plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Consider Laika


by Reginald J. Otto

Untitled by Anna Clithero Untitled by Anna Clithero

They didn’t start with the chimps. NASA worked its way up the food chain—fruit flies, rats, mice, and then Laika, the first dog in space. She died inside a satellite outside our atmosphere, surrounded by blinking nodules and entangled in a web of telemetry. How strange her last hours must have been, and what must she have thought of—in whatever way that dogs think—as she witnessed things no man had ever seen, all alone in that perfect stillness of space. We know she was afraid, her pulse readings so high, but do dogs experience wonder?

I’ve got to find Ketchup. Instinct can only go so far. She’ll need water. I have to—

No, my leg isn’t working. I shouldn’t have tried to stand.

The stray cats’ jangly chorus began at first light, and only grew in volume and urgency. They sang for Adam, clement Adam, to bring them their oily food. But Adam was not here, even after seven. Awake now, she had dreamt just before of rolling over and finding him asleep, and then yelling so he’d wake up and apologize for making her worry. He didn’t deserve worry, not even fretting—it wasn’t worry; it was annoyance. And worst of all, it was unnecessary. He was fine. Probably on a nameless dune somewhere, watching the sun rise. Still, she had tried to stay up, and then dozed off and now it was morning.

The cats continued to yowl and she blamed him. Were he here, they would have already been fed and back to shitting in the flower beds.

She called out his name and then called it out again. He didn’t answer, and she sat up in bed, listening to the cats’ rough melody.

I call and call and call for Ketchup, but she doesn’t come. I don’t know why I tried to walk. I forgot that I can’t. It’s not hard to forget these things. Like that beagle, part of a rheumatoid arthritis drug trial, who wagged her gnarled tail a little and tried to tiptoe on her twisted stubs before someone pushed her food toward her corner of the cage.

“Had you been fighting?”

It was a transparent question, a way of eliminating impulsive flight from the list of possibilities. Stuff like raised voices, wine glasses, accent lamps shattering, slamming the car door, peeling out of the driveway. Aggregate resentment, slow-growing contempt, gradual separation like continental drift—there was no stock question for these things. People didn’t run away because of them—or maybe they did, but one hoped people at least had the courtesy to do the screaming and throwing first.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I know it’s a hard question.”

“No. We weren’t fighting.”

“No—you already answered that—I’m sorry. I was asking if it was possible that he might be with someone else.”

“No. He doesn’t have a mistress.”

Father used to fish. Never took any of us. Never even asked us to go, but I understand why. Every living thing needs quiet, at least some. Even this place is too noisy, sometimes. You’ll have a perfect silence, but then the wind moves the sand or a plane flies overhead. To escape Babel, truly, the only place left is space. An astronaut, floating outside his vessel with radio contact switched off and those layers and layers of insulation in his suit, wouldn’t hear a thing.

The guard up front wouldn’t let her in. He didn’t know her. The man who’d held the job before had been with the company for more than thirty years, long before Adam began working there. She had watched his salt-and-pepper hair turn a waxy white, the transformation exaggerated by the diminishing frequency of her visits. Almost three years ago, Adam had come home and told how the old guard had dropped dead in a pet shop while his grandson was picking out a puppy. She had called it irony, but Adam said it was atonement.

And so began his Old Testament phase. He grew a beard and began spending his weekends alone in the desert, wandering, she imagined, like some lesser biblical figure, one of Abraham’s more forgettable sons. At first, she’d welcomed his treks.  She had a theory: their marriage had suffered from proximity. They had few close friends, neither traveled much for their jobs. Distance, she thought, was just what they needed. He would spend the day chasing tumbleweeds and, at dusk, return to ravage her on sight against the garage door. Humming, so slightly, under their fervent coos, the engine of his still running hybrid.

But the desert only made him more remote; it took normal extroversion, typical reticence, and burned and sandblasted it away, leaving only a hush.

