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It was dusk on a winter day, and from high on the mountain came barking, drifting down above the snow like peals of a bell, one, two, three, four, more, just to say the light was leaving, but that was all right: here I am, I'm a dog, all is well.
At the inn on the flat of the lowland, Mrs. Auberchon made her way upstairs, grumbling to herself. But she paused out of habit to listen. She was a large-frame woman of fifty, with the outer crust of anyone who used to be tender. Her name was Lucille, but no one used it. She was Mrs. Auberchon only: dependable, competent, solitary Mrs. Auberchon, always there, always far away, even if you were standing right in front of her.
Her arms were stacked with bed linens, towels, a six-pack of plastic water bottles, a new bar of soap. The Sanctuary had called only half an hour ago saying that a new trainee was on the way. Usually they gave her plenty of notice. She'd been up to her neck in visitors all week, and she had only just finished cleaning up from them. What she needed was peace, not more chores.
Strangely, they hadn't sent her the application form, or filled her in on any background. She only knew the gender, female, and the age, twenty-four. That wasn't fair. They were busy on the mountain, but they didn't have to treat her like an afterthought, not that she'd say so and be a complainer. It wasn't as if applications were pouring in.
She was liking what she heard. At this time of day the barking up there was usually worried, or even panicked, as in, oh no, here comes the dark, hurry up, take me in, take me in. Or it was rough, demanding, obnoxious, only about dinnertime and hey, don't you know it's time to feed me, feed me, feed me?
She couldn't tell which dog was barking up there, but the voice was calm, deep, confident. Then came a fade-off and echoes, scattered toward the inn like invisible falling stars. This was maybe a very good sign. Maybe, Mrs. Auberchon was thinking, the new one, female, twenty-four, whoever she was, wherever she came from, wouldn't give her any trouble. That was the most she could hope for: no trouble.CHAPTER 2
Would you like to become a dog?
I clicked on the ad. There was nothing fancy or standout grabby about it. It was just a little box of black words, small as a whisper, lost and alone on a sleek professional site. Even without the mistake, I saw that it was a misfit, like in the picture game for children: "Which thing doesn't belong here?"
Somewhere, a human being had made a mistake with an ad. That's what caught my attention: a blank that shouldn't be there. I'd been looking at pages about jobs and careers for I didn't know how many hours — maybe a hundred, maybe more. I didn't even know what I was trying to find. I was getting the feeling that all I'd have for a career was sitting around trying to get one, like my future would be over before I had it. Then suddenly I felt that I stood in the doorway of a crowded, noisy room, picking up the sound of a whisper no one else seemed to hear.
I never had a pet of any kind. I never knew a dog well enough to be friends with. But I couldn't look away from that box. What was the empty space for? Groomer? Breeder? Technician, like in a vet's office?
It was trainer. Trainer! I had never in my life trained anyone or anything, not even a plant. I tried it out. "Hi, I'm Evie. I'm becoming a trainer." Something was so physical about it, so real. A smile. "No, not that kind of trainer. Not like what you do in a gym."
And that was how it started.CHAPTER 3
It was late when I arrived. The village was deep in snow. The mountain was hidden in misty darkness, without a glimmer of light to show that the Sanctuary was there. But I knew from their website what it was like: a sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort. In one small photo, my favorite, a flagpole in the front yard had a dark square banner bearing the Sanctuary's logo: an outline in white of a lightly spotted dog. The drawing was roughly done, and the dog was tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air.
The inn at the foot of the mountain was beaming out lights. It had the frame of a chalet, two stories high and dark brown wooden. Stacks of firewood ran along the front, and to the side I saw a chainlink enclosure, icy and brushed with snow, about five feet high. The space inside was large enough for a toddlers' playground — that's what I thought it was.
I went inside. Welcoming me was a wood stove, huge and black, churning out heat I could almost see in waves.
"Hi. I'm a new trainee in the dog-training school," I said at the lobby desk. "I start up there tomorrow."
The first thing I had to do was find out the schedule for getting to the top. I'd read about the old gondola, still running after all these years, although no one had skied here for ages. I was excited about the ride, being up in the air. For the last ten hours I'd been stuck on things that kept moving too slowly: a taxi in city traffic, an Amtrak that was not an express, a bus to the village, another bus to the end of the lane where the inn was, then my own two feet making sinkholes in deep, thick snow, which felt heavier than it was, because my backpack, brand-new, an enormous one, a real trekker's, was driving me crazy.
It felt light when I put it on my shoulders that morning. I'd sent most of my clothes ahead, care of the Sanctuary, so I'd have room for all my new books, which I needed to keep secret. They were paperbacks, but still, I had to drag the pack the last few yards in the lane, drag it up the steps of the inn, drag it inside, trailing snow. Now it was sitting at my feet, maybe as a dog would, silent and well behaved, indifferent to the snow that was melting and sliding off onto an old, worn carpet. Absurdly, I'd imagined some service. Getting off the bus, I had worried that my hands would be too stiff with cold to finger out a tip for whoever relieved me of that weight.
