by Renee Carter Hall
"Come on, Rob, you've gotta see her!"
I let Brian drag me into his room, which looked like even more of a disaster than usual. It used to be my room, but when I left for college I swapped with Bri. Made his century. His old room was small, but I figured if I could live in half a dorm room, I'd be okay anyplace.
At first I had my eyes on the floor, picking my way over the sharp, jumbled layer of toys that covered the carpet. And then I looked up, and I saw her sitting on Brian's bed.
So many thoughts flew into--and out of--my head. It was hard to do anything but stare. She was the first one I'd ever seen.
She was a collie. Or she was part collie, or something that looked like a collie. I wasn't sure how they bred them. Or made them...
"Her name's Jenna," said Brian. "Jenna, this is my brother Rob. You know, the one I told you about."
"Yeah, well," I managed, "don't believe everything this squirt says about me."
She smiled. "Nice to meet you."
Her voice was quiet but bright, as though she were always on the verge of laughing softly and kindly about something. Her eyes were bright, too: bright blue, an almost unnatural cerulean. She wore a short, sleeveless summer dress of the same color, her tail fanning out from a slit in the skirt. Silver sandals traced lines over her dainty white feet--well, paws. I found myself wondering if she had pads on her feet like a regular dog. Her hands were slender and lightly furred; she wore no jewelry other than a silver band around her neck. A small, thin disc dangled from the band, reflecting the light onto her brown-and-white fur.
"Isn't she great?" Brian interrupted my observation.
"Yeah, sport, she's pretty cool." I felt weird talking like she wasn't there, but she didn't seem to mind.
"Brian!" Mom called from the living room. "Go get washed for dinner and then come set the table."
And then Jenna and I were alone. She stood and started straightening up the bed, then picked up a few toys and put them away.
"So..." I didn't know where to start. "What are you, exactly?"
She looked surprised. "I'm a SAC. Sentient Anthropomorphic Companion. Your parents accepted me from the agency a month ago."
"No, I mean--what are you to us? A pet, a babysitter, a live-in nanny? A slave?"
"None of those, really. But parts of all of them." She shrugged and tossed some dirty clothes onto a pile. "I'm a companion, so I do what I can. I help where I can."
"Do Mom and Dad own you?"
She thought for a moment. "In a sense, yes, much like an adopted child is owned."
"But could you leave if you wanted to?"
She looked slightly puzzled at that. "Why would I want to leave? I love your family. Brian's especially close to me," she added. "He's really missed you since you've been away."
"Of course. He's always talking about you."
"You're his big brother." She picked up several crayons strewn over his desk and slipped them back into their box one by one. "He looks up to you. I can understand that."
"Do you have a family?"
"Yes. Yours." When I opened my mouth again, she added, "I'm engineered. I grew up--very quickly, by your standards--at the agency's complex. And so far, SACs haven't been able to reproduce naturally."
That kind of surprised me. She was obviously female--her breasts made gentle rising curves in her dress--but I wasn't about to ask if the equipment was all functional.
"So if you're not exactly a pet or a slave, then what's the collar for?"
She looked embarrassed. "It keeps me within the designated area. It's really unnecessary in my case, but I have to wear it anyway. Agency safety protocol."
"Sounds like you're a prisoner."
"I can see how you'd think that. But Brian can't go wherever he pleases, either."
"Bri's a kid. And you're an adult--aren't you?"
"Of course I am." She shook her head. "I told you, it's complicated. Anyway, I'm allowed one day a month off-system, when I can take this off"--she touched the collar--"and go wherever I want."
There was silence then, and I felt kind of guilty about firing so many questions at her. It wasn't her fault I didn't know anything about the agency, or what a SAC was, or how anything worked. "Look," I said finally, "I don't mean to give you the third degree or anything. It's just that I've barely heard about SACs, and what I've heard on campus is all activist stuff."
She frowned slightly. "Activist stuff?"
Mom called us to dinner, and I continued as we went downstairs to the eat-in kitchen. "Like equal rights and that SACs are just animal slaves... but I never really got into any of that."
"Too busy partying, huh?" She didn't smile, but there was a playful gleam in her eyes.
"Bri told you that?"
She shook her head, then said softly, "I've heard your parents talking. They've been worried about you."
"Hey, it was only on the weekends." Mostly. Thank God I'd been able to pull through finals.
She gave me the same look that Kara used to give me: kind of disapproving, but not wanting to push it. Jenna's look was different in one way, though. It was like she wanted to say more but respected my choices even if they were stupid ones. That was something I'd never seen in Kara.
Kara... She'd said just before I left that she still loved me. She said that was why we had to break up. She couldn't just stay with me and watch me throw myself away on stupid parties and stupid friends and stupid binges. She wanted me to be more. And that was why she wanted out. She just didn't have anything else to give.
I'd like to say that it hurt, but it really didn't. I missed her, but I knew she was telling the truth, about everything. Hell, I didn't want me to be who I was.
So the summer was going to be different. I was going to be somebody Brian could look up to. Maybe work for awhile, start over, rebuild myself. It was over with Kara; I didn't have any illusions about that. But in a weird way, I wanted the new me--or the old me, really, the way I was before I went away to school--to be kind of like a tribute to her, to how she kept trying until she couldn't try anymore. There was something noble in that, and I wanted to honor it.
