Origami Dogs by Noley Reid
Iris Garr rose at four every day before school to feed and water the dogs in the barn. They weren’t hers. They would never be hers. She used to beg—how old had she been then? She didn’t remember it, just the feeling of the want so intense it was like a rock in her mouth—and then she had to stop or she thought maybe she would die from the sadness of it. The dogs were her mother’s and they were money. Right now, there were thirty-seven but sometimes there were only twenty and sometimes there were over fifty. Her mom Gloria drove all over Indiana or out to Kentucky or Ohio or sometimes Michigan with her tried-and-true dams to mate them with the best champion studs she could afford, to keep the breeding going and going and going.
The barn had pens for each dog, arranged by breed. First came all of the small dogs: the miniature pinscher, Chihuahuas, Yorkies, Westie, and Maltese. Next were the medium dogs: the spaniels, bassets, whippet, and beagles. And then the large dogs: the setter, Labs, and dalmatian. Her mom, Gloria, used kiddie pools inside the pens as whelping boxes and while the puppies were still small, the pools prevented them escaping and ensured the mother dogs could nurse them all together. They were easier to clean, too.
This morning, Iris found no new litters. One of the beagles was going to start contractions any day now. Iris didn’t like leaving her. She lingered some at her pen, watching the dog. In the night, the beagle had made a nest out of the towels in the whelping pool but wasn’t pacing or panting yet. Iris checked on the Westie, only halfway through her pregnancy, then walked down to the large dogs, the heavily pregnant dalmatian whose flank rippled with movement, and the Lab litter. Roly-poly seven-week-old puppies that climbed on one another and their mother nonstop, grunting and snuffling. The pool didn’t contain them anymore. Iris reached a hand down into the pen and two or three immediately glommed on with needly teeth inside velveteen muzzles. “You poor thing,” she said to the mother dog, extricating her hand and rubbing the red marks.
Iris finished filling the water bowls and bottles and poured puppy kibble in all of the food dishes. She kneeled at one of the basset hound’s pens because the dog wouldn’t start eating alone. “Good girl,” said Iris, stroking her long back. Then Iris scooped poop and wet shavings from the pens and put down more bedding and fresh towels where they were needed. The Yorkies always peed all over their towels instead of the shavings, and danced circles around Iris’s boots while she worked. “It’s alright,” she told this pen’s dog, “I know you can’t help it.” Gloria said pregnancy was tough on the bladder and the nerves. Iris reached down to move the Yorkie into her pool but the dog popped right back out and was underfoot again, so Iris simply worked faster. She brushed the two spaniels’ ears and the English setter’s speckled ears. Her mom kept all the long-coated dogs clipped short but the long ear fur still matted, if given the time. The setter licked Iris’s knee, the denim covering it, as she brushed. Now Iris shelved the brush and went down the length of the barn, giving each of the other dogs and puppies a pet on the head, behind the ear, or on the rump, depending on what was accessible, then she went back to the little, aluminum-sided house nestled in southern Indiana’s rolling hills.
Inside, she sat at the kitchen table with toast and orange juice. She wrote her mother a note.
The beagle’s about ready.
Please check on her today
before you leave for work.
By 6:30 Iris was on her bus to the high school. She smiled at the driver, who once whispered to her that a dryer sheet was sticking out of her pantleg. She sat in her regular middle seat. The popular and older kids sat in the back. They talked of love lives, real or imagined, Iris didn’t know. They talked of video games and TV shows Iris had never played or seen and knew she never would, homework and tests happening that morning, Mr. Flynn was a dick to assign three chapters last night. They laughed and said things that made Iris smile and want to be part of them, and even for a moment she shut her eyes and imagined she was a junior or a senior and was a part of them.
“What stinks?” said one of the girls.
Iris opened her eyes.
Iris heard the tussling of bodies tumbling into one another and more laughing.
She looked down at her shoes, which was silly since she’d worn her boots in the barn. She touched two fingers to the damp spot on her knee. She didn’t think she smelled of dog but she wasn’t sure. Carefully, she tucked her nose into her sweater and sniffed. Maybe she should have showered. Or changed her clothes after mucking out their pens. She couldn’t tell.
“What did you step in, Grady?” said a boy.
“Me! No way. Check all y’alls feet.” Just an hour and a half across the Ohio River, but you could always tell who was originally from Kentucky.
