Copyright: All characters, human and canine, of this piece are made up out of my own head. They belong to me.

Sex/Violence/Unsuitable Language: Hardly any (sex), some unsavory behavior towards animals, an angel that's a little rougher than she needs to be. Language may be unsuitable for those not dealing with holiday stress.

Gender preferences: Some of the characters have a proclivity for the company of their own sex. If this is offensive to you or illegal where you live, please choose another offering to read.

Accuracy vs. Imagination: Some places are real, some are made up. Some are real places with made up details. Some are made up - well, you get the idea. All of the people are imaginary, however.

Fred and Ethel's First Christmas

by Fern Driscoll

email: ferndriscoll@verizon.net

December 2000, New York City

"Is that Katie Bell I'm speaking to?" Lucille Hellman inquired, hearing the grumpy tone with which her daughter answered the phone. The Bell children, figments of Lucille's own imagination, and an overdose of Dr. Spock during her child-raising years, were the less than perfectly behaved counterparts to her own children, Kate and Spike. Whenever one of the offspring misbehaved, or was ill-tempered, Lucille would address the child as Katie or Spike Bell, as in, "Why, when did Katie Bell get here? I know my little Katie would never speak to her mother like that."

The grown-up Kate sighed. Her mother had caught her in a bad frame of mind, it was true, and did have an uncanny knack for ascertaining her female offspring's moods. Her current less-than-happy state came from the convergence of two things: the first being a nasty, sneezy, drippy cold; the second, an aversion to the trappings of holiday extravagance that descended on Manhattan, her home, soon after Thanksgiving each year. Kate was navigating through the crowds of the World Trade Center Plaza, on her way home from a long day as a stock analyst in the city's financial district. She managed to juggle the phone with her right hand while slipping her briefcase strap more securely over her shoulder and clipping on her hands-free device and earphone. "There, that's better, Mother, at least I can hear you now. I'm outside, I just left work."

"That's all right, dear, I did try to call you there but your secretary was rather snippy with me, he kept telling me you were 'unavailable'. Unavailable to your own mother!"

"Mom, Brian knows to put you through if I'm there, and not in a meeting. I had meetings with clients all afternoon. Besides, you know you can call my pager if it's something really urgent. So? Was it?"

"Was it what, dear?" Mrs. Hellman now sounded rather distracted.

"Urgent." Kate put one hand to her ear as she passed by a tambourine-shaking Salvation Army supplicant. When did these people stop wearing uniforms? They used to dress up as Santas, or wear those band uniforms and have bugles and cymbals and all... everyone's cutting back.

"Oh, well, not urgent, dear, but certainly important. I just wanted to make sure you're bringing those few things I asked you to bring for your father and brother –"

"I've already got the cigars, I stopped by Martinez Hand-Rolled yesterday. I'll get the candy for Spike and Serena tomorrow. Anything else? I'm picking up my wrapping stuff today, so anything else that needs wrapping, tell me now." Kate, to put it mildly, hated shopping, and the feeling was intensified when it came to holiday shopping. However, since she lived in Manhattan, home to some of her mother's favorite merchants, she often found herself 'picking up a few things' for her. This season was unusual in that her parents had not made the trip from their home in Maryland to visit her after Thanksgiving. As a rule, her mother liked to do much of her own holiday shopping in town, but this year the couple was preparing to move permanently to their erstwhile vacation home in Florida, and was overwhelmed with the preparations.

"No, I think that's all. Now, your father has been looking at that weather channel, and he says there's a storm coming up the east coast tomorrow, do you think you should leave early, dear? We don't want you driving in snow and ice and whatnot."

"I'll be fine, Mother, the new car has dynamic stability control, and besides, once I get past the Delaware line, I'll be in the Confederacy and everyone knows it doesn't snow there. Tell Doc to tear himself away from the TV and make himself useful – I expect some Christmas cookies when I get there, even if everything's packed away except his cookie sheets."


The sign above the door of the small establishment on the Upper East Side said "Kate's Paperie" but on this late December evening it may as well have said "Santa's Workshop". The window glowed with every manner of holiday frippery, from lace and satin ribbons in rich greens, reds and golds, to baubles and garlands and lights all nestled together in an outpouring of decorative excess. Kate took a deep breath, and entered the small but extremely well-populated shop. It was Kate's final stop in a slow progression north from financial district, to the East 70's where she made her home. She had called in at shops specializing in teas and coffees; hard-to-find kitchen utensils; and golf equipment. She had debated the merits of buying a tiny catcher's mitt for her 9-month-old nephew at FAO Schwartz, but had settled on a toddler's train instead. She had also picked up, on a whim, a tiny set of bongos sure to drive Spike and Serena crazy, she chuckled to herself Finally, she was about to make her last purchase of the evening: a large roll of embossed gold wrapping paper with matching ribbon and tissue.

