You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Long Walk Home right now. If you like what you read, make sure to grab your copy here!
Some say that whenever it snows in Charleston, God is giving a miracle to His most favorite of places. I tried to remember that as the cold reaching fingers of the wind poked and prodded my cheeks, nose, and everything else not already covered up by my scratchy winter getup.
But the more I tried to be optimistic about the shocking turn in the weather forecast, the harder that miraculous snow swirled. Soon it had bleached out the entire sky so that it was hard to tell where earth ended and the heavens began. We had a veritable snow storm on our hands just in time for the celebration of His birth.
I mumbled a quick prayer that those traveling tonight would remain safe and hugged my threadbare coat tighter around my shoulders. Head down, I fought against the wind, marching ever closer toward my destination.
Leave it to me to get so caught up in my Christmas Eve sermon that I’d forget my cell phone right there on the pulpit! Lucky thing I did, though, because as I finally reached the front doors of the sanctuary, I discovered a most disturbing sight.
Our locally famous nativity scene had been on the fritz all week, but now the angels’ glowing halos had plum run out of power, casting the entire display into darkness. And on Christmas Eve, no less.
Ignoring the cold, which had found its way straight up underneath my clothes, I stepped closer to investigate the source of our power outage. Last summer old Mrs. Clementine had taken it upon herself to plant a little garden right outside the church. How could I say no to her request when she said all the food from our newly christened vegetable patch would be donated to feed the hungry?
And so with more than a little trepidation, I said yes, and unfortunately so did every little critter within a twenty mile radius. Even with the crops resting for the winter, I had no doubt that one of Mrs. Clementine’s rabbit friends had tried to make a home of Christ’s manger—and a snack of His power cords.
Upon closer inspection, I found that—yes, just as I’d suspected—a tiny ball of brown fluff had nestled into the nativity right there between Mary, Joseph, and the kindly shepherds who’d come to pay their respects.
Well, that’s what I wanted to think, but then I stopped myself. These poor creatures hadn’t expected the sudden snowfall either. They just wanted to get warm, and maybe God had sent me back to offer assistance on His behalf.
My toes began to go numb, but I tried to ignore that tingly sharpness as I stepped in for a closer look at the trembling animal.
Imagine my surprise when I found not just one creature, but five!
Right there next to the little Lord Jesus lay a mother dog and her four newborn pups. How they’d managed to survive this long was truly by the grace of God.
I didn’t want to leave them, but I couldn’t carry them all at once either. At least not on my own. After retrieving the box that our latest batch of hymnals had arrived packed inside, I stripped off my scarf and made a little nest. Then one by one, I lifted the mama and her puppies into the cardboard carrier and brought them into our church to get warm.
My lungs could scarcely take in a single breath of air until I made sure that each pup was alive and well. Only by the glory of God each of these tiny newborns moved just enough to show me they were okay. You must understand these dogs were hardly bigger than my own thumb. They could have easily been mistaken for rat pups if not for that brave mama dog.
A quick search on my newly retrieved phone confirmed that these were not just any dogs. They were the most diminutive of all dog breeds.
I didn’t even stop to question why the Almighty had sent me five Chihuahuas in need as an early gift for His birthday. I didn’t have to, because right then I knew beyond the shadow of any doubt these dogs were meant to find us. Surviving that cold Christmas Eve outdoors was only the first of many miracles that mama dog and her pup would bring to our congregation…
Abigail Sutton sat in the dark living room waiting for her father to return from his Christmas Eve sermon. Much to his chagrin, she’d refused to attend church with him that evening. She also wouldn’t go tomorrow morning, next Sunday, or any other day for the rest of her life as long as she could avoid it.
Avoiding church when your father was the pastor took quite some effort, but Abigail had committed herself to just that. The last time she’d stepped foot into the Eternal Grace sanctuary had been for her husband’s funeral, which had forever tainted the place as far as she was concerned.
It had destroyed her relationship with God, too.
She’d happily praised His name all her life, and for what? The first time she’d truly needed God, He’d failed to show up. What good is having an all-powerful Heavenly Father if he couldn’t even take the one second that was needed to shield her husband from the bomb blast that had claimed him far too soon?
Then there was the guilt.
