By Jeremiah Tolbert
You can tell the dog owners when they board the plane; they see the black cloud hovering in the first row and their eyes widen in shock, then narrow in fear, followed by a glimmer of a smile, a hope as they glance at so many occupied seats. A hopeful smile that seems to say: “not for me. Not for mine.”
Unease settles over the plane, like a heavy, acrid scent. A few passengers throw suspicious glances at you, and one elderly woman even stops for a moment beside you, opens her mouth as if to speak. You hold your breath. She closes her mouth and shuffles toward the rear of the plane
You breathe again. You try to ignore the man seated next to you. You focus on the safety talk.
When the flight attendant buckles her fake belt, she glances at the cloud off her shoulder, then smiles apologetically at her audience. Like it’s her fault, or perhaps the airline’s? There’s nothing she can do, or anyone else.
You sniff. You smell damp fur. You frown, wondering, perhaps, how that could be? You don’t know what strange links lie between memory and nose, but we do.
The plane takes off smoothly. No one speaks. The television screens are blank. The only sound is the dim roar of air vents spilling stale air onto sweat-damp faces, an occasional cough from economy somewhere far behind you.
The man beside you sits in the aisle seat. His face is not yet lined with age, but his close-cropped hair has gone grey at his temples. He has kind eyes. He wears a dark gray suit and takes a white pocket square to dab at his forehead. He sees you watching him, winces.
“Sorry,” he says. He nods his chin towards the swirling cloud in explanation. Looks down at a leather wallet, unfolded, revealing a photo of a beautiful golden retriever, fur like the sun.
“How old?” you ask.
“I don’t know,” he says quietly. Conversations like this are breaking out all over the plane now, softly, the tension breaking, finding cracks in the public facades and running in rivulets like water leaking from an overflowing rain barrel.
Two middle-aged women strike up a conversation three rows behind you about her new puppy. Further back, a small boy begins to cry, but his mother placates him quickly with a stuffed animal that smells faintly of canine saliva.
We breathe in the smell, analyze it, weigh the factors. Too soon to join us.
The man continues to explain. His hands twist the wallet as if he means to wring moisture from it like a towel. “Isn’t it ridiculous? I know—I know Cleo’s old. I can’t remember exactly. Twelve? It has to be twelve . . . we got her three years after Thea and I married . . . and we’ve been separated now four years?” He pauses. “Twelve is . . . good. That’s old for a purebred retriever, I think.”
Maybe it is, but he doesn’t believe it. No one believes that, but they all say it.
“I’m sure she has years yet to come,” you say.
He flinches. “I could have done better,” he half-whispers. Forces a smile. “I travel so much. I was trying to count how many days in the boarding kennel this year. Do you travel a lot?”
You shake your head. Change the subject. It’s easy to deflect people back to their favorite subject: themselves. You would rather not talk about yourself today. We can see the fear in you still, even now, years after.
“So you have full custody?”
He laughs, a little bitterness in the sweet. “Thea hated Cleo. We got her together, but Cleo was my dog. I guess I just wanted someone to be happy when I got home.”
He blinks. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess you have one of those sympathetic faces. I’m Johann, by the way.”
You hesitate, and his eyes widen slightly, nostrils flare. You’re flustered for a moment because he’s seen the hesitation so readily, but you continue forward with the deception.
”Laura.” You give him the new name, the lie.
We are sad.
The flight attendants pull the drink cart to your row before he can speak again. The woman from the presentation hands you each a paper napkin. You do not see it, but her lapel is covered in short cat hairs, grey, male, twenty six months old. Not our responsibility, but we notice them.
“Under the circumstances, we’ve decided to make this flight an open bar,” she says.
“Won’t you get in trouble with the airline?” you ask.
The attendant shrugs and smiles. “What would you like?”
Johann orders a vodka martini.
“Well, the only alcohol I really care for is champagne, but . . . I’ll have a diet soda,” you say quickly, flushing red. The attendant pours your drink, leaves you the can.
As you sip, the only sounds in the cabin are the creaking of the cart’s wheels and clinking of ice against ice and plastic cups, fizzing drinks buzzing in cups—we have a memory of summer bugs dancing around a lamp shade in the next room—an analogous sound.
You glance up, just to be sure the cloud is still there. It is, of course. You’ve given up thinking there is something you can do about them. They are natural phenomena now, people say. Like rain, or the influenza.
People don’t understand why you made us. We smell their fear always. We would howl with the shame of it sometimes, if we could.
“What do you do?” you ask. “That you travel so much, I mean.”
“It’s very boring,” he says. He has loosened his tie and his cup only contains ice now. “I work in provisioning acquisitions for a small telecommunications company in Denver.”
“So you’re headed home then,” you say, nodding.
He brightens at this, as if he hadn’t realized yet his destination. “Yes, I suppose I am. You?”
You shake your head. “I’m in New York.” Your eyes flicker downward as you ready another deflection, but his attention is on the photograph in his wallet again.
With sudden determination, he takes a pair of net specs from his pocket and begins to gesture. “There,” he says, voice crisp with satisfaction. “I’ve booked my first vacation in two years. I’ll take Cleo for walks, and . . . I don’t know. If the reaper cloud is here to follow me, we’ll use whatever time we have left.”
