Carter had been weepy and sad ever since his father had driven him to the animal shelter where they'd left Rusty. All night long, he'd lain awake, thinking about his dog. He knew how bad his parents felt, so Carter tried not to show how miserable he was.
He realized his parents didn't have any extra money, and even the allowance he'd saved up wasn't enough.
"Carter," his mother called from the living room. "Come and see what your father brought home."
Hoping against hope that it was Rusty, Carter ran into the room. It wasn't. Instead, his mother stood in front of an artificial Christmas tree. The tree they had was dinky. So small, in fact, that it sat on the coffee table. It was in a flower pot and it was decorated with tiny glass balls. This one was real. Well, not exactly real because he could tell that the branches weren't like those of a live tree and it didn't have that nice Christmas smell. But it was real in size. And it came complete with strings of lights.
"A Christmas tree," his sister squealed with delight as she joined him in the living room. "Where did you get it?"
"Your father found it," his mother said. "On his way to work this morning, he caught a glimpse of something in an alley. He stopped, and there was the tree. Someone must've gotten a new tree because this one was propped up against a Dumpster. So your father brought it home for us."
That explained why Carter had heard his father return to the house shortly after he'd left for work.
Bailey clapped her hands. Even Carter smiled. It was an old Christmas tree, a little worn and raggedy, but a whole lot better than the miniature one they had now. That one was more like a plant than a tree.
His first thought was that he wanted to show it to Rusty, except he couldn't because Rusty wasn't with him anymore. It hurt to remember his dog, but Carter couldn't think about anything else. He hoped Rusty would go to a good home and that someone in his new family would love him as much as Carter did.
"Do the lights work?" Bailey asked.
"We'll have to see," his mother said. She got down on the floor, crawled behind the tree and plugged in the cord. The lights flickered for a moment and then went out.
"That's probably why it was in the garbage," Carter told his mother.
"It's just a pretend tree," Bailey whined.
"It's pathetic-looking," Carter muttered. "But...it's okay." He tried to pretend he was happy about the Christmas tree, and he was, only...only it was old and the lights didn't work and no one else wanted it. That made him think of Rusty again. No one else had wanted him, either, but Carter did, in the worst way.
"We can make it look pretty," Bailey said, rebounding from her disappointment. "I have some colored paper from school and I could make an angel for the top," she said excitedly.
"We could string popcorn and cranberries, too," their mother suggested.
Carter didn't say anything for a long time. "I know how to cut out snowflakes," he finally told her.
"Thank you, Carter." As if recognizing how much effort it had taken him to offer, his mother hugged him tightly.
Carter tried to squirm out of her embrace. He was too big to have his mother hug him, but at the same time he kind of liked it. He didn't want his friends to know about it, though.
"We'll have the tree decorated when your father gets home from work," his mother said.
"Okay." Carter was willing to do his share.
Soon the aroma of popping corn filled the house. Carter sat at the kitchen table and patiently pierced the kernels with one of his mother's big sewing needles. He strung twenty-five kernels, then added a cranberry. Bailey decided to string her own and followed his pattern.
"Make it your own way," he snapped at his sister. "You don't have to do everything like me, you know."
"Carter," his mother said. "She just wants her string to match yours."
"Why can't she do her own design?"
"Because you're her big brother and she looks up to you."
Carter wanted to be angry, but he wasn't. His sister had helped him with Rusty and had loved the stray, too.
"What do you think Rusty's doing right now?" he asked his mother. "Will he remember me?"
"Of course he will," his mother said. "Rusty will always remember the boy who brought him food and washed the mud off his fur."
"And played catch with him."
Carter thought he might cry, but instead he smiled. Thinking about all the things he'd done with Rusty seemed to ease the ache in his heart.
The phone rang and his mother answered it quickly. "Hi, honey."
That meant it was his father.
"We're decorating the tree," his mother continued.
His father must've said something else because his mother went quiet.
Then she said, "Of course. He's right here." Placing her hand over the mouthpiece, she turned to Carter. "Your dad said he'd like to talk to you."
"Okay." Scooting off the chair, Carter took the phone. "Hi, Dad."
"How's it going?"
Carter shrugged. "All right, I guess."
"What do you think of the Christmas tree I found?"
"The lights don't work," he murmured.
"I'll take a look at those when I get home."
It was unusual for his father to work on Sundays. But he must've been putting in overtime at the restaurant. Christmas was a busy season and his father said they could use the money, so he worked as many overtime hours as he could get.
Carter wished his father was home the way he was almost every Sunday. Usually they watched football together. If he'd been able to keep Rusty, then his dog would've joined them. Carter was sure Rusty would enjoy football as much as he did.
"You still feel bad about Rusty?"
"So do I," his father admitted.
"He's going to a good family and they'll love Rusty, too."
But Carter didn't want any other family to love Rusty. He wanted Rusty to be his. He hung his head. "When will you be home?" he asked, his voice cracking.
"I'll get there as soon as I can."
Carter handed the phone back to his mother; before she hung up, their father spoke to Bailey, too.
Then he heard it.
A dog barking.
It sounded as if Rusty was right outside the door. That wasn't possible, but it sure sounded like his dog.
