Danielle waved to the bus driver as he closed the school bus doors. Squaring her shoulders, Dani shifted her backpack and started trudging down the sidewalk towards home. That booger-faced doodie-head boy from three rows back had thrown a blob of gum at her again. It was still stuck, tangled up tight in her wavy red hair. It wasn't fair. Nobody bothered her on the bus when Liz was there too, and Liz was two whole years younger. Sighing, started pulling it out, trying to leave as much of her hair in the ponytail as she could. She was focusing so much on the gum she almost tripped over the box on her front porch. Got the gum out through.
Dani flicked the gum off into the bushes by the porch, off the side with the empty planter that Mom kept promising to fill ‘next weekend.’ Then, Dani fished her key out of her backpack, scooped up the box, unlocked the door, and headed inside.
Looked like Aunt Fran (well, great-aunt really) had reused an Amazon box again. It was probably Liz’s ninth birthday present. If so, it was a week early this year. Last year, the Christmas presents hadn’t shown up until January.
Dani locked the front door behind her, ditched her shoes and backpack by the door, and headed into the kitchen. Mom and Daddy weren't home yet to tell her not to eat any toast, that she'd wreck her appetite for dinner. Toast was better than dinner anyway. It was Mom’s night to cook — rubbery chicken and mushy veggies. If she was real unlucky, it'd be lima beans. Maybe it was how Mom made them, but that dry, gritty texture was just gross. Daddy never made limas beans. Besides, Dani was really hungry. She'd been grabbing a snack after school, when Daddy came home, AND eating all of dinner all week. Mom hadn't even noticed yet. Stupid growth spurt.
Dani pulled the step-stool out of the broom closet, dragged it in front of the fridge, climbed up, and grabbed the squishy white bread from the bakery of breads on top the fridge. Nobody in the house particularly liked the squishy white bread, Daddy just kept it in the house for emergencies since it never seemed to go bad. So, nobody besides Dani was going to notice when she finished the loaf. Probably by the end of the week at this rate; Dani pulled a couple slices out of the bag and put the bag back in the basket.
Dani eyed the box where she'd put it on the counter as she dropped the bread in the toaster (set for just starting to brown — that'd take less time than how brown she really liked it. She was hungry.) Dani really wanted to know what was in that box. Aunt Fran sent neat stuff. But she should really be a good girl. This was Liz’s present. Grabbing the slices out of the toaster and starting to nibble, Dani walked over to the counter and stared at the brown box again.
Aunt Fran had gone practical this time. Or maybe lazy. The Christmas boxes had drawings and Aunt Fran’s fancy writing all over them. This one was very plain. Huh. Dani counted at least three layers of tape on this thing. There was the Amazon branded tape, a layer of clear stuff half of some letters were trapped under, AND another layer on top of that. Aunt Fran had written in Mom & Daddy’s names and the address in black sharpie.
If she got some packing tape, she could tape it back up, good as new.
Dani bit her lip. She should really be a good girl. Mom and Daddy let her stay home instead of going to those stupid after-school activities. She really should be good…
Dani grabbed the tape and a pair of scissors out of Daddy’s messy craft table and ran back to the kitchen. Grabbing Aunt Fran's box, she moved everything to the kitchen table and climbed into her usual spot on the wall bench seat.That wasn’t as far up anymore. Soon it wasn’t going to be a climb at all... Dani shoved the overly puffy pillows Mom and Liz liked out of the way and sat down. Carefully slicing open the box tape revealed a blue gift bag, with black tissue paper peeking out of the top, laid on its side. Ignoring the card attached to the bag, Dani stood it up, looked inside, and felt her heart melt.
Aunt Fran had gotten Liz a stuffed puppy. It was purple and soft and had floppy ears long enough to trip over. Its paws were the size of Dani’s fists and the stuffed tail was curled around and under its butt as it sat. The collar was fuzzy and black and had a circle hanging off the front that said ‘Jak-Jak.’ His muzzle was shaped like a mastiff's and he had a dopey, goofy, happy grin. Dani had never wanted anything so much in her life.
Dani wanted to cry. It wasn't fair. Liz didn't like dogs, she liked Disney. Dani loved dogs and Mom and Daddy wouldn't let her get one. And now Aunt Fran had given Liz a stuffed puppy, not her.
Grabbing the scissors and Jak-Jak, Dani dashed off, first back to Daddy’s crafting bench to return the scissors, then to her room. Depositing Jak-Jak on her bed, Dani scrubbed at the tears in her eyes with the heel of her palm. She hated being this moody. Everything always felt too big, and she ached, and her feet wouldn’t go where she put them; it was embarrassing. Stupid growth spurt. Dani scooped up her Tigger plushie and tried to brush off … well, everything. Turning him over in her hands, Dani bit her lip again. It was a fair trade… Liz loved Tigger, she was always stealing him from Dani’s room.
Dani dashed back to the kitchen and tried to gently stuff Tigger in the gift bag. Once he was more or less hidden in the bag, Dani laid the bag back in the box and taped it back up. Sloppily like Aunt Fran always did. Then off to hide the box in Mom and Daddy’s closet with the rest of the gifts for Liz’s party next week. In the same place they’d hidden Dani’s gifts two months ago. And the Christmas presents before that. They really needed to find a better hiding place.
Dani walked back to her room. She had maybe another half hour to play with Jak-Jak before Daddy and Liz would be home. She'd have to hide him in her backpack. Or Liz would definitely find him next time she snuck into Dani's room. The little sneak was thorough.
Dani stopped just inside her doorway. She stared, a little panicy. Jak-Jak wasn't on the bed where she'd left him. And he hadn’t fallen onto the floor. Where could he have gone? Dani felt tears coming back into her eyes.
A deep, reverberating, oddly high-pitched yip came from Dani’s left, from behind the open door. Right before a large something crashed into Dani and she hit the floor, with whatever it was on top of her.
Dani looked up at very large, purple-furred muzzle a couple inches in-front of her nose. The rest of the doggy head it was attached to was huge, bigger than Dani, bigger than her bed! As she started to get real scared though, all of the doggy started shrinking down. The huge feet, the enormous floppy ears, the barrel chest wider than Daddy, everything shrunk until the doggy was the size of a full grown mastiff. But still puppy shaped. Dani erupted in giggles as its floppy, slobbery tongue gave her puppy kisses and its tail wagged furiously. Ticklish!
Dani reached up and vigorously scratched behind the ears, before rolling the puppy over to wrestle. There wasn’t a collar or tag anymore, but the fur was exactly the same color as the stuffed puppy had been. This one was much more muscular than a stuffed animal could look, but the feet were the same shape, the ears the same floppy length, and the expression was just as goofily happy. The puppy rolled over from where he and Dani were wrestle-petting and dropped its head and front paws dropped into a bouncy puppy bow.
“Play?!” yipped Jak-Jak.