Dog, Big Dog
The small dog always
barked first. Then the big one weighed in, alerted by the small one, with a
few deep, short whuffs. It was his courtesy warning, to let you know he was
there too, on duty, a force to be reckoned with. As was the small one.
Except the small one seemed to be more bark. A whole lot of bark.
Jamie heard them every morning as he passed the old house on the way to school. He’d make up stories about them as he walked along, trying out different ideas about why they were there, on guard, in that shambles of a house squatting in the middle of its overgrown lot where the grass seemed never to be cut and the ivy threatened to overtake the trees and shrubs. It was an old house, probably very nice in its day, but now scarcely giving any sign of habitation—except for the dogs, of course. It was big and dark and gloomy, and every day it seemed to get gloomier, this late in October as the season was changing rapidly from fall toward winter.
Jamie’s favorite story to account for the dogs’ presence was that they were someone’s lost pets, and they had walked on their own hundreds of miles over many long months, sticking together and helping one another to survive, until finally they made it back to their former home only to discover it was dark and deserted, with no one there to greet them and hug them and pet them and marvel at their return. Now they lived on their own, hunting for food and drinking water from puddles and shivering at night, huddled together for warmth and companionship.
He would have hugged them. He knew that was what they needed. Any dog needed love and praise and attention. Just like people. Here Jamie’s thoughts usually veered off onto something less philosophical, less personal. Less painful.
The old lace curtains gave a twitch. Sure enough, the little dog was poking his nose against the glass. It looked out at Jamie and gave a couple of warning barks. It looked like a Jack Russell. His friend Tod, back in Chatham, had a Jack Russell. It would come up to Jamie whenever he visited Tod’s home and it never stopped barking. This dog, even if it was a Jack Russell, seemed to recognize Jamie by now, because after a few more warning barks it stopped and just looked out at him. Jamie waved at it and kept on walking, picking up his pace a little.
He had never seen the other, bigger dog. It always barked its deeper bark from somewhere else within the old house. It wasn’t a window dog. Even though he hadn’t seen it, Jamie was pretty sure he’d rather have it for a pet. He liked all dogs, but he liked big dogs best. They generally were calmer, more reassuring.
He was going to be late unless he hurried, and he sure didn’t want to be noticed by coming in after the last bell. That would almost guarantee that Scott Murchison would get in his face and taunt him, or worse, like he did just about every day. It was a problem. If he got to school too early he was sure to be seen and singled out by Scott and his cronies, so Jamie tried to time his arrival just as the warning bell was ringing. But if he miscalculated and was late he would get to his homeroom after everyone was already seated, and Mr. Sheffey would give him that look and ask him if he knew what time it was, and Scott would laugh and sneer and make some comment, and Jamie would know that his day was going to be crap.
Of course, every day was crap with Scott always ready to find a way to make it so. Some days, though, Jamie was able to slip into his seat at the last minute, then by keeping his head down and by scurrying to classes in the middle of the surge of other students he could sometimes make it until lunch period, even beyond, without encountering Scott and his gang. Those were the good days. Sometimes, on days without Physical Education, Jamie might even get all the way through the day without a new bruise or humiliation.
But not on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Phys Ed was Jamie’s last class of the day on those days, and Phys Ed was Jamie’s personal hell. No only did Scott and his buddies make sure of that, shoving and tripping and pushing Jamie into the walls whenever Coach Bradshaw wasn’t looking, but Scott’s personal commitment to making sure that Jamie never succeeded in scoring any goal or completing any play made Jamie everyone’s last choice when teams were made up and so he increasingly felt isolated and shunned. Lately, Jamie was beginning to be on the receiving end of nearly everyone’s taunts and jeers instead of large clumsy Robert, who used to be last pick.
When Jamie left school that afternoon he was limping. Scott Murchison had shoved him hard into his locker just as he was getting his books organized and selecting what to take home. Jamie had been filled with such relief at having made it through the day without a single encounter with Scott that he had relaxed his guard when the final bell rang. Then he had felt the hands roughly grabbing his shoulders.
“I’ve been waiting for you, sissyboy,” hissed the bigger boy. “You’ve been sneaking around and hiding, haven’t you?” He gave Jamie a hard shove into the open locker. “That’s not right. We don’t allow sneaking in this school.”
Scott emphasized his words with another hard shove, and this time Jamie lost his balance and fell to the floor. “Ow!” He felt his right foot twist under him.
“Get up, faggot.” Scott kicked Jamie in the side. Everyone else had cleared out after the last bell and the corridor was deserted.
“Why are you doing this?” Jamie was trying hard not to cry as he scrambled to his feet.
“We don’t like faggoty kids from Chatham coming here.”
Just then a teacher turned into the corridor carrying his coat. Scott pushed Jamie away one last time and hissed, “Why don’t you see if you can transfer back to your faggoty private school, fairyboy.” Then he turned and rapidly walked away.
Jamie straightened up and shut his locker as the teacher passed without even a glance or a nod. He limped across the corridor to retrieve his backpack from where Scott had kicked it. His ankle was on fire but he thought he could manage walking if he took it slowly. Carefully he left the school, moving stiffly and wincing at every step. Thank goodness he lived only a few blocks away.
As Jamie approached the old house he paused to catch his breath. He’d have to rest for a moment or two. He slumped down on the low stone wall that bordered the sidewalk in front of the neglected lot.
Jamie was rubbing his leg and ankle when he heard a dull sound behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw the front door of the old house was standing ajar. The little Russell terrier, barking shrilly, was speeding down the walkway, straight at him.
Jamie flinched, but then he realized that the dog had stopped a few paces away, at the opening in the wall. He had stopped barking.
