the story of one Christmas Eve... where two lost souls,
an old one and a young one, bond together because of a dog
whose love forges their eternal friendship.

 

Mr. MacAfee's 8-year-old dog, Mischief, stared through the frosted window pane. She uttered gutteral growls, a warning meant to protect her territory from all potential intruders. Through the curtain of snow, she could see the outline of a young man sitting on the park bench across the street.

The iridescent chocolate labrador retriever smushed her snout against the cold glass trying to get a better look.

Her noises captured Walter's attention bringing him to the window to see what all of the fuss was about.

"What ya seein' there, Girl?"

Mischief cocked her head in Walter's direction, as always, cognizant of and responsive to the old man's voice.

Here was a dog who knew that the most important part of life was not "things" but people.

Eighty-four year old Walter peered out the window as he stood behind Mischief. He could see the lone man in what appeared to be a uniform being covered by the falling snow.

"Come on, Girl; let's go see if this fella needs our help." The dog barked in agreement.

Walter was a gentle old soul who cared more for other people and animals than himself.

He and Mischief crossed through the street traffic to the park where the man was sitting. Walter's long winter coat skirted the top surface of the banks dragging the snow behind them.

As they approached the man, Walter spoke.

"Are you all right, Son?" and remembered that he should have introduced himself.

“I'm Walter - Walter David MacAfee. And the one with her head in your lap is Mischief. She's not my dog; she's my best friend."

Mischief rested her head in the man's lap looking up at him with her golden eyes.

Walter could see a crystalized track that had streamed down the man's cheek  to form a nearly perfect tear drop in his week's growth of beard.

Slowly the man's gaze met Walter's.

“I'm Samuel – Sam - Captain Samuel Clark Sheffield - U. S. Army."

"Well, Sam, whataya doin' out here so late on this snowy night?"

Staring out into the darkness, Sam said, "I lost my best buddy in Afghanistan, and he took a bullet meant for me. I'm having trouble dealing with it."

"You know, Son, the night my wife, Ethel, died I came to this very park to get away. I sat on this very same bench. It was pouring rain, and I was soaked to my everlovin' core.
"Ethel and I had been married for 52 years. It wasn't just love; it was an enduring friendship, or so I thought.
"While I was sitting mourning my loss, a chocolate lab came up to me and put her head in my lap.
"I used to sit on the sofa and Ethel would come over and lie down beside me with her head in my lap. That was the way she liked to talk to me.
"The dog didn't have a collar or any tags. Deep down, I knew she had been sent to me by my wife: a guardian angel to watch over me and to keep me company.
I named her Mischief because she was, and that's the way it has been ever since that night.
"What say we get you back to my house to get you warm and dry, okay Sam?"

The welcoming warmth wafted over them as they entered the old man's house. The smell usually associated with an old person's home dissipated quickly leaving a feeling of comfort and contentment in its wake.

"I've got a sweatshirt and pants that should fit you.
"Here Sam, put these on. They belonged to my son, Jeremy. He used to love jogging in warm-ups. We lost him in Viet Nam.
"Bathroom's down the hall."

When Sam came back to the living room, Walter had hot cups of tea and a basket of biscuits sitting on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

Walter pointed to the food and said, "Help yourself, Son. In a way, you remind me of him - my son.
“Jeremy was our sunshine, Ethel's and mine. And when he died it was like someone snuffing out a candle flame leaving us in the dark. It is the pain no parents should ever feel: losing a child.
"Jeremy had a dog named Shep. That dog could read his mind. He lived to be at Jeremy's side.
"My son used to tell me, 'A dog's paws are the entrance to his heart.'
"The two of them - they were totally in sync. Jeremy would look down at Shep without saying a word and Shep would immediately sit. Jeremy would then raise his little finger, and Shep would give him his right front paw to shake. It was a bond that would make them inseparable.
"The first night of Jeremy's wake at the funeral parlour, Ethel and I brought Shep with us so he could say goodbye.
"Shep went right over to Jeremy's casket. Sat. Looked up. And then he raised his right front paw. I'll never forget the look on Ethel's face. We both cried a lot that night.
"Well, I need to stop talking - we both need some sleep. I know I'm tired, and you must be too. You sleep here on the sofa in front of the fireplace. I always sleep in the recliner. I've done that since Ethel died."

A loud crack pierced the still night. A flash of fire was headed straight for Sam: a round from a sniper's rifle. The bullet meant for him cut through the air, but struck his friend, Charlie, who shielded him.

In a flash Charlie was gone. Sam held him as his last breath escaped. Sam's tears indented the sand at his feet. Another shot rang out; this time a loud crack as the wood in the fireplace shifted.

