"I first the dog the first time when I was four…" Betsy began telling the new boy, Max Edwards, and on either side of her, two boys groaned.
"Not that story again, Bets. You've told it a million times!" he best friend who wasn't her best friend, Paul Harding complained.
She snorted at him. "I've only told it three times for your information, and he hasn't heard it, so if you don't want to listen to it, find somewhere else to sit," she snapped.
He shrugged but didn't move and Betsy continued.
"He was the color of sand – the almost pure white crystal you find on the beaches – except he was covered in mud like he'd been kicked around a lot. He was a rack of bones, as if he hadn't eaten in a long time and scruffy-looking, as if he hadn't ever seen a bath or grooming.
"We – Paul, Joseph and I – were playing a game on the playground at day care. I don't remember the game at this point…"
"Pirates!" Paul put in, getting into the tale despite his complaints.
Betsy smiled. "Right then, we were playing pirates when the caretaker – that was what we called her – called us inside for lunch.
"Paul and Joseph went in right away but by then I'd seen the dog and I walked towards him and called 'Here doggie. Here doggie' all gentle-like so he would know I meant no harm, but he just looked at me with those mismatched eyes – one brown and one blue – and shot off as if I'd frightened him."
Paul and Joseph were interested now, and even Max seemed to be waiting for her to continue. "Is that all?" he asked in a shy voice finally.
Betsy looked at him. "Of course not! I told you I saw him three times!"
He nodded and waited patiently while Paul and Joseph wiggled in their seats.
"The second time I saw him, I was riding home from Paul's house on my bike and all of a sudden I heard old Mrs. Keener shouting up a storm. I went to see what the matter was and was startled when the same dog with mismatched eyes shot past me without so much as a glance and shot off down the block.
"I shook my head and went to Mrs. Keener's side and asked what had happened to which she said, 'That mangy mutt tried to steal one of my chickens! I am going to go buy myself a gun and the next time I see him after my chickens, I'll shoot him!'
"Now I was worried about Mrs. Keener's chickens for she supported my family with eggs every now and then that were much better than the store-bought ones, but I was also worried about the dog.
"So I told her: 'Don't hurt him, Mrs. Keener! The next time you see him call the animal control to come get him.'
"She looked at me and said: 'What difference will it make? He'll just get shot anyway,' and I replied: 'Only if he doesn't get adopted.' She nodded and told me she would."
Betsy took a sip of her milk. "I had every intention of adopting the dog should he ever be caught. I'd saved up enough money in my piggy bank. I knew I could give the dog the best of homes.
"So when I heard the dog had been brought in, I rushed to the animal shelter to get him. I saw him through the window and I believe he saw me – I can't be sure – and then the lady at the desk asked if she could help me and I told her I wanted the sandy dog.
"She told me she was sorry but I couldn't adopt a dog without a parent with me, so I rushed home to get my mom, but when I got back the lady informed me someone had claimed the dog and taken him home and asked if I wanted another dog. I told her no thank you and me and my mom when home."
For a moment the four sat in silence. "Was that the last time you saw the dog?" Max asked finally.
Betsy nodded. "Yep. Pretty sad, huh? – to remember a dog you didn't own and that you only saw three times?" She laughed bitterly.
"No, not at all," Max replied and flushed as Betsy reached across the table and ruffled his hair.
"You're sweet," she said. "I like you."
Suddenly, Joseph laughed and pointed at Max. "You know, you remind me a lot of that dog."
"Oh?" Max asked, worry on his face.
"Yeah, your hair is the same color Betsy claims the dog was and you have mismatched eyes – one brown and one blue. How weird is that?"
"Pretty weird," Max replied but he ducked his head to finish his sandwich.
Paul took a bite of his own sandwich and watched Max. "So where are you from?"
"Here? How come we've never seen you before?"
"I was home schooled."
"So why are you here now?"
"My parents think I need to be more sociable."
"Oh. Who are your parents?"
"The Edwards on the hill."
Joseph, Paul, and Betsy all gasped in shock and surprise as Max lowered his head in embarrassment. "Whoa," Betsy said.
"Yeah," Max said. "Listen, I'll see you guys later." He rose from the table and took off before any of them could say a word.
- - - - - - -
"Hey, Max! Wait up!" Betsy called across the school grounds and ran to catch up with him.
He stopped and waited although he didn't seem happy about it. "Are your friends coming?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Paul has basketball and Joseph has drama."
"And what about you?"
"What about me?" she replied, looking at him.
"Where are you going?"
