It was the perfect life. We would spend many hours of many days out by the pool. It was our oasis in the desert of mankind’s apathy. The water was green and alive. The plants were overgrown and happy to provide their cool shade for us, and their shelter for the birds. Even the rotting fence surrounding the long-abandoned lot was alive with mosses and ivies. Life thrived here where Man did not.
Scruff always made sure to bring two bones. He was much more skilled at acquiring that sort of thing. I made up for it in my tales. As we lounged and gnawed and savored the daily treats, I would reminiscence in story enough for both of us. Most days, that is all we needed out of this life. Today was different. Scruff seemed preoccupied and distant.
“What’s the matter, pal?” I was able to squeeze out between a few snaps in today’s bone. The tease of marrow was always so wonderful.
“You remember quite a bit about your life before this sanctuary, right Bongo?”
I raised an eyebrow, wondering if the question was rhetoric enough to allow for a bit more gnawing.
“I mean,” he paused with a sympathetic look. “ Please don’t misunderstand, my good friend, but your stories about life with Man are usually a little on the tall side. I love them! Know that. But, I wonder how much you really remember and how much is just Man’s programming, in the end.”
With the fresh flavor of the treaty marrow finally on my tongue, I looked up at him. Scruff had been through many hard times before finding this place. I would dare to have said more than I had. “Well, pal, I appreciate your concern for my feelings. I admit that I probably do relish a bit, yes. I… I have trouble, sometimes, remembering much of that life. I believe my mind is probably blocking a bit of it. They were not the best of times, as you know.”
“Well…” Scruff looked slightly uncomfortable. This made me a little nervous. He was the alpha male. When he stood up on all four, he towered over me at about five times my size. I had always found a special comfort in knowing that Scruff could be so intimidating, yet never tried to be with me. He was not easily aggravated and took life as it came. “I am not so sure, lately. I also have some trouble remembering much of my own life before this. Many of the stories you tell just seem to sound right and fit into my memory. Like, when you told about your nasty encounter with the tire – the time you lost your two back teeth – I could follow along just as if I was chasing the tire, myself. I could even smell the old, dirty rubber. It was as if I also had chased a tire or two in my day…” Scruff trailed off and looked to be in deep thought.
“You probably have, pal. It’s just one of those things we want to do.”
“No, Bongo. I don’t think I ever have. At first, I thought that maybe I had chased a tire in the past and that your story was just so good that it was bringing back my memories about it. It was a good story. You have a gift with those.” Scruff adjusted his lounging body so that his hindquarters were again out of the sun and in the dark, cool shadow of the nearest palm. He had barely touched his bone. “I have racked my brain ever since you shared that story and no matter how hard I try I can’t remember any details about chasing a tire. I certainly have no missing teeth. I thought that maybe that was the problem. Maybe because I had chased a tire and had no painful memory connected to it that my brain just decided that the experience wasn’t worth keeping around.”
I wasn’t quite sure where this was going, but it was really starting to make me uncomfortable. Scruff was my rock in an endless sea of uncertainty, these days. And, now, he sounded as uncertain as the rest of the world. I nudged the remainder of my treat to the side and adjusted myself to give him my full attention.
Scruff noticed that he had my interest. “I did something very dangerous, today.”
“Scruff, every hour spent out of this lot is filled with the dangers of Man.”
“I know that. But, even in a world of dangerous situations, we tend to live in our own little safety zones, don’t we? I went outside of my own personal zone, today. I went looking for a tire to examine.”
I knew what that meant, and it scared me. It meant that he had gambled on an encounter with Man.
“When I found a tire which looked safe to approach, I smelled it. I studied it. I even tasted it. Everything about the tire told me that it was a tire and to stay away from it. It wasn’t moving, Bongo. It was still and looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, but something very strong inside of me warned me about getting too close to that tire. I searched through my mind as best as I could. I could remember nothing that would make me fear the tire so much. The only memory, in fact, was of you and your tire story. But, this tire was not in motion. It could not possibly take my teeth, could it?”
He asked the question with a longing in his eyes. This was not rhetoric. “I do not pretend to understand the magic behind Man’s inventions. Maybe that is why my tales become so tall? Myths do tend to sneak in where facts avoid quarter.”
This brought a slight grin to Scruff’s snout. “You definitely have a gift with words, my good friend. I am sorry to trouble us with my worries, today. I come here to relax and to be swept away with your words. Let’s drop this. Will you please take us on one of your journeys?”
