armella twisted a damp tissue around and around in her lap. Every now and then, she dabbed at her nose.
“I can't hardly stand to face the day anymore,” she said. “I couldn't even go to work today.”
“How come?” Toby said.
I gave him a nudge with my knee. We sat squeezed together between piles of junk on Carmella's couch. The window shades were drawn. Tiny sparkles of dust danced in a narrow beam of sunlight that slanted across the dark room.
Carmella shook her head. “Gertie says she hasn't got that kind of money, but I know she does.”
“Why won't she give it to you?” I said.
“'Cause she's selfish, that's why.”
I watched a fly land on a greasy pizza box on the coffee table. “That's mean,” I said.
“She never did like dogs.” Carmella blew her nose and waved her hand at the fly.
“What are you gonna do?” I said.
Carmella flopped back against the pillow tucked behind her in the chair. She propped her feet up on a ripped vinyl footstool and rested her hands on her stomach. Then she closed her eyes and made weird little moaning noises.
Toby twirled his finger around his ear, making a sign like Carmella was crazy. I frowned at him and shook my head.
“What are you gonna do?” I repeated a little louder.
Carmella shook her head, making her ripply chin jiggle like Jell-O.
“I just wanna die,” she said.
Toby clamped his hand over his mouth like he was trying to stifle a laugh, but I didn't see what was so funny.
“You can't die,” I said. “Willy needs you.”
Carmella's eyes popped open. She sat up straight and slapped her knee.
“You're right,” she said. “Willy
I grinned. “So, what're you gonna do?”
“I'm gonna put those signs up, that's what I'm gonna do,” she said.
“The reward signs?” Toby said.
She nodded. “Yep.”
“But what about the money?” I said. “Where are you gonna get the money?”
“I'll just be like Scarlett O'Hara,” Carmella said.
“Who's that?” Toby said.
“You know, from
Gone With the Wind?”
I guess me and Toby looked confused, 'cause she went on to explain about Scarlett O'Hara. About how she was this lady in a movie who said “fiddle-dee-dee” and who worried about things tomorrow instead of today.
Then Carmella pushed herself up out of the chair and shuffled over to a rickety card table.
“Will y'all help me put these signs up?” She waved a stack of papers at us. “I made copies with Willy's picture.” She smiled down at the signs in her hand.
Toby looked at me and when I said, “Sure,” he said, “Sure.”
Carmella gave us a little box of tacks and then grabbed her purse and car keys.
“Come on,” she said. “Let's go.”
Carmella drove, and me and Toby jumped out at every corner to tack a sign up. Toby was scared Mama was gonna see us when we got near the coffee shop, but I told him to hush up and stop worrying. Of course, I knew he was right. She
see us. But I had so many other things weighing me down that I didn't have room in my worried mind for Mama. With every sign I put up, that question that I'd been trying to push away kept popping back at me. The question was this:
What in the world are you doing, Georgina?
By the time we were done, it seemed like there wasn't one street in Darby that didn't have a sign tacked up somewhere. On nearly every corner, Willy's face gazed out at the world with his head cocked in that adorable way of his. It like to broke my heart to look at it.
“I feel better already,” Carmella said when we turned onto Whitmore Road and into her driveway. “I have this feeling in my bones that my little Willy is gonna be coming home any minute now.”
“But what about the money?” I said.
Carmella flapped her hand at me. “Oh, fiddle-dee-dee,” she said. “I'll worry about that tomorrow.”
When Mama got off work that night, she drove us over to the Pizza Hut and told us to go on in and wash up. Then we sat in the parking lot and ate corned beef sandwiches and dill pickles. Mama seemed real happy and excited, going on and on about how she's making all kinds of money. She showed me and Toby an envelope stuffed with dollar bills.
“I'm stashing this under the spare tire in the trunk,” she said. “But it's just for emergencies, okay?”
“Is that enough to pay for an apartment?” I said, pulling the fat off my corned beef and tucking it into a napkin for Willy.
“Not quite,” she said. “But it won't be long now.”
