My Dog Barks At Ghosts In The Park
Short Story | Helix Rising Series | Duration: 10 Minutes 30 Seconds
Welcome to The Storyletter. There’s a special relationship between reader and writer, something unique to the medium. Without you, there’s no story. True, the writer facilitates the journey, but it all comes alive when you, the reader, pick up where the writer left off. So here’s a story written for you, and I can’t wait to see what you make of it. ~ WM
My dog and I survived the end of the world together. I guess “end of the world” is a little hyperbolic as people like me are still kicking, but what am I supposed to call it? The fall of civilization? The Great Reset? I don’t know, something. Anyway, Ruckus here has been by my side through thick and thin. Well a little more thin than thick, I’d say. Difficult to find food these days, but we make do.
I bend down to scratch Ruckus between the ears as we walk in the middle of the street toward our favorite midday destination where the ghosts of the past like to play: the park. See, we live in downtown New Salt Lake. It’s old now, but that’s what we called it growing up. This sector of the city is real nice and abandoned just the way I like it. Most survivors live in the outer reaches of the city limits, away from all the scavengers and gangs. If you run up on people inside the city they usually aren’t so kind, therefore it’s best to give strangers a wide berth to be on the safe side.
Animals on the other hand? Now that’s a different story. Truly man’s best friend. Not sure if that’s a saying reserved for dogs but I’d like to think it applies to any creature that finds a home with you. I say this because, well, Ruckus isn’t really a dog. I mean he is, but he isn’t. He’s a synthetic replica all the way down to the hair follicles between the pads of his feet and his cool, wet nose. I don’t know how they did it, but he’s one of the last beautiful things humans created before the Arty-War–that’s short for Artificial Intelligence War, the one caused by the defects, if you happen to know anything about how that went down because I don’t.
Ruckus and I pass a dilapidated building, which doesn't look any different than the rows upon rows of buildings in either direction, but something causes Ruckus’ ears to perk up. He stops and stares at what used to be a café, the front glass shattered long ago, the floor laden with a layer of dirt and dust, the chairs broken or tipped over on their sides. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary so I tell him to come on.
Now you might be wondering, “How do you know he’s not real?” Like, if he’s so convincing then what tipped me off that Ruckus is a replica? Simple. When he falls asleep, there’s a little trap door that pops open behind his neck, in between his shoulder blades, and a blue holographic display pops up that says, “Battery Low”. Can you believe that? My dog needs to be charged! As if they aren’t a handful enough as it is. Oh well, I shouldn’t complain. He keeps me company during the really quiet days and warm on the coldest nights. He’s a blessing to be sure. Sent by the big guy upstairs. And no, I don’t mean the Helix guy living up on Moonbase, if he’s even still alive.
We reach the park, which is a hilly quadrant nestled amidst towering structures on all sides except one. On that one side, they—the architects or city planners or whoever—had decided it’d be nice to still see the Wasatch mountains from the park, so Ruckus and I like to sit with a view of the snowy peaks. It’s also perfect because there is a charging station there for him while he naps. There are no trees but that’s okay, there’s a slight haze to the sky which makes it nearly overcast at all times. Which had been the case in the valley for as long as I could remember, something about inversion or something.
On the way to our spot we first see Suzy, a small red-headed ghost girl that likes to kick a ball over and over again. Ruckus goes crazy every time we see Suzy, but I don’t know if it’s her running or the ball that drives him nuts. I also don’t know her real name but I couldn’t keep walking past her memory every day and not at least give her something to remember her by. She’s slightly translucent like all the other ghosts in the park and her laugh wafts along the cool air in an eerily choppy way. She never notices us. Just has eyes for her soccer ball.
Then there’s Tony over by the dried up pond. He’s a body builder of some kind, or was. Ruckus runs up and bounces in tandem with his push-up cadence, barking with each push as if cheering him on. Faint techno music can be heard from somewhere behind him as he counts each rep in an exhale. He does that for about five minutes and then he disappears for a while, only to come back for a set of jumping jacks. I usually can’t watch Tony for too long as just the thought of working out gets me out of breath.
I call for Ruckus and he runs back to me with his tongue hanging out. I love seeing him this happy. It makes my day every single time. I want him to stay that way so I lead him away from the old rundown bathroom where Creepy Joe leans up against the side wall. I’m not certain what it is about Creepy Joe that triggers Ruckus, but I suppose even ghosts have an aura that only dogs can really sense.
We finally reach our spot and plop down next to Linda. She’s a twenty-something that wears a thick coat that she grabs onto for dear life despite the weather being near perfect. She stares out at the park and doesn’t do or say anything, just watches, which is fine by me. Ruckus lays down in between us, but nuzzles into Linda’s see-through thigh like he always does. I unwind the extension cord from the outlet in the hillside. Ruckus doesn’t resist, he knows what to do at this point. It’s our routine. After he puts his head down to rest between his paws, the trap door opens up on the back of his neck. I plug him in and lay back to close my own eyes.
I’m not sure how much time passes, but a voice stirs me, a woman’s. I sit up half expecting Linda to be looking at me, warning me of something straight out of the afterlife. But she’s still staring out with her blank expression, fading in and out.
“Hey, are you real?” the voice comes again.
