We would watch the sled dogs zoom by our huge office window, snow spurting from either side of the sleigh, Camel’s dogs mad to get to the finish line first. Our racer displays a waving hand as we cheer. If the fur-coated man were to skin one of his beloved animals, he would probably be warmer. But his heart towards those Malamutes and Huskies equaled that of a mother towards her newborn child.
He would rise early and scrub those stocky Siberians and Alaskans clean before feeding them mountainous bowls of turkey bacon, chicken breast and deer chunks. Then he hitches the barking, howling, tail-swishing dogs to heavy harnesses before hiking back inside to eat some warm cinnamon oatmeal.
Everything runs smoothly here—excited smiles spread across cold, wind-whipped faces as the impatient dogs are shushed with a snap of their mushers’ caps against the last dog’s metallic collar. Then they’re busy scratching themselves, sniffing for some fallen bacon bits and wagging innocent tails. But Camel’s dogs win, and he’s rewarded with the city mayor’s handshake and a medal.
Any of us imagine whether the snow is hot to the touch from the metal runners. A child has reached below the rope; fortunately, he saw the sleds just in time.
That was a decade ago. The children know better than to interfere. Just like we office folks know better than to just stand around, waiting for Camel and his dogs. We obey our boss like clockwork—he drops piles of papers onto desks, and we grab packets to edit, copy into other documents, rewrite, scan, fax, mail and review with him. Impressed with our work, the boss rewards a promotion every few years. Our fifth promotor was a couple of months ago!
No one has left the building since we all moved in.
Mornings ring with greetings. Days are filled with joy, success and memorable moments. Grinning staff shake newcomers’ shoulders, who praise our squeaky-clean building.
But someone pointed out that the power went out one day.
Someone jolted, knocking into something. Sparks flew. A metallic whizzing sound filled the otherwise still atmosphere. Then, the computer’s red and green lights blinked out. Someone pierced the air with their knowledge that a computer was broken.
That person’s clumsiness was reprimanded. Another defended him or her. Everyone started shouting and yelling. Anger riddled the corridors of our office’s hallways. Desperate pleas to stay calm echoed the open office spaces. The more frustration exploded from tight-voiced workers, the more some of us could probably smell the stress oozing from the receptionists and her customers.
Everyone immediately reigned in their emotions at the sound of mushed snow.
“Did you hear that—”
“All of you—quit!” The boss roared.
“But it’s dark outside.” Someone quipped after a few confused barks.
“I have an idea.”
The sound of an opening drawer. A clunk and then a soft snap.
Flashlight was directed at the sled. Camel must be training his dog, Lone—a hunk of meat dangled at the salivating dog’s snapping mouth—
Wait—Lone was actually outside?
Last year’s accident scarred him for months, leaving him having traded the sleigh for his bed. But here he was!
Camel started frustrating the dickens out of some of our office workers—they started pounding on the glass, waving and calling for him to do something. He squinted like he misunderstood. Some others started jumping up and down.
It was a living nightmare.
The rest of the day, we had sat in darkness, working by flashlight and candles. However, one person knocked over his candle, and a stack of papers caught fire. He started throwing insults at this guy, and they tried fixing the problem with fists hurled at each other’s faces. A couple ripped them apart.
“We can’t have that here.” The boss admonished. One of them apologized, while the other stamped out the remains of the fire already being put out by Cheryl. After resigning from his position, a huge gasp should have changed his mind.
Pete walked away with coat and briefcase in hand. How he made it home, we don’t know. Houses have generators and flashlights, but we needed the whole city’s power.
Camel and Lone strived to make it the next morning. They’ve crossed the finish line first for the last decade and a half. But Camel’s telling Lone he isn’t sure there’ll be a race this year. The dog whimpers, lowering his beautiful head. The Alaskan Malamute bows to defeat.
“No!” Someone slams his desk. The light whips over. Jeremy’s angry face radiates hopelessness. Someone reassures Jeremy, but he knocks any encouragement away with sarcasm. He mutters Camel will win.
