Michelle woke with bleary eyes, blinking against the harsh ray of sunlight that pelted her from the doorway. She groaned turning over. Michelle had repeatedly told her sister to leave her door closed. The windows of their hallway were positioned in such a way that the light pierced right into her room like a knife. She gave a cautionary glance towards the clock that blinked a mournful nine-forty-five. Michelle whined long and high, burrowing deeper into the freshly cleaned burrow of her blankets. The smell of fabricated citrus and mint lulled her back asleep in a matter of seconds.
Michelle was sure no more than two seconds had passed when her phone alarm blasted out like police sirens in her ear through her pillow. Hands sluggish, but moving with determined purpose, Michelle silenced the shrill call and crawled back into her warm ring of blankets and pillows. It was her day off, and Michelle was determined to sleep in.
Then the dogs started barking.
Michelle tossed, tugging her head in attempt to block out the noise. The dogs persisted. Their shrill whines shooting through the air like that of a baby’s cry. Michelle flopped back against her bed and stared up at the dotted white and gray ceiling. Michelle flexed her fingers, twisted her neck, and rolled her shoulders. Satisfied by the resounding crack each move made she heaved herself up. Michelle reached for her water bottle on her nightstand and studiously ignored the increased cries of the dogs downstairs.
“Oh my god.” She groaned as their whines and whimpers became increasingly insistent. “Shut up!” Michelle yelled teeth grinding together as she rolled her left shoulder again trying to work out the muscle. “Stupid dogs,” she muttered walking into her bathroom. After washing her teeth and face her stomach growled right on cue.
She trotted into the kitchen, climbing over the fence that caged the dogs in. Two of them, one a big black bulk of a thing named Flower of all things. Her sister was never one for creativity. Flower was all shaggy long hair, floppy ears, and long tongue that lolled out and dribbled slobber everywhere. The other—named more cleverly Kirby—was smaller, though not by much, and much fatter with sleek brown fur with white patches and a little nub for a tail.
People often cooed over how cute and well groomed they were—her sister was a dog groomer after all and she just had to get a pair of poodles because of it—but Michelle didn’t think they were cute at all. She saw them as mindless masses of messes, drool, and annoyance that did nothing but leave behind a path of destruction in their wake.
Flower had once eaten a pair of her favorite underwear. Michelle was still bitter about it.
Seeing her both dogs pounced with horrifyingly heavy purpose. Michelle was a small young woman, shorted than most, and even skinnier than that. If there was one thing she loathed it was being reminded in painful resounding reality of that fact. Having her sisters dogs jump on her—especially after Michelle told them over and over and over not too—near knocking her clear over the fence, only served to be especially irritating.
“Damnit!” She screamed pushing them both away roughly. “Go away! Shoo!” They continued to bounce around her, effectively blocking her in. Michelle bit her lip, keeping the urge to scream locked tightly away. “No one likes you anyway,” she spat brushing past them as best she could.
That wasn’t entirely true; her sister adored the stupid mutts. She often cooed about how they were her babies while she cuddled their messy, drooling faces. Michelle had seen the places they licked with those mouths, and her sister let them lap all over her face. It was disgusting.
Michelle side-stepped a puddle of fresh drool with a grace that only came from months of living with two moving broken drool facets. She was well versed now in the art of drool dancing, avoiding the tiny pools Flower and Kirby left around the kitchen with glee.
“Oh. My. God. Go away.” Michelle shoved Flower’s face away from where she had begun her mission of searching the pantry for food. She spotted some pancake mix, and in a bowl on the table, some bananas. Michelle collected her items, all the while continuing to shove and push the dogs away from where they tangled themselves around her legs.
“I swear I’m gonna throw one of you out the damn window.” She said clicking the stove top on to heat up her pan. Michelle began mixing her pancake batter, stirring in her bananas slices carefully as to not break them up to much in the batter. The sweet smell of fruit had her smiling as the butter sizzled in the pan.
