“Let’s talk more tomorrow, okay, Sam? I’ll be home after five. I’ll get sushi from Kenji’s.”
Sam nodded, feeling the weight of everything her dad had just told her. He had talked to her about Ryder, about how he wasn’t just another volunteer, about how he had been so incredibly selfless, about how he had also been so incredibly reckless and about how his decisions affected everyone around him.
But it wasn’t just what her dad had said, it was his voice that made his words feel sharp and painful. He had spoken softly, gently, and because of all the tender looks he had paused to give her, slowly. It was how he hadn’t even mentioned her name, what she’d done wrong, or how she should know better, yet still let her know that everything he was saying applied to her. How he had expressed disappointment, not anger, or annoyance, or impatience. Each word felt like a stab to her chest, cutting her down until she felt two centimeters tall.
Sam looked out the car window, watching large snowflakes fall at a diagonal while the windshield wipers thumped back and forth, clearing everything in their path. One blade must have had a bit of dirt on it, as a streak of water had formed an arc where it failed. But even though it wasn’t perfect, it did its job; it cleaned enough so she could see, enough for them to drive on. Sam thought about her path forward, what she would do as soon as she got home: first a shower, then her dog needed his medicated bath and finally, an early night’s sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
In the darkness, the muffled sound of a ring tone grew louder. Sam struggled to wake up. She was so tired and her eyelids were so heavy. Slowly, she gathered the strength to open them and the light of morning replaced the darkness. The candid photo on her bedside table of her mom watching her take her first steps gradually came into focus. Elaine Shepherd had a loving smile on her face as she sat on the floor, one hand outstretched behind Sam. Sam remembered wondering as a young child whether Mom’s supportive hand was there because she was ready to help her if she stumbled, or if she had just given her a little push to propel her forward. The ring of her phone was now full volume and she groaned as she reached to silence it.
Her voice was hoarse and her lips were dry. “Hello?”
“Ooh, sorry girlfriend, you’re still sleeping. Do you want to call me back later?” Penelope asked.
“Mmmm. No. We need to talk.”
“I know. You saw the new article in the Times?”
“Yeah, yesterday,” Sam said quietly despite feeling a spark of anger as she thought about the articles she had read on Sunny’s phone.
“Yesterday? Oh, then no, you haven’t. There’s a new one that came out this morning and you are not going to… Well, maybe I should start by telling you about the article Mrs. B published online in the Pique this morning. There’s a split photo of a helicopter flying in the air with Black Mountain in the background and you can see a person and a stretcher hanging off of a long rope underneath it. And then the other picture is of Ben on that stretcher being loaded into the transport van to go to the medical clinic. It says, ‘Saved Just in Time: The Story of How One Search and Rescue Volunteer Risked Everything to Save Ben Black’s Life.’ Mrs. B interviewed everyone: Lorne, Sunny, Fiona, me, Drew, Cara and even Wade. And the article mentions Ryder and how treacherous the conditions were. It’s amazing what happened and how Ben’s still alive. And it’s pretty clear from the interviews and everything that you saved Ben’s life.”
“Okay, but you said the Times published a new article too?” Sam couldn’t hide the hint of anxiety in her voice.
“Mmm, yeah. So the Times just has quotes from public statements Chief Constable Joe has made. The title is, ‘Person of Interest Released Due to Lack of Evidence’ and there is a split photo of you in cuffs getting into a police cruiser with your dad and dog behind you, and then one of you and your dad coming out of the police station. You were blinking and talking I think, because the picture they got of you is… well, let’s just say that it’s not very flattering. The top comment someone wrote under the story is, ‘That face says it all. Is she crying? Innocent heroes don’t usually look so upset if they’ve saved someone’s life. She looks guilty AF.’ I mean, seriously, where do these trolls come from?”
Sam sat up in bed, her heart thumping against her chest. “Can you meet me at one? South end of the Ice Bridge?” She was wide awake now.
Tiny snowflakes fell from the sky, hugging the village with a calm, peaceful quiet. Sam walked along the creek that flowed under the Ice Bridge where it forked from the main path, passing rocks along its banks that were covered in thick layers of pure white snow, like tall French chef hats.
Two little dogs ran out of the woods and splashed into the lively creek, impervious to the frigid temperature of the water.
“William! Harry!” Sam called. The dogs trotted through the water straight to her, their tails rotating like helicopter blades that propelled them forward. She bent down and gave each dog a scratch behind their long, dripping ears and a treat that they both swallowed whole without chewing. They sat in front of her, staring with their big, brown eyes, hoping for more. She couldn’t say no and was surprised to see their tails kick into a higher gear, wagging more quickly than she thought possible.
“Hey, mama!” Penelope said as she approached, her hand raised in response to Sam’s wave. “Where’s your dog?”
“He’s at home, traumatized and pouting from his medicated bath ritual.”
Penelope laughed. “Dogs are just like little kids, they’ll stomp through every puddle they come across, the dirtier, the better. William and Harry can lounge in mud water all day long, but as soon as they’re in the bathtub with a bit of shampoo, it’s torture. Add a couple of drops of ear cleaner and they’re ready to call the SPCA on me. At least you’ve only got one dog to deal with. Have you got a name for him yet?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to think about it. I wasn’t even sure if I could keep him.”
