Down by the Riverside
by Rebecca Birch
Mr. and Mrs. Matthews gave me a new mason jar for Christmas. What I really wanted was a dog. My dad had always said that when I was ten he’d get me one, but he’d died when I was eight, and I knew the Matthews’ couldn’t afford a dog, so the jar was the next best thing. I brought it down to the river to try and catch frogs, despite it being too cold really.
I never could stay away from the river. Not even before the day they found my dad face-down in the water, trapped against a fallen tree limb, three fresh-caught fish on the bank where he’d left them. After that, well, there were the frogs of course, but more than that was the weird feeling that maybe at the riverside the hole in my heart where dad used to be was just that little bit more full.
I turned off the path, feet crunching through fallen leaves that had started their change to becoming dirt, and picked my way toward the pebbled shore. The damp, earthy smell my feet kicked up had a sharp edge to it, like snow was hiding just below the surface.
The river ran fast here, but the bed was smooth and the water was a quiet burble so it was easy to hear the skittering of a squirrel in the underbrush and the piping of a wren that should have flown south a month ago. An unfamiliar noise reached my ears from up ahead. Sounded a bit like a beaver sharpening his teeth on a new log for a dam, but I’d seen them do that before and this wasn’t quite the same.
I slowed down and went up on tiptoe. I’d never managed to really move silently, but I did my best, trying to imagine I was Daniel Boone or a Sioux brave stalking his prey.
I snuck up to the wide trunk of a maple tree, my fingers tight on the cool glass of the mason jar. The sound was still going. I hadn’t scared whatever was out there away. From where I hid, I could tell it was at my best frog-catching place, a quiet pool formed at a bend in the river, not far from where they found dad.
For a minute I paused there, leaning my head up against the bark. It could be a beaver. Maybe I just wasn’t remembering the sound right. Beavers weren’t anything to be afraid of. But what if it was something bigger? Bear? I wanted to look, but if it was a predator and it saw me . . .
Curiosity won. I poked my head around the tree.
A little pup sat half on the pebbles, half in the dirt, gnawing what meat was left off someone’s old chicken thigh. A string of Christmas tinsel hung over one droopy ear.
He looked like every one of my Christmas wishes wrapped up in a furry, brown package.
“Hey, you,” I said, coming out from behind the tree. I crouched down and reached for the tinsel. The dog rolled over onto his back and waved his paws. He nipped at my hand, the tiny teeth giving me sharp little tickles. I rubbed behind his ears. The hound melted against the riverbank, tongue lolling and back foot twitching.
“Shouldn’t be diggin’ in folks’ trash,” I said, my mind already racing. This dog was waiting here for me to find. The warm fur under my hand felt righter than a mug of cocoa after a snowball fight. A Christmas miracle.
I was going to need another one on top of it if I was going to be able to keep him.
He rolled back over and set about gnawing on the chicken bone again. “You like to eat, do you? Think I’ll call you Grubber. C’mon with me. I’ll find you a square meal.”
“We can’t keep a dog, Jim.”
Mrs. Matthews wouldn’t look me in the eye. Just kept scrubbing the same plate with suds-water. The kitchen smelled of last night’s green bean casserole and Mr. Matthews’ stale cigarettes. Grubber sat just inside the back door, tail whap-whap-whapping so hard his little bottom nearly wagged his muddy head.
“But he was all alone, Ma’am. An orphan, just like–” I shut my mouth hard. She tried so hard to be a mother to me, it wasn’t right to remind her.
Mrs. Matthews sighed and tucked her hair back of her ear, leaving behind a streak of soapy wetness. She looked down at Grubber, who tilted his head to the side, downhill ear grazing the floor. He blinked those big brown eyes.
“All right. I guess he can stay–”
“Yes!” I jumped and pumped a fist in the air.
“–but just for a few days, Jimmy, until we can find whoever he belongs to. And he stays out in the shed.”
Just a few days stretched into a week and nobody claimed him, despite Mrs. Matthews making me nail hand-scrawled notes on street signs and fence posts and knock on every door in the neighborhood. Every porch brought a lump of fear to my throat, thinking this was going to be it, no more dog, but we made it through, Grubber and me.
Widow Jameson down the road even gave me a bit of money to buy some food for him. Said she hadn’t seen such a sweet hound since she left Kentucky, and his eyes sure reminded her of someone she’d known once. Her brows crinkled a bit when she said that, and she stared at me real hard, like she was trying to read something printed too small.
