This story is by Ondrej Zelinka and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
What if I told you there is a species more intelligent than humans?
They stick their nose into everything from the high politics to local newspapers. This last week’s case from Minnesota is just the tip of the iceberg.
John Smarks was on the way out of the office. He reached for his smartphone only to remember he couldn’t find it in the morning. I should tidy up the place, he thought. On the weekend.
Outside he had to struggle through a starting snowstorm as he set for a walk home. He was already looking forward to playing with Arthur, his 3-year-old Lab. That reminded him he should stop at a pet store. I’m postponing buying the kibble for a week. Arthur can’t eat canned spaghetti much longer.
The snowstorm intensified and John decided against the dog food. No way I’m walking extra two miles in this weather, he thought. If only the car started. I need to somehow fix it when the snowfall stops.
Ten minutes later John passed the trash container and entered his house. Finally, he thought as he entered his attic apartment. His jacket landed on the floor as John stepped over piles of IT magazines and dog toys to the living room.
“Arthur, I’m home,” John yelled and flexed, expecting an impact of his 60-pound canine. But the place was silent.
“Art?” John’s suspicion rose. Hope he didn’t drag around the garbage bag again. He could suffocate, John thought. He scanned the floor covered in clothes. There was no sign of the dog.
John checked the kitchen and the bathroom. Neither Arthur nor the phone was there. In the bedroom, he noticed his laptop was on. I’d swear it was off in the morning.
As he set off to shut it down an e-mail arrived. The sound gave him a start.
Goddammit, he thought when opening the e-mail client. Why is it so loud? His heart skipped the beat as he saw the subject. WE HAVE YOUR DOG.
John hesitated before clicking on the message.
YOU ARE A DISAPPOINTMENT. WE DIDN’T LIKE WATCHING YOU POSTPONING TASKS, CREATING MESS AND NEGLECTING YOUR DOG. SO WE TOOK HIM AND WON’T RETURN HIM, UNTIL YOU CHANGE. START WITH TAKING THE TRASH OUT.
John stared at the screen for a few seconds. Am I supposed to fall for this? he thought. Even the address firstname.lastname@example.org is a clear fake.
The laptop signaled another incoming e-mail.
John ignored it and bent down to check Arthur’s spot under the bed. There was nothing but used socks. Another notification made John get up. His heart was pounding as he walked towards the computer. He couldn’t tell, if it was from fear or anger. Probably both, he thought.
Both new messages had the same subject as the first one. The older contained a picture of his dog’s black tail accompanied by a text: HURRY UP! The second e-mail was a pop-up timer. 00:09:59.
John looked around the room, rubbing his hands. What’s happening?
He looked back when another message arrived. ONE MINUTE WASTED!
John got up. Okay, calm down, John. Let’s play along and see. The timer showed 00:08:28.
He went to the kitchen and groaned. Half of the trash was laying on the floor. Let’s do this! He started gathering the trash into the garbage bag Arthur played with the day before. This is gross, he thought when holding a box of formerly fresh tomatoes. Under a pile of newspapers, he found the tablet, which went missing on Tuesday. It had some power left. John loaded up the mail app to check the timer. 00:01:12.
“Shit!” He threw the remaining garbage into the bag, grabbed the tablet and ran out. He took the stairs two at a time before kicking the main door open and dunking the bag into the container.
Two seconds later an e-mail arrived. GOOD JOB, it read, YOUR DOG HAS A CHANCE, BUT WE’RE NOT DONE. YOU HAVE 10 MINUTES TO FIX THE CAR.
Dammit, I have no clue what’s with the damn car, John thought. How shall I fix it, when I don’t even..?
An incoming message stopped his train of thoughts. It was another timer and a picture of Arthur’s tail, now with a knife next to it. YOU’VE ALREADY CUT OFF VALUABLE TIME STANDING THERE. DON’T MAKE ME DO THE SAME TO THE DOG. 00:07:57.
John felt a sudden rush of determination. I must get Arthur back! he thought running up to the apartment. I wouldn’t forgive myself if something happened to him. I just need my jacket and the car keys.
Back on the street, John found his car buried under the snow. He used hands to brush it off despite the burning cold. At least it stopped snowing. When the car was clean, he fetched a tool set from under the driver’s seat. Then he looked under the hood. John had no idea about engines, so he decided to google the solution. But inside the car, he thought. My hands are freezing.
He pulled out the tablet as soon as the doors closed. The timer popped out on the screen again. 00:02:02.
“There’s not enough time!” John hit the steering wheel with his fists. I’ll just try it once more, he thought. He turned the ignition on and the engine started.
John shook his head. I tried this ten times before.
The tablet beeped in John’s hand. GOOD BOY, the new message read. NOW DRIVE TO THE PET STORE ON THE 5TH. THERE’S AN ORDER ON YOUR NAME. 5 MIN.
The timer reset and John didn’t hesitate this time.
John reached the store with two minutes reserve and went straight to the counter.
“I should have some order here,” he said.
“Name?” asked the cashier.
“A moment,” he said and disappeared.
John pulled out the tablet. There were 39 seconds left and no new messages.
The cashier returned with a bag of kibble. “$16,99,” he said.
John threw a twenty on the counter, grabbed the bag and ran out.
Another message arrived as he sat down into the driver’s seat. WE’VE HIDDEN ARTHUR IN YOUR APARTMENT. YOU HAVE 18 MINUTES TO GET HIM BACK BEFORE HE RUNS OUT OF OXYGEN. Four seconds later John’s car shot out towards the road.
John jumped out of the car and a minute later he was searching the living room. His eyes landed on the TV stand. He pulled the doors open. Arthur wasn’t there.
John started running through the room. Arthur wasn’t behind the sofa, nor in the cupboards and cardboard boxes. He looked at the timer. 00:08:49.
“Arthur!” John shouted. There was no response.
He took the tablet and ran into the bathroom. What if they put him under water into the bath, he thought. But the empty room had proven the theory incorrect. There was nothing in the oven either. The fridge was also empty apart from one energy drink and something, what used to be a broccoli. John checked the timer. 00:01:09.
The bedroom was the last option. He kicked the door open, passed the closet and fell straight on his knees to check under the bed. Still just socks. The timer advanced into the last half a minute.
“Dammit!” John was just about to panic completely when a message arrived. YOU ARE GETTING WARMER.
John looked up and his eyes landed on the closet. He leaped towards it, opened the door and found Arthur wrapped in a blanket.
John fell on his knees. “Thank god,” he said and hugged Arthur. “I’m so glad you are fine. From now on I’ll take better care of you, my friend!“
Arthur was wagging his tail and licking John’s hand. John helped him up and led him by the collar on the sofa in the living room. Then returned to the closet to retrieve the blanket. As he reached it, he noticed something silver in the corner. It was his phone. It must have fallen out from my pocket in the morning, he thought.
Then he noticed another glitter behind a box of dog treats. He reached for it and pulled out a dog-tag. Weird, that’s not Arthur’s, John thought. This one had an engraved number 901765. Hang on! I know this number.
“It may sound hypocrite from a dog,” said a velvet voice behind him. “But you shouldn’t sniff through somebody else’s stuff.” John started and turned around dropping the tag.
Arthur was standing in the door. “Could you give me my tag back?” he asked.
John was struck dumb. He looked at the tag next to his shoe and kicked it towards Arthur.
“Thank you,” the dog replied. “If you have some questions I’ll be in the living room.” He picked up his tag, turned around and left the room.
These cases happen every day. So better take care of your dog, before he takes care of you.