by Nancy Kress
This is going to make all the difference in the world to us,” Daddy says when the truck pulls into our yard. “All the difference in the world.”
I pull my sweater tighter around me. Cool spring air comes in at my elbow, where the sweater has a hole. The truck, which is covered with mud from its trip up the mountain, bumps into a ditch in our driveway and then out of it again. Behind his glass window the driver makes a face like he’s cursing, but I can’t hear him. What I can hear is Precious crying in the house. We don’t have any more oatmeal left, and only a little milk. We surely need
“Closer, closer… hold it!” Daddy yells. The driver ignores him. He stops the truck where he chooses, and the back door springs open. In the pens our dogs are going crazy. I walk around the back of the truck and look in.
Inside, there’s nothing to see except a metal cage, the kind everybody uses to ship dogs. In the cage a bitch lies on her side. She’s no special kind of dog, maybe some Lab, for sure some German shepherd, probably something else to give her that skinny tail. Her eyes are brown, soft as Precious’s. She’s very pregnant.
“Don’t touch her, Carol Ann, stay off the truck, you don’t know her disposition,” Donna says, pushing me aside. There’s no point in listening to Donna; she doesn’t even listen to herself. She climbs into the truck she told me to stay out of and puts her hand into the cage, petting the bitch and crooning at it. “Hey there, sweetie, you old sweetie you, you’re going to be lucky for us yes you are…”
Donna believes anything Daddy tells her.
I go around to the front of the truck, which has big orange letters saying STANLEY EXPRESS, in time to see the Arrowgene scientist get out. He has to be the scientist; nobody would hire him to be a trucker. He’s the shortest man I’ve ever seen, slightly over five feet tall, and one of the skinniest, too. He’s all dressed up in a business suit with a formal vest and commpin. I don’t like his looks—he’s staring at Daddy like Daddy’s some kind of oaf—but I’m interested. You’d think genemod scientists would make their own kids taller. Or maybe he’s the first one in his family to be a scientist, and his parents were like us, regular people. That might explain why he’s so rude to Daddy.
“…understand that there is no way you can reach us, ever, for technical support. So ask any questions you might have right now.”
“I don’t have no questions,” Daddy says, which is true. He never has questions about anything, just goes ahead and gets all enthusiastic about it and sails on like a high cloud on a March day, sunny and blue-sky right up until the second the storm starts. And Donna’s the same way.
“You’re sure you have no questions?” the scientist asks, and his voice curls over on itself.
“No, sir,” Daddy says.
The Arrowgene scientist looks at me like he’s surprised I’m old enough to talk, even though I’m as tall as he is. I’m seventeen but look a whole lot younger. Daddy says, “Carol Ann, I hear Precious crying. Shouldn’t you—”
“It’s Donna’s turn,” I say, which is a laugh because Donna never tends to Precious, even though Donna’s two years older than I am and should do more work. It isn’t that Donna doesn’t love Precious, she just doesn’t hear the baby cry. Donna doesn’t hear anything she doesn’t want to hear. She’s like Daddy that way.
I say, “What if the litter the bitch is carrying turns out not to be genemod for what you say, after all? If we can’t ever find you again for technical support, we can’t ever find you again to get our money back.”
He’s amused, damn him. “That’s true, young lady. Your father and I have been all over this, however. And I assure you that the puppies will have exactly the genetic modifications you requested.”
“Big? Strong? All male?”
“And they won’t ever sleep? Ever?”
“No more than Leisha Camden, Jennifer Sharifi, or Tony Indivino.”
He’s named three of the most famous Sleepless people in the world, two rich girls and a loudmouth man. The vid reporters follow them around, bothering them. They’re all just a few years older than Donna, but they seem much older than that. The women are both beautiful and super-rich. The man, Tony Indivino, calls himself an activist, spouting about “discrimination borne of jealousy and fear” and the “self-assisted evolution of the human race.” He’s pretty obnoxious, but maybe he’s right. I don’t know. I never thought much about sleeplessness before, not until Daddy got this business idea that’s going to make all the difference to us.
