sat in the car behind the steering wheel and turned the envelope over and over. I read the messy handwriting scrawled across the front.
Mr. and Mrs. Hayes.
I put it up to my nose and sniffed. I could actually smell my teacher, Mr. White. Sort of like soap and toothpaste and coffee all mixed together. I pressed the envelope against the window and tried to read the letter inside. I turned it every which way, but I couldn't make out a single word.
I was pretty sure I knew what it said, though. Stuff about me. About the homework I hadn't done and the math test I had failed. Probably even about how ugly I looked all the time now, with my wrinkled clothes and my dirty hair. And why was I so sleepy every day? And sometimes I didn't have lunch money. I bet the letter said how Mr. White had tried to call Mama but our phone didn't work. I bet the letter said all that stuff.
I rolled the window down and looked out at the weeds beside the road. It was only April, but it was already
beginning to feel like summer. Lucky for us the nights were still cool, though, 'cause Mama made us keep the windows rolled up all night long. She said it was because she hated bugs and flies and things getting in the car, but I think it was because she thought some bad guy might reach his hand in.
I had been glad when Mama said Toby was going to go to work with her that afternoon. But now I was bored. I guess I should've gone on over to Luanne's like I said I was.
I could hear kids over in the school playground. I wished Mama hadn't parked the car so close to school. What if someone I knew saw me sitting there? What would I say? Besides, I didn't see why we had to keep moving around so much. After two nights in the same place, off we went, to some new spot. Now we were parked too close to school and farther away from Whitmore Road. How was I supposed to keep an eye on that dog if we kept parking so far away?
I climbed into the backseat and stuffed the envelope from Mr. White way down inside my trash bag of stuff. Then I pulled out my notebook and turned to the page that said:
How to Steal a Dog
in the margin. Then, after
I skipped two lines and wrote:
Step 2: When you find the dog you want to steal, keep an eye on it for a while. Here are the rules to remember:
1. Make sure the dog really doesn't bark or bite.
2. If there is a fence, see if the gate is locked.
3. Decide whether or not you can pick the dog up or maybe you have to have a leash or a rope.
4. Check to see if there are any nosy people living next door or across the street or something.
I closed my notebook, climbed out of the car, and locked the door with the key I wore around my neck. Then I set off for Whitmore Road.
When I got there, I stopped for a minute to check things out. The street was quiet. There was nobody outside except for some guy working on the engine of his car. Inside one of the houses a baby was crying. A sprinkler sputtered in circles in one of the yards.
I walked up the road toward the house. I hummed a little so my face wouldn't look as nervous as I felt.
When I walked by the man working on his car engine, he didn't even look up. I strolled along beside the hedge that surrounded the big brick house. I quit humming so I could listen. It was quiet in the yard. I glanced back to make sure no one was watching me, then poked my head over the gate to look into the yard.
Birds flew away from a bird feeder that hung from a hickory nut tree. The front door of the house was closed, and I noticed something I hadn't seen the other dayâone of those little doggie doors, so the dog could go in and out of the house all by hisself. I figured that was a good sign. It probably meant that the people who lived there were gone a lot, but they still cared about their dog.
Then I remembered my rule about checking to see if the gate was locked. I reached over and lifted the latch. Nope. Not locked.
Suddenly a squirrel came scampering around the corner of the house and scrambled up the hickory nut tree. Not far behind it was the black-and-white dog. He dashed to the tree and peered up into the branches with his tail wagging about a million times a minute.
“Hey there,” I called to him.
He sat in the leaves under the tree and cocked his head at me. His face was white with little black spots, like freckles, and black fur around one eye, like a patch. His ears were floppy, but when he looked at me, they perked up. But the best thing about him was that he looked like he was smiling at me. The sides of his mouth curled up and his pink tongue hung out.
“Hey there,” I said again.
His doggie smile got bigger and his tail wagged harder, swishing leaves back and forth.
“Come here, fella.” I reached over the gate and
snapped my fingers at him. He came trotting right over. I stooped down and stuck my fingers through the chain-link fence. He sniffed and then he licked me a couple of times.
“How you doing, little fella?” I said.
He cocked his head again and looked so cute.
I looked at the house. The front door was still closed and it seemed like nobody was home. I scratched the dog behind his ears, and he leaned his head against my hand with his eyes closed. He was wearing two collars. One was a dirty plastic flea collar. The other one was green with shiny rhinestones and a little silver tag shaped like a dog bone.
“What does this say?” I pulled the dog a little closer and squinted at the words engraved on the tag.
I turned it over. On the other side it said:
27 Whitmore Road
Under that was a phone number.
