Sydney Porter: Dog Girl250
Sydney Porter: Dog Girl250
A retired bomb-sniffing dog named Fred teaches Sydney his philosophy of kindness, about the Star Path, and how to survive on the streets. Good thing, too, since she's been magically transformed into a small brown dog. Dad's PTSD has the whole family on edge. Sydney tells her best friend Rachael that she wishes she were a dog so that her dad would talk to her like he does with Fred, the German Shepherd he brought back from Afghanistan. A magical bus driver grants her wish and sends her on a harrowing journey, narrated by a strong female lead character who is seeing life from the perspective of a four-legged mutt.
This touching, action adventure, humorous fantasy, Teen and YA family fiction, follows Syd's journey from kid to dog and back. Along the way she meets other stray retired war dogs and forges a canine family that helps her understand her human parents.
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|Publisher:||Keyes Canyon Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)|
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As I climb into the number 42 bus today, a bus full of laughing kids, I wish had a perfect family. Not a dad who's been traumatized in the Afghanistan war and hardly knows I exist. Not a mom who's stressed from having to work all the time. I imagine a dad who gives me hugs and tells me he's proud of me, and a mom who has time to sit on the floor and listen. Of course, part of my perfect family is a cute, fluffy dog. Instead we have a huge, smelly dog-brute named Fred that Dad likes better than me. Maybe if I turned into a dog, he'd like me too.
As I reach the top step and see that Courtney has taken my favorite seat, the laughing stops. Everyone stares at me, and then they quickly look back down at their phones. The driver isn't Mrs. Brock. She must be sick. The substitute looks like a witch they dragged out from under a rock, stuck a rumpled uniform on, and put in charge of driving us to school. She has a long, hook nose and black hair that's as tangled as mine, if that's even possible.
Since Courtney, my archenemy, is in MY seat, I take my second-favorite seat, nine rows back. From there, I watch everyone talking.
Courtney snickers and puts her head close to Maya, who's next to her. They both peek back to see where I ended up. Then more heads turn. I whip out my phone to see what they're saying, because of course I follow her on Twitter, just to keep track of her taunts. Rachael gets on at the next stop, comes back, and sits down next to me.
My hands shake as I hold the phone and read what Courtney wrote:
OMG!!! Looks like she's never brushed her hair– IN HER LIFE!!! I'm not sure why she needs three exclamation points. It's just hair. My hand automatically goes to smooth it down, even though the rest of me is yelling at my hand to stop. Okay, so I have frizzy hair and it doesn't like to stay where I put it, especially on a windy day, or a damp day, or a dry day. It just does whatever it wants. Courtney's hair isn't perfect either. She twirls and pulls strands so hard that sometimes clumps come out. Her hair being long, the missing clumps aren't visible, but maybe that's why she has it so long. Anyway, she should be the LAST person on the planet to poke fun at my hair.
The oatmeal I ate for breakfast turns rock hard in my stomach, and I bend over a bit to ease the sharp pain of it going around a corner of my guts. Rachael takes my phone and turns it off.
"Sydney, you know better than to read that stuff," she says. This is easy for her to say, because her hair lies down nicely and her hair clips aren't swallowed up by it.
I shove my phone into a pocket of my backpack. She's right, but it still makes me mad. I stare out the window, trying to ignore the laughter all around me. The bus rumbles down Creston Road. My town is not too big and not too small. The hills are still green from the winter rains, and all the trees have burst out with leaves. Houses are mostly well kept. Yards are green, except for the ones that have white volcano rock. Mom, the real estate agent, says those white rocks hurt sales. Maybe because they're ugly.
"How's your dad?" Rachael asks, then sniffles, and I wonder if she's going to start sneezing. Rachael sneezes when she's worried, like Dad screams when something reminds him of being in the war. Mom says that's because he has post- traumatic stress. Last night was a great example. A few claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, and he was blubbering and cowering like in the duck-and-cover exercises they make us do once a month for earthquakes. After he yells, I usually hear Mom's voice try to calm him, tell him he's safe, but I don't think he believes her.
This morning, while I ate my now sharp-as-pins granola, he drank from a whiskey bottle, and Mom's eyes were red and swollen. When she handed me my lunch, she wiped a tear off her cheek with the cuff of her expensive business suit.
She must have seen the sour look on my face, because she said, "Dad's just a bit lost. PTSD does that to someone. He really does love you."
I'm not so sure she knows what she's talking about. Not the way he ignores me.
And then there's Fred, his bomb-sniffing dog. Fred got wounded in the same explosion that hurt Dad, so they came back home together. Dad has an artificial leg and something wrong inside his head. Fred is missing an eye and part of an ear. They're quite a pair.
"The only one he talks to is that dumb Fred," I say aloud, to no one. "I wish I spoke dog language. I wish I was a dog. Then MAYBE he'd talk to me."
The bus slows down as it turns into the circular drive in front of McKinley Middle School.
