Runaway retriever, p.6
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       Runaway Retriever, p.6

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “All right,” Troy said, trying to sound like a police inspector. “Let’s solve this case.”

  I opened the back door, and Merlin shot out into the yard. By the time we got outside he was already back with the tennis ball. He flung it into the air in front of me.

  “Let’s see,” Troy said. He studied my yard. “One of us can watch from the kitchen window. Parker, that should be you, so he can’t see you.”

  “I’ll hide up in that tree over there,” Danny offered, pointing to a tree outside the fence.

  “Good idea,” Troy said. “I’ll go around the other side of the house, in case he goes that way. Nobody move. We’ll watch him until he escapes. Then we’ll know how he does it!”

  I unlocked the gate so Danny and Troy could get out. Then I wrapped the bike lock chain around it again. Merlin watched me curiously. He trotted up to the fence and pressed his nose to the links, watching Danny climb the tree.

  He turned around when he heard Troy running up our neighbor’s driveway. Troy peeked around the edge. Merlin bounded over to that corner of the yard and tried to stick his nose through the fence so he could lick Troy’s face. Troy went, “EEYURGH!” and hid around the corner again.

  I went back inside and stood at the kitchen window. I tried to stay far enough back so Merlin couldn’t see me. But our plan didn’t work very well. Merlin ran in a circle around the yard. He stopped at the far end and barked at Danny up in the tree. He trotted to the corner and barked at Troy hiding around the side of the house. Then he came to the back door and pawed at it. It was like he was trying to say, This game is stupid. Let’s go to the park! Let’s throw tennis balls! Let’s chase Frisbees! I haven’t seen you all day! Play with me! Play with me!

  I kind of agreed with him. I was sure we wouldn’t have to worry anymore once he started day care the next day. But I played along for Troy. I waited almost ten whole minutes. But Merlin didn’t try to go anywhere. He finally lay down at the back door and whined sadly.

  I gave up and opened the door. Merlin leaped to his feet, smiling his big smile. His long golden fur glowed in the sunshine.

  “This isn’t working, guys,” I called. “Let’s just go to the park.”

  Danny swung down from the tree. “I’m so glad you said that,” he said. “My butt was going numb.”

  “We shouldn’t give up yet!” Troy said, sticking his head out.

  “Maybe we can try again later,” I said. “But seriously, it’s no big deal. After tomorrow, it won’t be a problem anymore.”

  But as it turned out, I was completely, totally wrong about that.

  Dad and I got up really early on Tuesday morning so we could drive Merlin to day care. We had to bring a whole stack of papers to prove that Merlin had had all his shots. I looked at everything Katie had given us. It seemed like a lot of shots to me. Poor Merlin. But he was all up-to-date. And he was a good dog (well … most of the time), so I hoped he would fit in at day care.

  The woman on the phone said that there should be no problems, especially with a reference from Mrs. Hansberry. I guess the principal had called them about Merlin. Already I liked her better than Principal Ernst.

  Bark and Ride Day Care was in a long brick building off Main Street. We rang the bell and heard barking from inside. Merlin perked up his ears and stopped panting. He looked up at me with his big, trusting brown eyes. It made me feel so guilty about leaving him there.

  But I felt better once we went inside and saw how nice it was. The woman in the front office had long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Her name was Alicia, and her smile was almost as friendly as Merlin’s. She let Merlin sniff her hand and then she crouched in front of him to pet him. She said, “Who’s this good boy? Are we going to have fun today?” He wagged his tail, and that made me feel better, too.

  Alicia took us on a tour. She showed us the big open room where the dogs played when they were let out of their cages. The floor was a rubbery gray material that felt springy under my sneakers. She said they let the dogs play in small groups, so there weren’t too many dogs loose at once. Some of the small dogs were nervous of the big dogs, so they got a separate playtime.

  “We never let them all out at once. It’s easier to manage such a big group that way,” Alicia said. Merlin leaned on the end of his leash, trying to drag me over to a small black dog that was sitting placidly in her cage. She blinked at him like she had no idea why he was so excited.

