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CHAPTER ONE

“B 9.” The caller’s voice rang out loud and clear through the microphone.”

“Bingo!” shouted Peanut-man, raising his front, right paw high into the air.

“That’s not Bingo, Mr. P.  Put your paw down,” whispered Murphy.  “You need five numbers.  I thought you understood that.”

“I 22,” the caller called out.”

“Bingo!”  Again Peanut-man shouted, waving his front paw. “This is so exciting.”

“Stop it Peanut.  Murphy already told you, you need five numbers,” corrected Val, staring at him. “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”

The next number called was N 35.  When Peanut-man raised his paw once more and shouted “Bingo,” a school monitor escorted him out the back door. “Sorry man. You’re disturbing everyone,” he said, holding the door open for Peanut-man to leave. Then he let the heavy door slam in Peanut’s face, leaving him out in the cool night air in the schoolyard—where he started to shriek, “Ow-w-w-w-w-w.”  The Murphdogs scampered out after him, tempers flaring.  “Thanks. You really know how to show your friends a good time, don’t you?” asked Mikey. The Murphdogs placed their front paws up against the school window, peering into the classroom where the Bingo game was still going on.

From the inside, a voice cut through the night and demanded, “What’s eight plus eight?”  Four pairs of large eyes slid from side to side, while eight paws began to quiver.

“Sixteen.  Easy-peasy.”  Murphy answered, then asked, “Why?”

“Because,” the voice from inside the classroom continued, we’ve got four sets of paws up on a window ledge, with eight eyes staring at everyone inside the classroom, giving us, a combination of sixteen paws and eyes once again disturbing our Bingo game, and that’s after your buddy here was “escorted,” or should I say thrown out.  Now, please get lost and take that friend of yours with you.”  The woman said, in a voice even more stern than the scowl on her face, referring to Mr. P.  That was before she slammed the window down, just about missing Mikey’s left paw.

From inside the after-hour schoolroom, the Murphdogs’ heard the caller’s voice carry on with a call of, “B 8.”

Mr. P. couldn’t resist.  He wound himself up with a resounding “Bingo,” upsetting most the folks inside the school for the last time—though some giggles filtered through as well.

“Very clever,” Val sang out, shuttering off the chill of the evening air.  ‘Now, they’ll be on the lookout for us and never let us on school property again.  I’m so embarrassed, it’s mortifying. How is acting out going to help us?”

Mikey fumed under his breath about how dramatic Val was.

“Well,” he groaned, “mortified might not be the word I’d use, how about boiling mad?  We are the Murphdogs after all and you Peanut-man, single-pawed risking our good name and good reputation.”  Then he stalked off grumbling to himself.

“Who cares? Who cares about any of you?”  Mr. P. said, turning to leave. “I have better things to do with better folks to do it with,” he continued, “You know what Mikey?  I quit.  I’m not a Murphdog any longer.  You can keep your precious Murphdogs and keep your nasty remarks and orders as well. I’m outa here.”

“Go on then,” Mikey yelled back.  “Off with you—with your zany take of things.  You know what you’re really good at?  Getting us all into trouble, so go.”

Murphy reached over to calm Mikey down, but he pushed her away.

Val whispered, “This time they both went too far I’m afraid.”

The school principal had been nice enough to allow some of the parents to use the school classrooms to raise money for new organizations and worthy causes, by playing Bingo.   Lexi, one of the Murphdogs’ humans, had asked the principal to allow them to raise money for the care of dogs that were lost or abandoned.

“The nerve of that P., disrupting the game like that,” said Mikey, “Especially when the principal was watching all of us; circling ‘round us like a hawk.’”

“How will we ever get back in the principal’s good graces to be invited back again?” Murphy wondered out loud.

“He only did it for attention,” said Valentine.

“Why does he need special attention right now?”  Lexi wanted to know, coming out from the Bingo game.  “You guys figure it out.  It’s Murphdog business and I have to get home for homework.”

Peanut-man moved further away from the building past the schoolyard, away from the others, feeling very sorry for himself. They don’t know the first thing about it, he thought.  He tried a distraction tactic by looking up at the stars that peaked out from behind quick moving, gloomy clouds that washed the over the steel-gray night sky. Tried as he might, he couldn’t identify any constellations. “Witches’ night,” he mumbled, making lazy circles around the school’s track, trying to ease his displeasure about everyone and everything before stopping to rest on a nearby bench.

That’s when he noticed a cat with blackened, matted fur and one eye, standing under a streetlight off in the distance.  The cat had noticed him as well and started walking toward him. He had what was called a jaunty walk, kind of lazy, but sure of himself all at the same time; yet with a better-than-others’ attitude attached.  As he got closer, Peanut-man noticed that the cat was also wearing a tilted, felt, striped hat covering only one of his ears.

“You havin’ a bad night there, friend?” purred the cat, blinking his one eye open and closed, like a green flashlight. 

