It all started with a dog named Rufus.
He was covered from snout to tail in soft yellow fur, except for a heart-shaped patch on his back where the fur grew in white and wiry. He wasn’t small, but he wasn’t exactly big, either.
He belonged to the Robbins family, but he loved little Nina Robbins the most. She was nine, and he was seven. They were closer than siblings, and Nina couldn’t remember a time when Rufus hadn’t sat under her chair during dinner or licked her face while she watched a movie with her parents.
It was the summer between third and fourth grade, Nina and Rufus spent every hour of the day together, as they had done for every summer before. They played in the park, they took bites off the same hot dogs. And at the end of the day, Rufus always slept at the foot of Nina’s bed, her toes curled up against his softly rising back.
That summer proved memorable for two reasons. First, because of the tornado that struck in late May, killing no one but leveling much of downtown. And second, the opening of Hazelton’s first Death Prediction office, located in the new plaza that sprung up in July after the city finished rebuilding the devastated business district.
For Nina, summer was about sunshine and exploring and chasing down the ice cream truck with Rufus; there was no need for her to take notice of construction or new businesses or the gossip of adults. She heard her parents whispering late at night, after they thought she was asleep. They shared rumors about who had been tested, and debated the merits of getting tested themselves, but for Nina, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as finding out which new flavors the ice cream truck would have next week. Still, she overheard some of the stories of the machine from her parent’s room.
Stan and Bev Johnson had gotten tested: “Raccoon Bite” and “Food Poisoning,” respectively. Mr. and Mrs. Kim had refused to get tested, but their teenage daughter Soo had rebelled and gone to get her blood drawn. Rumors said the machine had predicted “Stray Bullet,” but Karen Paulli swore it was actually “Stray Cat.” Nina’s mother whispered harshly that she overheard two women talking in the grocery store about how Mr. Edelmann’s prediction had been “Noose,” and how the women were bickering over whether it meant suicide or execution.
Nina’s father said that they ought to start imposing age limits on using the machine, that people were just out to make a buck without considering how a teenager might overreact when they got their prediction. But Nina’s mother said that everyone had a right to know how their story was going to end.
But for all the scandal and gossip, Nina simply didn’t care about the death machine. At least, not until the first week of August, when tragedy struck and Nina became fascinated with the machine and what it could do.
She went walking with Rufus one afternoon, the hazy heat of the dog days of summer making the sidewalks shimmer. They had been digging a hole to get under a fence behind the old house on Fuller Street, hoping that they could find out whether the place was really haunted or not.
As they reached the corner of Fuller and Baker, she saw another dog across the street. The Smith family’s German Shepherd Max was a little territorial, and didn’t like seeing Rufus near his house. He ran towards Nina and Rufus, barking in sharp, staccato bursts. The Shepherd’s eyes were fixed on the intruders, so he never saw the blue sports car come flying down the road.
Nina screamed, and the dual squealing of tires and dog was a sound that she heard in her dreams for the rest of the summer.
That night, she stared at the ceiling, too shaken to fall asleep. Rufus had crawled up higher on the bed, resting his head on her stomach so she could scratch behind his ears.
The Smiths had all started crying when they saw what happened to their beloved dog, even burly truck driver Rick. Nina had never seen a grown man cry before, and it was almost as bad as watching the accident.
What would she do if she ever lost Rufus?
Her parents were talking down the hall again, murmuring her name and the names of other neighbors, recapping the day’s news behind closed eyes. She couldn’t catch every word, but she did catch “machine.” They were always talking about the machine these days.
And then, it clicked. If all the parents in her neighborhood were getting tested, why couldn’t she have Rufus taken to the prediction room?
By 9 am the next day, Nina was waiting outside the testing bureau. She had Rufe’s leash in one hand and her piggy bank in the other. She hadn’t expected there to be such a line, but with so many other businesses still closed or operating at reduced hours, most people in Hazelton had plenty of time to kill. So why not spend it at one of the few air conditioned businesses in town?
There were some unfamiliar faces, and Nina guessed they must have traveled from several towns over. But there were also faces she knew well from her block. Elderly Mr. Gupta, and that painfully thin cheerleader Marta Lennox. The portly junior high gym teacher thumped his stomach and nervously switched his weight back and forth between each leg, while Dr. Pirelli chewed his nails at the front of the line. There was even a perfect nuclear family: architect Evan Guzman, his wife Alicia, and twins Mira and Mark, age 14.
