Joe’s eyes widened as Simon Granter swaggered towards him. Loping beside Simon was the brand new ani-Mate dog, huge and black.
“I call him Satan,” Simon’s voice oozed smugness. “Isn’t he neat? Dad arranged for him as a s’prise ’cos he missed my birthday.”
“Yeah. Neat.” Joe reminded himself it must really suck that Simon’s Dad was never around for ballgames and birthdays. Except Simon never played ballgames, anyhow. Gazing at Satan, Joe decided that if Pa ordered him an Alsatian Mk 9 for missing his next birthday party, he’d totally cope.
Joe put his hand out slowly for Satan to sniff. To be rewarded by a low rumbling threat, as the ani-Mate’s golden eyes locked onto Joe’s face.
“Flood it, Joe! You don’t shove your fist in his face. Dad’s progged him for Guardmode.” Simon’s voice squeaked in panic.
Snatching his hand back, Joe turned to the kid. “And you’re taking him to school?”
Simon’s pallid face was set as he rested his hand on Satan’s back. “Yeah. Now I got Satan, maybe they’ll leave me alone.”
“And maybe they’ll just wait till you don’t have Satan around.” Joe was sick to his skeleton of nursemaiding the kid.
Simon’s elusive Dad was Pa’s boss. When the Granter family moved into the district last fall, Pa had organised a Welcome Barbeque for them. While Joe was helping Pa cook hot dogs, Mr. Granter had laid a meaty hand on his shoulder.
“I hear you attend Fair Valley High, young man.” Although Mr. Granter had smiled as the man’s eyes had swept over him, Joe had suddenly been scaldingly aware of the ketchup smear down his shirt.
“My Simon is going there,” Pa’s boss had continued. “I’d sure appreciate it if you’d look out for him.”
Conscious of Pa’s anxious gaze, Joe had nodded. “Sure, sir. I’ll take care of him.”
What Mr Granter hadn’t mentioned, Joe reflected bitterly, was that his son was a motor-mouthed little suck-up, whose prowess at sports managed to make Mavis Stokes look good — and she was growing back her foot…
Joe sighed. “If there’s any trouble with Satan, I’m telling you now, Simon, you’re on your own.” ‘Less you manage to froth Billy and his gang — and I gotta step in. Again… Responsibility for the kid dragging at him like a boulder, Joe trudged along the path.
Simon shrugged, trying to look like he didn’t care. But Joe noticed he tightened his grip on Satan.
However, he needn’t have worried. Approaching the school gates, a growing cluster of admiring kids gathered — Billy and his mates included. Once they arrived in the playground, everyone crowded around Simon while he showed Satan off.
Joe gritted his teeth, listening to the kid’s boasting squeaky voice ordering around the magnificent beast. Now, if Satan were his…
When the school bell chimed, Joe slowly joined the crowd funnelling through the school entrance, racked with envious misery. It hurt that the boy he despised most in the whole wide world had the one thing he’d wanted from the moment the ad had pinged into his Talkslot. And he wouldn’t have used a name like Satan. His pet would be called Shadow and none of this Guardmode biz — he’d be a true friend. Like Scraps. Only better.
‘Cos Shadow wouldn’t need walks every evening, like Scraps did. Or poop. Or chase chickens. He’d be cool and black and — and…
In class, Joe was reprimanded repeatedly for not listening to his teaching cube, as his gaze kept returning to the Toy Corner. Satan looked even more savagely magnificent among the droid-dolls, teddy-bots and other ani-Mates. None of them were half as trendedge as Shad — Satan…
After school, Simon was always last to de-couple from his cube, gather his stuff and meet Joe for the walk home. For once, Joe didn’t mind.
Until the kid appeared with Billy and his gang.
“I saw you looking at my dog, Joe McIntyre. You want him for your sorry self. Well, too bad. ‘Cos he’s mine.” Simon’s spiteful, gloating look had Joe clenching his fists in his pockets. “So flood off to your sad shack of a house. Billy’s gonna be my friend, now.”
Billy grinned — a sharp, knowing smile. Joe turned back to Simon, not quite believing that he didn’t get it.
Billy just wants control over Satan. When he gets it, he’ll beat you up, anyhow…
“Sure about this?”
“I’m sick of you. Star-crazer!” Simon’s sneer nearly split his lip.
Blood pounded in Joe’s head. “Fine. Tell your Dad that I kept my word. Looked out for you.”
Billy sniggering behind him, Simon’s pale face turned scarlet and his voice squeaked as he cursed Joe for pretending to be a friend.
Joe turned away, feeling vaguely angry and ashamed. But when he got around the bend, he sprinted down the path — for the first time in weeks… Or was it months? Simon didn’t like running. He’d plod along, whining about how Billy needed teaching a lesson, or moaning over the zilched state of their teaching cubes compared to his last school…
Not anymore, though. Simon had Satan, now.
Joe pounded along the path, giddy with freedom. At the sight of his house, he waved his arms. Something else he hadn’t done in a long while, because Simon didn’t like real dogs…
Sure enough, Scraps — barking fit to bust and his legs a blur — flew over the fence. Joe scooped him up, giggling as a doggy tongue rasped across his cheek. So what if his breath wasn’t lemon-scented, like Satan’s?
Joe realised with a rush of guilty love that despite Satan’s sleek, black looks, he wouldn’t swap that flat amber glare for Scrap’s adoring chocolate-soft gaze. Hugging his favouritest dog in the whole wide world, Joe promised to take Scraps for an extra long walk — right away from those darn chickens.
A writer of science fiction and fantasy, S.J. Higbee‘s sci-fi novel Running Out of Space is due to be published in 2010. She is also a Creative Writing tutor at Northbrook College and spends her free time reading far too many books and tutting over the disgraceful state of the garden.