A Home for Jebediah – Gabriel Hart

        It had taken Bennet Archer almost an hour to get his daughter Ashley tucked into bed. After all, it was Christmas Eve; she had that classic anticipatory adrenaline coursing through her six-year-old veins. If it was a work night for him at Winchester’s Department Store, he would have been furious, but tonight Bennet was fully committed to playing along with every stall she pulled out of her nightgown sleeve. Her un-jaded wonder gave him a fresh pair of eyes to see the holidays through – not his stiff managerial vision which he didn’t bring home with him, for once. 
        Her excitement was simply contagious. So much so that he found himself baiting her, answering her writhing inquiries with his own questions when he should have been rubbing her head to sleep.
        “Okay, say if Santa really did bring you a puppy – what would you name it?”
        “Oh! I know, I know, I know, I already know!” she said, throwing her fists up like she was shaking his lapels. “I’m gonna name him Jebediah!”
        “Oh? Now hold on, hold on… that’s if Santa brings you a puppy, not when!” he said, punctuating with his index finger. “Remember, we still don’t know if he’s convinced if you’ve been naughty or nice, right? So, let’s make sure you get some sleep so he won’t be holding that against you, okay?”
        “Okay, Dad,” she said as she closed her eyes. “But just so you know, I can already see what he looks like in my head. Like, exactly what he’s gonna look like…”
        “Okay, dear… We’ll see,” he said, standing up. He flicked off the light as he gently shut her bedroom door behind him.
        “… and God, I promise you I’m going to love that puppy anyway,” she whispered to herself and to our Creator who does its best.

        A man of faith, Bennet smiled to himself at his daughter’s choosing of the name Jebediah. She likely meant to say Jedidiah, the character from Old Testament which translated to “Friend of God,” but for once didn’t feel it was necessary to correct her.
        He quickened his shuffle down the staircase when he heard Judy coming in the front door. She’d been out all evening last minute shopping and he knew she’d have multiple bags she couldn’t carry in all herself. Besides, he couldn’t wait to tell her.
        “Hey honey! Here, let me help you with that,” he said, relieving her of her crowded weight of overlapping gift bags.
        “Ahhh, thank you,” Judy said, exhaling into an exhausted whisper. She did a double take at her typically stoic husband. “Bennet, why are you smirking?”
        He shot her a devilish grin.
        “You didn’t! You did?”
        “Shhhh… she’s asleep and yes, I sure did!” he hushed, beaming with a smile like he couldn’t believe it either. 
        “What happened? I thought they were sold out of that litter of Beagles?”
        “They were!” he said. He grabbed her by the arm, leading her to the front porch for privacy. “But I got a call about an hour ago from the pet shop – someone had just returned the last one they sold!”
        “What? Returned?”
        “Yup! The family decided they just weren’t able to take care of it after all, with their work schedules or something… I don’t know, I was so excited I think I kept cutting the clerk off,” he said, giggling at his clumsiness, humbled to fully decompress into the Christmas spirit. 
        “Oh my God, Bennet!” She exhaled deeply again but this time her eyes began to well up. “This is like…”
        “A Christmas miracle, Judy?”
        “A Christmas miracle, Bennet. I love you so much,” she said, quivering. She burst into tears as she leaned into his strong embrace, followed by a rare kiss to seal the tender moment. Catching movement out of the corner of their eyes, their heads slowly turned in synch to witness a descending batch of flakes contrast against the night sky, ushering in the heaviest snowfall of the season. 

* * *

        Main Street Pet Company was located on the east side of Greenwood’s town square, the center of the Indiana town’s small yet bustling holiday thoroughfare. If you took a right then just another right, you’d be at the home of Bennet and Judy Archer, so it was no inconvenience for the clerk to go beyond his call of duty to make this a Christmas little Ashley would never forget. Prompted by the elation in Bennet’s voice, he offered to drop the Beagle off on their porch at 6am Christmas morning, elaborately gift-wrapped in a cardboard box with sufficient air-holes for safety. Sweetening the deal further, he insisted Bennet wouldn’t even have to pay until the next week, given the last-minute fortune of the gift. “Or whenever your Holiday madness settles,” he said with a laugh.