Kate's philosophy, when it came to shopping, was to accomplish the chore with as little effort and time as possible. To this end, she had devised ways, whenever possible, to shop without actually entering a store, and, failing that, to arrange via phone or email to have her purchases waiting for her. For example, she had discovered that at Nordstrom and Barney's, a personal shopper would be happy to devise a complete wardrobe for her, and even have needed items delivered to her home or office. Consequently, she was universally viewed as well-dressed and stylish, when in fact she gave no thought to fashion, other than several sessions a year with Elizabeth at Nordstrom, when she was summoned to try on fall, spring, or 'transitional' garments to supplement her wardrobe. Elizabeth also made periodic visits to Kate's condo to purge outdated items from her closet.

Kate had discovered Kate's Paperie soon after moving to her neighborhood, first lured by the eponymous nature of the establishment, then becoming a regular because of its wares. At Kate's, she discovered, one could purchase an industrial-sized roll of wrapping paper, boxed with its own cutter (in the manner of a gigantic roll of saran wrap), sufficient to wrap all her gifts. This saved her much of the cursing and frustration previously associated with the wrapping of gifts. And the crowning glory of Kate's was that all could be arranged by phone or email, and be waiting for her to pick up.

As Kate stood in the line to check out, she drifted off into mental list making, totting up the things she needed to wrap, pack, and otherwise attend to before leaving the city the following afternoon. She was brought back from her reveries by the sound of someone repeating her name, insistently.

"Kate! Kate! Over here!"

Looking over, Kate suppressed a groan. A slender, exceedingly blonde woman was waving to her excitedly from near the front of the line. Great, just what I need, another run-in with Alicia. I wonder what she's doing here, I thought she was still in Paris. She summoned up a half-hearted wave and smile in the woman's direction, her mind already thinking of excuses not to linger in conversation with her. Soon the blonde was finished with her purchases, and, as Kate had feared, hustled over to her.

"Kate, I'm so glad I ran into you! I was going to give you a call later, I'm just getting into town today." Giving Kate a meaningful once-over, she added, "Looking good, as always."

Kate stopped short of actually rolling her eyes, and answered, "And you look like a vixen from a '50's B movie. What's with the hair and the... the...getup?" Alicia was rather peculiarly attired in a vintage Marilyn Monroe-ish dress and spike heels.

"Oh, this? Like it?" Without waiting for a reply she swept on, "Just something from our spring line, we're doing a retro thing this year, all the houses are getting into it, but you know, getting a model with actual breasts is almost impossible these days, you know, Kate, you'd be perfect in some of these looks, they'd just worship you on the runway, maybe you'd consider – "

Kate finally broke into the manic monologue with an upraised hand. "Alicia, you of all people know I have not the slightest interest in the fashion scene. And if you truly think I'd be willing to waltz down a runway in some – some mutant Connie Francis outfit, you're more whacked than the last time I saw you."

"Oh, well, worth a try. Maybe one of these days I'll talk you into – all right! All right!" Alicia adroitly switched subjects. "Doing anything special for the holidays?" again with a suggestive leer.

Kate, despite herself, was becoming amused. Alicia, a former on-again, off-again lover, was nothing if not straightforward when it came to her intentions. At one time, Kate had appreciated that: she had wanted nothing more than a superficial, physically oriented relationship. She had, however, grown tired of certain aspects of their liaison, and had been happy to wave goodbye when Alicia, a fashion designer, had accepted a job at a prestigious fashion house the previous year and moved to Paris. Since her departure, Kate had been fine on her own, finding little to entice her in the city's singles scene.

What could it hurt? She mused. A little Christmas cheer, and tomorrow we both go our separate ways. I'll just make it perfectly clear we're not starting anything up again.

Kate returned Alicia's grin, and allowed her voice to take on a more friendly tone. "Just waiting for Dasher and ... and ... all the rest of them all by my lonesome tonight. Then I'll be heading to the parents'."

Alicia's smile took on more meaning. "Like a little company? I could stop by for a drink, should I be invited."

Kate let out a short laugh, then, reaching the front of the line gave her a quick wave and said, "Swing by about eight. I'll make us a pitcher of something."


The spacious (by Manhattan standards) condo overlooking Central Park was awash with festive gold paper, ribbons, boxes and bags. Kate's marathon wrapping session was almost done, after several hours and what seemed like several miles of wrapping paper and tape. As Kate harmonized "Sleigh bells ring, are you listening" with Dean Martin on the radio, she heard the lobby buzzer. Jumping up and casting a rueful glance at the clock, then at the mess, she waded over to her intercom.

"Yes, this is Kate."

"This is Carl, your doorman. You have a visitor, a Miss Donner?

"Send her up, Carl."

Kate made a quick, half-hearted attempt to clear some of the debris, mainly by shoving some of the larger boxes out of the way. Soon, her door chimes sounded. Alicia stood at the door, bearing a bakery box. She was now dressed in New York chic; a black sweater, skinny black pants, and black boots. Halting just inside the door, she surveyed the mess with amusement. She then shrugged out of her coat, letting it fall to the floor, and handed Kate the box, saying. "You'd better put this in the refrigerator – for later."

