“The Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.”
-- Jack London, White Fang
Everyone around the neighborhood agreed. Tommy was a bright boy. From the time he first ventured forth beyond the confines of his picket fence on his red tricycle, he was recognized as a friendly, outgoing child, inquisitive and unafraid to ask questions.
Why do you give the car a bath?
Why do you plant the flowers?
Why do you feed the birds?
Why do you trim the bushes?
The Laurel Lane development was populated by upper middle class households, most of them older with children already in college, or moved out, or, in some cases, moved back in as adults. Consequently, Tommy was the only young child in the neighborhood and the sight of that little red tricycle, tooling down the concrete, soon taught everyone that questions trailed a few feet behind, like a close companion.
In an upscale neighborhood like Laurel Lane, the Peyne family was respected. Raymond, the father, was an oral surgeon with a partnership. His wife Lydia, in her mid-thirties, some fifteen years younger than Ray, was an outstanding homemaker, an active member of the homeowner association, and never failed to attend a Rotary event, where she was always a bright and vivacious presence. Lydia’s father, prone to dementia, stayed with them in the tastefully large colonial-style dwelling with a reasonable number of columns on the front, and what would one day be two large, stately oaks flanking a Japanese maple.
Laurel Lane was still a reasonably new neighborhood, the first homes, like the Peynes’, barely ten years old and a few lots still in various stages of development. The lane itself gently curved and looped around a couple square miles of lots with two different accesses from Route 10. In the center of the loop, a five square acre park was maintained by the Laurel Lane Homeowners Association.
As for little Tommy himself, well, he was a cute kid and no one really minded his questions. There was something about that inquisitive face that could involve anyone and, for every answer- which were different in many cases, as Tommy loved to point out- his lips would purse in such a delightful way and his brow would crinkle just so as to make anyone laugh, tousle his hair, and have the honest feeling that they had perpetuated knowledge in the world. For the selfishly affluent, a sense of giving back was important.
Of course, the tricycle on the sidewalk was soon replaced by a bicycle on the lane, a big yellow whip flag announcing the arrival of the inquisitive one. Tommy began going to school, and those in the neighborhood used to seeing him all the time felt a little poorer, a little guiltier, like maybe now they weren’t giving enough back to civilization. Summer vacation brought the boy again, and all was well. But now the questions reflected Tommy’s life in school, his assimilation into the outside world.
Why do people have different color skin?
Why do we walk through a metal detector at school?
Why do some people have so much and others have so little?
He must have asked that last question to everyone in the neighborhood.
Its just the luck of the draw, said one.
Some people just handle their money better, said another.
Because we live in a free market system, said Norman Walsh, a retired investment banker. That means those of us who work harder end up having a little more than others.
Each answer was greeted with Tommy’s usual scrunch-faced scrutiny.
It was Norman Walsh, though, coming home from the golf course a few days later, who completely missed seeing the high-flying triangular flag of inquisition, and nearly ran Tommy over. The boy had stopped and was straddling his bicycle in the middle of Laurel Lane. Walsh’s cellular reception had dropped out on him, and he had been fiddling with his phone as he drove. He didn’t see Tommy in the street, staring up at the sky, until it was almost too late and his no-lock breaks shook him to a stop just feet from the boy.
Say here, Tommy boy! What are you up to?
The seven year old didn’t even acknowledge his presence, gazing into the sky. Come down here! Tommy yelled, gesturing to the air.
Norman Walsh peeked toward the sky, but the twelve pack he’d consumed through the course of the afternoon did not allow for a steady enough view to distinguish just what young Tommy might be seeing up there, or a good golf game for that matter.
Escaped canary, Norman thought, and drove around him.
But Tommy, even after that incident, could still be seen watching the sky, calling for something to come down, day in and day out, and the neighbors soon began to wonder what was going on here.
It was Lydia who first spotted it.
I’m telling you Ray, it was some kind of UFO or something, and when I saw it, it was like it just disappeared, like it ducked down behind the trees over in the park!
