“Arroooo!” Lunchbox the basset hound howled angrily from the den. Nate Parker ignored him and turned up the volume on his new CD, Top Twenty Annoying Christmas Songs. The dog howled again. Nate stopped untangling the tree lights and leaned inside the doorway. “Come on, Lunchbox! Show a little holiday cheer!”
“Hrrrrmmmmm,” growled Lunchbox, not taking his eyes off the computer screen. He moved his fat paw slowly across the custom-made oversize keyboard designed by Nate’s father.
Noyzee, he slowly typed.
“You’re going to have to spell better than that if you ever want to explain how that machine works,” said Nate.
“But I guess it’s pretty good for a dog.” He shrugged. The novelty of having a dog made intelligent by space aliens had been replaced by nonstop work. Just six months earlier, he’d helped Lunchbox build the mysterious machine that turned ordinary garbage into the world’s most nutritious dog food, and narrowly avoided blowing up the planet in the process. After the Fourth of July, however, the aliens had apparently left. Aside from having the weirdest dog in the world, nothing unusual had happened—no more things disappeared in flashes of light, no more Dumpsters fell from the sky, no more garbage trucks tipped over in the parking lot.
Nate flipped through the stack of schematic drawings on the table by the computer. “Dad’s figured out most of the wiring and stuff, but we really need to know what that glowing Frisbee-thing is.”
Wrld eksplod, typed Lunchbox. No tuch.
“I know it could make the world explode.” Nate sighed. “But why?”
Lunchbox let the loose skin on his forehead fold over his eyes as he tried to think. How do I explain plookie radiation? I have the whole Scwozzwort engineering library in my head, but in people talk I have the vocabulary of a baby.
Above the noise of dogs barking “Jingle Bells” on his stereo, Nate heard the front door close. He hurried into the living room to turn down the volume and greet his parents.
“Sorry we’re late, sweetie,” said Mrs. Parker. “Daddy was training the new employees.”
“That and answering a zillion phone calls from people wanting their orders of Parker’s Power Pooch Pellets,” grumbled Mr. Parker. “We’re selling the stuff faster than we can make it.” He finished putting their coats and scarves in the hall closet. “If we can’t figure out how to build more machines, we’ll never catch up.”
“Which means we’ll never get paid.” Mrs. Parker sighed as she sifted through the mail, sorting the Christmas cards from the bills. “Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have kept my teaching job for one more year.”
“But you love this company, Connie,” said Mr. Parker. “We’ll manage—Mayor Carson and the other investors understand it will take a while to turn a profit. Still, we really need more of those machines.” He tousled Nate’s hair. “Any progress with Lunchbox?”
“Not much.” Nate groaned. “I gave him a spelling test today and he got one word right.”
Mr. Parker smiled. “How many bassets do you know that spell better?”
“This would be easier if the aliens would come back.”
“Nate, let’s not bring up the aliens again, okay?”
“But they were here! How else can you explain Lunchbox being so smart?”
“I can’t, son. But I just can’t believe in aliens. There has to be some other explanation—something rational—maybe a rare gene that gives him extraordinary abilities to learn.”
“But you always said he was nothing but bone between the ears. Something had to have changed him.”
“Well …” Mr. Parker hesitated, fishing for a logical statement. “Maybe I was wrong. You know, ummm … Albert Einstein! He flunked math when he was a kid. It took a long time for his inner genius to come out.”
“Maybe he met aliens, too. Have you ever seen his picture?”
“Look, Nate, I really don’t want to discuss this alien nonsense right now. There has to be a more practical answer for this. We just have to keep working on it.”
“At least you’ll have some time off for the holidays,” said Nate. He saw his parents look at each other hesitantly. “You are taking time off, right?”
“Connie, have you told him?” said Mr. Parker.
“No, not yet.” Mrs. Parker looked uncomfortable.
“Told me what?” said Nate.
Mr. Parker took a deep breath. “Your mother and I have to take a trip to a pet food convention in Chicago. If we’re going to make this business work, we have to learn all we can and make as many contacts as possible.”
“When? How long?”
“Tomorrow morning. We’ll be back Christmas Eve.”
Mr. Parker counted silently on his fingers, mouthing the days of the week. “Yep. Three days.”
“Can I come with you?” pleaded Nate.
“I wish you could, son, but we can’t afford it. Until we find a way to boost production, we’re as poor as we ever were. If we manage to fill the orders we’ve already got, we’ll just about break even.”
“You’re just going to leave us here alone?” said Nate, briefly thinking of all-night TV and popcorn.
“Of course not,” said his mother. “Aunt Nelly is coming to stay while we’re gone.”
“Aunt Nelly? But she’s nuts!”
“Nate, your great-aunt is not nuts.” Mrs. Parker glared briefly at her husband, who was nodding his head in agreement with Nate. “She’s … she’s a little different, but she’s very sweet and she’ll take good care of you.”
“What’s she going to think about Lunchbox?”
“You’ll have to keep Lunchbox under control,” said Mr. Parker. “Aunt Nelly doesn’t need to know anything about his … um … you know …”
Mrs. Parker finished her husband’s sentence for him. “Special abilities. And don’t eat too much of Aunt Nelly’s fruitcake.”
Nate made a sour face. “Do I have to eat any?”
“Only enough to be polite,” said his mother. “You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“I don’t wanna barf, either,” said Nate.
Text copyright © 2008 by Bryan W. Fields