Authors: Ellen Miles
“I got a letter! I got a letter!” Maria came running up the sidewalk waving an envelope.
It was Thursday after school. That meant it was dog-walking time again. Lizzie waited outside Maria’s house with Atlas, the golden retriever. She and Maria were about to pick up Tank, a young German shepherd. But first, they had stopped at Maria’s house to see if she’d gotten mail from her pen pal.
“Let’s see,” Lizzie said, reaching out for the envelope. Why hadn’t
gotten a letter yet? Three other people in their class had heard back from their pen pals already, and now Maria had gotten a letter, too. It wasn’t fair.
“Wait, I didn’t even open it yet,” Maria said, pulling it back.
A little corner of the envelope ripped and Lizzie ended up holding a scrap of paper. “Oops,” she said. “Sorry.”
But Maria barely noticed. “Did you see all the horse and pony stickers on the envelope?” she asked. “And look, she has horse stationery, too! We have a lot in common.”
Maria loved horses as much as Lizzie loved dogs. Lizzie wondered if Allyson, her pen pal, was a dog lover. She hoped so. Maybe they could trade stickers. That is, if Allyson ever wrote back.
Maria started to read out loud as she and Lizzie walked up to the door of the house where Tank lived. “It says, ‘Dear Maria, I’m glad we get to be pen pals! We have so much in common —’” Maria stopped and grinned at Lizzie. “That’s exactly what I just said!”
Lizzie grinned back. But she felt a little twinge in her tummy. So, was this Becky person going to turn into Maria’s new best friend or something? Lizzie reached up to knock on the door. A blast of barking broke out inside. “Hush up, Tank!” yelled a voice. Then, “He’s all ready for you,” the voice added.
Lizzie opened the door and Tank came barreling out. She grabbed his leash as he tried to bolt past her. “Whoa, there, pal,” she said. Luckily, Tank’s owner knew that the big shepherd pup needed to wear a special head halter, since a plain old collar would never be enough to control him. Tank and Atlas greeted each other with happy sniffs and wagging tails. “Want me to walk both dogs so you can read your letter?” she asked Maria.
Maria nodded happily. “Just for a few minutes, okay?” They headed down the street, following their usual route. Maria held the letter in front of her as she walked. “‘I live on a farm in Cherokee County,’” she read out loud, “‘with my mom and my dad and my uncle Bob. I have a sister named Martha. We have seventeen goats, a hundred and two cows, and a bunch of chickens and ducks. Also my dad raises corn and soybeans.’”
Lizzie smiled. Becky didn’t really sound so boring after all. Still, Allyson just
to be more interesting than that. If she ever wrote.
Tank and Atlas dragged Lizzie along. They were both young, energetic dogs and together they were like a team of horses pulling a sleigh. Atlas, especially, reminded Lizzie of Cocoa, the chocolate Lab puppy. Cocoa was so full of energy that she had galloped into her owner and knocked him over. Judge Thayer was okay now — in fact, he was one of the people Lizzie’s mother was interviewing for her Exceptional Elders series — but he and his wife, Charlotte, had agreed that they were getting a little too old and frail to take care of a dog like that. Luckily, the Petersons had found the perfect home for Cocoa. Lizzie would have to tell Allyson that whole story next time she wrote to her.
“Lizzie, are you listening?” Maria poked Lizzie in the side. “Did you hear the part I just read about the calf that Becky is raising as a Four-H project?”
Lizzie nodded. She had been listening. Or, at least, half listening. “Sure,” she said. “Go on.”
“Okay,” Maria said. “Then she says, ‘That’s interesting that your mom is blind and has a Seeing Eye dog named Simba. I have a cousin who is deaf and has a hearing dog!’”
“Wow.” Lizzie couldn’t help being impressed. “That’s cool. You’ll have to ask her more about that.”
Maria nodded and went on reading. “‘Your family’s cabin in the woods sounds cool. Who knows? Maybe someday if I visit you we could go there.’”
