A visit to the mall in the month of December, David decided, could only be accurately described in Darwinian terms. For one month of the year, basic evolutionary instincts completely overruled the superior intellectual processes of common sense and rationality, turning a hunt for last-minute gifts into animalistic guerilla warfare. To call the shoppers vultures would be a gross underestimation, because vultures only hunt things that are already dead. No, in December, otherwise ordinary men and women became more than vultures- they became birds of prey, prepared to kill for any and everything they needed, be it iPod or Tickle Me Elmo. And all of this, juxtaposed with the cheery loop of overplayed Christmas carols blasting from the speakers in every store and the garlands and baubles that decorated the halls, amused David like few other things could.
Which was why, on December 17th, he found himself standing in the food court of the Woodbridge Park Mall with his boyfriend, sipping a Coke and firing off witty remarks about the spectacle surrounding them. It had become something of a yearly tradition for the two of them to visit the mall during the holiday season for the express purpose of laughing at the madness, and David was enjoying himself as much as usual. Jack, however, seemed somewhat less enthused. His laughter, when it actually came at random, delayed intervals, seemed half-hearted, and he'd spent most of the day staring at unidentifiable points in space, his eyes vaguely glazed.
As they tossed their empty cups into the trash can and left the food court, David decided to broach the subject. He'd just finished detailing his bird of prey analogy, and the lack of response on Jack's part was enough to convince him that something had to be wrong.
"Jack, what's up with you today? You seem... off."
They were passing KB Toys, and it took Jack a moment to tear his eyes away from the Christmas toy display and look at David. "Off? Nah, I'm fine. Just distracted."
David's blue eyes narrowed disbelievingly as he placed his hand on his boyfriend's elbow. "Jack, I can tell when you're lying to me. God knows you've tried enough times. What's wrong?"
Jack sighed. "It's nothing, ok? It's dumb."
David wasn't about to take that for an answer. Gripping Jack's elbow, he led him over to a nearby bench, practically pushing him onto the polished wood. "Talk to me."
Jack sighed again, but he followed his boyfriend's orders. "I'm just a little out of it, that's all. I mean, it's been tough, you know? Your family's real nice, and I don't think I can ever thank them for all they've done, but I... I hate being a burden on them, and I hate that my dad's such a screw-up, and..." Jack trailed off, staring at the floor, to which he'd directed his entire monologue.
David curled his fingers around his boyfriend's hand, squeezing tightly. "You are not a burden. Never think that. My parents think of you as their son- I think they like you better than they like me sometimes. They didn't even think twice about taking you in, and that was before we found out how long your dad's sentence would be."
Jack nodded. "I know. Your folks are amazing, Dave. It's just..." He rolled his eyes, leaning back onto the bench and staring at the palm tree beside him, which was pulsing with multicolored lights. "This is going to sound so stupid."
"No it won't. Now talk."
"It's Christmas. It was always... well, I mean, my dad's a bastard year-round, but Christmastime usually went pretty well. We did that macho "cutting down a Christmas tree" stuff and decorated the house and drank eggnog and traded gifts and it was, well... nice, I guess. I don't know if you can understand, but it meant a lot to me. So seeing all this..." He gestured to the Christmas baubles and shoppers. "It's just making me think of that. That's all."
"I'm sorry I'm... I mean, I'm sorry my family doesn't celebrate..." David stuttered, turning his face away with a feeling of inexplicable guilt.
"No, no, don't say that." Jack was quick to clarify his words, cupping his boyfriend's chin in his hand and turning his head back toward him. "You believe what you believe, and that's great. And it was real nice lighting the candles with your family last night. Jesus, I'm not gonna tell you to change your religion just so I can be 'filled with Christmas cheer'. Like I said, it's dumb. I'll get over it."
David remained silent, unsure of how to respond. Finally, brushing the hair out of his boyfriend's eyes with two gentle fingers, he smiled. "I may not know Christmas, but I do know how to cheer you up. Come with me."
