A Bridge Paved in Colour
You can tell it's not a novella, because it isn't named after...
The jukebox across the way played the Beatles in earnest, as though it eagerly wished the world to dance. Inside the grey walls of the Donatello Complex, though the sound spilled like syrup under battered doors, nobody seemed much moved by that rock and roll music.

They were tired--even Alice, who had no reason to be tired at her age. She had learned, though, that it was simply the way of things, and where a hundred years ago she might've been out playing in the sunshine, now she leaned up against the dingy walls and watched the adults live.

To be fair, she was bored--tired, one might say, of being tired. Alice truly had no idea what was going on, a trait she shared with the older members of her world (though she was much more likely to admit it). There was so much to be bored of, though--the unceasing grey of the city, the constant lethargy with which she saw the world move. Anymore, even the terror was boring.

That night, that was what they were all waiting for. The sirens started on cue at thirty past five in the afternoon--it was supposed to be a drill, but then They attacked on drills, sometimes, so you couldn't ever be sure. They trudged down to the shelter underneath the basement and sat silently, as they had done upstairs, but darker.

When they returned (it had been a drill after all, for which they thanked a deity or two) the jukebox was silent. They finished their meal--they always had cold meals on Thursdays, so that they didn't notice when the sirens interrupted--quickly and quietly, and moved to their own separate spaces. Alice followed her mother into the "living room" of 642; sat next to her on the yellowed sofa and laid her head on the older woman's arm. The silence continued until she couldn't let it stand anymore. "Ma?"

Her mother looked at her--wearily, though not unkindly. "What is it, sweetheart?"

"What did you do during the drills when you were a kid?"

Alice's mother, a haggard woman who had been pretty in her youth, sighed and aged perceptibly in front of her daughter's eyes. "Well... we didn't really have drills when I was growing up." She paused and tried to think of how to explain what the world was like before They came.

It wasn't, after all, as though she had had a childhood completely free of worry. She had been in high school in September 2001, when They (proto-They, perhaps) attacked New York City and the memories of that lingered--but she was just pregnant with Alice when the regular bombings had begun. And the missiles--God, the missiles. They came without warning, and like that another block had vaporised. Fortunately Denver did not seem to be a target. Fortunately all the scares about nuclear weapons and anthrax and nerve gas had been just that, terrified gossip. Fortunately--

"Why not?" Alice asked, and her mother had to take a second to recall what the original topic had been.

"Things were different then," her mother finally said. "And they'll be different when you have children too." This was more a hope than a guarantee, but Alice probably didn't realise that. She didn't really want to dwell. "It's time for you to go to bed, isn't it?"

Sirens came and went and the world continued in its monotone step for some time. In June, at the beginning of the summer, on a bright and warm day despite the unremitting sterility of the city, Alice walked down the sidewalk along Federal Boulevard--by herself; there was surprisingly little crime. An apartment complex ahead lay in ruins, and the city workers were busy clearing the rubble. Some days, walking by similar sites, she wondered about what the houses had been like, or where all the stone went when it was cleared.

Today a bright spot amongst all the dirty slabs caught her eye and, with head cocked like an inquisitive bird, she went to investigate. For all the cats it has doubtless slaughtered, this childhood curiosity can hardly be faulted--and now she poorly muffled a cry as the object resolved itself into a small stuffed dog.

This, now--this was truly a gift from heaven. Alice had wanted a dog for some time, though the practicalities involved--they lived in a small apartment--effectively precluded this. This plush object, which was fairly indistinguishable (a husky, maybe, or a wolf of some kind--cute in the stubby way of manufactured animals, though she would not have known breeds anyway), fit the bill well enough. It was warm from the heat of the sun and almost lifelike as she gingerly took it into her arms.

No owner stepped forward to claim it, and given its state--clean and well-kept in the midst of the rubble from the building--it might not have even called the apartments its residence anyway. At any rate, she had few qualms about taking it and, dog in tow, sped back to the Donatello Complex.

Her mother was suitably appreciative--she had grown up thus far lacking toys, as most of the city dwellers did, and the addition of the stuffed companion seemed likely to be a welcomed one. Still gloating over her prize, Alice withdrew to her small room. For a time, she tried to think of a name for the creature, but none seemed to fit, and her curiosity as regarded appellations faded rapidly.

Then came a lengthy discussion about things, a one-sided conversation (she fancied she could hear responses, but of course there were none), and when that failed to hold her interest they left the house again and investigated the area around the apartments. She had scoured them a thousand times before, but exploration is always more fun with a companion.

By mid-afternoon, she sat with her back against the concrete of the house and held the dog in her lap, examining it carefully. For all intents and purposes it looked brand-new, not a scratch on its eyes nor a stitch out of place. Its fur was still soft, downy in places; the white of its belly still white, the black of its ear-tips not yet faded from years of play in the outside. It had not yet been dragged across asphalt, conscripted to serve in tea parties and battles, nor suffered firsthand an attempt to make it drink something or other. Loving hands had not yet worn down the fabric of its body to shiny, venerable age.

It was mostly grey, though the nose and parts of its face and ears were jet. Its round eyes were brown and soft as plastic might hope to be. Its legs were white, as was the tip of its tail, though that would change, because everything was grey and dirty, and it could not stand without support. Already, Alice saw with distaste, a few grains of dust had made their home in its fur, looking for all the world like fleas.

The day was not spent entirely productively, since when her mother called her in for dinner Alice had still not settled on a name--though she decided, as they tramped into the house (or rather, one tramped and the other slid, as if somewhat reluctant about its destination) that, when it finally did receive one, it would be a 'he.' She did not know why, offhand--it gave no external cues. But it seemed to fit. She set it reverently down on her bed and skipped to dinner happily.

