Runaway retriever, p.7
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       Runaway Retriever, p.7

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  That did sound pretty smart. “Kristal has a video camera,” I said. “I bet she’d help.”

  “Mom, can I go to Parker’s?” Troy asked. “As you can see, he really needs my detective skills.”

  “Do you have homework?” she asked.

  “I’ll do it tonight,” Troy said. “I won’t watch any TV until it’s done, I promise.”

  “All right,” Mrs. Morris said. “But be home by six for dinner. And if you leave Parker’s house, call me first.”

  “Me too!” Eden said. “I want to go play with the dog, too!”

  “Not this time,” Troy said. “We have important stuff to do. We have a case to solve!” He pushed his glasses up on his nose.

  “We’ll go home and make brownies instead,” Mrs. Morris said to Eden.

  “OK,” Eden said, beaming.

  When we got home, first I called Dad to tell him what happened. Then I called Kristal.

  “I’ll be there in five minutes,” she said. “Can I bring Skye? I’m supposed to be babysitting her.”

  “Sure,” I said. “Don’t forget your camera.”

  Troy and I threw the tennis ball for Merlin while we waited for Kristal. He found the garden hose and pawed at it, trying to make it spray him. But I knew if I did that he would shake shake shake as soon as Kristal got there. He’d get her and her sister all wet. That wouldn’t be a great way to start our investigation.

  Skye came running up to the gate from the sidewalk. “Hi Parker! Hi Troy! Hi Merlin!” she called, jumping up and down.

  I unlocked the bike lock to let her and Kristal through.

  “We should set up the camera in the kitchen window,” Troy said. “I think that’s the best vantage point.” I was pretty sure he’d gotten “vantage point” from a TV show.

  “And then we’ll all go out the gate and leave him here,” Kristal said. “When he catches up to us, we’ll come back and watch the video to see what he did.”

  “OK, but let’s not go far,” I said. I was still worried about him running around loose.

  Kristal and Troy went inside to set up the camera. I let Skye throw the ball for Merlin. He chased after it and she giggled. Then he grabbed it and started running around the yard.

  “Bring it back!” Skye called. “Merlin! Bring it back!”

  He dropped the ball. “Woof! Woof!” he barked, bouncing on his front paws. She ran toward him and he picked it up and ran away.

  “Merlin!” Skye called, laughing.

  Troy and Kristal came outside again. I closed the kitchen door and locked it from the outside, as if I was really leaving. I went over to the gate with the others.

  “ ’Bye, Merlin,” I said. “We’ll be back soon. Don’t be bad.”

  He was sitting with the ball at the other end of the yard. He tilted his head to the side. His ears scooted forward.

  When I opened the gate, he came galloping over. I blocked his way while Troy, Kristal, and Skye went through. “Nope. Sorry, Merlin,” I said. I squeezed through the gate and closed it again. He tried to stick his nose in the little gap at the side. I wound the lock through the links and snapped the padlock in place.

  “Arooo arooooo,” Merlin whimpered in confusion. He pawed at the gate.

  “Oh, poor dog,” Skye said. She stuck her fingers through the chain links and scratched his head.

  “We have to figure this out for his own good,” I said. “Come on.”

  We all went down to the sidewalk and started to walk away toward school. I looked back a couple of times and saw Merlin watching through the fence. “He doesn’t look like he’s following us,” I said.

  “He will once he can’t see you anymore,” Kristal said confidently.

  We turned a corner onto Maple Street. The trees here were leafy and green and hung over the street, whispering in the wind. The sun reflected off the windows of the houses. Everything was quiet.

  And then … “Woof! Woof!”

  Merlin barreled into the back of my legs before I could even turn around. He jumped and leaped all around us. He licked Skye’s face and she squealed. He seemed to be saying You guys, you forgot me! But it’s OK, I’m here now! Now we can play!

  “Perfect!” Troy said. “Let’s go see what he did!”

  We ran back to my house. Merlin raced beside us. His fur flew out like sunrise clouds, golden in the light.

