Chapter One: The Ulti-mutt Day
1 THE ULTI-MUTT DAY
Today was the big day.
The day I had waited for my entire life.
I could hardly believe it, but I, Lauren Ellen Connors, was headed to the dog shelter.
Yep, that’s right. I was Erie County Animal Shelter’s newest volunteer!
This was a very big deal. I loved dogs. In fact, if there’s something greater than love, that’s what I felt toward dogs.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have a dog because my stepdad, Scott, was allergic to them.
Actually, “allergic” wasn’t a strong enough word to describe what happened when he was around dogs or cats. His eyes became red and itchy, his face swelled up and got puffy, and he’d sneeze a million times. I felt bad for him, really I did, but I was also super bummed that I’d never know how awesome it was to grow up with a dog. Sure, Mom and Scott had tried to make up for it by letting me have the non-furry kinds of pets. I’d had three fish, a turtle, and a hermit crab, but it wasn’t the same. You can’t take a fish on a walk. A turtle will never play catch. And forget trying to snuggle up with a hermit crab. They pinch!
“I’m doomed to a childhood without a dog, and I always thought that was the most heartbreaking story ever told,” I said to Mom as we drove to the shelter. “But now there’s a happy ending!”
Once a week I was going to volunteer around the shelter, and then, the best part… I got to read to the dogs! The shelter had a program called Paws for Reading, which helped the dogs get used to people so that the dogs could find a forever home. Reading to them was a big responsibility. I had an important job to do.
I played with the zipper on my backpack. While I was about to burst from excitement, I had to admit that I was also nervous. Would the dogs like me? Would I do a good enough job? What if I messed up and the shelter never wanted me back?
Mom caught my eye in the rearview mirror, and it was as if she’d read my mind. “Relax, sweetie. The dogs will love you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Without a doubt. How could they resist you?”
Mom’s words made me feel a bit better, and the bubbly nervous feeling inside calmed down as she turned into the shelter’s parking lot. I leaned forward to get a better look, but was hugely disappointed.
The shelter wasn’t anything special at all.
It was a normal boring concrete building with a few windows on the front and a chain-link fence. There was a small parking lot and a few signs letting everyone know it was the animal shelter. You’d think that a place that housed such awesomeness would be more spectacular. I’m talking a spotlight, glitter cannon, and fireworks.
Oh well. People always say you can’t judge a book by its cover and it’s what’s inside that counts.
And what could be better than a building full of dogs?
I jumped out of the car after Mom turned off the engine, and I spread my arms wide.
“Hello, doggies! I can’t wait to meet you!” I shouted to the building.
I heard someone giggle, and I spotted two of my best friends, Ruby and Emelyn, waiting for me on a bench.
“Your big day has arrived!” Ruby announced. My friends were well aware of my dog obsession.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I said, and gave each of them a giant hug. Reading to the dogs was going to be awesome, but reading to them with my best friends—Ruby, Emelyn, and Myka—was going to be stupendous. It had been a no-brainer to invite them. The four of us had been inseparable since our parents had met at the library’s story time when we were babies. Well, everyone except Myka. Her mom was in the military, so they moved a lot. We lucked out last year when they moved to our town. Myka instantly fit into our group, and it was like we had all been friends forever.
“Are you kidding me? We wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” Ruby held up her grandma’s old phone that she always had with her. She couldn’t call or text anyone with it but was constantly taking pictures or videos and using the notes app to write down any good scoops she stumbled upon. She wanted to be a world-famous journalist and wasn’t shy about asking people questions. Questions that Mom sometimes said would be better left unasked. “I’m hoping I can write a story about it for the school paper. You know, a feel-good people-helping-animals feature.”
“Great idea, Ruby! People would love to read about this,” Emelyn said as she tucked a strand of her straight black hair behind her ear. Her mom was a hairstylist and put temporary colors in Emelyn’s hair all the time. Today Emelyn had bright blue streaks. The glittery green earrings she had on sparkled in the sun. Emelyn was the only one of us who had pierced ears, even though I begged my parents all the time to let me get mine pierced. Each one of her fingernails was painted a different color, so it looked as if she had a rainbow across her hands, and she wore a jean jacket that her mom had owned when she was a kid. If Ruby ever interviewed me, I’d totally go on record and say that Emelyn was the coolest person I knew.