When Alice returned from spaghetti, still licking tomato sauce taste off her teeth, the dog was there waiting for her, and they resumed their games in the dying twilight. Quiet, he was still curiously observant, and Alice felt very much as though she was looking at the world through his hard plastic eyes. When her mother announced her bedtime, Alice gave up the freshness of the outside air she shared with the dog in a huff that belied, for the first time in many months, some sort of genuine zeal.

He watched her like a hawk as she brushed her teeth and put on her nightgown, a sentry the kings of old could never have dreamed of. And he did not protest, not one whimper or whine, when she clutched him tightly to her under the threadbare covers. He felt, to Alice, like she expected clouds to feel, warm and soft and fluffy, and she drifted off on him to an easy, peaceful dream.

Her closing thoughts that night had been of what the coming day would hold, but the best laid plans of children and plush huskies are often beset by unexpected obstacles. She woke up the next morning completely unaware of what the day would bring. Admonishing him to stay, she left the dog to grab a few minutes of sleep while she had breakfast with her parents before they dragged themselves to work. As it turned out, she was delayed for the time it took to see them off, but they left soon enough to do their grown-up things, and she returned to the bed full of wild imagination.

Upon entering her heart froze immediately, for the dog was gone. Trying to hold back any bad feelings, she returned to the breakfast table to see if he might have made his way there--though she was absolutely positive that she had placed him on the bed. In any case this search did not pan out, and--young eyes scanning every surface, head swivelling like a radar tower, she traced her steps back to her room.

She turned around slowly, looking in every nook and cranny--even the most improbable ones--hoping to find where the dog had gotten itself off to. The crazy feeling of panic spread inexorably, a growing desperation, and by the time she had finished this circuit, she already felt the stirring of tears. Alice sat heavily on the bed and sniffled, half from confusion and half from genuine loss. It was inexplicable (she would not have known this word, but the thought it conveyed was nonetheless quite present).

And impermissible. With a start, and summoning the requisite muscles for a peaceful transition, I leapt into her arms--at her arms, rather; she was unprepared to catch me. Not that it mattered much, for by nature I am a rather light creature, filled as I was at the moment mostly with spun cotton. Alice gave a sudden cry of surprised delight and quickly cast an embrace about me like a net. "Where did you go?"

"I was waiting for you to come back," I said. "How was breakfast?"

At this, Alice seemed a bit taken aback. "Did you just say something?"

"I did."

Her jaw dropped and she loosened her hold on me enough so that I could wriggle free to sit opposite her. "How?"

Her eyes met mine and she noticed suddenly the difference in the way they glittered. "Well... it's a bit complicated, and I'd rather not go into it."

She nodded slowly. "Are you the dog from yesterday?" she finally asked, hesitant and considering each word as it escaped her mouth.

"Oh, yes. I was waiting there for you."

"For me?"

"I thought you looked lonely."

Alice's face crinkled and she pondered this for a moment. Then, she reached out a hand and tentatively brushed it against my head. I bent it down against her fingers, and the unexpectedness of this movement seemed to shock her a second time, because she drew them back. "Are you magic or something?"

I am not a child psychologist for obvious reasons, but I have been doing what I do for many, many centuries and have always found honesty to be the best policy in regards to questions like this. "Yes. Oh, hold on." There was no-one around but her, after all, so I flexed my body into a more realistic shape, contorted batting into flesh and blood, gave up my old invertebrate self--not a bad effect, though I probably would not have taken any prizes at Westminster, had they still run it.

On the plus side, this also gave me the ability to open my mouth, and a tongue with which I licked her still-outstretched hand, tasting salt vaguely. This time she did not pull it away--instead she let out her breath in a wondering sigh. "Wow." Then, after a few seconds' silence: "are you for real?" I barked, and this broke the spell--she giggled and hugged my neck, rather more gently after she felt the bones contained therein. "Well, hi then!"

"Hi!" I echoed with as much of the childish glee that I--who am not a child--could muster, a fair amount if I do say so myself.

"Where did you come from?" the girl asked--a nonsequiter, but I took it in stride, because at least it meant that she was no longer locked in the cycle of trying to figure out if I was real or not.

Unfortunately it was not a question I could really answer. "I guess I don't know. I realised that you needed a friend, though, and... and then I was there in that rubble. I hoped you'd find me."

"And I did!" she grinned triumphantly.

"And you did," I confirmed. "So then I came home with you, though I didn't want to show you who I was until we were alone."

"Why not?"

I wiggled my ears. "Because grown-ups can be awfully stubborn about things like talking stuffed dogs."

That they could, Alice agreed, and we commiserated about the sad state of adult affairs for another minute or so--they can be very unreasonable, after all, a veritable font of complainable offences. She stopped when she seemed to think of something (or rather, recall that she had not thought of something when it was appropriate).

"Oh, and I'm Alice," she said--as though I didn't know, but it gave me a chance to introduce myself as well.

"My name is Keshet," I told her.

And that solved the single largest problem she had regarding me, which was what I was to be called.

The rest of that day we spent together playing outside, gathering white rocks and arranging them tactfully along the sidewalk that led to the apartment complex, punctuated when that grew boring (it was a dreadfully serious activity--an opportunity for us, and her especially, to change the world she lived in perceptibly, which comes seldom for the young) with other things. That day, contests--I was faster than her (I have more feet to run with); she could throw the white rocks further (she had hands with which to do so).

We were inside--Alice was in need of a glass of water--when her parents returned. I trotted back to her bedroom, awaiting the ensuing discussion patiently--it always occurred. In this case it came quickly, because no sooner were they inside than I heard a young voice cry, "Ma! Daddy! Guess what?" Muffled through the closed door, I discerned an interrogative. "Remember that dog I found yesterday? Well it turns out he's real!"

"What do you mean?" asked her father, doubtless meaning well, though when she explained to him that I was first and foremost magical and secondly could change shapes and talk (these being consequences of the former), he changed gears a bit. "Can he, then?"