Brian chattered away all through dinner, just like I remembered. How much fun the summer was going to be, all the stuff he was going to do, or I was going to help him do. I envied him. I envied the way the summer stretched so endlessly in front of him.
I looked across the table at Jenna. She was listening to Brian, but then she looked at me, smiled, and glanced away again.
"Well," Dad said, when he was finally able to get a word in, "we've got two weeks off starting Saturday. What do you say we go up to the lake and stay at the cabin for awhile."
"All right!" That set Brian off again. "You'll love it, Jenna, it's so cool. We can go swimming, and fishing, and--you can swim, can't you?"
"Dog paddle." She smiled at me as she said it.
* * *
Some things really don't change. The cabin was just the way it had always been, all those summers past. We called it a cabin, but really it was more of a huge A-frame chalet, with big porches, and lots of windows to reflect the lake. The pine trees around the lake were a little taller, but that was the only change.
It had been a long drive up, so there wasn't much sun left, but the evening was warm. I tossed my clothes in the dresser, dug out my swim trunks and a towel, and walked the length of the wooden dock. Jenna was sitting at the end, her legs dangling. She was wearing a purple one-piece suit--and the collar, of course.
"It's so quiet," she breathed as I sat next to her. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah, it is." I touched the disc on her collar. "Is that thing waterproof?"
"Well, what're you waiting for?" I dove in, surfaced, and looked up at her.
She laughed and jumped in. I swam out to the platform that was moored farther out in the lake. When I climbed up the little algae-slick ladder, I looked back and saw Jenna following. Dog paddling, just as she'd said.
I lay on my back and looked up at the sky. The sun was down, and a few stars were starting to come out. I was just wishing I'd thought to put on mosquito repellent when I felt the platform bob slightly, and Jenna climbed on.
I couldn't help chuckling.
"Nothing," I said. "You just--"
"I just what?"
"Well, if you must know, you look like a drowned rat."
She grinned and shook herself, splashing me. "How's that?" She laid down beside me and sighed.
"So Mom and Dad were worried about me?" I asked finally.
"Yeah. About your grades, and that they spent more time talking to your voice mail than to you."
"I answered their emails. Sometimes. Besides, I was busy. I had a life."
"Did you?" It wasn't a challenge, the way she said it, but an honest question.
"Well..." I wasn't sure how to answer. "I thought I did. Maybe I didn't have the right one."
There was a pause. "You didn't answer Brian's emails, either."
That stung. I didn't say anything else for awhile. I thought about getting back in the water, but decided not to. "What was it like, where you grew up?"
Jenna thought for a moment. "Busy. They would call it efficient. And sterile. Not crowded, since there still aren't many of us at any one time. Each one of us had an assigned caregiver, so we got a lot of attention."
"Do people ever accept... um... children? From the agency?"
"Only in special cases. There are still a lot of things to work out. And most people want regular children, anyway."
"I was wondering..." I stopped. It didn't seem like the kind of question I should ask.
"Well... If you were for Brian, why didn't Mom and Dad get... Why a female?"
"Most SACs are female right now. It's harder to engineer males, and so far, female temperaments are better for a SAC's purpose." Her voice was quiet.
After that, we just laid there for awhile, enjoying what I call lake silence, the kind that isn't empty but full of peace and owls calling softly and the velvet wrap of the darkness. And then, when it got too late and too cold, we swam back to the dock, toweled off, and went inside.
* * *
"Rob?" A knock on the door.
I squinted into the bright sunlight. I'd forgotten to close the blinds the night before, and my room was flooded with morning sun.
The door opened, and Jenna peeked in. I grabbed for the sheets--at least I'd worn my boxers to bed. She smiled. "Morning, sunshine. Breakfast is ready."
I took a quick shower and threw on cutoffs and a tank. If it had been just my family downstairs, I would have gone down in just the boxers, but I wasn't quite that comfortable with Jenna yet. And I wasn't sure I wanted to be.
Breakfast certainly was ready: blueberry pancakes, bacon, eggs, toast, coffee, fresh juice... I don't know whether it's the vacation time, fresh air, or huge kitchen, but Mom tends to go a little overboard with breakfasts at the lake.
I noticed Jenna wasn't wearing the collar. "Day off?" I asked, gulping my juice.
She looked up from her mug of tea. "My first one. I was thinking about going into town for awhile."
Dad stirred more sugar into his coffee. He drank the stuff sweet enough to attract hummingbirds. "I don't know if that's a good idea."
"Why not?" I asked.
"This is a very quiet little town. I don't know if any of them have seen a SAC before. They might not be entirely friendly."
"I could go with you," I offered, looking back at Jenna. "I mean--if you don't mind, with it being your day off."
"I don't know--" Dad started.
"Dad, come on. I can take care of myself."
"Well, then it's up to Jenna."
"I think I'd like the company." She smiled at me, and I found myself smiling back.
* * *
The town was old and, as Dad had said, very quiet and small, but it was still kind of an interesting place. We parked the car in a field that was half grass and half gravel, then started exploring, strolling by a grocery store, a pharmacy, a pizzeria, and a video store with sun-bleached posters of last year's movies.
Finally we wandered down to the end of the street, to the houses that some people have made into shops. A couple were junk shops masquerading as antique emporiums. Another sold cheap T-shirts and souvenirs.
