He was far ahead, so I gripped my handlebars and pushed to catch up. Just remembering why we were going to his house gave me a burst of energy. We turned onto a hard-packed road bordered by huge oaks and longleaf pines that towered over us. I wouldn’t want to live this far into the Marion National Forest. It’s over 250,000 acres of woods, marsh, and wild things. It’s famous because this is where the patriot Francis Marion hid out against the British army during the Revolutionary War. He was called the Swamp Fox. You might’ve heard of him. The forest is so thick and the marsh so murky the British could never find him. Or maybe they just didn’t want to go in. I can understand that. Just last month a coyote ate one of Dill’s cats. Yep, I’d rather live by the ocean than the forest.
Dill’s house looks more like a big cabin, and it backs up right to the forest. You can’t barely see it in the dark. His family bought it after Hurricane Hugo destroyed their house in 1989, along with a lot of others. McClellanville was ground zero for the hurricane. Dill’s mama told me a boat was in their yard where the house used to be! After the hurricane his mother said she wouldn’t live near the ocean. They didn’t go too far. But here, deep in the forest, it feels miles from the water.
I dropped my bike on the ground and followed Dill into his house. A gruff bark of warning came from the back of the house, and a minute later Daisy, his chocolate-brown Lab, came trotting up to investigate. She passed by Dill and came to sniff my legs while I petted her head. I knew it was her habit because she’s superprotective now, but I could barely stand still since I was so excited to see her puppies! After a minute she wagged her tail and took the dog biscuit I always bring her. She’ll let me pass into the back room now.
“Hi, boys,” Mrs. Davidson called, sticking her head out from the kitchen. “How was school?”
“Good,” we replied in monotone unison.
“I made some cookies.”
I could smell the chocolate and my mouth watered, but nothing could keep me away from those puppies a second longer. “Thanks, Mrs. Davidson, but I’m not hungry. Can I see the puppies?”
Mrs. Davidson smiled the way mothers do when they aren’t fooled. “Sure. Be gentle with them, hear? They’re not so steady on their feet. But they’re already getting into mischief.”
Dill and I shot like bullets to the family room. I could hear the high-pitched yelping before I could see them. This is why I come to Dill’s house every day after school. The brown leather furniture was pushed back to accommodate the large black wire enclosure that corralled seven brown and yellow balls of fur. The puppies came racing to the edge, excitedly climbing over each other, whimpering for our attention.
Seeing a bunch of puppies just does something to your heart. Never fails. I couldn’t stop the “Awwww” that came from my mouth. I’d have been embarrassed but Dill was doing the same thing. I stepped over the railing, and suddenly was surrounded, each puppy trying to lick my nose, my ears. I was enveloped in a cloud of puppy breath. I laughed out loud, not only because it tickled but because they were so darn cute. I loved all seven of them. But I had eyes for only one.
I singled out one golden puppy and settled him in my lap. This one is mine. I called him Sandy Claws because he likes to dig. But also because it was Christmas. I came to Dill’s right after the puppies were born, so I knew them as well as anyone. For weeks, when Dill’s mother went to work in the afternoon, Dill and I babysat the pups. We did our homework sitting outside the fenced puppy arena. When they were newborns, they slept a lot. Now, not so much.
Dill’s mother came into the room with a plate of cookies. “It’s uncommon how that puppy really takes to you.”
“He chose me,” I said with pride. “He comes straight to my side and just stays here. Falls asleep right in my lap.” Sandy looked up at me, then stretched higher to lick my nose.
Mrs. Davidson set the plate on the side table and clasped her hands. She turned to face me, and she looked worried. “Miller, the puppies will be ready to go by Christmas. See all the colored ribbons?”
I noticed that most of the puppies now had ribbons tied around their necks in all different colors. I nodded, even as I saw that Sandy wasn’t wearing one.
“Those puppies have already sold. And I have a list of people who want one. I’m letting them come by this week to see the puppies and make a choice.” She paused. “Miller, one couple especially likes Sandy. I’ve tried to tell people he’s taken but . . . Well, he’s a very handsome boy. I can’t hold on to him much longer.”
My grip tightened around my puppy. No one could have Sandy but me.
“Honey, did you talk to your mama yet about whether you can get him?”
Sandy began to squirm in my tight grip. I loosened my arms but was unwilling to let him go. He stared up at me as though he could feel my tension. “Not yet. I, uh, I was thinking I could ask for him for Christmas.”
Mrs. Davidson’s face softened with worry. “I know, honey, Dill told me. I wish I could wait, but, you see, people want to buy the pups for Christmas gifts. They need to know now. And so do I.”
My lips tightened and my heart began pounding faster. The pups cost $300 each. That was as much as a video-game box.
“I was wondering, just in case,” I hedged. “I have seventy-five dollars saved. Could I give that to you as a deposit and just keep paying you bit by bit till I’m all paid up? I’ll work really hard. I promise.”
She smiled, but it was a sad smile. “You mean you want to buy him on layaway?”
I glanced at Dill. He was looking at the brown puppy in his lap, petting it with his face scrunched up with worry. His brown puppy had a red ribbon around its neck because Dill was getting to keep that puppy for himself for Christmas. I reckon he was embarrassed about not being able to just give me one.
I shrugged, not knowing what layaway meant. “I guess.”
Mrs. Davidson sighed, then walked closer to crouch down to me. She was being kind, but I knew bad news was coming.
“Honey, I wish I could say yes. But I can’t and here’s why. Buying the puppy is the cheapest part. You have to have money to take the dog to the vet, buy food and flea meds, and a whole lot more. It totals up to a lot of money. It wouldn’t be right for me to let you buy this puppy without your parents’ permission. They’ll have to own the dog with you. Do you understand? I wish I could, but I love the puppy too much to take that risk. And I’m too good of friends with your mama not to have her consent.” She paused. “Tell you what. You can have this puppy—and by the way, I think he’s the pick of the litter—for two hundred dollars. That will help some, I hope. Miller, do you want me to talk to your mother for you?”