A full moon cast a milky glow on the surface of the lake, providing enough light for the two swans gliding across the waters. One was stark white, the other pitch black, rivaling the night sky. The two moved as one, their necks intertwined, bodies close, leaving barely a ripple.
In the tall reeds surrounding the lake, nocturnal creatures watched, some with envy, others with curiosity, peeking and poking through the grasses as the swans sailed by.
The swans glided together, with eyes for one another only. A low rumbling startled them, their necks craning high, sensing danger. The animals on the banks scurried for cover and birds fled into the night as a cargo van roared up to the lake and screeched to a stop, barely missing an old raccoon who had lost a leg, and with it most of his speed.
Two men jumped out from the van and rushed to the back, hurling open the doors. Each man grabbed a large cage and blanket. The swans watched, tentatively, as the men stormed into the shallow waters.
Knowing danger was close, the swans disentangled and tried to move faster. But they were not fast enough and the men were upon them. In a flurry of feather and wing and arm and fist, the swans were shoved one to a cage. The men covered the cages with blankets and bounded out of the waters.
As the men set the cages down, the two swans cried out in despair, their necks reaching through the bars, trying to find one another. Their trumpeting wails echoed into the night, piercing the silence. For one brief moment, before being torn apart and thrown into the van, they entwined their necks and held tightly.
The boats were waiting when the cargo van pulled up to the docks. The men jumped out and opened the rear doors, pulling out the two cages. They set the cages down and for another brief moment the black swan and the white swan were close enough to touch, their long necks stretched out between the bars, wrapping around each other.
The men picked up the cages and, oblivious to the hearts they were breaking, pulled the swans apart and put each cage on a different boat. That done, the men walked off to the bar for a drink as, in two separate boats, the swans began their journeys to distant shores.
Above the sounds of the busy docks, their sad, sweet songs of despair could be heard, growing quieter and quieter as the two boats moved off into the night, in opposite directions.
TWO MONTHS LATER
Noah Hartman ran down to the loading area. Something was up and it was big. He finished morning rounds and hated leaving the white swan when she was so sick, but this new delivery demanded his attention. He would come back to the swan later.
Calvin Rubbs met him at the loading bay. Calvin was a big African-American who made Noah look like a puny white ghost. The two of them couldn’t have been more different, yet three years at the Cloverdale Zoo outside Dallas, Texas together made them the best of friends. Both were loners, with few human friends, although Calvin was recently married, and both were zookeepers who loved what they did, even if what they did kept them working long hours for low pay. Neither had the ambition for anything bigger, at least not yet. They were both young and had all the time in the world for ambition.
Right now, it was exactly the way they wanted it.
“He’s in there,” Calvin grunted, motioning to the animal carrier several burly men carried down the ramp.
“Came from New Darren Zoo. Said they couldn’t handle him. What the hell makes them think we can?” Calvin chewed on a toothpick, a habit Noah often found annoying, but not so annoying he would threaten a friendship over it. In fact, Noah’s main concern was that one day Calvin would swallow the damn thing and choke on it, the way he moved it in and out and across his mouth.
Actually, thought Noah, Calvin was pretty good at it. He had perfected the art of toothpick chewing.
Three men set the carrier on a cart and rolled it over to an enclosed area that led to a larger compound. This would be the animal’s new home, and Noah knew it was much bigger and nicer than the one back at New Darren. But it wasn’t going to be his home, so his opinion didn’t mean much. He got to go to a home of his own choosing at the end of the day. The wolf wouldn’t have that luxury.
The men opened the carrier and stood back, respectfully. Calvin let out a gasp Noah was sure would send the toothpick flying, but the damn thing stayed its position.
Noah felt dizzy. This new creature would be his responsibility to feed, clean up after, and get to know. For a keeper used to dealing with smaller, gentler animals, or at least older and mellower ones, this new ward would be a challenge.
After a few moments of tense anticipation, the creature emerged, slowly and tentatively. It was a black wolf, with eyes so cold and icy blue Noah could see why New Darren tagged him a transfer. Those eyes held a rage Noah had rarely, if ever, seen in an animal before, not even the lions and big cats he often visited on lunch breaks.
