Otto stretches out on the recliner, hands behind his head with a book on dogs flipped over on his chest, and gazes up into the sky. This is Portland, he thinks, it should be raining, overcast at the very least. But the sky is a vast expanse of blue except for one lone cloud drifting overhead that holds Otto’s attention. A black speck emerges from the cloud, probably a bird, a hawk maybe, though he’s never seen a bird that high up in the sky before.
Otto has the whole rooftop deck of the building where he and his family lives to himself. He’s not supposed to be up here on his own, high above the downtown city streets of the Pearl District, but he comes up here to get away from his two older brothers, Walnut and Peanut, when he wants to read. They’ve grown too cool for reading and tease him whenever they see a book in his lap. They’re all about video games. He like those too, but it gets old losing to the nuts all the time. They hate it when he calls them that. Their actual names are Walter and Peter, and they get back at him by calling him Oddo instead of Otto, but it doesn’t bother him. It’s just a breath over lips, an exhale. It might as well be a couple of birds chirping.
One of the photos in the dog book on his chest is of an army dog parachuting out of an airplane. The dog has on a camo vest like the soldier he’s strapped to and they’re jumping into someplace in Afghanistan. Who said dressing up your dog was silly? Otto thinks it’s the best photo in the book, a dog trusting you enough to jump out of an airplane with you, you can’t beat that. Maybe some dogs are thrill seekers just like some people are.
As far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing cooler than a dog. No matter their size or job, they make a lot more sense than most people. He’s wanted a dog for as long as he can remember, but whenever he brings up getting one with his mom and dad, they have a thousand reasons why they can’t have one.
“A dog needs a yard, and the building’s hall outside the condo door doesn’t count,” his dad says.
“But it’s plenty long for a game of fetch,” Otto counters.
His mom joins in. “They neighbors will love that as much as when you and your brothers play soccer out there. They also shed, stink and carry fleas.”
“But Mom, people shed too. Have you seen the bathtub drain recently?”
“Don’t be gross, Otto,” his mom says, watching his dad rub what hair he has left.
“And people get fleas, too,” he says.
“Yes, but we’re a lot less likely to get fleas without a dog sleeping on our couch than with,” his dad says.
“But not head lice,” he says. Peanut brought that home from camp last summer and they all got crew cuts.
Their reasons for not getting a dog are nonsense and showing them to be so only makes him want a dog more. The only real reason he can think of why his parents don’t want a dog is because they’re afraid his brothers and him will love the dog more than them. Parents are weird that way.
As he watches the black speck on the cloud, he wonders what it’s like for a dog to jump out of a plane. How do they get it to not be afraid? He would be. Over spring break he read a book about men who jump out of planes into wilderness areas to fight fires before they grow into raging forest fires. They’re called Smokejumpers. That black speck above is what he’d look like if he jumped out of a plane. A person would have to be completely nuts to do something like that. What if his parachute got caught in the trees on the way down? Or if he landed too close to the fire? Just how hard is it to steer a parachute? The book didn’t answer any of the good questions.
It’s something his brothers would do. Like yesterday when Peanut got sent home from school for peeing in the bathroom sink on a dare. If Peanut became a smokejumper, he’d pee on the fire on his way down. Even though he’s older than Otto by a year he’s still fascinated by peeing. Their mom says it’s a phase all boys go through but he doesn’t remember going through it. Peanut’s latest is wondering whether zombies have to pee or not.
Otto notices the black speck isn’t moving, only the cloud above it is, giving it the appearance of movement. Maybe it’s a black balloon? But that would be moving with the cloud in the wind.
Ooo, he smiles, maybe it’s a UFO. He’s always wanted to see a UFO. And not just something Peanut says is a UFO. For the longest time, Otto thought the Goodyear blimp was a UFO because that’s what Peanut said it was and that the lights on the sides were the aliens’ way of communicating with us. Otto figured the aliens thought people were pretty stupid because all they showed them were stick figure light shows and smiley faces.
