Martin and the Pine-Pungent Lair

“Martin, could you take this book to your grandmother, please? She’s asked me for it five times, and I’ve just been too busy to get over there.”

Martin’s mother waggled the book at him from over the counter top, nose height. He glared at it cross-eyed. The semi-gloss cover sported a rather fuzzy looking ham and mashed potatoes accompanied by… carrots?

Martin looked at his mother. She smiled. Martin glanced out the window. Rain traced droplets in tentative paths down the windowpane.

Martin did not want to walk the two blocks to his grandmother’s house in the rain. Walking to Grandma’s meant walking past Brutus— Mr. Fraser’s gargantuan pitbull. AND it was raining!

The semi-gloss cover waved to and fro beneath his nose. “Need I remind you, young man, that you are on very shaky ground after this morning?”

Martin frowned and tried very hard not to roll his eyes. The vase. Baseballs in the house… Some things just didn’t go together. 

Martin took the book from his mother, still trying hard not to roll his eyes, and he walked toward the door, trying hard not to stomp. He set the cookbook down on the settle and shoved his feet into his galoshes, snapped his rain jacket down from the hook.

“Martin–” his mother’s voice rang sing-songy across the kitchen. “Smile.”

He did roll his eyes then. “Very funny, Mom.” With a yank and a slam, he was out the door. 

Halfway across the yard, he realized he had forgotten the book. “Gah!” he said and spun around.

His mother stood in the open door, smiling. “Make sure to keep it under your coat,” she said, as he came back. “It’s your Gram’s favorite.”

“If it’s her favorite, how come she never makes ham?” Martin shoved the unwieldy book up beneath his coat. If only he were bigger, he might have secured it with his belt. How was he to get past Brutus with both hands occupied in keeping some old cookbook dry?

Just as he left the front yard, the clouds let loose their payloads, and the sidewalks danced with rain that fell twice. First to bounce up somewhere near level with Martin’s nose and then down again. He sniffed from the moisture.

Perhaps he would be lucky, and Brutus wouldn’t be outside in this weather.

Martin knew he shouldn’t be so afraid of the dog– after all he was chained up– but once, when Martin was little and walking by the Frasers’ with his dad, Brutus had taken one look at him, licked his chops, and snapped the third link of his chain, lunging to get at his afternoon snack. Luckily, Mr. Fraser had been out mowing and had called the dog to heel with an ear-splitting whistle. Martin would never forget the look of snarling reproof Brutus had given him for daring to escape.

Martin slowed his feet as he came near the corner of Hemlock and Olympus. Here he needed to turn left, but only two fences down Brutus resided beneath the perpetual shade of an old hoary spruce tree. The orange carpet of fallen needles made a soft bed for the dog, and it’s drooping branches remained roof-life even in snow.

Certainly in this rain that pine-pungent den was as murky as ink, and Brutus would be staring out, baleful eyes pinpricks of fluorescent hostility.

Martin stopped beside the Stop sign, but not out of obedience. He swallowed hard. Raindrops slipped down between his fingers and his jacket, and beneath this, the book slipped.

“Grr” Martin grumbled. “Come on then. You can do it. He’s chained up!” He hiked the book up a little higher against himself beneath the raincoat.

“Dogs aren’t that bad,” his dad had told him after that first fateful encounter with Mr. Fraser’s mastiff. “Especially not Brutus. Why! He knows you. You’ve just gotta be firm with them. If he were to jump on you, you just say, ‘Down!’ It’s no worry, son.”

But Martin’s father had not seen the look of malcontent on Brutus’s face after being robbed of a snack. Nor had he seen the trailing scrutiny of the damned Brutus traced him with ever after– any time he passed the Fraser’s yard.

Martin took a deep breath and began to walk again. If he did not get this cookbook to his grandma, his own mother would count up his offenses for the day and prescribe something terrible– like no dinner. Or dishes. Or something.

And tonight was pizza night.

Martin’s knees went a little weak. Having to face Brutus and (should he fail) contemplate not getting any pizza was just too much.

First fence. Second fence. Martin’s footsteps wavered to a muted slosh on the waterlogged concrete. End of second fence.

To his left, yard opened up, unprotected, undefended, unimpeded! And as he sloshed forward farther, the boughs of the spruce tree came into view, and beneath them, velvet darkness, from which issued a fog of white steam as if Brutus was a hound of hell, burning with its heat.

Martin moved his feet carefully and tried not to look toward the tree; though, like all fears, it pulled at the edge of his vision. All he could hear was the rain– thumping solidly on the concrete, smacking from atop the Fraser’s car, drip-drip-dripping from spruce boughs into the fog below.

Perhaps the fog was only fog, and Brutus was not outside at all.

If it had not been raining, Martin was sure his hands would have been slick with sweat. He exhaled, realizing he had been holding his breath.

Beneath the exhale, under the patter of raindrops, a new sound joined the symphony. It was a strange sound, familiar and yet indistinctive, slightly metallic in its ring beneath the rain.

Martin stopped abruptly to listen. Yes…

One chink, two chinks, rattle– RATTLE– CLANG!

Martin gasped and spun around. 

Brutus stood just in front of the spruce, guarded by its overhang from the pelting drops that stung Martin’s cheeks. Brutus eyed him with a hungry gleam. The beast’s lower jaw jutted forth in imitation of a snarl and his great red tongue lolled against his chops.

Martin turned forward and ran.