"Sure!" Then, the rapid hammer of footsteps, and she almost kicked in the bedroom door. I went pliant and fabric again, which stalled her for less than a second before she adopted the expedient of simply grabbing me around the middle and presenting the resultant creature to her father, much as a cat displays its own trophies to its hapless owners. "Keshet! Say something!"

"Keshet?" her mother asked with raised eyebrow. She repeated this to them, explaining that it was my name. They exchanged glances--she did not notice this; I did. "He seems to be the quiet type," she then observed.

Even though I was trapped (rather roughly, I might add) in her arms, I could feel Alice's frown. "Well, I don't know why. C'mon, Keshet."

Her father coughed. "Well, I tell you what, honey. Why don't you go wash up and see if you can make him any more cooperative while I heat up supper, ok?"

"You don't believe me, do you?"

He sighed. "No, it's not that, I do." He smiled warmly. "Maybe we've just put him on the spot. But supper's not going to cook itself, anyway, so how about we continue this later?"

Faced with two colossuses, Alice withdrew, my underbelly her white flag. When we were safely within the bedroom, she set me firmly down and glared, displaying the lividness she had not dared show in front of her parents. "Now what was that about?"

She half expected me to remain silent, I suppose, but I didn't want to do that. "It's like I said, Alice. They can be very, very stubborn about folks like me. It's best just not to try and force it."

"You made me look dumb," she groused.

This was true. "I know, I'm sorry. But... do you think they'd really be accepting of a magical dog, Alice?" Her lips pursed. "It's not because they're mean, it's because they'd be worried about you. They love you, after all."

"Well, but why can you only talk to me?"

I sighed audibly and communicated my own disappointment with the state of affairs by going completely limp. "It's just better that way, I've learned. I'll make it up to you, I promise."

She was unconvinced. It was always a test of faith, that first encounter. Children are not so young that they think their senses completely infallible, and she must've realised the possibility that not only was I not what I claimed, but I didn't even really exist at all. Of course she did not want to believe this, and that denial would stay her hand for the time being. I didn't speak again while I let her think things over. "You promise?"

Now I nodded, and that was that.

We know that when we are young, we inhabit a different kind of world (I have a special perspective on this because I am very old while at the same time being eternally juvenile). For many adults, fantasies--daydreams, movies, the novels of JRR Tolkien--are diversions from the life they really lead. For many children, conversely, they are not diversions so much as merely different possibilities. There are not really alternate universes, rather different takes on this one.

I shall not pass judgment here. There are things to be said for naivete and reasons by the same token why it is not to be praised (biased as I am). Grown-ups, in any case, can manipulate automobiles and run businesses and cure cancer, the bane of so many of my previous lives, whereas children (by and large) cannot. However it has always seemed to me that they tend, at the same time, to know far too little about what could be, and far too much about what is impossible, and when the two chance to overlap they side with the latter.

This has assuredly caused them problems, but, again, that's not for me to say. Alice, in any case, was reasonably accepting of my explanation, and we settled into a progressively comfortable routine as the days wore on. As she had a playmate now, a companion (at least, I think this was probably the reason), the tiredness I had noted when first made aware of her faded quickly.

By the end of June, as spring leapt headlong into summer, her entire outward demeanour changed. She made an effort to track down bright clothes in the communal bins, tossing them together in Jackson Pollack style so that, as outfits multiplied, were torn and repaired, combined in new ways, she eventually resembled a walking stained-glass window.

Because of my nature, she was my primary focus, though the impact on the rest of the world was not by any means lost. Her parents, too, appeared more upbeat--even the jukebox seemed, with each new day, more relevant. People stopped and took notice of the patterns in the pebbles along the walkway. They turned their ears to the sound of Alice's off-key singing.

I found an old disused sandbox, brought it to the front yard, and filled it; thereafter each morning she and I (mostly her) flattened it and built something new there, a cycle that would have done the phoenix proud. In the beginning, occasionally, less scrupulous citizens laid siege to our castles--but by the end, they were content to enjoy; in some cases, even, to add--a stick here, a stone there.

This to me reveals something important about you humans. It has been said that many (maybe all) nurture in you what is sometimes referred to as an "inner child." Perhaps, and perhaps not--I do not really think it is childish. But it seems to me that a lot of good, upstanding people nonetheless reside within a chrysalis. They are, I should think, attempting the metamorphosis--but fail to realise two important things. Firstly, the caterpillar and the butterfly are one and the same. Secondly, maturity alone doesn't break open the shell you spin around yourselves.

In one of my trips to earth, I was the companion of charming young lad growing up in another American city. I had cause at that time to marvel at the curiosity that was television. Here, in a world flush with colours and smells and textures--so many that one could never hope to sample them all (not even all the pleasant ones), he among others made the decision to immerse themselves instead in a monochromatic universe, sterile and tinny. It seemed to me an odd decision to make.

Life, of course, is not perfect--absolutely it was not for Alice and her family. They did not watch television, however--maybe because their world already was grey and white, and they couldn't find a way to flatten it any further. Maybe because they were afraid of what might happen if one dared to dream outside, in the past, in the future. I do not know.

And we could ignore it. Even with Them all about, lurking in basements and clouds alike, the world was as full of colour as it had been in 1959. And had it been not, we were both very capable of adding more. On the last day of June, Alice and I lolled like fallen leaves on the front yard, and as she let the sun pour into her face, her hand idly worked over the top of my head.

She stopped suddenly, fingers relaxing and falling away, and I opened my eyes to see what was the matter--disappointed, a bit, because I really do enjoy being petted (if it is done right--I should explain the technique some time). I perceived why she had neglected me immediately, though, because some idea was flickering light behind her eyes. "Keshet," she suddenly said, in a tone meant to cause me to inquire further.


