Twas The Week Before Christmas

by Greek Warrior

Academy of Bards Solstice Challenge 2005

Twas the week before Christmas and all through the town,

The people were scurrying and running aroun'.

The merchants hocked goods with fevered delight,

Not caring about shoppers; their credit card plight.

The children all wanted the latest cool toys,

The parents all wondered if they made much noise.

I mumbled and grumbled; I'd waited again this year,

I hated shopping; I'm gonna need a beer.

I gathered my wits and headed for the mall,

Maybe it won't be so bad, with this last snowfall.

"Hey boss, leaving early?"The short chunky man didn't try very hard to hide his chuckles.

"Yeah, yeah, just keep it up, you guys."I glared at Rich, my foreman, and the rest of the crew that was trying to hide their snickers, with varying degrees of success. "I haven't signed the Christmas bonus checks yet, you know."

I shook my head and grinned, as I drove my truck away from the construction site. "These guys know me too well."I turned the radio on to my favorite classical station. I can't believe I've let the holiday sneak up on me again this year. I thought as I turned left onto 5th Avenue.

Through to be honest, I knew it hadn't snuck up, just as my crew had also known; I hated shopping. Well, unless it was in a home improvement store, which was a good thing since I own a construction firm and tended to frequent them.

"Ooh, I like this song."The volume was increased as a symphony orchestra's classical version of 'Please Come Home for Christmas' started.

On my drive to the mall, I thought about all the times I had pawned off present buying on my secretary Doris. Anytime there was an office party where gifts had to be exchanged, for my past girlfriends and even presents for my family members, the poor woman was put in charge.

It all started innocently enough with Doris finding out what I had planned on getting my sister one year for her birthday.

"I'm sorry; I'm afraid I don't know what a whatchamacallit is."Doris was standing in my office with her hands on her hips.

"I know you've seen it on TV. It's a kitchen gadget thingy...that slices and dices and...stuff."I trailed off when I saw the 'you're joking' expression on Doris' face. "Um, not a good idea?"

"That's a horrible present for her, Cassie."

"But she likes to cook."I defended my choice of present. But in reality I knew it was a last minute grasp of an idea.

"Yes she does. I've talked with her many times about it, which is why I know she has a kitchen that any chef would envy. And that means a $19.95 kitchen gadget isn't going to cut it."She grinned. "Pun intended."

I stuck my tongue out at her. "I don't have anything else in mind."I looked pleadingly at my secretary. "I don't suppose you..."

Doris rolled her eyes. "Leave it to me."

"Ooh thank you, you're a lifesaver."

"No problem, I'm getting to do two of my favorite things. Taking the afternoon off to go on a shopping spree and spending someone else's money."Doris laughed at my stricken expression as she headed back to her desk, then yelled back, "And it isn't even pay day."

The practice of Doris buying gifts for my girlfriends ended when I'd met Erin two years ago. As much as I hate shopping, I wanted to be the one to pick out her presents. I knew that the blonde woman was the love of my life and the last girlfriend I would have and it just seemed more appropriate and intimate if I was the one to get them.

I remember when Erin and I met. It was at the wedding of friends. She was friends with the bride and I with the groom. He had worked for me for several years. It was just after the cake had been cut and the happy couple had playfully fed each other; rather sedately actually. No rubbing it in each other's faces. Wish I'd been that lucky.

The reception was in full swing, the traditional toast made, the first dance done and the cake had just been cut. The seven layer monstrosity that not only held the plastic bride and groom on top, but also a fake looking dove that had it's wings spread to enclose the plastic bride and groom. It looked tacky.

I was standing in line and had just received a piece of cake when the person in front of me turned around and ran into me, which knocked my plate, which made the cake smash into my chest. "I'm sorry, I'm so clumsy sometimes."

I looked at the mess on my shirt and was about to let her have it, but made the mistake of looking into her eyes. Into the watery green eyes that were close to tears. "Hey, it's okay, it was an accident. No need to cry."

