Authors: Cynthia Chapman Willis
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In memory of my father, Laighton D. Chapman, and the dog we loved
“Your dog stinks worse than roadkill, Dill,” Cub says, wrinkling his nose and puckering his face in a look that screams disgust. His arms strain under the old tin tub that's holding Mom's flowery-scented shampoo, a few old towels, Dead End's dog brush, a plastic cup for rinsing, and a rawhide bone big enough to choke an elephant.
“Which is exactly why he's getting a bath with the most sweet-smelling shampoo I could dig up.” Even the usual barn smells of hay, oats, and dusty chickens are being overpowered by the sour stench rising off the wet, greenish-brown smudges that mat the blond fur of Dead End's muzzle, shoulders, and sides. How a pooch could stink himself up so bad is beyond my twelve-year-old imagination.
“Sweet-smelling shampoo,” Cub mutters under his breath. “Just like a girl.”
Dead End pulls toward the door, determined to break free of his leash, even if that means snapping my wrist in two like some dried twig. I manage to get the plastic bag out from the pocket of my shirt. And sure enough, the second I toss Dead End the last of the cranberry-raisin cookies that I'd baked, he forgets about freedom and snatches the thing without losing a crumb. These cookies are his favorite treat. Still, I can't help but be impressed by his catch.
I let the plastic bag fall from my fingers. As Dead End starts snuffling it, looking for more cookies, I pull the barn door as closed as it will go. But there's still a gapâa problem as big as Virginia itself because this dog of mine has to be kept inside this building.
Cub drops the aluminum tub on the floor, by the hay bales. The towels go flying. The bone bounces out and thuds, barely misses his big toe.
“If G.D. sees Dead End this filthy, he'll know he's been running again,” I say, watching the silly pooch get his snout stuck in the plastic bag. “He could tell Lyon.” My dad. “And that man is in no mood for a misbehaving dog.”
“You haven't said anything about that dog takin' off again to your granddad or your dad?” Cub shakes his head, disapproving.
This is pure Cub, always about truth and playing by the rules. A kid with a conscience a mile long, one reason why he's been my friend since the beginning of first grade, when we bonded over trying to find a way to put a baby bird back into its nest. That connection became glue when we spent most of the next summer and every school break since together, making our own fun because we live miles away from all our other school friends. And our bond has turned to cement in the last year, because Cub has been here without me asking him to be. He's stayed close during everything that's happened. And he's here still.
“Dill, keepin' that dog's runnin' a secret is bad,” he tells me, like I don't know this. “What about the promise you made to your dad?”
“Dead End has only run off a few times in the last three months.”
Since Mom left,
I don't add. “Besides, if Lyon finds out, he'll take the dog to a shelter.”
Dead End sneezes hard, the way he does whenever I have a leash on him. The plastic bag goes flying.
It is no secret that Lyon came within a hair of getting rid of Dead End right after G.D., my granddad, brought the pooch to us four years ago. The dog only ran away twice and returned on his own both times, but he'd been caught chasing a few chickens and got into some garbage. Nothing major, but Lyon wouldn't have it:
We can't keep a dog that takes off,
he announced in his flat-out, no-nonsense tone, slamming down his decision like an ax blade.
Keeping a dog that pesters others is irresponsible
No surprise the dog runs,
G.D. had said.
He's been a stray, probably for some time
. But G.D. also believed the dog was ready to settle down, needed to. So I made a deal with Lyon, promised him that if he gave Dead End one more chance at being good, I'd solemnly swear to keep an eye on him and report the first sign of any more bad behavior.
“Doesn't your dad know what shelters do?” Cub makes a violent slashing motion with his hand at his throat.
I shrug as Dead End starts pulling again, yanking at my wrist. Mom had known. Right after Lyon and I made our deal, she'd taken the pooch to Sarah Doyle's obedience classes, transforming him into a good dog that didn't run off. Everyone but Mom saw this as a true miracle, but her sixth sense about animals had told her that he'd become a devoted pet. And he had. Devoted to her, mostly.
That's why, it seems to me, he's started running again: because she's gone. Our once warm and full home is cold and hollow, with sadness collecting like dust. Not even a day after she'd left us, the pooch started pacing and whining, pawing at the door of the master bedroom. If someone were to ask me, which no one would because I've made it as clear as crystal that I won't talk about her, I'd say Dead End is searching for Mom.
I'd take off, too, even leave Virginia itself, if I could get up the guts to cut away from Lyon and G.D.,
I've whispered in the dog's ear more than once.
