Dani was adamant. For her 11th birthday, she wanted a dog. Not a dainty but ferocious dog like her friend’s Chihuahua Pepe, but a big, leggy, tail wagging creature with floppy ears and maybe spots.
Her parents, who loved dogs, nonetheless teased her about it.
“How about a tea set?” her father asked, trying but failing to hide a giggle. “A nice flowered china tea set. And maybe a doll.”
“Dad, “ Dani said. She knew he was kidding. He was the one who drove her to skating practice every weekday at 5 a.m. and knew her better than anyone.
Almost anyone, that is.
“I think you’d like a pretty new dress instead,” Dani’s mother said. “Something stiff, with a petticoat. You know, something scratchy. Like what Nana used to wear.” Dani’s grandmother had been a beauty queen before she got kicked out of the Miss America pageant for smoking in public.
“As if,” Dani said. Her skating skirts were dumb enough, she thought. She always tried to get away with thick tights and shorts but her trainer wouldn’t have it.
“My girlssss vear sssskirtssss,” Elena said, in her middle European accent.
It was a dog she wanted and it was a dog she was determined to get. The family looked on Petfinder. They visited the Humane Society. They talked to rescue groups. Dani met and played with a dozen dogs or more, all of which she really liked but which did not somehow fit right against her bony chest. Her parents made donations to every group they visited, which made Dani proud.
Still, her birthday was approaching (it was that Friday!), and yet Dani had no dog.
“But what are you going to do,” asked her BFF, Edie. “You’ve only got like, five days! Four if you count like Amanda.” Amanda was their third, the best mathematician in the school. Dr. Oswald, the head of the math department, created special challenges just for her. All Dani and Edie knew was that Amanda calculated their share of every lunch or dinner or movie out. She was good to have around, and fun, too, knowing words like “hypotenuse” and “isosceles” that made them laugh.
“I don’t know, “Dani said. “I just don’t know.”
“Do you have a name yet?” Edie asked.
“How can I have a name if I don’t know her yet?” Dani said.
Edie sighed. Dani was so particular about some things. Her father had announced in advance that their dog would be named Pepe, and Pepe it was.
It was raining hard on Tuesday morning when Dani and her Dad left for the skating rink. Stu drove extra slowly to be safe. Dani was daydreaming while she looked out the side window. Suddenly something black and gleaming dashed past their car.
“Dad! Stop!” Dani yelled. Stu stepped hard on the brakes.
“I saw a dog!” Dani cried, opening her door and jumping out into the rain.
“Dani, no! I’ll go,” Stu called, but it was too late. Dani had already rushed toward the nearly empty Target lot they’d been passing.
“Dog!” Dani cried. “Doggy!” She was soaked through in seconds. “Dog! Come back!” She ran hard toward where she’d last seen him.
Then, something moved beneath the lone car in the lot. A big square head poked out just enough to look at her, a pair of golden eyes blinking at the rain.
Dani crouched by the car, offering her fist for the dog to sniff.
“Hi Dog, Hi Dog, “ she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
Suddenly a warm wet tongue licked her knuckles. Dani started to cry. “Please come out, please come out, little dog.”
What crawled out was big and black and wet and very shiny. Its tail wagged so hard its rump moved along with it. Dani bent forward and hugged it, whatever it was.
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you!” she cried.
Stu ran up, breathing hard.
“Oh, Dani,” he said. From behind his streaming glasses he squinted at his daughter and the big dark wriggling mass in her arms. His heart made the decision.
“C’mon, both of you,” he said. “We’re all soaked.”
Running back to the car, Dani kept her hand on the dog’s back. “Don’t run away. Don’t run away,” she whispered.
Stu grabbed a scratchy old blanket from the hatchback and laid it out across the backseat. The dog jumped right in. Dani scrambled in after it, continuing to stroke the big wet back. Stu saw that her clothes were filthy and wet, her face was smeared with tears, dog saliva and black dog hairs, and her lower lip was swollen from biting, her worst nervous habit.
“All. Right.” he thought. “All right!”
“Dani, we’re having an adventure,” he said. “No skating for you, no coffee for me. We are officially on a quest.”
Dani smiled. She buried her face in the dog’s neck. The dog panted, its mouth open wide.
Stu found his cell phone. He pressed a lot of buttons and made a few calls, making faces while he talked. “You’re open? We’ll be right there. We have an emergency rescue.” Did Dani imagine it, or had he unconsciously lowered his voice to be dramatic?
Soon they found themselves parking before a mostly dark building. A lady in a white lab coat and pink sneakers opened the door as soon as she saw their lights.
“We found — my daughter found — this guy in a parking lot,” Stu said, wiping his glasses, and then his eyes. His curly hair looked like wet ramen noodles on his head.
“Uh, oh,” said the lady. “No tags? Well, we’ll check him out.” She noticed Dani keeping close to the big wet creature.
“You like him, huh?” she asked.
“He’s going to be mine,” Dani answered.
