“Well, Frances, how did your day go?” Mom asked as I came into the kitchen. She’d baked chocolate chip cookies, and the two biggest ones were still warm, perfect with cold milk.
I shrugged. “Nothing much to tell.”
“Nothing, Frances? Are you sure?” She had that look that told me she knew something, but I couldn’t figure out what.
“Huh?” I looked real hard at her, hoping to find a clue in her face.
“Mrs. Hammershaw called me today. About that incident on the playground.”
“Oh, that. There’s nothing really to tell, Mom. Annie, Marcy, Sue, Ursala, and I were talking, and really, that’s between us, anyway.”
“That’s what I figured. I told Mrs. Hammershaw I thought the best thing to do was let you girls work it out.”
Good, I thought, we wouldn’t have to go into it anymore.
“But,” she added with a dramatic pause, “you might give some thought to how much alike you and Marcy are.”
I choked, not having expected anything like that from her. “No, way!” I sputtered.
She stood with her hands on her hips, her eyes piercing into my head to see how my brain worked. I tried not to move a muscle, just watching her as she continued.
“It takes two for a conflict. Without you, Marcy will find someone else to put down so she looks good. You’re convenient because you’re a volunteer.”
She paused, I assumed, to let that sink into the many holes she’d just bored into my head. In a softer voice she added, “You’ll have to face her, or someone like her, the rest of your life. You can’t just wish your problems away, dear, because they come back at you like rabid dogs.”
“Bully dogs,” I groaned, feeling that Marcy and the bully dogs were a huge lump of concrete I had to carry in my backpack everyday.
“What bully dogs?” my mom asked, leaning across the counter on her elbows.
It had just slipped out, and I couldn’t figure anyway to take it back. “Old Man…um…I mean, Mr. Wessenfeld’s dogs. Sometimes they chase me on the way to school.”
“And what do you do?” Leave it to my mom to ask the obvious.
“I run from them.” I wished I could have just nipped another cookie from the plate without her seeing me.
Then she pointed to the plate. “Have one more and tell me how long has this been going on.” She pushed those wonderful, chocolaty cookies toward me.
“They’re usually out at seven-thirty. Most times they chase me to the school yard.”
“Do they go after anyone else?” My mom looked at me, and suddenly those cookies lost their taste.
“No—um—I don’t know! Sometimes they go after a cat or squirrel, or Mr. Wessenfeld calls them back.”
“Frances,” I could see that my mom was thinking, and that always spelled trouble for me, “I want you to go talk with Mr. Wessenfeld. Tell him you’re having a problem with his dogs.”
“Mom! I can’t do that! No way am I going near those bloodthirsty dogs!!!!” I realized I had just shouted at my mom, and she was not looking real happy. “Mom,” I begged. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “Can’t you understand I can’t go there? What am I supposed to do, walk through the yard right up to the front door? Those dogs wouldn’t let me past the gate.” My mom wasn’t softening up one bit. “I don’t know what to say to Mr. Wessenfeld. Can’t you call him and explain things, please? You’re an adult. You know, do it adult-to-adult.”
She shook her ugly head no, and I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach. “I’m not going to do it.” The tears came, but I didn’t care. I imagined only too well what those bully dogs would do to me. “I’m too young to die like that.”
She brushed the tears from my cheeks. “You’re too young to let fear dominate you, Fran. Knowing how to be brave isn’t reciting a spell or saying the right words like in the fairy tales; and you’ll never find a book that gives you a simple, magic formula. The magic is inside yourself, here,” she said, patting the place where my heart was about to go into cardiac arrest, “and here,” as she touched my forehead. “You have to think yourself brave and then make yourself act bravely. Even though you’re scared, you do what has to be done. Then, each time you tackle something you fear and overcome it, you’ve won a major battle for yourself. But you have to make up your mind to do it.”
Sounded to me like I was off the hook. I dried my tears and nibbled on the rest of my cookie. “I’ll go see Mr. Wessenfeld tomorrow.”
My mom handed me a tissue. “No, you’ll go see him today.”
I didn’t argue with her, not when she was standing in front of me looking like General Patton ordering his troops into battle. Only I wasn’t sure if I could make myself go, that’s how frightened I was.
“Then I might as well go right now.” I don’t know why I said that, maybe because I felt doomed anyway. “I’ll change my clothes before I go.”
“Oh, don’t bother, honey. You can do that when you come home.” My mom walked me down the hall, giving me a hug as she pushed me out the door.
I couldn’t make myself move off the porch. In my head, I saw the bully dogs tearing into me as I walked into their yard. Well, at least my mom wouldn’t get any money back at the school clothing exchange if she’d try to turn in my uniform all torn and bloodied.
I wondered if Carol and Pattie would come see me in the hospital. Maybe they’d bring me some games, like Hangman and Connect-Four. And books. I could read a lot if I were lying in bed all day waiting for my thousands of wounds to heal.
I couldn’t stand there all day on the porch. The Wessenfeld’s house seemed a lot closer than it usually did when I’d leave for school. By the time I got as far as the Patterson’s house next door to the Wessenfeld’s, the dogs were barking and jumping at the gate. I stayed right where I was on the sidewalk, like I was frozen or something. Sweat trickled down my sides. I’ve heard dogs smell fear, and I’m sure I reeked enough that a dog clear over on the other side of town knew how scared I was. That probably made those bozos feel like the Super Dogs.
I couldn’t believe my feet were moving! But I began inching along until I stepped onto the driveway and then stopped. I couldn’t go on, and I couldn’t go home. I stared at the dogs, and that made them crazier. I took little steps closer, and the black Lab charged the gate, making the posts creak. I stopped dead still. The dogs and I locked eyes, only they continued to bark, and I no longer had a voice to call for help or anything.
“Whaddya want?” Mr. Wessenfeld materialized out of nowhere, looming over the gate, waving a book at me. “If you’re selling cookies, I don’t want any. Go ‘way.”
I’m sure no one would want to sell him any cookies. Besides, it was almost May; the Girl Scout Cookie Drive was in February. And he couldn’t make me disappear with a wave and command, not when I’d gotten this close. “No!” popped out of my mouth, and real loud, too!
Mr. Wessenfeld looked at me as if I had three heads and green hair. “Whaddya mean, ‘no’?”
I shook my head, more to loosen my thoughts than anything else. “I’m not selling cookies. I came
over to talk to you.” I pointed. “About them. They chase me every morning when you let them out.”
“Aw, they won’t hurt you. Stop running from them.” He started to turn and go back inside his house.
“No, Mr. Wessenfeld!” I had to make him understand that it hadn’t been that easy for me with his dogs. The dogs whined, and the Lab eyed me, probably sizing me up for his dinner. “I don’t like them chasing me all the way to school. You’ve got to make them stop it!”
“I do, do I? And just what makes you think that?” He folded his arms across his chest as he leaned against the gate post, staring me down. I wished I had the power to turn him into a rock.
We stared at each other for a long time, and my head began to pound, and I squinted at him even harder. He had dared me to answer him, and I was going to. Only right then, I forgot what I was going to say.