The last was a used book store. I pushed the screen door open and held it for Jenna. Inside it had that particular smell of old books--kind of musty and warm, but not bad. A fan in the window was trying to stir the air, but it wasn't having much effect. I glanced at the guy behind the counter. He stared at Jenna for a moment but, to his credit, didn't say anything.
We browsed through the books for awhile. A lot of them were bad horror novels or worse romance novels, dime-a-dozen stuff. Beside me, Jenna gave the fantasy section a once-over.
I managed to find a few poetry books tucked into the corner of one shelf, strangely next to the cookbooks. Jenna glanced my way.
"I didn't know you read poetry."
I took down a slim volume and leafed through it. "Yeah, well, it wasn't something I was going to advertise to my friends. Their concept of poetry doesn't go beyond X-rated limericks."
"Do you write any? And I don't mean the limericks," she added, seeing me about to reply.
I slid the book back onto the shelf. "I used to write a little. Trying to be the next great poetic drunk, I guess. Mostly it was just stupid stuff for my girlfriend."
"I bet she liked it."
I shrugged. "I guess she did. She never really said anything about it."
"Maybe you should ask her."
"It isn't that easy. Besides, we broke up."
"Oh," she said softly. "I'm sorry."
We left the store. Outside, clouds of gnats swarmed around us. My shirt was sticking to me from the humid heat, and Jenna was panting slightly, an odd sound that I couldn't help defining as erotic. I tried to ignore it as we got back into the car, but finally I asked, "So, is it hot in that fur coat of yours?"
"A little. But at least I don't have to worry about using sunscreen."
"That's handy. I usually get burned at least once every summer." I turned up the a/c and drove along the curving roads back to the cabin. We settled into a surprisingly comfortable silence. When we got back, Brian was splashing in the shallows; Dad was watching him from the porch.
"Come on, you guys!" Brian called.
Jenna glanced at me. "I'm going to take a walk for awhile. Should I be back for lunch?"
"Nah. We fend for ourselves until dinner. Sandwiches or whatever. Well... see you later."
She nodded and left. I went inside, put my suit on, and played with Bri for awhile, racing him out to the platform, splashing around, whacking each other with those styrofoam noodles--he really got a kick out of that one.
"Why didn't Jenna come in?" Brian asked as I rested up for another battle.
"It's her day off. She probably wants a break from us." Even as I said it, though, I couldn't help feeling a little hurt myself. I mean, of course she could do whatever she wanted. She didn't have to be with us all the time. Still, I had to admit, I kind of missed her.
When both Brian and I were tired and wrinkly, we dried off and went inside. Brian went to watch TV, and I threw a sandwich together and went out to the back deck to eat. Jenna was lounging in one of the deck chairs, reading something on one of those palmscreen things.
"Hey, Jen. Want something to eat? I could make you a sandwich." The offer surprised even me. The old me hadn't been the oh-don't-get-up type.
She shook her head, not taking her eyes off the screen. "I'm not hungry."
Her voice shook, and I noticed then that she was blinking back tears. "What's wrong?"
"It's someone I knew. A friend from the agency. A bulletin about her."
"Did something happen?"
Jenna nodded. "She was placed with a young couple, not long before I was accepted. They wanted her to take care of their baby. But I guess money got tight, so they sold her."
"Can people do that?"
"No." Her voice broke. "It's illegal. There aren't any screenings that way. It was all black market."
"Who'd they sell her to?"
"An underground SAC brothel. They're--the agency's trying to find her, but..."
"You mean people do that? Turn them into--into sex slaves or something?"
She nodded, tears spilling over.
"How can they do that?" I wondered out loud. "You're people--you can't just be bought and sold like--hey. Hey, it's okay." I went to her and held her. "It'll be okay. They'll find her."
She sniffled for a few minutes, her shaky breaths mixed with animal whimpers. Finally she pulled away. "I'm sorry--"
"It just never really mattered to me--the activists and everything. I'm here, with your family, and everything's wonderful. But so many things could happen..." She glanced down at the handheld's screen, then turned it off. "What's going to happen when Brian grows up? Where do I go then?"
"Jenna, you know Mom and Dad would never sell you."
"I know. But even if I just went back to the agency--"
"That's all a long time from now. Maybe by then you'll be a free citizen. Maybe there'll be laws so that Mom and Dad could legally adopt you or something. You could get a degree, get a job, get married. All kinds of things could happen."
She nodded but didn't look reassured. "Listen," I said, "I'll get lunch for you, and we'll walk down a place I know, okay? Kind of a picnic."
Once I had the lunches packed, I grabbed those and my beach bag and met Jenna on the deck, then led her out through the backyard. The yard soon gave way to a scattering of trees, and I followed the path I'd found years before, just a hint of a trail that led around to a sheltered corner of the lake. An ancient picnic table sat in the dappled shade. I brushed off the dead leaves and tested it. "Looks like it'll hold for another season. Have a seat."
She sat down and unwrapped her sandwich, nibbling at the crust. "I try not to think about it," she said finally. "I know it's a long time away. But..."
She shrugged, and we ate in silence for awhile. Finally she glanced in her bag and pulled out one of Mom's famous chocolate chip cookies.
