An Unexpected Christmas

byLiamHDunn©

"Don't we all?" Amy asked.

Something grew distant in Dunn for a moment. He nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess we do."

"What do you and Stanley do for fun?" Amy raked her beans around the plate, and then looked up to see if he was watching her.

He was. Her fingertips fussed with the back of her pearl earring out of habit, a nervous tic.

"In the summertime, he generally hugs the air conditioning vent," Liam answered.

Amy laughed, even as she fidgeted in her seat, "Really?"

"Oh yeah, fuzzy northern dogs don't like heat. But in the fall and winter, even the early spring, I try to get him out a few times a month, do some camping, get him some run time in a state park or something."

"He doesn't run off?"

Dunn picked his fork up again, relaxing into the conversation enough to eat, "Well, he doesn't exactly come when you call him, but he knows where his food dish is, let's just leave it there."

Amy's face lit up with the most brilliant smile Liam had ever seen on her. She laughed softly, then took a quick drink, washing down her last bite of green beans, "I love to hike." She took another sip, and confessed, "Though, I haven't had much of a chance since I went on active duty."

"Seriously?" Liam's gaze was questioning, "There are dozens of great trails within a couple hours of Tidewater."

"Maybe I just need someone to show me around," Amy responded with feigned innocence.

"Maybe," Liam smiled. And she thought he was a bad liar.

Any smiled, bit her lip slightly and blushed, fearing she'd been too forward... too obvious in her intentions.

"If I remember correctly," Liam snuck in a bit of meatloaf, managing not to chew and talk at the same time, "You were an athlete in college?"

She nodded, "Rowing, University of Minnesota."

He was clearly looking for the words, motioning toward her with his fork, "That makes you a..."

She pressed her lips together, hiding the smile as she let him think about it for a moment, and then finished his sentence, "I'm a Golden Gopher."

"Better than being a Duck, I suppose," Liam teased.

"Or a Buckeye!" she feigned offense, managing to talk with her mouth full and then laughing at herself, "What sort of mascot is a tree seed?"

"I'm a Redskin, thank you!" it was his turn to feign offense. "Oh, excuse, me, I guess now I'm a Redhawk..." he shook his head in exasperation, taking a bite of meatloaf.

"Were you any good?" he asked, finishing the meatloaf.

"Sir?" she shifted in her seat again, setting her fork aside so she could adjust the collar of her khaki blouse.

"The Golden Gophers, were you any good as far as rowing goes? Not something you see on Sports Center."

They sat silently for a moment as the steward refilled their glasses and then drifted away. Amy fingered her dog tag chain again, tugging on the collar of her blouse causing it to open a bit more than she probably realized.

"We did OK. Nothing to write home about," she let her eyes hold his for a moment, "But, we took the Big Ten championship this year, and that team is all girls I helped train and develop, so I'll take some credit for that."

Liam shrugged his acknowledgement, drained half the water from the freshly filled glass.

"Listen, sir?" Amy fidgeted in her seat, leaned forward slightly, her elbows on the edge of the table, "I hate the idea of Stanley being hungry and penned up inside all night. If you're OK with it, I would be glad to swing by and let him out for you."

Liam was genuinely unprepared for her offer, "Really?"

"Yes, sir. Strictly as a favor."

"Ensign, I don't know what to say," he became aware of his mouth hanging slightly slack, closed his jaw and set it firmly as he considered her proposal. "I would appreciate that."

Amy smiled and sat back in her seat.

Liam dug into his pocket and fished out his key ring, "1118 Little Bay Avenue, it's not far off base." He held the keys out to her.

"I'll Google it, sir," she allowed her tidy, well-manicured nails to lightly rake his palm as she took the keys.

He was speechless a moment longer than he intended.

"Bring them back to you at dinner?" she asked, standing from the table.

"Yes, thank you, Ensign, thank you kindly."

She smiled, beamed actually, as she walked away, leaving him in her wake. For Liam's part, he simply enjoyed the view of her departure as the steward swept in to collect her plate and dinner service.

***

Amy struggled with the tangle of storm door, Malamute and leash as she opened the door into the kitchen. The walk would have been quite pleasant if it hadn't been for the harsh gusty winds blowing in cold and damp from the Atlantic. Finally giving up her attempts to manage it deftly, she just let go the leash, allowing the massive dog to lurch into the house. With the leash slack, Stanley made a beeline for the empty water bowl, scooting it across the linoleum floor noisily.

