Wolf, Jack, and I are sitting on the sand at the beach. It’s just past sunset. You can still see a little bit of the sunset’s pink-and-orangeyness over the horizon, while the rest of the sky is now a smoky gray.
The sand feels cool on my hands and toes but the air is finally warm; the Florida version of winter is winding down. This year the “winter” lasted four whole weeks. Longer than last year. I don’t like the cold. But on the other hand, every day we’re below 85 degrees feels like a little more reassurance that the drought won’t come back.
We all grew up here at the sanctuary. The only three kids who are still here. We’ve been sitting in this same place, on this same beach, basically, for all our lives. What’s new—newish, at least—is that Wolf’s hand is just grazing mine. It makes me feel like my whole body is submerged in a warm bath and that everything around me is a little muffled or something. It’s kind of embarrassing how his hand touching mine conjures the memory of what a warm bath feels like, given how many years it’s been since I have had one. I get the occasional “real” shower, using actual water, but mostly I just wipe myself down with those smelly Sani-Fresh pads once or twice a day. Wolf smells the same, though. We all do.
Wolf. Wolf with floppy, curly brown hair. Wolf, who is kind of short, but so am I, so who cares. His small nose. His big eyes. Hazel. They’re hazel, “with rings of gold around the hazel,” Wolf likes to say, batting his long eyelashes. A group of long-time residents who call themselves the “Bad Bitches of Dog Island” always say those eyelashes are wasted on Wolf.
I like them. “Don’t I have beautiful eyes?” he asks me. He stares into my eyes. My mud-brown eyes. No gold rings.
This thing with Wolf is recent and thrilling and unexpected. It’s also making Jack act really weird. He keeps grunting and refusing to look at us and making passive aggressive comments at his robot Chihuahua, Mr. Chi-Chi Pants.
“Mr. Chi-Chi Pants,” says Jack, looking into his robot dog’s face. “Do you think anyone here is being extremely rude?”
Jack, whose black hair is always a little bit stiff and crinkly because of this gel that his mother rubs into his head every day. Jack wears the same Dog Island clothes that we do—stiff shorts, old T-shirts, all in materials that don’t need washing with water, that can be blow-cleaned—looks different than me and Wolf. He somehow looks like he’s going to go off to the office soon. He just gives off an impression of professionalism and no-nonsense-ness.
We, of course, have no offices here on Dog Island. We have plenty of nonsense. I’d like to have more nonsense with Wolf right now, in fact. He and I start to gaze into each other’s faces once more.
Mr. Chi-Chi Pants doesn’t say anything. He’s an old model, pre-speech. (He’s also not really a he. The robot dogs aren’t gendered per se, but you invariably end up using pronouns that correspond to the names you give them.)
Wolf can speak but is choosing not to, I guess. Jack takes the last hit of weed, carefully stubs out the joint and slips it into his pocket. He never litters.
I just run my fingers through the sand, feel how soft it is, how cool compared to the warmth of Wolf’s skin.
With my free hand I toss a ball to Billy. He catches it, brings it back, panting heavily and thumping his tail. He yips until I throw the ball again.
“Okay,” I tell him. “Okay, Billy. Hold your horses.”
“He doesn’t have any horses,” says Wolf. “Who even has horses anymore?”
“Want to go robot horse riding next weekend?” I ask.
There’s a small “stable” of old-fashioned robot horse models that the three of us muck around with sometimes. These are some very old Mechanical Tail prototypes. They were supposed to replace “real” horses—the Organics—out in the real world so as to minimize or eliminate the cruelty we humans inflict on these magnificent creatures. No more hideous carriage rides. No more punishingly cruel horse racing. And so on.
Except the Mechanical Tail versions never caught on. They didn’t run fast enough to replace Organics at the track. No one liked a robot horse-pulled carriage ride through Central Park in New York City. There was nothing “romantic” about that, apparently.
Plus, the robot horses kept breaking. Ours are broken and rusted, too, but since Wolf has been apprenticing with the Dog Island handymen and handywomen, he’s learned how to tinker with them enough to get them walking a few steps every now and then. And that’s pretty fun. Plus it helps to fill the day.
“Sure,” Wolf says. “Jack, you coming robot horse riding?”
Jack grunts. Billy whines softly. Then something catches his attention. He lifts his front paw to point. I didn’t know he had that function. I pull out my phone, which is on a chain around my neck, tucked under my shirt, and unfurl the flexible, rolled up screen to press the “positive interaction” button, so the Mechanical Tail robot dog developers will be able to tell that I enjoyed what Billy just did, in their quest to build the perfect robot pet. Then I follow Billy’s paw with my eyes.
A cat, just strutting along by the water. I squint; I can’t tell if it’s a real cat or one of the robot cats from this distance, and I don’t want to get up.
“Go get it, Billy,” I say.
Billy dashes over the sand toward the cat and picks it up by the scruff of its neck. He trots back over to the bench and puts the cat down in front of me, wagging his tail. Its tail. His tail. He’s Billy now, already.
“Good boy,” I say, pressing the “positive interaction” button again. I feel a twinge of guilt. I remember pressing the button for positive interactions with Derrick all the time at first, but then I got used to him and it dropped off. I only gave him one negative interaction that I remember.
It was when he accidentally got wet, after I’d had him a few months—and then his tail wagged against my leg and gave me a small shock. That wasn’t his fault, though. I shouldn’t have pressed the button.
Billy wags his tail even harder. It’s hard not to love Billy. (Which is, of course, the whole point.) It’s hard to remember that he will be taken from me, a year from now, to stay cold inside. That it will be taken away.