The wife thinks the boy is talking to aliens, Ray said to the neighborhood menfolk at one of their Saturday afternoon driveway gatherings and the menfolk all had a good laugh. By this time the sight of the boy waving to the sky was three weeks old and the neighborhood just shrugged and went on with fences, lawns, and rotary events, occasionally pausing to wonder what the curious boy was looking at.
Well, I don’t know, said Pete, owner of a regional chain of restaurants who lived across the street. I thought I saw something the other day, a glint, or something.
The occasion prompted all four men to glance up toward the sky at once, like syncopated rock stars in a music video, an illusion partially dispelled when all of their heads jerked back an inch, their eyes widened, and their jaws fell open.
Hey now, what’s that? asked Sherm, his eyes wide.
I think it is a UFO, said Pete, his eyes wide.
I don’t know, said Ray, suddenly reconsidering Lydia’s blond observations, but I don’t think I like it.
At that instant, the shape began to grow quickly. A high whine, not immediately discernible, began to fill the air.
It’s coming! cried Pete, stepping back.
Oh shit! yelled Sherm and took off running down the street, holding the rear of his pants.
Ray started toward his house leaving Pete and Jerry standing there gawking. Whatever it was, it approached rapidly and Ray had to break into a run to try to get to his son in time. He didn’t. It swooped down from above, and as he reached the edge of his lawn, he found himself face to face with an MRX-12 Spectre military drone, hovering in his path.
There was an explosive menace about it when seen head-on, a deadly giant insect, everywhere protrusion. Its wings, perfectly straight, stretched some thirty feet from side to side. The two tail wings jutted upward in a V, abutted on the rear by a whirling propeller. The rear landing gear, in its reversed V nearly made a perfect X with the tailwings. The front double-wheeled landing gear obscured the lower tail piece with the vertical flap and seemed to pop right out of the domed, wide lens surveillance camera on the underside of the nose which panned up and down, scrutinizing Ray.
Ray could see Lydia out on the porch, her hand over her mouth. Tommy stood in the yard, yelling, Come here, boy! Come here, boy!
Lydia, get Tommy in the house! I think this thing is dangerous! His eyes darted over the various rocket-like devices which dangled below the wings. Lydia started across the yard toward the boy and the MRX-12 Spectre shot skyward and swooped over the yard, cutting off her path. She froze.
Ray ran for his driveway and his open garage door. He grabbed a garden shovel and ran back out toward the thing with no clear idea of how idiotic this gesture truly was. Later, he would have a dream in which he jousted with it, mounted on his lawn tractor, garden shovel held in front of him, speeding toward the hovering beast at five miles per hour.
The drone simply turned toward him as he approached. Ray heard a loud clitch and a short burst of escaping air, as if something had released, come open, and it stopped him in his tracks once again. He experienced a powerful sense of imminent death and this feeling was completely new to the oral surgeon.
And then Tommy ran toward him, under the wings of the machine, screaming, No, Dad! No!
Seeing his son run right under the thing jolted Ray back to action and he raised the shovel but by then Tommy stood right in front of him, pleading, arms up, palms out.
It's scared, Dad! Stop!
The confusion which Raymond Peyne experienced at this particular moment was unlike any other he had experienced in his forty nine years. It was so great, in fact, that he just dropped his shovel and reached out to for his son. But Tommy slipped from his reach, incredibly running back to the hovering craft.
At the approach of the boy, the drone pulled a little higher into the air.
Tommy raised his arms in the air, palms upward like a prophet. It’s okay, he said, it’s okay boy!
How do you know it’s a boy?
I just do, Mom! It’s okay, boy, nobody’s going to hurt you. Come here, it’s okay.
Maybe you shouldn’t do that, Tommy.
It’s alright, Mom! Come on, boy- come on down- nobody’s going to hurt you.
