Tracy called from the kitchen. Mike was about to decline the offer, but he figured he was going to be out all day tomorrow and would need all the strength he could get. He reluctantly stood and went to the table. One by one, the animals followed, partly to comfort their human and partly because he was generous when it came to handing out treats under the table, even though the alpha female scolded him for the action.
Mikes sleep was fitful. His legs twitched in anticipation of getting back to the search. Riley stood a silent sentinel by the living room window, waiting, watching, hoping her friend would come back. Mike arose early; to say he awoke” would imply hed slept. He quietly grabbed his clothes and headed out of the bedroom. The sun was sparkling brightly atop the new coating of white. Riley was at the door waiting for him. Mike hesitated.
All right, just you and me.Mike scribbled a quick note letting Tracy know he’d taken her. He was outside and was now realizing how much snow had accumulated. “Got to be over a foot.He didnt think Ben-Ben would be able to walk in it to get anywhere safe, he didn’t voice his fear, as Riley was adept at picking up verbal cues. Ready?He opened the passenger door and she hopped in, her eyes staring straight out the front windshield as if to tell him to get moving. Mike was glad for the heavy-duty diesel engine and the four-wheel drive; he was going to need all of it to cut a path through the unplowed roads.
Heading out again?Sergeant Ventz asked.
I am.
Want me to get some help?
Mike shook his head.
Good luck, sir.
Appreciate it,he said through tight lips.
Mike drove as close as he dared to the last known place of Ben-Ben. He would have kept driving around, hunting for some sign of the small dog, but he was afraid he might drive right over him. Looking out, his mood soured, thinking this might turn out to be more of a recovery than a rescue. Riley didnt wait for him to come around, jumping instead through the driver’s side and landing next to him, the snow nearly covering her hips. Four hours later, Mike was convinced he was going to lose some toes to frostbite. Hed put a reluctant Riley back in the Hummer with the heat on an hour ago when she’d begun to limp.
FUUUUCK! Where are you, Ben-Ben?he yelled before heading back. Rileys tail was wagging as she saw him coming, but it quickly ceased when she realized nobody was with him. “I’m so sorry, Riley.His eyes wet with the news. He pressed his head against the steering wheel for a few moments before composing himself enough to drive, and even then, he was unwilling to move forward. Once he left, he would be admitting to himself that theyd most likely lost Ben-Ben forever.
Sergeant Ventz, having seen the captain’s face, wisely said nothing as he saluted and let the Hummer in. Henry barked to let Tracy know she should open the door. The mood in the household immediately changed, from hopefully optimistic, to sullen. Even the apathetic Patches seemed affected.
Youre freezing,Tracy told her husband as she hugged him.
Inside and out,” he replied.
“I’m so sorry, Mike. Were all going to miss him.
I know, I know.He couldnt stop the flow of tears that fell. I just, Im going to get myself composed before the kids come home.It was Christmas Eve, and Mike had never felt less like celebrating. It seemed the day was a cursed one for the dogs in his family. He thought sourly on the heroic loss of Bear, who had sacrificed himself so that they all might live, on a not-so-distant Christmas Eve. Mike sobbed until his head ached, then cried some more, his skull feeling like it had been filled with expanding concrete. By the time he was done, night had settled and he made his way downstairs. His kids were all home and helping Tracy prepare the traditional Christmas feast. It wasnt quite the spread theyd had in the past, but it was appreciated more. No mention was made of Ben-Ben in the hopes that they could delay the topic, at least, until after the Holiday.
Mike smiled at all the appropriate times and did a reasonable facsimile of a happy man, but every time he looked over to the dogs and the glaring omission of the loudest among them, his mood quickly sank. Patches had, at some point, padded down to the basement and her secret way out.

PATCHES

Get him back!Patches hissed. Sebastian jumped, his tail puffed huge. For the first time in a very long time, hed been scared.
How do you all keep finding me?He was annoyed that shed seen him startled.
Get him back!she repeated.
Is this about guilt for your part in his disappearance, or do you really want him back?
He is an obnoxious dullard, who, for the life of him, cannot be quiet for more than five minutes. Yet, he has saved my life, and I love him for that and because he is an obnoxious dullard who cannot be quiet for five minutes. So, to answer your question, yes. I want him back, and youre going to do that or so help me.
So help you what, feline? You know what I am, do you believe yourself capable of making good on your threat? Yet…that you would even dare to challenge me so lends believability to your claim. I would gladly bring him back, for I, also, in part, am responsible for him going missing, but I cannot. Something has taken him, and I do not know to where or for what reasons.
It wasnt you?
It was not.
Why are you watching this family?
A favor for a friend.
You are not doing a good job of it then,Patches said before turning tail and leaving.
You would be correct,Sebastian said quietly, and for that, I am sorry.

