It’s my 11th birthday today, though we are not having my party for another three days. Jackson’s been gone two weeks. I told Mom I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday this year, not without him. She ignored me and said that a party with my friends would help me feel better. Who’s she kidding? Nothing could make me feel better.
Well, Jackson could. He always knew how to cheer me up. When Mom and Dad would have their fights, and I would get frightened, Jackson would come lead me away to a place far from the yelling and tears. When I was sick, or fell down and scraped my knees, Jackson would lie next to me, kiss away the tears and make me forget the hurt. When I was sad, he would fall onto his back and wiggle around with that goofy expression on his face. His tongue would hang out of the side of his mouth, and I would laugh. Jackson would do that. I love him.
“Here ya go, bud,” Dad says. The box he’s carrying is large. It has a giant red bow on the top, but is un-wrapped. It’s the box from the new microwave Mom got last month. It’s odd she didn’t wrap it— Mom is nuts about wrapping things. Brightly colored paper, ribbons and bows … she really goes for that stuff. Dad’s carrying the thing like it might break. The top of the box isn’t even taped shut, the four ends are just folded, one under the other. I guess Mom let Dad do the gift stuff this year.
Dad tussles my hair in that way I hate. He seems nervous—he’s never nervous.
I look over at Mom. She’s smiling at me, but it’s that same phony smile she gives when I know she and Dad have had a fight. She walks around me, leaning down to kiss me on the top of my head, then whispers in my ear, “Happy birthday, honey.”
They both step back, staring at me with uncertain expectation; I feel uncomfortable. I lean forward and put my hands on either side of the box, but I don’t want to open the lid. Something shifts inside as I slide it closer.
“Go on, bud,” Dad encourages. I pull slowly on two of the cardboard flaps. The four pieces bend and fold away from the center. I lean over the growing opening and peer down into the darkness. I stop breathing and turn into one of those mummies in the museums. I tell myself, “If I don’t move or make a sound, it won’t see me.”
Dark brown eyes. Wet black nose. Pink-and-brown gums. Floppy ears. The soft little face smiles up at me, a pink tongue sliding out from the smile. Two whitespotted paws appear on the peeled-back flap closest to me.
I hear my dad say, “He’s a boy.”
His hair is mostly black, but he has a bolt of copper and a cloud of white above his right eye. His belly is mostly white, but where it meets the black, there’s some more of that copper, and the same with the end of his tail—white, copper, black—but his back paws are just black. His little feet scratch with excitement at the cardboard. A soft whimper as he tries and fails to climb out. His eyes grow worried as they stare up at me, asking for help. I turn and run away. My eyes sting, but I won’t let them stop me, won’t let them see me cry. Mom and Dad both reach out, but I dodge them easily enough. The pitiful cry from the box is quickly drowned out by my parents’ raised voices.
My mom says, “For God’s sake, Alex, I told you it was too soon!”
“Marie, don’t start—Ryan! Ryan, get back here!” I ignore Dad.
“Don’t yell at him!”
I push my fingers as deep into my ears as they’ll go. Up the stairs and down the long hall, my bedroom is the last door on the right. I know they won’t bother me once I’m there, at least not until they think I’ve gone to sleep. I can still hear them. The fighting will go on for a long time. Ever since Jackson left me, I’ve noticed it a lot more.
How could they do that to him? Jackson was part of our family! It was Dad’s idea, that’s why Mom is so upset with him right now. She knew. She feels the same way I do. You can’t replace Jackson. No one can, ever. Dad just doesn’t understand; he’s never really understood I guess, but Jackson loved Dad, too.
My bed feels too big now. I still have Jackson’s blanket spread over his side; I haven’t let Mom wash it yet. He would always be lying here, waiting for me while I got ready for bed. His tail would thump excitedly as I crossed the room, then, before I could get completely settled under the blankets, his big tongue would be wetting my face. I always giggled, which made him lick more. Then he would crawl back and rest his heavy head across my legs, and that’s where he would stay until morning. That weight across my legs always made me feel safe. How could they ever think they could simply replace that? How could I ever feel safe like that again? I can’t. I never will. You can’t replace Jackson. I don’t want to replace him. I hate them for trying.