No words were forming on Ray’s lips. The confusion which he’d felt only a moment before had not, like so many moments of confusion, given way to clarity. In fact, when the craft began descending slowly toward his son’s outstretched arms, he found himself perceiving reality in segments. Thoughts were jumbled on top of one another, not playing out. At some point, Lydia had made her way over to him and was gripping his arm tightly. He wasn’t sure when or how. He only realized when it began to hurt. I could have- where did it- my god, Tommy- propeller is going to mangle my rhodo- still time to have more children- what can I- need to piss- It was a strange manner of existence for a man who had always prided himself in making informed decisions and staying cool under pressure. Until this moment, as a killing machine landed in front of his son, Raymond Peyne had been in complete control of the events of his life, which was all he really wanted.
With the drone on the ground now, Tommy could, on tiptoe, barely touch the edge of the wide lens camera, mounted on a dome swivel below the nose of the silver helmeted head of the thing. The camera was pointed directly down at the boy. The propeller ceased to whirl. Just in front of the V tail wing, a small satellite dish swiveled back and forth in a hundred eighty degree arc and, for one ridiculous moment, it reminded Raymond Peyne of a wagging tail.
Lydia, putting words to his thoughts as she so often did, said, My God, Ray, I think it likes him.
Ray’s mouth hung open. No thoughts could overcome the sight of his seven year old boy petting the surveillance camera of a military drone and speaking to it in soothing tones.
The boy turned to his father, his eyes bulging with excitement. Can I keep him, Dad?
Ray’s lower jaw moved up and down, but it was a meaningless muscular exercise as it occurred without a tongue and without breathing of any sort. He moved his head, trying to shake out words that didn’t exist, realizing too late that his son took the gesture as an acquiescence and the boy began jumping up and down.
What’d you do that for? asked Lydia.
I’m going to name him Buddy!
None of this was lost on the neighborhood. Just down the road at the first, gentle bend, the nearest neighbors had crowded closely together, sensing safety in numbers, murmuring excitedly amongst each other as the scene developed, Sherm and his wife, the Douglas’s, Jerry and his wife, the Feins, even Pete, who would have had a much better vantage point from his own front yard, chose the safety of the flock, forgetting his wife, apparently, who peeked out from behind her living room curtains.
Adjustments had to be made, of course. Buddy went everywhere with the boy, from morning until night. During school it stayed out of sight, but in the mornings, on the way to the bus stop, or evenings, playing in the yard or in the park, it was always there, playfully hovering and dashing, or watchfully sitting. They engaged in spirited games of tag. Hide-and-go-seek was another favorite and always ended the same, with a giggling Tommy being exposed in his hiding place.
Once she had deduced Buddy’s favorite landing spots, Lydia re-landscaped the front yard and laid down the law. Now, Buddy, this is your spot, here and over there! She pointed and the wide lens surveillance camera followed her motions. Buddy had ruined several shrubberies and two flowerbeds and she was determined to make him go in the right spots. Buddy learned quickly.
Other than that, care for the new pet proved to be much simpler than she expected it to be. There was no feeding to speak of, though when and where Buddy got his fuel remained a mystery.
Ray’s calls to the nearest Air Force base some 75 miles away were fruitless. They claimed not to have lost a drone. The phone calls to various law enforcement agencies led to several different explanations of how there were no stray drone laws and how each level of public safety had its own unique deficiencies in regards to procedure in that area. No one seemed to want to claim it, and since the Peynes had no idea how to begin getting rid of it they did what human beings have always done. They adapted. They adopted.
Now, when the neighbors saw Tommy pedaling down the sidewalk toward them, he was accompanied by Buddy, who, despite his friendly name, could still remind people of an angry, metallic dinosaur, a flesh-eating titanium pterodactyl. It’s to be certain that Tommy’s voluminous questions received much more thoughtful replies.
The board of the homeowners association met in secret. When it was revealed that they each had already made the same calls to the same government institutions with the same replies, the decision was unanimous. This one exotic pet would be tolerated.
