The movie droned on:
" . . . though today some of the canyons hold man-made lakes. This played an important role in the discovery of . . . "
I slumped down in my seat and let out a deep yawn, despite my efforts at fighting it. How could they expect anyone to be alert and focused in the last class of the last day before winter break? Crinkled notebook paper lay scattered across desks, smeared in gray smudges from listless doodling. Girls passed notes back and forth, scribbling out conversations that had grown from meager sentences into five-page sagas. A couple kids remained staring at the television screen, lost in a deep trance. It made me wonder whether people could actually fall asleep with their eyes wide open.
I rested my chin on my fist, gazing absentmindedly out the window. Big, fluffy white snow flurries floated down loftily from the sky, settling atop the old, leftover snow in a thin, new layer. It looked to me like good packing snow, the kind you can build big, bulky snowmen out of. Perhaps I'd build a snowman of my own when I got home. That was, of course, after I dropped by the Andersons' house. Mrs. Anderson had called me up on the phone last night, asking if I'd like to look after Maddie, their huge golden retriever, for a couple of days while they were out of town. I'd answered yes without any hesitation. Maddie must be the most lovable dog you are ever likely to meet. I'd looked after her a few times before. It was always fun. This time, however, I felt a little uneasy, a little weird. It would be the first time I looked after Maddie, just Maddie, and not also their gray tabby cat, Gretchen.
Gretchen had been missing for nearly five days now, ever since that horrible snowstorm had blown past. I believe everyone had been a little freaked that day. I know for sure that I had been. We'd lost our power pretty early on, leaving the whole world, as much of it as I could see anyway, lost in total darkness. Outside, the wind had shrieked and howled relentlessly, like dying wolves on their last breath. It beat upon our house as if someone was actually standing outside taking a swing at it. I had to keep reassuring myself there was no way a house could literally uproot itself and fly away, like the one in The Wizard of Oz. Relief washed over me the next day as I woke to discover it had finally ended. Left behind, though, was a trail of gruesome damage.
Poor Gretchen. There were no tracks, no clues. We didn't know where to even begin looking. The outlook was bleak.
I felt a pencil jabbing at me between my shoulder blades. "Hey, Katie!" whispered Laura. "Some of us are heading over to Caribou after school. You gonna come? It'll basically be me, Allie, Sylvia, Steph. Maybe even Tim and Rich."
I was already shaking my head no, but stopped as she mentioned Rich. He was new. We'd met him only a few days ago. He had bright blue eyes and the kind of smile that made you want to smile too. I toyed with the thought of going, but eventually discarded it. Maddie was waiting for me. The sorry pup, locked up all day in that house. She was probably dying to get some fresh air. Rich would just have to wait.
"Sorry," I said, "I've got a job to do."
"Another dog thing?"
The movie snapped off and the screen went blank. "OK, class," Mrs. Chavez said, rising from her desk. "Your homework over break will be to take notes on Section Two of Chapter Ten. We'll discuss them when we get back. You're dismissed."
I packed up my books and battled my way down the bustling hall. Kids, anxious to begin their winter break, swarmed all around in a brilliant chaos.
Somehow I managed to reach my locker, retrieve my backpack and some books I needed, and now was heading for the front entrance. Quickening my pace, I was able to disembark, without interruption, swiftly out the doors.
* * *
It was snowing like mad by now. Cold too. Thank goodness I didn't live far off. Down a couple of streets, left at the main intersection, and I was in my neighborhood. I stopped first at my house, dropped off my backpack, snatched the Andersons' key off the table, and ventured back outside.
The Andersons lived only three houses down. I inserted the key in their lock and twisted. The door swung open easily and I strode in.
Maddie came barreling around the corner, jumping up to greet me like I was the first person she'd seen in years. Though that's probably the way she feels, I realized, as she sent me reeling backwards.
"Whoa there, Maddie," I said, taking her front paws off my shoulders and setting them back on the ground. "Happy to see you, too."
I led Maddie through the house and opened the door to their fenced-in backyard. The great golden retriever shot through the opening like a bolt of lightning, galloping into the fresh, powdery snow. She looped about in huge, winding circles, dashing this way and that, sprinting around crazily as if her life depended on it. I smiled. That was Maddie for you.
Eventually Maddie began to slow, and she sat herself down right at the farthest corner of the yard. Her snout almost touched the cold metal of the fence. She was staring out at something, very still, a deep sadness seeming to have suddenly fallen over her. Her eyes clouded over, her tail drooped low, and all the while she kept staring out ahead of her. Whining softly, she began pawing at the fence.
My face was grim. She must miss Gretchen, I thought to myself, she must miss her really bad. I stood there a moment longer, then pulled the door shut and went to check on Maddie's food bowl. It was empty, so I got a cup of her dog food from the pantry and poured it into her bowl. I also went to the sink and got her some fresh, cool water.
