Runaway retriever, p.8
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       Runaway Retriever, p.8

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Even the little kids were getting into it. Most of the first and second graders were shrieking as loudly as Tara and Natasha while they threw their food. Troy’s little sister, Eden, had peanut butter and jelly in her hair and an enormous smile on her face.

  By the time Vice Principal Taney got to the cafeteria door, the big room was in total chaos.

  I grabbed Merlin’s leash and ducked below the level of the tables. Merlin covered my face with vigorous licks. He pressed himself close to my side as we ran down one of the aisles between the tables. I didn’t dare look over at Vice Principal Taney. I was sure that if I did, he would spot us instantly.

  I ran for the door Ella had gone through. We weren’t supposed to use it during the day, but it was the fastest route to the music room and the playground. Kids who finished lunch early used it all the time and never got in trouble.

  There was a patch of open space between the last table and the door. I glanced around quickly. My heart was pounding.

  Vice Principal Taney was waving his arms and shouting angrily. A piece of bologna flew through the air and whapped him on the side of the head. Furious, he turned to see who threw it. His back was to us.

  Merlin and I bolted for the door. We shot through it and ran down the hall as the door slowly closed behind us. The hall was empty; most everyone was in the cafeteria. But then … were those footsteps? Heels in the hallway? Was it the principal?

  I didn’t even look back. I threw myself and Merlin into the nearest classroom. We dove behind the teacher’s desk — except it wasn’t a desk, it was a piano.

  We were in the music room!

  There was a long moment of tense silence. I leaned against the back of the piano, gasping for breath. Merlin was panting, but his tail was wagging, and he kept sticking his nose in my face, trying to lick me. I tried to scoot him out of sight of the door, but he kept jumping and wriggling. He would be really bad at hide-and-seek.

  Suddenly I heard someone moving. I whipped around.

  Ella Finegold was sitting on the piano bench. She was leaning way out on the edge so she could see us on the other side of the piano. She blinked at me, looking confused.

  “Hi,” I said finally.

  “Hey Parker,” she said. She’s so quiet that it always surprises me when she talks and you hear how normal her voice is. I always expect it to be squeakier or more timid or something.

  “So,” she said. “I’m guessing you’re not here to practice for the talent show.”

  I smiled. “Just catching our breath,” I said.

  “That’s your new dog?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “Merlin. The biggest troublemaker in dog history.”

  Ella snorted. “You should meet mine,” she said. She shoved back her long brown curls like they were getting in her way.

  “You have a dog?” I was astonished. “But — I thought you didn’t like dogs.”

  “I don’t really,” Ella said. “Especially this one. We inherited her a few days ago. She’s a royal pain.” She shrugged.

  Merlin bumped my chin with his head. He sat down and leaned into me, wagging his tail. I put my arm around him. “They’re worth it, though,” I said. “I think. I hope. Eventually.” If only Merlin would stop getting me in so much trouble!

  “I doubt it,” Ella said. “I mean, mine, anyway. This is the only place I can get any peace and quiet from her.” She touched the music in front of her. My dad signed me up for guitar lessons one summer, but I was pretty terrible. I never wanted to practice. I think it’s pretty amazing how Ella wants to practice, like, all the time. I guess that’s why she’ll be famous one day instead of any of the rest of us.

  “Sorry to bother you,” I said with a twinge of guilt. Merlin and I were causing problems everywhere.

  “That’s OK,” she said. “You want me to check if the hall is empty?”

  “Would you?” I said. “Really?”

  “Sure,” she said. “Stay there.”

  She went to the doorway and poked her head out. I could see her fingers tapping on the door like she was playing the piano inside her head. I don’t think she even knows that she does that. After a moment, she moved a little farther into the hall.

  “Hi Mr. Taney,” she said loudly. “Why are you tiptoeing down the hall?”

  “Hssssst.” I heard Mr. Taney shushing her. “Have you seen a dog come this way, Miss Finegold?”

  “A dog?” Ella said. “Do you mean a hot dog? I think it was meat loaf day today, sir, not hot dogs.”

  “No, no!” Mr. Taney snapped. “An actual dog! Fur! Paws! Drool! Sanitation hazard!”

