That night, knowing Rusty would have to go back to the animal shelter, Carter settled the dog on his bed. Placing both arms around him, Carter spoke softly in his ear.
"You're the best dog any kid could have," he whispered.
As if he understood the words, Rusty licked Carter's face. He seemed to be saying that Carter was the best friend he'd ever have, too.
"I'd do anything to keep you. Well...almost anything." After his father had come home from work and explained that they'd be taking Rusty back to the shelter in the morning, Carter had seriously considered running away.
If his mom and dad weren't going to let him have Rusty, then Carter decided he no longer wanted to be part of this family. He'd find another family, one that could afford a dog and kept promises.
He had over thirty dollars saved from his allowance, which should be enough to get him to his grandparents' house in Wenatchee. He was sure that if they knew about Rusty, Grandma and Grandpa Parker would pay whatever it cost to keep him.
But in the end, Carter couldn't do it. He couldn't run away. He loved his mother and father and even his little sister, although she was a pest most of the time.
"I'll go back to the shelter with you," Carter assured his friend. In the morning he'd ride down with his father. He was determined to speak to the lady who'd taken Rusty before.
Carter wanted to make sure his dog went to a good home. Not just a regular home, either. The very best.
Carter had prayed for a dog and he'd prayed hard. Although he loved Rusty, maybe - despite everything - this wasn't the dog God meant for him.
Tears welled up in his eyes and he tried to hold back a sniffle. He didn't want his sister to hear him crying, so he buried his face in the dog's fur.
"I want to keep Rusty, too," Bailey whispered from the other side of the room.
Carter pretended not to hear.
"I love Rusty just as much as you do," she said, only louder this time.
She sniffled once and then Carter did, too. "Go to sleep," he said.
Bailey didn't answer, and Carter suspected she felt as sad as he did. Even if Rusty belonged to him, he was willing to share his dog with Bailey. Not every day; just some of the time - once a week or so.
Except that Rusty wouldn't be his to share. His friend would be with him for only a few more hours. The realization was crushing.
"Go to sleep," he repeated and hugged Rusty closer.
"This is a fine mess you've gotten yourself into," Mercy muttered, glaring at Shirley. They were both inside the children's bedroom. Shirley sat on the foot of the bed, where Rusty lay tightly curled up next to Carter's feet.
"Me?" Shirley wore a look of innocence as she continued to pet the dog.
"Yes, you." Mercy pointed an accusing finger at her fellow Prayer Ambassador. Then she crossed her arms as she surveyed the sleeping children, lost in their dreams.
"How could you have let this happen?" Mercy asked.
Shirley straightened defensively.
Mercy wasn't fooled. "You're the one who stopped by the animal shelter and conveniently opened the cage and set Rusty free."
"That wasn't the only door you opened, either." Mercy was on to her friend's antics and she wasn't going to let Shirley squirm out of this one.
"Well..." Shirley shifted uncomfortably. As though aware of their presence, Rusty lifted his head and looked around.
"It's all right, boy," Shirley whispered, reassuring the dog.
Rusty put his head down on his paws and closed his eyes once more.
"Don't bother to deny that you're the one who set him free," Mercy said in a stern voice.
"All right," Shirley confessed. "That was me - "
"I thought so."
"I couldn't help it! Carter loves that dog, and Rusty loves him. The two of them are meant to be together."
"Not according to what you first said." Although she made it sound like a complaint, Mercy was actually delighted with her friend. In the past, Shirley had been a real stickler for protocol during their earthly visitations. The former guardian angel always took on the role of supervisor, policing Goodness and Mercy as if that was her right. She found it gratifying that, for once, Shirley had broken the rules herself.
"Just look at Carter and Rusty," Shirley urged. "How can anyone take that dog away from that little boy?"
Mercy gazed down at the sleeping figures. Rusty slept peacefully close to Carter and Mercy was moved almost to tears by their mutual devotion.
"What's going to happen now?" Mercy asked.
"I don't know." Shirley shook her head. "I pleaded Carter's case to Gabriel. That's all I can do."
"You did?" Many a time Mercy had done the same, but to no avail. She didn't think Shirley had gone to the Archangel even once to request assistance. Until now.
"What did he say?"
Shirley cleared her throat. "He said I'd already interfered where I shouldn't have. That God has everything under control."
"So he knew what you'd done." This shouldn't surprise Mercy. Gabriel always seemed to be aware of their every move.
"I'm to butt out." She sounded a little affronted, and Mercy couldn't blame her.
"Gabriel told you that?"
