When the dogs took to bikes, it was a not-quite winter, not-quite spring day in our central Florida subdivision, and the retention ponds lay low and stagnant from lack of rain. Mindy Maletski watched from her window as two vultures fought over a possum’s entrails atop the dirty roof of Jill Niver’s house. Watched and thought: leave it to Jill to have a brand-new car in her driveway and moss on her shingles. Minutes later, a black & tan Siberian Husky pedaled by on an orange mountain bike.
As Mindy tended toward exaggeration, none of us really believed her claims, not until later that week, when Jill’s seven-year-old was playing on the sidewalk and nearly got struck by a dog on a recumbent tricycle. More sightings followed.
These dogs weren’t playful or cute. They did not perform tricks or wag tails. These were not dogs that liked to be petted, even the short-faced ones who zipped around on ice-cream colored beach-cruisers. Greta Lance was the first neighbor to make that mistake.
None of us knew where the dogs had come from.
Scott Casey, who’d given up real estate for a job in retail, thought it had something to do with all the vacant houses. Folks had simply given up their neighborhood to the dogs. That was just one of the theories raised at the emergency homeowner’s-association meeting convened in Mindy’s living room, where a life-sized photograph of her late husband, Ed (himself a 12-term HOA president), hung on the wall.
Jill thought it was an advertising stunt put on by one of the local bike shops, while Bud Troxell suspected a leak from the nuclear power plant six miles away. Daphne Lagos was sure she could trace it back to the arrival of a young lesbian couple in her cul-de-sac, a certain moral decline that appeared to be coming to a swollen, pus-filled head.
A few shrugged and said they didn’t mind the dogs. Alexa Patterson, who worked out of her home as a massage therapist, said they gave her clients something interesting to look at. To which Mindy replied: “You get the neighborhood you deserve.”
There was also in our subdivision a boy and a girl in love. Next-door neighbors, they often met in the abandoned treehouse in the woods behind their homes, the same woods where—unbeknownst to most of us—the dogs dismounted their bikes and slept in softly-snoring packs among the dry leaves.
“This is what our love makes,” the girl said.
“Impossible things possible,” added the boy, and with his finger, he traced a heart on her belly.
We got letters in our mailboxes, notices typed on brittle onionskin announcing the formation of a dog-led homeowner’s association. Apparently, the bicycling dogs did not like certain things: Personalized paving stones. Garden gnomes and tree faces. Lawns cut shorter than 5 1/2 inches. In lieu of the quarterly HOA dues, beef bones were to be left in mailboxes on alternate Thursdays.
This was followed by another letter warning that the first was a hoax committed by Arnold Crouch, who possessed a vintage typewriter and a grudge against the HOA. “However, neighbors are advised to keep their own dogs on leashes or locked up, as we are now working with Animal Control and ANY AND ALL dogs found at large will be impounded!”
But to Mindy’s growing frustration, the bike-riding dogs never seemed to be around when the white van turned into their subdivision.
The dogs now rode in packs of ten or twelve, looping around the block at odd hours of the day and night.
“Our love has grown,” said the boy. He pointed to a heavy-eyed Golden retriever with one ear pressed to the ground, moments from sleep. “I think he’s named Alistair.”
“Definitely not a Chewie or Fluffy,” said the girl. “They’re too dignified for nicknames.”
The boy, who had a tendency to fret, asked, “If we stopped loving each other, would the dogs go away?”
She thought for a moment. “Probably they would.”
“What if just one of us stopped loving?”
“Maybe there’d be half as many dogs.”
This made the boy and girl sad, so they went back to naming: Marisol. Balthazar. Colette. Franz.
Mindy was out for a walk one afternoon when she saw Alexa Patterson hefting four sacks of dog food from her car—and she didn’t even own a pet. That seemed awfully suspicious. So she snuck into Alexa’s backyard that night and watched, with a righteous shudder, as her neighbor filled a kiddie pool with the garden hose and laid out two-dozen shiny steel bowls across the grass.
Even if Alexa didn’t start this, she was aiding and abetting. That much was clear. Before taking any official action, Mindy decided to pay her a friendly visit. She stood on the woman’s doorstep the next day with a generous sack full of crookneck squash from her garden. “These are for you,” said Mindy, “and we have a little problem on our hands.”
“Correction,” said Alexa. “You have the problem.” She grabbed the squash and slammed the door.
Now let me say that we prided ourselves on being a friendly neighborhood. We held a block party each year and gave each other yard-care advice. We shared babysitters, tools, and even extra produce. But Alexa had stepped over the line.
When she repeatedly ignored the cease-and-desist notices, we were left with no choice but to make her life miserable, whether that meant keying her car, smearing her front door with dog shit, or writing “Monster Lover” in acid on her lawn. It took a while, but we knew our diligence had paid off when the moving van pulled away from Alexa’s.
The dogs kept riding.
The boy and the girl held hands one afternoon while the dogs slept on the ground below them, paws twitching, letting out the occasional heavy sigh.
