by Susanne Thomas
A short, boxy house sat in the middle of a row of similar homes on a quiet side road near the local grocery store. It had a rusted chain-link fence that kept in a filthy, ankle-biting, terrier mix named Husker. He never barked at people walking by, just stood there, staring. Sometimes, he sat down and blended into the grassless yard.
A man named Tim stood by a small metal gate as he did every day. The laser focus of the Wyoming desert sun had done unchecked damage, and his face was red leather.
The texture of his face and white tufts of hair in various places around his head showed his age. He stood sentry, marking time in dog-pets and hand-waves at cars and pedestrians.
“That’s ten.” Tim smiled down at Husker. His waving hand fell to his side. Tim’s companion stared silently at him for a moment. They walked away from the fence to the beige door to their home. A pair of worn gnomes watched from a small slab of concrete by the door, standing sentry for the man and dog.
The door opened only partway, barely admitting the two. Tim leaned into it, pushing a mixture of trash and clutter away from their path into the house. The smell of must and mold greeted them, though the two had long since grown nose-blind to the funk of their home.
A clear path led to a chair from the door. Another narrow line of empty space led from the chair to the back of the house, where a stove and counter peeked from the archway between rooms.
Tim sat down with the groan of age in the only chair in the teeny living room. A small table next to his chair held an old pizza box, slightly open, the remains of last night’s dinner peeked out.
“Ten more today, I guess it’s just not time,” Tim said as he settled into his brown, fur-covered recliner.
“You’ve said that every day since we came here twenty years ago,” the dog, Husker, said from his place on the floor before the chair. He kept his distance from the debris around them, carefully lying down in the middle of the path. His muzzle was gray and grizzled, and his voice sounded like gravel.
Wired boxes, half-finished projects and metal casings piled up among old pizza boxes and dirty clothes around the pair. The piles of junk merged into a formless mass pressing into the walls.
“We agreed: no action until the local populace becomes hostile.”
“One person says, ‘Welcome’ after we land, and you decide that the whole town and planet are redeemable,” the little dog growled.
“I was given wide discretion.”
“Not this wide. We’ll be vaporized whenever we finally return.”
Tim waved his hands toward the sky. “They just got an update from us, and the commander didn’t seem too upset.”
“That was ten years ago,” Husker said. He lay on his side and scratched against the filthy carpet.
“I’ll send another one soon. I just need to find the transmitter,” Tim said as he looked around the room. His eyes skipped from pile to pile. Worn rags and towels cushioned long tubes and wired, broken things.
“Please, you can’t find anything in here. This house is disgraceful!”
“Well, whose fault is that?” Tim glared as he sank back into his chair. “We had a caretaker sent with us.”
“I had no clue this form would carry a biological imperative to eat meat, especially from such a similar creature.”
“You ate Long John.”
“I felt bad afterward.” The dog rolled up to a seated position.
“I’m sure that will comfort his parents. You know, this was his first assignment. His only assignment.”
“They’ll be compensated when we get back. Honestly, Control should not have made Long John a cat. A tiny bit of research would have revealed the negatives of that form.”
“Dogs don’t have to eat cats.”
“Then why do they chase them on the televised shows you watch sometimes? The ones that are drawn instead of filmed?”
“Those are cartoons, you idiot. You ate him because he scratched you by mistake one time.”
Husker looked away, ignoring Tim’s accusation. “A caretaker wouldn’t be needed if you would just throw things in the large trash receptacle the city provides us.”
“Throw this stuff away?” Tim asked.
“It’s possible. I see the neighbors carry their waste in a large bag almost daily to that can.”
“But this will all be worth a fortune when this planet is gone. It’ll all be a collector’s dream!”
Husker looked around the room. “None of this will be worth anything. Your pizza boxes and the bags that contained food aren’t going to be purchased by anyone. You leave them on the ground because you are lazy.”
“You don’t clean up either.”
“I don’t have hands!”
“Neither did Long John. He was still going to do all that work for us.”
