Protecting What's Mine

A few years down the road…


“That’s quite the equipment you’re packing, Dreamy,” Linc said, eyeing his wife as she crammed an SLR camera with a zoom lens into her bag.


She shot him a look. “Need I remind you that this is Casey’s first Christmas assembly and Hadley is lead reindeer? We’re not missing a second of it.” She paused and straightened to tickle the baby he was bouncing. “You’re doing video, right?”


“No, I’m not. And you’re not taking pictures either.” He held up a hand when Mackenzie opened her mouth to tell him exactly what kind of an idiot he was being.


“I paid Skyler and Zane fifty bucks each to get front row seats and document the entire thing for us so we can sit there being present and amazed and possibly appalled—because Hadley was not committing to practicing the footwork for the dance number until I got the guys involved—by our girls.”


Those green eyes went smoky on him, taking his breath away like they always did.


“You, Chief Reed, are a damn genius.”


The baby on the blanket next to them waved his chubby arms and blew a spit bubble in approval.


“See? Lucas agrees,” she said, beaming at their youngest. Six months old, and he’d officially wrestled the title of Biggest Flirt away from his father. Grown women swooned over his baby blues and round cheeks.


His big sisters found him charming, except when he was in meltdown mode, which wasn’t quite as often as his first few months. And now they were settling into being a family of five.


Seven actually.


Sunshine, still spry at age twelve, tip-tapped into the room with Muttski on her heels. Muttski was a nondescript mix of seven different breeds—according to the genetic test Mackenzie had insisted on—with one ear up and one ear down. He’d developed a crush on Sunshine three years ago when the fire department and Wellness Club had co-hosted an animal rescue event.


And the rest of them had fallen hard for his barrel-like body and little doggy grin.


It was a really good fucking life. They worked hard and played harder. Juggling work schedules, kid activities, and naked time. In between it all, Mack learned to make jelly, and Linc tried his hand at gardening and corn hole.


“I don’t suppose we have half an hour—”


“No,” she said firmly. “But Dottie and Win are picking up all three hellions in approximately four hours and keeping them overnight.”


Linc swooped Lucas into his carrier and pulled Mackenzie into his arms.


“Have I mentioned how much I love you?”


She slipped her arms around his neck. “Only once since breakfast.”


“Take a look around us. Look what we’ve built, Dr. Reed.”


The firehouse was home now. Its concrete floors and brick walls were softened by comfortable furniture, cozy rugs. A never-ending deluge of kids’ toys that were picked up every night somehow always seemed to spill forth in the daylight hours.


The kitchen was a bright, airy room where their girls perched on stools for their breakfast and in the afternoons to tell Linc every single thing that happened in their days at Benevolence Elementary School while he made them snacks.


Their dining table was big and beefy and expanded to fit both families for a monthly brunch.


They’d hosted cookouts on the rooftop deck. Read stories to their babies in bedrooms where firefighters had once caught Zs between calls. Their bedroom was a haven of heavy drapes, big furniture, and a bed that they were both happy to spend as much time in as possible.


The firehouse that he’d once thought of as his second home was now truly home. It was filled with love and laughter…and, given the ages of everyone, an overabundance of tears on any given day. But he wouldn’t change a damn thing.


Every night, when he crawled into bed exhausted and wrung out, he buried his face in Mackenzie’s hair and breathed her in. They both knew what a delicate balance it was between life and death. Between well and unwell. Between busy and burnout. And they worked hard to maintain that balance.


* * *


Linc watched his tough, beautiful doctor wipe away a tear as the first reindeer pranced out on stage. Hadley had dark, wavy hair like her mother and his blue eyes that she used to defraud them of snacks and extra screen time. She’d also inherited her stubborn streak from both sides.


Casey was a rough-and-tumble pixie whose independence was under constant expression. Her blonde hair was cut short after an unfortunate yet hilarious gum incident that she tried to fix herself with safety scissors…the day before kindergarten Picture Day.


A word to parents everywhere, those things can still cut hair.


He wondered what kind of personality Lucas would have as the little boy bounced happily in his lap, making eyes and belly laughing at Grandma Dottie.


“Oh, I can’t take it another second,” Dottie said, shoving her camera into Win’s hands. “Give me that beautiful baby boy!”


Linc unloaded Lucas and wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulder.


His mom half rose out of her seat next to him, phone trained on the stage. His dad put down his crossword and watched his granddaughters with pride.


Mack leaned in. “Did you ever think in a million years you’d be taking a half-day off work to watch your kids butcher a school Christmas production?” she asked as Casey turned the wrong way during the very simple kindergarten choreography of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”


Apparently the song wasn’t doing it for her because she belted out a line from Frozen. The rest of the kids must have thought it was a way better option and joined in. The music director shrugged at the audience and tossed her baton over her shoulder. Mack stifled her laughter by burying her face in Linc’s chest.


“Baby, I think I’ve been dreaming about this for a long, long time.”


