As Anna sped down the I-90 towards Billings, she felt the anxiety creeping in. It has been almost a year and a half since she had picked up and left for a fresh start.
Her departure had been abrupt and slightly unpleasant, and she hadn’t exactly planned on returning so soon or ever, but the universe seemed to have a different plan.
Taking the next exit, she followed the familiar twists and turns of the road towards the zoo. As Anna pulled into the access gate of Zoo Montana, she could see her old friend, Craig, waiting.
Putting the car into park, she barely made it out of the vehicle before being crushed by a hug. The familiar gesture seemed to wash away all her earlier anxieties.
“It’s great to see you too, Craig, but I can’t breathe,” she rasped.
Letting her go, he stepped back to take her in, and she did the same. Craig had grown since she’d left; he was a solid six-foot now, and his sandy blonde hair had been cropped short but stylish.
“You look tired,” he commented.
“I thought you being away from him... I mean here would do you good.”
Anna felt a twinge of pain tug at her chest. He looked like him.
“Does he know I’m here?” She asked, panicking inside at the thought.
“Yeah, he wanted to welcome you back, but Neville has got him dealing with the Kodiaks.”
Anna knew she’d have to face him eventually, but the longer she could avoid it, the better. Sensing her discomfort, Craig was quick to change the subject.
“Why don’t we find your friend a home.”
Giving him a thankful smile, they jumped back into the truck and made their way through the access gate and into the zoo.
“So, what’s this guy’s story?” Craig asked in an attempt to create small talk.
“A local shot at him for trying to eat his chickens; the poor thing was suffering from starvation. There didn’t appear to be any serious damage, so he’s pretty lucky.”
“I’ll say. He’s being looked after by Montana’s finest animal whisperer,” Craig teased.
“Don’t call me that! Just because I get along with animals better than people, it doesn’t make me an animal whisperer,” she pointed out defensively.
“Whatever you say,” he chuckled.
“Pull up here. We’re putting him in the nursery.”
Unlocking the office section, it was pretty empty. A few glass baby bottles lined the shelves, a fridge and microwave sat in the corner.
It looked as though the nursery hadn’t been used for a while, a light coating of dust covered the benches, but cleaning would have to wait, she needed to get their guest settled first.
Opening up the enclosure, Anna followed Craig through to inspect the wolf’s temporary home. The compound was smaller than the others in the park, but it would suit one occupant just nicely.
The grass was short and almost dead, which made it easier to check the fence line for any holes or escapable points.
Finding nothing, Anna cleared away the fallen branches of the surrounding trees while Craig filled the pond with fresh water.
Satisfied with their work, she unlatched the truck allowing the wolf into the holding bay.
“So, have you thought of a name yet?” Craig asked as they coaxed the wolf the rest of the way into the enclosure.
“Yeah, it’s Azuri.”
“Ooo sounds exotic. I like it,” jeered Craig.
“It means sky blue; like his eyes,” she explained, rolling her eyes at his childishness.
Although born with blue eyes, pure-blooded wolves don’t retain that colour. As they mature, their eyes change to hues of gold, brown or grey.
“I think someone is in love...”
“Oh shut up, Craig before I feed you to the wolf,” she retorted.
His mortified face made her laugh, and Anna couldn’t help but succumb to the feeling of normalcy he brought. He had been her one and only true friend over the years, and she had neglected him all because of his idiotic brother. Another bout of guilt tugged at her heart. “Craig, I’m sorry.”
“What for?” His eyebrows scrunched together in confusion.
“For being a bad friend. I shouldn’t have pushed you away after…”
As she struggled to finish her apology, Craig simply nodded. He was the only person who understood and respected her decision to leave. He was a true friend.
“You wanna make it up to me?”
Catching his gaze, Anna saw the glint of mischief in his pale blue eyes. Craig had gotten them into some crazy situations during their friendship.
She distinctly remembered the time they came close to being arrested for public indecency.
Somehow he’d managed to convince a very drunk Anna to go skinny dipping in the local fountain; they were luckily let off with a warning thanks to her innocent charm.
“What are you thinking?”
“Well, if I recall correctly it’s my turn to pick the bar and your turn to shout.”
“I think your memory is a little fuzzy, but if that’s what it’s going to take, then I’m in.”
The buzzing coming from her pocket put their conversation on hold. Pulling out her phone to check the caller ID, she sighed.
“Yeah, she must be calling about the message I left this morning.”
Anna debated whether to ignore her but thought better of it. “Hello.”
“Anna, honey. How are you?” Her familiar warm voice drifted through the speaker.
“I’m doing great mum, just a little busy with work at the moment.”
“Well, I’ll make this quick then. Can you please come around after work? I have something important to discuss with you.”
“Sure, I’ll be there in an hour or two.”
“Okay, see you soon.”
Hanging up, Craig raised his brow in curiosity.
“We’re going to have to take a rain check on those drinks. Mum has something important she wants to discuss.”
Visiting her mother today was not part of the plan, but when does anything in her life lately go right.
“Oh, that sounds ominous.”
“A little but I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said trying to reassure herself.
“Ah, huh. Are you alright to finish up here? I have a shift at the gift store.”