“Again, the research team didn’t look into things thoroughly. No wonder the poor guy was lost in a tragic accident,” Husker answered.
“We had specific orders.”
“Which you have tortured into a form unrecognizable. We were told to destroy the hostile planet,” Husker argued before rolling over. “Rub my tummy.”
“They are not yet hostile.” Tim’s foot went out to rub the furry belly of his companion.
He glanced out of his window, spying two juveniles laughing as they walked to the grocery store across the road. They spied him through the window and waved.
“Waving hello is not exactly a denouncement of violence. Have you seen the latest news?”
“No, and neither have you.”
“The neighbors are careless with their paper,” Husker answered. “Did you know that there are wars in lots of countries. And that sewage spill here in town? And just last week, two men were arrested for making their dogs fight! That could have been me!”
“Could have been you?”
“Well, if we were ever to go anywhere, someone might take me. I’d be a great bait dog. Do you know what that is? With your intentional ignorance? That’s the dog the fighters use to make the other dogs attack. They’d have to make me bleed to do that!”
“But you agreed. You said that if I could get ten people a day to wave hello, to smile back, that it would show that there was something here that was worthwhile. Something redeemable.”
“I didn’t know you would position us across the street from the busiest place in this underpopulated wasteland.” Husker glanced out the window toward the Save-n-Shop. Its parking lot was jammed with people buying their food and alcoholic beverages.
“Look, what do you want from me, Husker?”
“I want to go home; we aren’t getting younger, and these forms won’t last much longer. Your head is white and looks like a shriveled grape, and my fur has as much gray as it does beige these days. If we get stuck in these bodies, we’ll die with them.”
“They’re durable, top of the line. We have years left!”
“You have years left. My form is lasting longer than its kindred, but I barely have energy these days. We leave soon, or you’ve as good as sentenced me to death.”
“Like you did Long John?”
“For the last time, it wasn’t my fault, and I want to go home.”
“But it’s so nice here! There’s no humidity. There’s no swamp smell. And look outside! No roaming beasts are waiting to shred you to pieces and lay eggs on your steaming corpse.”
“There’s no snow back home. It never gets cold. There are restaurants with food that we like. I’m so tired of these pizzas and the cheeseburgers.”
“I like the pizzas! And cheesecakes. Their people are nice too. They wave, they say hello, and then leave. No one stops and yaks your ears off for hours.”
“Our friends and our families are there,” Husker answered. “And people would stop and speak to you because they care. I miss the museums. And while we’re here, I’m stuck in this stupid little form that isn’t allowed anywhere.”
Tim frowned. “Some friends we have. They haven’t called in ten years.”
“The transmitter has been buried for about that long.”
“It has not. We weren’t supposed to send a lot of messages. The more technology these people get, the more likely they’ll notice our activities. That would go poorly for us.”
“Tell me again how these are good people? And doesn’t that mean the charges we hid everywhere around that caldera in their yellow-stoned land are a risk to us if they find them before we destroy the planet?”
Tim stood up and stared at the town outside. The neighbor’s grandchildren were on the sidewalk, fighting over some imagined slight or another. Tim turned and looked at all their accumulated stuff. The pizza from last night, the books and knick-knacks they’d purchased over the years. He looked at his companion’s gray and silver muzzle and his watery eyes. “Fine, you find the transmitter, I’ll set off the detonator after we call home for transport.”
“Really?” Husker asked. He sat up straighter, and his tail began to wag.
“Sure, let’s go home, friend,” Tim said as he stretched his arms to scratch his back, feeling in the cushion for the lump that signaled the transmitter’s hidden form. He grabbed a slice of pizza from the box next to his chair and began to chew loudly. Tim was sure that the search would keep Husker busy for enough days that they could order another couple of dinners before finally caving to his promise. It would give him time to collect up the things he’d want to take home, too. And maybe he could find one of those cheesecakes that he loved so much.
The small dog ran off to the piles of junk and began to dig.
Copyright © 2019 by Susanne Thomas