Alexis Jamison looked thoughtfully at the young gray wolf anxiously pacing the enclosure. "You've got green eyes. That's odd. Did you know that most gray wolves have gold eyes, or yellow even?"
The wolf whined fearfully, a pup's apprehensive sound, and Alex looked helplessly at it. "I can't do anything yet," she continued bitterly. "You're going to be released, don't you know that? What's your name, anyway?" She looked at the piece of paper tacked lopsidedly to the fence, her father's practically illegible handwriting spelling out the words: Lupus. Gray wolf. Approximately two years old.
"Lupus, is that your name then?" Alex said interestedly. "Good name for a gray wolf."
Lupus whined again. "Oh, Lupus," she murmured, her voice breaking.
She jumped to her feet, put a hand against the fence briefly, then tore herself away and strode toward her house, trying hard to keep from turning back to Lupus.
The cool Alaskan air bit at Alex as she walked across the field of dying grass. She was used to wolves; there were plenty here at the gray wolf release center her father had begun four years ago. She had come here every summer since her parents split up when she was six. Alex had learned everything there was to know about endangered gray wolves from her father, and was already able to help him with his work. She didn't usually let herself get attached to any of the wolves, knowing they were eventually going to be released and she'd never see them again, but she was curiously interested in Lupus.
* * *
Back at the enclosure, Lupus lay down wearily at nightfall after a day's worth of restless pacing. He was a lone wolf, and would probably never start a pack of his own again. Before a yearling had challenged him, he'd been the alpha male of his pack, but the yearling had won the fight and now Lupus was a social outcast, hunting and living alone. He howled mournfully.
Today, however, Lupus had finally become interested in a human when the young girl had spoken to him. He didn't know her language, but he had understood her tone. She sounded as though she hadn't wanted to go from him. No human had ever spoken like that to him; they had used falsely calm, sweet voices instead, as if he were a shy little cub that needed protection. This human had talked to him like the tough, former alpha he was. He somehow sensed that this girl was like him, alone and perhaps afraid.
His head rested on his forepaws, and his green eyes closed gently.
* * *
Alex woke early the next morning. It was pleasantly silent in the house, and she lay in bed for a few minutes, thinking about how lucky she was that it was summer vacation, when she didn't have to go to school and endure the insults and jeers from Kara and her group.
Her former friends.
Some friends they were, to ditch her the moment she'd shown signs of not being "cool" anymore.
One particular memory stuck out with uncomfortable clarity in her mind . . .
It had all started on a warm day in November, when a new girl, Lori, had joined Alex's class at school. Alex and her best friend, Kara, befriended Lori, and at first, everyone seemed happy. Lori hung out with Kara and Alex and their whole group of friends. But little by little, Alex began to notice changes. Kara and Lori became closer and began doing things without including Alex. Kara never called or e-mailed Alex anymore. One day, Alex overheard Kara and Lori talking.
"Why should we hang out with her? All she ever talks about are her parents being divorced and how she's going to go to Alaska to see her dad and her precious wolves," Kara was saying to Lori.
Alex knew they were talking about her. She was stunned. She had thought they were friends.
Alex swung herself out of bed, fiercely driving back the memories that made a burning pain erupt somewhere around her throat. "Forget," she commanded herself sternly. But she knew that would be impossible, to forget everything.
She had a sudden, deep desire to see Lupus. Alex had felt so drawn to him yesterday. Seeing him alone in his enclosure, while all the other wolves were with their mates or in packs, had reminded Alex of her own loneliness.
After a quick shower, Alex got dressed in a dark flannel shirt, faded jeans, and brown ankle boots—it was cold at the wolf release center where she was staying, even in summer. Her father would most likely already be outside, studying the big gray wolf, Gregoryi, and his mate, Baileyi.
Alex shoved an energy bar into her jeans pocket and sprinted to Lupus's enclosure. She sat down firmly on the dirt sprinkled with dying grass a short distance from his pen and rapped gently on the chain-link fence with the heel of her hand.
* * *
Lupus woke with a start at the rattling noise. Clumsy prey? He hadn't hunted anything since that young man with the overlong hair had found him, lying sick amongst the dark trees, and brought him to this place. Little did he know the young man was Alex's father.
His eyes opened hopefully and he instinctively half-rose at a second jangle, but when he saw it was only Alex, he lay down sadly once again. Alex warily put a finger through the chain-link fence, and he lunged fiercely for it. She leapt backward, scolding him. "Don't bite me, I'm your friend," she said indignantly. "I won't hurt you."
Lupus shuffled backward to the farthest corner of his pen, barking warningly. Alex grinned shyly. "I know you're scared. That leap at me was all show, wasn't it? You're trying to be a great, frightening wolf, to scare me off." She threw her head back and laughed, hard.
He barked louder. Was this girl laughing at him? Him, the gray, black, and white wolf of the green eyes, the hardened loner, the strong alpha? Even the man who had captured him had seemed slightly wary, carefully avoiding his teeth. Alex smiled again, looking at Lupus with bright gray-brown eyes. Lupus gazed away.
"Come on, Lupus," she muttered imperiously, rattling the fence again to catch his attention. Her voice was slightly annoyed, but she quickly hid her frustration and said, in a softer voice, "I won't hurt you, you know that. I like you, Lupus. Come on out, come on and say hi to me. I won't hurt you."
The wolf snarled aggressively at her, showing off sharp white teeth. He knew for a fact his snarl sent chills down anyone's spine—he'd gotten into enough fights, trying to become the alpha of his pack, to know that. But Alex just grinned casually and leaned nonchalantly against the fence. "I'm not going."
Her head swung around so fast all Lupus saw was a flash of short, shaggy dark hair. She clenched her fists involuntarily. "Dad, I'm over here with Lupus!" she yelled back. "I've already taken a shower and I've got my breakfast!"
