In which this story isn't really finished, but it will have to do

I didn't have a "homemade" Skookum story written for the holidays this year.  

I wanted to have one, but none of my story ideas would cooperate...until this one showed up, unbidden, at bedtime last night.  

And, not unlike the stray dog in the story, it needed help. My help. My immediate help.

Normally, I would write a few drafts of a story like this and then put it away, preferably for a few months to mellow and mature.  

But (again, not unlike the dog in the story), this one set a rather prompt release date for itself.

It's likely that I will write a few more drafts of this story and then put it away for a while.  Maybe I'll polish it up and post it again next year, when it works better.

But for now, it will do.

Happy Merry, all y'all.

--Aarene

O Little Town

A big old cottonwood tree, weary from years of rainfall and wet roots, fell over onto the town’s main electricity transformer at 6 pm on Christmas Eve.

Jo Carpenter gazed down at the little town of Skookum in the valley below, lit by a few candles and flashlights as a folks prowled around their dark homes, trying to make everything ready for the impending holiday.

Up on Library Hill, all was dark as well, but the Skookum Public Library bookmobile driver wouldn't be hanging up her lone stocking at home until everything was secure.

She backed the big vehicle into the garage, yanked on the crochety parking brake, and jiggled the headlight knob down-up, down-up.  Without the jiggle, she knew, the lights might come back on again hours later when nobody was around, and drain the battery completely. 

As she gave the knob the final necessary twist to shut down, she saw the reflected glint of the dog’s eyes.

Jo had been trying to capture the stray dog for weeks, luring it closer to the bookmobile garage each night with tempting bowls of canned dogfood mixed with kibbles pieces.  The dog would almost come close enough to be touched now, and Jo could see ribs and hips jutting out from under the dirty fur. 

“Come on in, little girl,” she called softly to the dog.  “Come on in out of the rain and get some dinner.”

The dog’s tail waved hesitantly, hopefully, as Jo pulled a headlamp from the glove box, grabbed up her coat from behind the driver seat and stepped carefully down the steep bus doors into the dark garage, automatically pulling the folding door closed behind her. She gave three strong tugs, and secured the latch.

With the headlamp strapped on over her stocking hat and lighting the space in front of her eyes, Jo continued talking softly as she pulled two clean bowls from a shelf, filled the first with fresh water from the garage tap, and spooned dog food into the other.  The dog watched from a respectful distance, with one eye on Jo and the other on the open bay door.

Jo set both bowls down and said “Okay,” before backing up a few paces to allow the skittish animal to eat.  Each night, she had put the bowls a little closer to the dog, and backed away a little less.  She’d originally envisioned herself at home in the evenings before Christmas with the little dog, bathed and fed, at her feet. 

But the dog had apparently envisioned something else.

“Tonight,” she promised herself, “tonight I will touch her.”

The dog dove into the bowls with quick, tidy bites and not, Jo noted, without manners.  She didn't splash water from the bowl or scatter kibble on the concrete garage floor.  When she was finished eating, she sat down and began to lick rainwater from her paws. 

“May I touch you, little girl?” Jo crouched down and asked the dog in a soft, sing-song voice.  “May I read your collar?  There’s something there, but I can’t quite see the letters.”  She reached out, and the dog watched warily, tense and poised for flight.  But when Jo’s hand finally touched the rough fur, all tension seemed to drain from the little dog, and with a barely-suppressed groan, the bony body crowded in close, clearly craving the touch of a gentle hand.

Jo had called the animal shelter when she’d first spotted the dog lurking around Library Hill, and learned that they had no reports of a lost dog like her skinny friend.  The worn red nylon collar, she saw now, bore the name “Mariah” in faded hand-printed black letters.  No tags.  Jo ran her hands over the scrawny body.  Scraped and bumped up, and far too thin. 

A closer exam revealed something else, as well.

Jo jumped to her feet, startling the dog into a momentary skittering retreat.  Jo coaxed her back with a few soft words, and then rubbed the dog’s belly again to verify what she had felt there.  Then she returned to the bookmobile. 

It took only few moments of searching to locate the book she wanted.    

Jo settled down on warm floor of the vehicle with her back against the picture book shelves and the skinny dog panting heavily beside her and flipped through the index of the Merck Manual of Pet Health to find the page she needed.  The first paragraph of the “maternity” chapter confirmed her suspicions, and she yanked the cell phone from her pocket and dialed a number from memory.

Doctor Angela King, DVM, picked up on the fourth ring. 

“I hope you’re calling to tell me that you made sugar cookies before the power went out,” the voice on the other end said by way of greeting.

“Angie, this dog is pregnant,” Jo answered without preamble.

A long sigh whistled through the phone speaker, followed by a longer silence.