She’d had him followed by a private investigator found in the yellow pages. In her imaginings, he would venture not to a desert, but to a musty roadside motel somewhere along the way where he would tryst with an earthy woman, baring his soul before succumbing to her patchouli-oiled neck.

But he had just gone to the desert—a trailhead in Joshua Tree. He hiked inward a few hundred yards, poked at shrubs, bird-watched for a while, ate the lunch he had packed for himself, and then poured sand back and forth in his hands. She felt betrayed by the tedium of the private investigator’s report, wishing that there had been a dim room with rust-colored carpet, a spongy mattress, another woman’s body.

The new guard at the lab simply followed protocol without knowing or caring about the reason for it. The old guard would always play stubborn, “This is top, top secret stuff, you know. We can’t let just anyone back there,” but then would buzz open the outer door and, beyond that, the left door, the safe door, leading to the administrative wing.

It was the quietest office in the world. Adam said they used thicker sheetrock and sound-dampening paint. He said that a sheep could bleat in the next room and you wouldn’t hear a murmur, even if you put a stethoscope up to the wall.

She had never gone through the right door, had never asked, had never been permitted.

Finally, she gave Hugh’s name and the guard called his extension, covering his mouth with his free hand as he spoke.

“He wants to know what this is regarding.”

“Tell him it’s Hope. Adam didn’t come home last night. I want to know if he’s been in today.”

The guard relayed her message, listened for a moment, then hung up the phone.

“He’s coming out to you.”

My scalp is blistering. I remember standing at the edge with Ketchup, holding her up so she could see down, but she started squirming in my arms. I was afraid that I’d drop her, and she bit my arm. I fell. I don’t think she did. When I woke up, the hat was gone. It was dark then, but when the sun rose, it wasn’t there. Maybe the wind took it or maybe it was an animal. Maybe there’s a coyote wearing a Dodger’s cap somewhere over the next dune. Animals wearing clothing. People love that. Chimpanzees in tuxedoes and dogs in Halloween costumes.

Laika wore a harness. I’ve seen a photo, her face turned in profile as if posing for a portrait, the bindings and clasps tight around her lean body. She was a street dog before fate chose her, guiding the thick, hairy finger of some Russian scientist toward her cage. She went from eating Moscow’s trash to spinning around earth, past its ugliness, past even the ether, the on-board radio hissing and crackling her caretakers’ soothing lies.

“Have you called the police?” They were outside the building now. He smoked a cigarette and walked back and forth over the same six feet of sidewalk, his lab coat a sharp white in the sun.

“Of course. Jesus. Of course.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“You look good.”

“Thank you.”

He stamped his cigarette out.

“Do you have any idea where he went?”

“Where do you think?”

“The desert.”

“Probably.”

“Did you tell the cops?”

She asked him for a cigarette.

I fell asleep. Tried to move with the shade, but then I started to feel sick and things went soft. I thought I heard Ketchup right before I woke, but she wasn’t anywhere around here. She must have moved on without me. Down further, deeper in.

They were in Hugh’s car now, not driving, just sitting while the air conditioner roared.

“I don’t know for sure.”

“Yes. Yes, you do.”

“He could be somewhere else.”

“No.”

“Maybe he left me.”

“No. He didn’t. You have to tell them.”

“What if this is happening because it’s supposed to?”

“You have to tell someone.”

Only a few more hours of daylight. Can’t close my eyes. Every time I try, the nausea comes and I can feel the planet rush and circle beneath me. Things all around us are moving, and we don’t know. From space, the world is a single body. Something’s happened to me—I can see it now. As clearly as if I were standing on the moon, I can see it.

She called Missing Persons back and told them a colleague had found a note on Adam’s desk about a day trek to Joshua Tree. She should have thought of that, Eddie loved the desert, and she named some of his favorite trailheads. A ranger would go out to the places she suggested and look for his car. If they found his car but couldn’t locate him, they would call Search and Rescue.