“Not if we all chip in.”
“One generator’s not going to save this whole town from darkness.”
“We can save the city!”
A huge gasp resounded throughout the room.
“How?” Someone snapped. “We already lost our electricity. We already lost our jobs. We already lost—”
“You’re losing the ability to think by arguing. We can do something about the darkness.” The person, the light showed, grabbed her flashlight and put it on top of a wall of her cubicle. Then she strapped on some duct tape. “A makeshift lamplight.”
Some people laughed. The flashlight fell to the floor, but she refused to give up.
“Erica, if you’re going to change the rules, you can go somewhere else.”
One less flashlight lit up the room.
“Anyone else leaves, and we’ll lose the company.”
The city still suffered from the darkness months later.
The flashlights and we watched Camel and Lone trudge through the snow. Camel slapped his reigns, but Lone stared at him with sad eyes.
“Come on, boy!”
Lone shook his gorgeous white and auburn self.
He grabbed and turned on a small pocket flashlight. He commanded Lone to follow the light. Some surprised responses. No one’s done this before. But some objected. Dogs didn’t know what light was. They were only trained to win. Lone didn’t go for it. Camel persisted, even bribing him with some meat. Lone whined and sat down, scratching himself. And then stood again.
“You can be together with me again.”
Lone looked back at his master, desire to race deep in those rich brown eyes. Camel’s cold breaths were white puffs. Lone panted. Camel’s mitted hands squeezed onto the handlebar.
Then Camel started moving! Lone was pulling the sleigh! He barked and barked, Camel encouraging him. The dog suddenly whipped the sled right. Camel screamed.
The only sound was Lone’s scampering paws smashing the snow. Camel kept his flashlight dead on Lone.
Maybe if this stupid electricity didn’t go out, Lone would not have gotten scared and confused!
Calling his name, Camel soon stopped—Lone had skidded to a halt. We saw front porch lights shine on icy stairs.
“Too slippery.” Camel called the homeowner, and a flashlight then flickered on Lone and him. Lone started biting at his harness. Camel walked over and released him. He scurried off somewhere.
Camel helped the zippered woman down, and they both followed the dog. Soon, they disappeared.
“I’m going out there.”
Snatching his jacket, Jeremy hurried out of the building, flashlight showing some paved road and then railway tracks.
“I’m going too!”
Another mad man. Others scurried after him, and then the whole company rushed outside. The boss tried reigning everyone in, but they had already stampeded towards the neighborhood. He declared everyone fired.
Everyone darted around with flashlights and candles. Neighbors started bursting through their doors, carefully descending frost-decorated stairs.
“Where’s Lone? What’s happening? Who’s Camel going with? Where are they?”
Groups of people flocked to where they thought Camel and Lone were. Voices rose throughout the city. Someone hollered that they found Camel, Lone and the neighbor who took off with him. The two ordered everyone to stay calm.
“Camel’s smart. He’ll come back and win!”
“We can win next year.”
“What? I just said—”
A gunshot. Horrified yells, and then the gunman was exposed. Barking and howling also saturated the atmosphere, and then a rage of snarling and growling. Another gunshot and the dog released a twisted cry.
Camel threw himself to his knees, crying that his only family shouldn’t suffer this atrocity as he pressed his hands on the bloody wound. “Someone—get a cloth!” Someone replaced them with a rag.
“Come on, boy.”
Lone let out some gurgling noises.
Camel’s mouth quivered, his hands shaking as he rode with Lone to the animal hospital. He rocked his head back and forth to fight the shocking numbness.
The vet approached him in the hallway.
“He’s fine. The bullet’s been removed.”
Camel’s mouth twisted. “He’s not going to be able to race.”
The vet’s eyes bulged. “No!” He dashed back to the room to announce the news and then stormed back to Camel. “Get out of here, Camel. And bring back a new dog who can race!”
