Empty Sockets (a short story)

A young man mends his broken heart by helping another lost soul: a stray little dog with a robotic leg.Empty Sockets Cover

I met Little Guy the cyberdog five days after Mindi broke up with me. Yeah, adopting a dog at a vulnerable time like that is not usually the best idea. But Mindi had yanked her love right out of me, leaving an empty socket. Something needed to get plugged into it. For me, that was Little Guy.

The break-up happened as abruptly as a car crash. I was so stunned I don’t think I even reacted, other than the typical engineer-type’s response: “Okay. You don’t want me; I’ll get out of your way.”

I grabbed my computer, got in my Honda, and drove out of Minneapolis. I ended up at an ashtray-smelling motor lodge on I-94 somewhere south of Eau Claire. The next day my Honda’s tires crunched over the long gravel drive at my parents’ farm in southern Wisconsin.

My mom had never liked Mindi, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she cooked. Dad kept me busy with chores around the farm. On the third day I checked my messages and discovered I’d been fired from my programming job because I hadn’t shown up and I hadn’t called in.

I started taking long walks on the old mini-bike trail I‘d made when I was fifteen. The farm encompassed 85 acres of mostly flat corn-and-soybean land near Elkhorn. But there was one little hickory-covered ridge overlooking the farm. I’d made a sweet jump for my bike at the bottom of the slope. It was just an overgrown lump by the time I walked the trail that fall.

Early October leaves blazed red and orange beneath a cloudless blue sky. The sun offset the sharp breeze that stung my cheeks as I walked. I longed, though, for the dreary mists of November.

The third time I went on that ramble, I discovered that Mom had sneaked a peanut butter sandwich into my jacket pocket. At a clearing on the ridge, I sat on a fallen trunk and stared down at the farm. I watched old Shelly, my dad’s useless horse, amble out of the red barn and into his fenced-in pasture. His life seemed as pointless as mine, though I admired the Zen-like way he stared at nothing for long periods.

Sun glinted off the windows of the boxy, white farmhouse my Dad had inherited from his grandfather. I thought about how, at my age, my parents had already had two kids. My life had not gone how I’d thought it would, but I didn’t know why.

I didn’t have much appetite, but I unwrapped the sandwich and took a bite anyway. Peanut butter and jelly always tastes awesome, but it’s hard to get down without milk. I tossed most of it on the ground, figuring a family of squirrels or raccoons would make short work of it.

I heard the beeping before I saw him. It was a high-pitched double beep, like you’d hear from a smoke detector with a low battery.

And then the cyberdog appeared.

He sprinted up the slope, a flash of brown, white, and silver through the trees. When he spotted me, he bounded over, whole body wiggling like I was the greatest person who had ever lived. And I thought he was about the best thing I’d ever seen, too.

I’m not an expert in dog breeds, but his features were a blend of Jack Russell Terrier and some sort of Spaniel. He weighed maybe twenty-five pounds. A little streak of white fur slashed up the top of his chocolate brown snout, giving him a rakish look, as did his grin.

A sudden unbearable itch hit him then and his hind leg went into the reflexive scratching mode all dogs do. I was impressed that the brain-limb integration was so deep.

But the beep-beep repeated every twenty seconds. Really annoying.

I’d seen cybermodded dogs before, but never on a mutt. Little Guy’s hind legs had the typical matte-nickel finish with black rubber foot-pads and sheathing around the joints. The thighs seamlessly socketed into his hips, and made none of that hydraulic noise you sometimes hear coming from veterans’ arms and legs. Just the beeping.

He still had his natural tail, though it had been docked down to six or seven inches. I’m not a fan of that practice, but it suited his proportions.

The sandwich distracted him for a few seconds, during which he wolfed it down in two bites. After that, I was his best friend ever and he thanked me by licking my hands clean. Satisfied with this exchange of pleasantries, he sat down and took in the view with me while I mashed his ears back and scratched his chin.

I took the opportunity to check his collar, which had a metal tag with the initials L.G. embossed on it. No contact information. Since the ridge bordered the Samuelson’s acreage, I figured he probably belonged to them.

