Once Tawny decides to do something, there’s no holding her back. So when her best friend dares her to eat dog kibble, down it goes. Little does she know how that dusty, tasteless lump will change her life. Suddenly she can hear what dogs have to say and talk back to them too! This might not be such a big deal, except that her own dog, an enormous Great Dane named Dinky, has a LOT to say. He lets her know right away that his fondest wish is to be a teeny tiny lap dog with all the accessories. Tawny promises to help him, and her life nearly goes to the dogs.
Just Because It's Organic Doesn't Mean You Should Eat It
It’s hard to believe this whole thing started two measly Fridays ago, but it did. That was the night I was sleeping over at my best friend Jenny’s. We’d already done each other’s hair and nails, when all of a sudden she got that look in her eye. Jenny has a lot of “looks,” but this one is my least favorite because it always means trouble with a capital “uh oh.”
“What?” I asked her, though I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know.
“My candy bar sense is tingling. Let’s go girlfriend.”
I gave my not quite dry nails one last wave and a blow and then followed her to the basement. What else could I do? She’d set us on a mission.
You see, Jenny’s dad is a health freak who makes Jenny’s whole family eat organic whole grain grass fed everything. There’s no such thing as whole grain candy, and you can’t feed grass to it either, so candy is not allowed in Jenny’s house. And when I say not allowed, I mean not allowed in the same way that the stuff somebody would need to make a nuclear bomb would not be allowed in my house.
I only occasionally find myself wishing I could build my very own nuclear bomb, but Jenny’s big brother Zach always wants candy, so whenever he gets any extra, he hides it here and there around the house like a giant, furless squirrel with acne and a serious sweet tooth. One time we’d scored a brown paper bag full of king-size Snickers that he’d stuffed behind a sack of dog food in the basement. Sure enough, Jenny headed straight for that spot again.
“Lightning never strikes twice in the same place,” I reminded her.
“Zach is dumber than static electricity,” Jenny muttered as she shifted bags and boxes away from the wall, peering behind each.
I looked too, but after another minute it was clear: just kibble and no candy.
“Disappointing,” I said nicely, trying to console her.
Her eyes narrowed into slits. “Tawny, I don’t DO disappointment.”
“We could look somewhere else,” I offered. “There’re tons of hiding spots down here.” This was true. Their basement looks like the bulk bin section of the local health food store. Every inch is stuffed with bags and boxes of dried and powdered food that is supposed to make you healthy if you can somehow convince yourself to eat it.
Then, before I realized what was happening, Jenny scooped up a handful of dog food from a big open bag on the floor. “Nah, I’ve got a better idea,” she said, sniffing at it as she winked a big blue eye at me. “I bet you won’t eat a piece of dog food.”
Now, I did not want to eat dog food. I mean, yuck. But when it comes to a dare, I have as much willpower as Jenny with a dozen king-size Snickers in her lap. (She was sick for two days after, and so maybe there is a reason why the small bars are called fun-size.) That is to say, I have no willpower whatsoever. So even though I didn’t want to eat dog food, now I had to because my best friend said I wouldn’t. I picked out the smallest crumb I could find.
“You know that won’t count,” she said, sniggering. “You won’t even taste that.”
“I’m thinking that’s a plus,” I said, squinting at it in my palm.
She smacked the crumb out of my hand and rummaged around for the biggest piece in the bag. “It’s this one or you lose the dare,” she said, and pressed it into my still open hand.
I couldn’t help making a face as I held it up for a closer look. It was marble-sized and lumpy and puke brown and covered in dark green flecks of something seaweed-ish. Apparently even their poor dog Gunner gets kale-dusted dog food. I don’t know.
Staring at the chunk of kibble in my hand, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t going to die if I did this. I mean, some people food is poison for dogs, right? My mom says never to give a pet chocolate. Who’s to say dog food isn’t poisonous to people? It certainly smelled like poison probably smells! But then I remembered all those stories parents tell about how they walked into the kitchen only to find their baby finishing off Fido’s lunch! You’d think they’d be embarrassed to tell a story like that, but for some reason, they tell it every chance they get. Adults. Still, those stories never end with, “and then little Johnny died,” or something tragic like that. And since I wasn’t planning on eating an entire bowl, and a fifth grader is a lot bigger than a baby, I figured probably it was okay.
