"A dog can't talk," Amelia Marcus said. Her tween scorn should have melted the TV set.
"Sure he can," Josie Marcus said. "As soon as Uncle Bob shuts up, you'll hear him."
Josie, Amelia's mother, was snuggled next to her new husband, Dr. Ted Scottsmeyer, on the comfortably squishy black leather couch in their basement family room. Amelia was sprawled in the recliner, but she wasn't alone. Two tabby cats, brown-stripped Harry and orange Marmalade, were curled in her lap. Festus, the black Lab, snored next to her chair.
The family was watching a TV commercial for Uncle Bob's Doggy Day Camp. Uncle Bob, a pudgy, round-faced man, wore clownish blue overalls, a red flannel shirt, and a white bone for a bow tie. Bob had his arm around a curly-haired black Labradoodle, as awkward as a blind date.
"He looks like a big baby with a bad haircut," Amelia said.
Josie frowned at the spite in her daughter's voice, but Ted cheerfully ignored it.
"Can't argue with you there," Ted said.
"The dog looks smarter than he does," Amelia said, still looking for a fight.
"Right again," Ted said.
The black dog had more dignity than Uncle Bob, Josie thought. The odd couple sat on the steps of a rustic log cabin, Uncle Bob's day-camp headquarters.
Uncle Bob shot out words like a machine pistol. "Don't take my word for it," he said. "Ask Ralph the Talking Dog. Ralph, how is life for the poor pups who don't go to Uncle Bob's?"
"Ruff!" Ralph the Labradoodle said.
"That's right," Uncle Bob said. "They're all alone at home while the lucky dogs at Uncle Bob's run, jump, and play with their friends and our certified Doggy Camp Counselors. So don't let your dog live a life that's . . ." He paused dramatically.
"Ruff!" Ralph said on cue, and wagged his tail.
"That's just stupid," Amelia said.
"So stupid it's funny," Josie said, and giggled. She couldn't help it. Her twelve-year-old was being such a sourpuss tonight.
"All his commercials are lame," Amelia said. "Last time he ate a peanut butter dog treat. That's gross."
"It did sort of turn my stomach," Josie said. "Watching him play fetch on his hands and knees with a bunch of dogs was pretty desperate."
What happened to my little girl's sense of humor? she wondered. Josie studied her daughter's blossoming figure, shoulder-length glossy brown hair, and the sprinkling of chocolate freckles across her nose, and reminded herself once again that Amelia was no little girl. Lately, her daughter's moods changed from silly to snarly to boy crazy in seconds.
This evening, she was stuck in surly mode. Worse, she tried to pick a fight with her stepfather, Ted. I'm darn lucky to find a man like Ted, especially at age thirty-four. How long will he tolerate my daughter's rude behavior?
"Ads like Uncle Bob's give St. Louis TV color," Josie said. "Otherwise, all we'd watch would be bland ads for big-box stores and franchises."
"The ads may be awful, but that's why you remember them," Ted said. "Bad ads help small businesses fight the giants. Remember Becky the Queen of Carpet advertising Becky's Carpet and Tile Superstore?"
Amelia groaned. "She was even stupider than Uncle Bob."
"But you remembered her," Ted said. "Especially when Becky rode that corny flying carpet over the Arch."
"Whatever happened to her friend Wanda the Princess of Tile?" Josie asked. "She used to fly with her, too."
"Maybe she got rolled up in a carpet and dumped in the river," Ted said.
"Hmpf!" Amelia said, and lapsed into sullen silence.
"Is Uncle Bob's Doggy Day Camp any good?" Josie asked.
"I don't know," Ted said. "Most of our clinic clients take their dogs to Westminster Dog Day Care. It's closer to our clinic."
Ted, a vet with a small practice, was the co-owner of the St. Louis Mobo-Pet Clinic in the nearby Village of Rock Road. Their Fresno Court house was a short drive away in Maplewood, a colorful old suburb of St. Louis.
Josie was proud of their new – well, new to them – house, a pocket-sized precursor of the McMansion. Built in the thirties, the Tudor Revival cottage was a soft yellow-gold brick, a pleasant contrast to the city's sooty red brick. The house was beautifully crafted, with art-glass windows, an arched wooden front door with wrought-iron hinges, and satiny, caramel-colored woodwork.
