Runaway retriever, p.9
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       Runaway Retriever, p.9

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Whoosh!

  “Ball one!” Coach Mason called.

  “What?” Hugo yelled. “That was totally a strike!”

  “Hugo,” Coach said warningly. Hugo just likes arguing. He watches the games on TV hoping there will be a ruckus on the field. He loves yelling at the umpires for no reason. He doesn’t pay that much attention to the actual rules.

  The catcher threw it back. Hugo wound up.

  Whoosh!

  “Strike one!” Coach called.

  I wanted to do this right. Two players were on base. It would be so awesome if I scored two runs in my first hit of the year. Maybe even a home run as well! I crouched, giving Hugo the eagle eye. Here it came….

  Thwack!

  The ball soared into the air. It didn’t go as high as Eric’s, but it went farther. It hit the ground and rolled between two of the outfielders. I was already running to first base.

  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur of something moving.

  Something that was not a baseball player.

  Something golden … and furry.

  “HEY!” one of the outfielders yelled. “That dog took the baseball!”

  Please no, I prayed. I hit first base and kept running. But as I rounded the corner toward second, I saw Merlin. He was galloping triumphantly toward me with the ball in his mouth. The outfielders were chasing him, waving their arms. Merlin looked absolutely delighted with himself.

  “Merlin!” I shouted. I stopped dead. Merlin ran up to me, bounded in a circle around me, and bopped me with his nose. I reached for the ball and he dashed away.

  Troy had made it to home base, but Eric was standing between third base and home, looking confused. “Does that count?” he called. “Are we still playing?”

  “Merlin tagged him out!” Danny shouted. “You saw it! He tagged Parker out!” He ran after Merlin. People in the stands were laughing so hard, they were practically falling off the bleachers.

  “Booooo!” Rory yelled. “Too many players on the field! Foul!”

  “Yeah, go Merlin!” Heidi shouted. “MVP! Give that dog a trophy!”

  “What’s going on?” Coach Mason bellowed. “Who is that dog?”

  I decided that running after Merlin would be easier than explaining things to Coach Mason. Danny and I chased my dog around and around the field. This, unfortunately, was pretty much Merlin’s dream come true. His paws flew over the dirt. He stopped, waited for us to nearly catch up, and then dodged around us to run away again.

  Soon all the guys on the team were chasing him. He wasn’t wearing his leash this time, so it was even harder to catch him. How had he gotten away from Russell twice? I couldn’t understand it.

  Finally we cornered Merlin by the fence. I lunged forward and grabbed his collar. He dropped the ball right away. The guys all applauded.

  “Merlin,” I said. “I can’t even believe how bad you are!”

  He wagged his tail at me.

  “Ew, gross,” Levi said, picking up the baseball gingerly with two fingers. “It’s all slobbery.”

  “Sorry, guys,” I said. “Thanks for helping me catch him.”

  Coach Mason blew his whistle. We all went back across the field to where he was standing on second base with his hands on his hips. I kept my hand firmly locked around Merlin’s collar, although he didn’t seem interested in running away anymore. He was just happy to be with me again.

  “Green,” Coach said. “Is this your dog?”

  “I’m really sorry, Coach,” I said. “I don’t know how he got loose.” I looked around for Russell, but there was no sign of him. Maybe he was still trying to catch up. The only good news was that Vice Principal Taney was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t usually stick around for sports stuff.

  “Well, you’d better take him home, I guess,” Coach said.

  I nodded sadly. I really wanted to stay for the rest of the game. I wanted to show Coach I’d been practicing. I wanted to show him how good my pitching had gotten. But Merlin was my responsibility. I had to take care of him, and that meant taking him home and missing the game.

  “Hey,” said a voice behind me.

  I turned around. Julianne was at the fence in front of the bleachers, leaning her elbows on the top of it. “I could take him back to your house,” she said. “So you can stay for the game.”

  “Woof!” Merlin barked, like he was agreeing with her.

