From the author: The bond between a child and a dog is special. Dogs are intelligent, loving, empathetic, loyal. Do you really believe that? The aliens do.
Ten year old Jenny crossed the street first, staying low until she reached the broken wall and had to clamber over. Robbie cleared the rubble in one clean leap, then looked at her, eyes wide, panting, ready for the next adventure. Then his ears flicked up, and he cocked his head to one side. His tail quit wagging. Jenny watched closely. He was her early warning system.
In a moment, from up the street, came a familiar hum. “Don’t bark,” she whispered. If they caught her, all would be lost: Robbie, her Dad, herself.
Heart in her throat, she stood. Visible above the broken rooftops a block away, the top of one of the alien’s vehicles lumbered toward them, its legs moving. Across the street, Dad peeked through the busted door. She waved her hand in a frantic stop sign.
“Don’t come, Dad. Don’t come,” she mouthed.
For a second he paused as if he didn’t understand, and Jenny had a vision of him wandering into the street in clear view. Earlier in the day he’d walked off, talking to himself when she found him. “It’s a states’ rights issue. Just like the old South,” he had been saying. She’d held his hand as she led him away from the open where he could be spotted so easily.
This time, though, he nodded, then dropped out of sight.
Jenny knelt, holding Robbie. The dog pressed a wet nose under her chin and licked her once. “You’re safe with me. They won’t get you,” she said.
The house had no roof, and the sun was a light spot, low in the smoke-filled sky. Jenny crawled to the shattered frame where the picture window had once been. Grit and ash permeated the carpet, itching at her palms; the air tasted oily in the back of her throat, and it burned her nose to breathe. From the window, she could see smoke rising from several ruined houses, but no flame.
The humming grew louder.
Jenny pushed back out of sight, then drew herself in tightly. I’m a little stone, she thought. They can’t see me if I’m just a little stone.
The alien craft, with glassy-eyed monitors gyrating this way and that, stepped between her and her father. Jenny stared through a crack in the wall. None of their vessels looked right. They were too broad at the top, inverted pyramids slapped together with wrinkled metal, supported by six spindly legs. They should tip over.
“Don’t be scared,” she murmured. The vessel stopped. It lowered itself until its narrow base almost touched the street, while its mirrored legs reached above its top, as if the machine had been modeled on a cricket. The metal eyes rotated in their sockets. Jenny trembled, holding the dog close.
After a long moment, the machine stood tall and resumed its march down the street.
Jenny peeked both ways, then beckoned Dad across. He stepped gingerly over glass shards on the sidewalk before crossing the asphalt, bent double, holding his book close.
“It almost got us,” Dad said. “If you hadn’t stopped me, I’d have been in the street.” He squeezed the book to his chest.
“No it didn’t. We just have to be careful.” But she couldn’t tell if he had heard. His focus, like it had been more and more over the last few days, was on some middle distance. Hardly ever on her.
Dad cleared rotten sheet rock off the floor before sitting down on the carpet so stained that Jenny had no idea what color it had once been. He leaned against the remains of a couch, its stuffing bursting from a dozen places, oozing a mildewy, fetid smell. Robbie sniffed at it, decided there were no rats, then put his snout on his front paws.
He was a white dog with black patches and a black head. When Mom gave her to Jenny, she’d said he would be “medium sized,” but he turned out rather small. She’d brought him home in a shoe box from the small animal clinic she ran. A mix between a spaniel and a terrier. Short haired. Prone to running circuits around Jenny’s back yard that wore ruts eventually. When Jenny still had a back yard.
Dad shifted uncomfortably against the couch.
Jenny said, “Does it hurt?”
He moved his shoulder. The bandages under his jacket gave him a humped look. “It’s fine. If we find a doctor, it will be fine. But I need to rest. Can I rest, Delaney?”
Jenny winced. “I’m Jenny, Dad. Sure, take a nap.”
