Runaway retriever, p.10
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       Runaway Retriever, p.10

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  When I got to school, about fifteen minutes before the first bell, I saw a couple of kids from my grade outside. Tara and Natasha were sitting on one of the benches, sharing a Pop-Tart. Avery was kicking a rock around the playground. None of them were exactly my favorite people to hang out with. I kept my head down and went to sit on the steps. I pulled out my homework and tried to finish the math problem that I couldn’t concentrate on the night before.

  I heard giggling and whispering, but I tried to ignore it. Tara and Natasha could have been talking about anything.

  “Hi Parker!”

  I looked up. The two girls had come over to me. Tara sat on the steps on one side of me, one step up, and Natasha perched on the rail on the other side.

  “So where’s your dog?” Tara asked. She wound one of her thin little braids around her finger. Natasha giggled.

  “Yeah, Parker, where’s your dog?” Avery yelled from the other side of the playground.

  “Shut up, Avery!” Tara shouted back. “We’re trying to have a conversation here!”

  Natasha giggled again. She tossed her long dark hair back over her shoulder. Her glasses sparkled a little in the sun. When I looked up at her, she looked away really fast.

  “Merlin’s at home,” I said.

  “He’s really pretty,” Tara said. “Right, Natasha? Isn’t he pretty?”

  “Yeah, so pretty,” Natasha said, and giggled again. “Much prettier than your dog, Tara!”

  “My dog is crazy,” Tara said. “Hey Parker, maybe sometime if you’re going to the dog run, you could call us, and we could bring Bananas to play with Merlin.” She gave Natasha this weird look with her eyes bugging out. I had no idea what that meant. I did think it was funny that she’d included Natasha in the invitation, even though it was Tara’s dog.

  “Maybe sometime,” I said, although I could not imagine myself ever, ever picking up a phone to call either one of them.

  “That’d be cool,” Tara said. “Wouldn’t that be cool, Natasha?”

  “Sure,” Natasha said, fiddling with her hair. Her face was a little pink, which was strange because it wasn’t a very hot day.

  “So, Parker, what do you think of Mr. Pear —” Tara started to say, but all of a sudden …


  Tara shrieked and leaped off the steps. Natasha yelped, too, and nearly fell off the railing. I’ll admit it, even I jumped.

  Avery had snuck up behind us. He was holding an air horn, the kind that make the loud noise you hear at baseball games. He’d set it off right behind Tara. Now he was laughing and laughing.

  “Oh, Parker,” he said in a simpering voice. “Your dog is so pretty.”

  “Avery, you are such a jerk!” Tara snapped.

  “Takes one to know one,” he said.

  “Oh, that’s clever,” she said. “Very witty. Write that down so history can remember it.”

  Avery scowled and stomped away.

  “Gosh, that scared me!” Natasha said. “Didn’t it scare you, Parker?”

  I nodded, but my mind was somewhere else. It was hard to believe, but Avery Lafitte had just given me the perfect solution.

  I couldn’t wait for school to be over. That was true most days, but today more than ever, because I wanted to rush home and work on my idea. I didn’t even care that Julianne would be there.

  I tried really hard to listen to Mr. Peary, but by the end of the day the margins of my notes were full of scribbled ideas. Luckily he didn’t call on me and catch me daydreaming this time.

  Finally the last bell rang. I nudged Danny and leaned over to include Eric, too. “You guys want to come over and help me with something?” I said.

  “Yeah, totally,” Danny said.

  We found Troy outside, waiting with his little sister. When his mom pulled up, he talked her into letting him come with us. She gave him the same speech about being home for dinner and not leaving my house. As soon as she pulled away with Eden, the four of us started running.

  We raced all the way back to my house. Of course Danny won, but I wasn’t very far behind. I could see Merlin watching out the window for us. That gave me an extra burst of speed at the end. When he saw us come around the corner, he started barking and barking. It was funny, because I couldn’t hear him through the glass, but I could see his mouth moving and his ears flapping back.

  Julianne opened the back door as we came through the gate into the yard. Merlin flew across the grass toward me. He leaped and danced and spun in circles, woofing and pawing at me. Julianne laughed.

