With his long, wet tongue, Oliver licked and licked Bertie’s cheek. “Wake up,” his tongue said. “It’s time to get up!”
But Bertie would not wake up. Her eyelids did not flutter. She did not groan and swat her hand at him. She did not say, “Oh, Oliver, you pesky dog.” She lay still beneath her quilt of many colors, and Oliver waited.
All night long, he had chased things in his dreams. Cats and trolley cars, snowflakes and tin cans. He had snored and snuffled, and his back legs ran and ran. Now he was hungry and wanted his breakfast. He poked his nose into Bertie’s hand and waited, his tail wagging, but she did not move.
He padded out to the kitchen to check his bowl again. It was still empty, licked clean from the night before. It was a very sad, empty bowl.
There was something quite wrong here, but Oliver did not know what it was. The house was quiet, strangely quiet. The squirrels in the attic were not chattering. Even the mice, awake before the sun, were quiet. Did they know something he didn’t?
Only the clock on the mantelpiece wagged its golden tongue, click-click, back and forth, back and forth, as if it knew what was wrong but didn’t much care.
The ice wagon came creaking up the road. Gerd, the iceman, was Oliver’s friend. Gerd would know what to do. Down the steps Oliver ran, two by two by two, and out into the yard. Leaping against the fence, he howled for Gerd.
“Oliver—there, boy! What’s the matter?” Gerd’s brown face crumpled up like a washrag. He took Oliver’s head in both his hands and rubbed him hard, the way Oliver liked to be rubbed. His brown eyes were tender. “What’s all the fuss?” he said.
“Come and see!” Oliver said with his eyes. Some humans could read dog eyes, but Gerd was not one of them.
Gerd went to the back of the ice wagon just as he always did. With his tongs, he pierced a block of ice and hauled it through the gate. He went up the stairs, the ice block dripping. Oliver ran alongside, dodging the drops.
At the door, Gerd called out to Bertie, but she did not answer him. That is when Oliver let out the most awful howl.
“There, boy,” said Gerd. “Calm down, now.”
Gerd went into the kitchen. He opened the icebox and slid the block of ice inside. “Bertie?”
Oliver sprinted across the kitchen. He waited for Gerd at the bedroom door. When Gerd came, Oliver raced to Bertie’s bed and pushed his nose into her cold hand once more. She did not move.
Gerd leaned over Bertie. He laid his hand against her cheek. He shook his head. “Oh, dear,” he said.
* * *
Bertie’s family came. Bertie was old, they said. It was her time to go. “Where?” asked Oliver with his eyes. “Where is Bertie going?”
But Bertie’s family could not read dog eyes either. They ignored the brown dog. They fought over who would get the dining room table. Who would get the dishes and the mantelpiece clock. The clock clicked away as if it didn’t care, but Oliver knew it did.
Oliver was hungry. Very sad and very hungry. He pushed his bowl all over the kitchen with his nose, but no one noticed.
The movers came and took everything away. There went Bertie’s chair, there went her quilt. There went Oliver’s dish! Oliver whined and yipped and ran in circles.
One of the movers patted Oliver’s head. “Hey!” he called. “Who’s taking the dog?”
No one did.
Now the house was empty and the fireplace cold. No rocking chair sat before it, no little black book for Bertie to read, no reading glasses to see the words with, no Bertie.
Oliver lay down where his rug used to be. He put his nose on his paws and tried to think. Without Bertie, who would brush his coat? Who would trim his whiskers? Who would fill his bowl?
Who would love him for being the special dog that he was?
Oliver knew what he must do. He must find Bertie. She would wake up, wherever she was, and look for him. She would swat at him and say, “Oh, Oliver, you pesky dog. Where have you been?”
Why hadn’t he followed the wagon that took her away? By now, the trail would be cold.
Text copyright © 2011 by Valerie Hobbs
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Thermes
Valerie Hobbs is the recipient of the 1999 PEN/Norma Klein Award, a biennial prize that recognizes "an emerging voice of literary merit among American writers of children's fiction." She is the author of young adult and middle-grade novels including Sheep, Defiance, Anything but Ordinary, and The Last Best Days of Summer. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she has taught academic writing. Valerie lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband. Jennifer Thermes lives in an old house with her husband and children, three cats, one Dalmatian dog, and countless mice. She is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design.