Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

A Strange Reversal

by Lisa Voorhees




The Ambassador sits across from me in a padded leather chair, one bushy eyebrow cocked above black-framed glasses. I sprawl on the matching sofa in front of his desk. The window AC unit hums louder than an angry hornet, yet the office feels uncomfortably warm on this sweltering southern night.

Although it defies logic, the Ambassador understands me when I bark, and I understand him when he speaks.

“Your name’s Gunner, have I got that right?” The musky tang of his sweat mixes with the mint of his aftershave.

I stop panting and stare at him, cocking my head, attentive.

“Approximately thirteen years old, white-and-brown spotted mutt, cross between a hound and a retriever,” he mutters as he jots down the particulars. “What seems to be the trouble today?”

The Ambassador has a reputation for helping animals like me. Dogs who’ve been abandoned, lost their owners, or found themselves in a tight spot. I’ve been loyal to my owner Ted since he could hold me like a donut in the palm of his hand.

I love Ted, but I’m afraid he no longer loves me.

“My owner, Ted. He’s moving to another state and where he’s living, can’t have a dog. I’m going to be dropped off at the shelter in the morning and they’ll find me another good home.”

“Is this why you’ve come?” the Ambassador says, his eyes kind despite his gruff expression.

I yip and gaze directly at him. Yes. I yip again.

The Ambassador grunts, removes his glasses, folds and slides them into the front pocket of his crisp white dress shirt. “That’s a serious situation.”

I lick my haunch, digging my teeth into the roots of my fur and pulling out entire tufts. Next, I turn to my back paws and bite the nails. When I cut my eyes toward the Ambassador, he’s watching me. 

I pant instead. A concrete kennel can’t compare to the pillow-top mattress and overstuffed couch at Ted’s apartment. He counts on me to patrol when he’s not home. I scare away intruders, as many as eleven a day, any of whom could pose a grave threat to him.

“Do you believe him?” The Ambassador unfolds his lanky frame and, with long, loping strides, circles the desk closer to me.  

A high-pitched whine escapes my throat. “Ted has never lied to me.” At least, I’ve never known him to be dishonest. He feeds me at the same time, morning and evening, and every walk he’s promised, we’ve taken together.

“Is there more?”

“I’m thirteen years old,” I bark. “No one wants to adopt an old dog with creaky joints and bad breath. I’ve heard rumors about what happens to old dogs like me.”

The Ambassador tugs his earlobe, a pinched expression on his face. “You have every right to be concerned. I would feel the same way in your position. Do you have a solution in mind?” He considers me thoughtfully, one forefinger pressed against his pursed lips.

I thump my tail on the leather cushion. “I want to become human,” I bark, with all the eagerness I can muster.

The Ambassador stops, fixing me with his gaze. “You’re sure about this? Certain abilities of yours will diminish, your sense of smell, for one, along with your precision hearing, though you will gain tremendous intellectual capacity and an enhanced awareness of yourself.”

I give a yip, my tail fanning the air behind me. My front feet do a tap dance on the edge of the couch.

The Ambassador chuckles.

“If I don’t want to be a statistic, I have to stay out of the shelter.”

He sets a broad hand on my head, scratching me behind the ears. “You’re a smart fella. Too bad your owner doesn’t appreciate you. Tell you what,” he says. “Standard policy dictates I attempt to verify what you’ve told me with a quick call. If it is as you say, we’ll perform the reversal before you leave.”

Arrooo! I unleash my hound’s bay.

The Ambassador pats me on the back. He punches a number into the phone on his desk and holds the receiver to his ear.

I turn in a circle on the couch, unable to get comfortable. If Ted finds out where I’ve been...the thought makes the tremor in my bad leg kick into high gear.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll pretend I’m someone else, that I found you wandering in the street and got his number off your name tag. This way we’ll find out if he really loves you or not.”

A test. My paw pads start to sweat and a bead of saliva drops off my tongue.

“Hello, Ted?” the Ambassador asks.

Garbled noises that sound like Ted.

“I found your dog, Gunner. He’s fine, he’s not hurt. Where can we meet up? He’s anxious to see you.”

More garbled, Ted-like talking. The Ambassador knits his brows together and frowns. I sense apprehension in the set of his jaw. “I see,” he says. “I’ve called the wrong number. Gunner doesn’t belong to you? You’re insisting he’s my problem?”

He bows his head, rubs his fingers along his jaw. “All right, then. Goodbye.”

The Ambassador hangs up the phone and scowls. “Fickle humans.”

He gazes sorrowfully at me. “Ted appears to have no recollection of who you are. A convenient excuse right before a big move and a change of employment. Ah, Gunner, I’m sorry.”

He snaps his fingers in the air. “Tell you what,” he says. “You deserve more than human transformation. How about if I let you keep the apartment, too?”