"What the...?" Jack seemed to barely register the words before David was on his feet and dragging his boyfriend through the crowded mall corridors, muttering sheepish apologies to the harried shoppers as he pushed past them. Shops and restaurants went by in a blur, and when David suddenly stopped, without warning, in front of the Woodbridge Park Pet Emporium, Jack nearly crashed into him.
"Dave?" Regaining his balance, Jack raised an eyebrow, gesturing to the storefront. "Just wait." Striding confidently into the pet store, David spent a few moments examining the array of puppies racing around stacked cages behind a wall of glass. Satisfied with his decision, he found an employee who didn't look especially busy and cleared his throat, smiling winningly.
"Hi. My roommate and I," He motioned to Jack, who still stood, out of earshot and looking confused, at the store entrance, "are considering buying a puppy, and we were wondering if we could see that Maltese in the second row?"
"Sure thing," replied the employee, a smiling twentysomething with dark curly hair and the name "Michael" printed on his nametag. "Just clean your hands with the antiseptic gel and step into that compartment over there, and I'll bring her right over."
"Thanks." David smiled again, then went to retrieve Jack. "Come on." Jack still looked confused as David led him by the elbow to the antiseptic dispenser. "Wash your hands and come in here," he commanded, squirting the gel onto his own palms and stepping into the indicated compartment. It was about six feet square, if that, a bare white room with a swinging waist-high door and a bench along the back wall. He took a seat on the bench, and Jack joined him a moment later.
"Ok, Dave, what are we doing?"
"Shh." David replied. A moment later, Michael appeared, holding a squirming hairball in his arms. He placed the puppy on the floor and quickly stepped out of the compartment, latching the swinging door behind him.
"Just give me a holler if you have any problems or questions, or of you'd like to see another dog. I'll be around."
"Ok... how? Why?" Jack's confusion and mild disbelief did nothing to temper the smile that was spreading across his face at the sight of the puppy, which he had already begun scratching behind the ears.
"I told him we were roommates looking for a pet. And as for the 'why', you needed a dose of the warm fuzzies," David responded, matter-of-factly.
Jack leaned over and picked up the Maltese in two hands, setting her down on his lap to stroke her fur. "But you hate dogs."
"I don't hate dogs. I just prefer cats. And... yeah, ok, big dogs scare me a little. But this is a harmless little puppy. And it's really beside the point, because if you had an intense love of German Shepards, I'd have found you one of them, regardless. Puppies make you happy, and I want you to be happy. End of story." David placed his hand tentatively on the puppy's back as he spoke, beginning to pet it gently.
Jack looked up at his boyfriend, his eyes filled with gratitude and incredulity. "I love you. You know that, right?"
David smiled shyly, brushing his hand over Jack's as they both stroked the tiny dog. "I know. I love you, too."
"Ahem. Do you two lovebirds need anything?" Michael, the employee, was standing at the entrance to the cubicle, grinning even wider than he had been earlier. David felt his face turn crimson, but Jack just laughed.
"Yeah, uh, could I come out and see some of the other dogs? This one's great, but I think I'd like to see what else there is."
"No problem," Michael assured him, winking as he scooped up the Maltese and led Jack and David back to the wall of puppies.
David and Jack played with four different puppies that day, spending almost two hours in the tiny compartment of the pet store. Michael, a college junior whose boyfriend, Ryan, also worked at the shop, continued to be helpful, offering up facts about the different breeds and various dog care tips as he handled the continuous stream of puppies. After the Maltese, the boys played with an adorable Miniature Pinscher who was, as far as David was concerned, a little too rambunctious for his own good. Jack thrived on the dog's energy, wrestling with the yipping puppy over a plastic chew toy Michael had given them, but David felt embarrassingly nervous in its presence, and he couldn't help whimpering a bit when the dog jumped up to place his paws on his knee, tiny teeth bared playfully. The next puppy, a tiny Yorkshire Terrier born only three months before, was much calmer, and David enjoyed petting its long brown and black fur as it sat quietly in his lap, nipping playfully at his shirtsleeves. Jack loved the Yorkie toohe would have loved any dog in the store, reallybut he got tired of it quickly, itching to play tug-of-war with the chew toy once again.
