Guilford Ashdale Prentice was not supposed to live. From the moment of his birth, the doctors predicted his death was coming in the next three to six months. They concluded a child whose body was as deformed and whose mental acuity would always be diminished could not possibly survive past the age of one. Or two. Or even three. By the time that little Guilford Ashdale Prentice was five years old, the doctors were still assuming that he’d be dead any month now.
But the boy continued to live and grow, a smile upon his twisted face whenever he looked up to the only person who didn’t seem to think he was going to be buried in the Earth any day now – his older sister Viveca Prentice, though everyone called her Vicki. She was a few years his senior, and so he followed her around as she went about playing hide-n-seek or tag with the neighbour’s kids. He was never very good at any of the games, but he never seemed to mind when the other kids pushed him down or laughed at him.
Vicky did. She would yell at them and tell them to leave Guilford Ashdale Prentice alone. But she never called him that. That was the sort of name one finds on tombstones; names that were given to a child who would die young and leave only this adult sounding name, one that spoke of some baron of industry or political dynasty instead of a child dead before they were out of diapers.
She decided to call him Gillie by his third birthday, and it was ever after what he was known by to all accept the doctor’s who still prophesied his death. Not that the doctor’s were being terribly unreasonable in their assessment. Anybody who saw Gillie would think it remarkable that he was alive. His head was half sunken in on the left side, and his face was sliding down his skull as if it had been soft wax that had begun to melt. His right arm was shrivelled and the fingers curled together like a bird’s claws, crooked and unusable. Even his feet would not stay straight, with the left constantly sticking out at an angle as if he were perpetually trying to trip people.
It was not until the boy was seven that the doctor’s began to believe he might live to adulthood. He had begun to learn how to speak a few simple phrases, most of that being what Vicki taught him. Though their parents loved them both, they did not seem as interested in trying to teach Gillie anything. He was destined for a life lived in a home, they reasoned, so why expend any extra effort now.
But Gillie did have his older sister who looked out for him and took care of him. She would pick him back up again when he fell, and she tried to teach him how to do simple things like tying his shoes or buttoning his shirt. And she always listened to him even when he told her about his Auntie. Where he could have thought he might have an Aunt, she never knew, but with the way that Gillie always smiled when he saw his sister, just so happy to be in her presence, Vicki never complained.
When Gillie was twenty, their parents died in a car accident, and he was moved to a home where the nurses could tend to him. Vicki still visited him every day, even though the doctors there began to tell her that he probably shouldn’t be alive. There were so many things wrong with his brain and his body that it was a miracle he had lived as long as he did.
Vicki was never worried about what she might do after her younger brother died. The only thing that she and her husband had decided was that they would not put that awful full name on the tombstone. They would never think of him as anything but Gillie.
The doctors would not have appreciated it, but it was one of the greatest of ironies that Gillie would outlive his sister.
“What happened to my wife?” Seth Carpenter begged the doctor, his hands trembling as he paced back and forth in the waiting room. He’d heard that she had been admitted to the hospital after a car accident on the way home from dropping Gillie off at the nursing home, but since then had been unable to get any information from the veritable array of doctors and nurses that had come to talk to him and ask him who he was waiting for.
“Is that your daughter?” the older man who did not look as if he’d had any sleep in the last two days asked. Seth looked back at the brown-haired girl who was tugging on his pants leg also begging to know what had happened. Her eyes were pleading and afraid. At only six years old, poor Suzie could hardly be expected to understand what was happening.
“Yes,” Seth snapped, “now where is my wife?”
“Your wife is Viveca Carpenter, yes?” At Seth’s insistent nod, the doctor continued with a heavy sigh. “She’s awake, and wants to see you both. We don’t know if she’s going to pull through. She’s lost a lot of blood, and she’s very weak. We will not be able to let you stay with her long, so if you’ll come with me.” He took a step towards a set of swinging doors, and paused only long enough to see that Seth was right at his heels.
Seth gently rubbed the back of his daughter’s head as one of her hands clutched tightly at his shirt, following along, but now quiet. The hospital was like so many others that Seth had seen - bright white walls and sanitized floors that supported a throng of people rushing back and forth from one sad story to the next. He could not find it in his heart to care for any other being treated just then. Only his wife mattered to him.
He was momentarily grateful that the room his wife was held in was only a short twenty second walk from the waiting room, but that brief delight was gone from him when he saw Vicki. A breather was placed in her nose, and a long red gash ran up the side of her cheek. It had been stitched closed already, but he could see other strange bumps and protrusions underneath the blankets, as well as numerous wires and other mechanical contraptions leading out from her bed. Various monitors recorded heart rate, and other more esoteric signs of life.