Now most people, if they had no choice and had to eat a piece of dog food, would take a little nibble first. You know—get a preview of what the whole thing will be like? That’s just not the kind of girl I am. When I decide to do a thing, I do it. Like when I decided I could build my own swimming pool in the back yard. Or when I got tired of my frizzy brown hair and decided I would look great bald. Or when I decided I could fit down the sewer drain in front of our house (and I’m skinny enough that I might’ve too if I didn’t have a head). Or when . . . you get the picture.
Jenny grabbed my elbow like maybe she had changed her mind and was taking back the dare, but it was too late. I already had that giant chunk of dog food between my teeth on the left side (loose tooth on the right) and was biting down.
It was very crunchy, which I guess I expected, but it didn’t have hardly any taste at all, which surprised me. There was only a hint of a meaty taste. Mostly what flavor there was was corn, with a delicate kale finish and notes of celery and autumn harvest carrot. (Ha! I’ve always wanted to do that. My parents talk about wine like that.)
Anyway, eating dog food was no big deal. I wasn’t hankering for more, but it wasn’t terrible. I did feel pretty bad for dogs the world over though. What a life dogs have, I thought, eating this nothingness day in and day out for every dog year of their food-crazy dog lives. No wonder they send you that pitiful look the second you even think about opening the fridge, and squat under the dinner table like a furry troll hoping for dropsies.
“Yes, it’s completely humiliating,” I heard Jenny say. Well, I assumed it was Jenny since we were the only ones in her basement. It didn’t sound at all like her though. That is, unless her voice had suddenly dropped two octaves and she’d swallowed a shovel full of gravel.
I stared hard at her. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything, but I will now! Tawny ate dog food! Tawny ate dog food! Tawny is a dooo-oooog!” she sang. But of course, this is Jenny we’re talking about, so she didn’t just sing. She also danced in loopy circles all around the basement. The joke was really on her though, because with her long lacy nightdress, pudgy red apple cheeks and wavy blonde hair, she looked like a people version of Miss Piggy.
“Ignore her,” the deep, rough voice said loudly right over Jenny’s taunting. “It’s what I do.”
“What is happening to me?” I thought. I saw in a cartoon once where this guy drank a mysterious potion and then did crazy things like walk straight up walls and wear pants on his head. Was I going crazy? Were my eyeballs going to go all pinwheel and start spiraling round and round? Maybe the dog food was poison!
I ran to the bathroom in Jenny’s basement and stared at myself in the cracked little mirror over the sink. My eyes were their regular light brown and not spinning. My hair sure looked crazy, sticking out in every direction like a porcupine with a bad perm. But then that is completely normal for me, unfortunately. Still, there did seem to be a hint of lunatic about me, so just to be safe, I put my mouth under some running water to wash out as much of the kibble leftovers as I could.
“Tastes that bad, huh?” Jenny asked as she tossed me a towel to dry my face.
“Uh, yeah, really awful. Can we go upstairs now? I’m tired of the basement.” I was trying to sound calm, and counting on a change of scenery to straighten me out.
“Sure,” Jenny said, stifling a giggle. “Maybe Dad will let us have a glass of carob milk. Tastes like brown chalk, but it’ll wash the pet food taste out of your mouth . . .” She giggled again. “Probably.”
I had just set the towel down and was moving toward the stairs when I heard the voice again . . .
“Don’t leave me down here. Basement gives me the creeps.”
This time I had an idea about where it was coming from, or at least I had a good guess. Or really, I had a completely and totally crazy guess. I hadn’t noticed earlier, but over in the corner lying on a lumpy, hairy, smelly, oily, and I mean downright nasty old blanket, was Jenny’s dog Gunner. He is medium sized and the ugliest thing anyone ever laid their sorry eyes on. He has some fur that is wiry and patches that are sleek, bits that are grayish and tufts that are dark brownish. His feet are all different sizes, and his rump is as big as a pony’s. His lips have weird blobs growing out of them, and gunk is always running from the corners of his eyes, making shiny brown Slip’N Slides down his face. I like him because he is a sweetheart, but I don’t especially like petting him because whenever you take your hand away it feels all greasy. Dog grease. Ooog.