Flower and Kirby sniffed the air excitedly. Their paws clacked on the white tiled floor as they bounced around her. Sniffing, and licking at the towel Michelle used to dry her hands. Flower bumped his wet nose against the bare skin of her leg below the gray shorts she wore. Michelle jumped at the touch, nearly dropping her mixing bowl.
“Well I know who I’m throwing out the window first then.” Michelle glared at Flowers utterly blissful face as he dug his nose into the towel that Kirby was trying to subtly pull away with her teeth. Michelle jerked it out her mouth. “Bad dog!” Kirby rushed away, leaving Michelle feeling only the slightest bit guilty. Then she looked at the towel and let out a mournful sigh. “What the heck guys, this is like, the third one this week.”
Michelle grabbed another towel out of the drawer placing it down by the stove. She shuffled her way into the laundry examining the now wet and slightly chewed dish towel mournfully. “You guys are lucky I have to do laundry anyway,” she muttered walking into the room only to be greeted by the sight of disaster.
T-shirts slobber wet sweaters and underwear with the crotches missing littered the laundry room floor. Michelle wanted to scream. Instead she stomped back into the kitchen, slamming the laundry room door hard enough to send both dogs flying in fear. A scraping patter of nails flurried against the floor in face of her wrath.
Michelle flipped open her phone, tapping her foot impatiently as she waited. When her sister picked up she didn’t even wait for the expected hello before she went on her rant.
“I hate your damn dogs.” Michelle couldn’t see it, but she knew her sister was rolling her pretty brown eyes at her on the other end. Why she couldn’t see that her own dogs were gremlins was lost on Michelle.
“What did they do to you now?” Michelle’s jaw twitched at the ‘to you’ bit. As if the mutt’s grievances were all in Michelle’s head or something.
“They ate,” she said slowly, “my underwear.” A beat. “Again.” Behind her she could hear the dogs insistent barking excited to hear even a glimpse of their master’s voice.
Her sister sighed. “You shouldn’t have left the laundry door open.” Michelle’s jaw ticked. “Again.” Her sister mocked. Michelle was going to snap and be down a roommate. Living with her sister was the worst decision ever, especially in a place that accepted dogs and other meaningless pets. She could smell her pancakes burning and hear the dogs barking manically.
Michelle hissed through clenched teeth, patience near gone now. “Now wait a god damn minu—” The sudden blaring of their smoke alarm went off with a resounding ring. Michelle clutched her ears as it pierced right through everything else that was on her mind.
“Michelle?” Her sister asked concern lightly coloring her voice. “Are you burning something again?” She sighed as Michelle turned away to face the damage.
But instead of the smoking carcass of a wasted breakfast, she was faced down with climbing columns of flame and smoke. White, dying into a mass of gray puffed up till it touched the ceiling and how in the world did it get so bad so quick?
Michelle felt a shudder of fear pulse through her, thoughts rushing through her mind like thousands of bees in a hive. Michelle could faintly hear the steadily frantic calls of her sister on her phone, but her mind couldn’t catch up with them, consumed by the sight before her.
The flames that licked across her counter top, engulfing everything in their path like a hungry mammoth chopping away at its next meal with a piranha worthy frenzy. The smoke continued to spread like the oozing of an open wound, thick and heavy it grew black above her. Around her, the smell of melting plastic crawled down her throat as Michelle gasped suddenly, falling back.
Her legs hit the fence with a jarring scrap. It clattered to the floor, metal singing out against the flat tile. The dogs rushed to her side, nudging her with their faces. The gentle poke of wet nose touched her cheek shook her awake.
Michelle jolted, breathing in deep only to cough harsh, and raspy after. Her eyes began to water and blur as the smoke grew in size and damage. Its chalky acidic aftertaste filled her mouth and throat like sand as she pulled an arm in front of her face trying to whip away the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. Next to her the dogs yelped and nudged her shoulders.
She petted them gently, soothing their whimpers. Gasping both their collars she began crawling towards the front door. They were so close Michelle could smell their fur, wet and stale from to long without baths. With surprising obedience they crawled with her. “Good dogs,” she said holding them both tight. Her hands shook, the smell of smoke clogging up her head like cotton making it hard to think, hard to see, and quickly, hard to breathe.