“They look so peaceful,” said the girl. “I wonder what they dream about.”
“Mathematics. Maybe sailing adventures. Who knows?” The boy turned to her. “I’d like to watch you sleep sometime.”
“I don’t think I could. Fall asleep with you watching.”
This hurt him just a little. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course,” she said, feeling just a little distrustful. “But I’d think I was missing out on something if I were asleep and you weren’t.” They kissed until those feelings went away.
Despite our best efforts there were more dogs than ever, on stripped-down messenger bikes, lowriders, and hybrids with bulky panniers, bikes with banana seats and faded Baltimore Colts stickers, commuters with an all-chrome finish, each customized to fit the size and shape of its rider.
We scattered nails on the sidewalks, but the dogs took to the streets.
We jackhammered holes in the asphalt, but they swerved around them.
We set bonfires, but they dodged the flames.
Mindy gazed at her dead husband’s picture one night after drinking half a bottle of peach Schnapps and said, “We’re working towards something, but I don’t know what.”
Startled by a sudden rumble and clink from her icemaker, she threw her hand over her chest. “Edward—is that you, dear?”
Several ice cubes fell out and smacked the kitchen tile.
The next morning Mindy awoke with a splitting headache and a new clarity of purpose. “The dogs,” she announced, “must be destroyed.”
As a first step, the neighborhood tot-lot was condemned, the swings pulled down and a watchtower built in their place. We took turns counting ride-bys, recording them in a logbook with time of day, weather, and lunar phase.
On Jill Niver’s first shift she counted 17 dogs, including a piebald collie making quite a statement on its emerald green electric road bike. But when she briefly looked away to check for phone messages, all the dogs seemed to have disappeared. She scanned the neighborhood with her binoculars, peering into the surrounding backyards and woods.
What she saw was a boy and a girl emerging from a tree house. They were not quite naked, but not quite dressed either. They climbed down the tree and appeared to arrange blankets over some rocks, but those were not rocks at all! They were the sides of 17 sleeping dogs.
“Do you understand the risks you’ve taken?” the boy and the girl were asked.
They shook their heads.
The parents loved the boy and the girl, so they confined them to their rooms while others of us burned down the woods, treehouse and all. It was unclear if any dogs were consumed by the flames, because the next day there were just as many circling the neighborhood.
Next, the boy’s and girl’s phones and computers were taken away, but their bedroom windows faced each other, so they learned to communicate through sign language. Because they weren’t very good at it, it took a long time to say much of anything.
“They not stop us,” the girl signed. She picked up her binoculars and waited.
“You more beautiful,” the boy signed back.
Nine men among us agreed to take up arms and patrol the neighborhood. Not to be outdone, Mindy dusted off her husband’s shotgun and joined them. Practice drills were held on Saturdays, and hunts scheduled, with notices sent to neighbors about when to stay in their houses. A few among us wondered if we couldn’t just live with the dogs. But then we remembered Alexa.
Ever since he joined the patrol, Scott Casey had been consumed by a certain erotic fantasy, in which he narrowly saved his wife from an attack by the cycling dogs. He thought about her thankfulness in the shower, on his commute, and even between tall boxes in the furniture-store warehouse, which had a negative impact on his sales.
But when he dreamed, it was another matter, as the dogs tore into his wife’s flesh while he lay there, paralyzed, night after night. Did he really wish for these things to happen? No, of course not. If there was anything that Scott was sure of—and there wasn’t much—it was the fact that he loved his wife. He spent more time at target practice.
It was a time of flux in our neighborhood. Some moved out. We won’t presume to judge their motives or constitutions. Spouse left spouse. Retirees admitted themselves into nursing homes, and a few singles went back to apartments across town. When the girl’s parents discovered her binoculars and diary, they sent her away to live with distant relatives. “It is plainly a bud,” said the father. “And we are nipping it for her own good.”
The girl wrote to the boy: “I am learning how to harvest cranberries with my cousins in northern Maine. It’s very cold here, but thoughts of you keep me warm.”
To which he swiftly replied: “I miss your lovely shoulders and that scar on your index finger and the charming, if lopsided, way you chew gum. Did you know that according to ancient Phoenician legend, the color purple was discovered by a dog when it bit into a Murex on the beach and stained its tongue?” His letter went on for four pages, recounting facts gleaned from a set of 1937 Encyclopaedia Britannicas his parents picked up at a yard sale for his homeschooling.
The girl’s letters were more succinct, stained pink at the edges: “Cranberries used to be called craneberries,” she wrote. “They were probably given this name because their blossoms look like the coloring of sandhill cranes. Hope you’re well.”
All the departures from our subdivision meant more abandoned houses. The patrols had to make sure that no dogs or teenagers—or worse, dogs and teenagers—were squatting there. It was a lot to oversee. “Some days I don’t know how I do it,” Mindy confided to the icemaker.
Meanwhile, Scott’s nightmares had started seeping into his daytime fantasies. He couldn’t stop crying whenever he thought about the dogs setting upon his wife, how she’d call out for help and no one would come. It was creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for everyone at the furniture store, the manager told him when she let him go. This gave Scott more time to pull shifts on the tower.
