Ben Walters knelt to touch the half-moon of ice, solid in the plastic water bowl. Woodrow—his tail slapping—nuzzled the boy inside the pen and whimpered loneliness. The kibble, when Ben dropped it from the bag, made a rustling sound in the food dish. Ben, fifteen and slight enough to be swaying in the cold wind, squinted toward the driveway, his father’s pickup covered with snow. It was the boy’s solemn hope that the truck would soon head out and make it possible to put down unfrozen water for Woodrow inside the kitchen.
And when the truck finally did cough away—his dad was headed out to the store—Ben went through the kitchen door and passed from cold to warm to lingering bacon smells, Woodrow’s paws making their clicky-clicky sounds on the floor.
“There better not be any leg lifting,” his mom said at the sink, not turning.
Ben, sitting, fended off nose pokes and pink licks. Then he closed his eyes at the table and listened to the breakfast dishes getting rinsed and placed in the dishwasher. He smelled cigarette smoke. He pictured the cigarette hanging off the corner of his mother’s mouth, the ash gathering or maybe dropping of its own accord.
“You sitting all day?” his mother asked. “That’s your plan just cause school got canceled.”
“You know there’s shoveling.”
“I just woke.”
He hadn’t realized his mother had stepped closer until she kicked him lightly. His eyes came open and he saw filaments of her loose hair illuminated in the snowy window light.
“Get to it,” she said.
So he did. He shoveled the driveway while Woodrow ran circles around him, eating snow. And as he worked, his thoughts drifted, first to his brother, Danny—taller than their father—in his uniform now at Fort Sill, in faraway Oklahoma. Danny hadn’t even made it home for Christmas. And then he thought about Lee Ann. About their meeting most days over the summer at the outdoor pool in Metzger Park. About her body smelling of chlorine, her dark hair slicked back and straight as a line. Though by September it was like switching off a light. And these days, school consisted of little more than sitting at a desk while words only teachers could care about floated past. Or watching Lee Ann holding hands with Fred Markham in the hall. Or lying in bed at night and thinking about his father not allowing Woodrow in the house, and Woodrow sleeping in his pen on wadded up newspapers to keep him warm, and Woodrow waiting for Ben to come outside and step into his pen.
When the shoveling was nearly done, Ben began wondering about maybe hiking over to Mark’s house. It would take maybe a half hour through the heavy snow, but they could play Fortnite or Ring of Elysium. Ben shoveled faster at the thought, and Woodrow, excited by the increased pace, started play-biting the shovel blade.
Then, suddenly, the dog lifted both his nose and the triangles of his ears. He stood still for a moment, then took off running toward the back woods.
“Where you going?” Ben called out. “Stop!”
The boy jogged after Woodrow through the snow. The deer path led over fallen logs and tangles into a dense collection of trees, then down toward the Corbin River. This time of year, ice covered the water and snow covered the ice. Woodrow, to his left now, was offering short coughs of barks and heavy growls by the frozen water. Then Ben saw it—the big raccoon had something wrong with its back legs. Not dragging them but almost. A fat thing, puffed up with its winter coat, its bandit eyes wary, menacing. Woodrow appeared light on his feet, even in the snow, darting closer then darting back.
“Come here!” Ben shouted. “Come back here, Boy!”
Ben lunged and almost got Woodrow’s collar before the dog slipped away and shot forward once again, the raccoon backing up two steps. Even with its bad legs, the animal was quick and hissing. Then the bodies collided, swirled. Woodrow yelped. High and loud in the heavy snow. Ben had the collar, then, and gripped it tightly. He yanked. Yanked. Woodrow was all tensed muscles and growls as the retreating creature scurried off through the snow.
“Quit, Woodrow! Quit.”
The gash—when Ben got Woodrow back inside the house—was visible in the overhead kitchen light. Ben knelt with a wet, soapy wad of paper towel. He dabbed the spot, the red turning pink as it was watered down. The wound was just above Woodrow’s right front leg. In the chest. A little jagged lightning strike.
“Don’t lick the soap,” Ben kept saying, his hands shaky. He hugged Woodrow’s neck and got side licked on his face.
The boy, once the blood stopped, phoned his mother on his cell phone. She’d left for work before he’d gotten the drive half shoveled.
He said, “You got to come home, Mom. It’s Woodrow.”
“I’m working, Benny. You know that. Some of us don’t get time out for snow.”
“I mean it, come home.”
“Woodrow needs a vet.”
“Raccoon bit him. He bled all over the snow. It’s on his chest.”
There was a short pause. “You wash it?”
“I did, but Woodrow keeps licking off the soap.”
“Call your dad then. He’s the one not working today.”
“But Mom,” Ben said.
“What did I just say?”
“He won’t come home for this.”
“He might surprise you.”
“But Woodrow got bit, Mom.”
“Then call your dad.”
So what choice was there? And as Ben waited for his father to return home, he started wishing extra hard that Danny was there. His brother had had the knack of making things less dire. He could even get their parents to do things sometimes, things they didn’t want to do. And then he thought about Lee Ann. And then he thought about how he wished he was over at Mark’s house. And he patted Woodrow on top of his head and allowed himself some dark thoughts about his parents, though mostly about his father, who had supposedly just gone to the gas station and the convenience store so should have been back a long time ago.
And when he did return home, he stepped out of his truck with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand. He had a big bag of Cheetos in the other. He was thick across the chest like the bow of a boat, his hands large, his hair shorn close. He glanced toward Woodrow back in his pen, unimpressed. His opinions about dogs were no mystery.