At lunch, Iris sat by herself at a table of other kids sitting by themselves. She ate her burger then smoothed the foil wrapper and folded it into an origami Scottie dog.
“That’s cool,” said the boy diagonally across from her. His name was Denny McCauley. He was in her biology class, sat way at the back. He had short black hair and every day wore black shirts with a black zip-up hoodie, black jeans, and black Converse shoes. Today was no exception.
Iris smiled. She pushed it across the table to him.
“Thanks,” he said.
Iris took her tray and dumped it.
Fifth period was biology and Denny’s arm brushed hers when he walked past her to his lab table.
On the bus home, Iris thought of the beagle, hoping she hadn’t gone into labor yet. Once there, however, she found the dog shivering through contractions. Iris sat in the pine shavings of the pen, with the dog in its whelping-pool nest. She stroked the dog’s back. “That’s it,” said Iris. “That’s a good girl.”
The dogs didn’t have names. Gloria insisted. She referred to them by the number she gave them when she first acquired them but Iris couldn’t bear to think of the dogs as numbers. So they were all just good girls.
Now the barn was quiet around Iris and the beagle. It was always like this. Anytime a dog whelped, the rest of the dogs and puppies hushed. The beagle pushed and Iris took her hand away but said, “You’re doing such a good job.” After a while, there was a puppy and the beagle looked back at it and picked it up so gingerly and set it down before herself so gingerly and licked the membrane from the puppy so it could breathe and chewed the cord and set the puppy at her side so it could nurse when it was ready. The beagle panted and shivered and began pushing again and thirty minutes later, she delivered the next puppy. She carried on like this well into the evening’s first darkness.
“Iris?” It was her mom coming out of the house, back from her shift at the library, and flipping on the barn’s lights.
Iris blinked away the brightness. “Back here,” she called. “There are eight already.”
“Good job, 27!” Iris’s mom clapped her hands together silently and leaned on the gate of the pen. “How many more do you think there’ll be?”
“She might be done.” All but one of the pups was nursing. It squealed softly like a guinea pig, like the newborns always did. Iris picked up the straggler—all spots and big, round snout—and placed it at a nipple. It snuffled on.
“Have any homework?”
“Head inside. I heated you up a dinner to have while you work. I’ll stay with her.” She opened the gate and stepped in.
“Make sure this one gets milk,” Iris said, pointing.
“This one. With the white notched spot on the neck,” said Iris.
Gloria was touching each pup on the head, counting.
“I said there are eight. Just watch this one. It needs to nurse.” Iris stood up.
Gloria stopped what she was doing and looked up at her daughter. She ran her tongue over her teeth. “I know what I’m doing,” she said.
Inside, Iris ate her tray of chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, and green beans while studying genetics and heredity in her biology text. She ran through a table of Mendel’s inherited traits, checking boxes for brown eyes, free ear lobes, non-cleft chin, mid-digital hair, and left-on-top hand clasping, then wrote down her phenotypes and genotypes accordingly. It was the kind of stuff her mom did when breeding the dogs.
She was asleep when her mom finally came in.
“She finished with nine,” said Gloria, standing in the doorway of Iris’s room and rubbing her neck.
“Are you sure she’s through?” Iris sat up in bed. “I can go back out.”
“No, you sleep. She’s all done. I waited long enough to be sure.”
Iris lay down again but couldn’t fall back to sleep. Once, they lost a Jack Russell who labored too long. They’d thought she was done, too, and maybe she was. Gloria said she’d waited with her long enough to know the whelping was complete but the next morning when they checked on her, she was dead and so much blood had come out of her back end. They didn’t know what happened, but Gloria cleaned it up and put the dog’s four lifeless puppies in with a Maltese who’d just had two in a litter a few days earlier.
Now Iris listened to her mother brushing her teeth, running a shower, flushing the toilet, and climbing into bed. And then she put on her boots and coat and went to the barn. She sat in her nightgown with the beagle and her sleeping puppies, just to be sure.
When birds began to warble, Iris shook blood back through her limbs and rushed through her chores. At school, when she opened her locker, something fell out into her hands. It was an orange origami cat. Iris smiled. She placed it on the top shelf of her locker while she exchanged books from her backpack. Then she took the cat and slipped it into her pocket.