PART 7 - Conclusion

Christmas Eve

The night went well enough; there were laughs aplenty among the team, family and friends. The party broke up around midnight. Tracy was standing in the kitchen, her hands upon her hips as she looked at the mess on the counter and sink.
Want some help?Mike asked, coming up behind her.
I was going to leave it for tomorrow. You should get some sleep.
You are so full of it, woman. I’ve been married to you long enough to know that you wont be able to sleep knowing it looks like this down here.He moved past her to start tossing trash. I cant believe you give me crap about my OCD when you make a strong case for yourself.
Tracy began to wash dishes, and Mike was busy drying. I find it strange that, in a house full of guests and family, four dogs and a cat, it still feels silent. Do you know what I mean?She handed him a large bowl.
I know exactly what youre talking about. I almost tossed the bowl of candied bacon, couldnt stand to look at it. Ben-Ben would have harangued the hell out of me until I gave him damn near all of it. As it is, I stashed a few pieces for when…” His words stalled as his throat constricted. They both knew the odds of the small dog having survived the storm were as minimal as they could be. Damn dogI’m almost mad at him for making me feel this way. Does that make me a bad person?Mike buried his face in his wifes shoulder. They finished the chores in silence before heading up. Mike was first up the stairs.
Avalyn? What are you still doing awake?The little girl was sitting on the top step.
Waiting for Santa. I asked for a very special gift.
You know he can tell if little kids are awake. He wont come if you’re sitting here.
But Ben-Ben might be cold when he brings him home; I wanted to give him my blanket.
Mike had to swallow back the emotions that threatened to flood out. Come on, kiddo, lets get you in bed.
Tracy checked on the little girl twenty minutes later so they could do their part and play Santa. Shes out; lets get the presents under the tree.
Next year, could you remind me to find toys that dont have stickers?Mike bemoaned an hour later when hed finished the assembly-required gifts.
Youve said that every year.
Definitely meant it every year.
You love it.
I know,” he replied. Mike gave each dog a healthy pat before heading upstairs to get some sleep. He was so tired, bone-weary, really, the stress and loss had drained him. Patches meowed loudly at him from the windowsill. You too?Mike gently petted her head, she purred affectionately. You know, you generally avoid me, right? I think thats partly my fault and for that, Im sorry.She moved her head into his palm. “We’ll work on it going forward. You cool with that?She purred again. Mike took a long, wistful look out the window, looking for a Christmas miracle. Sadly, he was not surprised when he did not find one.

3:00 am.