  “A real dog!” Ella exclaimed. “What kind of dog?”

  “Any kind of dog!” Mr. Taney shouted, exasperated. “If you’ve seen any dog running down this hallway, I want to know about it!”

  “Gee, I’m sorry, Mr. Taney,” Ella said, sounding hurt. “I haven’t seen any dogs running down this hallway. I didn’t mean to make you shout at me.” She sniffled a little. I couldn’t see her face, but she sounded like he’d really upset her. It was an ace performance.

  “They must have gone the other way,” the vice principal muttered. “I’ll go around and cut them off!” I heard his footsteps running away down the hall.

  “All right, coast is clear,” Ella said, coming back into the music room.

  “That was awesome!” I said, climbing to my feet. Merlin jumped to his paws beside me. “You saved our butts. You should be an actress! You’re totally hilarious.”

  She blushed. “Oh, no, I just like to sing,” she said.

  “Well, thanks,” I said. “See you later.”

  I peeked into the hall again. As Ella had said, the coast was clear. Wrapping Merlin’s leash firmly around my hand, I tugged him behind me out of the room. We ran down the hall toward the playground, in the opposite direction from Mr. Taney.

  I didn’t know what to do. Should I try running home and leaving Merlin there? Was there enough time before the end of lunch? Would I get in trouble for leaving school without permission? I didn’t think the principal would be so nice about strike two. Especially after that food fight. Vice Principal Taney was probably really mad right now.

  I felt around in my pockets. I didn’t want to bother Dad at work again if I could come up with something else. Did I have Russell’s phone number? Maybe I could call him to come get Merlin. I wondered how Merlin had gotten away. Since he had his leash on, maybe it was during one of his walks.

  There was a card in my jacket pocket. I pulled it out and realized it was the one with Julianne’s number on it. No. No way. I was not calling her.

  I got to the playground door and looked out. A black iron fence stood between the playground and the quiet street outside. Once I was through that gate, we’d only be a few blocks from home. I figured I had to risk it. Maybe with the chaos of the food fight, no one would notice I was gone.

  But then I saw someone running along the sidewalk.

  It was Russell!

  I burst through the door and ran across the playground with Merlin galloping beside me. Russell was gasping and breathing heavily. He was trying to run, but he was a pretty big guy, and not that young. He was kind of floundering along. His face was bright red behind the walrus mustache.

  When he saw me and Merlin, he nearly collapsed to the sidewalk. His face was so relieved, I couldn’t be mad at him for losing Merlin. Especially when I knew it was most likely Merlin’s fault.

  “Oh, man,” he said. “Parker, I am real sorry, mate. I can’t even — you have no — I was so —” He stopped, wheezing for breath. I was afraid he would keel over right there. Instead he knelt down and put his arms around Merlin. “Thank the saints you’re all right, dog. One moment I was holding him, and he was trotting along just fine, and then all of a sudden he bolted. The leash slipped out of my hands. I’ve never had that happen to me before, and I’ve been walking dogs for years.”

  Merlin licked Russell’s face like he was maybe a little bit sorry for
making Russell run and worry so much.

  “It’s OK,” I said, “but please, you have to get him out of here right now. My vice principal is on the warpath, and if he catches me out here with Merlin, I’ll be in huge trouble.”

  “No worries,” Russell said, leaping to his feet with renewed energy. “We were never here! You never saw us!” He wrapped Merlin’s leash firmly around his fist and set off at a brisk trot. Merlin looked back at me and whined, trying to pull away, but Russell was too strong. Soon they were jogging around the corner and out of sight.

  I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I glanced at my watch. Almost the end of the lunch hour. I ran back across the playground into the school. Could I make it into the cafeteria without being spotted by Mr. Taney? I doubted it.

  Then I heard the squeak of Mr. Taney’s shoes coming down the next hallway. There was only one place to go. I darted into Mr. Peary’s classroom and flew across the room into my seat. Luckily Mr. Peary wasn’t at his desk. The room was empty.

  I dug through my bag and pulled out a notebook as fast as possible.

  The door flew open.

