Simon was soaking wet when he got back into the kitchen. Tracey looked up from her coffee, frowning at the puddle he was making on the floor.
“Gardening again?” she asked.
“Tra, babe,” he said, hands trembling. “Y-you’re gonna want to sit down.”
She frowned. “What did you do?”
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “Well, not entirely me.”
She set down her coffee and rushed to the back door, trying to see past him. He put his hands on her shoulders, and very deliberately set her down in a chair—which was a presumptuous thing to do, so she knew whatever he’d done wrong, it was serious. He wouldn’t risk being presumptuous otherwise.
He sat down, too, and took her hands in his. “So you remember the old sprinkler?”
“The green one?”
“That went side to side, right? OK, so it was kinda falling apart, so I wanted to get a new one.”
“How much did you spend?” she sneered.
“It’s not that,” he said. “Well, it’s also that. Anyway, I wanted to get something fun for Barley to play with, since he really seemed to enjoy jumping through the old one...”
Tracey’s eyes went wide at the thought of her precious doggo. “What happened to Barley?”
“It’s...” said Simon. “It’s just that...”
“Simon!” shouted Tracey, up on her feet and racing to the back door. “What did you do to my dog?”
She got to the door and pushed it open and gasped. In the middle of the backyard, atop the well-watered grass, was a shiny new black sprinkler. It didn’t go side to side like the old one—it twirled in circles, going so fast it made Tracey a bit dizzy to look at it. But that wasn’t what bothered her. What bothered her was the circular burn mark all around the sprinkler, which had torched the grass right down to the topsoil.
“Oh my God,” she gasped. “Simon, the sprinkler burned our lawn!”
Simon was at her side, still holding something back. “It wasn’t the sprinkler.”
She went outside, standing just beyond the reach of the water, and knelt down to touch the burn marks. “I don’t get it,” she said. “What was it?”
“Barley,” said Simon. “Barley did that.”
Tracey gaped at the ring of fire, then over at Simon, who looked so incredibly guilty, it was galling.
“How the hell did a golden retriever light our lawn on fire?”
“OK, so here’s the thing. I turned it on a little at first, and he really seemed to enjoy it. He was chasing the water in circles, getting a good workout, and I thought: hey, I’ve seen him run faster than that. So I turned it up a little...”
“Can you pass me that rake please?” asked Tracey.
Simon glanced at the rake. “No please.”
“So the water spun faster, and Barley ran faster, but he still seemed to have so much energy, so I figured he could stand to turn it up a notch, right? Except when I did, Barley...he...”
Simon was staring at the burn marks like he was going to cry. Tracey was about to commit murder and bury the body in her new raised flower beds. “Did you kill my dog, Simon? Just tell me.”
“He’s not dead exactly.”
“There was this flash of light, and he was...he was gone. And the lawn was on fire where he’d been running, so I had to leave the sprinkler running for a bit, to put it out. But then when I went to shut it down, I...” He shrugged. “Well, maybe you should just see.”
He trudged to the faucet and, taking hold, looked over at the sprinkler. “I’m really sorry, babe.”
He turned down the water pressure, and as he did, the oddest thing happened: Tracey could see Barley running in a circle, but only in flashes. Here, near her; then there, on the other side; then closer again. It was like she was seeing single frames of a movie of him in motion, intercut with the spinning of the water.
“How is this happening?” asked Tracey, bending down and reaching out a hand to her poor doggo. “Did he--?”
“Best I can tell,” said Simon, “he seems to have broken the bonds of space-time.”
Tracey snarled over her shoulder. “What kind of a sprinkler did you buy?”
“It had five stars!” he countered, feebly. “But anyway, there’s also this...”
He turned the water a little lower, and the sprinkler slowed...and Barley started to flicker less and less. Finally, once the water was fully turned off, Barley re-appeared and stopped running. He looked around for a moment like he wasn’t sure where he was—and then saw Tracey, and tackled her to deliver extremely soggy kisses.
“So he’s OK!” she laughed, trying to calm him down. “Everything’s—”
Simon turned the water back on, and Barley disappeared all over again.
Tracey got to her feet, confused. “But wait, he wasn’t running this time! How did—”
Simon turned off the water again, and Barley re-appeared on the ground in front of Tracey, still trying to kiss her face like he had before. Like he’d been frozen in time. Like he’d been paused, and then resumed.
“Simon...” Tracey gasped. “Do you know what this means?”
Simon winced. “That I can’t water the lawn anymore?”
What it meant, Simon discovered, was a whole other kind of existence with Barley. Before, when they went to work, the poor pupper was forced to sit alone all day, staring out the window, or at the door, feeling all sad and lonely for hours upon hours until they came home. But now, all they had to do was get him settled on the couch, turn on the sprinkler, and he disappeared into space-time until they got home.
Of course, that cost a lot in water bills (plus their lawn was drowning) so Simon experimented with different kinds of hoses, stoppers, loops and connectors. They finally got a system in place that let them have their sweet Barley for the parts of the day that mattered, and saved him the boredom and loneliness of a typical doggish existence—and it was all controlled by a timer! Everyone was happy, but especially Barley...because to him, he was showered with attention every waking minute of his life. It was a blissful existence, and they were happy to live it.
