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Mailmaiden voyage (free)

It was too dark for decorating by the time we got home, so Mom spent the night asking the Witch for suggestions about interior design.

"See how cozy it looks with the fairy lights?" She held up a picture of human feet in front of a car's back door, open to the night and surrounded by a crowd of Tinkerbells.

"Will the fairies be able to breathe out there in those plastic bags overnight?" I asked. "Maybe we should invite them inside."

"They're not real fairies." Mom looked annoyed that I was ruining her fairytale. "That's just what English people call Christmas lights. Won't it be nice with a hot cup of tea and peaceful music playing over the speakers?"

"Christmas carols? In summertime?"

"Not Christmas carols. Like, I don't know, jazz or something."

"But you don't like jazz."

"That's not the point. I just want to feel like I think that people who listen to jazz feel. The important part is that I found an adaptor that goes from the cassette deck to my iPhone. Can you believe it? It's like a cable through time."

Mom turned her attention back to the Witch. "And I got a cute little carpet so we won't feel the grooves in the corrugated floor. And a fluffy extra-narrow mat to sleep on. And a 0º sleeping bag so we'll be warm in the wintertime. And a light-weight comforter with dinosaurs on it so we'll be cool in the summertime. "

"Dinosaurs!" I said. "Very cool indeed! All the bears are going to be so jealous of our bedroom."

The next morning, I followed Mom to the driveway to turn the Witch's suggestions into reality.

All the decorating was her job, of course, but I tagged along in case she needed a man-dog to help her with tools or something.

Mom ripped the plastic off of a long, furry log. It uncurled to reveal a hint of its true nature as a rug. She crawled inside the mailman van to smooth out the corners over the lumpy floor. When it was mostly-flat, she rolled over into a sit position and rubbed her knees.

"Ow. Good thing I got that sleeping mat." She untied the cords around a giant stuffy rolled up as tight as a sleeping bag. It rolled out the way the carpet should have done. She patted the rug beside her. "C'mere. Up-up. Let's try it together."

I jumped inside, almost tripping when the rug sagged into one of the grooves in the floor. The bed wasn't as comfortable as I expected. Even with the world's stiffest rug and a very large stuffy under my butt, I could still feel the lumps in the floor.

Mom pulled several Walmart sacks out of a plastic bin like the kind you find on a shelf in a garage. It was a little smaller than a laundry basket. She held it up proudly. "This will be our kitchen!"

I sniffed it, but there wasn't any food inside. "It's a bit small. And there isn't much counter space."

"Its called camping. I'll set everything up outside on a rock or something." Mom dug through bags, throwing things into the bin until she'd collected a pot, a pan, a wooden spoon, salt and pepper shakers, a cutting board no bigger than an envelope, and a sharp knife. By the time she was done, there was definitely no room to walk around the kitchen.

"And the most important piece — the stove!" She pulled a long box from under the pile of bags. Inside the box was briefcase-sized rectangle that looked more like a weapon than something to make food. Pots, pans, and the briefcase clattered as she tried to fit it into the kitchen. "Dog doo. It's too big."

She set the stove aside and pulled a string of Christmas lights from the bag. She looked at the ceiling. "Hunh. Where am I supposed to hang them from?"

"Around the butt door like a frame on a picture," I reminded her.

"Yeah, but I never noticed how few places there are to hang something in a car." She looped the string around the neck of the driving chair and looked around.

She found a hook above the bedside door and wove the fairies through that. When she was finished, she moved on to the bars in the window. She skipped the back door altogether and looped the end of the string through the window bars on the other side. Then she ran out of fairies.

She joined me back on the bed to admire her work.

"It doesn't look like Instagram," I said.

Mom shrugged. "I guess we still have a lot to learn." She sorted the trash from the priceless Walmart bags and stuffed them under the driving chair for safekeeping. "In the meantime, we should take this thing for a longer drive. Do you wanna..."

"I sure do!" I wagged before she'd finished. Nothing that started with do you wanna ever ended badly.

"... go to the dog beach?" Mom finished.

"Yippee skippee! The dog beach!" I did a little tap dance.

I may have traveled all over the world, but I'd never been anywhere more marvelous than the dog beach. There were no leash rules at the dog beach. A dog could run, and dig, and roll in the sand for miles and miles, staying connected to his companion by only the sound of her voice.

