“Ryan, honey, guess what?” Mom bounced into the room, a cheerful smile on her face. “Grandpa just called. He is delighted to have some extra help on the farm this summer!”
Oh no! Ryan thought, dragging his eyes away from his tablet. He pulled off his headphones.
“But, Mom! We’re going to Disneyland this year!”
Mom’s brow wrinkled. “Oh, honey, we can’t quite afford Disneyland this year. I’m sorry. I know you want to go. But Grandpa needs your help, and besides, a real-life experience is far more precious than Disneyland could ever be.”
Her smile was back.
Ryan groaned and went back to his game. Maybe this was all just a crazy dream.
But it wasn’t. Two weeks later he found himself hugging Mom goodbye and boarding a plane for middle-of-nowhere Montana.
Grandpa picked him up at the tiny airport in a beat-up white pickup, hardly visible under layers of dust.
“Hi, Ryan,” Grandpa greeted him.
Suddenly, a furry mass catapulted out of the car and tackled Ryan, covering him with kisses. Grandpa chuckled. “That’s Bolt. I think she likes you already.” Understatement of the century, Ryan thought as he heaved the dog off of him.
Grandpa lifted first Ryan, then his suitcase into the truck. “So, you excited to work on a farm?”
Ryan didn’t bother to remove his headphones. “No,” he mumbled under his breath.
After a good hour of driving along mostly unpaved roads, the pair reached Grandpa’s small farm. There was a little house surrounded by pine and cottonwood trees. To the left of that was the animal barn where the goat, Sukie, and the ten chickens lived. Behind the house was a blooming garden where Grandpa grew his vegetables.
It sure didn’t look like much. Ryan scanned the roof, searching for a satellite dish—nothing. This house didn’t even have TV. Ryan slowly climbed out of the truck. Grandpa whistled as they walked to the front door. He flung the door open wide. “It ain’t much, but it’s home! Ryan, your room is upstairs. Can you find it OK?”
“I guess.” Ryan could hardly remember his last visit here, but the stairs were right next to the front door. He trudged up them, opening the first door he found. It was a tiny, plain bedroom. Ryan deposited his suitcase on the floor and surveyed his surroundings. In the corner of the room was a large window. He glanced out. A lush, emerald field stretched to the edges of the boundless sky. On the very edge of the horizon, a faint blue smudge of mountains was visible.
Bored, Ryan shifted away from the window and flopped on the bed. He switched on his tablet, tapped his favorite game, and waited for it to load. The moment was ruined, however, by Grandpa’s call up the stairs.
“Ryan, you settled in? C’mon down, we got some work to do.”
Grumbling, he thumped downstairs, trailing headphones.
“There you are.” Spotting Ryan’s tablet, Grandpa held out a hand, face creased with an odd expression.
“Why don’t I keep that safe for you? I don’t hold much with these newfangled electronics. Besides, we’ll be so busy this summer you won’t have any time for it.”
Ryan’s mouth fell open a little and he stared at the outstretched hand.
“No ‘buts’ about it.” Grandpa’s eyes twinkled.
A shocked Ryan slowly handed over his prized possession. First I had to come to this stupid farm to work all summer. Now this! It was inhumane.
“All right. First thing, we got to change the irrigation.”
So Ryan, clad in tall rubber boots and armed with a shovel, walked out into the field with Grandpa. Bolt trotted happily along, and while the two shoveled mud and changed the canvas dam’s position to redirect the water flow, she hunted mice in the grass.
Then Ryan fed the flock of chickens. They gathered around his feet in a fog of feathers. After that Grandpa cooked supper and Ryan had to wash the dishes. He finally fell into bed, exhausted to the bone, or so he told himself.
When Ryan opened his eyes, Grandpa was shaking him.
“Wake up, son! Time to milk!”
It took Ryan a moment to register his surroundings. And then he groaned what he imagined to be a groan of long suffering. Really, he just sounded pathetic.
“Get dressed and meet me at the barn.” Grandpa clomped down the stairs but Bolt jumped on Ryan, refusing to let him fall back to sleep. She wagged her tail fiercely and gave an exuberant bark as he pulled himself out of bed. He yawned and glanced at the clock. What is this unimaginable hour? Good grief! No one should be forced to rise before the birds!!! But he yanked on his clothes and wandered out to the barn.
Grandpa was in the barn, sitting on the milking stanchion (a sort of table) with Sukie on top. There were two slats which held the goat’s head in place and a box for her to eat out of. Milk was streaming from her teats into a bucket with clear regularity. Grandpa glanced up from his work and saw Ryan, who was standing uncertainly in the corner.
“You come try,” he commanded. “Hold the teat like this, pinch it off, and squeeze the milk down.” He guided Ryan’s hands through the motions. Ryan was clumsy. By accident, he squirted his shirt with milk and the sticky warm felt queer against his skin.
After the milk was strained and put away, the irrigation had to be changed again. So Grandpa moved the canvas dam and Ryan shoveled the wet dirt into mounds, while Bolt hunted.
When they finally got to eat some bacon, eggs, and toast, Ryan’s thoughts kept straying to his tablet and all the great games and things he was missing out on. Maybe, just maybe, he could convince Grandpa to let him have it back again.
