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be sure to check out Joan's latest on her website: (usually she updates her blog every Sunday evening but she can and will surprise you) **Special Note: all of Joan's archives are now up--almost ten years of 'bitter girl.' As Joan says, go wild!**

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Story of the Little Girl and the Lost Puppy

This is a short story I wrote last winter before I started the rewrite on the book but I never did anything with it, so I thought I'd post it here.

This is the story of a little girl named Marci and her trip to the mall and a lost puppy. One day, Marci’s mommy took Marci along to go clothes shopping. At first, Marci was very excited about going to the mall, because she loved to shop and she loved the food court and maybe, just maybe, if she was a good girl, her mommy might buy her an ice cream sundae with hot fudge and sprinkles and a cherry on top. But Marci’s excitement quickly turned to boredom after hours and hours of trudging around after her mommy, store after store where nobody was anywhere near her age, there were no clothes for anyone near her age, and there was nothing to do but stand or sit around and wait while her mommy tried on outfit after outfit, dress after dress, and shoe after shoe.
Finally, Marci started to drag, whine and complain enough so that she was getting on her mommy’s nerves, so the usual threats, counter-threats, and half-hearted promises were made, to the point where Marci had stopped whining but now she was sullen, pouting and fuming, sitting as she was in one of the larger department stores while her mommy was busy with the shoe saleswoman.
An old man in a yellow windbreaker sat down next to her. “Hi, little girl,” he greeted her kindly. “You look like you’re all shopped out.”
Marci continued to look disgusted while she glanced up at him. “Hi,” she repeated in a huffy voice. “I’m just waiting on my mommy. She said we’d get some ice cream if I sat here and shut my face till she was done.”
The old man nodded with a twinkle in his eye as he smiled at her. “That sounds like a fair deal,” he responded. “Looks like you also get to guard all of the loot,” he went on, gesturing to all the bags from all the stores that they’d been to, surrounding Marci’s feet, on her lap, and piled all over the chair on the other side.
“Yeah,” Marci confirmed, finally sitting up, coming a little out of her self-imposed funk, gazing at all their ill-gotten gains. “I guess I do.”
“You haven’t seen a little brown puppy, with big floppy ears, by any chance, have you?”
Marci’s eyes widened at this. “A little brown puppy?” she again echoed, her voice rising in anticipation and intonation.
“Yeah,” the old man replied as he nodded. “I had him with me a little while ago, but now he’s gone, and I’m all sad, because I miss him.”
“You lost your puppy?” she repeated back, her voice still rising, her sea-green eyes wider and wider.
“Yes,” the kindly old man replied. “His name is Rascal. Would you help me find him?”
“What’s his name again? Rassel?”
“Rascal,” the old man kindly repeated. “I call him that because sometimes he gets into mischief, just like that wascally wabbit on TV.”
“His name is Rascal?” Marci once more asked.
“Yes,” the old man kindly confirmed. “He was right here a minute ago but now I can’t seem to find him. Have you seen him?”
Before Marci could reply, a group of women with one man came through the chairs area where she had been sitting, and the old man she had been talking to had to move out of the way so that the group could get by. Then, just as suddenly, Marci’s mother returned to her side with conspicuously no new purchase but a fresh sense of irritation and renewed purpose. “Come on,” Marci’s mother announced to her daughter. “They’re out of my size in everything I like. Still want some ice cream?”
“Mommy,” Marci began slowly, looking around, unable to shift mental gears that quickly, still internally engaged with her previous conversation, “that old man lost his puppy.”
“That’s nice, dear,” her mother automatically commented without listening to her daughter as she was still collecting all her bags, trying to mentally delegate how many Marci could reasonably be expected to carry as far as the food court without becoming a whiner again.
“Mommy,” Marci repeated, still not making any moves to get up out of her chair and also beginning to get annoyed by her mother dismissing her as she just did, “this man just told me he lost his puppy around here, and his name is Rascal, and he–"
"What?” Marci’s mother snapped at her, hearing only part of what her daughter just told her over the general noise of the department store and not understanding what she had heard. “What are you talking about? Do you still want some ice cream or not?”
Marci’s inability to reconcile her concern for the old man’s dog with her previous desire for ice cream preempted a direct response to her mother, and instead precipitated tears. “Mommy–" she stammered, her face contorted even as her brain tried to sort all this out.