“Why don’t you tell them to give me a bath then, huh? Everybody should have a bath now and then, don’t you think?” Gunner apparently said right after he apparently read my mind.
As he brushed past me on his way up the stairs, I sat down, or really I plopped down because my legs had decided to stop being legs and start being sacks of pudding. Then my mind, which I now knew for certain was cuckoo crazy, went on strike. It went completely blank and refused to send words to my mouth, even though I was pretty sure my lips were moving as if words were supposed to be coming out of them.
Jenny put her face down near mine. She wore an actual worried look, which is highly unusual for her. “Hey, are you okay? Should I get my dad?”
I took a few deep breaths. “Home,” I told myself, “I just want to be home. Everything will be better there. Plus Gunner WON’T be there.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, getting to my feet. “I don’t feel well. I can’t stay for the sleepover.”
Without another word I dashed up the stairs, lunged out the back door and started off across their backyard.
If you take the back yard route, my house and Jenny’s house are exactly 312 steps apart. We counted one day so we could find the exact middle meeting point—one hundred and fifty six steps for each of us, which puts us right behind the Johnson’s shed. There’s an overgrown bush there with a little cave space I like to hide in when Jenny’s running late, or when I feel like jumping out and surprising her, which I often do feel like doing.
“What about all your stuff?” she called after me. “Your sleeping bag and toothbrush and stuff?”
“I’ll get it later,” I said as I walked backwards, waving good-bye. Jenny looked stunned, which made me feel terrible. We had been looking forward to this sleepover all week and had a full night planned. After the hair and nails, we were going to fill the toes of her brother’s slippers with shaving cream. If we did it just right, he wouldn’t know it was in there till he was wearing foam socks. After that we were going to go through her mom’s bra and undies drawer—again. Those things are hilariously huge! Now we would both miss out on all that fun, and I felt bad, but this was just too weird, too scary. I would explain it all to Jenny later. Or then again, maybe she’d hear about it on the evening news:
Girl walks up walls. Eyeballs won’t stop pinwheeling. Builds nuclear bomb.
I turned and bolted for home.
My Dinky Dog
The closer I got to my house (or maybe it was the further I got from Jenny’s house), the better I felt. My house is what they call a “split-level.” That means the architect was split on whether it should be a one or a two story, so they built half of each. Whatever. It’s my house, and it feels like home, and as soon as I stepped inside, I really felt better. There was our familiar carpet, our familiar house air smell, and our familiar sailboat string art on the wall that my Grandma made for my dad way back in the 70’s. Dad refuses to let Mom throw it away even though it’s growing a whole new layer of spider web string art over the top of it.
Just to be sure Gunner’s voice hadn’t followed me home, I stopped in the doorway and listened. All I could hear was a low murmuring that sounded like my parents out on the back porch. Instantly I switched into tiptoe mode as I crept toward the sound. You see I’d realized, just in time before I blurted out “I’m home!” and gave away my position, that I had stumbled onto one of those moments kids only dream about when you get to find out what your parents do when they’re convinced you’re not around.
The kitchen smelled like they’d cooked up something really good, and it was a total mess as if they’d been in a giant hurry to eat. Peeking out the kitchen window, I spotted them. They had set our rusty patio table really nice with a white tablecloth, a dish of daisies picked from the sunny side of the house, and a tall blue candlestick in a silver holder. They were each eating with one hand while holding hands with their other hand. “Tricky business,” I thought, and made a mental note for Jenny and I to start practicing that.
My parents make an odd couple. My dad should have been an arctic explorer, or a caveman, or a caveman arctic explorer. He bike commutes everywhere, even on the most frozen winter days, and has legs the size of tree trunks. He hardly eats anything but meat, and he’s only comfortable in clothes so old and full of holes he’s wearing more air than fabric.
My mom doesn’t like the cold or exercise, and would never be caught wearing a garment with anything but the usual arm and neck holes in it. She complains about how she “struggles” with her weight, but I think the extra weight on her is nice. When I was little and got a scratch or was scared, I would run to her and it felt like I could just sink in.
