“He's back again?!” exclaimed Kaitlin, dropping her backpack on the floor. "What did the owners complain of this time?"
Steve, the thirty-year-old manager of the animal shelter, replied, "Oh, the usual. He barks too much, bites, growls, and they simply can't put up with him."
"Poor little Bullet," she sympathized, going over to the sign-in desk. "This is the fifth time he's been here. Wasn't his mother an Australian shepherd?"
"Yep. We still don't know what his dad was. He's cute though. Anyway, today you get a fun job. You get to clean all of the cages!"
"Whoopee! What fun I'll have," Kaitlin said sarcastically. She turned and got a bunch of plastic bags, a pile of the last week's newspaper, and rubber gloves from a closet on her right. Over her back she called to Steve as she left the front office. "See you around!"
"Oh, Kaitlin! Wait!" he exclaimed, apparently remembering something. Kaitlin backtracked at his call to listen to what he had to say "There's a girl coming today and she's going to be working here from now on. Her name's Gabriella; be nice!"
"Don't worry! Of course I'll be nice. I mean, she's going to have to put up with you and that's always really . . ." she ducked as Steve threw a pencil at her.
"Begone, rascal!" he said good-naturedly. Laughing, Kaitlin left, and went to her job.
I wonder what the new girl will be like, she thought. It had been years since anyone except for Steve and Kaitlin had worked at the shelter. As she started the first cage, she glanced down the dark row and toward the big black dog she and Steve had been talking about earlier. After being found when he was seven weeks old in a gutter, he had come to the shelter, and had had four owners since. Now he was a year old, with a bad reputation. Still, Kaitlin believed that he could be trained if someone just found the secret trick to getting him calmed down.
A cat pulling on her long, red braid brought her back down to earth. "OK, OK, I'll feed you," she told the cat. "Just let me finish cleaning the cages first."
Forty-five minutes later she was done, and she went to the storage room for food for all of the animals. There, she found Steve giving a girl of about fifteen a tour of the building. She was a tall, skinny, Hispanic girl, with long black hair that hung below her waist.
Steve grinned as Kaitlin walked in the storage room. "Here she is!" he exclaimed. "Gabriella, this is Kaitlin, who will be working with you. She'll show you how everything runs here in more detail. We have a lot of fun here, and are really happy for you to join us! You can help Kaitlin feed the animals now, and later you can walk the dogs together. So long!" As he walked out the door of the storage room, he tripped over a bag of birdseed and knocked into a shelf, toppling a bag of dog food and causing it to rip open. Soon it was raining dog food.
Kaitlin burst into laughter instantly. Steve looked hilarious lying on the ground with a confused expression on his face, and dog food in his dark brown hair. Gabriella was trying her best not to laugh out of respect for her new employer, but finally gave up and laughed hysterically.
Bright red, Steve got up and went to get a broom, mumbling about how he should have hired a boy.
In bed that night, as she did every night, Kaitlin tried to think of a way to convince her parents to let her get a dog. They were convinced that she wasn't ready for the responsibility, because she had play rehearsal three days a week after school, and spent almost all of her other time at the shelter. "You can't have a pet. You're only thirteen, and you're too busy." Really, it was ridiculous that she couldn't have a pet because her dad owned the shelter. Not that he cared about it at all; he had inherited it. Every month he would send Steve the money to pay for food, supplies, the vet bill and, of course, to pay him. It had been Kaitlin's dad's idea to hire someone else because he and her mother thought that Kaitlin spent too much time at the shelter. The very idea, Kaitlin thought, was absurd. Of course, her parents also worried about her because she didn't have many friends. That was even more nonsense. She had Steve, all the animals at the shelter, and her teachers. But by the time she got to bed at night, she had always made out a pretty sorry case for herself.
* * *
The next day, as Kaitlin was doing her homework in the auditorium during rehearsal, a girl walked up to her. At first, she was so startled someone had even noticed her that she didn't realize who it was. It was Gabriella.
"Oh! Uh . . . hi!" she finally managed to say. "Are you in the play? I don't remember seeing you here before."
"No, I'm not in the play," was Gabriella's reply. "My younger sister, Maria, is. She's in seventh grade."
"Oh, I see," Kaitlin said. She tried to think of what to say next. I know I'm not very good at talking to people I don't know, she thought. What do I say? Is she trying to be my friend?
"I was just wondering if you could tell Mr. Riley that I won't be at work this evening because I have a dentist appointment. I'm really sorry, but I just found out, and my mom couldn't change it." Gabriella waited a moment and then asked cautiously, "Do you think he'll mind?"
