A Wonderful Thing
The streetlights cast a hazy yellow glow on the cobblestone road, reflecting lazily off the mist-covered bricks. The scent of confederate jasmine was in the air, along with the beer and sweat-soaked atmosphere of the group of very intoxicated tourists and locals that had gathered for the festivities. It was Savannah, Georgia’s calling card and the largest party in the south, next to Mardi Gras. It was St. Patrick’s Day and there were green-hued drunks in every direction.
Corporal Michael Foster sat in his patrol car observing the crowd. He was parked in the middle of River Street, only holding up the foot traffic since it was the only street in Savannah that was off-limits to cars. Except cop cars, of course. His shift was scheduled to end in another hour, so he would be headed back to his precinct in a few minutes to finish up a few reports, retrieve his personal vehicle, and then heading home. His little girl’s sixth birthday was in the morning and he still had to assemble her bicycle.
The phone on his belt vibrated. He snatched it off his belt and looked at the screen. It was his wife. “Hey baby,” he said. His police radio popped and crackled in the background. Michael started his vehicle and slowly pulled away from the position he had taken behind the Savannah Hilton. Inebriated pedestrians moved out of the way, watching the Dodge Charger creep silently. Blue lights crowned the top of the car and royal blue reflective lettering covered the surface, identifying it as a Savannah-Chatam Metro patrol car.
“Don’t forget to pick up ice cream on the way home,” his wife said. “And your prescription.”
“I’ll stop by Clary’s on the way home.”
“Okay. Can you turn that radio off for a second?”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said as he turned the scanner down. “Is Libby still up?”
“No, she just got to sleep. She cried her eyes out when I told her I have to go to New York tomorrow. Poor baby. I wish I didn’t have to go, but this conference is so important.”
“I know, Rachael. It’s okay. With your mom coming to pick her up she’ll be—” Michael’s police radio burst to life. “All units, we have a house fire on the 1800 block of Gaston. Occupants trapped. Fire and rescue is en route. Any central units please respond…”
Mike grabbed his radio. “Eight forty-eight to metro, I’m ten-fifty-six, ETA two minutes.” He hit the blue lights and accelerated as he pulled off of Factor’s Walk. Thirty seconds later he was speeding down Bull Avenue.
“Rachael, are you still there?” he asked.
“Yeah Michael, call me back. And be careful!”
“I will sweetheart,” he said, closing his phone.
Michael could see the glow when he was still blocks away. The house was a four story mansion that had seen better days. It was a 2nd Empire Chateau that had been built in 1873. Flames could be seen dancing and flickering through the windows on the top floor, and onto the mansard roof. The tall paned windows opened to elegant balconies, which were also encapsulated by flames. The lacy iron-worked cresting was glowing red. Fifty years ago this home was worth millions of dollars. Today, as was all too common in Savannah’s Historic District, it had been devalued to the point of near worthlessness.
Neighbors were everywhere, gazing at the inferno that lit the southern Georgia night. A hundred-year-old live oak loomed over the house, the gray-green Spanish moss being singed with every lick of flame that escaped from the third and fourth story windows. An ambulance was already at the scene, the EMTs working on a young man that was having difficulty breathing.
“Was he the only one inside?” Michael asked the medic. “No, he’s not the resident. He’s just a kid from the neighborhood. He was trying to go inside.”
The kid looked to be about twenty. He coughed and wheezed as he tried to speak. “Still inside… Mrs. Lockwood… still inside.” He began to hyperventilate. The medic placed an oxygen mask over his face, wiping a cool cloth over his light brown skin.
Michael sprang into action, his tall lithe form taking the wooden steps three at a time. Smoke engulfed him as he entered the receiving room. The fire hadn’t spread downstairs yet, but the crashing sounds coming from above his head indicated that that was soon to change. He was searching room by room, about to run back outside for air, when he noticed the still form of a woman on the floor.
The crowd cheered as Corporal Michael Foster emerged from the burning house carrying an unconscious Mrs. Lockwood. Medics rushed over with a collapsible gurney and quickly got the frail woman strapped down. As they fed oxygen back into her lungs, she began to come to. She held her hand out, reaching towards Michael.
