Dog House (a Short Story)

white and red wooden house with fence

It started with a sorcerer.

Don’t tune me out, please—I get it. I didn’t believe in them either. Until one cast a spell on me.

I’d lived selfishly, exceptionally so. Affairs, betrayed friendships, and a decades-long history of littering. It’s a boring story, really, and not the one I’m here to tell.

I was lying in bed in a public hospital after eighty-four years of narcissism that had left me quite alone, when a nurse with curly, black hair and green eyes showed up. “Hello, Mr. Lewis. I’m a sorcerer.”

“Not a sorceress?” I’m not sure why that’s the question that pushed itself through my dry lips, but there’s a lot about the man I was that I’ll never understand.

“We’ve gone to gender-neutral titles.” She proceeded to inform me that, due to my supreme selfishness, I would spend my next life as a dog.

She lifted her hands and spoke several words I’d never heard.

And then I died.

***

I don’t remember being born. I came to awareness while drinking warm, sweet milk from the teat of a tired dog.

All at once, I knew who I was, what I’d done, and the punishment I’d been sentenced to. I stopped eating and looked around.

That woman hadn’t just made me a dog, she’d made me one of a litter of nine mutts, all with stubby legs, boring brown fur, and ridiculously floppy ears. And she hadn’t sent me to live with a family. I was surrounded by chain link, barks, and stink. An animal shelter. 

Damn sorcerer.

I shoved one of my siblings to the side and latched on to my mother, my puppy instincts warring with my very human fury. 

Once I was no longer hungry, my mind cleared. The sorcerer might’ve set me up for failure, but I was in control of my own life now. I’d go for what I wanted. The way I always had.

The next day, when people came to look for pets, I sat up straight, wagged my whip-like tail and let my tongue hang out of the side of my mouth.

It worked.

A young woman and her husband fell in love with my soft belly and lolling tongue. I listened as they discussed me with the staff. Weeks later, Ed and Sheila brought me to live at their little house in the city. They named me Moby, after the whale. (My belly was quite round.)

***

I expected to live a life of ease in my new home. Quickly, I realized my error.

A dog has little control over his existence. Ed taught me to ring a little bell with my nose when I wanted to go outside. All his high-pitched praise couldn’t take away the humiliation of ringing a bell to ask permission to piss.

And the food—how to describe it? Dog food is like greasy, meat-based dry cereal. It tasted better than I expected, but eating it day after day was torture. I wanted to growl at Sheila, “Do you have any idea how many five-star meals I’ve eaten? And you give me this?”

Anxiety slithered into my little gut. Would they ever forget to feed me? What if I ventured into the bathroom, accidentally bumped the door closed, and got stuck? And the big birds I occasionally saw outside—would one snatch me from the yard and make me its breakfast?

As I became daily more aware of my lack of agency, I swear my sensitive canine ears heard the sorcerer’s high-pitched cackle.

I responded the same way I would’ve when I was human. I took what I wanted instead of waiting for someone to give it to me. If the front door opened, I darted out to mark as many neighbors’ mailboxes as I could. I jumped on the one chair that was off limits. Its upholstery was rough on my skin, but I still napped on it for hours when my owners were at work. I chewed on leather shoes (a surprisingly delicious habit).

Sheila and Ed became more and more frustrated. “Why, Moby?” they’d ask as they chased me through the neighborhood or held up another ruined shoe.

If I were capable of laughing, I would’ve. However, their sighs and chiding words affected me, despite myself. Sometimes I caught my ears drooping, and my tail tucked itself between my legs. I never would’ve admitted it, but I missed their smiles and cooing words.

Then, one day, I smelled it—my very favorite scent. Sheila was cooking chicken.

You don’t realize, you can’t understand, how meat smells to a dog. I don’t care how many incredible restaurants you’ve been to, with French-trained chefs and creamy sauces and buttery desserts. I don’t care what delectable odors wafted from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. Nothing you’ve smelled as a human can compare to the scent of sizzling chicken when you’re a dog. Drool collected in my mouth as soon as I caught a whiff.

