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“Black Betty” by Nisi Shawl

For the first three human years of her life, Betty was black. The Fraziers took possession of Betty when she was a mere pup, freshly weaned from her mother’s satiny nipples. They raised her on kibble they kept in a garbage can locked in a shed. Low-grade stuff compared to what she was fed later, but they doctored it with pot liquor and bacon drippings and added table scraps when those were available. The Fraziers were good people.

“That dog oughta be talkin,” proclaimed Mizz Millie, their alpha. “Beagles sure is smart. Lookit how her eyes followin up our conversation!” Mizz Millie was far less mobile than the rest of the pack, but they all submitted to her anyway. How and why this happened was one of the many things Betty studied. She observed everything about the Fraziers and later integrated it all, every scent and sound and sight and sensation.

Mizz Millie spent those three years either in her bed or seated – depending on the weather – next to the warm fire or the open window. She hardly ever went outside. She had the wisest hands, and Betty loved her with all her cheek, chin, and belly.

Betty often wished she could talk; it would have been a way to prove her loyalty to Mizz Millie and thus to the Frazier pack. But at that time she had not yet been modded.

Justin, their alpha male, took Betty on two long walks every day. Sometimes she had to wait till after breakfast – he didn’t always sleep at the Fraziers’ house. When he did, he shared the couch on the front porch with the younger female, Doris, or the fold-out bed in the living room with Doris’s sons, Jordan and Junius. He would sit up bleary-eyed in the quiet dark and slip into his high leather boots, tying them on with leather laces.

Sometimes Justin took a gun along, or a pole to dangle in the water for delicious fish. Sometimes he took a shovel or a bucket, and even then Betty knew all these words for all these things and what they meant, because Justin always talked to her while they walked and as they stopped and dug together and did other fun and important work.

Her nose deep in a clump of alfalfa, Betty heard Justin say, “I wisht I knewed what you was sniffin in there so concentrated.” Betty wisht he knewed, too, or that she could somehow convey to him the tangled stories coming in through her nostrils, those most direct conduits to her brain. Summer mornings were the best: traces lingering in the damp grass where rabbits had ventured out of deep burrows, nibbling here and there, stirring up nests of mice; the slinking trails of cats gone feral in the setting moon’s last light; hints of bigger beasts, full of blood and intestines, food enough for the whole Frazier pack if only they’d organize to hunt them down.

Evening walks were good, also, of course. That was when she came across the scents of other dogs, which were interesting, though not at all Fraziers. In spring and summer, Justin and Betty would usually go out after supper was done; in the autumn and winter they went out well before it was served. Justin would stretch and stand up from his chair at the kitchen table and the books and computer he used to teach the boys. If it was cold he needed a coat, maybe more, and Betty couldn’t help but whine and circle in front of the door, waiting impatiently for him. There was a fenced run to one side of the house, but the smells there got stale, and there were none from neighboring dogs. There was the big garden, but Betty wasn’t allowed to go in on her own. Unfairly, she thought. But what she thought made no difference since she couldn’t say it aloud.

Then she could.

***

“Who?” The first word she spoke.

Betty’s head hurt, and everything around her smelt – felt – too – too hard? Too loud? She stood on top of the washer, on the lid, her claws slipping and scratching against the white-painted metal. Human arms cradled her, and Betty knew them, knew she was safe by their scent – this was a Dunnett, one of her people now, the new ones. But what about the Fraziers–

“Hey, she did it! I heard the box – she talked! She said ‘Who’; it’s working!”

“Oh, Laurie, she’s only howling again.” A voice further off than the first, and Betty knew it belonged to Caroline, Laurie’s older sister, and the alpha of this pack. The others were Greg and Nora and Walter and Amy and she knew how they sounded and smelled and even how they looked – it was too much, too much

Next she was on the ground outside, the stones of the driveway digging through her fur. Vomit pooled tantalizingly near her muzzle and Betty stretched and tilted her head to–

“No!”

She raised her nose, cocked her ears. A command from Caroline. It must be obeyed. She gave up on cleaning up the puddle and stood clumsily, shakily, taking it all in. Laurie sat nearby, on the front steps of the porch, and this was home, yes, the same house. She remembered the Fraziers had sold it to the Dunnetts, though she’d never truly known that before….But instead of autumn, early spring sang around her: birds, and new budded leaves, and worms stirring the earth. And sad things had happened – Betty understood that much already, in the midst of her confusion.

