Nobody knew why we kept him. To tell the truth, I didn't exactly know, either.
We named him Badger for the brown-gold stripe that ran down his muzzle, and later on, we would say that it fit his personality too. He wasn't exactly an aggressive dog. He was, however, a jumpy, biting, rebellious dog. But he was beautiful and cute, and we loved him. Mom once commented, "It's a good thing he's so adorable..." She'd always trail off, whether to add emphasis or to search for words, I don't know.
Badger was a male version of Miss Congeniality and probably the most well-loved mutt among the people at the puppy training class, too, for Badger was Prince Charming in fur. He was always happy around new people, always wagging his tail, always squirming for attention.
That personality was his downfall. Sure, he was cute. My younger sister Sierra was always shrieking, "Isn't he adorable?!!"
The youngest, Clarabelle, would always chime in, "I know; he's the cutest."
I, however, demanded discipline and respect. They demanded cuteness. He was good at that. Good, I mean, at looking cute with pillows in mouth, Kleenexes shredded all around him, and towels slobbered upon.
At first, we thought it was just puppy energy But as he grew into a big, strong, naughty golden retriever, we quickly changed our thinking. Wherever Badger roamed, trouble was to follow. Anyone who had to live with Badger knew that...
* * *
I clamped the hand brake back, and wiped a hand across my brow. It was late March, but the snow was all melted away, the temperature in the high eighties, and the river unfrozen. As I rested on my bike, I gazed at the crystal-blue water through the thick sumacs. Thin layers of ice still covered some of the Wolf River, but most of it was thawed. Ducks, geese, and sea gulls rested on the remaining ice, making a loud racket that was a mixture of honks, croaks, and shrieks sounding like women screaming.
"Amazing," I breathed. I had lived in Wisconsin for several years, but I was always dazzled by the river in springtime. I got a good view, too. My house was situated about fifty feet from Stumpy Bay's bank, and the bank was surrounded by sumac trees and long, itchy grass. Stumpy Bay was where we got our water supply (filtered, of course), but it was off-limits for swimming. Stumpy Bay was named for the deadheads, algae, quicksand, muskies, and snapping turtles that lurked in the murky water. In the spring, it was clear and blue, like the rest of the river, but in the summer, it was covered in a film of green algae, which looked disgusting. It also smelled horrible, especially on muggy days.
"Come on, Lu!" Sierra was calling, speeding down the gravel driveway with Badger at her wheels. "Beat you to the road!"
"Just try!" I shouted back, digging my feet into the pedals. I easily caught up with Sierra, and we both nearly collided with Clarabelle and Badger, who were coming back. Sierra and I turned around carefully and then raced back, laughing lightheartedly. Badger had dropped back to my spokes, for he was becoming winded from the exercise. Of course, everywhere Badger went, mischief was involved. That's why my skirt was muddied by Badger's dirty lips and my leg had a scratch from some stray teeth.
"Git, dog!" I yelled, thoroughly sick of having to discipline this unintelligent mutt. Badger looked at me daringly with his hazel-brown eyes. He moved closer again, and I was tempted to run straight into him and teach him a lesson, but refrained. A bite on my leg was the reward for my mercy.
"Badger!" I braked so suddenly that I nearly flipped off. I threw my bike down and lunged toward the puppy, whose tail was wagging in merriment. "No, don't give me that 'I don't care' look!" I hissed. Badger danced on his legs, eyes twinkling. My anger boiled even more at his nonchalant attitude. "Do you want to go up? Do you want a spanking? Do I have to drag you to your kennel?"
Badger wasn't the least bit subdued, and immediately turned around and ran off to Sierra and Clarabelle, who were slurping down Gatorade. Tears stung my eyes as I picked up my bike and slung my helmet onto the handle.
Why care? I thought. He doesn't. I pour my life into him, trying to make him happy, and all he does is attack me. Why? Why does he prefer Sierra over me, when I am the one who regulates what he does and does not do? I was jealous, hot, and upset. I loved Badger; where was the love I deserved? I had read story after story about how dogs were the most loyal friends a girl could have, but where did Badger fit into this category? I had had so many high hopes of him becoming a therapy dog, or an agility competitor, but he couldn't even sit for two seconds.
