Where Man’s best friend is harnessed by Man’s greed.
Fred. It was the most fitting name for the bag of bits and bolts in the paper bag. Oliver dropped Fred on the oak dining table, with complete disregard to its fragile varnish. “I got you a present,” he announced to his wife.
Marie winced. Whatever Fred was, he was heavy. At least Fred didn’t destroy the varnish or overturn the table. Yet. She flipped her magazine page. “Oh, good. You cleaned the garage. Do you mind taking it out with the trash to the curb, darling?”
“It’s not scrap metal. Aren’t you going to ask me what it is?”
Another page turned. Oliver tipped the bag over, slowly dumping Fred out across the table. Marie threw the magazine aside, crying out for her poor table. The bits and bolts were held together in a fake fur silicone sack—hardly dangerous at all. Marie craned her neck and squinted. Fred took the shape of roadkill and didn’t look like anything in the garage. Oliver answered for her. “Remember when I was working on the dev team before my promotion?”
“Barely. You were never home.”
Oliver bent Fred back into shape. He took the form of a pale white Terrier, one ear flipped backwards, his spine and legs gnarled. “I built the exoskeleton for the ‘Terrible Terrier’ toys when they were in beta testing. The boss was cleaning out the project room for the next toy tests after some of the guys quit. He asked me if I wanted to keep the beta model. Don’t you think it would be a great gift for Caleb?” He twisted the dial on Fred’s collar. Soon, the ear flipped back into place. He barked, muffled by the popping speaker box in his snout.
Marie dog eared her magazine. “Grandpa already is sending one for Christmas. It’ll collect dust in the garage. Like your other projects.”
Fred stumbled, chasing his tail in circles. He fell over on the first twirl. Two weeks from Christmas, and already Oliver’s father-in-law beat him. Once again, with toys he designed. If he could play that game, so could Oliver. He picked up Fred and carried him to the living room. Marie turned the next page.
Caleb sat in front of the TV, still in his school uniform. Harriet, their fat orange tabby cat, lay in his lab. She saw Oliver first, spiking her tail and hissing when Fred began to yap. Harriet scrammed. Caleb looked up, his eyes lighting up. “Did Grandpa’s gift arrive?”
“Even better.” Oliver set down Fred. Fred hobbled over to Caleb. Caleb had the same twitchy eyebrows as his father. They twitched, trying to make desperate sense of the mangled mutt ramming its face against the sofa.
Caleb straightened Fred, pushing him away. “Why do you have that?”
Oliver sighed. He wished Caleb had some of his curiosity and imagination. “It’s the beta model of the Terrible Terrier, handmade by your old man right here. His name is Fred. Isn’t he cool?”
Caleb shrugged. By then, Fred ran back towards the sofa, bending his neck and tilting his head near backwards. “It should have stayed in beta.”
“Don’t be like that. None of your friends have one quite like it!” Oliver huffed. “Some days, I swear, your grandpa spoils you too damn much…”
Fred righted himself, spotting Harriet. She backed into the corner of the bookcase, hissing at Fred. Fred cornered her, the latter taking a testing swat. Fred nipped at her, catching her tail between his plastic jaw. Harriet shrieked. Marie picked her up, saving the cat from the terrible dog. “I’m telling you, Ollie, every year it’s the same. You bring home a broken toy, grandpa brings home the finished model. It’s annoying, but Ollie, this thing is dangerous. Get rid of it, would you?”
“Fred is harmless. Harriet causes trouble. Like all cats do. I’ll fix him, and make him better than those dumb terrier toys. You just watch.” Oliver’s speech went ignored. Marie carried Harriet back to the kitchen, soothing her mewling cat. Caleb stared at the TV again. The commercials were over.
The garage was freezing. Next year he promised he would fix the heater. Fred was the only one who didn’t seem to mind one bit. Oliver dropped him on the long work table to put on a pair of thin gloves. Fred snapped at him, stealing one. “Dumb dog,” Oliver grumbled. He downloaded the latest Terrible Terrier software on Fred’s collar but forgot to install it. Oliver didn’t mind, he needed time to troubleshoot. While Fred was distracted by Oliver’s glove, Oliver flipped the switch off on his collar. Its LED lights flashed GOODBYE. Fred stiffened and fell to his side.
