Runaway retriever, p.4
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       Runaway Retriever, p.4

           Tui T. Sutherland
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Camellia was watching from the door. “Nope,” I said. “You sleep down here.” I pointed to his bed.

  Merlin flopped his head way over to the side in this aw, shucks kind of way. He covered his nose with one paw, then peeked out at me like, But aren’t I so cute?

  “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Your bed is down here. Merlin, off.”

  Heaving the most enormous sigh, Merlin pushed himself slowly to his paws and jumped down to the floor. He sniffed his bed dubiously. He started digging in it with his front paws, rearranging all the folds and wrinkles like I had dropped it all wrong and it needed fixing.

  “Good work,” Camellia said. “Let’s see if he stays there.”

  “He will,” I said.

  She closed the door behind her and I got back into bed. Merlin turned around a few hundred times, but at last he flopped down in his bed and rested his head on the furry edge of it. He looked up at me with big brown eyes.

  I reached down and rubbed his long white belly fur. “Better than the other options, isn’t it?” I said.

  He made a sleepy, contented noise. I switched off the bedside lamp. The moonlight from the window made his fur look silvery and pale and mysterious.

  “Just like a magic dog,” I murmured.

  Merlin fell asleep before I did. I know because he snored.

  Dad took Camellia to the airport on Saturday. He wanted to go with her all the way to Oberlin, but she said he didn’t have to. Camellia is pretty good at taking care of herself, in case you couldn’t tell.

  She freaked out when she realized she couldn’t take all her stuff with her on the plane, though. She threw things around her room for a while trying to decide what to leave behind. She kept yelling things like, “But I need my entire collection of Jane Austen books!” and “How am I supposed to survive with only five pairs of pajamas? I mean seriously!”

  Then Dad’s girlfriend Julianne called. She must have heard the panicking in the background. She said, “Why don’t I take the rest of Camellia’s boxes to the post office and mail them to Oberlin?” I could tell Camellia didn’t like saying yes to this. But she couldn’t exactly say no either. At least this way she could have as many pajamas as she needed.

  Dad and Camellia were already gone when Julianne rang the doorbell. Merlin flew off the couch, barking and barking. This was the first time Julianne was going to meet our new dog. I wondered if she would be like Katie and think Merlin was gross.

  When I opened the front door, Merlin shoved his head past me to get to Julianne. His tail was already flying back and forth, and whapping my legs. Some guard dog. He couldn’t even figure out who to scare away.

  “Oh my goodness!” Julianne said in a really excited voice. She crouched down and let Merlin sniff her hands. He tried to jump on her and she nearly fell over, but she got to her feet, laughing. “What a great dog, Parker! Leonard told me all about him and I’ve been just dying to meet him.”

  One of the things I don’t like about Julianne is that she calls my dad Leonard. I guess I don’t know what else she’s supposed to call him, but it’s weird because to me his name is Dad. Another thing that I don’t like is that she talks all the time. My dad says he likes that because he’s so quiet, but I think it’s tiring to do that much listening.

  “Golden retrievers are my favorite,” Julianne said. “I had one when I was a little girl, but Merlin is even more handsome. Aren’t you a good boy? Oh, he’s just like you, Parker.”

  That was a weird thing to say. Normally I try not to encourage her, but I wanted to know what that meant. “Just like me?” I said.

  “You know, one of those dogs who’s so cool and everybody likes him,” she said. I was surprised. I didn’t know she thought I was cool. Plus she’s wrong about everybody liking me. I can think of plenty of people who don’t like me, starting with Avery Lafitte and Eric’s sisters. “I mean, so, if you were a dog, you would definitely be a golden retriever. Whereas I’d be something like a Pomeranian, yapping and yapping and yapping all the time.” She laughed.

  “Which ones are Pomeranians?” I asked.

  “They look like little orange balls of fluff with four tiny feet sticking out,” she said.

  “Maybe if you dyed your hair orange instead of red,” I said. Then I wondered if I wasn’t supposed to say stuff like that, but she laughed.