“Mmm-hmmm!” said the lady. “Better get him checked out straightaway, then.”
Dani and Stu sat in the waiting room for a long time, Stu’s arms around his daughter. Sally, Dani’s mother, came with towels, coffee, and warm socks for both. The three sat together quietly.
When the doctor returned, she led them all into her office. Dani felt very scared.
“Where’s Buttercup?” she asked. “Is he okay?”
The doctor and her father laughed. “Buttercup?” Stu asked. “You’re calling him ‘Buttercup’?”
“Dani, I want to talk to you and your parents about something important,” the doctor said. Her name was sewn on her coat, Dani saw. It was “Dr. Boxer.”
“Dani, you did a good thing when you decided to help this dog,” she said. What you need to know is that this dog…..”
“Buttercup,” Dani said. “His name is Buttercup.”
“Buttercup, then, is a special kind of dog, Dani.” Dr. Boxer spoke carefully, watching Stu and Sally. “Not everybody likes or understands dogs like Buttercup.”
“Well, I like him,” Dani said. Stu and Sally were quiet.
“I know you do, Dani. I know you do. But having a special dog is a big responsibility. You’ll have to educate people that not everything they hear is accurate, and Buttercup will have to be extra good to disprove all the bad things people may say or believe.”
Stu cleared his throat. “Pit bull?” he asked.
Dr. Boxer nodded. “Yes, and he’s a she. Not pregnant though, thank god.”
Sally glanced at Dani, who was biting her lip again. “How did she do in the exam?”
“A perfect angel,” Dr. Boxer answered. “A little too thin and probably in need of shots and maybe a worming, but perfect behavior. A sweetheart, in fact.” She cleared her throat. “Apparently, she loves peanut butter.”
Sally, Stu and Dani were silent. Dani’s eyes were poised on the edge of tears. Sally tugged lightly on her daughter’s ponytail.
“Dani, do you understand what Dr. Boxer is telling us? Some people won’t like Buttercup because of her breed, even if they don’t know her. They might not be nice to her, or won’t want to pet her. It won’t be fair, but that’s how it is.”
“Dani, what your mother’s saying is that you’re going to have to defend Buttercup, even if she doesn’t do anything wrong,” Stu said. “You’re going to learn about bias and pre-judgment. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yes,” said Dani. “Buttercup is a good girl and we’re supposed to be together.”
Sally and Stu looked at each other over Dani’s head. Her hair was starting to dry and the streaky highlights within the brown gleamed. My fierce little girl, Sally thought.
“Is Buttercup able to come home with us, Dr. Boxer?” Stu asked.
Dr. Boxer smiled. “Well, I’d like to give her some shots and a bath first, but I don’t see why not. How about if you pick her up at noon after the staff gets here?”
“That’s not for hours!” Dani cried.
The adults laughed.
“You’re going to school anyway,” Sally said. “The time will pass quickly.”
“Mom! I can’t possibly go to school! I have to wait for Buttercup. She might need me.”
“Nope — school it is,” said Stu. “Home first, change your clothes, and then I’m taking you to school. You’ll only miss one class.”
Dani sighed loudly. “You guys are being really unfair.” She wasn’t a little kid anymore. She was almost 11!
It wasn’t until lunch that she saw Edie and Amanda.
“You guys, I found a dog,” she said, pulling out a chair at their table. She drank her entire chocolate milk and burped. “Her name is Buttercup and she’s black and I love her and she’s at the vet and it was raining and I chased her.”
“OMG,” Edie squealed.
“Where’d you get her?” Amanda asked. As always, the sandwich before her was cut on a sharp diagonal, with carrot slivers sectioned neatly beside it on the plate. Her yoghurt, theoretically available to anyone who’d eat it, remained in solitary confinement within her lunch box.
“I found her,” Dani said. “She was hiding under a car at Target.”
“I love Target,” Amanda sighed.
“What is she?” Edie asked. Edie was the smallest of the three girls, with blonde wavy hair. She was skinny and a great reader and her favorite candy was Atomic Fireballs.
Dani took a deep breath. I guess it’s now or never, she thought. “The vet says she’s a pit bull.” She looked at the bowl of corn on her tray. At least it wasn’t peas.
Amanda and Edie were silent. Dani began worrying. This was what her parents meant, she knew.
Then Amanda took a loud slurp from her juicebox, with that little gurgle at the end. “Well, when can we meet her?”
“Tonight!” Dani said. She grinned. Good old unflappable Amanda. “Tonight, right after dinner.”
“I’ll cut piano,” Edie whispered.
“Edie, no one here cares if you cut piano. You don’t have to whisper,” Amanda said.
“I can’t help myself,” Edie answered. “You know my father.” Edie’s father led the city orchestra. He was dapper and handsome and spoke with an accent. Sometimes he sounded like a friendly snake. “Gurlss,” he once said. “Did Edith tell you she’s working on Ssshowpaaan now?”