I stood there, tongue darting out repeatedly, eyes wide, tail twitching, silently begging Sheila for a bite.

She was in a hurry, ingredients and pans scattered over the kitchen as she worked on the chicken and a variety of less interesting dishes. “When do your parents get here?” she called as she swept the back of her hand over her flushed forehead.

“Fifteen minutes!” Ed replied from where he was frantically dusting the living-room furniture. 

Sheila cursed, then muttered under her breath, her fears emerging in short phrases—“They won’t like it.” “They don’t like me.” “I’ll mess this up.” Not once did she look at me, sitting there with hope written all over my little body. 

She finished the chicken and set it on the dining table in the next room. When she went to the entryway to welcome her in-laws, a quick hop brought me onto a chair. Another jump, and I was on the table.

Then I was in heaven, tearing into the chicken, gulping down huge bites of it. It was savory and moist and altogether perfect. I got through a breast and two thighs before Sheila and Ed appeared, leading his parents into the room. I froze. My traitorous tail slipped between my legs.

Ed’s mother let out a soft gasp.

A sob burst from Sheila’s mouth, echoing off the walls, followed by the pounding of her feet as she ran into the kitchen. 

My gaze met Ed’s. He’d never laid a violent hand on me, but I truly believed I could smell his fury. A single leap, and I hit the floor, my feet skidding in four directions on the slick wood. I recovered and followed Sheila into the kitchen.

I’m not sure why I didn’t run straight through the room and find a quiet corner to sit in. I saw Sheila sitting on the tile floor, muffling her cries with her hands, and found myself walking to her and sitting in front of her. The tile was cold on my little rump, but I stayed there, waiting.

Sheila looked up. “Oh, Moby,” she choked out. “Why?”

Something squeezed at my heart, something I didn’t remember ever feeling.

Regret.

The chicken got heavy in my belly. More than ever, I wished I could talk. Since I couldn’t, I leaped onto Sheila’s lap. I nuzzled her neck, and my tongue found her cheeks and kissed away her salty tears.

She held me close to her soft chest for a long time, then pulled back and met my gaze. “I forgive you,” she whispered.

No one had ever told me that before. I guess it was a day for firsts.

***

Things changed after that. I changed. I didn’t run out the door or sit on the forbidden chair. I didn’t steal leather shoes or food. (Not often, anyway.)

Ed and Sheila frequently scratched behind my ears and called me a good boy, and I could tell they meant it.

At last, I truly settled into my role as a pet. In many ways it remained uncomfortable, being totally dependent on others and having such limited communication skills. But there was a certain beauty to the simplicity: playing and eating, walking and napping. 

I stopped growing and was pleased to find my head had reached the level of my owners’ knees. Not too long after that, Sheila began to grow. She and Ed had one baby, then another two years later. I got less attention from the adults and sometimes too much from the toddlers in the house.

Months passed, then years, full of the crunch of boring dog food and the petting of hands big and little and the divine smell of cooking chicken (and, when I was lucky, the taste of it).

One day, when the kids were at school and Sheila and Ed were at work, I lay in a band of warm sunlight on the wooden floor of the living room, watching dust motes and listening to the gentle whoosh of the fish-tank pump. I’d learned to appreciate those times of relative quiet, even though my ears perked up at every small noise as I waited for someone to return home. In that lazy space between sleep and alertness, I considered my unique role in this house.

When Ed, Sheila, and the kids left for work and school, I remained. In those times, I was the only one to hear the thunk of packages on the front porch. When the family went out to dinner, I alone admired the purple-and-salmon sunset through our back window.

Being canine, I detected scents that the humans in the house were unaware of. A home, especially one with children, is a wonderful place for a dog’s nose. The house was full of the odors of dropped food and dirty laundry, along with the intriguing, slightly jealousy-inducing scents brought back by anyone who’d been socializing with other dogs. 

And in becoming a dog, I’d lost my human inhibitions. If something smelled amazing, I’d taste it, at least once. I was the only one in the home to know the flavors of dirty socks and crumpled tissues and that one sticky spot on the kitchen tile that sat for weeks before getting mopped up. (Don’t knock any of it until you try it.)