When Kate returned from the kitchen after a few minutes, bearing a chilled pitcher of martinis and two glasses, she stopped short in the arched entranceway to her living room to admire the view. There, surrounded by the velvet ribbons and extravagant gold paper, reclined a very tempting, and very naked, gift.

"Looks like someone already opened my present."

"Yes. But I haven't played with it yet."

Kate set down the drinks, and, lying down next to her enticing companion, murmured, "Let me take care of that right now."

Soon jet black hair and blonde spilled together across the scraps of shiny paper, long limbs tangled with longer, and all thoughts of past differences were forgotten, for the moment. Kate's talented lips tasted and sampled, remembering the sensitive spots that drove Alicia past the point of distraction. Alicia, for her part, slipped into thoughtless bliss, clutching the broad back hovering over her. Her last coherent reflection for some time was "On Donner! On Blitzen! O Gods..."


A misty gray light was beginning to replace the darkness as Kate awoke the following morning, immediately sensing a foreign presence next to her. After a moment, she recalled the events of the night before that eventually led her and her guest to the bedroom, where Alicia still softly snored beside her. Kate felt a little strange -- a combination of satiety and melancholy. The woman slumbering beside her was a talented lover, and she had enjoyed the previous night's entertainment. However, the feeling of a vague sadness persisted, as though she had lost someone or something by being with Alicia again.

Kate lay in the semi-twilight for a while, listening to the muffled sounds of the city far below, until her clock radio clicked on and began to emit the seasonal sounds of the Nutcracker Ballet. She quickly reached over and turned the volume down, then stretched her arms above her head, shook her long black mane, and quietly exited the bed.

A short time later, Kate, dressed in running tights and fleece top, was penning a note to the still-snoozing Alicia.

Dear Donner, it read, My toes are still tingling and my head feels like the inside of a gong. Luckily you live an ocean away – a steady diet of this would be murder on my poor out-of-shape body. Although I like to think that I kept up with you somewhat satisfactorily last night. I've gone out for a run, or stagger might be more like it. Coffee is on and I'll bring back some bagels if you can wait that long. Otherwise, consider this my heartfelt thank-you note for a very nice Christmas present, (signed) Your Blitzen.


Kate's long-legged form leaned sleepily against the elevator wall. She held her cell phone to one ear, listening to the ring. Soon a cheery voice answered.

"Good morning!"

"Hi Dennis, you ready?"

"I sure am sweetie, I been ready. I was just about to call you to see if we were still on!"

"Sorry, I'm just running a little late this morning. Meet you at 72nd?"

Sure, honey. Hey, you sure you're up for this? You sound a little sleepy."

"I'm ok, just had kind of a late night. A run is just what I need. See you in a few."

Kate pressed the end button and tucked her phone away as she exited the elevator. A disembodied voice from a room to the side of the spacious lobby called out "Good morning, Kate – have a nice run." Kate yelled back, "thanks Carl, see you later," to the unseen doorman. Soon she was walking briskly down 5th Avenue, towards the entrance to Central Park where she would meet her friend and running partner.

Arriving at the park and seeing no sign of Dennis, Kate stepped off the path and began stretching, alternating with yawning. Ambivalent thoughts flitted through her mind: Am I crazy, out here in the cold, when I could be snuggled up in bed, enjoying myself? I think it's even starting to rain or – no, that's ice pellets. Sleet. Well, I have a long drive tomorrow, I need to get some exercise in if I'm going to be sitting in the car for hours.

The tiny angel seated on her shoulder chose that moment to give her a sharp poke. Being out here isn't crazy. Being in there with that floozy who's trying to snare you again is what's crazy.

Kate, startled in mid-hamstring stretch, jerked her head and scowled over her shoulder. Oww! What are you, the anti-Cupid?

Receiving no reply but a reproving look from the diminutive figure, she mumbled, All right, I guess maybe I don't feel right with this thing with Donner any more. I maybe shouldn't start up with her again.

Another sharp poke. Arriiight! On my honor – this is the last time. We'll talk when I get back.

As Kate stretched and soul-searched, she was oblivious to the early morning exercisers who passed by, many (both men and women) giving her lithe form appreciative glances. These soon turned to puzzled or wary looks as Kate held her apparent one-sided conversation, and most quickened their pace and moved on, New Yorkers being no strangers to crazies in the park. One passerby, however, stopped directly in front of her and peered at her with a concerned expression. He was a short, slight man with eyes almost as clear a blue as Kate's, though with the fair complexion and sandy-blond hair more often found in the blue-eyed.

"Katie, do you have a fever? I know you don't take drugs so that can't be why you're acting like a Times Square crazy and talking to yourself." The man reached up to feel her forehead, but his hand was swatted away as soon as it made contact. "My, and cranky too. You do feel a little warm, honey. You sure you want to run?"

With a dark look, Kate made several attempts to explain her peculiar behavior, finally giving up. "I have a cold, that's all. And... I'm just thinking aloud. Don't you ever do that?"