"But you don't have one," she said, looking at my crumpled paper bag.
"It was the last one. Mom'll probably make more tomorrow. Um--you can eat it, can't you?" I remembered reading somewhere that chocolate was bad for dogs.
"Sure I can. I'm glad, too--I'd hate to live without chocolate." She broke the cookie in two and handed half to me.
"Well, okay." The chocolate chips had kind of melted, and the whole cookie was warm from the sun. I washed it down with the last of my soda, then reached into the beach bag I'd brought and took out my journal. It was a slim, leather-bound one, with gilded edges and my initials embossed on the cover. My aunt had given it to me for graduation.
I handed the journal to Jenna. "I thought maybe you might want to read... I mean, if you wanted..."
"I'd love to. If you're sure it isn't too personal."
"It's okay." I watched her open the journal, then walked down to the lake and tried to skip stones while she read. Every one I tried just splashed straight in, though. I've never been able to get the hang of it. Of course, wondering so much about what she would think of my poems didn't help my concentration.
Finally, after approximately seven years, I heard her behind me. I held my breath and turned to get her reaction.
"Rob, these are wonderful." She smiled, looking like she'd be blushing if she were able. "I especially liked the one about the gumballs."
Now I blushed. I'd forgotten that one was in there--comparing Kara's clitoris to the fun surprise of getting your favorite red gumball out of the machine. "Well, the red ones were always my favorites," I managed.
She hesitated, then said, "It must have been hard to break up with her."
"Not really. I don't know why." I paused, then shrugged. "I think I loved her not for her, but for what she was to me, you know? I loved her because she was my girlfriend."
"Shouldn't it be the other way around?"
"Usually." I plopped another stone into the still water. "Anyway, you can see what you and me have in common. I don't have any real clue about what's going to happen to me, either, or what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life."
"You're free to make your own choices, though," Jenna said softly.
"In theory. But there's always something. I mean, there's money, and family, and what people expect of you... You can't just choose and make everything happen."
"I thought this was the time in life when you're supposed to feel like the whole world's open to you." Jenna skipped a stone, perfectly, over the water. I tried not to glare at her.
"I guess I'm a realist, then."
"Or maybe you're just jaded." But her eyes sparkled as she said it.
We went back to the house after that and hung around until dinner, mostly watching dumb sitcoms on TV. One of them featured a ditzy SAC poodle. Jenna and I raised eyebrows at each other and changed the channel.
I couldn't believe how comfortable I suddenly felt with her. I thought back to that morning, even, and tried to figure out just when things had changed. Maybe it was when she'd started crying, and I had tried to comfort her? Was that when her feelings became such a big part of my thoughts? I couldn't figure it out. After awhile, I stopped wanting to.
After another day or so, it got to where just the way she looked at me--kind of flirting without being really serious about it--excited me. Not in a sexual way, though I realized that was part of it, but the old-fashioned butterflies-and-pounding-heart way. I didn't know if she was feeling any of it, but I thought she probably was. Had I been sleepwalking the whole time I was dating Kara? I must have been, because I didn't remember anything like this.
Another evening came. Brian was inside getting ready for bed; Jenna and I were sitting out on the platform, our feet in the water and eyes on each other.
"I saw a deer this morning," Jenna said idly.
"A buck. On the other side of the lake." She sighed. "I envy animals. They're so much freer than anyone, and..."
She looked down at the water. "They know what they are. It's not like being half-and-half, and not looking like you belong anywhere..."
"I think you're beautiful." I laid my hand over hers. I couldn't stand not knowing anymore, and there wouldn't be any better time. "Jenna?"
"What... What are we, to each other? I know we're friends, but I... I know we're closer than that. I feel like we are, anyway, and maybe I'm just imagining everything, but--"
"You're not," she said, so softly that I almost couldn't hear her.
"So what are we? Where are we?"
"We're together. Right here." And she leaned closer to me, and I moved closer to her, and her short, soft muzzle met my lips.
If I could describe that kiss, exactly, in words, my poetry would win hundreds of awards. But instead, the best I can say is that it was like I hadn't had a body or a soul until that moment.
We kissed again, then again, her soft tongue hesitantly touching mine, going deeper and more intense each time. Then she pulled away and looked back at the water.
"Rob, we can't." Her voice was hoarse, and I could tell she was trying not to cry. "We can't."
"No one can see us."
"That's not what I meant. We can't do this. We can't feel like this."
"It's too late."
She hugged me, almost desperately, her damp fur cool against my skin. I held her, and we kissed, slowly, until we were breathless and my skin prickled with goosebumps. I could feel myself getting hard, and after a few minutes she was whining, longingly, under her breath.
"I should go in," she said finally. "Brian likes me to read to him."
I summoned the last of my courage, trying to be bold and light at the same time. "Will you come tuck me in, too?"
She gave me a slight smile and shook her head, then climbed down the short ladder and slipped into the water.
* * *
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night. I kept wondering if I'd screwed everything up with that last stupid question. And I kept replaying those moments in my mind--the cool, quiet twilight around us, the warmth of her mouth, her body, against mine.
I woke up without knowing why. It was still dark, probably the middle of the night, but there was a streak of light across my room. I rolled over. My door opened slowly, and a dim glow spilled in from the nightlight in the hall.