I'm telling you, said Pete, out in his driveway, sitting on his new Husqvarna. There's somebody somewhere that's driving that thing, somebody sitting in a room somewhere, watching everything that goes on around here.
Jerry Nelson, a shrewd real-estate investor and a college professor, said, No, I’m pretty sure that's one of those new automated drones, programmed for law enforcement.
Automated! What the hell do you know about drones? asked Pete.
I'm telling you, I read it somewhere, online, or something.
There is no such thing.
Sure there is! said Jerry. And I'll bet we're all a lot safer having it around, too.
Safer, my ass. I see that thing hovering outside the kid's window at night. There's some pervert somewhere driving it, watching the kid undress and shit. You should hear the noises that come out of it.
Noises? Like pervert noises?
Yeah! If a machine could make those. Just weird-ass noises.
It is sounding the deeps of its nature.
The voice came from behind them. Jerry, Pete, and Sherm all turned like syncopated dancers.
A nearly naked old man grabbed Pete by the shirt and pulled him close, hissing urgently in his ear. And of the parts of its nature that are deeper than it- do you hear?
Carl! How'd you get out here?
Japs, he said, squinting and waving off the unimportant details. Nazis.
Lydia Peyne's father was a World War II veteran, no one ever asked in what capacity. He was clad simply in blue-striped boxer shorts and brown slippers. All parts of him appeared in danger of sliding off. Pete could see Lydia, coming out her front door, headed their way.
Watch it, boys. Watch it! said the old man. It ain’t right.
It isn’t right, said Jerry, automatically, hypnotized by the hairless sagging skin gathered around two sticks which comprised the veteran’s legs.
Thank you for your service, said Sherm, holding out his hand. Living a couple houses down, just around the first gentle bend of Laurel Lane, he’d managed to never see Carl before today. Carl looked at him like he was crazy as Lydia wrapped an arm around his shoulder.
Sorry! she said. Lydia was her bright, gay self as usual, and all of the driveway contingent felt, for a moment, their own privately held slice of jealousy toward Ray for his younger, voluptuous wife, shortly followed by their own quick fantasy about seducing her, except Sherm, of course, whose fantasy was to be seduced by her.
The home care worker called off today, she said, and I was caught up in cleaning. Come on, Dad.
The three men all took another moment to enjoy the luxury of Ray’s absence and the near-holy spectacle of Lydia Peyne’s ass in yoga pants, while displaying an obvious concern for the escorting of the old soldier back to safety. Then they each realized, in turn, and with private embarrassment, that no one had said a word to her.
The old guy’s really out there, isn’t he?
Oh, I don’t know, said Pete. I told you. I don’t trust that thing and you damn-well better believe I wouldn’t even be saying that if it was anywhere nearby right now.
Yeah, well, you know, these are all pretty nice houses here. First time a drug dealer comes in here looking to rob us, you’re going to be glad it’s here.
The debate was over for the day, obviously. All three men were distracted. Sherm was already glancing off toward home. I gotta go, fellas, he said, and started wandering in that direction. He thought about drug dealers that wanted his stuff, his mind fell to his collection of old coins, and then he was pinned up against the wall by Lydia Peyne and she yanked at his belt. He briefly thought it odd that the drone be there watching, in his fantasy, but then he just went with it.
Yeah, me too, said Jerry, giving Pete a skeptical squint. The argument wasn’t over yet as far as he was concerned. He was sure he’d read about the automated drones somewhere, loaded with behavioral recognition software. It had piqued his curiosity as a sociologist. As he crossed the street, Jerry was working on a theory, something big, something incredibly relevant and revolutionary. He could feel it brewing in the back of his mind.
Nothing was brewing to change Pete’s mind on this, certainly not internet rumors. He’d heard it out there, at night, moving around. It might have been designed for minimum noise, an unobtrusive noise, the kind that could easily blend into the background, but at the same time, it was a suspicious sound, and suspicious sounds bothered Pete. He’d heard it out there at night, and once, when he watched it from his bedroom window and whispered to himself, what the fuck is it doing, it had turned and looked at him.
