Runaway retriever, p.1
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       Runaway Retriever, p.1

           Tui T. Sutherland
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Runaway Retriever



























  It was pasta primavera night, about a week before school started, when I first heard about the dog.

  I remember because I was stuck in the kitchen for, like, five hours while my older sister, Camellia, insisted on teaching me how to make pasta primavera. I tried to tell her it was pointless. Dad and I were never going to chop vegetables. Once she was gone, we were going to eat frozen pizza every night. Or frozen lasagna. Or Chinese takeout. Maybe we would microwave some frozen green beans and eat them with our spaghetti and meatballs. Dad and I both thought this was a pretty good plan. In fact, the only good thing I could see about Camellia going off to college was that Dad and I would get to eat meat again.

  My sister decided at the beginning of the summer that we should all be vegetarians. She said all her future roommates at Oberlin would be “absolutely horrified” if they found out she ate meat. Dad and I didn’t try to argue with her. We figured it was only for a couple of months anyway. Maybe less, Dad said, if we were lucky and it was “just a phase” (it wasn’t). So I went over to Eric’s or Troy’s whenever I really wanted hamburgers (which it turns out is like four times a week, but they don’t mind).

  Camellia wasn’t too excited to hear about our frozen pizza plan, though, not even when I promised we’d get pizza with healthy stuff on it. She started whacking at the zucchini extra hard. I moved to the other side of the kitchen island with the carrots. I’ve been hit by flying zucchini before when Camellia gets worked up about something.

  I know she’s just worried about us. Mom divorced Dad and left when I was five and Camellia was twelve, so she’s kind of taken care of me and Dad since then. She thinks we’re going to totally fall apart without her. I think it’s going to be a lot quieter around here. But I bet we can handle it.

  Out of the blue, Camellia said: “Parker, you’re a dog person, right?”

  “A dog person?” I said. “Isn’t that, like, an oxymoron?” I was pretty proud of using that word. We’d learned it in Ms. Applebaum’s fifth-grade class last year. It means a phrase where the two words sound like opposites, like “serious fun” or “jumbo shrimp” or “delicious zucchini.”

  Camellia didn’t notice my keen literary skills. “I mean, do you like dogs?”

  I shrugged. “Sure. Everyone likes dogs.”

  “Well, some people are cat people,” Camellia said, scooping the zucchini slices into a colander. “So they like cats better.”

  “OK. I like cats, too,” I said.

  “Which do you like better?”

  This seemed like a weird question to me. We’d never had any pets, so it was like asking me if I liked basketball or football better. I play baseball. I don’t have an opinion about other sports.

  “The same, I guess,” I said.

  Camellia made one of her irritated noises. “Parker. Fine. Well, I think you’re a dog person.”

  “OK,” I said. I went to check on the pot of water, which still wasn’t boiling.

  “I mean, because you like to run around outside and you have lots of friends. I think if you were a cat person you’d be more private and quiet.”

  That was kind of funny. I think I’m a pretty quiet guy, actually. My theory is, if you don’t say too much, you’re less likely to make people mad. Mostly I just agree with what people say. I think that’s why I have all those friends she’s talking about.

  Also, guys don’t care if you’re quiet. It’s only girls who are like, “What? What are you thinking? What does that face mean?” when you’re not even doing anything.

  This conversation was a good example of how I always agree with people, actually, because the next thing I said was, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I am a dog person.”

  Camellia beamed. “That’s what I told Dad,” she said. “That’s why I’m getting you a dog.”

  Now she had my attention. “What?” I said. “Why? What?”

  She wiped her hands dry on her pink-and-green-striped apron. “You guys are going to be lonely without me,” she said. “Especially you. So I decided you need a dog to keep you company while I’m gone.”

  “Dad won’t be lonely,” I said. “He has Julianne.”

