Daniel whistled a sci-fi tune and swished bacon grease around the edge of his frying pan. He owned a frying pan, as it turned out. So he was moving up from toast. Bacon posed a more intricate challenge so far. Daniel felt he had barely scratched the surface.
He had to experiment, like earlier this morning when he’d tried flipping it over in the pan and flung hot grease all over his arm. At least he was wearing long sleeves. And the grease didn’t hit Dusty, who was scarfing a breakfast of his own at Daniel’s feet.
The slightest mew caused Daniel to look away from what he was doing with the searing hot pan. He grinned and matched Dusty’s squeaky pitch. “You look like a good morning!”
Dusty mewed again, batting at the base of the stove.
“Smells good, doesn’t it? It’s called bacon. But I don’t think I’m supposed to give you any, little guy.”
The front door cracked its hinges like knuckles and spat Velvet into the apartment. She was wearing a pair of heavy boots that Daniel hadn’t bought her. They tracked the muddier bits of the storm across his grey-beige carpet.
“When does this fucking rain stop?”
Daniel dabbed nonchalantly at blazing bacon fat. “Last I heard, they might keep it out to a week yet.”
Velvet puffed air and made herself coffee with caramel swirls. Daniel was carefully laying his bacon on paper towels by the time she finished drinking. She got up to close the blinds, then removed her boots one grimace at a time.
“Daniel,” she hissed as the last one came off. “In case I don’t see you again before tomorrow, I need you to hold onto something.”
He turned around, blinking. Velvet looked serious as best he could tell. So she was either desperate or stupid. Both possibilities given the information Daniel had.
Reaching inside one boot, she drew out a small device. Daniel wasn’t close enough to make out details, but it looked like a booklet with sharp-edged computer chips poking out of the cover.
Daniel’s eyes were fixed on the chips. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” Velvet pulled it away. Then she added, “It’s illegal. Don’t touch it.”
He didn’t even realize he’d been reaching out towards the thing until she yanked it away. Daniel crossed his arms. “Oh, come on. What will it hurt to tell me?”
Velvet looked up and down his Cowboy Bebop pajamas, made a face, and shrugged. “Alright. It’s a passport. My passport.”
Daniel frowned into the table while she hopped over the kitchen on one leg. “But if you’re hiding from the government, how…”
“Like I said.” She waved it over the counter and threw open cupboard after cupboard. “Illegal.”
Daniel reached out to touch it again. “For real? A fake passport? But that must have taken…” He touched his lip. “I don’t know, like, thousands of computation hours to decrypt a key.”
Her head popped back over the counter. “So like I said,” she yanked it away, “don’t touch it.”
Daniel crossed his arms again. “How do you want me to hold it if I’m not allowed to touch it?”
“You don’t have to touch it. You just have…” Velvet finally found a hiding spot. “…to watch it.”
She shoved the device, rain splatters and all, into the bag of Kerfuzzle food. “Just make sure it doesn’t leave this bag. Okay? That’s not hard. Even you should be able to handle that.”
She jumped back across the pale yellow kitchen tiles. “I’m going to be gone most of tomorrow. If a couple guys show up in the afternoon, you give it to them. Or, you know. I’ll blow you up.”
Daniel watched her hopping towards the living room. “Did you really have to carry it here in your shoe?”
“No.” She rubbed her foot again and winced. “That was such a bad idea!”
Then Velvet went into the bedroom. Daniel didn’t expect to see her again until late in the afternoon. She stayed out most nights, and he didn’t mind that. It made it easier to stay out of her way. In return she usually left him alone.
At any rate, it would be an odd time to start worrying about her death threats. Daniel was feeling unaccountably alright today, and he was going to enjoy the feeling as long as it lasted. Besides, he’d spent far too long cooking breakfast to let anything stand in its way.
Well, almost anything. He did have to wolf it down hot because it was almost nine-thirty. Nine-thirty was hide and seek time. Dusty was already done eating, and he was bounding around on the floor having fun without Daniel.
