In my most recent novel, A Christmas Home, the main character, a young man named Todd McCray, wonders aloud to his father, George McCray, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t know where I belong.”
George answers, “Todd I hope you know that you’ll always belong here with your mom and me. This is your home just like it’s ours.”
The theme of home or where we belong has been in my mind as I have written each of my three Christmas- and dog-themed novels. In A Dog Named Christmas I made the point that dogs deserved to be in a home for the holidays. In my novel, Christmas with Tucker, young George was forced to choose between residing with his grandparents in Kansas or making a home in Minnesota with his mother. His dog, Tucker, was so much more at home with the McCray family than he could ever be living with his neighbor, Frank Thorn, tethered to the end of a chain.
We use the words at home to describe a certain feeling whether it be in a church, at a job, in a community or just visiting a relative in a far away city. In this, my most recent work, A Christmas Home, I have tried to dig even deeper into what this feeling of being at home with yourself and others is all about. I have come to believe that finding our way home is one of the more difficult, yet important, tasks in life. So, too, is helping someone or something to feel at home with you. I hope you enjoy this opening prologue.
For several hours men in sweat-soaked uniforms walked in and out of the small bungalow. Each time they opened the front door, a chilly wind lifted the edges of the brown paper that had been put down to protect the floors. Dominated more by dandelions than bluegrass, the lawn on the side of the house facing the street had not been mowed in months. The FOR SALE sign cast a shadow on broken and discarded toys that lay in empty flower beds.
When the strangers first arrived, all their activity made the retriever edgy. She snapped her head up to better take in their scents and barked deeply. A woman, not yet thirty-five, but already wrinkled with disappointment, held the dog at bay. The dog would not yield. The barking made the woman nervous, so after a few minutes she put the retriever in the fenced-in backyard and went back to watching the strangers carrying boxes and furniture from the house, loading them into a long white beached whale of a truck parked along the curb.
The men maneuvered a few larger pieces of furniture out the back door and through the dog’s yard. They attempted to befriend the retriever with soft, beckoning voices, but sensing the woman’s suspicions and fears, the dog stood steadfast and only answered with muted growls through clenched teeth.
The dog was a three-year-old female of steady temperament (under normal conditions) and intelligence, originating from the stoic golden retriever bloodlines of her mother. Her spectacular thick and soft, creamy coat hued with soft white fur, and her loyal and fearless heart came straight from her father: a Great Pyrenees.
In addition to the dog and the woman, two children lived in the bungalow. It was the only home the boy and girl had ever known. Their mother’s vague explanation for the move—that the bank now owned the house—was beyond their comprehension, and they were confused. At about the same time the movers were completing their work, the school bus let the children off at the corner. As they approached their house, they found it very unsettling to see everything they owned loaded inside a truck.
It seemed strange to return to their home emptied of all their belongings. A variety of hidden debris was all there was left—dust, dog hair, pennies, Cheetos, crayons, matchbooks, and little scraps of paper with faded phone numbers, all small memories of times past. The children walked through the house like refugees, stunned by the ghostly quiet. The youngest child, a six-year-old boy with thick, dark hair, draped his small arms around the retriever they called Gracie. There were so many things the boy could not understand. At the top of the list was why they had to leave their home and this dog he loved so much. He had cried and cried and still no one could answer what seemed to him such a simple question. Why? Even his teachers put their arms around him and awkwardly strung together words that were too abstract for him to comprehend, like “sometimes life takes hard turns.”
The boy’s older sister, a tall and gangly nine-year-old, was carrying a small gym bag that her mother was allowing her to take with her in the car. She pulled out a note she had written while the other children played at recess earlier in the day. The paper had a hole punched in the corner with a piece of red ribbon threaded through for tying the note to the dog’s collar. The outside of the note bore the name Gracie.
The children’s mother deposited two large plastic buckets in the yard. She sighed and wished that the bank would accept her children’s tears in lieu of ten months of delinquent mortgage payments. The red bucket was filled to the brim with four gallons of water, and the green bucket held the bargain-brand dog food they could barely afford. When she got out of town, she would call the local shelter and anonymously report the dog as abandoned. She knew she should take the dog there herself, but she couldn’t stand the thought of one more humiliating encounter.
The woman unwound her children’s arms from around the dog. She took them by the hands and directed them out of the backyard, where only a few days earlier they’d played so happily and life seemed predictable and full of promise. Things had gone wrong for the woman and her family very quickly; first, the divorce; then her ex lost his job and could no longer pay child support; and then she’d lost her own job when her employer pulled up stakes from Crossing Trails. The foreclosure was inevitable. When her son began to sob inconsolably, she held him close to her, not saying a word. There were no words, she thought. No words.
The woman shut the backyard gate behind her and did not allow herself to look back as she headed for the packed car in the driveway. She wanted to stay strong for her children. Life might knock her down, but she would get up and keep walking, one step at a time. She deeply regretted leaving Gracie behind—she loved the dog as much as the children did—but it was a sacrifice she knew she had to make. She swallowed hard and hoped that the shelter would find a good home for the dog.
Gracie pressed her face against the gate, barked, and then began circling nervously around the yard. She could see the driveway from the gate and watched the familiar car pull out, the boy and girl waving back at her. Then they were gone. But what did it matter? They always returned.
