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A Christmas Tail



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About The Author

Elsa WatsonElsa Watson

From 1996 to 1998, Elsa Watson served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, where she began writing novels, all in longhand. She now lives on an island in Washington State with her husband, cat, and two dogs. Her short work has appeared in the Writers... More

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EXCERPT

A Christmas Tail (Chaprer:1 The Twelve Dogs of Christmas)

Zoë

"Once upon a time on Christmas Eve," Max says, "there were twelve dogs."

I stretch in closer, wriggling my chin across Jessica's lap. Behind me, my tail thumps softly on the sofa cushions. Yup, that's right. The sofa. Because I'm a dog who lies on sofas. I squirm a little, just to feel the soft pillows under my belly. Jessica puts a hand on my neck, and I hold perfectly still while she scratches under my new Christmas collar, the one that has tiny dogs on it wearing Santa hats.

There are four of us on the couch: me and Jessica, Max, and Jacob, a little boy who looks like a small version of Max. Jacob belongs to Max's sister, but he's staying here tonight so he can feed me mushrooms under the table and toss me popcorn from the big popcorn bowl. Jacob is wearing fuzzy pajamas with a reindeer face on the chest.

"These were the twelve dogs of Christmas," says Max, "and they worked for Santa, delivering presents all over the globe."

Jessica chuckles softly and cuddles closer to Max. I cuddle closer, too. We're like a pile of puppies. Puppies with popcorn! I open my mouth and pant at Jacob, and he throws a piece that I catch on my tongue.

"Do they pull Santa's sleigh?" Jacob asks.

Max laughs. "Yes, absolutely, they do. The husky goes in the front as the lead dog, because he has so much experience leading teams."

Jacob nods, since this seems reasonable. I nod, too, and get another piece of popcorn.

"Who takes care of the dogs?" Jacob wants to know.

We all look at Max. "Well, Santa does. And Mrs. Claus. And one of the elves." He pauses to wink at Jessica. "A very special elf named Jacob. He takes care of the twelve dogs of Christmas just like you take care of Zoë when you're here."

Jacob nods again. I sense that I could be getting more attention, so I wriggle forward, crawling over Jessica's lap and onto Max's as well. There, now everyone can pet me. Jacob says, "Look, Zoë wants to be part of the story!" And for one glorious minute, all six of their hands are on me, scratching my belly and rubbing that maddening spot on my neck that itches so much I sometimes dream about chewing it right off.

I'm slathered in pets. I'm getting so many, my eyes are foggy. I feel cocooned by their attention, overflowing with gleefulness. I'm about to get very, very excited and start squirming out of control. And then, suddenly, they stop.

I raise my head to see what distracted them--was it food?--and see a small black-and-white mound sitting on the floor near the Christmas tree. It looks like one of the presents, so I pretend to ignore it. Though of course I know it's not a present. And I can't ignore it for long because everyone on the couch--everyone who was petting me--is looking at the mound.

"Hey, Groucho," Max says in his special soft voice, the one I thought he only used with me. "Want to come up?" He pats a couch cushion, foolishly issuing an invitation.

The mound stands and reveals four feet, a head, and a tail. These are cat parts. It flicks its tail through the air like it's casting a warning. I understand the warning. I know it means that we should push the mound outside and slam the door shut so it can't get back in. But Max doesn't understand because he drops his hand toward the floor and makes flutter-fingers at the cat, enticing it over. I look at Jessica. She understands more about dogs and cats than Max--she'll have to be the one to help me slam the door shut.

But she doesn't get up or tell Max to watch his hand. Instead, she curls her fingers around my collar. Fine. I twist my neck. It's one thing if she wants to keep me from protecting them, but what about protecting myself? Because the cat is coming closer. It's sauntering toward the couch like it's the biggest dog on the block, like it's about to knock me right off the couch. I show it my teeth, but it keeps on coming.

"Zoë!" Jessica sounds shocked, though I don't know why. She knows that cats are only good for chasing and licking. The cat jumps up onto the end of the sofa. I can see that it wants my spot, my prize place in front of six petting hands. I turn toward it and resettle my paws, making sure it sees how big my feet are. Not to hurt it, just to scare it off. That's when Max moves.

"Zoë, I think you need to get down now," he says. His voice is stern, and before I know it, I've given up my precious spot on the couch and I'm in a new spot, lying all alone on the hard floor beside the Christmas tree. My belly is cold because the floor is cold, and no one is petting me. I roll this way and that, but every position makes my ribs hurt. I might as well be lying on a rock. My chin sags to the floor as I roll my eyes upward and see--lying in the wonderful cozy spot that used to be mine--the cat.