“My friends don’t even care that I feel terrible and I just got all of us thrown out of the school.  Otherwise everything is great, just purrfect,” said Peanut-man, the last word made to sound the way the cat would say it. He swiped his nose to stifle a sniffle. He thought about sharing the fact that he didn’t like the dark too much either, but unsure about how that would sound, so he said instead, “I’m kind of an indoor kind of guy—not much for these great outdoors, if you catch my drift,” he confided, in a whisper.

The cat made an exaggerated bow and said, “We need to be introduced properly.  I’m Senor Rosales, Morales, Gonzalez, Sun, Goldstein, Gillespie.  My friends call me Senor Columbia.  And you would be?” 

Peanut-man didn’t know whether to be impressed or confused, so he just went with, “Peanut-man, better known as Mr. P., or just plain P., by my friends, that is, and a used to be P. Doggie Murph, the Barking Blur.  But, since I don’t have any friends anymore, just call me whatever you like,” Peanut-man answered, or “better yet, don’t call me at all.”

“Not very sportin’ of you, but I, most fortunately, have a thick skin and nine lives and I’ll give you another try.”  Then the cat staggered off, leaving Peanut-man curious.  “Hey there Pal,” Senor Columbia called out over his shoulder, as he continued walking away from the school, “I thought I recognized you.  What are you famous or something?”

“Yeah,” P. said.  “Or something,” he said, his head bowed in defeat, blocking out looming shadows that gathered around him.

“Why don’t you come on home with me?  It ain’t too fancy—not for the likes of you; but it’s just home.  Maybe you can show me your act.  What d’ya think?” he asked, not expecting an answer.  “Come on.  Don’t look like you’ve got too much else goin’ on for ya.”

For a few seconds Peanut-man remembered and then ignored the fact that he wasn’t supposed to take up with strangers.  He puffed himself up, shook himself off and tried to imitate the cat’s “who cares?” attitude.  He stretched a long, lazy stretch, yawned out a loud, exaggerated yawn and tried to shake free the dreadful feeling bubbling up from deep inside him, like a worm crawling round and round deep, warning him to stay back.  What good is doing the right thing all the time? Why listen to warnings about right and wrong? Who cares anyway?  Why should I worry about those guys?  My friends?  They couldn’t care less about me. Just leave me alone, he warned the worm-like warning—cut me loose.  

He ran behind the cat, ignoring the warning and scrambling as fast as he could to keep up without losing sight of Senor Columbia; surprised to discover that keeping up with him was something that appeared to be very difficult. But to his surprise, he could do it— and better than expected.

At first The Senor zoomed down streets at top speed, leaving Peanut-man to figure out which corner he turned.  Next, he’d leap up high and creep along the top of the narrow railing of a fence, jumping up and over some of the broken spikey parts.  Peanut felt compelled to do the same.  Why doesn’t this feel foreign to me?  He wondered.  Instead, he was excited by the need to continue onward. Then the cat slunk down low and crawled through the underside of boarded-up buildings.   

At last after what seemed forever, Peanut-man caught sight of The Senor again, as he allowed the bones in his body to relax and go soft, squirming his way under the X’s of the crisscross wood on the bottom side of an old house. Wow, he thought. Who knew this could be the best thing I ever tried?

“Like the trip, Pally?” asked The Senor, as soon as Peanut-man squeezed himself under the boards of the house; ripping out some hair and scraping his skin raw.  But, before Peanut-man could lick his wounds, the cat asked him, “Been meaning to ask you. How often you bath, Pal? You smell funny, like, like, hey don’t help me out here, I know that smell.  I got it; soap, or maybe shampoo, right?”  he asked, stroking his whiskers with his front paw.       

“Once a day,” answered Peanut-man in as soft a voice as possible.

“Not much of a water man myself,” said The Senor. 

Why do I feel the same way?  P. wondered, though he said nothing, having already admitted to his usual routine of bathing often—way too often, he thought.

“Well this is it,” said Senor Columbia, waving his front paw around showing off the area beneath the empty old house where he kept a torn blanket, a basket of string, some colorful, pilled, worn yarn, a rusted, chipped skateboard and some dishes with left over fish from yesterday’s dinner. 

“How d’ya like it? Make yourself at home.”

Peanut-man had never before been to that part of town.  He craned his neck and threw his head back to get a look at the underside of the house where water seeped in before dripping down; accounting for why everything felt damp, wet and chilled. Trash was thrown everywhere except in the trash cans that clanged against one another, broken and discarded.  The Senor’s house smelled like dirty socks and looked like a storm had blown through it. Maybe I don’t belong here, he thought.  This is positively putrid, Peanut-man told himself, holding back a gag.  Mustering up as much control as possible, he swallowed down an, I need to vomit, P. thought,keeping his thoughts to himself and said instead, “You have a very long name.”