“Softie. I just assumed I’d be medevac’ing patients into my seventies and then retiring to the Caribbean. Elementary school Christmas assemblies were not on my radar.”


Plans changed. Dreams grew. And happiness sometimes just snuck up on a person when they were least expecting it.


“Speaking of,” he said. “I booked it. You and me. An entire week in January. A tropical island.”


“First of all, you’re the most amazing husband in the universe. Secondly, we’re going to drink too many umbrella drinks, have all of the sex, and take lazy naps by the pool.” She sighed dreamily.


“We should definitely work on our endurance for all of those things. Don’t want to go into this vacation as amateurs.”


“Agreed. Are you sure your parents are up for dealing with three little, beautiful, evil kids?” she asked.


“They’re trading off with your parents for the weekend and then my sisters, who owe me two-and-a-half years of free childcare—I did the math—have them the rest of the week. The kids stay at our place, and the babysitters are rotating out. Harper and Luke are the back-up backups.”


“You’ve thought of everything.”


“Dreamy, nothing is going to keep me from you on a beach in the very small, very red bikini I ordered you last night.”


“Damn. The Speedo I got you is red, too,” she teased. “We’ll be twinsies.”


He grinned and squeezed her hand.


The number came to a welcome and out-of-tune ending on stage.


“Remind me to talk to Ellen about the New Year’s Throw Down,” Mack whispered.


Thanks to Mackenzie’s persistence and Linc’s grant-writing skills, Benevolence had acquired a grant to expand their Wellness Club. It had grown to include weekly social events that included fitness and wellness and nutrition. Step contests, weight loss challenges. Hell, Abner Kersh had organized an entire trick-or-treat route for kids with allergies at Halloween. The whole damn town’s cholesterol was down, blood pressure was falling. So were things like loneliness and feelings of isolation.


All because Mackenzie O’Neil came to town.


He reached over to toy with her wedding band. He’d had it engraved with the words he wore on his heart. I’ll always be there.


Lucas clapped in his grandmother’s lap.


Linc noted a couple of his crew from the station standing along the wall, their feet moving in unison with the kids on stage. They’d all learned the choreography to help Hadley practice. His daughter danced with what they’d dubbed her fierce face. Intent and serious, just like her beautiful mom.


Luke and Harper were there a few rows back. Gloria and Aldo, too. Even though most of their kids were older and had moved well beyond elementary school. James and his husband Manny were there recording second-grade Oliver’s one-liner in the play and daughter Tate’s kindergarten dance number.


Time marched on, families grew, love deepened. And Linc wouldn’t have it any other way.


The assembly mercifully ended with an out-of-tune, tuba-heavy performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by the fourth graders. The kids got a standing ovation. Not so much because of their performance, but because it was over.


“Daddy!”


Hadley launched herself at him, and he caught her, just like he always would. “Great footwork, kiddo!”


Joyfully, she squished his cheeks between her little seven-year-old hands. He’d painted her fingernails red and green for the occasion while Mack had reinforced her floppy antlers with a metal clothes hanger. Both had held up well.


“Did you see me? I nailed that three-sixty.”


“I saw it! Zane and Skyler recorded the whole thing.”


“Mommy’s gonna make us watch it a hundred million times, isn’t she?” Hadley groaned.


“She sure is.”


“She’s so funny.”


“Daaaaaaaaaaaad!” Casey came running, and Linc scooped her up. His arms full of giggling girls arguing about what they should have for dinner. And then Dreamy was walking toward them through the crowd. Her cheeks flushed, her smile bright.


Linc knew without a doubt that he’d never feel more love than he did in that moment.


He also knew that he’d be proven wrong tomorrow. Because every damn day was a new happily ever after.


* * *


The Story of the Real Sunshine


Sunshine was a real dog. My real dog. And she taught me the greatest life lesson.


For a few years, Mr. Lucy and I fostered rescue dogs in our home. We’d helped make several serendipitous dog-human matches. There was Archer, the puppy that my social worker friend found tied to a client’s porch with no food. Maddie Mae, the puppy mill Jack Russell terrier who never learned not to pee on the carpet. Sam the pitbull-mastiff mix who now paddleboards with his human and carries puppies in his saddlebag.


And then there was Sunshine.


A rescue we hadn’t worked with before posted an emergency SOS. They’d liberated her from an Amish puppy mill in Lancaster County. She was a six-year-old, overbred yellow lab with the softest fur I’d ever had the privilege of petting.


Turns out she also had raging separation anxiety.


I was at a low point when little miss Sunshine pranced into my life. I’d been laid off from a job with a newspaper, a place I’d dreamed of working since I was a kid watching Lois Lane chase down stories on TV.


My savings were running out and the novella I’d written and thrown at Amazon like overcooked spaghetti at a wall had flopped.


I felt depressed and adrift and unnecessary.


Enter Sunshine on September 4, 2013. Somehow, she didn’t see the sad, unemployable, replaceable Lucy. She looked at me and saw a radiant beacon of peanut butter…or cheese. Or whatever dogs value the most.