Once Mom was wearing her running clothes, we re-mounted the mailman van and took our positions. Mom reached the key behind the driving wheel and paused. "Oh! I almost forgot! The tape deck adaptor."

She picked up a package that she'd thrown on the driving chair during the kitchen remodel. The sun glinted off the plastic as she flipped it over, searching for a weakness in its stiff armor. She pulled and twisted, straining to rip it open with her bare hands, but the bulletproof plastic held strong.

Mom bared her teeth and something savage flashed in her eyes. She put the plastic in her mouth and bit down, tearing at it with her teeth. The plastic turned pale, but it did not break.

"Clawed jammed stun of a snitch!" She punched the door open and stalked off, taking the package with her.

I sat very still and watched her through the windows as she stomped to the back of the mailman van and threw open the butt door. She looked exactly like how I imagined a hungry mailman looks when he unlatches the gate looking for dogs to eat.

Pots clattered as she dug through the kitchen, muttering and searching for I-knew-not-what. She grunted triumphantly and pulled out the knife. She aimed the blade's tip at the package and stabbed the viciously in its plasticky heart. She grunted in satisfaction as she dragged the knife through its tough shell.

Mom threw her weapon carelessly back into the kitchen and ripped the mutilated package in half with a mighty roar. She threw aside the less meaty piece and dug into the package's innards, fiercely pulling her prize out like stuffing from a toy. Its entrails slipped from the plastic as she pulled. In her paw she held something shaped like a lumpy witch with twin holes gaping blankly at nothing.

Bloodlust satisfied, Mom tossed the leftover plastic on the bed and closed the back door. "Sheesh. I don't know why they make those things so hard to open," she said as she remounted the driving chair. "But see? We're prepared for anything!"

Mom turned her attention to a slot on the control center of the cockpit. She lined up her offering with the slit and gave it an experimental nudge. The mailman van greedily sucked in her gift, made a crude whir, and went silent.

"Is it supposed to go down that far?" Mom asked the vents. She pushed the tongue out of the way to stare down the mailman van's gullet. She shrugged and pulled at the intestine hanging from the corner of the mailman van's mouth until she found the end and plugged it into the Witch.

Mom had called this contraption a "cable through time." I had thought it would be cool to go back to the time of the dinosaurs, but now I wasn't so sure. "Are we going back in time?" I asked meekly.

"I don't know. It's been a long time since I used a cassette deck, but I think that was the sound of a tape getting eaten." Mom poked the Witch and I waited for the sound of jazz or gnashing teeth.

Instead, the Witch started singing like normal. Compared to the swell of sound I was expecting, the Witch's regular voice sounded tinny and thin. "Snittin' on the smock of the may, watchin' the clahds moll away..."

Mom's face bunched in confusion as she poked buttons and twisted knobs on the control panel. "C'mon, give it back!" she begged. She stuck a finger down its throat and pulled gently on the cable through time, but the mailman van wouldn't drop it.

"So much for the tape deck." Mom pressed a button and the windows closed dramatically like a countdown to liftoff. "I guess we'll have to drive with the windows closed if I want to hear my audiobook."

The cockpit was boiling before we even reached the freeway. "Bugger. I think the AC's busted." Mom fiddled with the knobs next to the cassette-chomping slot and held her hand over air holes. "Is it just me or is the air coming from the vents even warmer than the air outside?"

I backed into the bedroom to get away from the mailman's hot breath. "Fix it, please," I panted.

Mom hit the button again and fresh summer air roared the mailman van. The faster we went, the louder it got. By the time we mounted the freeway, the Witch's tiny voice was a distant memory against the thundering wind.



The rug slid around the floor under me as we flew toward the beach. Only the clattering of the kitchen could be heard clearly over the roaring windows. I enjoyed the feeling of air rushing into my nose and flapping through my ears, imagining I was on a magic carpet ride.

When the mailman van stopped in the car kennel, silence filled my ears like cotton balls.

Mom released the seat leash with something between relief and pride. "At least the engine works. Are you ready to— Oh."

I sat on top of the scrunched-up magic carpet and bed roll where they'd come to rest in the corner of the room. "Now this is more like your style of decorating," I wagged. "Feels like home, doesn't it?"

Mom's eyes drifted from the pots and pans, to the salt sparkling in the floor's grooves, to the Tinkerbell graveyard. "I can't. I just can't right now. Come on, let's go."