Abigail herself had been the one to convince Owen to take a second tour of duty before they’d settle down to start their family. If she’d just asked him to stay home, they’d be together singing holiday hymns at church with her father and planning the start of their family side by side, hand in hand.
Instead, Abigail sat alone. She’d moved back in with her father about two months ago. Back to her childhood home in Charleston.
It was an odd thing returning to your hometown when you thought you’d already left it behind. It was almost as if her life with Owen hadn’t even happened, like the world wasn’t just burying his body but also his memory. But it couldn’t get rid of her husband that easily, for Abigail still had two very good reminders.
One was the glistening gold band on her finger. They said people wore rings on their second smallest finger because it had a vein linked straight to the heart. She’d always liked that.
Her other reminder of Owen was also near to her heart, as in literally growing just beneath it. Their child. The last piece of Owen anyone would ever have in this world.
She didn’t know how to feel about becoming a mother and a widow at almost the exact same time. She’d only found out about her pregnancy a few weeks before the solider with downcast eyes and a blank expression had delivered the folded flag to her doorstep. She’d called to tell Owen the news even though it was still early, and conventional wisdom said not to tell anyone until the first “dangerous” twelve weeks had passed.
But the news of their child was supposed to keep him safe, give him something that much more special to which he’d returned. Instead, she would always have to wonder if it had been the distraction that knocked him off his game and ultimately ended his life way out there in that horrible desert so far from home.
She hated picturing it, but she couldn’t stop either. Every time Abigail closed her eyes, she saw her Owen smiling and wiping away tears of joy at their wedding. But in an instant, his handsome face would be replaced by a bloodied, torn visage mangled by pain. It was this last haunting version of Owen that remained with her, and it didn’t even look like him.
But what about their baby? If it turned out to be a boy, would it look like Owen? The real Owen?
She didn’t know whether that would make things easier or not. Would having a little boy the spitting image of his father break her heart every time she looked at him—or would it soothe her?
Abigail wished she didn’t have to consider these things. She wished she could be a normal mother expecting her first child and expecting her husband home healthy, happy, and in time for dinner.
A part of her also wished that she had never met Owen at all. Each time Abigail thought this, though, a tremendous wave of guilt overtook her.
When would the tears stop coming? When would the guilt stop eating her from the inside out? When would she actually be happy about this baby?
Never couldn’t possibly be the answer, but it was the one she expected. She’d given God her everything, only for Him to take it all away at the first chance He got.
She glanced at the clock on her cell phone. Her father should have been home at least half an hour ago. She groaned and curled her legs up beneath her on the chair. It wasn’t that she needed his company, but she liked to have benchmarks by which she could measure the passage of time.
Her biggest comfort these days was simply that time pressed ever onward. After all, it was supposed to heal all wounds. And Abigail had few other options left when it came to finding some way—any way—to begin to feel normal again.
Another five minutes passed before she heard the sound of her father fiddling with the doorknob outside. “Abigail, can you help?” he called through the thick wooden door. “I have a surprise!”
Slowly, she lifted herself from the chair, bracing herself for whatever came next. She’d asked him not to make a big fuss of Christmas this year, but that didn’t mean he’d chosen to listen. Her sweet father was always coming up with grand schemes, and they all too often involved her. Even before Abigail had moved back home, he’d often call her out of the blue and stop by the base to invite her on an impromptu day trip.
Normally she loved his zeal for life, but lately it was just too much. She needed him to be calm, reserved, forgettable. Then maybe she could put these painful days of grieving behind her, too.
Somehow she doubted that would happen. She took a deep breath, then placed a shaking hand on the door knob and twisted it open. The surprise that greeted her on the doorstep was quite possibly the last thing she’d ever have expected…
Abigail took a step back as her father rushed past her into the house. In his arms he carried an old cardboard box. He’d taken off his coat and flung it over the top so that she couldn’t see what was inside.
She heard it, though—a mix of whimpers and squeaks that surely meant they were in for a calamitous holiday.
“Oh no.” Abigail gave her father a stern look. “Did a squirrel have babies in the attic again? You know you don’t have the time to look after them. You were too upset last time when—”
“Yes, I know what happened last time.” Her father turned to her with a huge grin on his wind-chapped face. “But this time will be different.”
She gave him a fatigued sigh. She hated to dampen his spirits, but she just didn’t have the energy for yet another ill-fated rescue attempts. “Different how?”