Marci’s mother pinched the corners of her mouth as she stopped at the sight of her daughter beginning to cry, mistaking this for shopping overload. She set down some of the bags she had picked up and sat down herself in the chair next to Marci. “Oh sweetie,” she demurred more soothingly. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
Her mother’s hand at Marci’s forehead, brushing back Marci’s hair, had the intended effect of calming the little girl down to the point where she could speak again. “Oh Mommy,” she exclaimed through sniffles after wiping away her tears, “I’m sad because the man lost his puppy.”
Marci’s mother blinked. “What puppy?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
“The old man who was just here,” Marci replied. “He–I guess he had his puppy with him and he lost him.”
“Who told you this?” Marci’s mother inquired in a much different tone of voice, her eyes growing wide with realization.
“The old man that was just here. He was looking for his puppy.”
“You mean you were talking to someone while I was trying on shoes?”
Marci nodded, her eyes still shiny from her tears. “Uh-huh,” she confirmed.
“Where is this man now?” was Marci’s mother’s next question, after looking around and seeing no one that matched that description.
“I don’t know,” Marci admitted, her voice going small, beginning to suspect from her mother’s hard-edged tone and stony-eyed countenance that she was in trouble, that she’d done something wrong here.
Marci’s mother blinked again, seeing that she was putting her daughter on the defensive. “Sweetie, I’m not angry with you; I’m just a little concerned,” she reassured Marci in a more normal tone of voice. “Now, do you see the man you were just talking to?”
Marci looked around. “Nope,” she replied, clipping the word short. “Not any more.”
“But he told you he’d lost his puppy,” her mother repeated to her, though not in the frame of a question.
“Yup,” Marci again responded, nodding.
Marci’s mother looked around herself and then motioned for the woman who had been waiting on her. When the saleswoman came over, Marci’s mother entreated to her, “Karen, would you call security for me? Some man just sat down next to my daughter here and asked her to help him find his puppy.”
When Marci’s father got home from work that Friday afternoon, he was surprised to find his wife taking a bubble bath with a bottle of red wine and a half filled glass next to the tub on the floor. “Oh honey,” Marci’s mother exclaimed in a rush, her relief coming out of her all at once, “I’m so glad you’re home. I was ready to strangle Marci; she’s in her room now and I wish you’d talk to her.”
A little while later, after getting the fifteen minute version of that day’s events from his wife, Marci’s father opened the door to Marci’s room after knocking twice, although not waiting for an answer. “Sugar?” he asked. “Are you awake?”
Marci sniffed but didn’t turn over in her bed to face his way. “Hi Daddy,” she greeted him softly in the other direction.
“Hi sweetie,” he responded, closing the door to her bedroom. “How’s my little girl?”
Marci hugged her teddy bear even closer but still didn’t turn over. “O.K. I guess,” she allowed after she sniffed again.
“Are you still crying?” her father inquired after sitting down next to her on her bed and laying a hand on her shoulder.
At her father’s touch, Marci turned over and started up her routine again, the same one that had worn her mother to a frazzle. “Oh Daddy,” she pleaded, her voice rising, her face red from crying all afternoon, “we have to find that puppy!”
“Honey, c’mere,” Marci’s father directed as he lifted his daughter up into his arms to hug her. After a few minutes, the little girl calmed down enough so that he thought he could talk to her. “Marci, honey,” he began, “I want to explain something to you. There is no puppy.”
Marci instinctively backed away from her father to reply. “But the old man told me he’d lost him.”
Her father shook his head. “That was just a lie. There never was a puppy; he was just a very bad man and this is why you shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
Marci's waterworks started again, but this time she didn’t lose her composure. “But he wasn’t a bad man, Daddy. He was very nice, and he wanted me to help him find his puppy.”
“Trust me on this, Marci–he was a very bad man and there was no puppy.”
Marci had backed off from her father even more at this, as his voice was getting harder and louder. “Then why would he tell me there was?” she heard herself softly asking her father in contrast to how angry her father was becoming.
“Honey,” he began again, trying to keep his tone civil and low, “because he most likely wanted to do something--very bad to you, and the easiest way to get your attention and enlist your interest was to make up some bogus story about a lost puppy. Now I want you to promise me that you are never, ever going to talk to strangers again, just like we went over when you were a little girl. Do you remember that?”
Marci looked at her father through her tears. “Yes, Daddy,” she levelly responded back. “I remember.”
