by Bill Vernon
Stabling the autoride, Cheryl rushed into EXOTIC PET MART only to face a confusing array of large green tropical plants. Thick foliage drooped over half-hidden transparent enclosures, suggesting secret lives and surprises back in the shadows.
Cheryl yelled, “I wish to see the talking dog! Your advertisement said it was the last one!”
A voice boomed in her face. “It is still available. Proceed along Aisle One on your right to the far end.”
Cheryl dropped her own volume to a pleasant level. “Goodness! Lower your output.”
The male voice whispered in her left ear. “Is this better?”
Leaves brushed Cheryl as she trudged along the passage until she reached a wall. “Is the dog here?”
“Turn left and proceed down this aisle.”
She passed strange little monkeys, miniature pigs, and floppy-eared cats, all in cages camouflaged beneath spade-shaped fronds.
“Where’s the dog?”
“Refine your tone of politeness as well.”
“Thank you, Madam. The customer is always correct.”
Fingering a leaf’s soft yet resilient texture told her it was plastic. This whole vegetative setup was artificial. Simply nothing was what it seemed anymore. How irritating. And certainly this hike was unnecessary. Sale merchandise should be conveniently located up front.
Cheryl said, “Gee whiz. How much farther?”
“Only 110 feet, three inches more, Madam.”
“You ought to have moving floors in here.”
“Thank you. Would an ambulatory conveyance help?”
“It’s too late for that now. I must be about there.”
“Dog Fifty-seven is in the very last compartment.”
“I should have guessed”
Finally, there it was, stretched out asleep on paper shavings, looking ordinary, with shaggy black and white hair, long ears, and a ribbon-like tongue that twitched with each breath.
Cheryl said, “Hi, doggy.”
It didn’t move.
She yelled, “Doggy!”
“He cannot hear you, Madam.”
“How do I know he can talk? I need to access him.”
“That requires a human consultant.”
“Then get me one.”
“Yes, Madam. Compliance in two to five minutes. Please wait here.”
Cheryl watched the dog sleep and then tapped the glass. When that evoked no response, she tapped harder, then harder. Maybe the darn mutt was dead. She rapped the glass sharply with her fist.
“Don’t pound that compartment!” a voice commanded.
Behind her, a man was approaching.
He said, “It’s against the law to tease animals.”
Cheryl hated such rudeness. The high demand for sales personnel produced this attitude in them. She snapped, “Is this animal deaf or stupid?”
“I might ask the same of you.”
“Disgusting! Your rudeness is the worst. I had to correct the tone of your Attendant Voice too.”
“AV is computer generated with few discriminatory powers. I, on the other hand, am at least equal in status to yourself. So don’t try to push me around. Now what do you want?”
She looked back at the dog. It had raised its head and opened its eyes, but it still just lay there. “Does this dog actually talk?”
“I want to hear it.”
The man sighed, fished a black disc from a trouser pocket, muttered a letter and number into it, and then held the device in front of Cheryl. “This will convey both of your voices.”
“Hey!” she said. “Hey! Can you hear me?”
The dog leaped up and pranced around as if trying to decide which way to run. It stopped, stared off into space, and said, “What? What? What? Hey! Hey! Hey!”
Cheryl laughed. “What a cute little doggy! My sweetheart, Frank, would love you.”
“Dog!” it yapped at a cage wall, apparently where the speaker was located. “Doggy! Doggy!”
Cheryl pursed her lips to ask its name, but the man withdrew the disc.
“Enough. I can’t let his vocabulary get corrupted. Do you want him?”
“Well, I need some facts before I decide. Why can he talk?”
The man barked, “Attendant Voice! Specifications!”
“Thank you, Madam. I am happy to supply you with details. Dog Fifty-seven’s speech capabilities derive from genetic engineering. His lexicon of one hundred carefully chosen socially acceptable words will clearly express his feelings and needs. For example, he was taught potty instead of a bad word. Of course, canine IQ is limited, but Dog Fifty-seven can learn many more items. Animal rights advocates recommend the neutering of canines.”
“What would the dog say about that?”
“Madam, he cannot even consider the idea.”
“Is a talking dog a new invention?”
“Thank you, Madam. No. The breakthrough was achieved twenty-two years ago with the experimental attainment of speech capabilities in a number of species. This particular dog is a mixture of collie, spaniel, and several other types. In short, he was bred to be lovable.”
Cheryl forgot for a moment that the AV was computerized. “You are right. He’s adorable!”