At lunch, she sat at the alone table and looked for Denny again, but he wasn’t there. She ate her burger and folded another dog, this one a Lab with its head up to the sky. She didn’t know where Denny’s locker was.
“Is that for me?” he said, plunking down his lunch tray.
She looked up. “Oh. Yes, I guess so.”
“Does it play well with the cat?”
Iris took the cat out of her pocket and set it on the table next to the dog. “How’d you learn it so fast?”
“Stupid question,” she said.
“McCauley! You playing with paper dolls now?” It was one of the juniors from Iris’s bus. Kyle Seaton, wearing a royal blue Gap rugby shirt. “Pussy!” he sneered, and he swiped Denny hard across the back of his head and walked on by.
Denny grabbed his head, his neck. He leaned forward over his untouched food.
“Asshole,” said Iris, clenching her toes inside her shoes.
Denny didn’t say anything. He pushed his tray away from himself then got up, dumped it all in the trash, and left. Iris picked up the dog and cat and put both in her backpack. In fifth period, he didn’t brush her arm when he walked in and his eyes were on his feet.
She was already on the bus when Kyle came on. He’d never noticed her before but today he stopped at her seat. “You’re that girl, aren’t you?”
Iris felt her pulse in her fingertips, said, “No.”
“Of course you are.” He ran a hand through his long blond bangs. “What do you mean ‘no’?”
What would work here? She didn’t know. And all she felt was danger. Her toes rolled under again but Iris looked up at him squarely. “Okay.”
He laughed and walked to the back. She listened for her name and Denny’s name but it was all Call of Duty this or that and Kyle said, “I can’t even talk to you right now if you’re not playing Black Ops 4.”
“Modern Warfare is killer with the plot twists, man.”
“Boys and their guns,” said a girl.
“Modern Warfare is trash,” said Kyle.
At home, Iris sat down in the beagle’s pen next to the whelping pool. The dog beat her tail twice. Her pups, bellies full of colostrum, wormed around squealing, trying to hold up their big heads, nursing, and then falling asleep. Eventually, Iris walked all of the pens, feeling all the pregnant bellies for movement, telling every dog and puppy they were good, topping off waters, lingering with the basset so she would finally start eating her neglected breakfast, lifting the Yorkies out of their pee towels, and scooping out poop. She slid a lubed thermometer in under the dalmatian’s tail and held it in place until it beeped: 101.3ºF. “Not ready yet, girly,” she said, stroking the dog between the shoulders.
The next morning Gloria took the whippet to Grand Rapids to breed it and, depending on how experienced the stud was, she might be gone a couple of days. On the bus, Kyle winked at Iris when she walked to her seat. She sat down quickly and lowered herself below the top of the seatback. Then he was there in the seat across the aisle. And then he was there in the seat next to her, pushing her into the cold dimply wall of the bus. Still, Iris looked straight ahead at the brown seatback in front of her.
Kyle stared straight ahead, too, but she could feel him smiling. “What are we looking at?” he whispered, nudging her softly with his elbow.
“A whole lot of nothing,” she whispered.
“Then why are we doing it?”
He nudged her again with his elbow. Again and another time until she cracked a smile and they both laughed. “There,” he said, “I knew you weren’t a complete robot. Just maybe a cyborg.”
Iris rolled her eyes.
“So you’re the girl with all those dogs, right?”
She nodded slowly. What was he going to say now? He wanted a free puppy or thought she ran a puppy mill or some other ulterior or nasty motive for sitting here talking to her?
That was all. Just ‘that’s cool.’ Iris exhaled. Kyle got up and went to the back of the bus where his friends razzed him about sitting with a ninth-grade girl. The bus heaved itself up the hollow hills of the old gypsum mine. The closer it came to school, the older the houses got. Not historical, just beat-up with cars on blocks in the front yards and broken windows replaced with cardboard and duct tape. Ordinarily they made Iris glum but today, a red dog stood by a moss-stained birdbath and shook in the cold morning sun. She blew the dog a kiss and pressed her hand to the frigid window as the bus passed on by.
At lunch, Iris didn’t see Kyle but Denny was there. “Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” said Iris, setting down her burger tray.