“Looks fine to me,” he said. “He’s got enough energy to be barking.”
“That raccoon was rabid.”
“You can’t know, Ben.”
“I looked it up. He can die, Dad. Really.”
“From a scratch. I doubt it.”
“What, you Bill Gates now?”
“I got money.”
“Please. I don’t want him to die.”
It started snowing once more as they headed out, Ben with Woodrow in the truck’s back bed, little moths of snow darting across the air like miniature missiles. Woodrow was breathing heavily but happily, his tongue out as they bounced over the railroad tracks then sped across the snow-swept and mostly empty roads. Drifting snow lifted from the barren fields. And far back from the road, veils of white rose and danced like wraiths before falling back to earth while the meanspirited winds kept whining.
Drake Veterinary, on Denton Road, was on the far outskirts of Tipton Forks. It was a low slung and nondescript limestone building, weathered with the years. The glass doors were stubborn to open from the suck of the wind.
The vet cleaned the gash with something with a strong smell. Then he put on the antibiotic ointment, Woodrow licking at his hands. Then came the vaccine booster shot. Woodrow’s black nose darted forward like he contemplated biting, his body attempting to draw away and escape the needle.
“Just keep it clean if you can,” the vet said. “He’ll be fine. It should teach him to steer clear of raccoons. If he’s smart.” The man’s eyes were gray, his white eyebrows unruly. “It didn’t get you—did it?”
“Good. You’d need more than a booster.”
The vet wrote something on a clipboard then started to walk out the back of the cubicle. Then he turned over his shoulder to say, “You get it?”
“You shoot it?”
The man shrugged. “No matter. It will be dead soon.”
The back bed on the truck was just as cold on the way home as on the way out. Ben slid and slipped, nearly toppling on the turns, holding on with one hand and gripping Woodrow’s collar with the other. In the straight stretches, he closed his eyes, buffeted in the bitter blowing. And he ran through his usual litany of thoughts. First Danny. Then Lee Ann. Then his few friends. Then how neither his mom or his dad got it. Then how even Mark avoided him sometimes at school, hanging out with Peter Morgan or Noah Rossi or even Anna Ryden instead. And how lonely it was in his room at night. How lonely to be there while Woodrow was out in his cold pen, feeling lonely too.
Placing both arms around his dog’s neck, not caring how much the truck bed bounced or his rump hurt from the bouncing, Ben held on. Woodrow’s doggy breath was rancid but nice. And when they got home and Ben pulled Woodrow down on the leash and put him back in his pen, it was snowing again, great clumps ashing out of the winter sky.
Inside, his dad was waiting in the kitchen, one haunch pressed up against the counter, his eyes taking on that narrowing that meant no good. A Pabst can was gripped like a cudgel. Ben had learned to watch for his father’s weather patterns. Something was brewing. Something that made Ben think he’d be wise to slip past, get settled into his room, and close the door.
“So let me get this straight,” his dad said. “You got me driving all that way to no end.”
“You heard me.”
“What did I do?”
“I told you there was no need to drive to some damn vet.”
“He could have died, Dad.”
“Nope. Wrong again. Do you even hear yourself talk?”
“He got bit. There was blood.”
His dad placed the can on the counter, which left his arms free for folding them with exaggerated fanfare across his chest.
He said, “You know what I think? Getting that attached to a dog is sort of silly at your age.”
“You’re supposed to be thinking about girls. Football. Driving soon. It makes you seem a little off. A dog is just a dog. There’s more to life.”
“I don’t like football.”
“I know that. You’re not like your brother. He’s out doing something real. He’s not mooning around the house for nothing.”
“School got cancelled.”
“That’s not my point. What if Woodrow had actually died from a sorry-assed raccoon bite? Would you have spent the night crying on your pillow? Wake up. You’re like some kid with an imaginary friend. Time to get some real ones.”
“I have friends.”
“It sure doesn’t look it. At least it all can’t last much longer. Woodrow’s ten now. Is that right?”
“I don’t know.”
“He’s at least that old. Your brother was still a kid when we got him. It makes Woodrow an old man for a dog.”
“He’s not old.”
“Two more years tops, if that.”
“Oh, is that going to make you weepy too? Dogs die, Benny. It’s the world. Get used to it. A few hard knocks can actually knock some sense into you. You don’t think your brother’s getting himself a life’s education?”
“I don’t know why he couldn’t come back for Christmas.”
“You’re hopeless, Benny-boy . . . you keep missing every point. Flying right by it. And soft as cream cheese. Brace yourself. The world is never easy on your type. Now enough yapping. I saw the piss poor shoveling job you did. Take another crack. A work ethic is something else your brother hogged.”
Later—after the shoveling was done, after his mom was home and supper had been eaten, after enduring more life lessons at the supper table, after daydreaming for a time about the way that chlorine smell had grabbed hold until it had seemed it was Lee Ann herself—Ben sneaked out from the house with some scraps of leftover fried chicken, along with a fresh bowl of water. And Woodrow danced and wagged his tail and whimpered for the treat and seemed unaccountably happy as he pirouetted in the snow. And despite everything the day had wrought, Ben, in that instant—and this always seemed to him a miracle—felt it with him.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of nine poetry collections, one collection of short stories, and a novella. His story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Individual stories have appeared in journals that include The Southern Review, Iowa Review, Southwest Review, and The Georgia Review.