“You’re gonna be fine ma’am,” he said, taking her hand.
“Mason,” she whispered. Michael looked puzzled.
“My name is Michael, Mrs. Lockwood.”
“Mason,” she repeated, looking panicked. Michael saw this and became alarmed.
“Ma’am, who’s Mason?”
“My little Mason…he’s just a baby. He’s still inside. Oh God, please save my baby!” The old woman passed out again as she was loaded into the ambulance. For the second time in ten minutes, Michael Foster entered the burning house.
He immediately disregarded the rooms he checked earlier. Now he focused on the rest of the first floor rooms. The problem was, the house was huge. There were at least ten rooms on the first floor alone. He was opening a door toward the back of the house when the ceiling fell in behind him with a crash. Sparks and pieces of red-hot embers assaulted Michael as he pushed himself into the bedroom. He fell to the floor as he stumbled across the threshold, where he found the air cooler and cleaner. He was coughing violently, tears flowing freely from his eyes as he sucked in fresh air. He could barely see a thing.
Michael crawled toward the door and fear gripped him as he realized he couldn’t make it back to the front of the house. That fear was nothing compared to the electric panic that coursed through his body when he heard a child’s cry from somewhere further back in the house. All he could think of was his little girl back at home.
With a newfound sense of purpose, Michael began following the sound. He traced it to the last room on the first floor. He began to make his way toward the cries but he was quickly becoming disoriented. The oxygen deprivation was taking its toll, but Michael could not fail in this. Not only for the child in this house, but for the child he had at home. He burst through the door just as the ceiling behind him collapsed. Burning debris fell on him almost taking him to the floor. He nearly lost consciousness but somehow he managed to locate a small, black, crying form on the bed. The last thing Corporal Michael Foster remembered was scooping the baby up, blankets and all, and diving through the window.
After a few moments of unconsciousness, Michael became aware of the wiggling thing he was clutching to his chest. He hoped the child wasn’t hurt by the fall. Apprehensively, he untangled the squirming body from the blankets.
An eight-week-old cocker-spaniel puppy licked his nose.
“I guess you’re Mason, huh?”
Mason licked the exhausted police officer on the mouth in response.
Michael had a few superficial cuts and burns, but other than that, he was fine. Savannah-Chatam Metro protocol required that he be checked out in the emergency room, so he decided to check in on Mrs. Lockwood before he left, to let her know that Mason was safe.
Memorial Hospital was busier than usual, this being St. Patrick’s Day. Most of the patients there were in for minor injuries, lacerations or fractures as the result of too much celebration.
Mrs. Lockwood was in ER three, on the east wing of the bottom floor of the hospital. Doctors and nurses scurried about the place barking orders to patients, orderlies, and each other. An elderly Latina nurse was adjusting Mrs. Lockwood’s IV tube as Michael entered the room. She was hooked up to the usual array of monitors, complemented by an oxygen mask. She looked to be maybe sixty years old, with a smooth ebony skin that covered high cheekbones and a proud chin. She opened her almond-shaped eyes as Michael slid back the pale blue curtained partition. She smiled behind the clear plastic mask when he reached into his large police issue jacket and revealed the tiny puppy.
“Someone’s here to see you,” he said, holding Mason close so she could touch him.
“My baby,” she said, barely audible under the mask.
“Animal control wanted to take him but I didn’t think you’d want him in a cage. Do you have someone that can take care of him until you get out of the hospital?”
The old woman’s hands pulled the oxygen mask down so she could speak. “Child, I have nobody. I have lived alone in that house for 15 years, ever since my husband died.”
“Well, do you have a neighbor you can trust?”
“The only person I trust enough with Mason’s life is the man who already saved it,” she said, meeting his eyes.
“Mrs. Lockwood, I’d be happy to take care of him until you get back on your feet. As a matter of fact, I have a little girl at home that would love to keep him company.”
“What’s her name?” she asked.
