“…And, bazinga! Cookies, caught!” Marley said as she scooped up the package of Oreos from the floor. Buster, the golden retriever, leaped down from the kitchen chair that was situated against the counter, and sniffed the package, inhaling chocolate goodness. “Buster,” Marley said as she plopped her three-year-old body on the floor, “we have this down to an art. We make a great team.” She handed the dog a cookie, and he wolfed it down.
“What,” he said between bites, “do you mean, we? I’m the one doing all the—“
“Ah-HA!” Dog and toddler froze at the same time. “Caught you!” Marley’s mother, Rachel, strode into the room and grabbed the pack of cookies. “Did you two really think you were going to get away with this again?”
“Be cool,” Marley whispered to the dog, “she only knows about the cookies, I think—“
“I knew this dog could talk!” Rachel announced.
“Busted,” the dog said, and gave the doggie version of a shrug.
Rachel sat in the kitchen chair, elbows on knees, looking down at the dog. Buster, for his part, managed to look sheepish. Marley, much to her indignation, was two rooms away in the living room, behind a baby gate. Rachel could hear her harrumphing loudly every few seconds.
“Alright, talk,” she said to Buster. “It’s no use acting like you don’t know how. I’ve caught you doing it more than once.”
“And I was counting on you fainting every time,” Buster muttered.
“Hey! That was just once. Give me some credit!”
“Twice,” Buster corrected.
“Hey—alright, fine, twice. I can’t believe I’m arguing with a dog.” She shook her head. “Well, go on!”
“What would you like me to say?”
She sputtered a bit. “W-well,” she said, “explain! Explain you! Where did you come from, how did you learn to talk, why are you different?!”
“And why,” Buster said, raising his head, “would you assume I’m different?”
“Because you are! I never heard another dog talk before.”
He gave her an even stare. “Did you ever try listening before?”
She stared back, and laughed. “This is crazy. I must be crazy. Dogs don’t talk!” She paused. “Except you, obviously.”
“Well,” Buster observed, “maybe you humans just aren’t good conversationalists. “
“Really. Or maybe we know what kind of reaction we’ll get. You know, my last owner tried to take me to the pound when he heard me. And it was completely unfair; all I did was try to help him out. Poor guy couldn’t handle it.”
She sighed. “I know how he felt.”
Buster made his doggy shrug again. “Can’t be helped, I suppose. So what are you going to do? You know, we could just carry on as we have. It’s a good deal—you get a dog, I get a home, Marley gets a companion—“
“And that’s another thing!” she interrupted. “You talked to Marley, but not to me? How can a three-year-old possibly be better conversation than an adult? Or for that matter, how can a three-year-old keep a secret like this?!”
“I can hear you!” Marley yelled, her little voice full of indignation. Rachel ignored her.
“Well,” Buster retorted, “maybe I’m not the only one getting misjudged around here. That little girl is a smart cookie. And we all know how good cookies are,” he reflected.
Rachel sat for a long moment, staring at him; then she threw her hands up. “Okay, this is silly. You’re a talking dog. You’re some kind of scientific wonder or something. I should turn you over to some government lab or something. They’d probably even pay me for it!” She jumped up and moved to the kitchen table, where a laptop computer sat.
Buster stood up, alarmed. “Uh…wait, you don’t really wanna…well, haven’t you ever seen E.T.?! You know what the government does with things it doesn’t understand, right? Hold on a minute!”
“Can’t hear you, I’m Googling!” she announced from behind the screen.
Buster gave her another look, then ran into the dining room. Marley lay sprawled melodramatically on the floor on the other side of the baby gate at the far end of the room. “Marley! Get up!”
Marley turned her head without sitting up, and arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh, well, if it isn’t my old friend Buster. Buster the betrayer! Talking to my mom without me!” She turned her head away.
“Marley, don’t be silly. I didn’t have a choice, I’m just as much the victim here as you are!” She ignored him. “Alright, look, I’m sorry, but we have a problem! Your mom wants to send me off to some lab somewhere! You have to help me!”
“Oh, sure!” she declared. “Just run off to some nice lab without me, where you can eat all the cookies by yourself! Never mind me, your best friend, sitting here alone with no dog and no cookies! I see how it is!”
“Marley!” he said. “It’s not a good thing! If I go, I’ll never see you again, and there won’t be any cookies, either! You have to help me!”
Finally, that got her attention. She rolled over again, sat up, and gave him a considering look. “No cookies?” she said at last.
“No cookies,” he said, putting as much solemnity as possible into his voice.
“That’s not fair! We have to stop her!” She climbed to her feet. “But how?”
“I…um…hmm. I don’t know…oh, why does opportunity never knock when you need it?” He was interrupted by a two-note ringing.
“Sometimes it rings the doorbell?” Marley said, and the dog barked a laugh.