Jamie cleared his throat. “Hello, fella,” he said, tentatively.
The small dog wagged his tail once and sat down. They stared at one another. Jamie held out his hand. The dog trotted over and sniffed at it, then turned and took a few steps away, back toward the house. Jamie watched as he stopped and looked back. The dog gave one short bark.
Jamie had watched enough dog movies that he knew immediately what that meant. He stood up and the small dog took a few more steps, then looked back again. Jamie sighed and picked up his backpack. He slowly followed the dog toward the house, limping and wincing. What was he getting himself into? The day couldn’t get much worse, could it? Maybe the dogs needed water or something. Jamie fervently hoped it had nothing to do with death in any form. He hadn’t heard the big dog’s chuff.
As he painfully mounted the three stone steps to the porch, one step at a time, he saw a totally unexpected sight. There, framed in the doorway, was an old man, wearing a tweed suit with a vest and bowtie, sitting in a wheelchair. A huge dog was sitting beside him, and the man’s hand was on the dog’s head. Jamie swallowed, and hoped that the big dog was under control. He stopped walking.
“Excuse me, sir…” Jamie faltered. “Your dog ran out and I was trying to make sure he got back…”
“Nonsense. He was bringing you back.” The old man’s tone was brisk and authoritarian. “Actually, he’s been waiting for you.”
“He—he has?” Jamie was astonished, and wary. “Me? Why?”
“First things first. I see you have hurt your ankle. Come inside and sit, and I’ll prepare a cold compress.”
Bewildered, Jamie hesitated. His ankle did hurt. It fact it felt like it was on fire. He shouldn’t have tried to walk home, but what choice did he have? No one at school was going to give him a ride. He’d just meant to rest a moment, out on the stone wall. Now this. What was going on? Was it dangerous? He stood uncertainly.
“No one is going to hurt you, boy. These dogs are safe, and I’m too old to attack anyone. Besides, you see I suffer a certain level of confinement.” The old man gestured toward his chair, then spun it adroitly and wheeled inside, the dogs turning and following.
“Come along then, boy. Let’s have a look at your injury.”
Jamie shouldered his bag once again and limped through the doorway into an empty entry hall. Plaster had fallen from a cracked ceiling and crumbling walls and the parquet floor was bare and splintered. The dusty room reinforced Jamie’s impression that the house was empty and abandoned, except for the evidence of two live dogs and an old man rapidly disappearing from sight. The wheelchair rolled down a dark corridor and Jamie, limping painfully, followed it slowly.
At the end of the corridor the boy pushed through a curtained doorway into a room where the contrast was amazing. This room was brightly lit and warm and stuffed with furniture. A fire was blazing in the fireplace and the walls were lined with bookshelves packed with books. Hundreds of books. One corner was occupied by a huge desk strewn with papers and books. Chairs and tables and sofas filled the floor space, nearly obscuring an oriental rug with a complex pattern. Windows were covered with heavy brocade drapery.
Jamie stood just inside the doorway and stared, then realized how much his ankle hurt. He limped to the nearest chair, a relic with elaborate carvings on its wood frame and covered by a faded tapestry. He settled into it with a groan.
The moment he sat down the little dog jumped into his lap and the big dog dropped to the floor beside him. Startled, Jamie slid his bag to the floor and instinctively cradled the little dog in his arms. It settled against Jamie’s chest and as the boy was stroking its soft fur the old man wheeled through another doorway brandishing a tea towel wrapped around a chunk of ice.
“Here, boy. Pull that little table over far enough so you can get your leg elevated. We need to get some cold on it to control the swelling. Don’t take your shoe off or you’ll never get it back on.”
Jamie complied as best he could; luckily the small table beside his chair was within an easy reach and it slid readily under his right leg. The old man wheeled over and placed the ice pack into Jamie’s hands.
“Put the ice right on top of where it hurts, but move it around every few minutes so you don’t get frostbite. You’re going to do this for about twenty minutes, so get comfortable but keep that leg up.”
Throughout this maneuvering the little dog stayed put, shifting slightly to maintain his balance as Jamie bent and prodded at his ankle with the towel-wrapped ice. The large dog sat up, and both seemed to be intently watching Jamie as he performed the procedure.
Jamie felt his ankle responding and the pain diminished. It was very cold, but the stabbing sensation had lessened quite a bit. He finally looked up and found the old man studying him intently.
“Er, thank you, sir. This seems to be helping a lot.”
“Always worked for me. We used a lot of ice when lads were felled in the rugger scrum. No heat. Heat’s poison on fresh sprains.”
The old man seemed to be speaking a language like English but some of the words made no sense. Jamie decided to ask the question that had been bothering him.
“What did you mean when you said the little dog was waiting for me? Why would he do that?”
The old man looked at him intently. “He wanted to meet the boy who looks so determined every morning walking in one direction, and so sad every afternoon, walking in the other. He wants to find out if it is what you are walking away from or what you are walking toward that makes you so sad.”
Jamie didn’t know how to answer the question. In one direction was school, where he was friendless and reviled, and in the other direction an empty apartment waited, his father gone for good and his mother cold and indifferent toward him when she was home. He was so committed to keeping it all bottled up inside of himself that just the thought of talking about it was frightening. He looked down at the small animal sitting on his lap. The little dog looked up, and, moving quickly, licked Jamie’s nose. Smiling uncertainly, the boy jerked back.
“He likes you. And you like him.”
“How do you know that?”
“You no longer look sad.”
Jamie thought about that for a moment, then reached out and hugged the little dog, who wagged his tail furiously.
“What’s his name?”
“Vicar? That’s an odd name for a dog.”