She sniffed. "I sorry, I've had a really bad week and now this. I've ruined your shirt. I'll be happy to buy you another."

"No need."I led her over to a table and sat here down. "Let me go freshen-up and you can tell me about your week, okay?"I wanted to get the frosting that was now oozing down me off, but I didn't want this beautiful woman to disappear on me.

Luckily for me, Erin had stayed at the table and we ended up talking most of the afternoon, which led us to lunch the next week to discuss one of the problems that had made that week so bad for her. She told me that she grew flowers that she sold to the area florists, but that she had been told that the land she rented for her greenhouses was being sold for development and that she had to quickly find another place.

I had been able to convince her that my place, 50 acres of land outside the city, was just what she was looking for. And that being a contractor I would be glad to build her as many greenhouses as she needed. She had insisted on paying rent, which had led to a dinner meeting. We had just kinda progressed into dating from there.

I had talked to my sister earlier this afternoon hoping to glean a few nuggets of information from her about what my sweetheart might want, but she said Erin hadn't mentioned anything.

Why I agreed that this year we wouldn't go overboard like we had the year before, I don't know. I mean I know I bought Erin a diamond engagement ring for Christmas last year and we had the commitment ceremony on Valentine's Day, and it did cost a bundle, but it's not like we're broke. So now not only do I not know what to look for, but when I find something if it costs too much, I can't get it. I continued to grumble. Heck, I'll clear at least a 100 grand on this current project alone. I smiled, I could just tell her whatever I got was on sale. Nah, she'd see right through me like she always does and that would put me twix a rock and a hard place.

As I neared the mall, I could see a flake or two of snow start to fall to add to the foot and a half we had had the previous night. Good, maybe it'll keep some of the shoppers away.

My hopes were crushed when I saw the parking lot,

Cars were circling all looking for a spot.

I was perched in my truck, higher than some,

Up and down, back and forth, my prospects looked glum.

Then two rows over, I spotted a space,

The same as all the rest, I was in for a race.

I stepped on the gas and zoomed over quickly,

Yes, I snagged the spot and thought myself lucky.

Curses were yelled and fingers saluted me,

So much for cheer and goodwill, I screamed like a banshee.

And it seemed to be no better once inside,

The stores were all crowded with shoppers this Yuletide.

I groaned at the multitude of humanity that populated the place. Though I did have to smile at the pop and krackel sound of static electricity, when the mother of a little boy standing next to me took his knit cap off. Poor kid, not only was he getting zapped by everything he touched, but his hair looked like he stuck his finger in a light socket.

I had two levels of mall to cover in my quest of the perfect yet inexpensive gift for my partner. I decided my plan of attack; I'll go down one side then come back along the other, going into each and every store. Then do the same on the second level. Satisfied with my strategy I entered the first store to see what treasures it contained.

Which was nothing that held my interest. Okay. I gave myself a pep talk. Don't get discouraged that was just the first one.

Seven or eight stores later; zip, nada, zero, but I was reacquainted with the realization of one of the reasons why I didn't like to shop. Have you ever looked closely at some of the merchandise out there? Do all manufactures think the majority of consumers will buy anything they put out there? I mean really, who wants a handheld battery operated slot machine? And what good is it? Not like you're going to get anything if you do happen to hit three sevens. And the cost of kids clothes. Why would anyone pay $60 for a pair of designer jeans that won't fit in another four or five months?

Okay, I'm really starting to get discouraged. Ah, Victoria's Secret. Heh, maybe I've struck pay dirt. Though it wouldn't be fair to get her something that I would enjoy more than she would. Oh well, on to the next store.

I decided to take 5 at the food court, have an ice cream cone and regroup. I was halfway through the mall, finished with the lower level, and was no closer to buying a present than I'd been when I'd started. Not to mention I needed to pee and had to hoof it back down to the other end where the bathrooms were.

After a fast break that Cheryl Swoops would've been proud of, I managed to get ahead of a mother and four kids; certain it would make my wait in line considerably shorter.

