Jacob held his green-gloved hand above his squinted eyes. He stood on the last step of the porch and studied how the colorful Christmas lights reflected against the icicles that hung from the roof. When his mom finished buttoning up little Susannah, she opened the door and Christmas music escaped into the crisp air. Jacob laughed at his sister in her puffy white coat and called her a snowman, waved to his grandparents who stood behind the wreath on the screen door, then ran in front of his mother and sister to the car.
The ride home seemed longer than usual. Jacob and Susannah tried to occupy themselves by looking at the decorated houses that Mom seemed overly excited about. They weren’t too interested. They hoped Santa had gotten to their house early. Mom told them the man on the news said Santa would be making his rounds early because of the storm that was on the way.
“Daddy’s home!” Susannah said when she saw Dad’s work van in the driveway.
Jacob leaned over the empty middle seat to get a look at the driveway as their car pulled up behind Dad’s van. “I wonder if he saw Santa!” He threw off his seat belt.
Jacob and Susannah raced to the stoop. Jacob got there first and flung his arms into the air, proudly claiming victory. Susannah ran passed him and touched the door. She argued that he had to touch the door to win. When the spotlight above the door went on, the kids forgot about their argument and jumped up and down at the sight of their father, who wore a Santa hat. He opened the door and knelt down to hug both of his children with pink noses and snow in their brown hair. Susannah gave her father a sloppy kiss on the cheek, then followed Jacob to the Christmas tree. There was nothing there other than the smell of pine.
Susannah turned to her parents who were snuggled by the front door, with a frown on her rosy face. “Mommy, you said there might be presents for us!”
Mom glanced up at Dad. He smiled at her then set his eyes on his children. “Follow me, kids. There’s a surprise in the kitchen for you.”
The children ran ahead of their father. They came to a stop when they saw the black, brown, and white fluff-ball wrapped in red ribbon, curled up in a blue bed.
Susannah looked up at Jacob. “I think it’s a dog,” she whispered.
“It’s a puppy!” Jacob dashed over to the blue bed. Susannah followed. Mom and Dad called after them, telling them to be careful because they might scare her. The puppy wasn’t scared. She crawled over her bed and onto the kitchen tiles. She licked the hands that came at her, she climbed over the children’s legs, she barked when they laughed too loud, she took the treats they waved in her face.
The family decided on a name for the Bernese mountain dog pup that night. Holly Jolly, because of the song that played in the background as they sat on the kitchen floor. Jacob picked it.
That was eleven years ago.
Nineteen-year-old Jacob left his life in Maine to live at school in Florida. He parties too much and studies when he has the chance. At 16, easily influenced Susannah hangs around with who her father calls the wrong crowd. Dad and Mom divorced five years ago due to financial issues. Holly Jolly, who is better known as Holly, lives with Dad, along with Susannah.
All of this is flowing through Jacob’s mind as he glares at his reflection in the mirror smudged with fingerprints and sprinkles of dried spit. The white around his enlarged brown eyes is fading into a tired red — the result of smoking too much pot and not getting enough sleep. He pushes his curly hair back and sighs. He eyes his phone as it buzzes around the back of the sink. He snatches at it, but knocks it off of the sink and onto the floor.
Jacob, on his hands and knees, looks at the text message from Susannah. He reads with foggy eyes:
And she wont get up or eat. Dads gonna call tmrw.
When Jacob was nine, he tied Holly to his sleigh and had her pull him around the snow in the backyard. Jacob would cry out “Mush, Holly, mush!” as his frost bitten hands gripped the sides of the sleigh and his body bounced around in his puffy coat. When Susannah spotted them through the back door, she ran into the yard in her paw print pajamas and chased them around, her frizzy pig tails blew back and she shouted “I want to try!” over and over again. Jacob and Susannah would dig through the shed to find items to create obstacle courses with, and they’d have Holly lead the way through the various adventures. Jacob would climb through the shed and hand Susannah pool floats, shovels, rakes, lawn chairs, cushions, buckets, bags of potting soil — anything they could use to create an obstacle course. Mom and Dad would stand on the white powdered deck, cheer the trio on, and snap pictures. Later that year, they sent out Christmas cards including a family portrait. Dad and Mom stood in front of the decorated fireplace, arms around each other with bright smiles across their faces. Jacob and Susannah were kneeling in front of them, laughing and hugging Holly, who wore antlers on her head and a goofy look on her face.
The first summer with Holly, Mom, Jacob, and Susannah waited at the bus stop early in the damp morning. All of the kids with their new sneakers and loaded backpacks surrounded Holly and called her things like “cute” and “good dog.” Holly soaked up the attention. She licked the smallest children on their faces when they approached and gave her paw to the older ones. Jacob held onto her leash and showed off how smart she was as he threw out commands. Sit, bark, give paw, jump, lie down, play dead. She did them all. The giggles and bursts of laughter when Holly played dead made Jacob proud; he had spent the most time training Holly. He rubbed his hand on her silky head, knelt down, and wrapped his arms around her neck. “I’m going to miss you today, girl,” he whispered.