Her eyes opened when they entered, and she smiled weakly to them both. “Mommy!” Suzie cried, rushing from Seth’s side to the bed where her head just barely reached. Vicki’s right arm extended and gently stroked Suzie’s head softly.
“Hello my Susan,” she said, though her voice was weak. “How are you doing?”
“Scared Mommy! Are you going to be all right?”
Vicki smiled to her, and then up to Seth. He stood at her side, running his hand through her soft hair. “I’m in good hands, Susan. Trust in that.” She looked up to Seth and her smile wavered for a moment. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be,” Seth told her, even as he felt tears coming to his eyes. He felt so helpless. Here was his wife, her body mangled possibly to the point of death, and there was nothing he could do but stand there and hope. “I’m here now.”
Her smiled faded and she looked past them both. Her heart beat was going so slow. Seth felt his fingers twitching. “Don’t you leave me. I cannot do this without you!”
“I’m still here,” Vicki replied, her voice faint. “Please, no matter what, take care of Gillie. He won’t understand.”
“Of course I would, but we don’t have to worry about that. You are going to keep doing that, Vicki. Please!”
She smiled and patted his hand softly. “Please, Seth. Promise me you’ll take care of him.”
Seth felt his heart breaking. Tears began to slide down his cheeks. “I promise. I’ll take care of Gillie. Just please don’t go!”
“Mommy?” Suzie cried, her voice becoming shrill. Vicki’s hand went limp against the back of her head, and the heart monitor began to scream a strident alarm.
“You have to get out!” the doctor cried, as he and several nurses rushed into the room, one of them wheeling a defibrillator over to the bed.
“Vicki, no!” Seth shouted, the whole world spinning away into madness and sorrow. The last thing he heard before the door to the room was shut and his wife was gone was his daughter screaming for her mother.
His older sister’s death did nothing to lessen Gillie’s enthusiasm for her family. The nursing home where he lived was only two blocks from the Carpenter house, and he frequently would manage to make his way to their door. Because of this, during the day Seth never kept the front door locked when they were home. He would tolerate Gillie’s impromptu visits fora few minutes before calling the nurses at the home to let them know that Gillie managed to elude them again. For a mentally retarded and physically deformed person, he managed to do that with shocking regularity.
The nurses were flabbergasted at his Houdini-like disappearances. He was so simple-minded that he would tell them how it happened when they asked, at least those times that he could remember. His Auntie would open the door or gate, or whatever for him, and he would go out. At first they thought he might be talking about one of the other attendants, but after keeping a closer eye on their staff, they were able to rule that out. Seth explained that Gillie had always talked about his Auntie ever since he was young, and that she was clearly a figment of his imagination that explained all the moments of brilliance that happened through him.
Apart from the consternation his unauthorized visits caused the nurses was the agony that his visits brought to Suzie. She had never liked the sight of him, even when Vicki had been alive and had tried to teach her daughter patience with her retarded uncle. Now that her mother was dead – from a car accident after driving Gillie home no less – she would flee to her bedroom the moment Gillie entered the house. She would not come out until the nurses had come for him and taken him away. And after he was gone, she would beg her Dad to keep the door locked so he wouldn’t come in.
It was not that Suzie was an unpleasant or spoiled girl. Normally she was very courteous and gentle almost to a fault. Seth rarely heard an unkind word from her mouth. And while she was not the most popular girl at school, everybody still liked her, especially the teachers who always assured her father of what a sweet girl she was in class. The only person that ever upset her was Gillie.
Seth felt a deep sadness at his daughter’s pain. He had made a promise to his wife that he would take care of and look after Gillie. Though he felt his own discomfort at his wife’s deformed brother, he had felt her love for him, and saw nothing but kindness and honesty in Gillie’s strange eyes. His daughter and Gillie were the last links of blood he had to Vicki, and he meant to keep them.
But the worst part was that Gillie came to their house not to see Seth, but his daughter Suzie. He always stared for her when he came in, and called out her name in his slurred voice with the delighted affection of an excited child on seeing his best friend. He did not understand that Suzie wanted nothing to do with him, and even if he felt the sting of her rejection, it did not dampen his spirits.
Gillie frequently brought things to her to try and make her smile. Usually these were things he found along the walk, from flowers, to frogs, or even discarded pop cans. None of these gave Suzie even the slightest bit of pause on her way to her bedroom. Only once did she ever stop, and that was when Gillie brought her the one thing she wanted above all else, and the one thing that because of the allergies she inherited from Seth, she could never have.
