Sit, Stay, Play Dead

by Emma Miller

I’ve gotten out of worse than this.

Henny’s breath is hot and rancid on my neck.

Once, like an idiot, I broke a crampon and fell 30 feet into an ice climb. But I kept calm, kept warm, and hiked out. Broken clavicle hurt like a mother, but was all healed up by spring.

Henny licks my frostbitten ear.

Once I got caught in a flash flood. Armed with only my quick wits and an overwhelming desire to not fucking die, I felt out high ground and made it home for dinner.

Henny sniffs the crotch of my down suit.

The trick is to stay calm. That’s your best asset out here: your composure. And I have composure in spades. I’m the Blind Outdoorsman, for Christ’s sake. Never let it hold me back. I have the speaking fees of an Obama and the Twitter following of a Hadid.

Henny whimpers.

I can’t move. But I can’t panic. So I count. Two-point-eight million followers.

My publicist says I could blow up on Instagram if I’d just apply myself. I point out the obvious challenge of photo platforms, but he brushes me off. The dog, he says. They love pictures of the dog.

Henny moans again, a quiet, keening whine. It’s higher pitched than it was this morning. She’s getting antsy, poor girl. I hear the steady hush of water nearby, so I don’t think she’s thirsty. But she’s been pulling the supply sled on unforgiving terrain, and the dog food is sealed in a bear-proof bag.

It’s nothing I can’t handle.

What stings is that this is my own damn fault. I insisted on going solo. I promised to call when I made it to Anchorage. I said the crossing would take me a week, max. Luckily, this is day five. If I don’t show up in two more, they’ll send the cavalry. When I sleep (if I sleep), I dream of the sweet, sweet chop of helicopter blades. Just need two days.

Henny paces. I know you’re confused, girl. I am, too. I don’t know what happened. A parasite? A seizure? Another unfair kink in my genetics? What I do know is that one moment I was upright, the sun warm on my face, and then I was on my stomach in the snow. Every muscle mutinied. A stroke or just a stroke of fate—whatever it was, the effect has been unwavering. And the effect is that I can’t move.

I can’t turn my head to slow the tingling frostbite on my cheek. I can’t lift my hand to reach the satellite phone trapped under my chest. And I can’t click my tongue to reassure her.

She’s been wandering in wider and wider circles—I can hear the scraping of the sled—but she always comes back. I’m sorry, girl. I know you’re cold. I know you’re hungry.

I can’t panic. And so I keep counting. Forty. It’s been 40 hours since I fell, judging by the beeps of my watch. Each blip is thunder to my noise-starved ears, so I doubt I’ve missed any.

The good news is I’m exerting zero energy, lying here. I’ve only pissed myself the one time. The down suit keeps me warm, but not sweating. All together, this will extend the dehydration window. That Boy Scout stuff about “three days without water” is crap: I’ve heard of people going as much as ten. So I’ll be gross as all hell when they find me, but hey, alive’s alive.

Ninety-five. It’s fewer than 95 miles to my endpoint. In a world far from this one, a car could cover that distance in an hour and a half. Could really go for one of them right now. Lacking that, I meditate. I count. I keep calm. I have to.

Henny’s footsteps crunch in the snow, punching new holes in the icy surface. It puts me on edge when I hear her leaving; it puts me on edge when I hear her come back. She’s making that goddamn keen again.

A buddy of mine tangled with a bull shark a couple years back. Said his calf muscle sloughed off like silly putty. Teeth are as imprecise a tool as you can get.

Gotta stay calm.

I count. Nine. A working sled dog can eat up to 9 pounds of meat in a day—

No, not that one. Better choose another.

Four million USD. If things do go south, that’s what I’m leaving my parents. The rest will go to the organization that paired me with Hen. Guide dog training, best in class. But that’s only for when the worst happens, which won’t be today. I mean, I always figured it’d be too soon and doing something stupid, but this isn’t going to be it. This is easy peasy. All I have to do is lie here. Two more days, and then the cavalry.

When hikers die in the tundra, the wildlife goes for the soft bits first. Eyes, tongues, genitals, neck.

Nope. Can’t panic. I count. Fifty. She is fifty paces away. No, forty. Is she getting closer, or further? The wind’s picked up again and makes it hard to tell. Thirty paces. Christ, it’s cold. And then—zero.

Henny nuzzles my shoulder, breath hot on my cold skin. The fur around her mouth has frozen and melted and refrozen, leaving it sharp and solid, a matting of little needles.

Yes, Henny. Good Henny. I love you, Henny.

She pauses. Nuzzles again. Harder. The keening whine. It echoes across the emptiness around us, vibrates at the place where my spine meets my skull.

No, Henny. Gentle, Henny.

Just two days. Can’t panic. Count. Nine pounds.

No, Henny.

But that’s exactly what it is: no Henny. There is no Henny left here.

Her whiskers scratch my face—no, Henny—and my frostbitten cheek is ripped from the ground—noHennynoHenny—and then the stench of carrion dog breath and a burning hot as gasoline—stay calm stay down stay STAY

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