Rattle, rattle, Chink, chink. Rattle, rattle– like a fisherman’s line the chain paid out. Rattle, rattle. Chink, chink. CLANG! That nasty old third link broke with the sound of a gong. And suddenly the noise of the dog drew on Martin no matter how he ran. Huff, huff– Chink, chink– dog and broken chain chasing in chorus.

Martin couldn’t run fast enough and hold the cookbook under his coat at the same time. He needed to think of something.

Huff, huff. Chink, chink.

Dogs aren’t that bad. You’ve just got to be firm with them.

Martin felt Brutus’s scrabbling claws at his heels. “Ah!!” he cried, but everyone was tucked away on a rainy day, and there was no one to save him.

He felt a paw tick his heel, and at that moment, he knew what he must do. He yanked the cookbook out from beneath his coat, and with a great yell, he spun around, lifting the book in the air with both arms.

“Stop!” he yelled.

Brutus came to an abrupt halt.

For a moment, boy and dog stared at each other, blinking in the rain.

“Sit!” Martin said.

Brutus sat and cocked his head to one side. 

Martin tried to catch his breath at this, bewildered. He lowered his book, and remembering his original mission, shoved it back under his coat.

“Go home,” he said to the dog.

But Brutus only twitched his ears.

Martin saw that the (assumed) ferocious snarl he always saw on the dog was just an unfortunate underbite. “Listen now. I’m gonna turn around and leave. You better not eat me!”

The dog cocked his head once more.

Martin swallowed and forced his feet to turn toward their original direction. But when he took a step forward, Brutus stepped forward as well. Martin glanced backward in question, sure this was some beastly subterfuge.

Brutus wagged his tail.

Martin shuffled forward quickly, his galoshes scattering the puddles, and when he came to the edge of the Fraser’s yard, he spun around.

Brutus stopped up short and collapsed to his haunches abruptly.

“Stop that! Go home.”

The dog’s eyebrows– two smudges of brown crayon above each eye– flicked back and forth with thoughtful, nearly human delicacy.

Martin glared at him and then frowned. Perhaps the dog didn’t want to eat him, but Martin didn’t want it following him to his grandmother’s house.

“Go home!” Martin flung his hand as if throwing something.

Brutus casually glanced back over his shoulder as if he had known the boy had nothing to throw. He fixed Martin with a ponderful look.

Martin sighed, exhaustedly. “Whatever,” he said and rolled his eyes.

He walked away, and Brutus followed him. When Martin stopped at the next intersection, Brutus stopped too, and both heads wagged one direction then the other. A car with a leaky exhaust puttered by, and then both wrinkled their noses. They continued on, the boy just ahead and the dog, wet and pungent, just behind. He smelled of pine, Martin realized, and not at all like wet dogs were supposed to smell.

At the gate to Martin’s grandma’s house, he lifted the scratchy latch and looked down at Brutus. “Best behavior,” he said.

Brutus lowered his muzzle, as if to nod.

Together they went through and up the walk. His grandma’s porch was mercifully dry. Brutus bristled up his hindquarters and made like he would shake.

Martin cleared his throat. “Best behavior, remember?”

Abashed, Brutus sat.

Martin stretched for the doorbell. Inside, the peel rattled around the house like a ball set loose.

Brutus twitched his ears.

They only waited a moment before Martin’s grandma opened the door.

“Oh, Marty!” she said, her face lighting up in delight. “I didn’t know you were coming over. I’ve just made cookies. Do you want to come in?”

The sugar-crusted warm air wafted out to both boy and dog; both their noses twitched at the tang of chocolate mixed with brown sugar.

Martin felt a pang of sadness, and he looked down at Brutus. “No, I don’t think I can. I’ve got to take him back.”

“Oh my! Where did you find him?”

“At the Frasers’.”

“Oh, Brutus! I didn’t even recognize you.” Martin’s grandma reached a flour-flecked hand down to pat the dog between his ears. “I thought you were afraid of him.”

“I was,” Martin said, easing the cookbook out from beneath his coat. He held it out to her. “Mom wanted me to bring this over.”

“Oh, right… Well, she could have picked a drier day to send you over!”

“I broke a vase this morning.” Martin looked down toward the toes of his boots.

“I see.” His grandma shared a private smile to herself. “Wait here a moment. I’ll be right back.” She left the door open behind her and disappeared toward the back of the house. When she returned, she carried a plastic zip bag with four salad-plate sized cookies crammed inside. “Here you go,” she said. “And congratulations.”

Martin’s face lifted with an excited smile, but he wasn’t too distracted to also appear puzzled. “For what?” He tucked the cookies into his pocket.

His grandma nodded toward Brutus. “For facing your fears.”

“Oh.” Martin hadn’t really thought of it that way.

“You were scared of him because you never took the time to discover he wasn’t the monster you had built him up to be.”

Martin looked down at the dog beside him. Brutus stared back, thoughtful.

“He’s just a dog,” Martin said.

“Exactly,” his grandma smiled. “And now, he looks like a friend.”
From somewhere across the valley, thunder rumbled beneath the sheets of rain. Brutus gave a tiny whine, ears twitching backward on his head.

“You’d better take him back before the Frasers miss him. Thank you for bringing my cookbook.”

Martin smiled. “You’re welcome.” Impatient to be home and dry, Martin skipped off the porch steps. “Come on, Brutus! Last one home is a rotten egg!”

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