Don't miss Barbara O'Connor's other middle-grade work—like Wonderland; How to Steal a Dog; Greetings from Nowhere; Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia; The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester; Halfway to Harmony; and more!
A touching, New York Times–bestselling story about a girl and her dog, perfect for young animal lovers.
Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite. But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets
Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.
From award-winning author Barbara O'Connor comes a middle-grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.
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By Barbara Oconnor
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Barbara O'Connor
All rights reserved.
I looked down at the paper on my desk.
The "Getting to Know You" paper.
At the top, Mrs. Willibey had written "Charlemagne Reese."
I put a big X over Charlemagne and wrote "Charlie."
My name is Charlie. Charlemagne is a dumb name for a girl and I have told my mama that about a gazillion times.
I looked around me at all the hillbilly kids doing math in their workbooks.
My best friend, Alvina, told me they would be hillbilly kids.
"You will hate it in Colby," she said. "There's just red dirt roads and hillbilly kids there." She had flipped her silky hair over her shoulder and added, "I bet they eat squirrels."
I glanced at the lunch boxes under the desks around me and wondered if there were any squirrel sandwiches in them.
I looked back down at the paper in front of me. I was supposed to fill in all this stuff so my new teacher could get to know me.
On the line beside Describe your family, I wrote, "Bad."
What is your favorite subject in school? "None."
List three of your favorite activities. "Soccer, ballet, and fighting."
Two of those favorite activities were lies but one of them was the truth.
I am fond of fighting.
My sister, Jackie, inherited Daddy's inky black hair and I inherited his fiery red temper. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard "The apple don't fall far from the tree," I'd be rich. Daddy fights so much that everybody calls him Scrappy. In fact, at this very minute, while I'm stuck here in Colby, North Carolina, surrounded by hillbilly kids, ole Scrappy is back in Raleigh in the county jail again because of his fondness for fighting.
And I don't need a crystal ball to know that at this very minute, in our house in Raleigh, smack-dab in the middle of the day, Mama is in bed with the curtains drawn and empty soda cans on the nightstand. She will stay in that bed the livelong day. If I was there, she wouldn't care one little bit if I went to school or stayed on the couch watching TV and eating cookies for lunch.
"But that's just the tip of the iceberg," that social services lady said when she rattled off a list of reasons why I was getting shipped off to this sorry excuse for a town to live with two people I didn't even know. "It's better to stay with kin," she told me. "Gus and Bertha are kin."
"What kind of kin?" I asked.
She explained how Bertha is Mama's sister and Gus is her husband. She said they didn't have any kids and they were happy to take me in.
"Then how come Jackie gets to stay with Carol Lee?" I asked about a million times. Carol Lee is Jackie's best friend. She lives in a fancy brick house with a swimming pool. Her mama gets out of bed every morning and her daddy is not called Scrappy.
So that lady told me again how Jackie was practically a grownup and would be graduating from high school in a couple of months.
When I pointed out that I was in fifth grade and not exactly a baby, she sighed and smiled a fake smile and said, "Charlie, you have to live with Gus and Bertha for a while."
I'd never laid eyes on those people and now I was supposed to live with them? When I asked how long I had to be there, she said until things settled down and Mama got her feet on the ground.
Well, how hard is it to put your dang feet on the ground? is what I thought about that.
"You need a stable family environment," she told me. But I knew what she really meant was, "You need a family that's not all broken like yours is."
Still, I whined and argued and whined and argued, but here I am in Colby, North Carolina, staring down at this "Getting to Know You" paper.
"Have you finished, Charlemagne?" Mrs. Willibey was suddenly beside me.
"My name is Charlie," I said, and a greasy-haired boy in the front of the class let out a sputtering laugh. I sent one of my famous glares his way till he hushed up and turned red.
I handed Mrs. Willibey that paper and watched her eyes dart back and forth as she read it. Her neck got splotchy red and the corners of her mouth twitched. She didn't even look at me before she marched back up to the front of the room and dropped that paper on her desk like it was a hot potato.
I slumped down in my seat and wiped my sweaty palms on my shorts. It was only April, but it was already hot as blazes.
"You want me to help you with that?" The boy in front of me pointed at the math worksheet on my desk. He had red hair and wore ugly black glasses.
"No," I said.
He shrugged, took a pencil out of his desk, and headed to the pencil sharpener.
That's how he walked.
Like one leg was shorter than the other.
And he dragged one foot along the floor, so his sneaker made squeaking noises.
I glanced at the clock.
Dang it! I had missed 11:11.
I have a list of all the ways there are to make a wish, like seeing a white horse or blowing a dandelion. Looking at a clock at exactly 11:11 is on my list. I'd learned that from some old man who owned the bait and tackle shop out by the lake where Scrappy and I used to go fishing. Now that I'd missed 11:11, I was going to have to find another way to get in my wish for the day. I hadn't missed one single day of making my wish since the end of fourth grade, so I sure didn't want to miss one now.