“Where?” The second word she spoke. Where was her old pack?

“There, see! She did so say something.” Laurie came closer, warm and sweet and comforting in this strange, sad time. Her nose met Betty’s in a polite sniff.

“What, one word?” Caroline spoke from a ways off, inside the house. A window slammed shut, a door creaked open, and she swished across the cold, dry grass. “She’s still a dog,” the alpha announced. Like that was somehow Betty’s fault. “She wanted to eat her own throw-up.”

“Eeuuuw! I know…Betty, that’s not nice! Especially now that you’re a clever talking dog. We’re going to teach you all kinds of cool stuff!”

Betty learned some things easily. No more passing out. She had actually absorbed lots of information earlier, while the mods in her new special food were settling in and taking effect. Basically all she had to do most of the time was try to remember events that took place then, or earlier. Long, long before she could speak. To integrate them. She had access with only a little effort. She already knew almost everything.

That was what Laurie told her, and it was true. True but not necessarily good.

For example, Betty already knew that Mizz Millie had died and Doris had sold the land. Everyone had smelled so depressed and boxes had piled up everywhere, empty and then full. Betty heard crying and whispering behind closed doors. Mizz Millie disappeared, then Justin. No more walks. Then the two boys and Doris left her for their new home and she was all alone in the house for two whole days and one long night.

Betty didn’t like that memory, and there were others almost as painful. She delayed their integration as well as she could; they emerged when she fell asleep. She woke from dreams of them abruptly, anxiously. The Dunnetts had given Betty a bed of her own in Laurie’s and Amy’s room, which used to be Mizz Millie’s. She had a basket there, with a cushion and blanket. But when Betty re-experienced those bad days in the night, she slunk out of the basket and leapt up softly from the carpet to the mattress, to sleep next to Laurie and be calmed by the regular pulse of her packmate’s heart.

Those lessons in sorrow were too accessible, too easy. Others were too hard.

Caroline didn’t like the way Betty talked. “Where’d you get her voice box, anyway, Dad?” she asked Greg. “Did you buy it off some homie on the corner?” Caroline was alpha, so Greg ordered an expensive replacement voice box from Eddje. It arrived and Greg knelt to clip it over Betty’s collar, unfurling its stiff cowl to stand up behind her head – she felt how it cut the draft, though she couldn’t see it till she looked in a mirror later. The cowl was the voice box’s antenna, the very best available. Greg stroked the controls on the box’s main component to sync it with the net the Dunnett’s mods had made inside her brain. “There.” He leaned back and put his hands on his knees. “That’s kinda cute, like that old queen of England. Good Queen Betty the Beagle.”

“Say something, Betty,” Laurie urged her. “Show Caroline how smart you are.” She sat on the floor, legs crossed and tucked to one side.

“What you want I should say?” asked Betty.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! That’s no better, Dad!” Caroline jumped up from her armchair to leave. “Those – those black assholes you bought this place from sold us a freakin ghetto dog!” She gave a wordless growl that changed to a close-mouthed shriek of frustration as she cleared the living room door.

One way Caroline led the pack was by saying aloud things the others didn’t want to admit they partway thought.

It took a while till Betty understood the problem. Race had never been an issue before. She had heard the Fraziers discussing white people, of course, but like any other dog, talking or non, her sense of color just wasn’t that strong.

Gradually she came to realize that what she was dealing with were sort of like super-packs. Though there were several of them, her dilemma involved only two. The Fraziers belonged to the one which called itself black; it was small and not all that powerful compared to some others. The Dunnetts were what was known as white. And apparently – because of her markings? – they’d accepted Betty as part of their super-pack, believing she was a white as well.

Until she talked.

Betty had grown up surrounded by black vernacular. At three, she was the human equivalent of a twenty-one-year-old. An adult, like Caroline. Her speech patterns were set. It wasn’t the fault of the voice boxes.

