Max ran all the way home from the store even though it was the hottest day of summer vacation so far. He arrived out of breath and with a trickle of sweat running down his nose.
"Mom," he shouted, bursting through the back door,"can I use the phone?"
"Max!" exclaimed Mom, looking up from the sink, where she was peeling carrots. "What happened?"
Max stuck a skinny hand into the pocket of his pants and eased out a scrap of paper. Carefully, he laid it on the kitchen table. His heart was thumping loudly--partly because he'd run so fast in the heat and partly because he was scared that Mom would say he couldn't use the phone. He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak slowly and not babble like he ususally did when he was excited.
"Someone needs a pet sitter. There was an ad in the pet-store window, and I wrote it down. Listen to this."
Max began to read from the slip of paper: Pet Sitter wanted to look after my cat START NOW GOOD PAY Call Miss W. Itchy 555-2234
Mom laughed as she took the paper from Max and read the ad for herself. Max held his breath and willed her to say yes. He loved animals and was desperate to have a pet, but he couldn't get one because of his big sister, Alice. Alice was allergic to animals. They made her sneeze and gave her a rash.
"Well," said Mom thoughtfully, "it's a good idea, but if you take the job, you'll have to see it through to the end. You can't give up after a few days because you're bored with it."
"As if!" exclaimed Max. "I'd never get bored with it. You know how much I want a pet. I'll call the number, okay?"
"Thanks, Mom," said Max, hugging his mother.
Mom wanted to speak to Miss Itchy first, so Max punched the number on the keypad and then handed her the the telephone. It rang six times before Miss Itchy answered, and when Max heard her voice trill from the receiver, his heart skipped a beat. Would the job still be available?
It was! Miss Itchy asked Max to come by and meet her cat, Tiger, right away. Max smoothed his unruly hair with his hands and put on his best nonholy sneakers. He was nervous and eager to make a good first impression.
On the way to Miss Itchy's house, Max tried to remember all the things he knew about cats. They were intelligent and independent creatures and they made good companions. Tiger was a good name, Max decided, imagining a huge striped cat with tons of energy.
Max walked up and down Sea View Road several times before he found Miss Itchy's house, The Owl House. It was at the end of a narrow alley, and Max walked past the entrance three times before he realized it was there. The alley ran between two high brick walls. It was a dark and creepy place, and Max glanced nervously over his shoulder, sure that someone was following him. It was a relief when he reached the end of the alley and found a wooden gate with The Owl House painted on it in wobbly letters.
Max's hand trembled as he unlatched the gate and made his way to the door. He knew he would make an excellent pet sitter if only Miss Itchy would give him the chance to try. The door had an unusual bell; it was shaped like an owl, with eyes that lit up when Max pushed it. It made no sound, so Max pushed it again, but harder. This time the eyes flashed amber, and from deep inside the house an owl hooted.
"Spooky!" said Max, half wanted to run away.
Suddenly the door opened, revealing a short, dumpy lady dressed in black pants and a gold shirt.
"Max?" she asked, and when Max nodded, she smiled toothily and said, "come on in."
Her creaky voice sent a shiver down Max's spine, and he didn't move.
"Come along--no need to be shy."
Miss Itchy wrapped her green fingernails around his arm, and before he could resist, Max was pulled inside the house.