“How long?” I popped a piece of chewing gum in my mouth.
“Not long,” Mama said.
“Not long,” Mama said in a mean voice.
“Yeah, right.” I rolled my eyes and pulled chewing gum in a long, stretchy string out of my mouth.
Mama whipped around to face me. I stuck my chin up and looked her square in the eye, twirling my gum around like a jump rope.
She turned back around and slumped low in the front seat.
Toby licked his fingers with smacking sounds and said, “Maybe me and Georgina can get some money.”
I like to swallowed my gum when he said that.
Mama looked at him and smiled that real sweet smile like she always seems to have for him but never for me.
“Now, how in the world would you and Georgina get money, sweetheart?” she said.
Here it comes
, I thought. I knew Toby was gonna mess up sooner or later. I braced myself for what was going to come next, waiting for Toby to tell Mama about Willy and Carmella and all. I tried to give him the evil eye, but he wouldn't look at me.
“I don't know,” he said. “Maybe we could find some.”
Mama chuckled. “Wouldn't that be nice?”
“Yeah, Toby,” I said. “Be sure and let us know when you find a million dollars on the sidewalk, okay?”
Mama shot me a look, but Toby grinned and said, “Okay.”
We finished up our supper, and then Mama drove around looking for a place to park for the night. The car was chugging and rattling and jerking like crazy, but she acted like she didn't even notice.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the Motel 6, I spotted one of Carmella's signs. Suddenly that greasy corned beef in my stomach didn't set too well. I lay down on the seat and curled into a ball. Then I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
Later on, after Mama and Toby had fallen asleep, I pulled out my
How to Steal a Dog
notes. I read through every page. When I got to the part that said:
You will have to wait and see what happens next,
I got out my colored pencils and drew little flowers and hearts all around the edge of the page. Then I used a sky blue pencil to write again:
You will have to wait and see what happens next.
I looked out the window at the Motel 6. Inside the lobby, a man was watching TV and sipping from a coffee mug. A soda machine outside the door sent a flickering red glow across the parking lot.
I wished we could've got a room there. Just for one
night. We could stretch out on a real bed. Take a bath in a real tub. Act like real people. We didn't have school tomorrow, so we could spend all day watching TV and stuff. But Mama had said no.
I looked over at Toby, curled up on the backseat with his head propped against the door. I hadn't told him about Mookie yet. I knew he'd get all scared and worried. He'd say we weren't supposed to talk to strangers and Mama would kill us and stuff like that. And I guessed he would be right. But what choice did we have? We couldn't just forget about Willy, could we? We had to feed him and take care of him. Besides, Mookie was probably gone by now. Toby wouldn't ever even know he'd been there.
I closed my notebook and stuffed it back down inside my bag. Then I lay down on the car seat and closed my eyes. No sense worrying about Mookie tonight, was there? I could worry about him tomorrow.
kay, now listen, Toby.” I took him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. Then I gave him a little shake just to make sure I had his attention.
“There might be a man back there with Willy.” I jerked my head in the direction of the old house.
Toby's eyes got wide. “Who?” he said.
“A man named Mookie.”
“A man named Mookie?”
I nodded. “But it's okay,” I said. “He's nice. He gave Willy some sardines.”
“What's he doing back there?
I shrugged. “Just, like, kinda living there, I guess.”
Toby glanced nervously at the house. “How'd he get in?”
I said. “He's living
. Out in the back where Willy is.”
“You mean like a bum?”
I kept my hands on Toby's shoulders and made him
face me so he'd pay attention. “Look, Toby,” I said. “He's liable to be gone. But just in case he's there, don't be scared, okay?”
I dropped my hands from Toby's shoulders and started toward the house.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Toby said, grabbing the back of my T-shirt. “How do
know about that man named Mookie?” He stamped his foot on the gravel road. “You came here without me.”
“I had to,” I said.
I put my arm around him and gave him a little jiggle. “Look, Toby, I just did it without thinking 'cause I needed to see Willy. I'm sorry, okay?”
Toby looked down at his feet. I jiggled him again.
“Okay?” I said.