Lizzie felt another twinge. So far, she was the only friend Maria had brought to the cabin. The cabin was, like,
special place. “Are you almost ready to take Tank?” she asked. “He’s about to pull my arm off.”
“Okay,” said Maria, quickly scanning through the rest of the letter. “She just talks a little about how we seem to like the same books and movies and stuff. Then she signs off.” She smiled as she folded the letter up, stuck it in her pocket, and took Tank’s leash from Lizzie. “This is fun,” she said. “I’m going to write her back today.”
Maria chattered about her pen pal for the rest of the afternoon, until Lizzie was ready to scream. Who
about Becky’s dumb 4-H calf? Finally, they finished walking all the dogs and Lizzie headed home, wishing she’d never heard of this whole pen-pal thing.
“Hi, honey, we’re in here,” her mom called when she got home. Lizzie walked into the living room to find Mom talking to a tall, thin man. Rocky, snoring on his bed near the man’s feet, barely opened one eye when Lizzie came in. “You remember Judge Thayer, don’t you?” Mom asked. “We’re just finishing up our interview.”
Lizzie smiled at the judge. “Hi,” she said.
Judge Thayer had a very dignified way about him, but he also had a kind smile. He stood up, then reached down to shake her hand. “Lizzie, right?” he asked.
“I’ve enjoyed meeting your newest foster pup,” he told her as he sat back down. “Rocky is quite the clown — when he’s awake.”
Lizzie laughed. “Did he untie your shoes?” she asked. She’d learned over the past few days about a few more of Rocky’s funny habits.
“Yes, that’s quite a trick. Cocoa was smart, but she never did that.” The judge chuckled and shook his head, reaching down to pet Rocky. He smiled wistfully. “If Cocoa had been this calm, we probably could have kept her,” he murmured, almost to himself. “Too bad my wife, Charlotte, wouldn’t consider any type of dog but a Lab.”
Suddenly, Mom jumped up. “Oh, Lizzie,” she said. “That reminds me. You got a letter today!” She pointed to the coffee table, and Lizzie saw an envelope there, covered in dog stickers.
Lizzie snatched up the envelope. “It’s from my pen pal!” There was her name, in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope:
Mom smiled. “I noticed that it’s addressed to ‘Lizzie Sarabeth Peterson,’” she said. “What’s that all about?”
Lizzie waved a hand. “Nothing,” she said. She stared at the envelope, noticing the special gold-trimmed dog stickers Allyson had used. She’d never seen those before. She loved the one of the Jack Russell terrier. It reminded her of Rascal, who was still one of her favorite foster puppies even though he had been a handful. Lizzie walked away, heading for her room. She couldn’t wait to open Allyson’s letter.
“Lizzie!” said her mother. “Aren’t you going to say good-bye to Judge Thayer?”
Lizzie looked up to see her mother frowning at her. Oops. Maybe she had been a little rude. “Good-bye, Judge,” she said. “It was nice to see you again.”
Judge Thayer smiled understandingly. “Nice to see you, too,” he said.
“And, Lizzie,” her mother added, “I think Rocky needs to be taken outside before you go up to your room. And don’t say Charles can do it. Dad and the boys are at the park with Buddy.”
Lizzie let out a sigh. Normally she didn’t mind taking care of their foster puppies. In fact, she loved it. But right
? When she had a letter to read? “He’s sleeping!” she pointed out.
“Mmm-hmm,” said Mom. “Guess you’ll have to wake him up.”
Exasperated, Lizzie went over to give Rocky a nudge. He woke with a snort and rolled over, paddling his paws and glancing around with a dazed look in his eyes. His mouth fell into an upside-down grin when he spotted Judge Thayer.
Where am I? Oh, right. I fell asleep while that nice man was scratching my head.
The judge burst out laughing, and so did Lizzie, in spite of her frustration. This puppy could make anyone laugh, no matter what mood they were in. “Come on, Rocky,” she said. “Let’s go out in the yard.” Rocky scrambled to his feet and led Lizzie to the door. She smiled as she watched him go. His funny bowlegged walk was so cute.