"Sure, sweet pea, sure. Everybody does down south, why in Texas if somebody's having a little old conversation by themselves nobody pays it any mind. Of course, nowadays it's more likely they've got one of those cell phone ears like you're always wearing, just makes them look like they're talking to themselves. I guess up north here –

"OK, speaking of talking, why don't we run and talk, or rather you'll talk. If we don't get going I'll never get to everything I need to do before I take you boys to the airport." Grabbing her companion and turning him west to face the park, Kate took off at a jog, adding over her shoulder, "let's do the central four-mile."

The slight man sprinted a little to keep up with her, then they settled into a steady pace, his shorter legs working harder to keep up with Kate's long, fluid stride. They ran into Central Park proper, then angled north towards the lake and the Ramble, their path taking them past now-deserted playing fields and copses of bare trees, looking misty and forlorn in the icy dawn. Soon, the trail began to climb upwards, and they were enclosed in a small forest. In summer, one was enveloped in thick foliage, and could well imagine being in a wild, remote place, far from the city center. A sense of isolation still pervaded the Ramble in winter, though the city spires could be glimpsed through the bare tree branches.

The two friends labored up a last hill, and by unspoken agreement paused a moment to catch their breath before turning to start the last leg of their four-mile run, roughly shaped like a triangle. Icy pellets came down thicker now, not yet covering the trail but adding slippery patches to the already steep and winding path. Kate blew her nose and brushed ice from her Polartec pullover, eyeing Dennis's lightweight Gore-tex jacket with a certain amount of covetousness. As she opened her mouth to suggest getting on with it before the weather worsened, she thought she heard a faint noise filter through the timpani of ice pellets.

"What was that?"

"What? I don't hear anything." Dennis looked around doubtfully, remembering Kate's earlier phantom conversation.

"Listen! It sounds like an animal! A – a cat or something, over there, or maybe a raccoon. Do they make sounds?"

Dennis peered through the mist and ice towards a thicket a little downhill from them, and, removing his tasseled knit hat, angled an ear in that direction. "I think I do hear... something. Can't tell what, though. Wanna go see?"

Kate took a few long strides off the path, towards the source of the sound. As her feet crunched on the dead leaves littering the ground, louder yipping and crying burst forth. "What is that? Are there coyotes in this park? Whatever it is, I hope it's not rabid," and, so saying, she plunged further into the underbrush, followed a moment later by her friend.

"Kate, for Gods sakes, be careful, you don't know what might be living in here, giant mutant rats, or there could be coyotes for all I know."

As Dennis rounded the corner of the large boulder behind which Kate had disappeared, he skidded to a stop, fetching up against Kate's broad back. "What... O My God."

Kate bent down slowly on one knee. There, a few feet away, cowering under a shallow rock outcropping, were two tiny, black, filthy puppies, howling their little hearts out.

"They're scared to death," breathed Kate. "Get down. They'll be less scared if we're at their level. Now, I'm going to grab the one on the left, and you take the other one."

"Grab them? Grab them? They're wild dogs! What if they bite you? What if they have rabies? Kate, you're out of your mind!"

Kate, seeing his hesitance, had angled towards the two small creatures backed against the rock, and with one quick movement, scooped both up in her arms.

Two things happened immediately. The howling stopped. And both puppies, one male and one female, promptly peed all over her.


Two wet, ice-coated, and dirty figures stood on the mist-shrouded path, each clutching a small, furry bundle. The two pups occasionally emitted a soft yelp, but for the most part lay shivering in their respective rescuers' arms.

Kate walked up the trail, then back, peering into the gloom on each side. "Well, I guess if the mother's anywhere around we would have seen her by now. They made such a ruckus, and we've been making noise for a good ten minutes now. What do you think?"

"I think the same thing. No mother dog, we would have seen her right off with all that howling. My guess, someone dumped these pups in the woods."

Kate looked down at the huddled ball of fur in her arms. She held the male, who was a bit huskier than his sister, but otherwise indistinguishable, except for the obvious. Kate had been able to make an accurate gender identification within moments of picking up the pups, due to their respective pee mechanisms. She had been able to persuade Dennis to carry the female pup, after he was convinced they were simply frightened and not rabid wild animals. As she glanced ruefully down at her filthy fleece top, she heard an outraged yelp from her friend, and, looking up, saw that he had been similarly anointed.

Kate couldn't help letting a chuckle escape. "Good, now we won't offend each other on the trip back. We can all stink together."

Dennis gave her an evil glare. "Speaking of the trip back, we'd better head that way. What say we try to find a Park Ranger and hand these little guys over? I think there's a station over near the lake."

"Hand them over? But... but what would the Park Rangers do? They'd probably put them in the Pound, wouldn't they?"

"Well, yeah, but what else are we gonna do? You're certainly not planning on keeping them?" At her beseeching look, he added, "Oh, no, I'm definitely not keeping them. You can forget that. You know our place is rent controlled, has been since the Mertzes owned the building. And the lease states very clearly NO DOGS. Mike would rather commit murder than do something to break that lease. No way."