Jenna closed the door carefully behind her, then slipped into bed. I tried to think of something to say, but couldn't.
"Your parents," she whispered, "Brian--will they hear?"
"Mom and Dad are all the way at the end of the hall." I paused to kiss her, and she moved closer to me. "And Brian can sleep through anything." Her fur tingled against my chest. "Jenna, before we do anything--I love you. You don't have to--we don't have to--"
"I know that." She pulled away and stripped off the lacy white tank top she'd been wearing. The matching panties came off just as easily. "I want to," she murmured, pressing against me. "I love you, and I want to."
And everything after was touch and breath, gasp and ache, discovery, surrender, and arrival.
* * *
When I woke the next morning, she had already gone back to her room. I might have wondered if the whole thing had been a dream, except for the brown-and-white fur dusting the pillowcase. I took a shower and dressed, then found a lint roller in the bathroom cabinet and ran it over the sheets.
It was like being awake for the first time. Sunlight gilded the breakfast nook, shimmering over the silverware. The orange juice was cold and sweet, the sausage gravy spicy and thick, the home fries crisp and hot. Everything glowed and dazzled--and when Jenna glanced at me, almost shyly, from across the table, I knew it was the same way for her.
After breakfast, Jenna went to play video games with Brian in the rec room, and I went out to the deck with my journal. For what felt like hours, I tried to write a poem about the night before, about seeing her revealed in the almost-dark, about how it felt to be with her. But I couldn't find the right words, and I ended up tearing the page out and throwing it away.
When I came back inside, Dad was watching the morning news in the living room. Their lead story caught my attention: a rally for SAC citizenship rights being held in Eaverton, a medium-sized city several hours away.
"Dad... What do you think about that?"
I had some idea of what his answer would be, and I wasn't disappointed. "I think it's a waste of time."
He got up and went into the kitchen to refill his coffee. I followed. "Why's it a waste of time?"
"Because people like that don't understand how the world works. All they can see is how they wish it worked. I wasn't raised to ask the world to change just for me. Didn't raise you that way, either."
"But the SACs--don't you think they should be free?"
"They're companions. What would be the point? What do they need that they don't have already?"
"What would happen to Jenna, if something happened to us?"
He sighed, then answered as if humoring me. "She'd go back to the agency and be placed with someone else."
"But she wouldn't have any say in who she was placed with."
"No need. They're all screened."
"What if she doesn't want to be a companion?"
He gave me a wry smile. "That's like you saying you don't want to be human."
"But it's like she's just property--"
"Rob. We're not talking about a person here. We're talking about creatures that are scientifically engineered for specific purposes--"
"You got Brian through in vitro. What does that make him?"
"Lower your voice." I could tell he'd gone from slightly annoyed to seriously angry in a matter of seconds. "I don't know why you're so involved in this all of a sudden, but you're wasting your time just like those people. Jenna is perfectly happy here. There's no reason for that to change, and there's no reason for you to start stirring up trouble. Am I clear?"
I didn't bother to answer. As I walked back into the living room to go downstairs, I caught the last part of the news story.
"The group has planned another rally for tomorrow afternoon."
* * *
"I don't know, Rob. We can't just leave."
Jenna and I were in the rec room. Brian had gone out on the lake with Dad, but we'd stayed inside. We had been playing one of Brian's video games, this weird quasi-martial arts adventure thing, but now the controls were lying ignored in our laps and the music played over and over, with occasional sound effects as our characters got beaten up by wandering adversaries.
"Why can't we? I emailed a guy from school--he's going, and he said he could pick us up on the way."
"You know it's not that simple."
"I know. But it's a chance to feel like we're doing something, at least."
She sighed. I put my arm around her shoulders, loving how she snuggled next to me. "Well," I said, "think about it. If you want to, he'll be by early in the morning. I told him if we weren't waiting for him at the main road by five, he should go on without us. Okay?"
I tilted my face to hers and kissed her, slow and long. "Jenna... Last night was... I can't even..."
She smiled. "I know."
"Robert James Chapman!" Dad's voice thundering from upstairs.
"I guess they're back," Jenna said, surprised. "What'd you do?"
I got up. "Probably left a screen door open somewhere. He loves to gripe about how much the a/c costs for this place."
When I got upstairs, Dad was sitting at the kitchen table with a piece of half-crumpled paper in front of him.
The page from my journal.
I felt like banging my head against the nearest wall. How could I have been that stupid? I should have ripped it up into tiny pieces, or flushed them, or burned them, or--
Dad looked up at me with an expression that could have easily cooled the whole house for a month. "Did this actually happen, or is this some kind of sick adolescent fantasy?"
I recovered enough to form a reply. "Either way, is it any of your business?"
"Anything that goes on in this house is my business." His voice was low and firm. "I don't expect you to tell me the truth about this. But you'd better forget all of it right now. You should be thinking of her as your sister."
That was a good one. Which side of the family did she get the excessive facial hair from? I picked up the page, folded it carefully, and slipped it into my pocket. When Dad realized I wasn't going to say anything else, he got up and left the room. I kept clear of him for the rest of the day, and at five the next morning, when the car pulled to the side of the main road, Jenna and I got inside.
* * *
"They'll think we're running away together," said Jenna. It was the first time she'd spoken since we got in the car. We'd been on the road for almost five hours.
