In the mists of London, in the middle of the night, you can hear a dog bark. That dog is Barney. I am the only one that knows why he howls, and I have permission to tell you.
It all happened a few years ago, when Barney lived with the Millers. Mrs. Miller was a pale, kind faced woman, who always wore some kind of polka dots. She had pouffy red hair and blue eyes. She was a beautiful woman, but the most beautiful part was her clothes. She had red velvet dresses with white and brown polka dotted collars, which made her look like a red velvet cupcake, and blue satin dresses polka dotted with red or white. She looked loving, but she was the exact opposite. She was cruel.
Mr. Miller was also kind faced, but he actually brought kindness with it. You would expect him to wear suits, since he had a wife with such vanity, but he was a gardener, and he wore casual plaid shirts and baggy jeans. He didn’t dress up for dinner, which his wife disliked.
Barney did not deserve to be treated the way he was, and he was not treated fairly. He was fed one scoop of food a day, and, unfortunately, it was cat food.
Sometimes, when she was in a good mood, Mrs. Miller would say to herself hopefully, “If that impish dog would just behave…” then she would laugh at the thought.
Barney was really a very well behaved dog, but Mrs. Miller was harsh, and Barney was kept outside. The garbage was his only chance of survival because cat food would never satisfy his ongoing hunger. He was strong and shaggy with matted black fur over his eyes, and he always seemed to smile even through the roughest of times. His long fur and short schnauzer legs made him appear low to the ground, and they made it harder for him to move quickly.
The days passed and things went on as usual. Mrs. Miller straightened the pictures that hung in elegant frames. Mr. Miller fed Barney and went off to work. Mrs. Miller usually stayed inside, watched fashion channels on TV, or stood in front of the mirror and did and redid her hair in preparation for dinner that night. When night came after their daily routine, Barney slept in the garage on the blanket that he had been sold with. The garage was dark and dusty even in the daytime. The Millers owned a red Mini Cooper, which took up most of the small garage and was really in no shape for driving.
Sundays were the best day of the week for Barney. The Millers always went shopping for books, clothes, food, anything. Barney could go sniffing through bright, red tulips in the spring, dig holes in the snow in the winter, or drink from the marble birdbath in the summer. The yard was a perfect place for a dog, but it had its boundaries, and Barney knew it. There was a paved walkway that led to a pleasant-looking, three story house. On either side were little garden gnomes placed neatly against the pavement. Right behind the rows of gnomes were wide, grassy lawns that stretched all the way around the house. On the lawn to the right was an antique marble birdbath. The Millers had won it at an auction and were very proud of it.
The best part about Sundays was that Barney could visit Queenie, the next-door neighbor’s pup. She was also black, but she was a tall Labrador retriever. She was proud-looking with her head held high, and she always strode with long, thin legs.
One rainy, autumn Sunday, Mr. and Mrs. Miller took the Rovers, Queenie’s owners, shopping. Mr. and Mrs. Rover were very pet friendly, and they adored their dog almost as much as a child, of which they had none. As the four neighbors got into the car, Mrs. Miller asked,
“What do you plan buying today?”
“Dog food,” said Mr. Rover flatly.
“And a new dog bed,” added Mrs. Rover rather enthusiastically.
“How overly kind you are to Queenie!” exclaimed Mrs. Miller. “Cat food suits Barney fine. Did you see how plump he is?”
“You sound like you were preparing to eat him,” remarked Mr. Rover.
“Oh, I could never do that,” Mrs. Miller laughed.
“He would make a fine feast if he didn’t smell like garbage,” she added to herself.
As the friends drove around the corner, Queenie pawed at a decaying fence panel.
Why didn’t she go around front and into my yard? Barney wondered.
I was lost on that too, until he mentioned that Queenie had noticed both gates were locked.
When Queenie finally got the panel loose, Barney was impatient. He was running around the antique marble birdbath, which was overflowing with rain. Queenie just had to join in the fun, and soon it was a game of who could stay the closest to the other’s rear end. A robin flew lightly onto the elegant birdbath to bathe, or rather to practice swimming. Neither Barney nor Queenie noticed the bird’s helpless efforts to stay afloat as giant raindrops plopped into the yard.
Soon the dogs got tired of chasing each other. Many other birds had gathered in the birdbath, and the two furry friends decided to chase birds instead. Queenie stuck her nose in the detailed bowl of the birdbath and scared away half the birds while others boldly struggled to stay afloat. Barney, following his friend, tried to jump into the birdbath. Being an inexperienced jumper, he was unable to propel himself off the ground, and crashed into the birdbath instead. To Barney’s surprise, the birdbath tipped! Barney had only intended to get the birds away from the birdbath. Barney knew he would get in trouble for the mess. All of a sudden the birdbath seemed so precious.
