"Hey, Steel! Hold up!" Randy caught up with him, panting slightly. "I figured we were both going to the same place, might as well walk together, right?" He felt like being friendly today.

"How many times I gotta tell you that shit's my slave name?" Steel barked at him. Steel fancied himself a defiant figure.

"Oh, right." Randy turned his head just enough to get away with rolling his eyes. They jogged together on the side of the road, their nails clicking almost in unison on the damp asphalt. The rain that fell throughout the night had finally halted around dawn.

"Hey, what do you got against Steel anyway? I think it's a pretty badass name. You know: Steel. Sounds tough, manly. Helluva lot better than Randy."

Steel slowed down and wordlessly crossed the street to inspect a blue-green Nissan two-door parked against the curb. He nosed around the passenger's side for a moment, pacing back and forth before settling on the rear wheel. As he urinated on the worn tread, he stared disdainfully at Randy.

When he was finished, he lowered his leg. "I'll see you later," he finally grumbled, then raced away.

Randy sat down for a moment, absently scratching at his neck as he watched his colleague narrowly avoid a minivan at the intersection of Courtland and Trade.

"Dick," he muttered. The scratching felt good, and he shifted his body for a more comfortable posture. For a few seconds he craned his neck and closed his eyes tightly. This, he thought to himself, is what it's all about.

• • •

He arrived at the meeting just two minutes before nine. Everyone else was already there, including Steel. His erect posture and corporate look of eagerness were a convenient contrast to his rebellious sham. He saw Pretty (her human was only seven), but the spots next to her were taken. He had to suppress a groan when he realized the only available space in the circle was next to Cashmere.

Tasha was the only other animal standing. She was a sycophantic Balinese who unfailingly interjected self-congratulations into every meeting. Randy loathed her. He could feel her frosty blue eyes following him around the circle, and when he finally sat down, she cleared her throat.

"Good morning, everyone," she perkily addressed them. "I'm glad you could all make it on time today." She coolly looked at Randy as she said this. He briefly considered baring his teeth. "We always start our meetings with kudos, and since I'm directing the meeting today I thought I'd go first. Obviously, they're not here, but I really think my team deserves kudos for their handling of the Markovich situation."

Unbelievable, thought Randy. Nothing but a bunch of old folks in her neighborhood, where all they have to worry about is staying quiet during naptime and tolerating custom-ordered sweaters, and every week she acts like she's running a damn triage unit.

Her trite anecdote was followed by obligatory, disingenuous applause from several of the other supervisors. The same process continued for several minutes as other opportunistic members of the group spoke up with their forced recognitions. Randy felt a headache coming on. He never gave kudos. He had no problem recognizing hard work by his direct reports or his peers on the leadership team, but he'd be damned before ever using the word kudos.

It was a breezy morning, still a little overcast. The wind rustled the palmetto fronds and oak trees around the sandy clearing they sat in. Birds and crickets chirped in the background, and passing vehicles intermittently whooshed by on the state road just west of them, and if Randy focused hard enough on those sounds he could almost block out the voices of the others in attendance. He watched the movement of the gray clouds above them, and then a pair of butterflies as they fluttered about. Lowering his eyes, he could count one, two, at least three soggy porn magazines scattered around the clearing, and probably more if he poked his head around some of the bushes. For as long as he'd been attending these meetings, he could never figure that out about the humans: of all the places to discard skin magazines, why a random wooded area off a low-traffic stretch of state road?

His thoughts were interrupted by some murmuring and a jingling object dropped on the ground in front of him. He looked to see Cashmere excitedly passing out the same item to everyone in the circle. He looked at it: a fuzzy sphere, somewhat like a tennis ball but smaller, and yellow with a smiley face on it.

"You should've seen your face when they passed out the balls," laughed Pretty as they crossed the road back into the neatly arranged subdivision they called home.

"I'm sorry, I just can't do it." He winced as he explained himself. "I mean, I'm good with the other animals. I work well with others. Someone from my team makes an error--a six-month old lab who can't seem to get house trained or that stubborn old African Gray who keeps nipping at fingers--I coach them on it. Hell, I'm even good with the paperwork. But I'm really supposed to approach one of my direct reports and say, with a straight face, Hey Buddy, your performance lately has really made me smile! Here's a smiley face ball?"

Pretty just laughed some more, and then they walked a few moments in silence. The trees around them swayed in the increasing wind; it would soon be raining again. Randy admired her shiny coat and soft features as they walked.

She looked back at him. "So can I expect to see you at the Change Management seminar tomorrow? I hear the VP's are driving down to do the presentation."

She didn't wait for him to answer. "I'll see you then." They had reached her street, and she sprinted off to check on her team before the storm hit.

He watched her run off, then continued loping down the sidewalk. Two teenage boys approached, their moppy hairdos flapping in the wind, one on a bicycle and the other on a skateboard. Randy crossed the street, and a rock went whistling over his head. Behind him, one of the boys berated the other for his poor aim.

He momentarily bristled. It's not worth it, he reminded himself after a deep breath. His muscles relaxed.

"Hey, Randy! Wait up!"

He turned his head to see Jake, a dopey-looking Basset hound, chasing him down. His loose-fitting skin drooped and swung with each wheezing step. He was panting heavily by the time he caught up.

"That was some meeting, huh?" he huffed between breaths. "I was wondering if they were ever going to roll out the new performance metrics."

Randy didn't bother slowing down. He pretended to listen as they walked, periodically nodding his head and mumbling "Uh-huh" as he enjoyed the crisp air rushing around them. Suddenly he stopped, then took a few steps forward, hesitated, then stopped again. He scanned the neighborhood all around them. Aw, what the hell, he finally decided.

"What's the matter, Randy? Did you forget something? Did you forget your ball?"

Without answering, he strode across the street until he was standing next to the mailbox in front of Tasha's house. It didn't smell like anyone he knew. He lifted his leg and released a hearty stream of urine onto the metal post.

"Randy! What are you doing!" Jake stood dumbfounded on the other side of the road.

As he finished, Randy could feel the first drops of rain wet his nose. He smiled at Jake. "I'll talk to you later, man. I have to get back to work."

About the author:

Ben Reynolds is a decorated writer whose work has appeared in numerous office memos and family newsletters. He likes to think that he'll appear on a talk show one day to promote his book, and he spends an unhealthy amount of time planning his outfit for the occasion. For now, he works in a cubicle, but he doesn't like to talk about that. He enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, and he also likes cinnamon rolls.