Second is unhappy.
I chide him, push and growl at him, try ignoring and then crowding him, bullying him into play. He gives me food, as he should, answers me in monosyllables when I summon him, and then recedes into himself.
This is not right. He should obey me. Must obey me. I am First, after all, and first means Leader, and though he challenges my leadership often, he knows he is still Second and I am First.
Why is he unhappy?
This unhappiness did not come suddenly. I've been noticing it for some time. He plays less and less, seems disinterested in normal conversation. He makes little sighing noises. He eats less than usual, and is clearly distracted; once he forgot to open the outside door for hours and hours and I nearly humiliated myself in the den, I had to urinate so intensely. Huh. Would have served him right if I chose his bed on which to relieve myself. Believe me, I considered it.
I don't think Second is sick -- he doesn't smell sick. Just unhappy.
Maybe I'll let him play First for a while. That usually perks him up. I can really play the part, if I say so myself, barking happily when he calls me "Diefenbaker" or "Dief," those absurd, meaningless names. My real name, the one my mother gave me, is Snow Hunter, and he knows that. I wish he'd call me that.
But he never does.
Stubborn, that's Second.
I spoke to Third about it the other day, but as usual he pretended not to comprehend what I was telling him. This posturing from Third is growing very old, indeed, and I predict that sooner or later he and I will have to have it out. After all, he is a late addition to our pack, and I will not have insubordination from him.
I suppose I should call him "Blue-Eyed Third" to differentiate him from our absent pack mate, "GreenEyed Third," who has left to start another pack somewhere, I imagine. He should; he always had an eye for the females. Second was very surprised when we returned from visiting our old hunting ground and found Green-Eyed Third gone. Maybe that's when he started getting unhappy.
Although, I have to admit, I like Blue-Eyed Third. He's fairly easygoing, if rather noisy. He doesn't challenge me for dominance as Green-Eyed Third used to do (not that he had much success with that). Blue-Eyes has readily accepted that he's subordinate to me; though, amusingly, he hasn't accepted his status in relation to Second. Our new Third likes to challenge Second a lot, which always makes me laugh. Anyway, we have fun playing, Third and I, despite Second's recent moodiness. He doesn't live with us, but in his own den, a place with fascinating smells and a shelled thing that I plan to get my claws on one of these days. They're very tasty, once you pry them out of their shells. Third will probably make a lot of noise when I do that, so there's something hilarious to look forward to.
This new Third I liked almost from the start (as I did the last one, but for different reasons). The very first day Second and I met him he saved Second's life, which impressed us both very much. What Second didn't know is that Third walked around the rest of the day in a fair amount of pain. He didn't say anything about it, and Second didn't guess, and I didn't tell him. But I knew. Pretending not to be hurt is a valuable skill in every hunting ground, because you never know what may be hunting you.
That's when I made him our new Third.
For a while, I think having Blue-Eyed Third around made Second a lot happier. I confess my opinion may have been swayed because he gives me much better food than Second usually provides.
Also, he is easier to intimidate. In fact, the other night I merely had to bark at him and he froze in his tracks. It was absurdly simple. That never works with Second.
Third doesn't seem to notice Second is unhappy. Well, what can you expect? He doesn't have the advantage of coming from our old hunting ground. He's from here, the new territory. He isn't well traveled. Like we are. He's far less sophisticated.
But as for Second . . . I wonder if that has something to do with it -- maybe he misses our old territory. I confess that sometimes I do. But I'm a lot more flexible than Second. A First has to be.
It's a mystery, this unhappiness. I will have to get to the bottom of it.
Oh -- here comes Last, carrying that hot liquid he and Second like to drink. I think I'll bark at him and see if I can make him drop it.
There is a lot of tension and biting among us, particularly between Second and Third, though I admit I've done my share of it.
They've gone through this before.
They're always in dominance battles, but usually what happens is more like general snapping. Third will say something loud, Second will correct him, Third will growl back more loudly. Or Second does something like licking an interesting ground thing, Third insults him, Second insults him back, and Third has to think about it until he realizes he's been insulted. Stupid, both of them, but predictable. I usually don't have to reprimand them.
This is pretty bad. And different. Different because of Second.