I walked my bike back up the driveway, Sierra and Clarabelle both asking what was wrong. I ignored them—and Badger—and parked my bike in the garage sullenly.
If he hates me, I decided, then I will hate him too. I glanced at Badger one more time, then turned and left him, slipping into the house and slamming the door shut.
I stomped up to my room and threw myself onto my bed, glaring at the design on my pillowcase. I looked up above my bed where a framed photograph of Badger and me hung. Daddy had snapped it when Badger first came home; when he was arm-sized, cuddly soft, and oh-so-sweet. I was smiling—my cheek buried into the top of his fuzzy, honey-colored head, my left arm wrapped around his chubby chest, the other supporting his bottom. His eyes were squinted, nothing like the expressive eyes Badger now had. His tongue wasn't hanging out sideways or cracked in a Badger-grin. He was perfect. Too perfect. I angrily reached up and yanked it down, intending to toss it in my drawer to forget forever. As it was clenched in my hands, however, I couldn't keep my gaze off that dog. He was the picture of innocence, of calmness, of a well-behaved dog, but that's not what captivated me. I couldn't quite grasp it at first, but then it hit me. This wasn't my baby—it wasn't Badger. Badger was Badger—no human intervention could change that. What would this house be like without Badger? What would it be like with a perfect doll dog?
I struggled with the answer, trying to push away the truth. It would be terrible, I finally admitted. There would be no Badger to knock you down with his oversized sticks; no Badger to see that your arm was never not scratched; no Badger to bark nonstop whenever he wanted out of his kennel. Without Badger, who would eat the rest of the cat's breakfast? Who would alter your wardrobe to rags? Who would you baby talk to whenever you entered the house?
My anger and unforgiveness melted like ice on the river. Badger was just like me—he needed to be molded, directed and disciplined, and most importantly, he needed to be loved. A wave of guilt passed over me, and I leaned my head against the picture frame, thinking hard. Even if Badger never did lie still for three seconds, he was still Badger. Badger would remain Badger. But he was a puppy, a baby. He was not yet brilliant, nor was he fully trained. His main goal in life was to please himself, but perhaps later on he would realize that the hands that fed him and petted him, and the hearts that loved him were the ones to be gratified. Badger had a big heart. It was easy for me to see that. The hyper-dog would transition into one of unconditional loyalty Badger did love me. He was just expressing it in his own way.
With a new resolve and joyfulness, I skipped downstairs and opened the door. Badger, his teeth clamped on a red jump rope, looked my way. I laughed, my heart overflowing with love.
"Want to go on a walk, Beegie?" I called, using his pet name. We started down the driveway, Badger trotting in his horse-like way in front, Sierra and Clarabelle following. I had a mind to go right, towards the main field and away from Stumpy Bay, since Badger did sometimes splash in water. But I found myself going left. I trusted Badger's sensibility, and even though he loved wading, swimming was not his style.
There was a break in the sumacs, and to the right, only a few trees grew here and there, so you could see the river clearly. A shallow area with only ankle-deep water washed over it, and rolled downward into the bay. I could see the bottom of it, but it ended in dark water; I couldn't see how deep it was over there, though I guessed over my head. Badger, being the water dog that he was, investigated the area promptly. We girls stayed on dry land, I scrutinizing his every move. I tensed as he came to the edge of the swamped-over mud patch and his forelegs sank deep into the water. Clarabelle, Sierra and I began jumping up and down, hollering in enticing voices for Badger to come back. We knew he wasn't in any immediate danger; he could swim (even if he didn't like to), and he was a smart dog, even with all his other faults. Sure enough, Badger wheeled around, looking pleased and refreshed, though he smelled terrible.
"Let's go back," I suggested. I didn't want to take any more chances with Mr. Badger.
"OK," Sierra agreed, picking up on my motherly instinct. "Come here, Beegie, Beegie, Beegie!"
