Though they were merely dreams of the rain, Dale loved the raindogs. As he stepped onto the racing grounds, he looked back through the pouring rain to make sure Lewis and Clark were still following him and saw them chasing one another across the road. "Here, boy!" Dale called. The raindogs stopped their game and bounded up to him. They had neither surface nor substance—they were little more than dog-shaped holes in the rain—but they behaved just like dogs. They barked in watery little snorts as Dale led them towards the officials' tent.
A crowd of people in rain gear were stuffed into the tent and a crowd of raindogs waited outside of it. In the distance, spectators wandered past the racing lanes and holding pens on their way to the stands and the refreshments tent. All the spectator areas were covered with tent fabric and all areas that raindogs had to cross were open to the sky. The pens and race lanes were fenced in with wooden stakes topped with crosspieces that stuck out a foot on either side. Long sheets of red plastic stapled to the crosspieces allowed no rain to fall under them.
Dale led his raindogs to a free spot near the tent and told them to stay put as he went inside. They understood the tone if not the actual words, and sat back on their haunches in the wet grass. Ducking under the tent flap, Dale smiled as he saw Smitty, the head racing official, sitting in a folding chair with a ledger in his lap. The lanky old man nodded at him.
"Morning, Smitty," said Dale. "Nice day for a race, huh?"
"Perfect day," Smitty said with a grin. "Rain until one, they say. How's everything at the garage?"
"Slow enough to take the morning off." Dale jerked his thumb at the raindogs. "Especially when those two showed up at my door."
Smitty nodded his approval and took up a pencil. "Names?"
"Lewis and Clark."
The old man rolled his eyes and made an entry in his book, then pulled a badge from a box on the ground. "Ten dollars," he said, handing it to Dale in exchange for the entry fee. "They go in pen fifteen—hold on, I'm going to make an announcement."
"About damn time," grumbled a bulky man in orange rain gear.
"Thank you for your patience, Wilton," Smitty said. In a louder voice, he called out, "We have an unusual first prize for today's race." When the crowd had quieted down, he took a brown paper bag from inside his coat. "One pound of puppet dust."
For a moment, there was silence under the tent, broken only by the pattering of rain outside.
"Ooh!" exclaimed Katy from down the road. "I saw them use that at a fair down in Hawton." An excited babbling broke out and continued until Wilton raised his voice above it.
"I'd like proof of authenticity," he said, folding his arms and looking stubborn. "No offense, Smitty."
The old judge smiled. "None taken." He carefully opened the bag and extracted a small pinch of tan powder, then looked to where Dale was standing off by himself. "What's your pleasure?" he said, grinning, and tossed the powder in the air before him.
It came down slowly, settling over the contours of a figure that Dale suddenly realized was looking at him.
"Hello." It was a sound like shifting sand. "What do you want me to do?"
Dale could only blink. The dustpuppet resembled a hairless young woman covered from head to toe with wheat flour. A wispy garment hung around her shoulders and reached down to her knees. Her body was translucent and obviously hollow. Her face registered faint surprise.
"Satisfied?" asked Smitty, closing the bag.
"Not until I've won it," Wilton breathed. His eyes were wide as if he were watching some great spectacle unfold. "I'll have a hundred of those running around my house." He abruptly turned and strode out of the shop. Some of the others followed, casting lingering glances over the dustpuppet's slim figure.
"Am I an actor?" The dustpuppet asked Dale in her shifting-sand voice, keeping her empty eyes fixed on him. "A teacher?" Dale realized that she was referring to the typical roles of her kind. Not wanting to tell her she was nothing but a trophy, he looked down at the ground.
"You're a dream. That's what you are." Dreams of rain, dreams of dust, his grandmother had called the raindogs and the dustpuppets.
"Better kiss her before she blows away!" called a man with a raucous voice. The remaining crowd roared with laughter. Dale smiled and winked at them, then glanced at the dustpuppet to see if the joke had upset her. She was laughing along with the others.
"We'll be starting the first heat soon," said Smitty, in a gentle voice. "I'll look after your girlfriend for you."
"Okay, Smitty," Dale said. He waved at some of his friends in the departing crowd, then looked back at the dustpuppet. "You can watch the races, if you like."
Smitty spoke up from behind her. "As a matter of fact, you could announce the races. That's kind of like acting."