I say to the Arrowgene scientist, “The bitch you implanted the embryos into isn’t a purebred. Are the embryos?”
“Why not? Purebred puppies sell for more money.”
“Easier to trace. Your father requested as much anonymity as possible.” He scowls. He doesn’t like being questioned.
“If animals that don’t sleep are going to make such good profits, how come everybody doesn’t try to raise and market them?”
He probably wouldn’t answer me at all—I’m just another stupid hick to him—except that just then Donna comes around from the back of the truck, leading the bitch on one of our old leashes. The scientist perks up. Donna looks like Mama looked, only maybe even prettier. I remember every line of Mama’s face. Of course I do; it wasn’t that long since she died. Precious isn’t even two. Donna shakes all that red hair, smiles, and walks up to us. The toxic midget scientist gets very sparkly.
“No, young lady, it’s true that sleepless animals have not proved a market boon. Why should they? Why would you want a cow or chicken that doesn’t sleep, and just eats more from an increased metabolism without a correspondingly steeper increase in meat or milk? Of course, a few researchers went ahead anyway, intrigued to see if the complete elimination of sleep-inducing neurotransmitters had the same side effects in other vertebrates as in humans, which is to say—”
He goes on, talking directly to Donna, who’s beaming at him like he’s the most fascinating man in the world. She doesn’t understand a word. Daddy’s not listening, either, rocking back on his heels like he always does when he’s pleased about a new business, sure this one’ll make us rich. He’s already planned his slogan, underground of course since this is all illegal until the FDA approves: BENSON’S GENEMOD GUARD DOGS. THEY NEVER SLEEP, SO YOU CAN. In the house Precious is still wailing, and in their pens the two dogs left over from the previous, legal business (BENSON’S GENEMOD LAPDOGS. CUTER THAN HELL) are barking their heads off. They smell the new bitch.
I go in to Precious. Our house is falling apart: paint peeling, floorboards saggy, water stains from the leaky roof Daddy never gets around to fixing. But at least it’s warm inside. Y-energy cones are much cheaper than food. Precious stands up in her crib, screaming, but the minute she sees me she stops and smiles, even though I know she’s hungry. She’s as sunny as Daddy and Donna, and as pretty. I’m the only plain one. I scoop Precious up in my arms and hug her tight, and she squeals and hugs me back. I sniff that baby smell at the back of her neck, and I wonder what’s left to eat that I can fix for her. There has to be something that Daddy didn’t give to the dogs because he felt sorry for them, genemod bluish big-eyed collies that nobody in their right mind would want in the same room with them. They don’t even look like real dogs.
I find some rice in the back of a cupboard, and heat it with a sliced dried apple. While I feed Precious, I watch the Stanley Express truck drive away and disappear into the mountains.
Donna names the bitch Leisha, after the rich Sleepless woman with the bright gold hair and green eyes. This makes no sense, but we all follow along and call the dog Leisha. She whelps in my bed in the middle of the night. I wake up Daddy and Donna. Daddy moves Leisha to the kitchen. Donna brings her own blankets to put under the panting dog, who has a hard time delivering.
“Here comes the second one…
Daddy puffs as hard as Leisha. He’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him. It looks like I’m the only one who thinks about Mama, dying right while she was doing this same thing. Two more pups emerge, and they’re both males, too. At least the Arrowgene scientist hasn’t lied so far. All the pups are big, maybe part Doberman or even Great Dane. It’s hard to tell, so young.
One more pup squeezes out, and then the afterbirth. Leisha’s almost too tired to eat it. Two pups are brown and black, two are black, and one is a sort of gray color like spoiled yogurt. Their eyes are all closed.
Donna cries, “Aren’t they beautiful!”
“They look like slimy rats,” I say. She gives me a look. Leisha whimpers and shifts on the spoiled blanket.
Donna says, “Wait till Precious sees them!”
“Now, princess, we can’t let Precious get too attached to these pups,” Daddy says. “These here aren’t our pets.” He looks at Donna and me, head tipped to one side like he’s making a critical judgment. But his eyes are shining.
“These here are our fortune.”
We don’t have a ...