“He’s a Parson Russell terrier.”
“…A Jack Russell?”
“No, no. He’s not that big.”
Jamie wrinkled his brow. Another thing that didn’t make sense.
“Are you familiar with the Anglican church?”
Jamie’s eyes widened in surprise. “Er, no. We go to Morningside Presbyterian.”
“Then you will have to do a little research into the Sporting Parson.”
Jamie, bewildered, tried again. “What’s the big dog’s name?”
“Billy, short for William.”
“That’s a boy’s name, not a dog’s.”
“He’s a Pit Bull.”
Jamie grimaced. More mystery.
“Do you know who served as British prime minister in the late seventeen sixties and did all he could to prevent the War for American Independence through his support for the American colonists?”
Startled, Jamie murmured, “No, sir.”
“Your research program has grown.”
Jamie rolled his eyes, and the old man chuckled. Jamie smiled slightly. At least he thought he had figured out the old man’s funny accent.
“Are you from England, sir?”
“Aha! So you do know a little something then, young man! Yes, I am. And that brings up the subject of tea. Will you take some?”
The old man gestured impatiently. “Do you drink tea?”
“Er, I don’t…”
“Time you learned. By the way, my name is Mr. Oliver. If we are going to drink tea together we must introduce ourselves.” The old man waited expectantly.
“Ah, it’s Jamie. Jamie MacPherson, sir.”
“A fine Celtic name, indeed. While you make friends with Billy I’ll prepare the tea. Take the ice off for a bit or you’ll freeze the tissue.” Mr. Oliver spun his wheelchair and disappeared again through a second doorway. Jamie glimpsed another dark corridor leading into the back of the house.
Vicar jumped off Jamie’s lap and followed the wheelchair. Billy rose to his feet and Jamie shrank back in his chair. The pit bull nudged Jamie’s leg with his nose and looked up at him. Jamie got the message and tentatively patted Billy’s head. The dog smiled and laid his head on Jamie’s knee. Jamie exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and caressed the big dog. He was solid and warm. Jamie clutched the ice bag. His ankle felt a lot better.
Jamie balanced the delicate porcelain teacup with its saucer on his lap. He’d watched with fascination as Mr. Oliver had poured the dark liquid from a matching pot through a sieve into two delicate cups, into which he had first poured a bit of milk from a small silver pitcher. The old man had cleared his throat, looked at the boy consideringly, then with a small pair of tongs he’d added a lump of sugar to each. As Mr. Oliver had passed a cup to Jamie he’d said, “In future you can determine your own proportions, laddie, but I’ll start you off with one lump knowing full well you will ask for three.”
“Three?” Jamie squeaked. “Is it bitter?”
“Not at all, but I know boys. Whenever I asked them into my study after prep the sugar bowl would always be empty when they left.”
Jamie sipped tentatively. The rich hot brew was soothing and spread in an instant down his throat and into his stomach. He smiled. “It’s good! It’s nothing like iced tea.”
“Bite your tongue, boy. We don’t speak of that vile drink here.”
Jamie sipped contentedly, then paused as Mr. Oliver reached for a tin canister on the corner of the big desk.
Jamie peered into the opened tin the old man held out toward him. It was filled with shortbread cookies.
“Yes, please. I love this kind of cookie.”
“Then perhaps you will oblige me by calling them ‘biscuits.’ You Americans have taken quite a few liberties with my language, but that is one word I refuse to turn into baby talk.” Mr. Oliver smiled, and Jamie, after hesitating, smiled in return. The two sipped tea and munched contentedly on the shortbread.
“Do you like school, Jamie?”
“Er, I used to.” Suddenly Jamie was uncomfortable. He put his cup down.
“Are you a good student?”
“Yes, sir. That is, I get good grades.”
“Well. You should be feeling positive about that. Are you a leader in the school?”
“No!” The boy was flustered. “I, er, no. I just…I usually just watch.” His voice fell until it was barely a whisper.
The old man sat, considering the boy. Dark haired and slender, fine boned and small, and looking thoroughly miserable. At least his fine dark eyes could flash when provoked. Finally Mr. Oliver spoke. “Perhaps you haven’t discovered your passion. How old are you?”
“Ah, I’m fourteen, sir.”
“Do you have a good friend?”
Jamie hesistated. “One, sir. But he goes to a different school. I used to live next door to him.”
“Oh? How long ago was that?”
Jamie looked down, then sighed. “My mother and I…we moved this summer, sir.”
“Ah, I see. You’ve had to leave your friends behind.”
Jamie sat, staring miserably at the floor. “Yes, sir,” he whispered.
“What about new friends, at the school you attend now?”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“None at all?”
“Why should that be?”
The boy shifted uneasily. “I don’t know how to make friends here. It’s so different. At Chatham Academy I was on teams, and in clubs, and I had a table I belonged to for meals. I belonged to a House with other guys and we all got to know one another, and some I liked and some I didn’t and some hung out with me and they were my friends.”
“Here it’s just so disorganized, and there are girls, and they don’t play any of my sports here, and I’ve always sucked at basketball, and I’m too small for football…” Jamie bit off the rush of words and swallowed hard. He sat back in the chair while Vicar snuggled against him. He hugged the small dog.
“What were your sports?”
“I played lacrosse for my House, and I was on the school swim team, and when we had Field Days I played tennis or ran cross-country. Here I don’t do well at anything, and I’m always picked last in gym class. Thanks to Scott,” he said bitterly.
“A boy who torments me every chance he gets, and does things to make me look bad when we do sports.”
“Ah, I see.” The old man thought for a moment. “Who is picked next to last?”