The bacon was delicious. Daniel decided he’d wash his plate when he had a spare moment. As soon as he’d mopped up the last bit of grease, he dropped to his hands and knees. And Dusty knew what that meant. The Kerfuzzle froze solid for a moment, fur puffed out and giant blue eyes fixed on the human. Then he lit across the room like soft white lightning.
Daniel crawled after him, making exaggerated growling sounds.
For the first time in a while, he’d fallen into a routine. Owning a pet came with responsibilities, after all. Breakfast was to be served by nine. Nine-thirty to noon was slotted with various playtimes, and lunch was at twelve-thirty. Lunch was particularly important. No one else was going to fill Dusty’s bowl. If Daniel forgot—not that he ever had—Dusty would be cranky for the rest of the day.
Admittedly, the manual didn’t say any of this. But Daniel felt he’d gotten to know Dusty quite a bit over the past couple days. Far better than any brochure.
Starting at two, and going to about four, was Dusty’s exercise period. It was a lot like hide and seek time, except that sometimes Daniel would throw things because he was trying to teach Dusty to fetch. After showers and baths respectively, they would use the TV to browse blogs about other people’s pets. Their favorite was Sassy Sam, a girl with half a million followers for the daily adventures of her Kerfuzzle. She was the only blog about a Kerfuzzle Daniel could find. He liked it so much that they were trying to read the whole thing in chronological order.
“Adjusting my sleep schedule to seven a.m. since that’s when Snooty wants outside,” read the caption to an adorable photo of the pet tapping at a glass door. “I think we know who’s really in charge of the house.”
Daniel knew that feeling so well! “Are you in charge, Dusty?” he cooed. “Yes you are. You know you’re in charge, don’t you?”
Other pictures showed Snooty sleeping in a tiny handmade doghouse. Sassy Sam was incredible. Daniel felt like a lazy excuse for a pet owner just looking at it. But there was no way he could make something amazing like that even if he wanted to. He scrolled past it quickly so it wouldn’t ruin his mood.
Dinner happened around six-thirty. Ear-scratching time was at seven, and from seven-thirty onward was movie hour. Movie hour was also one of Daniel’s more important responsibilities. Yesterday he’d realized that because Dusty had lived his whole life in a cage, he’d never seen Star Wars. So they were doing them in historical order. Dusty sometimes wandered off, and even when he was with Daniel he spent most of the time wrapped around his arm. But Daniel was re-discovering how much fun it was to watch these movies. He wondered why he hadn’t gone straight to this when he was feeling hopeless a week ago.
Usually they fell asleep in front of the TV. That was the best way going Daniel knew to end a day. With his warm companion reflecting the colors of turbolasers, he could avoid caring about anything else, because the moment was good.
Just like Velvet had predicted, someone came knocking during peek-a-boo time on Thursday morning. Daniel scrambled to his feet. But he paused just short of seizing the door handle. There were two real-life criminals waiting in the hallway. It felt surreal.
They knocked again, and Daniel shook it off. He’d already dealt with Velvet, hadn’t he? All he had to do was follow her instructions and everything would be fine. Nothing to it.
He expected a couple men in suits, or maybe sleeveless people decked out with jewelry like the criminals on TV. Instead he opened the door on an old man who stepped inside without an invitation. He didn’t seem all that scary, but he must have been a criminal; a halo of platinum-grey hair peeked out from under his towering top hat.
The second person wasn’t even a person, but some kind of robot with seven crablike legs. It filed in after the old man, forcing Daniel to back up to the kitchen.
The old man’s leathery hands came together on a stick-thin cane poking holes in Daniel’s carpet. “So nice to meet you!” he said after thoroughly invading the apartment. “You must be Daniel.”
Daniel hesitantly shook the offered hand. “Oh. Nice to meet you.”
“The event of sensing your presence directly is a net positive gain.” The machine added its own pleasantry in a voice like a bass drum echoing in a bathroom. It came up to Daniel’s sternum, and embarrassingly enough, Daniel couldn’t look away. Everything about it, even the way its joints articulated, looked more advanced than anything he’d ever seen. Had AI engineers already leapt so far ahead of human science?
