The Great Race of Mercy
"The dog's most important job is still around. Like the legendary Cerberus, the dog still keeps many of us from the Hell of Loneliness." - Tara and Kathy Darling
"Ok, whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait, come on! Let go – Just put me down! Phil! Phil!" It was no use. Jack's attempt to escape the yeti's grip was as successful as a thrashing fish bound tight in a net.
"Phil, it's June for crying out loud! I'm not going to mess anything up! And hey, even if I did, it's June." Strewn upside down over Phil's shoulder like he'd been hunted, Jack had a good view of the other yetis and their chortling at his expense. The world was upside down and Jack hadn't even been close to breaching the Pole. He couldn't even make a break for it. Phil made sure to keep his staff out of reach. There was absolutely no chance of freezing the yeti's feet together again. The damn furball remembered from last time.
"Look, Phil, I'm a winter guy. Santa is a winter guy. So really, I have every right to explore the North Pole all I want – including the workshop."
Phil stomped along.
"Is this about Riksgränsen? Because it always snows there in June! In fact, people love that they can get snow days in June!"
Jack was still ignored.
"What, nothing to say?" taunted Jack. Phil responded with his usual garbled gruff. "Fee – fi – fo – fum – grrrrr," growled Jack in time with Phil's steps. Jack might as well have been goading a mountain. Once they were far enough into the tundra for Phil's liking, Jack braced himself, knowing full well what was coming. With one mighty hurl Jack was airborne, and in seconds he had belly flopped into a snowbank. His staff found his head one second later. Phil jabbed his finger at Jack in warning, shook his fist, and lumbered back towards the workshop before Jack had even sat up and sputtered.
So much for say it, don't spray it.
As he stood up, Jack found himself alone, a gangly speck of a spirit, surrounded by the whitest snow in the world, and far away from the warm, twinkling lights of the jolly one's famous workshop. He was the lone figure, standing apart from everything and bereft, as he had so many times before since that night at the Burgess lake.
"Fine," Jack muttered, gripping his staff close. "I had plans today anyway." He turned, kicked up a flurry of snow, and took off into the sky. When he finally landed, it was thousands of miles away from the North Pole. This place was one of his favorite hangouts, though not a place he could visit year round. Not for long anyway. After all, it was June.
Boston Public Library had frequently hosted Jack Frost since he'd attended its grand opening in 1848. He favored it even more so once the McKim Building was built. True, it was an impressive 'palace for the people,' as it had been dubbed, but the crown jewel was the children's room, in Jack's opinion. It was the first of its kind, and frankly, if not unsurprisingly, more fun. But the fancy murals were nice, too, although he didn't particularly care for all those paintings of the Muses. Muses aren't fun.
The summer heat aside, he couldn't stay long even if he wanted to. He didn't have any excuse should Mother Nature find out. Well, he had an excellent reason for being in Boston on this day in June. It's just that Mother Nature wouldn't find it excellent. So here Jack was, lounging atop a bookshelf like it was a hammock, his legs dangling over the edge and all, reading his eagerly awaited book. It wasn't terribly long. He could finish it quickly and move on, no harm, no foul.
Well, except for the current harm to his ears.
"I specifically reserved that book ahead of time! What do you mean it's not on the shelf?"
"I'm terribly sorry, sir, I've checked twice – "
"Check again! The name's Adriano!"
"Sir – "
"You don't want me to tell my father about this! He's the Donald de Armado, Harvard professor!"
"Whatever happened to using your library voice?" mused Jack, still reading. "Hey, nitwit! People are trying to read here!"
"We only just received the book today," the librarian patiently explained. "I don't understand how it could be missing. There isn't any record of it being checked out." Jack pitied the librarian.
"Clearly, you're mistaken. Check. Again."
"Compared to you, screech owls are Broadway stars" muttered Jack, turning to the next page.
"I know it was here – we haven't even been open long. I came in, stocked the books... oh yes, I know! I put that book on that shelf because I had to set everything down to close the door! A most peculiar wind blew it open! It was freezing and I swear I saw snowflakes – in June!"
Grinning, Jack shifted his eyes above his book.