"Do you realise that the outside of the apartment is so grey? Oh, even the dirt is prettier."

I could not really argue this point--the complex was, if our home, still very utilitarian and really rather ugly. "Oh, so it is. When did that happen?"

Finding the cause of this calamity, however, was not on Alice's list of priorities, since she ignored my question to point out that she had a set of paints. I knew this already--ten or twelve colours, some sort of beginner's collection found at a thrift store by some incredible good fortune. "I know there's not much of them," she said slowly, "but we could get a good start, I bet."

"On the apartment?"

Like my earlier question, this was brushed aside--Alice could be headstrong enough to cow MacArthur, if she felt like it. "Let's get them and we'll see." With this command, she got up, and I trotted after her into the house. The paints, we soon ascertained, were varied enough in colour, but there were not many of them--they were, I think, converted pill bottles. Alice stared at the collection and the scope of the project struck her. "These are kind of small, aren't they?"

"Yes," I had to concede. "But I suppose we should not let that stop us."

She raised an eyebrow and placed a hand on her hip, the spitting image of a woman six or seven times her age. "It shouldn't?"

"I don't think so." I saw an opportunity here. "We'll just have to be cautious with our design. Plan everything very carefully." With difficulty I placed a blank piece of paper in her hand. "So let's start with that."

Though still sceptical--for obvious reasons, really--she accepted this without too much hesitation. I made suggestions now and again, though since my vision is not always very good I felt justified in leaving the creative decisions up to her. Alice's finished product was a landscape in mural form, a view of the Front Range as seen, I gathered, from one of the prairie hawks that constantly circled above our heads in holding patterns only they could discern.

Replicating this on the concrete, of course, meant magnifying it by a significant order, and had we dwelled on this, I have no doubt that the young girl might have become rather daunted--so we did not dwell. I insisted that she don a smock of sorts (in this case the apron she used when pretending to serve coffee) and then, paints in hand, we sallied forth to break the siege cruel grey held on the building.

Alice got caught up in the colours, which was good since it meant she never asked me how it chanced that the bottles of paint remained as full as when we had started. It was nonetheless slow going--by the time I sensed her parents returning and called a halt to our activities, she had managed to cover only an eighth of the wall, or so. Her father, I noticed from the corner of my eye (Alice had a way of resting me facing backwards on her shoulder, so I caught them as they entered the house) took notice but only smiled wryly, nodded, and kept going. Her mother, a more practical person, did not even raise her head--but, still, at the very least they were disinclined to rebuke, which was fortune enough.

When Alice rose the next morning I was waiting for her, having procured in my mystical (though for some reason almost never questioned) way a larger brush and correspondingly appropriate paint cans, and we raced outside without even eating breakfast. The bottom half or so, which was not very heavy on details, was soon completed; I stretched my hind legs into human shape for stability and gave her my shoulders as a scaffold to begin work on the remainder.

This took two days--the neighbourhood was rather empty during the day and people mostly noticed it in the evenings without having any idea whatsoever of its genesis, but they took note nonetheless. In the end, if I do say so myself (taking whatever small credit I might be afforded), the result was truly stunning. Because Alice had little use for practicality, she had taken an eternity on some areas--eventually I had wound up helping a little, lest we still be there in the fall.

Mountains stretched from one edge to the other, giving the impression of an irregular saw that cleft earth and sky in two. Trees reached up crooked branches in supplication while vibrant blue rivers coursed between them like the spilled dreams of the sky above. And what a sky that was!--the clouds intermixed with soaring falcons, and here and there more tawdry fowl, and even, poking shyly in from a corner, the sun, half-hidden as though it did not want its radiance compared with the beauty of the art. This was to its advantage; it would hardly have received the more favourable opinion of the multitudes.

I suppose you could call it crude--Alice was not a trained artist, and I am for your purposes a stuffed dog given life by providence. Certainly, the colours were brilliant and unabashed; certainly the lines stark. It had, nonetheless, a terrific appeal--and as one drew closer to it, more and more detail began to emerge. Had one seen the snake, here? The little cottage tucked away behind a mountain there? The osprey skittering up from the lake with a fish reluctantly in tow? Not from afar--though it even seemed from a distance that these were there to be found if one were looking, and I think this was the reason why I loved it so.

Nor was I alone, by far. Even Alice's mother took notice on that final night, and her eyes awoke (just a little, but more importantly they did not seem quite ready to return to slumber even as she entered the house). The neighbourhood, passing by, eyed it wonderingly. And--I apologise for spoiling the ending of this story--not once in all the time it stood there did vandals ever seek to cause it harm, and I daresay such thought probably never crossed their mind at all.

Life was not all roses. We had finished on a Thursday, and spent Friday doing some minor touching up, adding details here and there (though I did intervene to prevent scales from being added to the fish). Saturday, neither of her parents worked, and her father gently pulled Alice aside. He commented first on the beauty of the mural, and Alice fairly beamed at this. Then he chanced to ask, "though I'm curious as to how you managed to get all the upper parts done so well."

She hesitated a bit. "Of course I couldn't do it all by myself, so Keshet helped a bit."

Her father's shoulders dropped a notch. "Did he?"

"Oh, yeah. And he found me another paintbrush."

"This Keshet?" Her father indicated me, and Alice nodded. He sighed, "honey, Keshet can't really do much. He hasn't got any bones or anything else."

This put Alice in a bit of a quandary, since it was patently impossible for her to have done the painting alone, and she knew this; at the same time, it was similarly impossible to get her father to accept the notion of a magical plush husky. "Well, but that's what happened."

Her father reached over her and picked me up; she did not protest. He prodded me a few times, though fortunately he did not go so far as to twist me or pull off parts of my person--which would not really have done anything to hurt me, but was disconcerting regardless (to myself and to my owner). "See? How did he help you?"