I tilt my head at him and whine. “How’s that possible?”

“Well, you’ll have to get a job, but that’s beside the point. You’re an industrious fellow, finding work won’t be a problem. I’m offering you a deal. I’ll make you human if you allow me to transform Ted into a dog.”

My whine extends into a groan. I’m not sure. Yes, the apartment has always been my home and I’d love to stay there, but I don’t know how Ted will react to being a dog. If the Ambassador’s offer is contingent on my saying yes, what other choice do I have?

I can’t go to the shelter. I can take care of Ted.

“What do you say? Once the reversal is made for both of you, there’s no going back. The change will be permanent.”

A quick, harsh series of yips. Yes, yes, yes.

The Ambassador moves behind his desk and types on his keyboard. The screen reflected in the lenses of his glasses obscures his eyes. I can smell the acrid, tinny odor of his sweat.

“Okay, Gunner, you’re all set,” he says. “I’ve noted your case in my files. We’ll make the switch. I need a picture of your owner to get started.”

I hop to the floor and sniff along the edge of the couch. Picture? I’m not sure what he’s talking about, but the authority in his voice sets me to searching regardless.

“Gunner?”

I glance up at him.

“Not having second thoughts, are you?”

I whine, lower onto my haunches, and scratch my side with my back paw.

“Good,” he says, folding his hands together on the desk. “I’ll bet we can find a photo of Ted online.”

From beside the desk, I hear a furious clack of keys, the click and slide of the mouse. “Hm,” he speculates. “Ted Jenkins, Class of 2004, Elmsworth High. Tell me, is this him? C’mere.” He waves me over.

I place my front paws on his knee for a closer look. I recognize the dark, wavy hair, the close-set eyes, and the crooked smile of my owner. It’s Ted, all right. I lick the Ambassador’s face. Traces of the meatball sub he had for lunch make my mouth water.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He clicks on the picture and it enlarges to fill the screen. He sweeps me off his knee and lays a hand along my neck, his touch warm and confident.

He places a soft blindfold over my eyes and in low, monotonous tones, mutters an incantation I can’t interpret. My back legs start to tremble, followed by my front legs. My toes elongate, my skin stretches and slides over my bones as simultaneously, my fur recedes, gathering into a clump on top of my head.

I lengthen upright, wobbling to maintain my balance around a new center of gravity. I lose the Ambassador’s scent as a maelstrom of new questions floods my mind.

How do I look?

How are people going to react to me?

Will they respect me?

“Agh!” I grip my head, bewildered by the volume of thoughts racing through my head. The heightened self-awareness is staggering, Ted’s well-being no longer at the forefront of my consciousness. I’m obsessed with myself, my appearance, my identity.

The Ambassador hands me a pile of clothes and tells me to put them on. After removing the blindfold, he turns around and busies himself with the papers on his desk.

I fumble with the clothes, but eventually figure them out. My dexterity improves as I manipulate the belt through the loops on my pants. After tucking in my shirt, I try out my voice for the first time. “Do you have a mirror?”

I sound as if I’m underwater, like I couldn’t bark even if I wanted to.

“Sure do,” the Ambassador says. The top desk drawer opens with a squeak.

I grab the handle of the mirror. I’m moderately overweight with a grizzle of whiskers on my flabby cheeks and decent vision if I squint hard enough. Not bad for a transformation, although I miss the smells. Not to mention my right hip aches and I’m hungry enough to eat three dinners.

I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m human now and Ted is a dog. He won’t drop me off at the shelter in the morning: the threat of euthanasia no longer looms over my head. I’m free to live the rest of my life as I see fit, though without my keen sense of smell, I’ll be hard pressed to identify Ted if he runs away from me. The question pops into my mind: will Ted be okay with me taking care of him, now that he’s turned into a dog? I hope so. I’ll do the best I can to earn his trust. It wouldn’t be right to let him fend for himself now that I’ve become human.

“How can I repay you?”

The Ambassador waves me off. “It’s my privilege to help you in any way I can, Gunner. Please, I insist. Enjoy your life. Will you keep Ted?”

I consider him, puzzled that he would think otherwise. I suppose others in my position might be tempted to ditch their owners. The clock on the wall above his desk indicates it’s after nine o’clock. Ted’s an early riser, so he’s sure to have been home when the reversal took place.

I spin on my heel before leaving the Ambassador’s office. “Will Ted recognize me, now that I’m not a dog?”

“He’s liable to be easily startled,” he says. “Be careful how you approach him.”

“Will he understand me?”

“No more than you understood him, when you were a dog.”

“I didn’t think of that,” I reply, nervous at the idea of being unable to explain the reversal to Ted. I hesitate to leave; unsure I want to face the ramifications of what I’ve done.