"I'd be happy to." With a smile, the dustpuppet followed Smitty over to the announcer's table and situated herself before a microphone. Dale watched her for a moment, then walked out of the tent. Lewis and Clark jumped to attention as he approached them.
"Come on, boys." Dale led them around the tent and towards the holding pens, his feet squelching in the wet grass and dirt. He located the pen with his badge number on it and directed them inside with a wave. The raindogs, however, seemed uneasy. Dale had to go inside and coax them towards him, then dart out and slap the plastic gate down. The dogs stopped short at the barrier, looked up at Dale and made whining sounds. They had no visible eyes or faces, but he still thought of them as wistful.
The beer tent beckoned, but Dale decided to hang around the holding pens just in case either of his dogs was running in the first heat. As he looked around, he saw a bulky figure in light orange coming through the rain with a pack of raindogs tagging along at his heels. "Hey, Wilton," he called to the man, who grunted in reply as he passed. "Five dogs? That's got to be a record."
"You've got to have the land," Wilton replied, referring to his thirty-acre farm, "to get the dogs." He reached his pen and brought a plastic shopping bag from his pocket. "Shoo! Shoo!" he called, waving the bag near the dogs, who shied away from it and into the pen. Dale filed away the bag trick for future use.
Walking down the row of pens, he stopped to talk to Gaber, who had been in his shop class in high school. "You've got to love the rain to do this," Gaber said, as drops ran down his face. He wore no rain gear, and his T-shirt clung close to his body. "This little guy was running around my garden this morning," he said, jerking his thumb at the raindog in his pen, "and I just had to bring him out here. I never raced a dog before."
"What's his name?"
"Benny. He looks like a Benny, I guess." Gaber seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. "Or acts like one. You know what I mean."
"Yeah." Dale nodded, smiling at the memory of his own first raindog race. "He's definitely a Benny."
A gentle hiss from the PA system rolled over the grounds. "The first trial will begin in one minute." It was the dustpuppet, doing her first announcement. She read off the list of dogs in the trial. Lewis was one of them.
"I'd better get going," Dale said. "Have fun." He shook hands with the other man and went back to his assigned pen.
He opened the gate and gestured to Lewis, who darted out and started dancing around his heels as Clark feinted towards the opening. "Not you." As Dale led his dog to the raceway, he looked back at the officials' tent. The dustpuppet was standing at its edge, watching him. He turned away and tried to focus on the task at hand. On the field, spectators jostled each other to get out of the rain and under canvas as officials strode around in their slickers looking important.
The raceway was three hundred feet long and divided into four lanes. Dale got his lane assignment from the official and led Lewis to the starting area. A pull-away rain barrier sat between it and the track. He coaxed the dog into its starting position and shut the gate. "Make me proud," Dale said, walking to the other end of the track.
At the finish line, Dale saw Wilton was also in this heat. There was an intent look in the other man's eyes, but he didn't speak. Katy had one of the two remaining slots and a man he did not recognize had the other.
A starter pistol went off as an official ripped away the rain barrier. With the strange, unerring sense that had been the original inspiration for the sport, the raindogs quickly homed in on their human companions and began dashing down the lanes towards them. Katy's dog took up a clear lead at first. Wilton swore under his breath as his dog fell behind and Dale watched excitedly as Lewis put on an extra burst of speed in the last half. The rules forbade him to call or gesture to the dog but nothing said he couldn't smile broadly at it, so he did.
The crowd got to its feet and applauded as the first heat ended, with Katy's dog making first place, Lewis in second and Wilton's dog in last.
Katy pumped her fists in the air and turned to Dale. "The only bad thing about all this is you can't hug them when they're done."
Dale grinned. "Nice going, Katy." He pulled the barrier aside to let Lewis out. The others did the same.
Wilton was still fuming at his dog. "Goddamn thing." He turned on his heel and stalked back to the holding pens, the dog anxiously scrambling after him. Dale followed, with Lewis happily letting off watery barks as he ran rings around Dale's heels. At his pen, Wilton brought out his bag and herded the dog inside. "This'll teach the rest of you bastards," he growled. Dale stopped to see what he had in mind.
With a snap of his wrists, Wilton held the bag taut above the losing dog to interrupt the rainfall above it. The dog-shape disappeared as the rain stopped. He pulled the bag away. The falling rain returned, but the dog did not.