I sat there a long time, the center of his happy orbit, which carried him, comet-like, to the outer reaches of the corn fields. But always back, usually at a dead run, metal hind legs flashing.

The day lengthened and the barn’s shadow ate up Shelly’s pasture. The temperature fell with the sun, so I strolled back to the house with Little Guy in the vanguard.

My dad liked him right away and thought the mods were pretty fine work. Mom wasn’t so sure about him. She’d never really gotten over losing Wilson, her beloved Beagle. She said I needed to find his owner and return him.

When I suggested he belonged to the Samuelsons, Dad and Mom looked at each other and laughed. “Not likely,” Dad said. “Abe hates cybermods. He ran for town president hoping to ban cybermodded police.”

“That beeping is awful,” Mom said, but she gave Little Guy such a sorrowful look I could tell she pitied him.

She fed him some left over chicken and he promptly went to sleep. I inspected him a bit closer, putting my palm over various spots on his body until the beep muffled. It came from a spot high on his left thigh. A bit of foam rubber and duct tape cut the sound down by half, though it was still too loud.

We had a couple hours before dinner, so Dad and I woke Little Guy up and loaded him into the back of the pickup. We drove along Townline Road, stopping at each farm to ask if they’d lost a dog. Nobody had.

Little Guy spent that night on the foot of my bed, twitching and snuffling as he dreamed of rabbits or birds or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His beeping kept me awake for a while, but soon the warmth of his body against my legs drew me into the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long time.

#

Beep-beep-beep.

The change startled me awake. It was still dark out, but I smelled coffee brewing which meant it was after five in the morning. I tried to get up without disturbing Little Guy, but he jumped down from the bed, did a down dog pose, and yawned so hard his tongue curled up like the tip of an elf’s shoe.

“Why did your beep change?” I asked him.

He nosed my bedroom door open and moseyed down the hall to the kitchen, metal and natural nails clickity-clacking on the hardwood.

My mom’s voice, high-pitched and cheerful, floated back to my room. “Well, good morning, Little Guy! Do you want some breakfast?”

Beep-beep-beep.

“Oh, you do? You’re just a little bitty baby, aren’t you? Yes, you are. You’re mama’s little baby. Do you need to go outside? Outside?”

After a moment, I heard the door shut.

Yeah. Mom was done for.

That morning after chores Dad and I expanded our search, hitting up every house in a subdivision they’d built on what had been the McEnroe’s farm. No luck there, either.

Which is to say, it was good luck. By that time I did not want to part with Little Guy and I could tell by the way Dad sighed every time we pulled into another driveway that he didn’t either.

When nobody claimed our beeping cyberdog, we decided to give up the house-to-house nonsense. Instead, I posted notices on the grocery store bulletin board and a couple gas stations. Dad didn’t comment when I printed the notices in blue ink on light blue paper and didn’t bother cutting the little tear-off flaps at the bottom of it either. I might also have failed to mention that he was a cyberdog.

When I got home from that mission, Little Guy’s beeping had changed again.

Beep-beep bee-dee-beep.

I did not like it.

“It does sound like an alarm,” Dad said, removing his John Deere hat and scratching his bald head. “I think maybe you should take him to see Dr. Kipling. Besides, if you’re going to keep him, he needs to be neutered.”

The next morning his beeping was the same, but I took him to Waukaukee to see Dr. Kipling. She’d doctored all dad’s various livestock, including Shelly. She’d also neutered or spayed all the farms strays, and had even sent Wilson into his final sleep.

Still strikingly handsome at fifty-something, she wore her long ponytail draped over the left shoulder of her white coat. She took one look at Little Guy and then at me. “In here.” She pointed into an examination room.

“I don’t have much experience with cyberdogs,” she said. “Most people around here can’t afford these kinds of mods.” She poked and prodded him for a while, then announced he’d probably been born with one or both hind legs under-developed. “Whoever did this did top-flight work.”

“What about the beeping?” I asked.

She raised her eyebrows and flattened her lips. “I’m not certified in dogmods, but I suppose I could check one thing . . .”

