And as it turned out, Ginger and Kickie weren’t the only surprise. Shalla, the tall, black short-hair, decided she liked hanging around the West Wing and was as likely to be snoozing in one of the offices there as she was in her kennel. Staff had been warned not to feed her and to keep an alert eye on any office snacks since Shalla was perfectly capable of pulling food off of desks and would sometimes snatch a tidbit from someone’s hand. And while most of the staff was perfectly happy to welcome Shalla to their cubicles with pats and smiles, there was the odd staff member who either had allergies or just wasn’t that fond of dogs. Sharon’s second secretary, Dianne Bowen, was afraid of dogs, in general, and was out and out terrified of the very large Shalla.
“Which is ridiculous,” pointed out Sharon’s first secretary, Julie, a few days after the dogs had arrived.
She and Sharon had just gotten Diane calmed down after Shalla’s latest visit and were hiding in Sharon’s office. Shalla was napping in a nearby corner.
“I can understand being a little nervous,” Julie continued. “Shalla’s pretty big. But come on. She’s nothing but a big old love muffin.”
Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “I know. But apparently, there was a childhood trauma with Diane.”
“I suppose,” Julie grumbled.
Sharon sighed. “Isn’t it getting any better between you two?”
“I’m trying,” Julie said. “But, Sharon, she has no sense of humor. She wants everything done her way. And she has no patience with people who don’t speak English.”
“I know.” Sharon frowned. “But she’s great on getting reports done. And there really isn’t much I can do about her personality if her work’s up to par, and except for the phones, it is.”
“And it’s not fair to ruin her career because she’s a rule-bound prissy witch.” Julie rolled her eyes. “Sometimes it sucks to be the good guys.”
Sharon laughed. She looked over at Shalla. The dog stirred as Julie left the office. Sharon’s mobile phone rang as Shalla got up, shook and began to pace. Sharon decided that she could talk to the aide in Johannisberg about the President’s upcoming visit while taking the dog outside as easily as talking in the office. It wasn’t a particularly difficult discussion, just one focused on the complex logistics of such a visit and one Sharon had already had with another aide from the South African foreign ministry. So she murmured soothingly into the phone as she led the large black dog from her office to a door leading out toward the South lawn.
She wasn’t the first staffer to do so, and there was a small box near the door filled with tennis balls and other dog toys. Shalla wandered around the grass nearby and watered a small tree. Then she bounded back to Sharon, who was ready with a tennis ball.
Sharon tossed the ball, her other hand holding the phone to her ear. Shalla yipped excitedly and tore after the ball. Sharon was still talking as the dog scampered up, ball in mouth. Sharon snapped her fingers and held out her hand. Shalla deposited the ball, Sharon threw it again, and Shalla ran after.
As Sharon tossed the ball for the fourth time, Matt sauntered up from around one corner or another, Sharon didn’t see which one. The teen was dressed in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt, this being one of his days off from working for his uncle. Sharon waved at him as she finished the call, then made her notes.
“Hey,” Matt said, with something less than his usual enthusiasm. “Playing with Shalla, huh?”
“More or less,” Sharon replied.
She looked him over, pondering. Matt was usually insatiably curious about her calls, but this time, his gaze remained fixated on the dog running toward them, ball in mouth.
“What’s up?” Sharon asked as Shalla dropped the tennis ball into Matt’s hand.
Matt drew back and threw the ball well into the trees surrounding the lawn. Shalla yipped and ran after it.
“Nothing much,” Matt said and winced. “Well, you know, family weirdness.”
“With your aunt and uncle?” Sharon asked.
“They’re fine.” Matt paused, looking out over the lawn in the direction Shalla had run. “It’s my mom. We’ve been emailing. Not a lot, you know. But some.”
“Really.” Sharon debated how to approach the revelation. From what she’d gathered, Matt’s estrangement from his parents was pretty firm, and just because there was some thawing in the relationship didn’t mean it was a good thing from the teen’s perspective.
“Is it a good thing?”
“I guess.” Matt scrunched up his face. “I mean, it’s not like I want my mom to hate me. Anyway, I called her today.”
“Oh, yeah. She asked about my new school and all. And I told her about football tryouts. And she didn’t say I had to, which she totally would have before, but she did say if I played football, it might make things easier with my dad.”
“So when are tryouts?”
“Anytime, really. I was thinking of going out tomorrow morning. But I don’t know. I mean, I like playing, but I hate it when I have to.”
Sharon nodded. Shalla came running back. Sharon got the ball and tossed it again. Shalla hurried after.
“That makes sense,” Sharon said. “Did you want to play before your mom suggested it?”
“Yeah, I sort of did.” Matt shrugged. “It’s a lot of fun.”
“It might help you make new friends,” Sharon said. “Have you talked to your uncle about it?”
“He’s been pretty busy today. Has that whole running the country thing going on, you know?” Matt grinned.
Sharon smiled. “Yes, I know.”
“Uncle Mark would probably like it if I did play football,” Matt said. “You know, that staying active and healthy thing.
“He might, although you can get hurt pretty badly playing football.”
“He played football and I know he likes the game.”
“I’m sure he does and you certainly know him better than I do.” Sharon watched as Shalla returned and plopped down at her feet. “But it has been my experience that as soon as you assume you know what your uncle is going to do, he does the exact opposite.”
Matt guffawed. “Yep. That’s Uncle Mark.”
“Listen, Matt.” Sharon put her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I don’t know how your uncle will feel about you playing. But ultimately, there is only one reason you should and it has nothing to do with your uncle, with your parents, with anyone. You play because you want to play. You’re not going to be competitive if your heart’s not in it. And if your heart isn’t in it, there’s really no point. There are too many other ways to stay active and healthy and meet people and all that.”
“Huh. That makes sense.”
“Good. Now I’ve got to get back in and get some work done.”
“Okay, Aunt Sharon.” Matt gave her a quick hug.