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Mailman van (free)

"Wouldn't it be nice if we could go on adventures whenever we want?" Mom twiddled through the Witch's mapps, remembering the places we'd been and pining for the places we hadn't visited yet. Wish as she might, the Stuck House stayed in place.

"I just wish we could be together every day like we were in the car-house," I said, remembering the trouble that the Witch's mapps could bring.

We may have traveled the world and learned many things, but Mom still hadn't decided what she wanted to be when she grew up. To give herself some time, she'd taken someone else's job while they were busy having a baby and wouldn't be using it for a while. Even though Mom wasn't tied down like before, she still dreamed of the road.

"There are plenty of places right here in California that we could get to in a weekend." Mom waved a finger on the screen and her imagination flew across fantastical landscapes. "We could do so much more if we didn't have to worry about finding a dog-friendly hotel nearby. And it would be nice to make our own food so we didn't have to eat fast food all the time."

"But I want to eat fast food all the time," I protested. "McRotguts are the perfect dog food for someone who lives in their car. You don't even have to leave the driving chair to buy them."

"I'm sure we'll pass many McDonald's, but it makes traveling a lot simpler if you don't have to go out of your way to find food. We could leave on Friday night and have Saturday and Sunday to explore. You can go pretty far in 6 hours of driving."

"But where could we find a car-house? Something like that must cost..." I didn't know how money worked so I picked a number that sounded big. "Two hunerd dollars!"

"Possibly even more than $200." Mom looked at me out of the side of her eye in a way that didn't make me feel like she was agreeing with me. She looked back at the Witch. "Maybe we don't need a fancy modified child molester van to travel. All we really used in that rental were the bed, lights... The stove was just a two-burner camp stove in a drawer."

"We have drawers here in the Stuck House, but where will we ever find a fancy stove like that?" I despaired.

"They sell them at REI. They probably sell a lots of useful things at REI. As long as we find something big enough, we could basically set up a permanent tent in the back." Mom's face got as bright as if she'd heard someone open a cheese stick in the other room. "Or, you know where else they sell camping supplies...?"

Now I was thinking about cheese sticks and didn't want to play Mom's guessing game anymore. "Don't forget about the fridge. So the cheese sticks don't melt."

"Look. There are even tea kettles and refrigerated coolers that run off the cigarette lighter." The Witch was using a different screen to put ideas into Mom's head now. "I bet we could get a used van pretty cheap." She swiped on to let the Witch put even more ideas in her head.

The next day was supposed to be my day off, but Mom kissed the goodbye spot between my eyes. "Don't worry, Spud. I won't be gone long." She walked out the door, leaving me alone to protect the Stuck House from mailmen.

A decade or two later, the growl of an unfamiliar mailman van in the driveway ripped me out of my nap. "GO AWAY OR I'LL EAT YOU UP!" I shouted through the fence.

The latch clicked.

I ran to the window for a better look. "YOU'D BETTER NOT TRY ANYTHING, WHOEVER YOU ARE!" I bellowed.

Instead of a murderer, Mom walked through the gate. I jumped down from my mailman-barking spot and ran to meet her at the door.

The door opened, but Mom didn't come inside. "C'mere, Oscar! Come see what I got you!"

"An un-birthday present? For me?" I wagged. "You're already the best gift ever."

I followed her into the driveway where a mailman van crouched menacingly behind the car. Its eagle tattoos were ripped off to disguise its true identity, but you could still see the shadow on its flank where the eagle used to be. Farther back, there was a big metal scar where the eagle's tail feathers had pulled away the paint underneath. The disguise didn't fool me.

"Shoo! Scat! Get out of here!" I barked.

"That's it! That's the present," Mom boasted. "I just got it on Craigslist. It's twelve years old, but it only has 60,000 miles on it." She opened the mailman van's butt and the scent of cardboard and government wafted into my nose. "See? The trunk works almost like an awning. And get a load of what's inside!"

I sniffed the butt shelf, working my way up until my eyes were high enough to peek inside. The mailman van was as empty as a back alley at midnight. There were bars on the windows and a wall like a cage blocked the the way into the cockpit.

"Is this a trap?" I asked. "Never trust a mailman. This looks more like a dog-catcher mobile."

