Dogs' Rule
fiction by Haley Fedor

As soon as I step into the house, I see the mess before I smell it. Piss and earthy smells, mostly. I stop and survey the tail end of the wreckage—only what has spilled into the front hallway. There is dirt everywhere—likely from the potted plants that got knocked over—with enough shredded paper everywhere to look like snow. I see an umbrella knocked over with a hole gnawed through the canvas, and several pairs of shoes look like they’ve been given a cursory chew.

I hear the tippy-tap of nails on hardwood, and Sadie the Pomeranian peeks her head around the corner.

“Oh, so you’re the only one that wants to show your face?” I ask, putting my hands on my hips and frowning.

I have to be the disciplinarian right now, but Sadie takes that as a signal to rush over. Her little pom paws leave brown dirt tracks on the beige carpet. Why did we agree on light carpeting when we replaced it?

“Who did this, Sadie? Did you do this?”

I hear more clicks on the hardwood floor in the dining room, coming in this direction. It’s the other dogs—the ones who aren’t too ashamed to come out right now, at least. 

“How did y’all get out of your crates?” I know the frustration creeps into my voice, but I’m pissed and trying not to cry.

I just wanted to drop my school bag in the foyer and veg out on the couch until I needed to make dinner. It was a long ass day dealing with middle schoolers, and now I have to clean up after a herd of toddlers, too?


Xena, Moose, and Bowie all make an appearance, bright-eyed with dirty snouts. They rush me, panting, with tails wagging furiously. The fifth dog has yet to come out, and that in itself is suspicious.

“Joe?” He’s the likely culprit to blame for most of this mischief. I look around the foyer. “Get out here, Sloppy Joe.”

He remained in hiding. My vision clouds a little with tears as I step around excited dogs and piles of detritus, stopping briefly to right the upended money tree pot. Its braided trunk looks like a sad schoolgirl’s hair, lying against the slender curve of soil. The pot that held it is cracked.

“You jerk,” I say again to the open air, sniffling. I shouldn’t have to do all this by myself. Becca should be here, too.

Sloppy Joe is in his crate, probably, afraid of punishment, even though that was never anything serious coming from me or Becca. We’d just shake a finger at him, then put him in the crate for a timeout. The fear and shaking were leftovers from his previous owners, we figured, before he’d been dumped on that back road. About a year before we met, one of Becca’s friends picked him up. The shelters were full, so Becca agreed to take him; she already had Moose and Xena by then, but she swore she had space for him. She was so soft when it came to dogs. It was the softest thing about her. After we got married, I had to stop her at least twice from going to the pound “just to take a look.”

They were cute, but not right now. Sloppy Joe still doesn’t show his face.

I hear a knock at the door as I’m starting to shift aside red-orange pottery shards to clear a path to walk through.

The worst fucking timing.

In response to the knocks, all five dogs immediately begin to bark and howl as they race to the front door. Sloppy Joe even forgets for a moment that he should be ashamed, black and brown fur standing up a little as he makes the weirdest goddamned howling noises. He moves his lips when he howls, and sometimes it makes a sort of warbling sound, like he’s trying his pigeon impression.

“God, no,” I snap, stepping back and away from all five dogs trying to rush me. I feel like a goalie in middle school soccer again. “Y’all be quiet, c’mon! Stop it.”

“One sec!” I call.

I look back down at the carpet and sigh. The dogs have danced a brown, messy circle all around where I stood. A dirt fairy ring. They look up at me, worried that I haven’t noticed the intruder. It wasn’t even any use trying to clean up their paws yet; they were just going to step in more mess before it’s all cleaned up. Taking a few deep breaths, I head over to the door and see who it is, wiping furiously at my face.

What is Joyce doing here?

Joyce lives down the street with her husband and two kids. Occasionally, she comes over to help out with the dogs every now and then, after witnessing me trying to take all five of them for a walk by myself. Or rather, she watched the dogs drag me down the street, a veritable sled dog team with my ass chewing up asphalt. Joyce is very sweet, albeit a kind of a conventional suburban mom. She helped me take them for walks sometimes; Bowie and Sadie were perfect for her on a leash. I didn’t let her deal with Moose and Joe Joe. There was enough Labrador in Moose and enough German Shepherd in Joe to mean a combined one-hundred-and-fifty pounds of excitement pulling any which way.

“Y-Yeah?” I ask, pulling the door open.