“It doesn't matter what Lyon knows,” I answer Cub. “He'll get rid of Dead End the way he's been getting rid of everything that reminds him of what was.” By
I mean life with Mom in it. Lyon has, despite all my protests, placed most of her loved and pampered pets in new homes. Her rabbits (Romeo, Juliet, and their five thousand babies), her goat (Seymourâblind in one eye), and the barn cats (Double and Trouble, adopted from an animal shelter). But Dead End got to stick around. Probably because the dog was Mom's favorite. But that doesn't mean Lyon will put up with any nonsense.
As Dead End keeps yanking at the leash and sneezing, I breathe in the background mustiness of the chickens, Annie and Dan, the only tenants left in this barn. And only because Lyon can't catch them.
Cub sighs, swipes at sweat beading on his forehead and hay clinging to his brown hair, which sticks up from his head like the bristles of a toothbrush (his mom buzzes the heads of her five boys the first day of each summer). Then he moves to the stacked hay bales against the back wall, focusing on a fly bouncing against the screen of a window propped open with a stick at the top of the hay. “I swear that dog hates leashes worse than fleas. Is allergic to them. Better let him loose before he takes your arm off, Dill.” Cub hikes up his sagging shorts and begins climbing the bales like a mountain goat.
“You need to rig the barn door to shut first,” I tell him. Given wire or twine, Cub can attach, bind, or mend anything. Lyon calls this a gift. I call it convenient.
Cub scoops the fly into his fist, climbs down the hay bales, and scuffs across the floor, pausing only to pick up the rawhide bone with his free hand. At the doorway, he uncurls his fist, setting the fly free.
Curious as a cat and always looking for something to eat, Dead End near strangles himself trying to get to Cub and sniff his fly hand. Cub bunches up his face, yanks the T-shirt collar over his nose, and hands the pooch the bone. “Here, Stinky.”
Dead End swings his tail in big
's that say
and show he's happier than a pig in mud.
“I'll need bailing twine to hold this door closed,” Cub says, eyeing the latch.
“There's a pile of it by the garden,” I tell him.
As he steps outside, I drop to a squat and begin massaging Dead End's neck where the green-brown stains aren't thick and nasty. “I don't care what you've rolled in,” I tell him, but I breathe through my mouth, not my nose. And I clutch the leash as if it's a hundreddollar bill because I don't need the dog taking off again.
With two miles of tongue hanging out one side of his mouth, the yellow Labrador-husky mix with the curled tail, pointed ears, and big brown eyes fringed in golden eyelashes gazes up at me as if to say
Don't worry about me. I'm a good dog!
A good dog that G.D. came upon behind a Dumpster at the end of a dead-end street somewhere in New Jersey.
Named the dog after the road I found him on,
G.D. had told me.
Needed to call him something
. Dead End
came out as less of a mouthful than Southwest General George Washington Highway.
To me, the dog's odd name was a clear-sky sign that he belonged with us. Mom and Lyon named me Dylan after their favorite singerâbefore they knew that my singing voice made animals howl and small children cry. It didn't even matter to them that I'd been born a girlâI still got a man's last name. Cub, the youngest of the six Bayer boys, had been given his nickname, which replaced
the minute he'd been born. Lyon hardly ever goes by
and G.D. has never been
. Even Mom's name,
wasn't ordinary. But it fit her. Like summertime, she'd been warm, easy, and carefree. And like every summertime I'd known, she didn't last long enough.
Never meant for the name
G.D. had said.
Never thought the dog would stick. He was thin and scrappy, with no collar or tags. Weeks passed, but the dog kept hanging around. We got used to each other and the name
As Cub steps back into the barn with loops of bailing twine, he starts knotting and tying. “Keepin' that dog's runnin' secret from your dad is wrong, Dill. You made him a promise, gave him your word. That's sacred.”
Before I can ask how he, an animal-loving veterinarian wannabe, could even think about turning Dead End in and risk losing him, the dog's ears pop up at full attention.
Jingling! My heart sinks at that sound of the engagement and wedding rings that G.D. wears near his heart, on a chain under his T-shirts. I jump up, grab hold of Dead End's collar, and pull him toward a stall. Stubborn as a two-ton mule, he leans away from me. “Cubâ¦” My whisper comes out a strained gasp. “Help me hide this dog.”
Cub drops the twine, grabs hold of Dead End's collar, and starts pulling the pooch as I attack the rusted latch of the stall door, trying to slide it back.
The jingling gets louder. “This stinking piece of scrap metal won't budge!” And one slip means I'll have more splinters than a pincushion has needles.
Cub grunts. “This dog should be named
“Dill? Dylan MacGregor?” G.D.'s wavering voice sends my thudding heart into overdrive. “You in the barn, girl?”
Dead End whines. My heart thumps harder:
Don't get caught! Don't get caught! Don't get caught!
I lean into the latch with everything I have until it gives way with a gritty scrape, almost sending me tumbling butt over braids.