  Camellia made a face and then tried to hide it. But I knew she didn’t like Dad’s new girlfriend either. He hadn’t dated anyone since Mom left, so it was really weird to suddenly have a strange person hanging out with us. Julianne has dark red hair that Camellia says is definitely dyed. We both got Dad’s cocoa-brown hair instead of Mom’s superblond, and Camellia says she would never change it, not even if everyone else at Oberlin dyes their hair bright green. Julianne is an artist or something. Dad met her a month ago when she went into his bank to apply for a loan for her art studio. I heard Camellia call her a “ditz” on the phone once, even though she tried to be nice when Julianne was around. Which was way too often, if you asked me.

  “Julianne might not stick around,” Camellia said. “I mean, a month isn’t long enough to tell if it’ll last. And dogs are better than girlfriends anyway. You might as well learn that now.” Camellia’s boyfriend had broken up with her a few weeks earlier because he was going to the University of Miami, so she was in kind of a major anti-relationship mood.

  “What did Dad say about this plan?” I asked.

  “He said I should talk to you about it,” Camellia said, pulling out her cell phone and hitting one of the speed-dial buttons. “But of course I was right. I knew you’d be excited.”

  I guess my “excited” face probably looks a lot like my “confused” face. “How would we take care of a —” I started to say, but she held up one finger and turned away from me.

  “Katie?” she said into the phone. Katie is Camellia’s best friend. She’s going to Mount Holyoke and they spent the whole summer talking about how “absolutely devastating” it is that they’ll be so far apart and “You better text me all the time” and “I’ll still be your #1 Facebook friend, right?” and all that. Personally, I’d be surprised if Katie even remembers to take her cell phone to college with her. She’s totally scatterbrained — pretty much the complete opposite of Camellia.

  “Guess what?” Camellia went on. “They said yes! Yeah! Totally!”


  “I know, it is the best idea. When can we come get him?”

  I waved my hands frantically, but Camellia didn’t seem to notice. Or if she did, she pretended not to.

  She frowned. “Oh, no! How long ago?” Pause. “Wow, aren’t you worried? Shouldn’t you go out looking for him?” She glanced at me. I tried to make a hey, shouldn’t we talk about this face, but that didn’t get through to her either. “Really? Are you sure? OK. Well, call me when you find him. We can come get him tomorrow, maybe. Great! OK, you too! Byeee!”

  Camellia snapped the phone shut and tucked it in her jeans pocket again. “This is so perfect,” she said. “Parker, you’re totally going to love this dog!”

  “What dog?” I said. “Katie doesn’t have a dog.”

  “Yes, she does,” Camellia said. “She got it a month ago. Well, it was supposed to be for her and Sarah
together, but Sarah doesn’t want it, and now Katie’s going off to college, so they’re looking for a new home for him. And so I was like, I know, he’d be perfect for Parker! He’s so gorgeous, Parker, seriously.”

  First of all, I never knew dogs could be “gorgeous.” Frankly, that sounded a little ominous to me. It would be just like Camellia to give me something small and fluffy and silly-looking that my friends will laugh and laugh at. Secondly, if Katie’s fifteen-year-old sister didn’t want it, why would I?

  OK. I’ll admit I was a little curious. One of the guys on my baseball team, Hugo, has this totally funny mutt whose name is Scratcher, but Hugo always calls him Squashface. He seems like a pretty cool dog. And I once saw a thing on TV where these dogs were chasing Frisbees in some kind of competition, and that looked kind of cool, too. Maybe this dog would do that with me.

  “So why can’t we go see him now?” I asked.

  Camellia took the pasta and poured it into the pot, but she did it in this kind of shifty way that made me think she was trying not to tell me something. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “He just runs away sometimes. But Katie says he always shows up again by the next day.”

  I couldn’t believe it. “They just let their dog run around the neighborhood?” I said. “They don’t go looking for him?”