So they are pretty different, but there they were, both smiling and looking so interested in whatever the other one was saying . . . and that’s all! The exciting, mysterious thing my parents do when I’m not around is eat dinner. They are not CIA agents digging a secret tunnel to our neighbor, Mr. Ed, so he can give them the latest and greatest spy gadget that fits in a shoe. Oh, well. I watched them for another half-a-minute and then popped my head out the big sliding glass door that goes from our kitchen to our porch.
“Hey guys,” I said. My parents jumped so far out of their chairs they tipped over the bowl of daisies. “I don’t feel so good, so I’m not doing the sleepover with Jenny.”
“Oh . . . all right dear,” Mom said, sitting back down and righting what was left of the daisies. “No fever or anything?”
I shook my head no.
“We could ride our bikes over there later if you change your mind,” Dad said. He sounded hopeful.
“No, thanks,” I answered, and headed up to my room to do some reading in bed.
A little while later I heard my dog Dinky clomping up the stairs. If you stop and think of a long list of things that come to mind when you hear the word “dinky,” I guarantee that you will not think of my dog.
Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane, and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown. I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae! But when that much dog is walking up our slippery wooden staircase, it sounds like a hockey player ice-skating up the down escalator.
Dinky visits me at around the same time every night. When my parents are up and about, he is wherever my dad is, watching whatever my dad is doing. My dad is never ever still. He is fixing a bike, messing with our moody garage door opener, checking that water can get down our downspouts, and other useful things like that, all the time. Dinky follows him around like a curious toddler—a huge, furry, pointy-eared, giraffe-legged toddler. Later on, when my parents sit holding hands and watching the TV news, Dinky gets bored and comes and finds me. I’m really good at tummy scratching, or sometimes we play tug-o-war with one of my dad’s old ratty T-shirts.
That night, though, I was nervous. It was only an hour before that Gunner was sharing his deepest thoughts and feelings with me. Since then I’d been telling myself it was all in my mind. I had had a rough day. I mean, seeing Ned stuff that French fry up his nose at lunch and then pull it out and eat it anyway could make anyone think dogs were talking to them. And “Miss Perfect” Allison Chase had looked sideways at my green denim skirt when I walked into class that morning. Either she hated it, or she had bought one just like it and was mad that I’d worn mine first. Whatever. I figured all I needed was a good Saturday morning sleep-in to set things right.
Still, I held my breath as Dinky walked into my room. All I heard was the familiar clickety click of those toenails. The way he walks reminds me of a lady in tall, spiky heels. I always think this is funny, and I smiled to myself this time too when I thought of it.
“I don’t think it’s funny,” Dinky said.
The Death of Fishy Fish
Diving under my bed covers, I told myself over and over, “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This is NOT happening.”
“Oh, but it is,” Dinky said with a lazy sigh. I felt him slump into a giant pile at the side of my bed. “Can I have my scratch now?”
I couldn’t believe I could hear another dog talking—and it was my own dog! I was also surprised at the type of voice Dinky had. Gunner had sounded like he should, which is an odd thing to say in the first place since we are talking about how a dog sounds talking. But Gunner looks sort of gross and gravelly and sounded that way. By that logic, Dinky’s voice should have been very deep and maybe elegant or something, like the prime minister of a fancy European country. It wasn’t though. Dinky’s voice was high pitched like a little kid, almost a squeak. His voice was, well, dinky.
“I can’t help my voice,” he squeaked at me. “Now get up and give me my scratch! Your mom and dad are on couch potato duty. That makes it your turn to entertain.”
I screwed up my courage and peeked one eye out from under my blanket. There was Dinky, staring at me with his usual huge, walnut-brown doggy eyes. I was about to dive to the bottom of my bed and never resurface when I thought of a way to test whether all of this was really happening.
“How do I know I’m not just imagining I can hear you talking?” I asked him nervously. “You haven’t said anything I couldn’t have made up myself.”
“Fair enough. Let’s see then,” he said, and gave his triangle ears an impressive waggle. “Oh, I know!” he said after a moment. “Your dad did NOT just find Fishy Fish dead one day in his bowl. He was changing the water and accidentally used hot instead of cold.”
I threw back the covers as I gasped in surprise. “What? He did? And he didn’t tell me about it? Are you sure?”