“Willy,” I whispered to the dog.
His floppy ears perked up, and he did that dog smile thing again.
“My name is Georgina,” I said to Willy.
Just then that squirrel made its way down the trunk
of the hickory nut tree, and Willy dashed off to chase it again.
I stood up and looked around. Way at the end of the street, two kids were riding bikes. The man who had been working on his car was sitting in a lawn chair smoking a cigarette.
What if he saw me?
I headed back up the street, trying to look like a normal person instead of a person who was thinking about stealing a dog. I kept my head down and concentrated on keeping my feet from running. I didn't look at the man when I passed him, but I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke.
When I got to the corner, I finally let my feet run like they'd been wanting to, all the way back to the car. When I got there, I unlocked the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel.
I put my hand on my racing heart and laid my head against the seat. I was starting to wonder if I really could steal a dog. I'd never stolen anything in my whole life. Luanne did one time. Slipped a pack of M&M's right into her coat pocket. But not me. How in the world was I going to steal that dog?
But then I looked around me at all the stuff inside our car. The Styrofoam cooler full of icy water and plastic containers of tuna salad. The trash bags stuffed with clothes and shoes. The milk crate on the floor with paper towels, shampoo, a flashlight, a can opener.
I looked into the backseat on Toby's side of the car. His blanket all smooshed up in a ball. His pillow. His Scooby-Doo pajamas.
And then there was my side, with all my special things jammed into a plastic bag instead of sitting out on my dresser like they used to. My horse statue. My swimming medals. That little stuffed bear that I got in the Smoky Mountains.
I hated every inch of that car. I put both hands on the steering wheel and pretended like I was driving. I drove and I drove and I drove, the whole time sending bad thoughts to my daddy for getting tired of it all and making us live in a car.
And as I drove along, out of Darby, out of North Carolina, on and on and on, as far as I could go, I felt better about what I had to do. I had to steal that little dog, Willy. No matter what.
watched Luanne and Liza Thomas walking to the bus after school, their matching blond ponytails swinging from side to side. They carried their ballet slippers in their Darby Dance School tote bags.
Instead of getting on the bus and taking my usual seat beside Luanne, I had to wait for Toby so we could go to the Laundromat. I watched everybody get on the bus in their perfect clothes so they could go home to their perfect bedrooms. They'd put their school clothes away in real drawers, not trash bags. Then they'd go to soccer practice or ballet class, not to the Laundromat like me.
I blinked hard and stared down at my feet, just in case I looked as miserable as I felt. The toe of my sneaker was wearing out and I could see my blue sock starting to show through. When I heard someone running, I looked up to see Toby racing toward me, his hair flopping down in his eyes.
“Hurry up,” I snapped. “I've been waiting for, like, an hour.”
“I got on the bus but then I remembered I wasn't supposed to,” he said.
I thought. I bet Luanne and Liza had themselves a good laugh about that. I bet Liza said, “How come Georgina and Toby aren't riding the bus?” Then what would Luanne say?
Please, please, Luanne
. I closed my eyes and tried to send my thoughts across the parking lot and into the school bus window where Luanne sat.
Please don't tell Liza we live in a car.
Then I hurried up the sidewalk toward town. Toby trotted along behind me, whining for me to slow down, but I didn't. We headed on over to Montgomery Street where Mama had parked the car near the Laundromat. I unlocked the trunk and tossed my backpack inside. Then I stood on the bumper of the car so I could reach way in the back of the trunk. I pulled a corner of the carpet away and took out the envelope Mama kept hidden there. I thumbed through the money stuffed inside. It sure looked like a lot to me, but I guess it still wasn't enough to get us a place to live.
I took out five dollars and jammed the envelope back under the carpet. Then I gathered up the dirty laundry and locked the car.
“Let's go, Toby.”
I stuffed all the clothes into one washing machine.
“If we don't use two machines,” I said to Toby, “we'll have enough money to buy a snack.”
On the way out, we checked all the coin return slots for money and found two quarters. Then we went on over to the grocery store and bought some saltine crackers and sliced cheese. We went around back to the alley and sat on the warm asphalt to eat.
“Listen, Toby,” I said while I peeled the plastic off my cheese. “We need to find some kind of rope or something to tie to that dog's collar.”
Toby nodded as he squished a piece of cheese into a little ball and popped it into his mouth.
“Where can we find rope?” I said.
“Dern it, Toby,” I said. “If you want to help me, you've got to come up with some ideas, too, you know. I can't think of everything.”
“Okay,” he said. “Why don't we buy some rope?”
