I wanted a dog more than anything. There he was, across the road after school, no collar, looking hungry. He reminded me of a husky with deep dark and light fur. "Here boy," I said with a high pitch not wanting to scare him. The dog trotted over to me and rubbed his muzzle on my leg. Miss Holloway, my eighth grade teacher, stood with hands on her hips, walking backward.
I said, "Don't worry Miss Holloway, I can tell he's friendly. And he sure loves me, don't you think?" Her arms had dropped, hands to coat pockets, she nodded, "Mm-hm."
I knew he was mine. Max, a spirit dog with two different colored eyes and when he looks into mine, it's like he's talking to me. That's how I decided to call him Max. He told me.
We ran to my house that day, excited as I was to show Donny and Mom. But my brother wasn't home and Mom--well, right off, she hated his sticking out ribs and patchy fur.
She made her lip curl up like she smelled rotten food. “Shoo, shoo! Kaylee, get that mangy dog out of here.”
So we sat down in the grass beside Mom’s plastic ducks under the big maple where the leaves were bright with red and yellow, drifting down on the lawn. He stayed right there really nice while I went inside for some food. A plate of baloney and carrots in my hands, I took my time getting out to the ducks, but Max ran to me and knocked the plate away, food went everywhere but it didn't matter. He sucked them up like a vacuum sweeper. That’s how hungry he was.
I kept checking on him from the window while I gobbled up the burgers Mom had made for supper then ran outside again.
Dad still had his work hoodie on that smelled like the garage's oil and exhaust. Mom washed the big fry pan, her flannel shirt sleeves rolled up. They worked together in the kitchen, low-talking.
Dad was saying, “The dog just needs to be cleaned up and a few pounds put on him. Let’s give it a chance. Kaylee likes him; you can see how happy she is.”
Mom said, "I don't care. That dog is not coming in this house. He can sleep outside."
When I woke up the next day, my dog was gone, so I called him and stuff all the way to school, searching and praying he'd come out from the bushes. But he didn’t.
Mom was over the moon about that. I dragged myself home and told Mom Max was gone. She tried not to look happy and said in sort of a sad-mad-lecturing voice,
“No sense in getting attached to the likes of him. I can’t deal with a stray dog. And one thing I don’t need around here is another mouth to feed.”
I knew or at least hoped, that Max wouldn’t leave me for good, figuring I'd be ready for the day he waited by my school, I slipped a soup bone in my pack just in case. Sure enough, two days passed, and there he was across the road from school, wagging like crazy, making yelping noises. We raced all the way home, hopped up the front steps and in the house.
Mom slapped the wall when she saw us. Max raced past her and bumped her leg accidentally stepped on her bare foot. "Kaylee! Get him out of here. You know what I said. The rules have not changed."
"Mom, Mom. Please let me keep him. Please. I'll do anything. Wait. I mean I'll do everything. I'll walk him. Clean up his doo-doo, brush him, feed him, play with him. Plus, I'll empty the wastebaskets every week and clean the bathrooms too." That last one was a stretch, but I was desperate.
She looked sideways at me. "I'll give you one chance. The first time he destroys something, he is out of here for good."
She handed a bucket and sponge to me. "Let's see if you're serious. Three bathrooms await. Cinderella."
My arms pumped while I yahooed and took the bucket, "We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz."
"Wrong story," Mom called out, but I was already upstairs.
A pile of rags and old blankets showed up on the garage floor. Mom said, "Max has a bed out there. I don't want to hear anything about it." And that's where he stayed for the next month.
But, when winter came, and Wisconsin winters are darn cold, Mom took pity on me and let him in to sleep in my room. He always walks me to and from school. He sits and watches while I do the bathrooms. Then we play frisbee. I don’t know how I ever lived without him. His ribs don't poke out anymore, so he looks better, except for his fur problem. Dad says maybe a diet supplement will help, but Mom never buys it.
By the time spring came, we were a whole family. I was sleeping better, and Max had just a few missteps, as Dad called them. But then one day, my whole world turned gray. We were all in the old Jeep having ice cream cones. My little brother Donny and me were in the back with Max. Then, all of a sudden, Max made this sound like when Dad plunges the toilet. Mom started screaming, and Max threw up yellow junk.
Mom turned around, her top lip curled up like a broken stage curtain. "Darn it, Kaylee, why can't you open the flippin’ door and push him out? Get that dog out of this car.”
Donny opened the door, and Max bumped the ice cream cone, which landed right on the mess.
I pressed my phone. “Siri, call the vet near me.”
Dad shouted, “Hang up the goddam phone.”
Mom said, “That’s it. The dog goes. I’ve had it up to here.” She threw a bunch of paper towels at me. "Clean it up, Kaylee. This is what you get for having a dog."
Dad took Max to the vet and came home alone. He wouldn’t say anything about exactly what happened. I can't even look at Mom; she makes me so mad.
It's been days since Max went away. Mom finds my text to Bonnie (aka Bonbon)— and for about the thousandth time, she says, totally acting disgusted, “Quit being so dramatic, Kaylee.” She tosses my phone to me and I look away from the way her arm-skin flaps. She goes back to scrolling through Pinterest on her iPad, which is all she ever does. God, sometimes I hate her.
“Let me remind you young lady, that phone is supposed to be for emergencies only, not frivolous texts.” But in eighth grade, it seems like my life is one long emergency.
I go back to texting Bonbon.
