Red Lantern

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I glanced around my competition for the Creek Sprint. I noticed Luca, with his brightly colored hat and “top notch” huskies. His family bred only pure bred lines, while they looked down on mine and Gramps wolf-mutts. Luca noticed my stare, and gave me a quick smirk before going back to his dogs. I huffed, as I carefully finished lining up my dogs. Hunter was in the lead spot and behind him was Marshmallow and Willow, my swing dogs. They were responsible for making sure the other dogs were following the turns. Next, were Milo, Max, Buddy, and Aspen, who were responsible for most of the pilling and maintaining speed. Finally, at the back of the sled was Buck and Shadow, my wheel dogs, crucial to the steering and pulling. They were the buffer, malamute-wolf mixes instead of the typical Siberian wolf mix. As I finished adjusting my sled, I spotted Grandpa Joe walking over.
“Ready?” he prompted. 
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I chuckled, standing up to face him.
“Pretty nice weather here in Cantwell, huh?”
“Yeah, I’d say so,” I agreed, the sun shining down, glistening off the fur of the dogs.
“Jack,” he paused, “Thank you. For competing today. I really wanted to but-”
“Gramps,” I interrupted, “it's all good. It's about time I start racing.” I thought back to this morning, remembering the pain he was from his arthritis, but still, he was here. Grandpa nodded, steering a look towards Luca, where he was talking to his dad.
“Don’t let Luca intimidate you,” Grandpa warned, “I know his father wants to take the title, but I’ve won this thing way too many times. Keep up the streak, won’t you?” He turned his attention back to me.
“Of course I won’t. The dogs all seem behaved for today.” Although, as I said this, Milo and Max began roughhousing with each other.
“Max! Milo! NO!” I shouted, both of their ears perking up, stopping all together.
“At least I hope they will be,” I muttered, Grandpa chuckled lightly, but I could see the seriousness in his eyes.
“Just win, okay Jack? Don’t give them the satisfaction.” He turned, and gave me a pat on the shoulder before stumbling off into the sidelines. I sighed, as my team made our way to the starting line.
“Aree youuu readyyy!” The announcer publicized, the crowd began cheering. I scanned my competition, finding Luca right beside me. Of course, I groaned. I looked up to the announcer, listening as he talked about the prizes. “First place will win the traveling trophy and the gold medal, plus a brand new sled! And the cash load of $15,000! Second place will win the silver medal, with $10,000. Third place, the bronze and $5,000!” the announcer continued, rambling on about the same story he has said for the past fifteen years. “And as you all know, last place does get a prize.” the crowd grew silent, listening to the tale.
“In the tradition of the great Creek Sprint, our founding fathers used a Red Lantern during the days of the Gold Rush for lighting the way of dogs that were used to freight mail. Its red glow warned people about the mushers that were out and about. Nowadays, in its tradition, it is used in all races, including the Iditarod. Its meaning being that everyone has crossed the finish line, and to make sure no one gets left behind!” He paused, catching a breath, “And I will start this race the way our fathers and grandfathers have before us by lighting this red lantern, in honor of all of us meeting at the finish line!”
The crowd roared as the announcer lit the lantern, its red glow flickering. I knew eventually it would be moved to the finish line, which happened to be near Gramps cabin in Trapper Creek. Although the lantern was a tradition, my goal had to be first place, in order to fill the space it had occupied before. I waited, as the announcer began the countdown. I slipped on my goggles and my gloves, pulling my hood on over my hat.
“One!” I peeked a glance toward Grandpa Joe.  He seemed to be focused on my dogs. I fixated back, waiting for the gun.
“Boom!” the gun echoed.
“Hike, Hunter!” I yelled, as everyone else started to yell the same command. Instantly, Hunter took off, but not long after, Milo and Max were nipping at each other’s ears. This can’t be happening, I thought.
“Milo! Max!” I shouted, causing Hunter to turn his head slightly, the rest of the dogs confused.
“Easy,” I cautioned, slowing the dogs down enough for them to be straightened out. My stomach dropped as dogs began to make their way past us. I caught the eye of a few mushers through their glasses, their heads shaking to the side. I groaned.
“Hike, Hunter, hike!” I shouted once more, as Hunter readjusted. He took on at a full sprint, the rest of the wolf-mutts following close behind. We caught up to the rest of the mushers, there dogs already starting to fall into a pace. With the slow start, our pace had yet to be set, and we made passes with ease.
Neck and neck with third, I commanded, “Hike, Hike!” letting Hunter know to pick up speed. We made the pass easily, and caught up to second. I watched the smile turn into a frown on the musher’s face as my team slid around his. Finally, I could make out the brightly colored hat that belonged to Luca. First place, where my team needed to be. Slow and steady, we fell into step behind him. Coming up on a left turn, I commanded. “Haw!” right before Luca did. My dogs absorbed my voice, sloping in the inner part of the turn, right into first. Yes! I air pumped, and continued to lead my team to victory.