“Holy crap, look at that son of a gun.” Calvin said it low, as if he didn’t want the wolf to hear him. Noah nodded in response. “You sure you can handle that ball of fire?” Noah didn’t answer. No, he wasn’t sure, but it was his job. He would have to handle it. One of the men approached Noah with a clipboard and he signed his name without looking at it. He could not take his eyes off the wolf circling the opening to the compound. Noah reminded himself to keep a respectful distance, at least until he and this beast bonded.
“Does he have a name?” Noah asked one of the deliverymen.
“Says here they called him Satan at New Darren.” The guy chuckled under his breath. “Looks like the name fits pretty well, don’t it?”
“Yeah, real well,” Noah replied, watching as the wolf slowly turned and, for a moment so brief he was not even sure it happened, looked directly into Noah’s eyes and sneered.
Noah and Calvin walked to the vet’s office. Calvin chewed thoughtfully on his toothpick. “I don’t like the name Satan. I mean it’s a goddamn wolf, and from what I heard, the only trouble they had with him at New Darren was that he wasn’t too happy being in a zoo. Can you blame him?”
Noah nodded. “We can call him something else. He’s in our care. Goss won’t give a damn. All he cares about is how much money these critters can bring him.”
Calvin grunted, his attempt at a laugh, but because of the strategically placed toothpick it always came out a grunt. “Yeah, you hear about Ruby? That’s the third mountain lion death in as many months. You can’t tell me he’s running a clean ship. Virus, my ass. Ruby was healthy as a horse.” Calvin was bitter when it came to his cats. He lost several over the last months, either to disease or transfers.
Noah opened the door to the vet’s office. Inside, the pretty blond assistant, Mary, motioned them to a back room. Jeremy Creedo, the zoo vet, leaned over a beautiful white swan, now sedated on an exam table.
Jeremy was older than Noah and Calvin. He was in his early 30s, but had a boyish charm and when it came to the animals he loved, he was a kid at heart. He had been the zoo vet at Cloverdale for almost six years, and his passion for his job was obvious.
Jeremy looked up and smiled. “Hey, guys, see the new kid?”
“Yeah, old Beelzebub is here at Cloverdale,” Calvin said with a laugh.
Jeremy looked at Noah, who shrugged. “Arctic wolf, black as night. New Darren called him Satan, but we don’t like the negativity.” Noah sat down beside the table. “How’s she doing?”
“Well, I’ve done some blood tests and can’t find a damn thing, short of her not eating very well over the last month. I don’t know what to tell you, Noah. She should be thriving here, with all the other swans, but she seems lethargic.” Jeremy peered into the swan’s eyes.
“Lyra is my favorite, Jer. You gotta find out why she’s so sick. I can barely get her to hold her head up. And you know the boss. If he catches on how sick she is, he’ll have her quarantined…and you know what that means.”
“Yeah, like them mountain lions.” Calvin grunted, shifting the toothpick.
Jeremy sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s not sick. Lyra is perfectly healthy as far as I can see, but she is not well either. Something is wrong with her, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is.”
Noah reached over and patted the swan’s head with slow, gentle strokes. “When can I take her back to the pond?”
“She’ll be under awhile, so let’s say come for her tomorrow around lunch. I may know more later from the scans Mary took,” Jeremy said. “I’m sorry, Noah. I wish I could give you something more solid to go on, but I can’t.”
Noah and Calvin said their good-byes and left Jeremy to his work.
“Here’s where I get off,” Calvin said. They reached the trail to the big cat compound. “I got a few leopards to check on, then I’m outta here. The Missus doesn’t like me coming home too late. She gets worried some big kitty cat might have taken my head off. You wanna come for dinner?”
“I got two more hours here, then I’m gonna check on the new guy. See if ol’ Satan is doing well or if he’s as mean and miserable as he was when they brought him in.”
“Well, I’d be mean and miserable, too, if some asshole brought me here to have stupid human idiots staring at me all day. It’s a wonder these animals don’t get sick of heartbreak and waste away. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I just wish the circumstances surrounding it were different,” Calvin said.
Noah chuckled. Calvin always put things in their proper perspective, and used colorful language to boot. He slapped Calvin on the back and pushed him off.
“I know what you mean. Go home, Calvin, and be glad you got a wife to go home to. Kiss Annie for me.”
“Noah, you just gotta stop spending so much time with these animals is all. When you gonna grow a pair and ask that lovely neighbor of yours out on a real date?”