Me: I just want to die. I miss Max. (dog emoji)
Bonbon: Why? Where is he?
Me: I think my dad drowned him. Or dumped him out in the country. Or maybe worse. He said he was taking him to the vet. But why did he come back without him!
Bonbon: ????OMG (teardrop emoji)
Mom’s deep into the page with artificial flowers.
Me: Last night, My mom (purse emoji) tried to kill Donny with a wooden spoon (serving spoon emoji).
Bonbon: Whoa. Is he okay?
Me: Yeah, I guess
Donny's probably the cutest boy in the whole third grade, buzz cut and a slight wave at the front, all stylin'. He's facing the TV screen, playing on the X-Box, making shooting sounds, talking too loud into the headset. It’s like he doesn’t even care that Max is gone.
"Kaylee," Mom says, yawning, "Someone's going to read that wooden spoon business and think I abuse my kids. Next thing you know, the police will be knocking."
“Nuh-uh.” I flop down on the sofa, bits of dog fur stick to my Snoopy pajamas. My hair catches under me and just about rips off my scalp, so I stand up again, gather it with both hands, pull it around to the front, twist it, and sit. My home screen is Max looking right at me. He's saying, "Help me Kaylee." My eyes sting. I'd rather die than live without Max.
Mom looks up and says, “Kaylee, it’s just a dog. You’re sad now, but it’ll pass. It’s good for you to lose a pet when you’re young. Sets you up for the hard knocks of life.”
Shows what Mom knows. Just a dog? Max is more like a spirit than a dog. Mostly anyone could see that from his two different eye colors, blue and brown, and how he looks right into your soul. Sometimes, I can even hear what Max is thinking, like how much he loves me. He is not just a dog.
It's afternoon, and he's been gone for three days. Max's blanket is as close as I can get to him, under the covers, still in my pj's. I even try sucking my thumb which is stupid because it doesn't make me feel any better. Then, finally, the door opens a little.
Dad says, "Kaylee, can I come in?"
I don't answer, but he comes in anyway. Dad sits next to me on the bed.
“Listen, sweetheart, I’m going to level with you." His nails are stained with oil, but he's clean and smells like Dove soap. "I didn't take Max to the vet. He's out there somewhere. So I'm going to drive to where I let him off and see if I can find him for you. He's fine, probably waiting for you right now."
I turn over and sit up, rubbing my eyes. “What about Mom? She hates Max.”
“I know it seems that way. But I think she might be worried about you. She knows you want a dog. If I can’t find Max, maybe we can start looking for a dog that your mother likes.”
I don’t want another dog. Poor Max!
“Remember, he didn’t have a home when he found you. He’s used to fending for himself. I’m certain he's okay. We’ll find him.”
I throw back the covers, dog hair flies like a cloud until I sneeze. “I’m coming too.”
Donny runs out of the bathroom and says, “Me too, Dad.”
The Jeep still smells foul, so Dad takes off the doors. I promise to keep belted in and make sure Donny does too. I don't even notice that my phone isn't on me. My eyes are bugging out for how hard I’m looking.
Dad’s hands squeeze the steering wheel. The way he’s sitting straight up makes him look super intense. The radio is off. All I hear is the road noise.
I hate Mom. She doesn't want him and I know that if we find Max--who knows what she’ll do. I might have to run away.
We’re past Walmart and Costco, out of town now, and soon there are hardly any cars on the highway, then out to where the cows stand in the fields all clumped in one corner of a big pasture. The Jeep starts clunking, sort of jerks and rolls to the side of the road, dead.
“Ah, bullshit,” Dad says. He flops back and wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his grease-stained hoodie.
“You two listen up.” He looks at me in the rear-view mirror.
Donny and I sit like statues.
“You hear me?” he says.
Neither of us says anything until his hand slaps the air in front of our legs.
“I hear you,” I say, looking back and forth at the woods beyond the road, willing Max to show up.
“I’m going to walk down the way and find some gas. You two stay right here. Do not get out. I mean it.”
It seems like forever, sitting there looking and looking, batting flies away. It may be a fawn in the trees and I stand up to get a better look. Donny jumps up too, knocking into me and we both fall out right on the side of the road. He didn’t get hurt because he fell on ME, but I got it on my hands and one elbow which I don't even notice because--a dog--not a deer. It's coming out of the forest.
Oh, no. It's Max!
He runs to me with a leash attached, but the person, a lady dressed in a purple slicker, like Mom's is standing there, far away so I can't be sure. I run to Max.
Mom? Poor Max--she’s going to take him to the pound, I just know it. But then, she calls out, “I found him, Kaylee." She's waving. "I found him for you," she's yelling.
Max is all over me, licking and running in circles.
Nothing makes sense and Mom's standing there, her face all twisted up.
"Your Dad called your phone from the gas station. He didn't know you'd left it at home and when I saw his number, I answered it. He said Max was in the woods but he couldn't get to him. Oh, Kaylee, I know how much he means to you--I feel bad, you know? So, I-- I hurried. All of a sudden I wanted to find him. That old logger's road. You know it? The one that goes through the woods? I brought hot dogs, cut up, rolled down the window, called him; the hot dogs seemed so tiny in the forest, so I threw two or three or four at a time. Maybe he's what you said, a spirit dog. I don't know, but he came from around a tree, and ran right to me."
I let go of Max. All of a sudden, I feel over the moon about Mom. She and I hugged for probably ten minutes. "I love you so much, Mom, you are the best."