Two Weeks to Forever
Four years into being a parent, I was learning something new every day. Today’s lesson: don’t take your two-year-old and your fourteen-year-old to Target five days before Christmas.
Target was a wonderland my wife, Alicia, had introduced me to early in our relationship. After growing up with staff who did the shopping and supplying, then an early adulthood where I relied on the internet to deliver things to my doorstep, I found it amazing that I could buy a box of granola and a bowl to put it in at the same store. Diapers and doorstops. The latest video game and a carton of oat milk. So when I needed to pick up a few essentials to prove to Alicia the kids and I hadn’t eaten pizza and takeout for every meal while she was on her business trip—though, trust me, we had—of course I piled the kids into the SUV and headed to the red-and-white mecca.
But Target was a very different place right before Christmas.
“Valentine! Where are you?” My other mistake had been passing by the toy section. It was overrun with other frazzled parents and their kids wrestling for a look at the merch, and I’d lost Val in the scrum.
“This is why Alicia always gets a cart.” Noah’s voice dripped with teenage disdain as he glanced at my plastic hand basket stuffed with three varieties of milk, bread, a sack of apples, almond butter, and a jumbo-sized bottle of store-brand ibuprofen. “Val doesn’t run off when we have a cart.”
“Now you tell me,” I grumbled. When I’d seen the line of people waiting to untangle a cart from the corral, I’d swerved and gone with the basket. I’d get a little strength training on a day I hadn’t had time to work out. It seemed like a great idea until Val’s sweaty little hand had slipped right out of mine as soon as she saw the aisle full of stuffed animals.
“Val!” I shouted, picking my way through the knee-high shoppers. This must’ve been why Alicia had ordered the kids’ presents online. “She’s not here. Where could she have gone?”
“We should check the toy car aisle,” Noah said. “Or the—”
“Legos.” Shit! Had she wandered off to be trampled by tween boys? Noah and I shoved toward the Lego aisle through the gridlock of red plastic carts. Val was obsessed with Noah’s Lego collection. One time, she’d silently and completely disassembled his Millennium Falcon in five minutes while I took a phone call from my lead developer.
The Lego aisle was even more packed than the stuffie aisle and carried the distinct aroma of unwashed prepubescents. But high above the kids’ voices, Val’s rang out. “Knife!”
What? Christmas shopping couldn’t be that cutthroat. Or could it? I plowed ahead, churning like an icebreaker through the Bering Sea. “Val!”
“Daddy! Knife!” she responded.
My heart hammering, I pushed between a pair of twins gazing slack-jawed at the Lego Rivendell in its plastic display case and found Val sitting on the linoleum, a box in her pudgy hands, scraping at the tape seal with her tiny fingernails. “Knife, Daddy,” she pouted.
Setting down the basket, I hefted Val into my arms and hugged her, a corner of the box digging into my chest. “You can’t run away like that.”
“But…Legos,” she said.
Wading through the kids, I carried her to the end of the aisle and set her down, not caring about the carts forced to swerve around us. “Next time, ask me to take you to the Lego section. And when you’ve picked out the set you want, put it in the basket so we can buy it.”
Noah, who’d rescued the shopping, held out the basket. Reluctantly, Val dropped the banged-up box on top of the bread.
“Noah, you want something, too? I’ll wrap it up and put it under the tree.”
He glanced across the aisle at the video games, but then he said in that unfamiliar, deep voice he was developing, “Nah. I’m good.”
“You sure?” I asked. “We could pick out a game to play together. One of those teen-rated ones Alicia doesn’t like.” Hope fluttered in my chest. Noah and I used to be pals. He even used to call me Dad sometimes. But lately, he’d turned into someone I hardly knew, spending hours in his room, giving one-word responses to most of my questions.
“Nah, you don’t have time to play anymore.”
I was just about to protest when my phone buzzed in my back pocket. Thinking it might be Alicia, I slipped it out. Shit, it was Cooper. Wincing, I held up a finger.
“Hey, Coop. Can I call you back?”
“Depends. Have you finished that report on the product roadmap for the January board meeting?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I’d been working on it when my phone alarm had gone off, reminding me it was time to get Valentine from daycare. “Almost?” I said.
“It was due by end of business today. I need to review it on the plane to the island tomorrow.”
“End of business? That means I have until, like, two a.m.,” I said jokingly. Ish.
“Fine. Get it to me by seven a.m. That’s when we’re leaving for the airport.”
“No problem. If I don’t talk to you, have a great trip.”
“Thanks.” His voice softened. “I’m looking forward to the time away with Ben.”
“I’ll bet.” Cooper was much nicer to everyone, including me, when he’d gotten some good R and R with his husband. “Give him a hug from me.”
“I will. Merry Christmas.” He hung up, and I shoved my phone back into my pocket.
“We done?” Noah asked, arms folded.
“Sorry. Work.” Keeping a tight hold on Val’s hand, I pulled out my phone again and checked the shopping list. “We still need food for Tigger. Where’s the pet aisle?”
“They don’t carry his food here,” Noah said. “He eats the special kind for sensitive systems.”