***

Betty backed Laurie’s rolling chair into a corner so it wouldn’t scoot away when she jumped onto its cushion. She gripped the front of Laurie’s desk with her teeth and inched the chair closer so she could nose on the set-up. A show appeared in the set-up’s frame: women discussing some problem and how to prevent it. Betty nosed the volume higher, laying a slightly damp trail on the glass of the controls.

“–shioned remedies might do us some good!” proclaimed the woman in the middle. No one on the set-up ever smelled like anything, so Betty had a hard time telling them apart, but really all she needed was to hear them. “Remedies might do us some good!” she repeated, mimicking that sentence’s rise and fall. It was too hard to keep up with what was being said, though, with the women on either side chiming in. She flicked through links, looking for singing, something slow and rhythmic and easy to imitate.

“Betty! Stay off the news – are you messing with my defaults?”

Betty looked up guiltily as Laurie crossed the bedroom floor. “No, I ain’t – isn’t – I just – I–” The words she wanted to say mixed up with the ones she should. Then Laurie’s arms wrapped around her and lifted her down from the chair.

“Poor Betty. Or maybe I ought to say ‘Po?’ But you understand good English, don’t you?” They turned a full circle and flopped down on the bed, bouncing. “Po Betty. I love you anyway! I’m so glad the Fraziers threw you in when we bought the house.”

Betty sighed at the mention of her old pack, then licked Laurie’s wrist. “I love you, too,” she said. And she did. Laurie’s hands didn’t know as much as Mizz Millie’s had, but they petted Betty tirelessly all spring and on into the summer.

Then the boxes came back. Not the same ones, of course: these smelled fresh and identical to one another, no traces of food or dust. Or of the Fraziers, or their belongings.

But these boxes meant the same thing: loss. They did the same thing: swallowed up objects. Betty sprawled silently on the carpets, watching them fill. It was hard to lift her head, hard to go on walks with anyone other than Laurie. Because if she left Laurie’s side, would she ever be able to be back with her again?

Laurie took her over to the lake, almost all the way to the nearest town. They sat on a dock someone had hauled out of the water. The wind blew cold and set a piece of metal dock trim humming mournfully. “Do you want to talk about it?” Laurie asked.

Feelings weren’t one of the things words expressed best. Betty tried. “I’m sad.” Such a short little word for such a long, huge pain. “I think you goin away without me and I’ma be alone again, all by myself.”

“Betty, of course not! Someone should have told you; it’s only Amy and Walter who are actually moving.” Amy and Walter were between Laurie and Nora in status and almost the same age. They didn’t eat meat, which made them smell different than the rest of the pack and like each other. “Even with the addition it’s crowded here, and if we did build on more rooms we’d lose more growing space, which was the whole point of buying in the country. So Walter wants to urbanize and Amy decided she’d keep him company. Everyone else, though–” Laurie’s hand paused at the base of Betty’s tail. “Well, we’re all going with them to help them settle in, but we’re coming back. It’ll only be a couple of days….” Betty sighed and slumped flat.

“And you’ll be going too!”

“Really?” She raised one ear and peeked up from under it. Did Laurie mean what she was saying?

Betty thought her packmate was probably making that last part up so she’d feel better. Laurie talked about it at supper that evening, though. Caroline said that a kennel would be safer than the city for a talking dog, but Laurie stood up to her. “She’d hate it in a kennel. We can keep her safe from those m – from – we can. She’s coming with us.”

“How do you know she’d hate it?”

“Haven’t you noticed? She doesn’t even bark at other dogs. She just doesn’t care about them – why should she? No one else around here has spent the money to get them modded.”

“Well,” said Walter, who usually kept as quiet as Betty did, “you could always ask her if she’d like to come. Couldn’t you?”

The tableful of humans turned to stare at her where she lay in the corner by her clean dish. It wasn’t good to defy the alpha. This would be Betty’s first time. But she had to or be sad again. She could speak for herself. She had to.

“I want to go too. With the fambly.”

Caroline snorted. “‘Fambly.’ Dog’ll probably run away once we get there and hook up with the first black she sees. Get herself grabbed by a mob. Fine. Whatever. Next time we can pick a dog like us.” She went to the freezer and lifted the lid. “Let’s have some blackberries.”

“I was saving those,” Nora objected.

“Saving them for what, Mom? Another power outage? Let’s eat them while they’re good.” Bowls and spoons clattered on the counter, far above Betty’s head.