I try giving the cat an angry stare, but it ignores me. Not just pretend ignoring--this is real ignoring. Instead of noticing me, it flicks its tail in Jacob's face. But does it get yelled at? Does Max tell it to get off the couch? No. Of course not. Of course everyone leans closer to pet the kitty. I growl, but silently, so I won't get yelled at again.

After the three of them give the cat every ounce of affection they have in their bodies, Jessica and Max send Jacob away to get ready for bed. I perk up my ears and give them wheedling looks, but they don't invite me back up on the sofa. Jessica pulls out a white pad of paper and frowns at it. Max slides closer to her and wraps his arm around her shoulders.

"Can we go over this?" she asks, still frowning at her list. "There are a million things to do before they arrive. Someone needs to make a run to the store, and there's lots of prep work we still haven't finished. I figure we can organize the salads and dessert ahead of time. We'll need a last minute vacuuming, and I have to iron the tablecloth. Oh, and I saw a big cobweb in the corner of the kitchen ceiling--can you get that?"

Max reaches over and takes the list out of her hand. He slips his hand down until it wraps around her waist and pulls her closer. "Can't we worry about this stuff tomorrow? You really don't need to knock yourself out over this. It's just a family dinner--no one's going to care if there's a cobweb or two."

"But--no--" Jessica stretches her hand for her list. Max laughs and holds it higher, out of her reach. "Christmas is a big deal in your family. We have to do this right."

"Or what?" he asks, taunting her by waving the paper. Then he hands it back. "They aren't going to disown me."

She bites her lip. "Of course you're safe--you're their kid. You're in. But I want your parents to like me. This is really important."

"They already like you. Mom thinks you're terrific. She's always impressed by women who are entrepreneurs, and they loved the Glimmerglass even before they knew you ran it. They have big plans to start eating there all the time now that they've met you." He tugs her in closer.

"Really, you have nothing to worry about. All you have to do is be yourself." Max moves his mouth close to her ear and whispers something that earns him a kiss and a swat on the butt. He grins as he scoots off to help Jacob in the bathroom, but the second he leaves the room, her eyes return to the list. I heave myself off the floor and sit at her feet, letting her bury her hands in my fur until she feels better.

"Oh, Zoë," she says with a sigh. "Life in the human world is so complicated. Remember how it was during Woofinstock, when I was a dog and you were a person? Sometimes I wish we could go back to that. What do you say--should we go out and look for some lightning that would make us switch bodies again? Then you could run my life for a while and I'd lie around and take naps." I lift my face so we could look one another in the eye while memories zoom through our minds. My mouth pops open, and Jessica laughs. "Yeah, you're right. I don't really mean it! Being a dog was pretty tough, too. Besides, I really love having thumbs. And being able to eat what I want. And talk. And be with Max."

She tickles me under my chin, and I thump my tail. I know what she means. Sometimes I wish I were a human again, but then I think of how hard it is to do and say the right thing, and how much I love the intense smells of the dog world. And running. Or sleeping all day. Being a dog is the best ever.

Jessica and I know what we're talking about. For one crazy weekend last fall, I was in her body and she was in mine until a sudden shock put us back where we belong. Now I wake up every day happy to be a dog. After all, people might get to drive cars, but they don't get to stick their heads out the window.

"So I wouldn't give it up," she says, "not for anything. But it's still tough. Max's family takes Christmas so seriously. It's still a week away, but they're going to have some kind of dinner or caroling or cookie baking every night from now 'til then. Every night! Max thinks I planned too much food for tomorrow night, but he doesn't get it--this is our big chance to show them that I can fit in. That I can do Christmas, too." She's gripping her list so tightly, her knuckles are turning white. "I might not have grown up with a family that made gingerbread houses and put out cookies for Santa, but I can fake it." She looks down at me. "Right? Don't you think I can fake it?"

I wag my tail. Of course she can. Jessica can do anything.

"Fake it 'til we make it," she says, her eyes shining. "Dinner tomorrow is going to be perfect. It has to be--so it will be."

Jessica

"What are you doing?"

The sound of Max's voice made me jump. He must have been standing right behind me. "Are you criticizing the tree?" he asked.

"What? No, of course not." I uncrossed my arms, wishing he hadn't caught me standing there, frowning at our Charlie Brown tree. "It's a great tree. And I know you love it."

"I do," he said happily. "It has spirit. It looks like it had a past full of trials and tribulations, not just some cushy life on a Christmas tree lot."