        The sun of Christmas morning shone on the newly fallen snow, glittery like immeasurable Earthbound stars, covering every inch of the Archer’s well-manicured front yard. The snowfall made a lovely padding of white to their lawn and hedges; along with Bennet’s 1957 Chevy Bel Air, the roof and trim of their craftsman home resembled liberal applications of marshmallow frosting. 
        Inside, the Archer’s living room was loud with blinking red and green lights left on all night, inundating the atmosphere around an evergreen conifer tree, surrounded by countless elaborately wrapped presents. One may have assumed it was for an army and not just the three Archers, but this was their one annual indulgence – with Bennet’s fifty percent off deal as manager of Winchester’s, it was nothing they couldn’t handle. 
        At 5:59am, Bennet and Judy lay fast asleep in their bedroom, while Ashley curled up fetal under the warm weight of her red-flannel wool blankets.
        The doorbell rang. “The “ding-dong” sounds like it’s saying “uh-oh!” Ashley often observed this with a giggle, a joke that never grew old. But this was the last thing on her mind on this morning as she sprang up out of bed, instantly reanimated by the sound piercing her rest. She jumped out of bed, screaming gleefully, her tiny feet pounding down the stairs, stirring her parents awake.
        “Our little girl is tireless,” said Judy, who had only slept two hours sleep after wrapping all night.
        “Let’s get up, I think she’s opening the front door already. We’ve got to see this!” said Bennet.
        “Mom! Dad! There’s a present outside and it’s bigger than ME!” they heard her holler as they caught each other’s eye with a satisfied smirk. Bennet gave her a wink which elongated his grin.
        “Okay hold on one second, sweetheart!” Judy said, as she came down the stairs with Bennet in tow. “This is a really delicate gift so please let us help you with it.”
        Judy put both arms around the hastily gift-wrapped cube and began to drag it gingerly into the warmth of the living room. Who wrapped this thing? she thought, as it looked rushed and careless, its paper barely covering the cardboard. But she wasn’t about to complain and risk ruining the mood.
        “Go ahead, honey. Now you can open it!” Bennet said. 
        Ashley dropped to her knees, her eager hands tearing the paper haphazardly.
        “I know what it is! I already know what it is!!!” she said, grabbing the butter knife Judy offered to safely pierce the last layer of tape on the cardboard flaps. 
        “Careful, dear,” said Judy. “I think this is a really fragile present.”
        Ever focused, Ashley surgically cut the packing tape on the side of the box, then opened both large flaps to squeaking glee.
        “I knew it! I knew it! Jebediah!!!” she said.
        The box shook slightly. Out of the confined darkness stumbled the Archer’s new larger-than-expected family Beagle; his grand entrance interrupted by Judy’s heart-stopping scream upon noticing he was missing an essential component.
        Bennet caught his wife as she faltered to near faint while Ashley threw her arms undaunted around the compromised canine. Never had the world seen a more satisfied smile on a young girl. 
        “Oh my God! What is it? What is that?!?” Judy screamed, her face twitching in disbelief that their Christmas miracle was an inexplicably living dog with no visible – let’s be honest here – no anatomical head in any way, shape or form. Yet it’s tail slowly began to wag, somehow informed by its otherwise sensory-deprived homecoming.
        “Ashley, get away from the dog. now!” said Bennet.
        “What? Why?” said Ashley. “Mom, why are you crying?”
        Judy could only answer with more tears, which exasperated Bennet’s command.
        “Ashley Elizabeth Archer, get away from that dog right this second!”
        Ashley merely winced at the harshness of her father’s words as she continued hugging Jebediah. She wanted to plug his ears, but with nothing past his resolved stub for a neck, he lacked all the customary windows into the soul other than his enthusiastic nubby tail that was speeding up like a metronome with the excitement – he just wouldn’t know it was the wrong kind. She squeezed him harder, now threatened with severance from her new pet. 
        Exhausted, the dog bent at his knees, lowering himself to the carpet and onto his side. He pawed his neck lump profusely yet humbly, the way a dog would show submission by rubbing his eyes.
        If he had any sort of head attached.
        “Wha… what is he doing?!?”
        “Oh, he’s just letting you know that he knows!” said Ashley, matter of fact. “He knows he’s scaring you, so he’s just trying to say sorry but that he can’t help it.”
        “Oh my God. Oh my God!” said Judy.
        “I… I, don’t know what to do, Judy,” whispered Bennet, his pride of providing collapsing into his shrinking heart. 
        “Take it back! Just take that monster back!” she said, her screams muffled through hands covering her tear-soaked face.
        “He’s not a monster, Mom!!!” yelled Ashley. “Why are you being so mean to Jebediah?”
        “I… just don’t understand… how he’s standing? How he’s even alive?” said Bennet.
        “Daaaad! He’s alive because I love him, Dad!” she said, kissing his neck that led to nowhere. Intuitively, Ashley knew she had to continue petting him. Jebediah’s sense of touch was his first and last sense, therefore the most sensitive to compensate for his absent sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Tactile affection was his only fuel to sustain the motor of his tail where most of his nervous system was located; which kept him conscious without a brain, pumping the blood though a strong and humble heart. 
        Suddenly, Jebediah’s neck stub pointed upwards as if responding to a signal. Briefly breaking from Ashley’s affections, he began to stumble clumsily towards Bennet and Judy.
        “No! No!!!” Judy screamed, burying her head into her husbands nape as she did a tap-dance of anxiety, pushing herself into Bennet – her vain attempt to cease to exist. He did his best to cover her face as Jebediah advanced. Ashley looked on with a brave smile, her head tilted in hopeful sympathy to her mother.
        “Here Judy, I’m gonna take you into the kitchen and give you a one of your doctor’s vitamin pills so I can take care of this and I’ll shut the door…
        “NO! LOCK THE DOOR…”
        “I’ll lock the door behind you, sweetheart.”
        They scurried half-circle out of Jebediah’s path into the kitchen. The headless dog stopped in his inept tracks. His tail slowed to a sway, alarming the little girl as she hopped over to him to resume her caresses. 
        “It’s okay, Jebediah,” she whispered into his neck, hands cupped. “Mom and Dad don’t have as much love in their hearts as they did when they were our age.”

