In Dorset Hills, there are five official seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter and Christmas. The fifth and most popular season begins at the stroke of midnight on Thanksgiving. From that moment on, it’s considered good etiquette to offer Christmas greetings to family, friends, strangers and retail clerks. Especially retail clerks.
The decorations go up before the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers disappear, and the people of Dorset Hills always deck the halls in style. The town website offers downloadable guidelines under the guise of making energy-saving suggestions, but really to avoid some of the tacky displays seen elsewhere. In fact, the guidelines went up after someone’s inflatable nativity scene was vandalized repeatedly. It’s one thing to deflate Santa and his reindeer, and quite another to puncture Jesus in his manger. Most families stick to the sanctioned strings of white lights, pine boughs and simple red accessories. Silver stars and bells are acceptable, as long as they’re of moderate size and not too flashy. Once in a while a rogue angel appears on someone’s porch or lawn but soon vanishes, presumably shamed into flight by the neighbors.
The result is that the town—actually a small city that persists in calling itself a town—is oddly uniform at this time of year, though undeniably pretty, especially after the first snowfall. A “green Christmas” is a cause for consternation in Dorset Hills, particularly for City Council. Green is bad for business. The town attracts tourists by the busload to witness its classic and tasteful observance of the season.
City Councillors and citizens alike breathed a frosty sigh of relief on Friday December 20th, when the first fat flakes of snow began to fall around noon. The plows were deployed by three p.m., and by rush hour, all was well in hand.
Mim Gardiner took the long route home from the hospital when her shift ended, although it was one of the rare nights she didn’t have an evening call. In addition to her full-time job in Oncology, she worked as a community nurse making home visits. For years, she’d needed the extra money; now she continued partly out of habit, and partly because her regulars depended on her.
Driving along the plowed and salted roads, she admired the houses sparkling in the darkness. Most had Christmas trees displayed in the front window, which also featured simple, elegant decorations. She wondered if any of the homes she passed had a secret tree hidden away that was covered in a riot of colorful decorations. The “real” tree, as it were. Hers was in the family room, wrapped in purple-and-green lights, draped in tinsel, and hung with battered ornaments from her own childhood, including the reindeer her grandfather had carved that was missing one antler.
The only house on Mim’s street that wasn’t already lit up at 6:30 p.m. was her own. Pulling into the driveway, she sighed. A slash of light at the side of the house confirmed that Kyle was holed up in his room. He never remembered to turn on the porch light, let alone the Christmas lights. While Mim thought Dorset Hills took the holiday season way too seriously, she liked to keep up appearances. She’d learned long ago that it was better to blend in than stand out.
The front door was unlocked, but she had to push it open. As usual, Kyle had dropped his backpack and coat just inside the door when he got home from school. She turned her ankle on one of his shoes and cursed quietly. It seemed like he placed them in different positions every night so that she couldn’t figure out a pattern.
“Kyle,” she called. “Could you pick up your things?”
She didn’t get an answer—didn’t expect one.
On the way to his room she hit every light switch, pausing to shake her head over the wrappers in the hall. He’d left a trail of crumbs to find his way back to a kitchen left in ruins. A half-stripped chicken was sitting on the counter inviting salmonella.
The KEEP OUT sign on his closed bedroom door was directed at her, of course. She knocked, waited a couple of beats and opened the door. Kyle was sitting at his desk, his dark, tousled head bent over his laptop. The noise cancelling headphones he’d bought with his birthday money set up another barrier between them. Undeterred, she shouted until he finally acknowledged her with a grunt. Without lifting his headphones he asked, “When’s dinner?”
Mim took a deep breath. The room smelled of boy: sweaty hockey gear mixed with rotting food, and god knows what else. She’d put up a BIOHAZARD sign if there was any hope of making him laugh. Kyle’s sense of humor had more or less vanished a few months earlier.
She assumed this was a phase all 15-year-old boys went through and that it would pass. Still, it was hard. They’d been an inseparable team for five years after Andrew, her ex-husband had left, and had only recently grown apart. She reminded herself that it was not only normal but essential that Kyle become more independent. But she missed him, and the house would have been very lonely, if not for sweet, loving George. Nora Ephron had been right when she wrote, “When your children are teenagers it’s important to have a dog, so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
Where was George?
Usually the dog was on Kyle’s bed, ready to activate. The second she opened the door, George would hurl himself at Mim with a joy that never diminished. He only had three gears: sleeping, waiting and frenzied.
George was what Dorset Hills dog snobs sneeringly called a “designer mutt.” His heritage was a secret known only to his breeder, but seemed to include a dose of Golden Retriever, a hint of King Charles Cavalier, plus at least a few strands of DNA from the Havanese. The only thing Mim knew for sure was that George’s mom was a chocolate brown Australian Labradoodle, which in itself was a hybrid.
All of these carefully crossed lines came together in an adorable 30-pound package of allergy-friendly good cheer. To Mim, George had the best traits of a big dog and small dog combined. He had a serious bark when it was needed, yet liked nothing better than curling up in her lap in the evening.
Well, there was one thing he liked better, and that was following Kyle around, hoping for crumbs of food and attention. The latter had been in short supply lately, and the little guy didn’t understand Kyle’s mood change. George had once been the light of her son’s life. Now the dog had become mostly invisible and even an annoyance. Yet he was constantly at Kyle’s feet, waiting for his boy to come back and love him.
Mim admired George’s loyalty, as much as it frustrated her. She’d always been the one to feed, walk and brush him, the one to clean up his messes, including the dead frog he’d disgorged on the family room carpet. Kyle had nonetheless always come first in the dog’s eyes, although fortunately, George had plenty of love left over for her too.
Normally, that is. Tonight he was nowhere to be seen. The “pocket rocket,” as they called him, had failed to launch, and his spot near the pillow was empty.
“Where’s George?” Mim asked.
“What?” Kyle looked confused, as if the name didn’t quite ring a bell.
“The dog.” Mim raised her voice. “Where’s the dog?”
Kyle looked at the bed. “I don’t know. The family room?”
Mim made a gesture for Kyle to take off his headphones. “Kyle. George is always with you. Retrace your steps.”
His hazel eyes darted around the room, as if searching for a sign of the dog in the piles of clothes, electronics and sports equipment. Finally he said, “He wanted to go out to play in the snow.”
“How long ago? It’s cold, Kyle.”
“Duh.” Self-correcting, he added, “Sorry. I don’t know, not that long ago.” He glanced at the clock radio on his bedside table.
Then he jumped to his feet.
Mim turned at the same time. They jostled each other in the doorway and bumped shoulders all the way down the hall as they hurried into the kitchen. Even in the midst of her worry, Mim was surprised that Kyle was five inches taller than she was, although probably only a few pounds heavier. Their grocery budget had doubled, yet he was scrawny.
Reaching the door to the backyard first, Mim yanked it open and stepped outside. Kyle flipped on the porch light before pushing past her and walking out onto the snow-covered deck.
The yard was not large, and aside from a trio of skinny elegant birches, and a row of leafless shrubs along the fence, there was little to see and nothing even a small dog could hide behind.
“Under the porch,” Mim said. “I’ll get the flashlight.”
Inside, her snow-dusted socks slipped across the tiles and she nearly fell as she yanked a drawer open.
Kyle was on his knees when she returned, calling “George” into the darkness under the porch.
Mim tossed him the flashlight and he shone the beam into every corner.
Finally he looked up at her, and it seemed like months since he’d really met her eyes. “He’s gone. George is gone.”
© Sandy Rideout