Most importantly, the members of the household felt safe around me. I heard the parents’ quiet conversations about their kids, and I heard the scheming of the kids planning to pull something over on their parents. When someone was angry and didn’t want to be touched by human family members, their hands found me, burying in my fur, scratching that wonderful spot on my neck. I was party to more interactions in this place than anyone—I was the quiet observer, the secret keeper, the comforter.

A home, I thought as I lay in the sunlight, belongs more to a pet than to their humans. The honor of that, the wonder of it, made my eyes heavy with something that would’ve been tears if I could produce them.

This was my home. It was full of the scent of cooking chicken and the taste of dropped crumbs. It featured beaming faces and the click of my toenails. It was lush with the promise of warm hands reaching out for soft fur.

My home.

***

The kids are in elementary and middle school now. Ed’s going bald, and Sheila’s embracing her first strands of gray hair. I suspect this canine life is coming to an end before long.

Sheila told Ed this morning that my vet retired, and the new one will do house calls for an extra fee. She kneels next to me. “Wanna get your checkup here or at the office?”

I used to love occasional rides in the car. But now, the area rug on the floor feels cozier than ever. I roll on my back, and Sheila laughs and pets my belly. “I’ll ask her to come here.”

When the doorbell rings, I don’t run to it like I used to. My ears perk up and my tail thumps as I wait. There are murmurs in the entryway, and as they come closer, I make out a few of the visitor’s words: “Sounds like he’s earned these restful days.” The voice is vaguely familiar.

“He’s a good boy,” Sheila says.

They enter the living room, where I’m lounging. All at once, my entire body stiffens.

The smiling vet has curly, black hair and green eyes.

The sorcerer.

She kneels and says, “It’s okay, Moby. I’m not here to hurt you.”

For some reason, I believe her. I relax and let her examine me.

When she’s done, she speaks to Sheila, but she’s still looking at me. “I think you’ve still got some time with him.” Her voice is gentle. “And I think this life with you is just what he needed.”

I give her a little nod. Her lips twitch with a half-smile, and for the first time, I consider what it will mean to leave my home. To find rest at last.

I think I’m almost ready.

THE END

white and red wooden house with fence
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Four Words: A Short Story

close-up of a green reptile eye next to green reptilian skin

“It’s bred to be tame from birth. It’ll breathe smoke only, never fire. And I personally guarantee it won’t get bigger than a large dog. In a few years, everyone will have a dragon as a pet. Don’t you want to be one of the first?”

Later, no one could agree on whether the dragon-egg peddler was tall or short, dark or pale, skinny or portly. But they all agreed on the essentials of his spiel and the trustworthy smile that accompanied it.

Five years later, the peddler was nowhere to be found, but my husband Stiver and I were hearing plenty of stories. Tales of pet dragons as big as houses, of entire blocks burning from a dragon’s belch.

When rumor reached us of a dragon named Prettynose snacking on a child, we knew we had to act. I left my bakery’s management in the hands of my sister, and Stiver quit his job at the sawmill. We bought an abandoned farm and started the Dragon Rehabilitation Center, a place to prepare pet dragons to live in the wild.

I’d always been able to communicate with dragons, so I entered our venture with naïve optimism. It might be harder than baking bread, but it was bound to be more fun. 

The day we opened, a farmer brought us a glorious, gray-blue dragon, eight feet tall when seated, with a wingspan twice that big. I came to a quick understanding with him. Stiver and I would help him gain independent-living skills as quickly as possible; he’d refrain from eating us or burning us. A month later, we released him into the wild. I still saw him in the distance for years after that, soaring over the forest, sleek and strong. Based on occasional wisps of thought the wind carried to me, the big fella was happy.

More people entrusted their dragons to us. Some wept as they dropped off their dear pets; others fairly danced after handing us the leash. The dragons, too, reacted in any number of different ways, from despondent to excited to wary. 

Stiver took them hunting in the little woods behind our house. I sat with them, discussing how things were going and how they might learn to be more self-sufficient.

