Runaway retriever, p.2
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       Runaway Retriever, p.2

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “He should really be in his crate,” she fussed, flipping pages.

  “It’s only a ten-minute drive,” Dad said. “I think we’ll be all right. Hey, maybe we should have Julianne over later to meet him. She loves dogs.”

  “Sure, whatever,” Camellia said, which is her way of saying no without getting in trouble. “Here, this is important.” Camellia twisted around to read to me. “This says not to let the dog sleep on your bed at first. It has to know that you’re the alpha dog — you know, like, the boss.”

  “I’m the boss,” I said to Merlin. He turned his head around and smiled at me. Thump thump went his tail on the gray car seat.

  “The boss gets the best bed,” Camellia said, “and the other members of the pack have to sleep on the floor.”

  “I think that means Camellia should sleep on the floor tonight, too, don’t you?” I said to Merlin. “Just so it’s clear who the boss in the house is.”

  “Ha-ha,” Camellia said. “Maybe we should put him in his crate. Otherwise he might jump up on your bed while you’re sleeping.”

  “That seems so sad,” I said, picturing Merlin alone in his crate in the dark. “And cramped.” The cage was supposed to be the right size for golden retrievers, but it looked awfully small to me. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in there all night.

  “I bet we still have a baby gate in the garage somewhere,” Dad said. “If we can find that, we could just block off the kitchen and leave him in there.”

  I didn’t see a problem with him sleeping in my room, but Camellia can be really persistent when she thinks she knows the answer to something. So when we got home, Dad and I went into the garage and dug through piles and piles of old boxes. It’s crazy how much stuff is in there. We can’t even fit the car in the garage anymore. It’s just storage for stuff none of us have used for a hundred years.

  Merlin loved it. He stuck his nose into every box. He knocked over the rake by accident and then barked and barked at it. He found a bag of toys from when we were kids and managed to chew off one of the arms of Camellia’s old teddy bear before we caught him and took it away. We decided not to tell Camellia about that.

  Dad was right, though. Finally we found the baby gate leaning against the wall behind a bunch of file boxes. It was white with little blue handles at the top. When I saw it, I had this weird flash of memory of Mom putting it up so I’d stay in the kitchen while she vacuumed the living room. I had freaked out … it was like being in a cage, with loud roaring outside. I hoped Merlin would handle it better than I had. Poor guy.

  The gate was kind of dusty, so we took it out into the yard to hose it down. Merlin went totally wild with happiness when the water started spraying out of the hose. He barked and jumped at the spray like he was trying to pin it down. He chased it around in circles as Dad tried to turn it away from him. He ran through it over and over again like a little kid in a fountain. And of course, as soon as he was soaking wet, he came galloping over and shook himself right next to us.

  Dad rolled his eyes and went inside to change and dry off the gate. I decided to stay in the yard with Merlin for a while longer. He seemed so excited to be out there. Once Dad was gone, I sprayed Merlin a few more times with the hose, since he liked it so much.

  “Whoa,” said a voice by the fence. “Hey, Parker, what’s going on?” It was my friend Danny Sanchez, who lives a couple of blocks away. He’s got spiky black hair and he’s taller than I am and he’s, like, Mr. Active. He’s on all the sports teams at school. I think he rides around the neighborhood five times a day all summer just to burn off all the energy he’s got.

  Danny climbed off his bike and leaned on the fence, staring at Merlin in surprise.

  “We got a dog,” I said.

  “Yeah, I see that!” he said, laughing.

  I opened the gate and let him in. Merlin immediately came over and sniffed Danny up and down. “What’s his name?” Danny asked.

  “Merlin,” I said. I told him the story of how we got him.

  “I can’t wait for us to get a dog,” Danny said. “Mom says maybe this year, if we all promise to help take care of it, but the problem is we all want different things.” That’s usually the problem in Danny’s house. Danny has three older brothers — Carlos, Miguel, and Oliver — and a younger sister, Rosie. There is no good way to get them all to agree on anything. Especially Rosie. She’s ten, a year below us, but she is bossier than most of the girls in our grade. She’s even bossier than Camellia sometimes.

