CHAPTER ONE
from THE TOUCH OF PIPER VALENTINE




                                                      CHAPTER ONE

    It began with a devil-like heat.  For two weeks, a wall of warmth swept the Midwest.
     Lawns withered.  Plants drooped.  Driveways and streets puddled⏤black, damp, and slightly sticky.  Houses sagged from the oppressive air, exhausted at trying to hold out 100 plus degree temperatures. 
    The world was limp from lack of rain.  It sweltered on its axis, weary in its turning.
    In the Main Branch of the library in Somware, Ohio, Piper Valentine sat stone-still, her face red and her heart beating fast, not from the heat, as the building had air-conditioning, but from the question that the new librarian had just posed⏤“Perhaps Piper Valentine might tell us her thoughts on the book?”
    The librarian looked at her expectantly.  
    The woman was new to town and didn’t know Piper.  
    But everyone else did.  Twenty pairs of twelve-year-old eyes stared at her curiously, wondering if, for once, Piper Valentine might actually speak. 
    Piper knew that if this moment stretched out any longer, she might throw up.
    “Oh for goodness sake,” rang out a voice, loud and clear, “Why anyone would choose to walk down a deserted road on a dark and snowy night when all manner of things might happen to you like someone swerving and hitting you and you dying in a ditch never to be found, or someone kidnapping you and making sure you’d never be seen again, or aliens whisking you away to their planet.  Well, you do something like that, you’re just asking for trouble is my opinion.”
    Piper drew in a ragged breath, closing her eyes and saying a prayer of thanks.
    Once again, her best friend, Oakley, had come to her rescue. 
    Piper turned and gave her friend a grateful look. 
    Oakley smiled back.  She wore a polka dot skirt, white anklets and lime green sneakers.  Her arms were  covered in rubber bands, all up and down⏤plain rubber bands, bands that advertised baseball teams, bands that supported causes like cancer.  Oakley was a rainbow of color, and for Piper, a breath of fresh air.
    “Do you think she should have stayed alone in that house?” the librarian asked everyone.
    “Her parents weren’t there,” Kyle spoke up.  “What was she supposed to do?”
    He glanced over at Oakley and smirked.  “They’d probably abandoned her cause she was so annoying.”
    Piper heard the collective gasp that sounded in the room.
    Oakley had lost her parents four years ago.  They had taken off on vacation when Oakley was just eight-years old and had never come back.  Their leaving had encased Piper’s best friend in a coat of armor that was tougher than a beetle’s back.  Kyle knew that.  But he never missed an opportunity to give Oakley a dig about it.
    “People with ideas like that are the reason this country has to put directions on shampoo bottles,” Oakley snapped.
    Kyle made a puzzled face.
    “I think she’s saying you’re stupid,” the kid sitting next to Kyle whispered to him.
    Kyle’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
    And Piper wanted to kick herself for asking Oakley to come with her to the summer read program.  Oakley had protested at first, but Piper loved reading and books and the quiet of the library, not to mention the air conditioning, and Oakley loved her best friend. 
    Piper also now wished the new librarian hadn’t accidentally chosen a book that had missing parents in it.  But it was a small part of the book, and Piper had thought they might not even discuss it.  She hadn’t counted on Kyle.  She knew this could go south fast.  Oakley never saw a fist fight with Kyle she didn’t like. 
    “Okay, hold up now, kids” the clueless librarian said, waving a hand, trying to defuse the situation.  “The library is a safe environment for us to say what we’re thinking.  Maybe we should all work on our people skills a bit by trying to be kind with one another.”
    Oakley stood up fast, knocking over her chair in the process. Her fingers toyed with the rubber bands on her wrists.  Oakley was tall for her age with curly blonde hair that sprouted ringlets all across her head, hair that she was massively proud of.  She had pine green eyes that never missed a trick and always smelled of roasting tomatoes as her Nana ran an Italian restaurant.  Across from her, Kyle’s hands balled into fists.
    “Oakley,” Piper whispered so softly that only her best friend would be able to hear.
    Oakley paused.
    “Miss Stephenson,” she finally said, drawing herself up even taller than she already was.  “I thank you for giving us this book.  It was a pretty good book, even if the main character was basically  brainless when she set off on her own.  As for my people skills, they happen to be fine.”
    She turned toward Kyle.  “It’s my tolerance for idiots that needs work.”
    She headed for the door before Kyle or the new librarian could respond. 
    Piper hesitated, but only for a moment.  Then she jumped up and followed her friend.  Friends were friends, and you stood by them no matter what.
    As they stepped outside, Oakley was still playing with her rubber bands, and Piper could see her thoughts wrestling with each other as to whether she should go back in and fire off a few of those rubber bands at Kyle.  Oakley had excellent aim with them when she wanted.
    “You know,” Piper said, putting a hand on her friend’s arm. “Kyle’s so dumb, he probably would fail a blood test.”
    Oakley turned, her eyes wide. 
    And then she broke out laughing.  “Where did you come up with that?”
    Piper gave a slight smile and twisted a toe of her sandal on the steps of the library.  “I read it, and I know you love sarcastic sayings.  So I’ve been saving it up for when you were mad.”
