written by: Laura M. Baird
What was he supposed to do? Reacting too quickly could be just as big a mistake as thinking too long about making a choice.
Why did he choose this detour from his usual route? He stood frozen with indecision, suddenly wishing he could turn back time and stick to his normal routine.
He was never the adventurous one, always doing what he was told; never going out on a limb or straying from the norm.
So what had prompted him to sway? The merciless teasing from the other kids? The desire to finally do something unexpectedly brave? The need to prove himself in order to make friends?
His thoughts of heroism and rash decision-making could very well cost him his life. At the very least, he’d be ruined with mortification and would never live it down.
With his feet rooted in place, as if his shoes had melted into the sidewalk, his legs quaked and his belly tumbled. He felt the sweat trickle down his spine as his armpits tingled. Goose flesh rose all over his body as he went from blazing hot to ice-cold, filled with dread.
Would the beast be able to hear the frantic beat of his racing heart? Could he smell the stench of fear radiating off his body? Did he spy through the slats, the tremor in his hands as he clutched his books to his chest as if they were a shield?
He was close enough to see the beast’s frothy mouth as a low growl escaped. His ears pinned back as a subtle shift in his thick body showed bunching muscles that were no doubt capable of tremendous strength. Lightning speed. Deadly force.
After seeing his dad drive these streets, many times he’d thought to come this way, as it was a faster route home. But even while walking from one street away, the boy would always grimace when he’d hear the ferocious barking begin; a surefire deterrent that all heeded.
Several times he’d ventured between the houses in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the beast he never managed to see from the confines of the family vehicle. He had been able to get close enough to see that the beast had free reign of his domain, always remaining secured behind the fence; pacing, barking, even whining at times.
No one had ever been home to quiet the roar emanating from the monster, and today appeared no different.
What was different was the wide open gate the boy’s eyes locked on, a mere twenty feet away. He shifted his vision only a fraction, trying not to draw attention to any movement as he looked for an alternative to his present course.
If he backed away, would the beast prowl the fence line, looking for another opening? If he darted across the street, would the beast pursue?
The boy saw no leash or chain that secured the animal, limiting its mobility; preventing it from doing what it pleased. Nor was there anyone else in sight that might provide any form of assistance. It was mid-afternoon and he was the only person around. The few other kids from the neighborhood had quickly scattered, knowing nothing of his hair-brained idea that now put him at risk.
Seconds ticked by torturously slow, feeling as if he’d stood there a lifetime. If he remained frozen like a deer-in-the-headlights, would the animal tire of the inactivity, giving him a chance to escape?
His sweaty hands began to lose their grip on the books. His back ached even as his legs began to shake harder from the strain of immobility. His breaths came in quick pants causing his mouth to feel drier than the rice cakes his mom thought were a healthier snack alternative than potato chips. And now those cardboard-tasting treats churned in his queasy stomach, threatening a return route.
Acid pooled in the back of his throat when he was unable to squelch his gag reflex. A burp escaped, followed by a cough.
His eyes widened and an involuntary whimper escaped as the beast charged the fence. Dust billowed under the animal’s paws as spittle dripped from his cavernous oral cavity. His brown hide gleamed in the sunlight like well-worn leather. In only a matter of a few steps, the creature seemed to double in size.
The boy thought he might have dampened his shorts with urine. Maybe it was just the extraordinary amount of sweat that ran from his body in his terrified state.
He was paralyzed; his thought processes immobilized. The only movement was the quiver of his lips as more whimpers escaped. Before long, tears leaked from his eyes as he began mewling like a lost kitten. The sound caused the animal behind the fence to quiet then suddenly whine in return.
The boy sniffled before taking a shuddering breath, unable to quiet himself. The beast lifted his snout into the air, chuffed, and whimpered. He pushed his nose between the slats as the boy’s crying increased.
Could the creature sense that the boy posed no threat? Had his fear garnered sympathy?
Something inexplicable compelled the boy to take a step toward the fence. And then another, and another, until he could see the furrow of brown brows. Soulful eyes. The once snarling mouth now peeled back in what looked like a smile as his tongue flapped back and forth with his breathing.
With the safety of the fence separating the two, the boy shifted his books to one arm and hesitantly lifted a hand. Ever so slowly he moved forward until he felt the rough board graze his knuckles.
The dog lashed out with his tongue, swiping it against little outstretched fingers.
The boy surprised himself with a laugh as the animal continued to lap at his hand. He turned it over to cup beneath the dog’s chin, caressing the short hairs and causing a moan to escape, seemingly pleased with the contact. The dog pressed into the boy’s hand as if seeking comfort, and was rewarded with more petting along his neck as far as the fence would allow.
Suddenly the books slipped from the boy’s grasp and he bent down to retrieve them. The dog plopped himself onto the ground and rolled to his back, presenting his belly; the universal beseeching of a good rub.
The boy couldn’t help the laughter that exploded from him. His joy at this momentous breakthrough had him wishing he could race through the open gate to give the dog a proper belly rub. But he settled with reaching his arm through the slats for now, sliding his hand over the softest skin he thought he’d ever felt on the dog’s underside. His laughter continued as the dog’s hind legs twitched with what appeared to be mutual joy. Bliss.
To think he’d once been deathly afraid of this beast, and now to see the dog playful, almost vulnerable, was a revelation.
The animal turned out to be just like many – in need of a friend.