Joe tightened his grip around the mug of coffee as he watched the wind whip the powdery snow around the parking lot. Maybe the warmth he felt in his calloused hands would travel up his arms to his heart and defrost things there. His Christmas spirit was at an all time low and one more tearful phone call with his young daughter would surely do him in. What was I thinking when I agreed to this cross country trip?
Joe was a trucker when Angie met him so she knew the gig, they married six months later. He was overjoyed when she blessed them with a daughter on Christmas Eve, they named her Holly. That was the last Christmas Angie spent with them; by the end of summer she’d left them both. Joe’s mom took over raising Holly as he travelled the highways earning a living for them. Sometimes on short trips they would travel with him so he could bond with his baby girl, but mostly he was alone.
“Excuse me,” he called to the young waitress. She hurried right over, coffee pot in hand. “Actually, I’d just like my bill please. If I get back on the road hopefully I can get home by the 27th.”
“Tough to be on the road at this time of year,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m missing my little girl’s 6th birthday too,” he replied.
“Oh honey, that’s so sad,” she said placing her hand on his broad shoulder. “I’ll be right back with your bill.”
Joe felt despair settle over him; just a kind touch from a stranger was all it took to remind him of his loneliness. He fished into his wallet for some cash to pay the bill, the latest photo of his daughter looking him right in the eye. He looked away as if she could see him sitting there feeling sorry for himself, he didn’t want her to see him this way. As his glance went back to the window he saw a streak of black dart into the tree line at the edge of the parking lot.
“What was that?” he asked the waitress as she returned with his bill.
“Little black and white scrap of fur and bones?” she asked.
“I guess so, I just saw a blur of something black,” he replied.
“Somebody dumped a pup here last week, can’t be more than 3 months old. We’ve been trying to catch him since but he won’t let anyone get near him. Best we can do is put food out for him but he doesn’t look to be doing so good.”
“Hey, can you add a couple of burgers to my bill? Just plain, nothing on them. Well maybe some cheese and bacon, but that’s it.”
“You going to try and catch him? Well good luck to you.”
Joe paid his bill and left a generous tip. “Merry Christmas to you,” he said feeling a little lighter in his heart.
“And to you,” she replied. “Let me know if you get the pup so I know to stop feeding him.”
Joe made his way back to his rig; he wasn’t far from where he’d spotted the pup. He dressed warm, knowing this could take awhile, and he dug out a large bath towel from his sleeper, in case he had a chance to scoop him up. He looked along the tree line for tracks where he’d last seen him but the wind had already filled them in with fine snow. He decided to bait the little thing out with pieces of the burgers, lining up bite sized pieces in a trail to the back of his rig. Joe placed a larger cache a few feet away from the back bumper and sat on the narrow steel rail to wait.
He shivered and pressed his back more tightly to the rig as the wind whipped the snow around him. Such a great idea you had, nothing but time to kill too. Joe was on the verge of giving up, his thoughts turning to the miles he still had to cover. But then he saw the scrawny pup, shivering, tentatively putting one paw in front of the other, nose testing the wind, stretching towards the snow covered treat only inches from its reach. Once he decided to risk it, the piece of burger was gone in a gulp and the pup inched his way towards the next tidbit. Each morsel was swallowed whole, the pup moving more confidently between them. As he neared Joe’s position at the back of his rig, he stopped and then backed up. With his back at the tree line he sat, shivered, and then whined. The growling of his belly must have been louder than his fear and with Joe calling softly he crept ever closer to the small pile of treats.
“That’s it little one, I won’t hurt you,” he said squatting slowly. He wasn’t yet within reach of the pup and he didn’t want to lunge at it for fear of missing and losing the trust all together. He talked to the pup, reassuring him as he gobbled the scraps. When he was done the pup ran back to the tree line and sat shivering again. Joe felt a stab of disappointment and frustration. He wanted to save this little soul from suffering but he was losing precious time on his trip home.
“Come on little fella,” he said reaching inside his coat for the rest of the burger. He broke off a piece and tossed it on the ground where the pup had finished the last snack. Still cautious but with some eagerness the pup moved towards the new offering. While he swallowed it Joe broke off another larger piece, this time holding on to it. He offered it, pleading with the pup to let him help. As he held his ground waiting for the pup to make up its mind, he took in the details of its condition.
“Well you look a bit like a collie mix,” he said noting the long coat and black freckles on a mostly white body. Black ears and a large black patch on the rump above a fringed tail, well what should have been fringed; right now it was mostly matted. The pup’s hips and ribs were clearly visible and it shivered uncontrollably; it wouldn’t last too many more days out here. As the pup stood up on its hind legs to reach for Joe’s offering he finally saw it was a female not a male. He held his hand as steady as he could while she made a desperate grab for the food. She backed away a few inches gobbling the larger portion with a few quick snaps of her jaws. She stretched her nose forward and Joe produced another larger piece. This time he readied his towel, hoping she would pause long enough for him to snatch her up.
