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A FEW FEET away, the wolf stared at Lizzie with pale silver eyes, ears pricking forward in sharp triangles. He stood perfectly still. In the space between them, she could feel a ripple of energy—a tension in the air like a string pulled taut. She imagined coming face-to-face with him in the woods, nothing between them. Despite the July heat, she shivered.
She was sitting on a rock between the low wooden guardrail and the chain-link fence: closer than the public was allowed, but Lizzie wasn’t the public. Her father was the head zookeeper at the John Muir Wildlife Park in Lodisto, California, and Lizzie had lived there all her life.
The wolves, though—they were new.
They had come from a city zoo in the north, seven of them, and this was the big male, Lobo. It was one of the zoo traditions, giving the animals foreign-sounding names; in this case, Lobo, Spanish for wolf. Did Spain even have wolves? Lizzie didn’t know, but maybe the Spanish explorers had encountered them in California centuries ago. There was something ancient about the wolves, as if they’d been around since the beginning of time, and nothing was likely to surprise or confound them.
“Hey, Lobo,” she said softly. “Hey.”
The wolf stared at her, his face alert.
She balanced her green spiral notebook on her kneecaps, and, opposite her sketch of Lobo, she wrote:
July 26. Wolf Woods. Lobo looks at me with the clearest, most pure silver eyes. What is he thinking? He doesn’t seem afraid. I wonder if he sees me as a strange kind of animal, one without fur. Or maybe he just sees me as meat. If the fence weren’t here, would he try to eat me?
She shuddered again. Was it possible the wolf thought she was prey?
While most of the zoo animals had been bred in captivity, never actually experiencing the wild places that would have been their natural habitats, the wolves were different. These seven had been separately captured and rehabilitated, some injured by hunters or vehicles, some posing a threat to livestock. They had all come from the wild, and here at the zoo, they formed a pack.
For the past month, Lizzie had spent part of almost every day sitting at the edge of their enclosure, watching them. The John Muir Wildlife Park had never had wolves before, and the new exhibit, Wolf Woods, was the largest animal habitat at the zoo—almost two acres of scrubby meadow mixed with pine trees. It was so big that sometimes you couldn’t even see the wolves. They would gather under the trees in the far corner, and for the impatient visitors who thronged into the viewing hut, the pen might as well have been empty. In fact, Lizzie’s father had told her that the public had complained about this, disgruntled that the zoo’s exciting new addition had turned out to be a bunch of animals who were determined to keep to themselves.
Privately, Lizzie thought all the zoo animals would do that, if given the chance. Why would they want to be near humans, with their bright clothes and strange smells and loud laughter … the assault of noisy, clumsy human habits? Lizzie was pretty sure that she, too, would prefer the back of the enclosure, in the shadows with the wolves.
Nearby, a child screeched with delight, and Lobo’s ears flattened against his head. He backed away from the fence.
“Shhhh, it’s okay,” Lizzie murmured.
She shut the notebook and slid her pen through the metal spiral. Her summer homework assignment before the start of seventh grade was to keep a nature journal, in the tradition of John Muir, the great naturalist who was the zoo’s namesake. This project had been the brainchild of the sixth-grade Language Arts team. Lizzie’s teacher, Mrs. Yuan, told the students the teachers wanted to inspire three things: better writing, an interest in John Muir, and an appreciation of the scenic mountain landscape that was their home. The journal wouldn’t be graded and the students could write in whatever style they liked, as long as each journal entry offered a personal reflection on some aspect of nature. But summer homework? To Lizzie, it sounded like a perverse violation of everything sacred about the summer, the long, lazy freedom of it, the way it existed outside the bounds of school time. Also, while she loved to read, she didn’t much like writing. She had so many thoughts, and it was hard to pin them down adequately with words.
But keeping a journal for the past month had surprised her. First of all, she discovered that without the threat of a teacher reading and grading her writing, she actually did like to write. Writing in the notebook was like having a small, private conversation with the page: talking to herself, but on paper. The spelling didn’t matter, the grammar didn’t matter … only the ideas. Second, after a few weeks of regular writing, she found she had a notebook that was half full, and it seemed somehow substantial—all of her passing thoughts and comments, about the wolves, life at the zoo, plants and animals she’d looked at, recorded where she could read them and ponder them again and again. And finally, the very act of writing stuff down somehow changed the way she thought about things. Would it even have occurred to her that Lobo saw her as meat, if she hadn’t been writing about him?
At least the students weren’t expected to write like John Muir, who had a very flowery and lofty style, in Lizzie’s opinion. They’d had to read excerpts from his journal, My First Summer in the Sierra, and some of his other writings, and Lizzie thought his words sounded like a sermon from church. She had copied some of his quotations in the front of her notebook, including: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world,” and “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” They were interesting, but also so abstract that it was hard to know what he really meant.
As Lizzie’s Grandma May would say, John Muir was an odd duck. Lizzie had learned several strange facts about him: He was born in Scotland; he had memorized almost the entire Bible by the time he was eleven; after he came to America, he worked at a wagon wheel factory and a tool poked him in the eye, nearly blinding him; and a few years later, he walked all the way from Indiana to Florida, a distance of a thousand miles. John Muir had spent his entire life exploring the wilderness and fighting to keep it safe. And oh my goodness, how he liked to write! He had written page after page, letters, journals, and essays, and drawn sketches, too—enough to fill many published books—showing his love of nature: in particular, the Sierra Nevada mountain range that rose majestically just a few dozen miles from Lodisto.