“Libby,” Michael said, pulling a picture of his daughter out of his wallet, handing it to the old woman. Mason wiggled and wrestled in an attempt to get to the photo. Mrs. Lockwood’s eyes lit up at the sight of the spitting image of Michael staring up at her. Hair as black as Mason’s coat and eyes a shade of green that would ensure she never got pinched on this St Patrick’s Day or any after it. Libby was the definition of precious.
“Child, this baby is gorgeous! Libby, you said? Is that short for Olivia?”
“No ma’am, it’s short for Liberty. Liberty Ann.”
“Why that’s a fine name. Where’s her mama?”
“Rachael is home with her now,” Michael said, petting Mason.
“Is she in law enforcement as well?”
“No ma’am. She’s a technical writer for an online science journal. I’ve actually got to take her to the airport in the morning so she can go to New York for some conference on Silly String something or other. Something to do with physics.”
Mrs. Lockwood petted her puppy. “Superstring Theory,” she offered nonchalantly.
“Excuse me?” asked Michael.
“Superstring Theory. It’s a unified theory of the universe postulating that the fundamental ingredients of nature are not zero-dimensional point particles, but tiny one-dimensional filaments called strings.” The old woman smiled at the confused look on Michael’s face.
“How’d you know that?” Michael was perplexed.
“I received my undergraduate degree from Harvard and my doctorate from Oxford. I taught physics at Cornell University until my husband died, and then I moved down here. I’ve been here ever since.”
“Wow! Maybe you can help me figure out how to put my daughter’s bike together,” Michael joked. “Her birthday is tomorrow.”
“Child, why didn’t you say so? You can’t take a puppy home to a little girl on her birthday and then say, ‘Oh by the way, we’re just watching him for a few days.’ What’s the matter with you?” she asked, incredulously.
“Oh, I didn’t think about that. I guess I’ll have to buy her a puppy then.”
“Nonsense!” Mrs. Lockwood exclaimed, gently grabbing Mason by his long floppy ears.
“Mason, how would you like to have your very own little girl to love?”
Mason answered by licking her face.
“There it’s settled then,” she said.
“Are you sure ma’am? You’re awfully fond of the little fella.”
“Child, I’m just an old woman. A puppy needs to be with children. I insist. It’s the least I can do for you. Young man, you saved my life. Let me show you my gratitude, please.”
Michael leaned down and kissed this beautiful, complex woman on the cheek. “Thank you Mrs. Lockwood.”
“No child, thank you.”
Michael Foster awoke to the sound of his alarm clock. He opened his eyes to discover an orange post-it note stuck to his forehead. He was still a little groggy from the Seconal he took for his insomnia as he pulled it off. He smiled as he read Libby’s childish scrawl.
Dear Daddy, wake up!
It’s my birthday right now!
Libby taught herself to read by the age of four, and by five, she could write as well. Now, at the age of six, she could read and write as well as any ten year old. Rachael often said she was too smart for her own good. She seemed to have a fundamental grasp of everything she came into contact with, and sometimes her intellectualization of an adult situation confused her delicate sensibilities. As smart as she was, she was still a six year old little girl.
Michael walked into the dining room to find Libby eating a bowl of cereal. Rachael was on the phone confirming flight numbers and hotel reservations, and as she walked past him, Michael noticed a lime-green note stuck to her backside with the word ‘mean’ written on it. Michael looked at Libby and she returned his look with one of defiance.
“Well she is,” she said, through a mouthful of cereal.
“Libby, you know your mom would stay for your birthday if she could.”
“Yeah, I know. So when are you bringing my bike in?”
Michael nearly spilled the coffee he was pouring. “And what makes you think you’re getting a bike?”
Libby pulled a set of assembly instructions out of her pocket. “You left these on your nightstand. I saw it when I stuck my note on your head,” she said matter-of-factly. “You know you’ll never make detective like this, right?”
“And you’ll never own a bike with a mouth like that,” he growled in her ear as he kissed her. “Happy birthday sweetheart.” Libby squealed with delight.