  I was torn. I wanted to stay. But I didn’t want Julianne’s help. I didn’t want her to be in my house by herself. I didn’t want her hanging out with Merlin without me. Mostly, I didn’t want her to think she was part of our family.

  “That’s OK, I can do it,” I said.

  “What?” Troy said, elbowing me. “The team needs you, Parker! Just say yes!”

  “Yeah, come on,” Danny agreed.

  “It’s no problem,” Julianne said. She held out her hand to Merlin and he leaned toward her, wagging his tail.

  “Make up your mind, Green,” Coach said. “Everyone else, back to the game.” The guys started jogging back to their bases.

  All right. Just this once. “OK,” I said to Julianne. “Thanks.” I led Merlin around the fence to her and she took his collar, scratching behind his ears. I dug in my pocket and gave her my house key.

  “We’ll be there when you get back,” she said. “I’ll let your dad know.”

  They headed off across the field. And Merlin didn’t even look upset to be leaving. He trotted beside her, wagging his tail as if this was all perfectly fine with him.

  Traitor.

  We ended up winning the game. I didn’t get the home run I’d been hoping for, but I did make it to home plate twice.

  “Good work, team!” Coach Mason called as we headed out. Rory was already chattering away to him as they put away the equipment. I could see her pointing to the bases and making suggestions.

  “So how’d he do it?” Troy asked as we walked to the parking lot with his mom and Eden. I could tell he’d been waiting the whole game to ask me this. “Didn’t you say Russell has a huge fence? How’d Merlin get out?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head.

  “Your dog is so cool!” Eden said. “And so pretty! And so smart! I wish we had a dog who played baseball!”

  “Me too!” Danny chimed in. “I totally want a dog who’ll play ball with me.”

  “I wish he knew when to play, though,” I said. “And when to stay home!”

  Troy wanted to do more investigating, but his mom said it was too close to dinnertime. I made Danny and Eric come home with me, though, so I wouldn’t have to talk to Julianne by myself.

  When we got there, we found Julianne throwing a Frisbee for Merlin in the backyard. He came running up to the gate when he saw us. I started to unlock the bike lock, and then he jumped right over the fence. He didn’t even pretend like he didn’t know how. He jumped up on me and then he jumped on Danny and then he ran in circles around Eric.

  “Hey guys,” Julianne said. “Thank goodness you’re here. My arm is so tired.” She sat down on the back steps, rubbing her right shoulder. “This dog has ridiculous energy!”

  “Yeah,” I said, closing the gate behind us as we all went through into the yard.

  “He’s like Danny that way!” Eric joked.

  Danny laughed. He grabbed the Frisbee and ran to the other end of the yard with Merlin chasing him.

  “Did Russell call?” I asked.

  “I called him,” she said. “He had just found out Merlin was gone. He was really freaking out.”

  “Poor guy,” I said.

  “What happened?” Eric asked.

  “He doesn’t know. Merlin was in the fenced-in area,” Julianne said. “Russell kept saying, ‘It’s impossible! I don’t get it! It’s ruddy impossible!’ ” Her imitation of Russell’s Australian accent was pretty funny. Eric laughed, but I managed not to.

  “He said if you want to take Merlin over there later, you could try again and see what happens,” Juli
anne said.

  “Let’s do it!” Eric said. He checked his watch. “Let’s go now. I can call my mom. I want to see him escape.”

  “Me too!” said Danny, running up to us.

  “Woof!” Merlin agreed.

  “You want to show off, huh?” I asked Merlin, rubbing his head. “OK.”

  “I’ll wait here and tell your dad where you went,” Julianne said as I clipped Merlin’s leash onto his collar.

  We were about a block away from my house when Eric said, “Shouldn’t you have said thank you to your dad’s girlfriend?”

  “Yeah, or introduced us?” Danny asked.

  I shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, it’s not even that serious. She’ll probably be dating someone else by next month.”

  Danny and Eric exchanged glances, but they were smart enough not to keep talking about it. “Should we call Kristal?” Eric asked, changing the subject. “Try the video-camera trick again?”

  “Let’s wait until we get there,” I suggested. “Maybe we won’t need it.” I felt like Kristal had already seen enough of Merlin’s craziness.

