Chapter One: The McNiffs Go to the Beach CHAPTER ONE The McNiffs Go to the Beach
IN A LARGE PINK FARMHOUSE at 238 Marigold Lane lives a most unusual nanny: Lord Tennyson, a short, middle-aged gentleman with white whiskers and a royal pedigree. If he could speak, it would be with dignity and a touch of an English accent. If he wore clothing, he imagines he’d wear a suit of gray silk and a striped bow tie. But he does neither because Lord Tennyson is a dog, a miniature schnauzer to be exact, who wears only a blue-and-green collar that has teeth marks in it from when Sweetums was going through a particularly bad biting phase.
Despite his distinguished appearance and pedigree, he was not spending his morning caring for a dignitary’s son or the daughter of the president. Rather, his duty was herding the unruly McNiff children from the old pink farmhouse into the old red farm truck for the first swim of summer vacation. There were six of them: two boys and four girls. As you can imagine, getting all of them to and from the lake was not an easy task. There were swimsuits, sunscreen, towels, toys, and countless cheese sticks to pack. (Lord Tennyson loved cheese sticks, so he packed a few extra for himself.) There was whining and shushing and clambering and squishing into one another as the children jockeyed for their favorite grubby, crumb-filled seats. There was yanking on seat belts or trying to disregard them altogether until Lord Tennyson’s stern, reprimanding eyebrow demanded buckling.
By the time they finally set off, Lord Tennyson was already panting from the incredible effort and early-morning heat. (After all, he always wore a lovely coat of fur.) He settled onto nine-year-old Ezra’s lap, relishing in his favorite part of any ride: sticking his head out the window and allowing his tongue to flap in the wind. Long strings of drool trailed behind, which was a completely undignified look, but without a linen handkerchief, unavoidable.
This luxury did not last long. Lord Tennyson, always in high demand, was immediately snatched off Ezra’s lap by eleven-year-old Mary.
“Oh, sweet baby,” Mary cooed, holding him like he was the infant and scratching his stomach.
Lord Tennyson did not appreciate being yanked and grabbed. Also, he was not a “sweet baby.” Yet he understood that humans had a great need to baby talk to furry, adorable creatures like himself. He also tolerated most anything from his charges for belly scratches.
“I had Tenny first,” Ezra said, pulling him back off Mary’s lap. Mary frowned, her brown eyes narrowing behind her cat-eyed frames.
Mrs. McNiff, whom Lord Tennyson called Honey (because that was what Mr. McNiff called her), glanced in the rearview mirror expectantly. This was Lord Tennyson’s cue to wriggle loose, shake out his fur, and step firmly between the two children. But before he could distract Mary, she whispered, “Don’t be surprised, Ezzie, if you find yourself in a hole tomorrow morning!” This, you see, was exactly the type of bad-mannered behavior that had earned her the title of “Naughty Mary.”
Honey, who did not quite have the keen sense of hearing that Lord Tennyson had, smiled approvingly at him as they rumbled down the dusty country road. Despite the squabbling, Lord Tennyson’s confidence was sure. No, his task was not an easy one, as worthwhile work never is, but he did not doubt his child-rearing abilities, for he knew he was a rather spectacular dog. And clearly, Honey knew it too, which made his heart swell.
When they arrived, the children ran across the beach sand, but Lord Tennyson stopped short. He was not allowed on the town beach. There was a large sign that said so. Though the rules were unfair, Lord Tennyson followed them because he knew children modeled their behavior after their caretakers. Oh yes, he would have liked to race the children, feel the warm sand under his paws, the wind in his fur. But then again, he did not swim. In fact, he hated getting wet. The only time he enjoyed water was when he was drinking it. So perhaps it was all for the best.
Lord Tennyson obeyed the sign and trotted over to his favorite lilac bush with the good vantage point, ready to lie down beneath the fragrant branches. He wanted to nap, but he was on duty, and when at the lake, he was like a hawk tracking a mouse, especially when it came to Sweetums, who had a propensity for sand-throwing and near-drowning episodes.
At eighteen months, Sweetums was the baby of the family, and like most babies, she was very spoiled. With a name like “Sweetums” and a small fountain of angelic blond curls sprouting from the top of her head, she was often mistaken for having an angelic personality. If you knew Sweetums, “angelic” would not be the word you would use to describe her. And in truth, most times it was only her extreme cuteness that kept her alive.
Lord Tennyson lay with his head on his paws, watching her crawl across the sand, away from Honey and her brothers and sisters. He made a mental note: this was the summer he had to teach that baby to walk. After all, she was practically a toddler, and still being carried around by himself and her siblings! He raised his head when Sweetums made a sharp left turn and charged toward the water.
She took big licks of water until she choked and spit half the lake out her nose. Lord Tennyson’s ears twitched. Goodness, would she never learn? Just last week he had fished her out of a cleaning bucket after she had decided to stick her head in to blow bubbles. Perhaps he should hold off on the walking lessons, as she was liable to get into even more trouble if mobile.
Sweetums moved away from the water, and Lord Tennyson relaxed. Again his peace was short-lived, as who should he see coming down the beach path but Mrs. Snoot! As usual, Mrs. Snoot did not look like she was having a good day. In one hand she held a giant umbrella, a chair, and a small cooler stocked with sugary beverages. With her other hand she dragged her two small Snoot children, parking herself as far away from the McNiffs as possible. Not wanting to be seen by the Snoots, he backed farther beneath the lilac bush.
