Seeing Spots

Submitted into Contest #30 in response to: Write a story about someone who loses their cat.... view prompt

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Seeing Spots

© Eric Maier 2020


“Cougars, sometimes called pumas or mountain lions, are ambush predators. That means they will trap or capture their prey using strategy or stealth, rather than strength or speed. They are elusive and secretive and rarely seen in the wild. Can anyone tell me what they eat?”

John looked at the kids grouped around him. There were about twenty of them, a mix of boys and girls. They looked short next to their teacher, a thin woman with tired eyes and disheveled hair. A skinny boy with glasses raised his hand.

“Yes?” John said.

The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve and asked stuffily, “Meat?”

John smiled. “Yes, that’s right! Cougars are carnivores. They eat meat. They mostly eat animals like deer, or moose, or wild sheep, or rabbits. On rare occasions though, cougars have been known to attack and kill humans.” The teacher’s eyes went wide at that. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned that part. He wasn’t used to kids. He was only doing the tour because Cindy was out sick. He quickly moved on.

“Anyway, if you’ll follow me this way, we may be lucky enough to see Spots.” He led them to a large caged, enclosure. The cage went over the top too. A large, muscular cat, with tawny-colored hair, lounged just within the tree line, watching them with piercing greenish-yellow eyes. Black lines curved around her mouth like a mustache. “Spots is just under two years old and she weighs over a hundred pounds. We’ve had her since she was a cub. She’ll be leaving us sometime later this year.” His voice caught in his throat, “She’ll… be moved to the San Diego Zoo.”

“Why do you call her Spots?” a wisp of a girl asked. “She doesn’t have any.”

“Good question. Well, when she was just a cub, she had spots. Most of her spots went away when she was around six months old. If you look closely, you might still see a few faint ones. I was actually the one who named her. We thought about changing it but the name just stuck.”

John had been the primary caretaker of Spots ever since they found her. She had been alone, and motherless, and would surely have died if they hadn’t taken her back to the rescue. He had held her tiny, fluffy body while he bottle-fed her until she was old enough to eat meat. He would ruffle her ears and stroke her back and tail. Even now, they had a special bond. Spots knew him. She would watch him closely, and often purr, when he was around.

The tour ended twenty minutes later. John was tired and ready to go home. No wonder that teacher looked frazzled. It took a lot of energy to keep up with all those kids. John grabbed his backpack, said goodnight to Beth Ann, the front desk clerk, and Brad, the night caretaker, and clocked out.

On his way to his car, he paused outside of Spots’ enclosure. Her eyes followed him. She was so beautiful, with her slender body and round head. “Goodnight, Spots, sweetie,” he said. Her ears swiveled towards him. She began to purr loudly. His smile was mixed with sadness. He wasn’t allowed to get nearer than this anymore. Because of her age, human contact was strictly prohibited. She may become unpredictable.

John was jolted awake by his cell phone. He normally slept with it on silent mode but he must have forgotten to set it. “That’s life! That’s what all the people say…,” his phone blared at him. He loved Sinatra, but not at, what time was it? His clock read 3:13 A.M. He fumbled at his phone. It was stuck to the charging cable. He cursed and finally managed to free it. He swiped right to answer.

“Hello?” he said groggily.

“Hi, John? This is Brad.”

“Brad?” John didn’t understand.

“Brad. From the rescue.”

“Oh, right. Brad. You know it’s 3:00 in the morning, right?” He rubbed his eyes with his free hand.

“Yeah, I’m sorry to call so late but we have an emergency,” Brad said.

“An emergency? At 3:00 in the morning? It couldn’t wait another few hours?”

“Spots escaped,” Brad stated flatly.

That woke John up. “What?” He sat up in bed.

“She escaped. I was doing my rounds and the door to her enclosure was open. It must not have been latched right.” Brad was speaking rapidly. John could tell Brad was trying to remain calm but was close to losing it.

“Did you check the enclosure?” he asked, slightly panicked himself.

“Of course, I did,” he sounded offended. “I latched the door and turned on all the lights. She’s not in there! I checked a few times.”

“Okay. Okay. Calm down. Go open the door to her enclosure again, in case she decides to come back on her own. Then, call Jeff and Bonnie. They need to know. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

“Okay,” Brad said.