Denny wouldn’t look at her. Just kept to the pizza slice and burger on his tray and the windows at the end of the room. She didn’t know what to say to him. Especially now, after this morning. She was a terrible person, she knew it. She couldn’t look at him without flushing hot, convinced there was some kind of way he knew she’d sat with Kyle, been nice to Kyle, thought soft-hearted things about Kyle. She just couldn’t. Denny finished his food and poured his milk down his throat, all of it in one go. Then he set about folding the foil burger wrapper into something. He pushed it to her and got up and left. It was a panda.
“Thank you,” said Iris, calling after him, but he was already at the trash.
In biology, she stood out in the aisle, fussing with her books and backpack as students came streaming in. But Denny walked past well clear of her, so she took her seat. She set the origami panda on the edge of her lab table in the hope he would see it there during class or at least on his way out of class and maybe he did but he rushed quickly past her with everyone else. Iris felt so deeply ashamed she pinched the skin on the top of her hand.
After her last class, which was French, she went to her locker and out dropped a blue origami fox. She turned around to see if he might be near and watching but he wasn’t. She held on to the fox, got the right books, shut her locker, and made her way to her bus.
Iris told herself not to look for Kyle. She told herself he was mean. But electric current needled its way through her veins like it had this morning. He wasn’t on the bus when she climbed on so all she could do was wish he’d come right now to her. Then reason stepped in, or tried to: She made herself promise she wasn’t going to smile when he’d walk by her though she knew it wasn’t a promise she could keep. But then the bus driver shut the doors and started up the engine and Kyle wasn’t even on the bus.
At home, Iris did her dog chores and sat with the squealing beagle puppies. She picked up one of them. Its front paws grasped at the air. She stroked its chunk of a head and kissed its sealed eyes. She set it back down and the mother licked it. Iris petted her, said, “You’re such a good mom.”
The small dogs started yipping and yapping so the medium and large dogs barked and bayed, too.
“Hush now,” said Iris. She looked up.
“Hi there.” It was Kyle Seaton walking past the small dog pens to come to her.
She stood up and brushed off the pine shavings from her jeans. Now he would know the smell had been her on the bus. “What are—”
“Thought I’d come check out the place,” he said and reached a hand in to touch one of the puppies. “Those are like, just born, aren’t they?”
“Just two days.”
“They can’t even see yet.”
“They won’t for a week or so.” She let herself out of the pen.
Kyle started walking down the rest of the barn, so Iris did, too. “Look at those; they’re so fat and frisky.” He let himself into the Lab pen and Iris followed. The whining puppies, all in their different colored Tyvek collars, were already sold, just waiting to be fully weaned. They clambered around Kyle and Iris, chewing on his shoelaces and the rubber of her boots. They gnawed on fingers that came near their mouths and climbed over Kyle’s and Iris’s laps when they sat. “How are you not in here 24/7?”
“I don’t know, it’s work,” she said, rescuing the frayed edge of her T-shirt from the yellow-collared puppy’s mouth. “But yeah, they’re pretty great.”
The mother dog laid her head across Kyle’s hips. “What’s her name?” he said, rubbing her behind the ears.
Iris sucked both lips inside her mouth.
“What’s wrong?” he said, placing a hand on Iris’s thigh.
She shook her head. She could hardly think now.
“What?” He took his hand back and ran it through his bangs.
“I don’t want to say.”
“Her name can’t be that bad,” he said. “We once had a cat called Farty because my little brother couldn’t say Purple.”
She laughed. “Those aren’t even remotely similar.” She longed for Kyle’s hand again, even leaned back a bit so maybe he would reach for her.
“I know. There was some evolution of the name over time. Still, it was a bad name.”
“Purple wasn’t all that great either,” said Iris.
“Well let’s hear yours, if you’re one to judge.”
Iris let out a deep breath. “My mom doesn’t let us name them. She gives them numbers. She,” Iris patted the mother dog, “is 14 because we’ve had her a long time.”
He looked at the dog’s face. “14? I guess it’s kind of like a name.”
“It makes my skin crawl.”
He lifted the dog’s head off his lap and relocated the puppies, though they whimpered, back into the whelping pool long enough to stand up and open the gate. “Come on,” he said.
They walked out of the barn and went behind it, where there was grass and sky and a stand of redbud trees, purple plum, and cherry trees all just waiting in bud to burst into spring color in the next weeks. Iris felt the top of Kyle’s hand brush hers and then he took her hand and held it and they walked to a spot in the grass where the barn blocked the house, on a little hill in the warm sun and cold air near the trees.
