ACTIVATE LION MODE
My eyes sprang open and the hair on my back stood on end. Judy’s scream pierced my ears and joined the howls of the protesting motor home. My sleek graceful body slammed against the windshield. Outside, the screech of the tires mixed with strange sounds of groaning metal and crackling fiberglass. Airborne, our sanctuary lurched off the road, like the birds I envied. The windshield, which insulated me from the dangers of the outside world crammed painfully against my ribs. Jagged lines crawled and crunched across my once, unobstructed view while branches, rocks, and dirt spewed up and pounded the varicose pattern until the glass wall of security gave way.
Judy and I sailed as if we would meet the heavens. In flight, I puffed up to twice my size. With the shattered windshield no longer protecting me, the wind penetrated through every raised hair follicle. My paws grabbed futilely as I flew past the broken glass from my perch on the dashboard, away from our home, and through the forest’s first line of pines. The motorhome’s own moment of, sublime flight ended with a crashing jolt. Its wheels squashed onto the ground, and the tires exploded. My body continued its line of flight through green scented air, not like the birds I had coveted, but rather like the hawk on its deadly dive to earth for prey. I landed with a force that pushed out a trumpeted a warrior’s call from inside my lungs – a last-stand challenge. The roar, an instinctive attempt to chase the boiling fear that swelled within my chest. But my bellow, intended to defy the wild, went unheard, smothered by the only sound the rain forest allowed – silence.
Moments before the accident I had stretched out on my usual spot across the motorhome’s dash, lulled by the engine’s purr. Life was good. Judy, my companion, who attended to my every need, chauffeured. She reached up and patted my head, then expertly steered the motorhome onto the highway. “It’s time to say goodbye to the Olympic Rain Forest,” she said. “We’re heading home.” Like the motorhome, I purred in response as we sped by the lush, green landscape. If cats were of the inclination to make favorites lists, the Olympic campground would have made number one for me.
We had been on the road for three months. I loved traveling and I loved the wild. Every day when we arrived at a new campsite, Judy backed me up while I explored. With coffee in one hand and my leash the other, she oversaw my investigation of every leaf, bush and tree. When Judy tired I accompanied her back to her fold up recliner. There she relaxed in the sunshine with a book and idly scratched my back as I stretched out beside her. I studied the birds in the treetops and the leaves whirling in the breeze while she read and napped. When the sun hung so low in the sky that its rays backlit the trees, Judy would announce, “Time to go inside, Sportster. Time for dinner.”
I plopped to the ground and refused to move. This was the time of day the forest began to come alive. The moths flitted above my head and I heard rustling in the bushes. But Judy tugged on my leash. I mewed in protest, turned my head away, and gazed up at a bird laughing in the tree. Judy scolded me with another tug on my leash.
“Come on. It will be dark soon,” she said. “There are boogie creatures in the night that will get you. You can’t stay outside by yourself.”
I scoffed at her warnings. Hadn’t I been prowling all day? Yes, I had smelled the wild scents, but the day had passed, and not one of those “boogie creatures” had come out of their hiding. I had crouched by one of their holes for over an hour, and nothing. I had proved I was king of the forest. But, rather than creating an embarrassing power struggle in front of all the forest’s residents, I acceded. Judy escorted me inside our secure sanctuary and warmed up dinner. My day ended keeping her company as I snuggled beside her as she watched TV.
My days in the Olympic Forest, prowling beneath the ferns on a pine-needled carpet, which felt as soft as a cat’s paw, stirred deep yearnings with in me. Strange scents fed my active imagination and I dreamed of roaming as my ancestors had, in search of a graceful female to satisfy my every whim. Wasn’t that how I was born to live? I loved my life with Judy, My home on wheels spoiled me with a deep luxurious rug and my own tiger-striped, cushy bed. But the wild’s seductive call was bewitching, and promised a life of adventure and freedom.
But those thoughts were far from my mind now. I crouched where I landed. Trembling, I attempted to gather my senses. Through the trees, I studied the grotesque scene. The vehicle’s wheels spun in the air, and vapor hissed from its hood. An occasional ping disturbed the forest’s now eerie silence. My nosed twitched as I scrutinized the area. A blade of grass tickled my nose.
Judy was nowhere in sight and I was in no mood for the hide and seek game. At home, I was always the victor, Judy could not compete against my swift disappearing acts. Our large, three bedroom mansion in southern California afforded curtains, chairs and couches to hide behind, and shelves and dressers to perch upon. Searching, Judy tiptoed into a room and I pounced from my imaginary lair, or from my cliff called the refrigerator. She would jump and yell in surprise. It was great practice if my dream of living in the wild ever came to pass. But if she were hiding now, I was not amused.
The sun sank below the tree tops, allowing darkness to seep in. I was getting hungry. My eyes, still swelled large with adrenaline, scanned the area again and again, and my tail twitched continuously. A little boy’s meow squeaked out of me and I hoped the forest muffled my feeble cry and consumed it as it had my warrior’s shout. This was no time to play the kitten’s role.
From my covert position in the pines, the motorhome’s shadow stretched across the road’s edge and into a deep ditch. How much time had passed before I finally stood on all four shaky legs, and surveyed my surroundings?
Nothing had changed in the forest. The ferns draped as they had yesterday, luring me to prowl beneath them, to hunt for adventure. I peered up at the trees I had longed to climb only a day before. They remained warm, wrapped in their cloaks of moss. Shadows hovered under fronds that earlier had glistened and swayed in the sunlight. Nothing had changed, and yet, I sensed nothing would ever be the same. Wary of the deceiving quiet, I dared a step, then another.
