“Hold up,” Ash said to his friend, putting a hand in front of him to stop any movement.
Jeremy stilled, looking back at Ash. When they were silent for a long moment, Jeremy shifted impatiently. “What’s wrong?”
Ash tilted his head slightly. “Don’t you hear it?”
Jeremy listened for another long moment. “Hear what?” he asked. He heard only the sounds of the grasshoppers chirping in the weeds and the occasional tree frog. The heat of the sunshine was beating down on their heads, causing sweat to roll down Jeremy’s back, making him eager to get home and back into air conditioning.
Ash wiped his forehead with the bottom of his shirt, then was still again. A moment later he said, “There!” and listened. “Did you hear that?”
Ash didn’t wait for Jeremy’s response but moved off to the left. He ignored the possibility of snakes and other biting critters, following a sound that, apparently, only he could hear. “Can’t you hear that?” he asked, assuming Jeremy was right behind him. He hurried in the direction of the sound.
Jeremy was startled to hear the slight mewling sound and his heartbeat picked up. “Yeah. Now I do.” Both boys hurried towards the sound, racing through the underbrush and pushing aside branches in their hurry to find the source of the sound.
After running through the brush, the sound became louder, the whimpering sounds more heart-rending. “Look!” Ash said, pointing towards a hole in the ground where a small, furry head was poking out. “He’s hurt!”
Jeremy shook his head in amazement. “Only you would’ve heard that sound,” he said to Ash.
Ash dropped to his knees and started digging, trying to loosen the limb that had fallen on the dog that was obviously scared and in pain. “Can you find a stick? Maybe that will help us dig him out.”
Jeremy immediately handed Ash a stick and the two boys slowly dug the dog out of the hole. When the heavy branch was finally pushed off of the scruffy dog’s hind legs, they discovered that the poor animal was more hurt than they’d expected. It was a mangy mutt with blood on the fur of both his ears and the skin obviously torn up on the leg that had been trapped.
“We need to get him to a vet,” Ash said, immediately taking off his shirt to cradle the dog. “It’s okay, boy. We’ll take care of you,” he soothed, stroking his head and neck to try and give the animal some reassurance.
The dog looked up at Ash adoringly, but with pain in his eyes. He whimpered a bit more when Ash got behind him, but didn’t make a sound as they carried him out of the woods and down the street to the only veterinarian’s office they knew of.
As Ash moved as quickly as he could with his hands full with the wounded canine, Jeremy raced ahead, burst into the clinic, and held the door open.
“Can you help us?” Ash asked the receptionist. He tried to hide his anxiety with a façade of toughness, because boys were supposed to be tough and strong, not worried. “We found him in the woods over by the school and he’s pretty badly hurt.”
The young-looking receptionist quickly picked up the desk phone and called the vet, who came rushing out from a swinging door. The doctor, a man in his late fifties with thick glasses and a grandfatherly beard, looked at the dog and nodded. “Bring him back here,” he said.
Ash laid the wounded animal on the metal table, then stepped back. When the dog whimpered again, the vet turned around to see what was going on. “He seems to trust you. Can you come closer while I get things ready? Just keep your hands on him so he can sniff your scent.”
Ash immediately moved closer, rubbing the wiry fur on the dog’s ears until the poor animal calmed down. “Okay, step back now. We need to give him a shot to help him with the pain, but I don’t want the dog associating you with the pain. So let us hold him down for a moment, then you can come closer. Okay?”
Ash nodded, feeling angry for whatever had happened to this obviously neglected dog. No living thing deserved to be put through this. And the more he thought about it, the more the hole where he’d found the animal looked like something someone had dug on purpose. The idea that someone had done this deliberately infuriated him even more.
“There,” the vet said, laying a soothing hand on the dog’s head, scratching his ears gently. “He should be numb from the pain in just a moment. Why don’t you wait in here until he falls asleep, then go wait outside in the waiting room while we fix him up.”
Ash nodded slowly, his hands gently ruffling the fur on the dog’s head, ears and back. When the dog’s eyes closed, Ash bent down low, whispering in the animal’s ear, “Don’t worry fella. We’ll take care of you.”
The vet nodded with a warm, reassuring smile, indicating that Ash and his friend should head outside. Ash paced back and forth in the waiting room, his mind going over all the problems the dog might encounter over the next few weeks because of this injury. And that brought to mind the image of his mother, who probably wouldn’t approve of bringing another animal home. He had a tendency to find strays but, in his defense, Ash had found good homes for each of the animals. Besides, he couldn’t leave the poor animal here. He’d have to take it home. Surely his mother would understand this time.
