The Parent Trap meets Best in Show in this charming novel about a girl who must learn to make peace with the unpredictability of life.
Ella Cohen was skeptical when her mom started dating Krishnan just a few months after her parents’ divorce. But two years later, she really likes having her new stepfather around. When she decides to enter a junior dog show, Krishnan even lets her start handling his dog, Elvis. She’s determined to become an expert handler, even after her first show ends in disaster.
Unfortunately, some things are harder to control—like Ella’s dad, who has changed a lot since the divorce. He used to be laid back and fun, but now he hovers over her constantly, terrified she’s going to shatter into a million pieces if she so much as hints that everything in her life isn’t perfect. Ella is particularly upset that his animosity toward Krishnan keeps him from coming to watch her handle Elvis, especially when she wins a lottery spot in the National Dog Show in Philadelphia.
When Ella’s best friends suggest she find her dad a date to the dog show, it seems like the perfect solution. If her dad has a new girlfriend, surely he won’t mind so much that Ella’s mom has a new husband. So Ella decides to play matchmaker, going so far as to create a fake online dating profile in order to find her dad his one true love.
But it turns out people, much like dogs, aren’t always so easy to control, and Ella’s plan backfires at the worst possible moment. Can Ella manage to bring her divided life together in time for her moment in the spotlight?
Ella Unleashed 1 My stepdad, Krishnan, claims dogs can’t literally smell fear. But I’m pretty sure he’s wrong, because Elvis definitely knows how I’m feeling right now. When Krishnan’s holding his leash, Elvis always seems perfectly calm, tail wagging and tongue out in a relaxed, happy pant. Now that I’m in charge, he won’t stop straining against his collar, making a high-pitched whining sound, and trying to sniff the butt of every single dog we pass. And since there are eight hundred dogs in this convention center, that means a lot of sniffing.
I plant my feet and lift my chin like I’m at the barre in ballet class—if I try to project confidence and calm, maybe it’ll rub off on him. I’m pretty sure I look put together, at least on the outside. I’m in my new purple dress with two giant pockets on the front, perfect for holding Elvis’s treats. My hair is slicked back in a neat bun so it won’t get in my face and distract me. I’m even wearing the lucky watermelon lip gloss my best friends and I always smear on before our big tests and competitions and performances.
I am the alpha dog, I think, but Elvis isn’t buying it. He jumps up on me, both paws planted on my stomach, and when I push him down, he lunges for a fluffy standard poodle. Her handler hurries her away and shoots me a look full of daggers, and I call, “Sorry!” But honestly, I can hardly blame Elvis for that one. I want to touch the ridiculous pom-poms on the poodle’s butt too.
“C’mon, silly boy,” I tell him. “You need a good brushing before showtime.” Mom and Krishnan have already bathed and blow-dried and trimmed him for today’s show, and even after running around the parking lot to work off some extra energy, he looks pretty great. But this will be my very first time taking him into the ring myself, so he needs to look perfect.
Our grooming station is set up to the left of the giant purple banner that says CITY OF AMESBURY CHAMPIONSHIP DOG SHOW. I tug Elvis up the aisle, which is crowded with dogs and their people and lined with vendor booths. We pass Punk Pups, where a woman is selling tiny skull-printed bandanas and motorcycle helmets for dogs. Next to my favorite smoothie vendor, Stan’s Smoothie Shack, is SoulPaws, which will take a cast of your dog’s paw print and make it into a silver pendant you can wear. There are snacks made of organic meat and carob, fake ducks to help retrievers practice for hunting season, and dog jackets that cost more than my down parka. There’s even a booth called Pooch Royale that sells legit dog thrones covered in velvet and pink ruffles.
My dad loves dogs and would think all this stuff is hilarious, and a pang goes through me when I remember that he’ll probably never see it in person. Getting him into the same room as Mom’s new husband is pretty much impossible; sometimes he even looks uncomfortable dropping me off in their driveway. He called this morning to wish me luck in the ring, and he’ll listen to every detail tonight over dinner. I know that’s probably the best he can do right now; it’s not his fault that the divorce has been hard on him. But hearing a replay isn’t the same as cheering me on in person, and even though it might be selfish to want my stepdad and my real dad to come watch me compete, I can’t help wishing for it anyway.
I snap a photo of the closest throne and text it to Dad.
Me: Totally buying you this for your birthday.
When he doesn’t respond right away, I send it to my best friends, Miriam, Jordan, and Keiko, and the “someone’s typing” dots pop up right away.
Jordan: Perfect for pretty pretty princess Elvis!
Keiko: Do they make those in human sizes?
Mir: Amaaaaaazing. Good luck today. You’re gonna do awesome.
I never actually told Mir how nervous I am, but she always knows the right thing to say. I text back that I wish they were here, and all three of them respond with dog emojis and hearts.
“Good gravy, aren’t those dog thrones adorable?” coos an older woman in a beagle-printed tracksuit as I pull Elvis away from the vomit-inducing ruffles. “This would be just perfect for our holiday cards, don’t you think, Earl? We could put an itty-bitty tiara on Baby and get her a little fur-trimmed cape. . . .”