  Russell was waiting outside for us. He apologized over and over. He kept rubbing his bald head and mumbling to himself. He looked at Merlin like my dog was the Loch Ness Monster.

  We went around to the back. Danny and Eric both went “Oooooooooooooooh” when they saw the height of the fence. Merlin took one look at it and tried to bolt in the other direction. But I had a firm grip on his leash. He scrabbled in the grass, trying to run away. We had to wrestle him into the cage. I unclipped his leash and jumped out through the gate. Russell closed it and padlocked it. Merlin got up on his hind paws, hooked his front paws on the fence links, and went, “aroooo AROOOO.”

  “We’re just trying to figure you out, goofy dog,” I said to him, stroking his nose through the chain links. “So do your trick again, OK?”

  “Is there somewhere we can watch him from?” Danny asked Russell.

  “Yeah, sure,” Russell said. “Come on inside.” We went into the house and followed Russell up to the second floor. One of the rooms facing the backyard had almost nothing in it except for some sports equipment and a pile of books. There was a big window overlooking the yard. All four of us crowded around it.

  Merlin was pacing around the fenced-in area. He stuck his nose inside the doghouse. He pawed at the grass, kicking up clumps of dirt. He poked the gate with his nose.

  For a moment he stood there as if he was thinking. He even glanced over his shoulder, like he was making sure that no one was watching him. Then he sidled over to one of the corners and looked around again. Satisfied that no one could see him, he began leaping in the air.

  Leap! His nose reached three-quarters of the way up the fence.

  Leap! His paws flailed in the air.

  Leap! His ears flapped and flapped.

  And then suddenly … leap! His front paws hooked on the chain links. His back paws scrabbled for a hold. He hung for a second, panting.

  Merlin was halfway up the fence. He had his left paws hooked in the fence that went one way from the corner, and his right paws hooked in the fence that went the other way. He was braced in the corner.

  Now he began to wriggle. Like a real rock climber, he clung on with three paws while he searched for a new paw hold with the fourth. He moved his front left paw up an inch. His back right paw moved up an inch. His toes and claws poked through the chain links. His tail thrashed, keeping him balanced. He reached as far up as he could with his neck, straining to get to the top. Slowly, inch by inch, he pushed himself up.

  “No. Way,” Eric breathed.

  Russell’s mouth was hanging open. I’d seen enough.

  I ran out of the room and down the stairs. By the time I burst into the backyard, Merlin had reached the very top of the fence. He was teetering on the rail at the top. His back half was still inside. His front paws were sliding down the outside of the fence.

  “Merlin!” I shouted.

  He froze with the guiltiest expression I’ve ever seen on a dog. It was like he wanted to say What? I’m not doing anything!, but he knew he was busted.

  With a final giant effort, he hurled himself forward and leaped to the grass around the fence. Then he slunk over to me. His ears and his tail were hanging down. He knew he was in trouble this time. A few feet away from me, he dropped to his belly and crawled forward, gazing up at me with his big brown eyes. I’m sorry, he seemed to be saying. How was I supposed to know you didn’t want me to do that?

  I crossed my arms. “You are in big trouble,” I said to him. “You should feel guilty.”

  Eric and Danny caught up to me. “Troy will be sorry he missed that,” Eric said.

  “I know it was bad of him,” Danny said, “but you have to admit that was impressive.”

  I sighed. That kind of “impressive” was going to get me expelled.

  Merlin completely forgot he was in trouble by the time we got home. He jumped all over Dad and Julianne with his tail going swish swish swish all over the place. Apparently Julianne was staying for dinner again. I probably should have expected that. We ordered from my favorite Chinese place, which made me feel a little better, but not much.

  “I think Russell has given up on us, too,” I said to Dad. “He said he’d call you later.”

  “Well, don’t worry about tomorrow,” Dad said. “Julianne says she can come spend the day with Merlin.”

