[ Puppy title ]

It was Wednesday afternoon, and I had a weasel in my face.

It jumped up and down, waving its hands around (why do weasels need gloves? I always wondered) and generally trying its best to get a rise out of me. Around us, the bright happy music played a little too fast and a little too loud—the kind of music designed to combine with the sugar in kids’ systems and make them bounce off the walls like a bunch of old-fashioned pinballs. It was working. Except on me, of course: I was a little old for the place’s target demographic. After a moment, the giant-sized weasel in the perky yellow vest and white gloves got tired of me, shrugged his gray furry shoulders, grinned his big silly grin, and moved on as he always did.

We came here every Wednesday, Bobby and I. “Willy Weasel’s Stupendous Emporium of Pizza and Fun” was its full name (it was even in the comm directory that way), but to Bobby it was just “Weasel’s.” “We go Weasel’s?” he’d ask every Wednesday afternoon about the same time. It was weird—most of the time he didn’t even know what time it was, but he always knew when it was time to go to Weasel’s.

I kept an eye on him now, a couple of tables away where he was carefully using two levers to manipulate a robot into stacking a pile of blocks. His blocks almost always fell over after about the third one, but he didn’t mind. I could see by the grin on his face that he was having the time of his life. It’s like it’s always new to him, every time he comes. Sometimes I wish I could think about things that way. Might make a lot of things a lot easier to deal with.

There were three or four kids around him, patiently waiting their turn. I leaned back against the table, shoved my hands into the pockets of my long leather coat, and watched. I liked watching Bobby when he was having fun. His tall form towered over the other kids, his grinning face not smooth like theirs but peppered with stubble (have to help him shave tomorrow, I reminded myself), his big hands completely engulfing the small levers made for child-sized hands. He was so careful—he was always careful, because he knew how easy it would be for him to break something so small. The incident with the baby chick a few years ago had sadly taught him that, and he’d taken it to heart as he had not much else.

As I watched, he managed to get three blocks stacked on top of each other and cried out with joy. Some people thought it was strange, the happy shriek of a child delivered in the bass tones of a full-grown man, but I was used to it by now and it didn’t sound at all odd to me. It was just Bobby being happy. I picked up the last slice of pizza from the tray on our table (it tasted like cardboard with vaguely cheese-flavored glop on top, but it was food and I was still hungry) and absently munched on it as I made my way over to where he was still engrossed in his efforts. I put my hand gently on his back. “Time to go, ‘kay, Bobbo?”

He shook his head back and forth several times. “No, Andy. No yet. Make blocks.” He pointed at the levers and at the three boxes he’d stacked.

“Gotta go, big guy. Let’s give some other kids a chance, okay? Besides, you don’t want to miss Furbert, do you?” Furbert’s Funhouse was Bobby’s favorite trid show. I’d actually recorded it for him earlier in the day, but it was so hard to get him to leave Weasel’s that I’d had to develop a few strategies.

His eyes widened almost comically. “Furbert? No! Bobby no miss Furbert!” He let go of the levers, immediately forgetting about the block structure, and took my hand, trying to drag me away. “No miss Furbert! C’mon, Andy!”

I chuckled and followed him. “Don’t worry, Bobby. We have time. That’s why I came to get you.” It was always easiest to make him think it was his idea.

It was funny—I could barely remember anymore what it had been like before Bobby had come to live with me. It was three years ago already, right after Mom died. There was nobody else around to take care of him, so it was either have him come live with me or let him get stuck in an institution somewhere. The family had never had much in the way of money, so the only institutions that would have taken him were the places I wouldn’t put my worst enemy, let alone my own brother. So out came Bobby to move in with me. We shared a little apartment on the edge of the Barrens—one bedroom was all I could afford, so Bobby got the bedroom and I slept on the couch. There were a few glitches at first, like the time he scared me to death by finding my gun stash in the top of the coat closet (I bought a locking cabinet after that) and the time he tried to make breakfast in bed for me and ended up nearly trashing the kitchen, but we settled in after a month or two. When I went out on runs—which wasn’t nearly as often as I wanted it to be—the lady next door was nice enough to keep an eye on Bobby for me. Mrs. Kenczyk was an elderly ork lady whose kids had all left home, so she treated Bobby like another one of her own. She thought I was a bartender. I was glad she was there and made it a point to bring her stuff when I could. Nobody in our building had it easy and it was rare for somebody to help somebody else these days.