Kyle took off Iris’s coat and laid it down. He sat and so she did, too, using the coat for a blanket beneath them. He pulled her down and kissed her, moving his tongue in her mouth so she moved hers next to his. When his hand felt along her waist and started tugging up her T-shirt, she let him. And when his hand moved over her left breast in her bra, she let him do that. Then he reached around her and unhooked her bra and she let him do that. Each step seemed so inconsequential, something so small to object to. Managing the list of things to do—keep her tongue moving, moan, eyes shut, hands roving up and down his shoulders like in a perfume ad, hips rocking when he pushed—was like performing the order of operations on an algebraic equation. It felt good, she guessed, but the actual sensation was somehow just out of her grasp. And she was cold, so cold. Then his hand unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, and she thought, This is it, and still she let him do it. And when her underwear and boots and jeans came off and his underwear and jeans came down, and he rolled on top of her, soft and then firm and then pushing in, she let him do it all, and it was one more thing in the equation to perform. And when it was done and he moaned into her hair and fell flat and rolled off of her and she felt the wetness spilling out of her and thought she had done something wrong, she put her bra on and pulled her underwear on and her jeans and boots and coat and said, “I have so much homework,” and she ran down the hill and into her house where she turned off all the lights and hid behind the sofa until she was sure he was gone.
Iris fell asleep curled behind the sofa and didn’t wake until it was dark out. Then she slipped back into her coat and boots and returned to the barn. She did her night’s chores and lingered with the Lab puppies. She stroked the mother dog’s head and then, without thinking it through, said, “I’ll name you Cleo.” She came to the beagle’s pen and weighed the pups to ensure they were all gaining, and they were. “Good girl,” she told the mother dog, “and I will name you Prudence. There’s just something in your wrinkly face.”
She stayed in the barn—tidying food sacks, clean bowls, thermometers, all the different sizes and colors of puppy collars, worming medicine, and high calorie supplement and puppy formula for when nursing doesn’t go quite right—to avoid going inside but a little after 11:00, Iris worked off her boots and slipped off her coat. She made herself a bagel and ate it standing at the kitchen counter, though her mom had left a couple of TV dinners in the freezer.
Gloria didn’t return that night. She texted: “This stud can’t find 32’s vulva to save his life! Trying to guide him. Don’t know how long I’ll have to be here. Everything okay there?”
For the first time ever, Iris didn’t answer her mother. She went to her room and stood in front of the mirror on the back of her door. She wiped sleep from her eyes and moved her hair from in front of her shoulders to behind. She couldn’t understand it, why he’d come today. Why he’d shown up here and then taken her around back and done what he’d done. With her. She’d never even been kissed before.
She took off her shirt. She undid her jeans and let them fall to her ankles. At least she’d worn a somewhat nice bra, electric blue with a little lace. But the underwear was mortifying: white cotton hipster with little yellow flowers all over. She reached around back, unhooked her bra, and pulled it off. She stuck her thumbs in the waistband of her undies and pushed them down to the floor then stood back up and tried to examine herself through Kyle’s eyes. Her tiny breasts and unruly pubic hair. Her plain brown hair and eyes. She couldn’t see what would make him want her but somehow, someway, she figured, he did. She wrapped her arms around herself imagining they were his and went to bed naked like this so she could feel him touching her.
In the morning, Iris saw that the dalmatian was nesting. She gave her extra towels in her whelping pool and took her temperature again. “You’re cooling down: 99.4ºF. If you can wait ’til 3:30, I’ll be right here with you,” said Iris. The dog licked her lips and laid her head down between her front legs. “You, I’ll name Polly.”
Iris finished her chores. She showered and dressed, opting for a pair of silky black undies and a silky black bra. She tried to curl her hair but managed just one curl before burning her cheek. She gave up. She skipped toast and juice and ran to catch the bus. She climbed up the steps and the driver said, “Morning.”
Iris said, “Good morning,” and started up the aisle, beaming. She looked towards the back of the bus and there was Kyle. Iris practically glowed. She hovered between the middle seats slowly, thinking maybe she would go to the back. Maybe he would come to her again or call her back there. Then Kyle turned to his friends, talking, laughing.
Iris looked away. She took her seat. She let her eyes cross staring out at the hills.