"Maddie!" I called, sticking my head out the door. The snow had let up considerably. "Come here, Maddie! Time to come in!"
There was silence.
I looked out over the backyard, searching for the familiar patch of yellow fur. But there was nothing there, only the sparkling white snow.
"Maddie!" I called again, stepping out into the cold. I could feel my heart banging against my chest, my breath growing short. Where'd that dog gotten to?
I stopped in the middle of the yard, standing stock-still. The sun reflected so brightly off the snow I could barely even squint. There was nothing, just a world of surreal white. I could see my own cloud of breath as I exhaled, could feel a new icy bitterness entering as I inhaled. My hands, hanging numbly at my side, curled into fists, the nails digging deeply into skin until I finally released. Over and over again I repeated this uneasy movement. Only a moment had passed, yet it seemed like hours.
Where had that blasted dog gone?
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something; something anyone else would have passed over had they not been searching for it. A small black dot near the far left corner of the fence stood out against the sparkling white, a dot that should not have been there. I headed for it in haste.
All I could do was stare in horror. A hole. A hole had been dug beneath the fence. It wasn't a large hole, just big enough that a dog about Maddie's size could probably fit through if she was determined. I felt the ground around the hole. It was as hard as ice and a great deal colder. This was the work of one determined dog.
There were paw prints on the other side of the fence, leading away through the neighborhood. I dashed back to the house, plowing my way like crazy through the heavy drifts of snow. Flinging open the cabinet where all the treats were kept, I grabbed the largest one I could find, knowing from experience that that was the best strategy for reeling in runaways. Then I shot through the front door and around to the back of the house.
There were the paw prints, still fresh in the snow. "Maddie!" I cried, trailing after the tracks while trying to whistle through chapped lips. I made my way down different streets, past houses I did not recognize. The tracks seemed to continue on for miles, each pawprint identical to the next. I began to worry I was running in some sort of large circle.
I finally began to slow as the tracks approached the Common Area, a large, somewhat woodsy section of our neighborhood. I came to a halt, hunched over and panting like crazy, trying to catch my breath. An icy wind blew past, searing like fire across my cheek. The long, bare branches of trees looming high overhead creaked menacingly, completely enveloped in a thin layer of ice. Other than that, the world remained utterly silent. I glanced around, waiting for something, anything.
Then it came. Maddie appeared through the trees, like a pale ghost fluttering in the wind, and walked right up to the edge of the Common Area.
"Maddie," I called, my voice slicing through the air. I held out the treat for her. "Come on, Maddie. Come here girl."
She didn't come. Instead, she disappeared back into the Common Area. Hesitantly, I followed.
I had only to walk a few yards in before I caught sight of her again. She was sitting beside the giant trunk of an oak, watching me expectantly
"Come on, Maddie," I cooed. "Let's just go back home, and . . . "
My heart went numb as I caught sight.
"Oh my gosh," I muttered, stumbling over to where the scraggly, limp body of Gretchen lay. The cat's tiny chest made only the slightest indication of a breath.
"Oh my gosh . . . "
* * *
Everything that followed was a blur to me; it all happened so fast. The next thing I vividly remember is standing inside the veterinary hospital. Gretchen had just been rushed through a pair of double doors, and some people whom I'd never met before were telling me to sit down.
I took their advice and sat, needing a few minutes to gather my thoughts, to try and make sense of what had just happened. Eventually I took a deep breath, stood up, and headed for the nearest pay phone.
A couple hours later the Andersons entered the veterinary hospital. My mom, who'd arrived minutes after I called, took my hand.
"We'd better get home. You look tired."
"No," I said, trying to appear more awake. But my mom soon got the best of me, and we left.
Sometime at night my mom shook me awake. "The Andersons just called," she whispered. "Gretchen pulled through."
Two days later, the Andersons brought Gretchen home. She was bandaged up and badly bruised, but doing better. Two of us had to hold Maddie down to keep her from pouncing on Gretchen. Finally she got the message and we let her up.
That night, I headed over to the Andersons' with my family. They had invited us for dinner as a kind of thank you. I guess they'd gotten it into their heads that I was the one who'd saved Gretchen, even though I kept telling them over and over again that it was Maddie who had done everything, that this was really Maddie's little miracle. But I don't think Maddie really cared if she got the credit. She was just happy that her friend was back home, safe and sound.
"Can you pass the rolls, dear?" Mrs. Anderson said, as we sat down to eat.
I reached over and handed her the rolls, then sat back for a moment and just looked around. Maddie lay sprawled by the fireside, a purely contented expression on her face. Gretchen lay beside her, stomach and both front paws still heavily bandaged.
Maddie's ears perked, and she glanced up at me, her tail wagging slowly. For a moment, I held her gaze.
Maybe miracles do exist.