THE DOG WAS DRENCHED and pathetic, huddled on the steps outside of her kitchen door, just inside the downpour.
It turned it eyes upward at Alice, beseechingly. She laughed, and invited him in, in spite of the fact that her guests were about to arrive and she hadn't finished preparing the appetizers.
"What the hell," she thought. "It's my birthday."
She'd only turn twenty-five once.
Russell stroked her head, which she rested on his chest. Alice still liked his scent, after all these years.
"I think I'm getting used to it, finally," she said.
"Well, I told you. It takes a little while."
She stood at the top of the hill, holding her sled.
It was so steep, so far down.
Her heart was racing, her breath rapid. Allen, a fifth grader, older and wiser and much less patient, stood behind her.
"Come on, Alice. Don't be a sissy. Either go or get out of the way."
He was a doctoral student, and she was in the master's program. He crossed to her table on the patio, carrying his own tray.
"So I hear you're an atheist."
His unruly hair made her smile.
She pointed to a chair.
Alice sat beside him, Dexter in her lap.
Russell glanced at the dog, and then at her face.
"It wouldn't be fair not to, you know. He's suffered too much as it is."
She wiped the tears from her eyes.
"I know. I'm sorry. This is just so—so stupid."
He put the tray down and stuck out a hand.
"Russell. Russell Danes."
"...Simmons. I know. So you think this is it, then? We live. We die. End of story?"
"I think you're confused. I don't believe there's a large pretend human being out there in magic land. I haven't said a thing about what happens after death."
"Okay. So tell me."
"Maybe when we know each other better."
Sam and her brother came through the living room, laughing and punching each other.
They stopped short when they saw the dog.
Sam squatted down, and the mutt wandered over to sniff at his hands.
"A stray. Showed up drenched and hungry at the back door. I let him come in out of the rain."
"What's his name?"
"I said, what's his—oh. Duh, huh?"
Alice returned Anna's wave, and smiled bravely as the train pulled out of the station.
Soon it was out of sight.
Russell grunted and put his arm around her.
"Seventeen years old. Where does she get all that confidence?"
"I feel like I'll never see her again."
"Yeah. Me too. She'll be home for the holidays."
Christmas morning. Alice sat up straight in bed, suddenly wide awake. She slid out from under the covers and danced down the stairs, her pigtails flying. She paused only long enough at the top to survey the tree and make certain that Santa had actually visited.
She reached the bottom step, then dashed to the foot of the tree.
It was the most beautiful doll she had ever seen.