Dogs

Despite the fact that winter break has begun, I still wake up a quarter after seven. Unwilling to leave the warmth of my covers and enter the icy basement, I sit in bed, watching videos on my phone. A few hours later, when my battery has finally drained down, I groan and crawl out of bed, stumbling up the stairs to the kitchen. What I find is not peaceful.

My mother is frantically scrubbing the counters, making them so shiny you can see your face in them. My older brother is standing on a chair, hanging garland over the cabinets. Plates full of cookies and other baked goods, covered in plastic foil to keep them from going stale, sit throughout the kitchen.

“Oh, right, that’s today,” I mutter to myself.

That meaning the Tour of Homes, an event where a few members of the community volunteer to cover their homes in Christmas cheer and invite strangers to walk around their living rooms, gawking at the decorations. An event that my mother, much to the chagrin of my father, my brothers, and me, has volunteered us for.

The past month has been taxing. We’ve decorated three Christmas trees, we’ve covered the walls in holiday-themed pictures, we’ve surrounded our roof in multicolored lights. A massive wreath, the price of which my mother has forbidden me from repeating, hangs from the side of our house. It is fortunate that we finished remodeling our basement the year prior; I have a feeling that my mother would have made us do the year-long remodeling process over the course of a single weekend.

I open the fridge, pull out a glass pan of leftover lasagna, and cut myself off a generous slice. “What are you doing?” my mother asks as I start the microwave.

“Eating breakfast,” I reply.

“Lasagna is not a breakfast food.”

“It is if you aren’t a coward.”

My mother sighs. “Don’t make a mess,” she says. “I just got the kitchen clean and guests will be arriving in a few hours.”

I roll my eyes. “I won’t make a mess,” I say.

The microwave dings and I open it to a sea of tomato sauce covered walls. Slowly, I pull my bowl out and close the door. I don’t worry about the mess inside the microwave; what kind of weirdo looks inside other people’s microwaves?

I place my bowl in the dishwasher and put on my hoodie to go feed the dogs. I step into the garage, where we keep a big plastic container full of dog food. My father is there, working on an old blue car that my brother used to drive.

I pick up an empty gallon container, one that used to contain store-bought ice cream, and scoop out half a gallon of dry dog food. “Make sure to put the lid back on, we don’t want to attract mice,” my father says, without looking up from the engine.

“I know,” I say.

“If you knew, then you wouldn’t leave the lid off half of the time.”

I ignore him and step outside. I split the food between two metal bowls, old and dented from years of being outside, and call for my dogs. “Megan! Snow!” I shout. “Here puppy puppies, here girls!”

Two dogs come running from their doghouse. One, with white and brown fur, the other with brown and white fur. The white one has small brown dots around her snout that look adorable, like freckles. The brown one has a triangle-shaped patch of fur on her forehead, like a birthmark, and a large scab covering her pink nose, created by her constantly licking her face. Both weigh around sixty pounds, with floppy ears, big brown eyes, and messy long fur tangled into knots.

“Hi girls!” I say in a baby-talk voice that makes it sound more like hiiiii guruls.

They sit in front of me and I begin petting them. The one with white fur, Snow, jumps for my face to lick it. I shove her away. “Down girl,” I say. She jumps again.

As I try to pet Snow, Megan rolls over onto her back and stares at me. I know that this means she wants me to give her belly rubs. I sigh and crouch down, stretching my arms to reach both dogs.

I rub Megan’s belly and scratch behind Snow’s ears as the latter keeps jumping for my face. I take a momentary break from rubbing Megan’s belly to shove Snow away and she whines. Finally, I lose my balance and fall onto my back.

I sigh. “Good girls,” I say, in my normal voice.

The dogs take a break from smothering me and check their food bowls. Megan lies down on the ground, wolfing down food, while Snow stands to the side, pecking at it. Both of them eat from the same bowl, making me question why I bother to split it up.

I toss the ice cream bucket back into the food box as I walk past it. I open the door to the house, then stop, and walk back. I put the lid on the dog food container. “Thank you,” my dad says.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Trying to fix this piece of junk,” my father says as he closes the hood. “I think the problem was with the spark plugs, but I fixed that now. I’m going to take it for a test drive.”

“Have fun,” I say as he gets into the crappy old car and drives away.

After feeding the dogs, my mother puts me to work getting the house ready. Dusting shelves, vacuuming carpets, scrubbing toilets, everything I can do to make the house presentable. When I’m finally done, I collapse onto the couch. “I’m done,” I say, taking a deep breath. “There is nothing left for me to clean.”

“Can you check the front yard?” my mother asks.

“Check it for what?” I ask.

“Garbage blown in by the wind, sticks, knocked over decorations, anything that looks out of place.”

“Mom, I guarantee there is nothing wrong with the front yard,” I say, turning on the television.

“Listen, I know today has been a lot, but I really need you to just do what you’re told today. I’m under a lot of stress,” my mother says. “Check the front yard.”

I sigh and turn the TV off. I grab my shoes and coat and step out onto the front lawn. “Huh,” I say, looking down at the mess that sits before me.

