Editor's note: Vienna resident Emma Hastings has received the Portfolio Gold Medal, the highest Scholastic Art & Writing Awards honor. She is a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The following is one of her short stories, sent to Patch and reprinted with permission from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
By Emma Hastings
2013 Gold Medal Recipient
The first time I said “I hate you” and meant it, it was to a dog wearing a sweater.
We were in one of those amiable little waiting rooms; you know the type. It was all immaculately vacuumed floor and plastic furniture with fake wood paneling, outdated magazines and peeling pastel wallpaper. I was crouching on the ground, twisting my fingers into the tightly packed, speckled blue carpet and wondering why the hell it wasn’t covered with dog hair. My friend Emily had one dog—one—and not even a particularly hairy dog, and her room was liberally and eternally covered with shed fur, so how could a place with dozens of the things be so damn sterile?
I could hear trainer speaking in a low, serious voice to my Mom, whose head was wobbling on her neck as if she had a clue what the other woman was saying. I tilted my head to the side, sparing a moment to catch some words like “bonding” and “behavioral patterns” and “chemical signals” and then tuning them out again, because I’d heard it all before and read it all before that and really didn’t need any reminders at this point.
“Up!” The trainer, a heavyset middle-aged woman with red hair and the unmistakable air of “everyone’s least favorite aunt,” whose name was Mrs. Pennyfeather or something equally ridiculous, snapped her fingers and the dog leapt to its feet. Mom smiled like it was a fantastic accomplishment for her to have done what any idiot with a bag of cheese bits and twenty minutes to kill could have done. The trainer returned her smile, cracking her thick shield of make-up, and then proceeded to tap her chest in the middle of the large neon pink paw print patch sewn on her khaki-colored shirt. The dog let loose a series of shrill yelps, and I experienced the onset of an abrupt, very decisive, pounding headache.
“As you can see, he’s taken to the first round of training very well,” Mrs. Sparklebottom beamed, patting the dog’s head. His tongue lolled out of his mouth and his nose bumped the woman’s hand. I scoffed. “He’s shown real potential, and I’m sure he’s going to be an ideal placement. You couldn’t be luckier.” Please. As if luck, and not heaps of money, had produced him. “Anyway, the next few months are going to involve the most intensive training. You’re going to be working very closely with the animal and your daughter, every day until—”
“Actually,” Mom interrupted. “My older daughter, Callista Jane, is going to be handling that.”
“It’s CJ,” I muttered, judiciously holding back the “not that anyone cares.” No need to give in to being a total teenage cliché.
“Oh.” The trainer’s candied pink smile froze and started to slip, but she managed to pull it together at the last second. “I see. Well, training one of our dogs in seizure alert and assistance is a big job, and requires a lot of time and maturity. That’s why, with young children, we usually work with one or both of the parents.”
“Well, I’m the one you’ve got,” I injected myself into the conversation. “I’m sixteen and failing precalc, but what I lack in maturity, I think I more than make up for in being the only one in this family willing to take the time to work with the dog.” While my mom did her patented foot-shuffling move, I shot them both my best, dazzling, charming smile. I swear I could almost see it fizzle and drop to the floor a foot shy of the target. Mrs. Featherblossom, oddly enough, didn’t seem to be set at ease. But she cleared her throat, straightened her paw print, and soldiered on.
“Well then. I’ve already given your mom and dad my little spiel, but I guess I should give it to you, too. Our foundation works to train and place assistance dogs with afflicted children who have medical problems, such as deafness, diabetes, and seizure disorders, like—”
“Epilepsy.” I said quietly, tugging on the end of my brown braid, separating out and toying with the split ends. “My little sister has epilepsy, and her name is Marie.” Not afflicted child, I wanted to add, but I’ve allotted myself only so many times a week when I get to be petulant, and I’m pretty sure I had already blown at least two of those.
“Right. Our dogs have been proven not only to be able to predict and warn handlers hours before a child has a seizure through—”
“Through the detection of changes in chemicals in the brain, possibly involving neurotransmitters such as glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, but also can provide friendship and comfort to the child, assist in therapy sessions, provide opportunities for greater independence, and help alleviate social isolation.” I kneaded my forehead with the heel of my hand. “Tell me, did I miss any of the attributes of Miracle Dog?” Damn, I thought dully, that little episode there makes three.
“Well, no, I believe that’s just about all of our mission statement,” Mrs. Fairylips let out what I deemed to be an appropriately fluttery laugh, casting a nervous glance over her shoulder at my resigned parent. “Um, do you have any questions, then?”
I shook my head. I had already memorized the literature, the website, just about everything there was.
“Okay.” The trainer walked to a rack set in the wall, flipping through the gaudy pamphlets, pushing past the thinner, flashy ones to the more somber ones in the back, plucking a few. “Well, we’ll be meeting quite frequently in the coming weeks, but for now, I want you to read these.” She held out the chosen pamphlets and I reached up to take them, still not standing from my position on the floor. “They contain more detailed information about the training process. And I want you to take this little guy home, name him, and introduce him to your sister.” Mrs. Cherrywhistle nudged Miracle Dog with her foot and he leapt to attention, his tongue lapping out excitedly.
