By Cindy Graham
I’m sitting on the step that goes down to the porch, leaning against the door frame with my walkie-talkies in the pockets of my thick, red dress. It’s a bright winter morning, but the clothes dryer’s on and giving off its heat. The warmth, along with the rhythmic clanging of winter jackets and zippers in the dryer, has me drowsy. When my father bursts in, the sharp squeak of the near-frozen door handle jerks my head up, like a puppet come to life.
“Hullo,” he mutters, swinging the door open and stomping the snow off his boots. Our German shepherd comes trailing in after him, his fur dusted in snow.
“Hi, Dad. Heyyy, Zeus!” I tap my hands on the floor to get the dog’s attention.
The ears go up when I call him but he’s more inclined to shake off the snow. I let out a yelp as he sprays, an easy target. When he finishes he greets me properly, tongue panting and tail thumping happily against the dryer.
He lets me pat him, but his attention is on my father, who tosses his cigarettes on top of the dryer and pulls off his jacket. He walks to the closet to pull out his helmet and snowmobile suit while the dog watches him, sits properly and waits.
“Dad...” My voice is barely loud enough to get the words out. Zippers clang and Zeus pants quietly. “Can I go with you?”
My father puts on his snowsuit one leg at a time, brings up the top, arms in arm holes, and zips up. I wait for his answer.
Out of habit, I suppose, he pats himself for the cigarettes, so I reach up to the dryer and pass him his Export A’s. He takes them from my hand and sighs the way he always does when he comes in—like he wants us to know how hard it is out there in garages and under machines. I feel my face flush.
His greying hair is stuck up all over from pulling off his toque. He finds his lighter, and his voice is low and grumbly when he brings the flame to his stick.
“If you’re comin’, tell your mother,” he says. The cigarette bounces up and down as he speaks. I watch him drag and inhale before letting the smoke blow through his nostrils, then I grab a walkie-talkie, run to the back of the house and fly up the stairs, hitting the landing hard. It startles my mother, who’s vacuuming.
“Jesus, Hannah!” she yells sharply, one hand clutching her chest. “Don’t ever do that again!”
“Sorry, Mom.” My face flushes again.
She goes back to her work, her long, dark ponytail moving steadily as she makes each pull and push with the carpet sweeper, and I fidget with the walkie-talkie before I dare say anything else. Through the bathroom window I can see the field covered in snow, shimmering in the late morning sun, and the river behind it covered in ice.
“Mom?” I need a second before I can continue. “Dad’s going skidooing.” And then, hesitantly, while her back is still turned to me, I say, “Can I go with him?”
It takes her a few seconds to stand the nozzle upright, shut off the machine, and turn to me. “What?” she asks, her eyebrows furrowed. I step forward to put the walkie-talkie on top of the dresser.
“I’m going with Dad,” I say, before she can think about it too much. And through the speaker static, we can hear my father getting the dog all riled up downstairs. I catch my mother rolling her eyes just before she turns her back to start vacuuming again, but since she doesn’t say anything, I assume I can go.
Downstairs, I make my way back to the porch, picking up the other walkie-talkie along the way and passing my father, who’s shaking paws with the dog in the kitchen, crying, “You coming? You coming too, you big ballafur? Hah hah hah…!”
Normally all you hear is the fridge running and the hum of the furnace coming on steady on Saturday mornings, so the laughter sounds weird, out of place.
The dog thumps his tail in anticipation and rises on all fours when he sees my father turn back to the porch.
“D’ja tell your mother?” he asks, when he brushes by me. I answer him, though he’s not really waiting for an answer.
While I’m finding my hat and mittens and tucking the walkie-talkie into my snowsuit pocket, he lights up another cigarette and glances at the time. There’s a clock on the wall everyone sees when they come to the house, one of those curvy pieces of wood with a picture of our very first shepherd on it. I stand and wait for a sign that we’re leaving when, without word, my father opens the door, letting the dog rush ahead. I take my cue to follow and close on my way out, and watch him toss his cigarette to the snow.
I run past them across the yard to the garage full of giant machines and the snowmobile. Gas and oil fumes permeate the air. There’s a tractor-trailer with its hood up, and I’ve already flicked on the lights and taken the skidoo key from its nail when they come in.
“Were you working on the truck this morning, Dad?” I ask, as I hand him the key.
“You could say that.” And then, under his breath I hear him say, “Christless piece of shit.”
He allowed me to go with him once before, though this is the first time we’ve gone out this winter. He sits behind me, starts it up and says, “Wanna drive?” My eyes water from the fumes, but after he steers us out of the garage he lets me take us down the driveway to the farmer’s field behind our house, where I have sunshine, a clear path, and speed.
I push the throttle and steer us in a line across the field towards the river, where we’ll cross into the next field over. I stop and idle when we reach the bank so my father can whistle for Zeus. He’d been racing behind us, but deer and rabbit tracks have got him sniffing and distracted. My father whistles from his fingers, and it brings him immediately to us.
“Go sit on the back will ya?” says my father. I get off and take my seat behind him, put my arms around his waist and check for the dog, who follows close as we start down the bank. Once we get to the river’s edge, the sun is so bright I have to shield my eyes from the glare. Fresh snowmobile tracks are visible rising up the bank on the other side, though, so it must be all right to cross.
That’s why, when we hear the first crack, it comes as a shock. I’ve no sooner realized what the sound means than I’m in the water, plunged down with the snowmobile’s weight on top of me. I think I hear my mother’s voice, garbled, through the static of my walkie talkie somehow, and the current has just started to take hold. I can feel the pull when my father’s arm reaches into the water and heists me up, onto the ice. Carefully, he drags me back to the bank.
“Are ya all right? Are ya okay?” His face looks wild with fear.
“I’m all right,” I would say if I could, but my teeth are chattering too hard.
He sits me on the snow bank so he can take off his snowsuit and wrap it around me, lifting and cradling me to his chest before he starts the climb up to the field. I can’t control the chatter of my teeth, and he starts to run.
In seconds I’m aware of the huff-puffing of his breath and my weight in his arms. I don’t know how far he’s come but I’m numb with cold. If I peer back past the outside edge of his shoulder, I can see the ice floes in the river recede as my father steadily makes his distance. He’s running along the tracks we made just minutes before, and Zeus’ prints, heading in the opposite direction—for the river—merge into my line of sight now, too. They burrow deep into the snow, and I can see that as his paws emerged from each stride they scuffed the surface like some crazed pony that blazed across the field. And it dawns on me, halfway across now, our house up the hill in the distance that the dog’s nowhere around us, and hasn’t been since we left the river.