His cell phone rang and he looked down at the window, cringing when he saw his mother’s phone number come up. “Hi Mom,” he said. “I know I’m late for dinner but I have a problem.” He finished explaining all of it, relieved when she told him to stay with the dog. He sighed with relief at her words and comforting reassurance that she’d keep his dinner warm for him. As he hung up the phone, he smiled with relief. His mom had endured many trials raising four boys, and this wasn’t going to be one of them, Ash promised himself mentally.
Twenty minutes later, the doors to the clinic swung open and Ash almost laughed when his three older brothers walked in, one of them carrying a small plastic container. “Mom told you what’s going on?” he asked.
Ryker handed him the container which held his dinner of meatloaf, potatoes and broccoli. “Mom says you have to eat the broccoli.”
In true brotherly solidarity, Xander simply took the container and popped the broccoli into his mouth then handed it back to Ash. “All eaten,” he said, then clapped his brother on the arm.
Ash was relieved. He absolutely hated broccoli, while Xander didn’t mind the repulsive vegetable. “What are you guys doing here? I thought you had a date with Emily,” he said to Axel.
Axel shrugged his already broad shoulders and smiled, a mischievous twinkle in his eye appearing. “I told her what’s going on. Now I’m her hero since I won’t abandon the dog.”
Ash rolled his eyes, chuckling at his brother’s genius. “Good angle.”
Axel’s grin was huge. “I thought so. That’s why I’m here. All the girls will be fawning over me tomorrow when they hear about this.”
Ash snorted in disbelief. Axel might be saying he was here for the attention, but Ash knew better. The four of them might fight about everything from the last glass of milk to the front seat of the car, but when a problem came up, they were a solid wall of support.
Xander pushed him out of the way as only a brother could do. “How’s the dog? And where did you find him?”
“Over behind that old abandoned barn near the school,” Ash explained. Jeremy had already left, his mother demanding that he come home, so it was great that his brothers had arrived to help with the vigil.
The vet came out at that point, wiping his hands on his scrubs. “The dog’s going to be okay. He’s going to need antibiotics for a while, but he was in relatively good health so the wound won’t put him back too far.”
Ash swallowed, relieved for the good news. Then he squared his shoulders, bracing himself for the tough question. “How much is it going to cost?” he asked, nervous because he only had the money he earned mowing lawns. He and his brothers worked each Saturday around the neighborhood mowing the grass of several neighbors, trimming their bushes, and weeding out the gardens.
The vet hesitated. “I gather this isn’t your dog, correct?” he asked.
Ash shook his head warily. “No. My friend and I found him this afternoon.”
“How about if I throw in my cost for free and you guys pay for the medicine? Will that work out for you?”
Ash blew out the breath he’d been holding. “Sounds great, Doc. How much will the medicine cost?”
The vet named a price and Ash nodded. “Can I pay you half now and half in a few weeks?”
“No need,” Axel said from behind Ash. “Here,” he said and plunked down his own handful of money. That was the same amount that Ash had. Ash spun around and shook his head. “You can’t do that. You have homecoming with Emily next week.”
Axel punched Ash’s arm. “I’ll get Dad to drive us,” he said.
Ryker and Xander both smacked their money down. “Here’s our share,” Xander said firmly.
Ash took a deep breath, swallowing the lump of emotion that welled up. He was grateful for these three guys. He knew he’d still get a pounding about whatever was coming around the corner, because that’s what brothers do. He’d probably even deserve it, because he loved annoying his brothers on a regular basis. It was chaos central with all of them teasing and playing tricks on each other.
“Thanks,” he said, bowing his head slightly until he got himself back under control.
The vet counted out some of the money, then handed the rest back to the boys. “This will cover it,” he said with admiration tinging his tone. “Let me keep him here overnight. Can you come back tomorrow?”
“If you multiply these two numbers,” Mia explained, looking up at Josh to see if he understood, “then you can…” she stopped, sitting back in her chair. “Josh, you’re not paying attention to the paper.”
The smile he bestowed upon Mia made her skin crawl. “I think you’re one of the prettiest girls in school. How about if we go to the school dance together this weekend?” he suggested.
