Runaway retriever, p.5
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       Runaway Retriever, p.5

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  I handed Mrs. Hansberry’s note to the teacher. Mr. Peary isn’t nearly as old as Mr. Guare. He only graduated from college a few years ago. He has brown hair and kind of a thin scruffy beard. Camellia said once she thought he was trying to grow facial hair to make himself look older. I think the stern look on his face made him look plenty old enough.

  But he nodded when he saw the note. “Eric told me what happened,” he said. “Grab a desk, Parker. We’re arranging them in a semicircle.”

  This was something new. We’d always sat in rows in all our other classrooms. But with Mr. Peary directing, we got the desks all set up like three sides of a square. On the open side was his desk and the blackboard. There was a space in the middle where he stood to talk to us.

  I managed to shove my desk in beside Danny’s. Eric was on his other side. Rebekah Waters sat next to Eric, which I knew would make him really nervous. Eric is kind of shy, except with us, and he thinks Rebekah is the prettiest girl in the class. So he definitely, definitely can’t talk to her.

  Rebekah is cute, for sure, but if you asked me, I’d say Natasha Kandinsky is prettier. She’d gotten new glasses over the summer with thin silver rims that made her look like a high schooler. She has masses of black hair, all the way down to her waist. But she’s one of the silliest girls I’ve ever met. Natasha spends every recess sitting on the wall and giggling with her best friend, Tara Washington. It’s totally impossible to talk to them, because they’ll just start giggling and you never have any idea what is supposed to be so funny.

  She was sitting across the classroom, next to Tara, of course. They were already whispering to each other, even though I was sure they’d spent the whole summer together. Kristal was sitting on the other side of Tara, and she waved hi to me. Which of course made Tara and Natasha whisper and giggle even more.

  Nikos Stavros took the other desk next to me. He’s really smart, and he usually reads instead of playing baseball or whatever the rest of us are playing. But watch out if he asks you over to play video games — he beats everyone at everything, hands down.

  “All right,” Mr. Peary said, sitting on top of his desk to face us. “Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Tell us your name and something interesting about yourself.”

  I am so bad at this game. Ms. Applebaum made us do the same thing, and I could never think of anything interesting to say. I’m just a regular guy. I think last year I said something like, “I like baseball” or “My favorite fruit is blueberries.” I know, so fascinating.

  Ella Finegold was first. She stood up and said, “I’m Ella, and this summer I learned two new solos on the piano. I haven’t decided which one I’m going to do for the talent show yet.” She sat back down. I saw Tara and Natasha rolling their eyes at each other. Ella is a total musical genius, but she sang some kind of slow opera thing at last year’s fall talent show, and everyone nearly fell asleep.

  When it was my turn, I said, “I’m Parker, and … I have a new dog.” Thinking about Merlin made me smile as I sat back down.

  “What kind of dog?” Nikos asked.

  “A golden retriever,” I said. “His name is Merlin.”

  “Oh, wow!” Heidi Tyler said. “That is so cool! I love dogs! I want one so badly!”

  “He’s the most handsome dog ever,” Kristal said. I was glad she didn’t say “gorgeous.”

  “Does he look anything like that dog out there?” Natasha asked, pointing out the window.

  I turned to look out at the playground.

  Merlin was sitting under the slide, wagging his tail and wearing the biggest grin I’d ever seen.

  I stood up so fast my chair fell over.

  “That’s my dog!” I said.

  “Oooooh, he’s beautiful,” said Rebekah. She got up and leaned on the windowsill. Almost everyone else in the class came crowding around to stare at my dog. Only Ella stayed in her seat like she wasn’t interested. Tara and Natasha started giggling. Now I could see other kids looking out of other windows around the playground. Everyone was pointing at Merlin.

  “Can I go get him, please, Mr. Peary?” I asked. My face was burning bright red. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had to get out of there — and I had to get Merlin out of there.

  Mr. Peary looked confused, too. He rubbed his beard. “Let me call the principal’s office,” he said, going around to the other side of his desk.