“I’m coming!” Rachel called out from the kitchen. She passed by the dining room on her way to the front door, and the duo heard it click open. “Hi, can I help you?”
Buster listened a moment to the conversation that followed. “Sounds like a door-to-door salesman.”
“Is that a thing?” Marley said.
“It used to be. Apparently in this fictional universe it still is,” Buster remarked.
“Nothing. Something something fourth wall. He sounds pushy.” It was true; the salesman seemed to be building up a head of steam, and Rachel seemed to be having difficulty getting rid of him.
“Is he selling brushes? That’s a cliché,” Marley declared.
“Yes it is. Hey, we can use this! Step back.” Marley moved out of the way, and Buster jumped the gate in a single, neat leap. “Okay, first I need you to get me out the back door. Can you do that?”
Marley nodded, and ran to the door. “If mom knew I could do this, she’d be mad,’ she announced; then, nimbly, she twisted the lock switch on the door, grabbed the knob, and pulled the door open. “Okay, what now?”
“Just don’t let me get locked out. And when the salesman stops talking, you make a distraction in here.”
“I don’t know…break something!”
She put her hands on her hips. “Buster…I like the way you think.”
“Not surprising. You like plans that might involve getting injured. Remember jumping out of the swing and onto me? Anyway. Be ready!” He darted out the door.
“Oh, no, I really don’t need—“ Rachel was trying to say, but the salesman wasn’t giving her an opportunity.
“That’s the problem with these situations,” he interrupted, “you never know when the need will arise. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard, isn’t that right?” She had that weary look that told him she was almost ready; he prepared to close the deal. “So how about—“
“Hey!” a voice yelled from the direction of the street. “You kids get away from that car! I mean it!” The salesman spun around, searching for the voice, but saw only a golden retriever in the yard, facing toward his car. Looking over his shoulder, Rachel’s eyes widened.
“That’s right!” the voice shouted again. “Oh, you think you were smart, hiding on the street side. But you get caught letting the air out of those tires, and you’ll be sorry! You better run!”
Alarmed, the salesman turned back to Rachel. “Ah, excuse me just a minute. I need to check on that…I’ll be right back.”
At that moment, there was a crash from the living room, and the sound of glass breaking. Rachel’s head whipped around. “Marley!” She turned back. “Maybe another time. I need to go check on my daughter. That sounded…not good.” Abruptly she slammed the door; the salesman heard the lock click into place. Without any time to think about it further, the salesman turned and ran for his car. In his haste, he didn’t notice that the dog had gone.
“I can’t believe you two set this up,” Rachel muttered, still pacing in the living room. The broken vase had been cleared away; now Buster and Marley sat on the floor in front of her in equally contrite poses. Rachel stopped pacing abruptly and looked down at them. “Couldn’t you have made a plan that didn’t involve breaking things?”
“We didn’t have much to work with,” Buster replied. “Or much time.”
“We saved you, Mom!” Marley announced.
Rachel broke into a grin, and scooped the child up into a hug. “Yes, you did, baby. You saved me from wasting a lot of money on something pretty dumb. Thank you.” Then she eyed Buster. “And you,” she said. “I guess I owe you some thanks, too.”
“Well,” he said, “about that…you could let me stay here. I would accept that form of gratitude with no questions asked.”
She set Marley down, and sat down on the sofa. “No, I…I don’t think so. You’re a talking dog! How weird is that?”
“Only as weird as you want it to be. I don’t talk to just anyone, you know. “
“After all,” he interrupted, “we’ve done just fine so far, haven’t we?”
She gave it a moment’s thought. “I suppose we have.”
“Please, Mom?” Marley said from the floor.
She glanced from one to the other, then back. “Alright! Alright! I can resist one set of puppy-dog eyes, but not two. Buster, you can stay.” Marley clapped, and the dog dipped his head in acknowledgment. “But! No getting anyone in trouble. If people found out about this, I wouldn’t be able to stop something bad from happening. Got it?”
“Absolutely,” the dog declared. “I know where the boundaries are.”
“Then it’s agreed. “ She stood up to leave the room. “Well, I need to make dinner. Try to behave.”
As soon as Rachel’s back was turned, Marley dug into her pocket. “We should celebrate!” She pulled out two Oreos, confiscated from the pack earlier. She stuck one in her mouth, and held the other out to Buster…only to have it snatched away.
“And just because you think I don’t see it,” Rachel announced, “doesn’t mean I don’t know about all those cookies you keep stealing! Chocolate is bad for dogs. Have this instead.” She dropped a dog biscuit on the floor. Buster gave her an indignant look, sighed, and flopped down to gnaw on the biscuit.
“I think I liked it better before she knew,” he grumbled.
“Can’t win ‘em all,” Marley said, and took another bite of her cookie.