hhhh.” I put my finger to my lips and motioned for Toby to stay behind me. We tiptoed along the hedge in front of the big brick house. When we got to the gate, I scanned the street, then whispered to Toby.
“You be the lookout. If anybody comes outside or a car comes or
you whistle like I showed you this morning, okay?”
I peered over the gate. The front door of the house was closed. I glanced toward the driveway. No car. The yard was empty and quiet.
“Here, Willy,” I called out real soft. Nothing. Maybe he was inside. I wondered if I should go on up to the porch. Probably not. If somebody
home, they were liable to see me.
“Maybe you should whistle,” Toby whispered.
“Okay.” I whistled one time and waited. Sure enough, Willy stuck his head out of that little doggie door. When he saw me, he dashed out the door and up to the gate.
“Hey, Willy,” I whispered, sticking my hand through the gate to pet him.
He stood on his hind legs and put his front paws on the gate. His tail wagged so hard his whole body wiggled. He licked my hand like it was a T-bone steak.
“You wanna come with us?” I said.
He cocked his head and peered up at me. And then, I swear, he nodded his head. If he could've talked, I was sure he would've said, “Heck, yeah, I wanna come with you.”
So, quick as I could, I lifted the latch on the gate and opened it just enough to reach my arm in. My heart was pounding so hard all I could hear was the thump, thump, thump in my ears. I knew I had to keep myself moving or else I was liable to start thinking. And if I started thinking, I was liable to think I shouldn't be doing this. So I turned my mind to “off” and grabbed Willy's collar. I pulled him through the gate and out onto the sidewalk. He kept wagging his tail and looking at me with his shiny black eyes. I took the string out of my pocket and tied it to his flea collar.
“Okay, let's go,” I said to Toby, and took off running.
I ran down Whitmore Road, around the corner, and into the woods. Willy ran along beside me. Every now and then he leaped up on me or nipped at my heels like this was the most fun game he'd ever played. Once in a while he'd let out a little yip.
When we were far enough into the woods that I was
sure no one could see us from the road, I stopped to catch my breath. I put my hand on my pounding heart and leaned against a tree. Toby ran up and stopped beside me.
“We did it!” he hollered.
“Shhhh.” I clamped my hand over his mouth. “Somebody might hear us. You got to be really quiet.”
Willy sat in front of us with his tongue hanging out, panting. His tail wagged on the ground. Swish, swish, swish.
I knelt down and ran my hand along his back. He closed his eyes and leaned against me.
“It's okay, fella,” I said. “Don't be scared. Me and Toby are nice.”
He scratched behind his ear with his hind leg, making the tag on his collar jingle.
“What do we do now?” Toby said.
“We take him over to that house and tie him up on the porch.”
“What if he don't like it there?”
“He's just gonna be there for a little while,” I said. “As soon as his owner puts up the reward sign, we'll take him back home.”
“Oh.” Toby knelt and rubbed the top of Willy's head. “What if his owner don't put up a reward sign?”
I flapped my hand at Toby. “Trust me. That lady is gonna want him back more than anything. She's probably making a reward sign right now.”
I made my voice sound calm and sure, but a funny little feeling was tapping at my insides. A feeling like maybe I had done a real bad thing. I took a deep breath, trying to swallow that feeling down and keep it from growing.
I unbuckled Willy's green collar and tossed it into the bushes. Tap, tap. There was that feeling again. Tapping at my insides like it was trying to tell me something.
“What'd you do that for?” Toby said.
I rolled my eyes. “Think about it, Toby.”
Toby's eyebrows squeezed together and he bit his lip. “'Cause he don't need it anymore?” he said.
I sighed. “No,
Because we can't take him back to his owner with his collar on or else she'd wonder how come we didn't call her. Her phone number's right there on the tag.”
“Oh.” Toby nodded, but he still looked confused. I swear sometimes he is dumber than dirt.
