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On the third day the sky continued to be clear. It was colder so we wore hats and gloves and scarves and decided to walk into town to do a little Christmas shopping. All in all, our outings were going pretty good. A big step for me and proof of how Thor was helping me get up and out. I hadn’t purchased gifts for anyone, and neither had Miller, he’d confessed. Christmas was just around the corner. Miller and I compiled our lists and took off with Thor at our sides. It was late afternoon and already a sienna sunset streaked the sky.

“We’re the Three Musketeers,” Miller said, patting Thor.

“More like the Three Stooges,” I quipped, and was pleased to hear Miller guffaw.

McClellanville wasn’t a big city and there weren’t crowds to navigate—two triggers for me. With only a few modest shops it was a perfect choice for my first outing in public with a service dog. Still, we would confront strangers and possible congestion on the sidewalk. Thor sensed my apprehension and walked close to my side, looking up at me frequently. I held the leash tight in my fist as we approached the shops along Pinckney Street. With Thor at my side my mind didn’t panic, but I was feeling the tension mount. I was usually hypervigilant, checking over my shoulder or the tops of buildings, looking for snipers. Thor kept me in the moment as we walked. I knew he had my back. Plus, I had to think about him, where he was, and where Miller was.

The village was all decked out for the holiday. Some of the great old houses, white grandes dames with double porches, shone nostalgic with graceful boughs of greenery encircled with red ribbon draped between the pillars. White electric candles flickered in the windows. As we walked by, Miller and I looked at all the different decorations, some simple and natural, some wildly imaginative and electric. Every door held a wreath. The excitement in the air was contagious. Christmas was suddenly becoming real to me.

One couple stopped to admire Thor. Even though he had his service dog vest, they reached out to pet him. Clarissa had pounded into my head not to let people touch the dog. Especially not in the early few weeks of training. I wanted to tell them to stop, explain that my dog was working. People should ask permission to pet any dog, but especially a service dog. But this being my first time out with him, I felt tongue-tied. I didn’t know the words to say, didn’t want conflict, so I kept silent. Miller didn’t help, either. He was by nature gregarious and enjoyed telling the strangers the dog’s name, beaming with pride. To his credit, Thor bore it all with his usual aloof calm, neither licking the strangers nor fawning. I was proud of him. After we moved on, I knelt down beside him to praise him and give him a treat. Next, I explained the service dog protocol to Miller.

It was a good lesson to learn for all of us. Feeling buoyed with confidence, we went on to the first shop. The cute pink cottage was filled with handmade, handcrafted items.

“I’m sure we can find something for Mama in here,” I said to Miller. I knew I had the right to go into the store with my service dog, so, taking a breath, I pushed open the windowpaned door swathed in a bough of pine. A small bell tinkled as we stepped inside, where it smelled of cinnamon and pine. It was a sweet shop, feminine, with a decorated Christmas tree, lights everywhere, and jammed with a potpourri of gift items. The shopgirl, a pretty brunette wearing a red-and-green apron, looked up from the counter with a smile, then, seeing the dog, her smile faltered.

“I’m sorry, but no dogs allowed inside.”

“It’s my service dog,” I replied, standing awkwardly at the door.

She looked puzzled. “I still don’t think it’s allowed.”

I could feel the tension building in my gut. “It is,” I told her through clenched teeth. “It’s the law.”

Worry flickered across her face. “I . . . I don’t know. I have to check. Can you wait a moment, please?” She hurried to the back room.

I could feel my temples begin to throb. Thor stood beside me, calm and patient, awaiting my next command. I removed my gloves and stroked his velvety fur and ears, finding comfort there.

The three other people in the shop turned around to openly stare at us. I didn’t like being the center of attention and my tension mounted. I could feel sweat pooling. Miller shifted his weight and grew uneasy. “Come on, Taylor,” he said in a low voice. “We don’t have to go in here.”

“Yes, we do,” I ground out. This was our test. Clarissa had warned me there would be times like this, and I had to remain calm but firm.

A moment later the shopgirl returned with an older woman, probably the owner. She, too, wore a red-and-green apron. She came around the counter and approached with a smile, but her sharp eyes were taking in the situation.

“Hello there,” she said cheerily. “You say this is your service dog?”

“He is.”

She looked at Thor’s red-and-black service vest, which was clearly marked SERVICE DOG.

“You don’t look like you have a disability,” she said, eyeing me.

“I didn’t know there was a look,” I replied without humor.

My tone was having a negative effect on the woman. “You know, a lot of people are faking those vests these days.”

A couple in the store leaned toward each other and whispered.

I felt my cheeks flame. “Are they?”

“Yes. You’re not blind. I don’t see your injury.” Her tone was getting hostile.

Miller was getting agitated. He spoke up on my behalf. “He’s got PTSD.”

I cringed. I didn’t feel I had to give my name, rank, and diagnosis.

Suddenly, understanding flooded the shop woman’s face. “Oh, my, you’re the McClellan boy, aren’t you? For heaven’s sake, why didn’t you say so? Come on in. I’m sorry to make you wait. We’re so glad you’re back home! Why, we just love your mama.” She shuffled me into the store. “Oh,” she added in a serious tone, “we thank you for your service.”

My hands were shaking and my headache pounded. All I wanted to do was get out of the shop and gulp deep breaths of fresh air. But I forced a smile and shook her outstretched hand. “Thank you,” I replied.

The three other people in the store were McClellanville residents. They smiled sweetly and came forward to introduce themselves, all thanking me for my service.

I nodded, mumbling my thanks.

One woman reached out to pet Thor, but her companion, an elderly man, stopped her, putting his hand on her arm. “You should ask if you can pet his dog.”