“Good,” her father pronounced. “Because this whole thing could have been avoided if only you hadn’t talked to this–person. So–do you promise me?”
“Daddy–" Marci had begun once more, feeling the same wave of conflicting emotions and intellectual overload coming at her again.
“Marci,” her father entreated her in the same fashion. “I am telling you all this and explaining it to you because you are a very sweet young lady and your mommy and I don’t want to see anything happen to you. You have to understand that there are some very bad people in the world who want to harm little children and the easiest way to keep away from them is to not talk to strangers. So–do you promise not to talk to anybody you don’t know without your mother or me or Grandma or Grandpa there?”
Marci looked at her father again, her eyes still all red but she had stopped crying. “But Mommy was with me there today,” she explained, once more resisting the urge to tell her father what he wanted to hear and just be done with this entire deal.
Her father held his breath for a moment before he countered with, “But she wasn’t right there with you at the time you were talking to this man, was she?”
“No,” Marci admitted. “She was with the shoe lady.”
“Right,” her father concluded. “That’s what I’m talking about. Please promise me you won’t ever, ever talk to someone like that, that you don’t know, unless one of us is right there with you.”
“O.K. Daddy,” Marci agreed. “I promise.”
Her father hugged her again. “That’s my good girl,” he enthused to her in congratulations, thinking he was home free now and out of the woods.
Marci drew back from her father once again before she started back up with, “But, Daddy, you don’t understand–the puppy. He could still be lost there, in that big huge mall, all by himself, with no water, no food–"
"I don’t believe this,” her father exasperatingly exclaimed to himself, talking on top of what his daughter was saying. “Oh, my God. I seriously don’t believe this.”
A few hours later, between the two of them, Marci’s parents had finally gotten Marci to the point where she wasn’t crying, wasn’t whining about the puppy, and tired enough to finally conk out, with the hope that by the next day, with a good night’s sleep, this whole thing would blow over and be replaced by whatever adventure or crisis or infatuation that would next come Marci’s way.
That should be the end of our story but it isn’t. For shortly before Marci’s parents were themselves preparing for bed, the telephone rang.
Marci’s father picked up the receiver. After a couple of short questions, he handed the phone to his wife. “Hello?” she said into it.
“Hello, Mrs. Woods?” the voice asked on the other end.
“I’m sorry to be bothering you so late. This is Illena Marquez, with the Gardens Mall security. I was the one helping your daughter make her statement to the police this afternoon.”
“Oh, hi. No bother about the call. What can I do for you?”
“Well, there’s been a development in the case, and I thought I should call you as soon as possible.”
“Oh. Really. What’s happened?”
After drawing up, the voice on the other end continued, “Well, we’ve discovered a small dog, believe it or not, outside the store where your daughter was approached, out in the mall, and I thought we should call you, before we call Animal Control.”
“A small dog?” Marci’s mother repeated, looking at her husband.
“Yes, it looks like a beagle, brown and white, maybe seven or eight weeks along. No collar, no tag, but the coat looks healthy, looks like someone took care of him. Not a stray, can’t understand how he got here, but here he is.”
“Oh, wow.”
“Yeah, I know. Very strange, eh?”
“Yeah,” Marci’s mother said back. “You could say that.”
“Yeah. My supervisor’s gone for the day but I’m almost sure he’s going to want to call the pound if nobody shows up to claim him by the weekend, and before all that happened, I just thought I’d call you, to see what you want to do.”
“How do you mean?” Marci’s mother slowly inquired, not tracking where the other woman was going with this. “Do you mean, to see if the same man who was talking to my daughter shows up to claim him, or–"
"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of, would you be interested in the dog if nobody does claim him?”
“Would I be interested in the dog if nobody does claim him?” Marci’s mother repeated while looking at her husband again.
While Marci’s father was waving his hands in front of him in a crisscross and mouthing, No, absolutely not, to her, unbeknownst to either of them, Marci had just walked into the room, standing in her pajamas and hugging her teddy bear, behind them, having heard everything. “Daddy,” she wailed in exasperation to the heavens for the umpteenth time that day.
The next evening, at a family cook-out, Marci’s uncle Pete complicated the problem with his exclamation, “Shoot, if you don’t want that dog, I’ll take him. Do you know how much beagle puppies cost, especially healthy ones with all their shots?”