The odd pair looked around as if admiring Daniel’s bare walls and the toys scattered on his carpet. He’d gotten plastic rings, climbing nets, and tiny squeak toys, all things Kerfuzzles were supposed to like.
After a moment, the old man leaned over on his cane. “Well?”
“It is an ordinary apartment,” said the machine.
“So it is.”
Daniel wasn’t sure what to do except edge towards the sink for the passport Velvet had left. Managing to get it out of Dusty’s food bag without pricking his fingers, he walked up towards the old man.
“Um—were you supposed to take this?”
The old man blinked. “Ah! Fascinating! Don’t mind if I do.”
He nodded at the robot, and then at Daniel. “Well. I’m afraid we may have overstayed out welcome, but it’s been a sincere pleasure. We’ll remember your hospitality.”
They filed out. The robot glided last in relative silence.
Daniel made sure his door was locked afterwards.
Daniel didn’t see that later on, the old man and the automatic stood on the wall of his apartment building. The man, had anyone been watching, seemed to hang horizontally in place by an outlandish glow from the sneakers on his feet. It suspended everything except his hat, which was turned upwards so as not to be washed off by the rain.
“Query,” drummed the automatic. “Is this venture not more than twenty percent self-indulgent?”
“Your twenty percent is what’s self-indulgent,” laughed the old man, shifting his cane into the mortar seam between two bricks. “Just because you’re a machine doesn’t mean you get to make up numbers.”
The old man tried to peek through Daniel’s window. The machine stood in dripping calm, then spoke again.
“Query. Have you considered the possibility that they are unimportant?”
He stood up. “Always.”
Daniel was just about to start exercise time when suddenly, he stood up, slamming his palms together. “Wait a minute! Sauna’s getting married—that’s today!”
He pulled up a calendar to double-check this epiphany. She’d said it was happening in a week. So as far as he could tell, today was the day. But he hadn’t gotten any mail. Maybe you sent invitations to these sorts of weddings by e-mail? But there was nothing in his inbox or any of his spam folders either.
The invitation could also be late, Daniel reasoned, in which case it could be arriving any moment. He had better get some clothes ready just in case. He ironed his best pair of slacks, and while he waited for mail he told Dusty all about Sauna. About her apartment that floated in the sky and smelled like flowers. How she looked like the cover of a magazine. He told Dusty about the day he’d met her, watching her heels shine like polished black stars as she stood atop the high school science fair with a presentation on amortization for small business. Daniel had signed up for next year’s science fair on the spot. And Sauna had helped him put a project together when he begged for help. No wonder—he must have looked pretty pathetic with his pile of breadboards and LEDs tangled in his arms. Ah, high school.
It was getting on in the afternoon now, and still no invitation had come. But just when Daniel was starting to give up, there came a knock at the door.
What was it with unexpected visitors this week? There couldn’t be anyone else coming to this place. There was literally not one single sane possibility. Velvet could have been back early, but she didn’t have to knock.
This couldn’t be a hand-delivered wedding invitation, could it?
Two men in suits were in the hallway. One of them wore a wolf-ear headband and fake scar tattoos. The other had dark sunglasses and a rainbow-colored explosion of clown hair on his head. He looked at Daniel over the rims. “I take it you’re not the lady making travel arrangements with us.”
Daniel backed up half a step. “Uh…no?”
The one with the ears peered into the apartment. “You have a package for us, then.”
It took Daniel a moment to catch on, since he was busy backing up as they inched forward. But after a second he realized what they were looking for. His face crumpled. He tried to smile, but it came out as a tear-squeezing grimace. “Oh dear.”
Velvet came back. Eventually. Daniel stayed up waiting for her, but she didn’t say anything to him—which probably meant she’d already heard what happened. He made a plate of bacon in the morning and put it out as an apology. But she ignored it.