Mr. Riley? Who's Mr. Riley? Kaitlin wondered. Oh! She means Steve! Aloud she said, "He won't mind at all. He's really nice. I'll tell him for you though."
"Thank you so much!" Gabriella said. After a while she added, "Well, I'll see you tomorrow!" and with that, she left.
Later that evening, when Kaitlin was almost done at the shelter, she found herself kneeling in front of Bullet while he slept in his cage. She wondered about his life and how miserable he must be after having so many owners. After the first one, who killed his spirit, Bullet never trusted humans again. Poor dog, she thought, for the millionth time. Soon she found herself singing to him.
All of a sudden, he seemed to relax. Bullet was almost purring with delight, and his tail started to wag. Kaitlin was so startled that she stopped singing, and Bullet got tense again. As she sang a few more lines, he relaxed. Mystified, Kaitlin called Steve. When he saw her singing to Bullet (whose tail was wagging again), he just stood still in amazement.
Was this the dog that had had four different owners, who all complained that he was too wild? Was this the dog that nearly bit your hand off when you petted him? Apparently, Kaitlin had found the secret of Bullet's heart.
That night at dinner, once again Kaitlin brought up the subject of pets. Now that there was a specific dog that she wanted, she was going to get him. "Dad?" she started tentatively.
"What is it, honey?"
Kaitlin winced at the baby name and continued. "The shelter is getting a little crowded. Maybe if . . ."
"Put them to sleep," was the gruff interruption.
Again, Kaitlin winced, "Dad, you know that neither Steve nor I would ever do that to the animals. They're our responsibility. Anyway, maybe if I brought . . ."
"No! I can see where this is heading and no! How many times do we have to tell you: you may not have a pet! The animal would make a mess, and our lives would be in chaos! No!"
"Now, John. Maybe that's not what she was saying." Mother took a glance at Kaitlin and tried another route. "You're being a little harsh. She is responsible . . ." hearing this, Kaitlin's face lit up, ". . . and she wouldn't be asking for sixteen pets. Maybe we could allow her just one. A hamster maybe, or a turtle. They don't take much to take care of. "
Kaitlin had become hopeful as her mom was standing up for her. "Maybe, Dad, I could bring home one dog to train, and he'll go back at the end of a month, unless you decide that you like him. I think that you're only allowing yourself to remember the bad things about having pets. There are many more good things."
"You may not have a pet, Kaitlin. When I say no, I mean no. This fall, you'll be in high school, with a lot more homework, and more social obligations. You can't be spending too much time at the shelter, and having a pet would make it worse. When school is out in two weeks, I have also decided to cut back on the time you spend at the shelter."
"What!" Kaitlin interrupted. "There's no such thing as spending too much time at the shelter!"
"Yes there is," her mother put in. "It's for your own good, Kaitlin. You don't have many friends, and that's not good for someone your age. This summer, your father and I have also decided to send you to a camp, and you'll have a great time there. I have many great memories from camp when I was a kid. You'll love it."
"No I won't," Kaitlin mumbled as she went to bed.
The next day was a rainy Saturday, so she could spend all day at the shelter. She loved keeping busy, because then she didn't think so much. She tried to stay out of the way of other humans, looking to the company of animals for comfort.
Gabriella, Steve and Kaitlin had a nice lunch together, sitting on the floor and quietly listening to the rain pit-pattering on the roof. While they ate Kaitlin thought, It's so true that you can communicate without words. It's great being here, and I feel closer to Gabriella already. Maybe we could be friends. Mom and Dad would be happy then.
After lunch, the three of them played card games until the animals started complaining for want of food and exercise. Kaitlin and Gabriella laughed and talked as they did their jobs. It turned out that they had a lot in common. Both of them liked music, loved animals, and wanted to work with animals when they grew up.
Kaitlin told Gabriella about her troubles because she seemed to be such a good listener. She told Kaitlin that camp really wasn't that bad, and that she really would have fun. Gabriella felt sorry for her because she didn't have a pet but envied her because she had worked at the shelter almost all her life. Together, they also plotted a way that Kaitlin could talk her parents into letting her get a dog.
"Is there a certain dog that you want?" Gabriella asked as they were feeding the cats.
Kaitlin lit up. "Yes, there is! Follow me." She led Gabriella to the part of the shelter where the dogs were, and stopped in front of Bullet's cage. "This is the dog I want," she proclaimed.
"He's adorable!" cried Gabriella, reaching a hand in to pet him. "Ow! He bit me! You want this dog?"
