Cocoa (5 page)

It snowed again on Friday night, just enough to freshen everything with a new layer of white. Saturday morning was sunny and bright. Charles bounded down the stairs with Cocoa and Buddy flying behind him. “It’s a perfect day for WinterFest!” he said, as he sat down at the breakfast table.

“And a perfect day for blueberry pancakes,” said Dad, smiling as he handed Charles a heaping plateful. “Eat up. You’ll need all your energy for your big race today.”

Charles looked down at Cocoa. Was it a perfect day for her to go back to her owners? He wondered again what would happen when Judge
Thayer saw his dog for the first time. Would the judge and his wife want to take Cocoa home today?

“Deck the halls with bells of jolly,”
sang the Bean, prancing around the kitchen in his antlers.
“Fa la la la la, la la la la!”

Charles laughed, pushing away his worried thoughts.

Dad sighed and shook his head. “I used to
like
that song,” he said. But he was still smiling. “Hey, look what I found at the dollar store last night.” He handed Charles a big shopping bag.

Charles peeked inside. “Antlers!” he said.

Dad beamed. “Enough for all your fans,” he said. “Rudolph’s Revenge will have a whole
herd
of reindeer cheering them on.”

 

The school grounds were already packed by the time Charles and his family arrived at WinterFest. Charles looked around. He did not see Judge
Thayer, but there were Harry and Dawna, their antlers bobbing above the crowd. He waved to them, then turned to pull his skis out of the van. He had to laugh when he looked at his family: Mom, Dad, the Bean, and Lizzie, all wearing antlers. Plus, Dad still had a whole bunch more to hand out to anyone who wanted to support Rudolph’s Revenge.

The relay race was one of the last events of the day, so Charles set his skis aside and took Cocoa for a walk around the playground. He had put a head harness on her, so she walked nicely next to him without pulling as they explored the winter carnival that had sprung up overnight. There were snow sculptures: dragons and giant Viking boats and castles with fluttering banners, and, in the middle of the baseball field, a huge pile of wood all ready to be lit for the evening bonfire. A network of paths, carefully shoveled and sanded, connected everything.

“Hey, look, Cocoa,” said Charles. “The snowmen
are already done.” A row of blank-faced snowmen stretched along one edge of the field. They were part of the relay race this year. Harry had explained it all during their practice.

The way the race worked was this: When each sledder got to the bottom of the steep hill, he or she would run to one of the snowmen and put a scarf around its neck. As soon as the scarf was on, the snowshoer would run around the track, then use a handful of pebbles to add a mouth and two eyes to the snowman’s face. As soon as that was done, the snowshoer would run up to the skier, waiting at the top of another, less steep hill. The skier would ski down to add the final touch to the snowman: a carrot nose. The first team to complete their snowman won the race.

Charles patted his pocket, looking for the carrot he’d brought from home, and looked up toward the long, gentle hill he would be skiing down. He felt his heart skip a beat. He was still a little
nervous about the race, but after all the practicing he was as ready as he’d ever be. “No problem, right, Cocoa?” he asked. Cocoa grinned up at him and wagged her tail.

 

Right!

 

“Cocoa! The famous Cocoa. I’ve been hearing so much about you!”

It was Dee. Her wheelchair was strapped onto a toboggan and a crew of “elves” (actually some of Harry’s teammates from the basketball team) in pointy green hats hauled her across the snow. She wore a sparkly crown and a sash that proclaimed her “Queen of WinterFest.” Murphy, her beautiful chocolate Lab, trotted along beside her, keeping an eye on everything.

Hearing her name, Cocoa pulled hard on her leash and dragged Charles over to Dee. She and Murphy sniffed at each other, tails wagging.

“Hello, Your Majesty,” said Charles, bowing down before Dee.

Dee grinned. “My staff made me wear this,” she said. She scratched Cocoa’s ears. “Harry was right. This pup is a real cutie. She’d be perfect for Daw —” She stopped and put her hand over her mouth. “Forget I said that. I know Cocoa belongs to someone.” She changed the subject. “What do you think of WinterFest?”