With the next puppy, a barking Golden Retriever, he got his wish. The thing seemed to possess the energy reserves of an animal twice its size, and it ran around the perimeter of the compartment a good nine times before Jack could even get his hands on it. David felt slightly apprehensive once again, but the fluffy dog didn't seem nearly as threatening as the Mini Pin had, and Jack was clearly in heaven playing with it, so he tried to relax, even going so far as to allow the dog to lick his cheek with its tiny, slobbery tongue.
"My dad always used to say I could have a dog, if we found a permanent place to live," Jack commented idly, glancing up at David as he continued to ruffle the puppy's yellow-white fur. "Never happened, of course, but I used to dream about it. A Golden Retriever was my first choice. Beautiful dog."
"He's a cute one," David responded, sincerely. It really was an adorable thing, even if it was going to grow up to be a large and probably frightening adult.
By the time they were done playing with the fourth puppy it was nearly five o'clock, and, knowing that his mother would kill them both if they weren't home in time for dinner, David was forced to tear a very reluctant Jack away from the pet store. As Jack said goodbye to the Golden Retriever, David said his own goodbye to Michael, thanking him profusely for his help and apologizing for not actually buying any puppies. He knew that pet store employees worked on commission, and he couldn't help feeling guilty for essentially wasting the man's time for the past two hours. Michael, however, shook off his apologies.
"Who am I to stop a guy from doing something sweet for his boyfriend, especially during the Christmas season? It was my pleasure. In fact, feel free to come back, if you want. The puppies love the attention."
Slightly embarrassed by his kindness, David thanked the man again, then left the store with Jack in tow.
Unfortunately, Jack's joy was short-lived. He tried to hide his unhappiness, but David had, over the past three years of their relationship, learned quite thoroughly how to interpret Jack's emotions, and it was clear that the glumness he'd expressed in the mall had not disappeared. And why should it have? David knew that Jack's situation was not a favorable one, and he felt physical pangs in his chest as he realized how helpless he was to make everything better for him. He couldn't, after all, get Jack's dad out of jail, and even if he could, he couldn't make him act like a decent father, or even a decent human being, something the man seemed incapable of.
However, if David couldn't make everything better, at least he could make some things better. So, throughout the next week, David dedicated nearly every moment that didn't involve class or schoolwork to thinking of ways to cheer Jack up. Deciding to try again what had worked so well the first time, David followed Michael's suggestion and took his boyfriend to the mall two more times, reentering the tiny compartment of the Pet Emporium to spend time with half a dozen more puppies. The method worked; when playing with the Dachshunds and Cocker Spaniels and Bichon Frises, not to mention the Golden Retriever he'd loved so much on the first visit, Jack's worries seemed to evaporate, and his smile returned. However, outside the magic boundaries of the pet shop compartment, his listlessness continued, and nothing David did could shake it from him. Sometimes, at rare intervals, Jack seemed to come close to emerging from his cloud of gloom, and the shadow of a smile flickered on his face, but the Christmas lights on a neighbor's front yard or the opening strains of the "Carol of the Bells" on the radio always sent him right back to his previous state.
David knew he needed a better idea, a bigger ideaor maybe even a few bigger ideasto make Jack happy again. And, after a few days of intense thought on the subject, he found his solution. He discussed the details with his parents and siblings, and by Christmas Eve everything was set up. That was a particularly dismal night for Jack, who, despite David's attempts at joviality, went to bed at ten o'clock, complaining of a phantom headache. Before he could disappear for the night, though, David kissed him at the entrance of the guest room where he was staying, holding his shoulders tightly.
"Things will be better in the morning," he said, looking into his boyfriend's brown eyes with conviction, "I promise."
Jack nodded but looked unconvinced, stumbling to his bed without a word.
On Christmas morning, David woke up around 8 and made sure everything was in place. Satisfied with the preparations in his own room, he tiptoed down to the basement to check on the other half. On the basement couch he found his brother, mumbling a little in his sleep.
"Les," he whispered, shaking him awake, "Everything go ok? No problems with watching him?"
Les sat up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, and nodded enthusiastically. "We got along great."
"Ok, good. Now, you know what to do, right? When I stamp my foot on the floor?"
