Lugnut was first published in the MacGuffin in the Winter of 2016 issue.
He should have listened to his mother. The big red dog sits on its haunches, looking at the boy, who sits on the floor next to him, directly into the eye. It is a steady, unblinking gaze. Two circular black islands in two matching golden seas. The boy’s hand moves slowly and rhythmically through the dogs long red coat from the top of the dog’s head to the middle of the it’s back. The boy’s fingers disappear into the fur with each stroke. The knuckles brushing against the stiff hairs of the outer coat, while the fingertips feel the softness of the inner coat.
The dog’s body is ramrod straight, every muscle resting between tautness and relaxation. A military officer standing at ease, but ready to spring to attention at any moment. The big red tail sits on the ground behind the dog, limp and unmoving. No happy wag, no joyous shake, no sign of appreciation for the boy’s constant efforts. Up and down, up and down, up and down. The same motion repeatedly, the same scene again and again.
“Stay away from Lugnut, he isn’t good with kids.”
The warning still echoed in the boy’s ears. A firm reminder given every time they made the hour long car trip to visit his grandmother. It had become part of the constant litany of dos and don’ts which dictated the laws of his childhood.
“Lugnut isn’t like the dogs at home. Lugnut doesn’t spend a lot of time around kids. Don’t try to play with Lugnut.”
The boy had doubted his mother’s words. His seven year old brain had done the calculation and decided that she didn't know what she was talking about. Lugnut wasn’t a bad dog, he was just misunderstood, that’s all. Given a chance, Lugnut could be treated just like any other dog. Uncle Bill had owned Lugnut for years. Why wouldn’t he be used to having kids around?
Yes, Uncle Bill was a bachelor whose house was conspicuously absent of children. Yes, Lugnut was a cow dog who spent most of his life walking behind horses up narrow trails and chasing cattle through forest covered hills. Yes, Lugnut undoubtedly lacked some of the finer social graces and patience that were required when dealing with the sixty pound miniature people that sometimes appeared in his life. But these things just suggested the need for a little tact, not outright ostracization.
The boy had been around dogs his entire life. Some of his earliest memories involved dogs. When the boy thought of himself, he thought of a boy who knew dogs. He knew their behaviors and their signals. He knew the signs that showed what a dog was feeling. Whether it was happy, bored, afraid, or angry. He knew to go slow so that the dog did not get startled. He knew to be careful around a strange dog. But Lugnut was not a strange dog. Lugnut was Uncle Bill’s dog. He was pretty much a member of the family.
This trip was going to be different. As the car had carried him and his brother’s towards their grandmother’s house, and his mother gave the familiar warning, the boy had decided that he was going to prove his mother wrong in her assertions over the personality qualities of Lugnut. This was going to be the trip where his mother, with all her rules and regulations, would have to admit that she was wrong about something. That she would have to recognize that she didn’t know everything and that the boy was not a little kid anymore.
The boy’s chance had come shortly after lunch. The adults all sat in the living room, relaxing after the meal and discussing various adult topics and pleasantries. A background drone of catching up on the latest happenings and doings of various other adults and their progeny. His brothers sat on the floor, playing with plastic horses and metal matchbox cars, lost in worlds of adventure within the theaters of their own heads.
The boy put down the metal miniature corvette he was playing with, stood up, and walked down the hall as though he was going to the bathroom. No one in the room looked up to watch him go. The adults were all engrossed in a story about some neighbor. The boy’s brothers were reaching the climaxes of their individual internal monologues. The boy walked down the hall, but he did not go to the bathroom. When he was sure no one was looking, the boy turned the corner and went into the kitchen instead.
The big red dog lay in the corner on an old rug next to the door to the outside, waiting for the alpha to get done and head back out to work. His body rose and fell as though he was sleeping. Rhythmically in a steady cadence in time with the quiet sound of in rushing and out rushing air from the big dog’s nose. With the boy’s first step into the kitchen the golden eyes pulled open and the red head raised up from between the big front paws. The dog stared at the boy and the boy stared back. The dog’s eyes appraised the miniature person who had entered the room and found nothing of interest. The big head lay back between the large paws. The eyes did not droop back close. They stayed open, watching.
The boy walked further into the kitchen. The only sounds his feet upon the floor, the steady movement of air through the dog’s stuffed up nose, and the hum of the refrigerator.
“Hey Lugnut, how are you doing today?”
The dog gave no sign that he had heard the question. The boy took a few more steps, and then stopped. He lowered himself to the floor into a cross legged position in the center of the room. The linoleum felt cool beneath him. The golden eyes of the dog followed his every movement with an air of boredom and disinterest. The boy stared back and studied the contours of the eighty pound pile of fur before him. The boy slowed his breathing until it moved in synchronization with that of the dog’s. The two remained still, appraising the situation.
One minute, two minutes, three minutes. Time passed with no action by either party. The boy sat and watched the dog. Letting the dog get use to his presence. Letting the dog understand that the boy was not a threat in anyway. The dog laid in the corner and watched the boy. The boy got a sense that the dog was not really all that interested in him. That he only watched him because he was the newest item in the room and therefore slightly more interesting than the other things already in the dog’s field of vision. The boy cleared his throat to make it feel less dry.
The dog raised his head again.
The dog stared at the boy for a moment. Then opened his mouth in a yawn, revealing his numerous sharp yellow teeth and red tongue, and then laid his head back down.