We’d almost made it home, just one more block to go, when Bobby’s face lit up and he pointed at something up ahead. “Puppy!” he cried, and started to run.

“Bobby! Stop!” I picked up speed, moving quickly to catch up with him before he got hit by a car. He didn’t go far, though. Across the road, out in front of one of the dingy apartment buildings that lined the streets in our neighborhood, two little ork girls sat in front of a cardboard box. The sign they had carefully lettered on the front (“FREE PUPIES”) wasn’t really needed—the box wriggled with little golden forms and I could hear their whines from several meters away.

Bobby had already dropped to his knees in front of the box, his eyes shining. “Puppies, Andy! Look! Puppies!” His big body was fairly shaking with the excitement of it all.

The ork girls looked up hopefully. “Free,” one said. “They’re nice puppies. Take one home, mister?”

“Two, maybe?” the other girl added.

Bobby’s head swiveled around to look up at me imploringly. “Puppy, Andy? Bobby have puppy?”

I sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. I hated turning Bobby down, not with all the bad stuff life had handed him, but a puppy was out of the question. For one thing, if my landlord caught us with a dog he’d kick us out on our ears, dog and all. For another, Bobby himself was enough of a handful for me to take care of without adding a dog into the mix. From the look of these, they were going to grow up to be big ones, too. I put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Sorry, Bobbo, but I’m afraid we can’t have a puppy.”

“Puppy!” he protested, pointing at the box. He looked at the girls. “Bobby hold?”

“Sure,” said the second girl. I could see she was sensing weakness. Too bad for her that this time I couldn’t let myself have any.

Still, I didn’t see any harm in letting him at least hold one. “Be careful, Bobby,” I told him. “Gentle, remember?”

“Gentle,” Bobby agreed. He reached into the box and came up with a little wriggly golden puppy, which immediately began licking his fingers. He stroked its small head with two fingers and looked up at me, starry-eyed. “Puppy...”

I sighed. Right then I wanted nothing more than to cave, to say, “Yeah, okay, let’s take the whole box of ‘em home,” if that would make him happy. But I knew it just wasn’t going to happen. “Bobby, listen. We can’t have a puppy in our apartment. They don’t allow it. You know that.”

“We move,” he said flatly. “Move where puppy can be.”

I shot the two girls an apologetic look. “Sorry, kids. Can’t do it. Good luck, though.” I turned back to Bobby and reached for the pup. “Come on, Bobby. Let’s put the puppy back with his brothers and sisters, okay?”

He shook his head in that back-and-forth way of his, as if one shake just wasn’t enough to convey his feelings. “No.” His eyes flashed wary defiance and he snuggled the puppy closer in to his chest.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. As I was trying to figure out what to do, one of the girls came to my rescue. “Hey, Bobby—lemme have ‘im back, okay? He needs his mommy.” She held out her arms.

Bobby’s face fell. He knew all about needing one’s mommy, unfortunately. He nodded and reluctantly handed the wriggling golden fluffball back to the girl. “Okay...” Brightening slightly he turned back to me: “We take him home later?”

“We’ll see, Bobbo,” I said, flashing the girl a grateful look when he wasn’t looking. “Thanks,” I mouthed to her. When Bobby turned away, I slipped her a five-nuyen note.

Still, it took us nearly ten minutes to get to the corner, as Bobby kept turning around to catch a last glimpse of the puppies.

Bobby got sick a few days after that—nothing serious, just one of those big snuffly colds that lays you flat for a day or two and makes you miserable. With his constitution I knew he’d be over it in no time, but tell that to a five-year-old kid in the body of a twenty-year-old who doesn’t have any clue about cause and effect. He was miserable, all right. To cheer him up I went out to the mall and came back with a big plastic bag containing a surprise. He looked up from the bed, all covered up with blankets and surrounded by his favorite toys, and I could see interest in spite of himself. “What’s dat, Andy?”

I sat down next to the bed. “Well, Bobbaroo, I thought you might like a new buddy to keep you company while you’re on the mend.” With a flourish worthy of a magician, I pulled out the prize: a realistic-looking stuffed golden retriever puppy much like the live ones he had coveted the other day. “What do you think? Like him?”