"The screen is just to keep packages from hitting the driver when the van stops short," Mom said, like an open cage was nothing to worry about. "I think the ones in the windows are so that nothing gets stolen."

"But where will we sleep? Where are the cheese sticks kept?"

"All that will come. It's a perfect excuse for a trip to Walmart!" Now I understood why Mom was more excited about my unbirthday present than I was. "But first we'll have to get the windows tinted and have a mechanic give it a check-up. I don't want to have car trouble in the middle of nowhere again."

The word rumbled around in my head. I'd heard it before, but I couldn't remember where. Mechanic, meh-can-ic, man-can-ic, manic, Titanic, satanic, volcanic, panic. "What's a mechanic?" I asked finally.

"You've been to a mechanic before. Remember that time the van needed a new battery and... Why are you shivering?"

"You mean a dognapper?!" I trembled bravely.

"Oh, Spud. I'm sorry." Mom smoothed back my quivering ears. "Don't worry, I won't give them the keys unless you're with me. I promise."

She smooshed the driving bed we bought at the Walmart in Reno between the driving chair and the copilot's seat and told me to up-up. The cage pushed against my butt, making me curl up more than I wanted, but if I put my head in Mom's lap, it wasn't so cramped.

I expected a growl when we Mom turned the key, but instead the mailman van began to purr. There was a chirp deep inside the hum, like a friendly bird on a spring morning. The peacefulness ended as we began to move.

When we jumped off the driveway into My Street, a bloodcurdling screech came from the empty cage behind me. Screams filled the inside of the mailman van as the ghosts of all the dogless families he'd eaten rattled the bars. The haunting only got louder as we sped onto the freeway.

I looked at Mom to decide how to feel about it, but her face was calm. Then again, Mom never hears the neighbors unlocking their doors or the critters running through the dog bathroom at night. Of course she couldn't hear ghosts. "IT'S A BIT LOUD, ISN'T IT?" I said, just to test her.


The mailman van carried us to a neighborhood of boxy buildings, each one no more than a frame for a jumbo-sized garage door. The screaming of the mailman's victims quieted as we crept through the sleeping garages until the Witch pointed out the one that Mom was looking for.

The mailman van pulled into a gap between the buildings, away from where anyone on the road could see us. Not like there were any witnesses around anyway. The people-sized door toward the back of the building looked even smaller against long, blank wall. Mom read the sign over the door and checked with the Witch that we were in the right place. As if you could trust the Witch at a time like this!

"Hang on, Spud. I'll be right back." She kissed the usual spot between my eyes. "You be good."

"But you promised..." I tried to follow her out of the mailman van.

"Back it up." She gave me a hard look and I flinched. "I'll only be a minute." She slammed the door in my face.

I sat on the mailman's throne, watching the door. Would my bark would be strong enough if a mailman or a dognapper came out where Mom had gone in?

The door opened.

A large, wooly man with dark smears on his clothes stepped out. He held the door open behind him with a grease-stained paw and squinted into the sun. His beady eyes landed on the mailman van and he looked straight at me. I sat high in the driving chair and tried to look like a big, scary mailman.

It worked! He hesitated for a second and looked back like he was thinking about hiding inside. Before he did, Mom stepped out of the darkness behind him.

"Yeah, this one." She led him toward me.

"Mom! I'm so glad I'm okay! I thought that ogre ate you and you wouldn't be here to protect me and... Look out! He's right behind you!"

"Don't mind the dog. I'll take him with me while you work." Mom slid open the mailman van's flank. "Don't bother to put the bars back on any of the windows that open, but I'd like to keep them on the back windows. They'll be good for hanging things. And if you could please also remove the gate. We won't be needing that."

"Remove it now, please!" I whined from behind the cockpit bars.

"I don't need too much tint in the front, but if you could tint the back as dark as is legal," Mom went on.

"You can go as dark as you want on this thing," the beast rumbled. "There's no max tint for commercial vehicles. People are less likely to break in if they can't see what's inside." Mom puffed up like he was telling her how special she was.

"Me! I'm inside! Get to work on these bars already!" I barked.