Camel frowned at him and then marched away, pulling a bandaged Lone on a sled to which he hitched him. As he trekked home, Camel started wondering why everyone wanted everything to go smoothly. What about droughts or famines or earthquakes? What if someone died suddenly? What if Lone got shot again? What if Camel died from a gunshot wound?
What if he brought back a stronger, tougher Lone? What if he wins even as a wound victim?
Camel considered this last idea as he rubbed a bedridden Lone’s head. He knew about Eskimos. They would be willing to help Lone prepare for this year’s sled dog race, right?
Camel packed two years’ worth of belongings. He headed out, bound for the Arctic. If he had to trek there for the next few weeks, so be it. He would teach Lone to strengthen those muscles so that tail wagged victoriously.
Camel drove, controlling the pedals with his spiked snow boots. Lone was snug as a bug in a rug, but Camel worried he wouldn’t make it. He stopped a few days in Ottawa, gathering from people who’ve toured igloos whether they’ve met anyone with furry coats and warm hands.
And helping hearts.
These people tried remembering, but they were just tourists, visiting vacated igloos. Others stared at him quizzically. But Camel persevered, always comforting Lone. Sometimes, he made Lone walk but didn’t want to risk the danger of the wound. So he carted Lone all the way to—
“You’ll have to learn the Aleut languages.”
“That’ll take months!” Camel pounded his fist against the lodge owner’s front counter. “I need to enter the race by this December. Tomorrow’s November 1st.”
“I see.” She blinked. “Well, just… see who speaks English—”
“I’m not checking each tribe!” Camel jerked over to Lone. He was breathing slowly. “I just…I can’t risk his health.”
“Then don’t put him in.”
“Ma’am,” Camel pressed, “we can race only if the city’s power returns.”
“Please—do what you think is necessary.”
Camel carefully wrapped Lone in huge cotton blankets he bought from the lodge’s gift shop. Then he headed towards where a brochure said was the Baffin Bay Explorer—a cruise sailing to Greenland from Canada. He tried accommodating with the pre-cruise flight’s pilot. “Please, sir. He’s wounded.”
The answer was no. Camel left, thanking him.
Camel ensured Lone was safe while driving through the underground tunnel. And then, after explaining his dilemma, was allowed aboard, spending nearly two weeks on the cruise—albeit Day 8 training him in Uummannaq—administering drugs to, comforting and praying over Lone. Suffocating any feeling of failure. Camel had talked to Lone way early that morning, bear-like paws squeezed gently by calloused flesh. He massaged the tired dog’s great head, cheering Lone on.
Maybe the city can get a generator. Lone needs to get better.
Lone recovered slowly but surely. Standing for the first time, the Malamute then shrunk before any fast-paced movement, afraid people would hurt him. Camel calmed him whenever he started making high-pitched barks, whipping away and snarling at any running or playing children.
“We’re almost there, buddy.”
When his calendar showed four more weeks before the race, Camel nodded. “Four weeks. That’s us getting back in time.” He knelt by the sitting dog after putting his phone on the bottom bunk bed. “That’s us winning soon!”
Lone howled and Camel played with him, the two completely absorbed in the hope of victory to notice the staring passersby.
Late that morning, master and dog had enjoyed some fresh air by gazing at the breathtakingly beautiful red heart-shaped mountain of Uummannaq—Lone barking at another sleeping walrus. Around lunchtime, Camel dug out some hunks of caribou meat from a rucksack. Grinning at Lone’s following nose, his neck outstretched with licking lips, Camel dropped some of the bacon next to his paws. The Malamute scarfed down the juicy lunch. Camel relaxed on his bed, his decision to train Lone consuming his mind.
“The city can wait, right?” He inhaled. “Maybe we’ll train until next December.”
He wasn’t going to rush and possibly lose Lone, himself or both. The city needed them.
Walking off the cruise ramp onto Kangerlussuaq’s snowy ground, Camel took in his surroundings. Metal-roofed wooden houses and lodges lined next to each other. Friendly tourists crossed walkways, waving as they passed the threshold. But the town’s endless snowy hills stirred passion in him.