At lunch, Denny asked, “What happened to your cheek?” He touched his own in the same spot and she remembered the burn.
“It’s nothing,” said Iris, feeling dumb. She put her fingers in the one curl, trying to pull it straight.
He finished his burger and was folding the wrapper when Iris saw Kyle. He was coming to talk to her, to see her. Maybe to sit with her. It had been a misunderstanding this morning.
“Pussy, McCauley!” Kyle sneered and whacked the back of Denny’s head. He didn’t even look at Iris and he walked on by.
Denny wadded the foil.
Iris teared up but Denny was gone to the trash already and no one else looked at her.
At home, Iris went to the barn. She checked on the dalmatian. Nothing yet. She did her chores. Sat with the whiny Lab puppies, sat with the squealy beagle puppies, spent time with each of the thirty-seven dogs then went inside and curled up on her bed and cried.
“Why aren’t you with 6?” said Gloria, standing in her doorway.
Iris had fallen asleep and it was dark now. “Sorry,” she said. She started to get up then stopped. “Can’t you?”
“I just got here.” Gloria took a scrunchie out of her hair, letting it down from its makeshift bun. “I’ve been driving all day.”
“I’ve had school all day. Plus I feed them. I water them and brush them. I scoop their pee and poop and wipe down their whelping pools. I spend time with them so they know they’re loved. I name them and play with them and—”
“You name them?” Gloria’s eyebrows knitted together.
“Someone has to.”
“You can’t name them, Iris. They’re not our pets.”
“We’ve had Cleo for six years. And Polly we’ve had since I was seven. They’re our family, Mom.”
“Who are Cleo and Polly?” Gloria blinked several times.
“Never mind. Just you come in after I’ve done everything for days and next to everything for years, and you want me to stay up all night and watch the birth. And ordinarily, I’d do it—I always do. But not tonight. Just you, I don’t know, what do you even do?”
Gloria left the room and Iris stayed sitting on the edge of her bed, running through everything she’d said and hadn’t said, hearing Kyle call Denny pussy, and the names Cleo, Prudence, and Polly. Seeing her mom let down her hair or rub the side of her neck like she did every time she came home from the library.
Iris pushed and picked at her cuticles. She let out a big sigh and got up and went to her mom’s room. Gloria was brushing her hair. Iris hugged her from behind. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“You should be.” Gloria held the brush at her side. She looked at Iris in the mirror. She was waiting for her daughter to say something more maybe, but Iris didn’t know what. Gloria took a deep breath and let it out. “I wish we had all the money in the world—”
“—then we could just have the dogs we want.”
“I know, okay?” said Iris.
Gloria turned around and looked at Iris. “It’s a lot of work. I get it, I do.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go.”
“You sure?” said Gloria.
“I’m sure,” said Iris, turning to go. She stayed in the barn all night with the dalmatian she’d named Polly, watching her whelp seven pups. But there was something wrong. Three of them weren’t breathing right. Their bodies were strange, their rib cages too flat. Polly licked clean their membranes and set them in place to nurse and they did but when the other pups fell asleep, these three struggled on for air. They didn’t squeal, and maybe they couldn’t. Iris went for her mom and when she came and held each one in her hands and felt the flatness of the ribs for herself, Iris knew that they would die and there was nothing she or Gloria or the vet could do.
“Go on to bed,” said Gloria. “You’ll still get some sleep before school.”
In the morning, Iris found her mother with the dalmatian but there were only four pups left. “Why did it happen?” said Iris. They’d only had birth defects three times before in twelve years of breeding.
“It’s just a fluke,” said Gloria, standing up and letting herself out of the pen. She brushed off the seat of her pants. “Don’t think about it.”
“Where are they?” asked Iris.
“Don’t think about them.”
“I can’t help it.”
“It’s just a fluke,” said Gloria.
“How can three of them be a fluke? Polly’s had probably twenty litters with no problems.”
“Do your chores then get ready for school,” said Gloria, walking out. “I’m going to bed.”
Iris went to Polly. She looked into her dark amber eyes. “I’m so sorry they were sick and died. But at least you have four healthy ones.” Polly licked her remaining puppies incessantly as they slept.
On the bus that morning, Kyle ignored Iris again. When she opened her locker, an origami owl fell out and she did not pick it up. At lunch, she was shaky from lack of sleep and food. She ate her burger and wadded up her wrapper.
