A south wind murmured through the grass as Kristine looked toward the low hills from her porch. She could see the sign for the Osage Casino down the highway. In the early afternoon light, it beckoned drivers to tempt fate. Shimmering in neon and turquoise, it called them to lose their life savings to the slot machines—to the only industry allotted the dispossessed. The ones who were here first.
Such a small recompense for fresh wounds.
She heard the sound of pounding feet before the dog she had been watching for an hour sprinted past. Isn’t it odd, she thought, that in a world still trying to repair ancient wrongs, something like this comes home with her grandson? That’s what made it so strange—that this world of old wounds walked right alongside one springing from the books and movies she knew as a girl.
Kristine wondered what her father would think of this world: so reliant on things you could barely touch with your hands. More likely than not he would have ignored it. He may have tried to open an app or use a smartphone, just to humor his great-grandkids, but the dirt on his fingers would have made it impossible to work the screens.
The dog bounded like a doe across her yard. Had he ever seen this much space? He ran as if he were trying to collapse from exhaustion—like he wanted to make damn sure he felt in his chest and his lungs just how invigorating running could be. Maybe he was running this way because he’d been trapped in labs and classrooms his whole life. People probably thought it wouldn’t matter if they took him out or not because why would he care? He didn’t have feelings to hurt.
In the vast space of her front yard, however, his instincts—if he had instincts—were kicking in. He rushed weightlessly through the grass like a coyote running a jackrabbit to ground. He rarely sniffed or slowed down. He barely even panted. He simply sprinted back and forth in a whirl of motion, a streak of life on the empty prairie.
Her grandson Isaac said Neo was a mutt. He looked as much. Neo was similar to the hundreds of dogs she’d seen trotting down gravel roads, collarless and matted, when she was a girl. On those bright mornings when her father would drive her to the bus stop in his converted mail jeep, they would always be passing abandoned mutts, distortions of the dogs in puppy chow commercials. They’d be missing a leg or a tail or have cloudy eyes or buckshot in their fur. Of course, this never stopped Kristine from begging her father to pull over and rescue the animals. Until they found Missy though, her crying was unpersuasive.
Unlike those dogs, Neo was sleek and shiny. Fresh off the lot. He was pinecone brown with a snow white underbelly. His legs were gaunt and his ears rose up a quarter of an inch before flopping down along his narrow face. His nose was black like a tire and his mouth opened wide when he ran, showing off a set of porcelain teeth. As he blazed by her, he appeared to smile.
Suddenly, Kristine’s eyes began to itch. She hoped this wasn’t affecting her vision. She took off the glasses and the dog disappeared. She closed her eyes and gently massaged the skin. She would have to remind herself to put in her eye drops later. No use going blind from watching a holographic dog all afternoon. She blinked rapidly and after a moment, the itch was gone. She put the glasses back on and Neo reappeared.
Seemingly tired of running, he trotted to the porch steps and nuzzled her knees. She obligingly stroked his muzzle and scratched behind his ears. Her fingers parted his hair but felt nothing.
Isaac had said Neo was guaranteed to be a friendly animal. Over the weekend, the classroom pet would be Isaac’s to care for and play with, but otherwise it would be no trouble to the host family. Her husband, Arthur, had signed the permission form. As always, she wasn’t consulted.
Unfortunately, as a perpetually forgetful fourth grader, Isaac neglected the fact that he had two basketball games on Saturday and would be pawning the responsibility of caring for Neo onto his grandmother. She told him she was unsure she was up to the task and pulled out the flip phone she had kept operational for decades to remind him she was uncomfortable with technology. Isaac rolled his eyes and promised he would explain everything she needed to know. Plus, he said, the app came with directions.
As she could have predicted, however, after Isaac spent Friday playing with the dog, black glasses sliding off his nose, he donned his uniform on Saturday morning without saying a word to Kristine about how to handle Neo. She would have to watch him with no idea how he operated. Which is exactly what she’d been doing all morning.
The crackle of tires on gravel caught Kristine’s attention and she stopped watching Neo long enough to see a car easing down her drive. She immediately recognized their used AutoChrome with Arthur in the driver’s seat. She didn’t need to know her husband had a penchant for driving to be able to tell a human was operating the car. There’s a subtle abruptness to the vehicle’s movement when it turns or changes speed that is only evident if a human drives. The machine doesn’t need to move quickly. It is pure gradualness.
The car came to a less-than-smooth stop and her husband and grandson stepped out.
“What are ya’ll doing back?” she asked. “Thought you had another game today?”
“He tore up his shoes,” Arthur said, holding a pair of tattered tennis shoes for her to see.
“My foot went right through, Grandma,” Isaac said excitedly. “Tyler passed me the ball and I was going to score but when I ran my shoe broke.”
“They called him for traveling,” Arthur added.
“Oh my,” Kristine said, smiling. The afternoons Isaac spent dribbling on the gravel driveway afforded him few technical skills.
“Anyway,” Arthur said, gesturing at Isaac, “go on and get your other shoes if you want to go to the next game.”
“Kay,” Isaac said. He was halfway up the stairs before he turned around. “Grandma! I almost forgot. How’s Neo?”
She tapped the glasses resting on her knee. “It’s fine, Isaac. It’s been running around all morning. Before ya’ll got here, it was up here nuzzling on my knee. He . . . it’s a cute thing, isn’t it?”
“Teacher told us he is the nicest one she’s ever had,” Isaac said. “But we have to make sure we’re taking care of him. He’s our ‘Responsibility Assignment.’ That’s what Miss Shay said.”
“I know,” Kristine said. “But, honey, there isn’t much to take care of. It kind of just runs around.” He still looked concerned. “Go get your shoes. You’re going to be late.”
“Okay,” he heaved. “But if you have any questions, the directions are on the phone. It’s still on, right?”
“Yes, Isaac.” Kristine said. “No one turned the phone off. It’s plugged in and the app is running.”
“Good,” Isaac said, turning and racing up the stairs.
Arthur stayed on the porch. Though January had been historically warm, he was wearing a jacket and jeans that bunched at the top of his cowboy boots. He propped himself up on the handrail.
“And you,” Kristine started, turning to look at him. “What the hell are you doing driving? I’ve told you a thousand times: the reason we paid for that car is so you and I don’t have to drive anymore. What are you trying to do?”
Arthur smiled. “I like to drive,” he said plainly.
“I know you like to drive, but you know what happens when you drive and everyone else on the road is sittin’ pretty in the passenger seat? You get in a wreck. And do you know whose fault it is? Yours. It’s your fault every single time.”
“I haven’t got in a wreck yet,” he replied. His voice was calm. The conversation was one they’d had a hundred times before.
“But you’ll get in one eventually,” she said. “Everyone who tries to do it themselves anymore does. They say your chances of getting in a wreck go up by about a hundred-and-ten percent when you drive yourself. And insurance doesn’t cover you if you hit someone while in manual.”
“Come on, it’s only Tulsa, Kris. I know the city better than the computer does.”
“Ha,” Kristine burst out. “I’m sure you do.”
“I do,” he said. “And it’s not like you can even drive the thing. When was the last time you set foot in that car?”
“I don’t have to drive it. It drives me.”
“That’s what I’m saying, Kris,” Arthur said. “When was the last time you even let it take you somewhere?”
Kristine was silent. Even before they purchased the automatic she’d stopped driving. You didn’t even put keys in a car’s ignition anymore. They were all screens and buttons—as if the manufacturers were trying to make everything you touched a smart phone. The world was becoming a collection of impossible, rainbow screens that sucked people into their own private universes.
She remembered, years ago, when she and her sisters were gathered around their father during his last bout of cancer. As they all quietly cried for a man who could no longer talk, no longer tell them he loved them, the alien beep of a video game slit through the silence. One of her nephews, sitting in the corner, had his head buried in a screen. He was so oblivious he hardly noticed as Kristine yanked him out of the room and slapped him across his rosy cheeks.
She felt awful for hitting the boy, but the sound of the game was such a disingenuous presence—so artificial and fake. Her father was like the ground: sun scorched and covered in dirt. The tools he worked with were iron and bulky and even her memory of him—rough hands on her soft face—was tactile. When he came home he lay on the floor and let their dog, Missy, jump on him with all her weight, licking him on the mouth with her wet, red tongue. To Kristine, he was the realest thing she ever knew, and her nephew had dared bring something fake into that room.
