"It's too hot to wear a jacket!" Mickey complains.
"Michael, you must dress properly for Church," his mother admonishes.
"I don't care how you feel and neither will the pastor, but he'll care very much if you show up at the Candlelight Service in just your shirt and slacks. Now dress up or you'll be late."
Lilly's heavy footfall fades behind the closed door. Then clomp - clomp announces his wife's descent and Presley watches Lilly slowly manoeuvre the narrow staircase.
"I swear that boy drives me to distraction."
"Oh Honey, he's just a boy and he's gone through so many changes. Give him time and I'm sure he'll calm down."
"I know you're right Presley. I just wish we'd waited a little while before having a baby. I feel like this is too much too soon."
"Well Honey, that's why we got him Smokey, and Lord knows he loves that dog."
"Why Presley, that's blasphemy - and on Christmas Eve!"
"And now you're right Lilly. Where is that boy? .... Mickey?"
Lilly impatiently buttons her coat while Presley wraps the new baby in a blanket and lays her in the carriage. They watch Mickey as he flies down the stairs. Smokey, his coonhound, trails after him. Lilly opens the front door and Mickey sails past her, sliding on the new ice forming on the sidewalk. He stretches his left leg forward, turns sideways, extends his arm and bends his knees, getting as much speed from the thin covering of ice as possible.
"Stop that, Michael, or you'll slip and fall and mess your suit!" Lilly scolds.
"Yes Mother," Mickey replies, bending his knees a little more. The ice ends just ahead and Mickey stops himself from stumbling by taking a few running steps.
"Will there be no end?" Lilly mutters to herself as she grabs her mischievous son by the hand and drags him up the stairs to the church. The great doors slam shut before Smokey can sneak in. She slumps into a ball and sighs.
It is raining. The thin icy spots on the walkways melt. Inside, parishioners sing carols; candlelight flickers over the pages of the hymnals making the words dance.
A baby's whimper accents hopeful voices lifting in song. The rain passes. The air is still. The streets are wet. The clear night sky shows stars and the moon behind thin wisps of clouds. Suddenly, people pour out the double doors, spreading in all directions like milk spills to the floor. Shadows cast from the wideÂÁ sprung double doors are long and thin, stretching far into the moonlight, leading people home. Each footstep clacks loudly in the dark silence.
Smokey rises and moves to the side when the doors burst open. She smells the air and waits patiently, looking from one person to another, not a threat, just the same dog that sits by the steps of the church every Sunday watching for her boy. And then he's there. He comes fast and effortlessly, weaving in and out of his elders and neighbors, calling salutations behind him as he rushes for his freedom. Smokey stands on all fours, stomping her front paws impatiently. Her ears fold back, her tail slices whip-like, side-to-side, smacking into the cast iron banister with a thud - thud - thud. Mickey's hand strokes her muzzle while his other massages her ear and she laps at his face. Her breath is hot and awful, but Mickey doesn't mind. He laughs and gets a mouth full of canine tongue, which spurs him to action.
"Come on Smokey!" he commands as he leaps up.
His mother calls "Michael ..." His name grows faint. The space between them increases and even the memory of her calling fades into the distance.
The boy and his dog race each other. She's faster and speeds before him, but when she hesitates to sniff, and then to mark her spot, he outpaces her and feels victorious when he beats her to the house. Mickey throws the door open and bolts inside. He will be undressed and in bed before Lilly gets home and scolds him for his undignified departure from service. Mickey's been told before. He knows that the solemnity of the Holy Sacraments should temper his movements for at least an hour after Church, but he just can't do it. After sitting still for so long, he has to run.
He's under the covers, feigning sleep when his parents come in. Smokey lies at his feet. Her body makes a circle, with her forepaws neatly tucked under her muzzle and her head resting on her hind legs. Mickey listens intently, stilling his breath so he can hear conversation.
"He's probably upstairs in bed already," his mother says. "Would you check on him while I tend to the baby? I hope he's asleep so that we can get ready for tomorrow."
He hears the slow footfall of his stepfather mounting the stairs. Mickey slams his eyelids tighter and makes a little snoring sound. He remembers at the last minute to stop wiggling his restless leg. The door opens and then quietly closes. Mickey opens his eyes and watches the shadow of Presley's feet disappear from the space of light under the door. His eyes close again. He hears pots and pans clatter in the kitchen and he sleeps.
Morning smells wake the young boy. Coffee is brewing and bacon is frying. Mickey rouses a little. He's hungry. He hears people talking. The voices of Aunt Earlene and Momma rise as they argue over whether the bacon should cook longer. Lilly is cooing at her new daughter.
It's Christmas and Mickey jumps out of bed, clutches his housecoat and bolts downstairs.
"Merry Christmas Mickey!" everyone calls. His whole family is there. They are clustered in the kitchen, making it feel tight. His grandmother stands before the stove holding a wooden spoon. The bacon has splattered dark marks on her apron. Mickey knows who won the argument. He runs to her, throws his arms around her and says
"Merry Christmas Momma! I missed you!"
"What about me" asks Aunt Earlene?
"Oh Aunt Earlene, what did you bring me?" Mickey asks.
"Mickey, watch your manners," says Lilly.
"Sorry Mom. What's for breakfast?"
"I think you know what's for breakfast, but why don't you go see if Santa Claus brought you anything."
Mickey rushes from the kitchen. A tree has appeared in the living room overnight. The tinsel on its heavily laden branches sparkle from the light reflected off small candles. Behind the tree, a red bicycle leans against the wall. A lump of coal rests on the seat.
"Mom look! I got a bicycle!"
"Really? You are so lucky!"
"I'm going outside right now to use it."
"Mickey, you have to eat your breakfast first."