Peter Jamison, her father, came around from Gregoryi's enclosure, his notebook underneath his arm and pencil tucked into his pocket. "Good," he said, punching Alex playfully in the shoulder. "I'm going back to the house for a meal. Seven o'clock already, did you know?"
Alex shook her head obediently, hiding her digital watch. Lupus watched the chestnut-haired man stride toward the house. He whined and scampered toward Alex.
"What's the matter? My dad scares you?"
Lupus whimpered fearfully.
"He must've captured you. I'd be scared of him too, if he'd captured me and put me in a pen. In a sense, I am in a pen; enclosed, alone, without anyone else. Except, unlike you, nobody's leaning on my fence to help set me free."
The wolf's nose bumped her thigh. She looked down and saw Lupus nudging her slightly.
"What are . . . I mean, is that. . . are you actually touching me?" Cautiously, she reached out a thin hand, shoved it laboriously through the wire, and Lupus leaned his head against it as if he had been a dog.
* * *
Alex was in a sort of happy daze for the rest of the day. She alone had made Lupus come to her, she alone had befriended him, she alone knew what his nose felt like on a human's skin. It made her proud of herself as she had not been in years.
At dinner, Alex asked casually, "Dad, why don't you let Lupus out, to try to mate with Dakota or Cheyenne, or join Gregoryi's pack?"
"I've already tried," said Peter bitterly. "He won't interact. When I tried to mate him with Cheyenne, so they could start a pack of their own, he just, sort of, you know, loped away. Gregoryi tried his best to kill him, and Dakota and Canis each circled him in that way that all wolves do when they're going to fight."
"He came right up to me today," Alex remarked innocently. "He nudged my hand."
"No, really, he did! Can't I try it again? Put him in Gregoryi's pen, I mean. It's not hopeless."
"It's not! Please, will you do it tomorrow morning?"
"I'll think about it, Alex. Just think about it, mind you."
* * *
Lupus woke to see two tall figures walking toward his enclosure. One, he could see even from this distance, was Alex, walking rather more jauntily than usual and her back straighter, shoulders back. The second was presumably her father, Peter, whose long strides were reluctant, his head angled downward.
Sure enough, Alex and Peter arrived at Lupus's enclosure a few seconds later. Peter moved Lupus to Gregoryi's pen, with Alex alongside him all the way, murmuring soothingly under her breath to calm Lupus.
She brushed a lock of dark hair out of her eyes automatically, a familiar nervous gesture of hers, as Gregoryi sniffed at Lupus, surveying the younger wolf with an experienced, slightly bored eye.
Gregoryi bounded forward, snarling, and Lupus snarled back, teeth bared. Alex had one foot on the fence when Peter pulled her backward and grasped her tightly, not an embrace, but an action meant to hold her back from the wolf she loved.
It was dangerous to enter that enclosure, she knew, but she beat at Peter's arms like a small child. "Cut it out," Peter commanded roughly. "You know perfectly well that I wouldn't let you into the middle of a wolf fight if my life depended on it. Quit hitting me, Alexis, you've no good reason to."
She stopped reluctantly, but Peter still kept a firm grip on her right forearm. "Watch them," he said quietly.
Gregoryi lunged for Lupus, who stepped aside nimbly. He dodged a swipe at his head, but bit at Gregoryi's paw at the next one. A few warningly sharp nips later, Gregoryi was letting Lupus paw at him and Baileyi. It was amazing.
Peter gaped at the three social wolves. "I never knew Lupus had that much determination,"he murmured. "Not to mention that much courage. He fought a much bigger animal and has now, it appears, been accepted into its pack. If he will mate with Dakota or Cheyenne, we could release him with Gregoryi, Baileyi, and Canis."
Alex gasped. It was too good to be true. "Really? Lupus could . . . be free? In the wild? Mating and hunting and running and . . . and . . . he'd never have to be a lone wolf again?"
"Yes," her father replied simply. He had never seen such a grin light up his daughter's thin face, or such happiness fill her solemn eyes.
* * *
Lupus stood uncertainly on the edge of the forest beside his mate, Dakota, with Gregoryi's pack in front of him. Was he meant to run forward?
Alex made a pushing motion with her hand and called, "Go on, Lupus! I . . ." Her voice was joyful, but there were tears smudging her last few words.
He was obviously meant to go, he could feel it in the commanding gesture she had made, but the girl—he couldn't leave her, not for anything. She loved him, and he loved her. They were a lot alike and could almost communicate, in their own silent way He couldn't leave the girl who had made his life worth living again. He couldn't abandon her, couldn't abandon someone who he had loved and known for such a short period of time, the best time in his life.
"Go on, Lupus!" she shouted to him, more strongly.
Lupus stepped forward, then looked back over his shoulder, hesitating. "Go on, Lupus!" she cried to him, tears of sadness and joy alike running down her cheeks to wet her black T-shirt. "I'll never forget you! Never! I love you," she added in a sad whisper only she could hear.
With one last bark, he broke into a run and disappeared into the dark trees with the other wolves.
* * *
Alex waited till his gray-and-white tail had completely vanished to turn, pulling the stack of photos and sketches of Lupus out of her jeans pocket. She flipped clumsily through them, sight blurred by the tears filling her eyes.
Pictures of Lupus taken with an instant camera, Lupus running, gnawing on Gregoryi's ear, sitting with his head tilted. And that beautiful sketch she had drawn last night, of Lupus sleeping, made realistic with colored pencils. She missed him, but he was most likely happy with his newfound friends.
Alex began walking back toward her house, pocketing her only reminders of Lupus once again.
Maybe she, too, would find a pack of her own someday.