"He let me stand on his back, and he held the jars of paint so I didn't have to."

I'm certain her father was thinking furiously for an answer as to what had happened. Had she met and then enlisted the help of some random stranger? Had she come up with some contrived and no doubt perilous scaffolding? "Alice... I need you to tell me the truth, ok? How did you get up there?"

"I already told you," she said, blinking in surprise. "I stood on his back."

Her father looked ready to give up for a moment, but considered a new idea. "How? Look how soft he is."

"Sure, but not always. Sometimes he gets big. About as big as you."

There is an injunction against outright accusing your children of lying, and her father took a wide course to avoid this. "You're certain?" At her response, he sighed again. "You're careful when your mother and I aren't here, right?"

"'Course I am."

Again he seemed to consider letting this go, but decided instead to appeal to logic. "Alice, Keshet isn't a real dog. He can't stand on his own, or play the piano, or paint the outside of the apartments. I know you think it's ok, it's just some game, but you have to watch yourself. I don't know what happened, probably the neighbours don't know, maybe I can't even find out, but I can't let you tell me that a... a stuffed toy and you spent the last three days camped out there with a palette."

The point at which children begin to doubt their parents in any serious way is rarely a pleasant one. Tears crept into Alice's eyes. "Why don't you listen to me?"

He tried to be kind when he said, "because it's not true," but this kindness was lost.

Alice fairly exploded. "Yes it is! I already told you it is!" She blinked furiously, trying in vain to keep her eyes dry. "I always trust you! Why would I lie to you about some dumb spilled paint? I wish I hadn't even done it now!"


"No, no, no! You don't care what I say, you don't--you don't want to listen!" The world around me suddenly spun as I was lifted up, and by the time I had some sense of orientation again the bedroom door had slammed shut behind her and she flopped heavily down, sobbing. I crept up close and lay partly curled around her shoulder.

It was five minutes or so before she calmed down and rolled to one side, facing me, arm outstretched limply. "Keshet, you are real, aren't you?" I licked the back of her hand and Alice ran it along my spine before resting it between my ears.

"As real as anything else."

"Why won't they listen?"

"It's hard to, Alice. It's easy for you because I'm your friend, but it's different for them. They're not trying to be mean. And they don't really think you're lying."

"They make it sound like that..."

"They don't know how else to think about it." We stared at each other for a minute. "Look, I tell you what. You remember I told you I'd make this up to you?"

"I remember..."

"Good. Let's go outside, then."

"Fine, I suppose." Her mouth a thin line, Alice scooped me up and we gained the outdoors--her father watched us leave but chose not to intervene, to give her time to cool off. It was a pleasantly warm morning, with few hints of the scorching heat of the Colorado summer days to be found. I rode Alice's shoulder like a parrot, directed her back to the front and the mural that the building now wore proudly.

"What's your favourite part of it?" I asked her.

Alice stuck her lower lip out as she thought about my question. "That part there," she finally decided, and pointed to a space near one of the edges. One of the more artistic parts, created before she had learned how much time she could afford to spend on one area if she didn't feel like making the mural a lifetime project. One of the rivers dropped down a short waterfall to collect in a small pond, around which trees gathered like throngs of admirers, and at which deer and what I thought was supposed to be a fox (she had only seen such creatures in picture-books, of course) rested.

"Ok, let's try something, then. Take my hand." She did with comforting lack of awkwardness. "Close your eyes..." Then I had to concentrate a bit, and to summon my strength. "... Now, open them."

"Oh," Alice said, a very, very small noise.

We stood inside what one might have described as an immense block of clear amber. Two feet from Alice's nose, a fat bumblebee hung suspended, wings frozen in mid-beat. Droplets of water from the descending river scattered in perfect spray, unmoving. A frog along the bank, tensed to move, was perpetually on the edge of his intended leap, and leaves ceased to fall in a ray of sunlight that cast itself down to the still water below.

"Why isn't anything moving?" Alice asked. She turned slowly, looking at a spider halfway through completing her web, the clouds dimly seen through gaps in the foliage, the great green trees like Grecian columns all around. "It's like time just... stopped."

"It has," I said. "We're living inside a painting."

"The mural?" she asked, wonderingly.

"Just so--there's your waterfall. There's your deer."

"It's so pretty," Alice said, and I had to agree. "I didn't paint all this."

"No," I admitted. "But you painted the dream underneath it, didn't you? How much less fun it would be to step inside a concrete block!"

With me on her shoulder, Alice stepped cautiously forward, deeper into her creation. She paused at the frog on the bank before slowly extending her foot until it touched the water. "It's not wet..."

"Step back," I cautioned, and when her foot was on solid ground the scenery sprung back to life. In a deafening roar, water poured into the clear blue pool. The frog suddenly sprung away from us; from behind I, if not Alice, heard the thrumming of the bee. Across the water from us, a gust of wind finished rippling the ruddy fur of the little fox.

The waterfall was unbearably loud, so I dimmed it a bit so that she could hear me speak without anyone having to shout. "There, how's that?"

Although there was still noise, the very pristine sense of the image was enough to keep us both quiet. We said nothing as the deer raised her head and suddenly noticed the two newcomers. I felt Alice's breathing slow and then stop altogether. Their eyes met. Though it was not, it felt like time was halting again; the deer and the girl sized each other up, read each other's minds, exchanged with the other some primeval greeting. Then, slowly, the deer bent back down to drink.

Alice exhaled with a gasp: "wow." The water of the mountain pond, she discovered swiftly, was terrifically cold, so she just sat on the bank, legs drawn up. I slipped off her and reformed myself into more conventional dogness; surveyed the scene through my own eyes. They lighted on the fox who, after catching my gaze, bounded off as though his modesty had been compromised.