You smile at his gesture, but without reversing nature itself, he will never think the time was enough.
He continues: “They say that it’s a horrible thing for a parent to outlive their children, but nearly all pet owners outlive their pets. It’s this common grief that nobody talks about. I wonder why?”
“Do you have children?” Not your most elegant attempt to change the subject. You don’t want to talk about dogs anymore. We see you are paler now, from the strain of it. Two hours left to go on the flight, and the thought of spending it talking about mortality and love and dogs fills you with an animal panic, sends your heart racing above 100 beats per minute, forms microscopic beads of sweat on your bare arms. Your hand reaches into your pocket to feel for the plastic bottle of sedatives there. We smell its composition, cringe. You use its touch as a totem, to calm yourself.
You had a rock once that you used in the same calming manner when you were little. We wonder where it is, whether you still have it?
“No kids,” Johann says. “Nobody to hurt in the divorce except consenting adults. Cleo didn’t seem to notice anything was different.”
Someone’s feet shuffle on the carpet, coming up the aisle behind you. You look up, and a large, overweight man in a black suit looms over you both. His hair has thinned, but he combs weak strands over his crown, fooling nobody. His eyes are red, and you can smell the whiskey on his breath even with Johann in between.
He is a bad man. Hackles would raise, if only.
“Yeah,” the bad man mutters. He turns to face the rest of the plane and raises his voice. “I thought it was her. It’s her, everybody! That thing is her goddamned fault.”
Johann glances at you, glances back at the stranger, face neutral. “You should go back to your seat,” he says, voice quiet and full of menace, like a dog’s low growled warning. We love him. Nice man. Good man.
The attendants are hurrying from the front of the plane, and you tense, hopeful they will stop him before he speaks again, but they are not in time.
“Christina Mueller! It’s her fault that fucking reaper is here. It’s probably following her.” He lurches a bit with air turbulence. “Come on, don’t none of you read the news? Doctor Harris Mueller’s daughter? Or are you a bunch of transhumanist assholes like her father?”
You whisper something to the bad man, but the attendants have arrived, and Johann had stood and is shoving him back now, and your words are lost in the commotion. Lost to everyone but us.
“I’m sorry,” you said. Not to worry; it wouldn’t have mattered even if he had heard you. We know much about the infinite cruelties of people.
Johann apologizes and the attendants apologize. The drunk man is seen back to his seat. The conversation on the plane has turned now, the heat of the passengers’ anger on the back of your neck must feel like the sunburn you got at the beach when you were eleven.
“So not Laura?” Johann asks. He seems curiously calm. Your pulse races again.
“It really is my name now,” you say quickly. “I changed it. I’m sorry about that man. It happens sometimes, especially when I’m seen near one of them. I travel so rarely because I don’t like to be near the clouds. People are good at drawing the connection then.”
He relaxes back into his seat. Thoughtfully crunches half-melted ice between his teeth. He chuckles. “That’s why I was so open with you. I recognized you from the news. You’re a few years older now, but I recognize you.”
“I can ask the attendant to move me—” you begin to say, but he shakes his head quickly.
“I’m not upset. I’m just putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” he says.
“You might be the only person on this plane who isn’t angry at me,” you say. You fight it, you try so hard not to, but finally you begin to cry.
We wish we could take away the hurt. Instead, Johann offers you his pocket square and waits for the emotion pass. You daub away the tears, sniffle.
“It’s not fair that they blame you. You were just a girl,” Johann says softly. “I don’t know what they’re so upset about anyway. The reapers don’t kill.”
“Even so, very few people like to be reminded of their own mortality,” you say. “And nobody likes being reminded of the mortality of their beloved pets.”
He nods and finishes the rest of his ice. The attendants pass by offering more drinks, but they don’t stop at your row now.
“I was angry when people took it out on me at first, but I understand better now. It was my fault. Yes, I know my father created them, but I retasked them, and worse, I let them escape. What is it they called me in that horrible movie? ‘The scientist’s daughter who refused to let her dog die.’”
He frowns. “What was your dog’s name?”
“Daisy.” We are so pleased to hear you say it now. We would dance, if we could.
Johann puts his hand on yours, pats once, then withdraws it. You stare at your hand. How long has it been since you have let anyone touch you, we wonder?
You sniff and look at the cloud again. The nanites of the cloud flash and sparkle, catching bits of light as the plane banks and the setting sun shines through the windows. Then you see the couple whispering and gesturing your way across the isle, their sneers, and you look away.
“How do they know?” he asks, breaking the silence. You’re confused by the question first, thinking that he meant the couple, but no—he means us.
“When something is going to die.”
“It’s not hard to predict the future when the event you are predicting has a 100% certainty of occurring,” you say, then sigh. “Sorry. It’s probabilities. Environmental factors. Biological indicators. You know they’re wrong sometimes? They’ll hover in waiting near a sick dog, and the dog gets better. Then they wander off in search of another, follow some other poor soul home and the cycle of fear and sadness starts all over again.”