  My stomach felt like it had a big hole in it. I hated being in trouble. I didn’t like having everyone staring at me. And I was worried about Merlin. It wasn’t safe for him to run around in the streets like that, even though there is so little traffic in our neighborhood.

  “Look at him just sitting there,” Tara marveled. “My dog can’t sit still for thirty seconds.”

  “What kind of dog do you have?” Danny asked.

  “Bananas is a Boston terrier,” Tara said. “He’s totally insane.”

  “At least he’s never followed you to school,” I said.

  “Oh, I want a dog SO MUCH!” Heidi said. Heidi is the tallest girl in our class. She’s one of the ones who is easy to talk to, like Kristal. “Parker, if he stays for recess, can I pet him?”

  “He can’t stay until recess!” I said. “He’s supposed to be at home!”

  “I want a dog too,” Danny said to Heidi.

  “No way, cats are much better,” Maggie Olmstead said. Her cat is in all these cat food commercials. Everyone knows that because she talks about it all the time. I wondered if having a famous cat was better than having a dog. You couldn’t run around in the park with a cat. But then, a cat probably wouldn’t show up at school and massively embarrass you and maybe get you suspended by the new principal on the first day of sixth grade.

  “Parker,” Mr. Peary said, “Mrs. Hansberry says to get your dog and take him to her office.”

  “Oooooooooohhhhh,” said some of the guys in the class.

  “Yes, Mr. Peary,” I said.

  Now I had to go out there with practically everyone in the whole school watching. I ran down the hall to the big door that goes outside. I stopped for a minute, taking deep breaths. From here I could see all the windows that face the playground. I could see lots and lots of faces looking out. I wished the fire alarm would go off and distract everyone, but of course it didn’t.

  I opened the door to the playground.

  Merlin leaped to his feet when he saw me. His tail was going about a million miles an hour. He barked and ran in a circle around the slide. He kept turning to look at me.

  “Come here, boy,” I said, crouching and holding out my hand to him.

  He came part of the way toward me and then ran back to the slide. I saw that he had found a lost sneaker somewhere. He picked it up and looked at me, wagging his tail. The shoe stuck out of the sides of his mouth and made him look really goofy. It didn’t look like one of mine. I wondered whose it was. I was sort of afraid to find out. He’d probably stolen it from the kindergarten cubbies.

  Well, it could be a lot worse, I thought, remembering the Camellia packing fiasco.

  “Come on, Merlin,” I said, walking toward him.

  “Mmmoorf,” he mumble-barked around the shoe. I was nearly close enough to grab him when he suddenly took off, racing around the slide and away behind the swings. He stopped and sat down, dropping the shoe.

  I ran after him. He gleefully picked up the shoe and went galloping off to the seesaw.

  Oh, no. No, I was not going to chase my dog around the playground with the whole school watching.

  But what else could I do? The only thing I was sure would work was treats, and I didn’t have any of those.

  On the other hand, Merlin didn’t know that.

  I put my hand in my pocket and pretended to pull something out. Keeping my hand closed, I held it out to him. “Mmmm,” I said. “Yummy … um, steak-shaped things. You know you want them.”

  Merlin’s ears scooted forward. He tilted his head, watching my hand. I backed away, still holding
it out. “Come on, Merlin,” I called.

  He trotted toward me a few steps. Then he turned, remembering the shoe, and bent his head to sniff at it. He looked at me. I took another step back.

  His love of food won out. He came running over to me and jumped up to put his front paws on my chest. I hooked my fingers in his collar and he licked my hand all over, clearly wondering where his treat had disappeared to.

  I heard clapping coming from some of the windows. Danny yelled, “Woo hoo!” and I saw Mr. Peary trying to herd everyone back to their seats. With my face on fire, I tugged Merlin into the school with me.

  He trotted next to me, just happy to be there, but I kept a firm grip on his collar anyway. Vice Principal Taney was standing outside the administration office as we came up. He gave Merlin the look he usually saves for little kids who sneeze on him. But he didn’t say anything as I opened the door and herded Merlin inside.

  “Oh, honey,” Adele said, standing up to see over the counter. “He is a darling.”

  “Not today he isn’t,” I said.