As dusk turned to night, no one came back. The dog was anxious and confused. The next morning, no one took her for a walk, poured fresh water or food into the plastic buckets, or let her in the house. The day progressed but still there was no television, no children’s voices. No one threw her a ball or sat beside her as the sun set in the sky, talking about homework or playground bullies.
The next day, the dog accidentally knocked over what little water was left in her bucket. She panted, and as the hours passed her throat and mouth became dry and chalky. She could smell and sense water beyond the fence that confined her. Tantalizingly near, water sprayed from the sprinklers in the neighbor’s yard; she could hear it swirling in washing machines and dishwashers and from a neighbor’s hose where a boy was washing his father’s car. Gracie needed to get out, needed to get beyond the fence, needed to feel wetness on her tongue. She pawed at the gate and barked until she could bark no more. Her house was on a corner, and the neighbors next door were elderly and did not hear well. No one came.
The white retriever spent the day whimpering and drifting in and out of a deep sleep.
Late in the afternoon the back gate opened and a man with a camera began taking pictures and measurements of the yard. Gracie slowly opened her eyes and watched the man as if she were in a dream. The man coughed and the dog jumped, now alert. With all the energy she could muster, she hunched low into a submissive position and walked toward the stranger. The man was startled but quickly put his camera on the ground and brushed the dog’s head with his hand.
“Another one abandoned,” he muttered to himself. While petting her, he found the paper tied to the dog’s collar. Carefully he undid the red ribbon knot, unfolded the note, and read it.
Our dog’s name is Gracie. She is the very best dog in the world. We love her, but we have to leave her because we don’t have a house anymore. Please take good care of her and she’ll take good care of you.
The man stared at the note and then looked into the dog’s eyes. “Sorry, Gracie,” he said. “The world is upside down right now.”
The man took the dog’s bucket and walked over to a spigot on the side of the house. He turned it and nothing happened. They shut the water off, he thought. Looking around he saw a hose on the other side of the fence. He left the dog, opened the gate, and quickly stole across the neighbor’s driveway, turned on the spigot, and filled the dog’s bucket. He sighed. “So close and yet so far away,” he murmured.
The man walked back and put the bucket in front of the dog. Without hesitation, Gracie’s tongue touched the clear liquid and at first it stung, but then the feeling of pain turned to joy and the dog lapped for a very long time. “This is happening a lot, old girl,” the man said. “Houses being foreclosed, families forced out, beautiful animals like you being left behind. I kind of hate my job sometimes.”
The local animal shelter where he brought these abandoned pets called them foreclosure dogs and gave them a host of names that reflected their owner’s plight, like Past Due, ARM, and Subprime. Many of the owners reasoned that the bank, a neighbor, the police—surely someone—would come and care for their pet. “Let me just take some pictures, girl, and I’ll help you out, okay?” He watched her drink deeply and ran his fingers through her long white coat. The dog looked sad but smelled clean. “You’re a beautiful dog, aren’t you? If I wasn’t struggling myself, I’d take you home with me right now.”
When she finished drinking, Gracie nuzzled the man’s wrist appreciatively. The man stood and fumbled in his pocket for the keys to the house. He pulled them out, unlocked the back door, and entered to take measurements and pictures and complete his report so the bank could market the foreclosed property. In thirty minutes he was finished and returned to check on the dog. She was not where he had left her. He searched about the yard, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, shoot,” he said, catching sight of the wide-open gate that he’d forgotten to latch. Perhaps the dog had just now escaped, and he moved quickly to the front yard hoping to find her there. He looked down the narrow street lined with modest homes, many also for sale, and spotted her at the far end of the block. He yelled to get her attention and began to follow her. “Here girl. Come on back!” He put his fingers to his mouth and let out a loud whistle.
The dog was meandering down the middle of the road but ignored his pleas to return.
“Come on back!” he shouted again, but it was too late.
A car came around the corner and its horn issued a shrill warning. Startled, the dog reflexively bolted straight into the path of the car. Tires screeched. Impact. The retriever was tossed to the side of the road. Stunned and frightened, she struggled to get up, but it was not possible. She breathed deeply and her heart raced out of fear. Confused and hurt, she tried to crawl further off the road to safety.
As the man from the bank trotted toward Gracie, car doors slammed and two people emerged from the car before he could reach her. The young female driver immediately began to wail, “Oh, Mom, I hit her! I didn’t even see her!”
“Laura,” her mother said, reaching out and wrapping her hand around the thin arm of her fair-haired daughter. “It wasn’t your fault. The dog ran out in front of you.”
Still frightened but trying to regain her composure, the girl clutched her mother’s elbow. “We have to . . . try . . . to help.” She stepped slowly closer, holding her mother’s arm for support, and desperately hoping that the retriever was not dead. The dog lifted her head but didn’t move.
Stunned, like any injured animal, the dog sensed her own vulnerability. She growled, warning the two women to keep their distance.
“What should we do?” the mother asked.
Laura reached down and tried to comfort the dog, but Gracie growled again, so she backed away. She thought a moment and got the words straight in her head before speaking. “I’ll call Todd.” She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and hit his number on her speed dial.
Greg Kincaid is the author of A Christmas Home, now available Amazon.com, BN.com and all major retailers. You can read Greg’s previous blog posts for Petfinder and visit him at www.facebook.com/authorgregkincaid.