This story is by Day Howell and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Paddlefoot shifts his weight from one large, hairy paw to the other as Will finishes tying his shoes. As he stands up and reaches for his ball cap, the dog spins in an excited circle and presses his nose against the crack of the kitchen door, tail wagging furiously.
The day is warm, the sky cloudless for the first time in a week. As Spring gives way to Summer in Christmas Valley, the rains can keep a boy and his dog inside long enough to incite a rebellion.
Will swings the door open, freeing them from their prison. Paddlefoot runs ahead, nose to the ground until he finds a suitable stick which he brings back and dutifully drops at Will’s feet. As is customary, Will picks up the soggy stick, fakes left and lobs right, sending the oversized black and brown dog bounding through the wet grass after it. Will and Paddlefoot spend most of Summer vacation playing this game of fetch, building forts and swimming in the catfish pond at the lower end of the cow pasture.
Will’s Mom steps out the screen door and reminds him to be back at the house by the time his grandmother arrives to visit. “She’s coming to see you, Mr.!” she yells at his back. He turns and gives her the affirmative two thumbs up.
She can’t expect him to pass up a sunny day after spending a week playing board games and piecing together jigsaw puzzles. He’ll be back in plenty of time to visit with his grandma and eat a half dozen of the homemade oatmeal cookies she always brings. But right now, he and Paddlefoot are making the loop; along the curve of the county road, down to the bridge that crosses Dry Creek, then through the dense trees that follow the canal to the diversion dam at the far end of their farm. Finally, back along the fence line to the barn.
As they make their way down the lane to the county road, no mud puddle is left untouched. By the time they cross the road and slip under the fence into the pasture, they are covered in sticky, brown mud.
The air is full of the sweet scent of the Russian Olive trees that stand between the road and the pasture. The grass is wet from the days of rain, but the sun is warm on Will’s back as he makes his way down the path toward the bridge.
Paddlefoot has cornered his first cottontail of the day and is digging furiously at a hole in the ground. Will watches the dog; butt up in the air, nose down at the ground, tail wagging. Even though he has never caught a rabbit, finding and chasing them is still the most exciting thing in the world to him.
As they cross the wooden bridge at Dry Creek, Will remembers the day Paddlefoot showed up at his house. He was skinny. He walked into their yard and laid down next to the porch steps. He belonged to a family who’d been renting a place a couple of miles away. Will had seen him riding in the back of their pickup truck a few times, tail wagging, tongue hanging out, barking wildly as they passed. By the time the dog had found his way to Will’s house, he’d been on his own for a couple of weeks. The people had moved away and just left him there. Will figured that Paddlefoot had waited for them until he got so hungry he had given up and came looking for food. That was three years ago when Will was in second grade. He’d fought hard to be able to keep Paddlefoot. After days of promising to take care of this giant dog, and clean up after him, his parents had agreed to let him stay. Will wondered sometimes if Paddlefoot ever thought about his first family; if maybe he wondered what he’d done wrong.
As they make their way up the bank to the road that snakes along the canal, Will stops for a moment to watch the water. The week of rain has made it run dirty and fast. Throughout the Summer months, Will and his dad come down and open the many head gates to let water flow into the irrigation ditches that cut through their pastures. On rare occasions, toward the end of the summer, when the water is low, Will and his friend Chris are allowed to float down the canal on inner tubes. Will could tell this was not one of his mom’s favorite activities. But, his dad had pointed out that if they were to capsize, the water was so low that they could just stand up. She still didn’t look happy. But she had relented.
As Will approaches the head gate, he can see that it’s being held open by some branches and weeds that are stuck in it. Gingerly, he steps down the bank toward the gate and pulls on the largest branch. It is really stuck in there. He steps down further, putting one foot in the murky water, while hanging on to the wood and metal gate. Soon, he’s waist deep in the water pulling branches out of the culvert that runs from the canal under the ditch bank into the smaller irrigation ditch on the other side. Paddlefoot, seeming to know this is not a good idea, sits on the ditch bank whining insistently at Will. Without warning, the remaining blockage breaks loose and a rush of water sweeps Will into the culvert.
Complete darkness and shockingly cold water, surround him, pushing him through the metal culvert, to the grate on the other side. He’s being pressed hard against the metal bars and the knot of sticks and debris that is caught against it. Knowing that this grate opens like double doors, he grabs onto the rusty bars and pushes with everything he has in him. It doesn’t budge. His lungs on fire, his head pounding, he tries to get to the top of the culvert where there might be air. There’s no air, just more water. Again, the surging water forces him against the grate. This grate has to open. He can’t go back the other way. Will braces himself on the side of the metal walls and pushes hard on the rusty bars. It’s like pushing on a block wall.
The reality of his situation is beginning to settle on him. He imagines his mom watching the lane for the sight of him and Paddlefoot. He thinks about how she’ll start out being mad that he’s late and then when he still doesn’t come home, how worried she and his dad will be and how they will look for him everywhere until they see Paddlefoot sitting up there on the ditch bank, waiting.
He can’t let that happen. He shakes the grate, kicks it with his feet. It’s solid. Not a hint of movement. Will thinks of Paddlefoot up on the ditch bank above him, and hates the thought of being another person that just up and leaves that dog behind. The water swirls around him, pummeling him with sticks and wrapping weeds around his face.
He would have been in the fifth grade this year. His teacher would have been Mr. McConnell. They did Oregon History in fifth grade. He would have learned about the history of the Oregon Trail. They would have taken field trips to visit parts of the actual trail the Lewis and Clark traveled.
His head pounds like the bass drum at the high school football games he’ll never attend again. He shakes the grate as hard as he can, shaking himself more than the grate. It is defiant. It is winning.
His mind is finally grasping what’s happening. So, this is it, then, he thinks. On this beautiful Spring turning to Summer day. This is the day I die. Will lets go of the bars, and surrenders to the outcome. He is losing the images of his mom and dad. Losing the image of that big, crazy dog with the paws like paddles. He surrenders and waits for the moment he can’t hold his breath any longer.
And in that moment, as his mind surrenders and his body relaxes, the water slows and as if by magic, the grate opens. A surge of water carries Will out into the bright sunlight and the shallow water of the irrigation ditch.
His first ragged breath is deep and labored. It feels as if his lungs won’t accept the air. Blackness is threatening to take him over. His head is heavy and his chest is burning. Paddlefoot is covering him in dog slobber.
Coughing and wheezing, Will turns to see who opened the gate. No one is there. Trying to make sense of it, Will lays on his back in the warm sun for a long while, with his big, crazy dog laying quietly, almost reverently by his side.
As the sun starts to get low in the sky, Will and Paddlefoot head for home. Will’s legs feel rubbery and he shivers even though he’s almost completely dry. Paddlefoot is subdued; no longer on the hunt for rabbits, but walking right at Will’s side as they cross back over the bridge at Dry Creek and along the pasture toward the barn. When the house comes into sight, they pause, seeing it through different eyes.
There will be oatmeal cookies waiting. And fifth grade in Mr. McConnell’s class, Oregon History, and field trips to the actual Oregon Trail.
Years from now when Will recounts this story, there will be a certain, far off look in his eye as he wonders aloud about what exactly might have happened that day he was stuck in the culvert. He’ll swear to the power of the love between a boy and his dog, and the magic in the surrender.