“Come on.” I motioned for Toby to follow me. We made our way through the woods behind the houses on Whitmore Road. I could hear the cars on the highway up ahead, so I was pretty sure we were going in the right direction.
Willy trotted along beside me happy as anything. Every now and then, he stopped to sniff the ground or root through the rotting leaves. Once, he stopped to dig, sending dirt and leaves and twigs flying out behind him
and making me and Toby laugh. He sure was a funny dog.
When we got to the highway, I stooped down behind the bushes along the edge.
I handed the string leash to Toby. “Here,” I said. “Hold this while I see if any cars are coming.”
I checked in both directions. No cars. I went back to where Toby sat with his arm around Willy.
“Okay, now listen,” I said. “We got to run across the highway, then through that vacant lot over there. I'm pretty sure we can cut through those woods to get to that old house.”
I took the string from him and dashed across the highway with Willy leaping along beside me. We kept running until we made it to the edge of the gravel road leading to the old house. The whole time, Willy pranced and yipped and jumped up on me. Once in a while, he grabbed the string in his mouth and gave it a tug.
When we got to the house, Willy perked his ears up and watched me.
“We're here, fella,” I said, scratching the top of his head.
He looked at that run-down, boarded-up house and then back at me. I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking.
“It's okay, Willy,” I said. “You won't be here long. I promise.”
He cocked his head in that cute way of his. I don't know how he did it, but that little dog could make you love him just by looking at him. I sat down in the dusty road and put my arm around him. He crawled right into my lap and licked my face. His licks weren't all slobbery like most dogs'.
“It's spooky here,” Toby said in that whiny voice of his. I knew if I didn't do something fast, he was liable to turn into his baby self and start crying or something.
“You hold Willy and I'll make a path to the back porch,” I said.
I pushed through the sticker bushes and vines, mashing them down and breaking off branches till there was a clear path to the back of the house. It was dark and damp back there. You couldn't even see the sky through the overgrown trees.
The tiny porch leaned slightly, like any minute it was going to fall right off the back of the house. The steps leading up to it were loose and rotten. One of them was broken all the way through. The screen door dangled by one hinge.
“Come on,” I called to Toby.
He and Willy came around the corner of the house and stopped.
“No way, Georgina,” Toby said. “We can't put Willy in there.”
“Listen, Toby,” I said. “This is the best place. Nobody' ll see him. And he won't get wet if it rains. And besides,
he won't be here long.” I watched Toby's face, but he didn't look convinced. “And we'll come and stay with him after school and all,” I added.
Toby swiped at the tears that had started. “You're mean,” he said.
Dern. Why'd he have to go and say that? I sure didn't want to hear itâ'cause that was exactly how I was feeling. Mean.
“Toby, listen.” I put both hands on his shoulders and looked him square in the eye. “Aren't you tired of living in the car?”
He hung his head and nodded a tiny little bit.
“Don't you want to have a
place to live? With walls and beds and a bathroom and all?”
He nodded again.
“Then we need to help Mama get some money,” I said. “And this is the only thing I can think of. Can you think of another way?”
I bent down and tried to look him in the eye again, but his head was hanging too low. All I could see was his long, dirty hair all tangled up and ratty-looking.
“Then we got to do this,” I said. “We'll take good care of Willy, and we'll take him right back home just as soon as we can, and then we'll get the reward money and everything will be good.” I jiggled Toby's shoulders. “Okay?” I added.
I knew Toby didn't believe me 'cause I wasn't sure I believed myself. That old tapping feeling was getting
bigger, and in my head I was thinking maybe I was messing up. And I was starting to think how I wished I could go back in time to the hour before or the day before or the week before. But I knew I couldn't do that. I was there behind that awful old house with that cute little dog looking at me, and I knew it was up to me to make everything turn out good like I had planned.
I took the string leash from Toby and led Willy up the creaky steps to the porch.
“This isn't so bad,” I called out to Toby.