Boy and drone were inseparable. They were often seen at the park, sitting on a gentle hillside in the grass. The boy would be chatting away and Buddy’s wide-lens camera would be fixed upon him, his satellite dish wagging. Did it talk to him, the neighborhood wondered? No one was brave enough to ask.
Sometimes on warm nights, Tommy would drape tarps over the drones wings and camp underneath. From the porch, Ray could hear him talk to Buddy. The tarps were lit from within, red from the drone’s running light on the underside of its belly. It was the only time Ray ever saw that light lit up. Something seemed wrong about it, that red. Something seemed wrong with everything these days. He was no longer the master of his household, the master of his life. Everything was out of control. Even sweet old Carl was on edge now all the time. A few nights earlier, at four in the morning, he woke the entire house when he began screeching, Tiny pilots! over and over, and laughing like a crazy person.
Events had cast Ray aside, made him irrelevant. His son was being raised by a drone. An anger was beginning to build in him.
Later, Lydia couldn’t say why she bought the balls and Frisbees.
It just seemed like the natural thing to do, right? I mean they can’t go on playing hide and seek all the time, can they? Ray? How was I to know?
Before they’d left the house, Tommy had shown Buddy the bag and said, I got something for you! By the time they got to the park, Buddy hovered close over the boy, turning this way and that, his little satellite dish spinning in full circles. Ray and Lydia sat on the hillside as Tommy carried the bag out into the open grass, the drone close behind. They watched as Tommy dumped the toys out of the bag on the ground in front of him, a blue ball, a green ball, a red Frisbee, and a yellow Frisbee with a happy cartoon dog face on it.
And you bought two of each, why? asked Ray.
Oh I don’t know, you never know which one Buddy will like.
Seriously? I mean really, how is he going to catch a ball or a Frisbee?
The answer to that question soon became all too apparent. Tommy chucked the blue ball as far as his eight-year old arm could throw. Fortunately, it was far enough.
Buddy the drone shot straight up into the air nearly two hundred feet and began to dive for the blue ball laying in the grass. As it descended, it released a small, laser-guided bomb and blew the hell out of that blue ball, leaving a ten foot crater where the ball used to be. The force from the blast was enough to knock Tommy onto his rear thirty yards away and brought Ray and Lydia to their feet.
Tommy jumped up. Wow! Oh Wow! Buddy buzzed around over his head. A crowd of spectators was beginning to form.
Lydia’s hand covered her open mouth. Oh, she said, the Homeowner’s Association isn’t going to like that.
No more balls, Tommy, yelled Ray.
Okay Dad! Wow!
Ray realized his mistake in specificity when Tommy picked up the red Frisbee and flung it. This time, Buddy swung out quickly to the right and launched a small air-to-air missile and blew the red Frisbee out of the air.
Wow! Oh, wow!
The crowd of spectators clapped.
Well, at least that didn’t deface the grounds, said Lydia.
No more, Tommy! yelled Ray.
Just one more, Dad?
Everybody did seem to like the Frisbee thing, said Lydia.
Alright, yelled Ray, but not the ball, just the Frisbee!
Tommy picked up the yellow Frisbee with the happy cartoon dog face.
And throw that thing high!
Tommy launched the Frisbee. Buddy launched his other missile. At least, Ray thought, that is the last of his missiles.
This time however, the air-to-air missile shot past the yellow Frisbee with the happy cartoon dog face. Past the Frisbee, out of the park, and over the hill. Past the Frisbee, out of the park, over the hill, and straight into the bathroom window of Tony Cunningham of Cunningham Chevrolet Toyota Kia.
