Carter could hardly wait to get to school. As soon as the bus dropped him off he headed for the playground, instead of running into the classroom with Timmy and his other friends. Behind the building, he looked carefully around.
Rusty was nowhere to be seen. His heart sank.
"What are you doing out here?" Timmy asked, chasing after him.
"Nothing," Carter murmured, his shoulders slumping. All night he could barely sleep thinking about the stray. The more he thought about it, the more he realized this wasn't just any dog. This was his dog. His Rusty. God had sent him this dog. Rusty was the answer to Carter's prayer.
"Wanna play soccer?" Timmy asked. "I can get Cameron and Isaiah and - "
Timmy looked as dejected as Carter felt. "It's cold out here. Let's go inside."
"All right." Timmy followed him off the playground and into the building.
When classes started, he had trouble paying attention to Ms. Jensen. Carter kept wondering what had happened to Rusty. He worried that Animal Control had picked him up, and then worried that they hadn't.
Deep down, Carter knew that if Rusty was at a shelter, he'd at least be out of the cold. And there'd be plenty of food for him. But Carter had brought an extra-big lunch today, just in case.
After the recess bell rang, his friends dashed out the door, eager to put on their winter clothes and get onto the playground.
"Carter." Ms. Jensen stopped him.
Carter trudged over to his teacher. "Yes, Ms. Jensen?" He thought about asking if she'd seen the stray dog recently, but then he remembered Mr. Nicholson's warning.
"Is everything all right?"
"Yes, Ms. Jensen."
"At home, I mean."
He nodded. He wanted to tell her that his family wasn't getting Christmas presents this year and that he'd lied to his friends. He still felt bad about misleading Timmy. But he didn't want the other kids to know that the only gift under the tree would be underwear from his grandmother.
"You don't seem yourself. Are you feeling well?"
"I'm fine, Ms. Jensen. Can I go outside now?"
"All right. Oh, and thank your mother for the cookies she sent me."
"I will," Carter promised.
As he hurried onto the playground, Carter noticed that his teacher was still watching him. No sooner was he outside with his friends than he saw Rusty. Carter could hardly breathe, he was so excited.
Rusty saw Carter, too, and even though one of the third-grade girls was offering him a cracker, the dog shot across the schoolyard. Carter knelt down to greet his friend. Rusty licked his face and seemed as happy to see Carter as Carter was to see him. Carter dug inside his pocket for a meatball he'd managed to smuggle out of the refrigerator early that morning. Rusty gobbled it up and looked to Carter for more.
"I'm sorry," Carter told him, and then because he was so ecstatic, he wrapped his arms around the dog. He didn't care that Rusty was filthy or that the sleeves of his winter jacket came away all muddy. His mother would be upset, but even her displeasure was worth the enjoyment Carter received from this special dog.
"We can't let Mr. Nicholson see you," Carter warned, then ran over to where his friends were playing.
Rusty followed Carter wherever he went. When Mr. Nicholson stepped into the yard, the stray quickly and quietly disappeared, just as if he understood.
Carter turned around and looked for him, but Rusty was nowhere in sight. Then he saw that the dog had gone into the trees that separated the schoolyard from the nearby houses.
"Good boy," Carter whispered. Rusty was no dummy. He knew who his friends were - and his enemies.
At lunchtime, Carter only ate his apple. The rest he saved for Rusty. Once again the mutt gobbled the food and gazed up at Carter with bright, shining eyes that revealed his gratitude.
Carter petted Rusty's head, although his hand got really dirty. What would happen to the dog over the holidays, when there was no one at the school? Who'd feed Rusty then? Who'd watch out for him? Carter already knew the answer. No one. After today, school was over for the year, and the yard would remain empty until the first week of January. Rusty could starve by then.
Holding the dog's muddy face between his hands, Carter peered into his deep brown eyes. Disregarding what his father had said, Carter whispered, "Rusty, listen, I need you to follow me home."
The dog blinked and stared back at him intently.
"I take bus number seven. Follow that bus, okay?"
Rusty cocked his head to one side.
Carter didn't know what more he could do. Disconsolate, he tried to accept that the dog wouldn't understand him, no matter how many times he repeated the information. After today, when the bus delivered Carter to his home, it was unlikely he'd ever see Rusty again. Carter couldn't bear to have that happen, but he had to prepare himself for disappointment.
Because it was the last day before winter break, school was dismissed an hour early. While Carter lined up with his friends for bus number seven, he scanned the area for Rusty. Again the dog was nowhere to be seen, and once again Carter's heart fell.
"You wanna come to my house and play video games?" Timmy asked, plopping down on the seat next to Carter.
His friend seemed dejected.
"Can I come on Monday?" Carter asked.
"Sure." Timmy perked up right away. "I'll show you all my presents under the tree."
"Okay." Carter tried to smile but it was hard. He was glad that his friend was getting lots of gifts. He wanted gifts, too - stacks and stacks of them. But Carter would give up every single one for Rusty.
God had answered his prayer, Carter told himself, struggling to believe. Rusty would find him. God had sent Rusty to that schoolyard and now God would figure out a way to bring him to Carter's house.
The bus stopped, and Cameron and Isaiah got off and ran to their home at the end of the street. Their house was the biggest and nicest in the neighborhood.
The next stop was for Carter and Bailey's block. Grabbing his backpack, Carter felt his heart beating hard. He hoped with all his might that Rusty would find his way. Bus number seven. He'd told Rusty to follow bus number seven. Carter knew it would be a miracle if the dog had understood him, but God was in charge of miracles, and He'd already worked one. If He could do one miracle and send him a dog, then God should be able to accomplish two.
When the doors of the bus opened, Carter stepped down and looked in both directions. Rusty wasn't there. His heart felt about as heavy as...as a two-ton truck.