Nina hadn’t expected such a line, and certainly not one that was so slow-moving. But a sort of camaraderie began to form as the minutes stretched into hours, with neighbors holding spots in line for others who needed water or a quick trip to the bathroom. Towards 2 pm, when perhaps only 6 people had been seen out of the 25 or so in line, one person even ordered pizza to share with everyone else still waiting to use the machine.
Finally, Nina was next, and at 4:45, she was likely to be the last person tested that day. She and Rufus were brought into a cool white room with two chairs. She sat in one, and Rufus curled up underneath her.
A few moments later, an attendant came in. She had dark curly hair massed in an unruly knot at the back of her head, and a nametag on her chest identified her as “HOW CAN I HELP YOU? MARGARET.”
“All right, sweetheart, how can I help you?” Margaret asked Nina as she sat down across from the girl.
“My name is Nina and I want to get a test done. I brought all the allowance money in my piggy bank. It’s eighty-five dollars and fourteen cents. And two bus tokens. Is that enough?”
“That’s more than enough,” Margaret laughed nervously. “But to be honest, I’m worried you might be a little young for this. It can be pretty scary, getting your prediction done.”
“It’s not for me, ma’am. I want Rufus to get tested,” said Nina, bending down to scratch him behind his ears.
“Oh. Ooh. Your dog? That’s…well, Nina, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can help you. We don’t use the predictor to test animals, only people.”
“Why?” asked Nina, in the tone that only the very young use to question the actions of adults.
“Well. Because. Because the machine’s not for animals. It’s for people. It’s too important to use on animals. And besides, the Predicta has never been tested on animals, so it probably wouldn’t work for dogs anyway.”
“But if it’s never been tested on dogs, then how do you know it won’t work?”
“Because if it worked on animals, then the manufacturer would have told us that when we bought it,” the attendant snapped. “Now, it’s almost closing time, so you’d better get your dog home, okay?” she said, rising to her feet and guiding Nina and Rufus out the door and towards the exit.
“Oh, wait,” said Nina. “Can I just use your bathroom first, before I go? It’s kind of a long walk back to my house.”
“Sure. It’s that door up there on the left,” said Margaret.
Forty-five minutes later, the prediction office had closed up for the night. The lights were off, the main door was locked, and all the staff had gone home.
In the bathroom, Nina unfolded her legs and helped Rufus to get off her lap. No one had come into the bathroom, but Nina thought it was best if they both kept their legs out of sight.
“The thing about grownups, Rufus,” she explained to the yawning dog, “is that sometimes, we’re so small, they forget we’re even here. If you aren’t a grownup, then they don’t even notice you half the time, unless you say something to them. Kind of silly, huh?”
Rufus answered with a very quiet bark in the affirmative, and Nina opened the stall door to let him out.
“Now that we have the place to ourselves, we’ve got hours to figure out how to work the machine. It can’t be that hard. I figured out how to use my camera and write html for computer class without ever looking at a manual.”
Nina and Rufus made their way out of the bathroom and back down the hall. Along the way, they checked each door they came across. Room after room, all they uncovered were more waiting areas, although they did manage to find a break room with a vending machine. Nina bought them beef jerky and peanut butter crackers to share with some coins from the piggy bank, and then moved on down the hall.
The last door on the right was locked, with a keypad attached to the door handle. After a moment, Nina typed in “12345” and hit “Enter”. The door clicked and swung open.
“Honestly, Rufus, when will grownups start using their imaginations?” she asked, to which Rufus replied with another bark and a lick to the back of her hand.
They entered the room, turned on the light, and there it was. The Predictamatic. The Death Machine. The Dark Fortuneteller.
To Nina, it wasn’t that big a deal.
The machine was ratty looking, distressed. It looked like a cross between an old arcade game and the coffee vending machine at her Dad’s office. The machine was covered in fake wood paneling that was beginning to peel on the sides, and embossed with lettering that looked like it had been in vogue at least two decades earlier.
“Power” read the text next to the big red switch.
“Insert finger here” read the legend over the tiny square hole.