It was, of course, more difficult than I’d expected. I’d had conversations with dragons all my life, but we never got personal. It wasn’t until I was living with them that I realized how emotional they can be. After the third time a weeping dragon nearly burned me with flaming sobs, I started a meditation class to teach them to control their emotions. I explained that I understood it was hard to be away from their owners, but I couldn’t help them if I was charbroiled.

Stiver and I released dragons back into the wild at a rate of nearly one a week, and we were both happy with that result. We only kept a dozen at a time; we didn’t have room for more. One day after I watched a sweet red female ride the wind currents to her new home on the mountain, I checked our waiting list.

“Stiver,” I said, “can you walk down to the rectory? They’re next on the list.”

His eyes darted up from the salve he was mixing. (He was forever trying to soothe reptilian necks that were chafed by collars.) “The green dragon?”

“That’s the one.”

“You, uh . . . you sure?”

I sighed. “I’m sure, Stiver. We can handle this.”

He wiped his hands clean and departed without another word.

Stiver doesn’t often get nervous, and I tried to shake off my concern at seeing such a reaction from him. Sure, the green dragon at the rectory was different. He was big, for one thing, taller than most buildings in town. More than once, he’d gotten loose and sat in front of the church, wings spread. Oddly, it was always on Meeting Day. We’d relocate our service to the street, watched over by those huge, jade eyes.

close-up of a green reptile eye next to green reptilian skin

And to top it all off, the dragon had never spoken to me, not once. I’d reached out to him, said hello, asked his name, complimented his sleek, grass-green scales. (Most dragons are notoriously susceptible to flattery.) I was sure he understood me; those eyes of his were deep vats of intelligence. But he never deigned to respond.

Well, what was done was done. Stiver was on his way over there, and soon enough, we’d both have to deal with the creature I’d taken to calling Green. I walked over to Lair One (a converted barn) to check on the residents and distract myself from my anxiety.

I heard Green arrive before I saw him. I was comforting one of our newest residents, singing her a lullaby like her owner had always done, when Green let out a massive roar that shook me to my shoelaces. After kissing my little homesick dragon on the cheek, I turned, squared my shoulders, and marched to the center’s front gate.

I nearly stumbled when I got close enough to see what awaited me there. Green was standing tall, holding Stiver against his chest with a muscular, scaly tail. From fifteen feet above the ground, my husband’s eyes and mouth were wide. But his coloring was normal, leading me to believe he was alive and breathing. Green stared at me with impassive eyes that dared me to react improperly.

Perhaps my first reaction should’ve been panic. I do love Stiver, deeply and truly. But I also love a challenge. I kept my wits and stepped right up to Green, so close that when I craned my head to gaze at his face, I looked straight up into his ashy nostrils.

Not taking my eyes off Green’s head, I crouched and placed a hand on his lower body, a foot off the ground. My fingers felt the invisible seam which I knew led to a male dragon’s most vulnerable and personal organs, kept hidden most of the time. Most people know nothing about how this great species mates. But lonely dragons tend to get talkative, and I’d learned a lot in the year our sanctuary had been open.

I didn’t talk aloud, just sent a thought to Green: If you have any desire for children or pleasure in the future, you’ll release my husband.

A moment later, that great belly nearly touched my head as Green bent over and placed Stiver on the ground behind me, setting him down as gently as a mother kisses her baby.

Green straightened and finally lowered his head to look at me. I removed my hand and stood, again communicating silently with him. Thank the heavens; I really didn’t want to stick my hand in there. I arched a brow and led him to Lair Three, a building custom-built for large dragons. The green behemoth followed me quietly, a small puff of acrid smoke the only indicator of his displeasure. 


Green wasn’t the slightest bit tame. And like all our residents, he could have flown off at any time.

He didn’t stay because he wanted to be a pet. He stayed because he was pragmatic enough to know that habitual churchgoer intimidation hadn’t prepared him for a life of hunting and plundering.

Green didn’t tell me any of this, of course. Even after a week, he still wouldn’t speak a word to me. But dragons, like people, communicate through far more than words. I read his wildness in the tension of his rippling muscles. I saw his determination in his hunting, after which he regularly crashed to the ground in exhaustion, having spent all day seeking prey. And every time I sneaked a look in his shimmering, green eyes, I saw his hatred of the captivity he’d been born into.

