Captain’s Christmas: Chapter Three

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“Feed the birds in winter, good luck all year,” said Great Uncle Jacob.

Sarah wasn’t sure she’d ever seen so many types of birds–blue ones Great Uncle Jacob called jays, gold ones he called finches, red ones called cardinals. “Like the ecclesiastics,” he said. “Dressed in red.”

While he was grilling sandwiches for lunch, she asked him, “Do the cats ever go outside?”

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“That they don’t,” he said.

“But why not, Great Uncle Jacob?”

“Just ‘Jacob’ will do.”

Sarah sniffed the aroma of butter and melting cheese. “Why not, Jacob?”

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“Cats are predators. Estimated they kill up to four billion birds a year, this continent alone. Island’s a safe haven, a refuge. So cats stay inside.”

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“They’re prisoners?”

“Prisoners of life,” he said. “You know what happens to strays on the wharf? A bad fate. These are rescued. They got the conservatory. Trees and plants. They get to live.”

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After lunch, Jacob said, “Heading over to the mainland. Coming?”

He let her pilot the ship across the straight. “Doing great, Captain,” he said.

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He took the helm as they approached the wharf, and he sent her to bow to keep lookout.

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Lobster traps, empty crates, seagulls, buckets of fish heads, coils of rope, hooks, chains, buoys–the docks had so much to see!

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“Suppose you want to know the rules,” Jacob said. “Simple. Stay out of trouble. Be back here by 3:15. Gotta make it back across the straight before dark.”

“Where will you be?”

He pointed at the row of offices and shops along the wharf. “Business,” he said.

She explored the docks, looking in every nook and cranny, until a grey-bearded fisherman growled, “Scram, kid!”

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She ran up the dock to the street then kept on running until she reached the beach at the road’s end.

She followed a boardwalk over the sand and past a marsh, where wood ducks, coots, and grebes circled on the water.

Through the reeds, a big white-muzzled dog crawled out.

“Hello, hound,” Sarah said.

The dog raised his tail in a cheerful wag and sniffed her hand.

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“Who belongs to you?” Sarah asked.

He didn’t have a collar, and he looked thin and raggedy.

“Are you a stray?” She remembered what Jacob had said about stray cats meeting a bad fate.

She took a sea biscuit out of her pocket. “Cracker, big boy?”

He swallowed it in a single bite. She fed him the rest from the bag.

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The shadows grew long. “I gotta go, boy!” He placed his front paws on her shoulders and licked her nose.

“I’ll see you! Bye! Be good!”

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He followed her back to the docks.

“Don’t you have anywhere to go?” she asked him, but she could see he didn’t. “OK, come with me.”

She led him down the dock to Jacob’s trawler.

“Get in here,” she said, opening a large crate on the stern. He hopped inside and she quickly shut the lid and perched on top of it.

She counted backwards from a hundred while waiting for Jacob, who arrived as she reached 29.

“There you are,” he said. “Prompt. Good job, Captain.”

He set a few bags of groceries and supplies in the cabin, then started the boat. “I’ll take us out of the harbor,” he said. “You can take us ‘cross the straight.”

“No, thank you,” she said, faking a yawn. “I’m very sleepy.” She wrapped herself in a scrap of burlap and curled up on top of the crate. “I’ll just nap.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

They crossed the straight without talking. The big dog remained quiet and still, hidden inside the crate.

“Thar’s home,” Jacob said as they neared the breakwater.

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She had to hop off the crate as they approached the dock to help guide them in.

“Good work, Captain,” Jacob said. When the boat was alongside the dock, with the engine shut off, he handed her the wheel and climbed to the dock to tie the mooring.

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She thought she might be the last one off the ship, so she could leave the lid to the crate ajar, but he came back to fetch the groceries and supplies.

“Take this,” he said, handing her the lightest bag, and they walked together back up to the conservatory.

She tried not to turn to look at the boat, but she couldn’t help it once or twice.

All through supper, she kept thinking of the big dog, in the crate on the deck of the trawler.

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She washed up the dishes while Jacob played the piano. Finally, he headed into the bathroom, and she heard the water run in the tub.

She grabbed a bag of cat kibble and raced back down to the dock.

The crate was empty. Somehow, the big dog must have found his way out.

She whistled and called him, but he was nowhere to be found. He had to be there somewhere!

She opened the bag of kibble and made a trail of it from the dock up to a dark corner outside the conservatory, and there she left the open bag, with the sides rolled down so that it made its own bowl.

He’d find the food, she felt sure of it. Then, the next day, she could build him a dog house out of driftwood, and he’d have a place to stay.