  Vice Principal Taney stood there, glaring. His face was almost purple with anger. And he had a tiny smear of bright yellow mustard on his left ear. I decided I probably shouldn’t tell him about that.

  “Mr. Green,” he said in his most dangerous, most ominous voice. “What — what — pray tell, are you doing in here?”

  I glanced around like I couldn’t understand the question. “This is my classroom, sir. I thought we were allowed to be in our classrooms during lunch.”

  He advanced slowly across the room. “Only if you are engaged in academic pursuits.”

  “I am,” I said, “um, engaged in … that, sir.” I held up the notebook. “I’m studying for our spelling test this afternoon.” Miraculously, I had grabbed the right notebook. Even if Mr. Taney checked, he would find out that it was true. We were scheduled to have a spelling test that afternoon.

  “That’s unusually industrious of you,” Vice Principal Taney said. He stopped next to my desk and seized the notebook. His eyes scanned the list of words. He looked down at me suspiciously.

  “Have you seen your dog today, Mr. Green?”

  “Sure,” I said. His nostrils flared angrily. “At home this morning, sir,” I added quickly. “We dropped him off with a dog walker for the day. Now he has someone to keep an eye on him! It’s such a relief. I would be so embarrassed if he showed up here again!”

  All of this was true. I was trying to keep Camellia’s honesty rules in mind. But then again, I think even Camellia wouldn’t want me to get expelled because of Merlin. Then it would be her fault if I didn’t graduate high school and I ended up living in Dad’s basement for the rest of my life.

  Mr. Taney narrowed his eyes. He stared at me for a long, awful moment.

  Finally he dropped the notebook on my desk and stalked out of the classroom without another word.

  I fell back in my seat with a great whoosh of air. That was way, way too close.

  Principal Hansberry came to each of our classrooms that afternoon to talk to us about discipline and wasting food and respecting the cafeteria workers. I was really worried that Danny would be suspended for starting the food fight. He’d only been helping me. If he got in trouble, I’d have to come clean and take his punishment instead.

  But the principal had decided that this was “first-week high spirits.” Instead of singling out anyone for punishment, she made the whole school use the last hour of the day to help clean up the cafeteria. That was the first time we’d been punished like that for a food fight. We all got to see what a huge gross mess we had left behind. Lots of kids complained that they hadn’t thrown any food, but Principal Hansberry said that since making the mess was a “group effort,” cleaning it up should be, too.

  Plus we all had to write a note to take home that said, “Dear Mom and Dad, I am sorry if I have ketchup or anything on my clothes today. We were involved in a food fight at lunch, and we feel very bad for causing so much trouble. Please accept my apology for the extra laundry.” Personally, I thought this was kind of a funny note. But we had to bring it back signed by our parents, so a lot of people didn’t think it was so funny.

  Luckily they weren’t mad at me or Danny, though. Except for Avery. He tried to get Danny in trouble by telling Principal Hansberry who’d started the fight. But she told him that wasn’t necessary. She said everyone was “responsible for the mob mentality we saw here today,” whatever that means.

  The most amazing part was that nobody said anything about Merlin. I guess a lot of people didn’t see him. But even the ones who did didn’t admit it. Vice Principal Taney came into our class and asked: “Did anyone here see a dog in the cafeteria before or during the food fight?”

  No one raised their hands. After a minute, Heidi said: “Maybe you imagined it, Mr. Taney,” in this really innocent voice.

  I was worried that Avery would tell, but later Hugo told me that nobody in Mr. Guare’s class answered Mr. Taney’s question either. I don’t know why Avery didn’t say anything. Maybe he already knew everyone was mad at him for snitching on Danny.

  Cleaning up the cafeteria was gross, but it wasn’t too terrible. I felt really guilty and grateful to everyone for not telling, so I worked as hard as I could. I mopped and I wiped down the tables and I helped clean the windows and I filled an entire trash bag with squashed meat loaf. I was used to cleaning — that’s something Camellia trained me to do really early. She always said if she had to cook, then Dad and I had to learn how to clean.