I twist to find a woman with greying hair tied back in a bun. She steps toward me but I can’t make out her face for the scarf swaddling her neck overtop a bluish-grey coat. She tugs at her coat lapels nervously as she speaks again and I feel like I know this woman.
“I just want to know if you’re real or not?” she asks.
I stealthily unplug Ruckus just in case she becomes a threat of some kind, even though I don’t get that impression. It’ll take him a few moments to boot up anyway, so I respond, feeling kind of awkward.
“I’m real. Are you real?” I ask.
“Yes. I am. I just… I’ve been watching you for awhile. I know, sorry, that sounds weird. I mean, I used to come here every day and sit in this very spot. That’s me right there.”
She points at Linda. I look at Linda. Then I look back at her.
“Wait, you’re Linda?”
“Yeah, the dead lady,” I say, thumbing at Linda. “She’s a ghost. Her name’s Linda.”
“That’s not her— that’s me from over twenty years ago.”
“Wait, what? How?” I ask. I’m on the verge of anger, but then Ruckus interrupts. He dashes toward the woman and at first I’m worried he’s going to attack her, but then she lets out what could only be described as a squeal of joy.
“Barry!” she says, kneeling to embrace my dog. “You’ve come back!”
“Barry? No, that’s Ruckus and her name’s Linda, in case you forgot that already.”
The woman removes her scarf and Ruckus licks her cheeks and chin as she kisses him all over his slobbery face. She does faintly resemble Linda the more I look at her. I move to stand and get my dog away from this strange lady but Ruckus abruptly turns and runs back to me as if sensing my unease. He lays down next to me, panting.
The woman’s smile fades slightly. She replaces her scarf and sits next to us, Ruckus in the middle, his face nuzzling my thigh this time. She grabs at her coat as she sits there and I see the resemblance of this older woman to the younger Linda.
“So, you were saying that Linda here is actually you?” I ask, genuinely curious.
The woman lowers her head and stares at Ruckus. “Yes. My dog died a long time ago. I had him replicated and they returned Barry to me alive and well. He was so much like the real Barry, they must implant memories or something. I don’t know how they did it. But, unfortunately, one day the door was left open and he ran away. He loved the park. I’d take him for walks here every day and I’d charge him at this very spot. Afterwards, after he’d run away that is, I’d come here and sit to look out over the park in hopes that he’d come back, you know, our routine. One day they–the park city planner people–used drones to scan everyone in the park to implement their new hologram idea, the one that was supposed to make parks look more inviting to get people to visit them more often.” She looks past me at her old self and I see the years of loneliness behind those eyes. The pain she must have felt after losing her friend. She continues, “I figured, since they had a hologram of me sitting here on a loop, then maybe I wouldn’t have to come every day. So it became every other day and then every weekend, and then just once a month before I had to move on with my life.”
I look away, focusing on Ruckus while she speaks, scratching just underneath his ear like he likes. I think to myself what it would’ve been like all the years leading up to now without him but I can’t imagine it.
“Then as you know the world ended and I was stuck in another state. No way to get back here. No logical reason why I should. I lost everyone important to me and the only thing I had left to keep me going was the thought of Barry coming back here and seeing me but it not really being me. I needed to know what became of the park. So, I made it back. It wasn’t easy. But I’m here. I watched for only one day and saw you and him come here, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had convinced myself that I’d gone crazy to justify what I was seeing. That I was imagining ghosts in order to fill a void in my heart. So… that’s why I asked if you were real or not, just to be sure.”
Older Linda has tears in her eyes now. I feel so sorry for her. I ponder for a moment but the only thing I think of is that her story makes a lot of sense and it turns out that I’m not crazy either.
“Huh. Well, you’re not crazy, Linda. Look at me. Here I was thinking I was seeing ghosts in this park the entire time and was acting like it was normal. Holograms? Really? It makes so much more sense. I just didn’t know that it was a thing.”
Linda’s shoulders shudder and I think she’s crying, but she sucks in a big breath and laughs out loud this time.
“Look,” she says, “I don’t want anything from you. I just had to see Barry one last time. I know that he’s your dog now and I’m okay with that. Thank you for letting me see him.” She gets up and starts walking away. Ruckus sits up and watches her go, ears turned down.
I can’t let her leave like this. “Hey,” I say. She turns, holding her coat like before. “His name is Ruckus now.”
She nods. “I know.”
“Listen, I can’t give him up. He’s my best friend. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be your best friend, too.”
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“We come here every day around the same time. You’re welcome to join us. I’m sure he’d love the company.” Deep down I mean “we would love the company”. I can’t see her mouth, but I can tell a smile reaches her eyes as they glisten in the sunlight.
“I’d love that,” she says.
After she leaves, Ruckus snaps to attention in the direction of the park again, a low growl emanating from deep within his frame. I had totally lost track of time talking with Older Linda. Creepy Joe is back. The cloaked man always walks past us on the trail if we sit here for too long. Ruckus charges at what I now know is a looped hologram and not the poor soul of a demolished and nearly forgotten past. This time I just let him bark to his heart’s content. No harm, no foul. I smile as I watch him since for the first time in a long time, I’m excited about what tomorrow will bring.