In the Together Times, after a life of long days alone, either in the closed place outside or on the high soft inside, he got to ride in the moving box to a giant oval inside big whites and run free for the very first time. As soon as the side of the box swung out, he flew, landed, and sprinted until he came to something, like a bush, imbibing the herbal sniff with his snout. Trees made spots of cool on the grass, and he loved to run into them and out of them into the sun. Waves of sniffs, some familiar, some new, came from so many directions. They smacked his snout, or like pee of a recent bark trailed along a place, and sometimes sniffs merged. It was like the faraway small days when he sniffed so many things for the first time. There were sniff posts every so often around the oval with fragrant openings at the top; sometimes at the foot there were savory bits. He loved to run from sniff post to sniff post. Another thing he did was frolic, cantering in a wide arc down the length of the side of the oval and into the middle. Sometimes people in the middle came toward him, bending over him, crouching down to him, stroking him. Sometimes there was a bounce, and he chased it, or another bark appeared and they chased it together, going in rapid circles. He loved these days, when the sun burned into his back fur. Then he got his own yellow bounce. Sometimes She tossed it, sometimes the Boss did, and then it was there every time inside the moving box, and he would jump out and watch for it to fly overhead and lead him to a surprise somewhere. He trotted along with it in his gob as he sniffed the edges of the oval, carrying it into the red berry bush and dropping it atop the raised tufted grass where it would stay while he let his dung drop into the spaces between. He loved to drag himself through the thick, tufted grass to tickle his belly. He trotted further along the hard surface. There were huge openings between the big whites around the oval. What was beyond?
* * *
While the far-off kill was happening, Angie feasted. Thousands of people were dying, but she and Robert could work from home and had no children close by and so were given no extra task than to stay alive and keep away from everyone else. She bent down and kissed the floor of their structure that would last the duration. Every few weeks she strategically foraged at the best-stocked store for dried legumes in bulk, garlic, flour, frozen meat, vitamins, and other reserves. Angie wore plastic gloves and a surgical mask, which Robert kept in the bathroom cupboard in case he was ever called to do emergency surgery. Many shoppers sailed by with naked faces, and then somebody would pass in a gas mask. Back home, she lathered her hands and then ignited candles of thanks. The most memorable meal was the dinner of leek tart and field greens on small, hand-painted flowered plates, yellow pima napkins in hand, under the golden candlelight. The parchment-wrapped flounder in red wine sauce, which crackled when cut into, along with snap beans, got an honorable mention. Angie let her hair grow long and wore the same thing every day. What they used to need, they no longer did. There wasn’t any point anymore in wearing makeup. She didn’t need lunch out to escape the office, or a flute of wine after work. She and Robert had their own restaurant at home. She could jog along the sidewalk for exercise. They didn’t need to spend hundreds of dollars flying to another city to walk around its streets when they had their own streets, which they had not really walked on or even considered for years. Robert and Angie started taking walks in the quad with Cherub, letting him run off leash. Chub pranced across the buzz-cut grass. Angie inhaled deeply the uncontaminated air of the traffic-less streets. One evening she and Robert ran into a young couple they knew from alumni reunion parties who announced they’d eloped in lieu of a planned wedding. It was clear from the high crimson flush matching across all four of their cheeks how they were spending this time. How full of themselves they were.
