The summer was coming to an end and Juniper Tice had several freckles splashed across her cheeks to show for the hours she spent every day at the swimming pool.
Each morning she dutifully pulled a red marker from her desk drawer and marked a big bright “X” on a calendar with dog pictures hanging next to her bed. Each red “X” brought her closer to her first day as a 5th grader at Turkery Creek Elementary.
She was still the tallest girl she knew. She still had her soft brown eyes, knobby knees and a wide, bright, natural smile.
But her usually dark brown hair was lighter from the endless days she spent outside. If Juniper was not at the neighborhood swimming pool practicing her flip and swan dive she was exploring the woods and fields near her home.
“Juniper,” her mother would say at breakfast. “I think you should spend some time inside today. Don’t you think it would be good to practice some word problems or your pensmanship?”
“Mom…” Juniper would groan.
“Ooooo. I could maybe write some math problems for you today,” her father would chime in. “Let’s see… If a train leaves New York going 100 mph and a train leaves Los Angeles…”
“No, no, no,” Juniper would say with her hands over her ears.
Her parents would laugh. Her father would tousle her hair. Her mother would ask her to clear the dishes. And then, Juniper would put on her pink sneakers, grab her swim towel, a bottle of water and run out the door to her bicycle.
“Don’t forget to use sun screen!” her mother would call after her.
On the first day of school Juniper’s mother laid out a white, starched button up blouse and a navy blue pleated skirt that hung loosely at Juniper’s knees. She tried to get Juniper to wear the black shoes that were normally reserved for church but after some bargaining, she relented and Juniper instead wore her grass stained pink sneakers. Juniper was very good at bargaining.
Her mother took her picture with Juniper standing next to the mail box, just like she did ever year on the first day of school. She gave Juniper a hug and sent her off to school.
Juniper didn’t look back. She knew that just like every year, her mom would be smiling as Juniper walked away with her eyes watering at the sight of her daughter entering another year in school.
“I love you Juniper!” her mother called out.
It was so embarassing…
The first day of school was always exciting. There were new friends to meet and old friends to greet. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Roth and she had two kids in high school who were also starting school today.
They were each handed apple shaped name tags and assigned desks to sit in. Juniper, as usual, had to sit next to Rodney Towns. She didn’t like Rodney. He was loud and interupted the teacher all the time and he never did well on his spelling tests or math quizes. Boys…
During the morning recess Juniper and her friends played keep away with an old tennis ball that her friend Henry had brought to school. Some of the girls simply sat around and pretended they were teaching school themselves. That seemed positively boring to Juniper.
At one point Rodney grabbed the tennis ball threw it into the air on top of a storage shed next to the school. It rolled off the roof and landed in the gap between the school and the shed. Since Juniper was the skinniest girl playing keep away she naturally volunteered to get the ball.
As Juniper started to slip between the shed and the school’s brown brick wall she suddenly stopped. There, whimpering slightly was a white dog with light brown patches on his chest, legs and back. The dog appeared to be stuck. He was panting and obviously scared.
Juniper instantly grabbed the dog by it’s hind legs and gently pulled it to safety.
He was very excited to be free and ran in a circle around Juniper barking and twirling his long tail.
“It’s okay boy,” Juniper said. “You are safe now.”
Soon her friends ran up to see the dog that Juniper had rescued. This gathered the attention of Mrs. Frost.
“Don’t touch that dog,” Mrs. Frost declared.
“Why not?” said Juniper.
“Well, he’s a strange dog and does not have a collar. That means he doesn’t have an owner. And, Juniper, dogs who don’t have owners do not go the vet. He could have a disease or worse… he could be a biter!”
“Um, he seems friendly, even though he won’t let any one pet him,” Juniper said.
“Well, it does not matter. Recess is over. Juniper, since you touched that dirty dog you need to wash your hands before coming back to class.”
“Did you get my ball?” Henry asked.
“No, I can get it after lunch during afternoon recess,” Juniper said, wondering if Mrs. Frost was right. What if the dog wasn’t friendly? What if he had something horribly wrong with him.
Juniper slowly trailed behind the class with her new canine friend following her a cautious distance. When she got to the door she turned and placed a finger to her lips.
“Shhhhh,” she said. “I don’t care what Mrs. Frost says. I can tell that you are a nice dog. I will be back soon and if you stay right here I will bring something for you to eat.”
The dog laid down in the grass by the side walk, content to wait for Juniper Bice.