And now John Muir was the reason Lizzie was keeping a journal all summer, one that was mostly about the wolves. Every day she came to Wolf Woods to watch them and write about what they were doing … stretching, playing, napping, squabbling. By now she felt like she knew them, especially Lobo. He was so used to her presence that he would walk over to the fence as soon as she appeared. The big wolf had a seriousness that intrigued Lizzie. He looked directly at her, in a way that was neither aggressive nor fearful. She knew that staring back at any animal in the dog family was considered a challenge; in the wild, it could provoke an attack. On the other hand, refusing to make eye contact signaled weakness and submission.
So she chose a middle ground, looking at the wolf, then glancing away. The wolf took a step toward her, sniffing the air. His shoulders were massive, and the thick halo of silvery fur made him seem even bigger. He looked nothing like a dog to Lizzie. There was something tightly wound in him, some wildness that was barely contained. She wondered what would happen if that ever broke through.
The rest of the pack clustered in the shade of the scraggly pines. Lizzie was worried about one of them, a brownish-gray female named Athena who seemed like she might be sick. She had thrown up earlier, and now she was lying on her side. Even at a distance, Lizzie could see her legs trembling.
“Little girl,” an older woman in an orange blouse called to Lizzie from the sidewalk. “You should get away from there. You’re too close.”
Lizzie shifted slightly on her rock. “It’s okay,” she said politely. “My dad works here.”
The woman looked disapproving, but she was forced to turn her attention to two small boys who were racing around the viewing hut, brandishing hot dogs as if they were swords. Probably her grandchildren, Lizzie thought.
“Jared, stop that,” the woman scolded. “Ian! You’re going to drop it. And I am not buying you another one.”
Lizzie flipped open her notebook again and wrote, Sometimes the people at the zoo seem wilder than the animals. The animals are so quiet, but the people are loud and agitated.
She liked the word agitated. Her father used it to describe animals that paced nervously, unable to calm down.
The woman chased after the two boys, her voice rising. “Do you hear me? I am NOT BUYING YOU ANOTHER ONE.”
Lizzie waited for one of the hot dogs to fall to the ground, since an adult’s warnings so often seemed to guarantee the very disaster they were trying to prevent. But before that could happen, the woman grabbed each boy by the shoulder and herded them down the path toward the prairie dog exhibit, still lecturing.
When Lizzie turned back to Lobo, she saw that he had retreated to the back of the pen. He was standing over the wolf on the ground, sniffing her nose. None of the pack had really settled into their new surroundings, but Athena had seemed the most anxious of any of them. And now she’d gotten sick. Lizzie sighed, closing the notebook again. There was no point in waiting. She knew the big wolf wouldn’t come back to the fence. One thing she had learned from watching Lobo: He never changed his mind.
She tucked her feet beneath her and sprang up, suddenly hungry. One of the many great things about living at the zoo was that she could get a meal at the snack bar anytime she wanted, for free. Maybe a slice of pizza today, with a frozen lemonade. She hoped there wouldn’t be a long line. She walked down the path, past the sprawling concrete building that housed the tropical rain forest, then past the vertical cage that held the bald eagle. He’d been rescued from the wild years ago, badly injured, with only one eye. Lizzie thought it gave him a rakish, pirate-y look. Then she took a shortcut behind the Barnyard, a farm-like setting that housed the petting zoo. Here, you could pet and feed the animals. The comical little goats rushed over to the fence when they saw her, and she scratched one between his curved horns.
When she reached the food court, it was almost noon, and the concrete plaza was crowded with families. Children ran around the tables, screaming and laughing. Harried parents balanced trays laden with the zoo’s various fast-food offerings: slices of pizza, steaming hot dogs, onion rings, cups of swirly ice cream. Lizzie hugged her notebook to her chest and was just heading toward the end of the line when a skinny boy who looked about her own age cut in front of her.
Startled, she stepped back to make room for him, but she wasn’t sure he’d even seen her. He had brown skin and hair that formed a cap of tight black curls. His shoulder blades made sharp lines through his blue T-shirt. He was watching the activity at a nearby table, where a mother was trying to corral several toddlers.
“No, Ben, this is your hamburger: The other one is for Noah,” the mother chided. “Lily, hold my hand. Let’s go get our drinks.”
The woman pushed two trays of food into the center of the table and was guiding the three children toward the soda machine with a stack of empty cups when the boy, who had been standing quietly in front of Lizzie, suddenly darted out of the line and snatched one of the trays. Holding it in front of him, he strode quickly and purposefully across the plaza.
Lizzie was so surprised that she could only stare. Had he really just taken that family’s lunch? He’d done it so boldly, she thought she must be mistaken.
One of the children—probably the one whose hamburger was moving swiftly across the plaza—began to wail. The mother, juggling cups and filling them in the foamy stream from the soda dispenser, swung around.
Lizzie hesitated for only a second. Dropping her notebook on an empty table, she ran after the boy.
Text copyright © 2016 by Elise Broach
Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Alice Ratterree