  Merlin wagged his tail as Danny and I stood there patting him. He kept looking back and forth between us like he wanted to be part of our conversation. He was still pretty wet, his long fur dripping water into the grass. I liked that Danny didn’t mind patting a wet dog. He’s cool like that.

  “I want a dog like this,” Danny said. “Or a Lab, maybe. Something that will run around and chase a ball with me.”

  “I’m taking him to the park tomorrow,” I said. “Want to come?”

  “Sure!” Danny said.

  Dad called me to come inside, so Merlin and I said ’bye to Danny. As soon as Camellia saw us, she cried, “Don’t move! Stay right there! Not another step!” We stood there dripping while she ran around getting towels. I held on to Merlin’s collar, because I could tell he was excited to go sniffing around his new house.

  As soon as we toweled him off and let him go, he started running from room to room, poking his nose into everything and wagging his tail. I left my shoes by the door and went to wash my hands. By the time I got to my room, Merlin was on my bed, rolling damply around on my dark green bedspread and looking very pleased with himself.

  “Oh, thanks a lot,” I said, laughing.

  “See?” Camellia said, coming up behind me. “He’s trying to assert his dominance. You shouldn’t let him do that. Merlin, off!”

  Merlin promptly flopped over on his side with his head on the pillow. He gave us a mischievous sideways grin. He took up nearly the whole bed, especially with his tail swishing back and forth.

  “It’s OK, I got it,” I said. Camellia went “hrrmph” and stomped back to the kitchen. “Come on, boy,” I said, “let’s go unpack your stuff.” He jumped off the bed right away and followed me into the living room, where we had left the dog things in a pile.

  The weirdest thing about all the stuff Katie had given us was that there were lots of books and food, but no toys that I could see. I hunted through the plastic bags, which was funny because every time I picked up a new one, Merlin would come scrambling over to stick his nose inside. But there wasn’t anything for us to play with. He got pretty excited about the rawhide bones, though, so I let him wrestle one out of the bag. He flopped down and started chewing on it with a big goofy grin.

  “Don’t worry, Merlin,” I said, scratching his head, “tomorrow we’ll find a tennis ball or Frisbee for you.”

  His crate was this big metal contraption that folded flat. As soon as I started to unfold it, Merlin dropped the bone and went tearing out of the room like someone had just lit his tail on fire. I guessed I would feel the same way if someone started unfolding a classroom in the middle of my house.

  I finished setting it up and then shoved it into a corner of the living room, out of the way. Maybe if Merlin saw that he didn’t have to go into it, he would be less worried about it. Then I went looking for him and found him lying on my bed again. He put his head on his paws and looked up at me with huge woeful eyes. It was like he was saying Please, please don’t put me in my crate.

  “Don’t worry,” I said, sitting down next to him. “We’ll only put you in there if we have to.”

  “Dinner!” Camellia called from downstairs. “We’re having tofu burgers! You guys will love them!”

  I rubbed Merlin’s head. “See, things could be worse. At least there’s meat in your dinner.”

  Dad hadn’t mentioned inviting Julianne over again, so we had a stranger-free evening. Camellia spent all of dinner reading to us from the dog books while Dad an
d I covered our tofu burgers in ketchup and pretended they were great.

  “Most dogs love their crates,” Camellia said. “It’s like another den to them.”

  “Not Merlin,” I said.

  “Where did Katie’s family get him from?” my dad asked.

  “They saw an ad in the Gazette,” Camellia said. “The couple who owned him decided to move to an apartment in the city that wouldn’t allow dogs.”

  “So they picked an apartment over their dog?” I said. “Poor Merlin.” He was lying under my chair. I leaned down to scratch his head. “You’re lucky to be away from people like that.”

  “You shouldn’t talk to him at the dinner table,” Camellia lectured. “Or he might start to beg.”

  But Merlin was a much better dog than that. He licked my hand, but he didn’t try to bother any of us for food. He waited patiently until dinner was over and we put down his own food, and then he ate the whole bowlful.

  We set up his bed in the kitchen. It was pretty much just a giant blue beanbag with little white paw prints all over it. He sniffed it and nosed it and walked around it a few times, then looked up at me like, Really? But your bed seems much more comfortable.