They began their trek back down the hill, Kate lost in thought. "Well, how about we smuggle them in? We could come up the fire escape with them, and Mike could let us in. No one would know – no one's hardly awake yet –"

Dennis held up a hand. "You're forgetting something else. Aren't you taking us to the airport this very afternoon? Aren't we going to be in Mexico for almost two weeks? What are you going to do, cover the floor in newspaper, pour a large bag of dog food on the floor, and teach them how to drink out of the toilet? I mean, rescuing them is one thing, Kate, but get real here!"

Kate began to realize that she wasn't thinking rationally. She half-expected the officious angel to reappear on her shoulder with more advice and pokes from her tiny, but curiously strong, fingers. Well, I can't just leave them, but...I've never had a dog, much less dogs. Not since Tango when I was a kid, and you couldn't call him a real dog – he only weighed six pounds. But I can't just leave them.

"I'm going to take them home then. You'll have to help me." She turned her very own blue-eyed puppy dog look on him. Had the look been bestowed on any straight man in Manhattan, her request would have been a done deal. Dennis, being gay, had slightly more resistance, which made him hesitate for a long moment before acquiescing.

"All right, hon, but let's do it and then I got to git. We still need to pack our Texas things– for Puerta Vallarta all we need is swimsuits and thongs, baby!" Dennis and his partner Mike were en route that day to his family home in Houston, then after Christmas on to their real vacation in the Mexican resort.

The two again took off, quickening their pace, deciding to head south as far as 67th street to check in at the Park Police station, on the off chance that someone had notified them about two missing puppies. By the time they arrived, both the sleet and fog were thickening, and occasional snowflakes were beginning to appear among the ice crystals. Kate ran into the station, still holding the shivering pup, but was back out a few moments later.

"Can you believe this? They say it's almost a sure thing someone dumped those pups there, probably last night. They find dogs and cats there all the time! I just can't believe someone would go to all the trouble to hike all the way into the Ramble with two poor little puppies and leave them where they'd probably have died, if no one had come by today! What are people thinking? I mean, if you have a dog you can't keep, there's shelters, and ... and the Humane Society... I just don't get it," she trailed off, gazing down at her forlorn furry bundle.

Dennis absorbed the tirade with a fond, tolerant expression. "Unfortunately, I can believe it, but I'm having a hard time believing you. Since when are you such a Good Samaritan? Come to think of it, I don't think I've heard you say anything bitchy all morning. Who are you and what have you done with my Katie?"

His comment was met with icy blue eyes and a menacingly raised eyebrow. "I'm just as bitchy as I always was, thank you. I just can't see leaving these pups out here to die." Another menacing look and Kate stepped back on to the path. "Shall we?"

They proceeded a bit further, reaching the Willowdell Arch where they would turn east and leave the park. Snow was almost evenly distributed with the sleet by this time, making visibility even worse, shrouding even close-up objects with a mist of swirling white. As they approached the arch, a bicyclist suddenly appeared out of the fog, heading directly towards them. Each jumped in a different direction as he whizzed past, Kate performing an off-balance twist to stay upright, and yelling after him, "What the fuck!? Hey, this ain't the Tour de France, buddy!"

At the sudden commotion, the pups had started up a high-pitched yowling again, and the two walked more slowly, pausing a little ways down the path to stop and settle them down. Glancing up, Kate realized they were not alone. Perched on a rocky outcropping was the famous statue of Balto, the heroic sled dog who, in 1925, led the team carrying desperately-needed medicine across the tundra to Nome, Alaska, ending the diphtheria epidemic that threatened the city. Kate took a step closer, hugging the bedraggled pup, and watched in stunned silence as Balto lowered his massive head, sniffed at the pup, then gave them a slow wink.

"Hey, Dennis, you see that? Balto – he...he ... ah, never mind" Brian was looking over his shoulder at her, a puzzled expression once again overtaking his boyish visage. Kate rubbed the pup's head, and bent down to whisper, You saw him, though, didn't you, little guy. I bet you're going to grow up just like him.


On her third try, Kate finally got Alicia to answer the phone. A mumbled "What" greeted her.

"Hi, babe. Sorry to wake you. I just wanted to see if you're still there, I'm bringing home kind of a surprise, and I wanted to warn you."

In a slightly more alert tone, Alicia asked, "A surprise, for me? Oh, Kate, you shouldn't --"

"I didn't. I'll explain it all to you when we get there, but I wanted to warn you I'm bringing a couple of stray pups back with me. I'll see you in a few." Kate clicked off the phone in the midst of a string of disjointed questions from the other end.

Dennis had been pretending not to listen to this exchange. His dislike of Alicia was no secret; he had periodically tried to dissuade Kate from seeing her the previous year, and was definitely displeased to find she was back in the U.S., and Kate's bed, again. Dennis and his lover Mike had 'adopted' Kate when she had moved into their apartment building on East 68th while she was still getting her MBA from Columbia. The boys had tried to instill a sense of fashion in her, introduced her to the gayer nooks and crannies of Manhattan, and generally taken her under their respective wings. Kate, for her part, loved them like brothers and a part of her had hated to leave the building to buy the condo where she now lived. But, unlike them, she had no rent control on her cramped studio, and, once she began bringing home the big bucks as a stock analyst and mutual fund manager, she had opted for more spacious quarters. Still, she only lived six blocks away, and they saw each other almost every day.