Matt glanced at us in the rearview mirror. "Aren't you?"
"Sort of," I replied.
"Sure you are," said Matt. "You're on your way to take a stand for your right to love each other, to be free to love each other."
Matt was a friend of a friend, a few times over, from college. His most distinguishing characteristic was that he was born into the wrong generation. He was a full-fledged flower-in-the-gun-barrel peacenik throwback, but he had a way of being weirdly idealistic that was endearing instead of irritating, and just about everybody on campus liked him.
"Thanks for helping us out," I said. "We'll give you some money for gas." Jenna had been saving the money from her weekly stipend; we'd brought it along.
"Out of her slave wages?" Matt shook his head. "Don't worry about it."
I looked back at Jenna. She was nervously rubbing the fur at her throat where her collar had been. "Feeling okay?" I asked.
She nodded. "It stopped not long after we left."
The collar had been a problem. As it turned out, only Mom and Dad had the codes to deactivate it. On our way to the road to wait for Matt, we passed the perimeter line and Jenna got hit with dizziness, nausea, and low-level electrical pulses. We were just thinking we'd have to give up when Matt showed up with a device that could cut it. We'd tossed the collar into the underbrush, not caring if anyone found it.
Matt glanced back at us again. "Almost there, guys. We'll go to Rick's place--he's the guy organizing the whole thing. We'll get something to eat then. I don't know about you two, but I'm starving."
He cranked up the radio then, blasting a song about summer and freedom and what it was like to be in love, really in love, for the first time. I glanced at Jenna, placed my hand over hers, and smiled. After a moment, she smiled back, and the car sped into the city.
* * *
Rick's place was a studio apartment, its classiest feature being that it had four walls and running water. Rick wasn't around, so Matt told us to make ourselves at home while he went out to grab some food.
I sat down on the couch next to Jenna. When I was sure it would hold our weight, I put my arm around her shoulders.
"Maybe we should call them," she said.
"We'll call afterwards. They'll just want us to come home." I paused. "Jen... Do you want to go back?"
She thought, then shook her head. "No. Like you said, we'll at least feel like we've done something."
She reached into the overnight bag we'd brought and took out the sonic brush she used between shampoos. Slowly she worked the bristles through the soft fan of her tail.
"And," I added, "hopefully by the time we get back, they'll have gotten used to the idea of us being together."
"They'll have to get used to it." She brushed her arms and legs, then handed the brush to me. "Do my back?"
She unbuttoned the sleeveless white shirt she was wearing and slipped it off her shoulders. I stroked the brush through her silky fur, breathlessly wondering what area she'd ask me to do next.
A key turned in the lock. Jenna pulled her shirt back on and finished buttoning it as three people entered: Matt, carrying a grease-soaked fast food bag; another guy, sharper and bonier, who I figured must be Rick; and last, a SAC, a slender dalmatian in a red halter top and black leather miniskirt.
Jenna's eyes widened. "Sandy--?"
Before she'd even finished saying the name, the two were halfway through their second hug. Jenna turned back to me. "Rob, this is--I thought she was--"
"I was," Sandy said, so quietly I almost didn't hear her.
"We've got informants in some of the brothels," Rick spoke up. "We do what we can to get them out."
"It must have been horrible," said Jenna.
Sandy sat down on a moth-eaten floor cushion. "I don't want to talk about it." She glared at Rick.
"People have to know what's going on." Rick said it like she'd heard it a hundred times. "Too many people don't even know that SACs are being sold to these places."
"You want me to get up in front of God knows how many people and talk about what they did to me? Where should I start? With the first time I was raped? Or should I cut to the chase and talk about the night I almost got beaten to death because I didn't swallow during a blowjob? Maybe I shouldn't even give a speech. Maybe I should just let you guys put a full description with photos on your website for the whole damn world to see." She was almost crying by the time she finished. She walked into the kitchen and poured a glass of water, her hands shaking.
"He was the cutest baby," she said, as if to herself. "I loved taking care of him. I loved him. He was so good, he hardly ever cried, and I fed him and sang him to sleep, and Jim and Laura were so nice to me, and it was like we were a family, a real one, and..." She was quiet for an instant, then whirled, threw the glass against the wall, and turned her back to us. In the silence, we could hear her choking back sobs.
Jenna went to her. Matt sighed and tossed me a wrapped egg-and-cheese biscuit. "Breakfast is served."
I didn't feel like eating, but I managed to chew and swallow until it was gone. While I sipped at the black coffee that came with it, Jenna coaxed Sandy into eating. I could tell Rick wanted to say something, but he kept his mouth shut.
Finally Sandy turned to him. "You're right. If somebody doesn't say something, it'll keep happening." She looked at Jenna, and there was envy in her voice. "Looks like you did a lot better."
While the others took down a few notes on Sandy's speech, Jenna came back to me. "Rob, we really should call. We should at least let them know we're okay. We don't even have to tell them where we are."
I'd like to say that my noble conscience recognized that as the right thing to do, but to be honest, I gave in for her sake. I picked up the phone in the kitchen, being careful to avoid the broken glass on the floor.
It felt like forever before somebody picked up. Dad, unfortunately. "Where the hell are you?"
"Dad, it's okay, we're--"
"Where's Brian? Let me talk to him."