That taken care of; I climbed the stairs instead of waiting in line for the escalator to the second level. I entered the first store, which happened to be a florist, and looked at the holiday arrangements. I didn't have any intention of sending Erin flowers since she's around them all the time, but one caught my eye.

It was an arrangement of red roses and mini carnations resting on a bed of Christmas greens, not unusual this time of the year except for one thing, the entire piece was made of chocolate. I arranged to have it delivered Christmas Eve morning. At least I had one thing for her.

I finished the upper level without any other luck or inspiration. I refused to give Erin just chocolate, no matter how unusual, for Christmas. So I guess it was back down to the lower level one more time.

The bargains, markdowns and sales all tempted this lot,

I think whether they needed it or not.

While I dodged and pushed my way through the crowded mall,

I heard laughing, fighting and several children squall.

Looking skyward I sent a small prayer that way,

Oh please lord, please let me make it through this day.

I wandered through the lower level, nothing found,

And suddenly a thought hit me, so profound.

This close to Christmas it was bound to be open,

I got lucky it was, the sign said until ten.

The bell sounded over the door when I entered and an older gentleman came from a doorway in the back wall. "Hello, can I help you?"

"Yes, I want to get a present for my partner."I said loudly to be heard over the barks and yips coming from the room the man had just left.

"Well, we like to make sure that all adoptions are carefully thought out and that it's not just a spur of the moment thing."He explained.

I smiled. "That's not a problem."I assured him. "She has been putting off coming down here because she'd leave with all of them."

"We do require a reference though, I'm afraid and it's a little late. After eight o'clock now."He tilted his head and looked at me. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare, but you seem familiar."He stuck out his hand. "I'm Dale, by the way."

"Cassie Wilson."I shook his hand.

He snaps his fingers. "Ah, that's it, I knew I knew you. You built my brother and his partner's house a couple of months ago; Harold Simms over on York Street."

"Oh yeah, my partner Erin and I had dinner with them last week. They're good people."Come on, buddy, if you can't trust a friend of your brothers...don't make me wait.

"Look! I tell you what, why don't you go in the back and see if any of the animals, are what you had in mind. I'll see if I can get Harry on the phone and you can use him for a reference."

The ruckus started back as soon as I opened the door. As I walked around looking at the puppies and kittens, I had to keeping repeating to myself, only two, I can only get two. Well, at least right now. I was pleased to note that several of the cages had 'adopted' signs on them, so it looked like many of the animals would be going to good homes soon.

A cage full of kittens caught my eye and I stopped to watch them. Dale joined me, letting me know that Harry had okayed me as a potential pet owner.

"I see this group is displaying their considerable charms as usual."

"I'm surprised they've not been taken yet."

"They just came in this afternoon and the vet hasn't checked them yet. As soon as she does, they won't last long."

"I'm really looking for a couple of puppies."I moved along the aisle.

"These little guys here are from the same litter."He said as he stopped in front of two small white puppies that had enough black spots to play a game of connect the dots.

"Their Dalmatians aren't they?"

"Their mother was, yes. Don't know what the father was."

"I was looking for two that would get a bit bigger."I moved farther down the cages. "Oh."I came across two puppies, one mainly black with a white starburst pattern on its neck and chest and a yellowish one that was at the back of the cage.

"We call these two Yin and Yang because they're so different."He explained. "Yang here,"he pointed to the one in front barking to get my attention, "is the last from a litter we had several weeks ago. She is half if not all black lab and Yin back there, is a full blooded blond lab that the owners had just gotten when they found out the husband was being transferred over seas. She's not real happy; she just sits at the back of the cage and shivers no matter what we do."

I looked at the paws of both dogs; these two definitely hadn't been the runts of the litter. I knew that I wanted to take these two, now I'd just have to see if the little girl in the back would see things my way. I sat down on the floor and Dale opened the door to the cage. Of course Yang bolted out and began to lick my face. I laughed and wiped the dog slobber off. "Nothing like puppy kisses."