  “Sorry, buddy,” I said, crouching to give him a hug. “I’m sure you’ll sleep fine in here, though.”

  “Of course he will,” Camellia said. “Come on, let’s make it seem normal.”

  I followed her out into the hall, and Dad set the baby gate across the open doorway. Merlin came to the other side and looked up at me, wagging his tail. He poked the baby gate with his nose, but it stayed put. It was as high as Katie’s fence, but here there wasn’t anything he could jump up onto get over it.

  “Good night, Merlin,” I said, turning off the hall light. “See you tomorrow.”

  That night I had the dream I sometimes have about my mom, which is weird, because I don’t even really remember her, and we haven’t heard from her in six years. In the dream, I’m sitting in a parked car watching her walk away. She’s wearing a green raincoat. So I guess it’s raining. And I’m alone in the car with a bag of groceries that’s all different kinds of cookies, chocolate-chip and Oreos and peanut butter and stuff. I don’t know, it’s a pretty stupid dream.

  Then I felt something breathing on me, and I woke up.

  When I opened my eyes, I saw Merlin’s nose about an inch away from my own. It was morning. His golden head was on my pillow. He was lying on top of the covers, snuggled up close to me. When he saw me open my eyes, I felt his tail start thumping madly against the mattress.

  “Uh-oh,” I said. “You’re going to be in big trouble, mister.”

  He scooted his head a little bit closer and licked my nose.

  “Eeurgh,” I said, laughing and rubbing my face. “Not with me, silly. Camellia’s the one you have to suck up to.”

  He rolled and wriggled sideways until all his paws were up in the air. He was pressed up next to me with his ears flopped over backward. I put my arm around him and rubbed his belly.

  “Poor Merlin,” I said. “People keep leaving you, huh? Don’t worry. I won’t do that.”

  “WHAT IS THIS?” Camellia demanded from the doorway.

  Merlin lifted his head and gave her a startled, big-eyed, what’d I do? expression. She crossed her arms. He started flailing madly until he got himself right side up again. Then he bounded off the bed and over to Camellia, wagging his tail and bouncing around her. Even she couldn’t resist that grin. Grudgingly she patted him on the head.

  “PARKER,” Camellia said, apparently deciding it was easier to be mad at me. “I can’t believe you let him sleep in here! You heard what the books said!”

  “I didn’t let him out!” I protested. “He was here when I woke up!”

  “Yeah, right!” she said. “So how did he get out?”

  I scrambled out of bed. “I don’t know how he did it, but I swear I didn’t know he was here until just now.”

  Dad came hurrying up the stairs. “The dog’s gone!” he called as he got to the top. “He’s not in the — oh.” He spotted Merlin sitting happily beside Camellia. Dad scratched his head, looking confused. “Why’d you put the baby gate back up after letting him out?” he asked.

  “I didn’t,” Camellia said. “He got out by himself, according to Parker. The gate’s still up?”

  We all went downstairs to look. I’d figured Merlin must have pushed the gate over somehow. But there it was, exactly as we’d left it. Merlin poked it with his nose again and then looked up at me, wagging his tail like, I took care of this little problem, didn’t I?

  “How’d he do that?” Dad said, rubbing his eyes.

  “Maybe he just jumped over it,” I said.

  “We’ll have to try something different tonight,” Camellia said.

  “All right,” I said, although I still thought it was unnecessary. I really didn’t feel like Merlin and I were locked in some kind of primal struggle for dominance.

  After breakfast, I called Danny and Troy, and IM’ed Eric, who is always online. We only had a few days of summer left. I wanted to spend every minute that I could outside with Merlin.

  Camellia didn’t think it would be safe for me to ride my bike and have Merlin on a leash at the same time because he could “pull me over” or “get tangled in the wheels” or something like that. But I didn’t mind. The park was close enough to walk. And oh boy, Merlin was so excited to see his leash, which was also blue with little white paw prints on it. He jumped and barked and ran around in circles and it took me about half an hour just to pin him down and clip it onto his collar.