I am not supposed to touch it. Why were the birds allowed in? I didn’t mean to cause all this trouble, Barney thought to himself.
Suddenly, Barney’s thoughts turned completely away from the birdbath. There was a little, round garden gnome wearing a big smile, a red shirt, and over his little porcelain legs, blue pants. It was lying on its side and could easily be destroyed by the rain. Barney cautiously picked it up in his mouth. Queenie went over to see her friend’s newfound discovery. She bumped Barney’s shoulder and the porcelain figure fell to the ground with a thump. Barney quickly scooped the gnome up again and went to find a safer place for it. Queenie was excited. She took the gnome from her pal and ran all around the yard. All her running splashed mud on the house. Barney was frantic. If Queenie dropped the gnome it would break, and Barney would be blamed. He was sure.
Barney ran as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. Queenie whizzed around behind him and screeched to a halt. Barney turned around and yapped at his naughty friend. Queenie had no idea what was going on. If only dogs would listen to each other. Queenie opened her mouth. The gnome fell to the ground.
It was like the worst part of a nightmare, and Barney’s nightmare didn’t end. As the precious figure fell to the ground, Barney winced. Queenie looked at him in curiosity. What was so bad? The gnome fell to the ground. Barney whimpered.
Although Barney’s eyes were closed he could tell that little splinters of porcelain scattered around the yard were remains of the precious garden gnome.
Furiously, Barney howled. It was a deep, sorrowful howl, a howl of longing, for he knew what would happen.
One afternoon Mr. Miller went upstairs to find his wife posting a picture of Barney on a piece of paper that read:
Mr. Miller looked at the floor. There were at least twenty of the same flyers.
“You can’t do-,” he began.
“Yes I can. Period.” Mrs. Miller made it final.
Mr. Miller could have protested. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. He could have been frightened. I know I would have been.
“Um-uh-I—I-I’ll go h-h-hang these p-posters up.” He stammered.
He wanted to go outside and just get rid of the flyers. No one would know Barney was supposed to leave, but Mrs. Miller saw the gears turning in his head, pieces of the plan fitting together like a puzzle in his mind. “I am fine, thank you very much,” she said as if there was no suspicion in the air. Disappointed, Mr. Miller went outside to say goodbye to Barney.
As Mr. Miller snuggled his dog, Barney thought back to when the Miller’s car pulled up the driveway. The terrible memory played in his mind like a movie. He remembered the distant rumbling of a most dreaded car, a sound he never wanted to hear again. He remembered how the color had drained from Mrs. Miller’s face when she got out of the car and saw the yard, how she had rushed inside with a flustered Mr. Miller following closely behind. He remembered the worst memory of all: How Queenie had jumped through the fence and betrayed Barney, leaving him with all the blame.
Mr. Miller stroked Barney’s back.
“You already know, don’t you old pal, you already know you have to leave.”
It was a very sad hug, but it comforted Mr. Miller and Barney, and they both wanted to stay there forever. Then Mrs. Miller stormed outside.
“Don’t tell that dog it’s all right!” Mrs. Miller screamed.
“It’s not all right! I will not let him get away with this! Now, John!” Mrs. Miller directed the last part of her fit towards her husband.
“Go check with everybody on the surrounding blocks if we can post fliers on their fences.”
When Mr. Miller had left, Mrs. Miller put an old collar around Barney’s neck, and using a dusty, moth-eaten leash, she tied him to the fence.
Then she taped a flier to the fence.
Meanwhile, Mr. Miller was talking with the Rovers.
“I can’t believe she’s doing this!” exclaimed Mrs. Rover.
“And you must make haste, you know how much your wife can do in a small amount of time. I would not like a poster on my fence,” Mr. Rover said gravely.
“Yes, I’ve noticed how quickly Jane can work when she’s determined,” Mr. Miller hurried off.