“And one I’m very proud of,” answered The Senor.  “I come from a long military family.  My great, great, great, great, great, well you get the picture, grandpapa, goes way back to World War II.  We’re great warriors.  That’s how I lost one eye,” he said, holding his paw over the place where his eye used to be, “fighting in a war,” he boasted; his chest raised high.

Then he dragged an old military jacket out of what had to be a garbage bin.  There were a few torn, dirty medals attached to the front of the jacket with rusted pins and most of the buttons had been torn off.  The Senor attempted to straighten out the jacket and held it up in front of him with pride.  “See this? You don’t get medals like this for being a coward.”

“Wow” answered Peanut-man, not knowing what else to say or whether being a warrior was a good thing or not.  Besides that, he didn’t believe one word of that nutty story.  The jacket looked like a costume some kid had thrown away years ago. Kinder to let him believe he’s impressing me.  P. told himself.

“Now you tell me something,” said The Senor, moving around his home, picking up things and placing them in other spots, though it didn’t seem to make a difference. “Why are you having such a bad time tonight?  What’s going on with you?”

            P. wondered what the cat was on to, yet knew that he so much wanted to come clean with someone, even this stranger.  Thoughts rushed at one another inside his head, fighting to rise up to the surface, before being released:  the story about how he got thrown out of the Bingo game, how upset he was that his friends were in trouble with the school principal, how the Murphdogs had become annoyed with him, the argument with Mikey and just how bad he was feeling from a toothache and worst of all, how he hadn’t told anyone about it because he was afraid they’d force him to go to the dentist. Then there was the main thing, the secret thing that he carried around with him like a tin can tied behind a car.  The very thing he went to sleep with at night and woke up to each morning.  The thing he needed to tell and yet had no idea if he could.  He stopped himself when his inner warning bell rang off–warning him about what he should say and not say.  After all that wrestling inside his own head, he just said, “Nothing, man. Can’t a guy take off for a while?  Why do I always have to do everything my friends and family want me to?”  Then, he said in a softer, more relaxed voice, trying hard to convince the cat that he was telling the truth, “Really Dude, nothing’s going on, just needed a break from the group.  That’s the whole of it.” But the most telling thing he said was, “Hey, it’s not easy being me.”

            “That’s what I see in you, Son. You’re troubled; picked up on it from the get-go.  Maybe you’d like to talk about it, huh?”

Peanut-man had the urge to ask The Senor if he was a cat or a psychiatrist, but thought better about it and didn’t want to risk getting thrown out of yet another place that same night.

“I’ll give you this much,” said P. “Can’t say that you’re right, but can’t say that you’re wrong either.”

            The Senor just looked at P. as though he needed time to process P.’s answer.  He screwed his mouth over to the side and looked as though there was a giant question mark drawn across his face.  Instead, he shrugged, let out a sigh and said, “If you say so, though you’re not saying very much at all. But it’ll have to be good enough for me, for now, that is,” then continued. “There’s enough fish left over from dinner for a snack and we should get some sleep.  Tomorrow, I’ll show you around.  I think this might just work out.” Then The Senor rummaged through a pile of stained, tattered sheets and pillows, before throwing some over toward P.

P. was pleased that The Senor accepted what he had told him, though he doubted that he believed him.  Guess that makes us even, he thought, we don’t trust each other.

He curled up on the side of the wall and settled down on one of the soft, but dirty and torn blankets and prayed for sleep; hoping that the pain that had started in his tooth that morning and had now gone down into his jaw, would stop long enough to give him some needed relief.

The old house creaked, unsettling P. who couldn’t find a comfortable position.  His right side was stiff and cold, and the left side of his face felt like it had been pounded by a hammer.  He felt around his face with his paw and knew without looking at a mirror that it was twice its normal size.

He thought he heard scampering up above and squinted through some cracks in the broken floor boards —maybe mice, he thought.  He tried to catch sight at what The Senor was up to.  A beam of light from the street streamed through, but P. only needed to hear, rather than see, to know that The Senor was enjoying yet another late-night snack—this time, it was the mice and not the fish on the menu.

            P. managed to doze off again only to dream some fitful dreams.  At first the dream was pleasant enough—scenes of his home, his family and his friends. They weren’t such bad guys after all, he thought, as he dreamed on.  But then, the dream turned ugly. 

            He saw a scene in his mind that had him back at the schoolyard and all his Murphdog friends were gathered together across the yard pointing and laughing at him, as though they all knew a terrible secret about him that they were not about to share.  “He deserves what he gets,” the dream Mikey said, pointing a paw in P.’s direction.

            “Hey guys,” his dream voice called out.  “What’d I do?  Why’r you so angry?”

            The dream Valentine answered, “That’s for us to know and you to find out.”

            Murphy, the leader of the Murphdogs was there as well.  “You should have told us.  We had no idea,” she said, turning away from him.

            He felt cold, rejected, sad and empty.