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12 January 2018

SmartDog by Maria Hummer

‘I bought you something,’ Duncan said, ‘but you can’t love it.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘That’s the rule,’ he said, and he lifted a blanket off his surprise for me, a little mechanical dog. Its tail and ears were furry but the legs were metallic and its torso was smooth white plastic. Its laser-point eyes flashed green and blue, and a rubber tongue lolled out of its open grin. The tongue brushed my hand and I recoiled. ‘Does it have a name?’ I asked. Duncan leafed through a mini instructions booklet. ‘We can call him whatever we want,’ he said. ‘The default name is Spot, but it looks pretty easy to change.’ Its ears pricked up at the name Spot. I touched them. The dog pawed my finger gently and a little plastic nail caught my skin. ‘So it’s a he?’ I asked. More flipping through pages. ‘That’s the default setting,’ Duncan said. ‘If you want a girl, though, we can change it. Just press that button there for three seconds, then release, and then hold for another three seconds.’ The button Duncan spoke of was where the creature’s genitals would have been. My hand hesitated over the spot. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Nature doesn’t let you choose.’ ‘We’re not talking about nature,’ Duncan said. ‘It’s like asking what colour phone you want. Should it be Spot the boy, or Spot the girl?’ ‘Boy,’ I said. ‘And I’d like to call him Serge.’ ‘After the musician?’ ‘After nothing. I like the name Serge.’ ‘Whatever darling wants,’ Duncan said, thumbing a sequence of buttons on the dog’s belly. ‘Serge,’ he said in the dog’s ear. He looked at me. ‘Now you.’ ‘What?’ ‘So it recognises both of our voices,’ he said. ‘Just touch here and say Serge.’ I did. Then Duncan went across the room. ‘Here, Serge,’ he called, and Serge let out a little bark, almost convincing except for the rasp of binary code in his voice. He ran stiffly, as if woken from a nap, into Duncan’s arms.   *   Duncan tried to keep our home filled with living things. He bought me lilies, daffodils, blood roses, strange tropical flowers with petals like feverish tongues. He arranged them in painted vases and old pickle jars, trimming the bottoms of the stems and topping up the tap water with plant food. He brought home sacks of bright oranges, crisp apples and green pomelos and put them in a glass bowl so we could see the colours. He diligently watered our many potted greens, their names long forgotten. He remembered to buy bags of bird seed when we were running low. He brought me little pictures of hedgehogs. These gifts were presented with a whiff of apology. My acceptance of them was an agreement to forgive. I welcomed life into my home not like a mother, but like an aunt. One day Duncan wanted to throw away some old flowers – still alive in their cloudy water but admittedly starting to stink – and I wouldn’t let him. ‘There’s still a bit of life in them,’ I insisted. The petals, though wrinkled, retained their colour. He was quiet and I thought I had won the flowers an extra day in our flat, but when I returned from buying hand soap (‘Kills 99.9% of Bacteria!’ its label bragged) I found the vase empty, scrubbed clean and left drying on the dish rack. The flowers were in the bottom of the bin, wet coffee grounds and tea bags already dropped on top. Duncan couldn’t understand my fury. We went back and forth for ages, with him repeating that they were just flowers and me trying to explain this need I felt to tend a living thing that would last longer than four days on the kitchen counter. ‘Do you want me to go out, buy some new ones?’ he asked. ‘I think the florist is still open.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s not the point.’ He checked the time on his phone. He did this during fights sometimes, and it drove me mad – but before I could say anything, pick a whole new argument, he said, ‘I think I know what to do.’   *   Duncan wanted Serge to sleep in our bedroom. I said, ‘does he even need to sleep?’ ‘It’s what a real dog would do,’ said Duncan. ‘I thought real dogs sleep in kennels,’ I said. ‘Not my dog,’ said Duncan. We plugged Serge into the socket at the foot of the bed using a thin cord that attached to its neck. ‘So cute,’ said Duncan. ‘Just like a leash.’ We both patted the thing goodnight and climbed into bed. Duncan was gone instantly, breathing nasally into his pillow, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay there listening to a strange sound coming from the floor, like a whisper. I climbed out in my bare feet to check on Serge. The sound came from him, a gentle fan in his body to keep the inner hardware cool. I touched his back and his legs shifted, a programmed response. His body was warm to the touch.   *   In the morning I unplugged Serge and he followed me with wagging tail to the kitchen. He watched as I poured grapefruit juice and dropped bread in the toaster. His eyes glowed an anxious yellow and he shifted from paw to paw. ‘Duncan,’ I called, ‘are we supposed to feed it?’ ‘It’s a machine,’ came his response from the bedroom. ‘It wants something,’ I said. ‘So scratch its head,’ he said. ‘Throw a ball. I don’t know.’ The thing let out a chalky yip and nudged my shin with its nose. My toast popped up. I buttered and ate it, trying my best to ignore the whimpering machine. ‘You don’t need anything,’ I reminded it. ‘What’s the problem?’ I bit my toast. Crumbs scattered to the floor. Serge’s eyes flashed and he lapped up the stray crumbs with his rubber tongue. The mail slot in the front door creaked open and shut. Serge ran away to bark at it. On the floor, where his tongue had been lapping, was what looked like a patch of wet. I bent and touched it. It didn’t feel like saliva. It was a trick, a sleight of programming. But, still, there were no toast crumbs to be found. Where were they now? In his little computer belly? I reported this mystery to Kate, my cubicle-mate at work. She looked at me, eyes wide beneath heavy cat-eye swooshes. ‘Duncan got you one of those?’ she said. ‘Why? They’re creepy.’ ‘He’s cute,’ I said. ‘It’s nice to have the company.’ ‘It’s not company,’ said Kate. ‘It’s weird.’ Her mobile phone on the desk flashed and she picked it up, swiftly, like you would a crying baby. She tapped the screen with a fingertip and was gone. I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought chicken for dinner and ripe plums for the fruit bowl. I came home, arms full of rustling plastic, slipped off my shoes in the doorway, and stepped square into a warm puddle on the floor. I ran to grab a paper towel, the last one on the damn roll. The brown cardboard tube sat there, naked and pointless. A mild odour met my nose as I sopped up the mess. It reminded me of urine, but not quite. Sort of like green tea. Serge trotted in from the bedroom. He put his paws on my legs and tickled my face with his tongue. ‘Did you do this?’ I asked, pointing at the puddle. Serge’s tail tucked between his legs and his eyes turned an embarrassed mauve. The instruction book said nothing about licking up crumbs or pissing on floors. It only contained vague promises to provide a realistic experience of having a pet. I checked online forums to see if anyone had a problem with their SmartDog peeing on the floor, but all I could find was someone whose dog’s battery had leaked. I coaxed Serge over and opened his tummy to check for leaks. None that I could see. I popped out the battery to check behind. Serge’s eyes went dull and his limbs froze. No problems. I stuck the battery back in and for a second he remained still – my heart did a quick, panicked pump – but then he came back to life and started chasing his own tail.   *   At dinner some of Duncan’s chicken fell on the floor and he called Serge to clean it up. ‘He doesn’t have a stomach,’ I said. ‘He cleaned up your crumbs,’ he said. ‘Maybe he’s got a food disposal function. You know, to be realistic.’ He called Serge again but Serge didn’t come. ‘Is he switched on?’ asked Duncan. ‘Of course he’s switched on,’ I said. ‘What’s the point of having the thing if we’re just going to switch it off and on?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Duncan. ‘I just figured sometimes you might not have it switched on. You know, to save on battery.’ I left my dinner to check on Serge. I found him in the bedroom, making a nest of dirty socks. He picked them up in his plastic teeth and placed them in the warmest corner of our room, right beside the radiator. ‘Serge,’ I said. He ignored me and curled up in his pile of limp old socks. ‘The computer must be malfunctioning,’ I said to Duncan. ‘He’s not recognizing his name.’ Duncan followed me to the bedroom and we took turns calling Serge’s name. No reaction. I called the company’s help line. They kept me on hold for twenty minutes and I imagined the thousands of other SmartDog owners, each holding a phone to their ear, listening to hold music. Were their dogs identical to mine? Had anyone else chosen the same name? Were they worried about their creature like it was a real pet, or did they approach the situation with objectivity, like the owner of a blender that had stopped working? When an agent finally picked up and I explained the issue with Serge, I was asked to check that the battery hadn’t been accidentally dislodged. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I took the battery out earlier today. But I put it right back in.’ Then I was told it doesn’t matter how quickly I replace the battery – removing it for just a moment resets the dog. ‘But what if I have to take it out again?’ I asked. I was told I shouldn’t ever remove the battery myself, except in an emergency. But when I tried to find out what sort of emergency, they wouldn’t say. ‘Rare cases,’ I was told. ‘You won’t have to worry about it. Just call again if you have any questions. We’ll advise you.’ I didn’t like that the dog had a reset function. It seemed unfair – like Duncan throwing away flowers before they were properly dead. We had to program his name all over again, and he’d forgotten where we kept his box of toys. When I took him to the back garden to play fetch I faked throwing the ball and Serge chased after it, whereas just yesterday he had learned to wait for it to leave my hand first. But other things – the way he curled in my lap while Duncan and I watched TV, or napping in his favorite corner – didn’t need to be taught. They were just Serge.   *   We invited some people over. I brewed a big pot of coffee and served it with homemade pumpkin bread. We sat in the living room where the blue sky came in fresh and strong, making us squint. I called Serge and he delighted everyone by running from hand to outstretched hand, nuzzling their fingers while speakers in his nose generated a sniffing sound. One of the ladies, Claire, had just finished a slice of bread and her fingertips were sweet and greasy. Serge licked her hand. ‘Does he actually smell it?’ she asked, amazed. ‘It’s an illusion,’ said Ian. ‘It’s a machine designed to make you believe it smells and eats and loves and shits.’ ‘It doesn’t do all those things,’ I said. ‘That’s one of the perks highlighted in the ad. There’s no shit. It’s a shitless dog.’ ‘Then why am I picking up turds every morning in the yard?’ asked Duncan. ‘What?’ I said. ‘It’s weird,’ he said. ‘They must be from foxes or something, but I swear since we got this SmartDog there’s been more shit in our yard every day.’ ‘Maybe foxes are attracted to its smell,’ suggested Claire. ‘There shouldn’t be any smell,’ I said. ‘How do you know?’ asked Duncan. ‘The instruction book hardly says anything at all.’ Serge ran away and returned with a tennis ball in its mouth. We took turns throwing the ball and watching Serge bring it back, until conversation moved to gossip and Serge was ignored. He dropped the ball at Ian’s feet, wanting to fetch some more. He yipped. Ian did nothing. So Serge stuck his nose in Ian’s crotch and inhaled deeply. Then he started humping Ian’s leg. Everyone laughed except for Ian. ‘Very funny,’ he scowled as he nudged Serge down. ‘I didn’t teach it that,’ I said. ‘Probably some programmer’s joke,’ said Duncan. ‘Maybe you can un-program it,’ said Ian. Duncan stood and reached for Serge. ‘Come on, you,’ he said, gathering the dog in his arms. ‘Where are you taking him?’ I asked. ‘Just giving everybody a break,’ he said. ‘I’ll keep him in my lap,’ I said. ‘He won’t bother anybody.’ ‘Actually,’ said Claire, ‘the grinding of his joints is giving me a headache.’ ‘He’ll be alright in our room,’ said Duncan, looking at me. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘Say bye-bye, Serge,’ said Duncan, waving Serge’s paw at the group. Serge barked and everybody laughed. ‘Good boy,’ said Duncan, and he left the room. ‘He is cute,’ said Claire apologetically. ‘Just, only for five minutes.’ ‘I understand,’ I said. But to me the rest of the afternoon felt bruised by his absence.   *   The next evening Duncan and I were cleaning after dinner when Serge started whining at the front door. ‘What does it want?’ said Duncan. Serge scratched the door imploringly. ‘I think he wants to go for a walk,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t need to go for a walk.’ ‘Yeah, but if he were a real dog, he would. Let’s take him.’ ‘We don’t have a leash.’ ‘He’ll be fine. I don’t think he can run very fast.’ We got our jackets and opened the front door. Serge took off like a shot, barking at something we couldn’t see. I tensed, ready to chase him, but he halted at the end of the road to wait for us, ears and tail erect. Serge led the way. He went from tree to tree with his nose to the ground. Duncan and I followed, watching Serge nervously at first and then relaxing into normal conversation. We commented on houses as we passed, each one much the same but with small differences – venetian blinds on the windows, or curtains; toys on a shelf, or ceramic elephants; The Matrix playing on TV, or the local news. I stopped to admire someone’s kitchen through their side windows, all clean with clay jars labelled ‘sugar’ and ‘flour’ and an ice dispenser in the black polished fridge. ‘That’s the sort of kitchen I want,’ I told Duncan, and I beckoned for him to join me. But he didn’t. He remained standing near the street curb, looking one way and then another. That’s when I realised Serge was nowhere to be seen. We called his name. We listened for mechanical footsteps or barks. Nothing. ‘Do you think he can find his way home?’ I asked. ‘I hope so,’ said Duncan. ‘Shit. That thing was expensive.’ We split up. We shouted his name up and down the neighbourhood. I checked weedy alleys, garbage cans, other people’s lawns. Duncan’s voice drifted to me through cracks between houses. I imagined people looking down on us from their first-floor bedrooms, stepping away from folding clean laundry to see what the fuss was about. They would probably think we had lost a real dog. I heard distant barking – real barking – followed by a voice shouting ‘no.’ Duncan’s voice. I ran around the next corner and found Duncan near the gate to the neighbourhood park. There was mud on his jeans and something cradled in his arms. It gave a computerised hiccup – possibly an attempt at a whimper. ‘Serge,’ I cried. He looked up, feebly, at the sound of his name. His eyes were dull. One ear had been torn off, leaving behind a cluster of exposed wires. The other ear drooped in canine melancholy. Duncan passed him to my outstretched arms. I cradled him close. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘Someone’s Jack Russell,’ fumed Duncan. ‘I got a picture on my phone.’ He showed me. It was blurry. ‘Where did it go?’ ‘Into the park. Maybe the owner’s there.’ We peered through the gate. There was no movement in the park except for a rush of birds heading for their roosting tree. They perched nightly in its dead branches and screamed at the abandoning sun. I walked Serge home while Duncan searched for the Jack Russell’s owner. Serge quivered delicately against my chest. I held him close, warming him against my heart. Back home, Serge limped to his favourite corner and curled up. I knelt to check his limbs. A few scratches, and one of his legs now overextended. When I tried to bend it back he gave a yelp as if in pain, so I stopped and just stroked his remaining ear until Duncan came home.   *   The next day at work I told the tale of the Jack Russell Terrier as my colleagues and I stirred our morning cups of instant coffee. Then they took turns with their own stories of pets being attacked. ‘Misty’s tail was crooked for the rest of her life,’ said Kate. ‘Oscar refuses to walk down that street again,’ said Claire. We all basked in the shared horror and misery of pet owners, until Ian ruined it by saying, ‘at least Serge has a warranty,’ to which everyone laughed, and I was instantly excluded.   *   When I got home Duncan was packing Serge into a box. ‘The goddamn warranty doesn’t cover replacement parts,’ he said. ‘Only a complete replacement dog. Isn’t that ridiculous?’ ‘We have to replace Serge?’ I said. ‘It’ll be the same model,’ Duncan said. ‘We just have to wait a couple of weeks.’ ‘It’s only an ear,’ I said. ‘He can live with one ear.’ ‘He walks funny too,’ said Duncan. ‘Makes noises. Listen. Don’t turn him on, okay? Something’s wrong.’ In the box Serge’s eyes were dark. His legs were tucked around his body in strange angles. ‘Can’t I say goodbye?’ I asked. ‘To what?’ said Duncan. He tore a long strip of duct tape, making a terrible sound, like ripping skin. He slapped down the box lids and taped them shut.   *   I slept badly that night. The sealed box sat in Serge’s favourite corner, and I couldn’t sleep for wondering what the next dog would be like – if it would play the same games as Serge, if it would like that corner too. I wondered if we would call it Serge. It wouldn’t be wrong to, but I knew somehow I couldn’t. I would have to think of a whole new name. I sat up sometime around dawn and pulled on a bathrobe. I looked at the box. It made me feel spooked, like the box was looking back. ‘Duncan,’ I said. He didn’t move. I slipped out of bed and took the box to the kitchen. I wiggled a fingernail under the tape and pried it up. I folded back the box lid and took out Serge, white packing peanuts skittering to the floor. I propped the dog in my lap and opened his belly with my thumb. No battery. I searched the surface of Duncan’s desk and found the battery under a pile of unopened bills. I pressed it into Serge’s belly and his eyes lit up green. ‘Serge,’ I cooed, cradling his squirming limbs. He tossed his head, trying to get free, and nosed me hard in the chin. I set him down and he ran circles on the kitchen floor, yapping at full volume. I tried to shush him but he ignored me and ran for the back door. He stood on his hind legs and scraped lines into the wood finish with furious paws. ‘No,’ I said in a scolding voice. And he turned and growled at me. His eyes flashed red. Everything stopped. The room shrank and I held my breath in the infinite moment that my dog growled at me and I stood there in my slippers. Serge moved first. He charged at me. He opened his mouth of teeth – teeth! Who gave him teeth? – ready to snap shut on me. It was a survival reaction. It wasn’t something I thought about. All I saw were those teeth. I drew my leg back and kicked him hard. His body was flimsy, light as an action figure. He flew into the door and landed on the tiled kitchen floor. Somewhere between my foot and the floor Serge went from being a threat to being something Duncan had paid for. I heard his voice in my head (‘Shit, that thing was expensive’). I felt a jolt in my heart of fear and failed responsibility, a feeling I got whenever I dropped my phone and worried for the fragile screen. But Serge did not shatter. He did something worse. He started to cry. Huge, tragic whimpers to break your heart. I watched him wail on his back, legs pedaling in the air. Someone had done this to him, made him capable of such sorrow. Someone had done this to me. I knelt beside his fallen body. I reached between his upright limbs and opened the battery hatch. His watery blue eyes met mine one last time before the light went out, and all was still.   - Maria Hummer was born in Toledo, Ohio. She has lived and worked around the world in Seoul, St. Louis, Budapest and Bratislava, and she is currently based in London. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Best of Ohio Short Stories, Passages North, Emry’s Journal, and more. She is also the writer of prize-winning short films “He Took His Skin Off For Me” and “Dinner and a Movie.” Her most recent film, based on her short story “The Director,” is currently in post-production. At present Maria is completing her first novel, a speculative fiction love story. She tweets @mariahum  
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