“Now let’s go see this bike,” Michael said, scooping his little girl into his arms and taking her outside.
The morning was cool and crisp, Mother Nature not quite ready to make the transition from winter to spring. The pinkish rosebuds were beginning to form, as were the white and purple flowers of the wisteria vines. White, red, and vermilion azaleas were just coming into bloom, crowned by the white blossoms of the dogwood trees in the Fosters’ front yard. A light scent of honeysuckle was on the wind as Libby, with only a modicum of initial assistance from her father, pedaled her bicycle. Michael was apprehensive as she traversed the driveway, but unsurprisingly, his daughter navigated her new gift with skill.
The proud father dipped into the house for about sixty seconds, and then returned. “Sweetie, do you want to see your other present?”
Libby looked genuinely surprised that there was another present for her. She flew into the house, halfway to the front door before her bike hit the ground. “You got me something else?” she squealed. She nearly tripped over Mason as she rounded into the living room. The look on her face was priceless as she saw the tiny jet-black Cocker Spaniel puppy.
“Oh daddy! A puppy!” She scooped Mason up and began hugging and petting him. Mason was just as excited, his long ears flopping and his little backside wiggling. He knew right away, there would be no separating these two for a moment.
After Michael situated Rachael’s suitcase in the trunk, he put a towel across the backseat for Mason. He wasn’t even going to try to convince Libby to leave him at home. They all piled into the car and made their way toward the airport. Libby was having so much fun with Mason, she couldn’t have said how long they’d been driving or even where they were going. One thing was for certain, she was no longer upset that her mother was leaving town. Michael doubted she’d even pick up her bike again, as focused as she was on her new puppy.
“Don’t forget to pick up your stuff from the pharmacy,” Rachael reminded her husband as they were parking the car.
“I’ll do it as soon as we leave. I forgot the ice cream too.”
“Don’t worry about that. My mom’s taking her out for ice cream later. I forgot to tell you, she called this morning,” she said, as they crossed the parking area. As they were entering the airport, a security guard informed them that Mason couldn’t come inside unless he was in a dog-carrier.
“That’s okay. Give me a kiss sweetie. Mama loves you,” Rachael said, hugging her daughter. She ruffled Mason’s coat and kissed Michael. “You guys be good. I’ll call you when I check into the hotel. And don’t let that dog get into anything. And Michael, please keep him off the furniture.”
“I’ll let him sleep in the garage until we get him house-broken.”
Five minutes later, Michael, Libby, and Mason were on their way back home. Mason was chewing on Libby’s seatbelt strap as Libby stroked the glossy curls on his ears.
Michael pulled the car into the drive-thru of the pharmacy and handed the pharmacist his prescription. After a few minutes, the middle-aged man handed Michael his prescription of Seconal.
Insomnia had plagued Michael Foster his entire life, but after becoming a police officer, and then a father, his condition worsened until he finally had to resort to sleeping pills. The Seconal did the trick. One pill, and he slept like a bear the entire night.
Libby’s grandmother picked her up for their ice cream date, and while they were gone, Michael took the time to make a place for Mason in the garage. After locking the dog in, he decided to watch a little TV. March Madness was in full swing, and it had been awhile since he’d had the opportunity to enjoy a day of sports to himself. Not surprising, being the only male in the house. Well, I got Mason now, he thought. It was reassuring to have a little added testosterone in the house.
LSU was getting blown out by the Razorbacks on one channel, so Michael flipped through the stations until he found a better game. He finally settled on the Duke/Villanova match-up. The game was closer in score and proved to be a great deal more entertaining. Before he knew it, a couple of hours had passed. He decided to check on Mason.
“Hey buddy,” he called, walking into the garage. He couldn’t see the puppy anywhere. He walked around the room and finally found him asleep on the concrete between the work bench and the laundry room door. He was about to walk back into the house when he noticed a greenish-blue granular substance on the floor. He followed the trail to a box of ant killer in the corner of the garage. It had been chewed open. A small pile of poison spread out on the floor. Michael panicked.
He picked the tiny puppy up, but he was already growing stiff, rigor setting in.
