For as long as he could remember, all Bobby Taylor ever wanted was a dog of his own…any dog. But he had a problem. Bobby’s stepfather ran the Animal Control department in Mason City, where they lived.
The town was named after a famous man who had lived in the area years ago. Tobias Mason had owned practically everything at that time. Now, parks, schools, and buildings were named after him, including the whole town.
Mason City was just big enough for Bobby to have a lot of fun, but far removed from the big cities. His mother had told him that’s why the town didn’t have much crime.
Not long ago Bobby had asked, for the ten thousandth time, “Why can’t I come down to the pens, pick out a dog, and bring him home?”
Mark Taylor, his stepfather, had shaken his head as he answered, “After a full day of hearing those mongrels bark their heads off, hour after miserable hour, that’s the last thing I need.”
“Listening to another one in my own house. I’m telling you, it’s just not going to happen.”
When Bobby was only three years old, his real father was killed in a car accident. Bobby hardly knew him. Still, he and his stepfather didn’t get along very well. Bobby suspected it was because he was such a skinny, little kid. He tried to call Mr. Taylor, “Dad,” but each time he did, it made him feel funny inside, and the word got caught in his throat.
Bobby knew that whenever a dog has puppies, those lovable little fur-balls are called a litter. And in each litter you can find two puppies that everyone remembers. First, there is the pick-of-the-litter. Now the pick-of-the-litter will always be the biggest, most adorable little thing that seems to jump up and say, “Take me home, will ya? You’re gonna love me.” That dog usually gets picked first.
Then there is the second puppy in the litter that everyone remembers. That puppy is the runt. The runt is the smallest, and he’s usually not very cute. He may be sickly, and need to sleep a lot. No one wants this dog.
It could be said that Bobby was the runt of the Taylor family. The only difference is that he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. This gave him the distinct honor of being both the biggest and smallest boy in his family.
Unfortunately, the problem didn’t stop there, because he was also the smallest boy in his class at school. He was a short, scrawny thing, and small for his age of eleven years. This led to great difficulties for Bobby every day. He hated going to school because he knew that Buck Davis and his gang would be there to cause him trouble.
Buck’s real name was Stanley Davis, but other than his parents or the teachers, he made sure no one else ever called him by that name. Buck was big…real big, and he used his size to keep everyone in line.
He had a real father who owned a metal fabricating shop. Buck acted like they were making gold bars or something.
Today the class was going on a field trip to the father’s shop. Bobby wasn’t looking forward to it at all.
Each day on his way to school, he passed by a run-down shack of a house. Rusted cars sat around the back yard where tall weeds grew clear up past the windows. Since this was the shortest way to get to school, Bobby had no other choice but to quickly pass by. But every day when he passed, something terrible happened. Each time it felt as if his heart was about to jump right out of his shirt.
Then one day, Bobby eased around the corner and picked up speed as he approached the junky house. Then he heard it. In the distance a large dog began howling and barking. In only seconds it would be almost close enough for Bobby to feel its hot breath.
He began walking even more quickly now, but it was no use. The dog broke out of the tall weeds at a full run. By now white slobber ran down both sides of the mouth on this ferocious beast. He had a long nose, pointed ears, and a thick, black coat.
Suddenly he came to a stop, but he kept right on barking.
Good thing they have a fence, Bobby thought as he breathed a little easier. Now he was able to walk at normal speed again. As he turned to look over his shoulder, Bobby felt kind of sorry for the dog. Its bones stuck out all over through the skin. It was clear that either he was very sick, or he didn’t get much to eat.
That gave Bobby an idea. He whispered under his breath, “That’s it. If I can’t have a dog, maybe I could feed this one and pretend he’s mine, if he doesn’t bite my hand off first.” He hurried off to school with a smile on his face. Already a plan was starting to form where he could act like this was his dog. No one else needed to know.
When he got to school, a big, yellow bus was already sitting in the circle drive out front. It waited to take his class on their last fieldtrip of the year before summer vacation. Bobby went inside, tossed a few things into his locker, and headed for his first class. Buck and his gang stepped out of the boys’ bathroom as Bobby was about to pass by. Each of them wore a thin leather strap around his neck.
“Where ya goin’, runt?” a menacing voice demanded.
“Class; same as you.”
Buck shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Because today’s kinda special.”
He nodded. “See, today the whole class is goin’ to my dad’s shop. He’s got a machine that cuts out any design you can draw.” He looked around to the others. Then with a sneer he said, “Too bad you ain’t got a real dad like I do.”
Bobby felt a cold wave move through his body. It went from his head, all the way to his feet. If he’d been standing anywhere else, he would have sat down before he fell down.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Bobby asked after a hard swallow.
“Nothin’, really. It’s just that maybe I don’t want you hanging around the place. The machine we’re goin’ to see cost over a million bucks.”
Bobby shuddered. “A million Bucks?” He shook his head. “Now there’s a horrible thought.”
Buck moved in closer. “You tryin’ to be funny?”
Bobby kept quiet.
“I still don’t want you anywhere near my dad’s place.”
“Well, I can’t miss a day of school so I’m going.”
Buck took another step forward and made a fist. “Says who?”
Bobby quickly scanned the hallway, but there was no one who could help. He turned to Buck. “Our teacher. I had all those sick days and there’s no way I’m going to summer school to make up any more work.”
“That’s right,” Dale said. “We thought you’d died or something.” Dale was almost as big as Buck, but not nearly as mean.
Buck smiled. He looked at Bobby from his head, all the way down to his shaking knees, and back up again. “Looks to me like you hardly pulled through.”
“Yeah,” another boy said with a laugh. “If you was a dog, your old man would have put you out of your misery by now.”
“What kind of a father kills cats and dogs for a living?” another boy asked.
Buck pointed at Bobby. “His. But he ain’t no regular father…he’s only a stepfather.”
Just then the final bell rang. Bobby felt the relief of a boxer who’d barely survived the last round in the biggest fight of his life. He turned to go to class when Buck reached out and grabbed the back of his shirt. He pulled so hard that Bobby went flying backward and slammed into a row of lockers. The rest of the boys rushed off to their class. When Bobby got there, his teacher marked him late.
He slipped into his seat as his teacher finished calling the role. Then she said, “As you know, today we are going on an exciting trip to the company that Stanley’s father owns. We have a special surprise for each of you, but I can’t tell you until we get there.”
Sounds of excitement swept through the room as students tried to guess what the surprise could possibly be.
It wasn’t long before the class loaded onto the shiny bus waiting to take them on their great adventure. Buck made sure Bobby sat all the way in the back. Soon they came to a stop in front of a large building with a sign that read, “State-Line Metal Products.”
Everyone hurried off the bus and gathered on a sidewalk that led to the front doors. Their teacher, Mrs. Andrews, called the role again to make sure no one had been left behind. Then she had them count off into ones and twos. Next she made sure each student had a buddy, for safety. No one wanted to pair up with Bobby so he was left with the teacher. This was worse than eating liver.
Once inside, a woman at the reception desk called Mr. Davis. A few minutes later he came out to greet the children. Buck puffed up with pride. His father handed out safety glasses and earplugs for everyone. Next they walked through two metal doors into a large room filled with machines. Some of them punched holes in big sheets of metal while others bent metal into different shapes.
In one corner, Bobby noticed sparks coming from a grinding machine. Then Mr. Davis took them over to another machine with a large sheet of metal lying flat on a table.
Big, whoop, Bobby thought. Now what?