"Lilly, can I give him his present now or should we wait until after we eat?"
Aunt Earlene is holding a box behind her back. Lilly shakes her head slowly and sighs. "I guess so, Ernie, but I..."
Mickey slips between his mother and aunt. He looks at Earlene and smiles. She hands him the present and says "Merry Christmas, Mickey. I hope you like it."
Mickey falls to the floor, tearing at the brown wrapping paper. The shreds rain around him in small bits. The box holds a small, three-car train. The first is a black steam engine, complete with a cowcatcher. The next is a yellow boxcar and the last is the caboose. It is red. He barely hears his aunt tell him "...and if you take care of it, maybe for your birthday we can get more cars or a track..."
He looks up and asks, "What?"
Aunt Earlene is still talking. She says, "Please Michael, try not to take it apart for at least fifteen minutes."
Lilly adds, "That's fifteen minutes after you eat dear."
He eats his meal and is released by his mother "Yes, you are excused. You may go."
He holds his new train and remembers what he heard. Turning to Aunt Earlene, he says, "I promise I won't take it apart for fifteen minutes." The adults laugh.
Mickey knows the seriousness of a promise and plans on keeping his word, but fifteen minutes is such a long time. He tries and does it. He watches the clock, the hands moving too slowly, ticking loudly.
The young child is staring at the minute hand, drawn into each passing moment. He almost shudders when, with the marking of each minute, the hand jerks to its next position. And at minute number fifteen, he rips into the engine to see how it works.
Lilly has been cleaning up the scraps of box and paper that have been left on the floor. She hears the sudden dismemberment and sighs.
Her son tears out of the house, running, feeling the unusually warm breeze through his hair and arms and legs. He is a train and he's running on the tracks. He runs over hills and through mountains. He runs over rivers and if the track was long enough, he could run over the ocean. Mickey stumbles on a rock and there's Smokey right at his heels. Now she's running circles around him. The concentric circles get wider and larger with each turn.
She wags her tail as she hesitates to sniff spoor, rolls, and then runs another circle. Now she's after a squirrel, way ahead of him. He cannot see her, but has a general idea of where she is. He hears the papery sound of movement through dry leaves. Small branches snap. A yip and a growl from the brambles to the left.
Suddenly Smokey breaks through the foliage - a torrent of grace and speed. She bounds towards her boy, knocking him on his back, licking his face.
He's not a train anymore he's an engineer. He knows how trains work; he has learned their secrets. He can build one if he wants. Mickey stands up and looks around, to see where the run has taken him. He's on Horse Mountain and the wind is picking up. Smokey wanders around, worrying birds and small animals. Mickey glances towards the house.
He can't see it, but he always looks. He remembers the steam engine of the train and regrets taking it apart. He's thinking about how he can make a new one when he hears a plane in the distance.
He raises his hand to his forehead, looks to the sky, and he sees a helicopter describing a circle above the mountain. Mickey stands and watches the helicopter approach. The beating of the blades blows the grass and his hair everywhere. It is getting very loud and Mickey slides his hands over his ears. He covers and uncovers them a few times noticing the changes in the sound. The pilot is wearing sunglasses. Mickey sinks into the grass as the helicopter lands.
Two men come out. They are wearing green pants and shirts. Mickey knows they're in the army because he has been in the army before. Last week he took Iwo Jima single-handedly. One of the soldiers holds a map. Smokey lowers her head and growls. Her hackles rise as the two men approach.
"It's okay Smokey, they're on our side," Mickey says as he smooths the hair on her back. He is scratching her ear when one of the army men speaks.
"Young man, do you know where you are?"
"Yes Sir." Mickey's in the army, and he's talking to an officer.
"Can you tell me where Shelbyville is?" The soldier speaks fast but carefully. He even says the 1-b-y part of the town's name. Mickey knows that these people are not from around here. Mickey points towards his home. He lives in Shelbyville, but no one says it like that. He corrects the soldiers, saying "Shuvel's right down there, Sir."
The two men look at each other. One says, "Well, it was a thought but I guess he's too young."
The other replies "It must be around here somewhere."
They turn and walk away, enter the helicopter and fly off. Mickey is in pursuit. He and his faithful dog guide, Rin Tin Tin, are hunting for the bank robbers. With Rin Tin Tin's expert nose, they are sure to find them, but they must run fast. The bad guys are getting away. Mickey follows the dog down to the Duck River. That's where the scoundrels are hiding! The river moves swiftly here, carving the shoreline into steep, mossy, root-ridden overhangs. Mickey stands beside a tree, holding onto its trunk. He bounces up and down on a soggy, lichen-covered stump. The muddy water glistens in the morning sunlight. Mickey is ready to jump in when he hears his mother's voice calling.
"We'll get them later!" he declares and heads home.
"Mom, guess what happened!" Mickey calls as he bangs the back door open. Lilly looks towards the boy and sees twigs in his hair and mud on his knees.
His pants are torn. He is excited and breathing fast. She smells Smokey before seeing her. The dog wears evidence of rolling in horse flop, and is wet.
"Where have you been?" Lilly asks.
Mickey tells the story. He gets louder and louder. He is nearly yelling when he gets to the part about the soldiers not knowing how to say the name of their town.
His family stands around, shaking their heads. Momma says, "Tsk-tsk." Lilly is slapping her hand with a wooden spatula. Earlene holds the broken train. Presley's arms fold across his chest. The baby gurgles in the cradle. Mickey looks from face to face, seeing frowns.
"I can't believe you broke the train," says Earlene.
"He's just a boy," Momma says, defending her grandson. "He's been up to something," says Presley.
"He's been lying, that's what," says Lilly. "Mickey, strip me a switch!"