Carter waited at the bus stop with his sister and stamped his feet to ward off the cold. With only two school days - including today - left before winter break, everyone was talking about Christmas and what they expected to find under the tree. Carter knew that his parents couldn't afford gifts. Still, there were several wrapped ones from his grandparents that his mother had already set out. Their Christmas tree was pitiful, but he didn't care as long as there were presents. He just hoped all of his weren't socks or underwear.
As the big yellow bus belched to a stop, Carter grabbed his sister's hand. His mother had instructed him to look out for Bailey, and Carter took his duties seriously.
The bus doors slid open and Carter pushed Bailey ahead of him. As he climbed the steps and felt the warm air on his face, he pulled off his woolen mittens, stuffing them in his pockets. Bailey raced down the aisle toward her friend, Maddy. Ignoring her now, Carter took a seat next to his best friend, Timmy Anderson.
"Want to trade lunches?" Timmy asked. Carter tried to remember what his mother had packed in his Pirates of the Caribbean lunch pail. She'd baked cookies the night before and there was the usual peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, plus an apple. He had an apple every day, no matter what. Timmy did, too.
"What you got?" Carter asked.
Timmy opened his Spider-Man lunch box. "Potato chips, a Twinkie, a pudding cup and an apple."
Timmy shook his head.
Timmy's lunch was filled with all the treats Carter only got if he traded. He loved Twinkies, but his mother baked really good chocolate chip cookies.
"Well?" Timmy pressed. "Wanna trade or not?"
The two boys switched lunch pails. Timmy seemed to like Carter's lunches better than his own. He wanted to trade almost every day.
The bus made another stop and three more students got on. Cameron and Isaiah Benedict came aboard, scrambling into the seat in front of Timmy and Carter.
Cameron twisted around and excitedly announced, "I'm getting an Xbox 360 for Christmas!"
"No way," Timmy said, eyes wide with envy and awe. "I put one on my list, but my parents said it was too expensive."
"Do you know for sure?" Carter asked. He'd thought he was getting a dog like his parents had promised, and that wasn't going to happen. He'd bet Cameron only thought he was getting the Xbox.
"Yeah, because Mom said if that's what I wanted, I wouldn't get anything else."
"And Cameron's just got one gift under the tree," his younger brother, Isaiah, explained.
"It could be underwear."
Cameron glared at Carter. "That's not funny."
"I'm getting a PSP," Timmy said.
Carter knew that was a PlayStation Portable, a handheld game everyone wanted. "That's great."
The other boys looked at Carter. "What are you getting for Christmas?"
He shrugged, reluctant to tell his friends that his parents had told him he couldn't have the one and only gift he'd ever truly wanted.
"Well, what did you ask for?" Isaiah leaned over the back of his seat.
Carter would've liked a computer and an Xbox, too, but his family couldn't afford those things. He hung his head and whispered, "I asked for a dog." Instantly a lump filled his throat.
"What kind of dog?"
Carter wasn't picky. "A red dog," he said. If he was going to name him Rusty, then he figured the dog should have reddish fur. "Medium size so he can run and fetch and do stuff like that."
His Grandma Parker had a small, yappy dog, a miniature poodle. Suzette was a good pet for his grandmother, but that wasn't the kind of dog Carter had in mind. His dog would play outside with him during the day, after school and on weekends. At night he could sleep in Carter's room on the rug next to his bed. That was what dogs did. They slept by their masters. Rusty would sleep in the very same spot where Carter had gotten down on his knees and prayed.
If he closed his eyes, Carter could picture his dog with big, floppy ears and a tongue that hung out the side of his mouth when he'd been running. Oh, and Carter wanted a boy dog. A girl dog would be all right, too, but he preferred a boy.
"Are you going to get one?" Cameron asked.
Carter hesitated. "I won't know until Christmas," he muttered.
"Your parents are gonna make you wait?"
He nodded rather than admit the truth.