A fat, bloody woodchuck lies on our front steps, completely and utterly dead. Megan and Snow stand over it, tails wagging, prouder than I’ve ever seen them before.

At first, I laugh. It’s ridiculous. It’s the worst possible timing for this to happen. In the five years of their life, they’ve managed to successfully kill maybe zero wild animals. But today, the day when dozens of people will be arriving at our house, they finally succeed in killing something. It’s absurd.

I stand there laughing for a good two minutes before reality sinks in and I realize that I’m the one who has to clean this up. “Well, crap,” I say.

I walk back into the house. “How’s the front yard?” my mother asks.

“Dogs killed a woodchuck,” I say.

“What?” my mother yells.

“Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”

I step into the garage and look at my father’s collection of yard tools. I grab two shovels, one with a long pole and curved head, the other with a short pole and a large square scoop. I trudge them to the front steps and look at my dogs.

“You two are just so proud of yourselves, aren’t you?” I say. My dogs continue wagging their tails and panting, oblivious to what I’ve said. “I don’t even get why you needed to kill it. You obviously aren’t eating it. Did you kill it for fun? Because that is both disturbing and completely in character.”

I place the flat shovel on the ground and clutch it between my knees, holding it steady. I use the long shovel like a broom, rolling the woodchuck into the flat shovel. I lift it up and rest the shaft on my shoulder, balancing the woodchuck in the air.

“Maybe I’m being too harsh on you,” I say as I carry the woodchuck away from the house. “You probably just killed it because you wanted to bring food back to me, like good hunting dogs. It’s actually kinda sweet, in a morbid way. Besides, it isn’t like you knew the Tour of Homes was today. Maybe you aren’t bad girls.”

I sniff, taking in the rancid smell of the Woodchuck. “Nope, I take it back, you’re bad girls. Very very bad girls,” I say with a cough.

I carry the woodchuck over to the fence that wraps around our property, separating it from a large empty field. Our neighbors own it and let their cows graze there during the summer. But, it’s December, and the field is currently empty.

I fling the woodchuck over the fence. It lands on the icy soil with a disgusting plop. I glance over my shoulder, the corpse is only five feet from the fence, a testament to my lackluster upper body strength. I consider hoping over the fence and carrying the woodchuck farther away, but then I shrug and walk away.

As I walk back to the house, I hear my dogs go wild, barking like maniacs. I sigh. “Please tell me you didn’t kill something else,” I say.

The dogs are standing two feet away from the fence, snarling at an orange cat. The cat stares at them, licking her paw. I sigh and roll my eyes. This isn’t a new event.

The cat, we call her Ginger, is a stray that’s been hanging around our property for a few months now. I sometimes give her some food.

We have an invisible electric fence, one that shocks our dogs if they try to leave the property. A bit mean, but their father died when he wandered into the highway and got hit by a truck, so I don’t lose any sleep over it. Anyway, the cat managed to figure out the exact distance from the house where the dogs can’t go. She likes to sit on the other side of the fence, taunting the dogs.

“Down girls,” I say. The dogs ignore me. I sigh. “You know, the idea that you killed the woodchuck for fun is starting to sound likely to me.”

I bend down and pet them. They lose interest in the cat and fall into their standard routine, Snow jumping to lick me and Megan rolling over for belly scratches. “Or, I don’t know, maybe you go crazy at wild animals because you’re trying to keep us safe. I’d prefer if the things you try to protect us from were actual threats, instead of stray cats or baby squirrels, but I can appreciate the sentiment.”

I step back into the kitchen and take a cookie from one of the plates sitting on the counter. “What are you doing?” my mother asks.

“Eating a cookie,” I say, mouth full of dough. “It’s good.”

“Did you wash your hands?”

“Nope,” I say, taking another bite.

“You’re eating a cookie. Without washing your hands. After carrying away a dead woodchuck?”

“I’m not an idiot, mom, I didn’t touch it with my bare hands. I used a pair of shovels like salad tongs.”

My mother sighs and rubs her temples. “How’s the yard?” she asks.

“Good. Currently corpse free,” I say.

“How are the dogs? Are they clean?”

“They sleep outside and wrestle in mud. They have literally never been clean.”

“I know, but I don’t want them looking terrible if guests are coming over. Do they have dreadlocks?”

“Probably.”

Our dogs have thick fur, slobbery mouths, and a bad habit of play-fighting. Specifically, they have a bad habit of biting the fur around each other’s necks and rolling around in the dirt, causing their fur to tangle into matted clumps. We have long since given up on trying to train them to stop doing this, and resigned ourselves to giving them regular haircuts.

“Tell your father to give them a quick haircut,” my mother says.

“I don’t think he’s back yet.”

“He isn’t? He should have been back by now,” my mother says, confused. She pulls out her phone and dials his number. His cell phone, forgotten on the kitchen counter, begins to ring.”

“I can handle the dogs,” I say. I open a cabinet by the oven and pull out a pair of scissors.

“Don’t use those, those are my good kitchen scissors!”