Lizzie was dying to rip the letter open, but she made herself wait until Rocky was done in the backyard. When she brought him back in, he headed straight for his bed. Judge Thayer reached down a long, thin hand to pet him, and the solid little bulldog pup settled in with a contented sigh.
On her way upstairs, Lizzie opened the letter. It was written in purple marker that smelled like grapes and was decorated with more dog stickers and also drawings of dogs. Allyson was a good artist!
Just as she reached the top of the stairs, the phone rang. Lizzie went into her mom’s study to answer it.
“Hey, Lizzie.” It was Maria. “I just had a feeling that maybe you got a letter today. Did you?”
“Yes!” Lizzie yelled. She sat down on the twirly office chair.
“Cool!” said Maria. “What did Allyson have to say?”
“I haven’t even read it yet,” Lizzie said. “I’ll read it to you now. ‘Dear Lizzie,’” she read.
She skipped the part where Allyson wrote, “Or should I call you Sarabeth?”
Then she went on. “‘It was great to get your letter. I’m so happy to have a pen pal! It can get pretty lonely out here on my family’s ranch. We are forty miles from the nearest town.’”
“Wow,” said Maria.
“I know,” said Lizzie. “She really lives way out in the country. Anyway, then she says, ‘I have two brothers, too. They are twins named Tinker and Traven, and they are probably just as annoying as —’” Lizzie broke off. She did not want to read aloud the names that Allyson had written, Wolfgang and Sebastian. She glanced ahead and saw that Allyson talked about being jealous that Lizzie had a beautiful older sister. She also mentioned how cool it was that Lizzie’s dad was the fire chief.
If Lizzie read those things out loud, Maria would know that she’d made up all kinds of silly stories when she wrote to her pen pal. Not lies, really. Just stories. But would Maria understand that?
“You know what?” she said into the phone. “I think I just want to read it myself first. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” Maria said, after a second. Lizzie could tell she was wondering why Lizzie wouldn’t read Allyson’s letter out loud. After all, Maria had read Becky’s letter out loud. But Maria had nothing to hide, and Lizzie did.
“Gotta go!” Lizzie said quickly, and hung up. Then she went into her own room and read through the whole letter. Allyson sounded so cool! She knew how to ride horses and rope calves, and she and her brothers were allowed to go camping by themselves in the wilderness, even though there were grizzly bears all over the place where she lived. She had four dogs and three cats and her own pony named Silver, and in the winter, when the snow was eight feet deep, she didn’t have to go to school for weeks at a time.
Lizzie read Allyson’s letter six more times that night, and once more before school the next morning. In class, when Mrs. Abeson asked if anyone else had gotten letters from their pen pals, Lizzie’s hand was the first to shoot up. “I did!” she said.
“Wonderful,” said her teacher. “Our project is really coming along. On Monday, I want everyone to bring in their letters so we can start making our bulletin board display. Won’t it be fun to share our pen-pal experiences?”
Lizzie’s stomach lurched. What? Bring in their letters? Nobody had told her she was going to have to display the letter she had gotten from Allyson. How could she do that? If people read Allyson’s letter, they’d find out that Lizzie had made up all sorts of things about herself. She clutched the sides of her desk and groaned.
“Are you okay?” Maria gave her a worried look.
Lizzie managed to nod. “Sure,” she whispered. But she wasn’t. For the rest of the school day, Lizzie worried. What was she going to do? She was trapped. She had already raised her hand when Mrs. Abeson had asked who’d gotten letters, so she couldn’t say that a letter had not come.
Maybe she could pretend to be sick on Monday, so she could stay at home. She had never done that before, but how hard could it be? She could just tell Mom that her stomach hurt. But that would only put things off for a day or two. Whenever she did come back to school, Mrs. Abeson would ask about the letter.