Hey, Grandpa! Can I have my tablet back? I just want to beat this one level… Even in his head, the words sounded stupid.
After breakfast, Grandpa showed his grandson how to weed the garden. “See here, Ryan, just pull gently on the base of this weed. See? It comes right out. Now here’s an onion. Let it be. But this one’s a weed! I want to see you pull it out… Good!”
Despite Grandpa’s instructions, Ryan still pulled up a few onions. Guiltily, he patted them back into the soil and hoped his grandpa wouldn’t notice. By lunch he was longing for a break. He despaired of the long hours of toil that stretched before him. He deserved a rest! Hadn’t he been working hard all morning?!
He sat sullenly down to his soup. Finally he could not hold the question in any longer. It burst out of him like an angry bull. “How can you stand it? Working all day long with no rest and then waking up and doing the same thing the next day?”
Grandpa paused in the middle of buttering his bread. He looked Ryan squarely in the eye. “Who says work isn’t fun? I work hard because I enjoy working. Working makes me feel young,” he said simply. “When we weed the garden we earn healthy strong plants and good food to eat. We irrigate the fields to get nutritious hay for the animals. You only reap what you sow, Ryan.”
“Well, I don’t care! I only came here ’cause Mom made me! I hate work! I hate this farm!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth Ryan knew they weren’t true. He wished he could hide. Grandpa’s face was drawn, his brow wrinkled. He looked like an old, old man. Abruptly, he pushed back his chair and stood up. When he spoke his tone was level with no hint of anger.
“Ryan, there’s something I’ve been meaning to show you. But I think you can see it for yourself. Just walk down the field and out that gate.” He gestured. “There’s cookies on the counter and water in the fridge. Help yourself. I’ll be in the hay field.” He disappeared out the door.
Blind with shame, Ryan grabbed the snacks and hurried out the door. He found the gate easily. Why had he said that? he wondered as he plodded along. Bolt trotted faithfully at his heels. She seemed to sense that something was the matter with her friend.
The gate opened up to a path, and the path led to a river. He stopped, gazing with awe at its flowing grace. It swirled on, unburdened by any worries. Plunking down by its edge, Ryan chucked a rock into the blue. Its splash was satisfying. He threw another. Sploosh. Another. Thunk. He began hurling rocks as fast as he could, not thinking about anything or anyone, not caring. Then, exhausted, he flopped down on the cool grass until he remembered the cookies. He ate two. Bolt sat before him, her brown eyes pleading for all she was worth. Ryan laughed for the first time all day. “OK, girl. Here you go.”
They walked back to Grandpa together. And Ryan knew what he needed to do.
“Grandpa?… I… I’m sorry. For the way I acted. I… I guess I just said that… because I was mad. I didn’t mean it.”
For a long, long time they stood there. Then, slowly, the two walked back into the house.
One rainy morning, two weeks later, Grandpa sent Ryan to find his tackle box. Ryan heaved a creaky cupboard door open. He scanned the dusty shelves for the box. Was it there on the top shelf? He caught a glint of something up there. He reached upwards and his fingers closed over something smooth, something cold, something familiar… It was his tablet! Enthusiastically, he pressed on the button. The device sputtered to life. There was still battery left! All of a sudden, the front door squeaked on its hinges, and Grandpa’s boots thumped in the hall. Ryan tried to stow the tablet but he was not fast enough. The closet door opened wide.
“What are you doing in there, Ryan?’’
“I… I was just looking for the tackle box and…” he fumbled.
But Grandpa had seen the tablet resting on Ryan’s lap. A tiny frown creased his features.
“Well,” he said, “you can play on that if you want. Bolt and I are going fishing.”
Yes! Ryan thought. His hands shaking with eager impatience, he opened his favorite game, the one he longed to play. His fingers practically flew, battling monsters, aliens, and other players. But as he waited for a new level to load, he happened to glance out the window. There he saw Grandpa striding along the path to the river with Bolt bounding at his heels. The rain coated the fields in a thin mist. Ryan switched off his tablet and ran out the door after them.
Over the next few weeks, Ryan’s life fell into a rhythm. Between milking, cutting baling, and stacking hay, weeding and picking in the garden, and fixing meals, Ryan had hardly any down time. Whenever he did, Grandpa taught him how to whittle or shoot, or he read books which he found in his room. On rainy days, he and Grandpa went fishing. When Ryan needed a rest from the work, he walked down to the river. While he still wasn’t perfect, he didn’t find quite as much to complain about anymore.
One morning in early August, Ryan paused in his work to stare at a cloud of dust crawling up the driveway. He squinted at the smudge. It was a car. It was his mom.
Mom covered Ryan with hugs and kisses.
“I was so worried, honey!” she cried, bending over to look him in the eye. “You weren’t answering any of my emails or texts! And I was so anxious to see you guys that I just decided to come. I’m so glad you’re all right.’’ She straightened up. “Now tell me: did you enjoy your summer, Ryan?”
Ryan glanced up at Grandpa. “Yeah,” he grinned. “Can I come back again next year?”