Finally, in a little tiny voice, he said, “Okay.”
“I won't do it ever again.”
“Pinkie promise?” he said.
I crooked my pinkie at him. “Pinkie promise.”
We linked pinkies, then headed toward the house. I sure hoped Mookie was gone.
We hadn't even got to the corner of the house before Willy started barking.
“It's me,” I called out, “Georgina.”
“And Toby,” Toby called from behind me.
When I rounded the corner, the first thing I saw was that blue tarp. Underneath it, Mookie was stretched out on top of his sleeping bag, his hands folded on his stomach and his hat over his face.
From over on the back steps, Willy wiggled his whole body and let out a bark like he was saying hello.
Mookie didn't move.
“Mookie,” I said kind of soft-like so I wouldn't scare him.
“Mookie?” I said a little louder.
“Is he dead?” Toby whispered.
Suddenly Mookie let out a snort and jumped, sending his hat flying and making me and Toby grab each other. Mookie slapped a hand over his heart and flopped back down on his sleeping bag.
“You like to scared the bessy bug outta me,” he said.
“I brought Willy some stuff to eat,” I said, wagging my paper bag in the air.
Mookie sat up and put his hat on. “Me and him's been havin' liver puddin'.”
I wrinkled my nose. “What's that?”
“Liver puddin'?” Mookie rubbed his hand in a circle on his stomach. “Some good eatin', that's what. Right, Willy?”
Willy sat on the porch steps and lifted a paw.
Mookie chuckled. “That dog's got good taste.” He nodded toward Toby. “Who's he?”
“My brother, Toby.”
Mookie got up and held out his three-fingered hand toward Toby. I'd forgotten to warn Toby about that, but for once in his life, he didn't act like a scaredy baby. He shook Mookie's hand like he didn't even notice those missing fingers.
“It's a dern shame about that landlord of yours, ain't it?” Mookie said to Toby.
Toby looked at me and then back at Mookie. “Yessir, it is.”
I felt relief flood over me. Toby wasn't going to say something stupid like he usually did.
“I bet y'all sure do miss your little dog, don't you?” Mookie said.
“We sure do,” I said.
Toby nodded. “Yessir, we do.”
Mookie rolled his sleeping bag up and stuffed it into the crate on the back of his bicycle. “Kinda hard to sleep around him, though, ain't it?”
I looked over at Willy. He looked back at me with his shiny little eyes and his eyebrows lifted up like he was curious as anything to hear what I was going to say.
I shrugged. “Sometimes,” I said.
Mookie wiped a plastic coffee mug with his shirttail
and put it into a burlap bag. “He snore like that all the time?” he said.
“Not all the time.”
Mookie chuckled and put a few more things inside his burlap bag. Then he tucked it into the crate beside the sleeping bag.
“Are you leaving?” I said. I sure hoped he was.
I thought. Now I could concentrate on what I had to do.
Mookie pushed his bike toward the path leading out to the road.
“What about that?” I said, pointing up at the blue tarp.
“Oh, I'll be back,” he said.
Me and Toby watched him disappear around the corner of the house. A few seconds later, the sound of gravelly singing echoed through the woods and faded away.
“Is he a bum?” Toby said.
“I don't know.” I sat on the step beside Willy and let him root around inside the paper bag. He pulled out a chunk of bagel and gobbled it down.
“I bet he is,” Toby said.
I stroked Willy's head while he ate the rest of the scraps I had brought him. (Except a slice of tomato. He just sniffed that.)
“Don't you think he's a bum?” Toby said.
“How should I know?” I snapped.
“I don't like him,” Toby said. “He smells.”
“So do you!” I hollered, making Willy jump off my lap and slink away like I'd just smacked him upside the head.
“So do you!” Toby hollered back.
Why was I being so mean to Toby? Maybe I figured if I was mean to Toby, I'd feel better about things. But I didn't.
“Let's go take Willy for a walk,” I said.
The next day, Mama made Toby stay at the coffee shop and do his homework over in the corner booth by the kitchen. He had whined and carried on, but it hadn't done him a bit of good.