Third actually struck Second. Any wolf -- any dog! -- knows that if that happens, you must attack back, or risk losing position. But Second didn't respond that way. He didn't even snap back. I know Second has odd ways of responding sometimes, but this is ridiculous. At times like this I look at him and think, "Freak."
Now Second is walking around like someone stole his kill, yet he isn't willing to fight for it.
As for Third, well, I haven't seen him much the last day or two, but when I do, he doesn't seem happy, like he should be for winning dominance. He looks . . .
. . . lost.
I just don't know. I just wish they'd cut it out, because it's ruining the pack order.
How dare they!
The two of them disappear for a couple of days, just up and disappear, and the next thing I know they're back smelling of lake, seemingly back in their regular order.
No one tells me anything.
Frankly, I think the problem with all of us is we need mates.
Of the three of us, I'm the one who's been with a female most recently. What a wild time that was, when I met her! Just to prove how ridiculous the two of them are, at the end of it all Second had a severely injured back, Third was picking glass out of his hide, and I had sex.
That's why I'm First.
All right, I confess it; I'm a lot more lax about letting my subordinates take mates than most Firsts. I find it keeps order better if they're less tense. Problem with Second is, he seems to get more tense around females.
Anyway, as for my last mating -- that "Ante" -- what a girl! Funny. Her real name is Tough One, but her Second doesn't seem to get that, so she gave Tough One a silly name and keeps dragging her to smelly places to get absurd hair cuts. Tough One was mortified, what with that silly pouf on top of her head. I tried not to make fun of her. Take it from me -- females don't take it kindly if you make fun of their hairstyles.
She was great to mate with, though, that's for sure. I was exhausted for days. Second mocked the way I kept lying around afterwards, and I had to snap at him to make him shut up. Hey -- I'm not as young as I used to be. I'd like to see him go at it the way I did.
Actually, I would like to see him do that, but he's resistant.
Tough One and I had this plan, but it didn't work out. Her Second seemed very interested in my Second, which would have made it simple to merge our packs. But in his usual confused way, my Second rejected her. Hasn't he learned anything from me? Frankly, I thought she was quite lovely, what with that yellow hair. I confess that always attracts me, though I'm not sure her hair was authentically yellow. How nice it would have been to have her -- and Tough One, of course -- living with us all the time.
Unfortunately for pack unity, my Second keeps coming close to mating, but usually veers off at the last moment.
What a waste.
As for Third, he has a mate, or rather had one, in another pack, but she seems unwilling to mate with him again. Was he that bad at it? Clearly she was dominant to him in that pack. All I know is, he gives off interesting smells when she's around, and so does she, to my amusement. But he doesn't challenge her or try to mate with her. In fact, he acts more like a Last when she is near.
Clearly he needs help.
They both do, he and Second.
I remember a few season cycles back, back when we had Green-Eyes as Third. Second had a female then, but only briefly. Funny; he seemed wildly happy and deeply sad, all at the same time. Green-Eyed Third did not like Second's female, and was relieved when she left. That was one of the few times Green-Eyes and I were in complete agreement. Personally, I was more than happy to see her turn tail and run away. What followed was a very, very bad period for Second, for Third, and, I suppose, for me as well. But the details don't need exploring at this juncture.
She must have hurt Second more than Green-Eyed Third and I realized at the time, because since then Second hasn't taken a mate. That's far too long, if you ask me.
Move on, I tell him.
I've tried luring females to him, dark-haired, as he prefers, but I guess they don't smell right, or he's too picky, or something. I have no idea what the problem is, except maybe this timidity he has with females. It's not that he's not interested -- I can smell that he is. I tried joking with him, telling him there's no need to take it all so seriously, you don't need to choose just one, just mate with them all, you don't have to mate for life, but he looked horrified, as if I'd suggested he mate with a cat.
Maybe it's cats he prefers. I sort of like that little lithe dark-haired female who keeps rubbing up against him at the place we go to meet Third. She's a little cat-like, even a little screechy like a cat. They'd probably have a better chance if Third left them alone together, but he keeps getting in between them. He has no patience with her and it rubs off on Second.