The dog gave no response and turned his gaze to stare at a chair that had suddenly become more interesting. The boy breathed in and out in a huff of frustration. He did not want to walk over to the dog. He wanted the dog to come over to him. If he walked over to the dog it would mean he had failed. It would mean that the dog called the shots. Also, if he invaded the dog’s personal space, he did not know what the dog would do.
The boy’s eyes followed the dog’s gaze to the chair with its spare wooden frame and blue cushion. He let his eyes drift across the kitchen, taking it all in. Inside, the feeling that he should just get up and go back to the living room to play matchbox cars was slowly growing. The boy’s eyes roved across various items. Refrigerator, dishwasher, cupboard doors, toaster oven, sink, bowl of dog treats on the counter. The thoughts of admitting defeat were banished by the creation of a new plan. The boy got up and walked over to the counter. He could feel the dog’s eyes following his movements. He picked a single treat, green and bone shaped, from the bowl and went back to sit cross legged in the middle of the room once again.
The dog’s head was up and he watched with rapt attention. His red tongue licked his black lips in anticipation. His nose worked, testing the air. The boy held the treat in front of him. Holding one end with the tips of his fingers.
The red tail beat the floor.
The large paws pushed against the floor, the thick legs raised the great body upwards. The dog stood and stared at the treat. Unsure for a second what to do. The indecision was short lived. The dog moved forward, his nails clicking on the linoleum. The dog walked to the boy and gingerly took the treat from the boy’s fingers, careful in all his movements. The boy reached out slowly, and put his hand on the dogs side. He tentatively began moving his hand back and forth, rubbing the red fur coat. Each back and forth movement got longer. The boy’s fingers moved from the top of the dog’s head to the middle of his broad back. The dog sat on his haunches, and raised his nose up towards the sky, his eyes closed, obviously enjoying the attention.
“You're a pretty good dog, aren’t ya Lugnut. You just got a bad rap, that’s all.”
The boy petted the dog for a full minute and then let his hand drop. His point had been proven. He had been victorious in his goal. The boy began to stand. The growl came deep from within the dog’s throat. His mouth did not open and he did not show any teeth. It was more a vibration than a sound. More something felt than heard. The dog sat face to face with the boy, his muzzle just inches away from the boy’s nose. The boy stared into the gold colored eyes and stood a little more. The dog growled once again in disapproval. The boy sat fully back down, raised a hand, and started to again pet the threatening red bulk before him.
Another minute passed. The boy again lowered his hand. Again the growl from the back of the throat. The boy recommenced his petting. The dog gazed at the boy steadily, reminding the boy of his vulnerability. The dog’s tail did not wag. His jaw did not hang slack. He sat perfectly straight and stared at the boy who was now under his control. A petting machine under his command.
The boy was scared. He did not know what to do. He could not bring himself to meet the big dog’s eye. The boy’s hand moved rhythmically, following the unspoken orders of his new canine master. All of the warnings his mother had given him ran through his head. The constant lectures and reminders breeding uncertainty over what to do. The boy couldn’t just quit petting. God only knows what the dog would do if he did. Maybe the dog would just let the boy go, or maybe he would tear his face off. It was a gamble, and he lacked the experience to judge the relative likelihood of each scenario. The boy felt all alone and isolated. He could not get the image of the dog’s large yellow teeth out of his head. He could not ignore the relative disparity in their mass and weight.
The boy couldn’t call for help. The boy couldn’t face his mother’s admonishments for doing what he had specifically been told not to do. He could see her lecturing him in front of everybody. He could feel the shame as she made him feel like a little kid in front of everyone whom he wanted to have think the opposite. He could see the disapproving look of his grandparents and uncle. He could see his brothers mocking looks as they relished in him getting in trouble. The boy was stuck. He was trapped. He had no escape.
Minute passed by after minute. Twice more the boy built up the courage to challenge the alpha in its dominance. Twice the quiet growls drove him back to his task of endlessly rubbing the big red dog’s back. There was no way out. Nothing he could do. The boy could think of only two solutions, and in his mind the negatives of both were of equal weight, leaving him in limbo. Tears of frustration filled his eyes. He knew the longer that he sat there, endlessly petting the damned dog, the more likely it would be for someone to come into the kitchen and find him. A combination of hope and dread filled him at the thought of such an event.
The boy’s arm was becoming tired. The repetitive motion became harder to do, but he dared not slow down. He would have to make a run for it. In a single motion he would have to stop petting and lunge for the doorway, a seemingly far off beacon of escape. He would have to be quick. He would not be able to hesitate. The boy began to brace himself for the lunge. The dog felt the boy’s arm stiffen, and sensed his changing stance. The dog leaned in closer to the boy, as though warning him that any attempt to break away would be futile. The boy felt the dogs muscle become more taunt, matching the boy's in readiness for action. The boy’s heart beat rapidly in his chest. He uncrossed his legs and put one foot firmly on the floor, ready to push off. The dog raised its back end off of the ground slightly, its body began to shake with anticipation. In his head the boy counted. In one, two, thr......
“Lugnut, come here boy.”
The sound of Uncle Bill’s voice filled the house and the dog stood up and trotted out of the kitchen, his tail wagging and tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. The boy sat and watched him go, breathing deeply and willing his heart to slow its rapid motion. The boy’s mother walked into the kitchen and looked down at him as though from a great height.
“What are you doing sitting in the middle of the floor?”
“Nothing, just playing.”
“Well, come back in the living room and say goodbye. Uncle Bill is leaving.”