"Yes. As you said, he's adorable. He was horribly mistreated when he was a puppy, but I think I know the secret to relaxing him now." As she explained, Kaitlin pulled out a radio, and turned the channels until she found one that was playing soft, classical music. Bullet immediately relaxed, and Kaitlin reached in a hand to pet him. "The secret is music."
"That's amazing," Gabriella whispered, with a look of awe on her face.
As the two girls watched and cautiously played with the now relaxed dog, Steve walked in with Kaitlin's dad. "As you can see, Mr. O'Neal," Steve was saying, "everything is running very smoothly. We have good facilities, supplies, and a great vet who comes once a month. We have been very successful lately in finding new homes for animals, and people come to look at them almost every day. On top of that, I have two superb helpers. We are in fine shape here at the Appleton Animal Shelter. Now, what brings you here today?"
Glancing at Kaitlin, Mr. O'Neal grew red and said, "Well, I was just coming to see how everything is running, because this summer I am planning to send Kaitlin away to camp for two or three weeks, and I wanted to make sure that you can make do without her. I had forgotten that you'd hired another girl. Also, I wanted to look at the dogs here."
A look of rapture spread over Kaitlin's face. "Really, Dad?" she exclaimed.
Growing embarrassed, he simply said, "Well . . . uh . . . I wanted to make sure that it wasn't too crowded here at the shelter."
"Oh. Well, I have to finish feeding the cats now. I'll see you later." With a crestfallen look, she walked away.
* * *
Two months later, Kaitlin cried as she said goodbye to all of her new friends from camp. They had spent a month together, laughing, playing, and just talking, in this beautiful valley. It was covered with trees, and spotted with cabins. They knew all of each other's secrets and dreams. The loud Taylor, shy Tu Uyen, joking and laughing Mclain and Mimi, fun Casey, thoughtful Alyson, and silly Angie. She would miss them all so much. But Kaitlin couldn't wait to see Gabriella, Steve, her parents, and all of the animals at the shelter. She waved goodbye as she left on the bus, wondering when she would see them again.
Kaitlin ran home from the bus stop, trying her best to drag her heavy suitcase behind her. As she opened the door, the people inside yelled, "Surprise! Welcome home!" Kaitlin was shocked. All of her favorite people were there. Mom, Dad, Gabriella, Steve and . . .
"Bullet!" she exclaimed. "How did he get here? And he's so calm!" She then realized that music was softly playing from another room. Laughing, she hugged her friends.
The next day, Kaitlin started training Bullet. She brought a CD player into the front yard, so that he wouldn't bite her hand off while they worked. She started with the basics—come, sit, stay, down. It was much more exhausting than she thought it would be. They worked almost all day. By sunset, they hadn't gotten very far by Kaitlin's standards, but her mother was calling for dinner.
Panting, she called, "Come—heh—Bullet—heh—come." And for the first time all day, he came.
From then on, they developed a regular schedule. Every day, when Kaitlin woke up, she and Bullet would eat a quick breakfast and then train for an hour. They would then go down to the shelter, and Bullet would play with the dogs while Kaitlin worked with Steve and Gabriella. Kaitlin and Bullet would go home at around five o'clock in the evening, and get in a little more training time before dinner. Kaitlin would stay up talking to her parents (with Bullet at her feet), and then collapse into bed.
Training Bullet was tiring and frustrating, but Kaitlin began to see results. A strong bond developed between girl and dog, and soon he followed her everywhere. Gabriella thought that she had worked a miracle. Word spread around their town about Kaitlin and Bullet, although the two of them didn't know that.
Kaitlin was as happy as can be, although she didn't like to think about school starting again in the fall. The world seemed to be trying to please her, and she was happy day in and day out. Of course, the inevitable day had to come, and come it did; the first day of school.
* * *
She was late waking up, and so she only had a few moments to throw some clothes on. Not enough time for a shower, or even to brush her hair. She ran to the bus stop, only to find that she was too late, and the bus had already left. So she ran to school. As she opened the door, she was met with the biggest cluster of confusion that she had ever known. She was so mixed up that she hardly knew how to stand. Dazed, she looked at the schedule that had been thrust into her hand. It was in some illegible handwriting, but she could just barely make out that she was supposed to go to her homeroom. Almost crying with the difficulties she faced, she forced her way through the crowds, trying to find a room that could be the one that she was supposed to be in.
What seemed like hours later, she found a room labeled HOMEROOM in big letters, and stumbled in. As she opened the door, all eyes turned toward her and stared at her accusingly. All of the girls broke out in whispers.