The boy looked up, bewildered. “Robert, I guess. He’s big and clumsy and they call him ‘Teddy Bear’ or sometimes ‘Big Foot’.”
“Do you talk to Robert?”
“Not really. He doesn’t talk much. He lives on a farm and rides to school on a bus.”
“And that means?”
“I don’t really have anything to talk to him about.”
“Yes, you do.” Mr. Oliver sat back in his wheelchair and stared intently at Jamie.
“What?” Jamie was confused.
“You are both picked last. Robert must have something in common with you, and you should explore your common ground.”
“But Robert is just a big clumsy farm boy.”
“Billy is big, but he isn’t clumsy. I’ll wager Robert isn’t either, when he is in his own environment.”
Billy looked up when he heard his name. His thick tail thumped the floor with two quick staccato beats. Then he lay his head back down on the floor, just at Jamie’s feet.
Jamie reached for his teacup and managed to knock his biscuit to the floor. He winced in embarrassment and bent to pick it up, but Billy gave a short growl and Jamie sat back quickly. Vicar hopped off his lap. The boy looked up at the old man and was astonished to see him smiling.
Mr. Oliver said, “Watch the little dog.”
Vicar was stealthily creeping under the table toward the biscuit, his eyes on the prize. Billy, beside Jamie’s feet, his head on his paws, watched the terrier edge ever closer toward the treat. It lay on the floor only inches from Billy’s nose. The small dog made a sudden lunge and snatched the morsel up into his mouth and quickly backed away until he could turn and scuttle behind the sofa. Faint crunching sounds followed. Jamie looked down at Billy, who turned his head and glanced up to meet the boy’s eyes. Jamie could swear that the big dog winked at him, then he dropped his head onto his paws again and gave a snort.
The old man cleared his throat, “Vicar possesses the conviction of leadership. He initiates action. Billy responds, rather than initiates. He’s a perfect wingman. They make a formidable pair.”
“An old Royal Air Force term. He’s Vicar’s sidekick. He backs Vicar’s play. In this instance, they both know that anything edible that falls to the floor is fair game, and they are both entitled to go after it.”
“Oh. But Billy didn’t get the cookie, er, biscuit.” Jamie blushed. “He was closer, and he certainly is big enough to take it away from Vicar.”
“Don’t misunderstand. If Billy had wanted that biscuit he would have had it the moment you dropped it. He isn’t dumb, or slow. He’s supportive. He’s agreeable. He knows his own strength and his capabilities. He’s a big dog, and he doesn’t feel he has anything to prove. He’s comfortable in his own skin so he is quite willing to let Vicar call the shots, since it makes the little dog happy.
“Vicar, like all leaders, has something to prove. It may be no more than demonstrating over and over that he is no weakling, that he is entitled to get his share.”
Jamie sat back, thinking hard. “Then they make a team.”
“Exactly!” The old man, pleased, shifted in his chair. “They are a formidable pair. Please take note. It is the key to making your life bearable.”
Jamie sat back, completely bewildered. “Is that something else English?”
“No. It is something human. Think about it carefully, and when you return I will ask you for your understanding of what we have been talking about.”
“When I return?”
“Certainly. You didn’t think you could become civilized in a single day, did you? Put ice on your ankle again when you get home, and keep the leg up as much as you can.” Mr. Oliver wheeled toward the doorway into the kitchen and Jamie realized he had been dismissed.
Billy raised his head, then rose to his feet. This time Jamie didn’t flinch; he reached over and hugged the huge animal. Billy leaned against Jamie’s legs as the boy stroked the dog’s wonderfully smooth coat. Vicar tried to push his nose between Jamie’s hand and Billy, but Billy gave a little growl and the Russell quickly backed away.
“Don’t do that,” whispered Jamie. “You guys are buddies, and I like both of you.” He reached down and fondled Vicar’s ears and the little dog gave his hand a lick. Then he gave Billy a hug and the big dog sighed. Jamie admired Vicar for his spunk and attitude, but he adored Billy. He was so dependable and strong.
When Jamie got to his feet his right foot seemed willing to bear his weight without complaint. He walked slowly from the room and down the corridor toward the foyer. Both dogs accompanied Jamie to the front door, and he let himself out and carefully shut it behind him. The walk home was a lot less painful, and he had a lot to think about.
Over the weekend Jamie hardly noticed whether his mother was home or not. Mrs. MacPherson was mired deeply in her depression over being abandoned by her husband, and she saw Jamie as a constant reminder of her circumstance. As a result she had become very cold toward her son and tended to ignore him completely. But, for the first time, Jamie was barely aware of her indifference to him during the few meals they shared. Once a meal was over he was busy online, learning as much as he could about William Pitt and the Reverend Jack Russell.
By Sunday night Jamie knew a little bit about William Pitt the elder, whose advocacy and support had helped keep the American colonies from rebelling against their British masters for at least a generation prior to the Revolutionary War. He wasn’t altogether sure what that had to do with naming the big pit bull ‘Billy’ but it may have had something to do with maintaining steadfast support in the face of determined opposition. He also knew who Parson Jack Russell was and his passion for raising small terriers bred to hunt and make noise. Although he was ready to report back to Mr. Oliver on these matters, he knew that first he must do something about the other insight the old man had led him toward.
Monday morning arrived and Jamie hurried to get to school early. He wanted to meet the buses as they arrived, in particular the bus Robert would be riding. Jamie had no idea which bus that might be so he was determined to meet all of them. He was so intent that he was a block beyond the old house before he even remembered to look for Vicar in the window, and by then it was too late to think about back-tracking an entire block. He resolved he would stop and wave at the little dog that afternoon. He was uneasy about that, because he didn’t really want to stop and talk with Mr. Oliver until he had accomplished his goal, and that involved speaking with Robert. However, Jamie was sure the big farm boy would immediately see the logic of his presentation and Jamie felt confident he would be petting dogs and talking with Mr. Oliver within a day or two.