“Well, they aren’t squirrels, and I’m not raising them.” His eyes glowed like the beginning sparks of a fire. There was no stopping him now. “You are,” he concluded with an enormous Cheshire grin.
Abigail wanted to argue that she didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, but the baby growing inside her seemed to imply otherwise.
“Take a look,” he said, setting the box on the carpeted floor and finally raising his coat to offer her a peek inside.
“Puppies!” she shouted, eyeing the wriggling balls of pink, black, and brown with hesitation. “Where did you get a box of puppies? And how when you were supposed to be giving the Christmas Eve sermon?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “This happened after.”
Abigail slowly approached and let the mother dog sniff her hand. She was half fawn colored and half white with giant ears flanking either side of her head. She looked from her nursing pups to Abigail and squinted before letting out a tremor that shook her whole body.
“Oh my gosh!” Abigail cried. “Is she okay?”
“That’s Mama Mary, and she’ll be just fine. She got her babies to safety. I found them cuddled in the manger right next to the little Lord Jesus himself.”
“I suppose that’s why you named her Mama Mary,” Abigail said with a smirk. Even her cold, dead heart warmed a bit to the sweet puppies and their heroic mother. “And there are four puppies. Did you name them after the four gospels?”
He laughed as they both stood transfixed by the squirming pups before them. “They don’t have names yet, although that isn’t a bad idea. I figured we’d let the Sunday school kids bestow the honor.”
“Wait, does that mean you’re planning to keep them?” She glanced to her father in shock. While he’d always loved all of God’s creatures, he’d never exactly been a pet person. What had happened with the squirrels several years ago had been quite the anomaly—and she thought they’d all learned their lesson from it.
When a sheepish grin lit her father’s face, she knew there was no way she’d be able to convince him to take the dogs to a shelter.
“I thought they could be a Christmas gift. The fact they found us in that storm has got to be a sign. This isn’t just one miracle—it’s a whole litter.”
“And Mama Mary makes five. Five dogs!” She wanted to be supportive, but someone needed to be realistic here. “How on earth are we going to give a proper home to five dogs?” she demanded.
Her father was completely nonplussed by Abigail’s attempts to protest. He simply smiled and pointed above. “The Lord will provide a way,” he said.
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true.”
Abigail hid the smile that tried to creep across her normally placid face. If nothing else, her father was consistent, and that was something she’d always found comforting. In that way, it was nice to be home. She should be grateful that she at least had a loving home to return to. It was hard to imagine things could be worse, but of course they always could.
These nearly frozen over pupsicles were proof enough of that.
“You know we at least have to look for the owners,” she pointed out softly.
“I know that, but I also know nothing will come of it. I prayed a lot on the drive over. God wanted us to have these dogs. That’s why He sent them.” He rubbed his hands and blew air into them, then let them hover over the pups, using this makeshift heater to warm them further.
So God saw to it that these five dogs were saved, but my husband wasn’t important enough to warrant his attention? Abigail thought bitterly, hating herself as she did. She should be happy that the little animals hadn’t caught their deaths outside, not jealous.
She’d never been like that before, and she didn’t want to be like that now. “Maybe you’re right, but we still owe it to…” She hesitated. “To, uh, Mama Mary and her children to at least try.”
“I agree,” he answered simply. “This won’t be like the time with the squirrels,” he added as an afterthought.
Oh, those darned squirrels… Truth be told, she liked the puppies better already, but she would keep that to herself.
After moving the box from the table to the floor, Abigail sat with the dogs while her father zipped around the house procuring arrangements for them. An old pillow with an even older throw blanket draped on top became their bed, a pair of ceramic cereal bowls converted into food and water dishes, and a space heater set atop an overturned milk crate helped to warm the area.
“Now I’m going to make Mama Mary a dinner like she’s never had before,” he said, kneeling down to scratch the dog between its ears before popping back up and heading toward the kitchen.
“Don’t tell me you’re planning to feed her the Christmas ham,” Abigail called after him, half-believing he would.
His laughter floated over from the stove. “No, that would take too long. But I figure our good girl has earned herself a nice New York strip.”
The mother Chihuahua grunted in affirmation, and Abigail could swear she heard the dog’s belly rumble. She couldn’t stop the chuckle that bubbled to the surface. It felt both amazing and like the worst kind of betrayal to Owen’s memory. This was far too soon for her to be happy over something so trivial.