Within seconds he was breathing deeply. She put her palm against his forehead and then against her own. He felt warm. She studied his face. Under his eyes were dark smudges, like bruises, and his beard was black and fierce, as if he’d become a Viking. She’d teased him a week earlier for not shaving. Most of the men they saw now needed shaves, and the women needed their hair done. Jenny looked down at her own smudged hands and dusty jeans. I could use a bath myself, she thought before closing her eyes.
Robbie’s whining woke her. The sky had grown darker. Whether it was more smoke or the sunset, she couldn’t tell. Dad was awake too and thumbing through his book.
“I remember this one,” he said. His finger rested on a picture of Jenny standing at the end of a pier, a fishing pole in one hand and an empty net in the other. Robbie sat at her feet, tongue out.
“That was just last summer, Dad. Of course you remember it.” But the memory eluded her. So much had happened. She wrinkled her brow. “That was before the fighting started?”
Dad turned the page to the pictures from the anniversary party. Jenny remembered the cake. It had been white with chocolate letters on it: “Happy Twentieth, Dan and Delaney.” Mom held a piece to the cameraman in one picture, the cake huge and blurry in the foreground; her face glowing and white behind it. During the party, Jenny had caught her finger in a door. She remembered how she sat on Dad’s lap while Mom held ice against her swollen knuckle. She remembered how solid his hands were, wrapped around her, how Mom took the ice away and blew on the hurt. “Is that better, Jennybird?” she said. The memory wasn’t fuzzy like the days they spent fishing. Those mostly blended one to the next. In her memory, she could almost touch her mother’s cheek. She could smell the little bit of wine Mother had on her breath.
Jenny looked away. The animal clinic had been in the center of the first attack weeks earlier. Mom hadn’t come home.
Dad lolled his head back so that if he’d had his eyes open, he would have been looking straight up. Eyes closed, he said, “I had a student from Japan once. He wrote English better than he spoke it, but I never understood a single one of his papers.” He brushed his fingers against his beard. “I couldn’t grade his work. It wasn’t the language. It was his understanding of the concepts behind the words. We were from the same planet but different worlds.”
“We have to get out of here, Dad.” Jenny stood. The remains of someone’s living room were scattered about. Burnt drapes still hanging from a crooked curtain rod. Books splayed across the floor, moldering from the rains. Scorch marks flowed up a table top tilted on its side. She picked her way around the trash. The back half of the house was flat, as if an explosion had pushed it away from the partly standing front walls. Wire twisted out of the shattered woodwork. A broken porcelain base showed where the toilet had been, and on the partial wall beside it a dented medicine cabinet, its mirror a cobweb of cracks, drew Jenny over. There was nothing in it though. She sighed.
From the remnant of the porch, the city reached before her, smoke shrouded, stinking of burnt rubber and other, fouler things. A jet roared overhead, away from the city, but she couldn’t see it through the haze.
“We thought we understood them at first, Jennybird.” Dad put a hand on her head. “My job was to understand them.”
Jenny put her hand on his, their twin weight resting on her head like a heavy hat. “If we hurry, we might be able to get to the hospital before dark.”
Dad trembled; she could feel it through his hand. He said, “I should have known. In the end, it was the principle of the thing. Not everyone in the South wanted to keep their slaves, you know, in the Civil War. They just didn’t like being told that they couldn’t. Different planets, different worlds.” Jenny shook her head, nearly ready to cry. Almost everything he said he’d said before, and he jumped from topic to topic. She wanted to shake him, to shake out the old Dad. He’d tell her what to do. He’d hold her and keep her safe.
Dad opened the photo album. “Do you remember this one? I’ve always liked this one.”
He pointed to the same photograph of her on the pier.
“Come on, Dad.” She led him onto long, dry grass, past a swing set with bent bars and a swing dangling from a single chain. The fence at the back of the yard had been knocked over. A cedar plank groaned when she stepped on it.
