Upon re-entering my house I found my family sitting around the Christmas tree; Anya in Clare’s lap, a cup of steaming hot coffee waiting for me on the coffee table, and Zoë sitting on the edge of one of our armchairs her eyes wide with excitement, waiting to jump into the huge pile of presents that Santa had left under our tree.
Clare smiled at me when I closed the front door behind me. She held Anya at her side and helped me off with my jacket. Zoë gawked at me, “Santa came!” She exclaimed.
“I see!” I said in an amazed voice. I shifted the weight of a huge heavy box that I was holding, just wrapped courtesy of me in the garage.
“What’s that?” Zoë asked, getting up from the armchair and coming closer. I kicked off my boots. Clare reached into my pocket and handed me the slippers which I put on right away. I walked towards the tree.
“Well last night I thought I heard something in the garage,” I told her. I sunk down to my knees and placed one hand on top of the box lid so it wouldn’t fall off. Zoë sat down next to me and Clare joined us on the other side. My wife placed Anya down on the floor next to the box and smiled at me. She kissed my ear as I spoke, “so this morning I went to check it out and I found this in the garage!”
“Who’s it for?” Zoë asked.
I stifled a smile as the lid threatened to fall off. “Read the tag,” I told her.
She reached for the gift tag and held it far from her sister as Anya tried to grab it from her. I grabbed the baby and put her back on the other side of the box as Zoë sounded out the words, “‘To: Mommy, Daddy, Zoë’ that’s me! ‘And Anya.’”
“Why don’t you open it for us?” Clare suggested.
Zoë looked at me for approval. I took my hand down off the top of the box. “Go ahead,” I told her. It turned out Zoë didn’t even get a chance to take off the lid because as soon as I said the words the top flew off. Anya ran back into me as the gift inside of the nicely wrapped box tried to get out.
“Dada!” Anya hollered, grabbing onto my robe and hoisting herself up. She turned her head back towards the gift. “Dada!” I laughed and supported her bottom.
“A puppy!” Zoë was saying over and over. She leaned close to the box and squealed in delight as the dog licked her nose. The small animal had its paws on the edges of the box and was looking around the room at us. Its tail was wagging excitedly and I could hear it resounding off the sides of the cardboard as the small tail hit them.
“He’s more adorable than I remember,” Clare whispered to me.
“She,” I told her. “It’s a ‘she’.”
“Daddy can we take her out?” Zoë asked.
“Of course,” I told her, rubbing Anya’s back as I spoke. Zoë moved up closer to the box and petted the dog’s head gently. “Put your two hands around her stomach and hold her tightly but not roughly. Be gentle. Pick her up out of the box and put her hind legs on the floor first and then the front ones.” Zoë did what I said and pretty soon the puppy was out of the box running around in circles trying to lick all four of us at the same time. As she approached Anya and tried to lick her fingers, my daughter pulled away and climbed further up her father pulling her legs into my chest. I stood up and in seconds the dog was at my legs, placing her front paws on my legs. I looked down at her and laughed. “She looks like an Ewok with her tongue hanging out of her mouth and that expression on her face.”
“A what-wok?” Zoë asked petting the dog’s back. The puppy looked at her and then back at me.
“An Ewok,” I said. “A character in the movie Star Wars.”
Clare stood and took the baby from my arms, sitting down on the couch and letting her stand up on her thighs. “All Shih-tzus do.”
“What?” Zoë asked.
I knelt down on my good knee and joined Zoë in petting the dog. “That’s the type of dog she is.”
“Ohhhhh,” Zoë said. “What’s her name?”
I shrugged and let the dog nibble on my fingers. “We have to name her. What do you think her name should be?”
Zoë leaned over so she was looking at the puppy’s face. “Avery.”
“Avery?” I asked. “Like your aunt?” Zoë nodded. I looked at Clare. “Avery it is.”
“Very nice choice, honey,” Clare told Zoë. Avery barked and her bottom wagged as her tail moved back and forth.
“Well then,” I said, “welcome to the Hanson family, Avery.” I scratched behind her ears. Instantly she went for my hand, licking it. “I guess she likes that.”
Clare sunk down to her knees behind me and whispered to the back of my ear, “she’s a Hanson already.”