John’s mind raced as his car sped towards the rescue. This was bad, really bad. If Spots had really escaped, they were in a lot of trouble. A cougar roaming free could have disastrous consequences. While attacks on humans were rare, there were families that lived near here. A cougar could see a child as easy prey. Not to mention the panic this would cause in the locals. Farmers would probably shoot at anything that moved near their herds. Someone could get shot. There would be repercussions to the rescue too. At minimum, there’ll be an inquiry and they’ll probably be closed, at least, temporarily. They could be shut down permanently.

It’ll be hard to find her too. Cougars are elusive and very stealthy. Seeing one in the wild is an especially rare occurrence. Time was against them. They needed to find her quickly. The longer it took, the more likely it was that they’d never find her. A female cougar’s territory can range from ten to over a hundred square miles. They could narrow down the area, but it’d still be like looking for a needle in a haystack. And what do they do if they do find her? Kill her? Trap her? John didn’t know, but he knew this was bad.

Brad was waiting for him when he pulled his car onto the gravel drive and parked it. He didn’t see Jeff’s truck. “Where are Jeff and Bonnie?” he asked without preamble as he climbed out of the car. They were the rescue’s owners and he was surprised they weren’t here yet. They only lived a few minutes away.

Brad’s hair was messed and his eyes were haunted. “They are on vacation upstate. They’re on their way but they won’t be here until after noon.”

John cursed. “Okay, it’s just me and you then.”

“Well, Cindy is on her way. I know she’s sick but I thought I should call her anyway, since she knows cougars inside and out.”

“Good thinking.”

“I didn’t call Beth Ann though. There’s only so much she could do tonight. She’ll be here in a few hours for her regular shift anyway.”

“No problem.” John said. Cindy was probably still twenty minutes away. Until then, it was just the two of them. “Okay. Let’s double check the enclosure one more time.”

“I just re-checked it right before you got here.”

“I just want to see,” John said.

Brad handed him a spotlight and they both circled the enclosure shining their lights in sweeping arcs looking for eye-shine. When he reached the enclosure gate, John went inside.

“What are you doing?” Brad exclaimed.

“I’m just going to check,” he said.

“But…”

“It’s okay. Spots knows me. It’ll be okay,” he tried to convince himself. Even though John and Spots had a special bond, they weren’t supposed to go into the enclosure unless Spots was sick and needed medical attention. Brad watched nervously as John searched the enclosure. Spots was definitely not there.

John came out and stared into the woods. He thought for a few moments, his fingers rubbing his chin subconsciously. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to wait here for Cindy and I’m going to take a walkie and go looking for her.”

“Are you insane?” Brad cried. “That’s an adult cougar! They hunt at night!”

John ignored him. He studied the ground. “Her tracks seem to be heading that way,” he said, gesturing towards a gap in the woods. “She probably made a straight line for the trees.”

“Did you hear me?” Brad asked. “That’s a bad idea.”

John looked at him, “It’s the best chance we’ve got.” Brad didn’t say anything.

They went to the office. Brad gathered some gear for him while John opened the lockbox for a gun and some tranquilizer darts. He looked in the manual for the correct dosage and carefully filled three darts. He made sure they were tightly capped and put one dart in the gun and the other two in his top vest pocket. He looked over the supplies Brad had put together: one of the spotlights, a flashlight, a headlamp, two walkie talkies, a throw net, a can of pepper spray, and a backpack.

He handed on of the walkies to Brad and clipped the other one to his belt. He slid the headlamp on and pocketed the flashlight and pepper spray. He shoved the rest into the backpack, then slipped it over his shoulders. “Thanks,” he said.

They looked at each other. After a few seconds of awkward silence, John said, “Okay. I’m going. Try not to call me on the walkie unless it is an emergency. We don’t want to scare her off. I’ll check in every thirty minutes or so.”

“Okay,” Brad said. “Are you sure you don’t want to wait? Cindy will probably be here soon.”

John thought about it. “No,” he said, “that would probably push me back thirty minute while we explained everything to her. The longer the wait, the less likely it is that we’ll find her.”

“Okay,” Brad said. After a pause, he stuck his hand out awkwardly, “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” John said, and shook his hand. Then he turned and headed into the woods.

It was unsettling how quickly the moonlight was engulfed by the trees. Within ten steps he could no longer see the rescue and it was pitch black. He clicked on both his flashlight and the headlamp. He proceeded further into the forest, the beams of light leading his way. Just a few feet away from him, the eager night closed in again.