That smile and digression brought me back into a safe place. Things could now proceed as they always had in this tiny Eden. I wove a tale of dogs and mailmen. Scruff closed his eyes after a bit, but I knew he was still being swept away. I carefully constructed my story to ease our tensions. Mailmen had those powerful, arrogant stripes on their legs. As my story masterfully unraveled, I began to wonder why they felt so privileged as to just walk in and out of pack after pack just to drop some papers. They didn’t belong to any of our packs, yet Man would allow this behavior every day. It was all a dog could do to keep from demonstrating to the mailman that his pack was not so easily intruded upon. Wasn’t it? I could not really remember. It kept me up for most of that night.
The next day the world was dreary with water and grayness. I was always first to arrive at the lot. During periods of rain, I would drag an old tarpaulin from the side of the pool and drape it over the diving board. There were rusty bolts on the underside of the board onto which it would snag tightly. Most winds would not blow it off from over our heads.
Who needed Man, anyway? We made do just fine.
Scruff was very late. I began to imagine uncomfortable things. Did he perhaps seek out another tire with which he could further test his memory? Was the tire he approached this time not as safely chosen? Did Man catch him? My stomach began to growl its own howl of hunger.
When he finally appeared through the rotting slats of the fence, it was difficult to see him clearly through the downpour. He was slick with oily fur and water, but there was something else – something shinier. He knew just where I would be, under the tarp, and he approached slowly and with a stumble here and there.
“I’m sorry, my good friend.” Scruff scuffled under the tarp. “I should never have taken my curiosity so far.”
I could now see the shiny parts of my good canine companion much more clearly; though my mind could make no clear sense of what my eyes were serving up to it. Nothing about it said “dog” to my mind. I was baffled. It said “Man” to me.
“Scruff? What… How -”
“I am not sure I understand what is happening myself, Bongo. Take a moment and listen closely.” He turned his head back towards the gaping hole in his left hindquarter. For an instant, I thought he wanted me to listen to what he had to say. But, then I heard it. It was a mechanical, repetitive sound.
“What is that?”
“I have a fragment of a memory. It sounds like a device they used to call a clock. Do you remember them? Man would eat his meals, sleep, and awake by their louder sounds. I don’t think Man ever really heard their softer sounds that well. Do you remember?”
“I thought I was dreaming, again. You do have a gift, my good friend.”
“Scruff, the light? How is there light coming from you?” It was beyond any fantastical story I could have ever spoken, much less thought up.
“I saw a mailbox quite a way out of my normal path. It was open. It had papers in it, but they were old, musty, and faded. I do not have many memories, but I know that Man was a creature of habit and that he would not allow those papers to have gone without gathering them. I had the strongest urge, Bongo. I cannot remember ever feeling an urge so strong. I had to get those papers and take them to the step of the door. But, there was something blocking the way. It looked like a tree, but it was Man’s. It was made of metal, but painted to seem otherwise. It had some of Man’s symbols on it. You’re good with words.” He then scratched carefully with his paw into the mud in front of him. The symbols read “USAF EMP Warhead”. I had no idea what the first two words meant, but I understood the last one. Why was that?
Scruff let out a two whines. One came from his throat. One came from the hole in his backside. Fire jumped from inside of his body and landed on the ground beside him with a short fizzle. A louder, mechanical sound followed. His face beckoned for answers, as I am sure mine mirrored back.
There was movement near the hole through which Scruff had entered the lot. The rain was coming down just as hard as before, making it very difficult to see and nearly impossible to smell what was coming in our direction. It was tall. It was Man.
Scruff let out an instinctive growl, which triggered one from my own depths. We both crawled from under our cover in order to better portray our defensive postures. Man had a weapon draped over his shoulder. He tended to be a bit more fearless when this was the case, but he still stopped halfway between the fence and us. His coat was bright yellow and covered even his face. I could not see his eyes. Man’s eyes were like a tail. They could give away his true intentions in an instant. He seemed to be speaking into the air, but he was not speaking to us. It was a muffled voice.
“Scout One to Base. The Alpha 4K has been located. It has been damaged. Be advised that a TA-2 is also present.”
The air spoke back. “Base. 10-4. Proceed with caution. The TA-2 model had programming flaws. Retrieve devices, if possible.”
Man then pulled his weapon from over his shoulder and bent it toward us. He called out very loudly, “Alpha 2K, heel, now!” Scruff began to move. He looked at me in surprise, but his look also contained a spark of understanding. This confused me more than anything else.
As Scruff stumbled toward Man, more fire and whirring sounds came from the hole in his rump. His tail was damaged, but by its lowered position, I could tell that he was not as resistive to approaching Man as he should have been, by all logic.
I barked as loudly as I could towards Man. My teeth would not stay inside my face. My entire body was a spring ready to be sprung. Something had to be done! As Scruff reached Man’s side, Man turned his face towards me.
“TA-2, at ease! Sit!”
I could not allow my best friend to be under Man’s spell, like this. We were free dogs.
With a final primal yelp, I lunged at Man with all of my might.
The light was the most beautiful I had ever seen.