The day after the Fourth of July, Mama told Ellie that Peanut Butter ran off. But I knew what that really meant. After all, Ellie was only six and I was ten. Old enough to go to the grocery store by myself, find everything on Mama's list, and make sure crotchety Mrs. Donahue with her weird glass eye gave us back the right amount of change. I've always been good at counting, and I can tell when Mrs. Donahue tries to cheat me. She'll blink too much and her eyelid over the glass eye gets stuck. It's creepy.
Anyway, ten means I'm old enough to know when Mama is speaking truth or lie, and "ran off" was a plumb lie. We live in the right middle of nowhere, with nothing for Peanut Butter to run off to. Our neighbor Mr. Rickland hates dogs on account of they make him sneeze and cough till he can't breathe, and like I said, Mrs. Donahue don't take kindly to anyone, human or animal.
And Peanut Butter himself is dumb as rocks, and I doubt he could hunt for himself. Mama always said he was more another mouth to feed than a true guard dog, but Ellie loved him anyway and snuck him scraps from the dinner table when Mama wasn't looking.
So no, given his easy life here with us, I was quite certain that dog didn't run off. Which meant that something worse had happened, and Mama didn't want to see Ellie cry and ask questions like where dogs went after they died.
'Course, Ellie still cried, thinking of a poor lost Peanut Butter somewhere out in those endless cornfields, but then she wiped her face and said she was going to find a way to get him home.
Mama looked at me and I looked at her, and then she did that silent Mama thing of hers where she can tell you what to do without saying a word. And she most certainly wanted me to follow after Ellie to make sure she didn't get herself lost like poor Peanut Butter, who was more than likely dead. Even if Ellie didn't know that.
So I finished my breakfast and trailed after my sister, annoyed that she was too young to know the truth about alive or dead.
Ellie checked all of Peanut Butter’s favorite haunts around the house and barn. Mama never liked animals inside, but sometimes on cold winter nights, or stormy nights, or nights full of bad dreams, or really any night she could get away with it, Ellie would smuggle him inside and let him sleep on her toes.
I suppose it was the only time Peanut Butter ever was a good guard dog. Ellie bribed me not to tell Mama by saying she'd do all the chores I hated most, like scraping out the henhouse and scrubbing the dishes when Mama burnt a meal. (Which happens quite a lot, 'cause Mama has no patience for cooking either.)
We checked under Ellie’s bed and then under mine, though Peanut Butter never bothered to guard me, and then beneath the back porch where he could often be found after nicking one of
the ham bones. We searched through the tumbled hay in the barn and around the junk heap half hidden by weeds. Ellie called and called his name, but no dog came.
The longer we spent the more worried Ellie looked, and I could see the tears starting to return, but she tried to be brave and not let them fall. Guilt started to eat at me for knowing the truth and not telling her, but Mama had said in her silent Mama way that the lie was better than the truth.
And I had to agree, 'cause knowing Peanut Butter was dead and not just run off left me sadder than I wanted to admit, and I sure didn't want Ellie to feel the same no-hope way. I wanted her to think Peanut Butter maybe would come back, some day.
Before bed, Ellie made sure to leave out bowls of table scraps and tins of water in all of Peanut Butter's favorite haunts. Mama didn't try to stop her, maybe 'cause she felt some way of guilty too. Then she tucked us in and kissed us goodnight, promising Ellie that she would keep a porch light on since Peanut Butter was afraid of the dark, but he might find his way home if he could see where the house was.
Ellie sniffled and tossed in the bed until I snapped at her to hush, and then she did burst into tears. I was tired from the long day of looking for Peanut Butter and ignoring that guilty-feeling, but even I knew what I said were unkind, the kind of thing Mrs. Donahue would do. And I weren't Mrs. Donahue, even if I was older and knew the truth and Ellie didn't.
So I crept into her bed and held her close, a steady heavy presence against her like I imagined Peanut Butter used to be. By and by, the tears dried up and Ellie fell asleep.
I woke late the next morning, I guess 'cause Mama was still feeling that guilt, but when I opened my eyes Ellie weren't in the bed beside me. And when I went into the kitchen, she weren't in there either. Mama said she woke just before dawn to check if any of the bowls had been touched.
But I guess none of them had been 'cause she hadn't come inside, just sat on the porch staring out into the cornfields. Mama had left a bowl of hot cereal next to her, but she hadn't eat any. Now it was a cold glob, with flies buzzing about, so I chucked it over the edge and sat down beside Ellie.
"It's only been one day," I said, trying to cheer her up. Her eyes were red and the front of her dress were wet from wiping away tears so Mama and me wouldn't see. "Maybe he's on an adventure."
Ellie shook her head. "He's not coming back, Mira."
I bit my lip then, worrying on the truth.
