He squinted -- it was nine o'clock in the morning, but in December in Alaska, there wasn't much sunlight. His breath hung before him like lace. For a moment, through the curtain of snow, he thought he could see the bright flash of her hair -- a fox's tail peeking from a snug woolen cap -- but as quickly as he saw it, it was gone.
The Yupiit also had a word for the moments when it was so cold that a mug of water thrown into the air would harden like glass before it ever hit the frozen ground: cikuq'erluni. One wrong move, Daniel thought, and everything will go to pieces around me. So he closed his eyes, gunned the machine, and let instinct take over. Almost immediately, the voices of elders he used to know came back to him -- spruce needles stick out sharper on the north side of trees; shallow sandbars make the ice buckle -- hints about how to find yourself, when the world changed around you.
He suddenly thought back to the way, at Faneuil Hall, Trixie had melted against him when they were reunited. Her chin had notched just behind his shoulder, her body went boneless with faith. In spite of what he'd done, she'd still trusted him to keep her safe, to bring her home. In hindsight, Daniel could see that the real mistake he'd made that day hadn't been turning his back momentarily. It had been believing that you could lose someone you loved in an instant, when in reality it was a process that took months, years, her lifetime.
It was the kind of cold that made your eyelashes freeze the minute you walked outside and the insides of your nostrils feel like shattered glass. It was the kind of cold that went through you as if you were no more than a mesh screen. Trixie Stone shivered on the frozen riverbank beneath the school building that was checkpoint headquarters in Tuluksak, sixty miles from the spot where her father's borrowed snow machine was carving a signature across the tundra, and tried to think up reasons to stay right where she was.
Unfortunately, there were more reasons -- better reasons -- to leave. First and foremost, it was a mistake to stay in one place too long. Second, sooner or later, people were going to figure out that she wasn't who they thought she was, especially if she kept screwing up every task they gave her. But then again, how was she supposed to know that all the mushers were entitled to complimentary straw for their sled dogs at several points during the K300 racecourse, including here in Tuluksak? Or that you could take a musher to the spot where food and water was stored. . . but you weren't allowed to help feed the dogs? After those two fiascos, Trixie was demoted to babysitting the dogs that were dropped from a team, until the bush pilots arrived to transport them back to Bethel.
So far the only dropped dog was a husky named Juno. Frostbite -- that was the official reason given by the musher. The dog had one brown eye and one blue eye, and he stared at Trixie with an expression that spoke of being misunderstood.
In the past hour, Trixie had managed to sneak Juno an extra handful of kibble and a couple of biscuits, stolen from the vet's supply. She wondered if she could buy Juno from the musher with some of the money left over in the stolen wallet. She thought maybe it would be easier to keep running if she had someone else to confide in, someone who couldn't possibly tell on her.
She wondered what Zephyr and Moss and anyone else back home in the other Bethel -- Bethel, Maine -- would say if they saw her sitting in a snowbank and eating salmon jerky and listening for the crazy fugue of barking that preceded the arrival of a dog team. Probably, they would think she had lost her mind. They'd say, Who are you, and what have you done with Trixie Stone? The thing is, she wanted to ask the same question.
Copyright ©2006 by Jodi Picoult
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