"You could run away," Rachael says. "Then they'd notice you were gone."
I want to ask her why she would suggest that, but Rachael stands up to get off the bus. When I get to the front of the bus, the driver reaches out her spider-veined hand and clasps my wrist. Her breath smells minty, and my skin tingles where her hand clutches it. Everything around me goes black with little sparkles of light. Her eyes are dark, spooky, like they are trying to send me a secret message. I shiver.
"A wish wished in love is granted," she whispers, then releases me and turns her head to wave to another driver, as if she hadn't said anything at all. The sparks of light vanish. I rub my wrist as Rachael and I walk into the school.
"Did you see that?" I ask. Rachael shakes her head. I want to believe I imagined it, but the twinge in my wrist is too real.
"You should go to Florida," she says. "We went there once on vacation, and I liked it." Back to the running-away idea. I wonder how long it takes to get to Florida.
Rachael sneezes, and that tells me something is wrong. She always sneezes in fits of five or six blasts, so she's just a little worried right now.
"What?" I ask, but looking up, I see why she sneezed. Courtney and her groupies are blocking the hallway we need to go through to get to our classroom. I plaster on my smile- through-it-all face and head toward them.
"How do you get your hair to stand up all around like that?" Courtney asks, her voice all sing-songy. Courtney isn't just my archenemy; she's my bully, my tormentor. Usually I ignore her and walk past, but the whole hallway is full of kids staring at me. I hear Rachael take in a quick breath. One sneeze-fest coming up.
Sometimes I laugh it off and take the coward's way out: let her say what she's going to say anyway and pretend it doesn't bother me, which I've gotten pretty good at. Even though it does bother me. A lot.
Pretending is what I should do, but it's not what I choose to do this time.
"Why, Courtney, I am fortunate not to have to spend much time to achieve this fashion-forward hairstyle. How much time do you spend getting yours to lie flat like a melted vanilla ice-cream cone on your head?" I say. I'm not mean enough to mention the patches of missing hair.
I'm not sure where all those fancy words came from. Probably the fashion and home-design magazines Mom has stacked on the coffee table. And I'm not sure how I had the courage to say them, or the stupidity. Maybe Dad is rubbing off on me.
It takes a moment for Courtney to realize she's been insulted, but the kids around her get it right away. A few of them smile; a few widen their eyes in amazement that I'd say something back to the meanest girl in school. Courtney's eyes narrow; I can barely see the little line of blue between her over- mascaraed lashes. Mom won't let me wear makeup until I'm older. Courtney wears eye shadow, mascara, and lip gloss.
"I'll make you pay for that," she says.
Just then Rachael lets go with a huge sneeze, and everyone steps back enough for us to pass through, waving their hands in the air to clear her spewed-out germs. Four sneezes later, Rachael and I stand at the doorway to our classroom.
"Now you're going to have to run away," she says, "Courtney will make your life miserable." She wipes her nose for about the billionth time. "Maybe you shouldn't let her say things like that to you." Sheesh, what kind of best friend would say that?
"Rachael, I don't choose to be bullied."
"I mean — all I'm saying is, you're going to have to deal with Courtney," she says, "and Courtney can be mean."
That much I already know.CHAPTER 2
The sluggish hands of the clock finally make it to noon. I don't know how much more Peloponnesian War history I can take. Hearing about war, whether it was a long time ago or not, reminds me of Dad. War seems so pointless. I imagine when he joined the army and became an Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or EOD specialist, he thought he was doing something heroic. I'm not so sure, but I don't know much about what he did as a soldier because he doesn't talk to me about it. And even when I overhear him talking to Fred, they talk in some made-up language.
I have a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a bag of chips, so I don't need to go into the cafeteria, which should make avoiding Courtney easy. I'll eat outside, then go back to my classroom and work on my homework. That way if Dad does decide to talk tonight, my homework will be done.
It's hot outside today, which is probably why there aren't any kids or teachers out here baking in the sun. I find a bench in the shade, under a big oak tree that's older than the town. The air feels like the heat blasting from an open oven door. It won't be long before summer. Small breezes ruffle the new, pale green leaves on the nearest branch.
I was hoping our family would be like a new leaf. Just Mom and I isn't really a family. I thought that when Dad came home, we'd sit down and have dinner like we did before he left. I was only five then, but I remember playing games and going on trips. Maybe all that will come — he's only been home five months — but there aren't even hints. We haven't gone out for pizza once since he returned. Mom just works, and he either talks to Fred or sits in the chair staring at nothing.
It seems like the war knocked being a Dad right out of him. Maybe Rachael's right and I should run away. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave Mom, and even if he hates me and never talks to me again, he's still my dad, and I love him.
Halfway through my sandwich, I see a group of kids heading my way. Hairs on my arms prickle. Even at this distance, Courtney's overly blond hair glows in the sun.
Blondie and seven of her groupies will be here in seconds, and the stomp in her step tells me she's thought of how to make me pay for insulting her hair.