When he finally spoke, we didn’t have a conversation about the weather or his hunting. In fact, it didn’t quite qualify as a conversation at all. Rather, it was a reprimand.

Green had hunted from sunrise to twilight that day, with nary a break for food or water. Then he’d fainted, falling from above the treetops to the ground, earning himself a gash from a heavy branch on the way down. I’d been trying to get him to descend for hours by then, and I was none too patient when I ran home and returned with Stiver’s salve.

But when I tried to rub the stuff in Green’s wound, he rewarded me with a slap from his muscular tail, so hard I knew my entire hand would be bruised the next day.

Forget wooing him with silent words. I let loose on him, screaming with a voice hoarse from lack of sleep (thanks to his recent antics). “You could at least show some gratitude, you big, green oaf!” I dug my hand into the pungent ointment and flung a fistful of the stuff at him, missing the wound entirely.

That was when his voice at last pierced my mind. Four words, spoken in a tone that, while telepathic, was nonetheless full and rumbling, a sound that was surely born of the molten rock at the center of the earth.

I OWE YOU NOTHING.

I opened my mouth to argue, but I couldn’t. There I was, standing next to this carnivore who couldn’t hunt, a beast who should’ve been free to develop such skills from his first days but had instead been walked on a leash by a rector’s son. And I perceived the tragic truth of his life for the first time.

I saw that wildness without freedom is fraught with injustice. I saw that even if Green learned to live with his cousins in the mountains, he would never truly be one of them. That was humanity’s fault.

It was my fault.

How many times had I passed someone walking their dragon and shaken my head in self-righteous disapproval, doing nothing to stand up for the captive creature? How many times had I laughed when I’d heard of a pet dragon burning up some outhouse? I’d mused that the owners had gotten what was coming to them. But the justice of such little disasters didn’t provide any relief for the hapless pets who were likely treated even worse afterward.

All this filled my head in perhaps a minute. I stepped back from Green, far enough to be out of reach of his tail, but close enough that a fiery breath could incinerate me if he so desired. I opened my mind to him, letting him read my heart, my newly awakened sense of what was real.

He stared at me with unblinking, emotionless eyes, their jade irises so deep I could swim in them. Then he lifted himself to his feet and soared toward his pitiful, human-built lair.

After Green spoke those four words to me, I allowed him to be wild. I offered him space to sleep and hunt, expecting nothing in return. He mostly ignored me. When his inexperienced hunting led to inevitable hunger, he alighted atop the barn where we kept animals for just that purpose, until Stiver or I fetched a pig or a few chickens for him. He ate those meals in the woods, not a hint of emotion seeping from his closed mind.

My actions toward the other dragons changed, as well. No more lullabies, no more meditation or deep conversations. They needed to be wild, rather than coddled. 

I became aware of my error within a day, when my head virtually exploded with incoming dragon cries: WHERE ARE YOU? a newcomer screamed. PLEASE COME!

Forced wildness, I realized, could not overcome the tragedy of a dragon’s tameness. I shifted my strategy again, giving every dragon just what they needed, no more or less, never asking for anything from them.

One morning, I woke to a voice in my mind. It was the dragon who always requested lullabies. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RIDE ME? she asked.

I sat up in bed fast enough to wake Stiver. I was about to send back my enthusiastic Yes!, for riding a dragon was my lifelong dream. It had been illegal for a century, since the great wars that had decimated both human and dragon populations. But surely if a dragon was offering . . .

And then I thought of the face of that sweet lullaby dragon when she’d caught a fox the day before. I pictured the fire that had filled her gentle eyes. The wild pride.

No, I sent back to her. You don’t owe me a thing. I owe you everything.

A soothing rush of reptilian relief filled my mind. Two days later, the lullaby dragon flew off, waves of confident anticipation flowing behind her, ready to join her family.

Every dragon who’d preceded Green to the Rehabilitation Center eventually left. The ones who’d come after him began finding their freedom, as well. Yet Green still struggled to catch more than a squirrel, despite long days, and occasional nights, in the skies.