"I've been waiting for the first book edition of Tarzan of the Apes for over a year!"
"Hey, me too! I missed a few of the magazine issues last year so I couldn't even find out how it ended. I just can't read out of order. I hate reading out of order," said Jack. "Keep your pants on, nitwit, I'll be done soon enough. I've got to catch up on Tom Swift before I go."
"I demand to speak to your supervisor!"
"All right, here, I'll read it to you. Anything to shut you up," Jack said with his defining smirk. "Ahem, time for story time with Jack." He cleared his throat dramatically and spoke in a very posh and British voice. "'Captain Billings,' he drawled finally, 'if you will pardon my candor, I might remark that you are something of an ass, don't you know.'"
Jack looked up at the still complaining Adriano. "Don't you just love it when the book you're reading is relevant to your life?"
"Who's the head librarian?!" Adriano was not taller than the librarian he abused but he certainly made up for that with his voice that seemed to fill the entire room.
"Look... just... just follow me, Mr. de Armado." Taut with anxiety, the librarian led Adriano to the bookshelf Jack occupied.
"See," began the librarian. "The book was right here, but now it isn't." As he gestured to the shelf, Jack recoiled and drew himself up into a ball to avoid the librarian's reach. Adriano sneered.
"You're useless and this library is pathetic!"
"I assure you, Mr. de Armado, this library is not pathetic, and if it pleases you, you may fill out a comment card at the front desk."
"Oh, you'll be hearing from me. Just you wait until my father hears about this!"
Now that they had moved away from Jack's bookshelf, he relaxed. He was not without guilt, however. He hadn't meant to cause trouble for the librarian. Balancing his book on his knee, Jack watched Adriano de Armado finish his attack on the frazzled librarian leave the library in a fantastical huff. An air of superiority and old money stuck to Adriano like flies on yesterday's garbage on a scorching hot day, from the shine in his black leather boots to the hat adorning his head.
Strange, Jack thought, that he didn't wear a fedora for his crown and not that gray cap. It was a nice gray cap, a newsy cap, to be fashionably precise. Jack stood up and hopped off the bookshelf, stashing Tarzan of the Apes behind Mark Twain's bust on his way out.
"Where is this wind coming from?" shrieked the librarian in the background. "The books! Save the books!"
With the grand staircase as his slide, Jack caught up with Adriano de Armado and disturbed nearby readers with equal success.
"What the –"
"Is that snow? In the library?"
"Shh, don't tell Mother Nature," said Jack over his shoulder, knocking over Adriano with the crook of his staff. Adriano sputtered curses, flat on his back.
"Not so tough now, are you?" said Jack with a laugh. "Didn't your mother teach you to mind your manners?" Adriano made a clumsy attempt to right himself, never knowing just how close he came to brushing against his tormentor. But any contact was deftly avoided. Jack leaped atop another bookshelf and crouched low like the Apeman himself, twirling his staff with one hand. Adriano at last skittered to his feet, glaring viciously at the giggling onlookers.
"There's ice on the floor! Tell me who's responsible for this outrage! Who thought it'd be funny to turn the library into a skating rink!?"
Whistling leisurely, Jack swung his staff down, caught Adriano's newsy cap with ease, and in one smooth swish of the staff, plopped it on his own head.
"Look, it matches my eyes!" crowed Jack with another laugh, fluttering his eyes. Snowflakes churned and stray papers soared erratically throughout the room.
It took Adriano a moment to realize his hat was missing.
"I hate this library."
Naturally, Jack could not stay and watch the ensuing chaos. Boston's summer was in full swing and there was no need for the winter herald to linger. It was never worth the heatstroke, among other consequences of disturbing the environment's natural balance. He'd had his fun but now it was time for Jack Frost to hightail it back up north.
"Hey, Wind, is anything exciting happening in Alaska?" The Wind whistled around him, affectionately ruffling his hair, and sent Jack off with a powerful rush of air. The friendly gesture nearly cost Jack his newly won newsy cap.
Jack drifted all over Canada, delighting Rainbow Lodge vacationers at Summit Lake. See, thought Jack, People love what I do. They should see Mount Gassan. Now that's some of my finest work.
