Kearny, New Jersey

Jackie boy, darlin’ come give yer Uncle Kenny a hug? The boy hesitated only slightly; his need for contact overwhelmed and overrode his caution. The man picked the boy up and placed him in his lap, giving him a whiskery kiss on the cheek.

“Now you’re my favorite, ye know that, lad?” The man laughed slightly, leaving the boy ill at ease in the safe midst of a room filled with adults. He nodded nervously and the man squeezed his cheek once before setting him back on his feet.

“Now don’t be such a stranger, lad. I’ve got some jobs around me house for ye, if’n yer Ma says okay?” Agnes heard her older brother’s request and nodded in agreement. The boy nodded in unison with his mother, but he put his head down and no one noticed the tears.

Mountainside Hospital, Summit, New Jersey...the present

“Hi, honey…what…Oh…..I’ve got to work a second shift; Lisa picked up that virus that’s going around. Yeah…about one or so…me too, honey, me too. Yeah….love you!” Jack hung up the phone and put his hand to his face but found no tears. His look still conveyed sadness, which the charge nurse picked up.

“Jack…you okay?” She put her hand on his arm.

“Ah…yeah…well….my dog…Neddie….he was old…thirteen…we expected it, of course, but I’ve had him since I was in sixth grade. Stupid to cry over a dog, huh?”

“Damn, Jackie…thirteen…aw that must hurt like hell.” She pulled him close and hugged him, despite his attempts of protest.

“My dog died last year, and I was a basket case for a month. You need to step away? We can cover for a bit.” Orthopedic Post-surgical was an easy shift under the worst of circumstances, and they could spare him. He declined; he always declined anything that addressed how human he actually was. He shook his head and set to the evening’s meds round.

That night at home...

Jack stood in the doorway enveloped in a welcoming hug by his partner. At five-one, Gina was nearly ten inches shorter than him. She stood on tip toes and kissed him on the cheek.

“I’ve got him in a blanket in the basement; it’s cool down there.” Gina kissed Jack on the cheek and led him to the couch and sat him down. A moment later she had brought him a cup of chamomile and a throw blanket, which she draped over his shoulders.

“It was his time, honey…I’m okay,” Jack protested even as his tears dripped into his tea.

“I know, Jackie, I know.” She leaned closer and stroked the side of his face.

“I love you,” she said softly as she began to kiss him; first tentatively…almost sisterly, but before long they were locked in an embrace on the faux fur rug in front of the hearth.

“I need you…” he said, almost sobbing as they came together. Only a few minutes later he lay on his back, spent from the moment. He was sobbing, and Gina was lying on top of him, kissing him.

“Shhhh….shhhhh……” She held his face with both her hands and kissed him again, beginning the process all over, which went on for some time until they fell asleep in each other’s arms in front of the hearth, warmed much more by each other than by the dying embers.

At the hospital, a few weeks later...

“Jack…are you okay?” Lisa asked as she placed the chart back on the cart. He shook his head slightly as if to say I’m okay when he obviously wasn’t. He began to shake; an almost indiscernible tremor at first, but in a few moments it had gotten more pronounced to Lisa’s concern. She led him to the staff lounge even as she was using her right hand in a ‘phone’ sign to the charge nurse. A few minutes later the on call doctor was sitting next to him.

“I bet something is trying to surface; I’ve seen movements like these before,” she said, nodding her head. Her warm smile disarmed the nervousness of the moment.

“It could be because of stress, and after what you told me about your dog just now, I’m not surprised. The shaking has subsided almost completely, and from what you told me it’s not something that you haven’t experienced. Are you seeing your therapist soon?”

“Friday.” Jack sighed, feeling very vulnerable and almost ashamed. The doctor nodded and shook his hand.

“Let me know if there’s anything more I can do, okay?” Jack nodded and the woman stood up and smiled before leaving the lounge.

The Office of Amanda Arce', Therapist...

“while you were away? My dog died a couple of weeks ago…I had him since I was eleven.” Even two weeks removed, the loss still brought tears to his eyes, and his face burned with shame.

“Hey…it’s okay…how old are you?” The question threw him, since Amanda had just given him leave to cry and as far as Jack could remember, Amanda was already aware of his age.

“You’ve had the dog for over half your lifetime, Jack…it’s bound to affect you.”

“He was a gift….my uncle gave him to me….Irish Setter….Uncle Kenny…gave him to me.” He looked into Amanda’s eyes and found acceptance and ‘permission,’ and he started to sob.

“I’m sorry, Jack…it must be hard. Is your uncle still alive?” Jack looked up and shook his head.

“Why do you ask that? You know he’s not.” He frowned as his eyebrows began to furrow.

“Just wondering; you said he was your favorite uncle.” She paused as he considered her words.

“What?” he almost snapped at her as he wiped away the tears with his sleeve. The sadness was gone, replaced by a nearly sullen expression.

“The dog was very special to you…I can see that, Jack.” Amanda’s voice seemed soft but flat, almost monotone. He nodded and tears once again began to fill his eyes.