“Callie, I wanted to stop by and ask—” Joyce stops and gives me a look. There’s a pause. “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”

“Uh…” How do I begin to tell this woman that my house is a shitshow?

I just glance back into the living room.

“Oh, honey,” she says.

When I look back at her, Joyce is peering over my shoulder. She’s tall enough to do it with ease, and for a moment, all she does is stare. Joyce is so close that her long brown hair almost dusts my shoulders as she cranes her neck a bit.

“What happened? Was it a break in? Can I come in?” She grabs my arm in worry. Sympathy.

“Uh… sure,” I say, feeling awkward and unsure of what else to do. It seems Joyce has forgotten her original purpose for coming over, as she is stepping around me and surveying the damage.

“And no, it’s nothing like that. The dogs got out.”

“Was it the Sloppy boy?” she asks, kindly.

“Yeah…” I sniff a bit and rub at my eyes, feeling more than a little embarrassed. “He’s good at doing that, and I just…”

I stare at the dirt everywhere, the broken shards of pottery, and the useless umbrella. I’m blinking back tears again.

“Hey, hey,” Joyce says, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Callie, it’s going to be okay… I know this looks like a lot, but I’m gonna help, okay?”

I stare at her for a moment, feeling tongue-tied. “What? Why?”

Joyce is already walking further into the house, pulling her hair back in a ponytail with a band from her wrist. “I came over to ask if you’d be interested in giving Lyndsey art lessons, but I’m not gonna leave you hanging like this.”

Lyndsey is her daughter. I struggle to think about that but give up as I watch Joyce put her hands on her hips, surveying the damage with a critical eye. The dogs all love her, and they press their wet noses into her. Joyce sighs a little and scratches behind several fuzzy ears almost absentmindedly. She says, “Yeah, it’s good to see y’all too… Oh, good, dirty dogs. You’re going to be so unhappy when we give you baths.”

“Isn’t Mark going to wonder where you’re at?” I’m a little dumbfounded.

Joyce chuckles a little. “Nah, he’s out in Portland for business,” she replies. “Won’t be back ‘til this weekend.”

Looks like we were both home alone, then. No wonder Joyce was bored and came over. Mark would be back sooner, though; Becca was up in Pennsylvania for the rest of the semester before she’d get a chance to come back to Charleston.

As if privy to my thoughts, Joyce speaks up. “What about Becca? She’s coming home for the fall break, or homecoming?”

I shake my head; it was going to cost too much for a plane ticket home, and she didn’t want to try to drive all the way here, only to drive back a day and a half later. It was something like eight or nine hours by car, Becca said. “We’re trying to save money for Christmas, actually.”

“Ah,” Joyce says. “Fair enough. Still, I wish she would’ve taken at least one or two of the dogs for this big poetry fellowship move.”

She tiptoes around the biggest piles of dirt, leaving her shoes on, as she heads towards the hall closet where the vacuum and mop are.

“It was too expensive to find places that allowed dogs.”

Scranton was a small college town, Becca said, and the housing options sucked. Nothing but shitty studio apartments for college kids and houses—but only for sale—she’d said. We can’t afford two mortgages, and her fellowship was two years long, and then she’d move back.

When Joyce comes back with the vacuum, it’s like a spell is broken. I take off my jacket and hang it up before I spot a huge piss stain on the carpet near the TV.

“Jesus Christ.” I stare at the stain hoping that, if I stare at it angrily enough, it’ll go away.

A feeling of hopelessness bubbles up in my chest. I can’t have anything nice. Ever. She must’ve seen something on my face because Joyce is looking at me like she just saw a car drive by a puddle and splash me head to toe in dirty rainwater.

“That’s okay,” Joyce replies, making a dismissive gesture. “You take them outside to pee while I get set up. Once we vacuum up, we’re gonna make a mix that’s half-water, half-vinegar, and we’ll let that soak, okay?”

I almost tear up again, and nod.

“Don’t take your shoes off, there’s some broken glass in the hall,” she tells me. “I also found these…”

There’s a glint in her cupped hand. When Joyce holds her hand out to me, I see the diamond studded silver hoops Becca got for me last Christmas. They are bent—chewed on—and a few of the diamonds were missing.