Next door, Mrs. Miller was busy, just as the Rovers had said. Mr. Miller came panting into the yard, just as his wife was tightening the collar around Barney’s neck. He had come home much too soon for Mrs. Miller. When she saw him, she quickly let go of the collar and pretended she was just petting Barney. It comforted her, just petting someone, even if she was furious at them. As Mrs. Miller ran her fingers through the thick, knotted fur, on Barney’s back, she felt no pity. It hadn’t been combed for two years, and now, more than ever, Mrs. Miller felt it should never be combed again. Her heart was still pounding with fury. Barney wished that Mrs. Miller would one day stroke his back with affection. He knew that some wishes don’t come true in the blink of an eye, and this one wouldn’t come true in a million years. He hoped one day he would feel the soft bristles of a brush on his back, the way he once had in a veterinary clinic years ago. He hoped one day he would be welcomed into a warm house with someone to play with in the summer. His heart pounded with the anxiety of the future. Mr. Miller hoped Barney would find a good home before long, so a loving family would comb him and tend to all his cuts and bruises. He was upset and grieving, for his wife had never revealed her dark side. His heart was pounding with fear. Weeks passed and no one wanted Barney. Mrs. Miller refused to buy cat food, and she unknowingly removed Barney’s source of food when she moved the garbage inside.
During those weeks, the regular mailman took a vacation. The substitute mailman hated dogs, especially small ones, such as Barney. After one week, the mailman could not stand seeing that little terrier, who shied away each time he passed, whose eyes seemed to say, “Help me.” One day, as the substitute mailman passed the house he most dreaded, he saw a lady in her early fifties, with red hair pulled tightly back, wearing a brown dress with orange polka dots and sitting in a deck chair. She was not dressed properly for the season, for her cherry trees were in full bloom, and she looked more like a dead oak.
“Hello ma’am,” the mailman said. “You know that dog of yours,” he continued.
“Yes, he’s really been on my nerves lately,” said Mrs. Miller, sipping a glass of cold lemonade casually, very un-Mrs. Miller-ish.
“I highly suggest you get rid of that dog,” the substitute began formally. “He disturbs me with howls, and I can see he is of no use to you.” He finished as if he had planned the whole thing, like a short speech at a wedding.
That night, Mrs. Miller tossed and turned, thinking about what the mailman had said. She listened to Barney’s howl, and when she could take it no longer, she sat up in her bed and screamed, “That dog is of no use to me!”
Mr. Miller mumbled in his sleep and resumed a gentle snore.
“You’re just as useless!” Mrs. Miller screamed again.
Barney stopped howling and picked up his ears, listening for more sounds in the bedroom. After awhile, he decided to keep howling to comfort himself. In the morning, Mrs. Miller’s mood had grown worse. After she had rushed Mr. Miller out of the house, she scooped up Barney and rushed angrily out of the house. Barney glanced longingly back at the house, it’s smooth, brick walls, the white door he never saw the other side of, the brass numbers, “246”, nailed in a straight row on its smooth, white surface. As Mrs. Miller hastily turned the corner, Barney looked hopefully behind him at the street sign that read, Rosemary Road.
Rosemary Road, Barney thought to himself, the road with the homeliest homes. (Now the place of no return!)
Mrs. Miller walked and walked until her heels were blistered through long, thick, laced stockings. When she could take it no longer and called for a taxi, Mrs. Miller was holding Barney by the scruff of his neck. When the taxi came, Mrs. Miller walked in as if she were a princess, and then dropped Barney on the seat next to her. The most Mrs. Miller could do was eye Barney with great distaste.
“Stones End Street, please.” The driver gasped, but did not comment.
Stones End Street had a bad reputation. When I told my friends at school I was moving there, they acted as if I were going to die.
“I heard no one lives there,” said my best friend, Tanya.
“My sister said somebody was killed there,” gasped Eleanor, whose sister used to know everything.
“There are monsters under every bed!” shrieked Sonya, who was terrified of anything under the bed.
Actually, I no longer regret living there.
As Mrs. Miller reached Stones End Street, she was delighted at how dismal it was. “Perfect for you, stinker,” she muttered under her breath, a wicked smile on her face. Evil was overcoming Mrs. Miller, but as soon as Barney was out of her sight for good, she would be back to her old, proper, straight-laced self. She dropped Barney, and suddenly she felt lighter. No, not exactly lighter, more empty. She felt as if a part of her had been taken away. To Mrs. Miller, Barney was like a burden she was very happy to get rid of. In fact, she wished no one would ever love Barney and that he would become so weak and unwanted that he would just disappear.
Now, I was watching all of this through my window, and I was very surprised to see a lady dressed in petticoats and white-laced stockings (and probably a layer of under skirts and pantyhose) on my street. Mrs. Miller was particularly fancy that day. She was wearing a reddish-brown dress and a brown and white polka dotted petticoat on top. Her long, laced, white socks were pulled all the way up to her crisp, wrinkle-free pantaloons. When I saw her drop Barney, I gasped, but did not say anything. I was sure one of my family members would see to calling the cops or the pound.