Jacob scrunched up his face as Holly’s tongue wagged across it. She wouldn’t stop licking him, even when he rolled onto his back. The children and their parents laughed as Holly hovered over Jacob. She panted excitedly as she waited for him to uncover his face. Susannah leaned over Holly’s back, slipped her fingers beneath her collar, and told her how funny she was, as a neighbor turned his video camera toward the trio.
Jacob is on his back, smiling on his hollow dorm room bed as he thinks of his childhood dog. The ends of his chapped lips curve downward and his throat feels sore. He replays in his mind, Holly, who stood alert, fading, as the bus made its way down the street that muggy morning. His breath fogged up a small patch on the window as he waved until he could no longer see his dog. He knew she didn’t understand and that made him sad.
Jacob opens his eyes and looks at his surroundings. His roommate is sleeping, the suite is quiet. The clock on his dresser reads “3:32 a.m.” He leaps up, takes his comforter with him, throws it on the floor, and feels around his bed. He turns on his desk lamp and examines the floor. He knows that he has been passed out, and has no idea what happened to his cell phone. He makes his way into the hallway, steps on something, almost losing his balance. Relieved, he picks up his phone. He texts his sister.
I’m coming home.
The desk lamp shines on Jacob as he researches flights back home on his laptop for as early as possible. He doesn’t care about the price. He’s set on getting home.
When Dad and Mom were going through their divorce, the family was constantly in a gloomy mood. Susannah would often cry as she listened to her parents argue, and when Holly came over to lick away her tears, she’d whine, “Go away, stupid dog.” Jacob would leave the house, either to ride around on his bike or hang out with friends, and often stay over a friend’s house sometimes for days without coming home. Holly would lie on the floor near the front door, depressed. Whenever Mom or Dad neared, they’d often complain she was in their way. Sometimes Mom would drag her in the kitchen and put her behind a gate when Holly was happy to see her and began whining and jumping up for attention. She’d say things like “Not now” and “Holly, stop.” When Holly would bark as Mom and Dad argued, one of them would lock her in the basement for a short while. When Mom took her final step outside of the front door, she paid no attention to Holly.
From those days on, as the kids grew and were out of the house often, as Mom was rarely around, and Dad was busy at work, Holly felt lonely. She’d lie in the same spot all day, eyes set on the front door. Jacob and Susannah would come in and out of that door without hugging, kissing, or petting her; most of the time they wouldn’t say a word to her, they’d just walk by. When Jacob had friends over, he’d never show off Holly’s tricks like he did when he was younger. When Holly barked for attention, he’d tell her to shut up.
As Jacob sits in his seat on the plane, music bursting in his ears, eyes glaring into the sky below, he remembers the first time he left for college.
The minivan was packed up and ready for the airport that morning. Dad and Susannah were in the driveway reorganizing the bins and boxes behind the back seat. Jacob scanned the living room one last time before he walked out the door. Holly sat in front of him and glared up at him with aging eyes. Jacob ignored her at first, but when he caught the look in her eyes, he dropped to his knees, put his hands around her neck, and hugged her for such a long time. “Be a good girl,” he said and kissed her on the head. Holly barked after he shut the door, leaped on the couch to push her face through the blinds, and watched the van disappear into the distance.
Hours pass, and Jacob awakes to a bumpy landing. His eyes scan the sky — it’s a cloudy afternoon. He slides his headphones around his neck and unbuckles his seat belt before instructed to do so, watching the runway pass by. When the plane comes to a stop, the passengers get to their feet to open the overhead bins for their luggage. Jacob, with his backpack slung over one shoulder, anxiously waits, standing over the last seat.
Once out of the jetbridge, he darts around the crowds of people in the airport, holding his phone to an ear, waiting to hear his sister’s voice. Before she answers, he spots her behind a mob of people, digging through her bag stabbed with safety pins.
“Jake!” Susannah runs to her brother and embraces him. “Lucky there was a seat open,” she says, stepping back to examine him. He looks run down. “Did you shower?”
Jacob shrugged. “Why’s your hair black?”
“You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that, it’s just different.”
They begin to walk.
“That means you don’t like it,” Susannah says, making a silly sad looking face.
“What’s with all of the piercings in your ears?” Jacob asks as he eyes his darkly-dressed sister.
“What’s with all of the questions?”
“Is Uncle Billy in the car?” Jacob asks as he leads the way out of the airport.
Susannah smiles. “I drove.”
“Yes I did,” she says proudly.
“You’re not supposed to. Does Dad know you took the car?”
“No. And Uncle Billy would have taken too long to get ready. You know that. I wasn’t going to wait around, and I know how to drive.”
During the ride home, Jacob and Susannah don’t speak a word about Holly’s stomach cancer. They talk about school. The sound of the windshield wipers fills the gaps.
