Chapter 8: The Christmas Oracle of Room 316

STORY RECAP: The Dickens family’s Christmas joy is cut short by Dad’s sudden job loss but things begin to change when they meet the Flores men. As the girls’ grandmother continues her hospitalization, she speaks surprising messages to everyone. Jaime Flores’ dog, Paz, becomes important to both families. This is the eighth installment of a 10-chapter holiday serial, which concludes Christmas Eve.

By BOBBY PEPPER
Daily Journal
Sophie Dickens took great pleasure in tormenting her little sister. Despite her many attempts to be nice toward 6-year-old Claire, temptation always got the best of 11-year-old Sophie and she’d revert to her familiar role as sisterly antagonist.
While Dad went job hunting and Mom attended to Grummy at the hospital on a Saturday morning, Sophie and Clarie’s paternal grandmother, “Mamaw” Elverena Dickens, drove up from Houston to take the girls to the Lee County Library for a holiday storytime.
Special guests were the Comfort Creatures, dogs trained to provide company for children as they read and to provide comfort for patients in hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
“Claire, what are the little doggies gonna read to you today?” said Sophie, poking fun at her sister before entering the library. “Woof woof, bow wow, arf arf? You gonna bark at them while you’re reading?”
“Shut up, Sophie,” shouted Claire, tears welling in her hazel eyes.
Elverena, a dignified woman who applied old-school discipline during her 35-year teaching career, had had enough of Sophie’s smarty-pants attitude.
“Listen here, Sophia Jane Dickens,” said an angry Elverena, grabbing her granddaughter’s left arm and calling out her full name. “If you don’t quit bothering your sister, I am going to switch you right here in front of everybody. You hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sophie knew not to sass Mamaw.
Six dogs and their owners were stationed in the library’s auditorium, and they had books in front of them for the children to read. After walking up the stairs, Claire dashed into the room looking for the dogs she loved reading to.
But what she didn’t see, in the back right corner of the room, was a three-legged Labrador waiting for a child to visit her.
When Sophie walked in, she immediately turned to her right and saw the dog. She recognized it from the construction site where Claire had wandered off to a few days ago. Sophie’s eyes locked into Paz’s and they stared at each other for almost a minute until Mamaw touched Sophie on the shoulder, snapping the girl out of her daze.
“Go on, Sophie,” said Elverena in her tender, grandmotherly voice. “That dog needs you.”
Jaime Flores, Paz’s owner, also recognized Sophie and smiled as she approached. “Please, join us,” he said. “Paz wants to hear you read.”
“I really don’t want to read,” she said.
“Well, if you don’t want to read,” Jaime replied, “then let’s talk. You, me and Paz. Why are you so mean to your sister?”
Jaime’s question stunned Sophie. How did he know, she thought. Suddenly, Paz moved from her spot next to Jaime, walked up to Sophie and nuzzled her. The girl giggled as the affectionate Labrador lay down next to her.
Wrapping her arms around Paz, Sophie told Jaime how she thought Claire got all the attention and the best toys at Christmas. It was a frustrating time for her and her family since dad was out of a job and her grandmother was sick. When Sophie told Grummy’s name, Jaime nodded his head. “Mrs. St. Cloud,” he said. “Yes, I know her. Paz and I have been praying for her.”
“You think Grummy’s gonna die?” Sophie said, slowly rubbing Paz’s soft fur.
“Sophie,” Jaime said, “do you believe in the Christmas spirit and Baby Jesus?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Have faith and be a good girl. Be nice to your sister. OK?”
“Yes, sir,” a grinning Sophie said, reaching out to give Jaime a hug before giving Paz an even tighter one. Paz barked three times and nuzzled again.
“I love you, Paz,” Sophie said.
Sophie was Paz’s only visitor at storytime. As Sophie left the library with Claire and Mamaw, she looked back to see Jaime carry a tired Paz to his car and then answered his cell phone. He appeared happy.

***

At that moment, in Room 316 at North Mississippi Medical Center, Ginny Dickens looked up, wiped tears from her face and smiled. The words and sounds she heard from her mother gave Ginny hope for her family, especially her older daughter.

***

Six hours of job hunting left Paul Dickens tired and discouraged. But as he drove toward Crosstown, he felt led to turn off Gloster Street toward the construction site. When he parked his car outside the fence, two signs with the words “Coming Soon” and “Help Wanted” caught his attention.
Esteban Flores had just locked the entrance gate at sunset when Paul drove up. Paul reached out to shake his hand, thanking him again for his help in finding Claire. Paul then pointed at the signs and said, “Please tell me about them.”
Esteban unlocked the gate and waved Paul in. “Come,” Esteban said. “Let’s talk, my friend.”

Bobby Pepper/NEMS Daily Journal