***


My team made it to the rest spot halfway through at the 48 mile marker. I slowed the dogs down, and made my way to the orange marker labeled Locklear. All the teams had their own markers, each with a cooler of some snacks and water. Tied to the marker were sleeping bags, and tucked in was straw. More was stored in a box, which was to be used for the dogs. Once I had my dogs untied, I gave them some water, and settled for the night. I laid out the straw for the dogs and placed my sleeping bag right in the middle. I nestled deep into the bag, feeling Willow and Hunter at the base of my feet. The others were sprawled out around me. I left my gloves on, and slide my goggles under the bag by my head. I listened as other racers began showing up, as tired and ready for bed as I was. The moon was a sliver, allowing the stars to illuminate. I looked up, finding the brightest star. My grandmother, Ann, had told me about the star, along with other constellations. For my fifth birthday, I was gifted with a telescope, and every night my grandmother would teach me different constellations, and help me find them. The North Star, how it was always the brightest in the sky, and could be used if you needed to find out what direction to go in. The big dipper, which branched from the North Star. Orion, with three bright stars making out his belt.
As I came across the little dipper, I couldn't help but wish my grandmother was with me now. I closed my eyes, trying to picture all the constellations, instead seeing my grandmother on her deathbed. Pneumonia. I had gotten better, but she didn't. How could I not blame myself? I shook the thought out of my head, focusing on the breathing of the wolf dogs. One of them dogs laid its head near my face, and within minutes, I fell asleep.


***


The bitter cold caused my eyes to crack open. I whimpered to myself as my lashes stuck together. I felt a warm tongue start to lick my face, and I slowly pushed it away. I listened as Buddy shuffled back. I took in my surroundings. White. Pure and innocent, it covered everything in site. I couldn’t see anything but snow. I glanced to my sides, Buddy and the rest of the gang by my feet, waiting for the next move. Buck and Shadow were not with them, I didn’t know where they could have gone. I couldn’t even make out my sled, which wasn’t far from where I had made our beds. “Dammit,” I whispered under my breath. Snow tackled me from all my sides. The dogs scooted closer, there fur acting as a shield. “Buck! Shadow!” I tried to yell, but my voice muffled, filling with snow. I attempted to stand, but collapsed back into the snow. I couldn’t feel my legs, I could barely see. I laid my head back, and shuffled my face into fur. It was cold, my body was intertwined in a snow casket. I knew I couldn't just wait here. I had no idea of knowing if the other teams had left. But at the same time, what if they didn't? Nowhere in the rules of the Creek Sprint did it say the teams had to stay. The rest stop was simply used to alert the mushers they were at the halfway point, and provide them with a place to stay for the night. If no one else decided to battle this snow storm, then I'd have a chance at being first. “We know the way home, right guys?” I thought outloud, my team, with the exception of Buck and Shadow, simply stared at me. I didn't waste anymore time. The wind had slowed some, but it was still difficult to see. I pulled my sleeping bag aside and searched through the snow for my goggles. After finding them, I dusted them off a little and slid them on. Slowly, I made my way toward the end of my sleeping bag, where I stashed the sled. Sure enough, there it sat. I pulled the harnesses out of the snow, each one breaching air as I tugged. In no time, I had the dogs lined up and ready to go, but Buck and Shadow were still missing. I quickly surveyed my surroundings. Where could they have gone? Suddenly, I thought about the snow. With the wolf/dog mix, snow did not bother them much. Meaning, they would have just snuggled deeper into a small snow bed. I made my way back to the sleeping bag, and searched. I dug into the snow, and soon enough came across fur. Curled up, and still sleeping, were Shadow and Buck. I shook them lightly, there faces lightening up once they saw me, as they wagged their tails in the snow. “Hey guys,” I muttered as they started to lick my face. I pushed them down and walked them to the sled. They resisted some because they didn’t want to leave, but eventually Buck and Shadow were tied with the rest of the dogs. “Hike!” I tried to yell from my position on the sled, but it wasn't loud enough. Hunter did nothing. “Hike!” I called again, but no luck. Instead, I walked up to Hunter, and whispered by his ear. “Hike,” and surely, he took off, fighting the snow. I jumped back on my sled and began my ride back home.