“Yeah, maybe I can write an exposé. I’ll call it ‘The Secret World of Dogs’ or ‘What It’s Really Like to Be Man’s Best Friend.’?” Ruby beamed, mighty proud of her titles. She always used big words. She was a walking dictionary. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she read the dictionary for fun.
“What’s an exposé?” I asked, because I most certainly didn’t read the dictionary for fun.
“Like when you uncover a big secret,” she said.
“What is it you’re uncovering?” Emelyn asked, and Ruby let out a giant sigh.
“If I knew what I’d uncover, it wouldn’t be an exposé,” she said. “You never know what I could dig up. Maybe I’ll show the world that you can teach an old dog new tricks, or what being ‘sick as a dog’ really means.”
Before Emelyn could respond, a van pulled up and beeped its horn. Myka was the last to arrive, which wasn’t a surprise. It would have been a surprise if she’d been on time. Her three older brothers were so busy with different activities that her parents raced from one thing to the next and called their minivan the family taxi.
Music blasted from the van’s open windows, and her brothers waved and yelled dramatic goodbyes to her when she jumped out.
“We’ll miss you so much!” Jordan yelled.
“Don’t stay away too long!” Remy told her.
“I don’t know how I’ll function without you,” Alex declared, his hand to his heart.
“I promise to write!” Myka yelled back before she ran over to us.
They acted like she was going away on an around-the-world trip instead of volunteering for a few hours. But that was Myka and her family. They were loud, loud, loud and always ready to celebrate anything, no matter how big or small. Seriously, I was over at their house once, and no one could get the lid off the jar of olives. When her brother Jordan finally unscrewed it, everyone cheered so loud, you’d have thought they were at the Super Bowl.
“Have no fear. I’m here!” Myka declared, and did a funny little dance that looked like one a football player would do when he scored a touchdown. Myka’s motto could totally be “Go big or go home.” When she was in the room, there was no mistaking that she was there.
She had on her soccer uniform, which wasn’t a surprise. We joked that she was part chameleon. She took on the appearance of whatever sport she played. Last year she had walked around school for weeks in her karate uniform, this past summer she’d worn eye black even when she wasn’t on the softball field, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d tried to wear her swimsuit during swim season.
“Let’s go, team!” Myka said, and started a slow clap. “We're going to have a blast!”
“We might never want to leave,” I agreed, and clapped with her.
“They’ll have to drag us out!” Myka cheered.
The four of us headed toward the doors, but Mom playfully pulled me back.
“Remember,” she reminded me. “You’re not coming out with anything more than you’re walking in with. In other words, no dogs.”
I pretended to pout. “Not even if it’s super-duper cute and fluffy and has a tail that wags fast when you look at it?”
“Especially not one that is super-duper cute and fluffy with a tail that wags fast when you look at it,” Mom said.
“All right,” I said, because simply being at the shelter made me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
We entered a big room painted bright yellow, with a large desk against the back wall. The wall was covered with pictures of dogs, most posed with smiling humans. A man with a head full of curly brown hair waved at us. He had on a hooded sweatshirt with the words MUST ? DOGS across the front.
“Hi. We’re here to adopt a dog,” I told him.
“Lauren!” Mom said, her eyes wide in disbelief.
I threw my head back and let out a giant belly laugh. There was nothing more fun than teasing Mom. “Kidding! We’re your newest volunteers.”
“Welcome aboard! I’m Mr. Turner, and I’m in charge of the volunteer program here,” the man said. “Our dogs love meeting new people.”
We introduced ourselves and gave him the permission forms our parents had filled out ahead of time.
“I bet you want to meet those dogs, so let me explain how this works. Most people think volunteering at a shelter is simply hanging out and playing with the dogs. But there is so much more work that goes into taking care of these animals. And while we love that you want to read to them, it also helps us out big-time when you do some of the other stuff too. So each week we’ll have a task for you to complete, and then the reward is… reading to the dogs!”