  The play area was behind a glass window. That way someone could stand in the front office and watch the dogs playing on the other side. Around the play area, the walls were lined with big, roomy cages. Rainbow-colored paw prints and words like “WOOF!” and “Bow WOW!” were printed on the white walls. Which I’m sure the dogs really appreciated.

  “This is where we put the dogs for mealtime, napping, and rest breaks,” Alicia said, opening the door of an empty cage. “We give them all a couple of hours to sleep in the afternoon, when they’re tired from playing. As you can see, there’s plenty of room and a little bed for each of them. If you want, it helps to leave something that smells like you.”

  Camellia had suggested the same thing on the phone the night before. In my backpack I had the T-shirt we’d tried to put in his crate. Alicia tucked it into the bed in the cage. “There you go, boy,” she said to Merlin. He trotted inside and sniffed it dubiously. He started sniffing around the corners of the cage.

  Casually, Alicia motioned us out and then closed the door. I was relieved to see that it did not have a doorknob like our bathroom door. It didn’t look like the latch on my gate or the door of his crate either. This had a proper bolt that slid across and then clicked down.

  I hoped Merlin wouldn’t be able to figure this one out. But even if he did, he would still be inside the day care center. They could put him back in the cage. There was no way he could show up at school to surprise me. We were helping him to be a good dog.

  Merlin trotted up to the door and poked at the mesh wire with his nose. He peered through it at me, his head drooping.

  “Sorry, Merlin,” I said. “We’ll be back soon.” Troy’s mom had agreed to drive me over to pick up Merlin after school. She wouldn’t be able to do that every day, but we would figure that out later.

  As we went back to the front office, I heard Merlin whining and pawing at his door. I felt really sad about leaving him there, but I hoped he would have fun with the other dogs. It sounded a lot more exciting than lying on our couch all day, waiting for me to come home. I kind of wished I could stay and play with all the dogs, too.

  Dad was filling out the last form when the front door opened and Principal Hansberry came in with her dog.

  “Oh, hello,” she said with a smile. “I hoped I’d see you two here.” Her dog wagged its tail and stretched out toward me. I held out my hand for it to sniff.

  “Hi, Principal Hansberry,” I said. “What’s your dog’s name?”

  “This is Luna,” she said. She looked a little embarrassed. “I named her after my favorite Harry Potter character,” she admitted.

  Luna did look like she was made of lots of different dogs. Her fur was patches of brown and white and black. One ear stood up and the other flopped over. Her tail stuck straight out and her paws looked too big for the rest of her. She had a really cute scruffy face and a little tangled beard under her chin. She was smaller than Merlin, maybe the size of a beagle.

  I patted Luna while Dad and Mrs. Hansberry talked. Luna was a lot wrigglier than Merlin. She liked to climb over my legs and around my arms while I was patting her. I wondered if she and Merlin would be friends. Was that weird, if your dog was friends with the principal’s dog?

  “All right, Parker, let’s get you to school on time today,” said Dad. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Hansberry.”

  “You too,” she said.

  As we walked back to the car, Dad said, “I’m afraid I have a lot of meetings today, Parker. So if you have any trouble like yesterday, give Julianne a call.” He pulle
d out one of his business cards and wrote her number on the back.

  Yeah, right. There were about a hundred people I would call before I would ever call Julianne. I’d rather make Camellia come all the way home from Ohio. I’d rather get beaten up by Avery Lafitte. But I took the card without saying anything.

  The only bad thing that happened at school that day was that Avery Lafitte decided to talk to me. Avery is pretty much a big jerk. I’m really glad he’s in Mr. Guare’s class this year. He loves making other kids cry. He’s done that to almost half our class in the last five years. I know he made fun of Ella after her talent show song last year and that made her cry. He always makes fun of Maggie for her famous cat, too, and she hates that.

  But I don’t let him get to me. At least, I don’t show him that he does.

  “Parker Green,” he said, sitting down at our table and stealing one of Eric’s fries. “Where’s your dog today, huh? Picking you up after school?”

  “Yup,” I said. I’ve figured out that it annoys him when I just agree with him.

