A little girl in pigtails, pointed at a moving speck far across the distant lake bed. “Daddy, what’s that?”
Her dad squinted against the brightness of the white sand, at first not seeing anything, but after a moment spotted it. “I dunno, honey.”
It was too far away to make out, and if it hadn’t been moving the girl wouldn’t have noticed it, but soon they could tell it was some kind of four-legged animal, a fox, or maybe a coyote, and as it neared, they saw it wore a bright orange safety collar, and they could even hear the telltale jingle of its tags. It was a poor pet dog, separated from its family and lost.
At first the people watching were concerned, but when they saw the white froth at the dog’s mouth, their concern quickly changed to panic as they jostled to get back on the bus before the rabid dog infected them all with rabies.
As the dog struggled up the small rise to the viewpoint, the church bus pulled onto Badwater Road and moved away at speed. The dog wagged his tail and let out a weak bark, but the church group ignored his pleas and kept on going. He walked over to where the bus had dripped some coolant from its radiator, defiantly lifted his leg and peed what piss he had left in his dehydrated body, then collapsed where he stood. He was done in. He let out a final sigh, the church bus had been his last chance at getting water, and watched it disappear around the bend.
* * *
Sitting in the cool air of the Chevy Tahoe, the deputy listened to the hum of the air-conditioning and stared out at the desert. He was thinking of its unforgiving ways, when the call came through about a rabid dog chasing tourists on Badwater Road. The deputy had never had a dog, not even growing up, let alone shot one, and he really hoped he wouldn’t have to today. Maybe that was why he turned on the siren even though it wasn’t needed. There wasn’t a car in sight, but it might scare off any dog, and then he wouldn’t have to deal with it.
He found the dog lying on his side on the viewpoint turnout. When he pulled up next to it, it didn’t move. It looked dead to the deputy. He killed the siren, drew his gun and got out for a closer look. It resembled a coyote with the same long, ragged fur in varying shades of the desert, but was larger and had a stronger build. The collar was the give-away though. Coyotes didn’t wear bright orange hunting collars with metal tags.
The deputy squatted next to the dog and nudged its body with the tip of his gun barrel. The dog didn’t respond at first, but then its tail gave a weak thump against the gravel. It wasn’t rabid, it was dying of heat exhaustion. He took a look at the tags on its collar, but they were so worn with wear that they were no longer legible.
He was thinking that the dog must’ve been lost for years for the tags to be so worn when he heard a small voice say in a slurred whisper, “Water.”
Startled, he felt the wind tickle the hairs on the back of his neck. He was all alone, not even a car or tour bus approaching on the road.
The dog thumped its tail against the ground again. “Water.”
He saw its lips move.
“Water.… Please give me water.”
He was halfway back to the Tahoe to get one of the gallon jugs of water they always carried when he realized he was responding to words spoken by a dog. He stopped mid-step, but shook it off. He’d seen a lot of strange stuff in Death Valley. His imagination was just telling him the obvious. The dog was dying of thirst. Get him some water.
He brought the water back and poured a trickle into the dog’s mouth. He lapped at it, weakly at first, then with growing strength and persistence, its drive to survive strengthening. Washington scooped up the dog and put him in the backseat of the Tahoe, poured some water into an empty Styrofoam burger container and set it near the dog’s head.
He got in front, turned the air-conditioning to full, and radioed dispatch, telling them he was en route to the veterinary hospital in Pahrump. A few miles down the road, he heard the dog lapping at the water in the burger container and saw him stand up behind him in the rear view mirror. He was big. The dog had to duck to look at him in the rear view mirror.
“Feeling better, huh?” the deputy said. The dog looked back at him, and for a fearful moment, he thought the dog might answer, say something about the water. Had he heard what he heard? Nah, it was the desert. The trickster.
* * *
The dog had never asked anything from a human, ever. Asking for water had broken the age-old rule of speaking to them in their own language, but he was played out with no options left, and the human just squatted there poking him with his gun. The human was the one who needed prodding. Why they didn’t speak to the humans, the dog didn’t know. The story went that countless generations ago their ancestors learned that it was best for their survival to blend in and not reveal their true nature, and they assimilated this into their way of life. Don’t speak to the humans.
“Feeling better, huh?” the human with the badge asked him as he drove.
The dog heard the fear in the man’s tone and saw it in his eyes in the rear view mirror. He enjoyed the man’s discomfort in a mischievous way. Their illusion of control was so fragile.
The dog’s kind had studied humans a lot, and as much as not speaking to humans was ingrained in him and his kind, it was equally ingrained in humans that they were the most intelligent species on the planet, the universe even, and to consider otherwise was blasphemy. Dolphins and whales might have larger brains, but as long as humans saw themselves as the trainers in the water parks, how smart could dolphins and whales be? And on a cruder level, how smart could they be if they were so easy to kill? Humans didn’t accept that a species could be smarter than them as long as they could be killed by them.
The dog had long avoided humans. The insanity of their behavior was beyond his patience to understand, but up close, the human in front of him was nothing more than another flawed animal with enough brain power to be destructive on a grand scale–he eyed the gun on the deputy’s hip–but not enough to be peaceful on a small scale.
