Cocoa (3 page)

Charles put his hand up to the antlers, ready to pull them off. His face was hot with embarrassment. What would Harry and this girl think? Who went around wearing antlers?

Harry burst into laughter, and the girl next to him giggled.

Charles wanted to crawl under the hall table.

“Those are awesome,” Harry said. “What a great idea!”

“Idea?” Charles could not quite believe his ears. Had Harry called the antlers “awesome”? “What do you mean?” He turned to Cocoa, who was dancing around happily, sniffing at first Harry’s legs,
then the girl’s. “Easy, Cocoa,” Charles said. “Take it easy.”

“For part of our team costume,” said Harry, reaching down to pet Cocoa. “They’re perfect. Rudolph’s Revenge, remember? That’s our name. Of course we have to wear antlers.” He stepped over to pluck the antlers off Charles’s head. “May I?” he asked. He went over to the hall mirror and adjusted the headband so that the antlers stood tall and proud on his own head. “Oh, yeah!” he crowed. “Like I said. Perfect.” He pulled them off and handed them to the girl. “Try them, Dawna.”

But the girl had knelt down on the floor to say hello to Cocoa. The big brown pup wriggled with pleasure as the girl stroked her ears and scratched her head. “This dog is adorable,” she said. “And she’s so, so sweet. What a darling.” Cocoa gave Dawna several huge licks, her tail wagging so hard that it banged the wall beside her.

“Oh!” said Harry. “I forgot to introduce you. Charles, this is Dawna. She’s the other member of our team. We’re really lucky to have her, too. Dawna is an Ironman athlete. Do you know what that means?”

Charles shook his head.

“It’s nothing,” said Dawna, rising to her feet. She smiled at Charles. “Good to meet you,” she said, sticking out a hand. Cocoa barked a few times, then sat down and panted, putting a paw on Dawna’s knee and whining for more attention.

Charles shook her hand, noticing that she had a very firm grip. “What’s an Ironman?” he asked.

“It’s just a race,” said Dawna. She reached down to pet Cocoa. “Shh, girl,” she said. “It’s okay.”

“Just a race!” Harry laughed. “Listen to this, Charles. It’s a race where you have to swim almost two and a half miles, then ride your bike for a hundred and twelve miles, then run twenty-six
miles. All in one day! It takes place in Hawaii every year. And last year Dawna was the world champion in her age group. She’s amazing.”

Dawna shrugged. “I got lucky,” she said. “Some of the other top competitors had the flu.”

Harry rolled his eyes.

“How do you even
that?” Charles asked. He could hardly imagine being able to do one of those things, much less all three in a single day.

“It’s just a matter of training,” said Dawna. “I’m a physical therapist — that means I help people strengthen their bodies — so I know all the tricks. I spend a couple of hours every day either biking or running or swimming, and on weekends I spend even more time. I like it, even though it gets a little lonesome and boring sometimes.” She looked down at Cocoa, who had settled down a bit. Now the brown puppy was leaning against her leg, gazing up at her new friend lovingly as she waited for more pats. “Anyway, enough about me.
Tell me about this gorgeous pup. Where did you get her?”

“She’s not ours,” Charles said. “We’re just fostering her, taking care of her because her owner got hurt. Actually, she ran into him and knocked him over. He had to go to the hospital.”

“Not Judge Thayer!” said Dawna. “I know him! He’s a patient of mine at the rehab center. I heard all about his crazy dog.” She scratched Cocoa’s head. “Don’t you worry, honey,” she murmured to the puppy. “He’s not mad at you. It wasn’t really your fault.”

“That’s where Dawna and I met,” said Harry. “At the rehab center.” He must have seen Charles’s confused look, because he added, “Rehab is short for rehabilitation. It means a place where people go to get over injuries. Anyway, did I tell you that Zeke is a therapy dog now?” He grinned. “I’m so proud of him. And people just love him when I bring him to visit at the rehab place or the hospital.”

Charles knew all about therapy dogs. They were specially trained dogs who were calm enough and friendly enough to be able to visit people who were sick or hurt. Patting a dog or watching a dog do tricks could really cheer someone up and maybe even help them heal faster. One of the puppies his family had fostered — Sweetie, a miniature poodle — was in training to be a therapy dog.

“Maybe I could bring Cocoa to visit Judge Thayer,” Charles said. “Wouldn’t he like that?”