Robbie paused at a dog house partly hidden under some tree branches. He poked his nose in, tail waving madly, then trotted beside Jenny, head high, sniffing everything.
It took an hour to go ten blocks. At each street, Jenny checked for the enemy’s patrol cars . . . vessels . . . she wondered what to call a vehicle with legs. They moved into a neighborhood where houses were standing, although most windows were gone and there was no evidence of life. Maybe people are in some of them, she thought. They haven’t been caught, but they’re afraid to be out. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a civilian car driving. Two days ago the streets were filled with military trucks and humvees, frantic with movement, but they’d left before the bombardment.
Then she heard the angry beating of an alien’s plane in the distance. They ducked behind a barrier of dried shrubbery. Behind them a half empty pool, its surface black with floating ash, reflected nothing. The throbbing of movable wings filled the air.
“Ornithopter,” Dad said. “I bought one for you, Jenny, at Christmas. It didn’t fly well.” He coughed, covering his mouth with a fist. “What made us build aircraft with fixed wings? How strange we must look to them, ignoring our models in nature.”
The enemy’s plane dipped from the clouds a block away, its shiny cockpit turned partly away from them. Jenny thought about dragonflies, although it wasn’t really dragonfly shaped. The body was as wide as it was long, except for a tail section connected to the ship with a long, slender tube that was almost invisible at this distance. Its short, blurred wings held it at a hover for a few seconds. Then it darted left, dropped out of sight, the rhythmic, vibrating pulse all around them. Jenny felt it in her chest, like music with a heavy bass turned too loud.
“Do you think it’s trying to find us, Dad?” Jenny tugged on his arm. He didn’t look at her. With his free hand he pulled a leaf from the bush, crackling it between his fingers.
“They knew English and Chinese. We were so surprised. First contact. But they couldn’t make an ‘S’ sound.”
The plane rose suddenly, straight up, vanished into the low haze, until its thrumming voice was lost. Jenny pulled Dad forward. When he stood, he grimaced and leaned his head against his shoulder.
“It was pretty funny when they said ‘Sister Sally.’ Do you know ‘Sister Sally?’”
She wished he would quit talking. It didn’t scare her as much when he was quiet.
“Zister Zally Zold Zea Zells by the Zea Zore.” Dad laughed, his voice reverberating in the silence. His cheeks were flushed and red-rimmed eyes looked gummy.
A man wearing a brown coat, blue jeans, and bright yellow running shoes jumped over the low fence on the other side of the pool and rolled against the wood, trying to look small.
The man looked up. Jenny couldn’t tell how old he was; his face was so dirty, but when he spoke, she decided he was a teenager. “Christ! Get down. They’re all over the place,” he hissed.
Jenny listened carefully. Their vehicles made distinctive sounds. She’d never seen one that didn’t. Now that the ornithopter had gone, there was no noise in the neighborhood.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
He got up and brushed his pant legs, but she didn’t think they looked any cleaner.
“Do you have an aspirin, mister? My Dad has a fever.”
The man shook his head as he slid along the house’s wall until he reached the corner, then glanced around it. “They’re going to get me. There’s no place to hide. I saw them herding people toward the stadium this morning. Thousands of people in the streets. None of them saying a word, but I could hear their feet shuffling. What do you think they do to them in the stadium? I don’t buy that ‘reorientation’ garbage.”
Dad kicked some gravel into the pool and watched the ripples. For a second, Jenny believed he might fall in, but he didn’t make a move. He stared instead.
“I really need to get him to the hospital, the one at the university. Do you know how much farther we have to go?”
The man’s attention snapped skyward for a moment, as if he expected something to swoop out of the smoke. “Yeah, sure. I was a student. You’re only about a mile away.”
Jenny sighed in relief.
He continued, “But I don’t know if any of the doctors are still there.”
Robbie joined Dad at the pool’s edge. The man flinched. “You have a dog! I haven’t seen a dog in weeks.”