After several hours of nomadic flight, Jack set his feet on the northwest bank of the Kuzitrin River, Alaska. Ha! Still standing. He almost never lost his balance anymore when he landed. A group of duck couples eyed Jack judgmentally and quacked quietly to themselves. Jack paid them no mind and leaned over to assess his reflection. He dusted himself off, adjusted his hat, and spun on his heel toward the faint lantern lights of Mary's Igloo.
Mary's Igloo was really the village Kauwerak, but the heyday of the gold rush led Mary, an Iñupiat woman, to open her home to the visiting miners, trappers, and others passing through. Her renowned kindness resulted in the moniker Mary's Igloo. It was another on Jack's list of favorite places. All the hustle and bustle and people from all over all packed into one place. Everyone knew each other and every person was diverse from the next. It was the perfect melting pot. When he entered the town tavern, bursting with activity, Jack took a deep breath and blended in.
A trapper was all smiles about the tenderness his young daughter showed for the orphaned caribou fawn she rescued. Two mushers slammed down their beers and complained about squirrels. A barmaid at the end of her shift marched her children out the door, cajoling them with a story about Raven the trickster. A miner boasted that he had at last conquered his claustrophobia.
After long periods in open spaces, Jack loved places like this.
Sliding along the bar, he attempted to swipe a whisky but was thwarted all the way down the counter.
"Aw come on. I swear I'm old enough." Jack pouted. "I've had a long day." At least he'd only been walked through twice since his arrival. Jack's hand instinctively went to his chest. Maybe I should just go.
"So I hear Togo's run off again, Leonhard. You think you'll be forced to take him back?" boomed a man's voice from behind Jack.
"Charlie, I was paid good money – the only money he'll ever make me. I love all my dogs but business is business. I have other dogs with much more promise – and obey commands. I had to sell him." Leonhard accepted his drink from the barkeep with a nod.
"I don't blame you," piped up a trapper just a few seats away. "All due respect, Mr. Seppala, I read the story in the Nugget about you and your fine dogs. How'd that reporter describe Togo? Somethin' about... all the signs of being a bad dog?"
"'Togo shows all the signs of becoming a canine delinquent'" firmly corrected Leonhard. "He's not a 'bad dog,' he's just too rowdy and difficult. He's nearly eight months old now and without any progress. I can't have a dog like that on my sled team."
Jack's attention caught, he approached the men and leaned against the counter, crossing one foot over the other.
"Sounds to me like you're being too hard on him," Jack said indignantly. "I don't blame him for rebelling."
"I don't know, maybe my wife did spoil him as a pup," sighed Leonhard, nursing his drink. "But Togo will be better off as a pet. He can play and roughhouse all he likes."
"Sounds good to me," added Jack, stretching out his staff to tap the other musher's drink ever so slightly to the left. It iced over instantly. "Wait for for it..."
"Bloody hell!" The musher sat up so fast his stool nearly crushed Jack's feet, but Jack was quicker – and prepared for a laugh. "There's ice on my beer! And it's moving!"
"This early in the evening and you're already drunk? Go home, Charlie," laughed a miner.
"Look! See the ice!"
"I don't see ice."
"It was there! My hand must have made it melt."
"Barkeep, you better cut ol' Charlie Olson off. His dogs are waiting for him."
"I can hold my liquor," grumbled Charlie.
Smiling, Leonhard came to his friend's defense "I know you can. And I'm sure we'll both make it home to Nome in one piece. I don't need to hitch your sled to mine, right?"
"Very funny, Leonhard." Charlie scowled, eying his drink suspiciously before drinking it again. "I'm just glad Gunnar didn't make it. He would have been an ass about it."
"Oh, come on now, Charlie." Leonhard shook his head in disagreement.
"He's a peacock and you know it."
"He's not as bad as Mr. Bigshot Hunter Franz Ferdinand. That bloke is obsessed with trophies," declared the miner.
"I'm just relieved he doesn't come here to hunt," said the trapper, no longer smiling about his sweet daughter. "He'd leave nothing for the rest of us."
"Ain't he having some special parade this month in Sara-heeve-ho?"