The basement family room was paneled in warm honey-colored knotty pine, and a braided rug made it cozy
Josie and Ted had spent the fine September afternoon raking leaves in the yard, and now she was pleasantly tired.
"It's eight-thirty, Amelia," Josie said. "You have school tomorrow. Time for bed."
The expected protest didn't materialize. Amelia shrugged and headed upstairs, striped Harry riding her shoulder and orange Marmalade draped over her arm. Festus stayed by Ted, but the big black Lab would join Amelia later.
Josie rested her head on Ted's strong shoulder, enjoying her man. His long legs were stretched out. Ted was six feet tall, with thick brown hair. He smelled like coffee and cinnamon with a faint tang of wood smoke. He liked to cook and was kind to animals. He put up with her daughter's bad moods. No, Ted even seemed to enjoy Amelia most of the time.
They'd be married a year in November, and Josie had never expected to be this happy. She'd been a single mom struggling to raise her daughter on a mystery shopper's salary. She wouldn't have made it if Jane, Josie's mother, hadn't let her daughter and granddaughter live in the downstairs apartment of Jane's two-family flat at a greatly reduced rent. Josie had dated a few men, then given up on love. She didn't have time to date. If Amelia's cat, Harry, hadn't needed to see a vet, she wouldn't have met Ted.
"Thank you for putting up with Amelia," she said, and kissed his ear.
Ted shrugged. "It's not easy being twelve," he said. "She's doing a pretty good job. And Uncle Bob's commercial was stupid."
"And funny," Josie said.
"Give her time to sort out her opinions," Ted said. "She still has a lot to think about."
Josie didn't want to think about anything. She just wanted a quiet evening with her new husband.
After the ten o'clock news, Ted stretched and said, "I'm tired. Let's go upstairs."
"Amelia should be asleep by now," Josie said hopefully.
"We'll be very, very quiet," Ted said.
They tiptoed upstairs and walked through the newly renovated midcentury modern kitchen, a chic turquoise with a checkerboard floor. Ted opened the back door to let Festus outside. The Lab trotted across the deck and out into the yard. Josie checked the kitchen phone for messages. Nothing.
"You look worried," Ted said.
"I am," she said. "I haven't heard from Mom since Friday afternoon and we usually talk at least once a day. I left her another message at dinnertime, and she still hasn't called back. I haven't heard from her in two and a half days."
"Your mom's not alone," he said. "If anything was wrong, we'd hear from her downstairs renter, Franklin Hyzy. She was probably out with Frank this beautiful weekend."
"Probably," Josie said. But a nagging voice said something was wrong. If she didn't hear from her mother by tomorrow afternoon, she'd drive over to Jane's house.
Ted opened the front door and the couple stepped out onto the small front porch to study their peaceful street, softly silvered with moonlight. The other three houses on Fresno Court were dark.
"Did you see the change on the empty house next door?" Josie asked. "The real estate agent's sign with the 'sold' banner is finally gone. I wonder if new neighbors will be moving in soon."
She locked the door and Ted whistled for Festus to come out of the backyard. The Lab raced by them and bounded upstairs to Amelia's room.
Ted and Josie climbed the stairs together, hand in hand. The narrow hallway was softly lit by graceful wall sconces with amber shades, the original nineteen thirties Virden lights. Amelia's cozy purple bedroom with its dramatically slanted ceiling was the first room.
Josie put her fingers to her lips and checked on her daughter. Amelia seemed to be asleep. Harry slept by her head, Marmalade was curled near her hip, and Festus snored on her feet.
Josie kissed her daughter on the forehead.
"There's hardly room for her in that bed with all the animals," she whispered to Ted and smiled. Amelia's window overlooked the backyard of the sold house. Josie closed Amelia's curtains and made a mental note to check them at bedtime if they had neighbors again.
Back out in the hall, she whispered, "Sure hope the new neighbors will be better than the last one with the yappy dog."
"Wouldn't take much to be better than she was," Ted said.
"I'd like a family about our age," Josie said,
"With a quiet dog or cat they'll take to the clinic," Ted said.
Amelia's voice floated out of her purple bedroom. "I hope it's a family with a boy my age," she said.
Just what we don't need, Josie thought, and tried not to sigh.