  “Katie says they used to, at first, but since he does it all the time, they just gave up.” She stirred the pasta busily. Aha. I was starting to figure this out. No wonder Katie’s family didn’t want him. They didn’t like anything that made them get up off the couch.

  “Anyway,” Camellia went on, “it’s no big deal. Our yard has a better fence than theirs, so I’m sure he won’t do that here.”

  “What’s his name?” I asked.

  Camellia shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think they call him Dog.”

  That made up my mind. This poor dog obviously needed to be rescued. If Katie and Sarah were my owners, I’d run away, too.

  “All right,” I said. “Tomorrow we’ll go get him.”

  I was getting a dog … whether I liked it or not.

  As soon as we rang the doorbell, I heard barking.

  “Shut up!” someone yelled, probably Katie. “Shut up! Dog! Shut up! SARAH! PUT HIM OUTSIDE! SAAAARAAAH!”

  “I’M DOING IT!” Sarah yelled back.

  Dad looked really nervous. He kept saying, “Are you sure about this?” When he heard all the noise, his face went kind of white. But I wasn’t worried. I’ve been to Katie’s house a couple of times, and it’s always like that, since way before they had a dog. Sometimes I think Camellia likes it over there because all the yelling makes it so different from our house.

  The barking got farther away, and then finally the front door opened and Katie was standing there.

  “Camellia!” she shrieked happily, the way she does every single time they see each other. “And Parker, oh my gosh, when did you get so tall?” She saw me about two weeks ago, but normally she doesn’t talk to me much. And maybe I’d grown since then. She reached past me to shake Dad’s hand. “Hi Mr. Green, great to see you. Come in, you guys!”

  But as Camellia stepped forward, suddenly I heard the barking again — only it was coming from behind us now. I turned around just as a dog came galloping around the side of the house at full speed.

  He was not small or fluffy or silly-looking. He was a big, brown-eyed golden retriever with long, shining, sun-colored fur, and he was running straight at me.

  “OH MY GOSH, SARAAAH!” Katie hollered. “You left the gate open again!”

  “I DID NOT!” Sarah screamed from the back of the house.

  “Well, now we’re never going to catch him!” Katie yelled.

  Something made me open my arms as the dog hurtled toward me. I mean, he wasn’t even a little bit scary. He just looked really, really excited to say hello.

  Which is what he did, by leaping up and planting his paws on my shoulders and licking my face all over.

  “Ew, GROSS!” Katie yelled. She reached to grab his collar. “Get DOWN, Dog, OFF! Leave Parker alone!”

  “It’s OK,” I said. I got on my knees and the dog sat down in front of me. His tail went thump thump thump on the porch. I didn’t even know dogs could smile, but this dog had the hugest grin I’d ever seen. He looked like someone had poured sunshine all over him.

  “You’re such a pain in my butt, Dog,” Katie said, putting her hands on her hips.

  “Woof!” the dog said, tossing back his head so his long silky ears flapped. He grinned at me. I got the weird feeling he agreed with me about how dopey Katie and Sarah were.

  “Come in and I’ll get you his stuff,” Katie said. Dad started to say something, but she kept on talking right over him. “We got a crate for him, but good luck keeping him inside it!”

  Camellia and Dad followed Katie inside. When I stood up to go in, the dog came with me. He poked his nose into my hand and made a whuffling noise. His head was smooth and soft when I petted it. He stayed beside me as we followed Katie around the house. She had already filled a plastic bag with dog food and a leash and two half-chewed rawhide bones. In the kitchen she picked up his metal water bowl, emptied it into the sink, and put that in the bag, too.

  Sarah came stomping in from the backyard. “I totally did not leave the gate open, Katie.”

  “That’s what you said last time!” Katie said.

  “Yeah! Because it was true last time, too!”

  “So what, he just teleports through the fence?”

  “Whatever!” Sarah snapped. “I just know it’s not my fault!”