Although the bus drop-off area was empty as Jamie arrived, slightly breathless, when the buses did show up they came in waves and the entire area was soon awash in a sea of students, all clamoring and waving at friends and moving rapidly in all directions. Jamie thought he had caught a glimpse of Robert’s back disappearing through a doorway into the school, but by the time he had pressed his way through the crowd and reached the door there was no sign of him. Disappointed that his plan hadn’t even gotten off the ground, Jamie decided he would have to get to gym early in the hope of encountering Robert there with enough time to talk before the period bell rang. This would have been an acceptable backup plan except for the fact that they didn’t have gym until Tuesday afternoon, and he certainly didn’t want to wait that long and risk running into Scott and his cronies before he even had a chance to talk to Robert.
The solution proved to be easy, once Jamie gave the problem some thought. Rosters for all physical education classes were posted outside the gym, and there he was able to discover Robert’s last name: Collins. Once he saw it he realized that the coach had been addressing all of the phys ed students by their last names all along, and Robert as Collins might have been a name that was already familiar to him, if he had paid any attention to the roll call routine. Instead, every time he walked into the sports complex he had been so worried about Scott and what that day’s humiliation would bring that he had been completely ignorant of the other students and how the class was organized.
Finding Robert Collins proved to be not at all difficult. Jamie left homeroom on a hall pass and dashed to the school office. There he told a rather sour-faced receptionist that he had found Robert Collins’ homework lying in the hallway and would like to return it to him. The receptionist asked Jamie for his name and his student I.D., confirmed that he was in fact a student, then seemed to delight in informing him that Robert Collins shared the next class with Jamie and hadn’t he better hurry if he wanted to get to it on time?
Dumbfounded, Jamie wondered how he could have missed the fact of Robert’s presence in his section of ninth grade English. He supposed it was because he always entered every class in the middle of a mass of students, hoping not to be noticed, walking with downcast eyes until he reached a seat in the center of the classroom, where he willed himself invisible and sat with his head lowered and his eyes fixed on the desktop before him. No wonder he had never noticed Robert—or any other student, for that matter.
Today Jamie reached the English classroom after most of the students were seated, but the teacher had not yet arrived. About to sit in his usual place, he instead stood and looked around. Sure enough, there was Robert, sitting against the back wall in the last row. He was a tall, husky boy with reddish hair that had a pronounced cowlick, and freckles covered his face. Jamie would have described him as handsome if he hadn’t already been labeled as clumsy and retarded; in fact, when Robert was dressed out for gym Jamie had noticed that he was muscular and alert, and he wondered why Robert was so helpless at the games they played.
The seat next to him was vacant and Jamie took a deep breath and walked to it and sat down. Robert glanced at him, then did a sort of double take and lifted his eyebrows.
Jamie took that as a sign to go ahead. “We have to talk,” he said.
“Why?” Robert replied. “Aren’t you the stuck-up kid who transferred in from some fancy school? What do we have to talk about?”
“I did transfer. Where did you get the stuck-up part?”
“You never say a word to anyone and you don’t seem to want to have anything to do with anybody here.”
“I guess you’ve been watching me, huh?” Jamie risked a quick glance at Robert.
Robert blushed. After a moment he asked, “What did you want to talk about?”
“You and me teaming up against the Forces of Darkness.”
Robert thought, then half-smiled. “Could you be talking about gym class and Scott Murchison?”
The teacher entered the room as Jamie whispered, “You got it.” There. His opening move was on the board. He turned to face the front but not before he saw Robert raise his eyebrows again. It was actually kind of cute. Jamie flinched, and nipped that thought right in the bud.
“OK,” said Robert, as the bell rang to end the endless droning from the teacher about gerunds. “Maybe I rushed to judgment about the snobbishness. Maybe you’re just retarded. Let’s hear if you can talk normal.”
“Is that the best you’ve got? Is that the result of you thinking about what to say for a whole class period?” As much as he admired Robert’s adroit jab Jamie wasn’t about to let him get the upper hand in the conversation.
“You ain’t heard my best, sir, by any means. You’ll have to earn that.”
“Oh, well said!” He and Robert grinned at each other. “Here’s the pitch,” Jamie continued. “Each of us is facing a long hard semester in that gym class, and an even bleaker future at this school if we let Scott and his hench-creatures define who we are and what we are capable of.”
“So? That seems to have already happened,” Robert replied. “Me: big and slow. You: small and useless. Isn’t that how it’s playing out?” They were walking together through the crowded hallway, with Robert’s sheer bulk parting a passage for them. “I don’t actually care, ‘cuz I go home every day to our big family farm where my size and my experience is both important and useful, and that’s what counts.”
“So you’re giving away the biggest part of your daylight hours to a bully and his gang. How does that kind of experience work for you as a farmer?”
Robert looked away, and they walked along silently for a few minutes.
“OK, point to you,” Robert finally said. “How do you see anything changing?”
“We work together, to stop Scott.”
“You mean we become bullies like he is?”
“Not at all. What do you know about the RAF in World War II?” Jamie was pleased to see that he had startled Robert with his question.
“Quite a lot, actually. I build model planes, and I’ve learned a lot about aerial warfare.”
It was Jamie’s turn to be surprised. This might actually be an idea he could sell to Robert. “Then you know about the wingman.”
Robert raised his eyebrows. Damn, thought Jamie, he’s got to stop doing that.