He walked silently for several minutes, listening and looking for any sign of Spots. The forest sounds at night were haunting. He had never felt so alone, or scared. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. Spots loved him, he knew, but did she love him enough? Would her natural instinct be stronger? Would she attack him? Would she hurt him? He told himself no, over and over again, but he wasn’t sure he still believed it. She was a wild animal that they had been feeding with live rabbits so she could practice hunting. In the light, his plan had made sense. Alone, in the impenetrable darkness, his mind was clouded by doubt and fear.

It wasn’t quite time to check in with Brad when he stopped walking again. He had been making periodic stops to listen better. Were those heavy footsteps? No, he wouldn’t be able to hear her. She’d move silently… until it was too late. The thought crept in before he could stop it. Then, of course, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. His heart beat faster and he pulled the tranq-gun out and held it in his hand. He was surprised to see his hand was trembling. He put his back to a wide tree.

He shone his flashlight between the trees but couldn’t see far enough. He slung off the backpack and pulled out the spotlight. That’s when he noticed the fresh scratch marks on the tree he had been leaning against. They were high up the trunk, a little above his eye level. They ran parallel, vertically, down the tree for several feet. Was Spots marking her territory?

The spotlight was intense in the darkness and it took his eyes a moment to adjust. He aimed it at the ground, and in the piercing light, he could clearly see a cougar track in the soft earth under some disturbed leaves. Spots had been here! He moved the light around and a few feet away he saw some scat too. He crouched down to check it. It was still warm!

Adrenaline kicked into him like a lightning bolt. He knew the rules! When you encounter a cougar in the wild, stop, stand tall, don’t crouch, and don’t run; don’t try to hide and don’t approach it; never take your eyes off it or turn your back.

He stood abruptly, and hit his head on a low branch with a loud thunk. Dazed, he rubbed his head and staggered back to the scratched tree. He leaned on it until his head stopped spinning. He tried to think.

Brad was right. This had been a bad idea. Who did he think he was kidding? Who did he think he was? A predator at the top of the food chain wouldn’t care that he had bottle fed it almost two years ago. Cougars had been designed for hunting and were at home in the dark. He was breathing heavy and his forehead was wet with sweat. His eyes darted in every direction, searching frantically.

He suddenly had a terrible thought. What is she was up the tree? Cougars could jump twenty feet in the air. Panicked, he swung the spotlight high into the branches above. She wasn’t there! “Thank you,” he wheezed.

What should he do? He stood against the tree for several long minutes. Breathing deeply he was able to calm himself a little. The reason he was out here was to save her, he reasoned. He was here to protect her, and the local families, and the farmer’s cattle, and the rescue, and he was here for love. He admitted it. He loved her. He’d loved her since the first time he’d held her. He knew she loved him too. He had to believe that. His had let his fear control him. He could do this.

The hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up. His calmness evaporated and he aimed the spotlight around him wildly. About thirty yards to the left of him, he caught eye-shine. The eyes appeared to glow white in the darkness. He could just barely make out a large shape attached to those eyes.

He stood taller against the tree as the shape moved towards him. As it moved further into the light, he could see the lithe body of the cougar. At nearly two-and-a-half feet at the shoulder, her muscles flexed as she approached. She stopped ten yards away and sniffed the air. She stared at him. What was she thinking? Her muscles tensed.

John swallowed. He raised the tranq-gun in one hand and gripped the pepper spray tightly in the other. His whole body was shaking. “Please,” he prayed silently. He waited.

In a motion almost too quick to see, she disappeared into the dark. He had to blink several times before he registered that she was no longer there. Where had she gone? Was that rustling over there? His heart beat loud in his ears.

“Spots?”

February 28, 2020 20:37

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2 comments

Daniel Nest
10:28 Mar 05, 2020

Nice piece with an open ending. If I'd have to offer a suggestion, it'd be to trim the explanatory lines and some descriptions. It's clear that you've done the research here and have lots of cougar-specific details to share. But since the story's intended to be high-paced, you could probably get away with just a sentence of explanation instead of a paragraph in some cases. This goes for places like John's musings about the possible consequences of an escaped cougar. I found myself getting impatient to get back to the story itself. I enjo...

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Eric Maier
19:26 Mar 05, 2020

Thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I already trimmed it a lot too. I found myself wanting to drop in everything I researched.

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