"Move," Bailey said, coming down the steps and shoving him in the back.
"Hey," Carter complained.
"You're blocking the exit," Bailey informed him in that prim tattletale voice she sometimes used.
Carter got completely off the bus then and started slowly down the sidewalk to their house. Bailey walked beside him.
"I saw you with that dog on the playground again," his sister said, matching her steps to his. She held her backpack with both hands, leaning into the cold wind.
"You're not gonna tell Mom and Dad, are you?"
"No. He's a nice dog."
Carter nodded. "He's smart, too." But not smart enough to follow bus seven. Not smart enough to know that winter break had begun and there'd be no one at the school to feed him or play with him or anything else. Sooner or later, he'd be picked up by Animal Control.
"You should wash off your coat before Mom sees it," his sister warned.
Carter had forgotten about the mud on his sleeves. "I will. You go in the house first, all right?"
True to her word, Bailey went into the house and while she distracted their mother, Carter removed his coat in their bedroom, then entered the kitchen.
"Ms. Jensen thanked you for the cookies," Carter told his mother. She was folding towels fresh from the dryer on the kitchen table and nodded absently. "Your father's working late this evening," she said. "He's getting overtime pay, and that's good."
"He said we should have dinner without him."
"Can we have macaroni and cheese out of a box?" Carter asked. That was one of his favorites, and he knew it must not cost very much because his mother never objected when he asked for it.
"Okay," she said.
"I wanted hot dogs," Bailey whined.
His mother smiled. "We'll have both."
While his sister helped their mother put away the towels, Carter loped into the bathroom for a clean washcloth and soaked it. Then he wrung it out and took it into the bedroom where he'd put his coat. He wiped off the sleeves. The washcloth got muddy, but his coat looked a lot better.
"Mom said we could watch television," Bailey said, coming into the room.
Since his sister would choose sissy programs, Carter wasn't interested.
"I'm gonna go read."
That was an activity his parents always approved of. The only reason he decided on it now was that he didn't feel like doing anything else. He didn't want to visit his friends or watch television or even play with his toys. He just wanted to forget Rusty. Apparently God only did one miracle at a time. Carter had been wrong.
Slumping down on the floor, he opened his book, but he could hardly concentrate on the story. About fifteen minutes later, his sister barreled into the bedroom. "Carter, come and look!"
"Just come," she insisted, annoying him with every word.
"Oh, all right," he muttered.
She led him to the living room, where the television was situated. She pointed out the front window.
There was Rusty, walking up and down the sidewalk, looking this way and that.
Carter nearly screamed with happiness. "It's Rusty!"
"I know." His sister's eyes were huge.
Without bothering to get his coat, Carter burst out the door. "Rusty!" he cried. "Rusty."
As soon as the dog heard Carter, he turned and bolted toward him. Carter dared not hug him now because his mother would see all the mud. But how could she be angry? God had sent them this dog. Carter had proof that Rusty was the answer to his prayer.
"This way, boy," Carter said and led him to the back of the house. Because their mother had told them their dad would be late, Carter put Rusty in the garage. By the time he'd finished, his teeth were chattering with cold and excitement.
"Are you going to tell Mom?" Bailey asked, meeting him in the hallway.
"Not yet." A plan was taking shape in Carter's mind. "If Mom asks where I am, tell her I'm taking a bath."
"Are you?" Bailey wanted to know.
"No." He shouldn't have to spell everything out to his sister. "I'm going to give Rusty one. When he's all cleaned up, Mom will see what a good dog he is and talk Dad into letting me keep him."
Bailey's eyes widened and she nodded conspiratorially.
Carter filled the bathtub with warm water and then at an opportune moment, went into the garage and scooped up Rusty. He was heavier than Carter had thought but it was important that he not leave dog tracks on the floor. Once inside the house, Carter glanced around to make sure his mother wasn't looking. Then he hurried down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door with his foot. He gently set the dog in the bath, then turned quickly to lock the door.
It didn't take Carter long to make a startling discovery about Rusty. When he did, tears sprang to his eyes. Beneath all the caked mud and dirt, Rusty had auburn-colored fur. This really was the dog God had sent. He was perfect in every way.
Rusty loved the water. He stood still while Carter lathered him with the shampoo their mother had bought for him and Bailey. Then he rinsed him off with the cup that was by the sink. Rusty didn't bark even once. Using the towel still warm from the dryer, Carter had just lifted Rusty out of the tub to dry him when Rusty began to shake himself like crazy, spraying water in every direction.
"Rusty!" Carter protested, raising his hands to his face to wipe off the water.
"Carter," his mother called from the other side of the bathroom door. "Who's in there with you?"
He wanted to lie and answer no one, but he remembered what his stomach had felt like when he'd lied. "A friend," Carter called back. That was true. Rusty was his friend.
"What are you doing in there?"
The door handle twisted and then his mother called again. "Carter, unlock the door this minute!"
Carter bit his lip as Rusty gazed back at him trustingly. "Okay, boy," he whispered. "It's showtime."
Carter unlatched the bathroom door and opened it for his mother. She stood there, hands on her hips. The moment she saw Rusty, her eyes went soft - and then immediately went hard again.
"Oh, Carter, a dog."
"But this is my dog, Rusty. God sent him."
"Carter..." His mother was almost crying. "Look at the bathtub. It's filthy." Sure enough, there was dirt on the bottom of the tub and the ring around the sides was pretty bad, too.
"I'll clean it up," Carter promised. He would've done so earlier, but his mother had interrupted him.
"He's a really good dog, Mom," Carter felt obliged to tell her.
"I'm sure he is, honey. It's just that I don't know what we're going to tell your father."
Carter looked at Rusty and then at the worried expression on his mother's face. He didn't know what they'd tell his dad, either.