"What's that noise?" his mother asked, frowning in his direction. She walked to the back door and opened it.
As Carter held his breath, he heard his mother cry out.
"Rusty!" Bailey shrieked.
"Rusty." Carter flew out of his chair so fast it went crashing backward onto the kitchen floor.
His mother opened the screen door and Rusty ran in, leaping up on his hind legs and dashing around in a circle and then jumping straight up in the air.
A moment later Rusty was licking Carter's face, yelping with joy. He flopped down on his belly, right in front of Carter, tail waving madly.
When Carter looked up at his mother, he saw that she had tears in her eyes. Soon she was down on the floor with him, hugging Rusty, too, along with Bailey. Even his sister was crying.
"How did he ever get here?" His mother stared at Carter.
He didn't have an answer for her. All he knew was that the animal shelter wasn't close by. It was miles and miles away.
Carter got a dish and filled it with water. Rusty lapped that up and ate every bit of popcorn on the floor.
"I'm not sure if popcorn's good for him or not," his mother warned.
Carter went to the cupboard for the cereal he'd fed him the day before. He prepared another large bowlful, with plenty of milk. His dog certainly wasn't a picky eater.
"Oh, Carter." His mother sighed deeply. "I don't know what your father's going to say about this."
"Don't call him at work," Carter pleaded. He was afraid his father would come home and take Rusty back to the shelter that very minute. He didn't want that to happen. Not yet. Not ever. Still, he realized his father wouldn't let Rusty stay, and he wanted to keep his dog with him as long as he could.
They finished stringing the popcorn and draping the strands on the tree. When Carter crawled underneath, Rusty came with him. With the dog at his side, Carter plugged the electrical cord in the socket again. This time the lights went on - and stayed on.
"Cool," his sister cried and clapped her hands.
"It's magic," Carter said. "Rusty brought it with him."
When they crawled out from under the tree, Rusty lay down on the carpet and rested his head on his paws. He looked about as tired as Carter felt, and he wondered if Rusty had stayed awake all night, thinking about Carter, the way Carter had about him. Unable to stop himself, Carter yawned.
"Why don't we all lie down for a bit," his mother suggested, eyeing him. It was almost as if she knew he'd hardly slept the night before.
"I don't take naps," Carter said indignantly. Bailey sometimes did. When she got cranky, their mother would send her into their bedroom. Bailey always fell asleep.
"It looks like Rusty's tired," his mother suggested. "I just thought you might want to keep him company."
Rusty followed Carter into his bedroom and lay on the rug beside his bed. Instead of climbing onto the mattress, Carter got down on the floor next to his dog. He flung his arm over Rusty and drifted off.
The next thing Carter heard was the sound of his father's voice.
"How is this possible?" his father was asking.
"Dad!" Carter leaped to his feet and tore into the kitchen, Rusty at his heels. "Did you hear?"
"Yes," his father said. "What I don't understand is how he found the house."
"But he did."
Rusty approached his father and gazed up at him.
His father bent down to pet Rusty's thick fur. "Well, my son said you were a special dog."
"Not only that," Carter rushed to tell his father, "when we first plugged in the tree, the lights only flickered and then they went out."
"And after Rusty got here, Carter plugged in the lights and they worked," Bailey said, so happy and excited that her words ran together.
Carter frowned at his sister. "I wanted to tell Dad that."
"Can he stay?" Ignoring him, Bailey turned to her father, eyes wide.
"I'm sorry, kids, we've already been through this."
"David, here's the number for the shelter," his mother said as she came into the room.
"I'm going to call and find out what happened." His father took the slip of paper and reached for the telephone. Carter stood by his side. He wanted to learn what had happened, too.
His father seemed to wait for a long time. Carter could hear the phone ringing. Holding the receiver away from his mouth, his dad muttered, "The shelter must be closed for the night."
Hope flared to life inside Carter. Maybe they'd have to keep Rusty overnight. Maybe -
"Hello," his father said, dashing Carter's hopes. "Yes, I understand the shelter's closed." He seemed to be listening. "We're the family who brought Rusty. He's the reddish stray that showed up in the schoolyard and followed my son home. I dropped Rusty off at the shelter yesterday afternoon. Well, Rusty's now here."
This announcement was followed by a short silence. Carter's father was shaking his head, as if the person on the other end of the line was arguing with him.
"I assure you he's here."
"Well, you might want to go and check his cage."
The person from the shelter must've said something else, because his father grew quiet once more. "He's going to check the cage where Rusty was put earlier," he told Carter.
The shelter employee was obviously back on the phone.
"Yes, he's here," his father explained for the third time. "I don't have a clue how he escaped or how he managed to get back to this house, but somehow or other, he did."
"Can he stay the night?" Carter pleaded. "Just one more night. Please, Dad, please."
"Yes, I'll bring him back in the morning," his father was saying.
Carter wrapped his arms around Rusty's neck. He had no idea how the dog had found his way across miles and miles of snow-covered roads to their house - but he'd always known Rusty possessed special powers.
His father hung up the phone. "He can only stay until morning, Carter."
Carter nodded. It wasn't long enough, but for this one last night, Rusty was his.