“Hewwo Suzie!,” Gillie’s slurred voice rang out from the front door. His smile showed crooked teeth, but it was wide and stretched clear across his face. “I got somefing for you!”
Seth was bent over his desk attending to a stack of bills, while Suzie was watching a bit of TV on the other side of the room. Both their head snapped up at the sound of the retarded man’s voice, but only Seth turned to look at him. Suzie let out a cry and immediately turned towards the stairs so she could hide up in her room until her father removed her unwanted uncle.
“I gots you a doggie!” Gillie declared, even as Seth managed to finally stand up and see what poor creature Gillie had dragged over this time. And there he held a rather scrawny looking mutt that had no collar on. His piebald fur was mangy, which meant that Gillie had found the dog living on the street and somehow convinced him to come along to the Carpenter house. The dog was wagging his tail and panting, looking at them expectantly with bright eyes.
Seth sighed inwardly, even as he looked for the nearest tissue box. He’d been hideously allergic to dogs since he was a child, and age had not lessened his weakness. Not even the haired dogs seemed to get by his allergies, as he began to sneeze himself incoherent whenever one was near.
“A dog?” Suzie asked, her eyes wide with wonder at seeing the animal. Seth saw her face, saw the mix of revulsion and delight that was writ upon it. This could not be good, Seth knew, because Suzie was just as allergic to dogs as he was. Being only eight years old, her love of dogs won out. “Come here boy!!”
Gillie smiled as the dog tentatively walked over to her, his tail wagging behind him.
“Susan,” Seth objected, moving to get in the way of the dog’s path. “You know you cannot have a dog. Besides, we don’t know where this one has been. It looks like Gillie found him on the street. He’s probably covered in fleas and other nasty things.”
“Fleas?” Suzie asked, surprised at this. “But he looks so nice.”
“I saw him out back and knew dat you’d wike him, Suzie,” Gillie said, his smile wide. He came a little closer, his whole body seemed to lift up in delight at seeing his niece happy for once. “I wuv you, Suzie! He’s a nice dog.”
“I’ll call animal services and they can come pick him up,” Seth said, even as he felt his nose begin to twitch.
Suzie no longer looked like she wanted to get near the dog, and was beginning to back up, her face a strange mix of emotions. First disappointment, and then anger filled her face. “You never let me have anything!” she cried, tears beginning to come to her face. She turned on Gillie and stomped her foot. “And I hate you! Go away!!”
Seth was stunned. Before he could say anything, Suzie ran up the stairs. “Susan Prentice Carpenter, get down here this instant and apologize to your uncle!” Seth yelled up after her, but all he heard was a door slam.
“Damn it!” he said between clenched teeth. He sneezed. His ire up, he turned on Gillie who stood there with a stupefied look on his face. “Well, you heard her, you shouldn’t have brought that dog.”
Seth went to get the phone and a tissue, when Gillie asked, “Your Dad’s name’s Adam?”
“What?” Seth stared at him in confusion. “No, it’s Peter. Now get that dog back outside and sit out with him. I have to call the nurse.”
For the first time he had ever known him, Seth thought Gillie actually sounded hurt. “I fought you said she’d wike it, Auntie?” He froze, and watched as the retarded man grabbed the dog by the scruff of his neck and drug him back out side. The dog whined unhappily, but followed, tail tucked between his legs.
Seth sneezed again, and pressed the tissue to his face. He watched his wife’s brother drag the dog out the front door and down the steps. He collapsed on them and sat there dejected. Seth could not believe what he was seeing. One crooked hand bent over the dog’s back and began to pet down the fur.
All he could think was that he really missed his wife. Choking back his own sob, Seth shut the front door.
For nearly a full month after his failure to bring Suzie a dog, Gillie did not return to their house. After the first week, Seth went in to check on him at the nursing home after work. On that first visit Gillie still possessed a deep melancholy that none of the nurses had ever recalled seeing in him. Every week thereafter, Seth returned to see him, but the retarded man showed no signs of improving.
It was a great surprise when just over a month afterwards Gillie showed up on their doorstep bearing a bouquet of flowers and weeds he’d picked up along the way. After reminding himself that he’d need to apologize to Mrs. Lewis for the theft from her garden, he marvelled at the sudden change in Gillie’s demeanour. Gone was the pallor of death that had overtaken his face after Suzie’s rejection of him and the gift of the dog. In its place was the simple smile that Seth had come to know over the years. It was as if the events of a month ago had not happened.