"There hasn't been a gondola for years. It collapsed. They'll come get you."
"But on the web —"
The sleepy desk clerk interrupted me with a tight little shake of her head. She was a solid-looking woman of late middle age, as pale as if she hadn't been outdoors her whole life. But she seemed to be sturdy and fit, and I had the impression she was stern with all arrivers, and even sterner with herself. Her thick hair was exactly the color of broom straw, with a mix of gray. She wore it pulled back very tightly, and her broad face had a pinch to it, like the knot at the back of her neck caused her pain, but she didn't plan to do anything about it. No one else was in the lobby. The silence all around was another kind of foggy darkness.
"Your room," said the clerk, "is at the top of the stairs."
She wasn't presenting a key, and she shook her head again when I asked for one. "Lock yourself in, if you want to. But it won't be necessary. You're the only one I've got."
She looked at me as if to let me know we'd come to the end of what we needed to say to each other.
I said, "Which room is mine?"
"You'll see it."
"Okay," I said. "I'd like a wake-up call. What time —"
"When they're coming for you, you'll hear them."
"Like with a snowmobile, do you mean?"
"You'll know it when you hear it," the woman said.
"Well, good night then."
This went unacknowledged. I lugged the pack up a narrow flight of steps that led to an open door, and entered a vestibule for outdoor things, where the shelves, wall hooks, and rubber floor mats were empty. Then I felt like Goldilocks, except that the bedroom I stepped into had eight beds, four on each side. They were single futons on top of pine chests of drawers. Each had an overhead wall shelf and a footlocker-type storage box made of pine boards, unpainted, about the size of half a coffin. For light there were no lamps, just ceiling globes. Everything was extremely clean, even the heat vents. No pictures on the walls. No curtains on the windows, just wooden shutters, closed. The floor was pine too, but smooth as a bowling alley, newly oiled.
They made you sleep on a bureau in a bunkroom?
Only one bed was made, in the corner near the doorway. The dark quilt that covered it was goose-feather thick. I cheered up at the thought of my books and emptied my pack. All the titles or subtitles contained the word training, along with some form of dog.
I'd planned to look at a few of them on my trip, but they were wedged at the bottom. I'd made the mistake of packing them first. But I'd kept out, in my shoulder bag, a handbook on groups and breeds, which I then forgot on the train. I wasn't mad at myself. I'm good with memorization. I'd done a great job of filling my head with types, descriptions, images.
I was too tired for bedtime reading. I found my phone and sat still, looking at it. I'd been out of contact all day. At first I had switched myself off because I was too nervous about traveling; then I'd started to like being all alone, moving through the world.
Sleep was coming at me as naturally as dusk or an incoming tide. I had the sense, in this moment, of all things, strange as it was, I actually felt happy. Report: oh my God, I might really be all right.
Should I call someone? Who would be glad to hear this news, just be glad? An invisible owl was starting to hoot in my ears, who, who, who? I knew I had to contact the world I'd left behind, but all I could manage was a general text. Got here fine. Here goes the rest of my life, and I'm completely sure it's the best decision I ever made, even though I'm the only one who thinks so!
I stayed calm. I reminded myself that I had wanted to be new. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be learning to be out in the world on my own like a grown-up, as if I'd just hatched out of a big, gooey egg.
As soon as I was under the quilt, I imagined myself back on the train, reading the breed book. To sort the information, I had started with sizes, working up from Chihuahua. I loved what it was like to drift along through this world of new words, my head full of details and dogs, dogs, dogs.
Chihuahua, pug, dachshund, poodle, beagle, schnauzer, collie, shepherd, mastiff.
Boxer, pointer, retriever, setter.
Black and tan, bluetick, redbone.
Clumber, cocker, pinscher, Plott, whippet.
Chow chow, shar-pei, shih tzu.
Jack Russell, King Charles, Parson Russell, St. Bernard.
Short hair, long, straight, curly, hairless. Ears that were floppy, ears sticking up in triangles, ears like a ball of fluff, a circle that was almost round, a flap on a very small envelope. Back-leg fur feathers, manes, whiskers, beards, webbed paws or not. Stumpy tails, curlicues, bushy pompoms, ropey whips. Gray coats, brindle, brown, black, white, yellow, tawny, bronze, rusty, spotted, striped, blotchy.
Bulldog, cattle dog, elkhound, foxhound, otter hound, rat terrier, sheepdog, wolfhound.
Afghan, Australian, Belgian, Black Russian, Boston, English, French, German, Greater Swiss, Irish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Rhodesian, Scottish, Tibetan, Welsh.
I had sorted them by the elements too, as in earth, water, air, fire: field dogs, swimming dogs, dogs that run like wind, dogs with bright eyes like sparks from a flame, and I was telling myself, in my last thought of that day, I had done my homework and I was ready.