“Yeah. The wingman protected his lead pilot by watching his back during air battles.”
“What would you think of us trying something like that with Scott?”
Just then the second bell rang and the hallway cleared as students rushed to their classrooms. Jamie and Robert realized they were nowhere near the classes they each attended. Robert looked surprised, then he smiled. “Guess we’re already paired up in time to make the shit list.”
“Not if we move fast,” Jamie replied. “Out this way,” he said, pointing to an exit door. “This one isn’t armed because the teachers use it for smoke breaks. Quick, before anyone comes along.” He pushed the bar on the door and walked outside. Shaking his head, Robert hesitated, then followed him onto a cindered alcove at the back of the school. “If we go this way,” Jamie continued, stepping through a gap in a hedge, “we end up, well, here.”
‘Here’ proved to be a sidewalk leading away from the school toward a commercial strip in the block beyond. The pair hurried toward the stores and stopped in front of a dingy Mom and Pop restaurant. Jamie motioned Robert toward the entrance. Tentatively, they walked in and the battered door swung shut behind them.
“How do you know about this way out?” whispered Robert.
“When you’re small and useless and fleeing from certain bruising, you soon locate all the escape hatches,” Jamie said. “We’ll have this place to ourselves until the first lunch period starts, in about an hour, then it will fill with teachers. We should try to be gone by then.”
“You bet,” said Robert. “But how do we get back in? All the school doors are locked so you can’t open them from the outside. So far we’ve cut one class, and I guess we can get away with that without notes from home. Too many more classes, though, and we’ll get listed as missing.”
“We’re good for now, Robert, and then comes lunch—are you on the first lunch?”
“Good. At lunchtime a lot of students leave, for dentist appointments and stuff like that. We just have to be at the main doors, ready to slip back in.”
“And you know this how?”
“I sometimes have to duck in and out a couple of times a day to get away from Scott and his followers. They all seem to be gunning for me.”
“It must suck to be you, then.”
“Let’s just say it’s a challenge, and I grow stronger with every crisis averted. Shall we get something to eat, since we’ll miss lunch?”
Robert looked around slowly, then shuddered. The man behind the counter, who had been watching them, had on a dirty apron and a cigarette hung from his lower lip.
“Er, no,” Robert said. “My family grows the finest organic produce in this state. We have a permanent contract to supply Boston Market. I bring my lunch every day so I know what I am eating, and I don’t eat…” he gestured at the flyspecked walls around them, “this stuff.”
“Suit yourself,” said Jamie. He turned to the man at the counter. “I’ll have the hamburger special, fries, and a chocolate frappe. Easy on the chocolate.”
“You got it, boyo.” The man turned and started scraping the grill with a spatula blade. Soon a thick patty of ground meat was frying and spattering. Robert took another look, shook his head, then joined Jamie who had claimed a booth.
Robert absently helped himself to another of Jamie’s greasy fries. Jamie pushed his plate across the table far enough so Robert could more easily dab it in the puddle of catsup. Jamie slurped his frappe down to the bottom dregs until his straw could only make an awful sound. Both boys were thinking hard about Jamie’s proposal to unite against Scott.
“I’m not a violent person,” said Robert. “So far, Scott has been in my face without getting physical. He’s said a lot of nasty things, but I can deal with that by ignoring him. I know I’m not clumsy or stupid no matter what he says. I might suck at school sports, but I never had anything to do with basketball or football before now and I don’t even know the rules. I work hard on the farm and I know exactly what I’m doing there. Why should I pick a fight with Scott Murchison?”
“For exactly the reason that nobody, you included, spends their whole life on the family farm. We all have to be out in public, and our reputation is what we make for ourselves, or else it is put together for us by other people and we are stuck with it. Believe me I know what that’s like, thanks to some bad stuff I went through last year at Chatham.” Jamie was close to tears when he admitted this, and Robert instinctively put his hand over Jamie’s.
The two boys froze. Neither made a move for a long moment, then Jamie looked directly into Robert’s eyes and said, “Thanks.”
Robert nodded and squeezed Jamie’s hand once before he let go and pulled back slightly.
Jamie gave a hesitant little laugh. “I guess we’re friends, then.”
Robert blushed and nodded. “Looks that way.”
Neither boy, at this stage, was willing to admit even to himself the feelings beginning to grow deep inside each of them.
Jamie thought for a moment. “I’ve been going about this all wrong. What I laid on you about creating a mutual protection organization? I made it sound like a business proposal. Now I see that’s all wrong. What I really would like is a friend.”
Robert nodded. “Friendship is good. Friends stand together, don’t they?”
Jamie smiled. “Not just like that. Friends spend time together, so they end up standing together when it becomes necessary.”
“Wait, there’s more. Friends help each other with English homework.”
Jamie grinned. “Where did you get that?”
“Oh, I read it somewhere…” The two burst into laughter. This led to an intense discussion of their favorite books, and it turned out that their lists of titles included most of the same science fiction and fantasy and adventure writers. They became so engrossed they almost missed their opportunity to slip away before the first teachers started streaming in for lunch. Just in the nick of time Jamie showed Robert how to leave by the back exit near the toilet, and added to his education by demonstrating how easy it was to re-enter the school through the main doors in the midst of a group of parents coming to pick up their offspring for various reasons.