At the corner of 68th, Dennis stopped and unloaded his bundle into Kate's arms. After a few moments of juggling, Kate had secured both pups in her arms.

"You know Donner won't like this. For one thing, they're dirty, and they smell. So do you, for that matter. And for another thing, it's something that'll take attention away from her."

"Now, now. She's not that bad."

"That girl is higher maintenance than the Queen Mother. You were always having to wait on her," Dennis sniped.

"Well, she's leaving anyway. Like I already explained, we just happened to meet up, and decided to get together last night. No big deal. And if she doesn't like them, well, it's my home, and she can just get herself together and leave sooner."

"Honey, you don't know how happy I am to hear you say that. Well, I'm off, and I'll see you around five? And you two," he said, addressing the balls of wet fur cuddled in Kate's arms, "You must have a guardian angel, you are two lucky dogs. What?"

At his last comment about angels, Kate had muttered, Gods, I hope not, that'd be all I'd need.

"Nothing, see you at five. And you all be ready – I'm not driving around the block for an hour."

Kate walked quickly the several blocks North to her own building. More pedestrians were about, and she drew a number of curious stares, but it was, after all, New York City, and peculiar sights were to be seen everywhere. She entered the lobby and hurried across to the elevator, hoping to meet no one. Her luck held, and she rode the elevator alone to her floor, to the musical accompaniment of a xylophone version of 'Silver Bells'.

Alicia opened the door, clad in Kate's white shirt from the night before. Her eyes widened, and a hand went up to brush back the pale yellow hair from her face, when she saw Kate's 'surprise'.

"What the fuck? You aren't bringing those... those whatever they are in here, are you?"

The pups, already nervous from the elevator, began to howl and whimper once again. Kate leveled a gaze at her, one finely-arched eyebrow edging up dangerously. "Don't yell, see what you did? Now they're all upset again." Brushing past her guest, Kate made for the laundry area off the small kitchen. Her plan, such as it was, was to make a small pen lined with newspaper for the pups there. She put them down, whereupon the female pup began industriously sniffing around. The male, however, retreated to a corner and kept his eyes fixed on her, with an occasional glance to determine the whereabouts of his sibling.

"Alicia, you can help me here if you want. I've got to get a little area set up for them, and find a blanket or something, and then I'm going to have to wash them..." Hearing nothing but silence in response, Kate turned to see that Alicia was no longer in the room. Kate resumed her tasks, and a few moments later, a disheveled but fully dressed Alicia stood in the doorway, her bag and coat in hand.

"I'd hoped for a little more romantic farewell, but I can see you're involved in your little project, so I'll be going."

Kate looked at her for a long moment. Well, angel, or whatever you are, hope you're happy. Aloud, she said, "Thanks for coming over. Sorry about this, it's just something I've got to do. Have a happy holiday."

Alicia' lips twisted into a wry grin, and she threw Kate a kiss. "So much for the Donner and Blitzen war, part two. See ya," and with that she was out the door.


Six hectic hours later, Kate sank gratefully into a kitchen chair with a cup of fragrant coffee, and contemplated the sleeping pups in their new doggie bed. After Alicia's departure, Kate had lined the small laundry room with newspaper, put down a water dish and a blanket, and then perused her refrigerator for something she could give them to eat.

Finally, she took a package of hamburger out of the freezer and nuked it, mixing it with instant rice. It seemed to appeal to them, although from the looks of their appetites, they would have regarded the Styrofoam wrapping as a treat. Finishing the small meal, both pups had looked back at her expectantly, the female cocking her head to one side and lifting one ear in an endearingly dopey expression. The male was more wary, or perhaps bashful. He had watched her every move, but kept his distance.

Kate had then decided that a visit to the vet's was needed, and began searching online for one nearby. Luckily, she found one directly across the park, on West 76th, that could see them that morning. Then there was the matter of getting them clean: Kate's perhaps ill-advised decision to bathe them in the kitchen sink precipitated 45 minutes of hilarity, complete with slippery, sudsy puppies and soaking wet human chasing all over the condo. Finally, when all three were bathed and Kate changed from her soaked running attire, she had called a cab for the short trip across the park.

Arriving at City Critters, a combination veterinarian and pet boutique perfectly situated to cater to pampered Upper West Side pets, she lavishly tipped the cab driver (there had been an unfortunate accident in the back seat, of which he was still unaware), and carried the two now clean, and considerably cuter, pups inside.

Six hundred dollars and two hours later, she was headed back across the park, the cab laden with fleecy dog beds, chew toys, a large bag of cutting-edge, scientifically formulated puppy food, puppy vitamins, and something the helpful salesperson had called 'training pads'. Each pup now sported a collar and matching leash, complete with registration tag and name tags, which bore her address and phone number but as yet no names.

