Chapter 1: One Dark and Noisy Night
The buzzing was really annoying, and Rachel was getting very angry. Ticked off big-time. Mickey Phelps -- the unfunniest practical joker in the whole sixth grade (and possibly the history of the school) -- had dropped an alarm clock in her backpack, and she couldn't turn it off. It sounded like the hand buzzer he had startled her with the week before. For some dumb reason she was his favorite target and his best friend. Sometimes she wondered about the "best friend" part. Yesterday in the lunchroom he had planted a grossly real-looking fake bug in her Jell-O. It was totally not funny.
Table-turning time had come.
She was just about to slip a gooey slice of pepperoni pizza under him as he was sitting down (childish but well-deserved revenge) when suddenly Mickey Phelps started to bark.
Rachel's eyes snapped open.
The clock on her nightstand said 2:00 A.M., and someone was at the door.
The barking was coming from Wetspot, which was almost as weird as if it had come from Mickey Phelps. The Stelson family dog was the quietest (mostly) golden retriever in the history of golden retrievers. He hardly ever barked, except when Mrs. Carey, their housekeeper, turned on the vacuum cleaner. But he had a kind of dog sense when something wasn't right. And someone at the door pressing on the buzzer in the middle of the night like the building was on fire -- which maybe it was -- definitely wasn't right!
Rachel jumped out of bed. She went to the window, listened, and sniffed the air. No sirens, no smoke -- no fire. She breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. DeFina, her homeroom teacher at The Dahl Riverside School, would have called her quick deduction "specious." He would have called it that for two reasons. One of the two reasons was that Mr. DeFina liked to use words that he believed "enriched" his students' vocabulary, and "specious" -- meaning "apparently right but not necessarily so" -- was an enriching favorite of his. Rachel had won last week's spelling bee and moved into the school's semifinals by getting it right (beating Mickey, who goofed on "quibbling" by using only one "b").
The other reason was that the absence of fire trucks and smoke didn't necessarily mean there couldn't be a fire somewhere in the building, and Rachel knew it. Still, specious or not, she just didn't care to think about it at the moment.
She was too curious about who was at their door.
The buzzer sounded again, followed by another uncharacteristic throaty burst from Wetspot. It was almost as if after five years of occasional "woof-woofs" he had decided that tonight was the night to break his canine vow of silence. But then that would be just like Wetspot.
Wetspot just wasn't like other dogs. He hated rawhide chew bones, and doggie biscuits, too. He sometimes groomed himself like a cat, using his paws to clean his face and licking off anything clinging to his fur or undercarriage. He never drank from the toilet. Ever! And he loved broccoli. Broccoli! (Even Rachel's friend Brianne, who was trying to be a vegetarian, didn't love broccoli.) If his favorite pastimes weren't chasing tennis balls and Frisbees, you'd hardly think he had any dog in him at all.
In fact, Wetspot wasn't even his real name.
His real name, or at least the name he'd had at the animal shelter, was Prince. But when they'd brought him home, he wouldn't even look up when they called, "Prince!" Rachel had tried, "King," but the royal promotion didn't get his attention, either. As it turned out, he picked his own name.
It happened by accident. Well, "accidents." Whenever Rachel's younger brother, Jared, discovered that their new puppy had tinkled on the floor, he would point and announce loudly, "Wet spot!" And sure enough, the pup would come running, tail wagging. After three weeks, the wet spots no longer appeared -- but the name stuck.
The buzzer sounded again, eliciting another series of barks.
"Coming, coming," Rachel's father called.
"Daddy, who's there?" Rachel asked in a loud whisper.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he whispered back as he hurried toward the apartment door, though obviously not fast enough for whoever was on the other side. There was another buzz and louder barking.
Jared came into Rachel's room. "What's going on?" he whispered.
"I don't know," she whispered, though why they were all whispering at this point was almost as much a mystery as who was at the door.
"Now, Wetspot, shhhh," her father said, "that's enough. You'll wake the whole building" -- which seemed at this point to be what Wetspot had in mind.
Jared covered his ears. He had on Darth Vader pajamas, but with his thick, curly hair sticking out in different directions, he looked more like a Wookie than a Jedi warrior. "What's with Wetspot? I've never heard him like that. He sounds like Attila."
Attila was the building superintendent's dog and the most feared animal on the block -- quite possibly on the whole Upper West Side. An enormous rottweiler, he had teeth that looked like a bear trap and a growl that sounded like a trapped bear. When he passed a fire hydrant he didn't lift his leg -- he karate-kicked it. Mr. Aplox kept Attila on a very tight leash on walks and chained him to a post near the storage bays when he was doing work in the basement. He constantly tried to convince people -- and their terrified pets -- that his dog's bark was really much worse than his bite, but no one believed him.
No one, that is, except Wetspot. He and Attila were best friends.
"I think," Rachel said, "that Wetspot has just realized he's a dog. Come on!" As they went into the hall she flattened her younger brother's hair with her palm the way she remembered her mother doing.
"I'm coming, I'm coming." Ben Stelson's voice was remarkably calm considering the repeated buzzes that cut through the quiet apartment like a dentist's drill. Rachel's father was a very patient man. Her aunt Lisa swore that he had "the patience of a saint" whenever she came to stay with Rachel and Jared, and she'd stayed with them a lot in the three years since their mother had died.
Aunt Lisa was Rachel's mother's sister. She looked a little like Rachel's mother -- they had the same cinnamon-colored hair and dimpled smile -- which comforted Rachel. But that's where the resemblance and the comfort ended. Aunt Lisa was a royal pain in the butt.
When Aunt Lisa was around, Rachel couldn't eat anything she enjoyed without getting a totally boring lecture on how bad it was for her. Soda was "unhealthy." Fast food was "poison." And no bread in their house was ever whole-grainey enough. As far as Aunt Lisa was concerned, if you could chew it easily, it was "practically worthless," and if it tasted good, too, it was "totally worthless." She was a health nut, a neatness nut, a cleanliness nut, and totally germ-a-phobic!
The most fun Rachel had when Aunt Lisa was around was kissing Wetspot on the mouth just to see the horrified look on her aunt's face.
Oddly enough, it was not all that different from the look on the face of the man facing them when her father finally silenced the buzzing and opened their apartment door.
Copyright © 2002 by Hester Mundis