  Inside, Kristal hit Stop and Rewind on the video camera. She pulled some wires out of the carrying case and hooked the camera up to the TV. I picked up the remote and turned it on. Merlin jumped up on the couch, shaking out his fur and posing like this was a movie premiere and he was the star. Troy and Skye wriggled in on either side of him.

  “Here we go!” Kristal said. She hit Play.

  We saw ourselves leave the yard. We saw Merlin watch us sadly through the fence. He pawed at the gate as we went out of sight. He tried to lift the latch with his nose and push it open. When that didn’t work, he started pacing back and forth along the fence, whining softly.

  After a moment, he ran away from the fence and back up to it a couple of times. Then he crouched down at the foot of the fence. His rear end waggled around. He stared up at the top of the fence.

  “No way,” Troy breathed.

  Merlin pushed down hard with his back legs. He flew up into the air.

  With one giant leap, Merlin was on top of the fence!

  He teetered there for a long moment. His back half was still inside. His front paws scrabbled on the other side of the fence. He had this goofy uh-oh! look on his face. I thought for a moment that he would overbalance and land back inside.

  But he managed to hook his back paws in the chain links. He leaned forward and pushed and wiggled and then finally …

  He was over the fence! He landed on all four paws. He shook himself off, sniffed around the grass for a minute, and then proudly trotted off down the street in the direction we had gone.

  Back in my living room, we all turned to stare at Merlin.

  “Woof!” my dog said. Like, Did you see me? Wasn’t I fabulous? No autographs, please! He wagged his tail and rolled sideways so he was nearly upside down in Skye’s lap.

  “Wow,” Skye said, rubbing his belly. “You should be in the circus, Merlin!”

  “We did it,” Troy said, pleased. “We figured out how he escapes. Mystery solved!”

  The mystery was solved. But it didn’t help me very much. Sure, now I knew how he was getting out. But what I really needed to know … was how to keep him in.

  It wasn’t the best day ever. And it got worse when Dad came home with Julianne.

  “Julianne’s going to make us dinner,” Dad said. He stage-whispered behind his hand, “Don’t worry, she’s not a vegetarian.” Julianne laughed. She patted Merlin and he licked her hand.

  “I’m a terrible cook, actually,” Julianne said. “Nowhere near as good as your sister.”

  “I’m sure you’re still better than we are,” Dad said.

  “I can make one thing,” she said. “It involves chicken and pasta and broccoli.”

  “We don’t have any of that,” I said. Dad gave me a look like I was being rude. I didn’t think it was rude to tell the truth.

  “That’s OK,” Julianne said, “I brought everything I need. Want to help me chop broccoli, Leonard?”

  Dad said sure in this excited way, like he’d been wanting to chop broccoli his whole life. Well, I wasn’t going to help. I took Merlin out in the yard and threw the tennis ball for him. But it felt strange because I knew Dad and Julianne could see me from the window.

  Dinner was even stranger. I wished Camellia was there. Even if she didn’t like Julianne, she could still talk to her. Now Julianne and Dad just wanted to talk to me. They kept asking me questions about sixth grade. We’d only had two days of it! I had nothing interesting to tell them. The pasta was pretty good, but I just wanted to get away from the table so badly.

  “When does baseball practice start?” Julianne asked.

“Not till the spring,” I said. “But Coach Mason is organizing a game after school tomorrow to keep us in shape, he said. You can come if you want,” I said hopefully to Dad.

  “I’ll see if I can,” he said.

  “Maybe I could go,” Julianne said. She actually sounded excited about the idea. How odd would that be, though? Would I have to tell my friends who she was? My dad’s “girlfriend”? It sounded too weird.

  The phone rang. I practically shot out of my chair to get it. I hoped it would be Camellia, or really anyone to get me away from this conversation. But instead it was Alicia from Bark and Ride Day Care.

  “Hi Parker,” she said. “I’ve been feeling so bad about kicking Merlin out of day care.”

  “It’s OK,” I said. I didn’t know why she felt bad. We were the ones with the crazy dog.

  “I was thinking about it,” Alicia said, “and there’s someone you guys could call. He’s a dog walker. I checked with him, and he said he could probably fit Merlin in.”

  “Really?” I said.

  “Sure,” Alicia said. “Let me tell your dad the details.”