Then Mrs. Willibey nodded toward that redheaded boy sharpening his pencil and said, "Howard, why don't you be Charlie's Backpack Buddy for a while?"
Mrs. Willibey explained that when a new kid comes to school, their Backpack Buddy shows them around and tells them the rules till they get settled.
Howard grinned and said, "Yes, ma'am," and that was that. I had a Backpack Buddy whether I wanted one or not.
The rest of the afternoon creeped along so slow I couldn't hardly stand it. I stared out the window while kids took turns bragging about their social studies projects. A misty rain had begun to fall and dark gray clouds hovered over the tops of the mountains in the distance.
When the bell finally rang, I hightailed it out of there and headed for the bus. I hurried up the aisle and dropped into the last row. I kept my eyes on a piece of dried-up chewing gum stuck to the seat in front of me while I sent laser thoughts zipping and zapping around the bus.
Do not sit next to me.
Do not sit next to me.
Do not sit next to me.
If I had to be stuck on a bus full of kids I didn't even know, I wanted to at least sit by myself.
My laser thoughts seemed to be working, so I took my eyes off of the gum and glanced out the window.
That redheaded boy with the up-down walk was hurrying toward the bus, his backpack bouncing against him with every step.
When he got on the bus, I quickly looked back at the gum and sent my laser thoughts out again.
But that boy didn't waste a minute shuffling up the aisle and plopping himself right down next to me.
Then he thrust his hand out at me and said, "Hey. I'm Howard Odom." He pushed at his ugly black glasses and added, "Your Backpack Buddy."
Now, what kind of kid shakes hands like that? No kid I ever knew.
He kept his hand there and stared me down till I couldn't help myself. I shook hands with him.
"Charlie Reese," I said.
"Where you from?"
"Why're you here?"
He sure was nosy. But I figured if I laid out the cold hard truth, that would shut him up, and maybe he wouldn't want to be my Backpack Buddy anymore.
"My daddy's in jail and my mama won't get out of bed," I said.
Well, that boy didn't even blink an eye. "What's he in jail for?"
"What do you mean?"
He wiped at his fogged-up glasses with the bottom of his T-shirt. His face was flushed pink in the damp heat of the bus. "Why was he fighting?" he said.
I shrugged. There was no telling why Scrappy was fighting. Besides, there were probably a bunch of other reasons he was in jail, but nobody ever tells me anything.
"Gus and Bertha told my mama you were coming. They go to my church and I gave them a cat one time," Howard said. "A scrawny gray cat that was living up under my porch."
Then he went on and on about how Gus taught him how to make a slingshot and how sometimes Bertha sells bread-and-butter pickles by the side of the road in the summer. How his mama drove her car right into the ditch beside Gus and Bertha's driveway one time and Gus pulled it out with a tractor and then they all ate barbecue sandwiches in the front yard.
"You'll like living with them," he said.
"I'm not living with them," I told him. "I'm going back to Raleigh."
"Oh." He looked down at his freckly hands in his lap. "When?"
"When my mama gets her feet on the ground."
"How long does that take?"
I shrugged. "Not long."
But the knot in my stomach told me that was a lie. The worry clutching at my heart told me my mama might never get her feet on the ground.
As the bus pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward town, Howard rattled off a list of school bus rules. No saving seats. No gum. No writing on the back of the seats. No cussing. A whole mess of rules that I was pretty sure nobody paid any mind to except maybe Howard.
I looked out the window at the sorry sights of Colby. A gas station. A trailer park. A laundromat. Wasn't much of a town, if you asked me. No malls or movie theaters. Not even a Chinese restaurant.
Before long, the bus was making its way up the mountain. The rain had stopped and wavy plumes of steam drifted up off the asphalt. The narrow road curved back and forth and round and round. Every now and then, the bus stopped to let some kid off at a pitiful-looking house with a red-dirt yard. We were almost to Gus and Bertha's when the bus stopped and Howard said, "See ya."
Another, younger-looking redheaded boy got off with him. I watched them make their way across the weed-filled yard to their house. Bikes and skateboards and footballs and sneakers were scattered from the front door to the road. A garden hose snaked from a dripping faucet to a hole in the yard. A small, dirty-faced boy was dropping rocks into the hole, sending up splashes of muddy water.
Howard waved as the bus pulled away, but I turned my eyes back to that dried-up gum.
When we finally got to Gus and Bertha's long gravel driveway, I got off and watched the bus drive away, making the rain-soaked Queen Anne's lace bob at the edge of the road. I was starting up the driveway when I noticed something shiny in the dirt at the edge of the road.
I darted over and picked it up. Then I hurled it as far as I could and made my wish quick before that penny hit the road and bounced into the woods.
There! I'd gotten in my wish for the day.
Maybe this time it would finally come true.CHAPTER 2
I trudged up the long driveway, jumping over puddles of muddy rainwater and wondering what Jackie was doing right that very minute. Probably smoking cigarettes with some boy in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly across from the high school. Everybody thinks my sister is an angel straight down from heaven, but I know better.