The sun was warm on our backs and we sat for a very long time. Eventually the deer left, and the running water was the only constant sound. Finally Alice turned to me and opened her mouth to speak. Something told me that it was not going to be a light conversation, but she began simply. "It's so colourful here. Look at all the greens and blues and the red, there, on those berries. Who knew they all lived together like that?"

"It's something else, isn't it?"

"Is this what heaven is like?"

I looked at Alice sideways, from the corner of my eye. "Sort of, though it's kind of hard to describe, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering." She stared out at the waterfall. "Is it really true that everybody has to die sometime?"

I let my breath out halfway between a cough and a sigh. "Well, yes, it is."

"What's it like to be dead?"

"It isn't really like anything," I offered (I don't have any first-hand experience). "It's just... not being alive."

"What does that mean?"

How was I supposed to know? "I don't really know any way to describe it," I admitted. "If you've spent all your time being alive, it's hard to say what not being alive is like."

She shrugged. "Are there waterfalls in heaven?" I said that I imagined there probably were, and that satisfied her for half a minute. "I had a cat who died and daddy put him in a box," she said aloud but seemingly to herself. "He said he went to heaven, but I guess if he could get out of the box to get there he wasn't really dead at all, was he?"

"Maybe just his body was dead. The mind, you know, is very strong."

The topic did not hold her interest, though--or more truthfully, the topic held her interest fast, but individual threads within it were unimportant. She started straight off anew. "Will you die, Keshet?"

This was a difficult question to answer. "No, not really," I decided upon.

"You won't?"

"No, I just... go away from people."

She looked straight at me. "Go away? Why?"

"Well... I live to help people, children mainly. To be a friend, show them things, watch over them. But they--everyone grows up, and people kind of forget me, and then it's time to move on."

"They forget you?"

"They don't need me anymore." I have been doing this for many, many years, please understand, and it still pains me to consider this, so I spoke slowly. "Other things happen, you know... there's only much a stuffed dog can do."

"I won't leave you," she said firmly.

"Oh, no, it's not a problem," I lied. "It's just... how things happen. Ten years from now you probably won't even remember me, and that'll be ok, because... because that's part of changing, and getting older."

"Forgetting your best friend?"

I smiled softly. "They don't mean any harm by it. But we can't stay young forever, either. It's beautiful, and we should enjoy it, like this pond. But even the best days have sundowns eventually." I sighed more mournfully than I'd intended. "Pretty as it is, nothing gold can stay, and maybe that's why it's golden."

Alice put her arms around me and pulled me against her. "I can't imagine you not being here. It'll be different, ok?"

I lay limply, and tried very hard to not let myself try to believe that, as I'd tried a hundred times before, and failed again. "I hope it will be. I've always wondered what happens when you get big." I was always gone long before, though I didn't say this.

"Well, you'll see now."

Through monumental force of effort I kept my eyes dry. "I will."

Alice wanted out of the gloom then and the conversation died. She started singing a little song about the pond--the words changed frequently--and I had cause to settle back and enjoy the simple magic of the little place. What fertile ground, the imagination; were it tangible loam, such harvests could be reaped as to banquet a king.

We were getting tired, towards the afternoon, when a rustle came from the sticks and needles behind us, and Alice and I turned. At first there was nothing at all to be seen, and then more sounds of the underbrush and a russet head emerged to look at Alice with twinkling eyes. He paused at first, but then curiosity got the better of him and the fox closed the remainder of the distance to peer at us both, fine whiskers flicking with the twitching of his nose.

Alice, who had met very few living creatures, was not by nature certain of how to behave, so she proffered her hand slowly. The fox sniffed at it once and then, dissatisfied, began a more thorough inventory of its scents. Alice withdrew slowly, cautiously, then returned fingers to the top of his head and, though his ears flattened a bit, the fox did not move.

I don't have the sensitive fingertips humans do, so I don't know what foxes feel like. I had to imagine the sensation of his downy fur, the feel of that tactile communion between this world, and the one beyond the pale. I could see the delight, though, in Alice's face, and that sated any curiosity well enough. The encounter did not last long; the fox had by far already overextended himself and disappeared in a flash of white brush.

But, judging by the lingering look on my charge, it was a fitting end.

We went back occasionally, and though it was never quite the same Alice enjoyed it well enough to amicably resolve the dispute with her father, the details of which I was not present for but which left me in the picture, so it must have been a decent trade-off. We explored more locally than through the mural.

It was about three in the afternoon and we had decided to visit a park, because the both of us (mostly her, but the both of us) were tremendously bored. Draped over her shoulder like Saint Nicholas' warehouse, we were ambling along a road, Alice whistling cheerily and I monitoring the cracks in the sidewalk, when the missile struck.

I say that so simply because it was indeed sickeningly simple. I do not remember a flash of light, or a thunderclap, or anything like that. All I knew was that suddenly I was airborne, and then I came to a heavy, scraping stop. I was still disoriented, but the rising plume of dust was hard to mistake and, throwing caution to the wind, I pulled myself together and bounded towards it.

It was hard to make out details; the smoke muddled things like some horrific dream. I swept my head back and forth until a spark of purple in the periphery of my vision snared my attention. She was lying like a discarded doll in a courtyard, on her back, motionless, and the heart that I have only in metaphor froze solid.

I smelled the blood first, though it was not especially visible when I drew upon her (a blessing). On second glance her chest rose and fell shallowly, and no one has ever in ten thousand years of recorded history been so grateful as was I then. But this did not change the fact that I had no idea how badly she was hurt, nor how exactly to proceed.

"Is that you, Keshet?" Her voice was a little slurred, but clear enough.

"It's me, yes. How are you feeling?"

She ignored me, and I was not certain whether this was deliberate or simply her confusion, because she tended to do so anyway. "What happened?"

"I think a bomb hit us. Are you ok?"

