By Louella M. Nelson
“Daddy drowned them,” Dee Dee pronounced solemnly, plucking one of Mrs. Tal-bo’s gigantic silk undies from the whicker clothes basket on the grass and reaching to pin them to the clothesline. The humid breeze was making Dee grimace to hold the panties still. “Daddy put them in a gunny sack. With heavy stones.”
“Did not,” said Della. Dee had an uncanny knack for the truth, but she was outright lying this time. “You’re being overly dramatic, like Mama always says.”
“Dreamer,” Dee challenged. “You live in a dream world.”
“Do not. I’m just a positive person.”
The Elevens—the family’s pet name for the girls, to reflect their age and their rare status as the third set of twins in the same family—were best friends, as twins often were, Della supposed; but that didn’t mean they matched inside.
Daddy and the boys had scattered to the winds right after breakfast. Right now, Mama was listening to Patti Page on the radio while she changed the beds—“Mockin’ Bird Hill” floated out a downstairs window—and Della and Dee Dee worked behind the lodge where the white paint peeled and some of the siding warped, doing laundry. The Thirteens—Jimmy and Jay Jay—were picking up golf balls on the fairways across the highway.
Mama said Jay Jay had hidden depths; that was why Della loved him and wanted him with her now, to find the puppies. His face, made up of quadrangles of bone, sometimes gave people the heebie-jeebies, but he couldn’t help it. God gave it to him.
Thinking of God made her ache for mamma dog Gypsy and for the missing puppies.
She’d have to go by herself to look for them.
She took another wooden clothespin from the canvas bag hanging on the clothesline and pinned up Mrs. Tal-bo’s slip, big enough to hike over the broad hips of Rudy, the worker who fixed door hinges and steamed off the wallpaper in the empty upstairs rooms of the lodge. He was off today. She wondered if Rudy had gotten one of the puppies; he giggled like a girl when he held them.
“Daddy gave the puppies away,” she told Dee Dee.
“He implied he gave them away.”
“Well, he did.”
“No, Della, he killed those sweet puppies. Down by Carson’s Bridge, where it’s deep.”
Della’s fingers went cold. “How do you know, Dee? He wouldn’t—he—.”
“Be realistic. Did you hear the Chrysler when he came in just in time for breakfast? No. And his face was red.”
“That was the wind.”
“No, it was guilt and fast walking. From the bridge to the lodge. He said to us, ‘The puppies are in new homes and that’s that. I won’t have talk about it.’ ‘New homes’ was a euphemism.” It just wasn’t possible Gypsy’s roly-poly bundles of soft red fur were dead. And yet, Della remembered the strange feeling she’d had when Daddy sat down at the oak table and said I won’t have talk about it. She had glanced at Jimmy and he at her, their faces gone white. Jay Jay’s face had closed up like a Venus fly trap, Mama’s mouth was open in dismay, and Dee Dee’s face was full of suspicion and anger. The Eighteens weren’t here to weigh in on the whereabouts of the puppies or stand up to Daddy; they were working at Wright’s Farm just outside of Bethlehem, home on the weekends, just for the summer. Not that anybody would stand up to Daddy.
Missing the puppies, aching for Gypsy’s loss, Della had trembled inside and said, “Can we visit them, Daddy?”
“Whoosht,” he’d said, as if air forced out of a bottle had suddenly been corked up.
Rashly she’d opened her mouth again: “Gypsy won’t eat. Can she see her babies one last time?”
“Whoosht—” He’d raised his hand. “Stop it, now.” Face stern, he’d scooped scrambled eggs onto one of Mama’s biscuits and taken a huge bite.
The meal went on in misery and silence.
An hour later, standing beside Dee Dee, she hung a filmy red nighty. It said 16 on the size-tag. If only her heart was as big as the rest of her, Madame Tal-bo might influence Daddy to tell where he’d put the puppies. Were they alright? Della thought of Black Beauty, whipped in his traces. Buck, beaten for refusing to lead the sled team across weak ice.
“I hate Daddy,” she said.
“You better watch out.”
“I don’t care.”
Della felt a light touch on her shoulder. “C’mon,” said Dee Dee, hooking the empty basket under an arm. “Let’s ask Mama if we can make iced tea.”
“I’m going to the creek.”
Dee Dee’s eyes widened to agate shooters. “You’re not!”
“Here comes Gypsy.” Della watched the red setter zig-zag across the clearing on the south side of the lodge, near the trees. Mama dog had been searching since breakfast or before. It hurt to think of.
“They‘re dead, Della. You can’t help them now.”
“You don’t know anything, Dee Dee Walker.”
Della took off across the clearing, swerving until she caught Gypsy. She fell to her knees and grasped the slender neck, heard the whine, the panting, and buried her face in the silky russet fur. “Let’s go, Gypsy. Let’s go.”
She ran toward the woods, the dog trotting beside her as if sensing she finally had help with her hopeless mission.
“Della!” Dee Dee called.
She ignored the call, spoke to the dog. “Maybe Rudy has one. Maybe Daddy brought them all to Wright’s Farm. The Eighteens are probably playing with ‘em right this minute, Gypsy.” The dog glanced at her and whined.
Sunlight slanted in rays against stands of white birch, oak, and hickory. Near the creek where the soil was dark and loamy grew her favorite black walnut tree, a grandfather of a tree that dropped sticky nut casings on the gravel road and the bridge.
Keeping her mind occupied so she wouldn’t think of the horror of drowned puppies, she hurried to a path that wound down to the water. In the cool shadows, she stepped onto a large flat boulder where she’d read The Hidden Staircase last summer.