"You can't what?" I asked, following her across the car kennel. "I can do anything I set my mind to. I'd be happy to teach — Hang on a sec." I barked at a dog who was just out of reach of the leash. He took one look at me and ran away. "...As I was saying," I went on. "I'd be happy to coach you on how to — HEY! You can't run with that ball! That's my ball!"

I dragged Mom past the last car and she released the leash. "I'll tell you about it later!" I called over my shoulder, leaving her to creep down the sand steps at her own sluggish pace.

The best thing about the dog beach is that it's absolutely crawling with dog people. Without leashes, they wander free with balls in their paws and treats in their pockets, looking for dogs to play with. You can run up to any of them and they will pat you and tell you what a good dog you are just for picking them.

I ran toward a man playing with two labs. He threw his ball and both dogs ran after it, leaving their man alone with me.

"Hi. I'm Oscar." I pushed a hip into his shin and aimed a smile at his face. "How could those jerks leave you all alone? I would never do that to you."

"Oscar!" Mom shouted behind me.

I ignored her. Every person on the dog beach belongs to me, not just Mom. "Don't mind her," I told My Man. "She won't bite. Here. You wanna scratch my butt?"

He was just about to when the younger lab interrupted us. "Rook at re! Rook at re! I have the rall! Ry rall!" he said with a full mouth.

"Give me the ball," my Man said. "Drop it."

"Ruh-ruh. Ry rall," the ball hog said.

"Throw it! Throw it!" the older one panted.

The man clamped his paw on the ball and tried to tug it from the ball hog's mouth. "Drop it! Drop iiiiiiit!"

"You heard him! Drop it! It's his ball!" I barked.

The man pulled the ball free with a grunt. He shook off the slobber, wound back his arm, and paused.

"Throw it!" I encouraged.

With me there to cheer him on, he launched the ball far down the beach.

"I'll get it!" I barked.

I ran as hard as I could, but that ball-snatching lab cheated by running faster than me.

I wasn't about to let him get away with that, so I blocked his path to My Man. "Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!" I barked as I chased him.

It took some convincing, but finally the ball hog saw that resistance was useless. He dropped the ball in the sand and ran to play in the waves like that was his plan all along.

I shouted the good news back to My Man. "The ball is free now! Come and get it. I'll make sure this rascal doesn't take it before you can get here."

I was so busy chasing the young lab that I didn't notice the old one until it was too late. "Hey! come back here with my ball!"

This time, My Man threw the ball into the ocean. It sailed over the frothy, white water and landed with a splash half way to Japan.

"I'll get it!" I barked.

I don't usually like water, but that ball-hogging lab needed to learn that cheaters never win. I raced him into the waves.

I wasn't sure if I knew how to swim, but as the sand disappeared from under my paws, I discovered that I was a natural! I paddled frantically toward the ball with the lab snorting and huffing beside me.

I surged at the top of the last wave and the lab faded behind me. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to! I thought as I clamped down on the ball. When I turned around, the ball-hogging lab was already paddling back to shore. That cheating dummy was going to be so jealous when I brought My Man his ball.

I was lapping up the glory of being the center of attention when my swimming technique stopped working. Suddenly, my powerful doggy paddle wasn't bringing me any closer to the beach. I paddled harder, but the water sucked me back, farther from My Man.

There was a rumbling crash behind me and salty water crashed over my head. At the same time, a powerful force scooped me up and pushed me toward the beach. I held on tight to the ball and paddled for all I was worth to keep it above water as the ocean carried me faster than any lab can run. I landed hard on the sand and kept running like a ball rolls after landing.

"Here's your stupid ball." I dropped it at the man's feet without stopping. I gave the ball hog a dirty look as he rushed past me to pick it up. "You keep him," I growled.

I kept running back to Mom. "Like I was saying..." I shook the nasty water out of my fur onto her legs. " can do anything you set your mind to. I just taught myself to surf, did you see?"

"It's okay, Spud." She was laughing, but not in a mean way. "Not every dog likes the water."

"Yes, that's the lesson," I decided. "You can do anything that you set your mind to, but success doesn't have to look like everyone expects. Sometimes success means knowing what you don't want so you can aim at the things you do." I turned toward the miles of sand where the water never got any deeper than my ankles. "Do you wanna go for a run?"

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