Nick ran down the street, frantically looking over his shoulder to see if the bullies were still chasing him. His right foot sloshed against the sidewalk as he raced around the corner of a tall picket fence and scrambled under a large bush, panting heavily, trying to catch his breath. He tried to squeeze the water out of his shoe, but it didn’t work.
His shoe was soaked because his foot had slipped off a mossy log that Nick had tried to use to cross the wide stream that separated the school from the neighborhoods behind it. Downstream from the log there was a wooden bridge, but Nick didn’t want to use it because that was where a gang of bullies hung out after school and terrorized any of the kids from the neighborhood who tried to cross the bridge. Nick was almost across the log when one of the bullies had seen him, and the chase was on.
Suddenly, Nick heard approaching footsteps, coming fast. He looked around wildly, trying to find a place to escape without the bullies seeing him. Then he saw a hole under the fence, large enough for him to fit through, but small enough to not be seen unless somebody looked directly at it. He quickly took off his backpack, stuffing it through the hole, and then squirmed through just as he heard someone rustling through the bush on the other side of the fence. He rolled over to get out of the way of the hole, scrunching up and breathing very lightly so the bullies could not hear him. Then he heard someone say “Not here,” then receding footsteps, then quiet.
Nick put his backpack down by the fence and looked around to see what kind of place he was in. He saw that the whole yard was filled with junk—huge metallic boxes, giant rusting gears, old tires, weirdly shaped metal tubes, huge brass jars filled with pumps, tools, and various other kinds of metal scraps. It looked like a junkyard where robots threw parts of themselves away when they were making each other. Before he even realized what he was doing, Nick found himself walking around the yard, amazed by all that he saw.
In the center of the yard was what looked to be a mechanical dog, complete with fake brown fur glued to its steel body; it sat motionless with its hind paw on its left ear, as if it were frozen in the middle of scratching itself. Nick saw a switch on its collar and flipped it. Suddenly, the dog’s eyes glowed red and it jerked to life, swinging its head around and looking at Nick with bared teeth and a menacing growl. Nick jumped up and ran as fast as he could towards the fence with the dog right behind him, barking and snapping at his heels. Nick made a wild leap for the top of the fence, swinging his legs up and over just as the dog crashed into the fence. As Nick started to lower himself down the other side, he glanced up at the house and saw a man standing in one of the upper windows, watching him…
That evening, Nick was getting ready for bed when he heard a faint chopping noise coming from outside. He looked over and saw a little helicopter hovering just outside his open window. When he went over to get a closer look, the helicopter extended a mechanical arm with an envelope grasped in its mechanical fingers. Nick took the envelope and opened it. Inside was a letter that read:
Dear Nick, I have found your name and address from your backpack, which you seem to have left in my yard. I am sorry that my dog, Fluffy, attacked you earlier today. He is really quite a loveable fellow, but very protective of the property. If you would like to get a better look at my inventions, I would like to invite you for a formal tour tomorrow after school (Fluffy will not trouble you, I promise). As for your backpack, I will set it near the hole where you came in so that you can pick it up on the way to school tomorrow morning. Warmest Regards, Frederick Zerkolo
The next morning, Nick found his backpack right where Mr. Zerkolo said it would be. Then he walked the rest of the way to school, arriving there very early, as he wanted to use the bridge before the bullies got there. As he was crossing the bridge, Nick looked over and saw that the log he had used to cross the stream the day before had been broken into several pieces and scattered along the bank. Nick sighed, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to avoid the bullies the same way twice…
Later that afternoon, Frederick Zerkolo heard his doorbell ringing, which must have meant that his young friend had accepted his invitation and was outside the front gate. A minute later, he opened the gate and there stood Nick, totally drenched, his hair full of broken cattail leaves. His backpack, soaking wet and smeared with mud, hung loosely from one shoulder.
“I’m glad you got your backpack,” said Mr. Zerkolo. “Were you late on homework?”
“No,” Nick answered, without enthusiasm. He put his backpack down with a flop, and some dirt spilled out of it.
Mr. Zerkolo looked down at the backpack, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Had a little accident on the way home, did you?”
“Just some trouble with a few kids in school.”
Mr. Zerkolo looked at him thoughtfully. “Hmmm… yes, I used to have that kind of ‘trouble’ myself. Now, let’s get you washed and dried off.”
After Nick had washed and dried, he spent the next three hours looking at many amazing inventions. Mr. Zerkolo had created a self-watering plant pot, a rocket-powered skateboard, boatless water skis, anti-gravity boots, a combination vacuum cleaner and oven (that one didn’t work out so well), and many other interesting things. One of Nick’s favorite inventions was Zerkolo’s Choc-O-Matic—an automatic hot chocolate maker that made best hot chocolate Nick had ever tasted.
Nick was amazed at a lot of different inventions, but what amazed him more than anything else was Fluffy the dog, who appeared when Nick was looking at a robotic coffee table. At first Nick hid behind Mr. Zerkolo, but he soon found out that Fluffy was quite friendly. When Nick asked why he was not being torn limb from limb, Mr. Zerkolo laughed and replied, “See this switch on his collar? If it is on green, as now, Fluffy is in ‘pet’ mode and is extremely lovable. But if it is on red, then Fluffy is in ‘watchdog’ mode and will attack anyone he is not programmed to protect.”
Suddenly, Nick looked at his watch. “Oh! I’m late for dinner!” he exclaimed. “I have to go. Thank you so much for that wonderful tour, Mr. Zerkolo.”
Mr. Zerkolo smiled at him. “Please, call me Uncle Zerkolo. This ‘Mister’ is too businesslike for my taste.”
They both walked to the gate, with Nick grabbing his backpack on the way. Nick opened the gate and said, “Thanks again for the tour, Uncle Zerkolo.”
Uncle Zerkolo gave a slight smile. “You’re very welcome, lad. Let me know if I can do anything to help with your ‘bully’ problem.”
Nick nodded, and then paused. A sly smile crept over his face. “Can I borrow your dog tomorrow?”
Three weeks later, Nick is walking out the school building, smiling. It is a bright, sunny afternoon with no clouds in the sky. As he walks towards the bridge, Nick feels the warm sun on his back and feels happy and relaxed. When he comes to the bridge, he smiles and laughs when he sees Fluffy there, once again, waiting to meet him. Nick looks back to the bus stop and sees some of the former bullies there, scowling at him. However, with that dog around, they don’t want to come any closer.
As he and Fluffy go home, Nick thinks about how much better life is now that he has his own personal ‘guard dog.’ He wonders with glee if that bully’s leg still hurt where Fluffy had bit him.
Nick races down the street to Uncle Zerkolo’s house to see his newest invention. He gets to the gate and rings the doorbell while Fluffy runs around wildly, chasing his tail. Soon the gate opens, and there stands Uncle Zerkolo, smiling and beckoning Nick to enter the yard. Behind him stand several new inventions, glinting in the sun, the same kind of inventions that Nick himself will soon create when he grows up. The gate closes, and the three friends—Nick, Uncle Zerkolo, and Fluffy—walk slowly towards the house, talking and laughing (and barking) all the way.