“Dad uses them when he gives the dogs haircuts.”

“He what?”

“Uses the kitchen scissors when he gives the dogs haircuts. I don’t get what the big deal is. He washes them afterwards. Besides, I’ve used them for way worse things.”

“I use those scissors to cut chicken!”

“Since when?”

“Since we got them! Why would your father use the kitchen scissors to cut dog fur?”

“Why don’t you just use a knife?”

“I can’t believe it, using my nice kitchen shears to cut dog fur.”

“You know, raw chicken is arguably a lot grosser than dog fur.”

The conversation continues like this for another three minutes before I finally step out to trim the dogs. To keep them from jumping everywhere and generally being a pain, I seperate the dogs, tying Megan up in the backyard and cutting Snow’s hair in the front. After removing Snow’s tangled locks, I walk back to Megan. Snow follows, but stops ten feet short.

“Come here girl, come on,” I say in baby talk as I untie Megan. Snow doesn’t budge.

I sigh. “Come on, it’ll only be a few minutes. Here girl,” I say, patting my knees. Snow doesn’t budge.

“I could grab your collar and drag you over here, you know. I’m not going to, but I am strong enough to pick you up. I don’t know why I’m affirming my physical prowess to a dog that doesn’t speak English, but I am definitely willing to take drastic measures if you don’t get over here,” I say. Snow doesn’t budge. “Fine, be that way. Time for drastic measures.”

I bend down and start rubbing Megan’s belly. “Who’s a good doggie? Megan is! Yes she is, yes she is,” I say. “Snow isn’t a good girl so she doesn’t get scritches.”

Snow runs over and paws at me, begging for me to pet her. As I scratch her behind the ears, I click the chain around her collar. “You see, dog, I am a person. And I am smart,” I say. “I should probably stop talking to dogs, people would make fun of me if they saw.”

I trim Megan’s hair and let the dogs loose, hoping they won’t mess anything up in the next few hours. I don’t worry too much. They’re good dogs, the best I’ve ever had.

They were born when I was twelve. Or thirteen. Or fourteen. Or eleven. Somewhere in that range, my family has semi-frequent debates about how old the dogs actually are. We call them puppies often, but they’ve been fully grown for years now. Their father was a black-lab Australian-sheppard mix we got when I was young who has since passed. Their mother was a stray of indeterminate breed, Irish-setter maybe, who hung around our yard. Our dog, who we neglected to neuter, knocked the stray up. She disappeared a few weeks after the puppies were born, never to be seen again.

There were eight in the litter, most of which we distributed to various friends. We decided to keep one from the litter and chose Snow, because she was the only one with white fur and we thought she was the cutest. The puppies went one by one, until only three remained; Snow, a black and white puppy whose name has been lost to time, and an unchosen puppy we later named Megan.

One night, Snow and the black and white puppy went missing. They were just gone, disappeared into the wilderness. My brothers and I were inconsolable about losing our new dog, so our parents decided to let us keep Megan. We asked about what would happen to the other two, and our parents told us that, if and when they came back, we’d keep them too.

Looking back, they were probably lying. Not maliciously lying, but that sort of gentle lying parents do to protect their children from the horrors of the world. The puppies had been gone for a week and were almost certainly dead.

Snow came back. She came back after three weeks, cold, hungry, and scared, but she came back. I don’t know what happened to the other dog. Perhaps he was found by a nice family with a big yard who took him in and gave him a good life. Perhaps that’s a gentle lie I’ve told myself.

Since Snow reappeared, Megan and her have been inseparable, two parts of one whole. We often joke that, although they know they have names, they don’t know which one of them is Megan and which is Snow because they hear the names together so much.

I’m sitting on the porch, petting my dogs, when my father finally returns, three hours after taking the old car out for a drive. He returns without the car, walking up our driveway covered in sweat and red in the face. “Are you okay?” I ask. He doesn’t say anything.

He stumbles into the living room and collapses on the couch. My mother and I stare at him, worried. “Are you okay?” my mother asks softly.

“I’m fine…just need…to catch my breath,” my father wheezes. “That piece of crap car broke down…two miles out of town…and I had to walk.”

I step into the kitchen and try to contain a laugh. My father yells for me to get him a glass of water and I obligue. After draining a liter and a half tall glass he got on a trip to Vegas, he looks around at a living room covered in decorations.

“Is there anything you need me to do, before the tour starts?” my father asks.

“Just rest, you’ve had a day,” my mother says.

“No, it’s fine. I want to get everything good. It’s important to you.”

After a few more hours of work, the guests arrive, and I sneak off to my bedroom to play video games. The tour goes well, judging from my mother’s beaming attitude in the coming weeks. That night, we all sit in the living room, eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate, laughing at my father’s expense as the dogs bark at some wild animal they’ve forced up a tree.

In coming months, my father having to walk home because he forgot his phone will become an oft repeated family story, much like the story of the dogs leaving the woodchuck on the front steps. It will join a collection of short, pointless stories from normal life, ever growing as life goes on.

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