  “Hey buddy,” I said, dropping to my knees and rumpling Merlin’s fur. “I know, I missed you, too! Did you have a good day?”

  “I hope so,” Julianne said as if I’d been talking to her. “We watched a lot of TV, I’m afraid. But we played out here for a while, too. He headed for the fence a couple of times, but I was able to distract him with the tennis ball or the Frisbee, thank goodness. I had visions of chasing him down the street all the way to your school! But you were a good boy, weren’t you, Merlin? As long as I played with you, you figured you’d stick around.”

  I was glad Merlin hadn’t showed up at school. But I was also jealous. I didn’t want Julianne to be a good enough substitute for me in Merlin’s mind. She was already trying to replace Camellia. I wouldn’t let her replace me, too.

  Eric kicked my ankle surreptitiously. He nodded at Julianne.

  “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, um, thanks. Thanks for hanging out with him.”

  “No problem — it was fun,” she said with a huge smile.

  Then Danny kicked my other ankle and raised his eyebrows.

  “By the way,” I said, rolling my eyes at him, “this is Danny. And Eric and Troy. Guys, this is Julianne.” They all said hi.

  She beamed at all of us like I’d just invited her into our secret clubhouse or something. “Nice to meet you guys!” she said. “Lucky Merlin, to have so many friends. Well, I’d better be going.”

  “Going?” I echoed. I nearly said, “You’re not staying for dinner?” but I stopped myself in time. I didn’t want to sound like I was inviting her to do that.

  “Yeah, I’m trying to clean up my portfolio for this gallery in New York,” she said. “Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? I feel like such an art snob talking about portfolios and galleries. But it’s just this little place. It’s a long shot. Anyway, we’ll see. So I should go.”

  “OK, ’bye,” I said.

  “ ’Bye,” Troy and Eric said at the same time.

  “Good luck with your portfolio!” Danny said warmly. She smiled again and I felt a little bad that I hadn’t even thought to say something like that. Too bad Danny and I couldn’t trade places. He’d probably be much nicer to his dad’s girlfriend than I could be.

  As soon as she was gone, I explained my idea to the guys and we started searching through the garage. I was sure there was something in here we could use. Merlin stayed close to me, poking his nose into every box. This time I remembered to hide Camellia’s stuffed animals from him before he found them.

  Troy found the first thing we needed. It was still attached to Camellia’s old bike. My dad had bought it for her when she first started riding around the neighborhood by herself. He was really nervous that something might happen to her. It was soon after Mom left, and Dad was dealing with us by himself. He was afraid of cars and everything else on the road.

  So he bought her the loudest bike horn in the history of the world.

  Troy squeezed the black rubber bulb at one end. The horn went BWAAAAAAAMP! Even though we were looking at him when he did it, all of us jumped a mile — including Merlin. Perfect!

  Danny helped me move things away from the back wall until we found the pile of scrap wood my dad has been gathering for years and years. He has a new plan for it every summer. Maybe he’ll build a deck! Or a treehouse! Or a sawhorse. Sometimes he even buys a book on woodworking and stares at it for a few days before giving up. But he keeps adding to the pile o
f wood “just in case.” Whenever he sees a piece of scrap wood by the side of the road, he brings it home. Camellia loves to tease him about it.

  And now we were finally finding a use for it! Well, some of it. Just one piece, actually. One long, narrow piece of wood.

  I grabbed the roll of string from the workbench and we dragged the piece of wood out to the fence. Merlin trotted along beside us, sniffing the wood curiously. He tried to get his teeth around it, but we took it away from him.

  Inside the yard, he ran in big circles while we stood by the fence, trying to rig up my genius device. It was really lucky there were four of us. Danny and Eric each took one end. They held it up level with the top rail of the fence, only a couple of inches away from it. I stuck the rubber bulb of the bike horn between the wood and the rail. We moved and fiddled and tweaked everything until the wood was just far enough from the rail to hold up the horn without making the noise go off. Then Troy ran along the fence, tying the wood to the fence rail at exactly that distance.

