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TOUCHING THE MOON
LISA M. AIREY
Julie saw the wolf out of the corner of her eye. It trotted into the zoo enclosure with the pure unadulterated confidence of the consummate alpha male. His fur was a beautiful black-tipped gray and he moved on feet the size of horse's hooves. From the ankle down he could have been a Clydesdale with claws.
The zoo community had affectionately named him "Big Foot" in tribute to the size of his paws, but the zookeepers were more mindful of his teeth. The animal had a mouthful of lethal incisors and he loved to curl his lips back to expose them.
The rest of the pack loped playfully behind him, nipping at each other's flanks or herding one another into the retaining wall that separated their living quarters from zoo patrons. They hopped over each other's backs like dolphins in the surf. They yelped and grunted and barked with delight. They had been removed for medical examinations earlier in the morning and were happy to be back into the "man-made wild".
She saw the lead wolf catch her scent just as she heard a small child point her out.
"Mommy, there's a lady down there with the wolves."
The pack had not been scheduled to return to the enclosure until 3 p.m. She glanced down at her watch. It read 1:35 p.m. She swallowed hard. It had read 1:35 p.m. last time she had checked too.
Safety protocol demanded an enclosure check before animals were returned to their habitat. There had been no safety check.
There were anxious voices above her, but the cacophony paled to the exploding pulse she heard in her ears. She stood rooted to the spot, her eyes wide as the lead wolf pivoted his head in her direction, nostrils flared.
Her eyes locked upon the hungry fire that burned within his dark pupils. There was silent communion between them. He was hunter. She was prey. Both of them acknowledged that she was dead meat.
The animal cut in her direction without so much as breaking stride, the rest of the pack in tow. His lips curled back as he approached her--a low, menacing growl rising from deep within his chest like the first portentous rumblings of an active volcano. The pack fanned to the left and right, flanking him, encircling her.
She didn't want to die like this. She didn't want to be ripped to shreds in front of an audience of pre-schoolers and soccer moms.
Big Foot stretched his neck out toward her, sniffing loudly, sniffing deeply. The other wolves did the same. In an instant, little tremors wracked her petite frame. She was doing her very best to remain immobile, but she was shaking visibly now.
The alpha wolf watched her intently, then did something totally unexpected. His lips rounded into a perfect 'O' and he howled softly and sadly into the circle.
There was a moment of complete silence when he finished. Even the shrieking children had quieted.
Above her, she heard truck doors slamming and the quick scuffing of heavy feet across concrete.
"Tranquilizer darts," someone commanded.
She heard a rifle load. Two. Three.
Big Foot howled again. Then, one by one, the other wolves joined the lament. She dropped her sampling tools and hugged herself as a series of small popping sounds were followed by surprised yelps.
Three animals sank to their haunches. More popping sounds, then another three sank slowly to the ground, their voices silenced mid-howl. Big Foot bolted forward, stopped a few feet in front of her, then ambled slowly in her direction.
He turned toward his right hindquarters when the tranquilizer dart struck, but he whipped his head back around immediately, his eyes on Julie.
She heard a pistol click. Real bullets now.
"Don't hurt him," she shouted as a cold nose touched the back of her hand. The animal whined softly, his breath hot and moist upon her. He wrapped a pink tongue around her thumb then released it.
Several zookeepers were in the enclosure now, racing toward her, their pistols armed and at the ready.
Slowly, the animal collapsed at her feet. Slowly, Julie sank to her knees. Everything was going dark.
She looked up. The sun was like a full moon in the night sky. She drew a shallow breath, then plummeted to the earth like a meteor.
Release Date: November 2012
Publisher: Aakenbaaken & Kent, NY
Available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble