Early Saturday morning, Carter tiptoed down to the laundry room as quietly as he could. After working late at the pizza place he managed, his father hadn't come home until way past Carter's bedtime. Carter had lain awake, worrying that his father would somehow discover Rusty in the house. If he did, he just might take the dog away in the middle of the night.
When Carter heard the garage door close, he'd prayed really hard that Rusty wouldn't bark at the strange noise. The dog seemed to have a sixth sense about things like that, because he stayed quiet all night.
Carter could hear his parents talking, and even though he'd had his ear against the door, he couldn't make out their words. All he knew was that after about ten minutes they went to bed. Then and only then was Carter able to sleep.
In the morning, he sneaked down the hallway and freed Rusty from the laundry room. Rusty wanted outside, and Carter let him into the backyard to do his business. As soon as he'd finished, Rusty hurried back onto the porch, where Carter waited for him.
"Are you hungry, boy?" Carter asked softly. No one else in the house was awake. He bent down and stroked the rich auburn fur of his new best friend. Then he led Rusty back into the laundry room and filled his water dish. He gave him a bowl of Wheaties with milk because they didn't have any dog food.
Rusty seemed to like the cereal and when he'd licked the bowl clean, Carter returned to his bedroom. The dog walked politely beside him. Without being asked, Carter made his bed, dressed and brushed his teeth, too. All the while, Rusty lay on his bedroom rug, his eyes never leaving Carter.
When he heard his parents stir, Carter was ready. He knew it would take a lot of fast talking to convince his father to let him keep Rusty. His one hope was that once he heard Rusty had followed him home, he'd understand that this was a special dog. This was the dog God had sent Carter.
Through his partially open door, he could hear his father step into the kitchen and immediately start making coffee. Rusty dashed out of the bedroom before Carter could stop him. He raced after the dog but it was too late. Rusty skidded into the kitchen, his long tail wagging excitedly.
His father caught sight of Rusty and bent down to pet him. "Where did you come from, boy?" he asked.
"Hi, Dad," Carter said tentatively.
"Do you have a friend spending the night?" David asked, glancing at his son.
Carter swallowed hard. "Rusty's my friend."
"Rusty?" his father repeated.
"I named him after the dog you had when you were a kid. You told me about him, remember?"
Slowly his father nodded. "Where did you get the dog, Carter?"
Carter's mother came into the kitchen just then, tying the sash on her housecoat. She looked uneasily from Carter to his father. "I meant to tell you about Rusty last night, David," she said, pouring them each a cup of coffee.
"I suppose it slipped your mind," David commented, frowning.
"No. I decided you were too tired and didn't need to deal with another problem. We couldn't do anything until morning anyway."
His father turned to Carter. "Where did you get the dog?" he asked a second time.
"He was in the schoolyard, but Dad, this is a special dog. Really special. Out of all the kids there, Rusty came to me."
"Did you feed him?"
"He was starving, Dad! And his coat was all muddy and...he needs a family."
"You gave him something to eat, didn't you?"
"Yes." Carter bit his lip. "I fed him a Twinkie and then Bailey let me have her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich." Because he wanted his father to know his sister hadn't willingly donated her sandwich, he explained. "I traded my Saturday TV privileges, though, so Bailey would give me her sandwich."
"Carter," his father said gently. "Rusty came to you because he thought you'd feed him."
"Not at first," Carter insisted. "He didn't know about the Twinkie."
"He could probably smell it in your pocket. Dogs have a keen sense of smell."
"As for him following you home?"
"Yes, he...Rusty's not just any dog. He's smart and he listens and he understands, too."
His father crouched down so they were eye to eye. "Did you encourage him to follow you?" he asked.
"He followed the bus! I told you, Dad - he's smart."
Reaching out, his father rested a hand on Carter's shoulder. "Rusty could see that you liked him."
"It's more than that!" Carter cried. "I prayed really hard and God sent me Rusty. He was so muddy I...I didn't even know his fur was red until I gave him a bath."
"In our tub?" his father asked.
Carter nodded reluctantly.
His father stood and cast him a disapproving look.
"Did he make a mess?" The question was directed at Carter's mother.
"I cleaned it up," Carter inserted. "Tell him, Mom, tell Dad that I washed out the bathtub and everything."
"He did," she confirmed, handing his father a mug of fresh coffee.
David accepted it, closing his eyes as he took his first sip. "I'm glad you cleaned up after the dog."
Relieved, Carter offered his father a hopeful smile. "It was like God was telling me this dog was for me because he had red fur."
A pained look appeared on his father's face. "Did you stop to think that Rusty might belong to another little boy?"
The thought had never entered Carter's mind. "Rusty might have another family?"
His father set the mug aside and put his hand on Carter's shoulder once again. "There could be a little boy out there who's lost his dog."
"Not Rusty," Carter said with certainty.
"We can't be sure of anything when it comes to a stray."
Carter shook his head. "Rusty needs a family," he stated boldly. "Our family. He adopted us."
The same sad look came over his father. "I wish we could keep him. He seems like a nice dog."
"He's a wonderful dog, and he's housebroken and he doesn't eat much. He can have my food."
David drew one hand across his face. "If it was just a matter of food, we could deal with that, but it isn't. I already explained this to you, Carter. There are the vet's fees for one thing. Since Rusty's been on the streets for a while, he should be checked out by a veterinarian."
"I'll pay for it with my allowance," Carter said. "I have thirty dollars and seventy-six cents."
"David," his mother murmured in a soft, pleading voice.
