here's one!” I raced across the street.
“Is it for Willy?” Toby called, darting across after me.
I squinted up at the sign nailed on the telephone pole.
“Nope.” I sat on the curb and put my chin in my hands. “Another cat.”
So far the only signs we'd seen since yesterday had been for lost cats and yard sales.
Toby sat down beside me. “Maybe we should look downtown,” he said. “Maybe she didn't put any signs around here.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But that seems kind of dumb to me. I mean, wouldn't you start in your own neighborhood?”
Me and Toby had been up and down Whitmore Road and nearly every street close by about a million times. There wasn't one single sign for Willy. I just didn't get it. Why wouldn't that lady put up a sign?
“Let's go back over to Whitmore Road one more time,” I said.
Toby skipped along beside me, humming. He didn't seem one little bit worried. We'd had Willy for almost two whole days now and I was feeling worse by the hour. My dog-stealing plan had seemed so good when I'd first thought of it. Everything had gone just perfect in my head:
We steal the dog.
We find the sign.
We take the dog home.
We get the money.
But now things didn't seem to be going so perfect.
When we got to Whitmore Road, I turned to Toby. “Remember,” I said, “act normal. Don't look guilty or anything.”
We strolled along the edge of the road, looking at fence posts, telephone poles, anything that might have a sign on it. And then we heard someone calling from behind us.
Toby looked at me all wide-eyed. “What should we do?” he whispered.
Before I could answer, that fat lady was walking toward us.
“Hey,” she called to me and Toby.
“Uh, hey,” I said, and set a smile on my face.
Her shorts went swish, swish, swish as she walked. A bright pink T-shirt stretched over her big stomach. Even her feet were fat, bulging over the sides of her yellow flip-flops.
“Have y'all seen a dog?” she said. She was breathing hard and clutching her heart like she was going to fall over dead any minute.
“Nope!” Toby practically yelled.
I glared at him, then turned back to the lady. “What does it look like?” I said, squeezing my eyebrows together in a worried way.
“He's about this big.” She held her hands up to show us. “He's white, with a black eye patch. And his name is Willy.”
Then she started crying. Real hard. Like the way little kids cry.
“I'm sorry,” she said, swiping at tears. “I just can't even imagine where he could be.”
“Maybe he ran away,” Toby said.
Before I could poke him, the lady said, “No, not Willy.” Her face crumpled up and she had another full-out crying spell.
I like to died when she did that. And then, as if I wasn't feeling bad enough, she said, “What if something bad's happened to him?”
Before I could stop myself, I said, “You want me and Toby to help you look for him?”
She sniffed and nodded. “Would you?”
“Sure.” I poked Toby. “Right, Toby?”
He nodded. “Yeah, right,” he said.
The lady smiled and pulled a tissue out of the pocket of her shorts. She blew her nose, then stuffed the tissue back in her pocket. Strands of damp hair clung to her splotchy red cheeks.
“Do y'all live around here?” she said.
Me and Toby looked at each other.
“Uh, sorta,” I said. “I mean, yeah, we live over that way.” I pointed in the direction of the street where our car was parked. That wasn't lying, right?
“I live right there.” She pointed to her house. “I'll show y'all Willy's picture, okay?”
Me and Toby followed her up the walk to the house. At the door, she turned and said, “My name's Carmella, by the wayâCarmella Whitmore.”
“I'm Georgina,” I said. “That's my brother, Toby.”
“I'll be right back,” she said, then disappeared into the darkness of the house.
I pushed my face against the screen and peered inside. My stomach did a flip-flop. I pressed my face closer to the screen to make sure I was seeing right. I was. The inside of that house wasn't one little bit like I'd imagined it would be. Ever since I'd first laid eyes on 27 Whitmore
Road, I'd pictured rooms with glittering crystal chandeliers and fancy furniture. I'd imagined a thick, silky carpet covered with roses. And paintings on the walls. Those fancy kind with swirly gold frames like in museums. I'd even pictured a servant lady bringing in tea and cookies on a silver tray.
But what I saw when I peered through that door was a dark and dreary room filled to bursting with all kinds of junky
Piles of newspapers and clothes, boxes and dishes. No chandeliers. No fancy furniture.
Carmella came out of a back room carrying a small silver picture frame.
“Here's Willy,” she said, joining me and Toby on the porch and handing me the picture.
There was Willy, looking out at me from that silver frame, smiling his doggie smile.
“He sure is cute,” I made myself say, but my voice came out real quiet and shaky.
Carmella nodded and wiped at tears. “He's the cutest dog you ever saw,” she said. “And smart? Talk about smart!”
She smiled down at the picture in my hand. “He can count. Can you believe that?”
“Really?” Toby said.
Carmella nodded. “Really. With his little paw. Like this.” She pawed the air with her hand.
“Maybe he got lost,” Toby said.
Carmella shook her head. “Maybe. But it's just so
unlike him. He knows this neighborhood real good. And everybody knows him.” She took the picture from me and dropped into a rocking chair.
“I can't figure out how that front gate got open,” she said.
“Maybe the paperboy or something,” I said.
