Read Cocoa Online

Authors: Ellen Miles

Cocoa

For Sarah B. and Toby

“And veggie lo mein! Don’t forget the veggie lo mein for Mom!” Charles tugged on his dad’s sleeve as they turned the corner. They were on their way to China Star, the Peterson family’s favorite take-out place.

“How could we forget the veggie lo mein?” Dad asked. “Mom would kill me. And Lizzie would be furious if we forgot the spring rolls.”

Charles grinned. “Shrimp, not pork,” he sang out, mimicking his older sister. “And what about the Bean’s Special Chicken?” His younger brother, whose real name was Adam, adored a certain chicken dish on China Star’s menu. The Bean thought it was named Special Chicken,
since that’s what Mom called it when she put some on his plate, but its real name was General Tso’s.

Dad nodded. “We won’t forget that. And of course, I’m ordering the beef with broccoli. What about you?” he asked, as he pulled open China Star’s door.

Charles stepped inside. A sudden blast of steamy, fragrant air surrounded him. It was cold outside, but the restaurant was warm and bright and bustling. Friday night was always a busy night at China Star. People stood in line, looking up at the menu board above the counter. Behind the counter was an open kitchen, where three men worked at a fast, steady pace. They stirred ingredients in big, round woks over the leaping flames of two gigantic stoves, shouting to one another and to the counter person as they worked.

Charles loved coming to China Star. The usual routine was that he and Dad drove downtown, ordered the food, and then stopped in at the firehouse where Dad worked. They’d visit there for a few minutes until their food was ready, then pick it up and drive home quickly. Lizzie and Mom would have the table all set, and moments later the whole family would be sighing happily as they filled their plates and dug into the delicious food. Buddy, the Petersons’ puppy, would sit under the table waiting hopefully for a scrap to fall on the floor. China Star night was always a good night.

There was only one problem. Charles wished he had a favorite dish, like everybody else in the family. Every time he came to China Star, he would stare up at the brightly lit menu, trying to puzzle out which item to order. The
picture of shrimp wo bar always made his mouth water, but he had tried it once and it was greasy and gross. He liked the sound of sing ding snow dim, but his dad had warned him that it would probably be too spicy for him. He had tried sweet and sour pork, moo shu chicken, and beef chop suey, and they were all good. But he wasn’t quite ready to name any of them as his favorite.

Fortunately, there were three people ahead of them in line, so Charles had a little time to think.

Unfortunately, the line moved very quickly.

“Yes?” The woman at the counter looked at Dad, waiting for his order.

“Beef with broccoli, please,” Dad said. “And shrimp spring rolls, one order, and vegetable lo mein, and General Tso’s chicken. And …” He looked at Charles.

Charles panicked. He had been trying to decide between moo goo gai pan, egg foo young, and chicken chow mein, but none of them seemed exactly right. The woman was waiting, pen in hand. Dad was waiting. The customers in line behind them were waiting. He glanced up at the menu again and blurted out, “House Special chow fun!” which was the first thing his eye fell on.

“Are you sure?” Dad asked.

Charles nodded.

“Okay, then,” Dad said.

The woman at the counter rang up their order and Dad paid. “Twenty minutes,” she told them, as she spun around to hand the order to one of the cooks.

When they turned to go, Charles spotted a tall, skinny guy who’d been standing in line a few places behind them. “Harry!” he said.

“Hey there, man,” said Harry, grinning at Charles as he held up a hand for a high five. “What’s up?”

Charles beamed back at Harry. “The sky,” he said, as he smacked Harry’s hand. “The sky is up.”

Harry let out a huge guffaw, and Charles laughed, too. Harry was such a cool guy. He was a baseball and basketball star at the high school. He drove a rusty old red convertible. He had the coolest dog, a big chocolate Lab named Zeke who always wore a red bandana. And he went out with Dee, a really nice girl who also happened to have a chocolate Lab. Murphy was Dee’s service dog, and he was so smart. Since Dee got around in a wheelchair, Murphy helped her in a million ways. He could pick up anything she dropped, for example, or help her put on her socks.

