One morning in early summer, when she was barely seven, Dora Cooper was riding her red, white and blue bicycle with the fringed handlebars up a short dirt road. She wore a new polka-dotted one-piece with thin straps that felt like spaghetti on her shoulders. On her feet was a pair of pink patent-leather sandals.
The road was the only one not paved in her suburban neighborhood. The people on that road, which ended after six houses, preferred it that way, even if sand and grit floated into their living rooms, because drivers thought twice about attempting Crescent Alley as a shortcut to Main Street. It worked. Few cars went down that rough road, which was lined with scraggly dogwoods, crepe myrtles, holly and redbud, except for residents and the mailman.
Dora had a friend, Rosie, who lived with her family near the end of the road and that morning she was bringing Rosie a paper bag full of candy. She had picked out the smarties and tootsie roll pops and malted milk balls and candy corn with her mother from the big glass jars at Pettieâ€™s grocery store in the town square. Half the candy was for herself and the rest for Rosie.
For the dogs, this was the only day they would be allowed to run free every week. Daisy was hairless and brown; Biff, black and lean; Sam, white and overweight; and Pal was a once-friendly mutt abandoned by his owner due to increasing behavioral issues in his old neighborhood some miles away. Gazing out over the vast lawn beyond the high metal fence, each animal longed to race hard over the smooth grass and gets its legs and heart pumping with glee until the fat lady with the strange bark called them back in again.
Mrs. Saunders could hear the dogs woofing and whimpering as the noon hour approached. How could they tell? In the 20 years she had kept abandoned dogs, she had never known a pack that kept track of the time like these ones did. She had half a mind to hold them inside another hour just to see how frustrated they might get. She wasnâ€™t supposed to let them out; there was no leash law but sheâ€™d been told that because her dogs were considered dangerous — otherwise they wouldnâ€™t be hers â€“ not to release any of them at any time. But Mrs. Saunders had a soft spot and understood enough about a dogâ€™s nature to know they needed a few good minutes of solid exercise from time to time. She had been opening the gate for them every Monday before lunch for a few months now and already seen the positive effects on their disposition. And no one had complained. The dogs seemed to know they shouldnâ€™t leave the yard and they never did. They were good dogs, really, and Mrs. Saunders was glad to have them, especially as her husband had died the year before and Daisy, Biff, Sam and Pal were the only family she had.
Dora and her parents rarely saw Mrs. Saunders. The old woman kept to herself and was only occasionally glimpsed at the supermarket behind a shopping cart stacked with canned dog food. People joked that she must also eat the food herself as there was never much else in the cart when she unloaded at the register. She was one of several eccentric women living by themselves nearby and people paid little attention to her comings and goings. Her house looked so gloomy that it was even skipped at Halloween.
Rosie lived next door to Mrs. Saunders and her canines. It wasnâ€™t always clear how many dogs she kept but people always heard a howling uproar if some unsuspecting person tried to turn around in the driveway, for example, or if the dogs hadnâ€™t been fed, they guessed, right on time. Rosieâ€™s mother never let her play on the Saunders side of their house even though a thick wall of cypress blocked the view. She sometimes suggested to Rosieâ€™s father that they move away but he liked their brick ranch and he liked dogs and he said they had nothing to be afraid of. Mrs. Saunders had everything under control.
Doraâ€™s bike wobbled over the pebbles and ruts. She gripped the candy bag in her right hand and the handlebars in her left. Trying to stay upright meant she rode past Rosieâ€™s driveway by mistake and had to turn around and go back. She hopped down, keeping one foot on a pedal and the other on the ground while pushing forward when she saw barking heads and furry legs rushing straight toward her. She jumped back onto the bike and started pedaling as fast as she could. But it was not fast enough. The dogs were suddenly all around her, yapping and growling. One grabbed her leg in its jaws and another took hold of a foot. Still another sunk its teeth into a thigh. They yanked at her until she fell over with the bike on top of her and her bare legs sticking out. She covered her face with her hands while the dogs tore at her limbs and Mrs. Saunders and Rosieâ€™s mother came running over, both shouting at the top of their lungs.
Rosieâ€™s mother started beating the dogs with a stick to make them release the bloody Dora, who was still clutching the candy, but Mrs. Saunders grabbed it away from her and started hitting her over the head with it instead. It wasnâ€™t until Rosie could be heard shrieking from the driveway that Mrs. Saunders seized two of the mongrels by the collar and called for the others to follow her back to the house. They were good dogs, of course, so they did as they were told.