"You don't know that," were the only words I figured I could say, the only lie I could get past my traitor tongue.
"Peanut Butter always comes when I call. And I called and called. I left out all his favorite foods, ham bones and cheese and those crunchy bits of bread." Ellie started to sniffle again. "And the only thing that touched it were mice."
I wish Mama would have come out to the porch then, and told Ellie what I couldn't. Explain what happened to Peanut Butter. 'Cause right then I didn't feel old enough, like a ten year old who could do the grocery shopping all by herself. I felt more like Ellie, wondering if our dog being gone forever had to be the truth. 'Cause I would have like to believe the lie too.
Ellie seemed to come to the truth without me saying anything, and she wiped away the last of her tears, took a deep breath, and stood up. "If Peanut Butter's gone then we gotta give him a proper send off. He's a good dog and that's what he deserves."
I figured Mama wouldn't say no, not since she had tried so hard to keep from upsetting Ellie. And Ellie insisted we had to go about everything just right, like when we held the wake for Grandpa two years ago. I think Mama wanted to argue that Peanut Butter weren’t human like Grandpa, but then she pinched her lips and nodded, and agreed to make some apple bread for our guests.
Then Ellie and me went to gather wildflowers from the roadside and invite Mr. Rickland, Miss Donahue, and the Parker boys who went to school with Ellie to come to the wake this evening.
We gathered armfuls of flowers, dandelions and forget-me-nots and wild violets that we sorted into jars of water and placed along the porch rail. Ellie thought Peanut Butter would have liked it best to be remembered there, where he liked to nap and watch the squirrels steal dried corn from the silo. Mama didn't say nothing this time about how he was a bad guard dog.
Then Ellie raided our store of candles and lit those just before the sky started to darken. Mr. Rickland and Mrs. Donahue came trotting up the road together, both looking a tad confused by all the hubbub but still dressed nice like they was on the way to Sunday service. Ellie greeted them with her best manners, a pitcher of lemonade, and slices of Mama's not-too-burnt apple bread. They offered their condolences and took seats next to Mama. The Parker boys arrived late but then they were always late to everything. Still, they brought a plate of oatmeal cookies and their kindness made Ellie's ears go pink.
Once we was all assembled, Ellie cleared her throat and took center stage, holding a stubby candle in her little hands. I thought she looked old enough then to know the difference between truth and lie.
"Peanut Butter was one of the very best dogs I knew. He was always kind and loyal, and he was brave when I weren't strong enough to be brave," she said, and I were awful proud of her. "I hope Peanut Butter liked us as much as we liked him, and I hope he knows how much we'll miss him." She stopped and looked at me. "You want to say anything, Mira?"
I swallowed as every eye, including Mrs. Donahue's creepy glass one, turned toward me. Being ten, I shouldn't have been so scared to talk in front of all of them but I was. Ellie smiled, all hopeful like, so I imagined Peanut Butter being brave for me like he used to do for her on those thunder-storming nights and I stood up next to her.
"Peanut Butter is what a good dog should be. He might not have been the fastest or the strongest, but he loved us the most," I gulped out. Ellie took my hand to steady its awful trembling. "I hope now he gets to chase all the squirrels and eat all the ham bones he wants."
"To Peanut Butter!" Mama said then, lifting her glass of lemonade.
"To Peanut Butter!" echoed Mr. Rickland and Mrs. Donahue, and the two Parker boys, and they lifted their glasses too.
Ellie smiled and sniffled, just a little, and I thought maybe then the truth weren't so bad, 'cause we were able to send Peanut Butter off well.
A week later, I took Ellie with me to the grocery store. She hadn't wanted to do much of anything but Mama said going out would do her good. I think she figured if Ellie could organize a wake for a dog, she could handle Mrs. Donahue.
I even let her be in charge of the list and helped her count out the change for the flour and milk. Mrs. Donahue peered down at us with her glass eye and tried to claim one of the pennies was fake, but Ellie stuck out her chin and insisted it was real. I was right proud of her.
We was on our way out of the store, me with the flour sack and her clutching the milk bottle, when something taped in the window caught her eye. I tried to tell her we had to hurry so the milk wouldn't spoil, but Ellie didn't listen. She pointed to the paper with a rough sketch of a dog, and asked me to read it 'cause she still weren't confident with letters.
"Found dog on Larson's farm," I read out slow. "Black and tan coat, about fifty pounds. Scared of loud noises."
"It's Peanut Butter!" she gasped, and 'course she dropped the milk.
This story won Honorable Mention in the Children's/YA Category for the Writer's Digest 89th Annual Writing Competition! You can find the rest of the competition winners (and read the top stories!) listed on writersdigest.com following the publication of the Writer's Digest November/December 2020 issue.