26. Strange Packfellows

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The animals had decided that they needed to keep watch. It made sense that Howl and Athena – with their exceptional eyesight – should guard them during the night. On this particular night, Howl took the first watch. He sat on a small hill above where the other animals slept, close to Jugger’s enclosure. Before the Awakening and all the humans had left, the hill was a place where they gathered at tables to sit and eat food. To keep himself awake, Howl would regularly lope around to get different views of the area. His eyes were so good that he could occasionally even make out the humans far beyond the zoo.

Some were the things that Bob the bear seemed to hate so much; the humans that now behaved even more strangely than the rest of their species. Howl had experienced the best and the worst of humans but he put such thoughts aside as he peered around, relieved to see that the animals seemed to have the zoo to themselves.  

He was starting to get sleepy when Athena glided down from somewhere above and landed only a few feet away. Happy that the bald eagle had arrived to take over, Howl trotted down to the elephant enclosure where Jugger and the others were sleeping. As usual, Jugger and Bob were making the most noise. Settling down in a quiet corner, Howl again thought how odd it was that a wolf could be friends with a bear: in the wild, they were often enemies. And though his first sight of an elephant had been a real shock, he was happy to have these big animals on his side. In the days since the Awakening, they had almost become a pack. As he put his head down on his paws, Howl could not help thinking of his own pack; the family he had not seen for so long. He hoped he wouldn’t have the dream again.

His brother is first to fall. Instead of claws or teeth the humans have noisy weapons that can easily kill a wolf in a moment. His brother yelps and hits the ground. He tries to get up but he’s been hit in the throat. Howl can see the blood coming out of him. He paws his brother and licks his face but his eyes are already closing.

BANG!

The rest of the pack are already running away. Howl doesn’t want to leave his brother but he runs too – through the trees, over a stream.

BANG! BANG!

A branch snaps inches from Howl’s right ear. All around him, the other wolves flee in many different directions.

BANG!

Another wolf is hit. She’s moving so fast that she rolls over and over before coming to a stop. Howl recognizes her – that old scar on her left flank. He’s too scared to try and help. He speeds up, forcing himself onward towards the mountain. If they get there, they can keep moving up towards the snow, beyond the reach of the humans.

Suddenly one of the big metal lumps they travel around on appears in front of him. It skids to a halt and the two men standing in the back fire.

BANG! BANG!

Howl darts to his right.

BANG! BANG!

He uses a clump of undergrowth to hide him as he speeds past the humans. His keen eyes spy more metal lumps ahead. He’s never seen so many humans in one place before. Are they trying to kill the whole pack?

Howl hears something tear past his ear as he speeds between the metal lumps. He can’t see any other wolves around. He’s on his own now. Suddenly he realizes where he is.

The gully of thorns is a shallow but steep ditch, the bottom of which is covered with vicious plants bristling with thorns. Animals that fall in there die or suffer terrible injuries. It’s right ahead of him so Howl looks around for somewhere to go.

But three metal lumps are behind him and gaining. He can’t believe how fast they move. He knows he won’t be able to keep up this pace much longer.

He sees the gully of thorns ahead but there’s nowhere else to go. He spies a pointed outcrop of rock; he knows the gully is narrow just there. He’s seen cougars jump it; maybe he can too.

Howl feels something strike his shoulder. The pain is intense but fades quickly. He leaps over a bush with yellow flowers. He can hear the roar of the metal lumps.

Suddenly the gully is there. Howl adjusts his stride. He pushes off, leaps into the air, front paws outstretched. The gully seems horribly wide beneath him but he’s at top speed; almost flying.

Then he feels himself sinking; falling. He comes down hard on the far edge of the gully. The air is knocked out of him and he slides backward; downward. He scrabbles at the rock but it’s too smooth and soon his whole body is sliding. He knows the pain will be terrible.  

When he awoke, Howl was glad to find he was not lying in the gully of thorns.

On that awful day, he had spun in the air and hit the thorns head first. He hurt his face terribly and lost the sight in both eyes. Blind and bleeding, he had somehow found a way out of the gully and then the good humans had rescued him. Many weeks later, he was suddenly able to see again (better than before, in fact). Many months later, came the Awakening.

Howl watched a slender shape approach through the darkness.

Jane the cat sat in front of him, eyes curious. You cried out, Howl. Bad dreams again?

Yes.

Sleep. You are safe here. As long as you don’t mind a cat watching over you.

I don’t mind.

Howl put his head down and hoped he slept peacefully this time.

I’m in a pack with a cat, he thought. Life is strange.