by Margaret Karmazin
"Please think this through," warned my dear, nosy friend Gabriel who occupied the loft under mine. "They're not your regular doggy, kitty or whatever, hon. They're as smart as a chimp and not just any chimp but whichever one is head of its class. I could so tell you stories about people who got them. And they're impossible to get rid of if things don't work out. The shelters won't take them and you'll go to prison if you try to unload them unofficially. Getting one would be like marrying some horrible person in a third world country where divorce is not permitted."
"I'm just tired of being alone, Gabriel."
"Just sayin'," he said, tossing his head so that his glossy hair temporarily flipped out of his eyes. "These animals have knowing eyes. I've seen a couple and…well, ick. Can't you just get a boyfriend or whatever – hell, rent one or something?"
I sighed. He was probably right but I was thirty-six and tired of the hunt for a partner. Tired of trying to appear interesting when clearly, I wasn’t. I just wanted to come home from work and have someone or something reasonably intelligent meet me, listen to me bitch and accept my caresses before I settled into my chair and turned on the holo. Although maybe not the holo after designing the damn things all day; maybe just a novel and a martini. A regular dog or cat might not fully qualify.
"I've already applied and made an appointment," I told him. "It's tomorrow. I'm taking off."
He dramatically groaned. "What do you have in mind?"
"Not sure, possibly an encat or endog or maybe, just maybe, an endat."
"Seriously? You are seriously going to buy an abomination and bring it home here?"
Maybe I was asking for problems, but the idea of an enhanced, genetically engineered combination dog-cat just blew me away. I'd seen many 3D pics of such but never one in person.
"It would combine the best of both worlds," I said. "The adorable fuzziness of a kitty with the devotion of a dog. What could be better?"
"Oh my God," Gabriel said. "You are not who I thought you were, you're insane."
"I freely admit to being insane," I said. "Please promise me you're not going to ditch me as a friend."
"No, but it will be tempting," he said.
EnFriends was a half glass, imposing structure on the other side of town and I worried all the way there if whatever I came home with would be comfortable in my two person Subaru. "Make room," I told it as it took the most direct route to our destination. The passenger seat whirred back. Would the animal come in a little cage or would it roam free and scare the crap out of me?
"Ah, Ms. Pratt-Winslet," purred the attendant after the satin smooth receptionist sent me down a long hall to her office.
"Just call me Coral," I said.
"Well, Coral, I'm Marita. Please take a seat and would you like a glass of wine? Or lime water, perhaps?"
The woman had a harried, anxious look and I wondered what she was so nervous about. She was quite attractive, possibly Cuban, with large, exotic eyes. I felt a little sorry for her. I chose the water, preferring to have all my faculties intact while I met my new roommate.
"We have combined your personal information and wishes into a composite of what enhanced animal would be most suitable and you are correct - an Endat is the right match. You've read our brochures and so should understand what this animal will entail, but do you have any questions?"
"Well," I said timidly, "exactly how smart is this little being? I mean, can you put an IQ number on it?"
Marita frowned slightly, which hardly made a dent in her own "enhanced" forehead. "That might be difficult to do since the intelligences of a dog or cat differ from our own. A dog, for example, enjoys an entire world of odor that we can't even imagine. It also seems to possess the ability to know when its human companion is on her way home without the use of communication devices. A cat can practically read your mind, as you may have noticed if you've ever had one and it's go-to-the-vet day. It will mysteriously disappear somewhere in the house. But, I understand your question and with our genetic and cyber enhancements, I'm going to give you a rough estimate. In street-smarts, your Endat will have about the intelligence of a six or seven-year-old human, though without what we'd call intellectual learning. By that I mean that its understanding of spoken vocabulary will run to maybe eight hundred words, but it will not be able to write or add and subtract, though there are exceptions. Tonipaw, the Endat of Demi Long, the Olympic long jumper, has performed extensive adding and subtraction."
"Will it know what I'm saying to someone else? I mean, will it listen to my conversations?"
She smiled "Possibly. Would there be things you don't want it to know?"
I laughed, "Okay, let's get this show on the road then."