***

When the Dunnetts walked down the front driveway to the airport shuttle, Betty trotted right behind them. She knew that Caroline thought she shouldn’t, but she did it anyway.

At the airport itself things turned momentarily scarier. Betty had to huddle inside a cramped plastic cage, and for a while it looked like she’d be separated from the pack the whole trip, stuck in a horrible, cold, dark place full of luggage and a sharp smell that made breathing hard. But then the place’s door clunked open and a man carried her off in her cage to where Laurie, Walter, and Greg sat. The smell was less evident there, the air a lot warmer. Grateful for this, Betty didn’t dare complain about the cage.

The city their plane flew to was called Philadelphia. Nora had wanted her children to settle closer to where the rest of the Dunnetts lived, in Detroit or Chicago, but Amy insisted that Philadelphia had a stronger green community.

A few cars waited at the airport to take people into the city, but they rode to Walter and Amy’s new home in an open carriage pulled by a horse. A man with a rifle like Justin’s sat in a special high seat farther back. The horse wore a straw hat which was rigged as an antenna and talked about the city’s history: its founding, the two white flights, the time of gentrification in between them, and the Insurgentrification, Philadelphians’ name for what was happening now. The set-up made a big deal out of some modded horses being real smart, but this one wasn’t. As soon as Betty realized his speech was rehearsed she stopped listening.

The city smelled more interesting than Betty expected from her research on the set-up. There were pigeons, squirrels, and chickens, of course, and compost and feed grinders, but also distillers, rooftop gardens, goats – and rabbits! She would swear!

They passed through what had been a big park and was now growing crops. But not all over. More possibilities there – she smelled water, shadows, hiding places.

The carriage stopped moving. “It looks like a nice, solid building,” Nora said, sounding doubtful. Betty followed Caroline across the sidewalk, past a fallen-over railing and up low cement steps.

Inside the air smelled old. The rest of the pack entered behind Caroline and Betty, coughing and sniffing. Mice lived here; Betty was pretty sure they had a nest in the hall closet, but she couldn’t turn the doorknob, and nobody else wanted to.

“Lots of windows, like the collective told us,” Walter said. “And the back yard joins onto Jerry’s and Gray Falcon’s and Deucie’s; the block cultivates that land as a group.” He led them through the empty house and outside again, introducing the Dunnetts to these others who would now be his new pack.

One was a cat. A talking cat named Baby Boo.

The humans went inside together. Betty heard them creaking around on the floors, climbing stairs, discussing pipes and power and important features like that. Somehow this talk was part of Walter and Amy switching packs. A peaceful and fascinating process. As with the Fraziers the oldest female, Gray Hawk, was alpha.

Baby Boo’s antenna was shaped like a pair of wings and attached to a complex-seeming harness. He lounged on a ledge high above the door to a shed. Betty wondered if he’d flown up there.

She had heard from the set-up that there very few modded cats – she didn’t think they were stupid, but usually their brains didn’t adapt well to the process. Staring was rude, so she looked away.

“Don’t blame me,” said Baby Boo. “I don’t have your tongue. Really.”

“Hunh?”

“It’s a joke. Never mind.”

Betty didn’t get it. She tried to think of a way to change the subject. What would she ask if she actually met another dog who could talk, like those on the set-up? “Who’s your pack?”

“My – what?”

Did cats have packs? Maybe not. “Who you belong to?”

“I’m a cat. I don’t ‘belong’ to anybody.” Baby Boo licked his sleek belly.

“But is you black? Or white?”

“Both, of course.” The cat stood up on the narrow ledge and carelessly arched his back. “You can see that just by looking. Now if you don’t have any further intelligent questions, there are some fish I believe I have finally understood how to get my paws on. You’re welcome to join me, of course,” he added graciously. Then he leapt lightly to the ground.

Betty hadn’t been referring to Baby Boo’s markings, but in the excitement of unstaking the wire mesh which covered the pond she forgot to point that out.

***

Caroline, Laurie, Greg, and Nora stayed four more days in Walter and Amy’s new home. The first morning Betty was worried when Laurie wanted to leave her alone in this strange place. She heard noises through the walls separating them from the empty houses on either side. Her normal dish filled with her special food did nothing to make Betty feel more at ease.