"Hey," said Dale, surprised and a little sickened. "You're not supposed to destroy the losing dogs. You're supposed to let them go."
Wilton snorted. "If you want to reward losers, that's your business. I play to win." He walked towards the refreshments tent. For a long moment, Dale stared at the space where the dog had been, as the remaining raindogs cautiously sniffed around the pen as if looking for their companion.
"Come on, Lewis," he said at last. "Let's get you back to your pen." Lewis and Clark had a joyous reunion, and Dale left them to it. He strode to the officials' tent, where Smitty was watching the clock as the dustpuppet waited to announce the next trial. She looked expectantly at Dale as he entered the tent.
"Smitty, I want to register a complaint." Dale's voice was firm. The official turned to look at him with raised eyebrows. "Wilton just destroyed a raindog."
Smitty frowned. "One of yours, or—"
"One of his own." He quickly explained what had happened. "You can't train a raindog like that. It's stupid and cruel."
"It's also not against the rules." The old man sighed. "I wish it were, but we can't prevent people from mistreating what belongs to them." He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, but the dustpuppet said nothing.
"Then the rules ought to be changed," said Dale. "We always let the losers go, Smitty—we always have. They don't get much time in the world as it is—"
Smitty held up a hand. "I know, I know. Look, if you want to submit a complaint, that's fine, but Wilton's got plenty of connections in the racing association. I think you ought to keep this friendly."
"I don't have anything against the man," Dale said with a shrug. "I just don't want him to do it again."
"Let me talk to him," Smitty said, getting out of his chair and retrieving his raincoat. "I'll see if I can convince him to see it your way." He turned to the dustpuppet. "Is Wilton in the next trial?"
She checked the paper in front of her. "No."
"Good. Go ahead and announce it. Dale, you stay put." He ducked out of the tent and hurried across the grounds in search of Wilton. The dustpuppet keyed the microphone and read off the participants in the next trial, directing them to report to the track. She switched off the microphone and let her empty gaze drift towards Dale, though she said nothing.
Dale felt compelled to break the silence. "How do you like your job?"
"It's pleasing." She seemed amused by the question. "The raindogs are lovely to watch. I wish we were called something cute like that—dustpuppies, maybe." She laughed in little gusts of desert wind.
"You're people, though," he said, surprised. "I mean, you look like people." He had never spoken to a dustpuppet before, and was finding the experience a little disconcerting.
"If the dust dreams us as animals, then we're animals." As Dale was trying to unpack her statement, she threw a question at him. "Why did that man kill his dog?"
Dale was suddenly aware of how much meaning could be packed into a single syllable. "He was supposed to let it go."
The irony in her tone made Dale unsure how to respond, and as the next race was starting anyway, he said nothing. The dustpuppet noted the time and announced the start of the race, providing commentary on the progress of the dogs as the race unfolded. Outside, fat raindrops hammered the grass, some bouncing back into the sky as if Nature had finally abandoned evaporation and condensation in favor of a more direct approach. Dale watched the rain until she finished.
"What's your name?" he asked, wondering why he had not thought to ask before.
"I don't have a name. You can give me one if it makes you feel more comfortable."
"That's okay." Dale did not want her to think that he was uncomfortable. "What does if the dust dreams us as animals mean?"
"Exactly what it says." She looked as though she wanted to tell him more, but Smitty came bustling into the tent with an irritated look on his face.
"Wilton has decided to be difficult," Smitty said. "He says this is his new training method and if you don't like it, don't look—his words. Sorry, Dale. He seems to think you're jealous."
"That's bullshit," Dale said, flustered.
"I agree." Smitty removed his raincoat and shook it out over the ground. "Frankly, his attitude pisses me off. If you still want to make that complaint, I'll call the secretary right now. I've got a few words to add myself."
The dustpuppet delicately cleared her throat with a musical hiss like the brush of a bow across the strings of a viola. "Your dog Clark is running in the third trial."
"Go on," Smitty said. "And for now, take Wilton's advice—don't look. You can't stop him today. Maybe tomorrow."
Smitty sat down and pulled out a cell phone.
"Good luck," said the dustpuppet, as Dale headed out.
He stopped and turned. "With the race, or my complaint?"
She met his gaze with hollow eyes that told him nothing. "Good luck."