"I wish I'd asked for a dog," Timmy said, sitting dejectedly back in his seat.
"I'll share Rusty with you," Carter offered, and then remembered there wasn't going to be a Rusty.
"Sure," Carter assured his friend.
Timmy gave Carter a gap-toothed grin, and when the bus arrived at school, the two boys hurried off together.
Their teacher stood in the hallway outside their classroom. As they approached, Timmy burst out, "Ms. Jensen, Ms. Jensen! Guess what? Carter's getting a dog for Christmas."
Their teacher's eyes lit up at the news. "Why, Carter, that's wonderful. Do you have a name for him yet?"
She nodded approvingly. "That's a great name for a dog."
Carter tried to smile but a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach started to bother him. He didn't know what he was going to do once his friends discovered he didn't get Rusty, after all. He should never have said anything to Timmy.
"Carter said he'd let me play with his dog."
Ms. Jensen beamed at him. "It's good to share. I'm proud of you, Carter." With that, she turned into the classroom and left the two of them waiting in the hallway.
All during their arithmetic lesson, Carter's thoughts wandered to what his friends would say after Christmas when he didn't have his dog. He never should've lied. His stomach hurt the way it always did when he hadn't told the truth.
At recess, Carter walked up to his teacher's desk, holding his stomach. He rarely missed school. In fact, he hadn't stayed home a single day.
"Aren't you feeling well, Carter?" Ms. Jensen asked in a soft caring voice that reminded him of his mother's.
"I have a stomachache."
She pressed the back of her hand against his forehead, then took him down to the nurse's office. Mrs. Weaver was about the same age as his grandmother and had hair that was completely white. She spoke soothingly as she took his temperature. After she'd finished looking at the thermometer, she said he didn't have a fever and suggested he lie down on the couch for a little while.
Carter tried to sleep but he couldn't stop thinking. After a few minutes he sat up, gazing idly out the office window - and that was when he saw it.
Outside in the schoolyard was a dog just like the one Carter had imagined. A dog with big, floppy ears. He was exactly the right size, and he jumped and leaped at the students and then chased after a ball. He was skinny and dirty, but Carter could tell that he was a good dog.
He was exactly the kind of dog Carter wanted, although this one didn't have red fur. It was dark and his plumy tail was clumped with mud, but that didn't stop him from wagging it furiously. Watching the other kids play with him made Carter's stomach stop hurting.
"I couldn't reach your mother," Mrs. Weaver told him when she returned.
"I feel better now," he murmured.
"Would you like to go back to your classroom?"
Carter nodded just as the bell ending recess rang. If the dog was still on the playground at lunchtime, Carter would play with him. A sense of exhilaration filled him and he could hardly wait for the midday break.
Carter ate his lunch in record time, then raced outside to the playground without bothering to button up his coat. He'd left Timmy discussing Christmas plans with Isaiah - and enjoying his chocolate chip cookies. The cold, sharp air hit him right in the face, but he didn't care. There weren't many kids outside, but the mutt was there, walking around the yard, sniffing, his nose to the ground. When he saw Carter, the dog instantly ran toward him, looking up with dark pleading eyes.
"Hi, boy," Carter said and dropped to one knee. He withdrew the Twinkie from his pocket, pulled it from its wrapper and fed it to the dog.
The mutt ate the Twinkie in two bites. The poor thing was starved. Now Carter wished he hadn't eaten any of his lunch. He wished he had more food to give his new friend. Thinking quickly, he hurried back into the school. His sister had complained that morning about another peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. If she didn't want it, Carter did. Not for himself but for the stray.
As he'd expected, his sister was with her friends. She'd eaten everything in her lunch but the sandwich.
"Bailey," he said, breathless now. "Can I have your sandwich?"
Bailey squinted up at him. "What did you do with yours?"
"I gave it to Timmy."
Bailey hesitated. "I was going to eat mine."