“Prediction Prints Here!” read the final phrase over a credit card-sized slot near the bottom of the machine.
“This is what all the fuss is about? Grownups are weeeeird, Rufe,” Nina said.
She switched on the power, and the machine stirred to life. It was ready to go. All the machine needed was a sample.
But there was a problem. Rufus didn’t have any fingertips. His paws were too big to fit in the hole where the blood was drawn. His tail was too short to reach the hole, and his floppy ears wouldn’t slide into the appropriate space, either.
“Okay, Rufe. It just needs a little of your blood, right? Maybe we can find a way to draw some of your blood and give it to the machine, and then we can get your prediction. Come on, boy. Let’s go exploring!”
The pair retraced their steps. Nina hoped that there would be some room with medical supplies, or something else she could use. Anything to help Rufus, find out his future, and protect him.
In one of the little waiting rooms, Nina pawed through under-sink cabinets and drawers, and even the trash cans. Then, she looked up. On top of a tall metal cabinet, there was a cardboard box labeled “Replacement Needles.”
“That’s perfect, Rufus. We’ll just grab those, get your blood, and then we can finally use the machine!”
But the steel cabinet was almost as tall as the ceiling, too tall for Nina to reach on top of, even while standing on a chair. She was overtired, frustrated, and acted rashly. She stood up on the chair, took a deep breath, and jumped towards the cabinet.
She managed to grab on to the top of the cabinet with one hand, but as it rocked in place, the whole cabinet began to tip. It fell straight forward, and hard. Nina fell hard, too, rolling off to one side.
The sun was rising. Nina could feel it on her face as she rolled over. Her head hurt, and her jaw was sore. The memory of the falling cabinet hit her all at once, and she stood to her feet in a flash, surveying the damage.
The heavy metal cabinet had fallen, and all the needles and other pieces of sharp equipment had come down underneath it, spraying out on either side.
Something else had been sprayed, too. Something reddish and sticky.
“Rufus?” she called out. “Rufus!”
There was no answer. She began to scream.
The attendants found her there a few hours later, hands covered in tacky fluid where she had tried to lift the cabinet off from Rufus. They called her parents in, and Nina’s mom took her into the bathroom to clean up while her dad talked to the manager.
Nina watched the water in the sink turn from red to pink as she washed her hands, and then threw up.
Later, after her parents had everything explained to them, the three of them were shuttled into a room at the back of the office. Her father kept whispering the word “sue” to her mother, who kept responding with something about “juvie.”
Curly-haired Margaret was behind the desk, her face a strange blend of somber and intrigued.
“Nina, I know you must be very sad. But I want you to know that Rufus didn’t die in vain. After…what happened last night, I got curious. I collected some of your dog’s blood after the accident and got the machine to give us a prediction reading. The machine doesn’t always use the clearest language, but we think that in this case, the prediction was correct. And that means the machine probably does work on animals, which is something we didn’t know before. It’ll be good for expanding our business, and that’s good for the whole town.”
Margaret took a small piece of oaktag paper from a manila folder in front of her. It was no bigger than a business card, and embossed with the Predictamatic logo on the back. She slid the card, face down, across the desk towards Nina.
It was still warm, like it had been freshly printed. Like it was alive. Nina turned it over. The card read: PUPPY LOVE.
The next few moments were a blur for Nina, and try as she might in the coming years, she couldn’t remember the exact order of events. But she did remember one thought very clearly.
If loving things kills them, then I should just stop caring now. Now, and forever.
“Oh, Rufus,” she wailed. “I’m so sorry,” she keened as she burst into tears, and her parents reached over to comfort her.
By the time they got her to the car, she had stopped crying. As they drove off, she stared out the window, seatbelt tightly fastened. Her hands were twisted together in her lap, white around the knuckles, purple at the tips.
The ride home was silent as the grave.
Tucker Cummings is the author of “The Strange Adventures of Margery Jones”, a 365-part microfiction serial about parallel universes, which can be found at MargeryJones.com. Her work has won prizes in fiction contests and she is one of the contributors to “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities” (HarperCollins, 2011). Her upcoming publications include the anthologies “Grim Fairy Tales” (Static Movement, 2012), “Future Lovecraft” (Innsmouth Free Press, 2011) and “Stories from the Ether” (Nevermet Press, 2012).
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