Mom and Krishnan grin and wave when they see me approaching; I think my stepdad is even more excited than I am that I’m competing for the first time today. When my mom started dating him two years ago and told me he was a dog show guy, I was a little worried—I thought his house would be covered in massive oil paintings of dogs playing poker and “Love Me, Love My Dog” throw pillows. But he turned out to be a totally regular guy who happened to love Welsh springer spaniels, and after he took me to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City last year, I got hooked too. When I decided I wanted to try handling, Krishnan spent countless hours practicing with Elvis and me in the backyard. I want to be absolutely flawless today so he’ll feel like all the time he spent was worth it.
“Hey, Ella,” he calls when we get close. “How’d things go outside?” Elvis leaps with joy at the sight of his beloved owner, and his tail goes completely insane when my stepdad rubs his long auburn ears.
“Good,” I say. “I managed to keep him from rolling in anything.”
“Did he pee?”
“Yeah.” Talking about Elvis’s bathroom habits used to really embarrass me, but now I can discuss dog pee with the best of them. It makes me proud, in a weird way.
“Perfect,” Krishnan says. “Let’s give him one last primp.”
My mom and stepdad swing their forty-five-pound dog onto the grooming table in one smooth motion—they go to shows practically every weekend, so they’ve had tons of practice—and Mom hands me a brush. When I glance over at the table to my left, I spot a tiny woman rubbing powdered chalk all over her enormous sheepdog to make him look whiter, which is totally against the rules. On our other side, a woman in a sweatshirt that says MY DOG IS PAWESOME is sneakily darkening the white spots on her bulldog’s muzzle with an eyeliner pencil.
“You feeling ready?” Mom asks as I make sure Elvis’s belly fur is perfectly straight.
My stomach jumps at the thought of a judge’s sharp eyes on me. When Krishnan took Elvis into the ring to compete against all the other Welsh springer spaniels earlier today, the judge was just looking for the most perfect dog. Later today, the dog who won—the Best of Breed—will move on to compete against the winners of the other twenty-five breeds in the sporting group. Then the best sporting dog will go up against the winners of the six other groups: herding dogs, working dogs, terriers, hounds, toys, and non-sporting dogs. The very best dog of all will be named Best in Show.
In junior showmanship, though, there’s only one single shot to impress the judge, who ranks the kids on how well we handle our dogs. I’m the one who has to be perfect, not Elvis.
But I say, “Yeah, I’m ready. We did great when we practiced yesterday, didn’t we, Elvis?” I’ve been over each movement in my head a million times this morning, and I’m sure I’ve got them down.
“You guys are going to do so well today,” Mom says. She glances at her phone. “It’s almost time—we should get going.”
I give Elvis a once-over; he looks soft and shiny from his nose to the tip of his swishy tail. “All right. Let’s go, buddy,” I say. “We’re gonna kick some doggy butt.” For just one second, I allow myself to imagine winning my very first time in the ring. I would get a million likes on Instagram if I posted a selfie with my dog and my ribbon, and my parents would be so ridiculously proud.
I check my phone, but Dad still hasn’t texted back. I shove it into my pocket and try not to think about it.
On the way to my ring, we pass a group of bichons competing for Best of Breed; they look like a bunch of giant cotton balls bouncing in a circle. We skirt around two women who have their dogs’ faces bedazzled on the backs of their jackets, and then we’re at ring ten, where a few juniors are already lined up. I check in with the steward and collect Elvis’s show number, which Krishnan rubber bands to my upper arm, and he and Mom hug me and wish me luck. Then they settle into empty plastic chairs across the ring, and I get in line behind few other girls and one boy.
A wave of nerves washes over me the second I’m on my own, and my clenched hand begins to sweat around the fancy beaded show leash. Elvis senses my change of mood and immediately starts getting antsy again, pulling me forward so he can sniff the butt of the German shepherd in front of us.
I tug him back. “No! Stay. I’m the alpha dog, not you.”
“First time?” asks a girl from behind me.
She looks a couple years older than me—maybe a freshman in high school—and like almost everyone here, she’s wearing a matching jacket and skirt with sparkles around the cuffs, collar, and hem. Should I have gone for an outfit like that? What is it with dog shows and sequins?
“Just psyching myself up,” I say. The girl raises one eyebrow, and I sigh. “Okay, yes. I mean, for me it is—not for him. Is it that obvious?”
“You’re going to do fine,” she says, which isn’t exactly an answer, but her friendly smile makes me feel a little calmer. “What’s your dog’s name?”
That seems like it should be an easy question. But I’m not sure if she means his everyday name or his long, complicated show name—Champion Chernushka’s Lucky Number Seven—which includes his rank, the name of the kennel where he was born, and something related to his mom’s name, Viva Las Vegas. I don’t think I can get the show name out without feeling ridiculous, so I say “Elvis” and hope for the best.
The girl nods, so I guess I got it right. “He’s beautiful,” she says.
“Thanks. What’s yours named?”
“This is Dempsey.” Her dog has dreadlocks that reach all the way to the floor, kind of like a living mop.