“That’s Robbie. Are you sure you don’t have aspirin?”
Dad sat on the edge. His feet dangled a few inches above the black water.
“No, none. Can I pet him?”
The man approached Robbie at a crouch, his hand out, gently, as if stalking a rabbit or a small bird. Robbie tilted his head to the side, and when the man stroked his ears, he licked his hand. “Isn’t that something? I used to have a dog. A hairy little mutt. I left him at home when I came to school. Don’t know what happened to him.” He sounded very sad to Jenny, like he needed a hug.
“Did he have a name?”
He ruffled Robbie’s fur on his back. Distracted, he said, “Ralph. We got him from the pound when he wasn’t bigger than a football. Always thought we were doing him a favor.” Suddenly angry, he looked at Jenny. “We were good folks, taking that dog. Mom wanted a purebred, but Dad said we should save a castaway. They kill dogs at a pound. We were good folks. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Jenny retreated a step–he was so intense!-- and Robbie growled. The man snatched his hand to his chest.
“They’re going to get me if I stay still. They’ll get you too.” He stood. “You keep that dog close to you. Nobody should have to give up a dog. Fucking aliens.” Looking at the sky again, he stepped back. “Hope you find a doctor. Your dad needs something.” With three long strides and a jump, the man was over the fence and out of sight.
Dad said, “Somebody should clean this pool. Maybe if there was a skimmer.” He looked around.
“We’ll fix it after we get to the hospital.” She pulled on his arm to help him to his feet, but he was so much heavier than she that she wasn’t able to budge him. Dad grunted, then stood unsteadily.
“I used to read stories about alien contact,” Dad said to the air as he followed Jenny to the gate. She checked the alley before letting him out. Light was fading rapidly, and a cold breeze stirred papers on the ground. “They were always something like us. I mean, we could communicate with them. We wanted the same things in the stories, and these aliens were like that at first. ‘Dawn of a new era in interstellar contact’ the president said.” Dad slowed to cough, each explosion wrenching his face into pain. When he finally stopped, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I need to take a nap.”
Jenny looked at the darkening sky. “We can’t, Dad. Not now. You just took one. Tell me more about the aliens. Keep talking.” She wasn’t really listening. As long as he talked, he would keep walking. Nothing he said would be as scary as him giving up.
They were at the top of a house-covered hill. At the bottom of the street, several blocks below them, the highway overpass shadowed the road. A hunk of the bridge’s middle was gone and a semi-trailer truck hung partly on the overpass, its cab dangling above the broken section. Beyond that, the red stonework of the campus was just visible through the smoke, but the hospital was on the far side, out of sight.
Dad said, “Different planets, different worlds, and states’ rights. It’s a stupid war. Our negotiating team laughed at the demand. Dogs aren’t people. We laughed; they attacked. No counteroffers.”
The path was downhill now, although she didn’t dare let them take the sidewalk. They stayed close to the houses, crossing lawns, stepping over privet hedges or knee-high fences some people put on their yards to know where to stop mowing. There was still a lot of broken glass, although little sign of burning now. As they passed a white two-story with blue trim, she noticed a sign by the door, “God Bless This Home.” She thought a curtain flicked behind one of the windows, but she couldn’t be sure.
She watched Robbie. He ran ahead of them, poking his nose into bushes, then running back as if he had important news. Robbie always heard the aliens before she did. If he stopped with his ears up, they needed to hide.
“Lots of people don’t own dogs, you know,” Dad said. “They just don’t like to be told by extra-solar beings that they can’t own a dog. They didn’t understand the relationship, or they understood, but they didn’t like it. Called it, ‘repressed, emerging sapiency.’” He hummed an off-pitched tune to himself for a few steps. “Good things horses weren’t ‘emerging’ or, God forbid, pigs. We’d really been in trouble then,” he added, then went back to humming.