I needn’t have asked. Bobby’s eyes shone like two little stars, lighting up his pleasantly homely face. “Puppy!” he cried, sitting up so fast his other toys went flying and thrusting out his arms. I gave him the stuffed puppy and he snuggled it tightly in his arms. There were tears in his eyes. “Puppy...” he whispered, stroking its head, surprisingly gentle with big fingers. He looked up at me. “Thanks, Andy...” And then I was forgotten as he turned back to his new friend.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t even needed to talk to the ork girls and make sure the real pups had already found homes, in case the stuffed one gave Bobby ideas. This was enough. I should have known.

Bobby got better fast as I knew he would, but Puppy never left his side. That was what he named it: Puppy. I suggested some other names like Fido or Killer or Fred, but he stubbornly shook his head and declared, “His name is Puppy. He told me so.” I didn’t argue with him.

I also didn’t argue with the slight change I started to notice in him after that. It wasn’t anything obvious, but it seemed like with Puppy around to keep him company, Bobby got a little more...mature. Like he didn’t cry when I had to leave the house without him, he picked up his toys without being asked, his speech patterns got a little more developed, and he went to bed when I told him to—just little things like that. When I complimented him on how good he was being lately, he beamed proudly. “Puppy said I should,” he told me, holding up the puppy in question. Puppy was looking a little bedraggled from constant loving, but Bobby didn’t seem to mind at all.

“He said you should?” I grinned. “That’s a great puppy. I’m glad you listen to somebody.”

Bobby nodded like I was serious. “He says you love me and take care of me and I should help you so it’s easier.”

I reached out and patted Puppy on the head. “Thanks, Puppy. You’re a great friend for Bobbo here. Say, you don’t do windows, do you?”

Bobby just giggled.

A couple of days after that I got a call from Rocco, the guy who got me and my team jobs sometimes. He had one for this evening, if I was interested. The other guys were all in, and since I was running low on money I figured I’d better be too. Bobby took it surprisingly well considering I hadn’t been away for awhile. “You going away?” he asked.

“Only for the night, kiddo. Remember, you can call Mrs. Kenczyk if you need her for anything.”

He shook his head solemnly. “It’s okay. Puppy says he’ll take care of me.”

I nodded. “I know he will, but still, if you need anything you gotta promise to call Mrs. K., okay Bobby?”

He shrugged. “Okay, but I won’t need to. Puppy says everything’ll be fine.”

His conversations with Puppy had been increasing ever since he’d gotten the stuffed toy. Usually I thought it was kind of cute, but every once in awhile it was frustrating to be upstaged by a stuffed dog. I didn’t have time to argue about it right now, though—the guys were waiting for me. I shrugged into my armored coat and stashed my guns in their holsters. “Lock the door behind me, okay?” I told him, ruffling his hair. “And don’t let anybody in that isn’t me or Mrs. K.”

“Aren’t you gonna say goodbye to Puppy?” he held the dog up only a few centimeters from my face.

I sighed. “Goodbye, Puppy,” I said. I knew I sounded a little exasperated, but I couldn’t help it. My mind was filled with concern about tonight, just as it was before every run: what would happen to Bobby if something happened to me? Who would look after him?

Bobby didn’t seem to notice my worry or my exasperation. “He says goodbye,” he said serenely. “He says he’ll take care of you too.”

The run went well. We had to break into a warehouse controlled by the Halloweeners and liberate an item that they’d stolen themselves the night before. We never found out what it was or where it had come from originally: it was in a box and we were ordered not to open it. We got it out with only a couple of casualties: Bedlam took a bullet in the arm and Truck got nailed with a spell, but both injuries were minor and we got everybody out of there safely. After dropping Bedlam off at the street doc’s place I trudged, dead-tired, up the stairs to my apartment about 4 a.m.

I heard a voice behind the door and froze. Creeping forward, I listened.

It was Bobby. He was talking to somebody, but I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation. “Oh, I know,” he was saying. “I love Andy. I want to help him. He does nice things for me.” A pause, and then, “Really? I didn’t hear him.” Then the clump of Bobby’s heavy tread and a voice next to the door: “Andy, are you there? Is that you?”

I stared at the door. “Right here, Bobby. Open the door.” How did he know?

The door opened. Bobby stood there, dressed in his oversized race-car pajamas, the ubiquitous Puppy tucked under his arm. He grinned when he saw that I wasn’t hurt. “Hi, Andy! You’re home!”

My gaze swept the room. “Bobby, do you have somebody in here with you?”

He looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled. “Just Puppy.”

“Nobody else? I heard you talking to somebody. Is Mrs. Kenczyk here?” I knew sometimes, despite my rules, Bobby invited neighborhood friends in to play. He hadn’t done it for awhile, though, so I thought he’d finally gotten the picture.

