Zia pulls into the Sandy Beach parking lot, turns off her headlights and cuts the engine. Duffy beats a wagging rhythm of anticipation against the passenger side door. There was a time when Zia would have reached across and opened the door for the black lab, letting him jump out while she pulled on her winter gloves and hat. Not anymore. These days, Duffy has the heart of a puppy but the aging joints of a twelve-year-old Labrador.
For ten days, the Taku winds have howled down Mount Juneau and across Gastineau Channel to rattle the windows in her old house. It has almost been enough to make her want to move to Florida or Arizona. Almost, but not quite. Today, she woke to the hush of a windless January morning. It’s still cold at 5°F but without the wind-chill of eighty-knot winds, she’s eager to be outdoors.
There aren’t any other cars in the parking lot and Zia knows the beach’ll be empty. She usually likes the company of other dogs and their human companions, but a solitary walk is what she craves this morning, if 3a.m. is considered morning.
Zia pulls on her gloves and mittens then slides out of her rusty pick-up and walks around to open the passenger door for Duffy. He leans into her chest and she feels the warm bulk of him even through her parka. She kisses his graying muzzle, then wraps her arms around him and hoists him to the ground.
After a thorough sniff of three frosty hummocks of dead grass and two logs, the dog begins his lopsided, limping lope away from the parking lot and down the beach. Zia follows, thinking about the day she and her son fell in love with the fuzzy black pup at the Humane Society. Twelve years have gone by too fast. Duffy has grown old while her son grew-up, went away to college and got married.
The tide is out and Zia follows Duffy as he heads towards the water. The moon has set but the stars are bright and Zia doesn’t bother to pull out her flashlight. She learned years ago that the key to walking in the dark is to rely on her peripheral vision.
The tide is still ebbing and the sand nearest the water’s edge hasn’t had time to freeze solid. Zia grins as she sees the silver flashes of phosphorescence that light up Duffy’s paw prints like miniature constellations in the damp sand.
Zia wades ankle deep into the waters of the channel. Even through her insulated rain boots and thick insoles, the water’s cold enough to make her feet ache. She stays in the water anyway, splashing and swirling it into eddies, entranced by the tiny light show.
Finally, with toes numb from the cold, she returns to the dry beach and looks around to check on Duffy. After all these years, he still hasn’t learned not to drink seawater. He laps at the twinkling liquid, stirring up glitter with his tongue. His legs and belly sparkle. Zia’s never seen anything like this. Did he wade into the cold water while she was distracted? Her heart drums in surprise, as the sparkles spread up Duffy’s ribcage, chest and neck, engulfing his tail and back.
Duffy stops drinking, looks towards Zia and wags. Flickering motes of light multiply and swarm across his muzzle and head, covering him with glinting, gleaming speckles. Zia takes an urgent step towards the dog, but Duffy shakes and the lights fly off him like water droplets, scattering in all directions. Instead of falling into the dark sand, the lights hover, grow brighter, turn from silver to glinting gold and begin to corkscrew upwards like a thousand choreographed embers leaping from a campfire towards the sky.
Zia blinks dazzled eyes, a gasp of awe caught in her throat. Duffy sneezes and gallops in a broad circle. From the corner of her eye, he’s a fleeting shadow on the dark beach, but she can hear him panting and the thrum of his paws. He hasn’t cavorted like this in years.
Zia looks up again, expecting to see the lights still rushing skyward, but there is nothing above her but the cold clear air and a star-studded night sky. Zia rubs her sleepy eyes with a mittened hand and wonders.
Back at the parking lot, Duffy doesn’t wait for Zia to lift him into the passenger seat of the truck. Instead, he springs in with the easy grace of a dog in his prime. Zia winces, expecting a yelp of pain as he lands, but none is forthcoming. She leans forward to rub a silky ear, her eyes widen and her lips curl into a smile.
Under the golden light of the streetlamp, Duffy’s muzzle is jet black.
A lifelong Alaskan, Marcy Peska is a rain-preferring, curry-crazy, dog-loving indie author. Marcy lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and their saucy pibble/husky mix, Jeb. You can learn more about Marcy, her writing, and her other creative endeavors at mpeska.blogspot.com.