  “OK. Thanks,” I said. I took the phone to Dad. He got up and went to find paper he could write on.

  That left me alone at the dinner table with Julianne. I poked a piece of broccoli around the plate with my fork. I could tell she was trying to think of something to say. She’s not like me and Dad. We can sit quietly without talking for hours. But Julianne likes to fill up the silence with yapping. Kind of like that Yorkie at the day care center.

  “Merlin is lucky he found such a patient family,” she said. I realized Merlin was lying under her chair. That dog really didn’t know the difference between good people and unnecessary people.

  “Yeah,” I said.

  Dad came back into the room. “Thanks, Russell,” he said into the phone and hung up.

  “Who’s Russell?” Julianne asked before I could.

  “Our new dog walker,” Dad said with a smile. “We’ll take Merlin over there tomorrow morning. Russell can keep Merlin at his house during the day and walk him for us. Isn’t that great, Parker?”

  It was great, I guessed. But it made me a little sad. I wished we didn’t have to leave Merlin with a stranger all day. I wished I could come home to let Merlin out instead. I was sure that would make both Merlin and me much happier.

  After dinner, Dad and Julianne watched a movie on the couch. They said I could watch with them, but I said I had homework to do. Merlin, on the other hand, jumped right up and flopped onto Julianne’s lap.

  “Traitor,” I whispered to him, but he just wagged his tail at me.

  So I went and hung out in my room by myself. I missed Camellia. She was good at solving problems. I wished she had solved the Julianne problem before leaving.

  The next morning we got up early again. Russell only lived a few blocks away, so we walked Merlin over to his house. Merlin was thrilled to be outside. He kept tugging on his leash and sticking his head into any bushes we passed. By the time we got there, there were bits of leaves and twigs tangled all through his golden fur.

  Russell was not what I expected. I had imagined someone young like Mr. Peary. But Russell was older, maybe my dad’s age. He was big, with big muscles, and he was bald except for a huge brown walrus mustache. He looked like he should be riding a motorcycle, not taking care of dogs. He made me nervous. He even made Merlin a little nervous. I could tell because Merlin kind of crouched low to the ground when Russell came out to greet us.

  “Hey mate,” Russell said to Merlin. He had a kind of Australian accent. “I hear you’re a regular Houdini!”

  “That he is,” Dad said, shaking Russell’s hand.

  “Well, lemme show you what I’ve got,” Russell said. He jerked his thumb at the backyard. “I’ve never met the dog that can get out of this thing!”

  We followed him around to the back of the house. There was no fence around his yard. But there was a fenced-off area of grass in the back. It was about the size of my bedroom. Inside was a bowl of water and a wooden doghouse. One side was the wall at the back of the house. The other three sides were the tallest fence I’d ever seen. It was at least three times as tall as our fence. There was no way Merlin could leap to the top of it. And the gate closed with a padlock.

  Russell picked up a Frisbee and threw it to the back of his yard. Merlin bounded to his feet and sped after it. It hit the ground rolling, and Merlin was able to get his jaws around it. He picked it up and came trotting back, swishing his tail back and forth.

  “So what I’ll do,” Russell said, “is keep him with me indoors during the morning. I’ll take him out for a break at lunchtime. Then I’ll put him in here while I do my afternoon rounds. And I’ll bring him back to your place at four thirty, once you’re done with school and your baseball game. That sound good to you guys?”

  “Sounds great,” Dad said. “We appreciate it.”

  “No worries,” Russell said, winking at me.

  I made it to school on time again. But I was pretty tired. It was hard to concentrate on Mr. Peary or South American capitals. I kept thinking about Merlin and that big cage. I thought about him inside Russell’s house. I bet he was sitting by the window. I bet he was waiting for me to come get him. I hoped he didn’t think I had abandoned him. I wasn’t like his last two owners. I would never get rid of him like that, no matter how bad or embarrassing he was sometimes.

  Danny kicked me and I jumped. Mr. Peary had asked me a question.

  “Um,” I said. “Buenos Aires?”

  Everybody laughed, including Kristal and Natasha and even Eric. Mr. Peary raised his eyebrows at me.