Dawna didn’t say anything for a moment. “Well,” she said, “I think maybe Cocoa’s a little too —”

Charles nodded. “I know. She’s rambunctious.”

Dawna laughed. “Great word,” she said.

“It means energetic and kind of wild,” said Charles, in case Dawna wasn’t sure.

“That’s Cocoa,” said Dawna, looking fondly down at the big brown puppy, who was now prancing around in circles, chasing her own tail.

“But maybe you could come visit the judge and
tell him how Cocoa’s doing,” suggested Harry. “I’m taking Zeke over to the rehab place tomorrow afternoon. Want to come with me?”

“Sure!” Charles loved to ride in Harry’s red sports car.

“So, anyway,” Harry said, “we’re here to talk about our team, right?”

“Right!” said Charles. He led them into the living room and they sat down. Cocoa immediately pounced on the toy basket and grabbed Mr. Duck. She chewed hard on him to make him squeak, and shook him in her jaws so that his wings flipped and flapped. Then she romped over to Dawna, eyes gleaming, and shoved Mr. Duck into her lap.


Isn’t this a great toy? Don’t you love it?


Dawna laughed. She took the toy and threw it for Cocoa. “You’re always in motion, aren’t you?”
she asked. Then she turned to Charles. “So, about the relay race. Harry tells me you’re going to do the cross-country skiing part. I’m going to be the snowshoe runner, and Harry’s doing the sled.”

The WinterFest relay race always began with a member of each team flopping belly first onto a sled and racing down the long, steep hill above the school playground.

Harry saw the question on Charles’s face before he could even ask it. “I’m doing the sled because I’m a disaster on cross-country skis and Dawna’s a much faster runner than me.”

Charles nodded. He just hoped
wouldn’t be a disaster on cross-country skis.

“Now all we need is enough snow,” said Dawna. “Remember two years ago, when they had to cancel the race? That was a bummer.”

Charles nodded. Right now there was only a trace of snow on the ground.
… If the
race was cancelled, he wouldn’t have to worry about making a fool of himself on skis.

“The weather guy said we might get a little snow this afternoon and tonight,” Harry said. They all turned to look out the big living room window. Charles gulped. The first big, white flakes had already begun to fall.

It snowed lightly all night, just enough to coat everything in a bright white blanket but not quite enough for school to be cancelled. It was still snowing by the time school ended. Charles helped Mom shovel the driveway, and they finished just as Harry came to pick him up for their visit to the rehab center. “This is a great start on the snow we need,” said Harry, brushing the snow off his jacket as he came up the walk.

Charles nodded. “Great,” he agreed, even though he still wasn’t sure about this skiing thing.

Mom stood by the door, holding Cocoa so she wouldn’t bolt outside. The Lab puppy and Buddy
had already played in the backyard for hours that day. They were both crazy about the snow. “Does your car have snow tires?” Mom asked Harry, looking worried.

“Oh, sure,” said Harry. “Good ones, too. Only the best for Stella.”

“Stella?” Mom asked.

“That’s my car’s name,” said Harry. “Dee came up with it. Anyway, my car goes really well in the snow,” he assured her. “Charles will be totally safe, I promise.” He turned to Charles. “Ready? Zeke’s waiting out in the car.”

“Ready,” said Charles. He gave Cocoa a hug. “I’ll tell Judge Thayer you said hello,” he promised her.

Charles loved Harry’s rusty old red convertible, but he had to admit that it was more fun to ride in it during the summer, when the top was down and everyone could see you driving past with the wind in your hair. Now that it was winter, the top
was up — but it didn’t really do much to keep things warm inside. The heater did not seem to work too well, either. Plus, Zeke kept trying to crawl into the front seat to sit in Charles’s lap. Harry laughed. “He just wants to warm you up,” he said as Charles tried to shove the big dog back into his own seat for the third time. Charles’s feet felt like blocks of ice by the time Harry pulled into a parking spot at the rehab center.

Harry adjusted Zeke’s red bandana, snapped on his leash, and led Charles inside. “This place is terrific,” he said, as he signed them in at the front desk. “They work really hard with people here. You’ll see.” He walked down the hall, with Zeke walking nicely beside him. Charles was impressed with Zeke’s good manners. Whenever they came up to a person, Zeke immediately sat and offered his paw.

At first, Charles felt a little shy. A lot of the people at the rehab place were in wheelchairs, or on
crutches, or wrapped in bandages. But they all reacted to Zeke with smiles and pats and hugs. Everybody loved dogs, even when they were sick or injured.

