stared down at my desk, and in my head I begged Mr. White not to call on me. “Georgina?” he said. “How about reading us your report on volcanoes?”
I looked at the paper in my hand. I had made my writing real big so I could fill up a whole page like we were supposed to. Everybody else had used their computers or gone to the library, but not me. All I could do was sit in that nasty house making stuff up.
With my face burning, I read my report about how volcanoes are like mountains with a hole in the middle and then fire comes out and hot lava runs down the side. My whole report lasted about two seconds and then it was over and everybody laughed. I was sure I could hear Luanne and Liza laughing louder than anybody else.
Mr. White said, “Shhhh,” and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you, Georgina,” he said, and my heart swelled up with love for him. My report was nothing but great big made-up words, but he was still being nice to
me. He wasn't going to holler at me like he had hollered at Luke Ketchum.
I hadn't been doing too good in school lately, but I still looked forward to being there. At least at school, I knew how my day was going to go. I knew we'd say the Pledge of Allegiance and then we'd raise our hands if we wanted grilled cheese instead of chicken fingers for lunch. Then we'd look up there on the chalkboard and our whole day would be written out. Math and then reading. A spelling test and then gym. No surprises.
Not like after school, when I never knew what was going to happen next. It seemed like something new was always coming my way, and most times it wasn't good. Like that very day of my volcano report, when me and Toby got back to the car and Mama was sitting there all red-faced and crying.
Toby lunged right through the open window and hugged her so hard I thought she was gonna choke. She peeled his arms from around her neck and said, “Y'all get in the car.”
I got in my usual spot in the back, but Toby jumped in the front, pushing all the boxes and bags and things aside. He kept on saying, “What's the matter, Mama?” but she wouldn't answer.
Nobody said anything as we sped along the streets of Darby. Mama gripped the steering wheel with both hands, her knuckles white and her elbows locked stiff. When we stopped at a red light, she put her head down
on the steering wheel. The light turned green and a big truck behind us honked but Mama didn't even look up.
“Mama?” I said.
Nothing. The truck horn honked again and somebody yelled.
“Mama?” I said again.
The truck roared around us and the man driving it hollered and shook his fist at us.
I had a feeling something bad was about to happen. “The light's green,” I said.
Mama lifted her head up off the steering wheel and stared out at the road. Another horn honked behind us.
“I got fired at the cleaners,” she said. “Can you believe that?”
“How come?” I said.
Mama breathed out a big whoosh. “Who knows,” she said, “'Cause I was late once or twice, I reckon. Or âcause I don't use that pressing machine fast enough. Or maybe just 'cause I'm alive.”
She didn't even turn her head when another car whipped around us, honking like crazy.
“Maybe you better get out of the road,” I said.
“Maybe I better get out of the whole dern world,” she said, and sounded so mean. She swiped at tears and wiped her nose with her hand. “Maybe I better just disappear off the face of the earth. Poof! Like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Wouldn't that be nice?”
I felt words bubbling up inside me till they came busting out.
“Yeah!” I hollered. “That
I kicked the back of the seat and made Mama's head jerk but she kept staring straight ahead.
you disappear, and then me and Toby can do what we want to. Right, Toby?” I poked the back of Toby's head, but he just rocked back and forth, sniffling.
Another car horn honked, and Mama sat up straight like she had just woke up. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and started driving again.
Nobody said anything as we turned down the dirt and gravel road that led to the house. The car squeaked and bounced and rattled. When we stopped, Mama turned off the engine and the car gave one last little shudder.
We gathered our things and made our way through the prickly bushes to the front porch. And then we all three stopped dead in our tracks and stared at that old house. Boards had been nailed in a giant X over the front door. Someone had written on the boards in great big letters, “This is private property! Keep out!” They had added about a million exclamation points, so it looked like this:
THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY! KEEP OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Mama dropped her stuff right off the porch and into the bushes. Blankets and pillows and everything. Then she sat down on the rickety steps and hollered out a bunch of cuss words that echoed through the woods.
Toby got all blubbery, but I just stood there looking at that boarded-up door. I was surprised how bad I felt, seeing as how I hated that house. But I guess it had been better than the car, after all.