I didn’t pay much attention at the time, just thanked her proper, like Mrs. Matthews would have wanted, and waved goodbye, Grubber trailing behind me like a roly-poly shadow
The first snow hit a few days later, the wind piling it up in drifts deep enough my feet sank in halfway to my knees, and poor Grubber had to half-swim his way through. Up to that point, I hadn’t worried too much about him spending his nights in the shed, but after Mr. and Mrs. Matthews had gone to bed and I was snuggled under my pile of wool blankets, I couldn’t help but think about my pup out there all by himself. Probably shivering. Maybe his breath would be making little icicles off his nose.
It didn’t take long for me to wrap the whole pile of blankets up like a vagabond’s sack, only almost as big as I was. I carried my shoes down the stairs, so as not to clomp. Even so, I froze halfway down the stairs when Mr. Matthews started coughing, and didn’t move until he finally went quiet again. When I got to the kitchen, I shoved my feet inside the shoes, slipped out the back door, and shivered my way to the shed.
It was nearly black inside, but I could hear Grubber wagging, and I inched toward the sound. Mr. Matthews’ tools were everywhere. “Here, boy,” I whispered.
The little canine body rubbed up against the side of my leg and I bent to give him a pet. My head cracked against something hard. I bit off a cry and fell to my knees. I pressed one hand to my forehead, and felt the warm flow of blood beneath my fingers. The other hand groped to find whatever I’d brained myself on. Fumbling in the dark, I touched a long wooden handle. The wheelbarrow.
I closed my eyes against the pain. Blob-shaped red spots slid across the backs of my eyelids. Blindly, I gathered up the blankets I’d dropped. I’d hurt myself enough times to know to keep pressure on a wound, and the wool would make a good bandage, but I hesitated. If Mrs. Matthews found blood on the blankets, she’d know I’d been up to something. Might ask questions.
Blood was seeping between my fingers by now, slipping down the side of my face. A little whimper escaped from my throat. Now that the moment of reaction had passed, it hurt, and I didn’t have the first idea what I could do to fix it that wouldn’t leave any evidence.
Grubber pressed his head under my elbow, his warm puppy-breath moist against my skin. His whole body trembled, paws going up and down in place, as if he was just as scared as I was.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to believe it. “Just a little bump on the head. Nothing to worry–”
A sharp wave of pain and dizziness washed over me, curling me nearly in two. Grubber yelped, caught between my arm and my pulled-up legs. I toppled onto the packed-dirt floor. My stomach twisted and I thought I might be sick.
Grubber’s tongue slithered between my fingers, lapping at the wound. Where it touched, a cool numbness spread over me. My hand fell away, and the pup slathered my face with damp dog tongue. Between licks, he made quiet little whines, but before long the pain was gone and I wrapped my pup’s shivering body in my arms, tucking the blankets close around us.
I’d intended to be back in my bed before the dawn, but Mrs. Matthews found me the next morning, cocooned in blankets, sleeping with my cheek against Grubber’s head like he was the teddy bear I’d given up when I celebrated my tenth birthday. Of the wound on my head there was no sign, not so much as a bruise. Maybe I’d dreamed it. But I found dried blood caked in Grubber’s fur, from just above his eye and trailing down his right ear.
After that day, there was no more talk of Grubber leaving, just the stern admonition that if I wanted to keep a dog, I’d have to pay for his keep. I still had a little left from Widow Jameson, and before the month was out I’d managed to land the local paper delivery route.
Springtime bloomed with crocuses and the first jays shrieking down by the river. I hadn’t spent so much time there since Grubber arrived. Hadn’t felt the empty place inside so often. It was too full of games of fetch and squirming tummy-rubs and those deep brown eyes that, now that I thought about it, did seem like I’d seen them somewhere before.
But with the sun warm on my back and my barely-used mason jar in my hand, we made our way down to the shore.
Clean air full of the smells of cedar and fresh-growing wildflowers swelled my lungs. Grubber bounded around me, his long, low body a-wriggling, running ahead now and then like he knew the way.
His nose helped me find frogs, but the bouncing and yipping sure didn’t help catch ’em. I didn’t care. Grubber was better than ten jars of frogs.