“I gonna be by myself the whole time. Why you can’t take me along?” she asked.

Laurie smelled scared. “Because it’s dangerous for you,” she said.

“Why?”

“What does it matter why? It just is. Besides, Betty. You’ll have plenty of company with Deucie and Gray Hawk working in the garden. And Baby Boo.”

So while the rest of the pack hired the horse carriage again and went around the city filling it with salvaged furniture and mattresses, Betty spent the year’s last warm days conversing with a cat.

She learned more about how Baby Boo had become part of Gray Hawk’s pack – first from Deucie as she set out window screens covered in sliced tomatoes. “We rescued him from a mob. You know.” Which meant nothing to Betty, but she nodded.

“Baby Boo!” Of course the cat didn’t come when the woman called him. “Betty, do you mind watching while these dry – keep the pests away? When Baby Boo turns up, he’ll take over.”

As soon as Deucie went inside, Baby Boo emerged from a window low in the wall of an empty house. Webs clung to his whiskers and wings. He shook his head fastidiously and sat suddenly down to dampen a paw and swipe at his face. “I wouldn’t call it a rescue, exactly.”

“Why not?” Betty asked. “There wasn’t no mob?” She still didn’t understand exactly what they were talking about.

“Humans can’t climb. I was getting away. But I came back because Gray Hawk was acting brave and facing them down. She called me her four-footed brother, so I let her hold me and take me home. Would you like to lick my fur?”

Whenever Baby Boo became bored – which happened for reasons Betty never guessed – he pawed aside the one loose board in the block’s one fence and threaded his way through the gap.

Betty was too big to fit.

The second morning. Two more left. Betty stretched out under a pair of old windows leaning against one another, her muzzle resting on her forepaws. Her tail lay straight and still on the ground. But then she felt it move – was she wagging it? No – that cat was back, batting it around. She rose with as much dignity as she could manage and stalked out of the windows’ warmth. “What you want?”

“Fun?” Baby Boo drew back his paw. He sat on his haunches, his front legs like columns.

“Is that why you went outside the fence?”

“The best part is going out. Never mind what you find there.”

“How you get back in?” Betty asked.

“Oh, I have my ways. You should have yours, too.”

“But it’s dangerous,” said Betty, hoping she didn’t sound envious.

“Says who? Your people? Your ‘pack?’ How would they know what’s dangerous for you? How would you know?”

Betty pointed her muzzle toward the house and thought. How would she know what was dangerous on the other side of the fence if the rest of the Dunnetts never let her learn?

“You should come with me. Next time.”

And there would be rabbits. “But I too big for that fence hole.”

“Hunh.” Baby Boo tucked his chin. “I hear dogs can dig.”

She pushed a rolled up wide coil of straw to hide her project from the sight of the humans – her people, and those in Walter and Amy’s new pack. Betty had a nice tunnel ready to use by the time the Dunnetts returned from their third day’s worth of expeditions, but she had no problem waiting till after they drove off into the morning of the fourth.

Betty nosed open the screen to the cool garden. Baby Boo wasn’t there. She went over to where Deucie knelt by a heap of dried plants. “You seen Baby Boo?” she asked.

“No, not since yesterday evening. He said he smelt a rat in the place next door. You miss him? He’ll be back for his food soon enough.”

But he wasn’t. Betty waited till noon before leaving on her own.

Outside the fence the odors she encountered were richer even than she remembered. So many. Which direction was the park, with its water and secrets? Betty picked up a familiar scent and decided to follow that for a while: Baby Boo had walked this way. As long ago as last night by what she could smell. Nose down, she passed reclaimed housing, the remains of buildings burnt to clear crop land, paved lots filled with stacks of timber and stones and rusting metals. Humans, too. They called after her but she ignored them. They weren’t her pack. One tried to catch her collar and tore off part of her antenna when Betty ran from him. Fortunately Eddje had provided plenty of redundancy.

When she was sure she had lost the grabby human she picked up Baby Boo’s trail again. Although she thought maybe she’d made a mistake for a moment because of the blood. There should not have been any blood.