I was pretty sure our tree had grown up on a Christmas tree lot, just on the exposed, abrasively windy side, but I didn't say so. "I do like its spirit. I just wish it weren't so...scraggly. And droopy on this side."

"We can always spin it," Max offered, though he knew perfectly well that we'd already hidden the tree's very worst side--the part that looked like it had been gnawed on by giant beavers. I gave an internal sigh. I should have argued harder for a perfect tree when we were on the lot, but Max had given me that sweet grin of his and I'd caved almost immediately. I'd tried hiding the tree's flaws with artful decorating, but no amount of lights and ornaments could fill in branches that just weren't there. I could practically feel Max's parents standing behind me, shaking their heads at that pathetic excuse for a tree. I'd seen the gleaming ten-foot noble fir in their front room--I knew what true sylvan beauty looked like.

"What would you think about painting this room?" I asked.

Max's eyes registered panic. "What, today?"

I couldn't help laughing. "No, no. Just sometime. Next. Once we finish caulking the bathtub upstairs."

"Once I finish caulking the bathtub," he corrected, grinning. "I'm up for it, if you think we can agree on the color. I don't want to go through that 'warm whites and cool whites' debate again. I still don't believe you. White is white."

I'd actually been thinking of a warm latte color for this room, but I decided to save that conversation for later. "Let's skip white altogether," I said, pulling my to-do list out of my pocket. Every time I passed through the house, I saw something else I wanted to do before they arrived--a bit of baseboard that needed cleaning, or dog hair to vacuum up, or a smudge from Zoë's nose on the French doors. "Sometimes I wish we'd moved into my apartment instead."

"You do?" Max pulled one of Zoë's tennis balls from behind the couch, opened the back door, and tossed it out. Before the door shut, I saw a flash of white zip across the yard after it.

"No, not really. It would be easier to clean, that's all. But I don't miss it at all. I love living in your fixer-upper."

"Our fixer-upper," he said. "Don't think I'm letting you out of the caulk job that easily."

In spite of what he'd said, I always thought of this place as Max's, not mine. The house was on a narrow street that was always dim from the cedars and fir trees in the neighborhood. In the backyard there was a patio and a nice patch of grass that blended into a large, sloping field.

I'd been excited to move in, but anxious, too. I'd lived with a few boyfriends before, but never in such a grown-up way, in a house. Plus, everything with Max felt more substantial than anything I'd ever known. As far as I could tell, he always meant what he said. When he told me he'd be fine with my taking over half the bathroom, he was. When he said he liked his couch better than mine but that we could put mine in the front room if I wanted to, that was the truth. He was fine with it.

If he sounds too good to be true, well, I was starting to think that he was probably that, too.

"I'm beat," I said to Max as we stood on the front porch, watching his parents climb out of their car. "You know I usually just have dinner with Kerrie's family on Christmas. It's a lot less work than this."

"Yeah. I still don't see why we couldn't have had dinner in a restaurant." There was a teasing note to his voice. "Besides, you're the one who decided we had to decorate every square inch of the place."

That was true. We had enough tea-light candles to illuminate the moon. I'd drowned our little tree in strings of beads and cute little wooden ornaments. I just hoped they wouldn't ask me which ones were from my childhood. I'd gotten them all at the hardware store.

"Do I look okay?" I asked. Max pulled something lintish out of my hair and kissed my forehead.

"You look great. Let's make these people go away so we can enjoy our clean house." He lifted his head to greet his parents. Zoë squeezed between us, greeting each person and rubbing white hair on anyone in black pants.

"Hi, Mom." Max hugged Trudy, a tall woman with short brown hair and high cheekbones that always reminded me of her son's. Bob Nakamura followed behind her, carrying two bottles of wine. I greeted them awkwardly--I'd met them three times before, but I still didn't feel at ease around Max's parents. Max was so beautifully relaxed, teasing his mom one minute, then talking to his dad about the latest Seahawks injuries or wood-burning stoves. He told me that when he was in college, he'd found it hard to be around his parents because he always came away feeling like a ten-year-old. But that clearly wasn't an issue for him now. He genuinely liked his parents, and they flat-out adored him.

So where did I fit in? I didn't. I was a hanger-on, the latest girlfriend to fall for their only son, the strange woman standing in Max's kitchen, handling Max's plates and garlic press as if I belonged.