Harry nodded at Dad. “Are you guys fostering a puppy these days?” he asked.

Harry knew that the Peterson family fostered puppies, which meant that they took care of puppies who needed homes — just until they could find each one the perfect forever family. In fact, Charles had first met Harry when the Peterson family was fostering a very spoiled Yorkie named Princess.

“Nope,” said Dad. “We’re a one-puppy household for the time being.”

“Buddy doesn’t mind getting all the attention,” Charles added.

“Hey, would you like to join us for dinner?” Dad asked Harry. “We just ordered enough food for an army.”

Harry smiled. “I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m ordering a bunch of stuff to bring to a meeting over at city hall. I’m on the WinterFest
committee and we’ve got a lot of work to do before next week.”

WinterFest happened every year in Littleton, around the holidays. It took place on the playing fields at Charles and Lizzie’s school. There were snow sculptures, a relay race, all kinds of games, and hot cocoa and singing around a bonfire at the end of the afternoon. “That’s right!” Charles said. “WinterFest is next Saturday! I love WinterFest.”

“So do I,” said Harry. “Which is a good thing, since Dee is head of the planning committee this year. She talked me into working on it, and we’ve been having a blast thinking up new games and activities.” Harry looked at Charles. “Hey, you want to be on my relay race team? Our name is Rudolph’s Revenge, and we need a third person.”

Charles stared at Harry. “Me?”

Harry shrugged. “Sure, why not? You’d be great.”

“Well — okay!” Charles felt his face grow hot with the pleasure of being asked. He wasn’t really the racing type, but he couldn’t help saying yes. He would have agreed to just about anything if it meant hanging out with Harry, the coolest guy he knew.

“Oops, guess it’s my turn to order,” said Harry, stepping up to the counter. “I’ll call you, okay, Charles?”

“Okay!” Charles waved as he followed Dad to the door.

Dad’s phone beeped as they were leaving the restaurant. He pulled it out and frowned down at it. “Seven text messages?” he asked. “Nobody ever texts me.” He read silently for a moment. “Hmmm,” he said. “Interesting.”

“What do they say?” Charles asked.

“They’re from Meg, at the firehouse,” Dad said. Meg Parker was a firefighter, just like Dad. “She wants us to get over there as fast as we can.”

“Is it an emergency?” Charles asked, as they hustled down the street toward the firehouse. Clouds of white mist puffed from his mouth as he talked, and he banged his hands together to warm them up. It sure was cold!

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “It’s about a puppy.”

“A puppy?” Charles felt his heart skip a beat. “What about a puppy?”

“I’m trying to figure that out.” Dad stopped on the sidewalk, staring at the screen of his phone. “These messages are all jumbled. Meg seems to be trying to tell me that —”

“Dad!” Charles tugged on his father’s sleeve.

“Hold on, bucko,” Dad said, still toggling away at his phone. “Let me just —”

“But Dad, look! Isn’t that Meg? With that dog?” Charles pointed up the street. A big, strong dog dragged a woman toward them, pulling her like a boat tows a water-skier. Charles noticed the dog’s beautiful brown coat and thought that it must be
a chocolate Lab, because it looked just like Zeke and Murphy, Harry’s and Dee’s dogs.

“Yeeeooww!” yelled Meg. “Sorry! Sorry!” she said to the other people on the sidewalk, as she ran along behind the dog, barely missing a lamppost, a mailbox, and a fire hydrant.

Dad had finally let his phone fall to his side, and he stared openmouthed as Meg and the dog charged closer. “I guess that must be the puppy she was writing about,” he said.