  When he was done, we carefully … carefully … let go.

  The long bar of wood stayed in place. The bike horn was trapped between it and the fence rail. And hopefully — if this worked — putting any pressure on the wood would make the horn go off. Like, say, if you hit it with your front paws.

  This was only part one of my plan, though. Part two was convincing Merlin that I would come back, every time. I ran inside and got his bag of treats. I locked the door as I came out, as if we were really leaving. Merlin was flabbergasted. He dropped the tennis ball and stared at me in disbelief. How can you be leaving already? he seemed to be thinking. We haven’t even played at all!

  At the fence we had to do some crazy maneuvering to get under the board and out through the gate without letting Merlin out. But we managed to make it to the other side with my device still intact. I wrapped the bike chain through the links, but I didn’t lock it. I had a feeling Merlin would go for jumping the fence every time now that he thought it was easier than opening the gate.

  He trotted back and forth along the fence, watching me.

  “ ’Bye, Merlin!” I said. “We’ll be right back!”

  Troy ran around the hedge into our neighbor’s yard, in case Merlin did get over the fence and made a run for it. Danny climbed his tree again so he could watch what Merlin did. Eric came with me. We waved to Merlin and walked away down the street.

  We weren’t even halfway down the block when we heard BWAAAAAAAAAMP! I turned around, half afraid that Merlin would be running up behind me. But there was no sign of him.

  “Let’s wait a sec,” I said, stopping out of sight of the house.

  “This is a pretty cool idea,” Eric said. “Houdini would totally have done something like this. I mean, if he had a dog like yours. You know he designed a lot of the trick boxes he worked with?”

  “That’s cool. I hope this works,” I said. We started walking back to the house.

  Merlin was sitting on the other side of the fence, looking up at the bike horn. When he saw us he leaped to his paws and barked excitedly. His tail whisked back and forth. He crouched and made a jump for the top of the fence.

  His paws hit the wooden board. They pressed it back toward the fence. The bike horn was squeezed between the wood and the fence rail.


  Startled, Merlin lost his momentum and fell back to the ground. He shook himself and looked around with this hilarious bewildered expression. I waited another minute until he was calm again. He sat back down and looked at me, tilting his head.

  “Hey buddy,” I said, coming up to the gate. I crouched to get to eye level with him. “See? I came back.” I fed him a treat through the chain links. “Good boy. Good stay.”

  “That was the funniest thing I ever saw!” Danny called down from the tree. “The look on his face! When the horn went off the first time — it was like a squirrel had just landed on his head. He had no idea what it was, but it made him get away from the fence really fast. Ha!” Danny started laughing again.

  I said good-bye to Merlin again while Troy and Eric traded places. Troy and I headed down the block. Again we heard BWAAAAAAAAAAAMP! behind us.

  We stopped and waited. Silence.

  “I wish we could get a dog,” Troy said wistfully. “Maybe a bloodhound, like the kind that help the police find missing people and solve crimes and stuff.”

  “Then he could come over and play with Merlin,” I said. “That’d be awesome. You know, whenever he’s not out solving mysteries.”

  We headed back and the same thing happened again. When Merlin saw us, he went bonkers. He barked and jumped and spun and then he tried to leap up to jump over the fence. But as soon as his paws hit the board, BWAAAAAAAAMP! He fell back, shook himself, and stood there looking startled.

  Again I waited until he was calm, and then I went up and fed him another treat. “Good boy,” I said. “And here I am again. Just like I promised.”

  Merlin wagged his tail.

  “You guys don’t have to stick around for this,” I said to my friends. “I bet it’s super-boring for you. I just have to keep doing this until he stops trying to get out.”

  “I want to stay,” Troy said.

  “Me too,” said Eric.

  “Me too, as long as we go to the park eventually,” Danny said with a grin.

  I grinned back. Julianne was right about one thing. Merlin and I were lucky to have friends like these.