When Gus and Bertha's house finally came into view, I stopped. I'd been there four days already but I still couldn't get over how that house hung off the side of the mountain like it did. The front of the house sat smack on the ground with flowering shrubs nestled right up against it. But the back was on stilts stuck into the steep mountainside. On top of the stilts was a tiny porch with two rocking chairs and window boxes full of flowers perched on the railing.
On my first night in Colby, Gus had dragged a kitchen chair out there for me after supper. Bertha had asked me about a million questions, like what was my favorite subject in school and did I have a lucky number? Did I want to go swimming at the Y sometime and did I like boiled peanuts? But I just mumbled and shrugged till she finally stopped. I was too mad to talk. What was I doing there on that porch with these people I didn't even know? I felt like I'd been tossed out on the side of the road like a sack of unwanted kittens. So the three of us sat in silence, watching the sun sink behind the mountain and the lightning bugs twinkle off and on among the pine trees.
I'd spent the next three days trying to convince Gus and Bertha that it was dumb for me to go to school since it was almost summer. But the next thing I knew, I was sitting on that bus full of hillbilly kids on my way to school.
"Hey, there," Bertha called from the front door as I made my way across the yard. A fat orange cat darted out from behind the garden shed and trotted along beside me. Gus and Bertha had a whole passel of cats, sleeping under the porch, sunning on the windowsills, swatting bees out in the garden.
I went inside and dropped my backpack on Gus's tattered easy chair. The smell of warm cinnamon drifted through the kitchen door.
"I made coffee cake," Bertha said. "I wonder why they call it coffee cake. Not a drop of coffee in it." She held the door open for the cat to come in. "Oh, I know. I bet 'cause you're supposed to drink coffee when you eat it. You think? Well, anyways, who cares, right?"
It had been clear to me from day one that Bertha was a talker. Not like her sister, my mama, who went for days without saying a word. I had been surprised when I saw how much they looked alike, though. Same mousy brown hair. Same long, thin fingers. Even the same crinkly lines along the sides of their mouths.
I sat at the kitchen table and watched Bertha cut a thick slice of coffee cake and put it on a paper towel in front of me. Then she pulled her chair close to mine and said, "Tell me every little thing about your first day. Your teacher. The other kids. What your classroom looks like. What you had for lunch. What you did at recess. Every little thing."
"Some girl ate a squirrel sandwich," I said.
Bertha's eyebrows shot up. "A squirrel sandwich? Are you sure?"
I licked my finger and pressed it on the paper towel to get coffee cake crumbs. I nodded but I didn't look at her when I said, "I'm sure."
A small gray cat sat on the kitchen counter grooming himself. I wondered if that was the one Howard had given them. Bertha picked him up and kissed the top of his head. "Charlie don't want cat hair in her coffee cake, Walter." Then she gently put him down on the linoleum floor. His tail twitched as he watched a line of tiny ants marching from under the sink to a dark spot of something sticky by the stove.
"And there's an up-down boy in my class," I said.
Bertha cocked her head. "What in the name of sweet Bessie McGee is an up-down boy?" She snapped a brown leaf off of a plant on the windowsill and tucked it into her pocket.
"This boy named Howard who walks up and down, like this." I walked like Howard around the kitchen table.
"Howard Odom," Bertha said. "Bless his heart. Good as gold, that boy is. Don't bat an eye when kids poke fun at him, calling him names like Pogo." She shook her head. "I swear, kids can be so mean sometimes."
"Yeah, you know, like a pogo stick."
"He oughta punch their lights out," I said. "That's what I'd do."
Bertha widened her eyes at me, then shook her head. "Not that boy. He wouldn't hurt a fly. All them Odoms are like that. Good- hearted. Kinda wild sometimes, those brothers of his. But good- hearted." She brushed crumbs off the table and tossed them into the sink. "Shoot, just last week, three of those boys were over here helping Gus replace them boards on the porch that got eat up with termites and they wouldn't take one penny. We sent them home with a burlap bag full of turnips and they were happy as clams."
Turnips? Any kids who were happy about a bag of turnips must be weird, if you asked me.
Bertha sat at the table beside me again. "So what else?" she said. "Tell me something else about school."
I shrugged. I wasn't going to tell her about that "Getting to Know You" paper dropped onto Mrs. Willibey's desk like a hot potato or about Howard being my Backpack Buddy, so I just said, "Nothing."
Bertha slapped her hand on the kitchen table. "I almost forgot," she said. "I got you something." She motioned for me to follow her down the hall to the tiny spare room where I'd been sleeping.
"Ta-da!" She flung her arm out and grinned.
I followed her gaze to the narrow bed in the corner. Propped up against the wall were two pillows in pink pillowcases with Cinderella on them.
Excerpted from Wish by Barbara Oconnor. Copyright © 2016 Barbara O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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