Something about the black speck troubles him. It looks like it’s getting bigger and it strikes him that just because it isn’t moving across the sky doesn’t mean it isn’t moving.
His smile turns into an, “Uh ho.” It is getting bigger and it’s getting bigger because it’s falling out of the sky. As it gets closer, he can make out an object shaped like a big watermelon that’s going to make a big splat when it hits the streets, then he realizes it isn’t headed for the streets below, but straight for the rooftop deck where only moments ago he’d been quietly looking at photos of dogs jumping out of airplanes.
He hears the rushing whistle of its fall and hastens to get up, thinking he’ll run for cover in the stairwell, when he’s stopped by the loud crack of cords and fabric snapping taut. The black watermelon has deployed a white parachute, decelerating its descent to that of a leaf wafting this way and that as it descends toward him. There’s some sort of logo on the parachute, like NASA has on their rockets, though it isn’t the blue circle NASA uses, but what looks like a fluffy sheep ready for its springtime shearing. As it gets lower and closer, the logo looks like a four legged figure in a space suit. No country he knows uses that for their logo, and why would they? It would be like announcing to the world, “Hey, look at us. We don’t have astronauts, we have astro-sheep.”
Maybe it belongs to a foreign government that’s testing their rockets with onboard animals. The list of countries sending stuff into low earth orbit grows every year. Countries like Russia and China have been doing it for years, but now there are also the Indians, the Japanese, the North Koreans and several others he can’t remember. Everyone is eager to mine the moon for helium-3, or land on an asteroid, or even colonize Mars. Like Star Trek said, space is the final frontier. He loves all those Star Trek reruns, but they’re just made up stories like the ones his dad tells them at bedtime, not reality. Reality is reading peacefully on the rooftop deck until black watermelons start falling out of his sky.
The craft is much bigger than a watermelon, closer to the size of one of those dumpsters parked behind restaurants. As the slight wind carries the parachute away from the roof deck, blast of compressed gas shoots out of the watermelon’s sides, forcing it back on course to land on the deck. And that’s what it does. Four skids extend from the bottom of the watermelon as it touches down with a quiet thud just a few feet away from him still on his recliner with his book in his lap. The parachute crackles above in the breeze, blocking the sun like a sail kite, then quickly retracts inside the hole in the top of the watermelon from which it deployed.
The craft isn’t black, but only looks so because it’s covered in scorch marks. This thing has seen some serious action. He should be scared but he’s too fascinated with what’s in it to worry. Even if what emerges comes out with blasters blazing, it’ll be worth it to hang around and find out. But at the first sign that it’s zombies, he’ll be halfway down the emergency stairs to the street 20 floors below in nothing flat. Zombies keep him up at night, but not his brothers, of course. They love zombies, and he’s pretty sure they don’t pee. It’s much more likely that they simply leak.
With a hiss of the air pressure equalizing between the inside of the ship and the outside, a door on its side swings outward and a four-legged figure clad in a space suit much like the logo on the parachute pokes its helmeted head out of the opening. The faceplate on the helmet is clear and inside is the fuzzy face of a dog.
He looks straight at Otto and lets out a muffled, “Woof.”
Otto stares back at the dog and raises his hand in a shocked wave. “Hi.”
He can’t believe it. All that moaning to his mom and dad about wanting a dog and now one has literally fallen out of the sky.
“Where are you from, boy?” he asks, not sure if he should expect an answer or not. I mean, if he’s Russian—they sent dogs into space back in the 60s and 70s—it’s not like he’s going to understand what Otto says, and since he’s a dog it’s not like he’s going to respond with anything more than a Russian woof, and that might as well be a Chinese woof since he doesn’t speak Russian, let alone dog.
The dog sits back on his haunches and uses his paws to release a lever on his neck, then pulls off his helmet. He has big furry ears that pop skywards when free of the helmet.