  “Aw, poor Parker,” Avery teased. His eyes were all small and squinty and mean. “He can’t be away from his wittle puppy or he misses him, awww.”

  “Yup,” I said. “You got it.”

  Avery opened his mouth to say something else, but Heidi interrupted him. Yeah, Heidi and Kristal were sitting with us again. It’s funny, because if it were Tara and Natasha, I would think maybe they liked one of us. But I got the feeling Heidi liked dogs more than boys. All she wanted to talk about was Merlin. Which was OK by me.

  Now she said: “Shut up, Avery. You wish anyone liked you as much as that dog likes Parker.” Heidi is another person who never cries when Avery makes fun of her.

  Avery’s mouth snapped shut. He turned all red and mad-looking. He shoved his chair away from the table and stomped off.

  “Nice,” Danny said. Kristal grinned, but Heidi shrugged and went back to asking questions about Merlin.

  After school, Mrs. Morris was waiting outside in her station wagon. Troy’s little sister, Eden, was already in the car. Troy and I got in and waved good-bye to Danny and Eric.

  “I can’t wait to meet this dog,” Troy’s mom said. “Troy has talked about nothing else all week.”

  “Me too!” Eden said. “I want to meet the dog, too!” She’s seven with wild dark hair, and she laughs all the time. I’ve never seen her not smiling.

  “He’s pretty awesome,” I said. “Except when he’s bad. But I know he doesn’t mean to be.”

  As we drove to Bark and Ride, I suddenly had a bad feeling. I was sure something had gone wrong. The moment the car stopped, I jumped out and ran up to the door. Inside I could hear barking — a lot of barking.

  I pushed open the door. There was no one in the front office. The phone was ringing and ringing. Papers were scattered around like someone had jumped up in a hurry.

  I looked through the big window into the play area.

  Dogs were running everywhere!

  Every single cage was open and empty. All the dogs were loose. There were small dogs chasing each other in circles. There were big dogs running back and forth from wall to wall. There were medium-sized dogs wrestling each other for toys. One tiny Yorkie was dashing around the room, darting between other dogs’ legs, yipping and yipping. A German shepherd had found a toy shaped like a bear and was ripping the stuffing out of it. Bits of white fluff were scattered at his feet. He growled whenever other dogs came near him.

  And right in the middle of it all was Merlin. He had dragged his bed out into the play area. He was sitting on top of my T-shirt. He was panting and watching all the dogs with his big, happy smile.

  I spotted Luna rolling around with the little black dog I’d seen that morning. They both looked like they were having a wonderful time.

  Alicia and her two assistants, on the other hand, were not having a wonderful time at all. They were trying to catch the dogs. They looked really frazzled. Alicia grabbed a big black Newfoundland’s collar. She stuck a treat in front of his nose and he followed it back into his cage. She threw a treat into the next cage. A shaggy, long-legged gray dog chased it inside and Alicia quickly shut the door.

  One of her assistants managed to corner the Yorkie. He scooped up the tiny dog and put her in a cage. The Yorkie jumped up against the wire mesh. I couldn’t believe how high she could jump. She nearly reached the door handle, springing up and down like she was on a trampoline. She was still yapping as loud as she could.

  Troy and Eden and their mom came in behind me.

  “Whoa,” Troy said, looking through the window. “Mass craziness!”

  “Look at all the happy dogs!” Eden squealed.

  “That’s not supposed to happen,” I said.

  “Don’t worry,” Troy’s mom said. “I’m sure they have everything under control.”

  We watched Alicia lead a few more big dogs back into their cages. While she was busy with a Great Dane, I saw Merlin get up and trot over to the door that led to the front office. He glanced back at the day care people. They were too busy to notice what he was doing. He sniffed around the edges of the door. He sniffed at the doorknob. He scrabbled at the bottom of the door.

  And then he stood up on his back paws and wrapped his front paws around the doorknob. On the other side, we all saw the knob start to turn. I gasped. So that was how he got out of the bathroom!

  “Merlin!” Alicia shouted. He dropped to all four paws and sprang away from the door immediately. He gave Alicia an innocent look like, Who, me? Nothing! Nothing going on here!