So now I was finally free to be by myself and figure things out. First, I had to visit Carmella and find out if she had gotten any money from her sister, Gertie.
I hurried up the sidewalk toward Whitmore Road. It seemed like the world had blossomed overnight. Bright pink azaleas. White dogwood. The air smelled sweet, like clover. I had the urge to take my shoes off and run barefoot across the soft green lawns. But I didn't.
When I got to Carmella's, I waited outside the gate. The yard was quiet. Not even any birds at the feeder. For a minute, I wished I could step back in time. Back to the day when Willy had come running around the side
of the house, chasing that squirrel. Before I had done what I'd done. But I couldn't, so I made my feet go up on the porch and my hand knock on the screen door.
“Who is it?” Carmella called from inside.
“It's me. Georgina.”
I heard her wheezy breathing as she came to unlatch the screen.
“Hey,” I said.
I looked down at the floor and said, “Did anybody find Willy?”
Carmella shook her head and sank into her ratty old chair. The TV was on with no sound. One of those shopping shows where some lady tries to get you to buy a great big ring that's not even a real diamond. The lady wiggled her fingers around, making the fake diamond sparkle for the camera.
“What about Gertie?” I said.
Carmella shook her head again. “What am I going to do?” she said in this flat kind of voice that made me feel sort of scared.
I sat on the ottoman across from her. “What did Gertie say?”
“She says she hasn't got the money, but I know good and well she does.” Carmella wiped her nose with her hand and stared at the TV. “She says I'm pathetic for getting all worked up over a dog.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I'm thinking I'll just go ahead and offer what I can.”
“How much is that?”
Carmella sighed. “Oh, I don't know. Fifty dollars, maybe?”
My stomach went thunk.
“But you put five hundred dollars on all those signs,” I said.
“I know.” Carmella blew her nose. “Maybe whoever finds Willy won't care about money.” She stuffed the tissue into her pocket. “I sure wouldn't,” she said. “Would you?”
I shrugged. “Um, well, sort of. I mean, not really, but â¦”
With every word that came out of my mouth, I felt like I was digging myself into a hole, and if I didn't stop, I was going to be so far in I wouldn't ever climb out.
Me and Carmella stared at the TV in silence. Now that lady was dangling a shiny gold necklace in front of the camera. Her bright red lips were moving, and I tried to imagine what she was saying. But my mind was such a mixed-up mess that instead of imagining her saying how wonderful that necklace was, I heard her saying, “Georgina Hayes, what in the world are you doing? Have you lost your mind? You bring that little dog back here this instant.”
I looked at Carmella and felt a stab. What in the world
I doing? Then suddenly Carmella leaned forward and said, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Will you and Toby go check those woods over there across the highway?”
“Over yonder.” She waved her arm toward the main highway. Toward the gravel road. Toward the old house.
“You'll probably think I'm plumb crazy,” she said, “but sometimes I think I hear Willy barking from over there.”
Thunk. There went my stomach again.
“Really?” I said.
“I drove around over that way yesterday,” she said. “But I thought maybe you and Toby could look, too.”
“Course, I think I hear Willy scampering around this house, too,” Carmella said. “So I reckon it's just my crazy old mind playing tricks on me.”
“Toby's doing homework at my mama's coffee shop,” I said. “But I'll go look.”
Carmella smiled. “I sure do appreciate everything y'all have done for me.”
I shrugged. “That's okay.” I started for the door. “Besides, maybe if we do find Willy, Gertie'll change her mind and give us five hundred dollars.”
Carmella's smile dropped, and she looked like I'd just told her the sky had turned purple.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well, um, I mean, you know, the reward and all?”
“Oh.” Carmella looked down at her hands and twisted a button on her shirt. “I guess I thought you and Toby were helping me 'cause you
“We are,” I said. “I mean, we
want to. I just thought â¦”
“But I will certainly do my best to make sure you get
for your kindness.” Carmella's chin was puckering up and she wouldn't look at me.
I thought. That hole I'd dug myself into was getting deeper by the minute.