"All right, all right, that I understand," she laughed, making her way to the sink, bowl in hand. Turning on the tap, she filled the bowl and placed it back on the floor. He stuck his wide muzzle deep in the bowl, lapping and splashing water onto the floor, oblivious to the mess he was making. His guzzling made her realize she was thirsty too.

She opened the cabinets around the sink each in turn until she found the glasses, all four of them, none actually made of glass or even from the same fast food restaurant. She stared briefly, as she considered the sparse contents. Four drink glasses; three shot glasses; a pair of good highball glasses; four decent coffee mugs, Navy and tourist logos, and two in kinda rough shape; two microwave containers that appeared to double as bowls, and two plates. Not the dinnerware of a man who entertained often. She felt the corners of her mouth pulling down.

She pushed the... feeling down; not quite sure what to call it. Taking a high ball glass in hand, it had the pleasing heft of a quality piece of glassware, she moved to the sink and filled the glass from the tap. Turning, she leaned against the counter as she slowly drank the water, watching Stanley sloppily lap his bowl dry. He drank so quickly she decided to refill his bowl. Setting the glass on the counter, she knelt and refilled the dog's bowl. When she turned back from the sink, Stanley was sitting in the middle of the floor, his mouth hanging open, his tongue lolling to one side, his head tilted the opposite direction. She couldn't help but scratch his ears.

She scuffed the thick fur around his neck, then took the leash off him, putting it on the kitchen table. It skittered against a wooden bowl containing a pair of apples, a rapidly browning banana, and some mandarin oranges. Only two chairs were at the 4-person table; she wondered if he had them elsewhere.

She hand-washed the glass while Stanley stretched out on the dog bed by the oven. He watched her with nonchalant disregard. Drying it with a threadbare dishtowel, she returned it to the cabinet. She folded the towel and neatly placed it over the stove handle.

"OK, Stanley," she said looking around. The dog's ear perked, albeit briefly. "Where does he keep your kibble?"

Amy renewed her search of the cabinets, turning up a half box of cereal, a loaf of bread a little past its prime, a box of crackers containing just a half sleeve, folded down in a futile attempt to keep them fresh and a can of Folger's coffee. Behind the cereal was most of a bottle of quality scotch. She found a bag of dry dog food in the tall cabinet beside the refrigerator. At the crinkling of the bag, Stanley decided she was maybe a little bit interesting after all. His interest in her waned when she scooped a cup and filled his food bowl, dry food, hardly worth the effort; he barely seemed to notice, instead simply resting his broad head between massive paws as he lay on the floor.

She closed up the kibble cupboard and, without really realizing it, opened the fridge, taking stock of it as well. There wasn't much there; four bottles of some local micro-brew still in the six-pack; a carton of orange juice, a half-dozen eggs in the door, an open somewhat questionable jar of red sauce and a carry-out pizza box. The bottom shelf was taken up by a battered old cookie sheet with three 'smack and bake' cinnamon rolls on it. She closed the fridge and peered into the freezer; an empty ice tray, two frozen dinners and what had once been a carton of butter-pecan ice cream.

"What does he eat, Stanley?" if Stanley knew, he didn't let on.

She closed the freezer and took stock of the kitchen itself. It was reasonably clean but almost felt like no one lived here. The old-school drip brew pot on the counter was the only appliance that showed any use. It took her a second to realize there was no dishwasher, but the draining rack by the sink was nearly new, either well cleaned or rarely used. The appliances were older, but serviceable, in a shade of avocado that was fashionable long before she was born.

Amy gave the dog one last look, satisfied he was settled in for the evening, and then, her pride still wounded after the fiasco that was her attempt to enter the kitchen she clambered over the childproof gate that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house without attempting to open it. The short windowless hallway from the kitchen to the front door ran down the center of the house and was darker than the rest of the abode. At the front foyer, she collected the door keys from the breakfront. Her hand was almost on the doorknob when a flash of red and green paper caught her eye.

It was tucked among the ads and circulars piled on the end of the breakfront; probably a few weeks or so of mail. Setting the keys aside, Amy picked up the mail and sorted through it. There were no bills or anything formal, nothing that demanded attention, but there were over a dozen Christmas cards buried in the pile. The return addresses were mostly from West Virginia and Ohio. She eplaced the mail back on the breakfront; red and green holiday cards now bundled atop it all. Looking up, she appraised the little house seriously for the first time.