Mike had fallen asleep. Even in an unconscious state, he was thankful his dreams werent haunting him with all the loss hed suffered. It was somehow comforting to sleep that of the dead. That changed suddenly when he heard first one dog barking, then another, until finally it sounded like an overcrowded kennel.
What the hell?he asked as he sat up. The echoes of the discord were dying down as he stood; Tracy was still sound asleep. Did I imagine that? He grabbed his M-16 off the dresser and headed to the top of the stairs. There was an unnatural, reddish glow emanating from downstairs—his first thought was fire. He headed down fast, to check on it first to see if an evacuation was warranted, taking the stairs two at a time. Just as he turned the corner into the living room, the aura coming from the fireplace faded out.
What the hell?he said for the second time and would think it rapidly the next few moments. Then his heart nearly stopped in his chest. He was looking at the back end of a sitting dog that very much resembled a Yorkshire Terrier. This is a fucking dream.He was reasoning it out. Hed heard barking that no one else had heard, hed seen the light of a non-burning fire, and now he was having visions of a dog that was gone. Doesnt feel like a dream, though…Ben-Ben?”
The small dog turned slowly around.
Okay, if this is a dream, hes going to turn and Im going to be looking at a clown face or something equally as scary.Instead, he saw a familiar, lolling tongue. Mike almost dropped his rifle. Is that you, boy?
Ben-Ben looked confused, like perhaps he had awoken from a very long and intense dream, and was not quite sure what was real or not—pretty much the same thing Mike was going through. Once he sorted out his feelings, he bounded toward his human, tail wagging at an accelerated pace. The dog couldnt have weighed more than fifteen pounds, but struck Mike with enough momentum to bowl him over. The resounding thud was loud enough to wake the nearby dogs, who began to bark in earnest, this loud enough to wake up the rest of the family.
“Mike?” Tracy was coming down the stairs. Is everything all right?
“Fan-fucking-tastic!” he cried as Ben-Ben savagely licked his face.
Whatwhat is going on?She stopped as she looked at the scene unfolding before her. Riley was going crazy; it was strange to see the usually so reserved dog spinning in circles and occasionally stopping to lick her little friend.
“Don’t know, don’t care!” Mike was flat on his back, the animal pack celebrating all around him.
I knew it! I knew it!Avalyn clapped before clasping her hands together.
Mike was absolutely sick of crying, yet did so again. It was rare in this world, especially now, to lose something and then get it back.
I was saving this…seriously never thought I was going to use it, but…” Mike headed to the fridge and grabbed the candied bacon. Ben-Ben sat patiently on his haunches; as Mike approached, he turned his head when Mike extended the treat to him. Are you sure youre my dog?Ben-Ben nudged Mikes outstretched hand so that the bacon was in front of Riley. Sharing? Seriously? You? Fine.Mike broke up the bacon and gave a piece to each of the dogs, coming full circle to the terrier, who did not refuse his offering this time. I feel like you learned a Christmas lesson, boy. Maybe well get you a Lifetime movie or something.Mike hugged the dog again.
Mike, the mantle.Tracy was pointing.
Besides the candles and the stocking holders and a small Christmas tree globe, there was a red envelope with gold lettering, addressed to him.
I dont have to open it just yet,he said.
Thats the thing; its not from me.
Mike turned to the kids; they all shook their heads. There was no cause to be nervous, yet he was, as he stood and grabbed it. He couldnt be completely sure, but he would swear he felt a small electrical spark when he touched it. His hands were shaking as he ripped the envelope open; there was a card inside with a picture of coal on the front. He read it silently first, then aloud.
Merry Christmas, Michael! As I tallied my list for the year, you fell short of the Nice column, the dolls you procure put you squarely within the Naughty.Mike sheepishly looked up at that part. It wasnt like his black-market business was a secret, but he also didnt advertise, nor talk with his kids about it.
You have dolls?Avalyn asked.
You ever think about editing what youre reading?Tracy asked.
He doesnt when hes talking, why change now?Travis asked.
Justin fist-bumped his brother. Mike had a red hue of embarrassment flushing up his neck.
Ahem," he cleared his throat. ‘But this isnt about you, this is about a good dog named Ben-Ben, and the family that loves him. I have immensely enjoyed his company through this busiest of nights. Take care of him as he would take care of you. I wish you all the Merriest of Christmases.’ Its signed with an S.Mike held the card up to show.
Santas the best!” Avalyn yelled.
You had nothing to do with this?Tracy asked as an aside.
I would never pretend not to have found a lost dog. Im all for a practical joke, but that would be cruel," he told her.
Patches slowly walked up to Ben-Ben. I am sorry.Her head was down.
Sorry? You were right! I had more bacon than Ive ever had before! Santa is so nice.He gave the side of her face a wet lick.
Its good to have you back," she purred.
The Talbots celebrated the day in earnest, remembering all they had lost and reveling in all they had. 


The Tufo family wishes you the best of Holidays! Thanks to you all for your love and support throughout the year(s)!

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16 comments:

  1. Mark! Amazing addition to the Christmas story tradition. Just one thing I need to say to you at this point, please let the Talbot's find Ben-Ben safe and happy. You can kill off all the humans but if another animal dies, it might break me. Thanks for treating my imagination this holiday season, Robby

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  2. Great read thank you and Merry Christmas

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  3. Great read thank you and Merry Christmas

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  4. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Keep writing!

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  5. Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years to you and your family. Just what I needed to finish off this holiday season. Thank you.

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  6. I really enjoyed this story. I love animals of all kinds. Merry Christmas to all (belatedly); it's been busy, sorry. 😉

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