“Beth Anne! Finish your homework! We haven’t got all day!” My mother scolded.
I quickly turned away from the window. Who was that lady anyway? What kind of dog was that? Even though I concentrated as hard as I could, my thoughts kept straying from my spelling words. That night I had a dream about the dog. I had taken the dog into our apartment, but my parents didn’t like him. They said I had to leave him outside, or they’d deal with him. I didn’t know what they meant by “deal with him”, so I handed the dog over. Then, I couldn’t believe what they did- they chopped him up and threw the pieces away! The next morning, I thought better of mentioning the dog at all. However, when I got to school, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Before lunch my whole class knew about the strange lady that had left the forlorn-looking dog on my street.
“Did she look old fashioned, or just stuck up?” asked Jess, who was quite stuck up herself.
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Annabelle cooed. “She left the dog all alone on the street!”
I leaped off the bus as soon as the doors opened, and rushed down the block.
“Wait!” called Annabelle. “Wait for me!”
“I can’t!” I called over my shoulder. “I’ve got to get home!”
My feet pounded on the cement. I nearly tripped over the black blur that dashed into the road. I stopped short.
“Come here boy,” I called. The dog whimpered and shied away.
“Here, doggy, doggy, doggy!” By this time, Annabelle had caught up with me, and she too, was calling to the dog. The forlorn looking creature edged farther away from us.
Annabelle lived in the apartment building too, but her apartment was much roomier than mine. She lived with only her mother, as I lived with my mother, father, and grandmother.
After Annabelle had left, I tiptoed across the street, and slowly approached the black fur ball. He ran to the other end of the block. I gave up at that point. Even getting near the dog would be a laborious task.
I walked into the apartment building.
“Good afternoon, Beth Anne,” said a maid, stepping out of the elevator. Silently, I walked into the elevator, just as the doors started to close. I pressed the number “5” button. The fifth floor was the highest level, but the windows didn’t give you much of a view, because of the run down streets below.
When the elevator doors opened, (after a ten second ride) I stepped out and started down the long, narrow hallway. I squeezed against the wall, as a maid puffed by pushing a large cart of cleaning supplies in front of her. I continued down the hall, and stopped at the door labeled “525”. I knocked, and after a series of mumbles and shuffling footsteps, the door opened. My grandmother, dressed in a nightgown, was standing in the doorway, half asleep. She hadn’t left the apartment for four years. In her ill condition, she had barely left her bed for the past four years.
“Hello, dear,” she said. My mother, who had been working in the kitchen, stepped in the doorway beside Grandma.
“Beth Anne,” my mother said calmly, “I would like to talk with you.”
I followed Mom through the apartment into my bedroom, which provided the best view of the cobblestone road. We both sat down on the bed and made ourselves comfortable.
“Beth Anne, there is an animal down there on our street.” My heart froze. What if she wants to give him to a pet store or an animal shelter that won’t treat him well?
“Do you know anything about that creature?” Mom asked.
“Well, no.” I replied nervously. I wanted tell her about the lady who left him, about the strange connection I felt I had with him, but something inside me told me not to.
“Are you sure?” Mom asked me. She could tell I was lying.
“I’m sure.” I tried to make my answer sound positive and definite.
“All right,” Mom sighed and left the room.
As the days passed, things got worse. Mom started to guess what was going on with Barney, and I started to fall behind in schoolwork, worrying about the dog. By the end of the next week, Mom had discovered that a strange lady had left him on our street, that I wanted to rescue him, and that he needed a home.
“Sorry, honey.” Mom said. “You know your grandmother is sick. We can’t afford to have a dog in the apartment. We’re making Grandma sicker as it is.” I sighed.
Rescuing Barney would be a lot harder than I thought.
“Besides, your dad isn’t a big dog person.”
Wow, I thought. This couldn’t get any harder. I thought in despair for a few seconds, while silly, impossible thoughts popped in and out of my mind. My thoughts drifted to my “London Ladies.”
“London Ladies” are ten-inch dolls that nearly every girl in London has. They all have different books written about them, and they’re always doing brave things, so they can do what they really feel passionate about. I could do something like that, not a miracle, but something.
“Mom, why has Grandma been sick for four years? I mean, if she was diagnosed with something, she would be given medicine, and she would have recovered, right?”