That was apparently a bit abrupt for Marita as she winced, but I was the customer and her job was to make the company money. She leaned over her desk, spoke into something and soon a door slid open and a white clad assistant carried a startling baby animal into the room. I couldn't take my eyes from it.
"This is your new friend," said Marita. She set the animal on the floor and patted its furry little rump, sending it happily scrambling about. "Go ahead," she said to me. "Don't be shy."
The little fuzzball had kitty ears and a round kitty face but a longer puppy snout. The large eyes were slightly slanted, hazel with a round pupil and glossy with long black eyelashes. The paws were doggy-like and the tail thick and kitten-like, though it wagged wildly. Its fur was caramel with vague brown striping and thick like that of a Birman cat. It opened its wee mouth and said, "Meeeeuufff."
I was instantly in love. Forget humans, forget puppies and kittens and baby bunnies and baby anything, this was better! This was for me.
"I'll take it," I said. "Just give me the forms to sign."
Gabriel seemed to forget all about his former attitude and gushed baby talk all over the animal.
"May I assume then that you’ll look in on her while I'm at work tomorrow?" I said.
"No problem," he said, his face buried in the Endat's fuzzy belly. "A client is coming at ten but who cares?”
What Gabriel meant by "client" I was never quite certain. He performed various types of massage – Swedish, Shiatsu, Deep Tissue and more and his clients were all men. Did he limit his administrations to just massage or did he embellish? He seemed to enjoy a mysteriously high income. I never asked and didn't much care. He was a great friend and would continue to be as long as he didn't imagine he was part owner of my Endat. Already I was becoming crazily possessive about her. I could tell right off that the animal was way smarter than a regular pet. Immediately, she used the litter box (within a week, she'd be using the regular toilet) and she remembered where and when the food was. She looked at me expectantly and seemed to understand my voice tones. She had no objection to bad moods and joined in when I turned on loud music to dance.
I worked for RealAsYou where I designed holo-commercials, the kind you watch in the air over the road as you ride in your vehicle and probably curse at. Or maybe you like them. Mine was the giant croc promoting clean swamps, the hyper blue alien in love with Splash swimwear, the belly dancer flipping Ferber chocolates on her stomach and the intellectual blue jay recommending Crowell Investment.
Soon as I arrived for the day, Tyrus Chang appeared by my workstation as if by magic. "Hey kid," I said.
He was actually thirty-five but I enjoyed rubbing in my slight age superiority, though by now he had surpassed me in the design department. I was losing interest in it anyway and considering a change of profession, to what I wasn't sure. Currently, he was working on a giant female dancer who was to leap and pirouette over Philadelphia if the client approved the specs. Tyrus was looking rather attractive this particular day, which prompted me to butt my nose in where it might not be appreciated. "How come you're not attached?" I said.
"Why aren't you?" he shot back.
"I'm weird," I said. "You didn't notice that yet?"
His crow's wing of hair hung over his eyes and I noticed his fingernails were slightly dirty, which seemed oddly endearing. "Are you a mechanic on the side?" I asked.
"Why would you think that?" he said, completely confused.
He was quite good-looking; I don't know why I habitually pretended that he wasn't.
"No reason. How's the dancing girl going? And what is she going to be wearing? I mean, since her legs will be spread over the city."
His golden face turned salmon. "Underpants, of course. A little flippy skirt. Nothing will show, trust me."
"Oh, I do," I said. "You're very trustable, I can see that." Why did I give him such a hard time? Was I just a mean person?
"Tyrus, guess what I just got."
He looked at me expectantly. His mouth was rosebud-ish for a man. Was he gay? I was pretty sure not, though he'd never mentioned any women and displayed no photos in his workstation. At office parties, he arrived alone.
"An Endat. A baby one."
His dark eyes widened and eyebrows shot up. "OMG, I've always wanted to see one in person. They cost a fortune! What made you-"
I interrupted. "Yeah, a small fortune. But I don't spend money on much."
"You live in a loft in The Expanse. Only people with trust funds live there. Hell, I live with my parents in this huge old monster of a house out in the Glen. And why the name The Expanse for the place? It's weird."