  “I’ve thought about that!” she said. “Maybe one day.” Her hair is shoulder-length and always messy. She usually keeps it pinned back with a clip so it won’t fall in her face while she’s painting or sculpting or whatever she does.

  “So Camellia’s boxes are right in here,” I said. I felt like I was betraying Camellia by having a real conversation with Julianne. If Julianne thought she was going to come along and replace my sister, she was wrong. Even if dopey Merlin did like her.

  Julianne came in and lifted the top two boxes. “Oof!” she said. “Is she bringing her whole library with her?”

  “I think so,” I said. I couldn’t believe Julianne could carry two of the boxes at once. They were pretty heavy.

  I helped her carry the boxes to her car. I blocked Merlin in the kitchen so that we could leave the front door open. I knew he would get through the baby gate, but I figured it would take him a little while.

  When we got back from our last trip to the car, Merlin was sitting right inside the door watching us. He wagged his tail.

  “Wow!” Julianne said. “He’s an escape artist, isn’t he?”

  “Yeah,” I said, scratching his head.

  “But it’s amazing that he didn’t try to run away,” Julianne said. “He just wanted to be with us. That’s pretty cute, Merlin.” She made a gesture to him with one of her hands and he held out his paw for her to shake. “Look how smart you are!” she said, ruffling his neck fur with both her hands.

  “I didn’t know he could do that,” I said.

  “If you want any help training him, let me know,” Julianne said. “I bet he’d learn really quickly.”

  “Maybe,” I said. I wanted to teach him tricks, but I didn’t want to hang out with Julianne. Our family was fine without her.

  “Great,” she said. “See you later! Thanks for your help with the boxes!”

  It was really quiet in the house after she left. Plus it started raining, so I couldn’t even take Merlin to the park. Plus I knew I had to go back to school on Monday and I wasn’t really excited about that. So Merlin and I lay on the couch and watched TV while we waited for my dad to come home. I put on Animal Planet because Merlin seemed to really like it. He kept cocking his head at the TV every time a dog or a meerkat or a monkey or a polar bear ran across the screen. I didn’t know dogs could watch TV, but I think he totally understood what was happening.

  When Dad got home, he came in and sat on the couch beside me. He rubbed Merlin’s head. “I guess it’s just us boys now,” he said.

  “Yeah,” I agreed. I was glad he didn’t say “and Julianne.”

  We sat there for a while watching orangutans try to fish.

  “I was thinking,” Dad said, “that maybe we should order a Meat Lover’s pizza for dinner.”

  I grinned at him. “That sounds awesome.”

  Camellia called later that night. She told us all about her roommate and her dorm and the campus and the airplane ride and everything. I couldn’t tell if she missed us or if she was too excited about being at college to miss us yet. I held up the phone to Merlin’s ear and she yelled, “Hi Merlin!” and he went, “WOOF!” and looked around all startled, trying to figure out where she was.

  On Sunday it was still gray and drizzly. We tried leaving Merlin outside in the yard for a while by himself to see if he would escape. He sniffed along the fence and ran in circles for a while, but then he came and sat by the back door and just waited for us to let him back in. So I figured he’d be OK. Our yard was much harder to escape from than Katie’s.

  Finally it was Monday, and time for school.

  And of course it was the most perfect sunny day.
Have you ever noticed that? For some reason the first day of school always has the best weather. It’s like the sun is trying to torture me.

  I put a bowlful of water at either end of the yard for Merlin, in case he accidentally knocked one of them over. I put on my backpack, said good-bye to Dad, and took Merlin out the back door. He galloped around the yard with his fur flying and swishing around him. At the back of the garden, he found a tennis ball that I’d been throwing for him on Friday. He ran over to me and dropped it at my feet, crouching with his front paws down and his butt up in the air. He waggled his tail, waiting for me to throw it.

  “I’m sorry, boy, I can’t,” I said, patting his head. “I have to go to school. But you hang out here, and I’ll come right home afterward.”

  He picked up the ball and dropped it in front of me again.