“Those dogs are so funny-looking,” I say. “In a good way, I mean. Does he take forever to dry when you give him a bath?”
“Almost an entire day. And you wouldn’t believe how bad he smells when he’s wet.” She wrinkles her nose. “I’m Amber, by the way.”
I smile when I realize we swapped our dogs’ names but forgot to exchange our own—that makes me an official dog person, I think. Krishnan and I know all the dogs at the neighborhood park, but we refer to all the humans as “Hazel’s owner” or “Pretzel’s dad.”
“I’m Ella,” I say. Dempsey starts tugging on his leash, and Amber reaches into her bra and pulls out a treat for him. It seems like that would be an uncomfortable place to store them; I bet she wishes her skirt had pockets like mine does. Then again, it’s way better than carrying your dog’s treats in your own mouth, which I’ve seen tons of people do. I mean, I love Elvis and everything, but that is vile.
“So, have you competed in lots of shows before?” I ask Amber.
“Maybe five or six,” she says like it’s no big deal. “I’m trying to get my third win so I can qualify for the National Dog Show in Philadelphia. Have you been? It’s really fun.”
“I’m actually competing there this year,” I say. “I won one of the lottery spots.” Just saying the words makes my stomach knot up. Getting randomly chosen from a pool of kids to compete in such a big important show seemed exciting and cool when I read the “You’ve been selected” e-mail in the safety of my mom’s kitchen. But if I’m this nervous for a show with six other juniors, I have no idea how I’m going to manage competing against thirty.
“Oh, cool,” says Amber, but she sounds slightly less friendly now. I guess that makes sense, since she deserves the spot way more than I do. But I’m planning to compete in at least two or three more shows before the National Dog Show, so there’s still time for me to rack up a few wins. If all goes well, I’ll feel like I really earned it by the time I get there.
“All intermediate juniors in the novice class to the ring,” calls the steward, and my heart kicks up another notch.
“Good luck,” says Amber.
“Thanks, I need it,” I say. “Good luck to you too.”
The kids in front of me file into the ring, and I take a deep breath and get ready to follow. Mom and Krishnan beam at me, and I try to smile back. You’ve got this, I tell myself. You were terrified before your solo in the spring dance recital, and it went perfectly. You know exactly what to do.
Then again, my dad was there in the very front row of that dance recital, making our secret “good luck” hand signal: two thumbs-ups with the thumbs crossed to make an X. It’s always so much easier to compete and perform when all the people I love are there to cheer me on. But having divorced parents means making compromises, and not having Dad here today is just another thing I’m going to have to deal with.
I draw myself up to my full five feet and hold my head high. “Come on, boy,” I say to Elvis. “Time to go.”
He looks up at me with his big liquid eyes, and then he sits down.
“Elvis!” I say. “Come! Come on!” I tug on his leash, but he just stares up at me, tongue hanging out and tail wagging. It’s not the same wag he did for Krishnan earlier; this one is more of a slow thump-thump-thump against the floor. He’s clearly trying to tell me something, but I don’t speak tail wag.
“Do you want a treat?” I ask. His tail speeds up when he hears that word, so I pull one out of my dress pocket and hold it up to lure him into the ring. He focuses on it for a second . . . and then everything goes wrong at once.
Elvis launches himself at me and clamps his jaws around my skirt like a furry shark snacking on a seal. The world suddenly feels like it’s moving in slow motion, and I have time to feel my pocket ripping off, to see the treats scatter across the carpet, to hear the gasps of the crowd around the ring. I have time to think about what an unbelievably stupid rookie mistake it was to carry my dog’s treats right at his nose level—no wonder Amber keeps hers in her bra. And then a cool breeze kisses my thighs, and I watch the steward’s mouth form a perfect O, and I realize it’s not only my pocket that’s gone. The entire front panel of my dress is torn up to the waistband, exposing my Wonder Woman underwear to the whole convention center.
I frantically gather the fabric around my legs, all my hopes of a perfect first show evaporating in a puff of smoke. There won’t be a beautiful purple ribbon or a triumphant Instagram post. There’s only me and my burning-red cheeks and my ripped dress and my dog, who’s zooming around the floor and inhaling treats like this is the best day of his life.
I manage to plaster on a fake smile and tell Amber to go around me. But the moment she’s gone, my eyes well up, and a huge lump makes itself at home in my throat. I’ve been training for this for six months, and now I can’t even go into the ring, and it’s all my fault. When I was shopping for show dresses, I only considered which pockets would be most convenient for me. I never even considered that they’d be equally convenient for Elvis. How could I have forgotten such an important variable?
I did almost everything right. But “almost” doesn’t count in competition. “Almost” is the difference between being a champion and a laughingstock.
Alison Cherry is the author of the YA novels Red, For Real and Look Both Ways, and the middle grade novels Willows vs. Wolverines and The Classy Crooks Club. She is a professional photographer and spent many years working as a lighting designer for theater, dance, and opera productions. This whole “writing books” thing is just a cover for the international crime ring she runs out of her Brooklyn apartment. (Shhh, don’t tell.) Visit her online at AlisonCherryBooks.com.