That was Monday. By Tuesday Jamie was meeting Robert’s bus and they had discovered that most of their classes were, in fact, together (Robert knew this all along), including their homeroom, where they each got two demerits for continuing to talk while Mr. Sheffey was taking the class roll. They met for lunch in the school cafeteria where Jamie bought two slices of pizza and tentatively tasted one of Robert’s hummus and cucumber sandwiches while discreetly ignoring the fact that Robert was busily making one of the pizza slices disappear bite by bite. Even the phys ed class that day was nearly bearable. Scott’s group was as the other end of the gym and although the boys were picked last for their respective volley ball teams they both had enough basic skills that ball return came easily and Robert’s height gave him an unstoppable spike. Jamie turned out to have a wicked serve, and one of his teammates even gave him an ‘attaboy’ swat on his butt, causing Robert to frown.
On Wednesday they solved their Scott Murchison problem once and for all. Actually it was ridiculously easy. Robert, reflecting on Scott’s probable whereabouts, said, “I wonder what he gets up to when he’s not harassing us?” and Jamie said, “Let’s follow him.” This led them to a glimpse Scott slipping into one of the upper class boys’ restrooms, usually off-limits to ninth graders. After a few minutes of indecision Jamie tugged Robert’s sleeve and they approached the door. They heard a moan, then another. Jamie looked at Robert, who raised his eyebrows. Jamie nodded.
Robert tentatively pushed the door open a crack and they were amazed to see Scott Murchison on his knees, using his mouth to lustily service the needs of the Senior Class president, Biff Cabot. Jamie had the presence of mind to snap several shots of the oral encounter with his cell phone camera, and Robert, who was not only bigger than Scott but also towered over Biff, made it clear to both of them that Scott’s reign of terror toward Jamie and himself had come to a complete end, or else the pictures would end up on every social media site as well as copied to the local newspaper. Scott’s face contorted with rage but since Biff’s magic moment had arrived Scott was so fully occupied he could only roll his eyes and nod slightly. Jamie took a couple of insurance shots showing Biff’s generous delivery cascading down Scott’s chin as Scott swallowed frantically, then Jamie and Robert beat a hasty retreat back to the corridors designated for ninth graders, where they high fived with great excitement.
“If Scott doesn’t leave us alone, in addition to the pictures Biff will be our enforcer!” Jamie exclaimed. “I think we’re free from Scott at last! Way to go, wingman!” He gave Robert a little punch on the arm.
Robert smiled. “Getting Scott off our backs is great, but that isn’t all of what we’re about anymore, is it Jamie?”
Jamie took a deep breath. “You’re right, Robert.” He held out his hand, and Robert enveloped it with his bigger one. Jamie liked the feel of it. So did Robert.
By Thursday Jamie considered it to be high time to report back to Mr. Oliver, and to introduce Robert to the old schoolmaster. He felt badly that he had been so caught up in getting to know Robert that he had neglected to pay much attention to the old house over the past few days except to wave at the window as he passed by. Oddly, the little dog had not made an appearance these past two days, as Jamie was either going to or coming from school, and there had been no deep “Wuff!” from within the old house.
“Robert, can you walk home with me after school today? I want to show you where I live, and on the way home there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Robert considered this for a moment. “You know, I don’t have any chores at home tonight because it’s Hallowe’en. My older brother was planning to come into town this afternoon to deliver a shipment of cider; maybe he can give me a ride later. I’ll call home.” He got busy with his phone and soon it was all arranged.
“It’s just up the street here.” Jamie motioned toward the next corner. “I pass it every day on my way to school, and the old man who lives there helped me figure some things out. In fact, he sorta gave me the idea of talking to you.” Jamie gave Robert a shy glance.
Robert smiled. “Then I owe him a big ‘thank you’ for that.” He stopped and considered. “How do you know he’ll want to meet me,” he said, and looked doubtful. He frowned, pulling his eyebrows down in a way Jamie wished he wouldn’t. He so wanted to reach out and brush them back to where they belonged.
“Don’t do that,” Jamie said. “You squinch your face up like that and you look like one of those dried apple dolls.”
“It’s just a preview of me when I reach seventy. Don’t worry about it; you’ll be glad to see it, then.”
Robert blushed and quickly looked away, and both he and Jamie pretended he hadn’t just said that. They walked quickly to the corner and made the turn. The old house was just a little ways ahead.
“One thing I ought to get you ready for is the dogs,” Jamie’s voice betrayed his inner turmoil, both at what Robert had just said and what it might infer, and at the prospect of bringing Robert to meet the inhabitants of the old house. Could Robert be having the same feelings as Jamie was beginning to admit he had?
“Dogs? I love dogs!” Robert was smiling. “The ones on the farm are all big hounds, but I’ve always wanted a little one to be my own. Tell me about them.”
“Vicar is the little one. He’s always at the window, and barks to let the others know someone is coming. He’s a Parson Russell.”
“A Jack Russell?”
“No, a Parson Russell. Same type and configuration, but bred to be slightly smaller. Then there’s Billy, a pit bull, named for William Pitt.”
“Their owner seems to have a sense of humor.”
“Mr. Oliver is super smart, and seems to know something about everything. I think he was a schoolmaster in England. Oh—you do drink tea, don’t you?”
“Tea? Yes, but I like herbal teas if I have a choice.”
“I’m not sure about that. I think it’s going to be some kind of English tea. It was pretty black, and we put milk and sugar in it. Oh, and he’s in a wheelchair.”
“This is sounding more and more mysterious. I can’t wait to meet this collection of oddities.” Robert said. He gave Jamie’s hand a little squeeze. With a start Jamie realized they had been holding hands as they approached the old house, and he almost dropped Robert’s hand before he caught himself and squeezed back. It felt very good to be holding Robert’s hand.
They were alone by the low stone wall that surrounded the decrepit old house. The early twilight that comes at the end of October gave the house a dark, brooding air. A block away kids in costumes were scampering from home to home, their Trick or Treat bags filling rapidly, but no child was brave enough to venture along the broken pavement that led to this front door. As Jamie and Robert stepped through the stone gateway and started toward the house they heard a series of sharp barks and a little face appeared in the window to the right of the door.