"Look at her hair! Has she ever washed it?"
"Oh my gosh. Those shoes are so out of fashion."
"Her clothes look like they were made for a first-grader!"
A group of boys in the back of the room were laughing hysterically at her.
"Silence!" a voice boomed. A teacher who looked like he was seven feet tall scowled at her. "Why are you late?"
"I . . . I lost my way," Kaitlin mumbled, mortified.
"How could you have lost your way? That is impossible!" Turning to a big book, he declared, "Where is your homework?"
"H-homework?" she stammered. "I didn't know that we had homework over the summer."
"That is not acceptable. I'm afraid your grade will be moved to a C for this semester." The class giggled at the punishment. "And . ."
He was cut off by an announcement over the loudspeaker. "Kaitlin O'Neal, report to the principal's office at once. Kaitlin O'Neal. Kaitlin O'Neal, report to the principal's office at once. Kaitlin O'Neal."
Sweating nervously, she woke up.
* * *
Kaitlin was anxiously packing her backpack as Bullet walked in her room. He whined, as if he wanted to know what the matter was.
Sighing, Kaitlin explained to him, "I have to go to school today, Bullet. I won't be able to be with you all day Steve will come and take you to the shelter at noon. I'll be fine." She swallowed, and tried to convince herself of what she had just said. Managing a weak smile, she hoisted her backpack up onto her back and went out to the car. She waved goodbye to Bullet as her dad pulled out of the driveway.
Kaitlin walked slowly in the doors of the school. There was almost as much chaos as there was in her dream. She took a cautious look at the sheet of paper that had been handed out during the orientation the week before. She was to go to room 213, on the second floor and to the left. Her locker would be right outside the doors, and it was number 456. She trudged upstairs like someone who was about to be killed.
Surprisingly, she found everything easily. Everything was where they said it was. Taking a deep breath, she walked in the room. She wasn't the last one there. No one was staring at her, as each person was nervously staring into space. Many people came in after her, all looking very flustered.
The teacher's name was on the board in rounded, cursive letters: Miss Wright. She looked to be in her late twenties.
"Just take a seat," she called out. "Any one will do." She waited for the students to get settled, and then introduced herself. "As you can see, I am Miss Wright. I am your homeroom teacher this year, and may be teaching some of you language arts or French." Her voice was low and comforting, and everyone relaxed a little. She went on to explain how a regular day would work and then assigned them to all of their classes.
Miss Wright gave the students a chance to talk awhile, and Kaitlin turned to the girl on her right. She had smiled at Kaitlin as she walked in the room and seemed friendly.
"What's your name?" Kaitlin asked. "I'm Kaitlin O'Neal."
"I'm Julia Shoticem," was the reply "What do you think of Miss Wright? She seems really nice. This building is so confusing, though!"
"I know. I almost didn't have the courage to come to school today."
Julia nodded an agreement, and then asked, "How did you stop thinking about the first day of school? The only way I could was to concentrate on babysitting my crazy brothers."
"Oh, that was easy I just played with my dog." Kaitlin grinned as she finished talking, thinking about how much trouble Steve was probably going through right at that moment, trying to get Bullet to go with him.
"You have a dog!" exclaimed Julia. "I love animals. Our black lab died last spring of cancer."
"Oh! I'm so sorry." Kaitlin's pity was erased by a smile that flashed across her face as she thought of an idea. "Come to the shelter with me this afternoon! You can meet Bullet!" In her head she added: and Steve, and Gabriella . . .
"I'd love to! Do you go there often?"
Kaitlin laughed, and told her about the shelter, and all of the animals there. They spent the rest of the time they were allowed to talk telling each other about their favorite things. One thing Kaitlin really liked was that Julia had the same love of music that Kaitlin had, although they differed on almost everything else.
The freshmen spent the rest of the day journeying throughout the building, finding all of their classrooms, and saying hello to their teachers. By the end of the day, they all had a pretty good idea of the layout of the building. Kaitlin was in a wonderful mood. Almost all of her teachers seemed at least decent, if not nice (the exception was the science teacher), and none of the students had teased her at all. A boy had even smiled at her!
As Kaitlin walked to the shelter with Julia chattering at her side, she was singing softly under her breath. Lost in their thoughts, the two girls rounded a corner and approached the shelter. A big dog bounded out. Barking, he ran straight for his owner, and managed to knock her down. Laughing, Kaitlin stood up and ran toward the shelter. What a perfect life I have, she thought.