* * *
Finn was moving; he was raising his torso while shifting his legs sideways into a seated position on the side of the bed. Meanwhile, the Curiosity rover was creeping over the surface of Mars, probing the contours of dirt and rock along Mount Crater. Finn was sticking close with it; he and it were practically one, traveling at approximately the same speed of about .1 miles per hour. Finn rose up to standing, shaking his head to let the blood flow. The squirrel was staring at him from the oak limb outside the rectangular window opposite. Good old Jack. Finn shuffled to the washroom and had a nice piss, delicious in fact, one of the most underrated pleasures of all time. He turned on the computer and settled at the card table. The most recent mission photos from Curiosity’s left navigation camera, on Sol 2773, showed a palm tree of navigation equipment, a cluster of cylindrical black probes jutting in all directions above a rocky plain. This awesome achievement by humankind continued to go unremarked in a world too busy with Netflix and Starbucks, except by him and a tiny subgroup of people. Finn could not understand it at all. Did people not see that Earth was getting too crowded to continue, that they had to find another planet? Long ago it was foretold that humans would overproduce and start killing each other. Earth was worn out, and humans were oblivious. They had to build a vessel, put the right people into it, and send it into outer space. The chosen would be the strong ones, the intelligent ones, the best that the species could offer. They needed to breed and raise the kind of human who could fight to survive and even become an intergalactic species if it should come to that. The rest, the aged, those with deformities or chronic conditions, were to be left behind for the good of the group. Out the window, Finn saw Jack feeding on the lawn with others like him. He knew Jack by the particular ruff of fur at the back of his head. Finn remembered every single animal he ever met, including each roadkill witnessed from Firth to Toronto and back. On News Talk Radio, they were going on about the pandemic. Nope, the pandemic was all very predictable. It was nature’s way of culling the herd. Finn was surprised that people were surprised. Finn stabbed his finger and read the test strip; high but not too. He pulled up his shirt and lifted the insulin pump. The cords were cloudy and needed attending. He programmed an extra bolus. It should be okay for a few more hours.
Now in the Together Times, he and She were joined by the cord. He liked the cord clicking onto him; he bit the length and ran ahead with it in his mouth, trying different possible directions; She told him which direction. Near home, he knew what was his and what was that of the big wack bark or the mincy sniffly bark or the boaboa bark, and so on, the shapes and boundaries varying. If he left his sniff there, it was his. Sometimes the sniff on which he put his sniff faded between the time he sniffed it and the next time, and he wondered if the bark had stopped running. Now and then he would meet a live bark and sometimes one whose sniff he sniffed along the way. A bark sometimes lunged; sometimes he lunged back. She and he sometimes went in the moving box far from what was his. Things ran past quickly. He stood on Her legs to look in a different direction, and Her arm went around his middle. If he stood in certain places, on certain ledges, parts of the box would open, bringing in a scented wind. He loved it rippling through his fur. Sometimes the openings closed up again. The box slowed down and stopped. The side of the box swung out, and he jumped down on the hard surface. He entered a forest of ferns, fronds against his back, musk pulling his snout down to muzzle the marl. Digging, he uncovered a little root which he ate. It was the best when there was a surprise tidbit, and that’s what he lived for. He had to find them, She didn’t or couldn’t see them or smell them. He had to insist on it; sometimes She pulled the cord, and he had to pull back or he would miss his chance. He was strong and had to push on until he found the morsel and it was completely inside his gob.
* * *
As the slaughter deepened, Angie sized up the furnishings. Most of it was from Robert’s days as an antique tinkerer and meant for houses much larger than their 1950s bungalow. Every few minutes, getting up to stretch, Angie made eye contact with the deer hanging above the fireplace and facing the front door that someone had nicknamed “oh Sh*t” for its final pained expression. The bigger older one, the one shot by Darryl age six on Nov 14, 1978, in Otter Creek Co. (per the plaque) was out of view in the den. Angie typed “deer heads” into the search engine to see how much they could get for them, and it depended on the points of the antlers. The bigger one had maybe five points of one inch length, so possibly $150 for the shoulder mount and $100 for the young buck. Could the money and a proposal to put curly willow branches on the mantel counter Robert’s insistence that the heads were better than an alarm system for thieves looking through the Venetian blinds? Chub was lapping water from his bowl at Angie’s feet. He ran to the sofa, jumped up onto it, and turned back to look at her. It was Finn who always said a dog is a great judge of character. It had been a long time since she talked to Finn. Last time, he said he kept the sun’s hours, and it was nearing sundown. Angie scrolled through the contacts on her phone and called, and after a number of rings Finn picked up. There was a long pause, then she heard his round resonant hello and then the faint honking at the back of his throat after she said her name.