The top half of the porch had been screened in once, but now what was left of the rusty old screen hung in tatters. Leaves and pine needles had blown in and covered the floor, settling in the corners in damp, moldy piles.
I pushed some of the wet leaves aside, trying to make a clean spot. Then I knelt down and took Willy's head in both my hands.
“Don't be scared, okay?” I said. “We'll be back real soon and everything will be fine.” Then I rubbed my nose back and forth against his. An Eskimo kiss.
Willy rested his chin in my hands and gazed up at me like he believed every word I said.
“What if he gets hungry?” Toby called from the bottom of the steps.
I hadn't even thought about that! I couldn't believe Toby was thinking up something else I had left out of my
How to Steal a Dog
, what if he gets hungry?” Toby called out.
“I've got that all worked out,” I lied. My mind raced, trying to think of how I was going to feed Willy. And what if I couldn't get back here every day? How long could a dog go without food?
“And water,” Toby said. “Dogs need water, you know. He might die if he don't have water.”
“Shut up, Toby.” That's all I could think of to say, and it did the trick. He shut up. But it didn't help me feel any better.
I tied the string to the doorknob and said goodbye to Willy. Then I led the way back through the weeds and briar bushes toward the road.
I was glad Toby was quiet as we walked, 'cause I had a lot of thinking to do. About food and water for Willy. About what I'd done. About what to do next. But it was hard to get my thoughts all straightened out with my insides kicking up like they were. That tapping feeling was turning into full-out banging.
ey, y'all,” Mama called as she made her way across the parking lot toward the car.”Look what I got.”
She stuck a Styrofoam box through the window. “Check this out,” she said.
I opened the box. Scrambled eggs and pancakes. They sure did smell good.
“And that's not all,” she said, tossing a paper bag onto the backseat.
Toby snatched the bag up and peered inside, then let out a whoop. “Doughnuts!” he hollered. He grabbed a powdery white doughnut and started eating it so fast he choked, coughing out a spray of powder and crumbs.
“Eeeyew,” I said, wiping off my jeans.
Mama slid behind the steering wheel and examined herself in the mirror. “This job is gonna be great,” she said, licking a finger and smoothing an eyebrow. “The tips are really good and I get to bring home all kinds of food.”
Food? Talk about good luck! Now we wouldn't have to worry about feeding Willy. I poked Toby and gave
him a thumbs-up. His eyebrows shot up and he mouthed “What?” at me.
I flapped my hand at him to signal
, but he wouldn't be quiet. He kept whispering, “What?”
I shook my head and pulled an invisible zipper across my lips, which meant “Hush up, I can't tell you in front of Mama,” but he was too dumb to figure that out.
“What?” he said a little louder.
“What'd you say?” Mama said.
I pressed my foot on top of Toby's and smiled at Mama in the rearview mirror. “Nothing,” I said.
I settled back and ate some pancakes, which sure did taste good even though they were all soggy with syrup. When I finished, I took out my notebook and wrote:
Save some doughnuts for Willy
. I pushed the notebook across the seat and poked Toby.
He squinted down at my note. Then he grinned and said, “Ohhhhh, okay.”
“What?” Mama said.
I jabbed my heel into Toby's foot and he hollered, “Owwww!”
Mama whirled around and snapped, “What're y'all doing?”
I slapped my hand over the note and smiled at her. “Nothing.”
“Well, don't y'all start that bickering back there,” she said. “Let's go find us someplace to park.”
I glared at Toby. We hadn't had that dog one whole
day yet, and already he was acting all stupid around Mama. It would be a miracle if she didn't find out what we had done.
But so far, it seemed like everything was working out good. I'd stolen Willy, no problem. I'd found a good place to keep him. And Mama had a job at a coffee shop that gave her free food. Now all I had to do was stash some of that food in my backpack for Willy.