Good Luck Industries had great warranties—none however on beta toys. If Oliver got it working, great, he would finally show his father-in-law what for. If not, Fred’s casing would keep Harriet off the counters. But after Caleb and Marie’s remarks, he vowed to get Fred up and running no matter the cost. Oliver slid the silicone and fur casing off.
The inside was no different from the completed market products. The design were built entirely by Oliver’s hand and earned him the promotion. Needless to say, he had a great attachment to Fred and a deep understanding of his framework. It had been awhile since he saw the inside of one of these bad boys, but his understanding was none worse for it. His knowledge of the hardware had no equal—troubleshooting software was a whole different game. All the gears were in place. The wires were cleanly soddered to the right circuitboards. He took Fred apart, piece by piece over the next few hour. Soon, he had put Fred back together exactly the same way. At some point, Marie shouted for him and the doorbell rang. He ignored both times.
“Get inside!” Marie shouted one final time. “Dinner is ready and I’m not reheating it for you.”
Reluctantly, Oliver abandoned Fred. His collar beeped, laying beside him, installing the new software. He shut out the light and returned to the kitchen, tired and hungry. “Where’s Caleb? You never yell at him.”
“We already ate.” Marie said. “I shouted five times.”
Oliver sat down in front of a chilly soup and soggy sandwich. He tilted his head, staring into the living room. Caleb laughed and for once, the TV was off. He played with a toy dog, much like Fred, but a little taller and with spots on his white fur. He missed grandpa’s gift arrival. On a single command, the dog sat. “Porter! Roll over!” The dog did as Caleb said. “This is so cool!” Caleb laughed. Porter licked his face with a dry, silicone tongue.
“We already have one in the garage.” Oliver stirred his soup. Oil gathered on the top.
“But he tried to eat Harry.” Marie watched too beside Oliver. “Harriet likes Porter.”
Ignoring her name, Harriet sat in her corner beside the bookcase. She swatted and hissed whenever Porter got close to sniff. Porter took it like a champ, doing laps instead. “Look dad, they’re friends!” Caleb laughed. “Dad?”
“The way these new toys are built, this one will be spare parts for Fred!” Oliver got up and went back to the garage.
He got up in the middle of the night. Marie snored beside him, laying on her stomach. Oliver crept out of the room, careful to not disturb Harriet in the middle of the bed. With Porter in Caleb’s room, Harriet chose to sleep with them instead, to Oliver’s dismay.
Oliver sneaked into Caleb’s room. He snored like his mother. Porter lay still in Caleb’s arms, plugged into the wall beside the nightstand.
“You’ll set yourself on fire this way, kiddo.” Oliver muttered. He unplugged Porter and removed him from Caleb’s arms, undetected. He left the room, no one any wiser about his covert mission.
Money talked at Caleb’s age, and Oliver, had he a grandpa like his, wouldn’t have been much different from his son. He had great respect for his own father. A former assembly line worker at the same company, the pay was poor and the work was hard. However, Oliver never went without toys. He kept defects in his locker and brought them home for the holidays. Instead of unwrapping gifts, Oliver found pleasure in creating them for himself. It was only a shame he couldn’t recreate that for Caleb. He prayed Fred would change that.
Fred still didn’t walk right. He reset his system twice already. Had he downloaded the right software? Oliver looked back and forth between the circuitry of the two. Fred really was a fine toy. He almost got it perfect, first build. There was no difference to the dogs at all—on the inside at least. He had an idea.
Oliver plugged Porter’s collar into the computer. He would copy the software right into Fred. Simple repair. He watched Porter’s code string across the computer screen. He was a hardware specialist, these strange equations made his eyes water. The screen began to flash, a whir came from inside the machine. At some point, the computer shut down. Oliver cursed, pressing the power button multiple times. Nothing.
He unplugged the collar and turned Porter back on. In a few seconds, Porter stood up and barked at full volume. His tail wagged just as before, waiting for an order from Oliver. Oliver slapped his computer, demanding an answer from it and received none. “Sorry, Fred. You’ll have to wait another day. Let’s go back to bed, Porter.”
Porter yipped, jumped off the table, and followed Oliver back into the house.