He was sitting up there one afternoon, his AR-15 set and ready, when the thought of his wife under attack came over him again, causing his eyes to water and his hands to shake. At 1615 hours, in the northeast quadrant of the neighborhood, he spotted what appeared to be a gang of dogs pedaling straight toward a long figure lying on the pavement. This was what he was waiting for. He would not stand by. He would not. He would not.
Three of the bicycling dogs were killed that day, and Jill Niver’s seven-year-old, who’d attempted to join them on her single-speed with glitter-pink handlebar streamers, was left with a hole in her lung.
“Is this the price we must pay to be safe?” Mindy asked when she came home from the candlelight vigil on the Nivers’ lawn.
The icemaker said yes.
Much to our relief, the girl survived after a week and a half in the hospital, but Scott Casey spent most of his time afterward in the fetal position, with a pillow tucked between his knees. His wife took his place on the watchtower, though he begged her not to.
Around this time another theory began to emerge that our own pet dogs—and those of neighboring subdivisions—were mutating into these pedaling monsters. In recent years, several pets in the subdivision had gone missing. Bud Troxell claimed he’d sighted one neighbor’s previously loyal Weimeraner on a vintage, wood-rimmed bike. One of many claims.
We knew what this meant. What had to be prevented.
Our own dogs went quietly and trustingly to their fates, even as we loaded our guns, crushed sleeping pills into their liver paste, or left them in running cars in our garages. We did these things at night so we wouldn’t give our children bad dreams, for we were not callous, and we loved our children. Above all, we loved our children.
In one week there were 32 backyard burials, 19 tales of puppy heaven, and 30 new pets—hamsters, rabbits, goldfish, and, in a desperate moment, one ravenous Eastern lubber grasshopper snatched off a backyard fence and presented to the bereaved child in an empty salad-greens container.
All of this is not to say there were no rebels among us. Some of us hid our dogs, letting them out at dusk and dawn to relieve themselves in the parched grass before being whisked back to muffled rooms to gnaw anxiously on our antique furniture. The HOA tried to find out who those people were, who’d stopped posting on the message board, who shirked their duties on the tower. It was hard to know who to trust.
The boy hadn’t heard from the girl in a while, so he wrote to her: “The striped sailor shirt became the official undergarment of the French navy in 1858, though it’s said to date back to the late eighteenth century. It features 21 white and 21 blue stripes, with some theories attributing the number to Napoleonic victories against the British,” He concluded ten pages later, “Won’t you please write back soon? I miss you incredibly.”
To which the girl replied: “Each cranberry must bounce seven times to be sold in the market. All Best—”
“I’m going to apply to college in upstate Maine,” he wrote. “I’ll search every cranberry bog til I find your bouncing berries.” He thought this was clever.
The boy waited weeks. Heard nothing.
The annual block party was cancelled. Our mail sat in our boxes, while leaves fell and collected on our lawns. But we managed. We diagnosed our own illnesses, grew our own food, taught our own kids. It was difficult work, but we knew what we had to do.
Feeling sorry for the boy and growing fatigued with the day-to-day reality of homeschooling, his parents finally decided to allow him back on his computer. He earned his high school degree online in half the usual time and began to apply to colleges.
The boy could not say when, exactly, he fell out of love, for it happened in increments he couldn’t measure, but there it was one day: He looked in the mirror and said, “I am no longer a boy in love. I am a young man who knows everything there is to know about the British canning industry and the Anglo-Zanzibar War. I am charting a new destiny. But my pants are two sizes too short.”
None of us could say when the dogs began to disappear either, though later, some claimed to notice a certain slump in their withers, an air of sheepishness about the act of bike-riding. Maybe so and maybe not. Our eyes played tricks on all of us in those days. And then, after so long a drought, came the torrents of rain and wind which kept even the stalwarts off the watchtower.
Mindy tried to keep the HOA active through the online message board, but it was not the same as when the group met in her living-room. And there was little point in her friendly reminders to keep trash cans off driveways or tend to the crab grass when no one went outside anymore. There seemed to be little point in any of it. On the night her icemaker broke, she bent by its side and cried, “Where are you, Ed?”
The next morning, the streets were empty—the neighborhood silent except for the coo of mourning doves. Mindy watched from her window as she drank her coffee, and not a single dog or bike went by. She waited for an hour, then two and five. She went online and typed, “It is time to come out.”
Some of us wouldn’t leave our houses—not for weeks after Mindy’s announcement. We didn’t believe it. Others cautiously opened their front doors and peeked out, squinting into the sun. We stumbled down our driveways in wrinkled clothes, exchanged awkward waves, and made self-conscious jokes about the tall weeds on our lawns.
The boy walked out in his too-short pants and went to the mailbox, where he found, in a stack of grocery circulars and credit-card offers, an acceptance letter from a university in Maine. He laughed at this because he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to college now. He laughed again, and leaving the mail where he’d found it, walked away.