***


I huffed as I did not recognize the trail my team was on. The land markers seemed different, and the path seemed off from the one I took with Grandpa Joe days before the race. Somewhere, we had taken a wrong turn. “Whoa,” I commanded, the wolf-dogs finally able to hear me, slowed to a stop. The storm seemed to be lifting. The moon shone and little flurries danced in the air around me. I surveyed my surroundings, wondering how I was supposed to get home. I glanced at my team, and they stared back. “Dammit!” I shouted, throwing a bunch to the sled. This was all my fault. My doing, and I couldn't take it back. I was defeated, knowing what I'd done.
My knees hit the snow, as I heard my team whimpering. I couldn't live with myself, knowing I led my team to disaster. I ripped off my goggles. “What do I do?” I pleaded, my head falling to my hands. “I'm sorry, Grandma,” I whispered, shaking with tears. Not only had this been my fault, but I was at fault for my grandmother’s death. I had been the one to bring the sickness into the house, I was the one who commanded the dogs to go during a blizzard, and I  was the one who stepped up to race for Grandpa Joe. I glanced around me, the whirring snow surrounding me. Somewhere in the distance, I made out a figure. It was coming closer and closer. I wiped my eyes and stood. “Holy snap,” I murmured, my eyes widening, my jaw dropping. My wolf-dogs started to go crazy, barking and pulling at their harnesses. The figure came closer, and I noticed it had thin gray hair tied neatly into a bun, wrinkles by her eyes, and I knew, it was my grandmother.
“Grandma?” I asked. She smiled, taking her hand and grazing my cheek. 
“Oh poor child,” she spoke softly, “haven't I taught you anything? You did no harm- you were merely a child,” she sighed, taking one last look at me, “Look at the stars, Jack,” she spoke softly, looking to the sky, “and you'll find what you're looking for.” With a final breath, she disappeared. I took in my surroundings. Was I imagining things? I glanced up, the stars shined brightly above. One star stood out the most, shining the brightest. The North Star. I knew we lived South of Cantwell, where the race started. This meant if my team ran the opposite direction of the star, we’d make it to grandpa’s cabin. How had I not thought of this sooner? I smiled, sliding on my goggles and attaching my blue hands to the sled. I called out, “Hike!” and before long, we were off again.


***


I looked up in time to see red. The red lantern? I could barely feel my face as I could make out the cabin, the dog shed. Were we home? Hunter started barking, the others howling. The wolf-dogs panted, and the sled stopped. I heard voices as the wolf-dogs started to lay down.
“Jack? Jackson!”
“Is he okay?”
“Call the ambulance!” My frozen hands slowly let of the sled, and I fell back into the snow. The last thing I saw was the stars, each one glowing brightly, and I knew I had been forgiven. Everything now, was going to be okay. “Thanks, Grandma,” I whispered, falling into a pit of darkness.


***


Steadily, I cracked opened my eyes, a person in a white gown staring down at me.
“Oh goodness,” she said, startled, “Let me grab your grandfather.” I took in my surroundings, realizing I was in the hospital.
“Jackson?” Grandpa asked, walking closer to the bed.
“Yeah?” I said, letting out a yawn.
“How could you?” he questioned.
“What-”
“I told you to win! And instead you won this?” he pointed to the corner of the room, where I noticed the red lantern was sitting.
“Hey! At least we got something,” I chuckled, but Grandpa was not amused.
“What happened?”
“I...I got lost. In the blizzard.”
“And?” He pleaded, “You let Luca win?”
“I, I left the marker. We fought the snow and we got lost.”
“Why didn’t you just wait like everyone else?” he asked, crossing his arms.
“I wanted to win!” I argued.
“So, how did you get home?”
“I..I saw grandma. She helped me come home.” I told him. Grandpa’s face turned white.
“Nonsense,” he whispered, exiting the room.
“Grandpa!” I shouted, but I knew there was no way he was coming back. At least not now. I settled deeper into the blankets, glad to just be warm. I snuck a glance at the lantern, its red glow flickering as I closed my eyes. I knew I didn’t win big, at least I won peace with my past. Grandpa might have been upset with me, but I was content, as earned the red lantern, and more importantly, I knew I was forgiven.






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