Seven-year-old Macey Yager tiptoed through the darkened house before dawn’s first light. She painstakingly unlocked and opened the kitchen door – the one farthest from her parents’ bedroom – and ever so carefully closed it again. She walked quickly and silently down the path away from the house and barnyard and toward the road.
Once there, she ran. She took nothing with her but her memories and her hope.
At the beginning of the summer, Macey’s dad, Ken, came home one day with an energetic bundle of fur, a one-year-old border collie.
“He looks like a panda,” Macey said, and Panda became the dog’s name. Ken built a doghouse and put it under a tree near the house and Macey and Panda played every day from sunup to sundown.
She gave Panda his breakfast and supper every day and sat with him while he ate. She threw a ball for him to fetch. She used him as a pillow and looked at the clouds and talked to him about everything.
Everything was fine until school started, she thought, walking around a road-kill possum.
A border collie is a gentle, good-natured dog and is generally well behaved. Unless it gets bored. If that happens, mayhem is the likely consequence.
Macey’s mother, Laura, tried to keep an eye on Panda. But over the course of three weeks, Panda killed two chickens, spooked the milk cows, knocked over the barrel the family burned its trash in, and dug huge holes in the gardens.
Ken tried chaining Panda, but the dog’s howling was incessant and nearly drove Laura mad.
“We can’t keep that dog chained up, Ken,” she said before dinner one evening.
“We can’t very well let him run loose, either.”
“Can’t you fence in part of the yard?”
He just looked at her. “The way this place is laid out? Fence what part in without making it tough to get around? And when am I supposed to find the time to put up a fence for the dog when I have enough trouble with the fences for the cattle?”
Macey looked around and saw she was still alone. She didn’t have far to go, but she knew that if she were spotted, alone at this hour, she’d be dragged back home. And she didn’t plan to see her parents again for a long, long time.
She remembered that awful Friday when she got off the bus, looking forward to spending the weekend with Panda.
She had burst into the house. “Mommy! I can’t find Panda!”
Both her parents were waiting for her; her mother looked nervous. Her father sat her down and spoke in soft but firm tones.
“Macey, I thought Panda would be a good dog for you and for the farm. But he wasn’t. A dog as destructive as he is when he isn’t getting attention is just bad news for a farm. I found a nice home for him. Some people in town have a big, fenced-in yard and Panda’s going to be their dog.”
“He’s gone?” Her father nodded. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye! How could you get rid of my dog?” she screamed. “I hate you!” She yelled that all the way to her bedroom where she spent the evening, and most of the weekend, crying.
Macey wiped a tear away as she remembered her initial heartbreak. She cursed her parents with the special hatred only a seven-year-old can muster. She had held out one hope which she expressed a couple of weeks later.
“What do you want for your birthday?” Laura asked.
“I want Panda back.”
Her parents exchanged a long-suffering look.
“Well, that’s not going to happen, kid,” her father said, “so think of something else.”
“I want Panda.”
The drone of an engine started to come closer and Macey scampered into the ravine and and dug in under the fallen leaves. The old pickup rattled by without slowing. When it was almost out of earshot, Macey got up and started walking again.
She hadn’t thought her parents would let her birthday go by without making her happy. They had known exactly what she wanted, and she had been counting on it with all her heart.
“Surprise!” half a dozen people shouted that Saturday.
Macey saw her parents, her aunt Betsy and uncle Stan and cousin Howie. Her school friends Beth, Darla, and Stacey were also there in the living room. There were a few balloons and her aunt and her friends held brightly wrapped gifts. A large wrapped box sat on the floor, and a birthday cake was on the table. Everyone was smiling.
Macey looked around expectantly, daring to smile herself for the first time in almost two months. She ran past the guests and into the kitchen and out the door.
“Panda! Come here, boy!”
Only silence greeted her. She called again.
Her father came out onto the small porch.
“Macey, Panda isn’t coming back. I’ve told you that. But we’ve got everyone here for your birthday and some nice presents. Come on back inside.”
She looked up at him through tear-filled eyes. “Panda isn’t here?”
“But it’s my birthday.” And she dropped to her knees and sobbed.
Ken walked down the stairs to her.
“Macey, your mother and I have done everything we can to make this a good birthday for you. Now come in and let’s enjoy it.”
“It’s not my birthday without Panda!” she screamed. “It’s not my birthday!”
Her father stood up. “Fine. It’s not your birthday.” He reached down and grabbed her up and gave her one swat. “Go to your room if you can’t be grateful.”
Macey ran past her family and friends and to her room and screamed and cried into her pillow. She never knew what her parents told the party guests.
Later that evening, at her mother’s insistence, she came out for supper. Her presents sat in a pile near the couch, but she ignored them. Her birthday cake, decorated with clowns and seven candles, still sat on the table. Macey gave it one disinterested look and ate her supper in silence before going to bed. Just before falling asleep, Macey thought she heard her mother crying, and she felt that was only appropriate.
She was nearing her destination and she was passing more and more houses. She tried to keep low and move quickly so that she wouldn’t be spotted by any early risers. She was too close now to fail.
Macey wondered idly about the big present she hadn’t unwrapped, and what kind of cake her mother had made. Not that she cared. Panda hadn’t been there for her birthday so nothing else mattered.
A terrible birthday hadn’t been the worst thing to happen.
After getting off the school bus on Monday, Macey had walked past the tree where Panda’s doghouse used to be and up the stairs into the kitchen. As she went through the house, she found her mother sitting on the couch. She looked like she had been crying and like she might again.
“Macey, come here, honey.”
Macey slowly approached her mother. She knew no good was going to come of whatever her mother had to say.
“Macey, your daddy called the people who took Panda. He was going to try to get him back for you.” She took a deep breath. “But Panda got out of his yard and ran away. He was hit by a big truck as he crossed the highway near here. He’s gone, honey.”
A single tear ran down Macey’s cheek. The news was too big to take in.
“When did he get loose?”
Laura had prayed Macey would not ask, because she was not a woman to lie to her daughter.
“Saturday,” she whispered.
Macey thought about this. “Panda was trying to come home for my birthday.” More tears ran down her face and she slowly walked into her bedroom, where she had done so much crying recently.
Dawn had finally broken and it found Macey near the intersection of the county road that led back home and the highway where Panda had been killed. Cars and trucks whizzed by and if anyone noticed a small girl they gave no sign.
She was not crying now, even as she remembered learning of her beloved dog’s death. She was thinking of what her mother had told her later that day:
“Panda didn’t suffer, honey. It was quick, and he’s in heaven now where he can run and play and he’ll be waiting for you to join him someday.”
Macey looked north and saw an eighteen-wheeler barreling down the blacktop. She laughed as she ran into the road to meet it.
She was going to be reunited with Panda.