Once she realized she was right she went faster, though of course many hours had already gone by. Whatever wound Baby Boo had received, it didn’t seem to have bled enough to end his life – but the red-brown drops were steady. They didn’t stop, even when the scent of his pads vanished. They grew further apart, elongating – from shows on the set-up Betty understood Baby Boo was being carried, and whoever was carrying him had started running. Betty ran, too, again, dodging cars and horse carts and pedicabs and excited humans calling after her to wait.

The trail plunged into the park and so did she. Shoeprints scuffed the blood drops into the grass. They led her to a wooded ravine sheltering the creek she had wanted to visit her whole stay. They led her to a rough sack stuffed in a tree’s high hollow. A light sack marked with dark, smelly stains.

“Baby Boo! Baby Boo!” Betty called to the cat as quietly as she could, in case whoever had brought him here – whoever had done this – was near by enough to hear. A horrible wailing answered her.

“Baby Boo? It’s me. Betty. You all right?”

More incomprehensible yowling. Suddenly Betty understood. Whoever had caught and hurt the cat had taken away his wings, his antenna. He couldn’t talk.

At least he was alive. And he could understand anything she said

“I can’t climb,” Betty said as she realized the truth. The sack in the tree was out of reach. “I can’t save you, Baby Boo. Not by myself. I gotta go get help.” She needed her pack.

Plaintive howling from the sack. “I promise. Ain’t gonna desert you, Baby Boo, I be right back.” Betty began backing away from the hollow tree. It was hard, but she knew she couldn’t do anything on her own.

She had just turned around to move faster when she heard the humans approaching. She hid nervously in a bush with dying leaves. They might be help. They might not.

Not. There were three of them, all acting as if they’d been in this place before. Two sat on a piece of log. The third went straight to the tree and pulled down the sack. Baby Boo screeched and he slammed the sack against the trunk and there was no more screeching.

Betty was afraid her friend was dead.

“Hey, who say you could kill that devil thataway?” said one of the men on the log. Their alpha?

“Yeah,” said the other log-sitter. “We gotta decide how’s the best. Burnin or drownin. I say burnin. Won’t be any evidence left to pin on us for stealin, and whatever’s possessin that animal’s ass be destroyed permanently.”

“Drownin is what you do with cats if they’s too many,” the man with the sack said. “Cause they hate, hate, hate the water. You don’t burn em. You always drowns a motherfuckin cat.”

“But we ain’t drownin a cat, or if we do drown it, that’s only cause ain’t no avoidin it – it’s the devil inside a the poor thing we wanna defeat,” said the second log-sitter. “Permanently,” he added again.

“Lemme see the bitch.” The first log-sitter took the sack from the man who retrieved it from the tree’s hollow.

Betty was a bitch.

“Yeah, it still breathin. We better do this soon though, we wanna do it right.”

“But which way is right?”

“Drownin first. Then burn it.”

They walked off downhill and Betty followed them the best she could by scent, keeping out of sight. Soon she heard the rush of icy water. She came out on the creek’s bank slightly upstream from them. The drowning advocate was already wading in, holding the stinking sack. He lowered it. A hideous squawl cut the water’s white noise. A huge splash, then swearing, yelling, more splashes – Betty couldn’t see exactly what was going on but Baby Boo must be putting up a good fight. She used the cover of the noise to crawl closer on her belly.

She got unnoticed all the way to the edge of the gravelly open area where the three men squatted around the wet sack. It was silent and motionless once again. One of them poked it with a stick. Nothing happened.

“Okay,” said the alpha. “Now we burn it.”

“We gonna have to let it dry out first.”

“Fool! Steal us some gasoline, that’s all. We take it outta the bag, pour that on or some oil or some shit like that–”

The alpha made the burning advocate leave to look for fuel and to invite others to witness the burning. He had the third man go gather wood for the fire. Betty considered imitating one of these humans’ voices to distract the alpha and pull him away from Baby Boo, but in the end she simply snuck up and snatched the sack from behind the alpha’s back.

Baby Boo’s body weighed less than Betty would have believed. She made good speed up the hill and could barely hear the alpha’s shout when he finally noticed what had happened. Before long her jaw ached unbearably, though. On first street she came to Betty set the sack gently down and seized its top end in a better grip. Then she felt a stirring and heard a faint, low growl. Baby Boo was alive!