  Principal Hansberry opened the door to her office. Merlin bounded over and started sniffing her pant legs. She laughed and petted him.

  “He can probably smell my dog,” she said.

  “I’m really, really sorry about this, Principal Hansberry,” I said. “We locked him in the yard — I don’t know how he got out.”

  “I’m sure it’s not your fault,” she said. “These things happen. But I’m afraid we can’t have him disrupting the school day.” She went behind her desk and sat down. I followed her into her office, feeling nervous. Merlin trotted over to her bookcase and started nosing books around as if he was deciding which one to read next.

  “I could run him home,” I said. “I only live a few blocks away.”

  She shook her head. “I’d rather not have you off school grounds during school hours. Don’t worry, I’ve called your father.”

  I winced. “Oh, man. What did he say?”

  “He said he was afraid of something like this,” she said with a smile. “He’s coming right over to get him.”

  “Merlin,” I said, sitting down with a sigh. “Why do you have to cause so much trouble?” Merlin came over, put his paws up on my lap, and licked my face.

  “You said this is a new dog, right?” Mrs. Hansberry said. I nodded. “Sometimes it can take a while to figure out the best thing to do with them during the day.”

  “What do you do?” I asked.

  She opened a drawer and pushed a few things around until she found a business card. She pulled it out and handed it to me. “I leave her at this day care center.”

  “Day care for dogs?” I said. I’d never heard of that.

  “It’s pretty affordable,” she said. “They walk them for you, and it’s a chance for your dog to spend time with other dogs, too. See what your dad thinks.”

  I heard the front door of the office open. Merlin sat up and went, “Woof!” My dad came hurrying in.

  “I’m sorry, Dad,” I said quickly. “I padlocked the gate, but he must have gotten out some other way.”

  “I know. We’ll figure it out,” Dad said. He smiled at Mrs. Hansberry. “Welcome to the school. I bet this isn’t what you envisioned for your first day.”

  “As first-day problems go, I’ll definitely take this one,” she said, shaking his hand. “At least it’s wearing a smile.”

  That was true. Merlin couldn’t seem to stop smiling. It was like he’d won the lottery, managing to get me and Dad in one place in the middle of the day.

  I told Dad about the day care and showed him the card.

  “What kind of dog do you have?” Dad asked her.

  “A mutt, through and through,” she said. “My husband calls her a Frankendog.”

  “My ex-wife never liked dogs,” Dad said. That was something I didn’t know about Mom. But I didn’t really know anything about Mom. “So this is our first,” he added.

  “Well, good luck with him. Now Parker should go back to class,” she said.

  “Yeah,” I said. That was probably the most I’d ever wanted to get back into a classroom.

  “I’ll put Merlin inside the house for now,” Dad said. “I’ll slip home later on to let him out. And I’ll give this place a call about tomorrow.” He held up the card.

  “Thanks, Dad,” I said with relief. I was glad Merlin wasn’t going to be my problem for a few hours, anyway.

  “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Hansberry,” Dad said, shaking her hand again.

  “You too, Mr. Green,” she said.

  Dad took Merlin’s collar and led him out into the hall. When Merlin realized that I was going in a different direction from them, he tried to pull away and follow me. He bounced and slid on his paws, trying to sit down and stop my dad. But Dad kept walking. Merlin gave in and let himself be dragged away. He twisted around to look back at me a few times. I wished I didn’t have to go to class. I wished I could go running outside with Merlin.

  Instead, I turned and headed down the hall to Mr. Peary’s classroom.

  When I got to the cafeteria at lunchtime, I could feel everyone staring at me. I kept hearing the word “dog” as I passed by the tables. All the kids in classrooms that faced the playground were telling everyone else about Merlin. I was so embarrassed, I think even the tips of my ears were red.

  Eric could tell that I didn’t want to talk about it. Eric is good at noticing that stuff because he’s pretty quiet, too. But Danny thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened at our school, so he went on and on and on about it. And Troy came hurrying over to our table as soon as we sat down.

  “So how did he get out?” he asked without even saying hi. “Do you know? Have you figured it out?” He sat down and pulled out the brown-bag lunch his mom always packs for him.