Dr. Bass had put down their breed as Labrador mix, their age as about eight weeks, and had confirmed that they were siblings. When asked their names, Kate had come up blank: she would have to think about it. For the time being, they were Baby Girl and Baby Boy.

Now, contemplating the exhausted pups curled together in their fleecy bed, Kate was content to just sit for a while, and try to absorb the way her life had been upended in the last 24 hours. She had gone from carefree, no-commitments player, to someone whose life suddenly revolved around two small, furry, demanding creatures, neither weighing more than ten pounds. It was as if she had suddenly given birth to twins. The phone's insistent ringing interrupted her trance. Kate picked it up.

"Hey, hon, just checking you're still going to pick us up. Last I checked, the flight was on time, but if this weather keeps up, I bet we'll be delayed."

"I'll be there. I'm just going to drop you all off – I don't want to leave these two alone for too long."

"Kate, that's another thing I wanted to talk to you about. Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, you have to travel a lot, and you work long hours – it's a big responsibility, not just one but two puppies!"

"I've given it a lot of thought." Actually, she hadn't; she had just known, somehow, that she would keep the pups, and that she would work things out. "I'm thinking of cutting back at work. You know I haven't been happy with SB's tactics for a while now. When I come back after the holidays I'm going to tell them I don't want to manage the Liberty Fund anymore. And these tech stocks, well, I'm just rethinking a lot of things related to work right now."

Dennis was uncharacteristically speechless for a moment. "You... you're going to give up Liberty? But that's your prize! That's what got you on the cover of Mutual Funds Idols or whatever it's called!" Dennis, being a dancer, had a vague idea at best of what Kate did. He did know, however, that she was celebrated as one of the hottest traders on the New York financial scene.

"Kiplinger's. Let's talk about it after the holidays. I might just need a couple of days off, might just be stress. Anyway, I'm going to make the adjustment to keep these guys. I can hire someone to come in during the day, God knows there are plenty of dog walkers on the Upper East Side."

"OK, then, we'll see you in a bit."


Several hours later, Kate carefully steered her new Mercedes SLK 320 through the now dark, and increasingly icy, streets of Manhattan, returning from dropping the boys off at JFK Airport. The two were bubbly with excitement, not so much from the obligatory holiday visit to Dennis' family in Texas, but the ten days to follow in sunny Puerta Vallarta. The 'wintry mix' they were leaving behind made the thought of sun and sand all that more inviting to the hardworking duo. Dennis had just finished a show, and for the first time in years was not dancing the Nutcracker. Michael, the taller and more conventionally handsome of the two, was a magazine and sometime runway model ("I'm the dancer, he's the prancer," Dennis often cracked) whose work slowed around the holidays anyway, since print ads for December magazines were shot long before the holiday season itself.

The two had exuberantly hugged Kate goodbye, promising to bring back 'a really big set of maracas' from Mexico. Kate briefly envied their relationship. The two had been together for more than ten years, and even though Mike had been grousing about having to spend Christmas in Houston again, Kate knew the boys would make the best of it. They'll probably sneak out tomorrow night and find a place to two-step with Santa.

Kate's thoughts turned to her own holiday travel plans, and, after a moment, she came to a decision and fished out her cell phone to call her mother.

"Hi Doc, it's me."

"Oh, hi honey, you'll be happy to know I'm in the kitchen as we speak, whipping up some of those almond cakes – you know, the recipe I got when we spent the holidays in Spain a couple years ago? I seem to remember you like these."

"Mmm. Love'em. Listen, Doc, we're getting some fairly nasty weather up here – snow, sleet, you know, a mess. I've just been listening to the radio, and they're saying it's going to turn to all snow pretty soon. I'm thinking of leaving tonight, try and beat some of it if it's really going to start accumulating. I'd probably get there pretty late."

"Ay yi yi. I knew this would happen. I told your mother yesterday, you should come early, she should have told you, I saw on the weather channel --" Kate's father was a retired orthopedic surgeon. Kate and her brother had always called him Doc rather than Dad or Father. Since his recent retirement, he had found a new passion in following the weather in minute detail.

"She did tell me, I just couldn't leave yesterday. Listen, Doc, there's something else I need to ask you. How would you like to have two more guests for the holidays? They're small, but they eat a lot."

"Two more... you are bringing some children?" he hazarded. "Let me get your mother."

"Doc? Doc? Oh, hi Mother. I was trying to tell Doc, I want to bring a couple of unexpected guests. I hope he didn't grab you away from anything." Kate's mother was an inveterate entertainer, especially during the holidays, during which she often had people in the house for impromptu get-togethers.

"No, dear, we're home alone tonight, I'm just watching one of those awful women's channel tearjerkers about adultery and betrayal and so on. Not very Christmassy." She sniffed.

"Well, Mother, I was telling Doc, I think I'm going to leave tonight because the weather is getting so bad. And, I have kind of a surprise, I kind of... adopted two puppies today, that I'm going to have to bring along."