Grasping Little Guy’s hip where it met his body, she twisted counter-clockwise to the end of its range of motion. He looked back at her, smiling, tongue hanging out. She gave a light jerk and the leg went past its stopping point until his foot pointed straight at the ceiling.

Little Guy gave a yelp, but seemed more surprised than pained.

Dr. Kipling pulled the leg out of its socket and the beeping stopped.

“Don’t get too excited,” she said. “Standard CD7 socket, so it’s lost connection the power supply embedded in his pelvis. I just wanted to check the serial number.”

She flopped the metal leg on a stainless steel cart and bent over it. After scraping away some flakes of mud, she pulled a pad from her pocket and scribbled down some numbers. “I think this is it. It says it’s a Canine Thousand cyber-prosthetic.”

Lying over on his remaining leg, Little Guy whined and sniffed at his empty hip socket.

“He hates having it off,” I said. “Show me how to put it back on.”

Dr. Kipling showed me. A soon as it snapped in, the beeping started up. Beep-beep bee-dee-beep.

She frowned and asked me to wait while she checked the serial number on her tablet. “You said you found him on your parents’ farm?”

“Yeah.” I lifted Little Guy from the table and set him on the floor. He wandered around the room, nose in overdrive. “Are you trying to trace his owners using the serial number?”

“It’s worth a shot,” she said absently, still poking at her tablet. “Assuming the installer registered the legs properly.”

“Do you have to?” I asked.

Her eyes shot up, intense and blue. “Someone went to a lot of expense to fit him out with those legs. You don’t do that with a pet you don’t care about.”

“But if they let him run off, then maybe he’s better off with us, you know?” My mouth had gone very dry. “My dad’s been a loyal customer of yours for how long?”

Her face lost all expression. “You’re asking me to breach my code of ethics.”

“That’s not what I’m asking. I’m just asking . . .”

But that’s exactly what I was asking. Sensing my worry, Little Guy sat at my feet and tilted his head as if to ask, “What’s wrong? You smell funny.”

Dr. Kipling turned her attention back to her tablet. “I’m going to report this to the manufacturer. If they track down the owner, then you can try to negotiate with them to keep him. But you have to think about his people. I’m sure they miss him.”

#

She was right. And when I got home and told my folks, both Mom and Dad agreed. “If it was Wilson, I’d want him back,” Mom said, sniffling. Dad put an arm around her and stared at Little Guy, who lay under the kitchen table, munching on a rawhide treat.

Beep-beep bee-dee-beep.

Mom went into the living room to finish knitting the blanket she’d been making for Little Guy. She’d wanted something comfy for him to lay on in the kitchen when he supervised her cooking. “He can take it with him to remember us.”

Dad and I went out to the barn to take care of Shelly and the goats. I berated myself for getting so attached to Little Guy, and for the millionth time in my life swore I would never let myself get sucked in by creatures (human or otherwise) who elicited my sympathy.

Mindi had wormed her way into my heart the same way with her story of abusive parents and struggles to pay for college. I realized then that I might have just been a convenience for her. I’d offered safety and rent-free living space. And when she didn’t need it any more, I was out.

But as mad as I got thinking about Mindi, I couldn’t blame Little Guy. He was just a dog, and he wasn’t rejecting me.

When Dad and I got back into the house, Mom was bawling into a wadded-up tissue. “They found his people. They’re coming to get him tomorrow.”

They were a family from Richmond, some fifty miles south of us. The woman who’d called said he’d been missing for over a month.

“She was really nice,” Mom said angrily. “It’s not fair. I can’t even hate her.”

That night while Little Guy lay on my feet, I went online to check my finances. I was prepared to make a big offer to buy him. It wasn’t a logical thing, really. I could have bought a very nice car for what I was preparing to pay to keep him.

Dad tried to distract himself by putzing around in the basement, cleaning his fishing reels or something. Mom worked on the knitted blanket. I petted Little Guy and watched TV. And when I went up to bed, Little Guy jumped up and snuggled by my feet. I lay awake, listening to his beeping, which had become as comforting to me as my own heartbeat.