It took us a few days to catch on to the depth of Sunshine’s separation anxiety. The claw marks in the doorframes and giant puddles of pee on the carpet were hints. But it wasn’t until we came home from dinner and found the couch moved two feet backwards with dog toenail marks carved into it that we realized we had a big problem.


Turns out, Miss Sunshine had bonded her little blonde self to me. And any time I wasn’t right in front of her, she was convinced the world was going to end.


So, we made concessions. We tried rarely leaving the house. We held rather one-sided conversations with her about the concept of objects and people existing even though she couldn’t see them. We tried crating her. Calming treats. Thunder jackets.


But apparently nothing compared to my company. Ego boost!


We’d had our disaster dog for a few weeks when Mr. Lucy and I started having the “No one is going to adopt this dog” conversation. Which evolved into the “So this is what foster failure feels like.”


We loved her. Despite her disastrous crazypants fears, she was a super good girl (read in human to doggy tone). She slept at our feet and every morning would belly crawl her way up the bed between us to shove her big wet nose in our faces, her tail thumping maniacally because, for the first time in her life, she had humans who didn’t leave and a soft, squishy bed. She had endless green grass outside, daily walks, and all the food and water she could ever want. She also had a weird four-legged pillow that didn’t like her very much.


To this day, Sunshine is the only other living organism that Cleo the cat learned to tolerate. Somewhere in the archives, a picture of Sunshine using Cleo as a reluctant pillow exists.


Leashes were purely decorative because our fluffy little girl never left my side. Even in a dog park, I couldn’t get her to do anything but sit in front of me and stare at me like her own personal Cheese Goddess. Toys held no interest for her. Other dogs didn’t exist. She would tolerate love from other humans, but always with her brown eyes on me or Mr. Lucy.


It was around this time that Mr. Lucy noticed that one of Sunshine’s doggy boobs was swollen and seemed painful to the touch.


The rescue who had originally liberated Sunshine was no longer involved in her care, but Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance hooked us up with a vet appointment. After an intense surgery and a visit with a specialist, we had our diagnosis.


Our little girl had cancer and it was everywhere.


Our little family didn’t have much time together.


The vet was an incredible woman—her patients include wolves at a local sanctuary—and she gave us a very explicit list of symptoms to watch for so we would know when it was time. She explained that dogs hide their pain so well, their humans often don’t realize how much they hurt until it’s too late.


Since Sunshine was a foodie, we were instructed to watch her appetite. Because as soon as that went, it meant her situation was dire. In the meantime, we were to give her anything her puppy dog heart desired.


On the way home, we stopped at Wendy’s and got her her own chicken nuggets.


From that day on, Sunshine was never alone. She had scrambled eggs for breakfast and ground turkey and vegetables for dinner. She went to yoga with me and to work with Mr. Lucy. She would wait in the car when I went grocery shopping…and then eat entire loaves of bread if I left her alone for two minutes with the bags.


We snuggled with her and scheduled our days around her without worrying about spoiling her. Our friends brought her gourmet treats and fancy toys. And she basked in the attention of loving humans. And Cleo’s disdain.


On December 23, 2013, Sunshine went to sleep one last time with her head in my lap in our living room while a kind-hearted vet recited a poem and told her she was a good, beautiful girl.


My best friend was gone. But she wasn’t in pain anymore. She wasn’t scared anymore.


And I had done my best by her.


That was the lesson Sunshine taught me.


With the end always in mind, we made the best of the present. And when the time came to say good-bye, we had already said everything else. Because not a minute of Sunshine’s time with us had been wasted.


Sunshine revealed the very best in us. Our patience, our uncomplicated, unconditional loving hearts. Our ability to be present and do our very best. And in the end, she showed us how beautiful a good-bye with no regrets can be.


She also taught me that even unemployed and vaguely depressed, I still deserved to be loved unconditionally.


Yeah, so. I’m basically geysering salt water out of my eyeballs right now remembering the pretty little girl who didn’t have enough time on this planet with good people who loved her.


We’ll never forget Sunshine, Destroyer of Carpets and Furniture, Stealer of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, Our Bread-Loving Bed Hog.


We’ll also never forget the kind folks at Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance who set up vet appointments, paid for surgeries and meds, and cried for us when Sunshine—a dog they hadn’t even rescued—pranced across the Rainbow Bridge.


Mr. Lucy and I don’t foster anymore. But we do write checks. If you are ever looking for a cause that deserves your dollars, CPAA’s Hounds of Prison Education program is amazing. They pair carefully vetted prisoners with rescue dogs that need special training. Magic happens for the human wards and the canines that come to love them unconditionally.


https://www.hopedogs.org/


After everything Sunshine gave me, I’d always wished I could have given her more time. The best I could do was give her Lincoln Reed and her own happily ever after. I hope you loved my fictional girl as much as I loved the real thing.


Remember, all we have is right now and it’s up to us to make the best of it. So live life Sunshine style. Love someone so much it hurts when they’re not there. Steal a PB&J. Make a memory. Keep those regrets out of your good-byes.