"How about we put some tint on the front? So your dog doesn't get too hot," the beast said. "Here, I'll show you. Give me your hand."

"No, Mom! It's a trap!" I yelped "He'll eat you!"

Mom paid me no mind and reached her paw out anyway.

The brute held a piece of glass the size of a dinner plate over Mom's hand like a magnifying glass over an ant. "Hot, right?"

He kept the magnifying glass over Mom's hand while his free hand flipped through a book of pages made from the same stuff as x-rays. He picked a page that was almost clear and held it over the Mom-roasting glass. He waited a second for Mom to cook all the way through before replacing it with a medium-dark page. "See?"

"Okay, you're right. Let's do it." Mom took her hand back, slower than if she were pulling it back from hot pavement. "Oh! And the engine is making a weird chirping noise. Would you mind please making sure that's okay, too?"

We went for a very long walk, but not the kind we used to when we lived in the car-house. We walked past the jumbo garages, through a neighborhood, and finally reached a street as wide as a freeway. After the bakery, ballet studio, Waffle House, laundrymat, and burrito place, there was a Starbucks. Mom tied my leash to a pole and went inside.

This time I could see what she was doing the whole time, so I barked instructions through the glass. "Hey! Come back! Hey! You're missing someone! Hey! Hey! Hey!"

We sat on the street outside the Starbucks for almost a whole day. When my tummy was starting to feel like dinner time, we walked back. The mailman van was waiting in a different spot from where we'd left it, looking cool with its new sunglass-dark windows. This time, Mom took me through the tiny door to the beast's den with her. It smelled like dirty metal, yellow paper, grease, and glass. The beast looked up from a desk covered in an avalanche of papers.

"It looks great," Mom said. "How about the squeak? Do you think it'll cost much to fix?"

"Oh, that's just a belt with a little rust in the spindle," he said. "It's fine. We put some WD-40 on it."

"Will it break?" Mom wrung her hands. "How long until you think I should replace it?"

"Nah. It'll run forever," the beast said in a voice that gave Mom's worries nothing to hang onto.

Mom wasn't about to take good news on the first try. "But why was the engine so loud? Is it going to overheat or something? It kind of sounds like it's stuck in a too-small gear. Do you think the transmission's okay?"

"It's a V-8. They put super strong engines in those fleet vehicles so they'll last forever with very little maintenance."

Mom puffed up so big that I thought she might explode. The mailman van may be shaped like a soccer-Mom-mobile, but like Mom herself, it had the heart of a truck.

We remounted the mailman van and I stretched out between the seats and let my butt hang into the empty back room. With most of the cages gone, the ghosts were free and the mailman van was at peace. It purred and barely chirped as Mom asked the Witch how to get home.

"Guess what!" Without a tail to wag, Mom rubbed her paws together instead. "There's a Super Walmart on the way back!"

"Are we going to drive all the way to Reno tonight?" I asked. 'Will we get there by dinner time?' my tummy rumbled.

"There are Walmarts all over the place," Mom said in the voice I use when I want her to throw the toy behind her back. "But the one close to the house isn't a SUPER Walmart like this one. If you can't buy a chainsaw and a kayak with your broccoli, what's the point? You might as well go to..." she paused as if it were too nasty to even say out loud, "...Target.

The mailman van pulled out of its slot in Garage City and the Witch started giving orders.

"We're gonna get to visit so many Super Walmarts all around the country in this thing," Mom babbled as we drove. "Walmarts with food on the left... Walmarts with food on the right... Walmarts with only food. It's a big country out there. So many Walmarts."

The mailman van pulled into the Ritz of Car Kennels.

"I'll be right back." Mom was so excited that she forgot to kiss me and tell me to be good. She danced to the cart station and picked one the size of a tractor. She mounted its riding bar and pushed off gleefully like she was on a victory lap in the Iditarod. The cart rolled toward the doors, rattling like the inside of a mailman van the whole way.

Mom came back a few years later with so many bags that they hardly fit in the giant cart.

"Look at all those plastic bags," I wagged. "You have enough trash bags to last a lifetime!"

"Just wait till you see everything inside!" She started loading her booty into the empty room in the back of the mailman van. "Tomorrow, we decorate."

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