“If you intend to keep him, I wouldn’t wait. If he panics over the transformation, he might try to escape. He could wind up a stray.”

I summon my courage and step outside into the late summer night. A blast of humidity saturates me and dampens my skin. Beside my ear, the dull buzz of a mosquito whines and I swat it away.

It’s a twenty-minute walk back to the apartment. Chittering sprinklers erupt from manicured lawns and spritz the sidewalk alongside the grass. I’m five times the height of the grumpy lawn gnomes hiding in the bushes. Funny those sorts of things frightened me as a dog, they strike me as completely inanimate and harmless now.

I make the turn into the apartment complex and pause, sniffing the air. Of course. I can’t pick up a scent and all the buildings appear the same. I have to rely on my memory instead. I climb the stairs in the breezeway separating the two halves of the second-closest brick apartment complex and at the top, I freeze.

From the open door of my old apartment, the piercing, black gaze of an angry Schnauzer stops me in my tracks. His upper lip lifts in a snarl, white teeth flashing in the glow of the security light.

I hold out a hand in an effort to placate his anxiety. “Whoa there, Ted,” I say. “It’s me, Gunner.” I know it’s him. Ted’s got some serious drive, and a short temper when taken by surprise. In the middle of moving boxes to his car, he’s used a stack to wedge the door open. I’m lucky he hasn’t run away.

I bend low. The extra weight on my hip makes me wince, so I straighten up. One slow step at a time, I shuffle closer to him, my hand stretched out for him to sniff. “I’m not going to hurt you, see?”

The door to the neighboring apartment opens and Sandra steps out, clutching her young granddaughter’s hand. Veronica’s face is streaked with tears, and blood-smeared stains line the undersized shirt that’s crept above her belly button.

Sandra’s cheeks are flushed as she thrusts her chin forward angrily. She points an accusatory finger at Ted. “I don’t know where that vicious animal came from, but he bit my granddaughter on the arm.”

She thrusts Veronica’s arm in the air, pointing at the red, swollen bite wound. “I’ve already called Animal Control. That animal has no place being anywhere near children.”

I glance at Ted, who stares at me. He begins to growl again. I shoo him inside our apartment, leave the door unlatched, and offer Sandra what I hope is a winning smile. “I apologize for that,” I say. “I hope she’s not very hurt.”

Sandra narrows her eyes. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you here before. Are you Ted’s father?”

“A close relative,” I say, marveling at my ability to think on my feet.

“Is that your dog?”

“I... yes. The Schnauzer is my responsibility. I’m terribly sorry he bit your granddaughter. Let me take you to the hospital.”

Except for the fact that I’ve no idea how to drive, I figure the gesture will go a long way toward smoothing over the situation. At least I know Ted is safely indoors and I can reassure him later.

“That won’t be necessary,” Sandra says. “Does that dog have a rabies vaccine?”

I stare at her, dumbfounded. The night has gotten infinitely more complex. I don’t know what to say. “I don’t...no, I don’t think so. I just found the dog,” I stammer. “I don’t know what vaccines he’s had.”

“I hope you get rid of that animal,” she snaps, “because if you don’t, I’m calling the cops. You can be damn sure he’ll never bite my granddaughter again.”

With that, she herds Veronica into her apartment and slams the door. I lay my hand on the doorknob and scratch my head. Then, I step inside and close the door behind me.

The apartment sits in darkness. A dark shadow stands outside the kitchen, a low growl vibrating in its throat.

“Ted?”

Grrrr.

“It’s me, Gunner.”

Grrrr...grrrr-rrrr.

“I know you’re confused and probably frightened, but that’s no excuse to go biting people. Least of all children.”

The Schnauzer erupts in a fit of hysterical barking. I let him get it out of his system, flick on the overhead light, then lower myself onto the couch.

I don’t know which is worse, Animal Control coming to pick up Ted, or the threat of Sandra calling the cops if I insist on a second chance at managing Ted. I might be able to convince an officer he’ll never bite anyone again, but Sandra will know I’ve kept him. I can’t keep Ted locked inside forever. He needs fresh air, sunshine, and lots of grass to sniff and roll around in.

“I wish you hadn’t done it,” I say, regarding Ted.

He sits in front of me and tilts his head, a worried glimmer in his eye.

“It’s not how I’d hoped this would go.”

Ted opens his mouth in a nervous yawn, makes a guttural whine, then snaps his jaws shut.

“If I could drive, you and I could start over somewhere new,” I say.

He lays down on the carpet, hind legs splayed out, and rests his chin on his front paws.

“When they come to get you, I’ll talk to them. If they won’t listen, I’ll figure something out. Don’t you worry. I may have lost my sense of smell, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to find you. You can count on me, Ted.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see him lift his head, observing me. When I stand, he jumps up and the frantic barking starts again.