“He doesn’t have a name yet?” Mom asked in surprise.
“We like the child to play a role in naming the dog, as part of the bonding process,” the trainer explained. “Now, why don’t you go see your new buddy?” She snapped her fingers over the animal’s nose, waved her hand toward me, and I was immediately assailed by forty pounds of fur as he obediently bounded over and threw himself in my lap.
For the first time, I fully focused my attention on the dog. His belly and most of his coat was white, with black and brown patches spread over him like a thatched quilt. He was wearing a sweater, I noted with bemusement. A dark green sweater with arching brown swirls and two holes for his front legs was covering his back and chest. He looked up at me and I noticed that his eyes were two different colors. The one on the left was a pale, icy blue and the one on the right was a chocolately, warm brown.
“He’s a border collie. Tricolor,” the trainer added, almost hopefully, as though she was looking for us to bond over my apparent inability to discern and/or count patches of pigmented fur and subsequent gratitude at her pointing it out.
The towering look of fire and brimstone in Mom’s eyes stopped me halfway on that one.
“Kidding. No kidding.”
The dog’s tail swept over the ground and his mouth twitched, and I swear to God, the little shit was laughing at me. I stuck my hands under his warm, heavy head, lifted it off my leg, and deposited it unceremoniously on the floor. He let out a little huffing noise of annoyance. “He’s wearing a sweater,” I said. “Why is he wearing a sweater?”
“It’s to cover the harness,” Mrs. Sugarfoot replied. “The seizure dogs wear special harnesses that the kids can hold onto, if they ever have balance problems.”
“Oh.” I stretched out my hand, running it over the course knit wool of the sweater, feeling the underlying straps. I found a flap in the fabric, flipped it open and hooked my hand into the now exposed metal loop.
Marie did have balance problems, occasionally; she felt dizzy and unsteady on her feet or even sitting upright. Sometimes it happened before or after a seizure or was seemingly unrelated. Sometimes it happened when she was in class, and sometimes when she was out on the playground during recess, and the other kids laughed at her, and sometimes it happened when she was at home, and she cried with frustration. But she never had anything else to lean on but me before.
Mom and the trainer moved over to the corner. I could see a checkbook coming out of Mom’s purse and returned my gaze to the dog. His tail was wagging feebly, apparently interpreting my movements as a gesture of friendship. I dropped the loop.
“You’re lopsided,” I told him, letting my own blurry eyes track over his mismatched ones. “You’re lopsided, and I hate you.”
I stood up, shoving the pamphlets into my jacket pocket, feeling lopsided myself at what felt like a foreign, forty-pound weight suddenly shackled to my side.
Okay, so six pamphlets weren’t really that heavy, but let’s be real here: that wasn’t what was weighing on me.
* * *
The drive back from the foundation was forty-five minutes of tense silence. The dog sat at my feet as I mentally calculated the time that going back and forth from this place would eat out of my schedule. I sighed. Not that it mattered.
“Did you name him yet?” Mom asked me as we neared the house, her long, spit-shiny nails furiously tapping out a tuneless beat on the steering wheel.
“You heard the woman,” I said tightly. “We’re supposed to pick something that Marie likes.”
“Oh, please.” Mom waved one clawed hand dismissively as she turned into our driveway. “She’ll love anything you pick.”
That wasn’t exactly true. I could name him Van Gogh or Dali or Picasso and she’d be less than pleased. Confused, as always, over my fondness for “boring old paintings we have to look at in art class instead of getting to play with clay” and furious at me naming her new dog something “dumb,” the ultimate insult coming from an eight-year-old. She’d be back to loving both me and the damn thing in two days, tops, of course, but I might as well come up with something she’d like and spare all three of us the two days. “I’ll think of something.”
“Just make sure you pick a name that you’ll like; maybe that will help dissolve some of this ridiculous animosity you seem to feel for the thing.”
“What?” I glanced sideways to see her staring through the windshield.
“We needed to do something else, Callista,” Mom said, keeping her voice calm as she violently jerked the key from the ignition and threw it into her purse. “And this was it. I’m sorry if you feel…usurped or whatever nonsense is going through your head right now, but Marie isn’t getting any better and this was it.”
“Whatever.” I yanked on my hair again, flattening the bangs out over my eyes, pulling up the braid and rubbing its rough bristles against my flushed skin. “Just, whatever.” I tried the door and, finding it locked, let the handle snap back with an angry clunk. “Is Marie home?”
“She’s out with your father, remember? His office picnic was today.”
I let the hair slip from between my fingers, my eyes stinging. “I didn’t want her going to that without me.”