  “Girls, girls,” their mom said, coming into the kitchen. She said hi to us and immediately started thanking Dad for taking the dog off their hands. Dad looked kind of uncomfortable, but he’s about as bad at saying no as I am. The dog poked my leg with his nose, looked pointedly at the back door, and then looked up at me.

  “Can I take him outside?” I asked.

  “Sure,” Katie said. “Just make sure the gate is closed.”

  Sarah stuck out her tongue at her sister. I held the door open for the dog. He immediately bounded down the steps and raced across the yard. I was hoping I’d see him get through the fence so I could figure out how he did it. But he kept circling back around to me instead of trying to escape.

  Their fence was made of wood and was only as high as my waist. Maybe he could jump right over it. Our fence was chain-link metal and nearly as tall as me. No way would he get over that.

  I walked around the yard, looking at the fence. The dog trotted beside me, wagging his tail the whole time. The sun lit up his fur like fire.

  The gate near the front of the house was closed. But as I came closer, I saw something. There was an outdoor storage chest set up against the fence. It looked like the one Troy’s dad used to keep his garden tools in.

  As I walked up to it, the dog ran over and jumped up on top of it. He shook out his fur and sat down. He looked very proud of himself. I could see that from there it would be supereasy to jump over the fence, even if you were a lot smaller than a golden retriever.

  “You’re pretty clever, aren’t you?” I said, sitting on the chest beside him. He lay down on his side and put his head on my knee, panting happily. I scratched behind his ears. “You’re much cleverer than Katie and Sarah, that’s for sure,” I said. “I can’t believe they didn’t see this. I guess they don’t think like us, huh?”

  The dog looked up at me with his big brown eyes.

  “Well,” I said, “if you’re coming home with me, you’re going to need a real name.”

  His tail swished back and forth like he understood me.

  “I’ve been reading this book about King Arthur,” I said to him. “I bet you’d make a great knight of the Round Table.” He did have a really noble-looking face. And then I had the best idea. He was more than a knight — he was a wizard, magically escaping whenever Katie put him outside. Of course, I’d figured out how the magic worked, but it was st
ill a mystery to everyone else.

  “Merlin,” I said. His tail thumped. I think he liked it. “All right, clever dog. I’m going to call you Merlin.”

  Dad was worried about what we were going to do once school started again on Monday. He had to go to work all day — he manages a bank in the next town over — and I’d be gone from seven a.m. to three p.m. I suggested maybe I could come home at lunchtime to let Merlin out, because my school was only a few blocks away. But Dad said he didn’t think the school would like that.

  “You guys are such worrywarts,” Camellia said.

  I thought that was unfair. Dad was the one worrying, not me. I was the one coming up with excellent ideas. How cool would it be to come home in the middle of the day to see my dog? (My dog. That sounded so strange.) Any excuse to leave school would be awesome, if you asked me.

  But Camellia, of course, had the most logical solution. “You can just leave him in the yard while you’re out,” she said. “We’ll put water out there and he can run around all he wants. That way there won’t be any accidents in the house. Lots of people have outdoor dogs that never come inside.”

  “He’ll be inside with us when we’re home, though,” I said. We were driving home from Katie’s, and Merlin was sitting in the backseat with me. He had his nose stuck up near the top of the window, which was cracked open. I wanted to roll it down and let him stick his head out. I’ve seen lots of dogs hang their heads out the car window so the wind could blow in their faces.

  But along with the dog food and the dog bed, Katie had given us a stack of dog books about a mile high. I thought this was another sign of her being crazy. If you spent all your time reading those books, when would you hang out with your dog? But Camellia loves books. If there were a book for each decision she had to make, she would read them all before doing anything.

  So of course it started the minute we got in the car. As I went to roll down the window, she said, “No, don’t do that.” She held up a chapter on car trips. “See, it isn’t safe for the dog. Something could blow into its eyes.”

  “Poor Merlin,” I said, rumpling his golden fur. “No fun for you.”

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