I am pleased to say that Sarah was one of the original attendees when I hosted writers’ workshops and meetups on the left side of The Pond, in Oceanside, California. Sarah went on to have her first novel accepted by a mainstream publisher, as did her fellow attendee Sally Pla. If you are feeling at all international, sign up (free) on our FB page “Positively Prague.” I am now hosting meetups in the Czech Republic.
Here is Sarah’s work-in-progress
The Facebook post said, “If these dogs aren’t gone by tomorrow, I’ll have to shoot them.” The blunt threat caused a jolt in my stomach and I knew that the poster, “FarmerFran,” was serious. Her profile photo showed her to be a grey-haired woman in overalls with her hand on the flank of a huge black cow. Behind her a chihuahua sat on the dirt of the cow pen, gazing up at Fran with soft puppy eyes. Certainly this couldn’t be one of the dogs she was promising to kill.
I scrolled through the comments: “Fran, you’re a terrible person.” “Why don’t you have a heart and take the dogs in?” “Animal abuser!” Within the comment stream Fran had posted a shot of the dogs. Both were tan with black markings, about forty pounds, with ribs protruding, lying in a heap under a tree. FarmerFran had written the caption: “They keep eating my chickens.”
Fran’s post was on a page run by a Northern Michigan dog shelter, one that was at least one-hundred miles south of Fran’s remote farm, which was close to the upper peninsula. Along with incensed people posting vitriol about Fran, the shelter staff responded too, asking for someone, anyone, to drive out and pick up the dogs. They said if someone could bring the dogs to the shelter, they would foster them or get them adopted.
I’m a dog lover and back then, in nineteen-ninety-seven when I was eighteen years old, I was an advocate for lost or abandoned dogs in my area. It was not unusual for me to spend my Saturdays rounding up strays, or volunteering at the local humane group, walking and feeding dogs. My parents had never allowed my brother and me to have dogs of our own, so I found ways to be around other dogs. I’d go to the local dog park and “sneak pet” any friendly dog that came up to me. I considered it “sneaking” because I figured the dog owners didn’t realize I was there just for the chance to pet a pup and for no other reason. I thought they might think it was creepy that a young woman snuck pets of their dogs and didn’t have a dog of her own.
Instead of posting something online in response to FarmerFran, I called my friend at the local shelter where I’d volunteered. But there was no answer, just a message explaining that they’d shut their doors due to a lack of funding and dearth of volunteers. My heart sank. If I drove to FarmerFran’s to get the dogs, where could I take them? Would I need to drive two-hundred round-trip miles to the shelter that offered to take them? And did I have time to do that between my waitress shifts at Jack’s Whitefish Diner? I couldn’t afford to miss work. With school starting in a month down at Kalamazoo College, I needed all the spending money I could make. My parents would pay for tuition, and I had a small scholarship, but I’d need to pay my living expenses. That was the deal my folks struck with my brother John and me. It’s not that they couldn’t afford to pay for everything, but they wanted us to learn the value of money and believed we’d get more out of college if we had to work for it.
I parsed out the time it would take to drive to FarmerFran’s, retrieve the dogs, drive the hundred miles to the shelter that agreed to take them, drive back and get to work. It would take at least six hours with potty stops, and that would be tight. But I had no other choice. No one else on Facebook made a serious offer to help.
When I drove up FarmerFran’s driveway I held my breath so I wouldn’t choke on the dirt flying around. Milkweed was tall on both sides of the drive and I braked to avoid hitting a chipmunk that scrambled across my path. A thick forest loomed ahead of me, and off to its right, a scattering of wood buildings that looked badly in need of repair. The biggest one was Fran’s house I assumed, a two-story A-frame with dusty windows and leaves strewn across the porch. I parked in the gravel driveway and started toward the front door.
“Stop where you are.” A woman’s low growl rumbled out from behind the door. “Whaddya want?” The words were followed by a thump, wood on wood, the butt of a gun hitting the floor, a sound I knew well.
The door cracked open and I saw someone move, but I stayed put. “I’m here about the dogs,” I said, directing my voice toward the slit in the door. “I’ll take them.”
“Oh you will? They’re out back tormenting my chickens. Go ahead and get ‘em,” said the gruff voice. The door clunked shut.
I went to my car to retrieve the gentle snares I’d brought along. I hoped I could catch the two dogs easily enough and get them into the kennels I’d loaded into the back of my Jeep. I prayed they’d be calm on the drive to the shelter and was ready with plenty of treats and water. I was spooked by the unfriendly woman but I was on a mission to rescue the dogs so I headed to the back of her house.
The chicken coop was in a sad state, with broken panels and screens full of holes, but I could hear clucking and scratching so I knew this must be where the dogs were, probably lurking in wait. And then I saw them, the two skeletal tan dogs, panting in the shade of the coop, lying side by side.
“Hey doggies,” I called. “Over here.”
I held out a couple of sausage treats hoping the smell would lure them to me. They both lifted their noses in the air, but neither one made a move as if to stand. I stepped closer, still twenty or so feet from them, and in the blink of an eye, one of them lunged toward me, teeth bared, snarling. A thunderous BOOM crashed through my ears and the dog fell with a dusty thump on the ground. I froze, unsure what had happened, my heart pounding.
Sarah Z. Sleeper’s novel, Gaijin, debuted in 2020 to glowing reviews. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink and others, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-year career as a business and technology writer and won three journalism awards. She lives in Rancho Santa Fe, California, with her husband, two dogs and a cat. Her daughter, Vivian, is in college in Boston. Sarah is hard at work on her second novel.
Ahhh! That charming smile I well remember!