Stepping into the living room, she found bookshelves lined with a variety of hard bound books, most of them subjects of professional interest to the Lieutenant Commander. There was a long, well used sofa, an upright chair that matched the kitchen set, a scratch and dent coffee table and a big screen television on a "u-build it" entertainment center. It all seemed perfectly ordinary. Exactly how she would expect the senior officer to appoint his home. But for one thing. Amy stood and turned slowly in the living room, her heart sinking with a sadness that made her heart ache. There wasn't a single ornament, seasonal lights or decoration of any kind, and there certainly wasn't a tree. Other than the ignored Christmas cards, there was no indication whatsoever that today was Christmas Eve. Even more disheartening than this to Amy, was the lack of a single personal photo anywhere; not on the walls, framed on an end table or bookshelf or even stuck on the fridge with a magnet. There did not appear to be any ties to anyone.

Looking more closely at the kitchen chair in the living room, she saw it was pulled up next to the window, a bottle of window cleaner and rag on the floor beside it. He'd been cleaning the windows. Curious now, she stepped back into the hallway, this time noticing the open door to a small bedroom just to her left. Standing in the doorway, it was nearly empty, no bed, just a standing wardrobe, the door ajar, the 4th kitchen chair next to it, a large cardboard box, the flaps open wide, on its seat. The loneliness of the room was eerily familiar to her, drawing her in.

The wardrobe was all but empty, just a few coat hangers and two pairs of summer white uniform pants. She considered the wardrobe drawers, but couldn't bring herself to open them. The box on the chair had what looked like photo albums in it, two framed pictures, eight by tens, face down on the top. She picked up the top one, overcome by curiosity. The photo had been taken aboard a small boat, maybe a charter fishing vessel, it was Liam, a few years younger, with two grinning boys, maybe eight and ten, proudly showing off freshly caught fish.

She reached for the second photo, but her vision blurred for a moment as tears welled up in her eyes. These were the only photographs she'd seen in the entire house, and they were hidden here, in a room no one used. Why? Did it matter? The loneliness in this place, it felt so familiar to her, so much like her own distant place at what felt like the fringe of the world, absent anyone to share her life. She'd set goals for herself, a college education, a commission as an officer in the United States Navy. She'd achieved her goals. But she had already come to recognize they were not the shining pot of gold she expected them to be.

Something was missing.

***

"Care to hear the after-action report, sir?' Amy smiled as she slid into the seat beside Liam.

The hall was practically empty, just the two of them and maybe a half-dozen others scattered among tables enough to seat two hundred officers. Liam was sitting exactly where she'd left him, and if it weren't for his overcoat draped over the chair opposite him, she'd have thought he hadn't moved since she left. She slipped out of her damp coat and let it hang over the chair back. The storm the afternoon had promised was raging just beyond the rain streaked window panes.

"Stanley didn't give you any trouble, did he?"

As she shrugged out of her damp jacket, Liam couldn't help but notice Amy's regulation khakis had been replaced by a heavy cabled fisherman's sweater and a pair of faded jeans that hugged her shapely hips and thighs. Her hair was down, a waterfall of dirty gold that flowed elegantly over her shoulders. The ubiquitous pearl earrings had been replaced by dancing shards of light blue topaz set in silver. She had taken pains with her makeup, now wearing flattering glittering golden brown eyeshadow and plum colored nail polish.

She tugged on her sweater adjusting it over her hips, lightly biting her lower lip as she did so, and then twisted in her seat so she was now facing Liam. That her thigh was resting against his was no accident. She placed the keys on the table between them. Her fingers nervously seeking a lock of her hair to twist and twirl.

"No sir, the asset was compliant and competently performed all assigned duties," she smiled as she put the details of the dog's constitutional into a military spin. "He has been walked, fed and left with a fresh bowl of water for his hydration needs."

"Thank you, Ensign," Liam placed his hand over the keys. His eyes never left her smile.

"Amy," she lowered her face slightly and looked at him from beneath her eyelashes. She rolled her lower lip under her teeth for a second, and then repeated, "Please... call me Amy, sir."