“Also a bargain, Madam. Only five World Dollars.”
“Only five Wads?”
“You are lucky, Madam. Today, he is on sale. All sale items are nonreturnable, but his health is guaranteed.”
“He must be the cheapest animal you have in here.”
“Hardly,” the man said, grabbing her by an elbow and pulling her to a sales unit disguised as a plastic tree stump. “We offer several hundred other creatures for a cheaper price.”
“Really! Which ones?”
“They’re on the other side of the store, but forget them. We have business to conduct. What is your Identification Number?”
Cheryl stated her IN, was recognized by the central catalogue, listened to it recap conditions of the sale, and stated that she understood these conditions. “Yes,” she agreed to the purchase.
AV said, “Voice Recognition has confirmed your identity. Your account has been debited. The transaction is complete. Thank you.”
The man laughed. “Good. We’ve been trying to move Dog Fifty-seven for six long months.”
“Well!” Cheryl glared at the man. “Why? Something wrong with it?”
The man laughed again. “Nobody but you wanted him is all.”
Cheryl gasped. Implying that she was somehow eccentric was the arrogant man’s worst insult.
The man’s gaping grin revealed a mouth full of simply revolting teeth. Cheryl said, “You should update that denturing. As a specialist in the field, I’ll give you a free assessment. The perfect gleam and structure of your enamel is so obvious, everyone can tell it’s that old-fashioned ceramic.”
The man frowned and put his hands on his hips. “Your ‘little doggy’ will be delivered in back. Just drive around the store. Now, do you need food or bedding? We carry all necessary supplies.”
“Ha! Bill will tell me what he wants, and then we shall certainly get it elsewhere.”
“Bill?” The insufferable man smiled.
“Yes. I shall call my dog Bill after my father.”
“The heck with you!”
Cheryl stomped away. At the front, she squinted down a leaf-obscured aisle toward the far wall. Aquariums. The man had been referring to cheap fish. Well, so what?
Wouldn’t Frank be surprised by this furry birthday present? Wouldn’t it be fun to learn exactly what animals think?
When Cheryl drove around behind the store, the man and dog were waiting. She pulled up and threw open the passenger door.
The dog jumped wildly, baying, “What?! What?! What?! What?!”
She shouted over the noise, “Get in!”
The man laughed. “He can’t understand that. Come and get Bill.”
Cheryl extracted herself, hurried around the car, and was jarred off balance by the dog, which leaped high enough to touch her chest. It dropped and leaped several times, grunting, “Who!? Who!? Who!?”
“Down, Bill!” Cheryl pushed his head away, bent over, grabbed the collar, stroked his back, and shoved his rump down until he sat.
“Bill, Bill, Bill,” the dog panted calmly.
Cheryl laughed. “That’s your name all right.”
The man thrust three sheets of paper in front of her. “Here. You have duly received a copy of your agreement; a specimen history, including number of the required tracking microchip implanted in its neck; and a receipt. I’m throwing in free the collar and leash.”
With papers in one hand, leash and collar in the other, Cheryl watched the excited animal sniffing her feet.
“Smell, smell, smell, smell, smell,” the dog was muttering, its wet tongue tickling her arches and toes.
The steel doors slammed behind her, so Cheryl released the collar, straightened up, and glanced toward them. The man was already gone and without one word of thanks.
Cheryl sighed. What an ungrateful lout. She stepped toward the autoride and tripped.
“What the heck?” She wobbled and looked down. The leash circled her ankles, and the dog romped behind her, completing another loop.
“Bill! Bill! Bill!” The dog nuzzled her calves.
She stuffed the papers inside her mammary shields; unwound the leash; bent down close to the doggy; let its innocent, enthused demeanor rush through her consciousness; and crooned, “You’re my own little Bill.”
His wet tongue struck, sloshing drool over her lips.
“Yuck!” Still squatting, Cheryl dragged the back of a hand over her mouth, looked around, saw no one, and spat.
“Ugh! I haven’t expectorated in years.” It reminded her of that awful time when she’d been corrected in front of her peers for spitting on the playground at Hope Elementary Conditioning.
Bill lunged at her with his tongue out and said, “Taste.”
“Don’t do that!” With her face just out of tongue’s reach, Cheryl stared into Bill’s eyes. They were adorable, big Bambi-like orbs.
“You have to settle down, Billy boy.”
His tail raked the pavement like a metronome. So cute!