She watched Star Wars, and he stared out the window. Daniel wished she would say something. He was desperate to know if she’d gotten in trouble because of him. He was desperate to make up for it. The one time she actually asked him to do something—the first time anyone had asked in weeks—and he failed completely. There had to be some way he could fix it, if only she’d talk to him.
Sometime in the afternoon she finally tore the numbing silence.
“You know what I read?”
“What?” Daniel spun around attentively, even though she was still looking at the computer screen.
“Anyone can take GMO’s on an American Airlines flight anywhere in the world. All they have to do is secure the animal in a cat carrier or something, and get a permit that says it’s for commercial reasons.”
Daniel tried to understand what she was getting at. He really did. Maybe this was some stoic way of offering forgiveness, by talking about interesting airline policies.
“Um. That’s cool.”
She bit her tongue. Shook her head. “…Yeah. Nevermind.”
The silence was frothing up again. Daniel thought that maybe he was supposed to say something mysterious too, so he stared out the window and intoned, “The rain is nice.”
Velvet twisted around in her chair.
Daniel’s mouth hung open. “I…don’t know. It’s exciting, I guess?”
She went back to the laptop. Daniel sighed and rested his chin on one hand.
Saturday and Sunday were sluggish too. Nothing happened except that Daniel became current on Sassy Sam’s blog. On Sunday, when scrolling up the final week of posts, he did a double-take on the final entry.
“Finally got a job at Sun…” he re-read, “won’t have time to take care of a pet…haven’t found any takers, so I’m going to have to put Snooty down. He was getting kind of old anyway. Thanks to everyone for following us all this time!”
Daniel crossed his arms. This was a fine time to run across something sad. Dusty slumped over his arm and mewed, and Daniel scratched his ears. “Don’t worry, Dusty. There’s no way I’ll be getting a job anytime soon.”
The only solution was to go read another, happier micro-blog. He was about to go find one when Velvet came in and made him feel self-conscious. She looked like she was in a hurry; in fact, she started browsing the TV without dragging it into a corner like she usually did. This let Daniel peek over her shoulder to see what she was doing.
She seemed to be rifling through tech news from CNN. There were some interesting holoclips about artificial engineering, as people were calling it now. In a clip she pulled up, a corporation was claiming that one of its auto-engineering systems had made a breakthrough with invisibility technology.
“We still have to perform extensive tests to confirm the specifics,” said a smug representative. “But at this stage, it’s not too soon to say that Teracorp may have the world’s first true invisibility suit.”
“I didn’t know you were into tech news,” Daniel said. “Me too!”
There was a brief shot of the invisibility suit hanging in a vault. Velvet’s hand snapped out; she froze the image, and then massaged it, spinning and moving her camera throughout the scene. This wasn’t a complete hologram, of course; just a news clip. If she turned the camera backwards, she’d run into a blank section where no video had been captured. But in this particular clip, she was able to zoom in close to a corner of the vault. Both she and Daniel squinted; Daniel wanted to think that the dots they were peering at were emitters for a web of red-hot lasers that would turn on if anyone tried to break in. If AI engineers were going to take away his job, after all, the least they could do was give the world weaponized laser beams.
Then Velvet made an uncharacteristically giggly sound and yanked her feet. Dusty was sniffing her toes.
“Is that thing still here?” she snapped when she turned around.
Daniel whistled so the Kerfuzzle would jump onto his shoulder. “Dusty is part of the family now. If you want to hold me hostage, you have to deal with him too.”
“Does he need a collar as well?” she said drily.
Daniel screwed up his face for a second. “Nah. Dusty’s not a snitch. Are you, Dusty?” He buried his nose in the pet’s hair. “No you’re not, you’re too cute!”
Velvet gagged and went into the bedroom. Daniel kept nuzzling his Kerfuzzle. A short while later she emerged in her black jumpsuit.
“Daniel.” She paused at the door. “I’m leaving.”
He didn’t look up. “Okay. Don’t turn the lights on when you get back.”
“No. I’m not coming back this time. I have to be somewhere, and this is the last flight I can catch.”
That got him to look up. He toyed with the choker around his neck for a moment, trying to think of something to say.