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Whisper 1.26

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Ice crystals blanket the plants in the garden and it’s pouring down ice-cold rain on Marigold’s first day of school. Of course, rain is nothing new: it pours nearly every day, unless it snows.

“Bye, Mom!” Marigold calls as she races to the bus. I’m on the phone with Felicity, and by the time I hang up, the bus is already turning around and heading off towards town.

“Have a great day at school!” I call after the bus.

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When Marigold gets home, I ask how school was, and she says fine. Then, she turns around and starts talking with Riley, only I can’t see Riley anywhere.

“Who are you talking to, Bunny?”

“Mom! Riley! He’s right here! Duh!”

I shrug. I always encouraged her to use her imagination, so if she wants to pretend that Riley is there, I suppose that’s fine.

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Only when it’s time for bed, Marigold is running through the house whacking the air with her pillow.

“Go to bed, Marigold,” I say. “And did you do your homework?”

“Yes! Wumph! Oh. That hurt!” And she giggles and races outside.

She spends half the night pillow fighting with Invisible Riley. By the time I finally manage to get her settled down and into bed, we have only a few hours until the school bus comes, and she still needs to take a shower and have breakfast. I decide to pack an extra sandwich in her backpack and let her skip the shower so she can squeeze in a little more sleep. She’s going to be one tired bunny by 4:00 p.m.

As she settles into the backseat of the bus, leaning against the corner and closing her eyes, I regret that I didn’t do a better job establishing regular schedules for us when she was little. It was no big deal back then if we stayed up all night reading, and so often, even when we were both so sleepy we could hardly keep our eyes open, I would fall for “one more page, please?” I guess I taught by example that it was fine to stay up all night, as long as you were having fun. Now, we’re paying the price.

As the bus drives off, I see Riley, sitting innocently on the porch. I pick him up and put him away. We’ll have to have some limits. When Marigold gets home from school, I’ll explain that first comes homework, then eating, then bathing, then sleeping, and then, if there’s any time in the morning, after breakfast and hair-combing, then Riley can come out to play while she waits for the bus.

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I hope she accepts these limits without fuss.

Around mid-day, I look out and see a dog standing in the field in the pouring rain. He’s very cute, with a little borzoi tail.

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I head out to him to see if I can persuade him to come in out of the rain.

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He follows me home, but he won’t come in. I hope he sticks around until Marigold gets home. She’s been asking if we could get a dog, and I’d love to adopt a stray.

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“Oh! Puppy!” she says when she gets off the bus. She approaches him slowly, talking in a gentle voice. I can see that she’s a natural with dogs. I don’t need to coach her at all. She knows just how to make Stray Dog’s acquaintance.

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Soon they’re playing tug-of-war, and I’m thinking how nice it will be for us to have a four-legged friend.

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She’s able to persuade Stray Dog to come inside, and he joins her while she plays house.

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While she plays, I explain to her about the new Riley rule. She seems relieved.

“That’s a good thing,” she says. “I love Riley, but to tell the truth, he was being kind of a pain. He wouldn’t let me do anything but play with him. I like to play with him, but I like to do other things, too.”

I give Marigold a kiss and read her a story before tucking her in.

After Marigold goes to sleep, I find Stray Dog curled up on my bed, and my heart opens like a rose. I had no idea having a dog around would make me so happy.

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It’s too wintry outside for me to garden, so I started a tiny indoor garden.

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The plant is very strange. I was fooling around with some seeds I found, using the science station I have to see if I could splice the genes. And the resulting plant is something completely new to me! The fruit looks a little like a durian, but I’m too cautious to eat it. At any rate, growing the plant lets me stay connected to the garden during the long season when the plants are dormant.

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At Marigold’s birthday party, I had a revelation: I realized that I’d been faithful to Dante since I met him, and I realized that I like this.

When he comes by, I confess to him that I like being true to him.

“I simply can’t cheat on you, Dante,” I tell him. “It’s just not possible.”

“You’re eternally faithful,” he says. “Me, too, to you.”

“Well,” I say, feeling suddenly very bashful, “since we’re faithful anyway, what do you say we make it official-like? Would you, maybe, become my boyfriend?”

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He agrees.

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We head inside to the big bed. I feel overcome with happiness, making it for real. No more pretending that I’m looking for someone alive, no more thinking “in time” or “what if.” It’s now, and we’re a couple.

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Later, before I fall asleep, I think how lucky I am. This is Big Love. Maybe I’m nuts, but at that moment, it seems even more special that we’ve stayed together despite the odds. For something like this to last, beyond the grave, it means it runs deep. Maybe this is what they mean when they say “soul mate.”

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