Length: ~2600 words
Universe: Cracked Phoenix spinoff (original)
Content Advisory: College kids being idiots with dogs, booze, and smoking (humor). First-person present tense.
Notes: This was not originally intended to hook up with an existing universe, until I realized that it did. The hookup is not apparent in this piece. It has been reworked from the 1998 original version.
I'm on the phone with Chris when the dog catches fire.
It's a quiet Friday evening in my dorm room. My roommate Mel D and I are both there, with our friends Jen, Mel B, and Tom, and somehow Tom's ancient roommate Chuck has weaseled his way in as well. And then Browser. Browser is Mel D's dog, on temporary loan to us while Mel D's house gets overhauled. Browser is a black behemoth, black lab crossed with hippopotamus. Mel D's parents got a computer shortly before they got the puppy, thus the name. It fits. She goes everywhere, picks up viruses, crashes often, and wastes time that could have been spent doing something actually constructive.
Browser is lying exactly in the middle of the floor, taking up most of the walking space. Tom has cunningly snagged the inflatable chair from the top bunk, and has wedged that against my desk chair. He is battling Mel D, who is perched on the near end of my bottom bunk, controller wires stretched across the center of the room to the game console on Mel's dresser. They are playing some ancient fighting game, and Mel is beating Tom. Mel B and Jen are leaning up against the other end of the bunks, throwing darts, mostly hitting the dartboard on top of the microwave on top of my dresser. The keg is in the nook between the dressers and Mel's closet, where the inflatable chair normally goes. Mel D had lugged the keg in an hour ago. I didn't ask. Sometimes with Mel D it's best not to. Chuck is tipped back in Mel D's desk chair with his feet on her desk, the back of the chair braced against my desk, reading one of my books and otherwise contributing zero or negative value to the entire party. Though he had been the one to bring the vodka, since he's 21.
I, the social director of the entire evening, was the only one home to answer when Mel D's flaky friend Chris called the room phone two hours ago. I am still sitting there at my desk staring at the computer while he babbles in my ear. The room smells of slightly singed microwave popcorn and beer, but the door is closed. It would normally be open, but the Resident Assistant would freak – the dog, the keg, and oh, god, is Chuck smoking?
Yes, he is. Chuck taps the ashes from his cigarette into the coffee mug he'd appropriated as an ash tray. I make a note to return that mug to the cafeteria and liberate another; that will be less hassle than cussing him out. He turns another page.
"Hey, you, hand over some popcorn," Mel D says to Tom, swinging his warrior around by the feet. Tom doesn't bother to get up to hand the popcorn to her, just tosses it from his cozy seat in the purple inflatable chair. Browser senses it telepathically or something, and levitates from the floor into Mel's face. "Down, girl!" Mel snaps. Browser pretends not to listen, but ambles over towards the other end of the room and the darts game.
Mel B has just sunk one of the yellow darts into the little circle around the bull's eye, and dislodges Jen's last dart. She titters at Jen.
Jen looks at the damage Mel B has just done to her score, shakes her head, and wobbles over to the keg. She tops off her beer and takes a careful sip, then wanders back and throws another dart. It misses the bull's eye, but at least it hits the edge of the dart board. Jen is a worse shot when drunk, and Browser's cold nose investigating either Jen's butt or Jen's beer doesn't help. I snicker.
"Ada, what's so funny now?" Chris wants to know. I have no idea why Mel wants to stay friends with him now that she's got her car working. I'm checking my email instead of properly listening to whatever boring things he has to say. How does he have the spare time to spend so long oh the phone? He's supposed to be in the army, and I didn't think they got spare time. On the bright side, at least he only has the room phone number, and not anyone's cell number.
"Mel's beating Jen's pants off at darts," I tell him, "and Browser's sharing Jen's beer."
"Sounds like quite the party," Chris says, and adds, passive-aggressively, "If I got a new thermostat for my truck, I could show up there too."
"Gee, that's too bad," I lie. I wonder if it's possible to bribe all the auto shops in town to hide the thermostats when Chris walks in. It would be a small price to pay for ensuring that all our future parties remain as Chris-free as possible.
"Yeah. You know, I could still show up if Mel came over and gave me a ride," Chris suggests.