Jacob opens the Civic’s door before Susannah has completely stopped the car and makes his way up the stoop. His key chain jingles around as he searches for the house key. He finds it but stops before completely turning the key in the door. He looks back at Susannah, making her way through the untrimmed grass, arms folded across her chest and head down. He waits for her to walk up the stoop, and opens the door.
There she is, looking older than ever, lying on the carpet near the front door.
“Oh, Holly,” Jacob says and kneels down to pet his dog. She lifts her head and struggles to get to her paws. She tries to lick his face.
“No girl, stay down, it’s okay,” Jacob says, and lies down next to his dog.
Susannah looks out the front door with watery eyes. Tears slip down her face as Holly begins to whine.
Holly whimpers as she stares at Jacob, as if asking him to make the pain disappear.
“I’m sorry, girl. I’m so sorry,” Jacob says and puts an arm around her. He places his head next to hers and she licks his face.
“Holly,” Susannah says, and sits on the other side of her, back against the wall. Her fingers massage her dog’s ears, tears glide down her cheeks. Her face grows red and she breathes harder. She buries her face in Holly’s back. Holly whines and turns her head, attempting to lick Susannah. Susannah raises her head and lets Holly lick her.
“Mom said, Mom said…” begins Susannah, running her wrist beneath her nose.
Jacob raises his head and looks up at his sister, curious to what she is trying to say.
Susannah plants her face in her palms and silently cries. Jacob looks down at the ground; his eyes meet Holly’s. “Everything’s going to be okay, girl.” He strokes her back.
“Mom said her appointment is at 6:00,” Susannah says as she catches her breath. Her nose is running and her eyes are swollen pink. Her dark eyeliner is smudged underneath her wet lashes.
Jacob shuts his heavy eyelids.
“Holly, you’re still my greatest friend,” he said three years ago, as they both sat on the kitchen floor one night, behind the gate. He sat in front of her and stroked both of her ears. He came downstairs to see what Holly was howling about and what Dad was shouting about so late in the night. Earlier, she had been trying to get Dad to throw her ball, but he just yelled and put her in the kitchen. Holly sat there sadly, looking at her tennis ball on the other side of the gate. Jacob smiled at her and she followed him to the gate. She yelped with excitement as Jacob stepped over the gate to get her tennis ball.
“Quiet,” Jacob laughed. She almost knocked him over as he made his way back over the gate. He sat on the floor and let Holly attack him with licks. He hugged her as he giggled like a child and her thick tail thumped against the floor.
“Come on, let’s go outside,” Jacob said in a high whisper. He stood up and threw the ball to Holly, who leaped and caught it, then trotted behind Jacob out the back door. They played a game of fetch under the moon’s light until they were worn out, and fell asleep on the big lawn chair beneath the quilt of stars.
Jacob opens his eyes and forces a smile at his sister, who seems to be spacing out, staring into the air, with streaks of eyeliner dried on the top of her cheeks. He moves as close to Holly as he can get and studies her worn out face as she rests. One of her paws is stretched across his arm.
Later on, Jacob carries Holly into the back of the car, where Susannah set up a cushy blanket and a pillow. The ride to the vet’s is quiet as Dad drives and Susannah gazes out the window in the passenger seat. Jacob sits in the back with Holly, her head resting on his knees.
Dad carries the weak Holly into the vet’s office, where Mom is already waiting. Dad nods at her, she smiles a sad smile, and kisses Holly on the head. Holly forces her eyes open and her face lights up. She seems like a pup again as she covers Mom’s face in lively kisses.
With a gentle voice, the vet directs them to a room and tells them that she’ll be over in a few minutes, but if they want, they can have more time.
Holly’s family strokes her, telling her what a good girl she is and how everything will be okay. When the time comes, Jacob is the only one who decides to stay with Holly as the procedure is done. Dad and Mom say their goodbyes, Mom trying to fight back racing tears and Dad’s voice trembling. Susannah is crying hysterically, her eyes raining as she kisses Holly goodbye.
Jacob sighs and looks at his sick dog who was once so full of life, lying on the table as the vet shaves her hind leg. Her eyes are shut and she breathes slowly. Jacob slides his hand up and down her head as the vet takes off Holly’s light blue collar. She hands it to Jacob and he strokes it as if were a baby animal.
“Are you ready?” the vet asks in a soft tone.
Jacob looks down at Holly, who glances up at Jacob.
“Holly!” Jacob cries as he puts his arms around her. He presses his forehead against hers as tears make their way down his nose. Holly groans and struggles to pull herself up.
“No, girl, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m okay.”
Holly whines and licks his face one last time before putting her exhausted head on her paws. Jacob leans down and kisses Holly on the snout.
He raises his head to meet the vet’s eyes. “We’re ready.”
Jacob holds Holly’s chin with one hand and strokes the top of her head with the other. “I love you, Holly Jolly,” are the last words Holly hears as she slips away from her best friend.
In loving memory of Yogi Bear and Little Dipper.