But her feet felt funny, rubbing against the sandals’ leather. She shuddered. Bill had idiotically slobbered all over her toes. They were icky dirty and just had to be wiped clean.
That was a problem. Getting tissue from the car would give Bill too much freedom. Darn it!
“What am I going to do with you?”
She pulled him to the autoride, lifted him onto the passenger seat, noticed the open driver’s door, looped the leash around the drink stand to hold Bill in place for a second, slammed his door, ran around to her door, slid inside, and closed it.
“Smell! Smell! Smell!” Bill was a furball in motion, nosing the floor, leaping back up onto the seat, nosing the dashboard, leaving a slimy trail wherever his mouth and tongue touched.
Bill nosed Cheryl’s knee and dragged his nose across her quadriceps. “Smell, smell, smell”
She pushed him away.
He jumped back and nosed her lap, splotching her flowery dress with saliva.
“Darn you! Get off!” Cheryl clutched his collar and extended her arm, holding his head away.
Bill licked her forearm and elbow, covering them with saliva, muttering, “Taste, taste, taste.”
“Gosh darn it! I can’t even stop you long enough to clean my feet, and now my arms are gooey, too.” She shook her head, stared at Bill angrily, and then barked, “On!”
The autoride motor started, and Bill imitated her, “On! On! On!”
Cheryl shook her head. “Take Bellview Road east!”
The car turned around, smoothly entered an exit lane, and merged with traffic on the street.
“To Krogers!” she said. “I have to get Frank a cake and Bill some pet things.”
“Krogers it is,” said the onboard coding system.
Bill licked her arm again and yammered, “Food. Food. Food.”
“Stop!” she yelled at him.
Her vehicle halted, the emergency lights flashed on and off, throwing her forward against the safety harness.
In the rear monitor, Cheryl saw traffic jamming up behind her, heard the first horns blare, and blood infused her neck and cheeks.
“Continue to Krogers!” she snapped, glaring at the dog.
During the five-block trip, Cheryl considered leaving Bill in the autoride. But alone, he might mess up the interior. Then again, he might pester people in the store. Maybe she could shop quickly enough to avoid a scene.
After parking, she opened her door, slid outside, grabbed the leash, and said, “Out!”
“Out! Out! Out!” he howled back but just sat there without moving.
Bill might be cute, but he was really stupid, too. Cheryl pulled the dumb thing outside, turned around toward the boat-like vehicle parked beside them, and saw hanging out of the open window a long hairy arm. It was an orangutan in a dress, a very well-mannered ape indeed, sitting in the driver’s seat, calmly staring at her. Now an ape was a very nice idea, but better than a dog? Oh no, a dog was man’s best friend, after all.
Just then Bill saw the ape and went crazy, leaping toward it, bellowing the last word he’d heard, “Out! Out! Out!”
Immediately, the ape unlatched its door and swung its left foot out—it was wearing a sandal so large it looked like a snowshoe. The big half-moons of its face swung back and forth as it shook its head at Cheryl.
“No. In! Stay in there. Stay!” When the ape lifted her foot back in, Cheryl shoved the door closed and looked around for its owner. Thank goodness. No one was in sight.
She shortened the leash and lifted so that Bill’s front paws just brushed the ground, somewhat choking him. She quickly dragged him out of earshot of the ape before letting him down onto his front paws again.
“Ouch!” was his strangled comment.
The walk to the grocery was no struggle at all. Cheryl simply asserted her superior power, pulled Bill along behind her, and jerked when he stopped to investigate something. Apparently, Bill just needed to learn who was boss.
At the store, she saw no one near the doors and hurried in, shortening the leash again, holding it down at her side, keeping him close.
The Automatic Shopping Center was to the left and, luckily, deserted. She yanked the leash; half-lifted, half-dragged the dog to the counter; and ordered. “I want a ten-inch chocolate cake with vanilla icing, fat and cholesterol free, and Darling Frank printed in blue on top.”
“Yes, Madam,” said a mechanical voice.
“Bill, Bill, Bill,” yelped the dog.
“Does Madam want Frank or Bill?”
“Frank!” Cheryl said loudly, glancing at two customers leaving the store behind her. Gosh darn it! Three other people came in, and they seemed to be heading for the ASC.
“Bill!” shouted the dog.
“Bill or Frank?”
“Frank! I said Frank, darn it!”
“Delivery will occur in eight minutes, Ma’am.”
Ma’am? Cheryl shook her head. Why would the store use such an archaic form of address?