“You loved Neddie, Jack. It’s okay to love the dog.” Jack looked up at her and she nodded with a knowing half-smile; her head shake told him ‘no, it wasn’t your fault.’ He put his head down but lifted it again, quickly and with a tremor that began to move his left shoulder. Amanda nodded and spoke again, this time with an almost motherly tone.

“You can love the dog without….there’s no obligation, Jack. You can feel however you feel.” The look on his face almost begged, ‘I can?’ Her nod was freeing in its silence.

“He told me….He told me he was sorry.” The young man gasped at the words; the repeated hollow apologies followed by tearful hugs that led to more need to feel sorry and for Jack to feel guilty and damaged once again. Jack began to sob, and his shaking subsided almost in reverse correspondence of his crying.

“I don’t hate him….I’m sorry….I….”

“You love the dog, Jack. It’s okay to love the dog.” As much as he had heard her before, the words finally sank in and he broke down completely; incoherent words mixed with ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I didn’t…want to….he made me.’

“I know Jack…I know.” Amanda knew only too well. Jack’s story paralleled hers and a million other children who grew up hurt and scared and angry and ashamed. She waited a few moments as his weeping subsided.

“He…Neddie…his name was Neddie…” Jack repeated as a reminder more to himself than to Amanda of just how important the dog had become to him. He spoke less haltingly even as the tears continued to flow.

“He…Uncle Kenny stopped….the dog…Neddie used to growl at him. It was like he knew. He…protected me….” Jack’s voice trailed off and he sighed deeply and grew quiet as his crying stopped. A minute or so of silence was followed by the gentle nudge of Amanda’s voice.

“Jack….okay? I want you to feel the couch behind you and hear the water beside you,” she said softly. He tilted his head to his right to take in the sound of the miniature waterfall. A long deep sigh escaped his lips as she spoke.

“When you’re ready, open your eyes. Sense the room around you and where you are, okay, Jack?” A moment later he opened his eyes and smiled a half-smile before crying again; this time softer and with a relieved look.

“I guess I….I felt like I should hate the dog….he was a bribe. I mean…who does that? Who hurts….I don’t understand.” Jack looked down at himself and frowned.

“You wonder why you never did anything like that? I suppose I could come up with some technical or spiritual answer, but the truth is, you never had it in you.” Amanda smiled at him. He turned away, almost embarrassed to know that he was the same gentle and caring person that everyone always knew.

“You okay? Any closure to be done? Any emotions we need to contain?”

“No….I’m …I feel okay.” He looked down at himself.

“I do feel sort of funny….odd? I had wanted to….” He looked down at himself once again. His feet moved up and down in opposite motion; the nervous gesture actually benefitting him because of how it helped with coping with the memories, but a first for him since he hadn’t dressed up before then, and he noticed that the heels acted as a pivot for the rocking.

“I know we wanted to help Jacquie deal with her loss, since Neddie helped her get through the worst of it.” Amanda smiled a welcoming smile as she noticed Jack’s clothing with more attention than when they first started.

“That is a nice blouse, I must say.” She almost giggled; her laugh added to the near-conspiratorial tone to her words. Jack sat in the office that afternoon; practically as an afterthought, since they had been working on integrating his two selves for nearly ten months, but it had really been necessary. Almost a final and fitting goodbye in a way.

“Gina helped me pick it out. I never realized before….you know…before I paid attention? My favorite color is teal, but I realized it actually looks good on me.” Jack blushed at the mention of the pronoun, since it was really Jacquie’s favorite color and she was learning more and more about herself just as much as Jack was becoming her more and more.

“I think it’s a nice shade for you. I like the way you’ve done your hair. Did Gina help with that?”

“She helped me pick it out, and Marty was able to do such a great job with it.” Though the pitch remained in the tenor range, the voice had grown softer even as the countenance became much more confident and alive. Part of Jacquie retreated inward; another expected step in the change that overtook the woman as she continued her steady pace toward becoming herself.

“We’ll meet together next week with you and Gina. I really am excited at the work you and she are doing together. Will 5:30 be okay?” Amanda asked as Jacquie handed her some papers and a check. Amanda wrote the time and date down. Jacquie nodded and placed the piece of paper in her wallet before exchanging it in her purse for her car keys. She smiled as she walked out the inner office door.

“Thank you so much, Amanda.” A mother and her daughter sat in the outer office. The woman nodded and smiled and the little girl waved in return to Jacquie.

“Look, Mommy…she likes Teal….” She said as she pointed to Jacquie’s blouse.

Several months later...

“I’ve got a surprise.” Gina said as Jacquie sat down on the couch. Jacquie looked at her partner and scrunched her eyebrows in question. A soft scratching sound from behind Gina was followed almost immediately by the appearance of a small furry head.

“Her name is Heidi.” The reddish brown Dachsie puppy hopped quickly over Gina’s legs and into Jacquie’s lap. A moment later a small tongue was licking Jacquie’s nose, evoking gentle laughter from both women.

“What a cute little bitch!” Jacquie said with a laugh. Gina nodded and laughed back,

“Yes, and the dog isn’t so bad either.” A moment later Heidi sat between the two women, looking confused and a bit put out as they rediscovered just what a cute little bitch Gina could be.

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