“Looks like someone has taught you some tricks,” Otto says. “Your ears must’ve been cramped inside that helmet.”
The dog looks at him for moment, then shakes out his ears and pulls the gloves off his front paws with his teeth, then reaches down and tries to pull the boots off his back paws but they seem to be stuck. Otto gets up and approaches him slowly, then opens the latch on the suit’s leg that releases the boot, then does the same on the other leg, and the dog pulls off one while Otto pulls off the other.
“There you go,” Otto says and steps back, then returns to his seat on the recliner.
The dog watches Otto without moving, except for flexing his toes, then fiddles with something on his suits’ belly that opens up the back of it and steps out of it completely. He jiggles his body, seemingly happy to be free of the suit, then jumps out of the ship to the deck, walks over to Otto and sits on the recliner next one over. He stays there staring at him.
Otto offers his hand. “Can you shake, boy?”
The dog stands and shakes his whole body like dogs do when they’re wet after a bath. He has a lot of fur, and his shake fills the sunlight with dander and shedding fur. Otto’s mom and dad would love to add the sight of his fur in the air to their list of why they can’t get a dog.
Every dog knows how to shake, Otto thinks, so whoever trained him must’ve used a different command, or language. Otto offers his hand again and tries something else. “Nice to meet you. I’m Otto.”
The dog looks at the open palm, then lays his paw in it.
Otto shakes his paw and says again, “Nice to meet you.”
The dog growls back and simply leaves his paw in the boy’s hand and lets him move it up and down, like he’s being very patient with the boy.
Otto feels the warmth of the dog’s paw in his hand and thinks, if the dog belongs to some government as their astro-dog, they’re going to want him back so they can poke him with needles and run a bunch of tests on him, or worse. What happens to animals when they return from space? He wonders. It’s not like you read about Lucky the Space Dog’s retirement party and how he lives happily ever after on a squirrel farm chasing the squirrels. Maybe the tests are more invasive and they get dissected. What an inglorious end to such a big achievement that would be. Fly into space only to make it back alive and end up in a bunch of test tubes and Ziploc freezer bags. Well, Otto can’t let that happen, not to his new friend the astro-dog.
“What’s your name, dog?” he asks.
“Was that Russian or Chinese? They’ll be coming to look for you soon,” he says. “They’re probably already on their way.”
Otto feel the deck vibrate though his sneakers, tickling his feet. The dog’s ship is the source. It’s vibrating so much it looks like several ships occupying the same space at the same time. The dog runs to the ship, leaps in and grabs something, then jumps out and runs back to Otto. He grabs the boy’s hand in his mouth and pulls him toward the roof exit. He obviously knows something Otto doesn’t, like how dogs and other animals can predict earthquakes and tsunamis, so Otto grabs his book and goes with the dog. The vibrations intensify, and from the safety of the stairwell, they watch the ship vibrate so fast it fades from sight, like smoke drifting off to nothingness on a windy day. Otto has heard of ships and rockets self-destructing but that’s usually accompanied with a loud boom, not simply disappearing like a ghost ship.
He looks over at the dog. “What just happened?”
The dog looks back at him. A collar and leash hang from his mouth, what he retrieved from the ship at the last moment before it disappeared. He pushes them against the boy’s hand that’s closest to him.
Otto asks as he takes the offered collar and leash that look like any set from a big box pet store, “You want to wear these?”
He barks, as an answer or as a part of a trick, Otto doesn’t know, but he’s getting the feeling that this dog is about more than just a series of tricks strung together, like pull this latch to get this boot off and earn a biscuit. Where did his ship just disappear to? No one is going to believe any of this.
Otto slides the collar over the dog’s head, makes sure the leash is attached and holds it by the loop at its end. “How’s that? You happy now?”
No bark this time, just a groan that sounds more like a cow mooing than a dog, and the dog heads down the stairs, pulling the boy behind him. When the leash gets too tight, the dog looks over his shoulder at Otto, groans again and pulls harder.