  “I seriously have no idea,” I said.

  “It’s crazy!” Danny said. “We locked the gate! There’s no way he could have gotten it open. And Parker’s fence is so high! It’s practically as tall as me!”

  “Maybe he dug a hole?” Troy suggested.

  “He didn’t look all dirty,” I said. “And I think it would have taken him longer than that.”

  “You named him after the wrong magician,” Eric said. “He’s not a Merlin — he’s a Houdini!” Eric has read nearly every book there is on Harry Houdini. His parents bought him a magic set last Christmas. The rest of us were bored of card tricks by February, but Eric is still really into illusions and stuff like that.

  “We’re going to figure this out,” Troy said. “We’ll stake out your place and watch him until we see what he’s doing.”

  “OK, if you want,” I said. “But tomorrow we’re taking him to day care, so it won’t be a problem anymore.”

  A tray hit the table beside me. To my surprise, it was Heidi Tyler. The girls had been sitting at a different table from the boys since, like, second grade, so this was really weird. Across the table, Kristal slid in beside Danny. And then Rebekah Waters sat down next to Eric. Eric started paying really close attention to his mashed potatoes. I knew we weren’t going to hear another word out of him as long as she was there.

  “Oh my goodness,” Heidi said right away, “Parker, your dog is the most amazing, fantastic, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “He’s a pain in the butt, though.”

  “He’s not that bad,” Kristal said, hiding her smile behind her hand.

  “I’ve been asking my mom for a dog for years and years and years,” Heidi said. “But she thinks they’re too messy.”

  “They’re not too messy,” Rebekah said. “Not if you get a little one.”

  “I’d step on a little dog if I had one,” Danny said. Rebekah looked offended, and he added quickly, “I mean, by accident! By accident! Just because I’d be running around and I wouldn’t see it there or something.”

  “Oh, no, that would totally happen to me, too!” Heidi said. In her case, she might be right. If the
re was a prize for Most Clumsy, Heidi would definitely win. Once last year, she accidentally knocked over the terrarium in Ms. Applebaum’s class, and we spent the whole rest of the day chasing down beetles and earthworms and salamanders.

  “Heidi and I will have to get big dogs like yours,” Danny said to me.

  “What about you?” Rebekah said to Eric. “You wouldn’t mind a little dog, right?”

  Eric looked flustered and started tearing apart his napkin. “Yeah — I mean — no — sure — I’m — cookies,” he said suddenly, jumping up and hurrying off to the vending machine.

  “Well, tell me if you ever need a dogsitter,” Heidi said to me, poking my arm. “I would love, love, love to hang out with your dog. And I promise I’d take really good care of him.”

  “Great. What are you doing from seven a.m. to three p.m. Monday through Friday?” I joked.

  “Stupid school,” Heidi said with a sigh. She started to put her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands. But her elbow hit her tray, which flew up into the air, scattering chicken nuggets and soggy green beans everywhere. Her milk crashed to the table and sprayed all over Danny and Kristal.

  “Oh, no!” Heidi cried, horrified. “I’m so sorry!” She ran off to get napkins.

  “Oh, Heidi,” Kristal said, but she said it in a nice way. She dabbed at her shirt with one of her napkins. I saw Ella Finegold watching us from one of the corner tables. She usually eats by herself as fast as she can, and then goes to practice piano in the music room while no one else is in there.

  “Jeez, I don’t know if I’d leave Heidi alone with your dog,” Danny joked. Heidi came hurrying back and we cleaned up the table. Then Kristal and Rebekah shared their lunches with Heidi, who kept shaking her head and going, “I’m such a klutz.”

  It made me feel a lot better, though. At least I wasn’t the only person who had an embarrassing first day.

  After school, Danny and Troy came home with me. I was a little worried that Merlin might have torn the house apart while we were gone. But when we walked in, he was sitting by the front door, wagging his tail innocently. I guessed maybe he had just slept on the couch all day. He was so excited to see us. He jumped up on each of us, barking and bouncing around. He kept running to the back door and back to me.

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