And then it changed.

Beep-beep bee-dee-beep-bee-dee-beep.

I didn’t sleep at all, but turned around in the bed to put my head close to Little Guy’s warm body.

#

The car drove up the gravel drive, sending a rooster-tail of dust behind it. We stood on the porch, staring as the car stopped and a woman and man got out. I had my accounts all squared away, so I was ready to make my offer. I held a print-out of a purchase contract with little blanks for the final numbers.

And then the woman opened the car’s back door and a little girl jumped out. Little Guy raced toward her and she wrapped him up in her arms. She couldn’t have been more than seven.

Blinking away my disappointment, I folded the contract up and stuffed it into my back pocket. Dad was already walking out to greet the people. Mom followed after, red knitted blanket folded over her arm.

And I stood there, dumb and cold, as Dad shook the man’s hand. The woman knelt by the girl and let Little Guy lick her face. Their laughter floated to me like soap bubbles.

Little Guy’s whole body wiggled as if his happiness were simply too much for him to contain. He began to caper about, sprinting nowhere in particular and then back into orbit around his people.

Mom invited them in. I didn’t know why. It seemed better to just get it over with.

But while we sat around the kitchen table, drinking coffee, the man pulled a cylinder from his jacket pocket. “From the sound of it, we’re just in time.”

He was talking about the beeping, of course.

“What does it mean?” I asked. They were the first words I’d said to them, and my voice cracked.

“The battery pack needs to be charged every three or four weeks. It’s a wonder it’s lasted this long.”

Mom covered her mouth. “That would be so pitiful to see him dragging his legs behind him.”

The man popped one of Little Guy’s legs off and pressed the cylinder into the socket, then extended a cord, which he plugged into an outlet. A yellow LED flashed on the side of the cylinder.

While the dog charged, the people talked about how happy they’d been to find out Leo Goodie had been found. He had not been born with underdeveloped legs after all; he’d been hit by a car. They’d spared no expense to have him fitted with the cybermods. And then one day he’d disappeared.

Mom spilled the unhappy details of my recent breakup. I apologized on her behalf and told the people that my personal issues were none of their concern. I said I was lucky to have had Little Guy in my life at all, that he’d helped me through a tough time.

The lady smiled and wiped a tear from her eye. “He wandered into our lives like that, too. Just showed up in our yard one day. My mother had just died.”

Dad took a long sip of his coffee then stood, signaling that it was time to get to the chores. I knelt to say goodbye to Little Guy, but I couldn’t say anything. For his part, he seemed to know something was up. He licked my hands the way he had that day I met him, as if to say goodbye.

Mom wiped at her eyes with another wadded-up tissue.

And then they left. Little Guy bounded to their car and hopped in the back seat. The girl hugged him and kissed the top of his head. The doors thumped shut and they drove off, tires crackling on the gravel.

#

The next week I drove back to Minneapolis and collected my stuff from the apartment. Mindi didn’t even bother to hide the Gophers sweatshirt on the bed. It wasn’t mine and it was certainly way too big for her.

I started to get mad, but then I caught myself. There was nothing to be gained by holding on to Mindi through my anger. Little Guy had taught me that.

Yeah, I know he was just a dog. But letting him go hurt me at a time when I didn’t think I had much more capacity to take it. And it did make me angry.

But a remarkable thing happened a few days after he went home with his people. The girl, Eliza, sent me a letter. Actually, it was a picture she’d drawn, of her, Little Guy, and her parents. They all had happy faces on.

Letting him go was the best thing I’d done, I realized. Without Little Guy, Eliza’s family had had an empty socket where his happy love had been. It felt good to know that he was plugged back in where he belonged.

And seeing him return to his family showed me something very important. That’s what I wanted. A family.

Yeah. I know. It sounds silly to hear a grown man talk about a silly dog like this.

But for me, at that point in my life, Little Guy was so much more than just a dog.

# # #

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“Empty Sockets” is Copyright © 2016 by Eric Kent Edstrom