She grew silent as she watched the little puppies nurse at their mama’s side. While they squirmed and whined freely, the mother dog stayed mostly still and quiet—like Abigail herself. The last thing she needed was to get attached to a sick dog, only to have it die before the morning sun.
“I think we need to take them in to see a vet,” she called to her father.
He answered back after a series of three loud plops and sizzles that told her he was making steaks for more than just the one of them. “I called around, but no one’s open tonight or tomorrow.”
She tried to think, at last remembering who it was they knew for this kind of thing. “What about Mr. Manganiello? Doesn’t he work with animals?”
“He’s celebrating Christmas with his family same as everyone else. Besides, we’ve got this. You and me, just like the old days.”
Ah, the old days… back when Abigail’s biggest problem had been whether or not she could convince her father to let her attend the freshman dance with dreamy Gavin Holbrook as her date. After much pleading he’d said yes, but only on the condition that he could chaperone. Abigail had never been so mortified in her entire life, but that hadn’t stopped Gavin from sneaking a kiss on the front doorstep before they’d said goodnight.
How long ago that seemed. She’d lived and died many times in the decade and a half between ninth grade and the new, sadder life she struggled through now. Each day was a gift, that’s what she’d believed before. These days, she knew better.
Her heart would break all over again if this poor mother dog didn’t live to see her puppies grow into strong, full-grown ankle biters. Abigail didn’t know much about dogs, but she knew enough to know that Chihuahuas were fierce, yappy little things.
Why couldn’t her father have found a litter of Golden Retriever puppies instead?
Guilt hardened in her stomach once more as Abigail watched Mama Mary breathe heavily and close her eyes.
“Hey, hey,” she said gently, nudging the dog until it opened its eyes again. “We’re going to get through this. Don’t give up.”
She continued to stroke the dog’s patchy fur and murmur to it while her father prepared their dinners. Judging from the poor thing’s condition, she’d either never had an owner or had been missing for a very long time. What if her owner had been searching for her all this time? What if the dog had finally found help for her puppies but it turned out to be too late for her? She tried not to think about that. After all, there was nothing she could do to prevent either outcome. She could simply ease the pain that came before.
“Did you and Mama get some good bonding in?” her father asked, watching her from the door frame.
“It’s hard not to root for her,” Abigail admitted. “But I still don’t think we should keep them long term.”
“Banish the thought.” He clucked his tongue and wagged a finger at her. “When God sends you a gift, you don’t just send it back. These pups were meant to find our church, and that’s where they belong.”
“So now they’re the church’s pets?” she said flatly. It seemed her father’s plans for these dogs were growing by the minute. Before the end of the night he’d have them signed up to compete for blue ribbons at the Westminster Kennel Club.
He chuckled as if privy to her private speculations. “Not pets. I was thinking more like working dogs.”
Abigail forced down a giggle of her own. It would have cost her too much to let laughter in twice that day. “Working dogs? But they’re so small! What are they going to do? Pull a sled the next time it snows?”
Her father’s eyes glimmered, but he said nothing as he returned to the kitchen.
Abigail eased herself up from the floor and followed him. “What kind of work are they going to do for the church?”
“Whatever the Lord decides is good enough for me,” he answered, plopping another steak into the frying pan.
“Wait. You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“As a heart attack” came the response.
“I always knew you were crazy, but this seems beyond your normal. You know all of Charleston will be talking about this before no time at all.”
“Good, let them talk. Maybe then they’ll come to church to see for themselves.”
“More like they’ll come to see the infamous Church Dogs of Charleston.”
“Now, that does have a nice ring to it,” he answered with yet another chuckle before turning and pushing a tea plate stacked with sliced steak into her hands. “Go see if you can get some food in that poor dog. After that, we’ll work on you.”
Abigail could scarcely sleep that night. After her third time waking up in the wee hours, she officially gave up and went to hold vigil over the Chihuahuas.
Once in the living room, she found a plate of sugar cookies and gingerbread men waiting beside a glass of milk. Had her father put these out for tradition’s sake, or did he have a feeling she’d rouse early and need a snack?
