Except for Brutus, the McNallys were a pretty normal family.
They lived in a big house that was still more pretty than it was old, set back from the street on a large, shady yard. There was Mister McNally, who wore a tie but not a jacket to his job, and Missus McNally, who worked part-time for the local school board and made excellent spaghetti and meatballs. There was Calliope, who was eleven and could beat up most of the boys in her class. There was Asher, who was eight and loved books and action figures more than anything.
And then there was Brutus.
Brutus didn’t look like a Brutus. When you think Brutus, you think of a big dog, a powerful dog, maybe a nasty dog, definitely an ugly dog. But Brutus was little, and cuddly, and cute. Brutus never barked at nothing, or jumped up on the guests, or peed on the linoleum, or chewed the family’s shoes, or chased Missus McNally’s cat Russell around, or ate Russell’s poop out of the litter box.
What Brutus did, was fart.
When he was just ten weeks old, Brutus farted in the car as the whole family was bringing him home from the local dog rescue. It sounded like about a foot and a half of Velcro, and smelled like the dumpster behind a fast food restaurant in August.
“Wow, that’s brutal,” said Mister McNally as he fumbled for the button that made all the car windows go down at once.
And by the time they got home, Brutus was Brutus, mostly because nobody liked Asher’s other idea for a name, which was DevilButt.
At first, only Calliope thought Brutus’ brutal farting was gross, and ominous, and reason enough to take him back and exchange him for a puppy that just peed on the linoleum and ate cat poop. Asher thought it was hilarious, and Mister and Missus McNally thought it was just a peculiar puppy phase, probably brought on by the type of food they were giving him at the pet store.
Mister McNally bought the most popular puppy food, made with chicken and eggs and grain; Brutus’ farts became quieter, but smelled like a used diaper left in the sun for a million years.
Mister McNally bought a more expensive puppy food, made with salmon; Brutus’ farts started to sound like a monster snoring, and smelled like dead fish dipped in spoiled mayonnaise.
(It was around this time that Russell found an open window — there were always open windows in the McNally house — and scratched his way through the screen, leaving the McNallys to Brutus and his farts.)
Mister McNally bought the most expensive puppy food he could find, made with no meat of any kind, just flax and rice and oats; Brutus’ farts stopped stinking completely, but made a noise like someone pulling their bare foot out of very deep mud, which made Missus McNally queasy.
By then, Brutus was growing from a puppy into a young dog, and had already become a member of the family; getting rid of him just because he farted constantly (and with considerable enthusiasm) was no longer an option, if it had ever been. So Mister McNally bought a popular mid-priced dog food that made Brutus’ farts sound like a polite woman shushing talkers in a movie theater and smell like dirty socks stuffed with rotten vegetables, and they all got used to it.
People stopped coming over.
Not everyone; some friends were too nice or too sympathetic to make excuses every single time the McNallys invited them over for dinner or movie night. There were those adults who idealistically thought Missus McNally’s spaghetti and meatballs were worth as many stinky dog farts as they had to endure in order to get them. And there were also those kids for whom stinky — and sort of noisy! — dog farts were the best part of a trip to the McNallys’. But most of the people who came over for the first time never came back (Mister McNally’s new boss, for example, asked if “that poor, sick little pooch” had died yet when invited to a second dinner, and suddenly remembered a previous engagement when told Brutus was doing just fine), and over time, most of the family’s friends began to find places to be other than the McNally’s.
Eventually, Calliope and Asher started going straight to their friends’ houses after school, and Mister and Missus McNally stopped planning parties when they realized that all the spaghetti and meatballs and wine and witty conversation in the world couldn’t entice enough acquaintances to fill even the six seats around their dining room table.
So Mister and Missus McNally met their friends at restaurants, or went to other couples’ dinner parties, and came home, and paid an unhappy fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl extra for watching the kids, knowing they’d never be able to get her to come back. And when all the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girls in the neighborhood had watched the kids once (or been warned by a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl who had), the McNally family was left eating dinner silently together in front of the living room TV, cranking up the volume another notch each time Brutus farted and returning to an activity outside or in the garage just as soon as the meal was done.
“It’s not his fault,” said Mister McNally one night, while he and Missus McNally were loading the dishwasher.
“Well, it’s not ours, either,” she said, bending forward awkwardly to keep her nose as close to the open window above the sink as possible. “So why should we suffer?”
Mister McNally didn’t have an answer for that.
“Maybe he could be an outside dog,” said Missus McNally.
Brutus came trotting into the kitchen.
“Would you like that, Brutus?” Missus McNally asked in a high, cutesy voice. “Would you like to be an outside dog?”
Brutus grinned, and unfurled his tongue, and farted. As he and Missus McNally quickly exited the kitchen, Mister McNally could’ve sworn he saw the linoleum behind Brutus go all wavy, like the air over a hot desert road.
“All right, we’ll talk to the kids about it,” said Mister McNally on the front porch, as they caught their breath. “Where are the kids, anyway?”
“Calliope is spending the night at her friend Mary’s house, again, and Asher is staying in his tent in the backyard — again,” said Missus McNally. “We have an inside dog, an outside son and a free-range daughter.”
