Carter Jackson pressed his ear as hard as he could against his bedroom door. If he shut his eyes and concentrated he could hear his parents' conversation.
"I'm sorry, honey. I know how much Carter wants a dog, but we can't afford one right now."
"But, David, we promised."
"I didn't promise him any such thing, Laurie. I said maybe he could have a dog for Christmas."
Carter's mother sounded sad. "It'll break his heart."
"Believe me, I know that. I don't like this any better than you do."
Although he was only nine, Carter understood that his father wanted him to have a dog, just as he had when he was Carter's age. Carter had already decided to give his dog the same name as his father's - Rusty. Rusty was a good name for a dog.
"We could get a dog from the shelter," his mom was saying. "A rescue."
"It's not the cost of the dog. It's the vet bills, the food, everything else."
His mother didn't respond.
"You looked at the budget, didn't you? If there was any way we could make it happen, we would. But you know as well as I do that we can't afford a dog. We can barely afford a Christmas tree!"
Carter wasn't sure what a budget was, but he knew it must have something to do with money. Money always seemed to be a problem. His mother used to work at a dress shop in downtown Leavenworth, but the shop closed and she hadn't been able to find another job.
That was all right with Carter. He liked having her at home, and so did his little sister, Bailey. After school they both liked being able to go home rather than to the day care lady down the street. Their mother usually had a snack or a small surprise waiting for them. She seemed happier, too, not to be working such long hours, but Carter knew there were problems with the budget...whatever that was.
"Our health insurance rates just went up," his father said.
"I saw that," his mother murmured. Her voice was quiet, making it difficult for Carter to hear everything she said. "I try to keep the heat as low as I can while the kids are in school, not that it's helped all that much."
That explained why his mother was always wearing a sweater when Carter got home from school.
"The oil prices are killing us," his father said. He sounded angry.
"I know. I'm sorry." This came from his mother.
"It's not your fault, Laurie."
Carter risked opening the door a crack, to see what he could. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light, but then he saw his parents. They sat on the sofa and his mother's head rested on his father's shoulder. His father had one arm around his mother, and they seemed to be leaning against each other.
"Should we tell Carter now or wait until Christmas morning?" she asked.
Carter bit his lip. They'd promised him a dog. His father said he hadn't, but he had. He just didn't remember. He'd said it this summer, and ever since then Carter had hung on to that promise - he could have a dog at Christmas.
It wasn't fair and he struggled not to break into tears. Turning his head, he buried his face in his arms and breathed deeply. He couldn't let them see him standing there - or hear him cry.
"I don't think we'll be able to buy the kids any gifts this year," his father continued.
"It's all right, honey," his mother reassured him. "There'll be plenty of presents from your parents and mine. The gifts from your family are already here. The kids will have something to open. Besides, we don't want to spoil Carter and Bailey. It's more important that they know the true meaning of Christmas."
His father seemed to agree.
Carter couldn't listen to any more of their conversation. His sister was sound asleep in the bed across from his own. Bailey was in first grade and he was in fourth. Bailey wanted her own room. But if he couldn't have a dog, then Bailey wasn't going to get a bedroom all to herself, either. That was what Bailey had asked Santa for in her letter.
The kids at school told Bailey she was stupid to believe in Santa. Carter didn't believe anymore, but he didn't want to say anything, especially to his little sister. She still believed. When he was her age, he'd wanted to believe, too.
Santa was like his grandparents who lived in Wenatchee. His mother's family didn't have a budget, or at least he didn't think so. It never seemed hard for them to buy presents the way it was for his parents. Maybe...
Carter decided he'd mention the possibility to his mother in the morning and see what she said. If his own mom and dad couldn't afford a dog, then maybe they'd let his grandparents buy him one. Or perhaps Grandma and Grandpa could pay the vet bills his dad was so worried about.
Feeling better now, Carter pulled back his sheets and slipped into bed. He'd just closed his eyes when a backup plan came to mind. Santa might be make-believe but God was real, and Christmas was Jesus's birthday. Remembering that, he got out of bed and knelt down. He'd already said his bedtime prayers, but this was extra. He hoped God wouldn't mind hearing from him again.
"Dear God," he whispered. "Thank You for Your birthday. I think it's great that because You were born we get presents. I'm really glad You arranged it like that. Um, God, I asked about getting a dog before and my parents said I had to wait. I waited. It was hard, too.
"They said I had to be nine years old before I was responsible enough to take care of a dog. Well, I'm nine and I do all my chores and I do my homework and I don't cheat on tests or anything."
He hesitated, thinking he'd better tell the whole truth. God knew anyway. "Sometimes Mom has to remind me about my chores. But I try to be good."
Carter paused, wondering if God might say something back. He listened intently, his eyes closed, but no matter how hard he concentrated he couldn't hear anything. That didn't mean God wasn't listening, though; Carter understood that.
"If You could find a way to get me a dog for Christmas, God, I'd really like it. I promise to take care of Rusty and train him right. I'll make sure he's loved. Thank you."
Finished now, Carter lowered his head and whispered, "Amen." He stayed on his knees a few minutes longer, in case God wanted to talk to him, after all. Eventually he climbed back into bed.
God had a dog for him, a special one. Carter was sure of it. He didn't know how the dog would arrive. Maybe his grandparents would give him one for Christmas, maybe not. He'd just wait and see. He might not believe in Santa anymore, but Carter believed God answered prayers. All he had to do now was be patient.
"You heard?" Gabriel asked Shirley. The Prayer Ambassador had once worked as a guardian angel and her love for children was the reason he usually assigned Shirley the prayer requests from boys and girls.