  Then on the way to the park he wanted to stop and smell every single bush and blade of grass, but that was OK with me. I like our neighborhood. It’s really quiet and I know practically everyone. Old Mrs. Sibelius was sitting out on her front porch, and she waved at me like she always does. I took the long way around to go by Kristal Perkins’s house. She’s one of the few girls in our grade who isn’t totally weird, and I thought she’d like to meet Merlin. She wasn’t outside, but her little sister, Skye, was, reading on the porch steps.

  “Oooooooooooh!” Skye yelped as soon as she saw Merlin. She put down her book and ran over to us. “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” She stopped a foot away from Merlin and stared at him, kind of hopping up and down with excitement. Her blond ponytail bounced and bounced.

  “Hey, Skye,” I said. Skye is pretty cool, too, for a nine-year-old. “This is Merlin.” I crouched beside him. “You can say hi. Here, let him smell you.”

  “You got a dog,” Skye said wistfully, holding out her hand. Merlin snuffled her hand and then licked it. She laughed. “I wish we could have a dog.”

  “You can come play with him sometimes if you want,” I said. “Is Kristal home?”

  “No, she’s at art camp all day,” Skye said. “She’s learning how to make movies. It’s so unfair.”

  “Maybe you can do that next summer,” I said. “Tell her I said hi, OK?”

  “I will,” Skye said, patting Merlin lightly on the head.

  Next I stopped at Eric’s house, which is pretty close to the park. His sisters were in the driveway playing basketball, but they didn’t come over to say hi. They’re sixteen and they always act like Eric and his friends have rabies. His mom came out to say hi and meet Merlin, though. She’s the vet at the Paws and Claws Animal Hospital in town.

  “He’s beautiful,” she said, stroking Merlin’s long silky fur. “Let me know if you want to bring him in for a checkup anytime. I might be able to get you a discount.” She winked at me.

  “Thanks, Dr. Lee,” I said.

  “Mom, why can’t I have a dog like this?” Eric asked.

  “We have Odysseus and Ariadne,” his mother said, pointing to the two long-haired cats that were watching us from the porch. Their eyes were narrow slits and their tails were lashing back and forth. They did not look pleased to see Merlin. But then, they never looked pleased to see anyone. They were kind of like Eric’s sisters that

  “Those are cats,” Eric pointed out, “and they belong to Mercy and Faith. Plus, they hate me.”

  “They don’t —” Dr. Lee started to say, but she stopped mid-sentence and shrugged. “Well, OK, but at least you know it’s not personal.”

  Eric rolled his eyes. “We’ll be at the park, Mom.”

  “All right,” his mom said. “If you boys want to come back here for lunch, we can make grilled cheese. I might even have some ham to throw in, if you’re lucky, Parker,” she added with a smile. She knew all about the vegetarian regime going on at my house.

  Danny and Troy were waiting for us at the baseball diamond in the park. Troy was so excited to meet Merlin, he accidentally knocked his own glasses off. We took Merlin into the dog run and let him off the leash. I’d walked past the dog run a million times, but I’d never been inside. It was actually a pretty big area of the park, all fenced off so the dogs could run without getting loose. There weren’t any other dogs in there yet.

  Danny ran up and down shouting, and Merlin ran after him, barking madly. Troy had remembered to bring a tennis ball, so we tried throwing that for Merlin. He loved it. He was awesome at chasing the ball down. Sometimes he even caught it in midair, like a pro outfielder! But he was not so great about bringing it back. We had to chase him down and wrestle it away from him most of the time. He thought this was pretty much the best game ever.

  One of the cool things I didn’t know about the dog run was that there’s a water fountain in the middle of it. But not a regular water fountain. The water comes straight up from a hole in the ground when you step on a lever. There’s a metal basin set into the stone that you can fill up. You can also lift the basin out to empty it if you want to.

  The best thing about the fountain was that Merlin figured out pretty quick how to set off the water himself. He’d run over, step on the lever, and then dive forward to try and get into the spray before it disappeared again. Luckily he didn’t succeed very often, although he did manage to flounder into the basin a couple of times.

  Finally I put the leash back on him and we went to sit in our favorite spot, on a hill beside the baseball diamond. Merlin flopped down on the grass beside me and put his head on my knee. His chin fur was wet from splashing around in the basin, but I didn’t mind. My jeans would survive.

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