The man with clown hair met her in the hallway, huddling in low tones before setting off. Once she was out of view, Daniel realized what he wanted to say and sprinted after her so fast that Dusty went flying off the bean-bag chair.
“Wait!” he called down the hallway. “If you’re leaving for good, can’t you—” He tugged at his collar.
Velvet glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t give me trouble and you’ll have nothing to worry about. I’ll break the remote six months from now, so long as tonight goes off okay.”
“And if it doesn’t?” he protested with a voice crack.
She waved over her shoulder. “Then I’m dead. Whoop-de-do.”
Then she went into the elevators.
Daniel closed his door, and went back to Dusty, and fed his pet a treat in apology for flinging him across the room. He sat down for a moment—turned down the volume on the TV. Everything was even quieter than before.
He met the stillness with a slow, apologetic shrug. Guess that was it. He flopped back on a beanbag. There would be no more unexpected changes now that Velvet was gone. He didn’t have to worry about getting hurt anymore. He could see his safe, unchanging future slogging out in from of him to infinity. He’d live in this room, watching movies, wondering where he’d be if he hadn’t lost the passport.
That night, the city lost control of the rain. As Daniel understood, it had to do with trying to extend the deadline halfway through the storm. There was some heavy thunder.
Daniel missed movie hour that night. He’d been planning to watch A New Hope again tonight. Make a trip back through the original trilogy on his way to the infamous ‘back nine’ movies. But he spent movie hour staring at the ceiling, wondering drowsily about quantum physics. He felt a little bit like a cat in a box now. He couldn’t be sure he was really there. If his presence had changed something about the world, he could have observed that and convinced himself that he was real. But he couldn’t. And there was no one else observing him to tell him the truth of the matter. It wouldn’t have surprised Daniel if someone opened the door right now and discovered that he had never existed at all.
He didn’t think much of the storm until his dozing-off-in-front-of-the-TV was interrupted by a terrible yowl.
“What is it, Dusty?” Daniel leapt up in his socks. “What’s wrong?”
He tried to scoop him up, but with the next crack of thunder, Dusty scrambled out of his grasp and hid in the kitchen. A white peal coincided with another yowl from the Kerfuzzle. That’s when Daniel realized what was wrong.
He groaned when he saw the numbers on the stovetop clock. But he couldn’t leave Dusty alone and scared. Daniel dragged the pet bed and a couple beanbag chairs to the kitchen, then snuck the fan out of Velvet’s room—well, actually, out of his room—and turned it on so the thunder wouldn’t seem so loud. When that wasn’t enough, he made himself a cup of coffee, because clearly that’s what it was going to take. Then he moved Dusty’s bed under the table and used spare bedsheets to cover it on all sides. Dusty finally calmed down as long as Daniel was sitting next to his makeshift fort. Daniel stayed up with him all night, explaining how thunder worked. And he took a picture in case he ever started a blog.
Monday morning was quite bleary, but Dusty had managed to get a little sleep. So it felt like a victorious dawn. Daniel still wanted to do something to make him feel better. And he thought he knew what would do the trick. He knew about pet parks from the newsletter Designer Pals sent to his spam folder every day. There was one practically within walking distance of his building. It hadn’t seemed interesting enough to drag Daniel outside before, but maybe now was the right occasion for it. So he moved quickly in the morning to clean up around the apartment. By lunchtime, they were bundled up and ready to go out.
The park was in a greenhouse dome on a seventy-eighth story skywalk. And it was exactly as Daniel had imagined it. Poised trees spread their branches over carpets of thick, dry grass. The air was so filtered you couldn’t even catch a whiff of the city stink. In fact, it smelled faintly like a forest.
The only unexpected thing was how welcome Daniel felt. There were pets everywhere. Everybody came with animals. Bigger and smaller and louder and stranger than he’d ever seen or heard about, but definitely animals. These were Daniel’s people. There was a sort of instant connection he felt with everyone here. They understood about getting up early to serve breakfast, and getting up in the middle of the night to make thunder less scary. Maybe Dusty wouldn’t be the only one to make a friend here.