At lunch Juniper ate only half of her baloney sandwich and half of her potato chips. She shen asked Henry if she could have the bread crusts he tore of his sandwich.
“Why?” asked Henry.
“For the dog,” Juniper said. “I promised him that if he stayed by the door until the afternoon recess I would bring him some food.”
Little blonde Stephanie (who always drew pictures on her arms with magic markers) chimed in with her support.
“You can have the ham from my sandwich,” she said in a slow southern drawal. “I don’t like eating animals.”
Soon Juniper had a small pile of discarded lunch material to feed the dog.
Sara gave her some apple slices because “If he eats enough apples it won’t matter if he’s never been to the doctor” and Katherine gave her a bottle of water because “It’s already warm and gross.” When she wasn’t looking Jack at some of her chips in the pile but he apologized and gave Juniper the crust from his cheese pizza.
“What are you going to name the dog?” Stephanie asked.
“I don’t know,” said Juniper.
“If you name the dog then it’s your dog forever and you can keep it,” said Katherine.
“Name him Thunder,” said Jack.
“That name is stupid,” complained Stephanie. “Name him something cute and sweet like… Patches.”
“That’s it!” said Juniper. “I will name him Patches.”
She gave Stephanie a hug and shoveled her pile of food scraps into her lunch box and waited, very inpatiently for the afternoon recess.
Patches quickly ate all over the food. Then Stephanie poured the water into her lunch box so Patches could get a drink. His tail spun even faster when he was done with his meal.
While the children played another round of keep away with Henry’s tennis ball Patches would run around the group barking happily.
“That dog is too loud,” said Rodney.
“Don’t be a pill Rodney,” said Juniper.
“Yah, you’re loud AND annoying,” Stephanie said.
That night at dinner Juniper carefully brought up the subject of Patches.
“You know, this family does not have a dog,” Juniper said while twirling her fork in her spaghetti noodles.
“Very observant,” her father said. “This family definitely does not have a dog.”
“You know, I always wanted a baby brother or a baby sister but I think having a dog could make up for that loss in my life,” Juniper said, trying hard to sound mopey.
Her mother looked her father with an arched eyebrow. Her father slowly shook his head “no.”
Finally her mother said:
“Juniper… we have a gold fish. I think a gold fish is enough for now. Maybe in a few years we can get a dog.”
“But I already have a dog,” Juniper said.
“You do?” her father asked.
“Yes, his name is Patches and I met him at school and I named him and I fed him and he is very nice and there is no one to take care of him except for me so can I please bring him home tomorrow?”
Her father placed his hand on top of Juniper’s hand.
“Juniper, I know you like this dog but we are not bringing a dog home. They are a lot of work. I’m sorry. We will get a dog one day.”
Juniper tried very hard not to cry but some tears leaked from her eyes any way.
“It’s not fair,” she said as she got up from the table. “It’s not fair to me or to Patches.”
She then ran to her room and shut her door very hard so that her parents would know just how mad she was at them. She could hear them talking in hushed tones. They were disagreeing about something.
In the morning Juniper slipped a Pop Tart into her back pack before she left for school along with a an old plastic bowl and bottle of water. She knew Patches would be waiting for her and she also knew he would be hungry.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she said to the dog while she fed him.
During the morning recess Juniper, Sara and Stephanie tried to brush Patches. He didn’t want to let them. In the afternoon recess it was obvious that hot dogs were his favorite meal.
“My mom says hot dogs aren’t good for you but your dog Patches doesn’t seem to care,” Sara said.
“I’m pretty sure hot dogs are good for you,” Juniper said. “If they weren’t good for you, why would they feed them to us at lunch?”
And so the care and maintenance of Patches continued like this for several weeks until one day Mrs. Frost asked the three girls to speak to her in the hall way.
“Girls,” she said. “I know that you love and take care of that stray dog. But dogs need homes. Soon it will be cold outside. He can’t live in the park forever. I’m afraid we will have to call the county soon and ask them to pick up the dog. Then he can be adopted by a family that will take care of him.”
Juniper and Stephanie started to cry. Sara got angry. Her face turned red.
“You. Can. Not. Take. Juniper’s. Dog. Away.” Sara said.
Mrs. Frost was surprised by this sudden confrontation.
“Now Sara, I am an adult and your teacher. We do not talk that way to adults.”
“Mrs. Frost, please,” Juniper said. “Please let me try to find a home for Juniper. Give me at least week. Please!”