I raised my eyebrows as a chill went down my spine, “ooo nice.”
Clare laughed and stood Anya up in front of my knee. “Anya be nice to Avery.”
“Go ahead, baby,” I told my youngest daughter, putting my hands around her waist. “Pet the nice doggie.” Anya hesitantly leaned closer to the dog, who was less hesitant to approaching Anya. Avery was almost as big as the girl and her tongue was the first thing that touched Anya. The baby squealed and made a face as Avery licked her hand. Anya looked up at me. I reached my hand in there and distracted the dog’s tongue. Clare took Anya’s hand and pet the puppy’s back with it softly.
“Gently, An,” Clare soothed. “Be gentle with the puppy and the puppy will be gentle with you.” We had made sure before we chose this dog that she was safe with children. The man who bred her said that she was the most loving and careful puppy out of the whole lot. The dog and his three children got along wonderfully, it was almost painful to see her go. She was eight weeks old and was paper trained so there wouldn’t be that many accidents at first. It would take her a few days to get used to us and for us to get used to her. I told him I had experience with her breed already and I thought my kids would get a kick out of a little dog since they’re little. He agreed with me. I figured when they got older I’d finally be able to get my pit bull. He had laughed and told me to be careful with those and if I wanted one call him because he’ll find me the best deal and the best dog. I promised I would definitely be calling him about that one in the future.
“Maybe we’d better get her some water,” I suggested taking a sip of my coffee.
Clare looked at me. I smiled at her. “All right, Tay, I’ll go.” She looked at the kids. “In the meantime I want to hear you two opening some more presents!” She picked up Avery from the floor. “You help Anya, Tay.”
“Sure, boss.” I saluted.
Clare hit me playfully and carried the dog into the kitchen.
“Wow,” I said starring up at the pile of presents. “Where should we start? Zoë, how about you play Santa this Christmas.”
Zoë looked at the presents and without a moments hesitation pulled out a box for me, a box for Anya, and one for Clare. She watched as I helped Anya open up a present. “Wow!” I said to Anya. “What do we have here? A baby for you?” Anya pulled at the plastic that was covering the face of a baby doll. “All functions of a real baby,” I said ad-libbing from the label that said what actions the doll performs. “Eats, cries, sleeps... hey it even poops.” I opened the top of the box and slid out the doll. “High maintenance toys, a must for any child.” I undid all the things that fastened the doll to the box and stuck the garbage in my pocket. “Here kid.” I gave the doll to Anya who immediately hugged it close to her. “Why aren’t you opening, Zoë?”
“I want to give you yours,” she told me.
I grinned at her and held up the box she handed me. “But you did, sweetie.”
“No,” she insisted. She looked behind me. “Mommy?”
I felt a tongue licking my hand and I knew Avery and Clare were back. I pet the dogs head and allowed her to lick my fingers. “Hon, I’m opening a box.”
Clare reached down at picked up Anya who was still holding her new toy. “Go ahead.”
I ripped open the paper and opened the lid. I laughed when I saw the contents. I took out a pair of fleece socks, fleece slippers, and a matching fleece robe.
“I got those when we went shopping for Isaac’s birthday in Tulsa,” Clare said.
“Thanks babe, I love them.” I puckered my lips to indicate I wanted to kiss her quickly. “Now it’s your turn.”
“Nah, no need,” she said, a smile in her eyes. “I already saw them anyway.”
“Very funny,” I replied.
“Mommy, can we give Daddy his present now?” Zoë asked impatiently.
“Yeah can we?” I asked. I pushed out my bottom lip and blinked my eyelids at my wife.
Clare laughed and nodded. “OK, Zoë, we can give Daddy his present now.”
“Yay!” I cheered. I crossed my legs and looked around the room. “Where is it?”
Zoë jumped to her feet and pulled my arm. “Come on, Daddy!”
“What?” I asked her in a fake whinny voice. “I just sat dowwwwwwn.”
“No you didn’t!” She informed me. “Get up.”
“Fine,” I sighed jokingly. I stood up and tried to pick her up.
“No!” She cried, running to her mother. “I have to lead the way.”
“Lead the way?” I asked Clare. My wife was smiling secretly, not nodding “yes” or “no”.