She mumbled something and when I asked her to repeat herself, returned with something even less coherent. I concentrated my thoughts on stabilising her and she finally managed to communicate that she thought she was "broken." With remarkable calm, she continued, "I can't really see anything though," and this made sense enough because upon inspection her eyes appeared as unfocussed as her speech.

I have never really had to deal with a situation like this--surprisingly enough. "Ok," I said, projecting comfort. "It'll be ok."

"I guess," she said and broke this thought with a pant. "Am I going to die, Keshet, because..."

"No," I said firmly. My mind was racing through everything I knew about healing. "You're not going to, because I'm saying you won't and you'll listen to me for once."

Still, her breathing was growing more rapid, "Ok, but... I don't..." she began to mumble again. I felt something warm touch my paw and looked down before recoiling in a horror centuries of my life had not yet evoked. I backed away from the spreading red. Alice whimpered.

"Ok, listen Alice, I need you to be calm, ok."

"Calm," she echoed, her voice rising at the end a bit as a pang of something intersected it. Most of whatever consciousness remained was by then my doing.

I placed my paw in her palm. "Take my hand," I said for the second time so far in our time together, "and hold on to it." I felt a slight pressure. "Think about pretty things, ok. Um... rainbows, think about those."

"Rainbows?" Some of the consonants vanished from her pronunciation but I understood what she was saying.

"Yes, you--don't you know rainbows?" The thought was unconscionable, but her head shook slightly. "Ok, well... they're big arcs, full of every colour you could dream of, every colour that God ever thought up"--I was exaggerating for effect, because I was a little panicked and rambled as I worked up my cure. "Have you ever seen the little bursts of colour in the oil puddles on the street after a rainfall?" She nodded slowly. "Ok, sort of like that, but... you know the bridges over the creek in the park? Like those. Like a big... bridge between the earth and heaven, paved in colour."

Alice's eyes were closed now. "Sounds... real... pretty."

"It is. More than I can even describe to you, but... remind me and I will give you one later." Alice's breathing caught and I realised that I was out of time. Well, there was nothing else to do: "hold on." And I poured myself into her, coursed through her shattered body, knit bone to bone and soothed the broken pieces, brought them slowly back to sameness. When I was done I felt drained, but I stumbled back from her and was relieved at the obviousness of the transformation.

It is a terrifying thing, to be faced with the sudden loss of the most important thing in the world, to have to look this oblivion in the face. Fortunately Alice would not remember it; she slumbered now and would have when she awoke only fragments of what had happened left to her memory. That was fine, to my way of thinking.

I pulled myself upright into a businessman, neatly dressed, and scooped Alice into my arms--a reversal I rarely was forced into, since generally I found myself carried and nobody ever questioned this. I prayed to no-one I could name as I walked her home; the entire episode had taken less than ten minutes, I would later determine--probably less than five. However much time passed, though, it lasted years.

I knocked at the door to her house and her father answered. His face went ashen when he saw me, and I tried to smile. "Mr. Neumann?"

"That's me--is she ok?"

I nodded and my smile was more genuine now. "Yeah, there was a bomb hit, I think, over on Sheridan. She's fine, I think, just a little shaken." Her father beckoned me to enter and I walked in to lay Alice down on a little sofa.

"Thank you so much."

I shook my head. "Don't mention it. I wasn't about to leave her there." And without another word I turned and left, closing the door behind me. I waited a few minutes before I knocked again. The door opened instantly--again her father, and he looked back and forth trying to see who had been there before his gaze dropped down. He smiled knowingly and scooped me up, setting me gently down on Alice's slow-moving chest.

For what it's worth I don't know even now how much he knew or guessed. I think he was at the door the whole time and may not have seen me leave (rather, he may have seen me not leave)--certainly there was something about the way he looked at me that implied a trace of recognition. When Alice finally woke up and asked how she had gotten home, her father credited me, at least, but I think that may have been for her benefit. Or not; I suppose it is hard to say.

This moment aside, it was a truly horrifying day and it crystalised for me the world I now found myself in. In all the time I have spent on this earth (and off it) I had never come so close to losing so dramatically my owner. I have learned that the gods themselves, too, are not infallible, and while Alice slept off the terror of that morning's events I lost myself deep in thought.

It is not a thankless job we do, but at times it is hard to keep going regardless.

We shared a special bond after that (she was not really aware of the causes, but she noticed its presence). In all the hundreds of people I have known, Alice became most relevant by far. In some ways this was not a good thing--she chided me frequently on my failure to take the risks I had once done and I had to try and strike a happy balance. I realised after a while that there wasn't really anything I could do to protect her absolutely--nothing had selected Sheridan for the missile instead of Wadsworth or for that matter Topeka, Kansas.

The remainder of the summer and into the fall was uneventful save for the bliss of companionship. Alice in another battle on the war for colour tied a bright bandanna around my neck that, while garish (and not very stylish, I must admit) certainly ensured that I was not about to become lost. Her father stopped asking her where she got off to, evidently trusting her abilities to remain safe (or mine to keep her so; I don't know and obviously, I couldn't just ask him).

I will always remember the twentieth of September. We came in from a hard day's work roofing sand houses with fallen leaves to find the residents of the Donatello Complex gathered around the wireless set listening raptly. It was not good news, one could tell immediately. I left myself on Alice's shoulder and peered into the radio for a clue on what had happened. When I learned I nearly yelped, which would have been awkward, but I whispered to Alice that she go to her room, and reluctantly she left the gaggle of adults behind.

It had happened--It with a capital 'i' in the sense of They with a capital 't'. The wireless reported that mushroom clouds had finally bloomed over Los Angeles and New York, virtually simultaneously. For the adults, this was terrifying but in a sense a great relief, because they had known that this day was coming for months and maybe even years now. For me there was no relief involved at all.