  At the end of the hour, Mr. Peary came up to me where I was wiping down the door handles. He said, “Nice work, Parker. You represented our class very well. I’ll let you off for not paying attention in class earlier today — but try not to let it happen again.”

  “Yes, Mr. Peary,” I said.

  The best thing about our punishment was that it ended when school was over. Which meant it didn’t get in the way of the baseball game. I was pretty excited. Danny and Eric and Troy and I had practiced together all summer in the park. I was hoping the coach would notice how much better I’d gotten.

  “Come on, come on!” Danny said, shaking my arm as I dumped my last handful of dirty paper towels in the garbage. “Let’s get out to the field! Coach Mason will be waiting!”

  We grabbed our stuff from the classroom and ran out to the baseball field behind the gym. Most of the guys were already there, including Troy and Hugo and Levi, from our class. Coach Mason was walking around the bases, tossing a ball into the mitt on his left hand. He was wearing the Red Sox cap he always wears. He says, “You can take the man out of Boston, but you can’t take Fenway out of the man.”

  He’s also the coach for the girls’ team, so a lot of them had come to watch. Heidi and Rory waved to us from the bleachers. Coach Mason is Rory’s dad. She’s crazy-athletic like Danny is. Troy’s mom was there, too, and so was Danny’s dad — he never misses a baseball game, even when it’s just for fun like this one.

  My dad wasn’t there, but that was OK. I know it’s hard for him to get away from the bank during the day. But then, scanning the bleachers, I saw a familiar face.

  Julianne was there! I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think she meant it when she said she wanted to come.

  “Oh, man,” I muttered.

  “What?” Danny asked.

  I was going to pretend it was nothing. Part of me didn’t want to tell Danny that my dad had a girlfriend. Especially one who was only about ten years older than Camellia. But Julianne was already waving and smiling at me. Danny saw her and his eyebrows went up.

  “Who’s that?” he asked. “Do you know her? Is that her real hair color?”

  “That’s my dad’s new girlfriend,” I said with a sigh.

  “Wow,” Danny said. “Go Mr. Green!”

  “Shut up. Gross!” I said, punching him on the shoulder.

  I tried not to look over
at her while Coach divided us into teams. Troy and Eric and I were on one team and Danny was on the other. This was bad news. Danny is pretty good at baseball. But it’s not only that. He plays like a crazy person. If he’s running to a base, and you’re standing on it waiting to catch a ball, he will throw himself into a full-on dive straight at your feet. He knocks people over when he’s tagging them out all the time. He just gets really excited, like Hugo in a food fight, or Merlin pretty much anytime.

  We flipped a coin, and my team was up to bat first. Danny went “WOO! WOOOOO!” and ran out to second base, pumping his arms in the air. Heidi yelled “WOOOOOO!” back at him and he grinned, jumping up and down.

  I kicked the dirt around the bench, keeping my head down so I wouldn’t accidentally meet Julianne’s eyes. But when I heard Troy’s bat connect with the ball, I jumped to my feet with the rest of the team.

  “Run!” I yelled. “Ruuuuuun!” Troy was sprinting to first base. Levi was waiting there with his mitt raised. The ball flew through the air — and right past his hand. Troy sprinted to first. Everybody cheered. I couldn’t help glancing at Julianne. But she wasn’t watching me. She had her eyes glued on the game.

  Eric was up next. He gripped the bat tightly in his hands. Troy pushed his glasses up and inched toward second. He leaned forward, waiting. We all leaned forward.

  Hugo pitched the ball. Crack! Eric slugged it! The baseball shot into the air. It went way over Danny’s head. It zoomed into the outfield. Danny and three other guys ran after it. Troy dashed to second and then kept going to third. Right behind him, Eric touched first base and kept running. He landed on second, took another step, and then jumped back onto the base. Danny was too close. He came running up with the ball and stood looking at Eric like, Don’t you want to try running? Eric grinned at him. Danny threw the ball back to the pitcher.

  Now it was my turn. The bat was smooth under my palms. I swung it around a little, knocking it against my shoes. I got into batting position. I didn’t look at the bleachers. I was afraid Julianne would yell my name. That would be even more embarrassing than chasing Merlin around the playground. But she didn’t say anything.

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