“It’s Vicar!” exclaimed Jamie. He waved excitedly as a low “Wuff!” sounded from deep within the structure. “That’s Billy! Thank goodness, I was beginning to get worried about them. I haven’t seen or heard from them for a couple of days.”
They stepped onto the ancient porch, covered with leaves and bits of broken branches, and Jamie pushed hard at the huge weathered door. “It seems to be stuck, Robert. Could you…?”
“Shouldn’t we knock first?”
“He knows we’re here. The dogs have told him. We don’t need to make him wheel his chair all the way out front.”
With Robert’s help Jamie got the door to swing in, although it was dragging on the parquet floor. Inside the foyer was a shambles. Even more of the plaster seemed to have fallen onto the ornate, mud-covered floor. Dog prints, small and large, dotted the crusted mud. As the boys stumbled into the foyer a dirty little once-white and brown dog ran up to Jamie wagging its tail wildly. It leapt and danced to greet the boy.
“Vicar! What happened to you?” Jamie knelt in the dirt and leaves to hug the little dog. The little dog’s fur was matted and soiled, and a notch was missing from one ear. He licked frantically at Jamie’s face. “I don’t understand. You were perfectly OK last Friday—did you get shut out by accident for a few days? Where’s Billy?”
At that the little dog jumped down from Jamie’s arms and started to run toward the dark corridor that led back of the house. He ran a few steps, then stopped and turned to look at the boys.
“Guess we should follow him,” said Robert. “Do you think something bad has happened? This place is a wreck.”
“This part looks terrible,” Jamie said, “but down the hallway behind the next door you are going to be really surprised.”
The boys moved cautiously into the dark corridor, trying to avoid stumbling over the debris that cluttered the floor. Vicar led the way toward the door at the end.
“I hope Mr. Oliver is all right,” said Jamie. He knocked on the door, but got no response except for a soft “Wuff.”
“That’s Billy! Let’s go in.” He pushed the door open, and it creaked ominously. Inside they saw a large dog lying in the corner of a vacant room on a pile of dirty rags. His big tail thumped twice as Jamie rushed over to where he was lying. Like the little dog, the big pit bull’s fur was matted and soiled, and there was fresh blood on his right front paw. As he staggered to his feet he gave Jamie’s hand a lick. It was clear he was favoring his front paw, and Jamie grasped it and lifted it. In the dim light he could see a deep cut across one of the pads. Drawing his breath sharply, Jamie turned to Robert.
“He’s hurt! Do you have anything in your backpack we could use for a bandage?”
As Robert pulled out a spare tee shirt and began ripping it into strips Jamie looked around the room. It was completely empty, dense with cobwebs and bare of any furnishings. A window was broken out of its frame and except for dog footprints from that opening to the filthy bedding there was no sign of any other inhabitant.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “This was Mr. Oliver’s study, and it was filled with books and furniture. His desk was right over there.” Jamie walked across the room. “Now there’s nothing here.” Jamie’s face showed his uncertainty and fear.
“Nothing but two dogs,” said Robert. “Are these the two dogs you told me about?”
“Vicar?” said Jamie. The
little dog ran over to him, wagging its tail furiously. “Vicar, where’s Mr.
Oliver?” Vicar cocked his head at Jamie, then shook it and sat down.
“Vicar, this is Robert. He’s my special friend, and he’s your friend,
too.” Vicar responded by running back across the room and leaping into the
bigger boy’s arms where was kneeling on the floor beside his backpack.
Jamie turned back toward the makeshift bedding where the big dog lay quietly. “Billy?” The pit thumped its tail several times. “Billy, we’re going to help you. Give me your paw.”
Billy sat up and extended his right paw toward Jamie, and the boy knelt and gently grasped it. Robert handed him some bandage strips and a bottle of drinking water he’d had in his backpack. “Thanks, Robert,” Jamie said. “Billy, I’m going to wash the cut out and then bandage it.”
Billy licked his hand. Jamie wadded one strip of the torn shirt and wetted it from the water bottle. Then he carefully poured a splash of the water onto the cut in the dog’s pad. He could feel the big dog tense slightly, then relax as Jamie slowly wiped dirt and a few small pieces of gravel out of the cut. Jamie examined the wound and was satisfied he’d gotten it as clean as he was going to. He carefully wrapped a double thickness of the dry bandage strips around the injured paw and tied it all off.
“There! That should get you home with me, Billy. It’s just a couple of blocks, and I’ll help you.”
The pit thumped his tail once, then stood. He tentatively placed his paw on the floor and took a couple of steps. He was noticeably limping, favoring his right front foot, but he wagged his tail and gave Jamie’s leg a nudge with his massive head.
The two boys exchanged glances and shrugged. What had just happened? What was the true story of what had gone on in this room?
Robert stood, cradling Vicar in his arms. The little dog snuggled against Robert’s chest and tried to lick his face. Robert laughed and turned toward the door.
Jamie leaned to stroke Billy’s head. Then he straightened and took one last look around the room. Something caught his eye over by the dark fireplace and he took a few steps to get a better look. There on the hearth lay a teacup on its side. It appeared to be clean and dust free. Beside it was its saucer, and on the saucer was perched, untouched by dogs, a familiar fragment of a broken shortbread cookie. Er, biscuit.
Shaking his head, Jamie hurried to catch up to Robert and Vicar. Billy trotted along at his side, limping slightly. The big dog looked up at Jamie, wagged its tail once, and smiled.