  “I don’t think the Iroquois ever got to Argentina,” he said, “but it’s nice to know you were paying attention half an hour ago.”

  I looked down, embarrassed. Luckily, right then the bell rang for lunch.

  “Parker,” Mr. Peary said as we all got up to go to the cafeteria, “please see me after school for a few minutes.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, hoping that wouldn’t make me late for the baseball game.

  I caught up to Danny and Eric at the cafeteria doors. We got into the line for the school lunch.

  “Are you in trouble?” Eric asked.

  “Just a little, I think,” I said. “Not as much as I was on Monday!”

  “You were totally spacing out,” Danny joked.

  “I just wish I could see Merlin during the day,” I said, taking a tray.

  “Awwwwwwwwwww,” Avery said from right behind me. “Parker misses his wittle puppy.”

  I rolled my eyes at Danny and Eric but I didn’t turn around. I could ignore Avery.

  “Whatsa matter?” Avery said. “No girls here to defend you?”

  “He’s with a dog walker today,” I said to Danny, pretending Avery wasn’t there. “This guy Russell. Isn’t that a cool job? I wouldn’t mind being a dog walker.”

  “That would be awesome!” Danny agreed. We all took plates of meat loaf from the cafeteria guy. “Just hanging out with dogs all day!”

  “You might as well,” Avery sneered, “since you already smell like one.”

  I couldn’t tell if Avery was talking to me or Danny, but from the look on Danny’s face, I guessed it was him.

  “You’ll smell like a dog when I plant your face in the ground!” Danny said to Avery, leaning around me with his fist up.

  “Yeah, right! Just try!” Avery said.

  “Hey,” I said, pushing Danny back. “Ignore him. He’s just being an idiot.”

  “You think you can scare me off?” Avery snapped at both of us.

  “If not, I guess we can always get Heidi to do it, huh?” I said. That made him look really mad. I wondered if he would actually hit me right here in the cafeteria.

  Suddenly I heard a girl’s voice yell, “Hey, there’s a dog! There’s a dog coming this way!”

  My heart plummeted. Surely it couldn’t be …?

  Merlin came galloping through the o
pen cafeteria doors. His leash was trailing behind him. He was panting like he’d been running full out. He looked around wildly.

  “Dog!” several other kids yelled. A few people jumped on their chairs, pointing.

  Finally Merlin spotted me. He raced toward me, his paws skidding on the smooth floor.

  “WHERE IS HE?” I heard Vice Principal Taney bellow from outside. “WHERE IS THAT DOG?”

  “Uh-oh,” Eric said.

  “Think fast!” said Danny. He picked up his meat loaf. And then he threw it right in Avery’s face.

  “Wh-what?” Avery sputtered. He grabbed his milk and dumped it over Danny’s head.

  “FOOD FIGHT!” Troy yelled from across the cafeteria.

  There was instant pandemonium. I don’t know why that happens, but it works every time. And it never matters how much trouble we get in afterward.

  Almost all the boys in the room jumped up on their chairs and started hurling food. Tara and Natasha screamed really loud and crawled under their table. I saw Ella leap up and dart out the back exit before she could get hit in the crossfire. That’s the difference between those girls — Ella is smart enough to just get out of the way, while Tara and Natasha seem to really like sticking around and screaming and making a fuss instead. Then they spend the rest of the day complaining about how their hair smells like ketchup.

  And then there are girls like Heidi, who like throwing food just as much as the guys do. She dumped her tray out on the table and used it as a shield. From behind it, she broke her meat loaf into chunks. That gave her a lot more ammunition than people who threw their entire slice at once. I don’t know if she knew that this food fight was to save my dog, but I bet she would love that.

  Hugo from the baseball team loves food fights more than anyone. He’s very enthusiastic, but not the best strategist. I’m not sure you’d want him on your side in a war, is what I’m saying. This time I saw him fling his entire tray in the air. Left with nothing to throw, he grabbed the nearest kid’s meat loaf and threw that.

  “Hey!” Pradesh yelled. “That was mine!” He scooped up a giant spoonful of mashed potatoes and flicked it, SPLAT! into Hugo’s hair.

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