Over the next hour, the quiet beach filled with parents, babysitters, chattering children, and the McNiffs’ friends, including Cal Hubbard. Lord Tennyson knew rest time was officially over. Thirteen-year-old Annie, the oldest and most responsible McNiff child, was Sweetums’s official “buddy,” but with Cal on the beach, Annie’s brain was officially mush.
As if on cue, Sweetums, seemingly bored with licking the water, began peeling off her swimsuit, preferring to wander the world completely unclothed. (Lord Tennyson acknowledged that he too was unclothed, but only because he’d never been offered the refined tuxedo he dreamed of.) Sweetums tugged and pulled until the swimsuit was bundled into a wet, sandy ball, then flung it behind her, where it landed on Mrs. Snoot’s large, purple-painted toenail.
Mrs. Snoot squeaked out a horrible noise and flung it off like a disease.
Sweetums stood, wobbled, and pounded her chest like a baby gorilla. She then went to work on removing her diaper. Lord Tennyson cringed at the sight. Sweetums’s backside was already so swollen with lake water, it looked like a giant water balloon was hanging from her bottom. Despite his many nudges that morning, Honey had forgotten the swim diapers. With so many children to look after, she often forgot essential items like this.
Frustrated with the diaper she was unable to get off, Sweetums instead flung herself into the water. Lord Tennyson glanced at Honey, who was reapplying sunscreen to a squirming Mary. Annie, flanked by two school friends, was laughing over something Cal had just said. Ezra was playing shark with his new goggles, and Pearl and Tate were blissfully unaware of anything that wasn’t Pearl’s favorite Barbie doll, a boy she had named Nicholas.
There wasn’t a moment to lose. The rules would have to be broken.
Lord Tennyson dashed across the sand, past Mrs. Snoot’s purple toenails, and hauled the monstrous diaper and squirming child out of the lake.
Sweetums choked and sprayed more water out of her nose before yelling, “Again, Ten Ten!” He gagged, sure he would never ever get the taste of soggy diaper off his tongue.
When they reached the shore again, Lord Tennyson shook, spraying cold lake water all over Sweetums… and unfortunately, Mrs. Snoot.
“Oh, oh, oh!” Mrs. Snoot shrieked. “I’m wet!”
Her children looked at him, delighted.
“It’s that animal!” Mrs. Snoot yelled, rising. “It’s on the beach again! GET!” Since Honey was finally hurrying across the sand to help and he wanted to avoid the wrath of the purple toenails, he bolted back to his lilac bush.
Honey picked up Sweetums, looking distressed at the state of her diaper, now three times its normal size and torn in the back where Lord Tennyson had grabbed it with his teeth.
As Honey apologized to Mrs. Snoot, it became clear that unfortunately, Lord Tennyson’s gallantry had exposed his hiding spot to a swarm of small children nearby, who began petting him and trying to feed him rocks. He tolerated the crowd of small humans because he was a gentleman, though truthfully, Lord Tennyson did not like most children who were not the McNiffs. Children had perpetually sticky fingers, spoke too loudly, and thought pulling his little stub of a tail was hysterical. And now they were distracting him from his important responsibilities!
At that very moment hands closed around his throat, squeezing. Lord Tennyson felt his eyes bulge as he was rolled over onto the grass and sat on. He knew this small beast all too well: the maniacal giggle, buzz cut, and large front teeth sticking out from a round freckled face. Curtis Cornell. Curtis bounced on Lord Tennyson’s stomach and shouted, “Giddyap!”
“Leave the doggy alone,” his mother said absently, looking at her phone. Ugh, if there was one word Lord Tennyson could not abide, it was “doggy.” He managed to wriggle out from underneath the pretend cowboy and played “Dodge Curtis Cornell” until Curtis was too hot to “giddyap” and the boy ran into the water.
Lord Tennyson panted wearily and quickly counted the curly-topped heads of all six McNiff children, hoping nothing had befallen them while he was being harassed. The three oldest were in the water; Sweetums was tasting the sand, spitting, and yelling “yummy”; and Pearl and Tate were burying Nicholas under the sand. This did not bode well, as they had a habit of losing their dolls when burying them.
He was so intent on memorizing the burial spot that he missed dodging Curtis Cornell’s next sneak attack.
“Got you, dog. I got you!” Curtis shouted as he tackled Lord Tennyson to the ground.
Lord Tennyson watched helplessly from underneath Curtis Cornell as the doll was buried and Sweetums scooped up a handful of sand, clearly ready for a second round of trouble. She scooted on her gigantic ripped diaper until she came to Mrs. Snoot, who had just been buried under the sand by her children and now lay with a sleep mask over her eyes.
Lord Tennyson wiggled and squirmed, but Curtis now had him in a headlock. Sweetums crawled closer and closer to Mrs. Snoot, smiling angelically—but there was mischief in her eyes. There was only one thing Lord Tennyson could do: he bucked like a bull rider and bounced Curtis into the lilac bush.
“Curtis Cornell!” his mother said, finally looking up. “Get out of that bush!”
“The doggy did it!” Curtis howled. “Doggy” again!
“Don’t be ridiculous,” his mother shouted.
“I’ll get you, dog! I’ll get you!” Curtis yelled.
But Lord Tennyson was already running to the edge of the sand. Sweetums was now a foot away from Mrs. Snoot. The Snoot children looked at her and smiled, inviting her to play, while Lord Tennyson yelped to discourage it.
Sweetums crawled farther forward.