She bit her lip. Would she be able to solve the mystery of the lost puppies? If she saw them, floating dead on the water, would she be able to go to them, gather them, bury them? Or would her stomach turn and she run screaming from the spot that was the best in all the world for a girl who liked to read and day-dream?
Gypsy darted ahead, angling down among the willows, her puppy-milk bags wagging.
“What do you smell?” called Della, following. “Wait.”
Near the rushing water, the air smelled of moss and stones; it only smelled this way in summer, and she drew it into her lungs—
And there. There was the burlap sack.
Her heart stopped. Her breath held. “No,” she murmured. “No, no, no.
Lifting her nose to sniff, Gypsy ran this way and that along the bank, whining, barking. Then she plunged into the icy water and began dog-paddling across the pool toward the gray rocks near the middle. Something was…moving over there.
Was it possible? Did her imagination, which Mama always said ran away with her, make it up?
Della leapt into the water, sinking, touching bottom, surging up to gasp and sputter. “I—I’m coming,” she said to Gypsy. “Wait.”
The dog reached the rocks before she did, barking, shrill cries of distress, and pawing at the gunnysack. Circling, pawing, splashing…drawing the bag further into the water.
“No,” screeched Della. “No, Gypsy. Get away!”
She plunged out of the water and yanked the dog off. Gypsy barked and came back, grabbing the rough cloth with her teeth, dragging, yanking.
Della grabbed the sack and tried to tug it from the dog’s mouth.
Suddenly someone grabbed Della around the waist. “Stop it! Don’t look!”
Della was so shocked she paused, turned. “Dee Dee!”
“Come away, Della.” Tears formed and burst down her sister’s cheeks. “They’re dead. It’ll be awful.”
Della tore out of Dee Dee’s grip and grasped the soggy material. “I…saw….”
She hauled the bundle up onto the rocks and knew, suddenly, this would change her. Would the real thing be worse than the books she read? Would what she found darken her heart forever and make her go around like Mrs. Tal-bo, controlling and demanding? Or like her father, with his meanness and his lost happiness?
Still, a sliver of hope kept her feverishly pulling at the rawhide that bound the bag closed. The leather was slick and swollen. Gypsy pawed and whined and whirled in anxious circles. The brook rushed and burbled. Della picked and pulled at the strings.
“Della, please,” begged Dee Dee, pulling against Della’s shoulder.
Della began to whimper in desperation. One must be alive, she told herself. One. Just one.
Finally, the knot eased. The bag fell open.
She gasped and the moment froze. Five little darlings lay in their nest of fabric and rocks, fur darkened to maroon, one with a tiny pink tongue lolling, another, the female, tucked into a litter mate’s tummy. All drowned.
The sorrow burst from Della and she cried out, bent over, wanting to take them up but afraid. Afraid to touch death.
How could she have been so wrong about Daddy?
She heard Dee Dee moan behind her. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Della.”
Della reached up a hand and Dee Dee clasped it. She came down to Della and they held on, crying.
“I thought,” said Della.
“I know. You believed–”
“How could he?”
“I don’t know.”
“I hate him.”
They snuggled closer, gazing down at the still forms, grieving together.
Gypsy was whining and pawing. She sniffed her puppies, nudged each one, over and over. Again she put her paw on one.
Della, Dee Dee, and Gypsy jumped back.
“It’s alive!” cried Della.
Gypsy’s tail wagged so hard she could barely keep her nose on the puppy. It was the big male, darker, almost brown, with shoulders like a boxer’s. Wiggling now and mewing and shivering. The fellow had been more aggressive about feeding than his brothers and sister, she remembered. His survival instinct was strong.
“His name is Buck,” Della said. “His name is Buck and Daddy’s not going to kill him.” “How will we protect him?”
The plan jumped fully formed into her mind: sandwiches, Gypsy’s dog food and leash, the down jacket that was too small for Della but perfect to keep the puppy warm. The rusty red Radio Flyer wagon would carry their things and the puppy all the way to Wright’s Farm. New Hampshire had dozens of roads, but they would find the Eighteens.
She took shivering Buck against her neck, beneath her hair where it was warm. He croaked and snuggled. Della’s face warmed and she took the part of her cotton shirt that was still dry and scrubbed the wet fur.
Gypsy licked him and wagged her tail. She was almost her old self.
Della met Dee Dee’s worried gaze. “We’ll run away. The Eighteens will help us. We’ll tell them what happened to Buck. Appeal to their big-brother protective instincts.”
Dee Dee’s eyes widened slightly. She nodded. “What about…?” She glanced down.
Steeling her feelings—it was easier because Buck was alive and snuggling against her skin—she gazed down at the four dead puppies. “We’ll bury them. Hide Buck and Gypsy so she can take care of him. Get our stuff. Leave right after lunch.”
“I’ll never doubt you again, Dellie.”
Della nodded. “Okay. And I’ll always know you’re telling the truth, even if it’s bad news.”
They gripped hands, smiled, pulled each other up. “Elevens,” they said like a toast.
Louella Nelson is an award-winning University of California writing instructor, best-selling author for Harlequin, and also published by Amazon and Montana Sky Publishing. She is also a developmental editor for Amazon and numerous best-selling and aspiring authors. She writes novels with vivid settings and strong internal conflict, such as Rye’s Reprieve and Rebel Love Song in her new Harper Ranch series. Her historicals and literary short fiction are considered “sweet” but psychologically intense. Her books and short stories can be found on Amazon.
She received her M.A. in English with departmental honors from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.A. with honors from Chapman University in English, with an emphasis in creative writing.