"That wouldn't begin to cover the cost of a checkup and shots. And what if he needs some kind of treatment? Then there's the license and heaven knows what else. We can't keep him, Carter. I don't want to sound heartless but we'd be doing Rusty a disservice, too."
Carter didn't want to cry but his eyes filled with tears before he could hold them back.
His mother wrapped her arms around him and held him close. "I'm so sorry, honey," she whispered.
"Where will you take him?" Carter sobbed, looking up at his father.
"He'll have to go to the animal shelter."
"No, Daddy, please!" Bailey came into the kitchen, dragging her stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear on the linoleum. She was still in her pajamas and her hair was all frizzy because she'd gone to bed with it wet.
"Can't Rusty stay until Christmas?" Carter begged.
"That'll just make it harder to give him up," his father said. "Besides, we don't know if he's picked up any parasites, and the sooner he's checked out, the better."
Rusty lay down on the small rug in front of the kitchen sink and rested his head on his paws. Bailey sat on the floor next to him.
"Get up, Bailey. He probably has fleas."
"No, he doesn't, Dad," Carter said. "I washed him real good. Ask Mom."
"We'll take him down to the shelter this afternoon," his father said, not waiting to see if Bailey obeyed him. He walked out of the kitchen.
"Mom?" Carter could feel the tears running down his face.
"You heard your father." She looked like she wanted to cry, too.
"Remember what Dad said about some other little boy losing Rusty? Can you imagine how happy he'll be to find him?"
Carter tried to imagine what it would be like to lose his dog and how awful he'd feel. Sniffling, he wiped his cheeks with one sleeve.
"If we take Rusty to the animal shelter, that little boy will get him back," his mother went on in a reassuring voice.
Being brave was hard, but Carter did his best. His lower lip quivered and he sat down on the floor and buried his face in the dog's fur. Bailey sat on Rusty's other side, clutching her bear and murmuring sweetly. As if seeking a way to comfort him, Rusty licked Carter's hand.
"You might have another family that loves you even more than I do." Carter's voice broke as he spoke to the dog.
"Carter," his mother said softly. "As soon as we can afford it, you'll have your dog. I talked to Mrs. Smith at the school, and she said there'll be an opening at the cafeteria in February. I'm going to apply for it and if I get the job, then you can have a dog."
Hope flared and then just as quickly died. "But it won't be Rusty."
"No," his mother agreed, "it won't be Rusty."
"I don't want any dog except Rusty."
"I mean it, Mom. Rusty's the only dog I want."
"I should never have let you bring him in the house," his mother said, and she sounded angry with herself. "It just makes this more difficult. I'm so sorry, honey, but your dad's right. We can't give Rusty the kind of home he needs."
"Rusty is Carter's dog," Bailey wailed. She held her Pooh bear tight against her chest, as if she was afraid their father would take her stuffed friend to the animal shelter, too.
"Can I call Grandma?" Carter asked. His grandparents were his last hope. If he explained everything to them, maybe they'd be willing to pay for the checkup, the dog license and whatever else Rusty needed.
"Your grandparents are gone this weekend," his mother said.
"I can't call them?"
"No, Carter, they're visiting friends in Seattle."
Carter knew he didn't have any choice. He had to give up his dog. He spent all morning with Rusty, talking to him. Bailey used her own hairbrush to comb the dog's fur until it was shiny and bright. Rusty stood still and even seemed to enjoy Bailey's ministrations.
Midafternoon, his father came into Carter and Bailey's bedroom. "You ready, son?" he asked.
Carter wouldn't ever be ready. He hugged Rusty around the neck, face buried in his fur, and nodded.
"You don't have to come with me."
"I want to," Carter said stubbornly.
His father sighed. "Okay, then. Let's go."
Rusty seemed to think they were going to a fun place, because the instant David opened the car door, he leaped inside and lay down in the backseat next to Carter.
His father didn't say a single word on the ride to the shelter in Wenatchee.
Neither did Carter. He stroked Rusty's head and struggled not to cry.
The county animal shelter was busy. Lots of people had come by to choose dogs and cats during the Christmas holidays. Some other family would be getting Rusty. Some other little boy would get Carter's special dog.
"You can stay in the car if you want," his father told him.
"No." Carter was determined to be with his dog as long as he possibly could.
His father went inside the shelter and came back with a woman who was carrying a collar and leash. Carter listened as his father spoke to the lady.
"My son found Rusty in the schoolyard, and the dog followed him home. According to my wife, the poor thing was caked in mud. He seems to be a gentle dog, and he's obviously had some training, so I assume he's lost."
His father opened the passenger door and Rusty raised his head expectantly.
The woman reached into the car and stroked Rusty's head. "Oh, what an attractive dog he is. Probably part Irish setter - they're a nice breed. We could've adopted him out a dozen times over earlier in the day."
This wasn't news Carter wanted to hear. "What about his other family? My dad said there might be other people who owned Rusty." That was his one comfort - that bringing Rusty to the shelter might help the dog locate his original owner.
The lady from the shelter sighed. "His other family didn't take very good care of him, though, did they?" she said. "Rusty didn't have any identification on him, did he?"
"No," Carter admitted.
She examined the insides of Rusty's ears. "No tattoos, either."
"How will you figure out who owns him, then?" Carter asked.
"We can check for a microchip, but I doubt we'll find one. Without that, there's no way of knowing where his family is," she explained. "Still, this is the best time of year to guarantee him a good home. I'm sure he'll be adopted quickly. That's what you want for him, isn't it?" She looked directly at Carter.
Hard though it was to agree, Carter nodded. With his heart breaking, he threw his arms around Rusty for one last hug.