Jenny could feel the fever in his hand. In the morning, when she’d decided they couldn’t hide in their basement any longer, the skin under the bandage had an angry yellow and purple look to it, and the cut, which hadn’t seemed that bad when he first got it, had deepened and widened. She’d bathed it the best she could before wrapping his chest clumsily. She was afraid of what she’d find if she looked at it now.
On the other side of the overpass, a light shone in several windows of the nearest university buildings. It was really getting dark now and cold. The going was tough. They traced a zig-zag pattern from house, out to the sidewalk to get past taller walls or impenetrable bushes, Jenny jumping at every sound or shadow, then back to the hiding places of the homes. Dad’s fingers rested limply in her own, and each step seemed a prelude to a fall. He mumbled to himself, his eyes closed. “Even the trees spoke.”
He took several steps before saying, “What?”
“What that’s about talking trees?”
“Wizard of Oz. How’d you like it if someone picked your apples? Everything’s in how you look at it. I’ll get you, my pretty. You and your little dog.” He stumbled, caught himself, then straightened his shoulders. “It’s Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows. Alien horror documentaries.”
He squeezed Jenny’s fingers, then fell backwards. Jenny dropped to her knees, shook him, called to him, but he didn’t stir. Robbie looked on quizzically.
She tried to pull him toward the house, a pleasant looking two-story Victorian, but it was useless. He weighed too much.
In the house, at the bottom of a ransacked closet, she found a tablecloth–all the blankets were gone–and took it outside. He hadn’t moved.
“Dad,” she said. “Dad? I’m going to get help. The hospital’s just a few more blocks. I won’t be gone long.” She smoothed the tablecloth over him. Above, the clouds roiled in a luminescent grey, nearly touching the rooftops. There was no traffic on the street. No voices. Only Dad’s wheezing breaths.
“You stay here, Robbie. Stay with Dad.” Robbie lifted an ear, then dropped it. “Do you understand? Stay. Be a good dog.” She kissed Dad’s forehead before running down the street. Robbie followed.
“Go back! Stay with Dad! You’ll be safer.” She shooed him away. He sat instead.
They were nearly to the underpass. “Go back,” she pleaded.
Without waiting to see what he’d do, she turned toward the campus. Even when she heard his claws clicking against the cement, she didn’t look behind.
The dangling truck cab creaked when she ran under it. Broken asphalt and bent lengths of rusty rebar sticking from cement slabs made walking treacherous. A sharp cordite smell lingered. Only a block separated her from the university, but after she negotiated the last obstacle beneath the overpass, she slowed to a walk. Across the road that entered the campus grounds, the same road the hospital was on, stretched a tall fence. Footlights every ten feet along the ground illuminated the shiny chain link structure, and in the exact middle of the road was a small gate, not nearly big enough for a car, a people gate. Two dark figures sat on the other side. As she approached, they stood. One of them shined a flashlight, blinding her.
“It’s a little girl,” a voice said.
“What do you think she’s doing out there?” the other voice asked. “I thought everyone had been detained.”
“My Dad’s hurt,” Jenny called. “I need to get him to the hospital, but he’s too weak to come. I need help.” She tried to see them, but the light was too bright.
“Oh, Jesus!” yipped one of the guards. “Don’t come closer, little girl. You stand right there.”
They took the light off her, and after a few seconds of blinking, she could see one of them talking on a portable phone. Robbie leaned against her leg. She reached down to scratch him behind the ears. “It’ll be all right. They’ll get a doctor,” she said.
A couple of minutes later, while Jenny stood silently and the guards stared at her, a figure on a bicycle pedaled up the road from the campus. It stopped by the guards, leaning the bike against the fence.
“Let me out,” she said. When the woman got close, Jenny saw that her blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and that she wore a medical smock.
“Are you a doctor?” Jenny asked. “My Dad needs a doctor right away. He’s only a couple of blocks on the other side of the bridge.”
