The Christmas Puppy
By L J Sentivanac
He was starting to hate her.
For fifteen years, one month, and two days, Jason Dixon had loved his mother—no, worshipped her. But on July 4th, almost five months ago, things changed. Since then she’d been different. Moody, unpredictable. One minute giddy and goofy, like some of the gawky girls at school, the next she’d turn irritable and bossy. And none of it involved him. He was sure of that.
He leaned against the doorjamb, arms folded across his chest, watching her in the bathroom mirror while she performed her daily makeup routine. Why’d she do that—put all that crap on her face? She was pretty enough without it. But he'd never known her to leave the house barefaced.
His own pale reflection faded into nothingness opposite her strong features. “Striking,” that was how people described her. He and his mom sure didn’t look much alike. She was as dark as he was fair, and her soft curves directly contrasted with his lanky frame. He stood three or four inches taller—at least for the moment—once she put on those spike heels of hers, they’d be eye to eye again. That is, if she’d ever look at him.
He’d been trying to talk to her this morning, with limited success. He knocked on the door to get her attention. “Why do we have to haul all the way to Carrollsburg for one stupid meal?”
Running her fingers through her wavy hair, smoothing stray locks into place, she murmured, “Hmm?” Without meeting his gaze, she added, “What's the problem?”
She virtually hummed with nervous energy this morning. “We go there every year for Thanksgiving.” Turned sideways to the mirror, she fluffed her hair in the back. “You’ve always enjoyed it before.”
Before he could speak, she ducked into the adjoining closet, her private enclave. Compulsively organized by color, style, and sleeve length, the small space resembled one of those ritzy stores off Lakeshore Drive. Built into the corner, a tall steel rack held a gazillion shoes.
She pulled two black pairs from the center shelf and stood there basically ignoring him as she made her all-important choice. The shoes looked the same. They always did. He used to laugh and tease her about this. Not anymore.
When she emerged wearing the highest heels he’d ever seen her in, her eyes finally met his. “What was it you were saying?”
“Oh, yes.” She turned her back to him to smooth the front of her blouse and considered her reflection in the mirror again. “Don’t you want to see your grandparents?”
“Sure,” he said, “but I don’t even like turkey all that much, and it’s such a long drive just for dinner. On account of some dumb holiday I’ll probably have to miss the Packers game on TV.” All that sounded pretty lame, but it was better than the truth.
He trailed behind her into the bedroom and plunked down on the bed. She grabbed a jacket from the ironing board in the corner, then wiggled into it. Oh, that must be what she was working on in her sewing room late last night.
She crossed the floor to her dresser and scrounged around in the top drawer. Looking for some crucial accessory, no doubt. “Waah, waah, waah. Come on, Jason, a two-hour drive is not that far. You’re acting like you’re five years old. Stop whining. You can watch the game there, if it’s not during dinner.”
“Oh yeah, on that tiny TV? Thanks for nothing.” This wasn't going the way he wanted.
"Keep it up, Mister, and you won’t see any of it.” She pulled on red leather gloves and placed a small fur hat on her head. Apparently her scavenger hunt had paid off.
She scrutinized herself again in the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door and nodded. With eyebrows raised, she turned to him and struck a pose. “What do you think?”
"It’s fab, Mom. You look great. But what about—”
“Sorry, Jason, you’re going to Carrollsburg. It’s not up for negotiation. Subject closed.”
He should’ve known better than to hit her up while she was dressing, but there never seemed to be a good time to talk to her lately. Was it his imagination or was she more stressed out than usual?
She’d been acting weird for the last few weeks: making whispered phone calls early in the morning, spending longer and longer hours in her sewing room, and coming home right at six. That was strange; she used to work past seven nearly every night. The queen of mood swings, she was always either crabby as hell or oddly cheerful. What was up with her anyway?
“I’ve got to get going or I’ll miss the L.” She yanked some stuff out of a perfectly good handbag and crammed it all into one she’d pulled from the bin under her bed. “Early meeting this morning.” With that, she bolted from the room, grabbed her briefcase from the table in the foyer and ran out.
“Bitch,” he muttered. The word echoed in the empty room after the door slammed shut. “Subject closed,” he mimicked in a squeaky voice.
The ancient warehouse elevator chugged slowly as Anne descended to the condo building’s main floor. She rubbed her forehead in an attempt to ease the tension building there. Yet another testy conversation with Jason this morning. It was impossible to reason with him these days.
When she reached the lobby, she peered out the window. The flags on the buildings across the street were being ripped to shreds by the wind. Concern about Jason temporarily forgotten, she strode to the mirrored wall next to the door and tucked her hair under her hat. Why did she even bother to style it every morning? The wind just blew her carefully coiffed mane into something resembling a haystack anyway. She pushed out the door into a cold blast.
The leaves were all but gone from the trees and the chill in the air was biting. It wasn’t winter yet. At least not according to the calendar. But Anne could smell it: smoke borne on the heavy moist air from a thousand fireplaces. She paused at the sound of fire truck sirens in the distance. Smoke and sirens…and Peter. Her husband would be forever linked to those two things.
She walked briskly to the L stop four blocks away, occasionally breaking into a modified trot, her ankles wobbling. These high heels were hardly suitable for jogging.
When she rounded the corner, she scanned the skyline instinctively, as she had done almost every morning since the September 11th attack in New York. Sears Tower intact. Good.
As she descended the stairs to the subway, warm underground air welcomed her. She took a spot at the edge of the tracks, peering down the dark tunnel and checking her wristwatch repeatedly.
When the 7:28 train finally arrived, she pushed her way to a corner seat and settled in for the seventeen-minute commute downtown. She leaned back and rehashed this morning’s conversation with Jason. Why was he so prickly all the time now?
Really, this teenage stuff was starting to wear on her. He’d never had such a smart mouth until this year. The Jason she knew had a sweet cockeyed smile. He was funny and pleasant to be around. Who was this sullen stranger?
The two of them had spent every holiday with her parents since he was a baby. Her dad was the closest thing to a father Jason had. Why didn’t he want to go this year? This football game couldn’t be that important to him. It wasn’t even the Bears. He obviously had another motive, but what? Maybe just teenage sulkiness. But, then again, he might’ve picked up on her vibes. Did he sense something was up? It wouldn’t make it any easier. What she was about to do was killing her.