Dark. Things are cooler now. I am cooler now. All my clothes are made of space-age synthetic fabrics—moisture wicking and insulating and breathable. They’re holding all my sweat in, close to my body. My skin is slick and goosebumped. My teeth are chattering. I am one thing becoming another.

The moon is full enough that I can still see the outline of things, silhouettes darker than the night. A coyote looked down on me a few minutes ago, but he won’t come just yet. He’ll take his time and wait until he’s sure. I wonder if Ketchup will eat me. I hope so. The dead feeding the living. That is natural.

Hugh drove while she sat in the front seat, en route to where a ranger had found the car. The National Parks Service had put together a Search and Rescue outfit for deployment at dawn.

“We’ll be there in another hour.”

“What time is it?”

“Eleven.”

They were in the desert now with only the narrow, shallow swath of illumination from the headlights to guide them. The road tore past, with a periodic flash of the matted fur and flesh of unlucky beasts just visible along the shoulder.

“I feel bad that I can’t cry more for people. When I called his sister, I didn’t cry. Even after I told her and she started to.”

“You can only feel what you do.”

“What do you feel?”

“I hope he’s all right.”

“So do I.”

She looked at the stars through the window, visible at last out here, no longer drowned out by the city’s lights.

“I still love him.”

“I know. You told me that the last time.”

“He was different once.”

“I know.”

“He used to have a sense of humor.”

He flicked his high beams off as a car approached on the other side of the road.

“It isn’t an easy job.”

“No, but you’re still funny, aren’t you?”

He turned on the radio, low volume, some boozy-sounding jazz.

“Adam stole one of the dogs,” he said.

“He stole a dog?”

“Yes. Number H-57.”

”H-57?”

“The animals aren’t given names. It’s policy.”

“Yes.”

“So there’s no attachment.”

“Yes.”

She rested her hand on the console, and her knuckles brushed against his.

Laika was always going to die in space; her ship hadn’t been made to come back. They would have fed her poisoned food gel before she starved or ran out of oxygen, but she overheated first, just a few hours after the launch—a defect in the cooling system. They knew, too. It doesn’t matter how. Someone deemed her an acceptable sacrifice. I have made similar decisions; I have been the arbiter of many lives.

I don’t blame Ketchup for biting me.

They set out as dawn broke, each searcher outfitted with a walkie-talkie and a GPS that would show the position of the rest of the hunting party. The Search and Rescue director had pleaded with her not to participate, but she insisted. Together with Hugh, she pressed forward into the desert. For several minutes they hiked silently, only scanning the plain of their assigned portion of the wilderness.

Farther in, when they were out of view, she put her hand on his shoulder.

“When we know he is okay, after he has recuperated—”

He pushed her hand down.

“How can you talk about these things now?”

“I would have talked about them even if he hadn’t gone missing. Are things supposed to change just because of that?”

“Yes. Until we know something. When you talk about it now, it makes me think that you don’t care—not just that you don’t care but that you never did.”

“I did. I do, but—”

He put his hand to her lips and pointed at something over her shoulder.

“Look. Look—”

For a moment they stood motionless, figures in a tableau, Hugh pointing, Hope following the invisible line extending from his fingertip to a place several hundred yards ahead, where a ring of turkey vultures circled. Then they both broke into a run, slowing as they approached the precipice of a gorge. From the promontory, they could see him. His fleece dark with blood from two deep gashes on his head; his ankle turned out at a hideous angle. But he was breathing, alive.

They found a place to climb down, and Hope knelt beside Adam and said his name softly and slowly, as if teaching it to him. He raised his head just enough that she could see his sad, feral eyes. What she saw didn’t look like her husband anymore. It looked like something small and helpless and incongruous.

Like a trout in a sand drift, or a dog in space.

About the Author


Reginald J. Otto

American River College

Reginald Otto of American River College was raised in the spooky woods of the Sierra Foothills. He is indebted to his mother and father for cultivating and encouraging his interest in writing and other creative endeavors.