“They can be wrong? I didn’t know.” The hope in his voice is almost enough to break your heart. But your heart is stronger than you think. We have known it well, even if you have forgotten.
“Not often enough to provide hope, but I’ve read about it,” you say hesitantly. “Maybe once in every half million cases? I wish they were never wrong at all.”
“Never wrong? Why would you wish that?”
“Because of what you just did. People pin their hopes and dreams on worse odds to win the lottery.”
“That’s something, though,” Johann says. “Surely . . . ”
“It’s not inevitable that you will win the lottery,” you snap. “It’s inevitable that Cleo will die.
“I think it cruel now; domestication, I mean. We have bred dogs for ten thousand years and with each generation we have burned a need to love us into their deepest selves. That fear, that hope you just felt—that is what led me to do what I did. I hoped that death could be cheated, and in hoping, I created something most see as monstrous. All dogs die, Johann; Daisy, Cleo, and every other dog since wolves gave up their wild ways to sit beside our fire. And the wolves died before that, and whatever came before wolves. Everything dies, and not even the reapers change that.”
“You could have been a poet, with words like those,” Johann says, a little coldly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be cruel.” You shake your head and sigh. “Poetry exists for the same reason all other art does.”
“Fear of death. Our own, mostly, but for others too,” you say. You voice has grown hoarse from all the talking and no water to soothe your throat. You have talked more with this man than you have talked with anyone in a very long time.
“Is what the reapers do truly death?” Johann asks. You believed the opposite; that it was another form of living, but what do you believe now, we wonder?
“They record, they integrate,” you say. “I don’t know what it is. All I know is that death is inevitable and we suffer by denying it. We suffer from accepting it. The reaper clouds force both, and the suffering is just too damned much anymore.
“And if death is inevitable,” you whisper, “then you might as well get it over with.”
A lull. The plane is quiet again. So many scents in the recycled air now, like crumbs of food trailed behind little children.
“What will you do in Denver?” Johann asks, pretending not to have heard your whisper.
You smile, pause to concoct a lie, eyes tilting heavenward again, so obvious a tell. “I’ve never seen the Rockies.”
He looks in your eyes for a long, painful moment, seeming to consider whether he will pretend too, or refuse.
Then he surprises us.
He finally says: “They make the Catskills look like foothills. Would you come with me on a hike? I know a wonderful trail near Boulder.”
You close your eyes. It’s a game you would play as a girl with your father, to see who could go without answering when a question hangs in the air like a ball thrown high, in that moment when it reaches the apex of the arc, weightless, immune to gravity. So long as the question hangs in the air, all answers are possible.
But the ball must fall. The dog must die. The question must be answered. Johann is good at this game, better than you. He waits without speaking, until you realize you must.
“I would like that,” you say finally, committing to the lie and making it real. Your scent changes subtly, wonderfully.
“But . . . ” you say. You open your eyes to see his answer.
“What if the cloud follows you home? Will you still want to see me then?”
He does not hesitate. “Yes. It hurts to be reminded of the things we don’t want to think about, but you are not the reason death happens. You know that, right?”
We would sigh if we could. Instead, you smell wet fur again.
When the plane lands, you stay in your seat, allowing the other passengers to filter off first. Many passengers look over the shoulder towards the cloud as they pass and breathe great sighs when we do not follow them, relief made audible with lungfuls of sweet mountain air.
Johann sits besides you also. When you are the last on the plane, and we have not moved, he stands, taking his bag from the overhead compartment. His hands shake. His right leg wobbles. You see his pant leg has ridden up, exposing a bare, pale calf muscle. You stare at it and smile.
In that moment, you see something that changes you. Something hard softens again. Another subtle change that only we can see.
He straightens the cloth and turns to offer you a hand.
We have no voice, only thought, and so we think to you, though you cannot hear us. We are Daisy, and so many more. We don’t know what we have become, but we know that we love you still.
We wish the probabilities had aligned against poor Cleo so that we could see what happens in your life next; so few opportunities are granted us to see you.
We wonder, will our work ever be over? Will we move on from this to another kind of existence?
What comes next?
Will we ever sit beside the fire again, feeling warmth on our fur, your gentle hand on our back? We don’t know, but it’s a pleasant dream to keep us occupied while we perform the task you set for us.
You and the nice man Johann walk together out of the plane and into the terminal. You must look back for us, but we do not see it. We wait for the pilot to leave the cockpit. We will follow him home to bear witness to the death that comes soon, to welcome another into our pack.
It is so faint, so distant, that we are not sure we hear the words when you speak them so far away. Even if we imagine them, they stir a thousand million phantom tails.
About the Author
Jeremiah Tolbert is a web designer and a writer living in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son.
He writes science fiction and fantasy. His work often places an emphasis on working class characters and how genre elements impact their lives. It’s predominantly optimistic about science, and is often set in the Midwest, generally, and his home state of Kansas, specifically.
About the Narrator
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.
His full-time day job is as Marketing and Volume Purchasing Program Coordinator for Smoky Hill Education Service Center in Salina, continuing his career of putting his talents to work in support of education.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.
You can also hear his narration and audio production work on two mediocre Audible audiobooks, and as a regular producer and occasional narrator for The Drabblecast.