This left Marci’s father in a bind. On the one hand, he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the dog because he felt that giving in would only reinforce to Marci that it’s actually all right to talk to strangers, there really isn’t any danger and everybody smiles and wins in the end, just like on television, with the usual happy ending, the studio audience going crazy with applause, and the end theme music playing them out. On the other hand, with his brother Pete making such a brazen observation and offer, along with Marci’s new solemn and reproachful silence that she had been trying out on both of her parents all day long with success, with none of yesterday’s teary-eyed histrionics, Marci’s father was coming to the very unfortunate conclusion that, were he to continue on his present course, this would be only the beginning of Marci’s Kentucky Fried Freeze-out toward him, only the beginning of years and years of wide-eyed, silent, solemn stares as he had been getting all day long from her, the beginning of a path that would inexorably lead to the whole teenage estrangement and rebellion situation that he had been dreading so much.
When Marci’s father got home from work on Monday afternoon, he felt like everyone was walking on eggshells around him. Not much conversation during dinner, and then after, the telephone rang again.
Marci’s mother answered it. She spoke to the person on the other end for a minute or two before she said, “Hold on.” She put the phone on mute, and walked into the living room where her husband was sitting on the couch, reading the newspaper. “It’s that same security guard from the mall. She says no one showed up for the dog, and her boss either wants us to pick it up, or they’re calling the pound first thing tomorrow morning.”
Marci’s father set down the paper. “Tell them we’ll call them back.” Then, after the smallest of pauses, he reversed himself. “No, hold on, we’ll get this settled right now. Marci?”
“Yes Daddy?” Marci called back from inside her room.
“Front and center, now, please.”
When Marci came into the room, Marci’s father asked her, “You do realize, that if I say yes on the dog, it would be yours and yours alone responsibility? If I have to say one thing to you about cleaning up after it, feeding it, washing it, anything–the dog is going straight and I do mean straight to Uncle Pete’s. One thing–do you understand me?”
Marci was ecstatic beyond words. “Oh Daddy!” she exclaimed with tears in her eyes.
“Marci,” her mother intervened, “tell your father, Yes, I understand, I will take care of the puppy.”
Marci repeated in the same joyous manner, “Yes! I understand!”
“Fine,” Marci’s father grumbled in antithesis to his daughter’s tone. “Tell them we’ll be over to pick up the dog in about fifteen minutes.”
And so Rascal the brown-eyed beagle puppy came to live with them, and Marci was miraculously transformed from the wide-eyed, silently brooding preteen that she had been since the weekend to the happy and expansive sugar-cereal charged Disney-channel quality young lady of her dreams, bouncy and perky enough for two. And against all odds, as the days and weeks went by, Rascal himself proved to be the perfect little pet, barking only on command, instantly housebroken and insanely energetic, providing the entire family with companionship, exercise and loyalty as if he had been sent from Heaven.
But Rascal hadn’t been sent from Heaven. Marci’s father knew something wasn’t quite right with this whole dog situation, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He was happy Marci seemed so animated, but the puppy seemed to learn too quickly. It was almost as if Rascal actually understood English–Marci would say something to him and Rascal would pause, tilting his head to the side, then Marci would repeat what she just said more slowly, and all of a sudden Rascal would actually do whatever Marci had suggested, much to her and her mother’s delight. If Marci’s father didn’t share their enthusiasm or even suggested something might be amiss, Marci and her mother would both groan and reproach him, so much so that he began to doubt his own instincts. Finally he resolved to set aside his concerns and joined with the rest of his family in their growing adoration and delight in Rascal.
One night, a few weeks after the puppy arrived, while everyone else was asleep, Rascal woke up. He jumped down off Marci’s bed and trotted out to the living room. There, on the coffee table, in the semi-darkness, were some notes from Marci’s father’s work. Rascal carefully put his paw on one page to move it to the right, so that the page underneath it was visible.
Many miles away, the kindly old man with the yellow windbreaker that Marci had talked to at the department store looked into his computer monitor to see what Rascal could see, that the notes on the coffee table were from Marci’s father’s work, a rival biotech firm that was competing with the kindly old man’s company for a large international grant. “Excellent,” the kindly old man chortled in imitation of Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons but forgot to rub his hands together in evil glee. “Everything is going according to plan,” he went on, deciding to forgo the requisite Bwah ha has until his concern actually had the money.

The moral of the story is: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is--or--any dog that is easily housebroken should be regarded with suspicion.

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