Just before Christmas, they were decorating the tree as a family, with Simon covering the high ornaments, Tracey covering the delicate ones, and Barley eating the popcorn they’d naïvely intended to use for decorations.
“Oops,” said Simon, “this one looks breakable. You better take it.” He handed it down to Tracey, who found a safe spot for it where he wasn’t likely to touch. Simon had a very bad habit of destroying things like ornaments. Or sprinklers. Or space-times.
“There we go,” smiled Tracey, getting it just right. “Almost done.”
Just then, she heard the sound of a bowl tumbling off the couch, spilling popcorn everywhere. She turned, ready to scold: “Barley...” But then she froze...because Barley was gone.
“Barley?” she called, standing up to get a better view of the main floor. There was no sign of him. “Barley!”
“He’s probably just hiding,” said Simon, continuing with his decorating.
Tracey wasn’t so sure. She searched the kitchen, the living room, and upstairs in the bedrooms. There was no sign of him anywhere. Not on the beds, not under the beds, not even in the closet he knew better than to go in.
She met Simon downstairs, a sense of panic growing in the pit of her stomach.
“Nothing?” he asked.
She shook her head no.
Barley was afraid to go in the basement, but they checked there anyway. The space heater Simon had installed was working overtime, trying to keep the place warm, and it made the whole space even stuffier and claustrophobic. Tracey peeked around a few corners, but didn’t see anything. Tracey turned off the light. “Maybe we just missed him in the—”
Then she heard it: a dripping sound. Drip. Drip. Drip. She turned the lights back on and followed the sound, ending in a sizable puddle on the floor by the back wall.
“Oh crap,” said Simon, reaching up. “The pipe burst.” He was trying to block the flow of water, but was having very little success. “It must’ve frozen before I got the space heater in here, and now—”
Tracey stared out the back window, into the snow-covered backyard. This was the pipe that connected to the faucet...the faucet. The one that let Barley exist.
“You have to fix it,” she said. “You have to fix it now.”
Simon tried his best to turn off the water, to patch the pipe, to do anything to get their dog back. But in the end, the best the plumber could do was find a temporary fix and promise to come back in the spring to get it right.
He paused on his way out the door, seeing the leash hanging on the paw-shaped hook. “What breed?” he asked, with a warm smile.
Tracey almost cried.
It was a long winter without Barley. A tough winter filled with memories that should have been. And it was harder, too, because Tracey knew he wasn’t really gone...he was just paused for a bit. But it didn’t make it any easier when the bed was so empty, and so cold.
They badgered the plumber daily until finally, on a day in mid-March, he came back and fixed their pipes.
“We’re really big gardeners,” explained Simon, half-heartedly, as Tracey waited upstairs by the couch for the work to be done.
“Please work...” she whispered to herself. “Please just work...”
A few heartbeats later, the work was done, and Barley flickered back to existence, head still bowed like he was going to finish a bowl of popcorn that hadn’t been there in months. He looked up, saw Tracey watching him, and put on his best innocent face—before she gave him the biggest hug he’d ever known.
A year later, at his yearly checkup, the Dr Fielding was checking Barley’s teeth with a curious smile on his face. “How sure are we that he’s six?” he asked. “Because I feel like we’re off a little.”
Tracey flinched as the reasons connected in her brain. “Is he alright...?”
“He’s fine,” said the vet. “He’s more than fine, if he’s six. His health, his teeth, everything about him makes me think he’s closer to four.”
“Huh,” said Tracey, a huge smile spreading across her face. “Dog years, right? What a mystery.”
Barley wasn’t aging as fast as he should. Simon did some quick calculations—which Tracey re-did, and got right—which suggested Barley was only actually living for a little less than half of each day. He truly was paused during his off periods.
Simon installed a bluetooth timer, and hooked it up to Siri. They set up intricate rules and conditions to optimize Barley’s existence, so he wouldn’t use up precious seconds unnecessarily. Bathroom breaks, shopping trips, nights out—any time they couldn’t dedicate to him 100%, they simply turned him off like a furry smart appliance.
They stayed in that house longer than anyone in the neighborhood. Their realtor friends tried to convince them to sell, but they just kept fixing what they could, upgrading what they couldn’t, and living with what was left.
Years went by. Vets, too. Friends and family would stop by and wonder: how do they keep finding dogs that look just like Barley? And Barley never cared one bit, so long as he got hugs and treats and a warm bed to sleep in at night.
Then, one day, when Simon’s back wasn’t what it used to be, and Tracey had trouble hearing him complain about it, their tablet flashed a milestone they’d long since forgotten might happen.
“Ten years,” said Tracey, squinting at the holograph over her reading glasses. “He’s ten years old.”
“Hmm,” said Simon, settling in next to her. “That’s...that’s about...”
The tablet anticipated his question and showed: “75 Years.”
Tracey patted his knee. “He’s caught up with you,” she said.
Then her hand paused, and her gaze shifted over to Barley, asleep at the end of the couch. His ninth couch, and the one he liked best. He was resting so comfortably, taking big happy breaths as he dreamt of chasing squirrels through a backyard that hadn’t existed that way for half a century.
“No more sprinkler,” she said, quietly.
“No more sprinkler,” agreed Simon.
And for whatever time they had left, they lived it all together. The good, the bad, and the boring. Barley loved it all equally, anyway.
Written for Ashley, whose topic was: doggie sprinkler disaster.