* * *
On Sol 2995, Curiosity’s front Hazcam revealed an upsweep of sand rippled all over as by wind, the desert dunes coming to sharp edges and these receding a long ways to the rocky horizon. The crests of the dunes were a bit like the crests of sea waves that Finn used to ride on a Sea-doo in the days before Roxie ditched him. The atmosphere was deadly. Still, Finn would be the very first one out the door. He wouldn’t care if the atmosphere strangled him—he’d made it to Mars. Finn opened Facebook, Finn’s feed, Finn’s herd. Arlo had a hypo, another 9000 neurons gone. Finn typed: Been there, buddy! Everything else was COVID-19. Something about bowing as the new greeting—Haha! They were turning into Japanese. A cartoon showed people licking each other and smiling while waving huge American flags and then dying in a heap on top of each other. Yup. Finn posted the Sol 2995 photo and wrote, There’s always Mars! Sue shot back, Take me with you! He tossed back, I will! The phone was ringing, shrill in the nearly empty room, one wave after another. He picked up. A girly girl voice said, “Finn?” It was Angie. It had been good with Angie while she was in Toronto before she went back to the States. “Still alive,” he said. “We were worried,” she said. “Nope,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones, survived having a third of my skull removed and put back on, and I even wonder if I haven’t survived COVID; been winded since going to the doctor weeks ago.” “Wouldn’t that be a triumph,” she said. “No thanks,” he said. He flashed on way back when they threw a party for Angie’s Eastern European friends; she passed out, and that dickhead kissed her while she was lying there, in front of his wife. Finn was coming off the time with Roxie. Angie was a hard one to read, and he always figured she wouldn’t want someone whose organs were going to fail. He’d be the same. She resurfaced now and then, and a few years ago she invited him to her wedding. Then again, she was not his type. Veronica was his type—that shaved head. Foul-talking Candace. Pippi O, with her hard hat and the fluorescent yellow vest. The farm hands in Ottawa. And the ultimate, that girl who held the leash of that Iraqi prisoner as he sprawled on the cement floor of Abu Ghraib—short and dark, blunt haircut, combat boots, spread-legged. Her name was Linndie England. Finn chuckled. How that had gotten a rise out of Angie when he told her that Linndie England was cute. How did he even know her name?
Then acorns came along in the browning grass, with dried lobed leaves, and the chill ruffed up his back fur and pushed him forward toward spicy sniffs. He ran with the yellow bounce in his gob. He loved to grip it in his teeth and regrip it when it got loose. Sometimes She would try to take it out of his gob, and he clenched his teeth, and no one could take it from him no matter how hard they tried. But when he found vittles in the center of the grass, he dropped the yellow bounce. You could find the vittles if you quickly zigzagged the terrain with snout close to the ground. You might have to dig. Sometimes something hung out of a sniff post, and he jumped up to knock it to the ground. Once he feasted on the pulp of a decaying banana. The sniff of the sniff posts was strong, but the sniff at the edges of the oval between high whites today was intense. He trotted toward it, and the sniff got stronger, making him run faster. He ran through leaves and down a hill. At the bottom of the hill, there was a low brown, not just one but several, and they had the most gigantic sniffs he had ever sniffed. At the top, they were open, and if he could just jump inside he could eat for many days. But they were too high. He trotted over the hard surface and down another hill. There was a ravine, and at the bottom was a stream. He drank of the chilly water and climbed up the bank again and ran along the hard surface. He did not know where he was.