I whistled and called Yin, but she seemed to be glued to her spot at the back of the cage and refused to budge. Dale assured me that it wasn't me; this was now she acted with everyone. But I wasn't about to give up. I lay down on my side and Yang curled up beside me as I whispered to him and petted him.

Dale had moved back to the door that led to the reception area and stood quietly. It took about ten minutes but Yin's curiosity got the best of her and she cautiously made her way to me. I grinned and waited for her to make the first contact, which she did fairly quickly as she bumped her cold wet nose on mine.

I sat up and put them both in my lap and heard a lightly clapped ovation from the doorway where several of the volunteers stood. I smiled at Dale as he walked over. "I guess you're gonna have two less boarders."

"You going to take them with you?"

"Oh yeah, I'd hate for this little girl to think she'd been left again."I rubbed the light colored head that taking up half my lap. "I don't have any supplies for them though."

"No problem. You can take them with you next door to the pet store. I'll come with you and carry the stuff so you can hold on to these two."He offered.

Half an hour latter, I had puppy food, puppy treats, squeaky toys, plush toys, halters and leashes and a big red plaid dog bed for them to share, at least until they out grew it. Oh and food and water bowls with cute little paw prints over them.

With my purchases stored in the back of the truck, I placed my charges in their new bed that was in the floorboard of the front seat. Luckily they seemed to be worn out after all the excitement and curled up together sleepily. I made my way back around to the drivers side, the crunch of the new fallen snow sounding loudly in the relative quiet of the night. "Thanks, Dale, they're going to be a great surprise for Erin."

"Thank you, Cassie. Stop by sometime and let us know how they're doing."

I pulled out of the parking lot, grinning like an idiot; anxious to get them home. Come on, come on slo poke. Park it and put a fence around it if you're gonna live in it.

I looked at my gifts, both curled up in a big ball,

And wondered once again if I'd made the right call.

Too late now you're stuck with us, my fuzzy ones,

I just hope that you both don't end up weighting two tons.

I pulled in the drive at home and shook my head,

Found a note on the table, gone shopping it said.

She would be gone a good while was my surmise,

I knew I'd have time to set up my surprise.

I closed the puppies in the kitchen with their feed,

And upon returning, okay who did the deed?

The mess cleaned up just in time to hear her car,

Quickly hiding puppies behind the breakfast bar.

Erin came in with mounds of packages. "Sorry I'm so late."She kissed me quickly as she flew by. "I stopped and got dinner, it's out in the car."She yelled back as she disappeared into our home office, then reappeared almost as quickly. "I had four rolls of unopened wrapping paper when I left here today, why is it almost gone?"

"Um...because I'm not the best present wrapper around."And I wasn't. But dog toys aren't the easiest things to wrap let me tell you.

"I take it your last minute shopping was successful."She said as she looked under the Christmas tree at the oddly shaped presents and picked one up. The round squeaky ball. And I knew the gig would be up if she squeezed it.

"Well, I certainly hope so."She shook the present and heard nothing.

"Let's see, it's too big for a baseball and not big enough for a basketball."She mashed it and nearly jumped out of her skin at the very loud squawk that came from it.

The sound of course, woke up the fuzz balls and they wanted out of the cardboard box that I'd put them in. I could hear their nails scratching on the sides and soon the noise got Erin's attention. "What the heck is that?"

I pulled her over to the box just as the yips and barks started. "Merry Christmas."I said as she knelt beside them.

"Oh, Cassie,"she looked at me and smiled, "they're so cute. What are there names?"She asked as she got them out of the box.

"Well, the adoption place called them Yin and Yang."And I explained why and explained about Yin and what I thought to be her insecurity at being left. "I'm sure they're young enough to change them if you don't like the names though.

"We'll see, but I kinda like those. She seems pretty comfortable now."

"Yeah, I spent some time with them in here before I fed them earlier and she seemed to do okay. She wasn't real happy when I left them in the kitchen though. I'm sure it'll take a little while for her to realize she isn't going to be left again."

"Look at these huge paws. They're gonna be whoppers when they're grown."