Oliver didn’t touch Fred again for another three weeks. In fact, he was too embarrassed to explain to Marie he destroyed his computer, again. Christmas was an easy enough excuse to pull away from his work and the family time was welcomed. But Christmas and New Years came and past by him in a blur. Post holidays were slow at work and offered Oliver far too much time at home.
“So, you gave up on Fred finally?” Marie asked. They sat on the front porch together at sunset. It was their turn to guard Caleb and the neighbourhood boys tonight. All screamed and splashed through slush in the front yard. This winter, there was the addition of Terrible Terriers, playing tug-o-war without referee.
Oliver sipped on his hot cocoa, pretending to not hear Marie. Every dog had replaceable outer skins. Some in camoflauge, others in bright colours. Oliver snatched up a race car skin for Porter that wasn’t to launch for another three months. The real dogs that watched forgotten from the porches of the suburb. They didn’t recognize the Terrible Terriers as mimics of their species. They shivered from their perches on the porches, waiting for their masters to invite them to play with their strange, new toys. They remained forgotten, defeated Dobermans and howling hounds, relics of Christmases past. Oliver had a mind to pay their parents visits later.
Marie asked again. “So, Ollie, what’s the plan with Fred?”
“I don’t know.” Oliver lied. “I ordered some parts from the warranty department but I think they forgot about me.”
Marie smiled, snuggled back into his shoulder. She knew when he lied. From buying computer parts with their savings or forgetting to take out the trash, nothing escaped her. “At least Porter keeps him away from the TV.”
Oliver agreed. He also kept Harriet off the counters, rendering Fred’s only remaining job useless. At New Years, Marie made him vow to clean up his garage. He still had yet to get on it. He had a week off from work starting today, why not start early in the week? He let go of Marie, heading into the garage to say goodbye to an old friend. She let him go, keeping an eye on the several children remaining in the yard.
Fred had sat abandoned for some time. Dust covered him, the worktable, and the computer. Oliver muttered a half apology to him. One last time, he switched Fred’s collar on. Fred stood up, barking as if no time had passed at all.
“Whatcha doing, dad?” Caleb stood at the door, face red and sweaty. His friends had gone home. Porter stood under his legs.
“Cleaning the garage for your mother.” Oliver bent Fred’s limbs back into place.
“You’re getting rid of Fred?” Caleb asked.
“No need for celebration, kiddo.” Oliver said. “Why do you hate him so much, anyway?”
Caleb shrugged. “I don’t like old toys. They always break, again and again.”
“And you fix them. Remember when you broke your ankle playing soccer last year? Did we get rid of you for a new son?”
Caleb laughed. “But I’m human, that’s different.”
“Even so, love isn’t conditional, so don’t treat your dogs like toys. Don’t treat your toys like dogs, either. Now just you wait, I think I finally fixed Fred.” Fred began to wag its tail, a perfect, even swish. Oliver bent his spine back into place under the silicone cover. On Oliver’s orders, Fred did a perfect turn on the table without falling over. “See? Just a little love and a few snaps, and he’s as good as new. Better than new.”
Fred barked. He still needed a microphone replacement, but for now, he was a perfect dog. Under Caleb’s legs, forgotten, Porter began to growl. “He sounds funny,” Caleb said. He left Porter to go play with Fred, happy to see Caleb despite all the cruel things he said. Despite his previous misgivings, Caleb smiled and scratched Fred’s folded ear.
He bounced past Caleb and snapped at Fred, his metal jaw crushing down on Fred’s tail. Fred shrieked, biting back at Porter with a harmless, plastic jaw. Oliver, avoiding Porter’s jaw, flipped off the collar. It wasn’t before Porter ripped half of Fred’s shell off and entire tail, half the dog an exposed metal framework.
“You killed my dog.” Caleb cried.
By then, Marie came off the porch and around to the open garage door. “What’s going on here?” She demanded.
Caleb’s jaw began to quiver. “I hate you! Why do you always have to break things to prove your point?”
“Now, Caleb… I didn’t do it, Porter—”
“I hate your stupid shop! Leave my toys alone! I hate the stupid ones you always bring home! You find problems with everything!” He ran upstairs, sobbing. He slammed each door on his way to his room, the last of the crashing he made.