"Home, like you. Unless you're not going home, that is."
Max shook his head. "I'm going home."
"Good! Then we can walk together!"
He glanced at her. She was a cheerful girl with curly blond hair and dark brown eyes. She was now humming "Singing in the Rain," which confused him as he didn't know anyone besides senior citizens knew.
"So what do you like to do for fun?" Betsy asked suddenly, throwing him off his train of thought.
"Run," he said before he could stop himself.
She looked at him. "Is that all? Gosh, what do you do all day at that big house of yours?" she teased and smiled at him. "Want some ice cream?"
- - - - - - -
The more Max got to know Betsy, the more he liked her. She was compassionate and fun and let the quiet rest when he didn't feel like talking and listened when he spoke of life at home.
Suddenly, he found himself telling her something he hadn't ever told anyone besides his parents. He didn't realize he'd told her until she asked him about it.
"So… you're some kind of werewolf?"
"You just told me you're a werewolf which is why you've never gone to school before." She wasn't laughing at him but there was caution in her eyes.
"No!" he said quite loudly, causing Mrs. Thomas, Betsy's mother, to glance at them from her seat on the couch. "How can I explain this?" He hated himself for telling and wondered why he had.
"So… as a baby this witch cursed you and you become a wolf to do her bidding whenever she called for you?" she asked, still cautious.
"Not a wolf, a dog – a sandy-colored dog with mismatched eyes."
For a moment, she stared at him. Then fury crossed her face as she stood and said in an icy cold voice, "Now that was a low blow and very cruel of you, Max Edwards."
Then she slammed out the front door. Max sighed and followed her. Oh why had he told her?
Betsy was halfway across the yard already when Max called out for her to wait, but she ignored him and kept right on going.
He continued to follow, until a jolt of pain rushed through his head and he released a cry of pain.
The girl stopped and looked back at him. Now a tall woman stood behind him – her light eyes gleaming and her dark hair flowing around her in the sudden wind that picked up. She was dressed in a long black dress with a red cape hanging off her shoulders.
"Maximillion Carmon Edwards," she said cruelly. "Did you really think you'd be able to get away from me? Why do you think I put the collar on you when you got caught last time?"
Max whimpered and Betsy looked at his neck. Sure enough, hidden under his jacket, was a black leather collar that had been riveted on his neck.
"Now you know what I want. This time don't get caught and I may let you free."
"One chicken, freshly killed; a straight rod of elm; a match dipped in holy water; a toadstool from the center of a fairy ring; and a mouse egg," he muttered and was rewarded with a pat on the head.
"Good boy. Good dog." With those words, Max buckled over on his hands and knees and became a dog – the same sandy-colored dog Betsy had seen three times in the past.
"Don't disappoint me, Maximillion, or your little girlfriend becomes my next cursed pet. You have forty-eight hours."
She gave Betsy an evil glance before she turned and disappeared behind the house. Betsy stared after her for a moment and then looked at Max, but the dog-boy was gone.
- - - - - - -
"I'm telling you, it's true!" Betsy told Paul and Joseph frantically. "We have to help him!"
"Right," Paul said. "You expect us to believe Max Edwards turns into a dog whenever this witch needs him to get… what was it again?"
Betsy pulled out her list and let him read over it.1 freshly-killed chicken1 straight rod of elm1 match dipped in Holy Water1 toadstool from the center of a fairy circle1 mouse egg
"What kind of joke is this, Betsy?"
Joseph looked at her sympathetically. "I'm sorry Betsy, but who has ever heard of a mouse egg? There's no way this wasn't a practical joke."
"It wasn't a joke!" Betsy snapped angrily, standing. "And if you won't help me stop this woman, I'll do it myself."
She walked away from them without a backwards glance.
- - - - - - -
"Max?" Betsy whispered as she opened the door and crept around it. She had never been inside this house and walking in now held a kind of terror over her.
"Go away," she heard someone whimper pitifully and she followed the sound of the voice to a large living room – the largest she had ever seen in fact.
"Max, I'm here to help you. I have a chicken."
She stopped just before where he crouched in boy-form staring at the floor, but he looked up a moment later. She felt brave enough to continue.
"I don't know where to find the elm, but I asked Father Miguel to dip this match in holy water, which he did, and by happen chance, I found a toadstool in the center of a fairy ring after I burned a ring in the grass surrounding one last night. Imagine that."
She paused and thought about the list. "Mice don't lay eggs, so I though she meant a different meaning, so luckily I have a brother with a pet mouse and I offered to clean the mouse cage."