"I know. I think maybe that's why Yang was the only one left at the shelter, his other brothers and sisters had been adopted fairly quickly Dale said. Oh, Dale is Harry's brother by the way."

Erin kept picking one up and hugging it and then the other. Luckily little devils, my girl gives great hugs and I was beginning to feel left out.

She saw my pout and leaned over and kissed me. "Why don't you go get the food out of the car and put it in the oven, then I can unwrap their presents."

I did and then put some water on for tea. I had started a fire right before Erin got home and thought we could cuddle up with the puppies and have a cup while she opened the toys.

I handed her a cup, just the way she liked it, with a bit-o-honey, before I joined her in front of the fireplace. Yin and Yang were again snoozing, lying beside her. "Are they ones you might've picked out if you'd gone down there?"

"Yes, their perfect."She grinned up at me. "Let's let them rest a little before we get them stirred up with their toys. I noticed that there are 12 of them."

"They aren't all toys."I defended. "Some of them are treats."She laughed at me. "I got them a dog bed too and water and food bowls. I didn't wrap them."

"They're gonna be great company for me since you're gone all day."Erin said. "I want to teach them to obey commands. I don't want to have to keep them on a leash all the time, but I don't want them roaming around out here and getting lost either."

We lived a little ways out of town on what had been my grandparent's farm. They had left it to me and my two sisters and I had bought them out since neither wanted to live in the boonies as they called it. It was perfect for Erin since she needed greenhouses for her flower business.

I remember the first time I brought Erin out here. It had been our fourth date and she really needed to see the place since her flowers were being moved out here next week. I also think she was beginning to wonder if I lived in my truck.

"Just how far out is your house?"

It was about 30 minutes outside the city limits and we had driven about 20 of them. "Just a few more miles."I answered as I passed Mountain Lodge, a summer camp for kids. Not far passed the lodge, I turned onto a gravel road that led us through the gate that led to my property. "Here we are."I said as I pulled up in front of the house.

I gave her a quick tour of the single level, four bedroom house, then a walk over to the corral to introduce her to Iris and Loki. "You have the carrots I gave you?"

"Yeah, are you sure they'll like me?"Erin asked nervously. "I'm use to dogs and cats and they're a lot smaller than horses."

"Yes, I'm sure."I put my arm around her waist and moved towards the fence, then whistled. "I'll introduce you to Iris first, she's very gentle and loving."

"You named your horse after a flower?"

"Uh, no."I smiled. "She's actually named for the little known minor Olympian Goddess of the rainbow."I explained.

"Oh, she's pretty."Erin exclaimed as she watched the horse slowly trot up to the fence where we were standing.

Iris was the color of Butternut squash and stood about 14 hands high. Her mane and tail were a couple of shades darker than her coat. She pushed her nose into my chest and snorted, showing her displeasure with me. "I know I promised you a ride today, I'm sorry. How about tomorrow, girl, I'm not going to work this weekend, I promise."I rubbed her nose.

"Um..."Erin got a little nervous when Iris turned her head towards her.

"It's okay; just hold out the carrot like I showed you."She did and Iris did me proud by being very gentle.

I whistled for Loki. "Oh god, he's huge."Erin looked wide-eyed at the black horse that entered the corral and stood in its center, tossing his head.

"He's a beast and a beauty rolled into one, though the beast part wins most often. Like now."I sighed at the ill-tempered horse that refused to come any closer. "Come here, boy, I want you to meet Erin."

"That's all right. I'm not so sure I want to get any closer to him. He is...pretty isn't the right word."Erin watched him for a minute. "Majestic, I believe is the word. And his coat, so black, the color of midnight on a cloudy new moon night."

"It glistens in the sun, though. Have you ever seen the sun shine on a black crows feathers?"She nodded. "His shines that blue-black color too."

It had taken Loki a little while to warm up to Erin. In actuality, it had taken longer for Erin to be comfortable with him.

"Ah, isn't that cute."Erin grinned at Yang's jerky legs and her tail thumping.