I took out my notebook and wrote
How to Steal a Dog
notes. Then I wrote:
Step 5: Things to do after you have stolen the dog:
1. Be sure to act nice to him so he won't be afraid.
2. Play with him some so he will like you.
3. Make sure you put him in a safe place where he won't get wet if it rains.
4. Tie up the rope or string so he can't run away.
5. Find him some food and water
Uh-oh. Water. I'd forgotten about that. But I was pretty sure that wasn't going to be a big problem. Still, I put a question mark beside that one so I would remember to figure it out.
That night it seemed like I hardly slept at all. A steady rain clattered on the roof and ran down the windows in streams. The inside of the car was so hot I had to crack
my window, and then the rain splattered my face and made my pillow wet. I listened to the slow, even breathing of Mama and Toby and thought about Willy. I wondered if he was scared. Was he getting wet? Was he hungry?
Every time I closed my eyes, I could see his freckly face and those shiny black eyes. I could see him cock his head at me and wag his whole body the way he did.
“Don't be scared, Willy,” I whispered into the still night air.
The car windows were so fogged up I couldn't even see outside. I used my finger to write
on the foggy glass. I drew a heart around it, then wiped the window clean and turned my mind to “off.”
When I opened my eyes the next morning, I felt all fluttery and excited like on Christmas morning. Today was the day we would find the reward sign for Willy.
Mama made us use the water in the cooler to brush our teeth. While she was putting on her lipstick and stuff in the car, I filled an empty soda bottle with water and put it in my backpack. Then I checked to make sure I had the bag of food scraps for Willy. Yep, half a doughnut and some scrambled eggs.
I pulled Toby close and whispered, “We gotta look for the reward signs today, okay?”
He nodded. “Okay.”
I could hardly keep myself from grinning as we made
our way through the streets of Darby on the way to school. I sat up straight and pressed my face against the window, searching every telephone pole we passed.
As we got closer to school, my excitement began to fade to disappointment. I guess in my heart I'd known it was probably too soon to find any signs. We'd only stolen that dog the day before. But in my mind, I had pictured signs on every pole. There they would be, up and down the streets of Darby. In big letters: REWARD. Then there would be a picture of Willy, cocking his head and staring out at the world through his furry black eye patch.
But what I saw outside the window that day was nothing like what I had seen in my mind. There wasn't one single sign. None. Nowhere. I tried to swallow my disappointment and tell myself to be patient. The signs would be up after school, for sure.
“Y'all go straight on back to the car after school, okay?” Mama said, pulling over to the curb.
“We will,” I said.
“And stay there, Georgina.”
“And help Toby with his homework.”
I nodded and watched her drive away, then I grabbed Toby's arm.
“Did you see any signs?” I said.
“Dern.” I stamped my foot.
“Maybe that lady doesn't care about Willy,” Toby said.
I shook my head. “No way. She cares,” I said. “Who wouldn't care about a dog like that?”
Toby shrugged. “Maybe she hasn't got any money,” he said.
that whole street, Toby,” I said.
A school bus had pulled up and kids came pouring out and rushing toward the front door of the school. Me and Toby pushed our way through and went inside.
“Listen,” I said. “Meet me at the flagpole after school. We got to take that food over to Willy. Then we can look for the reward signs. I bet they'll be up by this afternoon.”
“Mama said we had to stay in the car,” Toby said.
I rolled my eyes. “She won't even know what we do. She'll be in the coffee shop.”
I watched Toby walk away from me as he headed toward his class. His clothes were all wrinkled and his hair was long and tangled. He was sure a pitiful sight. I wondered if that was how I looked.
When Mr. White asked me for the millionth time if I had given those letters to my parents, I lied again. I said I had, but Mama and Daddy were real busy working and all. I told him my daddy was going to call him any day now.
I thought. That was a good one.
I felt bad lying to Mr. White. He was the nicest teacher I'd ever had. He didn't get mad when my science report had fried chicken grease on it. He hadn't said one word when I didn't have a costume for our play about the Boston Tea Party like all the other kids did. And he let me go to the nurse's office, even when he knew I wasn't one bit sick.