“Come on little girl,” he said slowly moving his arm closer to his body. The pup inched forward looking from the food to Joe and back again. “That’s a girl, I’m not going to hurt you.”
Joe held tightly to the chunk of burger forcing the pup to nibble it from his fingers. Slowly he reached around with his left hand and draped the towel over her back, scooping her to his chest. He had expected her to fight so he dropped the piece of burger and cradled her to him. While he could feel her heart pounding against him, she held still. He tucked the towel more tightly around her and just sat for a moment talking to her. His mind was reeling. Now what do I do with her? He unzipped his coat and tucked her and the towel inside and zipped her up snug. He crossed the parking lot to the restaurant; he’d promised the waitress he’d let her know.
“I got her,” he said with a grin when she met him at the cash.
“Aww! Poor thing,” she said when she saw the shivering nose peeking out of Joe’s coat. “I’m so glad she’s safe now.”
“Yeah, but now what do I do with her?” Joe asked.
“Well there’s an animal shelter a few miles down the road, I guess you could drop her there,” she replied with a shrug.
“No,” Joe said making up his mind. “I want to keep her. I’ll take her home to Holly, what better birthday and Christmas present?”
The waitress laughed and nodded. “She’ll be one happy little girl I’m sure.”
The waitress gave him directions to the pet supply shop at the next town. “They even have a vet clinic attached if you’re worried about her condition.”
Back in the cab of his truck Joe made a nest on the passenger seat out of his coat and the towel and hoped the little girl would stay put while he drove. He knew lots of drivers who took dogs with them on the road for company but he wasn’t sure they got such a rough start in the world as this one.
“Well little girl, let’s go find you some proper food and a collar and leash. I think we’ll get a room tonight and give you a bath too. Oh, and you should have a name as well,” he said as he pulled out of the parking lot. Joe chatted to the pup as he gained speed on the exit ramp, carefully pulling onto the highway. Holiday traffic made his job tougher and the swirling snow didn’t help; once he’d attained highway speed he set his cruise control and reached over the pat the pup. She was still quivering but as the cab warmed he was sure it was more nerves than cold. He watched the signs and took the recommended exit for the pet store. It was one of those big box stores he would normally avoid but he wasn’t in much of a position to be fussy.
Joe tucked the scrawny pup into his coat again and zipped her in tight. He left the rig idling and hurried across the parking lot his head bowed to the sharp wind. Once inside, his new little friend poked her nose out of his coat, greedy to inhale the scents of goodies long denied her. A salesperson approached stretching out her hand but the little girl retreated.
“Sorry, she’s quite nervous, I’ve just rescued her from a truck stop a few miles back,” Joe explained.
“We heard a pup was dumped there, how awful!” she replied. “But how wonderful you were able to rescue her. Can I see her?” she asked patting the counter top.
Joe unbundled the reluctant pup and set her on the counter. The clerk reached her hand into a big jar and retrieved several pieces of dried liver. The little girl forgot her fear and worried the tidbits from the clerk’s hand. As the pup was kept busy with liver treats the clerk gently felt her over with her free hand.
“I’m in school to be a vet tech,” she explained to Joe as she worked. “She’s a bit dehydrated, she’s probably only had snow for moisture, definitely malnourished but she doesn’t seem to have any injuries. I think a couple of days with some good quality food and she’ll be a different dog.”
“That’s great news!” Joe said. “Thanks so much for checking her over. I’m also going to need a collar and a leash for her, oh and some dishes too. We’ll be travelling for a few days yet.”
Joe held the trembling pup while the clerk tried a few different collars on her. In keeping with the season he chose the red velvet one with a gold coloured jingle bell on it. Joe snapped a leash on and put the pup on the floor to see what she’d do. She stood undecided for a moment then gave herself a hearty shake, jingling her bell in the process. Joe’s face lit up, he hadn’t felt such joy in weeks.
“Jingle! I think I’ll name you Jingle,” he said. “It’s kind of corny but I think it suits her, don’t you?” he asked the clerk.
“Perfectly!” she agreed.
Joe paid for his purchases and walked Jingle outside towards a sparse patch of grass near the truck. He wanted to give her a chance to pee before they headed out again but Jingle was determined to get to the truck. She pulled on the leash and Joe let her have her way.
Inside the warm cab Joe arranged the dog pillow on the passenger seat and unwrapped the smoked bone the clerk had recommended. Jingle settled down to gnaw on her first ever bone.
“That’s supposed to help keep your teeth clean,” Joe told her giving her a pat; Jingle’s tail wagged.
