The Dog Snatcher

Chapter 1

I’M JAKE. I’M eleven. I love my parents, my dog, and my know-it-all twin sister. I’d do anything for them.

But sometimes I can’t resist doing the wrong thing. That can lead to big trouble for everyone.

One summer evening, I stood at the end of our suburban driveway, staring. Something glittered on the pavement. It lay next to the big trash can I had just dragged out to the street.

Even in the shadow of the trash can I could tell it wasn’t round like a coin.

What was it?

I picked up the strange object: a large silver and black key, its head covered with shiny seashell. It looked like the key to a pirate treasure chest. This is not the sort of thing you find in my neigh- borhood in St. Louis.

Maybe a rich person dropped it. No, there weren’t any rich people in this neighborhood, full of small houses and big, old oak trees, now brushed by the warm winds of May.

But who else?  I could see no one but Nicky, our little dog who shadowed my every move and even now nosed around the base of the trash can.

I stuck the key in my pocket and gave Nicky a pat. We walked back up the driveway. Nicky wagged his tail—he knew it was time for tennis balls in the backyard.

Do pirates throw tennis balls for their dogs?

I’d read and re-read Treasure Island. But maybe I’d been reading too much about pirates, I told myself as I stood on the backyard patio and threw the ball toward the fence, hard. Nicky raced after it, a blur of black, white, and brown, ears flying.

He brought the ball back, sat at my feet, and lifted his chin.

Nicky, a miniature Australian shepherd, was just the right size to pick up. But he hated being picked up. He was no lap dog and wanted to be in the thick of everything. He loved being alive.

He asked a question with his large bright eyes and dropped his tennis ball with a little thud onto the concrete.

My twin, Ava, poked her dark, curly head out the back door. People hardly ever guessed we were twins since I have blond hair. And even though we were both eleven, people told me I looked younger than her.

“Hey Jake, actually don’t forget to take out the trash,” she said.

“Already did,” I said, and shrugged.

She closed the door and vanished, working on her chores no doubt.

I took a moment to pull out the key and admire it. It looked special. Very special. I’d never seen anything like it. It felt cold and smooth in my grip. My heartbeat sped up. It must be valuable. Would it make me rich?

This strange, ancient thing, maybe hundreds of years old—was it now mine? It seemed so. I turned it over in my hand twice.

I should show it to Dad, give it to Dad. But I wanted it.

And I stuck it back in my pocket. I just wanted to keep it.

Chapter 2

NICKY SNIFFED AT the night air for a long moment and then looked around.

From our back yard we could see over the fence to a sidewalk. A brown boxer walked with his person, so naturally Nicky started barking. The effort shook his small body. Silly, since he had known the dog since last summer.

Ava came out the back door, her white school blouse shining in the dusk like a pirate signal flag. “Hush, Nicky,” she said. Then to me, “Time to go in.”

I didn’t keep much from her, but I didn’t want to tell Ava about the key. At the moment, it was nobody’s business but mine. Twins shared so much—toys, chores, friends—and maybe I wanted to keep something to myself.

Anyway, wherever it came from, she wasn’t getting it.

The plan for the rest of the evening only aimed for more chores and then homework and practic- ing our band instruments. Ava and I were in no hurry—we cleaned up the supper dishes in our normal ultra-slow fashion.

We spread our notebooks across the dining room table. Dad, an Uber driver by day, prepared to answer math questions. He wandered over from his favorite chair in the living room, a newly sharpened pencil tucked behind his ear. I stared at my first math problem. I really wasn’t ready—I hadn’t listened in class. But he was.

It was a typical evening, nearing the end of the school term. Mom, as usual, was at work. Being a nurse in the ER was like that. She was gone a lot, nearly always until eleven in the evening.

The doorbell rang.

Nicky raced to the door, barking.

“Be quiet,” I said at the same time as Ava. Nicky barked again.

Dad opened the door, running a hand through his brown hair and adjusting his sweatshirt. “Yes?” It was hard to hear his words with the barking. He frowned, looking out.

And then his pencil dropped.

Ava and I both crept closer to listen. Dad somehow managed to both pick up the pencil and shush Nicky, who crouched by his knee and whined.

In the evening light stood a skinny guy who looked a few years older than us, maybe fourteen years old, all arms and legs. His straight spiky black hair stuck out in all directions. He wore a black tee shirt and black jeans clasped by a big silver belt buckle.

The guy thrust his chin out and up. “Ach, I lost something just now,” he said in a vaguely foreign accent. “A key. Did youse-all find my key? A special key. There is no other like it.”

“I haven’t found a key,” said Dad. But I had. I drew in my breath.

Dad went on, “Where do you think you lost it?”

“Vat about them.” The stranger indicated us twins with a tilt of his head. It was a statement, not a question.

Dad turned to us, eyebrows raised. “Did you find his key?”

My hands felt clammy. It was mine, right? Finders keepers? “I, uh, haven’t found any key that’s not mine,” I said.

Ava moved to stand beside me. “Me neither,” she said.

“Nuh.” The guy’s tone showed he didn’t believe us. “It is here. I am not a fool.” He paused, and nobody answered.

His jaw clenched, and his nostrils f lared. He spat out the words: “I know you have it. But, I vill be on my way.” He stooped, grabbed Nicky, turned, and headed down the street at a run. Nicky wiggled like crazy, of course.