I stuff what's left of my sandwich back into the baggie and push the half-eaten bag of chips in after it. My stomach doesn't want anything more coming in; it's knotting up into something that feels like a giant piece of barbed wire.
Courtney's face is flushed, and her fists are balled up at her sides. Rachael smiles from the back of the crowd, and for a moment I wonder if she's switched sides. Then I realize she's there to sweep up what's left of me when Courtney's done. That's what best friends are for.
The kids in the group were talking as they surged toward me, but when they come close, they all go quiet. Four girls and three boys. Courtney doesn't have fists. She has a can in one hand and an opener in the other.
"Sydney, I have something for you." Her voice is stone hard. Flinty. My palms sweat. Her lips pull back, and her checks bunch up. It's the look of an insane person trying to smile and pretend they're normal. It's not working, though. Nothing about her meanness is normal. Then she takes the can opener and puts it on top of the lid, clamps it down and starts to twist the handle.
"People like you are dogs," she says as the can twirls around, "and dogs don't eat the food we humans eat."
I haven't said anything yet, because every word I know is frozen in my head. This is worse than anything she's done to me before. Rachael catches my eye, and I find courage to talk back.
"I'm sorry, Courtney. I didn't know you'd be so sensitive about your hair."
That's a lie, and I'm not proud of it.
"I'll take my straight blond hair to your frizzy ball of steel wool any day. No, I think the problem is that you didn't KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT." She doesn't exactly yell the last words, but if they were texted, they'd be in all caps. The boys shuffle from foot to foot, their eyes on the ground. The girls stare straight at me, a grin on at least one face. What did I ever do to them?
The lid on the can comes off. Courtney hands the opener and the piece of round metal to the boy standing next to her. I wonder where they got a can and opener in a middle school. It's not something a mom would pack in her kid's lunch. Are they going to use the sharp, jagged edge to cut me? My hands turn cold, and my heart races.
The boy puts the opener and lid into a paper bag and pulls out a spoon, which Courtney takes and stabs into the brown, mushy-looking contents in the can. Then she hands it to me.
"Eat your lunch."
She can't mean it. She's insane.
I look at the label: HEALTHY DOG PET FOOD – REAL MEAT.
"I've already eaten, thank you," I say as politely as if I was talking to a teacher. It's way more respect than she deserves.
"I'm not leaving until you eat the entire can. No one here is leaving until she eats the entire can — right?" She calls out to her crowd. A few heads nod. The rest of the faces have blank looks, like they are imagining this could happen to them.
"Look, Courtney, this is dog food, not people food. I'm going inside." I try to puff myself up and push past the crowd, but Courtney blocks me.
"Eat it now, or your next stop will be the hospital," she says. I wonder if she'd really hit me that hard, but the look in her eyes warns me not to push her. I've never seen a crazy person, until now.
Where Dad's eyes are empty, hers are full of sharp, sinister intentions. Hatred so deep it must go all the way down to her toes. Her face scrunches up so hard it's turned red. My face doesn't usually show color easily, but I feel the heat. I can't think of a reason she hates me so much.
"I thought your kind ate dog food all the time," she says, this time in a sticky-sweet voice.
I don't know what she means by that, but even if I wanted to say something, I can't. My throat clamps shut, and I can barely breathe.
I set the can down on the ground and take a step back. Courtney points to the can, and one of the boys picks it up and hands it to her. She straightens the spoon and shoves the can toward my face again.
I have two options. One is to run away. I'm pretty quick in gym and figure I can outrun the girls at least. Rachael catches my eye from the back of the group and shakes her head, like she's reading my mind. Second is to eat the dumb dog food.
Even though Dad won't talk to me, he does trust me to feed Fred, and every day I smell his food. It doesn't smell that bad, though it's not something I'd ever dream of eating.
Option two seems the best, even if it means Courtney wins. I gag a bit at the idea but remind myself that it's just beef (I hope) and other things, probably like a hot dog.
The first bite is bland, sort of like oatmeal but without the fruit topping. There is also a bit of metallic taste, from the can. The hardest thing to swallow is my pride, but at least the dog food itself isn't as bad as the idea of eating dog food.
My stomach feels like it's bulging out when I eat the last spoonful. All that peanut butter, jelly, bread, chips, and now dog food rumble around inside. I hand the empty can to Courtney, who wears a look of contempt and victory on her face.
"Thank you, Courtney, I think I'm full now."
I try to play it like I've won, but everyone here knows I've been defeated and humiliated by the meanest, most popular girl at school; and that's only the half of it. Too many kids saw this. I'll never live it down.
I can hear them talking as they walk away, as loud, and clear, as if they're right beside me. Like my hearing has gone canine supersonic. I'll be called "Dog-food Girl" the rest of my life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sydney Porter: Dog Girl"
Copyright © 2019 L.G. Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Keyes Canyon Press.
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