Mason was dead.
Jesus, no. How could he tell his little girl on her birthday that her brand new puppy, this precious little thing, was dead? To make matters worse, his mother-in-law was pulling into the driveway.
Michael fought the tears that were forming in his eyes as his mind raced. How was he going to tell Libby? This would break her heart. He’d faced a lot of difficult tasks as a cop, but he couldn’t think of a task more difficult than what he was about to have to do.
He met them at the car and took Libby’s hand as Libby’s grandmother drove away. He walked her up to the front door, and then turned to her and dropped down on his knees and met his daughter’s green eyes.
“Sweetheart, I’ve got something to tell you,” he started, trying to keep his voice from cracking. Libby just smiled, not a care in the world. God, this is going to kill her. Michael searched for the right words. “Baby, remember on The Lion King, when Simba’s daddy went to Heaven?”
“Yeah,” Her smile wavered, but only a little.
“Do you remember what I said when you asked me why he died?”
“You said Mufasa’s work was done, so God called him.”
“That’s right baby. Daddies are here to make their kids happy. And when God saw that Mufasa’s work was done, he called him home. And remember how I said we shouldn’t be sad when God calls someone?”
“Yes daddy. You said when someone goes to Heaven we should rejoice, that it’s a wonderful thing.”
“Yes sunshine, that’s right.” Michael paused for a moment. “Sweetheart,” he said, taking her delicate face in his hands. “God called Mason.”
Libby’s forehead crinkled up as her eyes filled with tears.
“Baby, don’t cry. Listen to me,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “God sends puppies to Earth to make little girls happy. Mason made you happy didn’t he?”
“Yes, but why daddy? Why did God call him? I just now got him,” she cried.
“Because Mason’s work was done. He made you happy, so now he’s gone to Heaven. Baby, don’t cry. And please don’t be sad. Mason’s with God now and it’s a wonderful thing.”
Michael Foster carried his daughter inside and put her on the couch. He stroked her hair and kissed her on the forehead, then went into the kitchen to make something to eat.
He was mixing tuna with mayonnaise, onions, bell peppers and pickles, and had just put some eggs on to boil when Libby came into the kitchen.
“Daddy, is it okay if I go to bed early?” Her eyes were swollen and red, and she looked exhausted.
“Aren’t you hungry? I’m making tuna salad.”
“I ate a lot with Nanny. I’m just tired.”
“Okay sweetie. Come on, I’ll tuck you in.”
Michael put his daughter in bed and tucked her covers in around her. He closed the mini-blinds and turned off her bedside lamp. He kissed her goodnight and walked out of her room.
“Daddy,” she called, causing him to turn around.
“Do I make you and mommy happy?”
Michael’s heart melted. He walked back into the room and dropped down to eye-level. “Listen to me sweetheart. You are the bestest little girl in the whole world. Your mother and I are the happiest parents on the whole planet.”
“Promise?” she asked, hopeful.
“Okay, goodnight daddy.”
Michael closed her door behind him and went back into the kitchen. He picked up a spoon to mix the tuna, but decided he wasn’t hungry either. He put everything back into the fridge and decided to turn in early himself. But first, he needed to bury Mason.
He selected a shoebox for the little guy, then grabbed a shovel and went to the backyard. He picked a spot beneath a Japanese cherry tree and laid the sweet puppy to rest.
When he finished his task, he took a shower and prepared for bed. He sat on the bed and took a glass of water off the nightstand. He popped a Seconal, then, as an afterthought, took another one. He sat the glass and the pill bottle back down, then crawled under his covers.
Fifteen minutes later, he was asleep.
The first thing Corporal Michael Foster noticed when he woke up was a bright red post-it note on his nightstand. He smiled to himself as he began to read the note.
I am so glad that I make you and mommy
happy. That’s what little girls are for. And now
that I’ve made you happy, my work is done. Don’t
cry daddy and please don’t be sad. I’m with god
now and it’s a wonderful thing.
The second thing Corporal Michael Foster noticed was the missing bottle of sleeping pills.