— in memory of Antoinette Bolden —
The Master didn’t play with Rocket as much as the dog preferred, but he knew he was loved. He was a good boy, after all. The Master said so.
Every day, when The Master came home, Rocket would rise from his cushioned bed, give a stretch — his tongue rolling out in a toothy yawn — and prance over. He wanted to lick the Master, but The Master would only just rub Rocket’s snout, always distracted, before retiring to his special room.
Rocket wasn’t allowed in that room of books and forbidden furniture. He preferred not to enter anyway, given the acrid stench of wood polish and scotch, but he would often lay outside the door on those days when it was left cracked, watching the man sip his drink and sigh over stacks of papers. The Master had been sighing a lot lately. Some nights he even slept in that room.
Rocket was named by the Girl, the Master’s daughter. He was a puppy with her, and they grew together. They came to this big house as a family. She loved to run with him through the large rooms and halls, usually until the Woman shouted that they stop. Sometimes they broke things and Rocket would get a smart rap on the nose. Sometimes the Girl got worse.
Rocket didn’t leave the house often. Mostly, he stayed with the Others: people that fed him, swept the floors, polished the Master’s desk, and restocked his scotch. But they did take him for walks in the sweeping yards and sometimes even to parks. Often it was the Others that did this, but he was ecstatic when the family chose to.
Rocket’s fondest memory was of one warm, summer night at such a park. The Master had clutched his leash as they walked the grassy grounds. Many people came close. Some took flashing pictures in which the Master shook hands and smiled. Rocket cared very little about these things; his joy was the myriad scents of the city air.
Just Fireworks ruined that night. “Just Fireworks,” they called it: the bright booming above. It’s what the Girl kept telling Rocket as they held him firm, shouting in his ear, trying to calm him. It set his blood on fire; strangling his spine, coiling his tail under ass. The Master was furious with him, but Rocket couldn’t help himself.
He didn’t get to go to the park much after that.
Just Fireworks happened every year, but they were never so scary in the safety of his den, where he could lay on his cushion, his eyes darting and ears down, his whimper not condemned by the Others. Sometimes he would growl, even though he knew his bravery did nothing to scare away the cracks in the sky.
It was half a decade ago by Rocket’s time when things changed. The Master met with other people in his room, and they all spoke with terse voices. There they used a strange word, one that the Trainers never taught Rocket; one he came to hate for how it made the Master stink.
The word was “War.”
It was not much later that Rocket began smelling the fear on the Woman. Soon, he even smelled it on the Girl. Even stranger still, the family began wearing masks. They were not very friendly masks, they made Rocket nervous. He recognized the smells of his family, but he didn’t know those muted faces – the big, plastic eyes; the long tubular snouts. They all looked the same to him.
Then came the day that a strange man dressed in black entered their home, his blood sweetened with adrenaline. This person scared Rocket, but still he followed as the man went to the Master’s room.
“It’s time,” he said. “We have to leave now, Mr. President.”
The Master followed the man back out into the foyer where, now, more men waited. In a storm of commands, the house was alive with movement. People scurried and ran. The Woman and Girl came down the stairs, ugly masks concealing their faces.
There was arguing, fighting between the Girl and the Master.
“We can’t wait any longer, Lindsey! We have to go, now!”
“But, Rocket!” cried her muted voice. “We can’t just leave him!”
Rocket’s ears perked at the sound of his name.
“We have to go!” the Master screamed, taking her by the arm.
And so they did.
The big house fell quiet.
Then came Just Fireworks.
They were distant at first, dull thuds far away. Rocket curled up on his cushion, waiting for them to pass as they always did. But they didn’t; they grew closer and louder, much louder than they’d ever been.
Rocket whimpered, wishing the Master was home, wishing the Girl was there to snuggle him. He ran into that special room, not caring that he would be in trouble. Just Fireworks was everywhere and he welcomed any rap he would get for being so close to the Master’s scent.
Trembling hard, he knew they would come back, even as Just Fireworks grew deafening; even as the ground quaked and windows burst; even as the ceiling collapsed, spraying the floor with fire and scattered stone.
Days passed before Rocket tasted fresh air again.
Hiding in a void between the Master’s desk and rubble, mildly bleeding from scratches and whimpering from the burns, he jerked at the first beam of light.
Soon after, the man clearing the way said, “What the?”
But not knowing this person — only hunger and fear — Rocket twisted his way free and ran across the desolate yard, gulping life with a panicked joy.
Beneath the shadow of a flag that still stood, the man watched him go.
“What is it, George?” someone said, running over. “A survivor?”
But George shook his head, brushing sweat and exhaustion from his eyes.
“No,” he said, turning back to his work. “Just some dog.”
Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter @JChrisLawrence and Facebook/JCLFiction.