Bobby shook his head. “Nobody here but me and Puppy.”

“So you were talking to Puppy?”

“Sure. I always talk to Puppy. And he talks back to me.” He squeezed the dog tightly. “He’s a good friend. He loves me.”

I sighed. I was sore, I was tired, and I was in no mood to debate this right now. “Okay, Bobby,” I said, shrugging out of my coat and carefully locking up my guns. “Well, I’m home now and everything’s fine, and I’m gonna go to bed. So how ‘bout you and Puppy do the same, yeah?”

He nodded. “Sure, Andy. Everything’s fine now. Just fine. Puppy says so.” And he trundled off toward the bedroom without a word.

The next day when I woke up a little after noon, I immediately felt guilty for being so short with Bobby the previous night. After all, despite the fact that he was bigger than I was and probably stronger, he was still just a little kid in his mind. And as for talking to Puppy—well, Bobby talked to lots of things most other people didn’t. I remembered one time when he’d sworn up and down that the kitchen broom was his best friend and they were going to enter a dance contest together, just like on The Trid Fantastic. Then there was the time he’d tried to keep a couple of the cockroaches in the kitchen as pets, telling me that they had flown here from Mars and thought this was a hotel. The kid had a good imagination, I had to give him that. This was just another one in the series. He was probably doing it because he didn’t feel like I spent enough time with him.

Okay then, if that was it—time coming up.

After showering and dressing I found Bobby in his room, stretched out on his bed looking through a picture book of dog breeds. Puppy was right next to him as usual. He was dressed and had even managed to run a comb through his hair. “Hi, Andy,” he called, smiling. “I let you sleep. Puppy said you were tired.”

Score one for Puppy, I thought, remembering how hard it had been before to impress on Bobby that seven a.m. was not a good time to get up when you’d gone to bed only three hours before that. “Thanks, Bobbo. And Puppy, too. I appreciate it, ‘cause I was tired. But I’ll tell you what—why don’t we go out now? Want to go to the mall? We’ll have lunch at McHugh’s and I’ll get you a new toy. Anything you want.” The pay for the run last night had been good, and I was feeling flush. I knew it wouldn’t last, but right now Bobby’s happiness was more important than prudent financial planning.

His eyes shone. “Anything?”

“Anything. If it’s at Snickle’s Toys, it’s yours.”

He looked at poor bedraggled Puppy for a minute, then back at me. “Even a NovaPlay?”

Smart kid. He’d been after me to get him one of those for awhile—the latest trideo-game console that all the kids were lusting after. “Even a NovaPlay.”

“Yay!” he cried, leaping up. “You hear that, Puppy? I’m gonna get a NovaPlay!” He capered around for a moment, then dashed off to get his jacket. “Let’s go!”

I followed at a more sedate pace, happy to see him excited. I didn’t even mind that he brought Puppy along.

The mall wasn’t too crowded this time of day: most of the sararimen had already had their lunch hours and were back at their desks and their dead-end jobs, leaving the place filled mostly with mothers and small children, mallrat kids, and a few folks like me who worked nights. Bobby made a beeline directly for Snickle’s Toys (there were two places at the mall he could find unerringly: Snickle’s and McHugh’s) and in short order was proudly clutching a neon-green bag containing a NovaPlay system and two new games for it in one arm, Puppy in the other. He was so happy he could barely contain himself. “McHugh’s now?” he asked hopefully. “This is the best day ever!”

“Lead on,” I told him, grinning.

We’d made it about three-quarters of the way across the mall to the food court when something caught my eye. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to the other mallgoers, just keeping an eye on Bobby and letting the rest of them drift past me. Now, though, as I passed a knot of kids in their late teens, something nagged at the back of my mind—they looked familiar somehow. Where had I—

“Hey!” called a voice. “That’s one of the fraggers from last night!”

Then I knew. The black leather jackets with orange sleeves, the leering jack-o-lantern emblems on the back—Halloweeners! There were four of them, and now that I got a better look I recognized at least two from the warehouse. I wheeled around instantly, my stomach clenching as I realized I had no weapons with me. My first thought was not of myself, though: “Run, Bobby!” I screamed with a frantic quick glance back over my shoulder. “Run away!”

“Get ‘im!” yelled one of the other Halloweeners, and in that strange slow motion vision I saw they were drawing weapons. Two had guns, the other long wicked knives. Around me the other mallgoers were screaming in panic, trying to get away.