I found Judy laying in the grass near the broken motorhome. The iron smell of blood combined with her soft jasmine scent confused me. Her heartbeat thumped erratically. I gently touched her face with a trembling paw and waited. Like a feather, I touched her again. Nothing.
Sirens, faint in the distance, gave me pause, their volume increasing as they neared. I took one long, last look at Judy’s sleeping face and retreated, slinking back deeper into the forest, and hid in a rotted log. The alarms grew insistent, until their penetrating shrieks stabbed my ears. I blinked from the pain, almost crying out, as two trucks rushed up, braked, and crept off onto the roadside. The deafening din ceased, but I remained crouched in the stump.
The flashing lights invaded my covert position. They illuminated the fiery red colors on the maple leaves in an attempt to beat off the invading night shadows. Slamming doors and strangers’ shouts sent me shrinking even farther into the bowels of my fallen log.
A couple of men yanked open the back doors of their vehicle with blazing lights and jerked out a bed on wheels. Pushing it, they rushed to Judy’s sleeping form and knelt down. They hovered over her, mumbling words to each other, and finally, lifted her up and placed her on the white sheets that glowed in the twilight. Her body jiggled as they rolled her away and shoved her into the van. One of the men climbed in with Judy and the other into the cab. In seconds, the sirens screamed again, and the van sped off, roaring down the road.
My heart raced. They were taking my Judy! Panic urged me to chase after the thieves. I started, but the kidnappers disappeared around a bend. Clanging, banging sounds forced me to check my advance. I couldn’t squeeze back any farther into the stump. The noise came from the other truck as it eased up to the motorhome. The passenger exited and stood behind my home, waving and shouting at the driver. After a series of rattles and clatter, he hooked the motorhome to a heavy chain leash and disappeared back into the vehicle. The truck crawled back onto the asphalt with the motorhome following. . My bag of food remained in the kitchen cabinet, my own private bathroom, my catnip mouse hidden under the passenger seat, and my treats, and my Judy – the hijackers took it all. The light show drifted down the highway, an, it too, vanished into the night. Once more, stillness took over the rain forest. Only an occasional vehicle swished past.
Judy was gone. This was not a game. This was not an “I’ll see you later, Sportster.” She was gone, like yesterday. My naptime passed, but still I waited. Feeling invisible under the log, I licked my paws, my tail and washed my face as the birds chirped their nighttime prayers.
A strong, unfamiliar scent floated up my nose, carried by the evening breeze. With faltering steps, I crept from under my hiding place, craned my neck, and raised up on my hind legs. A large Elk, his head held high as the tree tops, emerged from the depths of the forest and, overlooking me, he pranced by on a narrow path. His heavy odor stung my eyes and they watered as I tucked my tail under my trembling body and, again, dashed back into my den. Like the vehicles, as quickly as he had appeared, he vanished.
Shadows crept along the forest floor, blocking the weakening invasion of sunlight. The maples turned grey and the green pines melted to black. I shivered. The moths and insects I had enjoyed chasing yesterday now flitted and danced in the fading light. They taunted me, as if they knew I did not belong. Darkness overcame the forest, bringing with it an increasing stillness.
The shelter of night stirred a fragment of courage within me, enough to venture out from my hiding. With each cautious step I paused, listened, and sniffed.
My eyesight was sharpest at night and I peered from the forest’s edge. There in the grass lay Judy’s sweatshirt, the one I snuggled on when she left it on her bed. When she found me curled up in its fleece and push her sweet smelling face into my fur. Her sputtering noises tickled my tummy. In response, I jumped up and walked away so she would not grow accustomed to my bewitching charm.
My heart fluttered at the memory and I rushed over to the garment, forgetting my caution. Inhaling her scent, visions of good times warmed me like a drug. I recalled my dreams of the wild while she watched TV, and me, tracing the mouse’s trail with my paw, as it raced across her laptop screen. I could almost hear her laughter when I batted my catnip ball across the room and I chased after it, skidding around, grabbing the toy, and swatting it back toward her. All good practice for when I would ultimately live my dream. Was the time now?
I nestled into the fleece jacket. My eyes scanned the expanse between the line of trees and the road, and I choked back a whimper. This was no game. An unfamiliar feeling of desperation pushed at me. I rose from Judy’s sweatshirt and crept into the clearing. I took a couple of shaky steps, my courage diminishing with each step.
A path of sprinkled kibble led to my overturned water and food dishes. My stomach growled. Ravenous with hunger, I crunched down a few kernels, but the chunks landed like rocks in my belly. On a nearby bush, hung my rhinestone collar. Like glitter on a Christmas tree, the garnets caught the moonlight and the gold ID tag glowed. It must have been ripped off when I was flung from the motorhome. No matter, it had always been a bother.
The strangers’ scents rose from the deep gashes slashed into in the damp earth by the motorhome’s last journey. And Judy’s scent, too, from where she’d lain. I circled one last time. Perhaps I had been careless. Perhaps my eyes deceived me and the pirates had not stolen off into the night with her. I reexamined the pieces of the motorhome scattered here and there - glass from the headlight, a towel, and a map -- scraps from our lives. .
When the moon moved to the top of the trees, I returned to Judy’s sweatshirt and collapsed. My eyes drooped, but still, I struggled to remain vigilant. When daylight finally threaded through the woods and threatened to reveal my position, it stung with disappointment. I was still alone. I made one more sweep of my surroundings, listening for sounds, seeking any form of movement, and analyzing smells. No Judy.
I slipped back into the woods. I would wait.