The urge to yip was almost overwhelming. Pursuit in mind, Betty set off at a steady trot. The growl increased.

She rested the bag on the paving again. “Baby Boo! It’s me, Betty – you gonna be all right. I’m takin you home.”

Night was coming. The falling darkness didn’t slow Betty down; some places actually became easier to navigate. The main streets and sidewalks had emptied except for a very few humans venturing out in small groups, partial packs, all acting as if they were afraid of each other. Betty had to stick more or less with the path she’d taken outbound, though she left it twice to hide – once from the park alpha, once from a man she worried might be the burning advocate till she got a better whiff.

She had to yell and yell and bark and bark till Laurie finally opened Walter and Amy’s door. She could have used her tunnel, but bringing Baby Boo back in that way would have been hard. Beside, it would take a human to untie the sack.

“Betty! Oh, Betty, I thought you ran away like Caroline said, I thought we’d have to go home without you!”

“Wasn’t me. Baby Boo, and he got hisself hurt. Real bad.” She brushed against Laurie’s legs on the way in.

“Baby Boo? Yes, he’s gone too. Nobody knows–”

“I know. I got im. In here.” She set the sack down on the new rug by the hearth.

“In – in there? That–”

“Open it.”

Caroline and the rest of the pack came from the kitchen. “These knots are too wet,” Nora said after a couple of attempts at loosening them. Amy handed her a knife from her pants pocket. She cut the rope and rolled back the sack’s mouth.

Baby Boo had one eye and one mass of swollen stink. The top half of his left ear was missing. He hissed as Nora switched from rolling to cutting the sack’s cloth. His right front paw had been twisted so the pads faced up. He was soaked in water and blood and shit. His tail was a stump.

He was breathing. He was alive.

The harness still hugged his chest. The voice box was still where it was supposed to be, too, though it probably no longer worked since the creek. All that remained of the antenna was a pair of frayed fabric scraps.

“I’ll get Gray Hawk and Jerry,” Walter said, going out the back.

Betty wanted to howl. She wanted to lick Baby Boo, but where? What wouldn’t hurt him? What would feel good? She settled for curling around him, protecting him, sheltering him against her soft belly.

Jerry cried. Gray Hawk didn’t cry, didn’t say anything when she saw what had happened. She went out the front door and came back much later with another human and a bundle of the oddest smells ever. A doctor, said Laurie. A vet, said Caroline.

Laurie really ought to have been their alpha. Betty didn’t want to think about how much wiser she was going to get eventually. Especially her hands.

What was left of the Dunnett pack flew back to Michigan the next morning. They had to, Greg explained. There wouldn’t be another plane for a month.

Baby Boo slept in Betty’s basket, which Walter had moved to the fireplace. Betty wanted her friend to have it. Jerry and the vet had cleaned, shaved, and bandaged the cat and given him a lot of drugs. Baby Boo was going to sleep for days and miss the Dunnetts’ departure. “We’ll tell him later what you did,” Amy promised. “We’ll say goodbye for you.”

“No you won’t,” said Betty. “I’m stayin.”


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About the Author

Nisi Shawl’s collection Filter House won the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She’s coauthor of Writing the Other and a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society. She edits book reviews for The Cascadia Subduction Zone and serves on the Clarion West Writers Workshop Board of Directors. Recent publications include “The Return of Cherie” in Steam Powered 2: More Lesbian Steam Punk, and “Pataki” at Strange Horizons.

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  1. [...] “Black Betty” by Nisi Shawl [...]

  2. [...] Boost of the Week goes to Nisi Shawl, who has not one but two brand-new stories online: Black Betty at Crossed Genres Magazine, and Honorary Earthling in the December edition of Expanded Horizons. If [...]

  3. [...] “Black Betty” at Crossed Genres [...]

  4. [...] “Black Betty” at Crossed Genres [...]

  5. [...] Black Betty by Nisi Shawl Portrait of a Courtesan by Megan Arkenberg The Last Recall by Mason Ian Bundschuh [...]

  6. [...] “Black Betty” by Nisi Shawl (Short story/Speculative [...]

  7. […] – Read more at http://crossedgenres.com/archives/036-different/black-betty-by-nisi-shawl/ […]

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