After the television crews left, the Laurel Lane Homeowner’s Association board called another secret meeting. Tony Cunningham had been the neighborhood’s most vocal opponent of the exotic pet exception made for the Peynes, but everyone knew that was because his application for an ostrich was denied. Birds were filthy things, the board decided, and there were going to be no oversized chicken coops on Laurel Lane, backyard or not.
Still, it was rather disturbing to see the top of the Cunningham home blown off, and then there was the whole matter of the hole in the park. Some of the board members felt it was time to revisit the “Buddy” issue. Other members of the board loudly, and seemingly to the air and walls, announced that they would never ever have a bad thing to say about that darling Buddy.
In the end, it was decided that, as far as collateral damage went, Tony Cunningham was about as good as it got, and as far as the park went, a resolution was passed to approve the budget for more topsoil and sod. Several board members chipped in from their own pockets to avoid upsetting the books for the year.
For historical purposes, and for the comfort of his family, it should be noted that Tony Cunningham was not sitting on the toilet when he was killed, as was so cruelly suggested in the meeting minutes. He was in the shower, singing “Waltzing Matilda.”
That night the news broadcasts, despite the fact that all of the camera crews had seen the drone, reported the explosion to be the result of a gas leak.
Raymond Peyne was not to be so easily assuaged as the homeowners. His son’s pet had just killed someone. And somehow, the next morning Buddy had two brand new missiles and a bomb to replace the ones he’d used. If things weren’t out of hand before, they damn well were now. For twenty-three years he had meticulously built his life, from his total dedication to his education, to his successful practice, to the perfect marriage to the perfect woman with the perfect son and the perfect house. One piece at a time, all under control. And now that was all being taken from him.
Sitting in front of the computer in his den, he searched for independent journalism websites. If it took a bunch of liberal writers to bring attention to the subject, then so be it. He perused the headlines he saw there.
US Inadvertently Lets Weapons Fall into Terrorist Hands
Invasive Communications Bill Passes
Following the Money: Corporate Ties to the War on Terror
More Americans Below Poverty Level Than Ever Before
Congress Hides Domestic Terrorism Budget in the School Lunch Bill
How had it ever gotten this bad? As Ray scanned for the website’s contact information he slowly became aware of the noise to which he had grown so accustomed. He turned in his chair and saw the wide-lens surveillance camera, just outside the window. Ray pulled the blind, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
Laying there, he tossed back and forth, his anger rising. He was a prisoner inside his own home! Spying on him! What would he do if Buddy found out about his weekly tryst with Wendell Biehner’s dental hygienist at the Super 8? It was all he had left. The damn thing wasn’t going to take that too. He rose from bed with the intent of mortal harm.
Executing as much stealth as one inexperienced in stealthy activities could muster, he snuck through the house and into the garage where he most silently slipped the largest metal crescent wrench from its holder on the pegboard and crept out the backdoor. Through the black he glided, a wrench ninja, ready for violence. He would find the right bolt somehow, loosen the fuel line- god knows where it got its fuel anyway- or missiles- fucking missiles- got to be quick- fucking twig- why do I pay that guy to rake the yard anyway- wait- what-.
Buddy’s internal mechanisms whirred to life with Ray still twenty yards away. There would be no slipping in now, curse it all. He couldn’t even sneak up on the damn thing. When he realized that his legs had frozen with the sound, Ray could take no more.
He charged the drone at full oral surgeon velocity, emitting a primal scream to make the staunchest marine proud. Lights began to flicker on in houses as far down as Sherm’s. The metal crescent wrench rained down on the fuselage with rhythmic fury, driven home by the power of his screams. BAD drone! BAD drone! BAD! BAD!
Unbeknownst to Ray in his blind wrath, Neighbors were on their front porches, Pete and his wife were watching from their living room window, and Lydia was trying to calm a wailing Tommy.
BAD drone! BAD drone! BAD! DRONE!
Then it seemed the drone had had enough, whined to life, and sprang into the air with a gust of wind that nearly knocked Ray to his knees. Buddy whirled around, facing him, and Ray heard the clitch and the hiss of escaping gas that he’d heard with the garden shovel in his hand. It occurred to him that he had chosen an even more pathetic weapon than the last time he’d been in this situation.