Zoë grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the hallway. Clare and Anya followed close behind with Avery at Clare’s heals. “Close your eyes Daddy,” Zoë commanded. I closed my eyes part-way. “No peaking!” Zoë said, stamping her foot when she saw that my eyes weren’t closed.
“I’ve got him, Zo,” Clare said, slapping her hand over my eyes.
“Hey!” I called out. “I can’t see anything!”
“That’s the point, Hon,” Clare said. “Step.”
“Wha- AH!” My foot went down hard on a stair and pain shot up my leg. We had reached the stairs that went down to the Rec. room, second kitchen and bathroom.
“One more and you’re at the bottom,” Clare instructed.
I got to ground level and breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”
“Turn,” Clare said. She guided me towards the right and I knew we were in the Rec. room. I could hear the TV going. Someone had apparently not turned it off last night. It was playing A Christmas Story 24-hour marathon that TNT did every year. One year I told my relatives that the next year I was going to sit there and watch the full 24 hours non-stop. They didn’t believe me so I had to prove them wrong. They told me I’d get tired of the movie after seeing it twelve times in a row. They were wrong. I watched twelve episodes of A Christmas Story and would have loved if it went on for another day. My brother Isaac had bet money that I would crack after episode eight, Dad, who had less faith in me, bet $50 that I’d crack after the sixth episode. Zac won at least $200 from relatives for believing in me and betting that I could last the full 24 hours and still want more, and that $200 was AFTER we split the difference 50-50.
I kept walking until Clare told me to stop.
“Open your eyes,” Zoë said.
Clare didn’t let go.
“Oh, Clare-honey... your daughter said to LET GO!” I joked.
“I just like to see you suffer.”
“I wanna know what it is,” I whined, stamping my foot like I was a kid having a tantrum.
Clare giggled and slowly took her hands away from my eyes.
My mouth dropped in shock as I gazed around the walk-in-closet that we were standing in. I had this closet made for DVDs and video game storage. When we first built it Clare had joked that if she was a kid living in a house that had a closet as big as this one for “storage” she would have had a lot more boy-girl parties, and definitely more of the “Two-Minute in Heaven” game. I didn’t like the idea of Zoë ever thinking of that but at that moment I thought, extremely naively, that I would never have that problem in my own house.
“When did you-”
“When you were in California,” Clare said. “It was Zoë’s idea.”
I got down to Zoë’s height and hugged her. I was still in shock. “This was your idea?”
Zoë nodded excitedly. “At Uncle Zac’s wedding, you were telling me all about your pictures. Grandma said that you won a prize. I remember how much you said you liked your- your-” She turned to Clare.
“Darkroom,” Clare said.
“Darkroom,” Zoë finished turning back to me. “So I wanted to give you one for Christmas.”
“Honey, this is great. Thank you so much!” I stood up and gazed around the darkroom that my family had made for me. I turned to Clare. “How did you build this?”
“It was all of us,” my wife told me. “Mr. Osbourne knows all about darkrooms and blackrooms so he came up with the design in November when we got back from the wedding. That was when Zoë first mentioned it to me. She told me that when you were inside of you were acting like a kid, even more than usual. She wanted to give you something for Christmas that you can really enjoy.”
I walked up to the enlarger and touched it gently. It was an expensive brand, a durable brand. Mr. Osbourne really did know his darkrooms. I walked across the spacious room to the chemical beds which were in a wall-long sink. There was a rope line hanging over the part of the sink where there were no chemicals, just a faucet and a basin.
“Close the door and show your daddy the lights,” Clare insisted.
Zoë closed the door and flicked a switch on a light switch that I noticed had three switches on it. There was complete darkness. “That one turns off the lights and Mr. Osbourne says it is so you can- can-”
“Load the film,” Clare said.
“Load the film,” Zoë finished. An orange light came on above our heads. Zoë had flicked up the second switch. “This is for develobing.”
“Developing,” Clare corrected.
“Developing.” I heard Zoë flip the final switch. “That turns on the red light outside so that no one comes in and makes the pictures ruined.”
I laughed and could hardly contain my joy. “Thank you guys! Thank you Mr. Osbourne! I just cannot believe this! You guys are the greatest!” I looked around the room in the darkness and an un-noticed tear fell from my eyes. “Thank you!”