Strolling through town one day, I saw a young woman walking a rust-colored dragon twice her size.

I stopped in front of them both, causing them to halt.

“Do you think she wants to be a pet?” I asked, not even trying to tamp down the fury in my voice.

To my surprise, the woman’s eyes filled with tears. “I know she doesn’t. She tells me every day.”

The next day, the woman came on staff at the Rehabilitation Center. We accepted her dragon as our thirteenth resident, then built Lairs Four and Five, expanding our capacity to eighteen.

A year later, we had more workers, more lairs, and no more waiting list.

And still, Green hunted unsuccessfully every day, watching his fellow dragons come and go, never speaking a word.

I didn’t attempt to talk to him for months, until finally one day I stood before his lair in the pre-dawn darkness and sent him my own four-word message:

I know you can.

That afternoon, he caught a deer.

The next day, a badger.

The next, a wild hog.

On the fourth day, he soared away, not looking back once. I watched as his form grew smaller, dwarfed by the looming mountains in the distance. Green was going home.


Dragons came and went. Some returned to visit, often telling us of the new names their kinfolk had given them.

A month after he’d left, Green appeared in the distant sky early one morning. Occasionally, he dove down, probably to grab prey. Then he flew up again, gliding on wind currents. When the sun was reaching for the horizon, Green returned to the mountains.

The next day, he did the same thing—and every day after that until, one afternoon, a quick-learning resident took to the skies and soared toward the mountains. Green joined the deep-gray dragon, escorting her to her new home.

I wiped tears from my cheeks and sent a message as far as I could with every bit of strength I could muster: Green, I’ll call you when we’ve got one leaving. I didn’t know if I could reach him all the way at his mountain home, but experience had taught me that even a weak dragon’s telepathic reception far surpassed mine. And Green was not weak.

I received no response. But I didn’t see Green again until a few days later, half an hour after I’d thrust a message through the sky: The white dragon is leaving today.

When the snow-colored creature took to the air, she had a quiet escort home.

Years passed. Stiver and I had children of our own. Decades escaped our grasp like water flowing through our open hands. Once again, we were alone in our little farmhouse. The Center reached a peak resident count of eighty-two dragons. Then the numbers gradually dwindled, for the public had at last learned that wild animals make poor pets.

Our staff members found other professions. The sensitive young woman I’d first brought on was the last to leave. At last, Stiver and I found ourselves caring for only one dragon, a silver female who’d always been called Spot and was anxious to get a better name from her mountain family.

Spot was small, perhaps the size of our kitchen table. She’d somehow convinced us to let her sleep before our fireplace. She worked hard, learning to hunt during winter, even taking to the air on stormy days.

When she let us know she was ready to meet her family, we all cried—Stiver and I with salty tears, Spot with a beautiful, silent song of grief.

ONE MORE NIGHT? she asked.

I made the fire extra hot for her.

The next morning, I called Green. Spot waited, watching the sky. I stood on one side of her, Stiver on the other.

I pointed at a speck in the distance, barely visible against the mountain crags.

“Don’t know how you can see anything that far away,” Stiver said, as he always did.

I chuckled, as I always did.

Green grew larger, reaching the point he never flew beyond, about half a mile away. Then he kept coming, his great wings slowly flapping, until he was over our house. He landed, huge and regal, atop the chimney.

For the first time in thirty years, I saw his jade-green eyes, their depths unfathomable, full of wild wisdom. I looked at the ridge of scar tissue on his side where he’d fallen against a tree branch so long ago.

Spot lifted into the sky, the golden sun radiant on her silver scales. She joined the great, green dragon in the air. They soared off together.

Stiver returned to the house, but I stayed, watching the sky.

Just before the creatures were out of sight, the morning wind carried four words to my mind in a deep tone, conceived within the earth, a voice I’d never forgotten:

THEY CALL ME TEMPEST.


THE END


This story was part of the March Short Story Contest sponsored by Gestalt Media, and it won! It’ll be published in their 2020 short-story anthology.