Marie turned to Oliver. “What happened?”
Oliver shrugged. “Porter lunged at Fred. He’s working now at least.”
“Just fix Porter, okay?” Marie went inside.
Oliver noticed Porter’s collar still on. He unhinged the jaw, dropping half of Fred back into the blanket the dog cowered under. He switched Porter back on and dropped him onto the floor. Seemingly forgetting the event, Porter went back inside the house in pursuit of Caleb.
Later that night, Caleb still hadn’t left his room. Fred sat on the couch, wearing an old dog skin borrowed from Porter, also in Caleb’s room. On top of the bookshelves, Harriet’s paced back and forth, in and out from behind picture frames. Her tail quivered, her ears twitched.
Oliver paced the living room floor. “We need to tell your father to stop spoiling him, Marie. How many times have we gone over this? He used to like working in the garage with me. What now? All he cares about are his toys and the TV. He’s already asking for the next terrier coming out this year for his birthday.”
“He’s only a child once.” Marie argued.
“He already has a wonderful childhood, there’s no shortage of love here. But your father is going to do something horrible to his future.”
“Why is it always his fault? Confront him yourself if its such a problem. If you want Caleb to like you again, stop forcing your hobby onto him and find one that you both can enjoy.” Marie stormed upstairs.
Oliver winced, hearing the door lock. Harriet meowed from the sofa at him. He scratched her head. “Looks like it’s you, me and the sofa tonight,” Oliver answered.
Somewhere after midnight, Harriet shrieked. Oliver sat up, feeling around the sofa for her. He did not roll onto her tail like he previously thought.
“Harriet?” He whispered. No answer.
He got up and walked around the house, yawning. “Are you all right?” There was a crash in the kitchen. In there, Oliver squinted in the low lights.
Harriet sat on top of the counter, shaking. Liquid dripped down the side of the counter. Oliver groaned. “Always breaking things, you dumb cat.” She jumped up to the top of the cupboards.
Oliver followed her with half-opened eyes. But something also crunched. At the top of the steps to the next floor, Porter chewed on something. “You’re programmed to act like a dog, not misbehave like one. Just what are you eating?” He abandoned Harriet, chasing after Porter instead.
Porter sat on the steps, watching Oliver with glowing, light blue LED eyes. Oliver stopped. “Is that Fred—?”
“I can’t believe you guys didn’t notice it was a fake. Considering your husband worked at the company, and all.” The police officer said. “These were some copies stolen by former employees. Massive lawsuits.”
Marie sat in the kitchen chair, drying her eyes with her plush robe’s sleeve. Between the cat urine and her husband’s blood, she wanted to dry heave. But Caleb sat in her lap, his head tucked into her collarbone. She had to be strong for him. “Ollie brought home a working model he made himself before he got promoted somewhere else. My father was the one who bought the… toy.”
She tightened her grip around Caleb. She prayed he wouldn’t turn his head to the bay windows and see his father carried into the ambulance. Oliver’s face was unrecognizable under the blackened bandages. When the ambulance sirens started to wail, Caleb cried harder. “What’s going to happen to it?”
It, being what remained of Porter, destroyed by police bullets, was trapped in a metal bar cage. Its spotted silicone cover and twitching metal frame barely resembled roadkill. Fred was more roadkill than him, moped into the corner with smudges of Oliver’s blood.
The police officer shrugged. “Scrap yard, where it belongs. How long have you had it?”
“Two weeks before Christmas,” Marie answered. She whispered to Caleb. “Did you want to say goodbye to Porter?”
Caleb shook his head. She sighed and thanked the police still milling around her kitchen.
The officer tilted his hat and began to clear out the room.
Porter’s microphone crackled, something between a bark and a snarl. When the front door shut, it was silenced forever.
By the time Caleb settled down, the sun started to rise. Marie’s back was stiff and she was exhausted. She tried to get up but Caleb held her tightly around the waist. Marie needed to clean the kitchen before she got sick. She got an idea. “Sweetie, why don’t you go pick up Fred’s pieces and put him back together for daddy?”
“Can we bring Fred to the hospital for him when I’m done?” Caleb asked.
“Of course, dear. He’ll be really proud of you.”