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The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances


It was dusk on a winter day, and from high on the mountain came barking, drifting down above the snow like peals of a bell, one, two, three, four, more, just to say the light was leaving, but that was all right: here I am, I’m a dog, all is well.

At the inn on the flat of the lowland, Mrs. Auberchon made her way upstairs, grumbling to herself. But she paused out of habit to listen. She was a large-frame woman of fifty, with the outer crust of anyone who used to be tender. Her name was Lucille, but no one used it. She was Mrs. Auberchon only: dependable, competent, solitary Mrs. Auberchon, always there, always far away, even if you were standing right in front of her.

Her arms were stacked with bed linens, towels, a six-pack of plastic water bottles, a new bar of soap. The Sanctuary had called only half an hour ago saying that a new trainee was on the way. Usually they gave her plenty of notice. She’d been up to her neck in visitors all week, and she had only just finished cleaning up from them. What she needed was peace, not more chores.

Strangely, they hadn’t sent her the application form, or filled her in on any background. She only knew the gender, female, and the age, twenty-four. That wasn’t fair. They were busy on the mountain, but they didn’t have to treat her like an afterthought, not that she’d say so and be a complainer. It wasn’t as if applications were pouring in.

She was liking what she heard. At this time of day the barking up there was usually worried, or even panicked, as in, oh no, here comes the dark, hurry up, take me in, take me in. Or it was rough, demanding, obnoxious, only about dinnertime and hey, don’t you know it’s time to feed me, feed me, feed me?

She couldn’t tell which dog was barking up there, but the voice was calm, deep, confident. Then came a fade-off and echoes, scattered toward the inn like invisible falling stars. This was maybe a very good sign. Maybe, Mrs. Auberchon was thinking, the new one, female, twenty-four, whoever she was, wherever she came from, wouldn’t give her any trouble. That was the most she could hope for: no trouble.



Would you like to become a dog?

I clicked on it. There was nothing fancy or stand-out grabby about it. It was just a little box of black words, small as a whisper, lost and alone on a sleek professional site. Even without the mistake, I saw that it was a misfit, like in the picture game for children: “Which thing doesn’t belong here?”

Somewhere, a human being had made a mistake with an ad. That’s what caught my attention: a blank that shouldn’t be there. I’d been looking at pages about jobs and careers for I didn’t know how many hours — maybe a hundred, maybe more. I didn’t even know what I was trying to find. I was getting the feeling that all I’d have for a career was sitting around trying to get one, like my future would be over before I had it. Then suddenly I felt that I stood in the doorway of a crowded, noisy room, picking up the sound of a whisper no one else seemed to hear.

I never had a pet of any kind. I never knew a dog well enough to be friends with. But I couldn’t look away from that box. What was the empty space for? Groomer? Breeder? Technician, like in a vet’s office?

It was trainer. Trainer! I had never in my life trained anyone or anything, not even a plant. I tried it out. “Hi, I’m Evie, I’m becoming a trainer.” Something was so physical about it, so real. A smile. “No, not that kind of trainer. Not like what you do in a gym.”

And that was how it started.


It was late when I arrived. The village was deep in snow. The mountain was hidden in misty darkness, without a glimmer of light to show that the Sanctuary was there. But I knew from their website what it was like: a sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort. In one small photo, my favorite, a flagpole in the front yard had a dark square banner bearing the Sanctuary’s logo: an outline in white of a lightly spotted dog. The drawing was roughly done, and the dog was tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air.

The inn at the foot of the mountain was beaming out lights. It had the frame of a chalet, two stories high and dark brown wooden. Stacks of firewood ran along the front, and to the side I saw a chainlink enclosure, icy and brushed with snow, about five feet high. The space inside was large enough for a toddlers’ playground — that’s what I thought it was.

I went inside. Welcoming me was a wood stove, huge and black, churning out heat I could almost see in waves.

“Hi. I’m a new trainee in the dog-training school,” I said at the lobby desk. “I start up there tomorrow.”

The first thing I had to do was find out the schedule for getting to the top. I’d read about the old gondola, still running after all these years, although no one had skied here for ages. I was excited about the ride, being up in the air. For the last ten hours I’d been stuck on things that kept moving too slowly: a taxi in city traffic, an Amtrak that was not an express, a bus to the village, another bus to the end of the lane where the inn was, then my own two feet making sinkholes in deep, thick snow, which felt heavier than it was, because my backpack, brand-new, an enormous one, a real trekker’s, was driving me crazy.

It felt light when I put it on my shoulders that morning. I’d sent most of my clothes ahead, care of the Sanctuary, so I’d have room for all my new books, which I needed to keep secret. They were paperbacks, but still, I had to drag the pack the last few yards in the lane, drag it up the steps of the inn, drag it inside, trailing snow. Now it was sitting at my feet, maybe as a dog would, silent and well behaved, indifferent to the snow that was melting and sliding off onto an old, worn carpet. Absurdly, I’d imagined some service. Getting off the bus, I had worried that my hands would be too stiff with cold to finger out a tip for whoever relieved me of that weight.

“There hasn’t been a gondola for years. It collapsed. They’ll come get you.”

“But on the web —”

The sleepy desk clerk interrupted me with a tight little shake of her head. She was a solid-looking woman of late middle age, as pale as if she hadn’t been outdoors her whole life. But she seemed to be sturdy and fit, and I had the impression she was stern with all arrivers, and even sterner with herself. Her thick hair was exactly the color of broom straw, with a mix of gray. She wore it pulled back very tightly, and her broad face had a pinch to it, like the knot at the back of her neck caused her pain, but she didn’t plan to do anything about it. No one else was in the lobby. The silence all around was another kind of foggy darkness.

“Your room,” said the clerk, “is at the top of the stairs.”

She wasn’t presenting a key, and she shook her head again when I asked for one. “Lock yourself in, if you want to. But it won’t be necessary. You’re the only one I’ve got.”

She looked at me as if to let me know we’d come to the end of what we needed to say to each other.

I said, “Which room is mine?”

“You’ll see it.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’d like a wake-up call. What time —”

“When they’re coming for you, you’ll hear them.”

“Like with a snowmobile, do you mean?”

“You’ll know it when you hear it,”the woman said.

“Well, good night then.”

This went unacknowledged. I lugged the pack up a narrow flight of steps that led to an open door, and entered a vestibule for outdoor things, where the shelves, wall hooks, and rubber floor mats were empty. Then I felt like Goldilocks, except that the bedroom I stepped into had eight beds, four on each side. They were single futons on top of pine chests of drawers. Each had an overhead wall shelf and a footlocker-type storage box made of pine boards, unpainted, about the size of half a coffin. For light there were no lamps, just ceiling globes. Everything was extremely clean, even the heat vents. No pictures on the walls. No curtains on the windows, just wooden shutters, closed. The floor was pine too, but smooth as a bowling alley, newly oiled.

They made you sleep on a bureau in a bunkroom?

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances
by by Ellen Cooney

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544483936
  • ISBN-13: 9780544483934