Read Runt Online

Authors: Nora Raleigh Baskin

Runt (10 page)

“Go to sleep, Nadine,” my dad says.

We go to bed real early these days. By nine o'clock we've read as much as we can. There's just nothing to do. I haven't gone to bed before ten thirty since I was in elementary school when my dad used to scratch our backs and tuck us in at night.

“Tell us a story, Daddy,” I say. I am wrapped up warm, laying between my sister and my mom and dad. I look straight up, watching the lights from the passing cars outside rush across the ceiling and down the side wall.

Nadine groans but we all ignore her.

My dad is the best storyteller. Everybody knew it. Whenever I had a friend sleep over, I would plead with my dad to tell us a bedtime story, and he would pretend to resist until even my friend was begging him. I think my friend Maggie loved his stories more than anyone. Her
dad works in Washington, DC, and she doesn't see him very often.

“All righty, then,” my dad begins. “Once upon a time . . .”

I haven't been friends with Maggie since last year. She kind of changed groups or maybe I did. Either way I haven't been friends with Maggie since last year.

A year ago she never would have been friends with someone like Zoe, and then it seemed like one day, she just was. I never liked Zoe. She scared me and I knew enough to stay away from people who scared me. But not Maggie, so when Zoe invited five girls to her sleep-over—one of them was Maggie and one of them was me—I didn't want to go.

“Freida, please. You have to go. I can't go without you. We are twins, remember? BFFs. At least do it for me.”

I knew why Maggie wanted to go so badly. It was like winning the lottery, like getting a chance to see a live Taylor Swift concert from the front row. It was an offer that wouldn't come again if you didn't act quickly. A chance to stay at Zoe Bellaro's McMansion. Zoe's mother had supposedly been in an episode of
Law and Order
Cold Case
. I guess that's kind of cool.

“I don't want to, Maggie. She only invited me because she invited you.”

We were sitting on the swings, like we always did, outside the intermediate school. Next year would be middle school, but for now we were safe.

“So, see, that just shows how nice she is,” Maggie said. “She's being nice.”

I stopped rocking my feet back and forth and looked at my best friend. I knew something was changing.

“Maggie, there is nothing nice about Zoe and you know it. Last week she accidentally on purpose dumped a Pixy Stix in my hair. Why do they sell those things in school anyway?”

I must admit I didn't anticipate Maggie rising to the top of the middle school popularity heap the way she did, but if you ask me, a caged hamster spinning in a wheel is still a hamster, in a cage.

• • •

“Along the way, they encounter many obstacles,” my dad went on. It's a baby story but my dad's voice is deep and slow.

• • •

“Freida, you have to come. You just have to,” Maggie
begged me. “If you don't I may have to invoke the BFF emergency rule.”

She really wanted me to go with her, but it was a mistake. Zoe didn't like Maggie any more than she liked me. She would do mean things. And then talk about it the next day. I just knew it.

“Then I have to invoke it too, Maggie,” I said. “I can make you do one thing I really need you to do even if you don't want to. I don't want you to go to that sleepover.”

“And I want you to go with me to that sleepover.” Maggie got off her swing and stood on the grass.

It was a standoff, and the end of our friendship. I miss Maggie. We were the Two Musketeers. Was it me or Maggie who made those delicious oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for the bake sale and then we both got belly aches eating them all? Who fell off the swings in second grade and cut her knee wide open?

I have to reach down, under the covers, and under my pajama pants, and touch my skin, to remember. I have a raised scar just above my shin.

It was me.

• • •

“So Gloria and Rabbit sat down by the side of the road to rest,” my dad is saying.

He is coming to the end of his story. I feel my eyes closing. I can feel the warmth coming from the heater and from the bodies next to me. I think this is how people were meant to live. I mean, it feels natural, like the way we were in the wild, before electricity and television and Internet, like animals, close together for protection.