Joe eased the truck through the traffic and back on to the highway, he was hours behind schedule but he was happier than he’d felt in a long time. Tomorrow they’d make an early start and catch up some. Tonight he’d get a room, bath the pup and truly be able to wish Holly a happy birthday. He was excited at the thought of her face when he arrived with Jingle. He noted the time and calculated his distance to where he’d have to stop; his little girl would be waiting for his call at bedtime. Jingle’s exhaustion had overtaken her and she was curled up sleeping with her tail across her nose.
Several hours later he was toweling off a different pup. Although she was still skin and bones Jingle’s fine coat now gleamed, her white was like fresh snow and her black like Santa’s proverbial lump of coal. She shivered in his arms but it was a still-damp shiver, not one of fear or mistrust. Joe was certain the cold black nose sniffling at his ear lobe was happier to be anywhere away from that truck stop. He set her on the floor and busied himself preparing a meal for her. He could hardly contain his excitement at their little secret and he wanted Jingle well settled before he got on the phone with Holly.
“Happy Birthday honey,” he said a short time later. “I can’t wait to get home.”
“I miss you Daddy,” a sad and sleepy voice replied. “When are you coming home?”
“I’ll be home in three more sleeps baby and I have a super wonderful surprise for you!”
“A surprise? But I thought you said you couldn’t do surprises this year. You said the truck needed new tires so you could keep working?”
“Yes, that part was true, but sometimes good things happen you don’t expect. That is truly a surprise. This is the best surprise of all!”
“Tell me Daddy!”
“Oh little munchkin, nice try. Count one more sleep until Santa comes, and three more sleeps until I bring home your birthday and Christmas surprise. Now let me talk to Grandma, okay? Love you, good night.”
“Okay Daddy, I love you too.”
“Hey Mom, how has she been?” Joe asked.
“Oh you know, one minute excited and pinging off the walls, the next sad and worried about when you’ll be home. It’s the same as usual but harder this time of year,” his mom replied.
“I know, it’s killing me. Next year will be different, I swear! We’re going to have a better year,” Joe vowed. “Listen Mom, I have a passenger I’m bringing home, it’s a surprise for Holly. I rescued a pup abandoned at a truck stop a few hours back. I hope you don’t mind. I can bring her with me on the road so she’s no extra work for you,” Joe hurried on. “I couldn’t just leave her, she’s skin and bone, only about 3 months old.”
“Joe, it’s fine. I’m sure you did what you thought was right. We’ll make it work. Holly will be thrilled. Speaking of, we need to get milk and cookies ready, and carrots of course. Have a good rest and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Thanks Mom,” he said, relief flowing through him, followed directly by fatigue. “Hugs to the baby, love you both.”
“Love you Son.”
Joe hung up the phone and crawled between the sheets of the first bed he’d slept in in days. He heard Jingles’s bell tinkle as she crept up from the foot of the bed to snuggle in beside him. He buried his face in her sweet smelling fur and told himself they would have a better year. Minutes later they were both asleep.
With Jingles on the seat beside him, the miles and days melted away under the new tires of the big rig. It was late afternoon on the 27th when he pulled into his yard. He’d stopped only for food and bathroom breaks, a few hours rest in his sleeper, but with the pup at his side he’d no need to linger for companionship, they’d made good time.
The front door opened and he could see Holly straining to bolt while his mom tried to get a snowsuit and mittens on her. Joe hopped out of the cab, making Jingle stay put. He rushed to scoop up his daughter in his arms.
“Happy birthday baby! Merry Christmas!”
“Oh Daddy you’re home!” she said looking around. “Where’s my surprise?”
Joe laughed and swung her around in the air, overjoyed by her giggles. He stopped her in front of the truck, pointing up to the driver’s window. Jingles had her nose pressed to the glass, leaving her signature art work there.
“A PUPPY!” she squealed struggling to get down.
Joe let her down as his mom joined them in the yard.
“Just wait Holly,” he said as she charged for the door of the big rig. “Here honey, let me help. We don’t want Jingles to get loose.”
Joe opened the door, telling Jingles to wait. He’d already fastened her leash on her in case she bolted. He scooped her up and held her while Holly stood awestruck. She’d wanted a pet of her own for so long but there never seemed to be enough money or time between the three of them. He set Jingles on the ground and instructed Holly to squat down to meet her. Holly promptly planted herself in the snow, well protected by her snowsuit.
“Hi Jingles,” she said holding out her hand.
Joe held his breath watching the young pup approach his daughter. He hoped they would be fast friends. Jingles sat for a moment, assessing the situation. Then making up her mind, she wiggled and pounced. Holly fell backwards in the snow, squealed her delight while trying to fend off kisses. Joe circled his arm around his mom’s shoulders and they both watched as the two youngsters became friends for life.
“Merry Christmas Mom,” he said.
“Merry Christmas Son. A wonderful surprise indeed.”