Harry stopped in front of a room and peered inside. “I think this is Judge Thayer’s room, but he doesn’t seem to be in there,” he said.

An aide passing by smiled as she patted Zeke’s head. “He’s probably down in the PT room,” she said. “You know, physical therapy? He spends a lot of time in there every day.”

“I know where that is,” Harry said. He headed down to the end of the hall and pushed through double doors into a large, brightly lit room. Charles looked around. The PT room was set up like a gym. It was full of people doing all kinds of interesting things with different equipment: tossing giant balls back and forth, pulling on colorful oversized rubber bands, walking between parallel bars, and riding on exercise bikes.

“Look who’s here.” Harry pointed to Dawna, who was helping a tall, thin man step up onto and back down from a wooden box. Like most of the other patients, he was dressed in sweatpants and a pajama top. But there was something about the way he held himself that made him seem as if he were wearing a suit and tie and polished shoes.

“Hey!” said Dawna. “Here they are, Judge.” She introduced Harry and Charles. “This is Judge Thayer, one of my best patients. He sprained his ankle pretty badly, but I’ve never seen anyone so motivated to get better.” She smiled at the tall man. “And this is my friend Harry, and his friend Charles. Charles is the boy I told you about. His family is taking care of Cocoa.”

“Ah!” said the judge. He had a kind face, Charles thought, with blue-sky eyes and a crooked smile. He stuck out a long, thin hand for a shake. It reminded Charles of the long, thin gray branches
of the old apple tree in his yard. “Call me Ernest. I bet Cocoa is running you ragged, isn’t she?”

Charles laughed. “She’s a terrific dog,” he said. “She sure does have a lot of energy, though.” He looked at the judge, so tall and skinny and gray, and wondered how he could possibly manage such a wild puppy.

“Well, what do we have here?” A small, thin older woman walked over to pet Zeke. “Land sakes, if this dog doesn’t look just like Cocoa.”

“This is my wife, Charlotte,” said the judge.

If the judge was like an old apple tree, thought Charles, his wife was like a little bird sitting in one of the branches. She was tiny — no taller than Herbie Klotz, the tallest boy in Charles’s class. And she was old and gray, just like the judge. But she had bright eyes, just like a bird’s, and a pretty voice.

Harry introduced Charlotte to Zeke. She shook the big dog’s paw and smiled. “You’re a lot calmer
than our Cocoa, aren’t you?” She turned to Charles. “I hope your family is surviving our wild puppy.”

Charles smiled. “She’s great. She’s just a little” — he didn’t want to say “hyper,” which was what Mom had called her — “full of energy, that’s all,” he finished.

Charlotte nodded in agreement. “She’s been that way all along, ever since our son gave her to us last year as a Christmas present. We always had Labs when he was a boy, and he thought it would be fun for us to have one now. But goodness, we do have a little trouble keeping up with her!”

Zeke, who had been waiting patiently for more attention, held up a paw for the judge to shake.

“Hey, there,” said the judge, stooping over to take Zeke’s paw. “Now, you’re a mature one, aren’t you?” He stood back up. “We have a neighbor boy who walks Cocoa every day after school, but I’m
afraid it just isn’t enough. She has a lot of bottled-up excitement. Poor thing.”

“You’re not mad that she hurt your leg?” Charles asked.

The judge laughed. “How could anybody be mad at Cocoa for long? Anyway, it really wasn’t her fault. She’s just young and, as you said, full of energy.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Two things that I am
anymore, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, Judge,” said Dawna. “You know what they say. You’re only as old as you feel.” She smiled at him as she helped him step up and down and up again.

“Well, in that case I guess I must be about a hundred and fifty,” said the judge, smiling back at her.


Later, on the way home, it was snowing hard. Charles and Harry did not talk much as they rode in the red convertible. Instead, Harry peered
through the windshield as he drove, slowly and carefully, back to Charles’s house. “Tomorrow’s my day off from work, and Dawna’s, too. Looks like we might be able to have a team practice,” he said, when he pulled up in front. “If you get a snow day, that is.”

A snow day! Charles grinned. It had been a long time since school had closed because of too much snow. Then his smile faded. Would he really be able to cross-country ski well enough to be on Harry’s team? He hoped he would not embarrass himself in front of Harry and Dawna — not to mention the whole town.

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