"A dog," Shirley repeated.
"There are more important requests, if you prefer," Gabriel said.
"No," came her immediate reply. "I want to help Carter get his dog."
"I thought you would."
"It's just that..."
"It's just that I could probably take on two or three such requests while I'm on Earth," the angel said with utter confidence. "But I know why you haven't given me more than one."
"You do?" Gabriel asked. "And why would that be?"
"My real assignment is to keep watch over Goodness and Mercy. Heaven knows, and I don't mean that as a pun - " she paused and gave him a smug smile " - those two need looking after."
"Indeed they do," Gabriel agreed. "But it seems to me that you've taken part in their schemes a number of times."
"Under protest," Shirley rushed to explain. "I knew they were headed for trouble and I tried to warn them, but they wouldn't listen to me. So what choice did I have?" She shook her head ruefully. "You can't imagine the trouble I've saved you on other assignments. But I'm only one angel and there's only so much I can do on my own."
Gabriel didn't need a reminder of the problems these three had caused. Yes, he did expect Shirley to be a supervisor of sorts for the other two, but as often as not they'd led her into temptation. Still...
"As the most responsible of the trio - "
"That would be me," Shirley said, cutting him off. She folded her wings close to her back without revealing any degree of eagerness as Goodness and Mercy had done. Shirley was the picture of calm serenity, of unquestionable confidence.
"Let me point out the time limitations involved," Gabriel said. "All three of you need to return to Heaven on Christmas Eve." This shouldn't come as any surprise, since it was one of the terms always set upon them during visits to Earth at this time of year.
A look of panic flashed into Shirley's eyes. "That means we have barely a week by the earthly calendar."
"Don't forget, we need you back for the festivities," Gabriel told her.
"Yes, of course." She did seem unusually concerned with the temporal constraints, which he found odd, considering that they'd answered prayer requests in less time than that.
"If there are problems, I can come directly to you?" Shirley asked.
It went without saying that with Goodness and Mercy, there were bound to be problems. "Of course."
On second thought, Gabriel wasn't so sure of that. He'd seen compassion and a new depth in Mercy; she understood the seriousness of her assignment. Harry Alderwood's days on Earth were few, and Mercy would have to convince Rosalie to move and at the same time prepare Harry for the crossing. Heaven awaited his arrival.
As far as Goodness went...That was an entirely different story. Beth Fischer had lessons to learn, obstacles to negotiate - obstacles of her own making. It might not be as easy as Goodness assumed to steer her toward the future. Gabriel would keep a close eye on this assignment.
And young Carter Jackson - this wasn't an easy prayer request, either, despite what Shirley seemed to think. She might be a relatively senior angel, but she had a few lessons to learn herself.
"Can I see Carter?" Shirley asked.
"Of course." As he'd done with the others, Gabriel parted the veil between the two realms and offered Shirley a chance to assess the situation.
Sitting at the breakfast table, Carter watched his parents closely.
"You remember this summer you said I could have a dog when I'm nine, Dad?" he asked, braving the subject dearest to his heart.
His dad exchanged a look with his mother. "I remember."
"I'm nine now."
His father put down his fork, and the careful way he laid it on the table told Carter this was going to be an important discussion. "Son, it hurts me to tell you this, but we can't afford a dog."
"I'm sorry. I know you've been hoping to get a dog, but we can't manage it financially, Carter."
Despite his efforts, Carter's eyes filled with tears and everything in the room went blurry. His mother came to stand behind him. Embarrassed to be caught crying, Carter wiped his face with his sleeve and gulped several times.
"As soon as we can afford one, we'll get you a dog," she whispered, placing her hands on his shoulders. "We promise."
"But you promised before," Carter challenged. "You said I could have a dog when I turned nine. And then you said I had to wait until Christmas. And now..."
His father looked as sad as Carter had ever seen him. "I'm sorry, Carter. I'm doing the best I can, and so is your mother."
Bailey had started to cry, too. Carter tried to stop, but all he could do was sniffle back the tears. He felt like running away from the table. He couldn't eat.
"What about Grandma and Grandpa Parker?" he asked, clinging to the dream that his grandparents would give him the dog he so badly wanted.
"I've spoken to them," his father said.
Carter felt hope spring to life as he held his breath, waiting to hear the verdict.
"If your grandparents buy you a dog, that's just the beginning of what it'll cost. There's a whole lot more that goes along with owning a dog."
"He could eat my food," Carter insisted. He'd already considered this. "I don't mind sharing."
"Then there are shots."
"I'll take them," Carter said. It didn't matter how much they hurt, either.
"The shots are for the dog, Carter, and they're expensive."
"There's the license and obedience school and neutering and a dozen other costs. All of that would drain the family budget. It won't be long, though. Okay?"
Carter wasn't sure he should believe his father. "How long?"
"David." His mother's voice was soft and filled with warning, almost as if she feared his father would make another promise he couldn't keep.
"I don't know, but I promise that as soon as we can afford it, you'll get your dog."
That was the same thing his mother had said. Carter swallowed hard. He couldn't ask his father's parents. They lived back east and they mailed their gifts, which had arrived last week. The gaily wrapped presents were arranged on the coffee table with a miniature Christmas tree his mother had bought at the grocery store for five dollars. His one hope had been Grandma and Grandpa Parker - his mom's parents - and according to his father, it wasn't going to happen.
His last chance, his only chance now, was God. And with everything inside him, Carter believed God would send him a dog.