Denny said, “Don’t do that,” and then he folded his own into a unicorn and set it on her tray, where she was staring.
She looked up. “I feel like I’m disappearing,” she said.
He didn’t answer her. He swallowed like maybe he was about to but he didn’t say a word. So Iris stood up and took her tray to dump it, unicorn and all.
For weeks Iris stumbled through her life pinching the skin on the top of her hand until it went numb. And then the dalmatian puppies turned out to all be deaf and that had never happened before. Two of the beagle puppies had a connective tissue disorder called MLS and three developed with narrow heads and tiny eyeballs.
Sitting at the kitchen counter one night over supper, Iris said, “Who are these champions you’re breeding our dogs with? Their people must be scamming you. You should sue them.”
“Maybe so.” Gloria pushed at the white rice on her plate.
“They’re ruining your business. Of course you should sue.”
“There are no guarantees in breeding. Sometimes you hit a rough patch.”
Iris shut her trig textbook. “Mom, you don’t have perfectly good dogs for twelve years and then have three dogs die and nine dogs so messed up we have to give them away—if we even can.” Iris dipped her last fish stick in mustard and ate it.
Gloria picked up her plate and took it to the sink. She scraped it clean and ran the disposal.
“Mom!” said Iris. “Listen to me. I’m serious. Do something! Those people ripped you off. Are they the same sires you always use?”
“No.” Gloria scrubbed her dish.
“Who was it? Where did you find him?”
“There’s a whole formula. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Are you kidding me? Of course I would understand.” Iris took her dish to her mother. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Mom,” said Iris, holding Gloria’s elbow. “Tell me.”
“Money is tight. The library cut back my hours.”
Iris’s stomach dropped. She let go of her mother’s elbow. She felt almost everything in her let go. “You didn’t,” said Iris.
Gloria shut her eyes and stopped washing the rice pot.
“You wouldn’t do that,” said Iris. “Please tell me you wouldn’t do that. That you didn’t get some random pet shop dog to mate with Polly and Prudence and whoever else out there?”
“Not random. I wouldn’t do that,” said Gloria, eyes open again. She dribbled more dish soap into the sink and set about scrubbing intensely.
“From their lines.”
“How close: great-grandson, grandson, nephew?”
“Son,” Gloria said softly.
Iris slapped her palm on the counter. “That’s not linebreeding. That’s inbreeding!” She shook her mother by the arm but Gloria would not turn around. “What’s wrong with you? Of course all the puppies are messed up now. Of course they are. It serves you right. I can’t believe you would do that to our dogs, our beautiful, sweet, loving dogs who do nothing but churn out babies for you year after year.” Iris threw her plate into the sink. “You horrible, selfish bitch. You’re…you’re a fucking puppy mill!!”
Iris slammed her feet into her boots, grabbed her coat, and ran to the barn. She was crying and the dogs were quiet. She walked along the pens, letting each dog lick her fingers. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You don’t deserve this.” She went down the line of pens naming each and every dog, including the deformed puppies: Lyla, Piggy, Cora, Winnie, Hortense, Summer, Dinah, Millie, Prudence, Bird, Ferris, Franny, Sasha, Wilson, Watson, Dilly, Wayne, Suarez, Sadie, Cola, Camille, Ivy, Edith, Jellyroll, Finch, Myrtle, Thistle, Birch, Aspen, Plum, Muffin, Rose, Soufflé, Margaret, Kristen, Daisy, Alice, Cleo, Isaiah, Marv, Pudding, Missy, Harvey, Essie, Rain, Betty, Sarah, Katie, Eliza, Avery, Bridget, Holly, Delia, Polly, Monroe, Jed, Dora, Valerie, Domino, Burnham, and Celia. And for Polly’s three that died: Claire, Ellen, and Clyde.
She got some of the clean towels from the cupboard shelves and made a bed for herself in the pine shavings next to the Westie, who would be the next to whelp. She hadn’t nested yet but by the calendar Gloria kept, she was close. What sort of monsters she would have, Iris could only imagine.
That night she dreamed every one of the dogs, that she opened their pens and led them out into the trees. Some disappeared in the distant woods. Others—the recent mothers—kept their puppies with them on the hill. And no matter their defects, all the puppies were there and they all tussled on the hillside, rolling down and climbing back up. For a while, Iris let them play like this but then, in the dream, she could see her mother’s car coming up the driveway. She turned back to all the dogs, clapped for their attention, said, “You have to go now. This is your very last chance!” And though she loved these dogs more than any person in the world right now, she waved her arms and shooed them off into the woods.
