Updated: Jan 29, 2020
Second Round Entry, 2019 NYCMIDNIGHT Flash Fiction Contest
Genre: Sci Fi | Prompts: Recreation Room, Leash
THIS ENTRY WAS DISQUALIFIED. I DID NOT HAVE ANY OF THE STORY IN THE LOCATION PROMPT WORD, RECREATION ROOM
When imminent blindness forces Jax to get a dog bot, he finally has a reason to face his painful past.
I never got another dog after Riley. For many years, I couldn’t.
No one could, not after what happened. I wouldn’t have wanted another dog, anyway. Watching my loyal companion wither to bones was more than enough.
Now there are dog bots, and I’m left with no choice but to get one.
I walk into Vision Pals, squinting as I peer around. Seeing-eye dog bots maneuver obstacle courses or sit along the walls, as if parked. Engineers are tinkering with a few bulldogs. Maybe they have a system bug. Overall, business seems booming, which makes sense. Like me, everyone who survived is losing their vision.
I would rather be amongst the dead.
The dogs look very life-like, at least from what my 20/160 vision can see. There’s plenty of ear scratching and paw licking. But there are no water bowls, no dog bones, no toys.
“Hello, sir.” The receptionist interrupts my thoughts.
I turn, trying not to stare at her hair horns and ear chains. Kids these days. I won’t miss seeing this nonsense.
“I’m here to pick up my dog.” My voice is hoarse, and I realize it’s been far too long since I’ve spoken.
“Name?” she asks, tapping on her hover-screen.
Her eyes widen. These twenty-somethings aren’t used to old-fashioned names. After a few more taps, she says, “Riley is ready. Come with me.”
She walks me to a Labrador-style dog parked along the wall. “Riley, come.”
It blinks to life, wags its tail, and approaches before sitting at my feet. He looks just like Riley, my Riley, and all the air is sucked from chest. I stand, frozen, as I fight to catch my breath. Seeing Riley fills a hole in me that’s been there so long I’d forgotten what life was like without it.
“He comes pre-set with all the commands you ordered,” she continues.
I nod, finally inhaling. I should hope he comes with everything I ordered. I cleaned out most of my retirement to pay for him. “Thank you,” I reply, feeling like I should have questions, but I don’t. I did read the manual, cover to cover.
Instead, I reach down and pet new Riley, noticing his faux fur is soft. Too soft. “How you doing, buddy?”
Old habits die hard.
His tail wags harder and he pants, just like old Riley would have. Another thing the engineers did well.
The receptionist hands me a leash, but I don’t clip it on Riley’s collar. I don’t need it yet. Not yet. “Let’s go, pal.”
He stands and falls into step beside me.
After signing forms, the receptionist nods toward Riley. “Call us if you have any problems. He comes with a lifetime warranty, parts and services.”
I smile, which surprises me. “Thank you.”
Riley and I step onto the empty sidewalk. The familiar smell of mocha fills the air from Choco-Cafe, the only business on this street that remains from before.
I’d normally hail an air cab, but I need to take Riley on a test walk. Plus, I should take in the views while I still can. By fall, I’ll be in total darkness. “Riley, lead me home.”
He struts to the intersection of Commerce and Canyon streets, just as he should. “Riley, hault.” He stops at the corner, and I point to the bench. “This is the place I proposed to Elyse,” I tell him. Closing my eyes, I fill my mind with those memories instead of the last one of her, bleeding, skin hanging from her bones.
I scratch Riley’s ears and gaze into his eyes. His lens shutters flip as he’s downloading the information I’m giving him. His manual said that would happen.
We keep walking, taking the route through Oakcrest Park. A buzz fills the air from the various drones flying overhead. “Elyse and I walked Willow in her stroller here,” I say. The lilacs are in bloom, and I take in a deep breath of that sweet smell.
We pass Ethan and his shepherd-like dog bot, Cooper. Ethan wears dark sunglasses and walks in a cautious rhythm with Cooper. It’s a strange thought, realizing that Ethan can’t see me anymore. “Hello, Ethan,” I say, wondering if I should introduce myself.
When Ethan replies, “Hello, Jax,” I’m glad I didn’t. He continues. “So, you picked up your dog?”
“I did.” My tone goes up an octave.
As if reading my mind, he continues. “I heard paw steps accompanying yours.”
“Ah, yes.” I’d heard about how the other senses strengthen when one is lost. It seems that has happened with Ethan, and a little of the burden on my shoulders lifts. There’s a more life in my voice when I reply, “Enjoy your afternoon.”
“You as well.”
Turning onto my street, we pass the old recreation room. “Willow played soccer in there.” I point, swallowing the lump in my throat. The place is boarded up, probably because there aren’t enough kids anymore. We lost most of who’d now be childbearing age.
Oh, my sweet Willow.
On cue, Riley licks my hand. It’s almost like a real tongue, but spongier.
When Riley and I arrive at my complex, we take the elevator to my third-floor apartment. I lead him to his dog bed, which isn’t necessary, not for him, anyway. It is for me. When Riley isn’t working, I want to know he’s resting, not parked in a corner. I paid extra for that.
“We’re home, Riley.”
I look around at the boxes stacked along every wall. I should clear the place before I start stumbling over all this old junk.
One by one, I rifle through the dust-covered boxes before taking each down to my property’s incinerator. Gone are the days of recovering something from the trash if accidentally thrown away.
It takes almost a week before I get to the box with the albums. I flip through each page, studying the images of the life I used to know. Willow’s first steps. Elyse’s surprise fortieth birthday. Those black balloons were a dumb idea, I should’ve known Elyse wouldn’t have found them funny. Ah, what a fool I was.
I come across a close-up of Willow’s face, and I study it. Her button nose, thick eyelashes, and toothless smile. I commit each detail to memory so the image of her stays clear in my mind. Or at least until my memory fades.
When I’ve seen every picture, I take the albums to the incinerator. There’s no point in keeping them.
I have one box left, the one I’ve been avoiding. I grit my teeth and open it, finding the yellowed copy of the New York Times, dated October 5th, 2028. The oversized headline reads, “Over Four Hundred Dead: Canine Parvo Pandemic Jumps to Humans.”
My eyes mist, and I’m not sure why I’ve kept this all these years, or anything else in this box. I can’t bear to touch the four masks, one for me, Elyse, Willow, and Riley.
I throw the box in the incinerator and watch it burn to ashes through the window.
When I return to my apartment, only furniture remains. The place is empty, but for the first time in years, I’m not. Riley and I sit on the couch together. His vinyl smell has worn off, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it.
He curls up next to me and rests his dry nose on my lap. I sink into my seat as instruct my wall-sized TV to play old Mad Men episodes. They don’t make shows like that anymore. I pet Riley, knowing it doesn’t bring him joy.
But it does me.
* * *
A heartfelt thanks to Katina Ferguson, Shelby Van Pelt, Mel Todd, and Roland Royster for being all around amazing help.