That first word, water, spoken to the human had cracked the floodgates. He felt an overpowering urge to let loose with a flow of words that had been dammed up inside him for generations. Maybe the ancestors had been wrong to remain silent. Maybe the humans needed their help.
The dog looked back at those fearful eyes underneath the broad brimmed hat in the mirror and broke all the taboos against speaking to humans. Squinted at the deputy, he said, “Yippie ki-yay, cowboy. Do you practice your fast draw in front of the mirror at home?”
The deputy’s eyes grew wide.
“Love the air conditioning, by the way. It’s a real lifesaver,” the dog said and let out a hyena’s laugh, spinning in circles in the backseat, his equivalent of dancing a jig. The dog stopped spinning and looked in the mirror again. “That was a good one if I have to say so myself, having almost died out there. You know, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you humans. Why do you pee and poop inside where you live? Kind of gross if you ask me, keeping it nearby like that. But each to his own. That’s what you humans don’t get. A bigger bunch of control freaks the planet has never seen. Thank the stars you’re still planet-bound and haven’t been able to get your hairless bums farther than the moon. This way you’re more of an outbreak of fleas as opposed to an infestation, but Earth is definitely infested. Like your scientists are fond of saying, the sign of a successful virus is one that doesn’t kill the host. The outcome of your success is still up in the air. If it weren’t for the fact that you’ll likely take us all with you if you fail, I’d put a wager on it. But maybe I already have just by sharing the planet with you.”
The Tahoe veered into the gravel on the shoulder. The deputy got his eyes back on the road and the vehicle under control.
“Maybe you should take a break and let me drive for a while.” The dog laughed his hyena laugh and leaped about the backseat. “It sure feels good to let it out. I’ve got so much to say, but, dog, am I going to be in trouble with the others.”
* * *
The Anderson household consisted of Mom, Dad, three girls, the oldest being eleven, two cats that were rarely seen, and the family dog, an eight-year-old Lab mix named Pixie that the family had adopted from the pound when she was very young. Pixie was curled up in her dog bed in the living room as the family lined up on the couch with bowls of after-dinner ice cream and waited for the show with the miraculous talking dog to start.
“Everyone have what they want?” their mom asked from the kitchen doorway. “Once the show starts I don’t want to be fetching chocolate syrup from the fridge and miss the mutt burping out a word or two or whatever they have him trained to do.”
The two older kids looked down at their ice cream, complete with green and pink candy sprinkles, and nodded that they had everything, but the youngest shook her head and asked, “What’s a mutt?”
“A dog, silly,” the eldest answered.
Their dad spooned a bite of ice cream into his mouth. “A mutt is a dog that isn’t a purebred and doesn’t have papers.”
“Papers?” the youngest said. “What are papers?”
“Have fun explaining that one,” their mom said to their dad and disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve her own ice cream.
“Does Pixie have papers?” the middle girl asked.
Their dad shook his head. “No, honey, she’s a mutt.”
“I’ll give her my papers,” the youngest said. “I have lots of papers from school.”
“That’s a great idea, sweetie,” their mom said, seeing the perfect opportunity not to have to explain papers any further as she squeezed in on the far end of the couch, book-ending their daughters with their dad.
“Shush, everyone,” the eldest said, her eyes shimmering with the television screen’s reflection. “It’s on.”
The television had all of their attention. Their gaze was either on it or on the spoonful of ice cream traveling to their mouths. Except for Pixie. She was resting quietly, alert for the sound of the spoon being dropped in the bowl after that last mouthful of ice cream. She’d learned that if she went about it quietly, she could lick the bowls clean unnoticed. The voice of the man on television asking the questions was simply more background noise, but the familiar slur of consonants of the one answering caught Pixie’s attention. She perked up and looked at what was on the television.
It was a big wolfish looking dog, and he was speaking. “No, I don’t have a name in the way that you humans have names. You have names for everything. I hear you name your genitalia, is that true? You must have a funny name for yours,” the dog said to the man interviewing him. “No, I have a unique smell, and those who know me know me by my smell. You humans have a very primitive, undeveloped scent organ. One wet dog smells much the same as another to you, but we can distinguish them, just as I can tell you apart from the other humans in this room.”
“I have a unique smell?” the interviewer asked.
“You do. Underneath the stink of your deodorant, the chemical scent of your makeup, hair products, laundry soap residue on your clothes, perfumed toilet paper and hand sanitizer on your palms, and minty toothpaste, which tastes better than it smells, is a distinct scent excreted by your pores that wafts about your person in the form of millions of skin cells you constantly slough off.”
Pixie couldn’t believe her ears. A dog was doing what no dog had done before, breaking the cardinal rule against talking to the humans. He was doing it on such a grand scale she had to admire his nerve. If you’re going to break the rules, she thought, you might as well break them whole hog. No dog eats just half the cake and leaves the rest on the plate. She too was sick of holding it all in, living her life with her full abilities locked away in her crate.
“Dog, I wish I had the nerve to do that,” she said to herself, and when she felt all five of her startled human family staring at her, she realized too late that she’d spoken much louder than her usual whine. She turned and focused on the youngest, deciding to go whole hog. “Sweetie, is your bowl ready for me to lick?”