Dad just left. He’s going out to the storage shed, where he always goes and smokes after fighting with Mom. Mom hates that he’s started smoking again. The sound of another door slamming lets me know that she’s in the basement now; that’s her place, where she goes to calm down after the yelling. She’ll put on her headphones and run on her treadmill for an hour sometimes.
I can still hear it. He’s all alone down there. His cry is sad and small. They probably didn’t even let him out of the box. I know what it’s like to be alone in a strange place.
I had to change schools last year. I can still remember my first day, how it felt to not know anyone. I’m always shy at first, which makes it hard for people to get to know me. I think everyone thought I was really strange. I’ve made friends since then, but I’ll never forget how it seemed like everyone was watching me and whispering things about me. I sat at an empty table along the wall closest to the exit, but it felt like I was in the middle of the room.
I ran up to my room and hid beneath the blankets when I got home. I was probably crying—Dad says I cry too much. Jackson came up and started barking at me. I told him to go away, but he wouldn’t listen. When I wouldn’t come out, he grabbed the blankets and started tugging. Boy, he was strong. He ended up taking me on one of our best adventures that afternoon, and the next day, I sat at a different lunch table with my new friend Billy.
That was Jackson … he wouldn’t let you stay sad, or alone. Jackson wouldn’t leave that little guy down there alone either. He probably feels a lot like I did on that first day, sad and scared. Jackson wouldn’t want me to leave him, so maybe, just for tonight, he can stay up here with me. Mom and Dad can always take him back tomorrow.
As I get closer to the dining room, I begin to creep, mouse-quiet. I don’t know why, I just do. Peeking around the wall, I see that big box sitting where I left it, half opened. When I look into the opening I see his brown eyes, black nose and floppy ears. The crying stops as soon as he sees my face, but he doesn’t perk up like Jackson would have.
“It’s okay, buddy, you can stay with me, just for tonight. You won’t be alone anymore,” I tell him as I finish opening the box and lift him out. His hair is so soft. His head tilts to one side, like he’s confused. I hold him at a distance and his legs hang in the air. He has a pink belly where the hair hasn’t grown in yet, with a dark brown spot. It looks like Africa from the map on my wall. A birthmark, I guess; I have one on my stomach, too. He starts squirming, so I hold him closer and cradle him in my arms. He seems to like that better.
In my room, I set him on the floor. I don’t let him on the bed, on Jackson’s spot, but I let him explore everywhere else so he can start to feel more comfortable. He’s a pretty brave fella. Doesn’t seem afraid at all anymore. He’s playful, too. He uses his paws when he play-fights, just like Jackson does … did. Jackson would have had fun with him. He has lots of spirit, but his big, friendly smile lets you know it’s all just fun and games.
I sit cross-legged on the floor with him. He tries to climb into my lap, but I push him away. He gives me another one of those head tilts, and it makes me laugh. His head tilts the other way at the sound, then he barks. It’s a funny, kind of wimpy-sounding bark that says, “I think I’m tough.” He’s a lot different, but there’s a look in his eyes that reminds me of Jackson, and he has the same color eyes—like warm, melted chocolate.
He comes at me from the side this time. His two white-spotted paws squeeze up between my arm and stomach, and this time I don’t push him away. His back legs scramble as he climbs; I help him the rest of the way. He does a couple of circles in my lap, the same way Jackson always did just before lying down. “Making his bed,” Mom called it. His head comes to rest against my thigh and he looks up with those warm brown eyes. I know what Jackson would do, and now it’s clear what I have to do.
I lean down so my nose is just above his forehead. As I gently stroke his soft, fluffy back, I whisper to him, “I’m gonna look after you now, buddy, just like Jackson looked after me.” Buddy. That will be his name.
Goodbye, Jackson. I love you. I’ll never forget you.