        Bennet slammed the kitchen door behind them. Judy trembled as she lowered herself down at the kitchen table, leaning her head into her elbow-propped hands. He ran into the bathroom, grabbed her prescription of Valium, then stomped back into the kitchen with a yellow pill and a glass of water. He placed the water in front of her as she stuck out her tongue, no words spoken like a well-rehearsed communion.
        “I’ll be right back, honey. I’m gonna take a closer look at the dog.”
        “What have you done to us, Bennet?” she said with a gulp as she swallowed her medicine.

        He returned to the living room, red and green lights a-blinking, now with more sunlight coming through the windows, exposing the scene undeniably – his daughter laughing as she scratched the back of a creature he felt God had forgotten. Bennet hyper-ventilated as he put one foot in front of the other, his breath more arrhythmic with every step.
        “Are you finally coming to play with Jebediah, Dad?”
        “Uhm, yes. Yes I am,” he said with feigned confidence, taking a knee like the hardest prayer he’d ever attempt. 
        He outstretched his right arm to the dog’s rump, slowly moving it forward through his fur. Well, I haven’t burst into flames yet? he thought to himself, while struggling for the guts to continue. Ashley wrapped her little hand around her father’s wrist, pushing it forward to complete the gesture. “See, it’s not so bad, Daddy?” she said, as Jebediah’s tail shook blurry with elation. Bennet jumped back, startled, all his synapses misfiring until he reached the dog’s neck, where he knew he must investigate closer. To report back to Judy, for better or worse, in sickness and health.
        His fingers walked a spidery gait to his collarbone, inching onto his body’s final frontiers at the neck. Bennet’s main concern was to check for signs of abuse, whether this had been a decapitation or a botched surgery of some kind. But his fine brown spotted white fur remained smooth around the area in question – seamless in fact, nor were there any signs of less-significant birth defects. And to Bennet, this verdict was more unnerving than happening upon gore or scar-tissue, as that would explain Jebediah’s misfortune away, leaving chance for potential redemption.
        “Bennet, just please call the pet shop and get rid of it!” he heard his wife scream from the kitchen, her words now slurring through her sobbing hysterics.
        “Daddy… You’re not going to get rid of Jebediah, are you?” said Ashley, her eyes beginning to well-up. Bennet took a deep, unsteady breath, now bookended like a vice-grip by competing demands from his two favorite girls.
        “Well, dear… Let me just ask you – how are you going to take care of him?”
        “You mean, how are we going to take care of him?” Ashley reprimanded her Father’s gross lack of solidarity. “Before I opened the box, Mom even said the gift was delicate and to let you guys help me with it…”
        “But sweetheart that’s before we knew what kind of dog Jebediah was going to be.”
        “Why? You mean you would only love Jebediah with me if he was a certain type of dog?”
        “No! That’s not nice, Dad. Remember what you told me when Jenny first came to school? Not to be mean to her just because everyone else was? Well, I listened and now she’s my best friend and everyone loves Jenny now,” she said, palms open in poignant surrender.
        “Sweetheart, this isn’t exactly the same thing. See, your mother is scared to death of Jebediah. I can sit here next to him, but he makes me incredibly nervous because I’m not sure how he’s alive.”
        “HE’S ALIVE BECAUSE GOD MADE HIM, THAT’S WHY!!!” Ashley had turned the corner from defense to rage.
        Bennet’s eyes welled-up. “But Ashley dear, this poor puppy doesn’t make any sense. We don’t know what is keeping him alive?”
        “GOD IS KEEPING HIM ALIVE, DAD! ME AND GOD ARE KEEPING JEBEDIAH ALIVE!!!” Ashley’s petting became accelerated as did Jebediah’s tail, taunting Bennet to finally break down.