There was a support column nearby—close, but not close enough. I flung myself sideways, hoping desperately that Bobby had heeded my words. A loud crack and white fire tore into my leg, dropping me before I reached the column. No, this can’t be happening—not now— I scrabbled at the tiled floor and tried to get behind cover as another round ripped into my arm. I’m gonna die...I’m gonna die right here at the mall, and who’s gonna take care of Bobby...?

My consciousness began to fade and then suddenly a blinding flash of light exploded from somewhere behind me. I heard pounding feet and a loud voice yelling, booming in my ears: “PUPPY SAYS DON’T YOU HURT MY BROTHER!”

I wasn’t sure I really saw what I thought I saw next. The four Halloweeners, who were one moment advancing on me, their faces full of hatred and malicious glee, the next moment stopped as the flash of light flared around them. They screamed as one, clutching their heads and dropping to the floor in a heap, their weapons clattering down next to them.

Then the sound of feet again and I remembered no more.

When I woke up I felt like somebody had packed my head with cotton. I was lying in a bed in a room full of whiteness. “Hi,” said a blur with a soft female voice. “Glad to see you’re awake.”

“What—?” I blinked a couple of times and the blur before me resolved itself into the form of a nurse. Then everything rushed back and I tried to struggle up. “Bobby!”

“Shh...” the nurse pushed me down gently. “Everything’s okay. Bobby’s fine. You stay there and I’ll bring him in.”

True to her word, she disappeared and returned after a few moments with Bobby. His eyes were wild with fear and he looked like he’d been crying, but he brightened when he saw me awake. “Andy!” he cried. “You’re okay!” He still had Puppy tucked under his arm, but the NovaPlay was nowhere to be seen.

“Bobby...” I fought the cotton some more. “What—what happened? The Halloweeners—”

“Puppy made the bad men go away,” Bobby said matter-of-factly. “They were gonna hurt you. He didn’t like that. He told me he’d help me make them go away.”

“Puppy—told you—?” Things weren’t making sense. I could feel the bandages on my arm and leg where the doc had no doubt removed bullets: that part made sense. But—

Bobby nodded. “He said I could do it—he knew I could. I was scared, but I did like he said. I didn’t want anybody to hurt you. I love you, Andy. You’re my brother. The doctor says you’ll be better soon. I like him. He’s nice.”

I stared at him for a long time, still not getting it. How could he have stopped four armed gangers? How could a stuffed toy have—?

And then, suddenly, I knew.

I looked at Bobby again, gazing at him in wonder. “Bobbo...could you wait outside for a minute with Puppy, and ask the doc to come in? I want to talk to him about something.”

Bobby looked troubled by having to leave, but he nodded. “Okay, Andy.” He turned and trotted out. After a moment the doctor, a big human, came in.

I glanced out toward Bobby, then back at the doc. “He’s a shaman, isn’t he?”

The doctor nodded. “After I got the report about what happened I had our magical specialist look him over. He says these sort of spontaneous power manifestations are fairly common among shamans with—Bobby’s special circumstances.”

I mulled that over. “A Dog shaman?”

Again the doctor nodded. “It appears to our specialist that his power is strong, but obviously unformed and untrained. He’ll need someone to teach him, someone who can deal with his—unique challenges. I can put you in touch with our specialist who can suggest some options, if you—”

I wasn’t even listening to him anymore. The signs had been there all along, but I had missed them. My little brother Bobby—a Dog shaman. A Puppy shaman, I corrected. Puppy spoke to him. Puppy told him what to do. What better way to appear to someone as childlike as Bobby than in the form of a puppy, the most gentle and friendly of creatures?

Of course I’d have to find someone to help him, to train him. The doctor was still droning on about that, but right then that wasn’t even on my mind. All I could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief—not that Bobby’s powers had manifested in time to save my life, but that now he would be able to take care of himself even if something happened to me. My brother was safe. Nobody was going to pick on him as long as he had Puppy watching over him. If it took my catching a couple of bullets to draw his sleeping power out, it was worth it. I’d heal.

I smiled as I noticed Bobby’s worried face poking around the doorframe behind the doctor, followed after a moment by Puppy’s well-worn one. The old boy was already looking more than a bit threadbare: Bobby had always been hard on toys without meaning to.

You know, I mused, maybe I will see about moving to a place where Bobby could have a real puppy.

Hey, it wasn’t like he hadn’t earned the privilege.

©2001, Rat