“Here, pup,” said Charles, as the dog approached. He squatted down and held his arms open and the dog barreled into him, knocking him over. Then, as Charles lay laughing on the sidewalk, the dog licked every part of his face: his chin, his mouth, his cheeks, his nose, his closed eyes, his forehead, and his ears. Charles laughed even harder because it tickled so much. When he opened his eyes, he saw the dog standing over him, grinning a doggy grin and panting happily.
Her big thick tail bashed Dad in the knees with every wag.

“This is a
puppy
?” Dad asked Meg, as he bent to pat the dog’s head.

Meg laughed. “Well, yes. She’s only about a year old. But I have a feeling this dog will be
acting
like a puppy for a long, long time.”

“She’s beautiful,” said Charles. He threw his arms around the dog’s strong neck and kissed her silky soft ears. Her glossy coat was the exact color of a Kit Kat, Charles’s favorite chocolate bar. But she didn’t smell like chocolate. She smelled like dog, which was even better. Her yellowish eyes were bright, her ears were alert, and her brown nose twitched and shivered, working overtime to sniff out all the good downtown smells. She had long, gangly legs and huge, chunky paws, and she was at least twice as big as Buddy. “What’s her name?” he asked Meg.

“Cocoa,” said Meg.

When the dog heard her name, she whirled around and jumped up excitedly onto Meg, making her stagger backward into Dad. “Whoa, there,” Dad said, as he helped Meg stand upright again. “This dog sure does have a lot of energy.”

Charles squatted on the sidewalk and tried to calm Cocoa down. He gave her nice, long pats the whole length of her body. That usually worked for Buddy when he was overexcited.

“Tell me about it,” said Meg, sighing. “That’s why we need to find her a home — fast. I already have my hands full with my two dogs. I can’t handle this one, too.”

“A home?” Dad asked.

Charles felt his heart skip another beat. Maybe Cocoa was going to be their next foster puppy!

“Didn’t you get my texts?” Meg said.

“I was just trying to read them, but I couldn’t quite —”

Meg waved a hand. “I know. I was kind of in a hurry. Anyway, here’s the story. This pup belongs to an older couple, Ernest and Charlotte Thayer, out on Franklin Street.”

“Judge Thayer?” Dad asked.

“That’s right, he used to be a judge. He’s retired now. He and his wife are both pretty frail, but they still manage to live in their own house and take care of themselves.”

Charles wasn’t sure what “frail” meant, but he had a feeling it was the opposite of the way Cocoa was.

“And?” Dad asked.

“And a couple of hours ago, the dog came running toward Ernest, banged into him hard, and knocked him over,” Meg finished, all in a rush. “I was one of the EMTs on the call, and it was obvious that Charlotte was not going to be able to take care of this puppy on her own. Anyway, Charlotte came with us in the ambulance, so
there wasn’t going to be anybody at home with the dog, so —”

“So you brought Cocoa along, too?” Dad asked.

Cocoa’s head snapped up when she heard her name, but Charles still had his arms around her, so she didn’t jump onto Dad. “Good girl, good girl,” he whispered into her ear.

Meg nodded. “She rode right up front in the ambulance, with Ted. I couldn’t figure out any other way to deal with the problem. And now —”

Dad made a face. “I get it. Now you want us to take this crazy mutt.”

“She’s not a mutt, Dad!” Charles burst out. “She’s a beautiful purebred chocolate Lab, just like Zeke and Murphy, and she’s a good girl, at least she could
learn
to be a good girl, and we
have
to take her, we just
have
to!”

Dad smiled down at Charles. He sighed. He reached out a hand to pat Cocoa’s glossy head. “I guess you’re right. We do have to. Cocoa needs
somewhere to stay, at least until Judge Thayer is out of the hospital.” He reached for the phone he’d stowed in his pocket. “I’ll call your mom to make sure it’s all right with her. Then we’d better go back to China Star to pick up our food, before it gets cold!”

Charles hugged Cocoa. “Yay!” he whispered into her ear. “You’re coming home with us.”

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