Camel and Lone rested well that night after hours of training. They were staying behind in Kangerlussuaq—the passengers had a return flight to Ottawa. Camel used the reimbursements to pay for his hotel—accommodations were made—as well as the supermarket’s food and Lone’s medical needs.
But Lone wanted to train. Midnight, he was scratching at the door and jumping up at the doorknob, rattling it. Camel barked at him. He barked back, and retreated to his bed, sleeping until late morning.
Springing from ice float to ice float, Lone landed every time. Thrice, he fell, but his hind legs pushed him up. Camel realized he’d been congratulating Lone for more than a year now. The dog also gained a little weight.
But Camel grew tired of Lone’s slow progress. He mercilessly egged a tired Lone on, calling him cop out and lazy whenever Lone would rest from weariness or sniff the ground for more deer meat. Camel began spanking Lone, and the dog bared its large teeth, glowering at him. Camel ordered him to jump, and Lone gave in, succeeding but just barely. When Camel landed on the same float, he jumped for another one after Lone hurled himself onto it. But Camel had plunged into the freezing Greenland Sea. Lone went after him, grabbing his puffed shoulder sleeve with his teeth.
Using his back legs, Lone tried pushing himself up onto the float. But he was about to see the water above him if Camel hadn’t grabbed his scruff and, with one big heave, hauled him onto the ice.
Suddenly, Camel widened his eyes. The dog would’ve, too, if he understood. Ugly guns were aimed right at these culprits. The same guns from his city.
“You forsook us, Camel!”
Camel furrowed his brows. “How’d you—”
“We went searching. Found out from the rental car service people we called after seeing a strange rental car parked in Canada. Told us some guy and his dog were heading to Greenland somehow by car—good thing they saw your license plate! And then we heard about this little cruise adventure you went on until Kanger—”
He jerked it down at a terrified Lone. “This dog doesn’t race no more!”
As Camel and Lone scrambled towards land, the former explained he was here to train Lone for next year’s race.
“Next year!” Someone shrilled. “What about this year's?”
Camel gritted his teeth, but his eyes sparkled with fear. He swallowed. “What’s wrong with that?”
Lone yipped, but he ignored it. Verbal anger continued piercing the air as more guns surrounded Camel. Lone started shaking, but he rubbed his head. “Please—you can fix the electricity problem, and I’ll toughen Lone--he's not ready.”
Camel gently pushed a gun towards the snow, promising he’d be back. He researched a generator on a lodge’s small computer. Unfortunately, they would only light up some of the raceway.
“But let’s try.” Camel nodded enthusiastically, tapping the generator’s printed picture.
Some guys laughed. “You’re weirder than I thought!”
Camel tried reasoning patiently. Then Lone’s and his cries rang through the air as they collapsed backward into the snow, bullet wound’s blood seeping through. Some people raced to their rescue, but Camel and Lone, some said, died on the way to the hospital.
The gunmen lamented the news of Camel and Lone’s deaths to the city.
A year later, two spiked shoes and four legs stood along the race’s cheering sidelines. The shocked mayor presented them two sapphire and scarlet necklaces. He may not race, the mayor told a frustrated city, but he invented the lightbulb of persistence and recovery. Maybe the light of change is what we need more than a winner.
The gunmen were jailed. Camel and Lone visited them and mercifully reduced their 2-year sentences by a week. As Camel left each visit, their eyes shone with bewilderment at his kindness.
We were happy for Camel and Lone, but the boss nodded indifferently. We discussed rehiring all the fired employees. The boss shrugged, saying we’d be fired. We retorted we’d fire him. He said he’d sue us. But, we countered, Lone wasn’t alone anymore. He was stronger, and so was Camel. He just ordered everyone back to work.
Electricity returned, and everyone carried on, cheering at races, wishing Lone could win first again.
That night, Camel apologized for his attitude during training. Lone wagged his tail, his brown eyes looking lovingly at his master.
Camel patted him. "Thanks, boy!"