  “Merlin, come here,” she said firmly. He trotted over to her and she clipped a leash onto him. “You’re coming where we can keep an eye on you,” she said, shaking her finger at him. She led him across the floor to the office. The other two were still busy chasing down the last few dogs.

  Merlin’s tail started wagging as soon as he saw us. He tried to jump toward me, but Alicia held him back. “Down, boy,” she said, and he sat down, looking up at her for permission.

  “Hi Alicia,” I said nervously. I introduced Troy’s family. “So, um … how’d it go?”

  “Well, as you saw, we had a bit of a situation,” Alicia said. Her hair was falling out of its ponytail and she pushed it back off her forehead.

  “What happened?” I asked.

  “I’m not sure. I’d put all the dogs in their cages for the afternoon nap,” she said. “And I was doing paperwork out here, so I didn’t see it start. But I have a pretty good idea.” She gave Merlin a stern look. “I want to check the tapes to be sure.”

  Troy lit up. That sounded like a line straight out of one of his favorite cop shows. “Tapes?” he said eagerly. “What tapes?”

  “We have a camera on the dogs all the time,” Alicia said, pointing to a TV monitor at the back of the room. “Just in case.” She led the way to the monitor and hit the Rewind button. We saw all the dogs running around in reverse. It zipped back to the point where they were all in their cages again. Then she hit Play.

  Most of the dogs were lying in their beds, sleeping. A couple of them were trotting around their cages or scratching themselves. But one was at the door to his cage, poking at the bolt with his paw.

  Merlin. Of course.

  He pawed and pawed at the bolt. Then he shoved at the wire with his nose. The bolt lifted up off the ring it sat on. Merlin started pawing at it again, and slowly the bolt slid back and back and back. Sometimes he used his teeth or his nose. He was very patient. Paw paw paw paw paw poke poke nose nose paw paw. Soon he had the bolt shoved all the way back. He leaned into the mesh and his door swung open slowly.

  The dogs in the cages on either side of him sat up. A Dalmatian came to the front of his cage and pawed at the wire, whining a little. Merlin trotted over to him and stopped. He was nose to nose with the dog inside. His tail wagged. They looked like they were telling each other deep secrets. After a moment, he scampered over to the door and began pawing at that lock. Now that he had f
igured out how to work it, it took him no time at all to get the lock undone.

  That door was still swinging open as Merlin trotted happily on to the next cage. The Dalmatian squeezed through as soon as he could and ran across the room to grab a toy. I couldn’t even believe it. It was like a movie about a prison break. We watched as Merlin went down the whole row, opening one cage after another. Behind him, dogs began to come out of their cages. Some of them were cautious, sniffing at their doors as they moved. Some of them kept sleeping at first. But some of them came bounding out as soon as they could get free.

  Alicia paused the tape. “Oh, dear,” she said. She rubbed the sides of her head.

  “I didn’t know he could do that,” I said. “I’m really, really sorry. Merlin, you are such a bad dog!” Merlin looked up at me and wagged his tail. His face was sweet and open, like always. He had no idea how much trouble he was causing. He just wanted to play with all those dogs. He never meant to cause total chaos.

  Alicia was really nice about it, but she said Merlin couldn’t come back to day care. They had to worry about the other dogs. It wasn’t safe to have an escape artist running around loose — especially one who liked to open all the other cages, too! I could understand that. And she didn’t charge us for that day, even though they had had to do so much extra work because of him.

  So that was the end of that plan. Now I had no idea what we were going to do.

  “It’s OK,” Troy said as we all got into his mom’s car. “I have the best idea!”

  “Oh, good,” I said. “Because I have no ideas at all.” Merlin lay down and put his head on my lap. His tail thumped against Troy’s jeans. He kept looking up as if he was checking that I was still there. In the front seat, Eden couldn’t stop wriggling around to look at him. The smile on her face was almost as big as Merlin’s.

  “We do what the day care place does,” Troy said. “We use a camera and secretly tape him breaking out of your yard. Then we’ll know how he’s getting out, so we can stop him!”

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