We headed towards the driveway again, Badger galloping after us. Then, before I knew what was happening, Badger was streaking back towards the water.
My eyes widened in horror. "No, Badger!" I yelled, chasing after him, ignoring the sting of the grass on my bare legs and the mud that was splashing onto my flip-flops. Just like that, without a splash, my dog, my baby, disappeared into the water—simply vanished, rings of water rippling out from the place he had descended.
He was probably underwater for just a second, but time seemed to have frozen. I didn't know if anyone else said anything or moved, but I only heard my own voice screaming, "Badger!!" It was a high-pitched scream of horrific desperation. It couldn't have been my own.
Something drove me on in this time-frozen moment. I unconsciously propelled towards the water, my bare feet were now wet, my flip-flops caught in the muck. I stumbled over a tree root and unintentionally dove into Stumpy Bay, bobbing up with a gasp, thrashing around for dear life. It all happened in a few seconds, and Badger was soon up, too, his head held high above the water, struggling against the current. I could feel his legs pumping out the rhythm of my heart.
He was trying to come towards me, but the current was pulling him away.
"Good boy, over here." My voice was chopped from the chattering of my teeth. Badger's eyes rolled towards land.
"No, baby, look at me!" Tears were welling up, but they were blocking my view; I could not cry "Badger!" I had to go under again. I emerged, my hair blocking my face. I tried to tread water with one hand as I cleared my face with the other, but it was difficult. I could not touch bottom; I didn't even know where bottom was. My sisters were screaming something, but I wasn't listening. My attention was focused on Badger, terrified, helpless. It cut to my heart, giving me a boost of power.
"I'm coming, Badger!" I gurgled as loudly as I could. He was an arm's length away from me. I stretched. My hand was instantly cut by one of his sharp claws. I barely felt the pain; it was numb anyway. My stiff fingers wrapped around his collar, and I pulled him close, being careful to avoid his claws. Now that I had him, I needed to get to land. The current was sweeping us towards the ice, and that meant we were heading for the river's middle, which meant fewer things to grab hold of, for only Stumpy Bay had things sticking up in the water. My eyes opened at this. Stumps! Of course! They didn't call Stumpy Bay Stumpy Bay for nothing. But where could I grab hold of one?
"Grab it, Lucy!" It was Sierra's faint voice shouting out this fateful command. Grab what? I looked around, not loosening my grip on Badger, and saw what Sierra was screaming about. It was a small stump, protruding out of the water. It looked thick enough, but the diameter was definitely not wide enough for both Badger and me. Still, it would keep us afloat. I grabbed, and my fingers touched the slimy, slippery wood. Gasping, I gripped it as my lifeline. I went into a sitting position, and helped Badger put his front legs on mine, so he could rest. We were both breathing heavily, thankful for the rest. I turned and called to Sierra, "Go get help!"
Sierra had already sent Clarabelle, but now she, too, turned and fled.
I tried to concentrate on holding the stump and lifting up Badger, but my legs were growing weak, as were my arms, and I was shivering beyond belief. Badger huddled up against me. I clung to his collar. If we were to float away again, we were going together. Minutes passed. No one appeared. Then my ears picked up the wail of sirens. Help was coming!
An ambulance, followed by a dive crew, pulled up onto our street. Mom was standing with Clarabelle and Sierra next to her. It was hard to see exactly what was going on, because Badger and I were a good way from shore.
"Help's coming, Badger," I whispered.
The inflatable boat cut into the cold, murky water, heading towards us. Badger began to whimper pitifully, but the only sound I made was the chattering of my teeth. Someone lifted me up, but I couldn't tell who. I didn't really look. I was soon out, wrapped in a thick blanket with Badger at my feet, bundled in one equally warm.
I fell into unconsciousness before I reached shore, and when I woke, I was in a prim, white hospital room. Mom and Daddy were looking at me anxiously, and I sat up, just as anxious.
"Lie down, sweetie," Mom crooned.
"Badger. Where's Badger?"
"Do you think a bit of water would hurt that dog?" Daddy teased.
A grin spread across my pale face. Of course not. After all, Badger was Badger.