The squealing tires, sounding like a mink caught in a steel trap, would echo in Zak's mind forever. In a roundabout sort of way, the sound had been the start of thirteen-year-old Zak's biggest adventure — the one that was to shape the rest of his life. Just as a foot race begins with the crack of a gun, and a horse race with a bell and “They're off!”, Zak's race to save the animals of the world began with the squeal of tires and a sickening thump.
Zak couldn't remember the rabbit hutch having ever been dirtier. He hated cleaning it. Of all the chores he had in managing his zoo, cleaning the hutch was his least favorite. The hamster cages were easy in comparison and he actually enjoyed cleaning the aquariums. Even the timid guinea pigs weren't much trouble. But the rabbit hutch took far too long to clean, and boy, the smell. It reminded Zak of his Great Aunt Bessie's chicken coops. Perhaps it takes longer and smells so bad because I wait so long before I clean it, Zak thought. Not until it's so bad Calida notices the smell when she walks by the garage. Maybe if I cleaned it more regularly, I wouldn't mind it so much. Zak suspected this was true, but he doubted he would change his routine. Besides, it gave his stepmother something else to complain about.
Zak straightened up from his chore for a moment. Being small for his age, such physical work tired him out. His dad called him wiry, and Zak often kidded with his older brother, Luk, that he was “sleeked down for action,” but the truth was cleaning the zoo by himself was just plan hard work.
Their new home was situated across the street from a park in a new development in the Guildford College area of Greensboro, North Carolina. Zak thought the homes looked too much alike for his taste, but the spacious two car garage was one of the few good things about the recent move across country. Who'd ever even heard of Greensboro? Certainly Zak hadn't — not until his dad had arrived home from the San Francisco offices of Consolidated Enterprises to inform him they were being relocated for the fourth time in the ten years his dad had been with the company.
Of course, as his dad quickly pointed out, you could get a lot more house in North Carolina than you could in California for the same amount of money, and so Zak's dream of expanding his zoo beyond his bedroom became a reality over the summer.
He paused from the smelly work, brushing a shock of blonde hair out of his eyes as he gazed at the hand-painted sign:
BATES ZOOLOGICAL PARK
$1 50¢ 25¢
He realized, on one hand, he was probably the youngest zoo owner in the world, but on the other hand…well it really wasn't much of a zoo by most zoo standards. His plan had been for the zoo to be self-supporting but so far its only visitors had been his dad, stepmother and Luk, and despite his father's advice to never let emotions or personal relationships get in the way of business, Zak just couldn't charge family members, not even Calida, his stepmom. After all, they had donated the property for the zoo with both family cars being relegated to the elements of the great outdoors. As far as Zak was concerned, his family were lifelong members of the Bates Zoo and would never have to pay admission.
A short, snippy bark from Angus, an impatient Cairn terrier and Zak's lifelong companion, jerked Zak from his daydream. Small for his breed at less than twenty pounds, Angus more than made up for it with an abundance of spunk. Zak turned around and nodded to his companion.
“Okay, you caught me. I'll get back to work, but it'll still be a while before I can play with you. I need to feed the king snake you were so kind to find for our zoo.”
Zak walked across the garage to a large bin of milk bones sitting on the work bench. Angus sat down a few feet inside the open door of the garage and watched his friend with an intent, almost anxious look.
The bone-bin was nearly as old as Angus. It had been a present from a seven-year-old Zak on Angus's first birthday, even though Zak's father had provided the money for the present. Zak had received Angus as a birthday present about a year earlier, just a few months after Zak's mom had died in an automobile accident. The blow had devastated the entire family, but especially six-year old Zak who couldn't understand why it was taking her so long to come home from the grocery store. Finally, in frustration, Wendell, Zak's father, had brought the puppy home in an effort to console his son. It had been one of Wendell's few family ideas that had panned out. Unlike his other ideas, like the one almost two years ago when he had suddenly returned from a business trip in Mexico with Calida in tow, announcing to his two sons that they'd been married while in her country.
“Here, go munch on this for a while,” Zak said, tossing one of the large biscuits to Angus who caught it in mid-air, thanking Zak with a muffled bark. “Sorry, I'm fresh out of fish heads but this will tide you over for now.” Over the years Angus had acquired an unusual taste for raw fish heads, digging them out of the garbage after Wendell returned from one of his fishing expeditions. It had grown into such a passion that no matter where they moved to one of Zak's first job was to strike up a deal with a local fish store to save Angus some fish heads each week. Angus's salt-and-pepper coat had never looked better although, as Luk was quick to point out, his breath could wilt a silk flower.
“I'll be finished soon and then we can play catch,” Zak said, as Angus growled in delight and padded out of the garage with his prize. Zak turned back to the rabbit hutch, his face pinched in a look of displeasure.
Twenty minutes, Zak told himself as he glanced at his watch. I'll have my chores done in twenty minutes. His dad had told him how work always expanded to fill up time and Zak wasn't interested in expanding work, particularly not this work. Oh, to have a magic wand and be able to whisk away the work with one wave. With a heavy sigh, Zak began scraping off the rabbit droppings from the wire-meshed floor of the hutch.
He was nearly finished cleaning the cage when he heard the frantic yipping that he recognized as Angus's, although it sounded a long way off. Zak also recognized the particular type of barking. Angus must have snuck across the street to chase the park squirrels. If Calida caught Angus chasing squirrels again, they'd both be grounded for a week.
