My eyes sought out the only golden pup in the litter. Sandy. I found him across the pen sitting alone, chewing on a stuffed toy. When I drew near the pen, I called his name. “Sandy!” He didn’t even look up. I felt sad and disappointed. Has he forgotten me already? I wondered. I slipped out of my parka and opened the gate. I had to be careful because the puppies started jumping up on my legs. I walked to Sandy and sat beside him. Immediately two other puppies came over. They started tugging at my sleeve and sniffing me. Sandy had stopped chewing his toy and sat up, quietly looking at me. I saw a red ribbon around his neck, and I knew that meant he was sold. I wanted to cry right then and there.
“Come here, Sandy.” I patted my lap.
In a bound, Sandy climbed into my lap and put his paws on my shoulders and began licking my face. I didn’t cry then. I started laughing. He’d remembered me.
I had to face that this was the last time I could play with Sandy. I picked up a stuffed rabbit and wiggled it. Immediately Sandy pounced on it, grabbing a long ear. This was our favorite game. I made a soft growling noise. Sandy did, too, as we played tug-of-war.
A few minutes later Mrs. Davidson came into the room. “Miller?”
I turned my head to look over my shoulder. Sandy was chewing the toy contentedly with a victor’s expression. I dreaded this moment. “Yes?”
“Honey, your mother’s here. She wants you to come out to the car.”
I looked back down at the puppy and drew him back in my lap for the last time. “I hope you get nice owners,” I told him. “Maybe a kid who will love you as much as I do.” I shook my head and sniffed. “No, that’s not possible. Nobody could love you more than me.” I bent low to press my face against his fur one last time. “Good-bye, Sandy.” I gave him a kiss. I felt the tears coming, but Dill had come into the room with his mother and I couldn’t let him see me cry. I gently moved the puppy from my lap and found my way around the other fur balls out the gate.
Mrs. Davidson was holding my coat. She looked near ready to cry.
“Thank you, Mrs. Davidson.”
“Everything’s going to be all right.” She bent to kiss me.
I ducked my head and walked sullenly to the front door. My mother was standing there, looking as sad as I felt. “Come on, honey.” She held out her arm to me.
I didn’t want her touching me. Did she think I’d forgiven her so easily? I scowled and walked past her out the door.
“Thanks for calling me,” Mama said to Mrs. Davidson.
“Call me later, Jenny,” Mrs. Davidson said to Mama in an urgent tone.
I sat in the dark car in the front passenger seat. It was just above freezing, and Mama had kept the car running with the heater on. It was getting dark again and it was barely four o’clock. It seemed to me it was dark all the time lately. Mama came walking swiftly down the path to the car and slid in beside me. I looked out the window, giving her the cold shoulder.
“So we’re back there again?”
I didn’t reply. I was learning from Taylor.
Without another word, Mama put the car in gear and backed out the driveway. We drove in dark silence down the narrow road. The headlights shone like twin flashlights. I looked up and saw the bare branches of the trees overhead. They looked like the ribs of a great whale. On Pinckney Street, Mama slowed, then came to a stop in front of T.W. Graham’s. Even in the winter the restaurant had the sandwich-board sign with the large hand-painted word EAT on top.
Mama put the car in park, turned off the engine, and unbuckled her seat belt. “Come on. We’re going to talk.”
I stared out the windshield and clenched my teeth. “I don’t want to.”
“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to. Let’s go.”
“No,” I said stubbornly.
“Miller,” she said in that tone she used when she wanted me to be reasonable. “I know you’re hurt. I want to explain what’s going on. I’d like it to be just between us. You and me.”
That stung and I swung my head around to face her. “We’re not a team. You lied to me. I don’t want to talk to you.” I turned away, slumped deeper in the seat, and dug my fists in my pocket.
“Look, Miller,” my mother said with heat. “I’m about at the end of my rope. Everyone’s treating me like I’m the villain. All I’m trying to do is make y’all happy!” she exclaimed, her voice rising. “And you now what? I’m tired! I’m tired of always trying and you always shutting me out. And your brother shutting me out.”
“You got him a dog!” I cried out accusingly.
“No, I didn’t,” she shouted back.
I don’t know who was more surprised that she shouted. Me or her.
Mama took a breath and said in a calmer voice, “This is important, Miller. So stop being a baby, unbuckle your seat belt, and get yourself into that restaurant. We need to talk, hear?”
She’d used her no-nonsense tone and I knew she was really getting mad. Begrudgingly I unbuckled my seat belt and pushed open the car door. I slammed the door for good measure, then walked with my hands in my pockets and my collar up to the entrance of the restaurant. The door swung open and Mr. and Mrs. Thorvalson came out. Mrs. Thorvalson recognized me and smiled, her blue eyes bright.
“Well, hey there, Miller! What a surprise. How are you? Excited for Christmas?”
“I guess,” I lied, looking at my feet. She was always real nice to me and let me visit the sea-turtle hospital at the SC Aquarium where she worked. “I’m here with my mama.”
My mother walked up at just that moment, and she and Mrs. Thorvalson kissed in welcome. They talked a few minutes about Christmas plans, then Mama gave me a nudge to enter the restaurant.
Usually I liked coming to T.W. Graham’s. It was real cozy, with the wood booths and square tables. But mostly I liked all the stuff on the walls—paintings, surfboards, fishing nets and equipment, funny signs. It was old-timey. My daddy said it was the only game in town. Mama called it a shrine. We came here a lot to eat crabs and fish. Daddy sometimes came to hang out with the Old Captains, a group of former shrimp boat captains who reminisced about days gone by. It wasn’t crowded now. A few of the Old Captains sat in one of the booths.
“Pick a booth,” Mama said.
I did and slid into it, still scowling.