Soon a massive influx of new arrivals let me hide behind the guise of working. Max's sister Jillian and her husband arrived with Jacob and their new baby, who was instantly the star of the show. His cousin April was in town, and she brought her family and one of her parents. Then, last of all, came Mason Hall, Max's best friend from high school. They tracked me down as I was hanging up coats and checking my watch. The ham should come out of the oven soon. Is the white wine chilling? Rolls heating? Were people finding the bowls of nuts I'd left on the coffee table?

"There she is!" Max came around behind me and rubbed my shoulders. He felt so wonderful there, like a pillar of warmth and strength. For the moment, I just ran my hand over Max's. "Here's Mason," he said, presenting his friend.

Mason shook my hand, all blue eyes and product-filled Hollywood hair. Mason produced and starred in a show called The Love Dog. It's about a dog who solves people's relationship problems, which might sound surprising to some since it's a reality show. But it's never surprised me. After watching as Zoë navigated the world in my body, I knew dogs had more going on than most people gave them credit for. If they had opposable thumbs, dogs could take over the world.

I was in the middle of my first enjoyable conversation of the evening, chatting with Max and Mason, when we heard Zoë bark sharply in the other room. Max and I scurried out in time to see her staring down Groucho, who was perched on the second step, his back arched and hair full of static. "Zoë," I said, "leave Groucho alone! He isn't hurting you."

Max and I exchanged a look. "So much for thinking they'd just start to get along," Max said. I nodded. I knew from personal experience that cats made dogs go out of their minds. There was something dark and primeval that could take over when a dog smelled a cat. Or saw it dart across the room on swift little bunny-feet.

Max's mother came in, a questioning look on her face. "What's going on? Is the dog chasing Groucho?"

Suddenly, I saw the whole scene through her eyes. This was my dog chasing Max's beloved cat--a cat Bob and Trudy treated like a grandchild. Every Christmas, Trudy froze a whole batch of salmon balls just for Groucho. They brought him presents whenever they took a trip. I'd seen the I HEART MIAMI cat dishes in the cupboard. And here was my rowdy dog, harassing their beloved grand-cat. In a home with a scraggly tree, covered with store-bought ornaments.

"Zoë," I hissed, grabbing her by the collar. "Leave Groucho alone!"

Zoë gave me an innocent look, then turned back to Groucho, panting and wild-eyed. I pulled her off the stairs.

"Maybe she needs a trip outside," Max suggested. "I'll take her." He and Zoë vanished, leaving me alone with Trudy. I suddenly felt schlumpy, short, and second rate.

"So, Jessica," she said, her face unreadable, "will your parents be joining us tonight?"

Gulp. Parents were a tricky topic for me. I hadn't known them growing up--I spent my childhood in the foster care system, being shuffled from one home to another. This past fall, right when Zoë and I were having our horrific body-snatch-and-switch moment, my real mother, Debra, contacted me, and we met for the first time. I'd only seen her five times since then. The relationship was so new, I'd asked Max not to mention Debra to anyone, including his parents.

"Nope, not tonight," I said brightly, trying to cover for my racing mind. Should I lie? Tell the truth? What would Trudy think of me if she knew about my mom's teenage pregnancy and drug-abusing past? Surely she wouldn't want her only son living with a woman who'd been raised in the system, bouncing from one home to another. "My mom and I are, uh, we're kind of rebuilding our relationship. We haven't lived close to each other in a long time." There, that sounded appropriately bland.

"And your dad?"

A sick, acid-washed feeling flooded my body. My dad? What dad? Where most people had a father, I had a big, gaping hole of nothingness. Some mystery man had contributed half my genetic makeup, but that was the sole act his daughter had to remember him by. He could have been anyone: A pro football player. A drug dealer. The president. A convicted felon. When I was little, I used to watch men and women, wondering if the bus driver was my mom or the convenience store clerk was my dad. Now that I was grown up, I knew better. I just didn't have a family like everyone else. I was lacking. Period.

"No, I don't think he'll be able to make it," I said. I moved toward the kitchen. "I'd better check on the ham. Would you like some more wine? We also have those crab cakes Max said you liked."

"Oh, lovely," she said, following my cue. "We're lucky to get to sample your cooking. Bob and I haven't eaten at the Glimmerglass in years, but we've heard great things about it. You must have a real talent for cooking. I bet Max is glad to turn his kitchen over to you."

As we strolled toward the kitchen, I nodded and pressed my lips together, quietly letting her believe one more lie about me. Maybe if she thought I could cook, and had parents who would one day arrive at a Christmas gathering, maybe--just maybe--she'd decide I was good enough for her precious son.

A CHRISTMAS TAIL copyright © 2012 by Elsa Watson

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