"Sarajevo," said Jack with a roll of his eyes. This conversation was no longer interesting. Time to go.
When he left the tavern, he approached the river again. The water rippled with life. Burgess' lake would be like this too, not that he could see it this time of year. Jack turned away and watched the mushers greet their elated dogs and take off. He wondered if that dog, Togo, had indeed escaped again and was all alone out there. What if he was mistaken for a wolf?
"It's not like I have anything better to do, but it's not my business." Jack looked up at the moon, just as big and bright as ever.
"You can see the dog, can't you? You've got the prime spot for searching for and looking after... a lost dog." Jack swallowed. "Look, whatever I did wrong, you won't talk to me about... me, but what about something else, like the dog? That's completely unrelated to me."
It was absolute silence. Everything was still. The crickets didn't chirp, the owls did not hoot, and even the salmon did nothing to disturb the smooth surface of the river as Jack waited. He continued to look at the moon, daring him, but finally looked away.
"I don't know why I'm surprised." Jack picked a direction and kept moving. Eventually, Jack found a tree just outside of Nome and rested on a steady branch for the night, his staff held safe in his crossed arms and his cap pulled down to his nose.
Jack knew it was morning before he opened his eyes because there was a squirrel on his head. The thing was chattering right at Jack's ear and jumped to Jack's knees before Jack could sit up. Adjusting his cap again, Jack eyed the squirrel reproachfully. It continued to chatter innocently at Jack. He was about to reprimand the squirrel for waking him up when a loud bark startling both Jack and the squirrel echoed across the sky. Jack scrambled to hold on to the tree branch when the whole tree started shaking. Craning his neck, he peered down to see and whoa, is that a w – no it's a dog. No owner in sight though. The dog stood up on its hind legs against the tree completely focused on the squirrel that had once again found refuge on Jack's head. The dog barked again and wagged its tail. It looked at Jack then looked back at the squirrel.
"Hey, don't look at me. I'm not – oof!" The squirrel's tail smacked Jack in the face. "I'm not affiliated with that squirrel!" The dog yapped again, spun around in circles and jumped at the tree. The frightened squirrel didn't care that the cold boy he was jumping all over flinched every time he did so. Jack swung his staff to propel himself to his feet and jumped to the ground.
"Sorry, bud, it's all you!" he called over his shoulder. The squirrel disappeared into the tree. Jack was forced to cover his ears at the disappointed howl. "Hey, dog," Jack greeted, crouching down. "What are you doing out here all alone?" The dog pranced over to Jack and sniffed his outstretched fingertips. Warm puffs of the dog's breath were followed by an inquisitive lick.
"Are you... are you Togo?" The dog's ears perked forward and wagged his tail. He scooted forward a little but made no other movement. "Togo?" It was a long shot. What were the odds he'd come across the exact dog he'd overheard the mushers talk about? Then again, not many dogs would be out here by themselves. Jack whistled. "Come here, boy." A happy bark later and Jack was tackled to the ground and assaulted with kisses. Jack smiled. At least animals could see him. But when Jack reached up to scratch Togo's head his smile fell.
"Hey, what happened to your ear?" Jack sat up and gently looked it over. Togo whined and pulled away but Jack was patient. The blood was dry and crusted over but it was a fairly recent wound. It almost blended in with the dog's fur. Togo was a mess of black, brown, and white fluff. Jack lifted the corner of his cloak and brushed off dirt clinging to Togo's ear. Togo just looked into his Jack's eyes.
"Did you get in a fight? Why do you keep running away from home? Look what you've done to yourself." Togo nuzzled his head under Jack's chin and bumped Jack's throat.
"Hey! Yeah, you go ahead and wag that tail faster and faster." Jack snorted as Togo rolled over on his back then jumped upright and did it again. "Maybe you'll learn to fly and fly out of reach of trouble. Which reminds me, sorry about your squirrel." Togo accepted scratches on his belly for compensation. "You're not so bad, are you, boy? That grump and his pals are wrong about you." Jack was rewarded with more kisses and a tail that thumped harder and harder against his legs.
And then Togo seized Jack's staff.