Sam bolted upright on the sofa and screamed. His recurring dream was all too real.

Walter awoke in the recliner and rushed to Sam's side. Sam recounted the dream to Walter, who listened intently.

When he had finished, Walter said to him, "Sam, sometimes a person's soul is not about perfection. It's about a plan: a continuation. It's about the journey we must all travel.

"Charlie knew you hadn't finished that journey and he was there to make sure you could.
"Just before you woke me, I had a dream about Ethel. She seemed so real, like she was right here with me. She still had those piercing blue eyes.
"Ethel was in our bedroom packing my big suitcase. She always liked to travel when we were young. We'd go anywhere at the drop of a hat.
"She folded my good Sunday suit laying it on top with my fancy tie, and looked at me saying, 'Walter, you have your hair.'
"She just kept repeating it, 'Your hair, Walter, you have your hair. You don't need to keep looking.'"

Walter ran his long bony fingers through his long white hair as if mimicking what he was trying to understand.

"But to be honest with you, I didn't understand what she meant. I didn't have a clue. Why would Ethel care anything about my hair. It just didn't make any sense to me.

"She spoke to me one last time, 'Walter, you have your heir.' That's when I finally understood."

A loud snore interrupted the flow of Walter's conversation putting an end to his speech. Sleep had once again overtaken the exhausted soldier sending him back into a deep slumber state.

But Walter knew. He knew he had the responsible person he needed and he knew the suitcase was Ethel's way of readying him for his final journey.

The room was quiet: amazingly so. The embers in the fireplace had long since lost their glow; their crackle gone with the night.

The morning sun pierced the darkness of Captain Sam's sleep. He awoke with a start.

Mischief had her snout on the edge of the sofa, looking up at him as if waiting for him to wake.

Walter was sitting upright in the old recliner seemingly asleep. Only now, his head was leaning to one side.

Sadly, Sam knew Walter had left him sometime during the early morning hours. He had gone to join Ethel.

He covered the old man with the wool blanket from the sofa. As he looked toward the mantel, a piece of paper sticking out of one of the Christmas stockings caught his eye. It was an envelope with his name on it: SAMUEL CLARK SHEFFIELD.

                    TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

                    ON THIS CHRISTMAS EVE NIGHT, I, WALTER DAVID MACAFEE,
                    BEING OF SOUND MIND DO HEREBY DECLARE THIS TO BE MY
                    LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT.


                    I LEAVE ALL OF MY WORLDLY POSSESSIONS (INCLUDING MY
                    HOUSE AND ITS CONTENTS) TO CAPTAIN SAMUEL CLARK
                    SHEFFIELD. I ALSO BEQUEATH TO HIM MY DOG AND BEST
                    FRIEND, MISCHIEF. HE MUST KEEP MISCHIEF SAFE FROM ALL
                    HARM AND MUST SHOW HER THE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND
                    RESPECT THAT SHE WILL SHOW HIM.
 

                    RESPECTFULLY,

                    WALTER DAVID MACAFEE

          Underneath was a second sheet of paper with the same distinctive handwriting.

                    To my new found friend,

                    "Sam - in the few hours I have spent with you - you have proven
                    to me that you are a caring and loving human being - and I am trusting
                    in my heart that what I am now doing is right for everyone concerned.
                    Also, I have included a note to Father James Martino to help you obtain
                    suitable employment.

                    "I am not now nor have I ever been a preacher or philosopher. I've
                    just been around the block a few hundred times more than most.
                   "Life has its moments - moments that make us laugh, moments
                    that make us cry, and moments when we come together to help one
                    another.

                    "My home is now your home - unconditional love resides within.  
                    It is where your new journey begins. Make some new memories.

                   "Be good to Mischief - the love of a dog knows no boundaries.
                   "Search for the good in people, the beauty of places, and the true   
                    value of things.
                   "You have a long road ahead, my friend. Please drive carefully."

Sam's tears stained the folded sheet of paper as Mischief looked up at him.

                     "Finally Sam, my brave boy, thank you for your service."

Then Mischief barked and held out her right front paw to Sam - and to another person in the room only she could see.

James Colasanti Jr

 

About the author: James Colasanti Jr. has been nominated five times by the Dog Writers Association of America and has received four Maxwell Medallions given for excellence in writing. A past president of the Animal Rescue & Foster Program of Greensboro, NC., James shares his home with his housemate, Sam, and seven rescue dogs. He is retired from Barnes & Noble Booksellers. His stories have appeared in Cesar's Way; New York Dog; O.Henry Magazine; Triad Happy Tails; and many others.

          

 

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Edward Verrall Luca (essayist)

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