It is less effective than he hopes. I am reminded of how Browser looks at you with great pitiful eyes when you eat steak. Neither begging dogs nor begging men appeal to me. When Browser does that, it means she's about to leap up and help herself, so you have to take quick action. "Too bad Mel's car is still busted," I say, lying again. "Anyway, she's too drunk to drive."
Chris pouts audibly. I roll my eyes.
Jen opens the refrigerator on the far end of the dressers and splashes a bit of soda into her empty beer cup, then grabs the vodka from the top of the tiny fridge and pours a generous slug into the cup.
"Give that here," Tom demands, drains the rest of his beer, and fills up with vodka.
I wave my arm in the air. "Can we get some beer over here? I am so not the Designated Dogsitter." Mel B is the closest to the keg now, and she smiles at me. "Sure, hon," she smiles, and tosses her dart at the board. It hits a little closer than Jen's, but is still a definite miss. She heads for the beer. My beer.
"That's really cute," Chris says. I ignore him.
Tom sets the vodka down on the floor next to his chair. I frown, and I'm about to say something, when Chuck puffs out another lungful of smoke. I stand up, reach over him, and stretch the phone cord to open the window. The haze in the room is reaching that threshold of blue that means I'm going to die coughing without fresh air in two minutes, and the smoke alarm is going to go off in five. I take a deep breath of the air outside. Too polluted to be strictly fresh, but better than inside. While I'm up, I accept my beer. I could get out, if I shoved the inflatable chair out of the way, but I'm sort of wedged in between Chuck and Tom.
Chris is still talking. "I mean, you can hardly be a Designated Driver if the car doesn't work, but somebody still needs to make sure that the stupid dog doesn't knock over the lamp or something and start a fire." Chris has a point, as much as I hate to admit it. If it can be knocked over, smashed, or otherwise destroyed, Browser will find a way of doing it. She never means to, of course.
Case in point: Mel B walks vaguely in the general direction of the door on her way to the keg, and Browser launches herself into flight. She had been flat on the floor, but Mel B is at the door. Browser collides with Tom's controller cord, and it flies out of his hand. Tom curses after Browser and scrambles for his controller.
Browser wags hopefully at Mel B, and paws the door. Mel crouches down to Browser's level and coos over her, petting her and playing with her ears. "No, I'm not taking oo on walkies, Browswer-wowser," she says, and has to dodge fast to avoid getting hit in the chin as Browser starts jumping up and down upon hearing the magic word walk. "Mel, tell your idiot dog that I'm not taking her out!" she shrieks, straightening up and trying to dodge the dog.
Mel D is beating Tom's character senseless as he tries to get the controller back. She looks up. "Down, Browser, you idiot!" Mel orders in drill sergeant tones. "And shut up!" Browser whines and curls up in front of the keg, pouting. Mel D returns her attention to the game, kicking Tom until his life is nearly gone, then moving close and finishing him off with a well-placed slap.
"I'd take Browser on a walk," Chris says, doing his best to imply that everyone in the room is lazy and horribly cruel.
"If you were here, you'd be welcome to," I tell him. Mel D walks Browser morning and night, and sometimes in between if she gets the chance, but Browser never turns down an opportunity to get out and cause mayhem. Walking half a block would disillusion him forever. Browser gets her leash tangled in anything, even when the laws of physics say it should be impossible to tangle. If there's anything to start a fight with, Browser will start something by accident. Falling leaves and passing flies are the most exciting thing in the world and deserve jumping up and down and barking. And of all things that it's good to mark territory by peeing on, cop cars have to be about the bottom of the barrel. I get the feeling that Chris is trying to mark territory here too.
I realize which train of thought I'd missed a few minutes ago. "Tom, could you put that bottle back up on the fridge?" I call out.
Tom waves his controller. "I'm not going to let her kill me," he argues.
"Okay, maybe not up on the fridge, but at least on a hard, flat surface where it won't get knocked over. I don't need a rug that smells like fermented potatoes for the next seven months."
Tom scoots forward, puts the open bottle on Mel's desk, then goes back to his game. Mel is still kicking his ass. "Somebody get me a beer?" Tom asks.
"I'm up, I'll get it," Jen says, readying a dart. She throws, and the dart lands in possibly the worst square it could have. "Mel, your mother liked kangaroos better than your father did, and your father liked them better than he liked your mother." She shuffles over to the keg and bangs a foot into Browser. "Crud! Dog, get out of the way."