Dusty, the little rascal, didn’t have any anxiety at all. Daniel still hadn’t loosed arms when the Kerfuzzle wriggled out to start exploring. Daniel decided to let him do what he wanted, especially if it helped him forget about his trauma last night.
There weren’t many Kerfuzzles here, which struck Daniel as odd given how popular they were supposed to be. But Dusty would have no trouble finding a playmate. By the time Daniel caught up, he was already bounding in a ring with platypus-like creatures. It looked like he was having fun, so Daniel spread himself out on a turquoise slope nearby. This was pretty comfortable. He could just sit and watch for a bit. And if the owner of one of these other pets came by and started a conversation, that would be fine too.
It didn’t take long. Well before Daniel expected to talk to anyone, a gangly teenage girl swung by on the handle end of a taut red leash. “Nice necklace!” she called. “It’s really fresh.”
Daniel froze for a moment before he touched his collar and realized what she was talking about. “Oh. Thanks.”
Something tugged on the other end of her leash. The girl leaned back at a forty-five angle against it. “By the way, you’re new to this, aren’t you?”
“How’d you know?” Daniel broke out in sweat, fighting the urge to look around and figure out what he was doing wrong. Was one of his amateur mistakes that obvious? Maybe he was supposed to sign in somewhere. He always missed kiosks where he was supposed to sign in.
She waved off the question and dug in her heels more firmly. “I just thought I’d tell you, since you probably don’t know. The last batch of Kerfuzzles came out with a defect. Apparently some of them are fertile, however that managed to get messed up. You should go back to the store to see if your little, uh, fluffball there needs to get spayed or neutered.”
Daniel had read enough Designer Pals newsletters to know what that meant. But he never thought it would apply to him. “Thanks for telling me,” he stuttered, “but I don’t really feel like it.”
“Aw. You don’t—” She smiled widely and set her foot against a tree, because a particularly violent jerk on the leash plowed her through some grass. “You don’t feel like it. Afraid it’ll hurt little Fuzzy there?”
“Yeah.” Daniel grinned in relief. “His name’s Dusty and—”
“You should get over it.” She lifted her upper lip. Daniel followed her lifted upper arm, which pointed to a large sign over the park entrance.
‘Spay or neuter your pet! It’s the responsible thing to do!’
Well, if it was on a sign, maybe it was true. But Daniel didn’t see why everyone was so worried about their pets having sex. People got into each other’s bedroom business enough as it was. This was just silly.
“The last thing we need is more Kerfuzzles running around,” said the girl.
Daniel started lifting his knees towards his chest, glancing over to where Dusty was sniffing a color-changing anaconda. The animals were oblivious to the conversation. “What? I—Should I not have got one of those?”
“Oh, no no!” She lifted one yellow-sleeved hand off the leash, but only for an instant, to wave him down. “I’m glad you got a Kerfuzzle instead of a real pet. He won’t suffer as much when you get tired of him in a week. Oh, right, that was the other thing I wanted to say. Please don’t kill it when you’re done with it. At the very least, don’t drop it off a bridge. I know it looks like a rat after a while, but it has feelings too, believe it or not. There are places called shelters that’ll take care of pets you don’t want.”
“I’d never hurt Dusty!” Daniel cried, his voice shriveling into the umpteenth register. He scooped Dusty out of the tussle of sniffing pets, overcome by the need to place his arms between the Kerfuzzle and the rest of the world. “I’m going to keep him forever. We’re going to be coming here years from now, you’ll see!”
The girl raised an eyebrow. “That’ll be tough,” she deadpanned, “seeing as they only live five months.”
Her smirk was met only by a chin dangling precariously from Daniel’s cheeks.
“But…” Daniel swallowed. “But that’s so short. Couldn’t gene splicers help them live longer?”
“Gee, they could,” she said airily, bracing both foot against a tree. “But then you wouldn’t have to buy another one half a year later. The Kerfuzzle is for people who don’t know anything. It’s more like the idea of a pet than an actual pet.”