Why they were there didn’t much matter, because food was one of the few joys Abigail still luxuriated in from time to time. She chose a gingerbread figure with chocolate icing hair and a red licorice smile, and bit into it with delight.
This one had to be her.
Growing up, she and her father had decorated dozens upon dozens of cookies each year, fashioning each to look like someone they knew from the church. She’d taken that tradition with her when she married Owen and moved into base housing. In fact, last year they’d had quite the laugh over her interpretation of his commanding officer.
This year, she’d skipped out on baking with her father. She’d skipped out on many things, not quite ready to attempt normality just yet. The baby inside her, she knew, presented a ticking clock. She’d need to be strong, healthy, and happy when he or she arrived. It wouldn’t be fair to push her grief onto the child. After all, the poor thing would already be starting life one parent short.
Abigail took another bite of the warm cookie and glanced over to the basket of sleeping puppies nearby.
Mama Mary caught her eye, her little nose sniffing high in the air as if she needed two senses to confirm she had a visitor. And then, the tiny dog gently worked her way out of the basket and waddled over to Abigail.
“What is it, girl?” Abigail asked.
The dog cocked her head to one side, then slowly pulled herself into an upright position. Her two front paws clawed at the air in the most adorable bout of begging Abigail had ever witnessed in her whole life.
She smiled at the mother dog, glad to see she was already feeling so much better. “I’m not sure this is good for you, sweetie,” she explained, frowning at the frosting smeared across her fingers even after the cookie had disappeared into her mouth. “Actually, they’re not very good for me, either. Let’s see if we can find something better in the kitchen.”
Together, the mom and mom-to-be trotted into the kitchen and peeked into the fridge. It was flowing with abundance even more than usual. It seemed that this time of year every little old lady in her father’s congregation wanted to help feed the poor single pastor—especially this year since he now came with a tragic widowed daughter and a yet-to-be-born grandchild.
Abigail selected a chicken and rice casserole from amongst the bounty and pulled it from the fridge. “We really need to pick you up some proper dog food as soon as the stores open again,” she said, dishing out a serving for each of them. She stuck her plate in the microwave and put Mama Mary’s on the tiled floor.
The dog sniffed it and sat without taking even the tiniest of bites. She glared at Abigail as if trying to tell her something. Just what that was, Abigail hadn’t the faintest idea.
“Sorry, I don’t speak dog,” she said, grabbing her plate from the microwave before it could beep and disturb the still sleeping members of their household—especially the puppies. Their mother deserved whatever little bit of break she could get, especially if it meant getting more meat on her fragile bones.
Abigail carried her plate over to her favorite chair, surprised when Mama Mary chose to follow her out to the living room and continue her begging there.
“I just gave you some,” Abigail reminded her, gesturing toward the kitchen where the other helping of fine Southern comfort food sat untouched.
For some reason unbeknownst to Abigail, these words encouraged the dog who attempted to jump up on the chair with her. However, she couldn’t quite make the whole leap and fell back down to the floor.
“What?” Abigail laughed despite herself. “Do you want mine?”
The little dog glanced from Abigail’s face to her plate and back again, causing her to laugh even harder. This time she didn’t even scold herself for the happy gesture. Well, at least not much.
“Okay, have it your way,” she said, offering the plate to the hungry Chihuahua who immediately dug in and made fast work of cleaning the plate.
Abigail was just about to return to the kitchen to warm a second plate for herself when her father appeared at the end of the hallway, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Morning already?” he asked with a giant overhead stretch.
“Not exactly,” Abigail admitted, feeling a bit more reserved now that another human was around. Somehow it was easier to let her cruel inner dialogue rest in Mary’s presence. Maybe because, inexplicably, it felt as if the dog understood in a way even Abigail’s father couldn’t—in a way she had yet to figure out for herself, too.
“Us girls were just having a late night snack,” she added, continuing to the kitchen and thrusting open the fridge. “Want some?”
“Oh, what are we having? Actually, you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll have two, please.”
That was her father, though. If it was worth doing, then it was worth overdoing, which was exactly why they now had five new dogs to take care of. It was also why his pants had become increasingly snug around the middle after she’d left to make a new home with her husband.
Well, she was back now, and if she couldn’t straighten out her own life, maybe she could at least do some good in her father’s.
She smiled coyly to herself as she served him a single portion.
It was for his own good, after all.