I watched the back of Mama's head and I could almost see her sadness swirling around her.
“It's a good thing you made us take our stuff out of there every day,” I said.
She just stared out at the woods. Toby was whimpering and pulling the blankets up out of the bushes.
“That would have been awful if our stuff was locked up in there,” I said.
Mama kept staring out into the woods.
“I guess Beverly Jenkins was wrong about this house,” I said. “I guess the owner doesn't want us here, after all.”
Mama turned her head slowly and looked at me and her face didn't show anything. Not mad. Not sad. Not anything. Then she stood up and gathered the rest of the blankets and stuff.
“Come on, y'all,” she said.
Me and Toby followed her out to the car and climbed in.
As we made our way back up the gravel road toward
the highway, I hummed a little bit, trying to clear the heavy air in the car.
Mama said. So I hushed up.
I stared out at the world passing by my window and I made up my mind. I was definitely gonna steal that dog.
hat night, I dreamed Toby was a dog. He sat on the backseat beside me with his head stuck out the window, his ears flapping in the wind. We drove and drove and drove and then we pulled into a long, winding road that led to a castle. Mama stopped the car in front of the giant front door of the castle and said, “Here's our new house!”
Toby the dog started crying and saying how he wanted to go back home where he belonged.
And then I woke up. I peered down at Toby, curled up on the floor of the car sucking his thumb. It was so hot the windows were all steamed up. I rolled my window partway down. Then I leaned back and stared out at the lit-up sign of the Brushy Creek Lutheran Church.
I had gone to that church one time when I was little. With my friend Racene Wickham. We had made May baskets, weaving strips of pink and yellow construction paper, in and out, in and out. I had glued a pink pipe cleaner handle on mine and filled it with clover flowers for Mama.
I remember how on the way home, I'd been all squished in the backseat beside Racene's brothers and I'd clutched that May basket in my lap. I couldn't wait to give it to Mama, even though the clover flowers had wilted and were lying all droopy in the bottom of the basket. But when I got home, Mama and Daddy were yelling at each other and wouldn't even look at me when I tried to show them my May basket.
Racene had moved away to Florida, and now here I was, back here at that very same church, sleeping in my car.
When the sun came up, we headed over to the Pancake House to wash up and get some toast. The bread we had in the milk crate in the trunk of the car had turned green with mold, and Mama had tossed it out the window, right into the church parking lot.
“I want pancakes,” Toby said, frowning down at his toast.
Mama sipped her coffee, squinting through the steam, and said, “No.”
“Why not?” Toby whined.
Mama slammed the cup down, sloshing coffee onto the table. “Because you can't have everything you want,” she said.
I ate my toast and watched Mama scoop all the little plastic tubs of jelly into her purse.
“Y'all go over to the Y after school and wait till I get there, okay?” she said.
“Yes, Georgina, the Y.”
The Darby YMCA was nothing but a room in the basement of the Town Hall. Some kids went there after school to play games and stuff while their parents were at work.
“We can't go
Mama sighed. “Just do like I say, Georgina.”
“But you have to sign up and stuff,” I said. “You can't just go there. And I bet you have to pay.”
But Mama wouldn't even answer me. She counted out some coins, slapped them on the table, and headed out to the car, leaving me and Toby to scramble after her.
That day in school, all I could think about was how I was going to steal that little dog, Willy. While Mr. White read stuff about the Revolutionary War, I pulled my purple notebook out of my backpack and flipped to the
How to Steal a Dog
page. I read through what I had so far. Everything seemed pretty good except for that problem about where to keep the dog after you steal him.
I thought and thought about it, and then, just like a lightbulb going on, I got an idea. I could keep Willy at that boarded-up old house! There was a tiny little porch around back off the kitchen. It was kind of rotten and
all, but a dog wouldn't care about that. And that house wasn't too far from Whitmore Road. I could walk that far, no problem. At last, I thought, things were finally starting to look better.
At lunch, I asked Luanne if me and Toby could go to her house after school. I didn't tell her we were supposed to go to the Y.
“Um, I don't think so,” Luanne said.