“Okay, I get it. I’ll go faster,” Otto says.
The dog groans again.
“Hey, I heard that.”
After going down two flights of stairs, Otto pulls on the leash to slow the dog down and opens the door to his floor. “This way. I live just down the hall.”
The dog strains against the leash toward the stairs and lets out a little whine.
What does a dog need to do when it’s been stuck inside a long time, whether it’s in an apartment or a space capsule? “Oh, I get it. You need to pee. Walnut is going to love you. Let’s take the elevator. It’s faster.”
The dog groans some more but follows Otto onto his floor to the bank of elevators. It’s almost like his groan is saying that the elevators might be faster for the boy, but not for him if he’d let go of the leash and let him run down the stairs. Otto pushes the down button and the dog lets out another little whine and crosses his back legs.
“If I’d known you had to go that bad, I’d have suggested you go in one of the potted plants on the roof deck. You could’ve gotten away with that in a pinch.”
The dog looks up at him and tilts his head to the side, as if to say, “Now you tell me.”
“You’re kind of weird, you know that? Just try not to think of running water, like a mountain stream flowing over rocks,” Otto says as the elevator arrives and the doors open. They board and Otto pushes the lobby button. “But I guess they wouldn’t send just any dog into space. You’d have to be extra smart to learn all the tricks needed to deal with that spacesuit of yours. I bet you earned a lot of biscuits learning to take it off.”
When the elevator doors open, the dog pulls him across the lobby, through the building doors out to the street and over to the nearest tree. He looks up at Otto and cocks his head to the side as if to ask, is this spot okay?
“Yep, that’s where you go. Lots of dogs from the building go on that tree since it’s the closest one to the entrance. It’s covered in so much pee-mail I feel sorry for the tree.”
He lifts his back leg and starts to pee. And pee. And pee… Yep, Peanut is going to love this dog, that is, if they get to keep him.
If he needed to pee he’s going to need to do the other. When the dog finally lowers his back leg, they start their walk down the block. “There’s a park not far from here with some grass you can use, but you don’t want to eat it. It’s covered in pee-mail like that tree, and worse, but it’s good for the other.”
When Otto speaks to him, the dog looks up at him and seems to be listening, then when Otto stops talking, the dog looks away at his surroundings. They pass a number of people on the sidewalk, but unlike some dogs that pull on the leash to say hello to everyone they see, the dog pays them no attention except to give them a quick once over.
They approach another dog on a walk with its person, a fawn colored pug with a squished nose and little ears close to its head that Otto recognizes from his building. Otto smiles at the pug. “Now that dog has a head made for that spacesuit helmet of yours.”
The dog glances up at Otto and shakes out his ears some more.
When they pass the pug, it sits and lifts its front paw to its brow in what Otto swears is a mock salute, as the astro-dog at his side jerks his chin in its direction. Otto doesn’t give it much thought. Maybe the little dog has fleas on its head, but when they approach a Great Dane and it sits and gives a mock salute too, that’s hard to miss. But when they approach a third dog, one of those long-legged retired greyhound racers, and the astro-dog growls at it when it begins to sit and it freezes in mid-motion in a squat, which is even weirder than the two previous salutes, Otto notices. As they pass by, the greyhound’s owner reaches for a baggy thinking their dog is about to mess on the sidewalk. But it doesn’t go. It just squats and stares at the astro-dog over its shoulder as Otto and him move down the sidewalk.
Otto looks down at his new dog friend walking quietly at his side. “Okay, that was weird. He’s still staring at you.”
The astro-dog looks straight ahead, as if everyone is perfectly normal.
* * *
Note: This is chapter one from The Watermelon Has Landed, a children’s story I’m writing. Feedback from you or any younger readers would be greatly appreciated.
Chapter two can be found here: Chapter Two – Big Bird