Could she say that her dog had eaten it? No, that was the oldest excuse in the book. Besides, she couldn’t blame Buddy for doing something he would never do. And Rocky was not the chewing type, either.
Lizzie was in trouble, and she knew it was her own fault. Why hadn’t she just told Allyson the truth about who she was? She needed help, and she knew it.
After school, she and Maria were in Maria’s neighborhood, walking two dogs each. Lizzie held the tiny red leash of Pickle the Pomeranian in one hand and a hefty leather lead attached to a Lab mix named Tracker in the other. Maria was being towed along by twin poodles, Pogo and Pixie, who had enough energy for four dogs.
“What’s the matter, anyway?” Maria asked. “You look like you’re getting sick or something. Plus, you’ve been really quiet all day. That’s not like you.”
Lizzie hung her head. “I did something dumb,” she admitted. “It was just for fun, but now … ugh. Now I don’t know what to do.”
Maria just looked at her. “Go on,” she said.
Lizzie knew what her friend was probably thinking. This was not the first time Lizzie had gotten herself into a jam. “You know that letter I got from Allyson?” she asked. “Well, there’s no way I can bring it in and pin it up on the bulletin board in class.”
“Why not?” asked Maria.
Lizzie sighed. “Well, I sort of made some things up when I wrote to Allyson. Stuff about my life. I was just trying to make myself sound more interesting, so she’d like me.”
Maria looked shocked. “You mean, you lied?”
Lizzie squirmed. “I didn’t
exactly.” But even as she said it, she knew that she
lied. She had not told the truth, and even though she hadn’t done it to hurt anybody, it was still a lie. “Okay, so maybe I did,” she said. “But let’s forget about that for a minute. The problem is, when she wrote me back she said things in her letter that make it obvious that I … lied. I can’t put her letter up on the bulletin board. The question is, what do I do about it?”
Maria opened her mouth and shut it again without saying anything. Then Pogo and Pixie dragged her off to one side so they could smell an especially interesting mailbox.
Lizzie smiled sadly down at Pickle. “Think she’ll help me?” she whispered to the tiny dog. Pickle sat up on her hind legs and put one tiny paw on Lizzie’s leg. That meant she wanted to be carried for a while. Pickle was a little spoiled.
Maria did not say much until they had finished walking all the dogs, even Ginger and Rocky. When they were done, they went to Lizzie’s house, grabbed an apple each from the bowl on the kitchen counter, and went up to her room. Lizzie sat on the bed with Rocky on her lap, and Maria sat on the floor, playing tug with Buddy.
“Okay,” Maria said finally. “Here’s what I think. You were a dope to lie to Allyson.”
“I know.” Lizzie looked down at the letter in her hands. Allyson’s letter. She had gotten it out to show to Maria.
“I mean,” Maria went on, “you’re pretty cool just the way you are. And so’s your family. Who needs a beautiful older sister, anyway?” She leaned over to tickle Lizzie’s foot.
“I know,” Lizzie said again, although deep inside she still thought it had been kind of fun to make up a pretend sister.
“Let’s see that letter again,” said Maria.
Lizzie handed it over and waited while Maria read through it. Rocky had fallen asleep on her lap and was snoring peacefully. Lizzie could tell that even a short walk had been plenty for him. Rocky was so different from Cocoa. The chocolate Lab pup had needed as much exercise as you could give her, and still she never seemed to get tired. Lizzie petted Rocky’s short, smooth coat. That was the interesting thing about fostering dogs, she thought. Each one was so different.
“The answer’s right here!” Maria said, tapping the letter with her finger.
“Where?” Lizzie asked.
“See, at the end here, after ‘Sincerely, Allyson’?” Maria held up the letter and pointed. “She put her e-mail address. All you have to do is write her a note explaining what happened. Then she can e-mail you back a new letter and you can print it out and bring it to school on Monday.”
Lizzie grinned. “You’re a genius!” she said. Then her smile faded. “Except for one thing,” she said. “I’m going to have to tell Allyson the truth.”