“I think it’s great,” said Charles. He had a feeling he knew what Dee had been about to say. “I can’t wait to try snowball bingo and check out the hot cocoa stand.”

“And the tug-of-war should be beginning soon,” said Dee. “But of course the main event is the relay race. Did you know that between the four teams you’ve already raised over two thousand dollars for people who can’t afford to heat their homes this winter?” She waved a stack of pledge forms at him.

Charles was surprised. “I didn’t even know that the race was a fund-raiser,” he admitted. “But that’s great.”

“I bet Harry and Dawna didn’t want you to worry about collecting pledges, since you’re so busy taking care of Cocoa,” said Dee. “But there are a lot of people out there who will be warmer this winter, and you’re part of that.”

The whole time they’d been talking, Cocoa had been trying to get Murphy to play. But as a service dog, he was trained not to play during work hours. After that first sniff hello, he sat like a statue, barely flicking an ear, while Cocoa danced around him. Finally, she sat down and began to bark.

 

This is frustrating! Why won’t you wrestle? I know you like to have fun.

 

Charles and Dee laughed. “I’d better keep this pup moving,” said Charles. He waved to Dee as he
and Cocoa set off across the field. It was time to find Sammy and David and check out some of the games.

 

Later, as the afternoon shadows began to fall, Charles stood at the top of the hill, wearing his skis, his heart pounding as he waited for the race to begin. Any minute now, Dee would call “ready, set, go” over the loudspeaker, and Harry would flop down on his sled. And soon after that, Dawna would finish her snowshoe run, make the snowman smile, and tag Charles. He checked his pocket again for the carrot, then scanned the crowd, wondering if Judge Thayer would make it in time to see the race. He spotted Mom, who was holding Cocoa’s leash. Dad stood next to her, carrying the Bean piggyback. There was Lizzie with her friend Maria, with Buddy sitting between them. But where was Judge Thayer?
Wait — who was that, picking his way carefully along one of the paths? A tall, thin man with a limp, leaning on a ski pole. A tiny woman walked beside him. The judge and his wife had arrived.

It seemed to take forever for the race to start. Charles thought he would jump out of his skin waiting to hear Dee say “go.” He bent down to tighten his ski boot laces, then stood up again, wobbling a bit on his skis. Would he be able to ski fast enough? Would he crash in front of everyone? Time seemed to slow down as Charles waited. But once the race began, it all went by in a blur. Charles saw Harry fly down the hill on his sled and wrap the scarf around the snowman’s neck. He watched Dawna charge around the track on her snowshoes and add the pebbles to the snowman’s face. Then she ran up to him and he felt her tap his arm, the signal that it was his turn. At that moment, his
worries fell away and his body took over as he let his skis glide fast, faster, faster over the snow, carrying him straight down to the snowman. He came to a stop just at the right spot, plunged his hand into his pocket to pull out the carrot, and stuck it into the middle of the snowman’s face.

“Yay!” he yelled, throwing his arms into the air. He had no idea if his team had won — that didn’t even matter. All that mattered was that they had finished, and that he had not embarrassed his team or himself by falling flat on his face.

“Whoo-hoo! Charles!” He saw his family running toward him, all wearing their antlers. Lizzie could barely hold Cocoa back as she lunged forward, wearing her huge doggy grin.

 

Oh, boy, oh, boy! Now
I
get to run!

 

“Yes!” shouted Harry, as he and Dawna ran over to join Charles. “Great job, man!” He smacked
Charles a big high five as Dawna knelt to throw her arms around Cocoa.

In a happy daze, Charles glanced around at the crowd and saw Judge Thayer looking straight back at him. Well, not at him, exactly. The judge stared at Dawna and Cocoa, who were now wrestling happily on the snow. Charles had never seen someone look so happy and so sad at the same time.

Charles nudged Dawna and pointed to the judge and Charlotte, who were now working their way toward them. Dawna nodded and tightened her hold on Cocoa. “I know you’ll be excited to see them,” she told the dog. “But you can’t jump up, okay?” Cocoa wagged her tail.

She wagged even harder when she spotted her owners.