"No, you weren't. Come on, Bailey, I need that sandwich."
"What'll you trade me for it?" she asked.
Carter didn't have a lot of time. If he didn't hurry back outside, some other kid would make friends with the dog. He might even leave the schoolyard. "You can watch whatever you want on TV Saturday morning."
His sister's eyes widened. It was a generous offer and she knew it. They only had one television set and their mother made them take turns choosing what to see. Bailey liked sissy stuff, while Carter liked action heroes.
"All Saturday morning?"
Carter nodded. With a smug look, Bailey handed over her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
Grabbing it, Carter hurried back outside. The playground was crowded with kids by then, but as soon as the mutt saw Carter, he bounded across the playground toward him.
Once again, Carter got down on one knee. He wiped the muddy hair from the dog's eyes; his own hands got grimy in the process but Carter didn't care. Taking the sandwich out of his pocket, he tore off the plastic and held it out to the mutt. The bread disappeared as quickly as the Twinkie had.
"You shouldn't be feeding that dog."
Carter glanced up to find Mr. Nicholson, the sixth-grade teacher, who was on schoolyard duty during lunch, scowling down at him. "I've already called Animal Control about this dog once."
"No!" An automatic protest came from Carter. He didn't want this friendly dog to go to a shelter.
"He doesn't belong on the playground."
"He's a nice dog."
Mr. Nicholson didn't agree or disagree. "I don't want to see you feeding him again. Is that understood?"
Carter nodded. The teacher didn't exactly say Carter couldn't feed the stray. What he'd said was that he didn't want to see Carter do it.
The teacher went off to intervene in an argument between some sixth-grade kids, and Carter petted the dog's face. "It's all right, boy, I'll bring you food. Will you be here tomorrow?"
The mutt looked back at him with intense brown eyes, as if to say he'd be waiting for Carter.
On his way back to class, Carter washed his hands. He wondered how long the dog had been lost. He sure was dirty, and he seemed lonely, too. Carter's heart ached for him. What the stray needed was a good home and a family, just like everyone did. Carter hoped the Animal Control people didn't catch him before Carter figured out how to bring him to his house.
First he had to explain to his father that this dog wasn't a puppy but a grown-up dog that needed a home. This wasn't an expensive dog, either. He was a plain ordinary dog. He'd probably already had his shots.
That night Carter couldn't keep still at the dinner table. All he could think about was the dog in the schoolyard, out in the cold and dark by himself. He wanted to bring him home right then and there. He was worried the dog might not be safe, or that the people from Animal Control would take him to a shelter. That might not be such a bad thing, because he might be adopted by a family. Except that Carter wanted the dog for himself.
"Carter, eat your dinner," his father said.
Carter stared down at his plate. Spaghetti was one of his favorite meals. His mother had made it specially for him, and all he could do was swirl the noodles around with his fork. He needed to figure out how to smuggle the meatballs off his plate and hide them until morning.
"How were your classes?" his mother asked. It was the same question she asked every night.
"Good," Carter murmured. "I had a tummy ache but it went away."
"Carter fed a dog in the schoolyard and got in trouble." Bailey could hardly wait to tattle on him.
From across the table, Carter glared at his sister.
His father frowned. "Whose dog was it?"
Carter shrugged. "He doesn't belong to anyone."
"He's a stray?"
Carter stared at his plate again. "I guess so."
"He was real dirty and had mud all over him and Carter gave him a sandwich and petted him until Mr. Nicholson made him stop."
"Oh, Carter," his mother whispered.
His father shook his head. "I don't want you bringing that dog home, Carter. Is that understood?"
"I mean it," he said sternly.
Carter swallowed hard as he tried not to cry. "May I be excused, please?" he asked.
His mother gently rested her hand on his. "Yes, you may."
Carter went into the bedroom he shared with his sister and fell, fully dressed, across his bed. He buried his face in his pillow, praying the dog would still be there the following day.