I move into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water from the tap, and swallow it in one gulp. Using the measuring scoop in the closet, I deliver a half cup of kibble to what used to be my bowl.

As he gives the morsels a tentative sniff, I talk to him. “I orchestrated the reversal, Ted. It was me. I visited a man who knows how to take care of these things because, well...because I was afraid. I know you said they’d find me a good home at the shelter, but I’m not stupid. I wasn’t born yesterday. No family is going to want an old dog like me, with a busted hip and halitosis that could stop a train in its tracks.”

He finishes half the bowl of food and licks his lips, then sneezes and brushes up against my leg. I lower my fingers to his head and he allows me to rub him behind the ear. The gesture does something inside me. To know Ted trusts me, that he depends on me to take care of the situation, is humbling. I don’t want to let him down.

He wriggles closer to me and I keep petting his head. “The reversal is permanent, Ted. I’ll be a human from here on out, and you’ll be a dog.”

Under my hand, I feel him go still. The next moment, a harsh knock pounds on the door. Ted growls and I shush him. “Be good,” I say.

When I open the door, the Animal Control officer is waiting with a catch pole and an incident report. My protestations fall on deaf ears. Tough as a drill sergeant, he informs me Ted will be impounded at the shelter for the next ten days. I struggle to sign the release form, all thumbs.

******

I have bad dreams all night and wake up early the next morning. Peering into the refrigerator, I find three eggs and a bag of shredded cheese, plus a pound of bacon in the freezer. While the coffee pot burbles, I fry the bacon, narrowly avoiding third-degree burns from the splatter. Pieces of shell get caught in the scrambled eggs and cheese I mix together next, but I crunch through my breakfast, content with how it tastes.

Seated at the table with my plate and mug, I spot Ted’s empty bowls in the corner. I feel like something’s missing, actually, even though I’m well aware the shelter won’t keep him forever. It’s a strange sensation, not being concerned about every possible threat to the apartment and guarding him with my life.

Leaving the dishes in the sink, I wipe my hands clean and decide to make the walk across town to the shelter before the heat becomes too oppressive. I locate the shelter with no trouble. Surrounded by a chain link fence, the sloped sidewalk leads to a metal door in a cream-colored cinder block building. Behind the reception desk, a tanned thirty-something girl in a faded cotton tee-shirt answers the phone.

As soon as she hangs up, I approach the counter. “Excuse me, I’d like to visit my dog. He was dropped off here late last night.”

She examines me. “What’s your name?”

“Gunner…” I pause, “...Jenkins. My dog’s name is Ted.”

She taps out something on the keyboard and scrolls through a list, her gaze glued to the screen. “Here he is. Ted’s in isolation.” She turns to glance at me. “Visitors aren’t allowed in the isolation runs. I’m sorry, but you can’t see him. I can text you a picture if you want.”

“Oh, I see. No, that’s okay.” I turn to leave. The day is already heating up, the cicadas’ whirring music emanating from the limbs of trees. Behind the shelter, the dogs are barking in anticipation of their morning feeding.

I head toward the street, then catch myself. It’s early and there aren’t that many cars in the parking lot. Sneaking undetected around the side of the building is no trouble. With considerable difficulty, I scale the fence and land on the other side without battering my bad hip. I scan the row of kennels out back but none of the dogs are Ted-sized. Farther away, I spot a solitary lean-to with two runs placed side-by-side.

I make a dash for it and find Ted’s kennel. A laminated cage card adorns the chain link fence, complete with giant red lettering: CAUTION. WILL BITE. Behind bars, he appears smaller, a fraction of himself. His blanket lays undisturbed in the corner, his food and water untouched in stainless steel bowls. His muscles are bunched in fear, the whites of his eyes visible.

Ted is scared to death.

I grip the chain links between my fingers and press my face close against the fence. “Ted,” I whisper. “Are you okay?”

He trembles in response.

“They’re not going to hurt you. It’s only for ten days and then I can bring you home.”

Ted lifts his head. Behind the dark curtain of fear, an intelligent gleam lights his eye.

“Do you understand why I had to do it?” I glance aside and stare off into the distance before turning back to him.

He raises himself onto all fours.

“No matter what, you’ll always have a home with me,” I say. “You’ll have to learn better manners, but that’s nothing we can’t fix.”

Ted creeps toward the gate, sniffs the air around me.

“Anyway, I just want you to know one thing. You’re my dog, and I love you. I’ll never give up on you. I’ll be back for you soon.”

I scratch his muzzle through the fence. He watches me silently as I leave, the cicadas buzzing out a tune in the sizzling summer air.

THE END


2021 Lisa Voorhees

Bio: Lisa Voorhees -- "A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University. Her short stories have been featured in The Chamber Magazine and Noctivagant Press. Find out more about her at Lisa Voorhees or Lisa Voorhees on Facebook."

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.