When I turn my head, I see my mom and dad. My mom's head is resting on my dad's forearm and Nadine is fast asleep. I hear her slow breathing.


The smells were everywhere in
this place, indicating the passage of time, disclosing the identity of the others, revealing details about their age, what they just ate, where they had traveled, both recently and in the past. Junior sat shyly in the corner and watched.

Vision wasn't his favorite means of gathering information, but he didn't dare move any closer to the other dogs. He was new and had to learn his place. No, waiting was the best thing. Watching. Listening. Waiting.

Junior lifted his snout and flared his nostrils, the older air swirled within the inside of his nose while he drew in a new breath. In this way, he could compare the scents—the strength, the quality, the pungency—and tell time.

There was a lot he could learn right from here. The larger of the two humans, the one that seemed to be in charge, was standing in the room where the food smells came from. But Junior wasn't sure. She had the louder voice and she was the one using the tools that humans use to prepare food, but it was the younger one who the other dogs followed with their eyes, and their ears, and their noses. Junior turned his attention to her.

She was female. Of that, he was certain. She seemed kind, though Junior could sense a tension about her, an uncertainty. She was worried about something.

“Hi, Junior.” She bent down beside him. “Why are you hiding in the corner?”

She put her hand out, palm flat, a foot or two away from him. She smelled of soap, maybe maple syrup, but
was older, metal, the handle of a door. She smelled strongly of the dog she had just been rubbing and that dog smelled of grass, the inside of a car, fresh meat of some kind, a much older odor from another human altogether. Junior tipped his head down and looked away.

The girl understood this to be a friendly sign; she reached over and scratched him behind his ears, in just that, oh, wonderful, spot, yes, just hard enough to feel so good.

“I know you're sad, but you're lucky you're here,” the human girl said. “Most everyone else in town has no power, no water. No heat. At least we can cook food here.”

Junior cocked his head, lifted his ear, and listened. A word or two made sense: Water. Food.

At the same time he kept an eye and his nose primed for movement behind her. The other dogs were watching too, listening. Whenever a new dog enters the pack, everything is up for grabs. All systems were tensed for change and rearranging.

“But we don't have Internet or TV,” the girl went on. She made herself comfortable on the floor beside him. Junior might have gotten up and moved away. He didn't want to show his colors yet, he wasn't ready. He didn't want to look like he was taking the human girl for himself. That might make the others worried or even angry. But she was stroking him, his belly now, and he couldn't move if he wanted. His eyes lowered involuntarily and his throat generated a low, pleased rumble of sound.

“Oh, you like this, do you? Well, I can't stay long, you know. My mother is taking me to the library in town. They are the only ones with Internet, and I've got to check my e-mail.”

Junior felt her heartbeat quicken when she spoke those words. Though he didn't know what she said, he knew it was important to her.

“I know you know we don't have electricity because of the hurricane. We are lucky to have a wood-burning stove, so that's why you are warm. My mother promised me she'd take me to the library today because they have Internet there, for some reason. But it's probably going to be crowded, so I want to get there soon.”

None of the sounds that were coming from her mouth were comprehensible to him, but a distinct scent rose from her body, from her skin: fear? anxiety? excitement? Junior couldn't precisely tell.

One of the dogs had stepped toward them. He, it was he. Junior could smell his maleness in the air before him. But he wasn't aggressive. He was curious. The way he looked away, the way his tail moved slowly back and forth low to his body but not between his legs. Junior had to look away. It was respectful. This dog had been here first.

“Oh, Poppy. You came over. Poppy, this is Junior. Junior, Poppy. You're both here for a week, so make friends and play nice.”

The human girl was smart. She stood up and moved
out of the way. She allowed the two dogs space to move around each other, sucking in air, poking their noses as close to the source as the other would allow. There was so much to know about a new friend, so much history and so much potential.

“Elizabeth,” the other human, the older one, called out. “Time to go. You ready?”

The girl gave each of the dogs a rub on the top of their heads. Junior liked it. They both did.