“You‘re right,” Mom chuckled. “That is exactly what should have happened. She was diagnosed with a terrible case of pneumonia, so terrible that she needed six weeks’ worth of medicine. The medicine was awful- it smelled terrible and apparently tasted terrible. After three weeks, she refused to take her medicine; she got sicker and sicker. Now she may be beyond recovery.”
I thought about what Mom had said about dad not being a big dog person. I wasn’t a big dog person either, or not until I saw what happened to ‘the dog on our street’ (now a commonly-used phrase in our household). In that case, by telling Dad this dog’s sad story, he might appreciate dogs more. But convincing Dad would have to wait until the weekend, when I actually could spend time with him. Until then, I would convince Grandma that a dog was good for our family. With both Dad and Grandma on my side, Mom would surely agree.
Finally, Saturday came. After lunch I pulled Dad aside. I told him everything I knew, (about Grandma) everything Mom knew, (everything) and everything Grandma knew. (Nothing) After I finished I asked Dad,
“What do you think we should do?”
“Gee, I don’t know. What I would do is take him in as our own- I’m just worried about Grandma’s heath.”
I grinned. This was working nearly perfectly.
“I talked to Grandma. She refuses to take any medicine at all, but she doesn’t want a dog because she’s sick.”
“Yeah,” Dad agreed. “Grandma’s strange that way. And, if we sneak her medicine into her drink, she won’t want him in the house because she won’t know she’s healthy.”
“Yup” I sighed.
Now, remember how I told you about how Barney got to this rundown street in the middle of London? And you’re probably wondering how I know that, right? And as you read this you say to yourself “Dogs can’t talk!” And you’re right, they can’t. But they have a sense of recognition, and they can understand what you say. That’s what happened between Barney and I.
This happened the Thursday before I talked with Dad. I was coming home from the bus stop, and the dog dashed across the road, and planted himself right in front of my feet. He looked up at me, his eyes more pitiful and empty than any dog’s eyes should be. They seemed to question me.
“I think I know where you came from,” I said in reply to his steady eyes. I made up two crazy stories about how he had wound up here, on Stones End Street. One told how they had floated down from the sky in a terrible storm. The other described how they barely had enough money to survive, so Mrs. Toucan (aka Mrs. Miller) had to leave him here. He continued staring at me, obviously not impressed. That was when I came up with the most realistic, but still most wild story yet. It was the exact same story that I told you in the beginning of the story, if you can remember that far back. Barney’s stare had changed, and I knew that my story was 100% accurate, that I had told it word for word. That was the first time I noticed his collar. The words on the faded collar tag read:
These words proved my story completely true.
I called Mom quickly before taking off.
“I going to the drugstore to get something for Grandma.” I said. I heard Mom sigh on the other end.
“Honey, she’ll never take it.”
“It’s worth a try,” I tried to sound optimistic, but Mom was right, Grandma would never take any medicine. I hurried off to the drugstore. I stepped through the door and nearly collided with another girl, just my age. She too, seemed lost in thought. The lady at the front desk seemed eager to help me.
“What can I do for you, Ma’am?” she asked.
“Um, can you help me find some medicine for a terrible, terrible case of pneumonia?” We walked silently down the aisles. Finally, the lady asked,
“How old is this person?”
“About seventy, I suppose,” I answered.
She scanned the shelf, then silently handed me a bottle. I gave her the correct amount of cash, after glancing at the medicine.
“Good luck!” the lady called after me. I hurried home to Grandma’s bedside.
“Hello dear,” she said.
“Grandma, do you ever get lonely?”
“Why yes I do, honey. Ah, it would be nice to have company while everyone was away.”
“I wish we could have a dog.” I said. “A dog would surely keep you company.”
“Yes, I agree. Wouldn’t a dog be wonderful? But my health truly stands in the way. If only somebody would give me a second chance, get me some medicine…”
“Grandma,” I had to interrupt her thoughts in order to get a chance to speak.
“Grandma, I got you some medicine. It says…” I paused. “It says it’s naturally flavored. You should like it.”
“I should like to have my first dose right now.”
Mikaela Finlay is a fourth grader at Germantown Friends School. This story is not her first, but this is the first time Mikaela has had her work published. When not writing, she likes to spend her time crocheting and illustrating. When Mikaela read an excerpt from this story at the November 10 Philadelphia Stories, Junior release party at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Arts Center in Old City, she was cheered on by her parents, her grandparents, and her sister, Anya.