Mrs. Frost sighed heavily.
“Okay, you have until the end of this week to find Patches a new home.”
After school that dayJuniper and Stephanie made several signs announcing that they had a lovely white and brown dog that was free to a good home. They posted them around their neighborhood and also at the grocery store and gasoline station.
But nobody called.
On Wednesday the class was going on a field trip to a pumpkin patch so they could each pick a pumpkin for Halloween, but Juniper wasn’t excited about it at all. She was too worried about Patches.
The school bus bounced along and her classmates yelled and shouted but Juniper just sat there in her seat wondering why no one had called.
Eventually the bus pulled onto a gravel road and stopped in front of a gray and white farm house with a big metal barn.
The farmer, he told the children to call him “Farmer Ted”, had big hands and bright blue eyes. His jeans were faded, his yellow shirt was neatly starched, his boots were dirty and he carried a red bandana in his back pocket.
Farmer Ted showed the children his chickens, he let them pet his rabbits, he explained that his goat was kind of mean and prone to knocking people over. No, he didn’t have a horse but he did have some sheep which smelled pretty bad. There was a cow that he milked and, honestly, Juniper was surprised by how long it took to milk the cow and how little came out.
As they were headed to the pumpkin patch Juniper saw a large Golden Retriever sitting under an oak tree with a chain around his neck.
“Farmer Ted, why is your dog chained to that tree?” Juniper asked.
“Oh, well, that’s Blue Bell,” he said. “Blue Bell can’t see anymore. So I have to keep her chained up so that she doesn’t wander off and get lost.”
“Can you get her eyes fixed?”
“Oh sweetie I’m afraid I can’t do that. I worry about old Blue Bell an awful lot. I had another dog that Blue Bell used to be able to follow around and not get lost but he got old and died so now there is just Blue Bell.”
“I have a dog myself. Well, actually, I just named him and I feed him but my parents won’t let me keep him at home. I found him at school. He was stuck between the shed and the school. He likes Pop Tarts and hot dogs. I’m trying to find a home for him because Mrs. Frost said soon it will be too cold out for him to live in the school yard, but no one has called. His name is Patches. I worry about Patches just like you worry about Blue Bell.”
Farmer Ted stopped. He looked at Juniper. He looked at Blue Bell. He looked at Juniper again.
“What kind of dog is Patches?”
“He’s a white dog with brown patches.”
“I see. Is he a big dog or a small dog?”
“He’s a little smaller than Blue Bell,” Juniper said.
“You know, if just anyone takes in your dog Patches, you might not see him anymore. Is Patches smart?”
“Patches is very smart, ” said Juniper. “I just don’t want him to be picked up by the county. Mrs. Frost said the county will help him find a good home but Rodney said the county doesn’t really do that.”
Juniper could feel herself starting to cry.
“Do you think your dog Patches would like to live on a farm?”
“Yes! Would you like to have Patches?”
Farmer Ted looked at Blue Bell, who was now laying on her back in a very bored fashion.
“Okay,” Farmer Ted said. “Tomorrow I will come by your school and pick up Patches. But I’ll only take him in if you promise to come see him with your parents some time.”
Juniper flashed her wide, bright, natural smile for the first time that week.
“That would be perfect Farmer Ted. Simply perfect. Thank you so much you’re going to love Patches!”
She ran off to the pumpkin patch to tell Stephanie and Sara the good news.
The next day after school Juniper’s mother and father met her at the flag pole. Soon, Farmer Ted pulled into the parking lot in his big white pick up truck.
Juniper’s mother took several picture of Juniper and her friends with Patches. Juniper had to coax Patches with a hot dog into a dog crate so Farmer Ted could safely take the dog to his new home.
Juniper got into her mother’s car and she and her mother and father followed Farmer Ted to the farm.
Once they all got to the farm, Patches burst from the dog crate. He ran all around barking his happy bark with his tail twirling in a circle. Farmer Ted unchained Blue Bell and soon the old golden retriever was trotting behind Patches, following him where ever he went.
Juniper’s mother and father thanked Farmer Ted for taking in Patches and gave him a very large bag of dog food.
“Oh no,” Farmer Ted said. “Don’t thank me. I want to thank Juniper for letting me look after her dog for her.”
When it was time to go home she yelled out good bye to Patches.
And, for the first time ever, he trotted up and let her pet him on the head.
“I love you Patches,” she said.
Then he dashed off to play with Blue Bell some more.