Les nodded again, looking eager. "Yep!"
"Ok. Thanks, kid." He ruffled his little brother's hair, then ascended the staircase and made his way to the guest room.
Entering the room, David perched himself on the edge of Jack's bed, taking a few moments to watch his sleeping form. In his slumber, Jack looked more content than he had in weeks. David could only hope that the happiness would continue, once he revealed the fruits of his labor.
Leaning over, he pushed back Jack's hair, wet with the perspiration of a restless night, and kissed his temple. Jack opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and glanced at the clock.
"What're you... doing up... s'early?" he mumbled, yawning.
"Come with me," David replied, helping his sleepy boyfriend to stand up and walk, in his pajamas, to the door of David's bedroom.
"Wha...?" Jack asked, slowly awakening.
"Well," David began, "You didn't think you were going to have a Christmas, and I couldn't have that. So... it's not much, but..." He turned the knob and pushed open the bedroom door. "Merry Christmas."
Jack stared. The bedroom was decorated to the nines, complete with multicolored garlands around the window and doorway, paper Santas and reindeer on the walls, lights hanging from the ceiling, and a window and mirror completely covered with static cling decorations depicting angels, Christmas villages, and snowball fight scenes. But most impressive of all was the tree, a small plastic evergreen standing proudly in a corner. Lacking the money to buy a whole tree's worth of ornaments, David had been forced to improvise. So, instead of glass balls and plastic animals, the tree was covered with mementos- birthday cards, ticket stubs, photographs- all the paper traces of the memories they'd created during their three-year relationship. Jack stepped toward the tree in a trance, studying each picture and letter as if they were precious artifacts in a museum. Then, finally, he turned to David, his eyes slightly shiny.
David smiled. "Now, don't get ahead of yourself. I still haven't given you your present." He stamped his foot against the floor, and Jack raised an eyebrow. "Just wait," David said.
Seconds later, Les came bursting into the room, holding in his arms what looked at first glance like a furry yellow-white pillow. However, when Les placed the Golden Retriever down on the ground, there was no question as to its identity.
Jack's eyes widened in shock as Les, grinning at the thumbs up he received from his brother, scampered back out of the room. "But, but..." Jack spluttered, "How did you... I mean..."
David rested his chin on Jack's shoulder, snaking his arms around his waist. "I talked to my parents and they said it was ok, as long as I promised to pay for it and you and I promised to take care of it. I figured that wouldn't be a problem."
"But how did you pay? He had to have cost a few hundred dollars, at least. Jeez, Dave, I can't let you spend this much on me!" Jack looked indignant, even as he crouched down to pet the eagerly barking puppy at his feet.
"Well, I already did, so you'll have to accept it. I do have a job, you know, and I took the monthly payment plan. I'm sure I can scrape together fifty dollars a month."
Jack shook his head in amazement as he scratched the puppy behind the ears. "He's gonna grow up to be big," he noted, looking over his shoulder to see David's reaction.
David nodded, crouching as well. "I know. But everyone has to face their fears, and I can't think of a better way to face mine. He's ours, anyway, and by the time he gets big, I'm sure I'll be too attached to be frightened." Tentatively, he put out his hand toward the dog, letting it lick at his fingers.
Jack seemed to have been struck dumb by this turn of events, but the gratitude and love shining in his eyes were enough to tell David that he'd done something right, and he smiled, wrapping one arm around Jack as he stroked the puppy's fur with his other hand.
"One more thing," David said, squeezing Jack's shoulder and directing his glance upward. There, taped to the ceiling directly over their heads, was a sprig of mistletoe. "I thought it would be a nice finishing touch to my decorating, don't you think?"
Jack, grinning widely, didn't need to respond with words. Temporarily forgetting the Golden Retriever, he placed both hands around the curve of David's skull and pulled him in for a long and loving kiss. When they separated, David took Jack's hand in his own.
"So, is this a good enough substitute Christmas?" he asked.
"It's the best Christmas I could ever ask for," Jack replied. With a wag of its tail, the puppy let out a yip and licked at their entwined fingers. "And he agrees, too," Jack added, laughing and smiling for the first time in far too long.