“Well, he’s your dog and you’re keeping him and he needs a name and that’s that,” Penelope said as though it was a ridiculously obvious, irrefutable fact. “Your dog’s been neglected or abandoned or abused or maybe all of those things. You totally saved him!”
“I just took him to the vet.” Sam looked at her boots as she felt her cheeks blush from the unexpected compliment. “People rescue dogs every day. It’s not like I cured cancer. It’s not going to change the world.”
“But you did change his world. Forever. Dogs know, you know. They know good people, they know real love and they know when they’ve found their human. Harry had three homes before I got him. Three families who said they wanted him, but didn’t really. Sure, they gave him food and shelter, but none of them really loved him.”
“Yeah, I heard you mention that to the animal control guy. Do you know Harry’s story?”
“Well, I’ll never know everything that’s happened to him, but when I got him, he was absolutely terrified of men wearing hats and he wasn’t even house-trained. I think that a man who wore hats must’ve been mean to him to make him so scared, but we worked on it a lot and now he seems fine with men, regardless of how they’re dressed.”
“Aww, poor Harry.” Sam bent down and rubbed Harry’s neck, making him crane his head forward and squint with satisfaction. “You’d never think that he had a dark history. He looks so normal and acts so happy all the time.”
“He had to gain a lot of weight to get to a healthy size, the ticks and fleas were easy to treat and he had to have a shocking number of teeth pulled. Otherwise, he’s good. But sometimes, he’ll suddenly yelp, crawl along the ground, hide under something and whimper. It’s totally heartbreaking. So, I might not know his whole story, but I learn bits and pieces every now and then. Just last week, I figured out that he’s afraid of rolled up newspapers. Who knows how many other hidden traumas he has.”
Sam moved her hands down Harry’s neck to massage his shoulders and back. He was now laying on the ground, fully stretch out, his eyes tightly closed in bliss.
“It’s easy to take an X-ray and put a cast on a broken bone,” Penelope continued, “but how do you disinfect a memory? It’s like those viruses my cousin Claudia told me about, the ones that becomes a part of your DNA. You hope that they stay inactive, but every once in a while, they’re triggered by stress or something and then… boom! Cold sore. So, maybe those wounds never heal, but maybe there’s a way to make sure they stay in remission. I think that he just needs to learn that whatever hurt him before will never hurt him again. He learns really fast, too. It only took one day to house train him. The problem was, nobody ever took the time to teach him to do his business outdoors. His first family, they moved out of the country and just left him. Just abandoned him in the house alone with a bag of unopened kibble. Like, hello, brainless people, couldn’t you have just dropped him off at a shelter? People who do stuff like that shouldn’t have children, in my opinion. Anyway, he cried for days before his second family, the next door neighbors, got him. They kept him for awhile before they gave him away to a friend of theirs because they had a baby. That friend gave him to me. She admitted that she just didn’t have time for him, that she didn’t want to make time for him. She wasn’t mean to him like the man with the hat, but at the end of the day, to Harry, it probably felt the same — his family didn’t care about him. They weren’t really family though, were they? So, now he finally has a forever home with me. I’m not sure he even knew what it felt like to be loved before, but I try my best to make sure he knows that feeling every day. So give your dog a name. He needs all the love he can get.”
Sam gave William and Harry another treat and smiled. They swallowed the treats quickly and ran over to Penelope, where they sat at her feet and stared at her intently. “Okay. I get your point. I’ll try to think of a name for him. But right now, I need to ask you a question.” Penelope looked up from petting her dogs, her eyebrows raised with interest. “Did you take any pictures or videos while we were on the Challenge?”
“Sure,” Penelope said, whipping out her phone. “Here. What are you looking for?”
“So, at the first checkpoint, where we camped the first night—”
“You mean bean night?” Penelope said with a smile.
“Yup, that’s the one.” Sam crinkled her nose as she looked up from Penelope’s phone. “I woke up sometime after we fell asleep to go pee. And… and I think I saw someone watching us.”
“What?” Penelope’s eyes widened and her mouth hung open.
“I thought I saw a dark figure over by Ben’s tent, so I went to look. One minute the branches were moving and the next they weren’t. And when I got there, there was a cigarette butt on the snow.”
“What?” Penelope’s eyes bulged out further. “And you didn’t wake me up? He could have been out there sniffing my shoes!”
“Hmm?” Sam wasn’t fully paying attention to Penelope as she slowly scrolled through the photos, studying them carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, he could be one of those weirdos who has a foot fetish and likes to sniff shoes.”
“I… I don’t think so, Pips,” Sam said. She squinted, studying one photo carefully. Could there be something in this one?
“You don’t know that Sam. Can you say that with one hundred percent certainty? That there isn’t one, teeny, tiny chance that somebody in this world of billions of people has a foot fetish and would be willing to inhale while in the close proximity of my shoes?”
Sam didn’t respond as she zoomed in on the photo. Did Penelope actually capture hard evidence right here on her phone?
Sam zoomed in on the photo a little more and her heart jumped. “Okay,” she said with satisfaction as her heart started beating faster.
“Aha! You caved!” Penelope jiggled back and forth, clearly proud of herself.
“Pips, Look at this!” Sam held the phone up for Penelope, her voice full of excitement.
Still basking in her win, Penelope took a second to finish her happy dance. Taking the phone, she zoomed in and out before saying, “Is that someone in the bushes?”
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