“It’s cause you’re scared to even ride in an automated car,” Arthur went on. “That’s what I think. But it’s just a car. It ain’t going to bite.”
“I can work it if I have to,” Kristine snapped. “I’m not scared of it.”
“Fine,” Arthur replied. “Think what you want. How’s the dog doing, anyway?”
“It’s alright,” she said. “Just runs back and forth out there in the sticks. It’s like it’s real.”
“Sounds kind of eerie.”
“Not really. They made it look friendly. You want to see?” She held out the glasses.
“Nah, I’ve seen things like that before.”
“Where’d you see ‘em?” Kristine asked.
“Oh, over at Melton,” Arthur replied. “Jeff thought we should try some new training techniques with the drivers. It ended up being a waste of money since they replaced us with automated rigs a year later.”
Kris nodded. “What’s it called again? Artificial reality?”
Kristine turned around when she heard Isaac bound down the stairs. He headed straight for their small kitchen and adjusted the device projecting the canine ghost.
“Honey, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m lookin’ at Neo,” he said. “Can you make sure everything is running this afternoon? I want to play with him after the game.”
She laughed and mock saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll keep a sharp eye on it till you get back.” She tousled his hair. “Now get going. Score a basket for your grandma.”
The engine purred into gear and Kristine waved as the car pulled onto the dusty road, her husband in the passenger seat and Isaac in the back.
It drove smooth as whipped butter.
When the car was out of sight, she got up from the steps and went inside the house. She put the glasses back on and Neo appeared. He was weaving his way through the kitchen, moving slowly as he maneuvered around the chairs and table. He looked at her with bright eyes and opened his mouth wide, ears up at attention. He clearly wanted to go back outside. She laughed and waved him away.
Frustrated, he trotted into the living room and flopped down. She peeked around the corner to see Neo laying on his side, staring at her, tongue out in a lazy kind of joy.
These were sights and sounds Kristine had heard hundreds of times but was surprised she still recognized: the sound of a dog collapsing in another room, disappointed you weren’t giving it attention. The loose hang of its tongue over bottom teeth as it smiled at you—relaxed, at home, perfect.
After years of pleading with her father, he’d finally stopped one day on the way to the bus when they saw a week-old cocker spaniel puppy struggling out of a cardboard box. The dog was missing bits of its left ear and its fur was covered in mange, but Kristine must have looked at her father with a special sort of intensity, because before she even had it in her arms he motioned for her to put the pup in the back of the jeep.
The dog, which she named Missy, didn’t leave Kristine’s side again until she moved out of the house. In the summer, when it got blazing hot, Missy would flop down in the same spot every day and sigh loudly with boredom or contentment. Those sighs always felt like the most relaxing part of summer—a dog on the ground, lemonade in the fridge, air moving so dead and slow a minute might last all year.
After high school, on the day Kristine was packing her things to move in with Arthur, she realized why Missy lay in that same spot every summer. As she bent to kiss the dog goodbye, she noticed the air vent under the couch. Kristine had lived in that house her whole life and never seen it. Clever dog,she thought, stroking Missy’s face.
Kristine wouldn’t see her again.
A week after she moved out, Missy was hit by a car. Some teenager in a Mustang. Kristine hadn’t owned another dog since.
Now, however, with one back in her life, she felt the urge to watch it forever. She opened a window and let in the unseasonably warm air. She wanted to lie down and watch beams of light play with the dust motes dancing around Neo’s eyes. She wanted to lay her head beside him and watch his face burst with joy at the mere sight of her.
A soft bark came from the glasses. Neo had moved from the living room and now stood by the entryway, staring at her. He lowered his head and whined softly.
“You don’t want to go out again, do you?” Kristine asked. “You couldn’t possibly want that.” He barked louder and began hopping in place. His tail thumped against the wall in frenzied joy. She tried to remember that he wasn’t real, to watch for the artificial light in his eyes, but as his tail rattled against the wall, she felt as if the Prodigal had come home.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s get you outside.” She opened the screen door and Neo exploded into the yard.
