Technically, the park was closed.
But Laura knew a place where the wire fence was split, and she had let the Aussies through and then climbed over behind them. It looked like a pond. There was, in fact, no place muddier in the winter in Portland, Oregon, than West Delta Dog Park, and that was saying something.
The dogs ran ahead of her in the standing water, splashing it behind them, already matted with wet dirt and dead grass. Occasionally they turned to look back at her, their warm breath condensing in the January air.
Laura wiped her nose with the back of her hand. It was a terrible day to be out. Her rain pants were slick with rain, her trail runners were soaked. She’d spent the early morning sandbagging downtown and her back ached. The stress fracture in her foot stung. Stay off it for six weeks, the doctors had said. As if.
The cloud cover hung so low that the tops of the trees seemed to brush it.
She loved this.
The worst weather, body aching. Nothing could keep her inside. Biking. Running. Walking the dogs. She was out there every day, no matter what. Not like all those poseurs who came out in the summer in their REI sun shirts and ran along the esplanade with their iPods and swinging elbows. Where were they in the dead of winter? At the gym, that’s where.
God, Laura hated those people.
Franklin glanced back at her, wagged his stubby tail, barked once, flattened his ears, and took off across the old road to the slough. It was their usual route. Penny, the puppy, stuck closer to Laura, zipping ahead ten feet and then circling back.
Laura heard it then. She had heard it all along, but it had faded to white noise, an ambient sound, like a jet passing overhead.
The Columbia Slough.
She knew it would be high. They’d had a ton of snow in December. Then it had warmed up and started to rain. That meant snowmelt from the mountains. Lots of it. The storm drains were backed up. The Willamette was near flood stage. The local news was live with it day and night; they were considering evacuating downtown. But that was the Willamette. Miles away.
As Laura rounded the corner, past the trees, where the old concrete pavilion sat sinking into the slough bank, she was aware of her mouth opening.
In the summer, the slough was still and flat, blanketed by algae so thick it looked solid enough to walk on. That slough was so stagnant that Laura was surprised anything could survive in it. That slough looked like a bucket of water that had been left on the back porch all summer.
This slough was alive. It moved like something angry and afraid, churning fast and high. Whitewater swept along the bank, pulling up debris and washing it downriver. Laura saw a branch get sucked into the water and lost sight of it in an instant as it was swallowed by the seething froth.
Franklin was up ahead, nosing along the old concrete pavilion at the slough’s bank. He whined and gave her a look.
She called his name and slapped her thigh. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
He turned to come to her. He’d been a rescue dog. Her husband had found him on the Internet. He’d been kept in some barn in Idaho, given little food and no human comfort. It had taken them years to teach him to trust people. And it filled Laura with pride to know that he had turned into such a good dog.
Even with the noise of the slough, he’d heard her. He’d turned to come.
And that’s when it happened.
Did he slip? Did the slough rise up suddenly and take him? She didn’t know.
He was looking right at her, and in a second he was gone.
It took her a moment to move. And then she snapped into action.
Her dog was not going to die. Not like this. She ran. She didn’t think about the stress fracture. The sore back. The raging river. She ran to the edge of the bank, scanning the water for him, as Penny barked fiercely at her heels.
Her heart leapt. She saw him. A glimpse—a wet mound of fur struggling in froth. He was already moving down the river, but he was alive, his black nose just above water.
She had several options.
Maybe if Franklin hadn’t been looking her in the eye when it happened she would have considered more of them. She would have called for help, or run alongside the river, or tied a rope around her waist.
She knew what happened to people who went into water after pets.
But Laura had seen something in Franklin’s brown eyes. He’d looked right at her.
“Stay,” she said to Penny.
And she plunged into the cold water after him.
Laura’s first sensation, in the rushing dirty sludge, was of not being able to breathe. She’d been hit by a car once, on her bike. It was like that. Like having all the air forced out of you by an impact of steel and concrete. Laura forced herself to take a deep breath, filling her lungs, and she tried to orient herself. Her head was above water, her wet braid around her neck. She was already turned around, already ten feet away from Penny, fifteen, twenty. The roar of the slough was unrelenting. Twigs and branches snapped against Laura’s face in the current, stinging her skin. Penny stood barking at the shore, pawing at the ground. Until Laura couldn’t hear her anymore.
Where was Franklin?
Laura struggled to see him, but at water level all she could see was more water. She was fifty feet away from Penny now. Sixty. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t see the shore. Just the sky, dark clouds, above her.
Cold water survival. You lost heat swimming.
She took a deep breath and lifted her hands, already numb, foreign, like they belonged to someone else, and she spread her arms and bobbed on her back, and let the current take her.
The current had taken Franklin.
It would take her to him.
Cold water filled her ears. They ached. Her teeth chattered, the sound lost in the roar of the slough. Her clothes felt heavy, filled with water, dragging her down.
And then she heard him.
Laura rolled over and used the last of her strength to fight her way through the current toward the whimper. He was there, caught against the roots of a fallen tree, the water trapping him. He saw her and his ears perked up, and his paws paddled in vain toward her.
She got to him.
She didn’t know how.
She got to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could have fought her. Animals did that. Panicked. But he didn’t. He went limp. He went limp into her arms, and she was able to use the tree as leverage and push her heels into the silt at the bottom of the slough, and she managed to somehow inch them both to the muddy riverbank.
She collapsed beside him in the mud, still holding on to him, still not letting him go. Her heart was pounding. They were soaked. Franklin whined and licked her face.
They’d made it.
She rolled onto her back, almost giddy. They were alive. She’d like to see one of those fair- weather esplanade runners survive something like this.
Franklin shook the water from his mangy coat and Laura turned away, lifting a hand over her face. “Hey, boy,” she said. “Easy.”
He growled, his upper lip tightening. He was looking at something behind her.
“What?” she said.
Franklin’s eyes narrowed, still focused over Laura’s shoulder.
She shivered. Whether it was from cold or fear, she didn’t know.
Laura turned around.
In the mud of the bank, partially exposed, was a human skeleton.
NIGHT SEASON Copyright © 2011 by Chelsea Cain