Zak straightened up from his task and, grabbing an old rag to wipe his hands, ran out of the garage to find Angus. Sure enough, there he was on the other side of Wimbledon Street, prancing at the foot of a large maple, barking at a chattering squirrel above him.
“Angus, stop it!” Zak shouted, smiling in spite of himself. He hated to admit it but he loved watching his little companion chase after the fluff-tails. As far as Zak knew, Angus had never caught a squirrel, but the unsuccessful track record never deterred the vigor with which he pursued them. Angus definitely had a “never-say-die” attitude.
“Come on, get back over here where you belong,” Zak shouted with a laugh. “I'm really not looking to add a squirrel to the Bates Zoo, especially not after you get through with it.”
Angus glanced toward his master and then back at the squirrel. With a final yip, he conceded the match to the squirrel and started home to his master. He'll be disappointed to find I'm not yet done with my chores, Zak thought as he watched the little dog bound towards him. He could tell from the height of Angus's gait he expected to be rewarded for his efforts with a game of catch.
Maybe it was the excitement of the chase coupled with the expectation of further play that kept Angus from checking the street. He had learned early in life to always watch for traffic, but at times even deep-seated lessons are forgotten in the thrill of the moment.
Zak noticed the error but before he could open his mouth, the sight of the gleaming sports car bearing down on Angus froze the words in his throat. The car seemed to have materialized from thin air. One moment the small dog pranced across an empty street; in the next instant a sleek black and chrome missile bore down on him.
Zak ran towards the street. Finally finding his voice, he screamed to Angus to go back, but his little friend ignored his plea. Zak wished his dog out of danger, wishing once more for a magic wand like a real magician. I could cast a bubble of protection around Angus, one that would send the car careening off in some other direction or maybe when the car touched the bubble, it would disappear in a cloud of smoke and sparkles.
But I'm not a magician, Zak thought, as he watched the nightmare play out in front of him. Not really – not yet. He had no magic wand or secret spell. For a moment, it looked as though Angus might make it across the street with only a very close call, but at the last second the car seemed to leap ahead, its bumper striking Angus's right hip, skipping him across the hard pavement like a flat stone skimming across a quiet lake. The car veered to the left and skidded to a stop. Angus finally came to an abrupt stop as his head struck the curb with a dull thump only a few yards from Zak. The little dog hadn't made a sound.
Please God, don't let him die, Zak repeated over and over as he ran to his best friend. I'll do whatever you ask of me, just please don't let him die. Anything God, really, anything.
The next few moments blurred for Zak. Just as time had seemed to slow down only moments before, it now sped up as though catching up with itself. He stooped over Angus's limp, motionless body, gently placing his hand on the dog's chest. He felt the exuberant rush of adrenalin as his fingers picked up the faint, rapid heartbeat confirming his prayers had so far been answered. He checked the color of Angus's gums for signs of shock as he'd learned from his Cub Scout manual.
Other people suddenly arrived on the scene — all in a blur. A young lady – Zak learned later she'd been driving the car – was no help at all as she wrung her hands and cried about how sorry she was. There was old man Brown, their next door neighbor. Zak didn't really know his neighbors very well, having moved to the neighborhood a couple months ago, but even in the short time, he'd learned Brown was the neighborhood's grouch. Being retired, Brown spent most of the time on his porch, rocking, watching and complaining to any other neighbor who would spend a few minutes listening to him.
Zak looked up in time to see Calida bending over him with a look on her face that almost made him break out in tears. But he didn't have time for tears — not while Angus needed him.
“I'll help you pick him up, Zak. Just tell me how,” Calida said in a soft, warm voice. “I've called Dr. George. Her clinic is just a couple of blocks away. I'm sure Angus will be all right.”
Zak nodded, wanting to believe her, but at the same time realizing he knew more about animal medicine than she did. Already from his brief examination he knew Angus was in serious trouble. Angus's normally bright pink gums were pale pink, almost white. Pressing on them had caused no more blanching.
Zak's two passions in life were magic and animals and so far, he was a much better animal caretaker than he was a magician. He knew Angus was going into shock and if they didn't get him immediate attention, he was going to die. Please, God, don't let him die, Zak repeated the short prayer again even as he instructed Calida to fetch a blanket. Please, God, don't let him die.
Zak watched as old man Brown spoke to the young girl as he waited for the blanket. Her frantic movements contrasted with the crisp tidiness of her navy blue business suit. He was surprised when Brown grabbed her shoulders and shook her, demanding she stop crying.
He heard her tell ol' man Brown, “I never come this way, but for some reason today I had this overpowering thought to try it as a shortcut. Now, look what I've done.”
At first, Zak didn't understand what the old man was doing. It wasn't until later as Zak rode to the hospital in the seat next to her with Angus in his arms that he realized it had been Brown who'd brought her back to her senses.
Then Calida was back with the blanket — a bright orange one left over from their recent move. Zak thought briefly how mad his dad would be if they got blood on it. They would have to pay the moving company if they couldn't return it. Calida didn't seem to mind and so he certainly wasn't going to say anything. Zak folded the blanket into fourths and laid it beside the unconscious Angus. Gently, they lifted Angus's limp body onto the blanket, then, using the blanket as a sling, carried him to the sports car. Zak gently wrapped the blanket around the still body of his lifelong buddy, and climbed in the passenger seat, instinctively keeping one hand pressed on Angus's chest. The heart continued its faint rapid beat as Zak continued his litany, please, God, don't let him die. As Calida closed the door on the passenger side, the car pulled away from the curb and sped down the road towards the veterinary clinic.
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