Seven hours later, I woke sharply, cleanly, and instantly alert, to the sound of dogs on the mountain. They were racing toward the inn with a racket that split the air, the morning, the world, louder than thunder because it sounded so alive.CHAPTER 4
Complete heterochromia, the condition of different irises, is common in sled dogs: one blue and one amber. Some people find it fascinating, not disturbing. But the breed book didn't say the colors would be icily cold when you saw them for real. It didn't say the eyes would be part of the faces of teethy, screaming animals as strong and wild as wolves.
Out back of the inn, every bark, yelp, and howl left echoes that bit the air, as if the echoes had teeth of their own. No, not teeth. They were fangs. Even in the safety of looking down from the window at those dogs, in harnesses that could snap any moment and release them, I was having some trouble containing myself.
I could not go near those dogs. I could not ride up on that sled they were attached to. It looked lighter than a basket.
By now I'd seen the mountain in daylight. It wasn't steep as much as it was vertical. Wind was blowing high up, and in the clouds of swirling snow, I couldn't make out what the height was. It seemed to keep going and going. I had never been anywhere before so full of outdoors, with no buildings, no cars, no anything human at all. Maybe that was helping me feel even more terrified. But I wished that somewhere in my past I'd been traumatized by dogs, so I could blame my escape on a memory, like I was having a flashback.
I washed up quickly in the small bathroom. I saw that I had fooled myself the night before when I thought I was happy. I was supposed to have learned to stop fooling myself.
Loading my pack, I wondered about the bus schedule back to the village, back to the train. I decided to make my way to the main road and flag down a bus while walking briskly, so I didn't die of hypothermia. That was my only plan.
Soon I was quietly descending the stairs, seeing no one. My stay at the inn was part of my Sanctuary tuition, prepaid, so I didn't need to check out, and I didn't want to tangle with that clerk. I stepped outside into a dazzle of whiteness and sun. No dogs had broken free to come lunging around to the front. The barking had stopped.
But a different noise was on the way. I had just set my feet on the ground when a vehicle appeared. It was a Jeep, a Cherokee, thrashing toward the inn through the snow, honking, blowing out exhaust from a broken muffler loud enough to be gunshot.
The thing was souped up on studded tires and fitted with a bar on the grille in the shape of a frown, plus extra, raised headlights, like a second pair of eyes on a clunky, four-footed cyborg. It came to a stop sideways, right by me. On the door was the Sanctuary's name and logo, and I realized, seeing it closely, in actual life, that the picture of the dog, at its airy, sky-walking tilt, was like a drawing on a star chart. It was Canis Major. What I'd thought were spots on its body were stars.
At the wheel was a figure wearing sunglasses and a jacket of forest green, like a park ranger's.
The Jeep was in idle, engine throbbing, muffler rumbling in many little explosions. The window on the driver's side was rolled down. There was no way to tell if the driver was a man or a woman, not even when I was greeted by name.
I shouted, "Will you take me to the train?"
"I know you're here to train! We thought you were coming last night!"
"I'm leaving! Leaving!"
I started for the passenger's side, but the driver stopped me with a look.
"I came down for the sled puppies! They're too young to go back on their own!"
Puppies? Those animals were puppies?
At last the engine was turned off. The driver was a chubby, pink-cheeked boy who looked about twelve. Yet he worked for the Sanctuary. Obviously he could drive. Taking off his sunglasses, he revealed pale, friendly eyes.
"Welcome to the mountain," he said.
"But I'm not on it."
"Welcome anyway. It's great you're in time for breakfast. You look hungry."
I asked him, "How old are you?"
That was when the desk clerk from last night stuck her head out the inn door and yelled two sentences before slamming it shut. She was addressing the driver.
"They're starting her right off! Tell her to get in here and get ready!"
"Uh-oh," said the driver. "I guess they changed the plan. Sorry about this. Mrs. Auberchon will show you where to go. She's the manager."
"Oh, the manager. I guess I'd better meet her."
"You just did. That was her. Listen, you have to hide, but don't be nervous. Just follow instructions and you'll be perfect."
It was cold. My teeth were starting to rattle. I was getting the feeling I should do as I was told.
"The dog who'll try to find you might qualify for SAR," the driver said. "So we need to practice with a stranger. You have to hide like you're in a building that's on fire, or was bombed, or you were in a plane wreck. You have to pretend you're unconscious."
He gave me a grin, a big one. "By the way," he said, "I'm old enough to figure out you saw those sledders, or at least you heard them, and you didn't get it they're still just pretty much babies. But don't worry. I'm not going to tell on you."
In my application to the Sanctuary, I had sort of suggested I was someone who had actual experience with actual dogs. But still. I'm not going to tell on you? He sounded four.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances"
Copyright © 2014 Ellen Cooney.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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