There was a long silence. Finally, her mother broke the silence. She laughed, long and hard, and finally gasped out, "Ricky! She doesn't have children – dogs! She's bringing dogs!" After another bout of laughter, Lucille subsided enough to explain, "Your father thought you'd acquired some children, dear, you know how all the Lesbians are becoming mothers all of a sudden, it seems to be the thing this year, and he was getting all worked up –"

Kate, meanwhile, had tuned out her mother's sputtering explanation. Ricky! That's it! Of course! 68th Street, Lucy, Ricky –it has to be!

"So it's OK, Mother? I'll tell you the whole story when I get there – you're going to love them, they're so cute, eight-week-old brother and sister, and their names are Fred and Ethel. You'll love them! Bye, I'll see you later tonight!"


Kate glanced in the rearview mirror, checking on Fred and Ethel in the cramped back seat. She had covered the seat and floor with plastic bags, and put 'training pads' on the floor, remembering the unfortunate taxicab incident. The dog bed took up most of the seat, and the two were, for the moment, in it. Ethel, Kate had discovered, had an explorer's curiosity, and wanted to discover every inch of each new place she found herself in. This included the car, and Kate had had to barricade the space between the two front seats to avoid having Ethel under her feet. Fred, more true to his Labrador heritage, seemed more interested in hanging his head out the window, an accomplishment that involved standing on his hind legs. Kate periodically took pity on him and lowered the tiny rear window so he could practice being a Lab. Luckily, they were either exhausted from their ordeal, or good travelers, and settled down pretty well.

Kate needed all her concentration to navigate in the thickening storm. The traction on this thing is unbelievable, Kate thought. Having it just for this trip might be worth the price. Although once these guys get a little bigger, it's going to be downright cramped in here. Well, the old Comet wouldn't have been much better. Kate's previous car had been a lovingly restored '65 Comet Cyclone, that she had finally decided to sell after the Mercedes SLK Roadster caught her eye the previous summer.

Once she had decided to leave that night, she had returned and providentially found a place to park on her street. Finding both pups still barricaded in the kitchen, she had surveyed the damage. Dr. Bass had warned her of the Lab propensity to chew, so she had entered with some trepidation. But the only damage, aside from the corner of their blanket looking suspiciously ragged, was the theft and mutilation of a potholder that had dropped to the floor.

Kate had made several trips through the precipitation, which was inexorably changing to all snow, bringing loads of dog accoutrements as well as her luggage and the purchases for her mother. Fitting it all into the tiny trunk was a challenge, and she had sent up a prayer of thanks for having the foresight to order most of her gifts from Amazon.com to be delivered to her parents'.

Now, packed tightly in the roadster, the three headed south, having finally negotiated out of the interstate thicket of northern New Jersey. Kate had lost her favorite station, WFMU, a half-hour ago, and now punched the search button for something decent to listen to. "Here we go, how'd you guys like to listen to the Chipmunks? One of my favorites, better get used to it!" Fred and Ethel cocked their heads, and Ethel's batlike ears went sideways, as they heard the high pitched harmonies flowing from the car's six speakers, followed by a frustrated voice yelling AL- VIN! The station proved to be an eclectic one, and the Chipmunks were followed by Joey Miskulin's Christmas polka party, which pleased all three of the holiday travelers.

The traffic finally eased as they left Wilmington to head south through Maryland on the final leg of their trip. Soon, Kate spotted a 'Welcome to Maryland' rest stop, and pulled in among the 18-wheelers. They made a circuit of the grounds, Kate extravagantly praising each pup's offerings. Look at me, she thought as they made their way through the falling snow back to the car, I'm ready to change my life around, in the space of a day, just for a couple of furballs. If that's not sappy I don't know what is.

As they neared the car, Kate squinted at the Mercedes star hood ornament. There seemed to be something caught on it – or standing on it – Oh no, not you again, Mean Angel. Look, I did break up with Alicia, as you can see I'm heading home—

Shhh. Not why I'm here. You did good in that department. Well rid of her. But I want you to do something for me now, and then I'll leave you alone.

Promise? No more sudden appearances? No more poking?

Promise. And from me, a promise is a promise. Now, the three of you, I want you to look up, over there.

Where? I can't see anything, not in this storm. Kate glanced down at the pups. They were intently studying something just above the tree line to the east. She looked back up, squinting against the snowflakes.

An amorphous glow began to take shape in the sky. Soon, Kate made out the form of her erstwhile tormentor, bathed in a golden light. She heard a faint voice, bidding them farewell: OK, I think it's safe to leave you all alone now. Kate, keep your eyes peeled for your real angel, you'll know her when you see her. Fred, Ethel, do the best you can with her. Gotta go, lots to do today.

And with that, the golden light slowly faded into the distance. Somewhere, a church bell began to toll midnight. It was Christmas Eve.


Word Total: 78, plus one use of the word Amazon

End Notes:

623 East 68th Street was the fictional address of the brownstone owned by Fred and Ethel Mertz, where Lucy and Ricky Ricardo lived, in the 'I Love Lucy' TV series.

There really is a rest stop along Interstate 95, soon after crossing into Maryland from the North, where unexplained lights in the sky have been sighted.

And finally, Happy Holidays, everyone!


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