“Yeah sure, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she called as he jogged off.
Heading back into the office, Anna stood by the window, observing Azuri as he paced the enclosure several times.
His behaviour wasn’t all that strange; he was simply getting acquainted with his new environment. It probably wasn’t the most comfortable place, but he’d get used to it soon.
Busying herself, Anna wiped down the office benches and turned on the fridge before heading towards the supplies building.
Walking through the zoo, Anna observed the patrons as they chatted animatedly about each exhibit and which animals were their favourite.
Their smiles reminded her why she’d started working here in the first place, her passion for animals and the joy they bring made it the perfect job.
She had been training to become a zoologist but put everything on hold when she found out her boyfriend was cheating.
He had made working here unbearable, so she’d packed up and moved away for a fresh start. Anna never thought she’d wind up back here even if it were only temporary.
Stepping into the supply building, Anna was greeted by a young brunette who looked like she should still be in school.
“Hi, can I help you?” She asked.
“Yeah, I need to pick up some food and supplements for an emaciated wolf.”
“Oh, you must be Anna. Craig said you’d probably come around,” the girl smiled enthusiastically.
“That’s me,” she replied, giving her an awkward wave.
“Well, I’m Meg. It’s nice to meet you.”
“So, what can I get for you?”
“The fridge in the nursery is only small, so I’ll just take enough supplies for a couple of days if you could please grab me five pounds of meat, something high in fat and protein, a broad-spectrum vitamin, as well as Omega three and six supplements. Whatever you’ve got in stock should be fine, thank you.”
“Sure thing, I’ll be back in a second.”
As she disappeared to prepare the order, Anna waited patiently, letting her mind drift to her mother. What was she so eager to discuss with her?
Her mother’s house was the same as when Anna had left. The small two-story homes off-white paint job and red roofing seemed to be timeless.
Knocking lightly, she waited, but when there was no answer, Anna grabbed the spare key from her bag and let herself in.
Throwing her keys onto the bench by the door, she flicked on the light as she walked into the lounge room. The couch and TV sat precisely where they were the day she had left.
Looking around at the scattering of family photos, Anna couldn’t help but remember so many happy moments. One photo, however, caught her attention.
Walking over, she picked up the framed image; it was taken at the annual Montana Fair just before she had moved.
It had been a happier time, and as they smiled at the camera, their fair skin glowed against the bright lights of the carnival around them.
Anna and her mother were almost identical, both with ebony black hair that fell just below their shoulder blades in a natural curl. The only real difference between the two was their eyes.
Her mother had a greyish blue colour while Anna had a distinctive light brown ’the colour of brandy′ her mother had always said.
It was the only inheritance she had from her estranged father; something for which she was thankful. The mere thought of him seemed to sour the happy memories.
“Mum,” she sang out, venturing further into the house.
Anna almost passed the kitchen when she spotted her mother sitting on the patio watching the sunset; a glass of red in hand.
Her mother was so deep in thought that she hadn’t noticed Anna until she slid open the back door. Placing her glass on the table, she leapt from her chair and pulled Anna into her warm embrace.
“It’s so good to see you, sweetheart. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you to mum,” she confessed.
“I’m sorry it has been so long.”
“It’s okay. You needed some time away to find yourself, I understand.”
Pulling her impossibly closer, Anna revelled in her mother’s comfort. She didn’t realise how much she’d missed this until now. Giving her one final squeeze, Anna reluctantly let her go.
“So, honey, how long are you here for?”
“My boss gave me three weeks off, but I’ll need to be at the zoo most of the time.”
Percy hadn’t been thrilled about it, at first he’d flat out refused to let her go but when she’d threatened to quit he’d compromised.
She had plenty of leave saved up, and Lucy was well and truly capable of covering her patients.
“That’s great! Your old room is still set up and...”
“I have a room booked over at the Comfort Inn.”
“Nonsense. You are staying here,” her mother stated with a finality that Anna knew better than to contest.
“Gosh, I’m so excited you are here! Your father will be so surprised when he arrives.”
Anna’s heart dropped.
“Yes, that’s actually what I wanted to discuss with you. Artemis is flying down to visit in two weeks, and he’s dying to meet you.”
“Yeah well, I would rather die than meet him,” she muttered angrily.
“Anna,” her mother scolded, hearing her comment.
“He left us over twenty years ago without so much as a goodbye. Why bother coming back?”
“Because I asked him to,” she sighed in frustration.
“I have put the past behind me and would like to start again with him. Your father is the only man I ever truly loved, and it would mean the world to me if you gave him a chance.”
“No,” Anna protested stubbornly.
“I’m not letting that disappointing excuse of a man into my life and neither should you.”
“Anna, please. One meeting with him is all I ask. He is your father.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” she sighed tiredly.
The disappointed look that passed her mother’s features tugged at Anna’s heartstrings, but this was something she believed in strongly. Her mother may have forgiven him, but she couldn’t.
“Look it has been a long day, and I’m exhausted, we can talk about this later?”
“Sure. How about we order in and catch up like old times?” Her mother smiled weakly.
“I’d love that.”
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