“The cherry on top of the sundae!” Myka said.
“Sounds about right,” Mr. Turner said, and chuckled. “Paws for Reading is a win for everyone. You get to practice your reading skills, and the dogs get to practice being around people. Some are very shy, and when the idea is to get adopted, hiding in the back of the cage doesn’t help. We’ve found that our dogs who are read to interact more, which usually means they find a forever home quicker. And a forever home is our number one goal here.”
The nervous feeling came back. Did I have what it took to help these dogs? I thought of Mom’s words of encouragement and told myself yes, yes, I could. I could do this.
“Now to the task this week,” Mr. Turner said. “We need the food and water bowls washed. There’s a sink in the back that you can use. Does that work?”
“We’d love to do that,” I said, speaking for everyone.
Mom faked a shocked look. “Wow. I wish you’d get that enthusiastic when I ask you to wash our dinner dishes.”
“I guess I’ve been saving my skills for here,” I joked.
“I’ll remember these so-called skills after dinner tonight,” Mom said.
Mr. Turner took us through a door into a room that was lined with shelves of dog food. There was a huge metal sink filled with dirty bowls.
“The job is simple. Wash the bowls in one side of the sink, rinse them in the other, dry with the towels, and repeat.”
“And repeat and repeat and repeat,” Myka said, her eyes wide as she took in the giant tower of bowls.
“There's a lot, but then again, we have a lot of dogs,” Mr. Turner said.
“How many?” Ruby asked, always in reporter mode.
“Thirty-six right now. We’re full to capacity, so every cage is taken.”
“Thirty-six dogs without homes?” I said, and my heart hurt for each of them.
“Without forever homes,” Mr. Turner corrected me. “By coming in to help out and read to the dogs, you’re making their temporary home special too. We’re glad you’re willing to help.”
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on a Saturday morning,” I said. “Or a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday—”
“All right. I’ll clean,” Ruby interrupted, cutting me off before I could go through every day of the week. She took charge and gave us all jobs. “Myka, you can hand me the bowls. Lauren, you rinse, and Emelyn can dry. Does that work?”
“Aye, aye, captain!” Myka said, and saluted her.
“I’ll help too,” Mom said as she rolled up her sleeves. “No sense being here and not making myself useful.”
We assembled into our positions and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned.
And then cleaned some more.
And cleaned even more!
It was like the stacks of bowls multiplied every few minutes. There seemed to be no end in sight.
“This is hard work,” I said as I examined my fingers, which had wrinkled up like raisins from soaking in the water too long.
“Ruby, write that down in your notebook,” Mom teased. “So Lauren can remember that the next time she asks for a dog. There’s so much that goes into caring for a pet beyond simply playing with them.”
And, wowsers, she wasn’t kidding. It took more than an hour to wash the bowls, but finally, we were done.
Mr. Turner gave us the thumbs-up after we asked him to come back and check on it all. “Great job! You’re going to be a much-needed addition to our crew!”
“Does that mean it’s time to meet the dogs?” I asked as the electric sizzle of excitement filled my body.
“You betcha,” Mr. Turner said. “Did you each bring a book to read?”
I held up a copy of Charlotte’s Web. It was my all-time favorite book. There was something so special about Charlotte. She was a tiny spider, but she made a huge difference in Wilbur’s life.
“A good choice,” Mr. Turner told me. “Okay, girls, when you head into the kennel area, grab one of the mats by the door to sit on. Find a dog you want to hang out with, and you can unlock its cage to sit next to them. We ask that when you read to the dogs, you do it in a soft voice and don’t make any sudden movements that might startle them. If your dog doesn’t come to the front of the cage, don’t worry. It might take some time. Remember, simply having you there is so great for them.”
“And for us,” I added.
“It’s great all around,” Mr. Turner said. “Now, without further ado, let’s head into the kennel and meet the dogs!”
He opened a door, and when I stepped inside, I gasped.