“I may be a talking dog, but I’m no liar. I saw the little orange guy go belly up, cooked like instant oatmeal. Then I had to listen to your dad’s guilty thoughts for weeks. He still thinks about it whenever your mom serves fish sticks.”
I shook my head in wonder. This was news I definitely couldn’t have made up on my own, meaning that this talking dog thing might be legit.
“So . . . so you dogs are just thinking and listening all the time? Gunner said . . .” I started to ask.
“Gunner?” Dinky said, interrupting me. “Ugh. I’m sure he was a cute puppy, but that dog has let himself go.”
“He says he’d like a bath now and then, but they won’t give him one,” I snapped.
Dinky gave me that head-tilted, ear-raised, eyebrow-scrunched dog look. “If you’re gonna start taking Gunner’s side in things, in anything, I’m not sharing any of my dog food with you,” he said, and started to get up.
“Sharing any of your . . . hold on . . . was it really the dog food that did this to me? Is that why I can hear you?”
Dinky lay back down. “They say it’s happened before, but I figured it was just dog legend. Some of us have some imaginations, I tell you! Something about a Dr. who could talk to the animals . . .”
“You’ve heard of him too? Maybe it is true then . . .” Dinky mused, almost to himself. He started whipping his long bony tail against my hardwood floor, deep in thought. “We don’t know what causes it, but we know that when someone makes an honest effort to see what it’s like to be somebody else, they can understand them better. Sometimes it can go a bit further than that. When you ate Gunner’s food, what were you thinking about?”
“What it would be like to be a dog and have to eat that boring stuff all the time.”
“Just as I suspected,” Dinky said, closing his eyes and nodding his huge head in a knowing sort of way.
“What do you suspect?” I asked, moving to sit at the edge of my bed.
“When you ate the kibble and let yourself have a real glimpse of what it means to be Gunner, unpleasant as that had to have been, your brain must have opened up a new door, so to speak, so you could hear us the way we can hear you.”
“And can you hear all humans? What we say? What we’re thinking?”
“We do eat your food, you know—table scraps anyway, and we’re pretty much always thinking about what it would be like to be you. So, as long as we keep getting human food, we can still hear you.”
“Ah ha! That’s why dogs beg so much!” I said, slapping my knee in self-congratulation.
Dinky snorted. “Not so fast, Dogologist! I believe you tasted the kibble? That is why we beg so much. Hearing human thoughts gets very boring, very quickly, but not as boring as eating dusty tasteless kibble for breakfast, brunch, lunch, second lunch, post-lunch snack, pre-dinner snack, dinner, second dinner, second and a half dinner, post-dinner snack and bedtime snack.”
“You left out dessert.”
“Oh no, never eat dessert. Wouldn’t want to get fat. Now, I am ready for my scratch and then I have to go sniff the cat’s behind or she’ll think I forgot her. She’s impossible when she thinks I’ve forgotten her.”
We have a cat too, named Fisher. My dad, I now knew, had murdered the thing she used to enjoy fishing for, but Fisher was still her name. She’s a pretty thing, soft and white and fluffy, but not particularly friendly. In the winter when the house is chilly, I sometimes feel her slinky little body leaned up against me at night. But by morning she’s always gone, off to find a bit of sunlight warming up a cat-sized area of carpet for her. She rarely bothers to look at us, and never asks to be petted or picked up.
“Come on, scratcher-girl, enough talking,” Dinky said.
‘No, don’t go,” I said. “I want to keep talking to you.”
“We can talk some more tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that.”
Now, if I’d had any clue about the amount of trouble I was in for, I might have stopped talking to Dinky that very instant. But right then, I could have talked to him all night. That is, if my head hadn’t suddenly become as heavy as a bowling ball stuck to the end of a wet noodle. Something about running away from your best friend’s sleepover because you found out you can hear dogs talk, and vice versa, and then discovering once and for all that your parents are just plain old parents, with the exception that your dad is both a fish assassin and a liar, makes a girl super tired, apparently.
I gave Dinky a good scratching, and then he clickety-clicked right out of my room. He didn’t even say goodnight.
Thank you for reading this chapter selection. I hope you enjoyed it.