“They must’ve knocked over the dish on the hall table,” I say, staring dumbly at them. They’d been sitting in a glass candy dish my grandmother had owned. That was probably what shattered. “I’m going to have to inspect their shit for the rest of this week to try and find the stones. I can’t afford to get them fixed…”

A feeling of hopelessness bubbles up in my chest. I can’t have anything nice. Ever. She must’ve seen something on my face because Joyce is looking at me like she just saw a car drive by a puddle and splash me head to toe in dirty rainwater.

“Hey, it’ll be okay,” she replies, pulling her hand back to inspect them. “You know what, why don’t you let me hold onto them? My cousin’s a jeweler over at Calvin Boyles’, and I’ll see what I can do about getting you an estimate—and a discount. Sound good?”

I’m about to protest—at first it sounds like she’s saying all of this too nicely, like I’m one of her kids—but when I look up, all I see is her sympathetic expression. Her kind eyes. “Yeah… sounds good.”

That night, when Becca calls, I have a script prepared. I’ve been going over it in my head, trying to tease out the best ways to say what I needed to. I’m not a great speaker, and I’m not at all eloquent. That was all Becca.

“Hey, babe. How goes?” Her voice is cheerful, and I hear crickets in the background; she must be out on the little porch.

I inhale a shaky breath before I reply, before I just cut to the chase. “The dogs tore up the whole house while I was at work today.”

“Wait, what?” Becca’s voice sounds a lot less cheerful and dreamy. Sharper. Like I just yanked her out of a pleasant dream.

“The first floor, mostly,” I say, “but one of them took a nice shit on the hall carpet upstairs.” Joyce and I didn’t find that until later, when we went to give them a bath.

“Did you have them crated while you were at work?” Her tone is accusatory. I don’t have to see her face to know that she’s pursing her lips.

“Yeah, I did,” I say, already feeling defensive. “Joe Joe got out, okay? He’s good at unlatching his crate when he’s bored or upset. You know this.”

I wish she were here right now. I want to just grab her by the hand and show her every parcel of destruction in this house, or the trash bags on the curb.

“Shit. Well, what’s the damage?” She moves on to the next order of business. There is no, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m sorry you had to clean that up all alone,” or, “Thank you for doing so much to clean up after them.”

Sloppy Joe was Becca’s dog first; he loved her and always listened to her. Now, he was in mourning that she was gone, and he threw tantrums when he wanted to. Joe was the most hurt, but all of the dogs missed her. Becca and I would take them on walks every day when she was here. They didn’t have to get crated all day while I was at school. Gone are the days where Becca was always home, writing furiously for her thesis.

“They knocked over most of the plants,” I reply. “One of them tried to eat my diamond earrings you got me for Christmas. You know, the ones that were in my little glass dish on the hall table? Destroyed the metal and some of the stones are missing. Joyce said she’s going to ask her cousin about repairing them and replacing stones. They’re a jeweler downtown, she said.”

“Joyce next door?” I can hear the smile in her voice. “Was she coming over and being all nosy? I swear, she didn’t start being friendly until right before I moved. I bet that whole family is super religious or something.”

“I don’t think so.” Inwardly, I protest. How does Becca know what she’s like? “That’s beside the point, though, isn’t it?”

“Shit,” she says. “Look, I’m sorry I’m not there to help. Really, I am. I’d fly down there in a heartbeat if I could . . .”

She couldn’t leave her classes in the middle of the semester; Becca’s students loved her, and I was pretty sure she didn’t have the time yet to take off. I don’t really get how poetry fellowships work, but she was so happy. She got to write her poems about teeth, and people got to tell her more often how pretty they were, how heartbreaking the lines about decay and neglect were. Before she’d gone back to school for poetry, before our marriage, she’d worked in a dentist’s office. Instead of talking about poor toddlers needing pulpotomies, she channeled all of that energy into her writing.

“I know you would,” I tell her.

“So, today in class, one of my students submitted a godawful short story,” Becca says, abruptly changing topics. “It’s about a guy being all sad that their society turns into plants when they get too old. Get this: too old for him means thirty.” She cackles a little.

“What?” I’m not ready for this story, for the change in topics, but she hits me with it anyway.

“His protagonist waxes poetic about how tragic his grandmother’s fate is to become a strawberry plant, and how much he wishes he’ll turn into a big old oak like his daddy. Guess you and I would be tomato plants by now.”

“How old were his parents when they were having kids?” I ask, confused. “Who takes care of the kids when they hit thirty and mulberry?”