Spring turned summer, then on to autumn when I raked the leaves, my nearly-grown pup crashing through the piles, sending crackly brown and red leaves flying. Mrs. Matthews still never let him in the house, but she watched us out the kitchen window, and sometimes I caught her smiling. That was good. She didn’t smile much anymore, though I tried to help as much as I could around the house, and spent the evenings reading out loud or playing board games as often as I could. Mr. Matthews’ cough had started to fleck red.
When the trees turned skeletal, Mr. Matthews, whose pain-wracked body had gone nearly as gaunt, went to join his Maker. It was the second time I’d stood beside a grave, watching the dirt fall on someone who’d been a father to me, but this time, I had Mrs. Matthews beside me, her hand so tight on my shoulder that it hurt, and Grubber lying by my feet, head flat on his front paws with his ears drooping so low I was sure he mourned with us.
Two more years passed. Grubber was my shadow. He’d chase after me on my bike when I delivered papers, long ears flapping, pink tongue bouncing out the side of his mouth. When I got back from school in the afternoons he was always waiting for me with a stick in his mouth, begging for a game, or dragging me out the back of the property onto the path to the river.
Mrs. Matthews kept going best she could, but even I noticed how thin and sunken she grew, all pinched and pale.
One morning, when I got home from my paper route, I found her collapsed in the kitchen. Managed to get her up the stairs and into bed, but she burned hotter than summer asphalt and her breaths came fast and shallow.
Doc Bennett came and left some pills and said he’d be back to check on her in the morning, but I saw him shaking his head when he left, the same head-shake he’d used before Mr. Matthews passed. I tried to cool her with damp rags, like she’d done so many times for me, but by the time night fell she could hardly sip the water I spooned for her.
Outside, Grubber whimpered and scratched at the front door. I gnawed on the inside of my cheek. I couldn’t leave Mrs. Matthews, and I knew her rules.
She rolled her head, listening, and licked her lips. Swallowed. “It’s all right, Jimmy,” she said, her voice a thin rasp. “Let him in.”
I stumbled down the stairs, undid the latch, and opened the door. Grubber hesitated in the threshold, one paw hovering just over the hardwood floorboards. He tilted his head and looked up at me with those dark eyes, a questioning look on his face.
I knelt in front of him and wrapped my arms around him, burying my face in his neck, and suddenly all the fear wasn’t only mine to bear. “I don’t know what to do,” I whispered, my lashes catching in his fur. “She’s so sick, and I don’t–”
Grubber put a paw on my knee, twisted his head to lick my neck, then pulled free of my embrace and headed up the stairs like he knew just where he was going. I followed behind him, clinging to the rail for balance. He reached Mrs. Matthews’ room and leapt straight into the bed beside her, burrowing his nose beside her neck. She laid a weak hand on his flank.
I settled myself in the chair at the bedside and took up my damp rag, running it over her brow time and again. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open.
Grubber licked his upper lip, catching my attention. He stared at me as if to say he had this, and I could rest now. I’d never seen a look like that from a dog before. It conjured a memory from a time I could barely remember. From the days just before my mother had died. When my father had promised me that everything would be all right, no matter if she lived or died. He’d take care of things. He’d take care of me.
Despite myself, I drifted in and out of sleep in the chair beside her bed.
Sometime in the night, I thought I heard Mrs. Matthews talking in broken gasps. “I fought so hard . . . loved him like he was my own. But it’s not enough . . . He’ll be all alone again.”
A canine whine followed, and the sound of a long pink tongue giving a loving slurp.
When the sun rose, Mrs. Matthews touched my leg. “Jimmy?”
Her skin was cool, eyes bright. Grubber lay unmoving at her side.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, running a finger over his head. “He just stopped breathing . . . I don’t understand.”
Tears slid down my cheeks, a jumbled mix of sorrow and joy, because I did understand. Grubber had been my miracle. The delight of a young boy’s heart, and the guardian to fulfill my father’s promise to watch over me.
We buried him down by the river to the music of a chorus of frogs. I made a cross from two of his favorite fetch sticks and Mrs. Matthews draped a wreath of daisies over it.
We stood in silence for a while, then she reached over and touched the back of my shoulder. When had I grown so tall?
“We’ll be all right, you know,” she said. “We’ve still got each other.”
I managed a smile. “Yes, Ma’am. That we do.”
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, Flash Fiction Online, and previously in Abyss & Apex (as Rebecca Willman). She has also been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.