My stomach clenched. "Brian? But--isn't he there?"
There was a brief silence, a briefer conversation in the background, and then Mom came on. "Honey, we can't find Brian. We thought you took him with you."
* * *
I sat down on the couch, only half-aware that, like Sandy before, I had everyone's attention. I must have told them something, because suddenly Jenna was there, and I was breathing in her faint, sweet musk and holding on to her tighter than I'd ever thought I could, and all I could think of was that we never should have left, that Dad was right and I should have thought of Jenna as my sister, except that it was too late for that, too late for everything now...
"We have to go back," said Jenna.
Rick leaned against the kitchen counter, arms crossed. "So Lassie goes back to save Timmy, huh?"
"You don't understand a damn thing," I snapped. "He's my brother."
"You have to go back," Sandy spoke up. "She doesn't. Probably it's better if she doesn't. I know what happens to SACs who aren't good enough for their owners anymore."
"That's the question, then," said Matt. "Jenna, what do you want to do?"
"We've got plenty of people who would give you a place to stay, even some work to do, if you don't mind dishes or housework," said Rick. "We've got about twenty other SACs doing the same thing now, speaking out with us, helping the cause."
Jenna was probably only silent for a minute or two, though of course it didn't feel that way to me. Finally she looked at Sandy, then at Rick, then Matt, and by the time her eyes met mine, I knew she'd decided.
"I have to go back, too."
Matt tossed me the keys to his car. "I'll catch a ride back down eventually."
"You guys need any cash?" Rick reached for his wallet, but I stopped him. "Well," he said finally, "take care of yourselves, then. And I hope he's okay."
I nodded, and we left. Halfway back, we ran into a storm so bad the wipers couldn't keep up, and it didn't look like it was going to let up anytime soon. I wanted to keep going, but it was getting dark, we were both exhausted, and when the wipers threatened to give out entirely, we pulled into a cheap motel for the night.
In the room, I called the cabin again. A police officer answered, and that really stopped my heart, but then I talked to Mom and let them know where we were and that we were on our way.
"Have they found him?" Jenna asked when I hung up.
I shook my head.
There was a bright flash of lightning, and the lights flickered and went out. I sighed as the thunder crashed and faded. "Guess we should get some sleep."
We didn't bother to undress, didn't even turn down the bed. We lay curled against each other, listening to the wind pelting raindrops against the windows.
"They'll send me back to the agency."
"Hmm?" I had dozed off.
"They'll send me back to the agency," she repeated.
"We don't know that."
"What else could they do? I was supposed to look after him."
I stroked her back. "It's my fault."
"What, for seducing me?" She chuckled dryly. "I came to your room, remember?"
"I ran off because I was mad, and I dragged you along, when we both should have just stayed and dealt with it. Brian was probably trying to follow us."
I held her closer. Here I was, trying to be a whole new person, and it turned out that the new me was just as much of an impulsive jerk as before.
"Jenna," I said finally, "listen. If they send you back, if they want to send you back, I'll take over your contract. I've got some savings I can use. And we can get married, even if it can't be official. I bet Matt knows somebody who could do it. I won't let them send you somewhere else, I promise."
For a long time, there was only the sound of the rain, and then she spoke in a whisper roughened by tears. "Don't make promises you can't keep."
She fell asleep a few minutes later. I got up and turned the lights off so they wouldn't wake us when the power came back on, and then I laid back down. As I listened to Jenna's deep, gentle breathing beside me, I wondered where Brian was sleeping. I wouldn't let myself think anything worse.
* * *
When we got to the cabin, Mom was sitting on the deck with a half-empty cup of coffee. "Your father's still out looking with them."
I couldn't think of anything to say. Then I turned to Jenna. "Can you--"
She heard the hopeful note in my voice and shook her head. "My sense of smell is barely better than yours. I can't track him."
"Well, we can look, anyway." I turned to walk down the steps but ran into Dad on his way up.
"Nothing yet," he said to Mom. Then, to me, "A word with you, inside."
We went into the kitchen. He took something from a cabinet and set it down on the table in front of me. Jenna's collar.
"Did you know it's illegal to tamper with a SAC's collar?"
I didn't flinch. "You'd turn in your own son?"
"I didn't say that. But remember that if you hadn't taken this off, she wouldn't have been able to leave. If you hadn't taken her wherever you went on your little joyride--"
"I didn't take her anywhere. She came with me."
"It's time for you to learn," he said quietly, "that what you do can affect other people. Can hurt other people. It's time for you to grow up and start thinking about that." He paused. "Until we find Brian, Jenna's confined to this house. After that, I'm calling the agency and canceling the contract."
"You could at least let her look for him." I felt my hands tighten into fists. "Brian could have gotten lost with or without her. She's never done anything wrong. Turn me in, fine. Blame me for everything. But you can't tell her it's over just because of this."
"I'm not going to tell her that," he replied. "You are." And he pushed open the door and went back out to the deck.
I stood looking at the collar for a minute--glaring at it, actually--then snatched it up, strode to the edge of the lake, and flung the thing as far as I could. It splashed into the water and sank.
"Thank you," Jenna said softly, behind me.
There was no point in putting it off. "Dad said they're going to--"
"I know." A lighter tone crept into her voice. "My sense of smell may not be much better than yours, but my hearing definitely is." She paused. "So what are we going to do?"