  Later that night I told Dad about my brilliant plan and how well it had worked. After half an hour, Merlin had stopped trying to jump up on the fence. He waited patiently by the gate until I came back. I stayed away for a little longer each time, but every time I came back and praised him and gave him a treat. And then at the end we took him to the park and let him run around for a while. We even played his favorite game of chasing him while he kept the ball away from us.

  “He did so great!” I said, rubbing Merlin’s head proudly. “So we’ll keep practicing that until he never tries to get out anymore.” Merlin looked up at me, panting and grinning. He was tired from all the playing, but he seemed to know he’d been a good dog that day.

  We were out on the back steps, watching Dad grill hamburgers for dinner. I forgot there is one thing he knows how to cook. Hamburgers grilling is probably one of my favorite smells. It was still pretty light out, and I could almost pretend it was still summer.

  “Nice work, Parker,” Dad said. “That’s some smart thinking.”

  “Thanks,” I said. I patted Merlin for a minute. I had a question, but I wasn’t sure whether to ask it. Finally I just blurted it out. “How come Julianne didn’t stay for dinner tonight?”

  Dad looked at me sideways. “Did you want her to?”

  “Well,” I said. “I mean, not always, I just — well, since she stayed with Merlin today — I just thought she would.” I shuffled my sneakers in the grass. “You guys aren’t breaking up, are you?”

  “Gosh, no,” Dad said, surprised. I was surprised, too — surprised to find out I was glad about that.

  “I thought about asking her to stay,” Dad went on, “but I wanted to just hang out with you tonight.” He flipped one of the burgers and winked at me. “Besides, there’s a baseball game on later. We could watch it if you finish your homework.”

  “Awesome,” I said. I tried to play it cool. I was kind of glad I didn’t have a tail like Merlin’s, because right then it would probably have been wagging pretty hard.

  “Speaking of Julianne,” Dad said, “I think we might have worked out a solution for Merlin, especially now that you’ve started training him so well.” He pointed his spatula at me. “But it comes with some conditions.”

  “Uh-oh,” I said.

  “First, Mondays,” Dad said. “I’ve arranged it at work so I have a stretch in the middle of the day with no meetings. I can come home and let him out. I wish I could do that for the other days, but it’s too busy.”

  “I understand,” I said.
Merlin will be psyched to see you.”

  “Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays,” Dad continued, “Julianne says she can either stop by or spend the day with Merlin.”

  “Really?” I said. “All of those days? She doesn’t mind?” That wasn’t the kind of thing someone did if they were planning on breaking up with your dad. Right?

  “She says Merlin is the greatest dog,” Dad said. Well, I certainly agreed with that. It was hard not to like someone who felt that way about your dog. “She says he’s inspiring, and she could use the exercise.”

  “That’s amazing,” I said. Merlin made a quiet snuffling-woofing noise. I realized he’d fallen asleep on my lap and was dreaming. His paws twitched as if he was racing around the park in his dreams. “So that just leaves Wednesdays.”

  “This is where the conditions come in,” Dad said. “I talked to your principal.”

  “Mrs. Hansberry?” I said.

  “Because you have good grades and you’ve always been a good kid, I was able to talk her into a trial period for this plan. On Wednesdays, you can come home during lunch and let him out yourself.”

  “What?” I yelped. Merlin shot awake and sat up, blinking. “Are you serious? Dad, are you serious?”

  “Quite serious,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “But you must get back to school by the end of the lunch hour. You must still eat lunch, although you can eat it here if you want. And you must keep up your grades. If she thinks this is too much of a distraction or too much responsibility, or if I decide it isn’t working for you, we’ll find something else to do.”

  I jumped up and pumped my fists in the air.

  “Woof!” Merlin agreed happily, bouncing on his paws. “Woof! Woof!”

  “I’ll do it!” I said. “I swear, my grades will be perfect and I’ll be on time all the time. And I’ll keep training him so he’ll learn not to run away anymore. Merlin, did you hear that?”


  This was more perfect than I could have hoped. Now I’d have something to look forward to in the middle of the school week. Even if it was only on Wednesdays, I’d get to escape and see Merlin during the day. This was the best plan I had ever heard in my entire life.

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