“Sensitive,” I snorted. That cat was anything but. Every once in a while, he’d demand that I pet him in the specific area I was allowed, right where his tail met his back. In general, he was a tiny orange tyrant who yowled for fresh water a dozen times a day and a straight-up asshole who ignored me the other ninety-seven percent of the time.
“Regular cat food makes his stomach hurt,” Noah said, “and then he—”
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled. “We don’t need to discuss his litter-box habits here. Let’s check out, and then we’ll go to the…pet store?”
He nodded, a quick dip of his chin that looked so grown-up my eyes prickled. Blinking, I stood and led the kids to the checkout.
I breathed out a sigh when we entered the pet store. Unlike Target, it was quiet, and the toys were designed to appeal only to fur-babies. I scanned the signs near the ceiling for the cat food and spotted the section I needed in the far right corner.
I’d been smart this time and gotten a cart. Pushing it in that direction, I said, “Let’s—”
But Noah wasn’t with us. I glanced around the front of the store. No Noah. “Val, where did Noah go?”
She pointed the opposite direction from the cat food. “Dat way.”
I pushed the cart in the direction she’d pointed. One wheel spun randomly, and another squealed as we passed burbling aquariums, terrariums full of snakes and lizards, then squawking parrots.
Rounding a pallet of dog food, I spotted a small metal pen. Inside it was a single dog, pressed up against the fencing, and Noah.
Sitting on the floor, he beckoned to the dog. Low on its haunches, it crept toward him. Its face looked like the dessicated potato I’d found in the back of the vegetable drawer this morning. Except for its long teeth.
“Noah! What are you doing?” The dog’s face was inches from Noah’s. What would Alicia do to me if she came back to find him covered in stitches? “Get out of there!”
He ignored me and reached out his hand to the dog. Cautiously, the dog sniffed it. Then licked it.
“See?” he said triumphantly. “He likes me!”
“Does he? Or is he checking to see how tasty you are?”
Noah scowled and scratched the dog under his chin.
“Bibbo!” Valentine leaned over the side of the cart.
“Nope.” I grasped her sides and held her in the little seat. “That dog is twice the size of Bilbo Baggins.” My sister’s dog was gentle and trustworthy around children. This dog was not. “You know we don’t pet strange dogs.”
“Dog! Dog! Dog!”
I needed a rewind button. I should have stayed under the covers this morning and ordered groceries and pet food from my phone.
A woman’s voice snapped my dream of opening my front door to find the shopping done for me. “Would you like me to watch your daughter while you meet Bruno?”
“Bruno?” I eyed the dog, who was all muscle and teeth and claws. “Is he vicious?”
“No. The shelter director is a big Disney fan.”
“Shelter.” My heart sank. We had a strict no-pet-store-pets rule, but shelters were a different story. Bilbo had come from a shelter. So had Tigger.
“Yes, we’re a rescue group. We’ve partnered with the pet supply store to get some of our long-timers some exposure. Bruno has been with us for almost a year.”
I glared up at the exposed ductwork in the ceiling, overcome by my sense of betrayal. I’d thought Target was a challenge. Having to tell my kids they couldn’t rescue a dog was a whole new level of advanced parenting.
“If you’re not ready to adopt, you can foster a dog. They especially need homes over the holidays, when many of our staff take time off.”
“Foster?” I eyed Noah, who was now giving the dog a full-body rub. The dog’s eyes were closed in bliss. “What does that mean?”
“You take the dog home with you for two weeks and care for it. Then you bring him back to the shelter. Or you could commit to a longer-term foster while we try to find someone to adopt him.”
“I don’t think that’s for us.” What would Alicia say when she came home and found a whole dog living with us? What would Tigger do? Probably start using my laptop bag as his litter box.
Valentine tugged on my sleeve. “Dog, Daddy.” Her blue eyes rounded, and her little lip quivered.
I glanced back at Noah. He’d lowered his habitual barrier of teenage attitude. His gaze was open, vulnerable. The little kid who’d been my sidekick, who used to sit beside me for hours as we played Alicia-approved video games and stuffed our faces full of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, clutched the dog and stared back at me, full of hope.
Hope bubbled in my chest, too. Could two weeks with a dog bring us back together?
I lifted Val out of the cart and stepped over the barrier into the pen. Clutching her in my arms, I knelt beside Noah. She flung her arm toward the dog, too fast, and it cowered.
Covering her little fist with my hand to protect it in case the dog decided to bite, we stroked the knobby top of the dog’s head. It flinched at first, but then it rubbed back, pushing its ugly face against our hands.
“Is this what you want?” I asked, my voice low.
“Yeah.” Noah’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he said in his deeper voice. But his expression was still the one I remembered from the day I’d asked him the same question three years ago. When I’d asked if he wanted me to adopt him.
“Alicia’s going to flip out, you know,” I said. “It could only be for the two weeks, then we’d bring him back to the shelter.”
“Uh-huh.” He scratched the dog under the chin. The dog flopped into his lap, overcome by the affection, I guessed.
“All right,” I said to the shelter volunteer. “Let’s sign the papers. Then you can tell me what supplies I need.”
Dammit, past Jackson. Why hadn’t I just ordered the damned groceries?