When she woke in the morning, she was afraid she really had emptied the pens. If she were brave enough or cruel enough, she would have. But no, there was Millie, the Westie, right next to her, pushing through a contraction. “That’s a good girl. You can do it,” said Iris. She quickly finished feeding, watering, and cleaning, and came back to sit with Millie. And just like that, the dog stopped pushing. She’d always been like that; she preferred to whelp alone. Iris busied herself folding towels with her back to Millie. Periodically, she looked over her shoulder but the dog hadn’t even resumed panting.
By 6:10 there was still no pup. Iris ran to wash up, change clothes and shoes, get her backpack, and catch the bus.
The bus driver said, “Morning,” and she reached in her backpack and handed him an origami St. Bernard. “Very cool,” he said.
Iris never even looked at Kyle anymore, though she thought about the fact that she wasn’t looking at him every time. She sat close to her window and watched the hilly southern Indiana farmland—cornfields, soybeans and fresh subdivisions—go by. Close to school, she looked for the red dog again, but he wasn’t out. At lunch, Denny no longer sat at her table. She didn’t know where he went, he just wasn’t there anymore. Today, after she ate her burger, she folded the foil wrapper into an origami poodle with a lion cut, and when biology let out, she followed Denny to his locker.
“I made this for you,” said Iris, placing the poodle in his hand.
He turned it over, studying it. “Complicated.”
He reached into his locker and came out with all the dogs she’d ever made for him.
“You kept them.”
He smiled. “Sure.”
“I have yours, too.” She dug in the outer pocket of her backpack and came back with a handful of his animals.
“Not the unicorn,” said Denny.
“It’s fine.” Denny put the foil dogs back into his locker.
The bell rang and they both turned and went in opposite directions without another word.
After school, Iris climbed the steps of the bus and the driver smiled big at her. He’d strung a thread through her dog and hung it from his rearview mirror. She made her way to her seat. It was bright and warm this afternoon and the St. Bernard danced the sun around the inside of the bus as it spun on its thread. Iris looked away from the reflection, out her window at the next hulking bus parked and waiting to leave the school lot, too. And that’s when she saw them. Set up in one of the other bus’s windows across and a few seats up from hers, was a line of her origami dogs all in parade: the poodle, Scottie, basenji, collie, pit bull, Boston terrier, all nose to tail. Iris laughed. She picked up her backpack and moved to the seat opposite the dogs and pulled out all of Denny’s origamis and stood them in the upper window frame, too. First the panda, then the fox, the gorilla, the bat, buffalo, stingray, and cat. She waved at him but he didn’t see her. She knocked and knocked but Denny still didn’t look.
Iris took down the origami menagerie and stuffed the animals into her coat pocket. She slumped low in the seat and waited for her bus to move and she went home. Home to the used and broken dogs, the trying dogs, the dogs she would never feel curled up in her bed or tugging at the end of a leash. She stepped down into her boots and sat with the Westie, who had already whelped three pups Iris was afraid to pick up and examine closely. She stroked Millie’s wavy, white fur and coaxed her on but it seemed she was done with just three. Still, Iris stayed with her to be sure. She ached to turn all the dogs loose but knew that would be even crueler than this life for them. Instead she vowed to carry on with all her chores, tending the dogs as much as she could to keep her mother away from them as much as possible.
Iris left Millie’s pen. She scooped the origamis out of her pocket and arranged them in parade on the cupboard shelf for the dogs. “Here,” said Iris, “a little decoration for the barn. Because this really is your home and you are my family.” And then she began to call each dog and pup by name again, believing the very act was a gift and a grace.
NOLEY REID is author of the recent novel Pretend We Are Lovely, which O, The Oprah Magazine called “scrumptious.” Her previous books are the short story collection So There! and the novel In the Breeze of Passing Things. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Split Lip Magazine, Arts & Letters, Meridian, The Rumpus, The Lily, Bustle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, and Other Voices. She serves as the nonfiction editor of Capable Magazine, a new literary journal on illness and disability. She lives in southwest Indiana with her two best boys. Learn more at NoleyReid.com.