“Emergency at the ASC!” roared a deeply resonant voice, startling Cheryl. “Clean up at ASC!”
“Now what?” Cheryl reluctantly looked down at Bill. There was a puddle on the floor below his hindquarters. “Oh no!” she moaned.
Bill pranced in it. “Potty! Potty! Potty!”
“Stop it for goodness sake.”
The three people were nearby now and watching. A woman and the nearest man smiled.
Bill reared up, his wet paws landed on Cheryl’s knees, and she gasped, feeling the nasty moisture.
Bill raised his head, and the hem of her skirt bunched on his nose.
The man and woman chuckled. The other man smiled.
Cheryl backed up, but Bill waddled on his hind legs along with her as if they were dancing.
Her hips banged into the counter, stopping her.
Thinking she ought to do something, she turned her head toward the monitor and said, “I’ll clean it up. Bring me some rags.”
“What are you ordering, Ma’am?” the ASC asked.
“Clean up at ASC!” raged the deeper voice.
“A-ess-cee!” Bill yelped. “A-ess-cee!”
All three people laughed, and goodness, more customers were approaching behind them, coming over from the check-out area.
It was a nightmare. Cheryl raised her hands to fan her hot cheeks, inadvertently lifting the leash, and that let Bill’s paws climb higher onto her thighs.
The dress fell over his ears, and immediately his lower body pressed against her shins.
“Look what the dog is doing!” a man said.
“For pity sake!” a woman said.
Cheryl counted nine people there now, and they all laughed, attracting the attention of some others who started to come over, already smiling in anticipation.
Cheryl couldn’t believe it. She seemed frozen in place.
“That’s terrible!” a woman in the crowd said.
The dog was rubbing its reproductive parts against Cheryl’s lower limb and chanting, “Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun!”
The crowd howled.
Cheryl screamed and ran from the store, dragging Bill behind her like a dangling fur piece. She had to escape. She just had to get away.
Inside her car, she glanced back at the store. People were standing in front, looking in her direction. Was that security? She should have cleaned up the mess and canceled her order, but she could not possibly go back in there now. The experience had been too humiliating. She would never go back in that store the rest of her life.
No one came after her, thank God, and all the people went back inside.
“On!” she yelled.
The car obeyed.
“On!” yelled Bill.
She grabbed his collar, thrust him an arm’s length away, and although she refused to look at him, his panting was obscenely loud, as if he were at the height of a passionate encounter.
She looked at the slavering beast and shouted, “No wonder a talking dog couldn’t be sold. Damn you, Bill!”
“Such language is unnecessary even in private,” the voice scanner said sternly, reminding her of when she herself had installed that very comment, coding in several other words she wanted to avoid using.
But damn! The whole world was mocking her. Cheryl Dakin got along with everyone. She was nice. Nobody ever said a bad thing about her. It was very frustrating.
Cheryl shrieked the worst bad words she could think of: “Weewee! Peepee!”
“Weewee! Weewee!” panted the dog.
While the voice scanner blared its remonstrations, Cheryl sobbed uncontrollably for a minute. Then she took a deep breath, jerked Bill close, grabbed his neck in both hands, and squeezed. She took another deep breath, dropped her right elbow over his shoulders, squeezed him against her body with that arm, grabbed his muzzle with her left hand, and squeezed his mouth closed, loosening her grip just enough so he could breathe. She didn’t want to hurt him, but she didn’t want to hear another word from him either.
She needed help. “Telephone! Call the Animal Husbandry Institute.”
Bill struggled against her grip, twisting his head, pawing at her left hand, trying to back away.
Cheryl held him tight. She’d had quite enough of Bill.
“Hello,” said the telephone.
“I’m having dog trouble and need your help,” Cheryl said.
“That is our business, Madam. Are we speaking of a merciful release procedure?”
“How much is that?”
“A quarter Wad.”
“Well, that is certainly cheap enough. And tempting.” Cheryl glanced at Bill. He’d given up his struggling and was lying down, relaxing in her grasp.
He seemed so cute now. Maybe only a throat alteration would be enough. Stop his talking and have him taught how to behave. Maybe how to do some tricks. Like a normal dog. How much would that combination of procedures cost? If it wasn’t too expensive, that’s what she’d do. Otherwise…
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, and then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poems, stories, and nonfiction work have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005.
From the Author
The story imitates James Blish’s concern with the dangers of scientific experimentation and the individual’s alienation from social mores and nature. At the same time, there is a Jillian Weise–like sexual theme in the story.