"It's called that since the land it sits on was called that for some reason. I don't have a trust fund; my grandmother gave the loft to me. She never lived there but bought it as an investment and, being old fashioned, after she saw that apparently, I was never going to 'get a man,' she decided someone needed to take care of me and signed it over. She even set up a fund for the yearly taxes. So not many expenses for my pad. Oh, and your parents live in a Victorian mansion, not a 'monster,’ so don't bother complaining about your digs. I know about the wine cellars. Did you forget I’ve actually seen the place?"
He rolled his eyes. "So tell me about the Endat. Did you take a holo of it?"
"Not yet, no. You can come see it if you like, but give me more time to bond with her first. Although Gabriel is trying to steal her affections from me."
"Who's Gabriel?" he said sharply.
"My gay downstairs neighbor," I said just as sharply.
He nodded brusquely, mumbled, "I definitely want to see that Endat," and returned to his creation of the giant dancer.
The name for my pet came to me: Rowena. A witchy name but maybe this Endat would be my familiar. I could use one of those - didn't a familiar perform favors for its master? Bring its master good things? I could use some of that.
In spite of my flippant demeanor towards Tyrus, I was seriously lonely and gloomy. My parents had moved to Spain without a backwards glance once my brother and I were away to university. Brother now lived in Argentina. My freshman year of college I had a short, intense affair with my roommate's twin brother, which ended badly. At twenty-one, I began a three-year thing with my married advisor at university who'd claimed his wife had cancer. Turned out, she was robustly healthy.
Three years after that I had a fling with a fisherman while visiting my parents. Nothing serious. Between then and now, there was nothing but a longish friends-with-benefits thing with Gabriel's physical therapist friend, Jacob, but he had just gone and gotten himself engaged. That was my romantic life in a nutshell. I had grown to accept the fact that I was difficult to love. Adopting an intelligent, superior pet seemed to be my best option for steady companionship.
Gabriel brought Rowena up to my loft as soon as I got home and buzzed him. He was cradling her while cooing and kissing her little squirming head. "I am definitely her godfather," he announced. Reluctantly, he let me pry her from his arms.
"It's a deal," I said. "Her name is Rowena."
"Ooooo, witchy, I like that. I think she likes me more than she does you. Look how she keeps turning to look at me."
"Don't get any ideas," I said. "I need to trust you not to run off with her behind my back."
"Hmmmm," he said.
Like doting parents, we sipped wine while watching her chase and try to bite her little tail, but it was too short to catch. When she tired, she crawled into my lap and sucked on my arm. I experienced a heartbreaking love that I'd never felt for any human and when I looked at Gabriel, I saw the same thing in his wet brown eyes.
Rowena grew fast and her legs lengthened. Like a good dog, she fetched with aplomb, was instantly alert to potential intruders, sniffed at everything, and seemed to worship the ground I walked on. Like a cat, she cleaned herself all over (no need to bathe her), purred happily on my lap, and napped frequently. When I awoke in the morning, there she was staring at me. While I brushed my teeth, made breakfast, folded clothes, did anything at all, there she was. If I told her to go somewhere else, she reluctantly would, but soon returned. Should I come home upset about work, she laid a paw on my knee while staring into my eyes. "Now, now," she seemed to be saying, It was a bit like having an adorable, intensely loving grandma.
"Rowena, get me my reading glasses," I said, and though she was only three months old at this point, she darted to the kitchen counter, hopped onto a bar stool and carefully took one of the glasses' arms in her mouth. As I took them from her, she regarded me with a bright, confident gaze. I had no doubt whatsoever that inside that little body, a soul resided. I swooped her up to cuddle and smother her with kisses.
She knew how to open cupboards, turn faucets off and on and flush the toilet. She quickly absorbed the names of things and could go to whatever object or place I suggested. She recognized herself in the mirror and I swore she said a word, though her throat was not constructed with a voice box. "Who's at the door?" I asked once. She glanced at the wall screen and I'm certain I heard her growl-say, "Gabrullll."
She was fast becoming the center of my universe. I was no longer very lonely. Not much anyway.