“Of course she is,” Angie said, finally.  “How could you possibly find a stray dog on Christmas Eve that wasn't pregnant?” 

“I mean, she is really pregnant,” Jo said.  “Like, tonight’s-the-night, pass-out-the-cigars, puppies-any-minute-now pregnant.”

“Can you get her to the office?” Angie asked. 

“I don’t think so,” Jo told her.  “She finally let me touch her tonight, and maybe only because she’s anxious about the pups.  Anyhow, my car is in the shop, I’m walking this week.”

“And we all know how my husband feels about client animals in the Volvo,” Angie said.  “Where are you?  Can you hunker?  What’s she doing now?”

Jo looked around the familiar space.  “We’re in the bookmobile.  She’s panting, and trying to crawl as close to me as she can get.  I can feel lumps in her belly, and she’s got milk already,” she said.  “Can you help? What do I need?”

“Of course I’ll help,” Angie told her.  “But I can’t come right now. Santa comes tonight, you know, and a certain pink bicycle for a certain young lady is still in pieces on the living room floor. 

“If she’s panting and crowding you, there’s still some time.  Can you make a whelping box for her? Something she can huddle in without being too cramped?”

Jo considered the contents of the bookmobile garage, which the library staff used to squirrel away everything that wasn’t busted beyond repair.  The old canvas book drop bin would be about the right size, she figured.

“Yeah, I think so.  What else do we need?”

“Towels.  Lots of towels.  Food, if she will eat.”

“I just fed her.  I have the thrift shop blankets we throw over book carts when we make deliveries on rainy days.”

“Those will work.   Do you have a heat lamp?”

“I--I don’t think so.”

“Okay, I’ll find somebody to bring that,” Angie said.  “Just keep her warm and quiet for now, okay? Line your box with the blankets and see if you can get her to settle into it.  I’ll bring my kit when I come over.  Do you need anything for yourself?  It might be a long night.”

“I think I’m good,” Jo told her.  “I have plenty of books here.  Maybe I’ll read to her while we wait.”

“Not a bad idea,” Angie said.  “I’ll make a few phone calls to the neighbors and cope with the pink bike.  Call me if anything changes.”

“Right.”  Jo clicked off the phone, and got busy.

By the time Peter and Anna Shepard arrived with armloads of supplies, Jo had assembled a cozy nest for Mariah in the canvas book drop bin, lined with soft blankets.  The dog cowered when the Shepards appeared in the doorway, but was readily soothed by Jo’s hand on her back. 

“Heat lamp, more towels, and a thermos of coffee,” Peter said, setting everything down near the makeshift nest.  Jo popped the bookmobile hood to access to the engine battery, and within a few minutes, a soft glow shone down on the panting dog, warming the cold air of the winter garage.

There were many visitors to the garage that night, drawn by the light mysteriously shining at the top of the dark hill.   Most went away and returned with gifts:  more coffee, some sandwiches, some extra towels.  Some stayed a while, talking softly with Jo as she kept her anxious watch over Mariah. 

The rain slowed, and finally stopped.  All was quiet when Angela King showed up around midnight, veterinary bag in hand. 

“She’s close, all right,” Angie told them.  “Tonight, for sure.  I guess I’d better pull up a chair.”
The sky cleared and the stars were shining when Mariah delivered her first pup, followed quickly by two more. 

Finally, it was time to sleep. Jo curled up on an old bean bag chair that smelled vaguely of library paste and mice. Angie covered them both in a clean blanket from her car before driving home to her own family. 

At daybreak, the power came on with a whoosh and a whir of lights and fans.  The garage radio blared “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and Jo and Mariah raised bleary heads in surprised unison.  The puppies slept on, oblivious to the racket. 

Jo turned everything off except the heat lamp, and went back to sleep.

An hour later they awoke again to the sound of joyful pandemonium.  Mariah yawned hugely and jumped to her feet when the garage door flew open and the three King children, clad in pajamas and rubber boots, ran inside to hug Jo.  Angela King and her husband, wrapped in bathrobes and bearing a picnic basket between them, followed close behind.

“They wanted to bring their gifts up here to share with the puppies,” Angie explained.  “So we brought you breakfast.  Now, you three,” she directed the children, “keep back from that dog until she gives you permission to touch those pups!”

From the Skookum News Journal, January 1st edition:   “Tidings of Joy”
LIBRARY HILL: The staff of the Skookum Public Library welcomed new citizens to town on Christmas Eve, when a stray dog unexpectedly gave birth to three puppies in an abandoned library book drop bin, assisted by longtime bookmobile librarian Jo Carpenter and Doctor Angela King, DVM. 


The pups, christened “Glory,” “Hallelujah” and “Rudolph” by Dr. King’s children, will be available for adoption in a few months.  The mother dog will live with Ms Carpenter following her confinement.

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