So the next day, Mister McNally went to the pet store after work, and bought the second most expensive doghouse they had. (The most expensive doghouse had a built-in air circulation system, but judging by the pleasure Brutus seemed to take in his own farts, Mister McNally didn’t think that feature would be necessary.) He also bought the most expensive dog treat they had. The clerk told him it was made with shark meat, fish oil and organic wheat; Mister McNally shuddered to think what such a combination would do to Brutus’ farts, but decided it really didn’t matter.
At home, he gathered Missus McNally, Calliope and Asher together, and they talked it over, and everyone agreed that it was probably for the best that Brutus started spending more time outside than in. Asher, trying to sound both adult and logical, suggested that they let Brutus spend one more night inside; Calliope, who had nowhere to sleep over, objected, but was overruled by her parents, who were moved by their son’s very grown-up attempt at compromise.
Mister McNally set up the new doghouse in the backyard, racing against the dusk. The whole family had spaghetti and meatballs together at the dining room table, ignoring Brutus’ stenchy, shushing exhalations. Then they all moved to the couch in the living room, where they hugged Brutus, and gave him his absurdly expensive treat. They told funny stories about his farts, like the time Megan Williams from down the street was watching the kids, and she invited her boyfriend over, and the kids watched as they started making out on that very couch, and the boyfriend kept hearing gross sounds and smelling gross smells, and Megan Williams kept telling him it was just the dog, and the boyfriend didn’t believe her and finally left in a huff, yelling about how everybody farts and if she really cared about him she would just admit it.
Afterward, they all hugged Brutus again, being careful not to squeeze him, and went outside for a breath of fresh air. Then they went to bed.
Brutus awoke in the middle of the night from a dream in which he was chasing a rabbit in the hope of pinning it down and farting on it. His bowels were churning with shark steak and fish oil, and there was a strange odor in the air he’d never smelled before. He stretched, farted — only a little, feeling like he might poop if he really let go — and trotted into the kitchen looking for someone to be cute or fart around.
He was terrified by what he saw. In her excitement at anticipating a house free of dog farts, Missus McNally had left two of the stove’s burners on; the pot in which she’d boiled the pasta had cracked in the heat, and as he watched, a smoldering shard tipped over into the saucepan full of hot oil, setting it ablaze. The breeze coming in through the open window above the sink blew the curtains over the flames, igniting the fabric.
As Brutus watched, half the kitchen began to burn. He ran in circles, barking a cute, unobtrusive little bark that was more likely to make the McNallys start dreaming of playing with puppies in meadows than wake them up. He scratched at the linoleum, panicked. The whole time, his little guts bulged and percolated, swollen with smelly chemicals from the expensive treat that were intent on breaking free.
In a flash, Brutus realized what he had to do. So he forced himself to relax, and took a deep breath. And then he pushed.
Brutus farted like he’d never farted in his life.
In bed with his wife, Mister McNally was dreaming about being a pirate. He was standing tall on the deck of the most feared ship in the Caribbean, stoking the nasty joy of his crew with yet another well-prepared guide to swashbuckling, when he heard the long, loud, ripping growl of a foghorn. Mister McNally took out his spyglass, but saw no dangerous reefs or cliffs ahead. He was beginning to wonder if the sound was just a trick of the treacherous sea when the smell hit him. It was the unspeakable stench of a dead ocean at low tide, when the sea’s waste begins to bake under the tropical sun, and it turned his dream into a nightmare. But the smell was still there.
Mister McNally forced himself to escape his dream, to wake up. But as he surfaced in the real world, Missus McNally snoring gently next to him, the smell was still there, mingled with the unmistakable odor of things cooking that should never, ever be cooked.
He jumped out of bed and ran through the house, stopping when he found Brutus watching one wall of the kitchen burn. He threw open the door to the pantry, found the small fire extinguisher that had probably been hung not too long after the house was finished being built, and doused the flames. Then he woke everyone in the house and herded them, as they grumbled and rubbed their eyes, out onto the large front lawn while he spoke quite calmly into a wireless phone.
The firemen were quick, and competent, and thorough. They got to the McNallys’ house in ten minutes, and the ones that went inside were back not long after the ones that didn’t moved the McNallys off of the lawn and into the street.
“Looks like you got it all, sir,” said one of them to Mister McNally, as Mister McNally stood in the flashing red light holding Brutus to his chest. “Lucky you woke up.”
Mister McNally, Missus McNally, Calliope and Asher looked at each other, and laughed, and took turns stroking Brutus, talking to him in high, cutesy voices and encouraging him to lick their faces.
Brutus grinned, and unfurled his tongue, and farted. It smelled like someone had shoved a high-school wrestling mat into a toaster.
“Wow,” said the fireman, “that’s brutal.”
And the McNallys laughed again, and agreed that it was.
The pet store wouldn’t take back the doghouse, so they stapled flyers on bulletin boards and telephone poles all over their neighborhood advertising it for sale. They took them all down a few days later, though, when they realized that Russell was living in it.