  I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it one bit. It wasn’t fair that someone I didn’t like would get to spend the whole day with Merlin while I was cooped up in school. And then would she stay for dinner again? It was like she had practically moved in as soon as Camellia left. What made her think she was part of our family?

  Julianne and Dad chatted on and on all the way through dinner. Julianne told him all about my baseball game — at least, the part of it she saw. Dad tried to get me to tell him the rest, but I didn’t feel much like talking. There had to be another solution. I had to think of one. I pushed my General Tso’s chicken around until I could politely excuse myself. Then Merlin and I ran upstairs and I borrowed the portable phone from Camellia’s room.

  Camellia answered on the third ring. It sounded like there was a lot of noise in the background. Like there was a party going on in her room. On a Wednesday night?

  “Camellia?” I said, sitting down on the floor. I leaned back against my bed, and Merlin flopped into my lap.

  “Parker?” She covered the phone and yelled, “Hey, guys, keep it down!” It didn’t sound like it got any quieter to me, but she came back on the line. “Hey Parker! What’s up? I miss you guys!”

  “Yeah, right,” I said. Someone screamed, “Hi Parker!” in the background.

  “Paloma says hi,” Camellia said.

  “Who’s Paloma?” I asked. “And what kind of name is that?”

  “It’s about as bad as Camellia, isn’t it?” my sister joked. “What’s going on there? How’s Merlin?”

  “He’s the best and worst dog ever,” I said, scratching behind his ears. I told Camellia all about Bark and Ride Day Care and Alicia and Russell and Vice Principal Taney and the baseball game. And I told her about Julianne.

  “I don’t know what to do,” I finished. “So I’ve decided you have to come home.” I was only half kidding, but she laughed.

  “Sorry, Parker,” she said. “I can try to think of something, though. At least you don’t have to worry about tomorrow.”

  “Weren’t you listening?” I said. “That’s the whole point. If I let Julianne help, it’s like letting her be part of the family, when we just want her to go away. But if I don’t, Merlin’s going to keep being a problem.”

  “Parker!” Camellia said. “Why would you be trying to get rid of Julianne? Dad likes her!”

  I was surprised. “But we don’t,” I said. “I mean, you and me. You don’t like her, do you?”

  “Well, she’s pretty different from us,” Camellia said. “But she could be a lot worse. And I
think she makes Dad happy.”

  “But Dad is happy with us,” I said.

  “And what’s he supposed to do when you go off to college in seven years?” Camellia asked. “If you think the house is empty now, just imagine what it’ll be like then.”

  Seven years sounded like a ridiculously long time. Why couldn’t he get a girlfriend later, then? Like, right before I graduated? Then maybe I’d be OK with it. But I remembered sitting on the couch by myself while Camellia and Dad were at the airport. I pictured Dad here all alone, and I felt sad for him. Isn’t that dumb, seven years before it would happen?

  “It’s probably not even going to work,” I said. “I mean, if Russell couldn’t manage him, I’m sure Julianne won’t be able to. Merlin will escape the minute she turns her back. I bet you anything he shows up at school again.”

  “I hope not,” Camellia said, but she sounded distracted. I could hear someone shouting her name in the background. “Hey, Parker, I’m sorry, I have to go. But I’ll let you know if I have any great ideas, OK?”

  “OK,” I said.

  I didn’t feel any better. I tried to do my homework, but I kept spacing out and staring at the page. I thought about Merlin scaling crazy-high fences to get to me. He really didn’t mean to be bad. He was happy right now, just lying on my feet.

  “Is it because you’re worried?” I said to him. “Do you think I might leave you and not come back? I’m not like that, Merlin. I’m not like your other owners. I’ll always come back.” His tail thumped on the floor. Poor dog. I wished I had a way to make him understand.

  The next morning I left early, before Julianne got there. What Camellia had said made sense, but I still didn’t want to hang out with Julianne if I could avoid it. And I was sure I’d have to see her again that night anyway.

  I looked back at the end of the block and saw Merlin standing up on our couch, watching me out the window. He looked confused and forlorn. I hoped he didn’t have some Houdini way of getting through windows, too. If only it were the end of the day already.

 
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