Browser head-butts Jen's leg and licks her, then wags her way over to Chuck, looking hopefully around the room for someone who would love her. Finding no love, she flops down and starts sniffing the carpet for crumbs.
"Who's winning now?" Chris asks.
"Mel and Mel," I tell him. "Tom is dying at King of Fighters, and Jen's had a little much vodka to aim right. Sorry, hon," I say as Jen glares at me, "but it's true."
Mel B tosses another dart. It hits approximately where she'd been aiming it, so she pumps her fist. "Gotcha!" she crows.
Jen pouts. "And when you were born, your father asked your mother which side of you was the face and which was the butt, because he couldn't see a difference." Her throw is wobbly and bounces off the board, knocking another of her darts off.
"I'm too cute to hate," Mel B says sweetly. Jen rolls her eyes.
Chuck closes my book. "Is there a sequel?" he asks. He flicks another sparking load of ash into the mug and shuffles his feet down the desk, intent on the shelves. One of his boots shoves the vodka bottle, but he steadies it before it can fall. I lean over and rescue my book.
"I'll get it," I say. I shelve the book and grab the next. Chuck reading is Chuck not causing trouble, but I wouldn't put it past him to file it on the wrong shelf. "Here."
Chuck leans forward, takes the book with one hand, grabs the vodka with the other, and takes a gulp right out of the bottle. Ugh. Browser pokes her nose up, interested, but Chuck pushes her away gently. "Not for dogs," he tells her. This is a mistake. Browser doesn't speak English, and anything in a gentle voice is "oh you good dog, keep doing that," to her. She noses at the bottle more insistently, and that's when it spills all over Chuck's pants, Mel's desk, and the floor. Browser wags her tail and knocks over Tom's cup of beer for good measure.
"Oh, crap!" I say, and hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder as I shuffle around in my desk to find napkins or something.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry, Ada," Chuck says. He clenches his cigarette between his teeth and says "Stupid dog!" sharply. Browser has her head in the puddle of vodka, and as if that isn't enough, she flops over and rolls back and forth in the puddle. She'll smell like a brewery for a week, and we'll never get it out of the rug. He swats her rump. "Bad, bad, bad dog, you dumb smelly thing! Now look what you've done!"
"So what's happening now?" Chris asks, hearing me swearing under my breath as I realize that we'd used the last of the Taco Bell napkins two nights ago to catch the cheese from the pretzels before it dripped down the side of the dresser onto Mel D's clean clothes.
"Damn dog spilled the beer and I can't find the napkins," I growl at him.
"That's too bad," Chris says.
"Too bad?" I say, slamming the desk drawer closed. "Too freaking bad? I don't think you understand the situation, Christopher."
It gets worse. Chuck, grumbling and shoving the dog out of the way as he sops up the liquid with one of the t-shirts from the laundry basket, is ignoring his cigarette as thoroughly as I am trying to. A sparking shower of ash falls off, landing on Browser's back. Her tail goes up in flames.
"FUCK!" I scream, and throw the handset at the cradle, darting forward and snatching more laundry to smother the flames, frantically slapping out everything that feels the least bit hot.
Tom's controller falls on my head and the inflatable chair goes flying. I am vaguely aware that the chair has slammed into Mel B and Jen, and they are yelling and cursing. "PIPE DOWN IN THERE," someone, probably the RA, yells from outside in the hall. Tom is behind me, there is a hiss, and everything is sticky and wet. Coca-Cola is not flammable, good. Browser is out. I sag on the floor, glaring at the damn dumb dog. She gives me a guilty dog-grin, a slurp of tongue across the face, and then slinks under the deepest darkest corners of the bed.
"You okay?" Chuck asks, with the cigarette still clenched half-burned between his teeth.
I glare at him too. "No," I say, reaching up and jerking the damned cancer stick away from him. I pull the screen out of the open window and eject the cigarette. "That's better."
The phone rings. It's probably the RA. We're so busted. I pick it up and sag into my chair. "Hello, Ada and Mel's room."
"Ada!" It was that irritating voice I'd been listening to for the past two hours. "Ada, what happened? You screamed and hung up on me."
"There was an emergency," I say stiffly. "Someone spilled the beer on the dog, and the dog caught fire." I hang up his babbled demand for an explanation. "Don't answer the damned thing," I say as it starts ringing again, and turn the ringer switch to OFF.