I held her, kissed her slowly, then pulled back to meet her eyes. "I'm going to keep the promise I made last night. If... If that's what you want."
Her eyes shone with tears, but she managed a smile. "Yes. It's what I want."
There was a shout from the deck, and I looked to see Dad carrying Brian up the stairs. Jenna and I ran back to the house.
"He was asleep," Dad said, his voice breaking.
Mom took Brian and didn't let him go. She couldn't say anything for several minutes. "Honey, everyone was looking for you," she said finally, brushing Brian's hair back from his forehead. "Didn't you hear them?"
Brian shook his head. I smiled in spite of everything and looked at Jenna. "Told you he could sleep through anything."
* * *
As it turned out, he had been following us, but he'd gotten turned around in the dark and ended up in the woods by the lake. He was hungry and dehydrated, but otherwise he was fine.
Mom put him to bed early. She looked exhausted herself when she came into the kitchen for another cup of coffee. I was on the phone, dialing Matt's number. I got his voice mail. I hung up.
"I tried to talk him out of it," she said, meaning my father, "but he's determined to cancel the contract."
"It won't matter." I tried again. The same recording. "Come on, Matt, where are you..."
"Friend from school?"
"A guy we met yesterday. I'm trying to..." I trailed off, then shrugged. No point in keeping secrets now. "I'm trying to find out if he knows anybody who'll marry a human and a SAC."
She stirred half-and-half into her coffee, then sipped. "I didn't know it had gotten that serious yet."
That serious? Yet? "Were we that obvious?"
"Just about." She smiled. "Well, I was hoping to at least be able to send out engraved invitations, but considering how your father feels about all of it, this is probably the best way." She took another sip, and her smile broadened. "We eloped, too."
I filed that away for pondering at a later date and dialed Matt's number again. This time it rang. "Hey, Matt? Yeah. Wonder if you could do me a favor..."
* * *
We exchanged vows by the lake at sunset, on the opposite shore from the cabin. We spent our wedding night by the lake, too, on a blanket near the water, alternately making love and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I couldn't get enough of her, and the feeling was more than mutual. She was usually ready to go again long before I was. It was wonderful. For one night, we were able to forget everything that had happened, and just enjoy each other.
We moved in with Matt the next day, and he and Rick helped us find jobs that could at least pay for our share of the rent. The biggest favor they did, though, came a few weeks later: Rick pulled some strings with a friend in the agency, and I was able to purchase Jenna's contract from them. Permanently. It used up most of my college savings, and the ring I got for Jenna took care of the rest. I have to say, it left a bad taste in my mouth to be buying her, but Matt pointed out that I was only buying her freedom. It was her choice to become my wife.
Ordinarily, this would have been a great place to roll the credits. We were married, Dad was dealing with it, slowly, Brian was great with it even though he missed us both, and Matt was busily trying to find us a cheap apartment of our own--probably because he hadn't gotten much sleep thanks to us newlyweds. Things were going well.
Until Jenna got sick, and we couldn't figure out why. I wasn't sure whether to call a doctor or a vet, honestly, but the agency referred us to a specialist in SAC medicine. And what she told us... Scientifically, it was next to impossible, but the tests didn't lie. Nobody could tell us how, but Jenna's ravenous desire on our wedding night hadn't been just affection. It was the beginning of an estrus cycle.
Mom and Dad gave us the cabin, at least for the near future. It's funny how accepting parents can be when there's a potential grandchild on the way. They're paying for me to go back to school, and fortunately I'm able to take most of my classes online so I can be home with Jenna. The agency's covering her medical care.
The doctors say there's a good chance she'll miscarry, but even they're hoping they're wrong. All we can do is wait. To keep me sane, Matt suggested I write down everything that's happened, in case we end up being interviewed for the media, or medical journals, or whatever. (He thinks it's a heartwarming, inspirational story. He's also trying to decide who should play him in the movie.)
Summer is finally over. As I write here on the deck, the last of the leaves are falling, and Jenna is asleep in the lounge chair beside me. A few of the russet and crimson leaves have swirled her way and are caught in the white sweater that covers the gentle rise of her belly.
So many things have changed, but one thing hasn't. We still don't know what to expect for the rest of our lives. But in a moment, I'll put my journal aside and go to her, kissing her lightly to wake her up before it gets too cold. I'll place my hand where I can feel the first stirring movements within, and I'll know that, for right now at least, everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be.
This work and all characters (c) 2002 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be reprinted or redistributed without written permission.
Rob comes home from college for summer vacation looking for direction in his life, but he doesn't expect to find it with a sentient companion collie his parents have hired to look after his little brother. As he grows closer to her and learns more about how her people are treated, he realizes that changing his own life means helping to change theirs.
As you might guess from the 2002 copyright date, this was one of my first "furry" stories, and the first of mine to be published in the fandom. This story appeared in Anthrolations #6 from Sofawolf Press, and also inspired the cover art for that issue. I've made a few slight edits to it since then, to correct small discrepancies. Overall, to me the story shows its age somewhat now, in terms of concept and in the actual writing. Still, as a memory of where I was then as a writer (and because of the memories I was revisiting when I wrote it), this one has a special place in my heart.