Michelle didn’t let go of either collar dispute the pain that was beginning to edge throughout her body. Her grip was like iron around both Flower and Kirby as she trudged through the house. The expanding smoke followed them like a ghost. It wasn’t an easy task given their bigger bulk, but both dogs followed her without any trouble. She tried to push down their heads, low enough to keep them from the worst of the smoke. They whined piteously. Michelle could see their heads drooping, their movements becoming sluggish.
“Come on, come on,” she encouraged the graying carpet rubbing a harsh sting against her legs. She could still hear the blaring of the alarm above them. Its ring made her ears sting as if hot pokers were being shoved in them. She could only imagine how the dogs were feeling right about now. Their heightened senses were probably having a field day. “Good dogs, very good dogs.” Michelle repeated over and over tugging them through the house towards the front door which suddenly seemed so far away.
She felt her fingers slip through their fur. Her eyes shuttered shut, unable to stay open as they burned red and angry against the touch of smoke and burning air. Michelle idly felt the dogs bumping her hands, licking at her fingers. They whimpered and Michelle pulled herself up with a grunt. She squeezed her eyes tight, grinding her teeth against the oppressive weight of pain that pressed down upon her body.
Michelle continued to crawl along, one arm around each their necks. Her fingers reached for the brass knob of their front door, the metal feeling cold against her hot skin.
Michelle smiled wanly, muscles sluggish to respond to the movement. She wrapped her fingers around the knob, slipping the first time she tried to pull on the door. Michelle let out a frustrated sob, her body slumping to the floor with a thud. Her head spun, black dots coloring in the edges around her sight. Her throat felt as if she had swallowed the fire itself that burned behind her. The smell of smoke, brunt wood, and plastic clogged up her airways like a drain full of hair and sand. Michelle felt her eyes drooping. They fluttered, starring aimlessly at the dark blue door before her, its gold metal knob not even in her line of sight. Tears trickled freely from Michelle’s eyes as she felt her body start to succumb to forced exhaustion.
Then, Flower whined, pushing his head under her neck with a gentle nudge. Kirby licked her face wetly cooling the burning along her skin. Michelle blinked. It was slow and sluggish, but enough to bring some awareness back to her body. She eyed the dogs, their carefully groomed fur, Flower shaved and curly, Kirby puffy and trimmed all brown, black, and white blurs of color before her. Michelle could smell their breath, heady with a hint of canned beef from the fancy dog food her sister bought for them. Hair along their mouths matted from drool. They stared at her with pleading big black eyes. Quietly they nudged her along, refusing to leave her side.
Michelle huffed out a laugh that sounded more like tires against gravel. “Stupid dogs.” She reached up, muscles straining, burning in thin lines along her arm right to her nails. They touched the metal once more, and this time. Michelle pulled—no heaved with everything she had.
The door burst open like a spring flower letting in a flood of wind and screams. The dogs barked loudly, Flower rushing past her into a messy spat of a figure, while Kirby stayed dutifully by her side, continuing to tug her along outside the house. The concrete scratched against Michelle’s skin as she pulled herself onto the front porch. She didn’t care, to busy greedily taking in heavy gulps of air, with the smell of cut grass and all.
A hand grasped her upper arms lifting her up with ease. The world titled and Michelle couldn’t tell what was up, down, left or right anymore. She managed to gasp out a meager thank you in the back of a thick yellow coat that cloaked her savior. Michelle could hear the murmured concerns of her neighbors filter into her ears, along with the worried whines of the dogs.
“The dogs,” she gasped rough and rocky. “Are the dogs…?”
“They’re fine ma’am.” A woman’s voice responded, firm and sure. Michelle smiled, soft and glazed resting her cheek on the woman’s yellow jacket. Her eyes drifted shut, coloring in black with prickles of sparking gray.
“Good,” she said, “that’s good.” Michelle’s eyes drifted shut, twin tears escaping from her lids as the sounds of barking lulled her into a calm sleep.