The tree she was standing on rattled a bit, then calmed. She was able to put her feet on the ground and give him a particularly vicious smile. “They hate it when you scratch their ears, by the way. Their ears are really thin, so it’s actually quite painful. Wagging their tail when you do it is a hardwired reflex.”
Then she stumbled forward. “Smoky!” she bellowed when she’d regained her balance. “Heel!” She jabbed a tiny button on the end of her collar. It made faint camera-flash sounds until she was able to hold her ground and stopped pressing it.
Then she looked back at Daniel and grimaced. Daniel was hyperventilating, struggling not to suffocate Dusty and to keep everything inside his nose that was already there.
“What’s up with you?”
“Five months,” he sputtered. “That’s just before Christmas!”
The look on her face twisted further into confusion. As Daniel wiped a sleeve across his face it morphed through several other emotions in rapid order. She walked once around a tree to secure the leash, and then bent over a little closer to him.
“Hey—” she started haltingly. “It’s not that big a deal. If you really do like it, you should get another pet after Dusty. Something bigger this time. It’s really rewarding if you get into it.”
Since he was unresponsive, she went so far as to put one of her slender, fingerless-gloved hands on his arm. “They just do it so it’s not such a disaster if people realize they didn’t want to take care of a pet. Look, any animal’s going to die on you eventually. Most designer pets don’t make it past three years. It’s not like you did anything wrong.”
Daniel, not in a mood to continue this conversation but also not possessing the strength to retreat, looked at her with reddening eyes.
“You really don’t know anything, do you?” she said. “I mean—I didn’t mean that in a bad way.”
She eventually did them both a mercy and ended the encounter. Daniel escaped the park with as much dignity as he could, which was never much.
At home, he fixed a quick dinner in silence. Rye toast and scrambled egg-substitute with ketchup and jam. It was his first dinner without ear-scratching time. In fact, it was the first time he nearly forgot to put food in the bright blue bowl. Daniel poured out Dusty’s dinner half an hour late, swearing and spilling kibble bits everywhere while Dusty dodged between his legs mopping them up as fast as they came down.
He watched Dusty eat from across the kitchen. After being mesmerized by this for some time, he hunkered over his knees. “Stupid!” he yelled in his high-pitched cooing voice. “Stupid! Yeah, you, that’s not your name! I’m not calling you!”
Dusty’s head popped up in a spray of pellets. The ears pricked like satellite dishes. The pet scampered a straight line into Daniel’s arms.
Daniel put him down and tried to watch Star Wars for a little while.
Not much happened that evening, so he went to bed early. He found a pretty cozy crevice between two and a half beanbags, from which he could stare at one of the more fascinating blank parts of his wall. It helped him to not think about anything.
He had just about found oblivion when a blast of stark white got in the way. Dusty had landed right in front of him. He warbled and tilted his head at Daniel, as if asking what was wrong. When Daniel didn’t stir he warbled again, then ducked in close and started nuzzling Daniel’s chest with determination.
At length, Daniel lifted his head.
He gently stroked the outermost halo of Dusty’s fur, keeping his fingers away from the delicate ears. “You love me,” he cooed in his silliest voice. “You love me, you little fuzzy cutie pie. Yes, you do!”
He faltered by an octave. “Don’t know why. All I did was buy you. For two hundred dollars. Well, one hundred ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
With a gulp, he curled himself a little bit around Dusty’s body. “But you do.”
He finished the cocoon by placing both hands loose on Dusty’s back. “I’m going to take care of you,” he whispered. “I can do that.”
Very late that night—or probably very early the next morning—Velvet knocked on his door.
She was dripping like a soaked cat when he opened it. Thin scars glistened through the tears along her jumpsuit. In short, she looked almost as bad as he did.
She caught Daniel staring through the holes in her suit, some of which showed bandage wrapping around her torso.
He jolted his gaze up to her face. And she scowled.
“Not. A. Word.”
Daniel sighed. Then sleepily nodded. “I’ll put on coffee.”