"Hey!" Jack protested. He never let his staff out of his sight, let alone his possession. It was supposed to have been safe by his foot. "Come on, now, Togo." Togo lifted his head up, tilted sideways due to the staff's weight, and challenged Jack. Jack's eyes narrowed.
"Don't even think about it."
He successfully got a hold of it, but Togo did not let go. Instead he began growling, still wagging his tail.
"That is not a toy," Jack protested, pulling his staff closer. Togo tugged at it, jerking Jack forward and much closer to the ground. "I mean it! You wanna play fetch? We'll play fetch. But not with this! Understand?" The tug of war continued even when Jack sent ice crawling down the staff and into the rebellious dog's mouth. Nothing affected the stand-off in either direction.
Until Jack made the mistake of inching forward.
Togo tore the staff away from its owner with a sharp yank and a triumphant canine yip and took off running, the staff dragging behind him.
Jack jumped up from his salutation to the ground and scrambled after the thief. Almost immediately he tripped and fell over. It seemed Jack was constantly picking himself up. When was the last time he'd ran anywhere without his staff? He always had his staff and leaned on the wind to remain light on his feet. Every movement without it was awful. His gangly legs had no idea what they were doing. Running was the most awkward and uncomfortable situation Jack had been in this century, bar none.
"Togo!" Jack shouted, exasperated and out of breath quicker than he'd ever admit publicly. "I need that!" Stubbing his toe and taking a moment to swear in time with his one-legged hops, Jack was relieved to see that Togo was sitting only a few feet away, tail still wagging, and his staff still a prisoner.
Jack glared. "Are you done?"
Togo dropped the staff with a wide, dopey grin, his tongue hanging out. Jack fought to stay annoyed but the dog looked so happy.
Happy enough to grab the staff just as Jack dove for it. This time Jack gained on Togo much easier and he adapted to the dog's quick turns and apparent mission to make Jack run in a circle.
Had he ever run before now? At all? He'd never needed to before. Not without his staff. This was a very unpleasant first.
Despite himself, Jack found himself smiling as he ran faster and slid around the open tundra, kicking up a dust cloud. It was just a boy and a dog, frolicking unseen across the land, playing their own game. Faster and faster Jack ran, laughing as he tumbled to the ground but was on his feet quicker each time.
"Listen up, you mutt, when I get my hands on you – "
Togo charged past Jack and spun around to do it again. Jack stared him down, grinning, hands on his knees, and fully prepared to pounce on that dog. Jack didn't know how long this game went on or how it started but all at once he felt warmth creeping inside his chest. The more he ran and shouted at Togo the bigger and stronger the warmth grew. Soon enough the warmth became a constant smile.
Once he eventually won back his staff, Jack flopped down next to Togo and grimaced at how slobbery his prize was. Not to mention the teeth imprints. Jack poked Togo on the nose with his staff. Togo sneezed.
"This is a magic stick. Not a fetching stick, understand, boy?" Jack stuck his tongue out but regretted it. This dog was a big fan of kisses. He was a fan of surprises too, because as Jack took in their surroundings he realized they were not far from a dog kennel. A dog kennel that appeared to be owned by a familiar face.
"Togo, back again?" said the approaching Leonhard, pinching the bridge of his nose. Jack stroked Togo's unharmed ear.
"You don't have to go with him, boy. We can do whatever we want to do. We'll have lots of fun. No rules or expectations." Togo brushed his muzzle against Jack's face and trotted over to Leonhard. It looked odd to Leonhard but he ignored it.
"That nice lady is going to be worried sick! First you jump through her window and cost her money to repair the glass and your veterinarian bills and transport to take you back, and now you show up here – wounded - again! What are you doing here?"
Togo looked up at the musher and barked, giving him that same happy look he'd given Jack. The musher sighed but smiled and knelt down to rub Togo's head. "I guess I better see about buying you back, you scoundrel. This is your home, isn't it?"
Jack watched the exchange intently. "I guess you know where you want to be, don't you, boy?" Jack whispered, flexing his fingers around his staff. "At least I know where to find you." He smiled again and called the wind.
He was going to have to find a proper fetching stick.