On the way to retrieve Clark, Dale passed the pen where Wilton's remaining dogs were kept. The snap of the bag over the doomed raindog echoed in his ears.
You can't stop him today. Maybe tomorrow. Dale turned and walked back to Wilton's pen, eyeing the gate. He was about to put his hand on it when he was interrupted by footsteps.
"You're gonna make trouble for me, huh?" Dale winced as he recognized the voice. He turned to see Wilton glaring furiously at him. "What's the matter, you don't think it's fair that I've got so many dogs?"
"You won't have them for much longer," Dale shot back, "if you keep killing them off."
"Killing?" Wilton looked around him in an angry gesture of disbelief. "For crying out loud, Dale, they're just empty air! Where does this shit end? Do I have to apologize to the grass when I step on it? Oh, sorry, guys!" He directed his sarcasm at the blades under his feet.
"I don't—" Dale began, then stopped as he realized that something in the air had changed. A collective groan went up around the grounds, and he realized that the rain was tapering off. He spun around and ran to his own pen to see the raindogs looking up at the sky. He tore open the gate and knelt down.
"Boys, I hope this isn't goodbye." Lewis and Clark looked at him and tilted their heads in an almost comical fashion as the rain became thinner and thinner. It was hard to say exactly at what point they ceased to exist.
"All that bullshit for nothing," grumbled Wilton, who had followed him. "I won't forget this." Dale heard him leave. He got up, walked out of the pen and headed for the officials' tent, watching the many disappointed faces go by. Some squinted angrily at the sun. The dustpuppet's voice came over the PA system, apologizing for the abrupt end of the day's races. Dale found Smitty wrapping up his conversation with the racing association secretary. The dustpuppet was sitting back from the microphone, her announcing duties ended, looking at nothing. Smitty disconnected the call and addressed Dale.
"Well, not that it matters to us right now," Smitty said, with a wry grin, "but Jack agrees with you, and says he'll amend the rules to disallow the destruction of any raindogs on the grounds under any circumstances."
Dale gave a distant nod.
"Well, hey. I know you're disappointed about the race, but you've done some good."
Dale nodded again. "Yeah. Thanks for your help, Smitty." He removed his badge and dropped it into the box. "I guess it's time to go home."
"It is as far as I'm concerned." Smitty cleared his throat and looked over at the dustpuppet. "Miss, I suppose we won't be needing you anymore—"
She stood up. "Of course. Thank you for the opportunity."
Dale's eyes followed her as she walked out of the tent. He murmured a farewell to Smitty and caught up with her. "What do you do now?"
"We're like the raindogs." There was a faint smile on her lips. "We're supposed to go free when the job is done." The grounds darkened suddenly. They looked up to see clouds rolling across the sun. A crash of thunder signaled that the break in the weather had been only a temporary one. The dustpuppet looked back at Dale.
"Oh." It was a disappointed sound.
Dale looked back at the tent. "You could—"
"No." Her voice was firm. "I'm finished. I was only a prize anyway. Smitty told me."
"He shouldn't have done that," Dale murmured.
The dustpuppet's reply was weary, almost to the point of bitterness. "When you live to serve, it doesn't really matter what you do to serve." A streak of emptiness appeared on her face as a raindrop rolled down it. "Nature is unpredictable, isn't it? But I'm glad you stood up for us."
"Us?" Dale had no idea what she was talking about.
She smiled, almost pityingly. "Do you know where raindogs go when the rain stops?" she asked.
"No." He had always wanted to know.
"The same place everything goes." She touched his hand in a playful gesture, leaving a faint residue on it. "Maybe I'll see you there someday, huh?"
Dale could only nod. He watched the rain wash her away.
Pulling his rain slicker tight, he trudged back onto the road that led home. On the way, he found a raindog scampering in the ditch. It bounded up to him and gave a happy bark.
"Hello, boy," Dale said, weakly. He looked back down the road to where the racing grounds lay, knowing that others would be bringing any raindogs they found back with them in an attempt to salvage the race. After all, they were only dreams of rain. Or dust. Or flesh.
"Want to go for a little walk?" he asked. The raindog did, as they always did, and Dale led him down the road to home. "I know a nice little pond we could run around. Sound good? I'll call you Benny," he told the raindog. "You look like a Benny."