Suzie still refused his gift, but she too had gone back to her usual method of just leaving the room as quickly as she could. Everything seemed to have returned to normal, despite Seth’s attempts to convince his daughter to accept Gillie’s kind attention. Nor were his constant complaints to the nurses of any use. They proved just as incapable of keeping Gillie at the home as they had always been.
Seth began to lament that things might never change. But sometimes change is precisely the thing that we do not want. The Prentice family bloodline seemed cursed, most especially around cars. Six months later as Seth and Suzie were driving back from a Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, a drunk driver slammed into the passenger side of their car. Suzie was hospitalized, and although she would live, it would be some time before she’d be able to walk again.
Her father was devastated, and spent many days sitting in her hospital room. For hours he would watch her as she slept, and when she was awake, he would read stories to her of fantastic lands filled with princes and princesses who loved each other and lived happily ever after. She was nine years old and still young enough to believe in fairy tale endings.
One time after Seth returned from visiting Suzie, he found Gillie inside his house. Gillie had been sitting in the living room waiting for them to come home. He was smiling happily, and immediately asked where Suzie was, and that is when he first heard of his niece’s tragedy. Gillie’s face fell a bit but he promised he’d bring her something to cheer her up. It was only after Gillie left that Seth realized the front door had been locked the whole time he’d been at the hospital.
Nor was that the last unnerving thing that he witnessed from Gillie. Two days after Seth had brought Suzie home from the hospital, Gillie had shown up again. The first snows of the season were falling, and the longest night of the year was on their doorstep. Gillie came with the fall of night and for the first time in years, was not looking for Suzie. He came for Seth. And he told Seth point blank that he had an idea for a gift for Suzie, but that they’d have to talk with his Auntie about it first.
While Seth tried to figure out how they could talk to a fictitious person, he’d been invited to come talk with them both the very next night. If not for his promise to Vicki, Seth would never have gone.
He couldn’t believe he was doing this. Seth followed Gillie down the street back towards the nursing home telling himself those same words over and over again. He couldn’t believe he was doing this.
After making sure that Suzie was sleeping soundly for the night, he’d joined the retarded man who had been waiting for him on the street outside their house. Gillie’s twisted face had been flushed with excitement, and he practically bounced as he tried to lead Seth down the road. Seth could only wonder what the warped man’s imagination had wrought. His heart was heavy with worry over his daughter, and he hated spending any time chasing after Gillie’s windmills.
It was a short walk to the nursing home. It was a small institution set back from the street and blocked off with six foot high stone walls. There were trees in the yard before the cold grey building, but none of them were close enough to the walls to help anyone to climb over. How Gillie kept getting out without being seen still mystified Seth.
The mystery was apparently solved when Gillie took him down the alley before the nursing home, and through a side gate that wasn’t watched. It was small, and obviously meant for the staff. Gillie opened the door after pausing for a few seconds staring at the handle. It did not appear to have even been locked. Seth wondered why the door would be left unlocked, but his mind was still too unhinged to be of much use. His daughter was recovering from her wounds, but still, how near to death she had come. Would he ever be able to trust a car again?
His momentary distraction ended when he was led into the building through another curiously unlocked door. It was later at night, and the halls were mostly empty. He did not see any of the nurses about.
Gillie led him down the hall a short ways and turned into a small room whose door had been ajar. A light was on in the room. Seth took a deep breath and was about to ask Gillie when they would get to meet his Auntie when he saw her.
Standing against one wall was a woman with pearl white skin and gentle blonde hair. Her hair was framed in curls of a matronly sort while her smile was very comforting. As soon as he met her green eyes, he felt his own heart filled with a profound sense of peace. This woman was not a nurse, that he knew immediately. Was she truly Gillie’s Aunt? There was something in her face that reminded him of Vicki, but she seemed far older than even his own parents.
“Are you Seth Carpenter?” the woman asked, her voice gentle, but only in the way that a hammer set down carefully on one’s finger feels gentle.
“Yes, I am. Who are you?”
Gillie had taken a seat opposite the woman and was staring at her in adoration. Seth felt himself bending back onto the stool that the nurses used when checking on the deformed man.
“My name is Sophia, but you may call me Auntie as well.” He swallowed, but said nothing. “Gillie tells me that his niece is very unhappy.”