"Chasing rabbits is what my dad calls it."Yin rolled over on her back, all four feet in the air. It looked like she was going to be okay here. I was very glad she seemed to be settling down without a problem.

"It's going to be interesting to see how they react to Iris and Loki."Erin grinned. "And vise versa."

"Iris won't be any problem, she'll be her usual sweetheart self. Loki on the other hand can be a little temperamental."

"A little?"Erin said. "He kept trying to bite me when we first started dating."

"He was just jealous. He likes you now."

"Uh huh, but it took forever."She said as she took our mugs into the kitchen for more tea.

Yin and Yang woke up and started to fuss when they didn't see Erin. "Shh, don't be such cry babies you two."I scratched under their chins. "Your new mama will be right back."

"Ah, I see our little sweethearts are awake. "Erin sat the mugs of hot tea on the mantle. "Why don't we open some presents and see what mama Cassie got you? Hmm, you want to do that?"

Two little high pitched yips answered her. "You don't think they understand me, do you?"Erin asked; halfway seriously.

"Not yet."I grinned. Her mother had raised cats when Erin was growing up and she had told me the only dogs she had been around were her friend's pets.

"What does that mean?"She asked as she grabbed the ball she had picked up earlier.

"Well, most 'experts' would probably tell you that I give them too much credit and too many human emotions and traits, but I had one dog, Baskerville, when I was a teenager and I swear he had more intelligence than some people I knew."

Erin had unwrapped the squeaky ball and was rolling it around for the puppies to chase. "Basky would always meet the school bus at the end of our street to walk me home. I asked mom about it one day and she said he would head down the street fifteen minutes before the bus was due every day."

"So you think he could tell time?"Erin unwrapped a rope next; a tug-of-war toy that hopefully they would play with together.

"An internal clock perhaps. He also seemed to know what day it was. If dad had to go into work on the weekends, he'd pitch a fit, but if it was during the week, he'd barely raise his head off the floor."

"Ooh, this is an outside toy."She proclaimed as she opened the can of tennis balls. "Anything else he did?"

"Well, I gave him credit for human feelings. Exasperated looks, fed-up sighs, a scowl of irritation...oh, one night he did raise hell at the front door until my dad got up out of bed and went outside. Turns out that my sister's date wasn't going to let her out of the car until 'he got some' I believe is what she said he said. I don't know if he sensed something wrong or heard her yelling, but he had been asleep in my bedroom, which was on the back of the house and the car was parked at the curb out front."

Erin opened one more package, which was a plush Santa Claus that produced a ho, ho, ho when squeezed. "I think that's plenty for right now, don't you?"

"Yeah."I answered; a little embarrassed about how overboard I'd gone at the pet store.

"I think I'll take these two outside and see if they'll go to the bathroom."She grabbed one of the tennis balls. "And maybe wear them out a little too."

Yin and Yang scrambled after Erin as she bundled up and opened the backdoor. I got up and stood at the window watching the puppies familiarize themselves with new surroundings. They were really cute; they'd run a few feet away from Erin to investigate a lump of snow, but then run back to her to safely bark at it from behind her legs. I guess they thought they would protect mama from the big bad snow monster, but from a safe distance.

My family; I smiled. And to think that only a few years ago, I was happy on my own. Or at least I thought I was. I laughed at Yang, falling over her big paws and coming up with a snout full of snow and sneezing at the cold wet stuff that had gotten in her nose.

Yin was bouncing around trying to catch the flakes that had just started to fall. Yep, it looks like she's going to do okay here with her new sister and mama. But then who wouldn't be okay with Erin.

Her present was a little early this year,

She didn't mind, the joy they brought her was clear.

I'd spent more than our limit and knew I'd been caught,

After she had seen all the toys and stuff I'd bought.

She'd cuddled the puppies and petted their soft fur,

We've got do to do something about this breath for sure.

My world is good as I watch them play in the snow,

Oh yeah, I have just one more thing I'd like you to know.

This year I've learned my lesson, on this you can bet,

Next year I'll be shopping over the Internet.


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