On the other hand, I have to admit that she'd probably never give Second any time to himself if they mated. She has that look about her, that "I'm-making-plans-for-your-entire-life-so-don't-get-anyideas -of-your-own" look. We're far too independent for females like that, Second and I. We need our space. Tough One knows the score. She's fairly independent that way, too.
There was a Female With Pups sniffing around Second a while back. She seemed decent, I suppose, though not my type. I suppose it would have been all right, if it had made Second less unhappy, but frankly I feared I might have to kill those pups if she stayed. They were horrible! One of them pulled my tail. I probably would have eaten them.
I didn't tell him that.
Now of course there is also that female who comes in to share our den every day. I refer to her as "First Among Firsts," because that's how she acts. To be honest, I worry about ever having a dominance battle with her -- I hate to admit it, but she'd probably win. If she mated with Second, I know I'd end up subordinate to both of them.
Poor Second. He really has no idea how to deal with First Among Firsts. I understand. She throws hungry sounds and powerful mating smells at him, flashes her eyes, and then bites him. Well, acts like she's about to bite him. Snaps at him. Tries to make him cower. She makes Last jump and cower all the time. Mostly it's amusing, though I feel sorry for him sometimes - and part of me resents her making Last cower. He's not in her pack -- he's in mine.
At least Second doesn't act like Last when he's around her. Or like Third does when he's near his old mate.
Hmmmm. Interestingly, Third is not as intimidated by First Among Firsts.....hmmmm.....maybe I can get them to mate. He really needs sex. Maybe then he'd be quieter.
Good idea. I'll get to work on it.
But it doesn't help Second.
Most everyone assumes my father was a wolf. Well, it's not true.
He was a part Alaskan husky, part Malamute. He'd been running wild for most of his life, living on the edges of rural villages, getting handouts and stealing food where he could. He was kind of a roughneck in his youth, so I was told, and based on how he was as a father, I'm not surprised. That dog could bite when he was annoyed, which was most of the time. Didn't much care when he ran off. Really, sorry you had a rough childhood, Dad, but get over it or see someone. Don't take it out on us.
My mother was the classy one of the pair, which is interesting, because she was the wolf. Not really sure what she saw in him, but suffice to say, he was in her territory, she was in season, he smelled good to her, and here I am.
Everything I know about hunting I learned from her. She was tough, but fair, and very, very smart, with thick white fur and soulful green eyes that always knew the score. It was impossible to put anything over on her. She was a great teacher, and she knew when it was time for me to go out on my own.
Remember when I said that I'd also liked Green-Eyed Third right away when I met him? Well, his eyes reminded me of my mother's. I know, it's stupid, but it's the first thing I thought when I met him.
Don't mention this to Second. He thinks I'm too sentimental as it is.
Green-Eyed Third was nothing like her, though. No WAY would she have tolerated the things I pulled on him.
Don't mention that to Second, either.
For a long time, once I realized Second wasn't a bear, I wondered what breed he was. Some breeds are easy to identify. Clearly Green-Eyed Third had some Italian greyhound in him, though he was far from a purebred. Last is probably a distant cousin of a Golden Retriever -- big, nice looking, friendly as can be, but with a tiny brain and dumb as dirt. Blue-Eyed Third is obviously a crazy mutt, with some sort of yapping terrier in the mix. First Among Firsts? Well, she's big for it, but there's some nasty Chihuahua there. You know -- the little ones that like to bully.
But Second? Still haven't a clue. Never did figure it out. Whatever he IS, he's one of a kind. Never met anything like him, before or since.
So I just think of him as "almost-wolf."
My first impression of Second was not a good one.
He fell on me.
I was young, and fairly clumsy, and I had just been kicked out of the den a few days earlier. I was starving -- really, I had very rough survival skills at that point. So, like a fool, I was investigating a small hole in the ground, thinking I would dig up grubs, or worms. My stomach was growling so loudly I couldn't hear the warnings in my head. Of course it turned out to be a big hole, a trap, and I fell right into it.
I was stunned -- literally -- and completely panicked because the walls of the trap were vertical and there was no way I could imagine freeing myself. Also, I was dazed, and not hearing very well, and that frightened me. I suppose I hit my head when I fell. My hearing really hasn't been all that good since, though I'm hardly deaf. It doesn't matter to me any more. In fact, considering how noisy I think Third is, I can only imagine what he must be like if your hearing is perfect.