The floodlights on the outside of the house blasted to life, blinding Ray for a second and by the time he had adjusted he saw Carl at the edge of the front porch. He wore his helmet from the war and his infantry rain poncho with his M1 strapped across his back, army green from the waist up. Below that it was blue-striped boxer shorts and brown slippers. He waved his service revolver around in the air.
Fuck! Tiny Pilots! Nazi Shit! Damn the torpedoes, boys!
And then he began his charge, shooting as he came. Of course, Carl’s charge was more of a high-stepped lurch, jerky, like a baby’s first unsteady scuttle across the high-piled carpet. His first shot took out one of the beautiful round gas lamp globes which adorned Laurel Lane. Everyone with a direct line of sight of the scene ducked. Across the street, Pete and his wife had adopted a Kilroy pose, only the tops of their heads visible in the window.
Ray, too, dove for cover. The idea of Carl with live ammunition frightened him worse than the drone. He had no idea there was a live clip in that trunk.
Carl’s second shot took a small branch from one of the young oaks. His third missed all solid objects. His fourth went straight into the ground as he struggled with his balance, mid-lurch. The fifth shot took out the stem in the middle of Buddy’s satellite dish.
There’s some apple for your pie, Adolf! Don’t turn back now, boys!
The drone reared back into the air, a whip about to snap. Carl pursued it out into the middle of the yard, now shooting wildly overhead, unable to look up and lurch at the same time.
Ray saw the whole thing from where he took cover around the front corner of the house, saw Carl stop, shove in a fresh clip, grip the .45 with both hands, and spread those wobbly sagging legs to steady his aim, saw Buddy launch his deadly cargo, saw the rocket on its deadly course before he covered his head for the explosion.
So it was that Private Carl Reynolds left the world as a war hero and later Ray thought, if there is any sort of justice in existence, then he entered the afterlife to find his entire regiment, in dress uniform, saluting him.
Buddy flew off and disappeared beneath the stars.
When it was over, it was as if no one had paid any attention at all. Much like a few days earlier, the neighbors were all questioned, the damage was scrutinized. There was much standing with hands on hips, shaking of heads, and conferences of serious men replete with fingers occasionally pointing in different directions. At least this time there was no fire to put out. The end result of all this questioning, scrutinizing, and conferencing, was a generous portion of shoulder-shrugging and embarrassed confessions of powerlessness.
The television crews were again on the scene, but like before, no interview portions were aired and the cause of the explosion was blamed on more faulty gas lines. Ray felt dazed by the whole experience.
Lydia hated him now for getting her father killed. The irony was that Carl had just been diagnosed with cancer. Like Pete said later when Ray told him about the diagnosis, Well that was a much better way to go than cancer.
Tommy hated him now for driving Buddy away. The kid cried for days, walking around holding the piece of the satellite receiver that Carl had shot off. He’ll never come back now, he screamed at Ray.
But, as Ray suspected, the boy was wrong. A week later Buddy alighted on the front lawn, a shiny new satellite receiver wagging near his tail-wing. Tommy’s joy could not be contained and all the neighborhood smiled strangely stiff smiles and told him how happy they were for him.
Like most boys, as he grew, Tommy took Buddy more and more for granted, and the drone would often follow him now at greater distances, forgotten. And like it does for all boys with beloved pets, the time came when he had to say goodbye.
One morning when Tommy was in middle school, Lydia reminded him to go out and pay some attention to Buddy, but this time, when Tommy came near, the drone’s internal mechanisms failed to come to life.
Buddy? the boy said. Buddy? Wake up, Buddy!
Tommy began poking at the cold metal and tears began to fill his eyes. He was now tall enough to reach the wide lens surveillance camera and he grabbed both sides of it, peering intently into its inscrutable glass.