He was looking at her funny. "What?" she asked.
All of a sudden, he stood and kissed her and then flushed deeply as he said, "Thank you. I will go get the elm."
He morphed into a dog and shot out of the house before Betsy could reply. She sat on the couch with her hand on her mouth and her eyes wide and waited.
- - - - - - -
The loud cackle was the first thing that told Betsy something was wrong. Then the sight of the witch dragging Max in by his collar as she hid behind the couch with the crated chicken – now dead as Betsy had broken its neck when she heard the cackle – and the other objects.
"You're out of time, Maximillion, and what do you have to show for it? Only the rod of elm? I thought that was an easy list to complete."
She yanked on his lead and cackled again. "Should I make you remain a dog for life? That would be punishment enough for this fourth failure."
Betsy stepped out from behind the couch, her heart racing. "Don't!" she cried.
The witch looked at her. "Oh, it's you." She smiled. "You would make a lovely new pet."
For the first time since Betsy had met this woman, she laughed. The sound startled the witch and even Max looked at her oddly. "Right," Betsy said, "so you can send me after ridiculous items that you know I have no hope of finding, just so you can send me groveling." She frowned and her face contorted into a mask of rage. "Well, let me tell you something – I'd rather bite you as a dog than do your dirty work."
"You'd do as I say!"
"Or what? You'll turn me into a dog?" Betsy couldn't believe she was doing this but if she got the witch riled up, maybe she and Max stood a chance of getting away. She doubted it.
The witch sputtered angrily and said, "You stupid girl! You don't know how powerful my magic is, or you wouldn't be tempting me."
Again Betsy laughed. "I don't think you're a powerful witch at all, picking on little boys and girls and threatening to turn them into dogs."
"Yeah," said someone behind them. They turned and looked at Paul and Joseph. "No one threatens to do that to our friends."
With a rebel yell, Paul and Joseph jumped forward and grabbed the witch. She screamed like a banshee and tried to throw them off, but they stuck like burrs.
Bellowing with fury, the witch held up her hands in retaliation, a long thin wand in her hand. Red lightning shot from the end of the wand, toward Betsy. The girl screamed and flinched, but opened her eyes as she heard a yelp of pain that didn't belong to her.
Max, still in dog form, lay at her feet with his eyes closed and his coat smoking.
"Bets!" Paul yelled. "The rope!"
She didn't have time to worry about Max now. She grabbed the rope from his collar and wrapped it around the witch and tied her hands tightly behind her back.
"There!" she said triumphantly and yanked the wand from the witch's hands.
"No!" the witch screamed and struggled against her bonds. "You give that back, you insolent child!"
Betsy ignored her and snapped the wand in half across her knee.
There was a great sizzle and a pop and then fireworks sparked from the wand, screaming in the children's ears and causing them to cover them. The witch screamed as Joseph dumped a bucket of water on the witch and she began to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.
Betsy and the two boys watched in horror as the witch steamed and melted and the wand threw firecrackers in the air like it was the Fourth of July.
After a few moments, all that was left of the witch was a pile of steaming clothes and all that was left of the wand was a branch of blackened and charred wood.
"I don't think it fits here, but I feel like saying it anyway," Joseph said in the quiet. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Betsy looked down at the dog as he sat wagging his tail at her happily. "Oh, Max!" she cried. "That evil witch turned you into a dog permanently!"
"Did your parents know about the witch?" Joseph asked.
Max nodded. "Will they understand that their son is now a dog and always will be?" Paul asked.
Again Max nodded, right as the door opened. "Max, we're home!" someone called. Paul and Joseph and Betsy and Max stood stock still as Mr. and Mrs. Edwards came into the living room. "What's going on?" Mr. Edwards asked.
For a second no one spoke and then Max nudged Betsy forward and she began to explain everything. When she had finished, she and the other two boys stared at the floor.
"Well," Mr. Edwards said finally. "At least he made some friends." He stood silent for a long time and then said, "Kids, we're not home much and don't have the time to take care of a dog when we are here. Would you children like to take Max with you?"
Max barked even as Betsy said, "That would be nice."
- - - - - - -
Later on that night, at Betsy's house, Max sat up and looked at her as she read Treasure Island.
"Can you read that aloud?"
"Sure," Betsy said unconsciously and then stopped and stared at Max, the only other one in the room. "You can talk!"
Max looked at her with his mismatched eyes. "I guess I can," he said. "Please don't tell anyone."
Betsy smiled. "Well then, I'll keep it a secret, dog-boy."