Noah blushed, thinking of his next-door neighbor, Jennie Gordon, a fitness trainer at a local gym whom Noah had a crush on, but could never seem to get past the friend zone with. “Yeah, whatever,” Noah said, sheepishly.
“Dude, she lives next door. It’s a match made in heaven. Go for it, or be prepared for a lonely life babysitting my brood of kids!”
“Does Annie know you want a brood?”
Calvin bellowed. “Yeah, we’re plannin’ on breedin’ us a brood! And if you ever want a brood of your own, you best be getting a brood breeder to brood with!”
Calvin lumbered off, leaving Noah alone as a gaggle of tourists waddled past, cameras and Cokes in hand. When he went to check on Satan, the wolf hardly moved from the spot he settled in that morning. Satan glared at Noah, but didn’t lunge for him when he entered the feeding hatch, the way one of Noah’s first wolves did a few years back, leaving him with a scar running the length of his lower right arm.
Noah left the food and checked the water supply, then exited the compound, wondering how long it would take for this wolf to come around and accept his new surroundings. He had more animals to check on before he could call it a day. With Lyra in Jeremy’s care overnight, Noah would skip his visit to the pond, which he had done every night since she first arrived at Cloverdale two months ago.
Upon first seeing Lyra, he was enchanted. There were other swans, but something about her caught his eye. He felt a deep connection to the lovely, white angel gliding across the water, head held low and eyes a shade of velvety brown that made Noah think of Hershey’s Kisses.
He felt silly, being mesmerized by a swan, but sensed somehow this swan was different, and she needed him. From the first day she graced the pond with her ethereal presence, it was clear she was not well. She rarely ate and her head was always held low against her body. She avoided other swans and never ventured to the side of the pond where the zoo visitors could view her loveliness.
Noah wondered if she was shy, or if she had a negative history with human contact, but she seemed to respond to his touch, and she always took food from him when he visited. He named her Lyra, because it was a light and gracefully beautiful name that fit her. Calvin teased Noah about his attentiveness to the swan, especially since Noah was in charge of the wild dogs. But if anyone knew how easy it was to connect with any animal, it was Calvin, and so his teasing remained lighthearted.
Once in a while, Calvin would get serious and ask Noah when he was going to start connecting with a real woman. Noah always blushed and made some excuse. Truth was, he was painfully shy around women, not knowing what to say or do to impress them. He dated during college and wasn’t a virgin, but he never had a lasting relationship. Instead, he buried himself in his studies and work, and his love for animals.
With few friends to hang out with on a Saturday night, he did get lonely once in awhile. All right, he got lonely a lot.
Noah walked down the hallway of the apartment building he called home for five years, and marveled that no matter who moved in or out of the thirty-odd units, the smell of stale food persisted in the common areas. He had no idea who cooked that fateful meal, or when, but the scent lingered. He heard residents comparing it to garlic or rotten eggs. Noah wondered if the meal had contained a bit of both. Not to mention somebody’s old gym socks.
He fumbled for his keys, startled to hear the door to the unit next to his open. Jennie Gordon peered out. Jennie lived next door to Noah for two years. Jennie had a wonderful gift for making Noah feel comfortable, but their friendship seemed stalled, and Noah wasn’t sure if it was worth unstalling. Jennie seemed into him, but with limited experience with the opposite sex, Noah wondered if she was into him in the way he wanted her to be. So, he kept his feelings and his flirtations to an absolute minimum...not that he knew how to flirt in the first place.
Jennie was sweet and attractive in an unassuming way. If Noah had more nerve, he would ask her on a real date, and not just to run errands. But he didn’t have the nerve. If any moves were to be made, it would be on Jennie’s part, and even then Noah wasn’t sure he had the nerve to respond accordingly.
She occasionally checked on his pets if he had to work night shifts, but when she made suggestions of ways she could help make his life even easier, like picking things up for him at the market, he refused to let her. They went to lunch a few times, talking easily and enjoying their friendship, but beyond that they hit a wall. Noah was pretty sure he was the wall.
“Hi, Noah, you working longer hours now?” Jennie smiled. “I don’t see so much of you lately.”
“Hi, Jennie. Yeah, I work two shifts now. We lost a couple of keepers a few months ago and the director hates to spend money. I guess it’s cheaper to double up than hire new blood.”