By now, Ray and Lydia had heard the boy’s cries of distress and came running out of the house. Pete, headed to an early golf game, saw the commotion and wandered over, watching from the fence. Ray went over to him as Lydia consoled their son.
I think it’s dead.
Good, said Pete. What the hell are you going to do now, bury it?
I don’t think I want to dig that hole.
It was a joke, but Tommy remained inconsolable. He wanted to bury Buddy, like Grandpa. Ray, though a believer in firm truths, refrained from telling the boy there really wasn’t that much of Grandpa left to bury. Disposal logistics were a real problem and Ray discussed it with the driveway contingent that weekend.
Maybe if you brought in a backhoe.
I’m not bringing in a backhoe and digging a hole that big in my yard! Are you crazy Jerry?
Aren’t pets supposed to be buried in the backyard?
That’s beside the point. If I could figure out how to haul it, I’d take it to the junkyard or something. Any ideas? Anything would be helpful here guys.
At that moment, a white, thirty foot flat bed truck turned onto Laurel Lane and came to a stop in front of the Peyne house. As the four men watched from Pete’s driveway, two strangers in military fatigues got out of the cab, walked into the Peyne front yard and, each gripping a landing strut with one hand and a wing with the other, lifted Buddy’s carcass and began carrying him off.
Tommy ran from the house. Wait! Wait! Where are you taking him? Dad! he yelled across the street. Where are they taking him?
Ray lifted his hands, palms up, in front of him and gave his best confused expression. He wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Pete, Jerry, and Sherm were all eerily silent, as if in respect of the beast that killed Carl.
Tommy followed the men right out onto the street, screaming at them. Where are you going? Where are you taking him?
The men never spoke as they tethered the landing gear and the tail wing to the bed of the truck and covered it with tarps that fastened to the sides of the bed with button snaps.
Right before getting back in the cab, the one riding shotgun turned to Tommy with a fathomless expression.
We’re taking him to live on a farm.
As it turned out, there was enough of Buddy left to have a funeral in the backyard after all. Digging a small hole in the corner of the yard, they laid his old satellite dish stem to rest.
He was my best friend, said Tommy. There’ll never be another one like him.
It was this moment that Jerry Nelson chose to share the insights that had been gathering form all these years, the insights which would have been a major work of sociological research had it not been for the computer virus that wiped out all of his research, notes, pictures, and documentation.
I think we have witnessed a significant moment here, he said. The first time a spontaneous bond was formed between man and machine. Buddy was that first wolf to come in to the campfire light those forty thousand years ago, the beginning of an era of cooperation and codependence. Someday people will wonder where it began. And it all began right here.
Jerry, said Pete, sometimes I think you are a genius.
He turned and started walking back around the Peyne house toward home.
And then you spout crap like that.
Some years later, at his college graduation, the entire graduating class erupted in applause as Tommy stepped onto the stage to receive his diploma. Tommy was a campus legend, not only for his legendary performance on the college debate team but also for the peculiar best friend which accompanied him everywhere, including onto the stage for his graduation ceremony.
Tommy had discovered Buddy, as he named him, right after his debate team had annihilated the team from Yale in a debate about concentration of wealth in a free market system. Buddy was a small metallic dragonfly with a three inch wingspan that sounded like the rustling of leaves when he flew.
Sitting in the restaurant after the graduation ceremony, Ray, long since divorced and remarried, said to Tommy, Why, son? Why do you tolerate that thing? Did you learn nothing the first time?
Aw, Dad, said Tommy, holding out his hand for the small flying machine and, as it landed, looking deep into its tiny fiber-optic lenses. Not all drones are bad. Some of them love us.
C.M. Chapman is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he is the McKinney Teaching Fellow for 2016-17. His work has appeared in Cheat River Review, Dark Mountain in the U.K., Limestone, and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Awards. His chapbook, Music and Blood will be published this fall by Latham House Press. For more info see: www.cmchapman.net and on Facebook.