Tyrus came over to meet her. It was his first time in my loft. "Why on earth did I never have you here before?" I asked him. "But then I hardly have anyone over, mostly just Gabriel."
We shared a couple of beers and ordered a pizza while Rowena studied him closely, using her eyes, ears and nose and a soft paw on his knee. After she decided he was all right, she jumped onto the sofa next to him and licked his face and neck.
"She has a rough cat's tongue," he said dreamily.
I was looking at his appealing golden column of a neck. Tyrus was definitely delicious looking when he wasn't talking.
"You like her, huh?" I said, but he had his head thrown back and his eyes closed while Rowena continued licking and didn't bother to answer.
At one point, Rowena paused, turned her little head and gave me a long look, which I understood perfectly.
Saturday morning, my door announced the arrival of Marita Esposito, the rep who'd handed Rowena over to me at EnFriends. Her face flashed on the wall screen. What on earth did she want? Spying on me for the company? Uneasily, I let her in.
She looked a wreck. "What's up?" I said.
"I've come here to warn you," she said. "You might not have heard about the new legislation yet."
She glanced behind her like a secret agent in an action holo. "It passed Congress late last night and the President is expected to sign it. Several religious groups put the pressure on some congressmen. This has been going on for some time, an increasingly organized opposition to any genetic engineering, including that to prevent disease. EnFriends is closing down and they're rounding up the animals, which the crusaders refer to as 'abominations.'"
"What?" I really needed to keep up with the news better. "How do they have the right to do that? I own Rowena! She's mine fair and square. What do they plan to do to her?"
Marita large dark eyes shot me a look I understood immediately.
"They're going to put her down? No, no, no!"
"That’s why I'm here at the risk of imprisonment. You need to put her somewhere till the storm passes, and even after that you might have to keep her hidden indefinitely. They’ll come to interrogate you; you'll need to plan what to say. You might claim that you put her down yourself rather than let them do it. But I don't know how you'd prove that if there is no body to identify."
I couldn't seem to take a deep enough breath. "But where can I hide her? She has a chip. They'll bring police, right?"
"Definitely Animal Control. You'll have to remove the chip yourself somehow."
"Oh my God," I said, looking around wildly, buzzing for Gabriel. I wanted the woman to leave so I could get moving.
"This administration is too easily led by reactionary forces, you know what I mean. I'm risking everything to come here," she added. "You're not the only one I'm warning."
I was in a panic. "How long do I have?"
"Two, three days, maybe? They have to gather their forces, send reps out to the various owners or get word to police in other areas where the owners took the pets. It might take longer. But you live only two kilometers from the company. You'll be among the first."
"Yeah," I said, rubbing my forehead, desperately thinking. Meanwhile, as if reading our minds, Rowena had backed off into a corner and was quietly whimpering. I rushed to her and gathered her into my arms. "We'll figure out something," I assured her, but I was anything but confident.
Gabriel appeared at the door and used his own iris ID to open it. "What's going on?" he demanded, glancing at Marita. "Who are you?"
After Marita's explanation, he suddenly turned commando. "We can get her out of here in my massage paraphernalia. I have Valium or things like it. We'll knock her out, dig that thing out of her, pour anything antiseptic we have on it, then put her in the car."
I swear he bulked up right in front of me.
"Take her where?" I said. "Hate to burst your bubble, but…"
"And prison is involved if you get caught," reminded Marita.
I did not want Marita, even if she was ostensibly on our side, to know where we were going.
Gabriel and I stood there silently waiting for her to take the hint and leave. I knew she was kind to have warned us but I just wanted her gone.
"Well, thank you for this warning. I appreciate the risk you took," I told her, closing the door behind her.
"Be right back," snapped Gabriel and I stood there like an idiot until I gathered my wits enough to pack a bag with clothes and toiletries.
Rowena looked around anxiously. Her big hazel eyes questioned me and she whimpered.
Gabriel reappeared with a bag and drop cloth, threw the cloth on the floor, and laid out instruments. He took out a hypodermic needle and motioned for me to bring Rowena to him. She struggled but he had the hypo in her before she could object further and she was out in a couple of minutes.
"Where the hell did you-?" I asked but he waved me to silence.