But when he asked me about those letters, what else could I do but lie?
Luanne didn't hardly even talk to me all day. I was wearing the same clothes I had on yesterday, and I thought I saw her make a face when I walked into class that morning. I thought I saw Liza poke her at recess and point at me. I thought I heard my name every time I walked by kids giggling and whispering and all.
So who cares
, I told myself. I didn't care about any of those kids anymore. Maybe not even Luanne. I found myself doing stuff I never would have done before we started living in a car. Stuff that I knew would make kids poke each other and laugh at me. Like, I took Melissa Gavin's half-eaten granola bar out of the trash and put it in Willy's food bag. And when Jake Samson called me a garbage picker, I just kept my mouth shut and went on back to my desk like I didn't care.
After school I waited at the flagpole for Toby; then we headed off toward the old house to check on Willy. Toby
kept whining about how his backpack was too heavy and his feet hurt and all, but I ignored him.
I found a plastic margarine tub on the side of the road and wiped the dirt off of it with the edge of my shirt.
“We can use this for Willy's water bowl,” I said, tucking it into my backpack.
Toby kept saying, “Slow down,” as we made our way up the gravel road. He splashed right through the muddy puddles, not even caring that his shoes were getting soaked and his legs were covered with mud.
But I didn't slow down. I was dying to get to Willy. I needed to see him. I sure hoped he was okay.
As soon as I rounded the corner of the house, I heard a little yip from the back porch. Then I saw Willy poke his head through the torn screen door, and my heart nearly leaped right out of me, I felt so glad to see him.
Right away, he started wagging his whole body like he was the happiest dog on earth.
“Hey there, fella,” I said, sitting on the top step of the porch and giving him a hug. He licked my face all over.
“Are you hungry?” I said. Before I could even open the bag of food, he was pushing at it with his whiskery nose.
“Here you go.” I opened the bag and let him gobble up the eggs and stuff inside.
“He sure was hungry,” Toby said.
I rubbed my hand down Willy's back while he ate. He was a little wet and smelled kind of bad, but he seemed okay. I opened the soda bottle of water and poured some into the margarine tub.
Willy went to town lapping it up.
“We got to let him run a little bit,” I said.
“But what if he runs away?” Toby said.
“We'll keep the leash on him, dummy.”
I untied the string from the doorknob. “Come on, Willy,” I said.
Me and Toby took turns running up and down the road. Willy ran right through puddles. Sometimes he'd stop and shake himself, sending sprays of muddy water all over me and Toby. Once in a while he stopped to take a good long drink from a puddle. But mostly he just ran and leaped and barked a happy kind of bark. We had to run real fast to keep up with him or else he was liable to bust that string right in two.
“There,” I said. “That ought to be enough.”
Willy sat in the road in front of me, panting. He lifted his doggy eyebrows and watched me, like he was waiting for something. I knelt down and scratched his ears.
“Don't worry,” I said. “You're gonna be going home real soon.”
He stopped panting and perked his ears up. Then he put his paw on my knee.
“He sure is cute, ain't he?” Toby said.
“He sure is.” I stroked Willy's paw and felt a stab inside. Was it really,
wrong to do what I was doingâor was it just a little bit wrong?
I pushed Willy's paw off my knee and stood up. I had to shut those thoughts right out of my head and keep just one thought and one thought only in there. I was doing this for Mama and Toby and me. To help us have a real place to live. Not a car. What was so wrong about that?
We took Willy back to the porch, and I tied the string around the doorknob again.
“Don't worry, fella,” I said. “You'll be home soon. I promise.”
I filled the margarine tub with water again and set it on the porch beside Willy.
“He needs a bed,” Toby said.
I looked at the crummy old back porch. Toby was right. The porch was damp and dirty and covered with sticks and leaves. I should have brought a towel or something to make a bed. I felt another stab inside. I
being mean to Willy, wasn't I?