He sprinted a few wide circles before slowing down to an inquisitive trot. No longer the blur he was this morning, he had started exploring. As if he had learned that there was more to do with open space than run. Once or twice he saw a squirrel or a bird close by and his whole body snapped to attention. He would stalk the animal, then straighten his neck and point his muzzle forward before leaping into the air and coming down like a fox in snow.
He did this for hours and Kristine watched for hours. He really was a beautiful animal. She knew she was confused, but she didn’t care. Whether he was real or artificial wasn’t important, and she’d rather think of him as real anyway. She just wanted to watch him. He was so at ease—a fixture in her yard as natural as the deer at night or the hawks manning her fenceposts. Watching Neo couldn’t hurt anything.
By then, the sun was getting low and Kristine started to doze off, her head bobbing on an invisible fishing line. Neo weaved closer to the house and every now and then he would give a whining bark or two. She heard him only dimly in her easy sleep. She would wake to the sound of his barking and remember what a wonder he was. Then she would sleep again and wake again, remembering his presence. After a while, his barking became continuous.
At first, she smiled and laughed, asking what he wanted. He would reply with two barks. As they repeated this game, however, the barks grew shrill. They became a loud treble, somewhat accusatory.
“What do you want? Huh? Isaac’ll be back any minute now,” Kristine reasoned, scowling at Neo.
He gazed back at her with deep black eyes, then barked again. And again. There became a pattern and rhythm to it. He would start moving—floating like liquid through the orange light—then stop. He would raise his head, look at Kristine, and bark: urgent and succinct.
She put her hands on her hips. What was he crying about?
“Do you want a stick?” she asked. She moved from the porch to the yard and tossed him a twig from one of the pecan trees. He watched its arched trajectory but didn’t budge. He simply looked at her and barked.
“What is it you want, huh?” she asked. “I’m not a mind reader.”
He barked twice. It was low and soft. As if barking had become painful. It reminded Kristine of how Missy sounded when she was ashamed.
“Goddamnit, dog. I don’t know what to do with you,” Kristine said. She paced the yard and the dog paced with her. A cry emitted from the glasses and she looked down at Neo’s pooled eyes. His tail was tucked somewhere between his legs and he slinked along at a crawling pace. He looked at her and barked. She threw her hands in the air.
“Baby, I can’t help you if I don’t know what you want!” she shouted. He barked once. Twice.
By now, the golden light of the afternoon had shifted to purple and evening set in heavily on the house. She looked desperately at the dog. Something was wrong. He was trying to tell her something. The sounds he made were painful—whines and cries. He wasn’t even walking anymore. He knelt down on his paws and barked softly. He stared up at her, the look in his eyes like that of a betrayed child.
“Ugghhh,” Kristine moaned. She stomped up the porch steps before marching back down. “Neo, I don’t know what to give you,” she shouted. He looked lost and scared. His eyes watered and he barked softly—once, then twice. He seemed to bark at the darkness and the plains and he seemed to bark at her for a wrong she’d done. It was as though he knew every sin she’d committed, but whatever she was doing to him now was the worst of all.
But she could wait him out, she decided. She could withstand his plaintive whines a little longer. The boys would be home any minute. She was sure he just wanted to see Isaac.
He barked once, then twice.
Kristine stood looking at the crying animal and remembered the dogs she had seen laying half-dead by the side of the road as a girl. They’d be bleeding out of their ears or have tire marks on them. Her father pulled over for those dogs. He’d take his Winchester 94 from the gun rack and step out of the jeep looking like God himself put him up to what he was about to do. Then he would shoulder the rifle and thumb back the hammer.
Gunshots rang louder in the morning. Kris never forgot that.
Conversely, Neo was dying a slow death, and she was a miserable witness, neither helping nor hastening the process. She walked back up the porch and the wind blew her hair into her face. She started to cry because she did not know what to do and because she did not want Isaac to have to see her bury this dog.
She wiped her eyes and turned to go inside when she heard three long howls. They were drawn out, stretched sounds. She peered down but did not see Neo. He had crawled away from where he’d been sitting. She ran down the steps to where he lay prone under the porch. His eyes were closed and his body still. She fell to her knees.