        “Why are you crying, Dad?” she said, her voice suddenly soft.
        “I don’t know, sweetheart… I just, don’t know!” He rose to his feet and ran into the kitchen to check on Judy. She was on the phone, slamming it down upon his return.
        “Of course the pet store is closed ’cause it’s Christmas!” she said, defeated. “Was Christmas – this isn’t Christmas, this is a nightmare, Bennet!”
        “Judy, please settle down.”
        “Bennet, the only way I’m gonna settle down from this is to get a hotel room or else I’m gonna have take that whole bottle of…”
        “Judy! Please, listen. There might be a lesson to be learned here!”
        “Bennet, look at you – now we’re both crying! What lesson do we learn when you let a monster like that into our house. You gave a monster to our own daughter!”
        “Judy, let me ask you – did you think I was a monster when you took me in?”
        “Bennet! When we met, you might have been Godless, drunk in the gutter, half-insane without a penny to your name but at least you had a head physically attached to your body so you could turn yourself around!”
        “But Judy, somehow… and don’t ask me how, but Jebediah is a living thing. He’s one of God’s creatures whether we like it or not!”
        “Disappear, Judy? Do you somehow harbor a displaced guilt that he’s like that?”
        “Guilt? I’m not the one who brought this unholy creature into our home, Bennet! You should be the one that feels guilt ’cause you are guilty, actually!
        “Dear, please… look at it this way: every living thing has its own physical, anatomical limits, right? No matter what kind of creature it is, it must end somewhere to punctuate its unique place in the world!”
         “Right!” she said. “And that includes me. Right now.”
        She picked up the phone again.
        “Who are you calling, dear?”
        “I’m calling a hotel where I know there’s going to be a room for me with no headless dog!” she said, eyes swollen and bloodshot crazed. She’d tell the front desk it was from wrapping gifts.

* * *

        When Bennet came out of the bathroom wiping the last of his tears away, his wife was gone. What remained: his daughter and Jebediah, huddled together at the foot of the Christmas tree, waiting patiently for their parents to return so they could all resume opening presents together. When Jebediah felt Bennet enter the room, his tail wagged with additional fervor.
        “Dad? What happened to Mom? Where’d she go so fast?” she said, petting her dog’s brown spotted hind fur.
        He took a deep, cathartic breath. “Sweetheart, Mommy went to… uh, the doctor. She had to go to the doctor again. You remember when she had to go to the doctor for a while when she was sick?”
        “’Cause she’s scared of Jebediah?”
        “Yes, Ashley. I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
        “Are you still afraid of Jebediah?”
        His mind raced with the force of a wind-tunnel. “I’m very… uneasy with him, but a big part of me is, uh… just amazed by how much you love Jebediah. Does that make sense?”
        “Yes, Dad. Does that mean we can open presents now?”
        Desperate for any semblance of normalcy, he nodded his head.
        The problem was, Bennet Archer didn’t stop nodding his head. 
        When little Ashley turned from her new dog to tear into the mountain of gifts, Jebediah’s neck went up like a sad and thirsty divining rod, and stumbled over to the compromised man, still shaking his head up and down, now in rhythm with the dog’s wagging tail, side to side, but he’s looking at me dear, he won’t stop looking at me, what do I do, he said, don’t be silly daddy he’s not looking at you, he doesn’t have any eyes, she said, then the red and green blinking lights from inside changed, from new red and blue blinking lights from the outside, yet all in synch, for this rare Yuletide, then the doorbell rang, it’s the police, they said, but instead of answering he made a groaning sound instead, we got an anonymous call that there’s a dog with no head, and then she hugged and squeezed him screaming no don’t come in.