Liam hesitated for a moment; the scent of jasmine and roses was back and it tugged at the edges of his memory. He couldn't understand how he'd never noticed her eyes before today, "Thank you... Amy."

"Your house is adorable, have you lived there long?"

"Longer than you'd probably guess. Sometimes I wonder if buying a house was the smartest move I've ever made," he turned on the dining hall chair to better face her. "But, it's nice to have a place to call my own. So... there's that."

"Is Stanley always cooped up in the kitchen when you're gone?"

"Technically." Liam smiled and sipped the water sitting beside his forgotten meal.

"Technically?" Amy's fingertips had moved from her long, flowing hair to her earring and back to twist her hair around a finger. It was a charming habit he had never seen before since she always wore her hair in a tidy regulation bun for work.

"The gate," Liam paused, "it's really more of a suggestion. If he wants, he can go over or through it any time he likes."

"So, it's really just the doggie honor system then?" She laughed. As she did, she made as if she were scratching her own leg, but somehow, this movement also brushed against his thigh too.

Liam nodded, "Pretty much."

Amy absently fidgeted in her seat, her fingertips abandoning her hair to trace the collar of her sweater and then the graceful curve of her neck. "I hope I'm not being too forward, sir-"

He interrupted her, "Call me Liam," his eyes never left her.

She smiled, trying to hide her happiness behind her hand, "Thank you." She paused for a moment, collecting herself, "I hope I'm not being forward," she tried out his name, "Liam?"

He smiled as she used his name. She blushed, and had to suppress a school girl giggle at his reaction.

"I'm worried that Stanley is going to need to go out again. And if he doesn't go out tonight, he will certainly be desperate before you get home in the morning."

Liam looked at her curiously, his body language her only cue to continue.

"I was thinking... I'm planning to catch the 21:00 showing of the new King Kong movie over at Military Circle." She placed her hand on his, lightly tracing her fingers along the back of his hand, "Unless I can find someone to go with me to see it tomorrow."

She felt his breath catch for a half second and her own breathing become ragged, even as her heart raced, "Either way, it wouldn't be out of the way for me to swing by and let him out again tonight."

"For Stanley's sake?" Liam's smile carried into his words.

"Purely," she lied to him, though no more convincingly than he had lied to her.

"I haven't been to a movie in years," he twisted his hand beneath hers slightly, stroking her thumb with his own.

Her eyes fell to their hands, not exactly holding one another, but the contact between them was distracting, to say the least. Her heart pounded.

"Maybe it's time," she looked up at him, deep into his dark brown eyes.

"Maybe it is," he almost whispered.

Amy leaned forward slightly, her hand resting fully on his muscular thigh as she did, and scooped up his keys. When she sat back, her hand lingered on his thigh, her thumb lightly stroking the fabric of his khakis.

"I'll leave your keys in that earthenware cemetery on the front porch that you call a flower pot," she teased as she started to leave the table.

"Amy," he caught her wrist in a firm grip that sent an unexpected shudder through the young woman.

She gave him an odd look, the feel of his large hand capturing her wrist eliciting something... primal in her.

"I'm going to need my car keys," he chuckled as he released her.

"Oh, right, of course," she handed him the key ring, the pressure of his grip an unmistakable memory.

Liam busied himself removing the house key as Amy slipped back into her jacket. When he had it free, he passed it to her and she tucked it into her jeans pocket. She took a couple of hesitant steps backward, then stopped.

"Seriously, think about that movie, okay?" She bit her lip teasingly. "Nothing says Christmas like a giant ape."

He laughed and she spun on her heel, quickly heading out of the dining hall into the dark cold night.

***

The linoleum was cool beneath Amy's bare feet, despite the earnest efforts of the little furnace to warm the old house. She padded quickly from the sink to the fridge, putting away the last of the baking supplies she'd brought for the occasion. She was as determined to leave the house as clean as she'd found it as she was to make it warmer, more of a home. She'd been up late and gotten up early to make sure everything was just right when he came home.

"I hope I'm not screwing this up," she said to Stanley. Barefoot and dressed in red lingerie, she was making a clear statement. But was it one that would be welcomed?

For his part, the dog was sprawled out under the table, avoiding the heat of the oven. He was clearly annoyed with the change in his routine. But she gave a good ear scratching, so, he was resigned to accommodating her. And there was always the chance that she might drop a cookie.

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