“Good girl,” said Judge Thayer, leaning on his crutch and reaching out one long, thin hand to pet Cocoa’s head. He smiled at Charles. “She looks
terrific. I can tell your family’s been taking good care of her.” Cocoa gazed up at the judge lovingly as he stroked her ears.

“She’s a great dog,” Charles said.

“You’re absolutely right about that,” said the judge. “But —”

Just then, Dee’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “It’s time to light the bonfire and announce the winners of our relay race. Please, everyone, join us for hot cocoa and singing.”

The Bean jumped up and down, his antlers bobbing. “Time to sing! Time to sing! Come on!” He grabbed Charles’s hand and started to drag him away. Charles looked back helplessly at the judge, who was leaning over again to pet Cocoa.

 

Later, Charles stood near the hot, crackling bonfire listening to the Bean’s class sing, a hot mug of cocoa cupped in his hands. Mom came over
and put her hands on his shoulders. “Congratulations,” she whispered into his ear. “I heard Dee announce that Rudolph’s Revenge won the race.”

Charles beamed up at her.

“I’ve invited everyone back to our house for Chinese food,” she told him. “Harry and Dee, Dawna, Judge Thayer and his wife. I’m going to stop by and pick up the food. Dad will bring you home in a little while.”

“Yay!” said Charles. “Can you get me some House Special chow fun?”

 

At home, Charles took Cocoa and Buddy out into the backyard for a good run before they all sat down to eat. Would this be one of the last times he got to throw the ball for Cocoa? As he watched Cocoa run and chase, he knew in his heart that this pup needed an owner who could keep up with
her. The only problem was how to convince Judge and Charlotte Thayer of that.

Charles threw the ball five more times, and Cocoa fetched it five times, racing ahead of Buddy. Then he headed back inside with both dogs. “Wait!” he said, as he opened the back door. Buddy waited. Cocoa did not. She charged into the house, straight for a group of people standing in the kitchen: Dawna and Harry, talking to the judge, who balanced on his crutches as he drank from a mug.

“Oh, no!” Charles watched in horror as Cocoa barreled toward them. But the puppy did not run to Judge Thayer. She headed straight for Dawna and skidded to a stop as Dawna bent down to meet her.

“Okay, there, girl,” Dawna murmured to the big pup as she stroked her. “Easy, now. Let’s calm down and take it easy.”

Charles looked at the judge. The tall man wore that same happy-sad expression Charles had seen at WinterFest.

It was time to clear the air. “Judge Thayer,” Charles asked, “are you going to take Cocoa home soon?”

“Charlotte and I have been talking about that,” said the judge slowly. “We love Cocoa very much, but we know she is really too much dog for us to handle. We think Cocoa deserves a home with someone who can keep up with her.” The judge looked straight at Dawna. “Someone like Dawna. When we saw her run into your arms after your relay race, we just knew. Our beloved Cocoa belongs with you.”

“Really?” asked Dawna, straightening up. She smiled. “I would love to give Cocoa a home. But only if you promise that I can bring her to visit you when I come to your home to help you finish up your physical therapy. And when you’re all
healed, we’d still want to visit as often as you’d like. What do you say?”

Judge Thayer and Charlotte looked at each other, nodded, and smiled. “I’d say that sounds perfect,” said Judge Thayer.

Charles noticed that the judge looked more happy and less sad as they all watched Dawna hug Cocoa. He knew it could not be easy for the judge and Charlotte to give up their beautiful dog — but he also knew that it was the right decision.

“Wonderful,” said Mom, setting the last of the platters of food on the table. “Now that we’ve got that settled, why don’t we eat?”

Harry sat next to Charles at the table. “A pretty good day all around, wouldn’t you say?” Harry asked. “And now I get to sit with one of my favorite people and eat my favorite dish from China Star.” He reached for the platter of House
Special chow fun. “You know,” he said, “I never really had a favorite there and I always wanted one. Then I overheard you ordering this, so I tried it. It’s great! Mind if we have the same favorite?”

“Not at all,” said Charles, grinning as Harry passed him the platter. “Not at all.”

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