* * *
As chaos broke out, Angie cleaned with unfamiliar precision. On her hands and knees scrubbing in the basement laundry, each linoleum square turned gradually into slate, hard enough to crack china on. The weight of the honed slabs grounded her and the house; their lovely wavelike pattern mirrored clouds in the sky. Through the high window, the tops of the pines tufted over the late afternoon light. Angie stared at their intricacy, and a dark shape arched between two of the branches. It was a squirrel, higher up than she ever thought possible. Robert called down, and Angie climbed the stairs for their walk. At the quad, Chub caught the ball in the mitt of his mouth. Angie walked briskly ahead, looping his leash around her neck, staring at the few other walkers, a man with dreadlocks in a military camouflage pleated skirt, and an older masked couple who made a U-turn when Angie approached, all of them spotlighted against the darkness of her seclusion. Angie glanced back, and Chub was not there. She spotted the yellow ball perched on a pillow of mondo grass at the furthermost edge of the quad. She jogged there, ducking under the branches of the yaupon holly next to the ball, finding only barren underbrush. Angie ran past the bush and to the street beyond the quad, crossing to the ravine and staring down at the creek bed, where nothing seemed to be moving. Chub was deaf, so there was no point in shouting. She made her way back to Robert and asked him about Chub. Robert hadn’t seen him. They were going to have to search from the car, Angie said. “If he wants to run away, let him run,” Robert said. Angie wailed. “Remember Chub is chipped,” Robert said. “Yeah, who’s going to bring him to a vet to track us down?” Angie shouted. She should have replaced Chub’s rubbed-out ID tags long ago. Robert inched the car along the roads, while Angie scoured the pavement and the bushes. At home, Angie looked around the yard, coming up empty. Robert posted on the neighborhood website with a photo attached. It was now dark, and never before had Chub stayed the night away. Robert called the neighbors. There had been no sightings. Angie knew no one to call who would care; everyone who would have cared was at this point dead—except Finn. It had been so long, maybe eight months? since she called Finn. The call rang and went to voicemail. The next morning, she called again and again got voicemail. Angie called again in the afternoon, and on the sixth ring Finn picked up. “Finn,” she said. “Oh,” he said, “I thought” —and he sounded like he was catching his breath—“you were the nurse.” “What do you mean nurse,” Angie said. “The nurse, who’s checking to see whether I’m still alive,” Finn said. “Why would she do that?” Angie said. “Renal” —he caught his breath—“failure, about two months ago; the docs told me I need dialysis; they put in a port, but when I heard what was involved, I had them take it out again.” Finn raised his voice. “I am not going to put myself through all that.” “Please,” Angie said. “All my life,” Finn enunciated, “I said I would never do dialysis; everyone I’ve ever known who did it said they regretted it—why start?” Because I need you to stay with us, thought Angie. Chub wanted to meet you; you have to help me look for Chub. “I love you, Finn,” she said.
* * *
Finn was sitting watching the snow sifting down from the oak branches in the late afternoon from the window across from the armchair and listening to the phone continuing to ring. What did they want, to tell him about a relative dying? Was it the bank harassing him about a loan? The guy in India demanding money or they will arrest him? The caller ID read no name. On the sixth ring, Finn answered. It was Angie. “I’ve been trying to reach you,” she said. “Since when?” he said. “Since yesterday,” she said. “You haven’t called me in forever.” “Everybody else,” he said, “my niece and their generation, uses email, or messenger, you must know how horrible it is to have your phone ring when you’re not expecting a call.” “But,” she said, “you have such a lovely voice; I love hearing your voice; it’s a way of being with you, I do love that, and anyway you don’t answer my emails.” “I don’t know your email,” he said. “You changed your email; you didn’t let me know, why do people do that, change their emails, not telling anyone.” Angie’s voice rose up. “But you replied to my email; I know you did.” He couldn’t stop the honking at the back of his throat. Finn wasn’t sure. Now she was wanting to force him to stay alive on dialysis. Between not being able to breathe and dying, he chose dying. He was done fighting with doctors who said he had not done enough. “Look,” he said, “this is just the natural progression of things, from the time you’re nine years old you know this is the way it’s going to end, in early disability and death; it’s nature, nothing more than that.” “But I wish I could sit down with you for four or five hours to be sure I understand,” she said, “or talk to your doctors; let us talk to your doctors.” “I can’t talk anymore,” he said. “There’s not enough air.” Finn hung up the phone. He sat watching the snow sifting down, waiting for the nurse to come. He didn’t know why Angie was coming back now, asking for something. Indra was coming every day to check on him, and Tamara standing by to pull the plug.
He ran along the hard surface in the dark, his snout seeking hints of tidbits on the wind. A hint took him in and out of bushes. Under one bush he found a smoky bit with small bones that crunched, the pleasure of his jaw closing on them, lacerating them, and swallowing. He sniffed around the bush for a time, for where there is one morsel there is often another, but no. The next bush was empty too. He ran. The moving boxes passed him very quickly in a long line. He turned away from their noise. This was a place like home, and if he ran he might find it or he might find something to eat. It was cold. He continued to run along the hard surface. Ahead he saw people standing on grass, and he ran up to them. A child came at him, and he ran away from her. He was hungry. A person stooped over him, holding him by the ring around his neck, and she was warm, though not the same as She or the Boss. She brought him to fire by the middle of the grass, and he was warm. He could sleep there, but he was hoping they would give him something to eat. They let him inside, and there was a large bark in the entryway who lunged at him. He ran to a dark room and went under a soft like the one he knew. He could sleep under it. But then a child came and dragged him out by the ring around his neck and lifted him up, carrying him. The child put him on a high soft and lay down with him. He lay there still, with eyes open. He was warm and he fell asleep. The child wiggled into his belly, and it was okay. In the morning, the sun came in the window onto him, and he jumped down where a round of food was, and he ate.