He’d stolen our dog. I was too startled to react at first. We all were.

I couldn’t think fast enough. “Wait!” I called.

“You can’t do that!” yelled Dad as he started out the door after him.

It was like in a movie. Only this was real.

Chapter 3

AVA AND I took off after Dad. But the dog snatcher was faster than any of us.

He ran along a row of tall bushes. Suddenly I couldn’t see him, and apparently nei- ther could Dad or Ava. We got closer and looked behind the hedge. Had the black of his shirt blended in with the bushes? No.

He was gone.

The three of us stared at each other.

“No!” wailed Ava. “I want Nicky!”

“That jerk just stole our dog!” exclaimed Dad. “We gotta call the cops.” He pulled out his phone and punched in the numbers. He talked for a minute, gave our address, then hung up and headed for home.

Following him, I didn’t say anything. But my dinner churned, and a big hollow place opened up inside somewhere. Nicky had been part of our family since we were in kindergarten. And now…

Dad closed the front door behind us with a thud.

Ava stared at Nicky’s dog bed.

I stooped to pick up his rubber ducky and gave it a squeaky squeeze, then another. I knelt and put it on the carpet where Nicky would always pick it up. But it didn’t move.

Nicky was gone.

I sank into a chair and closed my eyes. Why didn’t I give up the key? Of course I wanted my dog more than some old dumb key.

In fact, it was all my fault that our dog was missing.

Why had I thought to call the key mine? Clearly it wasn’t.

When you hurt someone, apologize and then try to make it right. Dad always said that. But how?

I’d lied to Dad. I’d hurt our family, big time. I needed to say something. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

I had no apology to give. Not even the simple word, “Sorry.” I had nothing. Nada.

But I could search for Nicky. Yes. How?

Ten agonizing minutes later, headlights flashed through the windows when a police officer showed up.

“Now, let’s go over this again,” said the officer, standing in the porchlight at the open front door with his notepad and pen.

He raised one eyebrow and checked his watch as we told him about the vanishing act.

Then he shook his head. “Folks, I don’t know what to do with that. Let’s give me something to work with. Footprints?”

He pulled out his flashlight and stepped off the porch.

“Maybe he stood here for a second,” I said.

We examined the ground. But, because of the new garden mulch, we didn’t find any footprints.

“Then he went that way down the street,” I said.

The policeman checked his watch again and left, still shaking his head. He probably had other, more important work to do.

Dad flopped into his armchair, a scowl on his face.

Ava beckoned, then pulled me down the hall- way to my room and closed the door behind us. Lemurs and sea otters stared at us with round eyes from my posters, and my fish tank hummed.

“You’re not telling me something.” She stood with hands on hips.

“Why do you think that?”

“You have a funny look on your face.”

The lie inside gurgled in my stomach. But I wasn’t ready to let go of it. “I told you already,” I said. Oh, no, I was getting in deeper and deeper. I lowered my head.

“Are you sure?” she demanded.

“I just feel really bad about Nicky.”

“We all do,” she said. She cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “You know something.” I sighed. Twins are like that. I was busted. “I didn’t think a guy would come to the house …” I murmured.

She shook her head and tapped her foot.

“It’s true,” I said. “There really was a key.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “I know.”

“I found it in the street when I put the trash can out.” I pulled it from my pocket. “I was think- ing finders keepers.”

The key lay there in my palm, cold, silvery black with pearly accents, full of secrets. Three inches long, bigger than any key had a right to be.

“You lost our Nicky for that old thing?” Her voice rose.

“I didn’t know—”

“You keep messing things up.” Ava poked her finger at my chest. “You got us kicked out of our old house. Now this.”

“Tell me about it.” Inner gremlins clutched my guts, tighter and tighter.

“You’ve got to return the key,” she said. “Take it.” I tossed the key to her.

“I don’t want it,” she said. “Keep it.”

“You keep it.”

She ran a finger over the ornate surface. The yellow plastic beaded Hello Mellow bracelet that dangled from her wrist clattered against the metal. She looked closer. “This end of the key is covered with seashell,” she said. “I think they call this mother-of-pearl.”

“If it’s real,” I said, “it’s too big for any lock.” I sank down on my bed, head down. I was definitely having a bad day.

After a minute, she dropped the key back into my hand. I took a deep breath and stood up. At least I had the key. What could I do with it?

“It’s got to be good for something.” I waved it in the air. “ Maybe there’s a big old pirate chest somewhere that’s just the right size for this. Whaddayathink? Or the key to a castle. A big one, with giants.” I’d always loved fairy tales. So full of wild possibilities. I’d even put a castle into the fish tank in my room.

She shook her head, but my crazy thoughts made her crack a smile.

“Maybe it’s to a dragon’s treasure,” I went on. “You really need to get more serious, Jake.” “Oh, come on, you’d love it if we found a treasure chest.”

“I’d love it if that key could help us find Nicky,” she said.

“What if,” I said, “there is a big lock right here in front of me. Like a locker. Only I can’t see it.” I thrust the key forward in the air and turned it to the left.

I must have done something. She was gone. Somehow I found myself in a small dark shop crammed with ticking clocks, so many that it was hard to move. It was another place.

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