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.

A dog.

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?”

“Okay.”

“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.

Nine

Mercy regarded Shirley suspiciously, her arms folded, her foot tapping. “You brought that dog to the schoolyard, didn’t you?” She pointed at the animal, who lay in the sandbox, head resting on his outstretched paws as he slept.

Shirley sat on the swing at the farthest reaches of the yard and shook her head adamantly. “I most certainly did not. I don’t have a clue where that dog came from. Trust me, if I brought a dog into Carter’s life, it wouldn’t be that mangy mutt.”

Mercy didn’t believe her. “I, for one, find it mighty convenient that a stray dog should show up in the schoolyard today.” And besides, she knew Shirley loved animals—despite the scornful way she’d spoken about this dog.

“I agree with Mercy.” Goodness came to stand at her side, her foot tapping in an identical tempo.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Shirley muttered. “Carter can’t have a dog. That decision’s already been made. You both know I can’t interfere with the chain of command. Carter’s father feels bad enough as it is, but he’s said in no uncertain terms that his son can’t have a dog. Why would I complicate matters?”

“Why would she?” Goodness turned to Mercy.

“I don’t know, but like I said, I find this entire situation a little too convenient.”

Shirley stepped free of the swing and brushed the snow from her hands. “Speaking of convenient, I think it’s very interesting that Beth and Peter appear to be so well-matched.”

Goodness raised both arms. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t have a thing to do with that. They met online six months ago, remember?”

“Quite right,” Mercy confirmed. “And before you mention Harry and Rosalie running into Lucy Menard, I’ve explained that.”

A wistful expression came over Goodness. “I do hope everything works out for Beth and Peter.”

“Why shouldn’t it?” Shirley asked.

“They’re both so stubborn—and so scared. What they need is a good shove in the right direction.”

“Goodness!” Shirley’s expression was scandalized. “Don’t even think like that. Our job is to teach these humans a lesson. They have to make their own decisions, find their own way.”

“Find their own way?” Mercy didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but she couldn’t help it. The evidence was overwhelming; humans were a pathetic bunch. “May I remind you that humans wandered in the desert for forty years on a trip that should’ve taken three months, tops?”

“Joshua had them march around Jericho seven times, looking for the main gate to the city,” Goodness added, shaking her head.

Shirley frowned. “You both know there were very good reasons for those incidents.”

“True, but you have to admit humans don’t exactly have an impressive track record.”

With a disgruntled look, Shirley was forced to admit the truth.

“Humans need help,” Mercy reiterated.

“Our help.”

Still Shirley didn’t seem convinced. “But Gabriel—”

“Will never find out,” Mercy assured her. “We won’t be blatant about it—just a nudge or two where it’s warranted. If Gabriel’s going to place us under earthly time constraints, we need to be inventive.”

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