“Daddy,” Edie said.
“What? Your friendsss will be proud of you.”
“Oh, we are, Mr. Schultz, “ Dani answered. “We definitely are.” Edie kicked her under the table.
All afternoon Dani thought about Buttercup. What would she look like dry? Her smell had filled the car that morning — a wonderful, wet wool sweater kind of smell. Would she remember Dani? Would she still like Dani? She knew for absolute certain that she, Dani, would still like Buttercup.
“We don’t know her history, Dani,” Dr. Boxer had said. “Too often bad people aren’t very nice to pit bulls and take advantage of their loyalty and strength. From the looks of her, I’d say she’s been loose for a while.”
Tears had fallen from Dani’s eyes. “No one will ever hurt her again,” she said. “She’s going to be my best friend.”
“She should see a trainer, “Dr. Boxer continued. “I have a few I can recommend.”
Sally nodded. “We can go on Saturdays. Dani, you won’t be able to sleep in anymore. Can you live with that?” She looked very carefully into Dani’s brown eyes. It was the look Dani could never lie to no matter how bad she felt about losing Grandma- Carol- The Beauty-Queen’s ruby ring, or tried to claim she hadn’t lost her head during a competition in which her nemesis, stupid prissy perfect shiny-haired Angela, also skated.
“Yes, Mom,” she said now. “I can do it.”
Finally the 3 o’clock bell rang. Dani ran from the building, bypassing the line of buses waiting to ferry the girls who lived far away.
“Bye!” She waved at Edie and Amanda in the hall. “Bye, Mr. Sands,” she called to their English teacher. “Bye!” she shouted at the tall LaCrosse players, streaming onto the big green field beside the school. Then she ran the half-mile home, unable to contain herself.
Her mother’s car was in the driveway, which meant she hadn’t gone to work, or had come home early. Was something wrong? Sally always went to work, unless Dani was sick or Stu had a meeting at his agency.
As she approached the brick walk that led to the front door, she slowed her pace. Today was going to be different. “Please let everything be all right,” she whispered. “Please Buttercup be all right.”
Suddenly, the door flew open and her parents stood framed together. “Ta da!” they cried, stepping back to reveal a glowing gorgeous creature with a white blaze on her chest and a big red satin ribbon around her neck. She was again wagging so hard her whole body shook with happiness.
“Buttercup!” Dani cried, rushing forward. “You’re beautiful!” Then girl and dog came together, wagging and laughing with all the joy in the world.
An hour later, the phone rang. “Dani! Phone,” Stu called. Dani and Buttercup were in her room playing with Buttercup’s tail and paws.
It was Edie, in tears.
“I can’t come over,” she sobbed. “I can’t ever come over again. My father thinks your dog might bite my fingers and ruin my hands for playing. You can come here, though.”
Dani sat beside Buttercup. She rubbed the dog’s big pink tummy with its soft, thin hair. As always, her tail swished back and forth, like window wipers.
“Okay,” she said. “But do you think my parents could talk to your Dad about it some time?” She said nothing about all the times Pepe had grabbed treats from her fingers, nipping her in the process.
“I don’t know,” Edie answered. “I’ll ask, but he’ll probably say no. You know how he is about my playing.”
Dani sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
“I’m really sorry, Dani,” Edie said. “We can still be friends at school and stuff.”
As soon as she hung up with Edie, Dani called Amanda.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey back,” said Amanda.
“Edie can’t come over anymore,” Dani said, trying not to cry. “Her Dad thinks Buttercup is going to bite off her fingers or something. “ She cleared her throat. “Can you still meet her?”
“Well, I’ll ask, but, I mean, uh doy, Dani. The answer’s going to be yes.”
Dani heard Amanda yell, “Mom!” and then there was a lot of squeaking and muffled rubbing from the receiver. When she came back on the line, she said, “My Mom wants to know if she can drop me off early. Like, now.” Amanda’s mother was a physics professor at a nearby college, and liked to work at night, when the labs were quiet.
“Hold on, I’ll ask,” Dani said. “Dad! Can Amanda come for dinner? She wants to meet Buttercup.”
“Not a problem,” Stu called back. “Tell her we’re having lasagna.”
“You’re in luck — it’s lasagna,” Dani said. “My Dad will probably make you a doggy bag.”
“Thank God!” Amanda did not like her mother’s absent-minded stews and soups. “Everything tastes the same,” she complained. “She’s the Queen of Goulash.”
“You told her, right?” Dani asked. “You told her about Buttercup?” Her heart was beating hard but she had to do it. She looked down at Buttercup, who was passionately licking her own paw.
“Yup,” Amanda answered. “She said, and I quote, ‘A dog’s a dog. ‘”
“You’re the best!” Dani cried.
Dani hung up and flopped next to Buttercup on the carpet. “Who’s my very good girl? Who has a big happy tail?” And then she kissed Buttercup’s muzzle, and got a big, sloppy lick on the face in return.