Anyway, there I was in the trap, alone, not able to hear if anyone was coming. I started to whimper -- and don't judge me, because as I said I was quite young -- when all of a sudden this enormous bear fell in on top of me. I barely moved in time to avoid being crushed.
Of course, I'd never actually seen a bear at that point, though I'd smelled them and seen bear tracks, and it took me a while to realize this large creature that had very nearly flattened me was not, in fact, a bear. It was too smooth, for one thing, smelled completely different and rather than fur, seemed to be wrapped in layers of an outer husk, almost like a plant. Very odd, indeed.
It was lying there on the floor of the trap, not moving, and eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I went closer. A little while after that I began to think it might be dead, or dying, which at first was a relief, because if it did die, I knew I'd have a huge supply of food without having to kill it. But then I began to think how lonely and frightening it would be to be trapped down here, even with a lot of food, with no one to talk to, no hope of rescue. I made myself so crazy that I began to yell at the bear-thing, "Hey! Wake up! Get up! Talk to me!" When it seemed to respond a little, I found myself licking it all over its unwrapped parts, and it woke up completely.
That was Second.
He wasn't my Second immediately; what did I know about my own dominance back then? Like I said, I was young. But I was overjoyed to have company. He looked at me for a few minutes as if he expected me to bite him, then just reached over and rubbed my neck. That simple action made me feel so much better. I hadn't realized how lonely I'd become, prowling on my own.
He got up, looked around at the trap and squinted at the sky. I thought I'd better introduce myself, since we were undoubtedly going to die here together. "Hello, my name is Snow Hunter," I said, "what are you?" but he looked at me blankly. Clearly an unintelligent creature, or at least an uneducated one, if he couldn't speak wolf. But then he did something I never will forget: he picked me up and hurled me out of the pit. It happened so fast I didn't have time to react; I just started running away from the trap as fast as I could. I was free!
I must have gone half a mile before I started thinking clearly again. I stopped to catch my breath, turned around, and was surprised he wasn't behind me. It hadn't occurred to me that he wouldn't follow. Strange.
My curiosity got me again. I retraced my steps, wondering where he'd disappeared to, and found he'd never left the trap at all. In fact, he was lying on the floor again, still. There was a big rock next to his head. Ouch. I felt a pang of remorse. Here he'd helped me escape and I'd left him there, probably to die. That's not the way a pack behaves.
See, by then I was already beginning to think of him as a pack mate.
I leaned over the edge of the trap with care -- didn't want to make the same mistake again! Just about then he started to move and I called to him. He looked up groggily, saw me, and smiled. He seemed genuinely glad to see me, though I don't think his eyes were actually focusing all that well. My paws were hanging over some sort of wooden beams -- bracing for the trap, I suppose - and it struck me that he might be able to use the wood to climb out of the trap. So I helpfully pushed a piece of wood into the hole.
Well, I might have been an uncoordinated youngster, but he was positively embarrassing. Didn't even try to get out of the way, and got knocked on the head. You guessed it -- he fell over and was unconscious again.
I took a disbelieving look into the pit and rolled my eyes. What sort of breed is this idiot, I wondered. Who -- or what -- were his parents? Hadn't they taught him anything? Clearly, if I wanted him to get out of the trap, I was going to have to help him do it. I took a deep breath, said a little prayer to the snow spirits that I wouldn't get stuck here myself, closed my eyes and leapt.
At least I landed on him, which was softer than hitting the ground again. Clearly I'd already lost my mind. Who knows what senses I would have damaged if I'd hit my head a second time?
Anyway, to make the story short, he woke up, I nudged the wood towards him, and eventually he figured it out, using it to dig foot and hand holds in the side of the trap. He climbed out, after tossing me up again.
Afterwards, he and I were both hungry. Together we found a rabbit, though ultimately I was the one who had to run it down. After that, he went to a warm little wooden den, I followed, and I just stayed with him. It just kind of happened. Five years later, we're still together. Sometimes, when he's really being irritating, I think I should have just kept running and left him in the trap, but it's too late now. I suppose I'm stuck with him forever, and I now have to worry about him constantly.