  “We’ll play after school,” I said. “I promise.” He watched me with his head tilted to one side as I got up and went over to the gate. It’s one of those with a latch you lift up to go through. Merlin whimpered sadly as I closed the gate behind me. I made sure the latch was firmly in place. Then I waved good-bye to Merlin and walked up to the corner, where Danny and Eric were waiting for me.

  “Poor Merlin!” Eric said, waving to my dog. Merlin had his nose pressed to the chain links and was watching us walk away down the street. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.

  Danny was on his bike, as always, and he rode up and down and in circles around us as Eric and I walked. Sometimes Troy walks with us, but his mom always likes to drive him on the first day of school … or if it’s raining … or if she thinks it’s going to rain … or if he sneezed the day before. I shouldn’t make fun, though — she usually picks all of us up if it’s raining, which is really nice.

  We were halfway to school when I heard something like footsteps running behind us. I figured it was another kid until I heard a familiar “WOOF!”

  I spun around. “Merlin!”

  He skidded to a stop, his tail waving madly. He jumped up and licked my face, then danced in a circle, barking with joy.

  “No, no,” I said, hooking my fingers in his collar. “You’re supposed to stay at home! Bad dog!” He grinned and panted at me like he had no idea what that meant. I pulled out my cell phone and called our house, but Dad had already left for work.

  What could I do? I thought about calling Dad’s cell phone, but I didn’t want to make him late either. He has to be there to open the bank right on time.

  Camellia would have known what to do. Actually, I realized, Camellia would have just taken care of it herself.

  I shook my head. “I’m going to have to take him back, guys.”

  “But you’ll be late,” Eric said, checking his watch.

  “I know,” I said. “You guys go ahead. Tell Mr. Peary I’m sorry. I have to figure out how he got out.”

  Danny and Eric exchanged looks. “I’ll come with you,” Danny said. “Maybe if I ride ahead I can figure it out before you get there.”

  “And I’ll go on and tell the teachers what happened,” Eric said. “Mr. Peary will understand.”

  I hoped that was true. I didn’t know much about my new teacher, but he seemed kind of strict. Teachers usually like Eric, though, because he’s quiet and gets good grades, so he seemed like the best messenger.

  “Thanks, you guys,” I said. “Come on, Merlin, let’s go!” I started running home and Merlin ran along beside me. His ears flapped back in the wind and his paws skimmed the sidewalk. It would have been a great feeling if I weren’t panicking about being late for the first day of sixth grade.

  Danny pedaled ahead, so by the time we got back to my house, he’d already dumped his bike on the grass. He was standing by the gate to the backyard, which was wide open.

  “I think he opened the gate,” Danny said.

  “Boy, I’m glad you went on ahead to figure that out,” I said.

  “Shut up, I’m helping,” he said. “Look, he must have lifted the latch. Do you think he could do that?”

  “He can do anything,” I said, shaking my head. “But maybe I left it unlatched by accident. Let’s put him back inside and you watch to see what he does. I’ll go look in the garage — maybe there’s something in there we can use to lock it.”

  I ran to the garage. My heart was pounding. School was supposed to start in a few minutes. Even if I ran all the way there, I’d miss the first bell. And I hadn’t even figured out what to do with Merlin yet.

  I went to my dad’s tool bench and picked up a coil of white string. Maybe I could tie the gate shut. But a lock would be better. I started digging through the piles of stuff — screwdrivers, nails, tape measures….

  Danny appeared in the door of the garage, breathless. Merlin was right behind him. He didn’t know what we were all excited about, but he was happy to be excited, too. He bounced on his front paws and barked and danced in circles.

  “That was wild!” Danny said. “As soon as you disappeared, he went straight to the gate and lifted the latch with his nose. He didn’t even care that I was right there watching him!”

  “You dork,” I said to Merlin. “If I get detention for being tardy, I won’t be able to come home and play with you. Think about that!”

  He wagged his tail. I don’t think he was thinking very hard.

  “There!” I said, spotting an old bike lock lying on a shelf. Luckily the key was still in the padlock. I grabbed it and we ran back out to the yard. Merlin raced right through the open gateway and over to his tennis ball. He picked it up and threw it in the air. Then he turned to look at me, asking me to come play with him.