“I know.” Mom heaved a long sigh and unlocked the door. “Callista—”
I popped the door open and, ignoring the dog’s indignant ruff at being shoved from my feet, hopped out of the car, my duct tape-mended sneakers hitting the pavement. It was damp, and I could feel water seeping intently through the bright blue tape. Had it rained where Marie was? Had Dad let her play with the other kids in the rain? Had the other kids allowed her to play with them, or just shied away from the freak?
“C’mon, Lassie,” I grumbled, and, previous injustice forgotten, the dog pranced happily after me into the house and up the stairs. I stopped between two doors, one decorated with computer print-outs of purple and pink flowers and the other with a 10 by 12 inch print of St. George and the Dragon. “That’s Marie’s room,” I pointed to the flowers. “And this is mine.” I opened the door and glanced hesitantly at the dog, who was poised on his haunches, ready to charge at the order. I hated to admit it, but Mrs. Honeysilver had him well-trained. “You can come in now, but this is a one-time deal, got it?” He darted inside, tricolor tail bobbing in the air. I followed him in, perched on the edge of my bed, and signaled him to sit down at my feet. He obeyed immediately, eager to please, and I opened my mouth to say—what? I was talking to a dog. I was talking to a freaking dog, one that I felt some sort of “ridiculous animosity” toward because—what? He was taking my place? Was I really so sad?
“My name’s CJ,” I blurted out, desperate to take a left turn from that current path of thought, although directly addressing a dog didn’t really make me feel any less pathetic. “My little sister is Marie, and you don’t have a name, but we’ll get to that later.” The dog’s ears pricked up. “You’re here to take care of my sister. You’re here to smell chemical changes in her brain and let us know when she’s going to have a seizure, so we can get her somewhere safe to wait it out. Okay?” He blinked his multi-colored eyes in what I couldn’t interpret as anything other than affirmation. God, I really was losing it. “You’re gonna help her when she’s trying to make friends with the other kids,” I continued, fixing him with my best glare. “She’s eight, and eight-year-olds can be really mean little bastards, especially when someone looks different or acts different or has to wear a…a goddamn helmet to keep from hurting themselves during seizures…and she needs friends and I’m not always going to be…” I drew in a deep breath and shook while letting it out. “So you’re gonna do what you puppies do and look cute, and get the other kids to come over and want to pet you, all right?” He let his tongue spill over the side of his mouth, scooted forward and slurped a little at the tips of my fingers, big wet eyes staring imploringly at me the whole time. “Yeah. Like that. That was good.” I wiped my hand against the bedspread, wondering how much of what I was saying the dog understood. “She’ll also hold onto that thing on your back that the sweater’s covering if she’s feeling dizzy.” I broke off, giving the article of puppy clothing another critical once-over, noting how thick it was over his fur coat. “Aren’t you hot in that thing?” He scooted back, settling into his original position, which I figured was the freakishly anthropomorphic puppy version of a shrug. “Huh. Anyway, you’ll have other stuff to do, too. You and I will be in charge of morale. Actually, I’ll be in charge of morale, and you’ll take my commands. You’ll play with her and cheer her up and if she’s having a bad day and I tell you to dance you’ll learn to do the Charleston and you’ll do it fast, got it?”
Another blink was my response. I panted for a few moments, trying to regain my lost breath, and then slipped off the bed and onto to the floor next to the dog. I rested my head on his head—not petting or stroking, just resting. His fur was soft. “It’s my job to take care of her, not yours,” I told him quietly. “But I guess I’ll make use of you.”
I jumped at the large twap! that followed as his tail thumped the ground in one exuberant wag. “I guess you’ll need a name to be doing all this, then?” He nudged my wrist with his nose in agreement. “What’s something all of us can get behind? Definitely none of those cliché dog names. Um…” I searched my room, looking for inspiration, until my eyes caught the picture on the front of the open door. “What about Raphael?” I asked, and I swear his eyebrows rose in interest. “He’s my favorite painter, and Marie’s favorite character on this cartoon show she watches all the time. He’s also the angel of healing,” I added, and that cinched it. Raphael’s tail wagged in joyful confirmation.
“Callista?” Mom called up from downstairs. “There’s a message from Mrs. Stewart on the machine, with a list of things she wants you to bring to your first training session.”
I looked up from the newly christened teenage mutant ninja seizure alert dog. “Mrs. Stewart?” I replied blankly.
“The trainer from the foundation. Honestly, you could quote the mission statement verbatim but you didn’t remember that? Her name is Mrs. Stewart.”
“Oh.” I blinked. I turned to Raphael. “I guess I was kinda off base with that one, huh?”
I heard the sound of an engine and looked out my window. Dad’s car pulled into the driveway, headlights cutting twin funnels into the thickening twilight air. The passenger door popped open as soon as the car rolled to a stop, and my stomach flipped and tightened as I saw the little pink helmet peek out. God, that killed me every time.
“You ready to meet her, then?”
Raphael leapt to his paws, ready to take his place at my sister’s side, and, remembering my first impression, I thought, okay, so maybe I didn’t mean it, after all. I took his sweater off him before giving him the go-ahead, though, because that thing was just stupid.