“Naw, he just flings it up here on the porch.” She looked out at the street. “I've driven everywhere I can think of. I called the animal control officer. I talked to all my neighbors. I just don't know what else to do.” Then she started crying real hard again, and I had to look down at my feet. I could feel Toby fidgeting beside me.
“Why don't you put up some signs?” I said.
Carmella looked up. “Signs?”
“Yeah, you know, lost-dog signs.”
“Well, stupid me,” she said. “Of course I should put up some signs.”
“Me and Toby can help,” I said. “Right, Toby?”
“Right.” Toby grinned at Carmella.
“That would be great,” she said, pushing herself out of the rocking chair with a grunt. “Y'all want to come inside?”
Toby looked at me with wide eyes. We weren't supposed to go in anybody's house unless we knew them real good. But Carmella seemed okay to me.
“Sure,” I said. “Come on, Toby.” I pulled on Toby's T-shirt.
When we got inside, I looked around to see if
Carmella's house was really as bad as it had looked from out on the porch. It was. A big lumpy couch covered with a bedspread and piled with clothes and newspapers. A coffee table littered with soda cans and dirty dishes. A card table with a half-finished jigsaw puzzle. Shelves built into the wall were jammed with ratty-looking books, piles of papers, an empty fish tank, and a bowling trophy. Instead of the rose-covered carpet I had pictured, the wooden floors were bare and worn. And nearly everywhere I looked there was a dog toy, all chewed up and loved. That almost broke my heart and made me tell that lady Carmella everything. But, of course, I didn't. My head was swimming with so many mixed-up thoughts I couldn't get myself to say
Carmella shuffled over to a cluttered desk and rummaged through a drawer, then pulled out some paper. She took a red marker out of a mason jar on the desk and stared down at the paper.
“What should I say?” she said.
“How about âLost. Little black-and-white dog named Willy,'” I said.
“And then put âReward,'” Toby said.
Dern. How come he had to go and say that? I was going to ease into that part, but it was too late now.
“Reward?” Carmella looked kind of confused.
I jumped in there before Toby could. “Uh, yeah,” I
said. “That's a good idea. You know, just to make sure people notice and stuff.”
“You mean, like,
Carmella stared down at the paper on the desk.
“Yeah, money,” Toby said.
I shot him a look. I wished he'd hush up and let me do the talking.
“Yeah, money,” I said. “That would make folks try real hard to find Willy.”
“Gosh,” Carmella said, “I don't know.” She pressed her lips together and kept staring down at the paper on the desk. Then she looked up at me and Toby. “How
money?” she said.
“Five hundred dollars,” Toby blurted out.
“Five hundred dollars!” Carmella kind of swayed a little bit like she was going to fall right over. “I haven't got
kind of money.”
“You don't?” I said.
She shook her head.
“Then how much reward
you pay?” I said.
“Well, I was thinking maybe, like, fifty dollars?”
That wasn't nearly enough. I felt Toby watching me. My mind was racing. But before I could think of what to say, Carmella sank down onto the lumpy couch with a whoosh. Then she shook her head and said, “I guess that's not very much, huh?”
“Well, um, maybe you could get some more,” I said.
Carmella looked down at her lap. Little beads of sweat formed on her upper lip.
“I could ask for some extra hours at work,” she said. “But that won't help much.” Then she snapped her fingers. “I know what! I'll see if I can borrow some money from Gertie.”
“Yeah,” Toby said. Then he added, “Who's Gertie?”
“Is she the one who owns this street?” I said.
Carmella chuckled. “Lord, no,” she said. “She teaches school over in Fayetteville.”
“Then who owns this street?” I said. “Your daddy or somebody?”
“What do you mean âowns this street'?” Carmella frowned at me.
“I just figured since your last name is Whitmore and â¦”
“Oh!” Carmella said. “You mean 'cause this is Whitmore Road?”
Carmella shook her head. “My great-granddaddy owned all this land one time.” She swept her arm out toward the window.
“He built this house with his very own hands. Brick by brick,” she said. “And had a big ole farm that went way on out there past the highway.”
I looked out the window toward the highway. A bad feeling was starting to fall over me. Maybe I'd gotten
this whole thing wrong. Maybe Carmella wasn't rich after all.
“What happened to the farm?” I said.
“My granddaddy tried to keep it up, but it just got away from him,” she said. “I guess he wasn't much of a farmer.” She shook her head as she gazed out the window. “By the time my daddy got this house,” she went on, “the only thing left of the family farm was this little ole yard and our name on a street sign.”
“Maybe your daddy could give you some money,” I said.
“He died eight years ago,” Carmella said. “And my mama the year after that. Then Gertie moved away.” She looked down at the picture of Willy she was still holding. “All I got is Willy,” she said.
With that, she started crying again, and I was feeling so heavy it's a wonder I didn't sink right through the floor.
Suddenly Carmella sat up straight and snapped her fingers.
“You know what?” she said.
Me and Toby waited.
gonna call Gertie and borrow some money,” she said. “Shoot, I'd pay a million dollars to get Willy back if I had it.”
“A million dollars!” Toby said.