A Dead Darling

"Kill your darlings," said Ernest Hemingway, meaning when you revise, sometimes you have to cut stuff you really like. Here's a scene I really like from THE WILD INSIDE--it survived multiple drafts, but in the end, I realized it didn't really belong in the book anymore. But it still contains a nice moment between my protagonist, Tracy, and her dad. Enjoy!

I stepped on the runners and gripped the handlebar, on the sled by myself for the very first time. I felt something change in me. My body got tense and relaxed all at once, the way it does when I set for a good while in the trees, waiting and watching, but all the while my mind as calm as the surface of the lake on a still night.

Okay, I said, then yanked the snow hook loose.

Racing dogs don’t get started gradual. Dogs that are raised to run want to run. I’ve seen adult men struggle to keep a small dog in control while putting it on the line. The anticipation mounts up in them, like they will explode if they don’t run soon. So once the snow hook is released and the dogs feel this untethering, they become wild. They are working dogs, they have been civilized and given a job to do, and they want to do it. But they are also the children of wolves. There’s a lot of years that separates them from their ancestors but they’ve still got that wildness in them all the time, like a tiny flame that flares up when you pour fuel onto it. You see it in their eyes, how most of the time they are keeping the flame in check. But when my dogs run, they let that flame burn wild.

Su and Howl and Flash lunged forward and the sled jerked, but I held on. None of the dogs had been exercised in a good week, what with all that had been going on. My three dogs was fresh, and they run like fresh dogs, galloping almost, sleek and sure and fast. Straight for the trailhead.

I knew soon as I seen where we was headed that I didn’t want to go down the trail, not for my first solo run. My dogs could run fifty miles and barely tire themselves out, so the three miles from our yard to Ptarmigan Lake wouldn’t phase them, they would shoot off the trail and onto water that was only partially frozen that time of year. We’d break through the ice before I could stop them. A sled has got a brake but it don’t work like the brake of a car, where you know putting your foot down will make a full stop. A sled brake is just a suggestion. You don’t train racing dogs to stop.

When I seen my team headed for the trail, I hollered Haw! and torqued my handlebar left and leaned my weight that way. My dogs went left. Good, I said under my breath. That’s good.

With every new dog, Dad done training the same way. He always started by running the perimeter of our property, round and round, getting a feel for how the dogs are going to perform, pairing rookie dogs with old pros, seeing who’s going to quarrel with who and which dogs work well together before he takes them out on the trail. Su and Howl and Flash was old pros, they hadn’t run the loop-de-loop since they was practically pups. Once they understood what I had in mind, though, they obliged and took me sailing round the yard. Their backs rising and falling, their paws kicking up little fans of snow. My heart pulsed in my throat and I felt my own warm blood rushing through my veins. A kind of calm come over me, different from the way I feel when I am hunting. Alert, eyeballs sharp, but my body loose. Relaxed. I stood on the runners where my dad normally stood, and the dogs did not balk at having someone strange running them, they started their fifth turn round the yard and for the first time I looked away from the trail they had made in the snow and found Dad, standing out by the barn, watching me, a smile on his face.

I stood on the brake and tossed the snow hook out behind me, started working my team to a stop, gradual. We passed by the house and when they was slow enough I called out, Come haw! to double the dogs back to the barn.

They turned just like I told them. I had control.

Then that fox come back. All that winter, this little gray fox had visited us on a near-weekly basis. He would saunter into the yard, sniff at the corners of the shed, piss wherever he pleased, barely even look at the twenty-seven dogs barking their fool heads off at him. I think he knew all them dogs was tethered and couldn’t get to him because he would go right up to where they could almost reach him and stand there and stare at them while they went crazy at the ends of their chains. All winter long, I’d been dying to get my hands on that fox.

Su spotted the little bastard first. He come trotting into the yard, didn’t even notice that there was three dogs tied to nothing but my sled with its smooth runners for gliding over the snow. Su was lead dog, she turned all at once, dodging right, and Flash followed because she always done whatever Su told her. But Howl was on Flash’s right, she plowed straight into him. He stumbled, then regained his feet, then seen just what Su and Flash was after, and the three of them angled back toward the trailhead, sprinting after the fox.

Dogs can make sharp turns. Sleds can’t. The dogs veered right and the sled tipped onto its side and dragged along behind them, bumping and jerking and bouncing over the snow.

The whole time, I held on. Dad had told me plenty of times, If the sled ever falls over, if your feet ever slip off the runners—hold on. So I did, with both hands. I clutched the handlebar of the rig and slid on my stomach, my feet kicking. I kept my head up and got a faceful of ice and snow and dirt.

Over at the house, Steve and Scott was drawn outside by Dad hollering at the dogs, they stood on the back stoop to watch the strangest parade they ever laid eyes on:  a skinny gray fox running for its life; three barking, snarling dogs tearing after it; the overturned sled they dragged behind them; and me, whipping across the snow on my belly. Even from across the yard, they said later, they could hear me laughing.

The fox darted left and wriggled inside a hole between two bales of straw piled up against the kennel. That’s how we finally stopped. Dad run over and I stood up and fell into his arms, laughing and gasping. Up on the stoop, Scott clapped his hands, and Steve come jogging over to help wrangle the dogs.

Later Dad did what he called damage assessment, the two of us in the bathroom, him peeling the paper off the back of a bandage while I set on the toilet lid, dabbing at my bloody knee.

He shook his head. Said, I don’t know what I was thinking. Your mother—

The words come out and hung in the air, like how a breath will fog and freeze on the coldest days. Almost a solid thing.

He cleared his throat.

Your mother would kill me if she knew I let you run three dogs on your own.

Water dripped from the leaky faucet, plunk, plunk against the bottom of the sink, so loud in the quiet between us. He knelt down and put the bandage on my knee, then pressed his hand gentle against my side, feeling my ribs to see if they was broken. Looked into my eyes to check for concussion. He said, You’re okay, aren’t you? Just a little banged up.

I nodded.

He grinned real big and said, You weren’t scared at all, were you?

No, sir.

I should’ve known, he said. You’ve always been a natural.

It wasn’t just how he was smiling but that he was smiling at all, it was the first time in months he didn’t look like someone who’d lost an eye or a lung, some vital part of himself gone.

I wanted to say something then. Anything to make the happiness on his face stay. I rolled words around in my brain, trying to put them one after another, like the cars of a train, but they wouldn’t line up right.

All of a sudden, he grabbed me. Just picked me up from where I set, like I was a little girl again, and he wrapped me in his arms and I pressed my face against his shoulder, he smelled like the woods and cold air and dirt, a smell like everything I love. I hugged him back, hard. I had this thought, if I squeezed him hard enough all the words I couldn’t find would seep through my skin and soak into him, and he would know everything that was inside me that I couldn’t say.