I rolled my eyes. “We're trying to
our money, not spend it. We need to find some rope for free.”
Toby looked around him at the piles of cardboard boxes beside the Dumpster. “Maybe there's rope back here somewhere.”
I got up and peered into the Dumpster. Just more cardboard boxes.
“Naw,” I said. “I think we're going to have to wait till trash pickup day. Then we can look through the stuff that people leave by the road, okay?”
“Okay.” Toby squished another piece of cheese and then smashed it between two crackers.
“Let's go put the clothes in the dryer, then check out that dog again.”
When we got to Whitmore Road, I motioned for Toby to be quiet.
“We don't want anybody to notice us,” I whispered.
We made our way up the road toward the big brick house. When we got to the corner of the yard, I could hear someone out front. I tried to see through the hedge, but it was too thick. I squatted down beside the fence to listen.
“Get the ball, Willy,” someone said. I was pretty sure it was the same woman we had seen there the other day.
I could hear Willy making happy little yip noises. Then the woman would laugh and say stuff to him. After a while, I heard the wooden front steps creak and the screen door slam.
I looked at Toby. “I think she went inside,” I whispered. “Let's go see.”
We tiptoed to the gate and I peeked into the yard. The woman was gone, but Willy was sitting on the front porch. When he saw me, he came bounding down the steps and over to the gate.
“Hey there, Willy,” I whispered.
He pushed his nose through the gate and licked my hand.
“Isn't he cute?” I said to Toby.
“Yeah.” Toby put his hand out and Willy licked him, too. “When are we gonna steal him?”
“Shhhh.” I smacked Toby's knee. “Hush up, you idiot.” I looked around us. The street was quiet and empty. I could hear a radio somewhere in the distance, but I didn't see anyone.
“We have to wait till everything is just right,” I said. “That lady has to be gone.” I nodded toward the house. “And we need some rope, remember?”
“After we get the rope and steal him, where are we going to hide him?” Toby said.
Dang! I hadn't even thought of that! I couldn't hardly believe how stupid I'd been. I'd made all those plans and hadn't even thought about where we were going to
I looked at Willy and then back at Toby. “I haven't figured that part out yet,” I said, pretending like it was no big deal. “You got any ideas?”
Toby shook his head.
I frowned. “Then we'll have to think of something.”
That night, I propped the flashlight up on the seat next to me and tried to do my math homework. Toby's snores drifted through the beach towel wall between us. I used to be good at math, but it seemed like now I wasn't. I gave up and took out my purple notebook. I opened to:
How to Steal a Dog
April 7. Then, after Step 2,
Step 3: Get ready to steal the dog.
1. Keep watching the dog to make sure he is the right one to steal.
2. If you need a leash, find some rope or something.
3. Figure out where you are going to hide the dog.
I chewed on the eraser of my pencil and stared out the window into the darkness. Number 3 was a big problem. I wished I could ask Luanne to help me. She always had good ideas about stuff. I looked down at my notebook again. I guessed I was just going to have to figure this out by myself, unless some miracle happened and Toby got an idea.
I closed the notebook and watched the moths fluttering around the streetlight outside the window. Maybe stealing a dog wasn't such a good idea after all. I propped my feet up on the seat in front of me and frowned at my bare toes. My Party Girl Pink nail polish was wearing off and I didn't have any more. I guess it got tossed out with all my other stuff.
“We can't take everything, Georgina,” Mama had
hollered at me when Mr. Deeter kicked us out. “One bag,” she had said in a mean voice. “That's it.”
Just when I was starting to feel a good cry coming on, I heard Mama hurrying toward the car. I sat up and rolled down the window.
“Georgina,” she whispered real excited-like. “Guess what?”
“I found us a place!”
“Really?” I felt my heavy heart start to lift.
Mama put both hands against the car door and grinned down at me. Her hair was damp and frizzy from working her second job in the steamy back room of the Regal Dry Cleaners. She took her shoes off and climbed into the front seat.
“Yep! We're moving into a house!”
We had only ever lived in apartments before.
in a house. I could already see my bedroom. White furniture with gold on the edges, like Luanne's. Maybe even pink carpet.
“When?” I said.
“Friday.” Mama examined herself in the rear-view mirror.
“I look as beat as I feel, don't I?” she said.
“You look all right,” I said, but I was lying. She did look beat. Dark circles under her eyes. Her skin all creased and greasy-looking.
I lay back against the seat and felt about a hundred pounds lighter than I had just minutes before. I'd known in my heart that stealing a dog was a bad thing to do, and now I didn't have to. I couldn't believe everything had turned out so good.