The woman stopped, six feet away. Her voice sounded strained, as if she were trying not to scream. “We can help you, but you need to come inside right now. You can’t be outside the fence without permission.”
Jenny nodded and took a step forward.
“No, no!” gasped the woman. “The dog has to stay here. You can’t bring him inside.”
Confused, Jenny stopped. “This is just Robbie. He won’t bite or anything.”
The woman sidled toward Jenny, keeping away from Robbie. “You don’t understand. We can get your Dad help, but the dog has to stay outside. We have to get behind the fence now, without the dog, or it might be too late.”
She put her hand on Jenny’s arm. “The dog will be fine, but we won’t be if we stay out here. Obstructionists disappear. They’ve let us keep the hospital open, but we have to do it by their rules.”
In the distance, Jenny heard a humming.
“Oh, God,” the woman whispered. “Quick, girl. We’ve got to go now.”
Jenny let herself be led to the fence without thinking. The humming grew louder. One of the alien’s walking vehicles was coming.
Suddenly she pulled free. “I can’t leave Robbie out here!” But the men at the gate grabbed her, hustled her to the other side of the fence and closed it. One of them picked her up so that she faced backwards, looking at Robbie as they ran from the humming sound.
The last she saw of Robbie, he was still sitting on the street, his head tilted to one side and then to the other as if waiting for her to call him.
“Run away, Robbie! Run away and hide!” But the dog didn’t move. The man carried her into a building, closing the door behind them.
Inside, the woman in the medical smock, gathered supplies. “We’ll get your dad when the machine’s gone,” she said. “They’re automatic. Doesn’t matter who you are if you’re on the wrong side of the fence. You’ll have to take us to him.”
“Robbie will run away. He’s a smart dog,” Jenny said. “They wouldn’t hurt a dog, would they?”
The woman paused, her hand partway into her medical bag. “No, darling. They don’t hurt dogs. They take them to a better place, far away from us.” She looked down, hiding her eyes and continued stuffing equipment into the bag. “They took my dog. He was a big, friendly Labrador, and I guess I was a monster, because they took him away too.”
Thirty minutes later, Jenny led a line of people out of the building. They carried a stretcher, and they all had flashlights. The spot where Robbie had stood was empty. He wasn’t under the overpass.
Dad had rolled on his side under the tablecloth, and he was shivering. Jenny put her hand on his back as the woman inserted an I.V.. She felt his shaking, but he was still alive, and she’d found help. As soon as they arrived, she felt the responsibility lifting from her shoulders. Doctors would help. Doctors could cure anything. She picked up the photo album from the dew-slick grass.
As they marched back to the campus, Dad in the stretcher, Jenny shined her light into every shadow, and when they passed houses, she checked behind bushes, expecting at each new spot to see him, snout on his paws, tail wagging, waiting for her to pet his head. She called and called until one of the men asked her, not unkindly, to stop.
He wasn’t on one of the lawns, nor was he hiding beside a cement block beneath the broken overpass. He wasn’t waiting by the fence.
Jenny stopped at the gate as the line of people went on toward the hospital. She could hear their feet on the cement until they faded away. Fingers hooked in the chain link, Jenny listened as hard as she could for a long time. Robbie would bark if he couldn’t find her. He always barked when he was lonely. Jenny listened, but he never barked. There were no noises at all. Not a single sound in the entire city.
No dog anywhere sending a joyful yelp into the night.
The cold metal of the fence burned against her hand while the smoke-filled breeze pushed against her face, irritating her eyes. Light only reached to the bridge, and the world beyond was all shadows, empty and lifeless.
I’m not a monster, Jenny thought, I don’t care what anyone says. She remembered the photo of them on the pier, the dog sitting before her. Suddenly the memory was very clear: the sun warming her shoulders, the water slapping at the wood beneath her feet, a hint of fish and wet sand in the air.
I’m not, she thought, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not a monster.
Robbie loves me.
This story originally appeared in New Voices in Science Fiction: 2003.