“No fucking clue.” Becca laughs. “He’s not going to like any of the criticism I have, even if I’m trying to be constructive about it. I’m going to have to keep his classmates from getting brutal—it’s like sharks smelling blood in the water in some workshops.”

“That sounds awful.” I mean it; none of my kids are like that, but I guess they aren’t in college. All of them were nervous about making art in front of each other, and their lack of ability. Getting them to experiment was half of every class.

“Yeah . . .” Becca continues to talk about her day, getting more excited as she gathers steam. I half-listen while I pet Moose on the couch next to me, glad that Joyce even stayed long enough to help give them baths.

Eventually, Becca circles back to the kid with the strawberry grandma short story, telling me some of the juicier bits, before I interrupt her. “Joyce asked if I wanted to go hiking with her on Saturday. I said yes.”

“Hiking? Where?” I can hear the disdain in her voice. Becca hates hiking and going on the trails. Just walks around the neighborhood were enough for her.

“Over in Sunrise Carriage,” I say, shrugging, even though she can’t see me.

“What about the dogs?”

Damn the dogs. “She suggested we could bring one or two, and her daughter Lyndsey could dogsit.”

“What, are we going to pay her?” Her tone is clipped. “With what money?”

“With my money.” We have separate bank accounts, and mine pays for all the bills, except for her rent.

There’s a pause. Moose looks up at me until I resume petting him. His dark fur ripples in the light when he lays back down to enjoy idle pats.

“If the dogs are too much for you, they’re going to be too much for her kid,” Becca says at last. “What is she, twelve?”

“Fourteen or fifteen, I think?” I’m not actually sure, but Joyce insisted that her daughter could handle the dogs we left behind.

“I don’t like it. What if something happens?”

“Like the house getting torn up?” I ask drily. “I’m pretty sure I can handle it on my own. I already have—multiple times.”

There’s another pause. It goes on for so long that I worry Becca hung up on me. Then, finally, she says, “Fine. Do whatever.”

The dogs are almost angelic after that, and I find myself surprised and grateful they behave. A month of relative peace. Until I see the turkey. 

One of the bastard turkeys from the woods had gotten into the backyard. The glass sliding door was right near their crates, so the bird must’ve driven them insane. Somehow, they escaped. They must’ve unlatched and opened the sliding door, because the whirlwind of brown and black feathers and spattering of gore near the grill was no longer a living turkey.

Instead, I see five toothy grins around bloodstained muzzles. The dogs are covered in gore, especially Sloppy Joe, who lives up to his name now more than ever. Realizing that it’s going to take hours to clean this up hits me like a brick. Every single one of them needs a bath.

I start crying even before I know what I’m doing, or looking at, really. My vision becomes blurry, and I just sob like a baby in the sharp fall air. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t even move away when a few of the dogs come up to me, prancing with excitement, and nose at my pantlegs with wet red snouts. They are wild beasts who love me and will paint me red with excitement.

My phone is out of my pocket and I’m going to my text messages, pausing and squinting to be sure I have the right conversation before I text Joyce, my vision blurred through tears.

“Are you around?”

I hesitate, then add a follow up text: “It’s kind of an emergency with the dogs.”

Just the thought of cleanup makes me cry even harder. I don’t want to hose down five dogs. I don’t want to shovel a turkey carcass and feathers into a big trash bag. When I look down at all five of them, crowding around to greet me with bloody noses, I put my fist in front of my mouth to be quieter. I don’t want to hose down five dogs and throw away my pants, too. Intermittent dark streaks decorate around the calves and knees. 

The phone buzzes in my hand while I stare down at it. Joyce replies: “What’s wrong? On my way! over.

*On my way over.”

She always sends corrections for her phone’s autocorrect, and for half a second, I want to laugh. Joyce would correct a text about an emergency.

I tug at one of the little hoop earrings I wore to school. I’ve worn them just about every day since Joyce brought them back to me, whole, in new hoops, with the stones replaced. She didn’t listen to a word of me paying her back.

“What the fuck am I going to do?” I give a half-laugh and look back down. The dogs all wag their tails.

A queer author from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Haley Fedor's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Guide to Kulchur Magazine, Literary Orphans, Typehouse Literary, and the anthologies Dispatches from Lesbian America (Bedazzled Ink Press) and Unbroken Circle: Stories of Diversity in the South (Bottom Dog Press). Haley lives and teaches in Louisiana after receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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