Luanne fiddled with the buttons on her shirt. “I got some stuff to do,” she said.
She shrugged. “Just some stuff with Mama.”
I twirled my spaghetti around and around on my fork and listened to the girls at our table going on and on about some movie they'd all seen. Then Luanne piped in and said how she had just loved that movie, too. I kept on twirling my spaghetti and feeling more and more like I didn't want to be there at that lunch table. I wanted to float right up through the ceiling and out into the blue sky. I didn't belong there with those girls. I hadn't seen that movie. I couldn't buy those bracelets they all wore. They had been over at the mall while I'd been washing my underwear in the bathroom sink at Walgreens.
So I just sat there twirling and thinking about Willy.
After school, me and Toby walked over to the Town Hall.
“I'm not going down there,” I told him, nodding toward the basement window. “You can if you want to, but I'm not.” The sound of kids playing and balls bouncing drifted out of the open window.
Toby shook his head. “Then I'm not going neither,” he said.
I tossed my backpack on a nearby bench. “We've got to find some string or something,” I said to Toby.
“For Willy. Remember?”
So we walked up and down the street, looking in gutters and Dumpsters and trash cans. I was just about to give up when Toby hollered, “Here's some, Georgina!”
I ran over to the curb where Toby was holding a stack of newspapers tied with heavy string.
“Yes!” I pumped my fist and high-fived Toby. “Good job!” Toby looked just pleased as punch. I untied the string and stuffed it into my pocket. “Let's go back and wait for Mama,” I said.
It was nearly dark by the time we saw our car come sputtering up the street toward the Town Hall, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it.
“Sorry, y'all,” Mama said when we climbed in the backseat.
“We're starving,” Toby said.
“I know, sweetheart,” Mama said. “I brought y'all some chicken.”
Toby dug through the bag in the front seat and pulled out a piece of greasy fried chicken.
“I got a job,” Mama said.
I took a piece of chicken and pulled the soggy skin off. “Where?” I said, dropping the chicken skin back into the bag.
“The coffee shop over by the hardware store.” She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror. I wondered if she saw the same tired and worried face that I did.
“Well, that's good,” I said.
She took a swig out of a soda can. “I guess so,” she said, then pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped.
“What's the matter?” I said.
She shook her head. “I'm just so dern tired of all this,” she said.
My stomach clumped up in a knot, and I wished I hadn't eaten that chicken. Why was Mama acting so sad? I needed her to act like everything was okay.
Nobody said anything after that. We just sat there in that car that was our home. Crammed in with all of our stuff. The smell of the greasy fried chicken hovered in the still air around us.
Mama broke the silence when she slapped her hands on the steering wheel and said, “Anyway, so now I'll be at work when y'all get out of school. So come on over to the coffee shop and wait in the car, okay?”
I ran my dog-stealing plans around inside my head. This would be perfect. The coffee shop wasn't far from Whitmore Road. I could grab Willy, hide him on the porch of the old house, and then get on back to the car, no problem. Mama wouldn't even know if me and Toby were there or not.
That night, I fingered the string in my pocket and watched Mama helping Toby with his homework. They huddled together in the front seat with the flashlight propped up on the dashboard. Shadows danced around on the ceiling as they worked.
I pulled out my notebook and turned to
How to Steal a Dog
. I wrote
, then, beside that:
Step 4: Use this list to make sure you are ready to steal a dog.
Are you sure you have found the right dog?
Yes ___ No ___
Can you open the gate?
Yes ___ No ___
Do you have some rope or string?
Yes ___ No ___
Do you have a good place to keep the dog?
Yes ___ No ___
I read through each one and put a checkmark beside Yes every time.
After the list, I wrote:
If you can check “yes” for every one, then you are ready to steal a dog.
I thumped the pencil eraser against my teeth, then I added:
P.S. Remember that you have to wait until nobody is home at the house where the dog lives.
P.P.S. Don't forget to take your string, rope, or leash.
I closed my notebook and pushed it back down inside my trash bag. And when my guilty conscience started hollering at me, telling me I was doing the wrong thing, I pushed that down, too.
There was no doubt about it. I really, really was going to steal a dog.