"Lay her on the cloth," he ordered. He took his phone from a pocket, waved at it and held it over Rowena till it beeped. "This is the place," he said. "Hold her while I-" He didn't finish but picked up a razor, buzzed off her fur there, rubbed the skin with alcohol and in the flash of an eye had cut out the chip. Soon, he had her bandaged and ready to go.
"I am literally awed," I said. "Did you work for the CIA?"
"We gotta get going," he said, zipping the bag shut, standing and slipping it over his shoulder.
"Lord, if only you were into women. I am so turned on now."
Ignoring this, Gabriel said, "I know a guy up in the mountains. Lives by himself, one of those survivalist types. We'd have to signal him somehow or he might shoot us."
Rowena whined. I looked at her adorable face. No, no, pleaded her eyes.
"Anyone else?" I said, madly thinking.
At that moment, a shadow crossed the window and a giant woman's leg passed by. We ran to see what it was and to my amazement there was Tyrus' colossal dancing girl twirling about over the streets, parks and high-rises. She wore flying red dreadlocks and had long tan legs and arms that swirled like snakes. Her little black skirt flittered in the breeze and as Tyrus had assured me, none of her private parts were visible. Classy job, Tyrus.
"Wait…TYRUS!" I said.
"The guy you work with?" said Gabriel. "The kid?"
"Well, he's not really a kid; he's only a year or so younger than me. His gargantuan mansion has wine cellars and lots of hiding places. It's right over the border in the next county, about a half hour from here. His parents are super rich or something. Not sure what they do, but they own a giant place with many rooms for an Endat to hide in. Tyrus hosted an office party there once."
"But why would normal people we don't even know what to risk imprisonment for an illegal animal?"
"Just a feeling," I said. "Let's go.
Gabriel kindly cancelled his client and we grabbed our stuff and jumped into my Subaru. It was Sunday and possibly Tyrus was home.
"Tyrus is running an errand," said his tiny and very proper looking mother. She was wearing what looked like a modest cocktail dress in the house though apparently not planning to go anywhere. "Dr. Chang is upstairs doing his workout." She hesitated. "But do come in and what do you have there in your arms?" She moved closer and stuck out a child-sized, manicured finger to touch.
I opened the blanket I'd wrapped around my little darling. "Meet Rowena," I said. "If I don't hide her, they're going to kill her."
Mrs. Chang stepped closer and turned her concerned little flower face up at me. "Who, dear? Who is going to kill her?"
Tyrus burst in the door carrying four bags of groceries and let one slip to the floor when he saw Gabriel and me. "I thought that was your car outside! What are you doing here?"
And then he saw Rowena and I let her down to the floor. She darted right to him, he scooped her up and she resumed licking his neck as if no time had passed.
"I think it’s outrageous to kill something sentient after they themselves created these animals," Dr. Chang said that evening at dinner after we had explained everything. "Why not let them live and just not make more, if that's the law, but –"
"Zealots on the warpath," explained Gabriel. "They want blood, not just of the animals but of those who created them and those who harbor them."
"I abhor this current administration," said Dr. Chang. "Bunch of anti-science idiots."
"We have a state of the art protection system on this property," said Tyrus. "Tell 'em, Dad. You half designed it."
"And you did the other half," he said to his son. Leaning forward, Dr. Chang described a system like something a James Bond villain might employ.
"All you need is a moat with crocodiles," said Gabriel. "And some boiling oil, maybe."
"She'll be safe here," Dr. Chang concluded.
"An additional problem is, will I be safe where I am?" I said. To be honest, I was terrified.
"We have an incinerator," said Dr. Chang. "I will obtain some sterile ashes, take some of your endat's fur and nails, burn those down and mix that through the ash. We'll claim that you put her down yourself in a little ceremony and had her cremated privately. Give them the cremains. They may test it for her DNA and if so, they'll find it. Get a lawyer and tell him the same story. Stick to it no matter what. I don't think they'll keep harassing you after checking your residence a few times, possibly keeping a watch on you to see if you show up with the animal. And I suggest you appear to be seeing my son socially or however you want to call it, so you have an excuse for visiting here."