“She is,” Seth replied. “She was in a car accident recently. She’s recovering, but emotionally I cannot seem to reach her anymore. She just doesn’t want to talk to me.” After he had spoken, he wondered why he had done so. He did not know this woman, and yet he was telling her his family’s deepest secrets!
Sophie frowned and lowered her face. Seth felt his flesh tremble. “That is very sad. Does she not have any other in her life that loves her as do you?”
Seth snorted and shook his head, balling his fists in his lap. “No. My wife died almost three years ago. She was killed in a car accident too, as well as her parents. I don’t think her family does well with cars. Only Gillie here seems immune.”
“He is very special,” Sophie replied, running one slender hand along Gillie’s melted cheeks. “And he loves his niece a great deal. Yet you did not count him amongst those who love your daughter.”
Seth sighed heavily. Where would the end be to his pain? “Suzie does not like him. She runs to her room every time he comes over. He’s not the kind of person who can give her any sort of support.”
Sophie considered this even as she continued to gently run her fingers over Gillie’s face. “And yet, he loves her all the more. Tell me, son of Adam, is there anything that your daughter has always wanted?”
Seth narrowed his eyes as he gazed at this woman. She seemed to be bathed in the light in the room, and it glinted off her clothes. Still, he considered her question, and felt an answer bubble up out of his throat. “A dog. She’s always wanted a dog.”
“And why have you never given her one?”
“Because of our allergies. I’m terribly allergic to all dogs. I’ve never found a breed that I wasn’t allergic too. Suzie inherited those same allergies from me. If we’re in the same room as a dog, we become completely congested inside of a minute.” He shook his head and exhaled heavily. “I wish I could get her a dog, because I know it would make her happy. But I cannot.”
“And if you had a dog that did not incite your allergies, what then?”
Seth snorted. “No such dog exists, but if there was, I’d give that dog to my daughter in a heart beat.”
Sophia smiled and looked over to Gillie. “And are you willing?”
He nodded. “Yes, Auntie! I wanna make her happy!”
“Then are you ready?”
“Yes!” Gillie was practically leaping out of his seat into Sophie’s hands.
“Ready for what?” Seth asked, confused by what was happening, and now a little bit frightened.
Sophia smiled comfortingly as she gazed at him. “Your daughter needs a dog. No dog exists in the world that she can have. Gillie is willing, and wishes only to make your daughter happy, and so such a dog will be.”
“Will be?” Seth asked, scooting back on the stool until he had knocked it over completely. Gillie was smiling, and Sophie still stroked one hand across the back of his head as if she were petting him. With a crush of realization, Seth saw that the light in the room was not coming from any lamp, for none were turned on, but from behind Auntie’s head, in a circular flare.
“Suzie?” Seth called as he made his way up the stairs. “I have a gift for you. An early Christmas gift.” The holiday was only a few days away, and there didn’t seem any point in delaying this gift. His mind was still reeling from what he’d witnessed the night before. He’d managed no sleep, but was not going to wake his daughter in the middle of the night despite Gillie’s enthusiasm.
So now it was morning – though the sun would not rise for some time – and he was going to present Suzie with something he scarcely believed himself. Gripping her doorknob, he turned and stepped into her room. “Suzie? It’s Daddy. Time to get up and see what he’s brought for you.”
He flipped on the lights and saw his daughter curled tightly into bed. A pair of crutches were leaning against her bureau within easy reach. She twisted over in bed and held her arm up over her face. “Daddy?” There was a weariness in her voice that no child should ever have to use.
He couldn’t believe he was doing this. “Gillie and I have something for you that we know you are going to love.” He waited for her to manage a sitting position, though she didn’t appear too hopeful. “Come on, boy!”
Seth had been standing by himself in the doorway. Now, a bright golden dog bounded through the doorway and leapt up onto her bed. His tail was wagging frantically and he licked across Suzie’s face eagerly.
“A dog!” Suzie cried, her voice full of excitement! She wrapped her arms around his neck, face full of life for what seemed the very first time.
“And you never have to worry about him hurting your allergies,” Seth added, though he doubted she could hear him. She was simply too happy. The dog was thrilled to see her, his whole body radiating an exuberance and joy that Seth had never before felt.
“Thank you, Daddy! This is the most wonderful gift ever!” She managed to laugh out between dog kisses.
He shook his head. “Don’t thank me, thank Gillie. It was his idea.”
Suzie smiled and kisses the dog on the nose before hugging him tight again. “Thank you, Gillie,” she said, more softly this time, but without a trace of regret.
The dog wagged his tail and barked happily. And somewhere in the distance, Seth heard a bell begin to ring.