“Neo! Neo, baby, wake up. Wake up!” she shouted. She reached her hands out to touch him, but there was nothing there.
She cried as she slouched against the broken cross-sections holding up her house. The dog wasn’t breathing. No sound came from the glasses.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw headlights come down the driveway, but all she could do was watch Neo. He lay on the ground, paws in front, chin on the rocky soil, body motionless.
She took off the glasses and Neo disappeared. Only then did she remember she was wearing them. Or that he could disappear. The wind screamed through the yard like a siren and the stars came out. Kristine realized she was cold.
After raising her eyes to see Arthur roll up the drive, she put the glasses back on. It was a glitch, she said to herself. He would be alive when she peered through the lenses again. She looked to where Neo lay. He was still there, resting cold and silent under the porch. He did not move or breathe. She ripped off the glasses and covered her head with her hands.
She hadn’t left her spot on the ground when Isaac and Arthur got out of the car. Before they noticed her hunched figure, Isaac had run up the steps, yelling that he had scored five points but that his team had lost. He asked her if she had taken care of Neo and if he could have the glasses after dinner.
Kristine could not look at him. Isaac stared down from his position halfway up the stairs. He looked confused.
Arthur jogged toward her. “Kris. Kris, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
She was silent. Isaac retraced his steps and hesitantly came back to the porch. Arthur bent beside her. “Kris, what in the world happened?” He put his hands on her shoulders and slid them firmly down her arms. She felt like she would cry again if she did not speak.
“Isaac,” she sniffed, “Isaac, I’m sorry but something happened to Neo. Something—” she paused, “something happened with the dog.” He raised his eyebrows.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know, honey. I—I watched him all afternoon. He was just running around out here and I was watching him and he was so pretty. Baby, he was so pretty, but then he started—I don’t know. He started slowing down.” She swallowed and looked at her grandson.
“He slowed down and then he started barking at me. He would bark at me and stare at me and, Isaac, I don’t know what happened but he is under the porch right now and he isn’t breathing and … Neo died, baby. I’m so sorry. I’ll call your teacher and tell her. I am so, so sorry.” As she spoke, tears ran down her cheeks and into her mouth but she forced herself not to break eye contact with her grandson. He did not blink and he did not cry like she thought he would. Arthur spoke first.
“Oh, Kris, it’s just a glitch. The dog will be fine.”
“It’s not a glitch, Arthur!” she shouted, turning on him. “I watched that dog die. Right here. He is under the porch and he is dead.” She turned to Isaac. “Baby, I am so sorry. This was my fault.”
Isaac looked more confused than sad. “Did you feed him?” he asked.
“Did I what?”
“Did you feed him?” he repeated. “Did you give him his water?” He chuckled awkwardly.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Honey, he’s a projection, he doesn’t eat.”
“You have to feed him,” Isaac said. He smiled at her and jogged into the living room. Through the window, she saw him fiddling with the application that projected Neo. He rushed to his backpack and pulled out two empty dishes, one blue, one red.
“Teacher said you have to feed him because he’s our Responsibility Assignment,” he called. Kristine was silent but her heart beat faster. “It said in the instructions that if he barks once he wants—I think he wants water. Twice was for food.” He came down the porch and placed the dishes next to Kristine.
“He shuts down if you don’t give him enough food or water,” Isaac said. He smiled, running back up the steps to grab the phone. “I’m going to reload him!” he shouted.
Before he came back, Kristine put the glasses on. She waited a moment and suddenly the brown image of the dog appeared under the porch, breathing and panting and smiling. It sat up and drank from the water bowl and ate from the bowl that was now filled with food. She threw the glasses into the grass. Her heart dropped and she let herself loose. Arthur comforted her as she sobbed.
“What kind of fucked up school project is this?” she said.
She put her head on her knees. “I didn’t know,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
Without the glasses, she gazed at the spot where Neo had laid. She imagined him standing and panting, content and serene. She forced herself to stare at the invisible space in the grass. He isn’t real, she said to herself. He isn’t real.
Real things don’t come back to life.