    Now that Piper was alone with Oakley, words flowed from her mouth like water flows over falls.  Piper wished it was always this easy to talk, but it wasn't.
    Oakley grinned and threw her arms around Piper.  “Piper Valentine.  I sure do love you.”
    Piper flushed with pleasure.
    Then, Oakley sighed.   “Whoo-ee but I will miss that air conditioning.  It’s hotter out here than a Mexican tamale that’s on fire.”
    She wiped her forehead.   “Well, I guess we can just go back to my house.  Nana will have the air-conditioning on there, although she’s cooking today so it won’t be as cool as that library.  But there’s not much else to do in this heat.  Besides, I need to pack for Boston.”
     Oakley’s last words made Piper insides shrivel up and her outsides wilt.  Oakley was going to be gone for two weeks, starting tomorrow.  Piper’s world would shrink without her best friend to help expand it.  It always did.
    “HELP!  Can somebody help me?”
    A man’s voice rang out from across the street.
    “HELP!” he called again.
    Oakley turned toward the voice.  “Hey.  Someone’s in trouble.”
    She took off, crossing the street without even looking.  Piper looked both ways and then followed her across the hot pavement of the street.  In the deep bushes lining the sidewalk on the other side, a man was wrestling with an animal.  Piper saw that it was a dog, and that the poor golden retriever had barbed wire stuck all over him. 
    The man was bent over, trying, it seemed, to free the dog.  But the dog was having none of it.  He snarled and gnashed his teeth every time the man even tried to approach him.
    “He’s hurt,” the man said.  He turned toward the girls.  He was a large man, dressed in jeans and black boots with silver toes. “Can you help him?”
    “Piper can,” Oakley said.  “She’s a whiz with animals.” She turned toward her friend and gave her a shove toward the dog.  “Well, go on.  Do your thing.”
    Though Oakley was right about Piper and her abilities to calm animals, Piper’s shyness made her pause.
    “Hurry, Piper,” Oakley urged as the animal let out a howl.
    The cry decided Piper.  She had to help the poor thing even if it did make her the center of attention for the moment.  She stepped toward the wounded animal.  He swung around, his teeth bared.
    “It’s okay, boy,” Piper whispered, jumping a bit at the sound of her own voice.  “It’s okay.  I’m going to help you now.”
    The dog’s eyes stayed on Piper, and he grew suddenly still and stopped thrashing about.
    Slowly, Piper moved her hands toward the dog and began to pull away the barbed wire from his body.  She felt the golden tense each time a barb was removed, but Piper kept her eyes on the dog’s and let her hands feel for the areas that needed tending.  At last, the golden was freed.  He whined a bit and rose unsteadily to his feet.  Then he slowly limped toward Piper and began to lick her face in thanks.
    Piper sighed with relief. 
    “He’s still bleeding though,” the man beside them said.  “Can’t you fix that?”
    It was true.  The dog’s wounds still oozed blood, and he was shaky on his feet.
    “Come on,” the man said, and there was a strange impatience in his voice.  “Fix the dog.”
    Piper looked at him, puzzled. 
    “Fix him,” the man snapped.  “Don’t you want to fix him?”
    “Were you born half-baked?” Oakley spoke up.  “Of course she can’t heal his wounds.  Only a doctor and bandages can do that, and I don’t see either here, do you?”
    “Poor thing looks like he’s starving,” Piper whispered.
    Oakley reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a small plastic bag.  “Here.  Here’s one of Nana’s meatballs I snuck out today in case we got hungry.”  She held out one of the meatballs to her friend. Piper fed a few pieces to the golden, who ate them as if he hadn’t had a bite in weeks.
    There was the sound of swishing tires, and a car pulled up near the curb.
    “Piper?”
    Piper sighed with relief.  It was Doc Hannah, the vet in town and one of the few people Piper felt completely comfortable with.  The number of times Doc Hannah had saved one of Piper’s hamsters or turtles was immeasurable.  
    “And we have the bills to prove it,” Piper’s dad always grumbled.
    “Is everything okay?” Doc Hannah asked.
    “Well I”ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Oakley said.  “What a piece of luck this is.  No, everything is not all right, Doc.  This dog got himself all wrapped up in barbed wire.  Piper managed to get him free, but he’s bleeding a lot.”
    “Oh dear,” Doc Hannah pulled completely over and put the car in park.  She jumped out and went immediately to the golden retriever’s side. 
    “We’ll need to get him to the hospital,” Doc Hannah said after she’d looked at the dog’s injuries.  “Let me grab a blanket from the back of my car.  We’ll wrap him up to keep him warm.”
    Piper stayed by the dog, stroking his side, until Doc Hannah came back with the blanket.  Together, she and the vet and Oakley carefully lifted the animal onto the blanket and placed him in the car. 
    “I’ve got him now, Piper,” Doc Hannah said.  “But thank you girls.  He’s going to be okay, I think.  You both did a great job.”
    The doctor’s words reminded Piper that it was the strange man who had called for their help in the first place.  If he hadn’t directed their attention to the dog, Piper wasn’t sure she and Oakley would have seen the poor creature, he had been so deeply in the bushes.
    She looked around for the man to thank him as Doc Hannah drove away.
    Strangely, the man had disappeared.
 

 

 

About Me

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