"In exactly those words, too. He warned me that I'm not to involve myself in any way from this point forward. He did ask me to stick around, though."
"I should hope so."
Shirley glanced down at the floor. "Gabriel wasn't happy with me."
Mercy shrugged, as if to imply that should be expected. "Don't worry about it. Gabriel knew what he was doing when he sent us back to Earth."
Shirley nodded morosely.
Seeing that her friend felt bad, Mercy decided to inject a bit of entertainment into their visit to Leavenworth. "Want to have some fun?"
As little as a week ago, Shirley would have sharply chastised Mercy for even suggesting such a thing. This time she simply gazed at her. "What do you have in mind?"
"Have you noticed the ornaments hanging from the streetlamps?" Actually, they were pretty hard to miss. The town council had hung large wreaths, candy canes and candles, interspersed with a few unrealistic-looking angels.
"I was thinking," Mercy went on, "of rearranging the ornaments, mixing things up a bit."
"We could make all the ornaments that aren't angels disappear," Shirley said tentatively, entering into the spirit of the enterprise.
"I like it," Mercy said excitedly.
"Let's contact Goodness and get started."
Tonight was December twenty-third, and they had one last day on Earth. Christmas Eve, they'd have to return to Heaven for the celebration. Only one day left, and Mercy intended to make the most of it.
Carter was tucked warmly in his bed when Rusty began to bark. The barking became louder and more frantic and it didn't stop. At first Carter ignored it, trying to sleep. But when he finally forced open his eyes, he couldn't see. The entire bedroom was filled with fog. There was a horrible smell. Like something burning.
The fog was so thick he couldn't even see his sister's bed. He choked. Taking a breath was painful.
Completely disoriented, he sat up.
His sister didn't answer.
"Bailey!" He tried again.
All at once, the bedroom door burst open and was shut with a bang. Out of the fog, his father emerged with his hand cupped over his nose and mouth.
"Dad? What's happening?"
"Fire," his father said tersely. It wasn't fog then, but smoke. Carter's dad swooped him off the bed and into his arms. He stumbled across the room, carrying Carter, then set him down and reached for Bailey. Jerking open the bedroom window, he gently dropped her, bare feet and all, into the snow.
"Get away from the house as fast as you can," he said. "Your mother's out front waiting for you."
Carter watched his sister race through the snow.
The smoke that was now pouring out of the bedroom window made Carter's eyes smart. He was next. His father lowered him carefully into the snow, then looked over his shoulder and leaped out himself.
Father and son ran hand in hand around the side of the house.
In the distance, Carter heard the wail of a fire engine, the alarm piercing the night.
His house was on fire.
His mother cried out with relief when she saw Carter and his father. Sobbing, she held out her arms. She swept Carter into her embrace and started kissing him. He hugged her tight and felt the tears on her cheeks.
The fire truck arrived and suddenly there were all kinds of people in front of the house. The paramedic put Carter and his family inside the aid car and checked their vital signs. His father had to breathe into an oxygen mask for a few minutes.
When Carter looked out the back of the aid car, he saw flames shooting up through the roof. The firefighters had the hoses going, and there seemed to be a dozen men and women at work.
"What woke you up?" The question came from the man who'd given his father the mask.
Carter answered. "Rusty." All of a sudden he realized he didn't know where his dog was. Bolting to his feet, Carter screamed, "Where's Rusty?" even though it hurt his throat to do that.
His father removed the mask. "My son's dog was barking," he said hoarsely. "If it hadn't been for Rusty, I would never have been able to get my family out of that house."
"Where's Rusty? Where's Rusty?" Carter cried, looking frantically in all directions. The thought of his dog still inside terrified him.
Then the sound of Rusty's bark cut through the night.
"Rusty!" Carter jumped out of the aid car as the dog raced across the neighbor's yard toward him. Getting down on one knee in the snow, Carter wrapped his arms around the dog's neck and hugged him. "You saved us. You saved us," he whispered again and again.
His father joined Carter and knelt down next to him and the dog.
"Well, boy," David said and his voice was shaking. "We still can't afford a dog, but you've earned your way into our home for the rest of your life."
"Do you mean it, Dad?"
"Rusty," Carter choked out. Rusty was his dog, just the way he'd always hoped, just the way he wanted. Tears fell from his eyes and Rusty repeatedly licked his face.
"All I can say," the man inside the aid car told them, "is that you're mighty lucky you had that dog."
"It wasn't luck," Carter insisted. "Rusty's the dog God sent me."
The medic nodded. "You've got all the proof you need of that."