* * *
During the period of upheaval, Angie lay still on the sofa staring at the plantation ceiling fan. Could she have really changed her email without telling Finn, like he said, could she have felt she didn’t matter enough to him and done that. She had been running away from her neediness, reaching toward some stability. She called Finn and never changed her phone number, but technicalities didn’t matter; it was what Finn believed that mattered. When Angie came to Toronto for school, Finn was like instant family. Friends had set them up. He picked her up from the airport, laughing slowly and deeply, the tiny mole under his left blue eye giving it a wicked cast. Together they painted the kitchen, the bedroom, and the main room of the treetop flat. They stood out on the little back deck, looking across the rooftops and the sparse city lights at this edge of town. Finn lit a cigar and told her about inheriting his father’s bus company in Firth, finding it run into the ground, struggling, then declaring bankruptcy and breaking free. The only way to get ahead in life, Finn said, was to rack up debts and then pay them off, to lose big and then prove you can right the apple cart. The banging of garbage can lids interrupted him; below, a family of racoons were reaching into the cans with their long arms and tiny hands, flashing eyes up at them in the dark. They laughed, and Angie remembered the landlord warning that raccoons sometimes came in through the open door of the deck. Finn said he’d build her a screen, and the next day he crafted one with cedar wood and tools from his jeep. He was living with friends, helping them remodel their house in exchange for room and board about an hour to the north. Whenever Angie called, he came down to stay the weekend, and they explored a different part of the city. Finn characterized Angie and Finn as drifters alike, she having broken from her dysfunctional family, which had slowly strangled the life out of itself with twisted forms of domination infused with alcoholism, and he holding on by a thread to his, the patriarch in charge of an imbecilic mother and an institutionalized sister and her practically orphaned children, together discovering a new land. Then he took out his insulin pump from under his shirt and adjusted for carbs, and she stared. “Yup,” he said, “I’m a genuine cyborg.” In the second year, Finn showed up with a tiny gray-and-white cat from his friends’ barn in Ottawa, a creature so wild he climbed Angie like a tree. Tramp rubbed his head across her thighs and sat apart, staring at her for long periods of time with yellow eyes. He flashed his tail through the next four years of her life, charming the relatives on her drive back over the country border and into the unknown city where she continued school. Finn found a job at an insulin pump marketing company with friends and was doing well, living with his nephew who had just moved to Toronto. Angie ran, from the date with the guy from the laundromat to one with a surgeon, from her studio apartment to his house, from certification and licensing to the establishment of a practice, on, all the way through the negotiation of a second family, running, still running, until the pandemic hit, and she called Finn and learned that his run had come to an end. Had everything good that came to Angie been because Finn had loved her? It struck her that yes probably, that there are unseen heroes in everyone’s life who are actually responsible for most of their success for reasons never recorded or acknowledged. She reached out to Finn in her mind, as she reached out to Chub in the dark void, injecting her companionship through the ether to where they lay not thinking of her.
* * *
Finn was climbing out of the rover, onto the dark reddish-brown sand strewn over a rocky landscape. Though extremely cold and hard to breathe, the beauty was superb. The light was nearly blinding, and the blowing dust stung. There was no human anywhere anymore to be found. But from the distance, Earth was never so clear, visible in its entirety, round with white land and blue oceans like a distant eye that was looking at him and saying he had made it off before it was too late, a job well done. He felt his organs rupture before he could say goodbye.
Ann Vandenberg has been published in The Plum Creek Review. She made the short list for the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition, short story category, in 2019. Vandenberg is an assistant professor and research gerontologist at Emory University School of Medicine. She received a BA in English literature with high honors from Oberlin College, an MA in interdisciplinary studies from York University, and a PhD from Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.