Tyrus and I shot each other sly looks while Gabriel chuckled. I kicked him under the table.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," I said.
"I do have an in with a certain senator," continued Dr. Chang. "I'll make a phone call after we're finished with dinner."
"I don't know you, Dr. Chang, but I could kiss your feet."
He blushed but said nothing. Mrs. Chang reached over and patted my hand.
I felt I was losing Rowena forever and that she would forget me and bond to Tyrus. I wasn't certain if my developing feelings for him were true or if they contained a bit of duplicity.
While he silently chewed his food, Rowena placed a gentle paw on his arm, a polite request for a bite of whatever he was having.
My loft seemed empty now, as if everything I did in it echoed from one end to the other. How had I not noticed this reverberation before? No one greeted me when I got home from work. I rebuffed Gabriel when he invited me to join him and ate in silence while nothing adorable placed a paw on my leg or looked up at me with adoring eyes. Nothing warm pressed against me while I slept; no one listened with interest when I answered a call. I ought to become a meditating hermit, I thought. Just sit and stare and let myself feel nothing.
But I did feel something and it wasn’t just despair at losing Rowena.
My door buzzed and I checked the camera. Tyrus stood out there, looking uncomfortable and repeatedly pushing his hair off his face.
I whipped the door open and snapped at him. “Hello, evil person who stole the heart of my endat! I hope you and she are enjoying your romance!”
Travis ignored my outburst and waited to be invited in. I silently held the door open. He was wearing a tucked in navy T-shirt and slim dark jeans. He’d let his hair grow a bit and it was thick and shaggy. For some reason, he smelled like melon. I didn’t know how he really felt about me and didn’t care. I grabbed his hand and pulled him across the loft to my bed where, as they say in certain kinds of novels, I ravished him.
“Well, that was interesting,” he said afterwards. “Especially considering that I came over here to ask you if you might want to move in with me.”
He saw my mouth drop open.
“I know how much you love this place but maybe you could rent it out and then you and I could…well…be a couple and live at my parents and you could be with Rowena all the time. My parents would give us an entire wing and wouldn’t bother us, it would be our own apartment. You could have your own bedroom if you want.”
“But wait, why would your parents approve of their only son shacking up right under their noses with someone like me? They don’t even know me!”
He looked sheepish. “Coral, I am thirty-five years old and single. Their only son. Even though they come off as cool and modern, I know that it eats at them. And what do you mean ‘someone like you’? I’ve was attracted to you the minute I started working at RealAsYou.”
I sat straight up in the bed. We were still naked. “How was I supposed to know it?” I snapped.
He shrugged. “I’m not a very demonstrative person.”
Just then there was a knock at the door. We looked at each other. I quickly pulled a long T-shirt over my head and ran to it. Outside stood two cops.
“It’s them,” I whispered to Tyrus who had come up behind me.
One was male and sinister looking, the other a beefy, blonde woman. “You’re on the list,” the woman said.
I was ready. Like an Oscar winner, I managed to work up a teary face and said in a choked voice, “I got rid of her.”
“How?” said the male cop.
“Put her to sleep with too much Valium and burned her up in a friend’s incinerator. Here are her ashes.” I had a clay pot with a lid ready and handed it over. “Happy now?” A perfect tear rolled down my cheek. Tyrus put his arm around me.
They took the pot, gave me a stern look and said, “They will be tested.”
I nodded and closed the door behind them.
Tyrus and I live in a beautiful apartment in the east wing of the Chang’s estate where Rowena joins us. She has her own soundproof room to escape to should the need arise, easily accessible and behind one of the walls. The sliding door to it is invisible, once safely in place and Rowena knows how to use it herself. My loft has been rented to Gabriel’s friend, my ex Jacob, and his wife and their two very normal Siamese cats. I miss seeing Gabriel every day, but Tyrus more than makes up for it. We got married a couple of months ago without any fuss, not wanting to call attention to our living situation with its soundproof room and all. Fortunately, we never heard back from the cops.
Margaret Karmazin has been published in literary and SF magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, and others. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.
Fiction by Margaret Karmazin:
"My Familiar" February 2020