Jennie nodded sympathetically. “If you want, I could bring over some dinner for you. I made a casserole and can’t possibly eat it all.” It was a totally innocent and very kind gesture, and Noah nodded at Jennie in response.
“Sure. Maybe that would be a good idea,” he mumbled. He opened the door and went inside. A few minutes later, Jennie came in holding a hotplate. She handed it to Noah with a smile as warm as the food. He took it and hesitated, trying to decide what to do next. “I gotta go feed the beasts. See ya, Jennie. Thanks for the food.”
“See ya, Noah,” Jennie said. She sighed deeply and went back into her apartment, pausing to look back at Noah’s door.
Inside Noah’s spacious apartment was a menagerie of animals, at least the kind of animals the landlord, Bibbo Keene, allowed. Noah had two cats, a large aquarium filled with colorful fish, three hamsters, two guinea pigs, two parakeets (caged, of course) and a miniature pot bellied pig that grunted and squealed at the sight of its beloved master.
Noah began the procession of greetings and feedings, cuddling and talking to each animal as if they were his best friends. And in a way they were. He thought of Calvin, and how they were alike. Other than Calvin’s wife, Annie, Calvin had no close friends and didn’t much care for his family. His big cats at the zoo were his best friends, along with Noah. Noah liked that Calvin understood him.
The feeding took a half hour, as each animal required a different diet and many had to be separated from cage mates. Noah’s pig, Poncho, followed along like a little dog, grunting and snorting and nipping at Noah’s heels.
When the feeding frenzy was over, Noah went into the small kitchen and grabbed a fork out of a drawer. He sat down and dug in to Jennie’s casserole, closing his eyes in bliss. She was a great cook. Noah shoveled forkfuls into his mouth. She was a REALLY great cook. Add that to the fact she was attractive and Noah realized had any other hot-blooded American male lived next door to Jennie, he would have hit on her by now.
But Noah wasn’t like any hot-blooded American male. Noah was used to being alone. Sometimes he wondered what Jennie was doing, if she was eating alone like he was. He rarely saw guys go into her apartment, and knew she broke up with a guy recently because he saw her crying in the elevator. Once in awhile, Jennie’s elderly mom visited and she always left Noah a plate of cookies or a casserole. Noah liked Ava Gordon, and he got the feeling Ava would have liked him as a future son-in-law.
But he hadn’t pursued it. He didn’t have the energy to deal with the possible rejection, the entanglements, the emotions and feelings. Oh bull crap, he laughed to himself. The truth was, he didn’t have the balls.
Noah figured his avoidance of all things intimate probably stemmed from his childhood, when his parents fought furiously in front of him, divorcing when he was only eight. His father split and was never heard from again, and Noah figured he was probably dead by now, because he was never a very healthy, or happy, man.
Noah’s mother, Sara, was in a nursing home in the final stages of brain cancer, which struck in her mid-fifties and quickly stole her vitality and memory. He visited when he could, her nursing facility being fifty miles away, but most times she didn’t know who he was. Other times, she treated him like he was still a little boy, clearly lost in a time warp from the disease that ate away at her brain. Every now and then she had moments of clarity when she knew Noah, and he felt her love and warmth and basked in it, afraid he might never have another chance.
It broke Noah’s heart to see her that way. He had a sister, Gloria, but she was a successful actress in L.A. with little time for family. The last time he’d seen Gloria was five years ago, when their Aunt Jane died. Gloria barely saw fit to give her brother, the lowly zookeeper, the time of day. She called maybe once every six months, and usually the entire conversation was about her. It reminded Noah of when they were children, and Gloria would do anything to get attention and steal the spotlight.
He knew when their father left, it killed Gloria inside. She considered herself Daddy’s little girl and his abandonment sent her on a quest to prove herself that Noah felt she struggled with to this day. She craved the spotlight her father never gave her, even though she could have gotten the love and attention she needed from her mother and brother.
Too much time and distance created a wall between them. He only wished Gloria would visit their mother more often. He could handle rejection, but it was hard on Sara knowing her daughter was more involved with her agents and managers than her own mother.
So Noah ate alone every night, with his animals surrounding him, and he worked every day surrounded by animals, and he preferred it that way. At least he liked to tell himself so, and those times when he knew he was lying to himself, he just made sure he had some busy work to keep him distracted from the loneliness and pain of the truth.