Mia wanted to laugh when Josh tilted his head and shoulders slightly, as if he were trying to look like a movie actor. Unfortunately, it only made him look silly. “I already have plans this weekend,” she told him. “And if you don’t learn this algebra, you’re not going to be able to play in the game Friday night.”
Josh chuckled. “They won’t take me out of the game,” he replied with complete confidence. “We’re playing to get in first place.”
Mia tried hard not to roll her eyes, but it was a strain. “So you’re saying that the coach will ignore your failing grade simply so he can win the state championship?”
“Absolutely,” he said with a laugh. “They need me.” He paused and leaned forward, pasting what he probably thought was a charming smile onto his handsome features. But to Mia’s mind, it just looked smug. She really hated smug men.
“Josh, don’t you want to learn this stuff just for your own education?” she asked him carefully. “I mean, this is really basic stuff. People use this formula on a daily basis.”
“Not when we’re playing football,” he replied with a laugh. “So how about it? Come to the dance with me? We can celebrate winning the game together.”
“I already have plans.” She turned the notebook towards him. “Why don’t you try number six on your own?”
Josh looked down at the paper, barely even acknowledging the algebra problem. “After you agree to go to the dance with me.”
Mia bit her lip, trying to come up with a way to get him to concentrate. “How about this,” she offered. “If you’ll get an A on Thursday’s algebra test, I’ll go to the game and cheer you on.”
He made a rude sound and shook his head. “You never come to the games,” he argued.
“Exactly. So this would be huge, right?”
“Would you really go?” he asked, his eyes bright with hope. “You wouldn’t understand what was going on, so you might not enjoy it.”
She considered that, trying to figure out what would motivate him. “Then let’s do a trade.” She watched his eyes and knew that she’d captured his attention. “You figure out algebra today. If you get an A on Thursday’s test, then Thursday afternoon you can teach me the fundamentals of football and I’ll go to the game on Friday night. Is it a deal?” she asked.
Josh considered her proposal carefully. “Will you cheer for me when I make every touchdown?” he clarified.
She smiled brightly, realizing in that moment that she’d won. “I’ll scream so loud, you’ll be able to hear me on the field.”
His eyes brightened even more. “It’s a deal,” he told her. “Let’s do this!”
He actually leaned forward then and focused on what she was telling him. It took another hour and a half but he finally figured out how to do the problems.
She worked with him about how to catch simple mistakes, different ways to check his work and even went on to the next chapter which built on the current concepts.
By the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, she was a nervous wreck! She had calculus first thing in the morning while Josh had algebra during the last period. By the time the last bell rang, she was hopping from one foot to the next, nervous about how Josh’s test went. His coach had already spoken to Josh’s algebra teacher, letting him know that Josh couldn’t play in the game Friday night if he didn’t pass the test. Josh had been stunned when the coach had backed up the school board policy of all athletes needing a B average in all classes to participate in school activities. So he was pretty nervous as well.
Mia stood outside Josh’s classroom, while Josh stood beside his algebra teacher’s desk, watching as his test was graded. When the teacher handed Josh the test back and Josh bowed his head, Mia’s heart broke. She felt horrible and tried to figure out what he could have done wrong. She’d thought he’d really learned the concepts, so she berated herself for not doing something differently, not helping him in a way that he’d understood.
He walked out of the room and Mia didn’t know what to do to make him feel better. “Josh, I’m so sorry,” she said, laying a hand on his arm to comfort him.
And then he looked up at her, his grin widening. A fraction of a second later, he lifted her into his arms and spun her around. “I got an A minus!” he crowed, thrilled with his test results. “Now you have to go to the game!”
Mia’s jaw dropped and she glanced back at the math teacher who was chuckling in the classroom doorway. “Really? Let me see!” she said, pushing against his broad shoulders so she could check the work herself. As she looked at the paper, her heart soared. “You really did it!” she said and hugged him. “This is awesome!”
Josh preened, proud of himself for the results. “Now you have to learn about football,” he said and took her hand, pulling her out of the school. He waved to his algebra teacher, the test still in his hand. “Come on. You’ve got a lot to learn.”
Thirty-six hours later, Mia was in the stands, wrapped up in a sweater and scarf as she screamed her head off. Josh was grinning from ear to ear as he tossed the football to the referee from the end zone. He looked up at Mia, saluting her as he moved over to the sidelines.
Mia and her friends high-fived each other, then settled down to watch the end of the game. Mia felt like she was in a bubble of happiness as she continued to watch the game, explaining third down conversions, pass interference, or interceptions to anyone who would listen.