“Off to the library.”

She sounded cheerful, but there was something here to be wary of. It wasn't a smell or a movement Junior could see outside. It wasn't a sound he could hear. It was just a sense, the way he knew when his
human was on his way home, long before he saw the car or heard any footsteps on the walkway, or smelled his boy's wonderful, familiar scent. Something was going to happen and it wasn't good.


The town librarians weren't at
all prepared for the crowds, although they probably should have been. They were the only Wi-Fi hot spot in a fifty-mile radius. They had lights, running water, and cable Internet service. Mr. Werner had called in both Mrs. Frances Greely and Ms. Laura Charles to work that day. Every computer terminal was in use, with a long string of names on the waiting list. Those waiting were supposed to sit quietly and read, but there simply weren't enough chairs. The restrooms were a mess, and the noise alone could have sent any one of the librarians to the madhouse.

“That's a very outdated term, Fran.”

“What is?”

. You know. Lunatic asylum. That's so eighteenth century.”

“Laurie, it's an expression, not a politically correct statement, for goodness sake. It's just mayhem in here. I think every single middle school and high school student from the whole district is here.” Mrs. Greely was checking in books from the return bin. You never knew what you were going to find pressed in those pages, the things people used as bookmarks and then forgot to remove before returning.

“Hmm, you're right. And considering half the town has left or is staying in hotels, this is pretty crazy. What are these children looking
, anyway?”

Mrs. Greely flipped through the pages of the
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology
, Prometheus Press, New York, 1959, before she put it on the cart to take it back to the stacks. There seemed to be some new stains on the fabric cover—they didn't make books like this anymore—but otherwise it was fine.

“For the life of me, I can't imagine,” Mrs. Greely answered. She lifted out the next book and gave it a little shake. “Their e-mail?”

“Kids don't e-mail any more,” Ms. Charles said.
“They check their person2person page. They listen to music and watch videos.”


“And they don't talk on the phone. They text.”

“Oh, I know.”

“Or Twitter.”


“I mean, look at that girl over there.” Ms. Charles pointed. “She hasn't moved in eighteen minutes. She's just staring at that screen like a zombie.”

“She certainly is transfixed, isn't she?”

Mrs. Greely pulled out the next book,
A Candle in Her Room
by Ruth M. Arthur, Aladdin Books, 1966. It had been one of Mrs. Greely's favorite books when she was a child, and she wondered who had taken it out to read.

“Well, she can't sit there much longer, and I sure hope she read the sign about the thirty-minute maximum computer time. I hate having to remind these people.”

The book was so magical. It was scary and romantic, suspenseful and mysterious. It was everything a book could or should be. Mrs. Greely held it tight to her chest as if her love for the book could seep into it, out of her heart. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

“Fran? Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, of course, Laurie. You hate to have to remind the kids when their turn is up. I'll do it.”

Mrs. Greely slowly tilted the book down and studied the cover. It was the same sketchy illustration she remembered, of a girl in a sweater poking a stick into high leaping flames. The same crinkly plastic paper over the dust jacket. Oh, yes, the doll. There was a magical, evil doll named . . . named Dido. She had been so enraptured by the book that she wanted to own it. She wanted it to be hers.

She loved it so much she had memorized the first and last sentence:

I suppose if we had not come to Prembrokeshire, Judith, Briony and I, this story would never have been written. There would have been no Dido.

Suddenly, I felt secure with a happiness I had never expected to have known, a gentle glowing happiness which burnt inside me like a clear steady flame.

But it was a library book, and it had to go back.

“Well, good, then. You do it this time. But give her
another five minutes or so to stare at the screen.”

Mrs. Greely looked up. “What? Oh, sure. Another five minutes.”

And you couldn't steal a book from the library because that would be very wrong. Everybody knew stealing a book from the library was wrong, no matter how much you wanted it. No matter how much you loved books and loved being around books and loved this book more than any other.

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