I had no clue how to communicate this to Alice--I could simply tell her what had happened, but of course she would have no real idea what that meant. As a meaningless abstraction, she was probably better off not knowing. She asked and I gave a noncommittal answer that she accepted, in the sense that grown-ups were generally unreasonable and this merely continued to fit the pattern. We doodled on an old notepad.

An hour later there was a scream from downstairs. I cautioned Alice to remain where she was and went to investigate. I found out quickly enough, but Alice's parents almost beat me back to her room and I was just barely back safe inside the dog when they opened her door. "Alice, honey?"

"Yes, ma?"

It turned out that they did not really want to tell her what had happened--or realised that they could not in any meaningful sense of the word. Her father started to say something, and then gave up--how does one communicate the concept of Washington or Miami alone to someone who has never seen anything larger than Denver, let alone their annihilation?

"I love you, Alice," her mother finally said and embraced her, crushing me between the two of them. Her father did the same thing, and, puzzled, she returned the expression before asking what exactly had happened.

Her father demurred. "Nothing, we just... wanted to see if you were ok." And she was. And they were, which was a blessing as the world flew apart.

I prognosticated as Alice and her parents continued to exchange tokens of their affectation in platitudes. It was a matter of time only--I could see the results, not the act, but the images that seared themselves into my memory were so horrific that the results were more than enough. I cannot bring myself to describe them to you, nor how I would have felt had I let them come to pass. The holocaust now unfolding in the east, however, was sending shockwaves through reality and I sensed that we had little time to effect anything.

When Alice's parents left to return to the wireless she looked at me with concern written across everything. "What's going on?"

"It's... complicated. Something pretty big, but it doesn't matter much to you or I. Like the stock market or something," I prevaricated, but was a good enough actor that she bought it. "I tell you what, though, let's go back outside. It's too pretty a day to waste here--it'll be winter before you know it; we should enjoy the warmth while we can."

I directed her back to a mountain pond without much opposition, racing a stopwatch in my head. It was important to give no clue of what was happening outside our world. The day was still bright in the little valley, because she had never painted night-time into the mural. The deer was gone; the waterfall seemed oddly still. We sat for awhile.

"Alice, you know I care about you, right?"

She nodded and ruffled the fur of my neck. "Of course you do. Geez, Keshet, you're just like my mother."

"Let's take a walk," I said, and we stood. I guided her. We chatted about the trees for a couple of minutes before I opened: "You know how your mother is always worried about the drills?"

"Oh right," Alice groused. "They all are, all the time."

"Well, they're worried that--you know how sometimes the missiles take out a building or two sometimes, you've seen that. They're always worried that the people who are firing them might get ahold of something that could do that to a whole city."

Alice was incredulous. "A whole city? Like all of Denver?"

"Like all of Denver. I mean, grown-ups worry about silly things, but it's certainly possible to do." She accepted this because she trusted me, so I proceeded. "That's what they were saying on the radio. You remember we looked at the globe once in the library? And we saw all those little black dots?"

"The other cities, right."

"Well, four of them are gone now."



Alice stopped and looked at me for a moment, then resumed our walk. "What does that mean?"

"Well, they're worried that it might happen to Denver."

"Will it?"

I sighed and wanted to turn back time so that I wouldn't have to keep going. "Yes. Soon."

"Oh," Alice said, and it was mostly as I feared because I don't think she understood the significance. "How bad is it going to be?"

"Pretty bad," I admitted evenly.

"What's going to happen to us?"

I smiled. "Nothing. We'll be ok." Alice looked at me questioningly and I shook my head dismissively. "Everything will be fine. You trust me, right?" She nodded and grinned, because if I said it would be fine, then that was the end of discussion on that point. This pained me a little. "I just kind of wanted you to know what was going on."

"Oh, ok," she said. "Thanks, I guess."

Something insistent built in my head, an alarm of sorts, and I felt seconds being ripped from us almost physically. "Oh, hey, just ahead. I'll race you there!" I said it with levity, though we hadn't much time and this moved my hand more than anything.

It was fortuitous that the mural had been drawn by Alice and not someone with any knowledge of mountains. The slope was gentle, and she had neglected the trees at the top so that we emerged into a bare clearing covered with grass and little else. The mountain top looked down over the eastern plains; from our throne it seemed like nothing was invisible to us. "Wow," Alice said. "That's really something..."

Denver glittered below, a bustle of people and buildings and industry, a bastion of normalcy, for Alice had not sculpted fear or apocalypse and they had no knowledge of it. The air was clear; it seemed we could reach out and brush our hands along the skyscrapers of the city centre, wave off the cloud that drifted slowly as though it might obscure our view. This is how birds must feel, with their keen eyes, looking at those below; or maybe god, in whose shadow our peak's vista paled.

Alice was entranced, and if I did not know what was happening beyond the scope of our vision I would've been as well. I nuzzled her, and she reached a hand down to pet me. I stretched myself upright, pulled my paws into feet so that I could be as her equal, stand and see what stretched before us as she did. She looked at me and smiled. "Alice," I said softly, "I owe you this."

She turned to me. "What?" And I stretched my hand out across the horizon.

From one corner of the earth to the other I stretched the band of colour, framing the whole of Denver, the sun, everything we could see in as much beauty as I could create, beauty learned from her and a hundred others, colours vibrant as life itself. "That," I said, "is a rainbow."

Her jaw dropped open and she tried to speak but couldn't. I put my arm around her and pulled her close, and let glowing drops of iridescence fall upon us. "Thank you, Keshet," she whispered softly.

What I owed her, however, was not the rainbow alone. We had seconds left, perhaps. "Alice, take my hand," I told her--I think I told her; perhaps it was simply that our thoughts were so close that she knew what I meant. I felt her small hand fold about mine and I clasped it firmly. "No," I said. "Thank you."

And I led her up, and across a bridge paved in colour, and we left the four horsemen to find nothing where we had stood.
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