A pit drops open in my stomach. I go to check the shower and find it empty. My nonslip mat is rolled neatly in the corner and the damp towels are folded beneath it.
I run to the shed and throw open the doors. Poor Popsicle leaps from the top of a storage locker with a screech and throws clouds of dust into the air. She ducks underneath my workbench and hisses.
“Well, girl, at least you’re proof Agatha hasn’t left.” I back out as my nose begins to tickle. Where is she?
My phone screams and just about sends me through the tree branch overhead.
“Cornelia’s Inn, Cornelia speaking, how may I help you?”
“Have you given Henry his medication?”
I scan the empty yard. “Given who his what now?”
“Cornelia, is that some sort of joke? I didn’t leave my baby with you for a laugh.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Headsworth.” I clear my throat, remembering the bottle of pills she had tossed at me through her window as she’d driven away. “I was just going to check on Henry.”
“You had bet—”
My phone beeps.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Headsworth, I’m getting another call.” I check the I.D and it’s my sister again, but I use the excuse to end her call. “Plum,” I say, taking the other call, “leave me alone.” I press the end call button with all the gusto I can find, but somehow it just isn’t as satisfying as slamming the phone back into its holder would have been.
When I step into the kennel area, thyroid medicine in hand, I’m greeted by a chorus of barks, but Henry’s lone old bass is missing.
“Henry?” I walk faster. “Henry?”
When I reach his room I have to catch myself on the door to keep from falling over. He isn’t here! His leash is gone too.
Stumbling over my feet, I run to the hilltop overlooking the fenced in acre. The gate bangs open and shut in the wind.
As I pick my way down the hillside the curled tip of a black til just catches my eye at the corner of the shed. “Henry!”
He doesn’t move.
At the bottom of the hill I clip my hip on the corner of the gate and wince, but I don’t slow down. “Henry!”
“Help him.” Agatha sits lengthwise against the shed, rocking the old dog in her arms. His eyes are closed.
“Put him down!”
She lays him on the ground and I put my hand on his chest. His heart thumps slowly against my palm. I put my ear to his nose and he’s barely breathing. I toss my phone at Agatha and scoop him into my arms. “Call the last number that called me and put it on speakerphone.”
I put Henry and Agatha in the back of my car, and floor the gas pedal.
“Cornelia,” my sister, Plum’s, voice echoes in the car, “is that you? Some sister—”
“Not now! I have a dying dog, are you open or not?”
“A dying—I’m putting on my coat right now.” She puts me on hold just long enough to call an assistant to her clinic. “What’s going on?”
“Male, lab mix, 80lbs, nine years old, thyroid issues, low heart rate, not responsive, no other history, and his medication is with me.”
“How long has he been this way?”
“Maybe a half an hour?” Agatha says.
“How far out are you?”
“Ten minutes.” I say.
“I’ll meet you at the back entrance, sis.”
It’s all a blur of questions and fur when we arrive. Henry has stopped breathing and my sister and her nurses whisk him away, leaving us in defining silence.
Agatha’s hand on my arm jolts me from my thoughts. “I’m so sorry.”
“You didn’t cause this.”
“When I had finished with the shower I heard the worst sound. That dog was wheezing, but it sounded like a scream.” Her eyes glaze over. “I thought the open air might help him, but at the bottom of the hill he just—collapsed.”
I don’t know what to say, so I wrap my arms around her.
“Will you get in trouble if he dies?”
I think of never seeing Henry’s sweet brown eyes again and I don’t really care if I’m in trouble with his lousy owner. I shrug.
From her pocket, she produces my phone and timidly hands it back to me.
“This makes me thankful for Popsicle.”
“And me thankful for Scout.”
Her eyes linger on the phone. “You don’t know what it’s like when an animal is all you have in the world. You keep each other warm when the world wants to freeze you out. They become more than just like family, they become a piece of your soul.”
“Why don’t you talk to her?” Agatha says.
I frown. “What are you talking about?”
“Your sister. She’s the one you had me call, isn’t she? There were a lot of unanswered calls from her on your phone.”
She sits, looking at me for an answer and I have none to give. “It’s just DNA.”
“But she’s here when you need her. Do you know how rare that is?”
I stand up and step away. “This isn’t your business.”
“I think it is.”
“And why is that?”
“Because when all I wanted was a blanket, you gave me a friend.” She holds my gaze. “A person like that wasn’t made to be alone.”
There’s a small cough from the far side of the room and my sister steps forward. “He’s stable, but I’ll need the owner’s number. There are more tests I need to run, but I think you got him here in time.”
I glance at Agatha, her words making more sense than I’d like, and then to my sister. I clear my throat. “I’m sorry we haven’t talked in a while.”
For a moment her face tightens, but slowly she relents. “You had your reasons.”
Everything in me fights the words on the tip of my tongue. “They weren’t good enough to lose you over. No boyfriend is worth more than a sister.”
“Good to hear, since he and I are getting divorced. I guess I should have listened to you.” She crosses her arms. “Does that mean you forgive me?”
“What do you know,” she says, “it’s a Christmas Miracle. Does that mean you’ll come have dinner with me and the kids? They’d love to meet their Auntie.”
A warm feeling settles over me as I glance at Agatha. “Yes, but only if I can bring a friend.”
Agatha’s eyes widen. “But,” she looks at her ragged clothes, “I’d be out of place.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, my mind darting back to the presents beneath the tree, “I think we can take care of that.”
A very MERRY CHRISTMAS to each and every one or you. If you have a question you’d like to “ask” Cornelia, leave it in a comment below and I’ll be sure include it in this year’s final character interview.