  “Sorry, Merlin!” I called as we pushed the gate shut. I started winding the bike chain through the links of the fence and the gate. Merlin came over and sniffed at my hands as I worked. He stretched up and nosed at the latch, but Danny held the gate shut so he couldn’t come out.

  I snapped the lock into place, stood up, and put the key in my pocket. Danny lifted the latch and tried to push the gate open. It stayed where it was. There wasn’t even a small gap for a dog to squeeze through. I wagged my finger at Merlin.

  “No more tricks, wizard dog,” I said. “Stay!”

  Merlin whined and pawed at the gate.

  “Come on,” Danny said. “We gotta go.”

  “You go ahead,” I said. “Don’t be late because of me.” I ran to grab my bike and helmet from the garage. Maybe if I pedaled fast I could still make it.

  I could see Danny a few blocks ahead of me as I swung out of my driveway. I pumped hard on the pedals, standing up on the bike. The wind whooshed past. I was glad the streets were so empty. But the emptier they were close to the school, the later I knew I was. I thought I heard the first bell ring as I came around the last corner. There was no one on the school steps or on the front lawn.

  I flew into the school parking lot and shoved my bike into the bike racks. I hung my helmet on the handlebars and tried to fix my hair as I hurried up the front steps.

  The second bell rang.

  The school door opened. Vice Principal Taney was standing there looking at me.

  “Nice of you to join us, Mr. Green,” he said. He always calls us “Mr.” this and “Ms.” that. I think that’s because he knows it scares the heck out of us. “You are late. Come to my office.”

  The first day of school, and I was already in trouble, thanks to Merlin.

  Vice Principal Taney is a tall, bony guy with very white hair. He has permanent wrinkles in his forehead from frowning so much. His nose is long and pointy. We’re all pretty sure he doesn’t like kids at all. He usually walks around the halls looking for ways to get people in trouble.

  “I’m sorry, Mr. Taney,” I said, following him into the school office. The receptionist, Adele, looked up and smiled at me. “It was an accident — I can explain.”

  “That’s what they always say,” Mr. Taney said, pulling a detention pad out of his jacket.

  A tall African-American woman came out of the p
rincipal’s office in the back. She had long black braids tied back with a peach-colored scarf. I’d never seen her before, but I guessed she was meeting with Principal Ernst. She paused at the mailbox outside the office, looking through a stack of papers.

  “It was my dog,” I said. “He got loose and followed me and I had to take him home and make sure he couldn’t get out again.”

  Mr. Taney was already starting to write the detention slip. His eyebrows were raised up high like he didn’t believe me.

  “What kind of dog?” the strange woman asked curiously.

  “He’s a golden retriever,” I said. “We just got him.”

  “I have this under control, Mrs. Hansberry,” Vice Principal Taney said.

  “Well, it sounds like a reasonable excuse to me,” said the woman. She put her pile of papers on the front desk and held out her hand to me. “And you are?”

  “Parker Green, ma’am,” I said, shaking her hand. I wanted to ask who she was, but I thought it would be impolite. Luckily she just went ahead and told me.

  “I’m Mrs. Hansberry, your new principal,” she said. “And lucky for you, I have a misbehaving dog myself. Mr. Taney, I think we can make an exception on the first day.”

  Mr. Taney’s lips were pressed together into very thin lines. “Certainly,” he said in a tight voice.

  Principal Hansberry wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Give that to your teacher,” she said. “Whose class are you in?”

  “Sixth grade, Mr. Peary,” I said. There were two other sixth grade classes. Troy was in Miss Woodhull’s and Hugo was in Mr. Guare’s, but luckily Danny and Eric were both in the same class as me.

  “All right, hurry along,” she said. “Try not to let it happen again.”

  I wanted to run all the way down the hall, but I knew Vice Principal Taney was still watching. He’d probably give me a detention for that too. So I just walked as fast as I could.

  When I pulled open the door to Mr. Peary’s class, I saw that everyone was pushing their desks around. Eric and Danny both looked super-relieved to see me.

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