That's the real trap, you see. Once you save a Second's life, you pay and pay and pay...
I tried an experiment today. If it works, at least I'll have Third under control and I can devote myself to the larger problem of Second.
Second, Third and I were out, chasing someone or other who I gather they wanted to catch, when I feigned an injury, whimpering to Second that I really needed to return to our den. After a little questioning, he acquiesced to my wishes, and the three of us piled into Third's conveyance for the trip back.
As I had calculated based on her usual behavior, First Among Firsts was still in residence, but instead of hurrying my pack members past her den as I usually do, I lingered outside it. Timing was crucial. First Among Firsts glanced up at us, barked something at Second, then returned to her business. I stopped dead and sat down, refusing to budge. Second thought I was being ornery, but I insisted he go back to his office and fetch me my favorite blanket because I wasn't feeling well. He looked at me through narrowed eyes and refused, so I upped the ante and sank to the ground, giving him my most mournful expression, while waving a paw at him weakly. He looked terribly worried when I pretended to shiver - but when he attempted to pick me up and carry me back to my bed, I flinched away. He shook his head, wondering aloud to Third what exactly was wrong, but like a good subordinate went to fetch me what I required anyway. I fastened myself to Third so he would stay by my side. Second muttered something about how strangely I was behaving as he walked away, and I could barely contain my laughter.
The next part of the plan depended on exact timing. The moment Second's back was turned, I bolted away from Third and ran into the female's den, where I jumped onto the desk and grabbed away the piece of paper on which she was working. She was outraged, and of course leapt up to follow me as I returned to the hallway, where Third waited, looking a little confused. Well, he sometimes is slow on the uptake.
But his reflexes are good, which is what I was counting on. As First Among Firsts reached the doorway, I stopped and ran between her legs, tripping her. She can be quite graceful sometimes, but I understand leverage and mass, and unbalanced her sufficiently to make her topple directly into Third's arms.
As I said, his reflexes are excellent, and he caught her quite nimbly, though one hand accidentally (I think) ended up on her breast. He showed his teeth at her and I was amused to catch a whiff of rather strong mating smells emanating from him. "Upsadaisy," he said pleasantly.
Oh, this was almost too easy.
Fortunately I had hidden my blanket very well, so Second was still occupied in our den, and could not return inopportunely.
Third and First Among Firsts seemed frozen in their odd position, Third pressing her against him to keep them both from falling. They almost seemed to be in an attitude of dancing. Oh, really, I could not have managed it better. It was hard to keep from rolling on the floor laughing my tail off.
A moment passed, then First Among Firsts said "You may put me down, Detective," in a disparaging (though somewhat breathy) tone, and Third smirked at her, "Yeah, you're welcome," in that sarcastic voice he uses much of the time on Second. He hauled her upright and placed her on her own two feet.
It was at that moment Second finally returned.
Timid as he is around women, Second is not actually slow on the uptake, at least not most of the time, though he may feign occasional dimness to disarm opponents. (Another fine quality in a pack mate.) As he appeared, First Among Firsts said, rather more politely, "I meant to say, 'Thank you, Detective,'" as she straightened her clothes, and Third replied -- oh this is the best part! "Call me 'Ray,'" in a husky voice (he's so predictable!) and reached out to fix the female's collar. He likes to touch things, Third does, especially things that are shiny, and his hand went to one of her buttons, which was hanging loose. "Here, you'll lose this," he said, and her hand moved to the button, just grazing his. She tugged the button off, thanking him again. She seemed a little flustered, and I caught the tiniest whiff of mating smell.
It hadn't been my intention to engender jealousy in Second, but that's what seemed to happen. His mouth dropped open as he perceived his pack mate and the female eyeing each other. He looked from one to the other for a moment, then said, "Is everything all right?"
"Sure," Third said, and showed his teeth again as he leered at First Among Firsts.
"You need to control your wolf, Constable," First Among Firsts said with irritation, and returned to her part of the den.
Second watched her go with a thoughtful expression, an expression that changed radically to annoyance when he looked at Third. "My wolf," he muttered. Then he shook his head and bent down to give me the blanket, which of course I ignored. I noticed as we all returned to our den that Third glanced back in the female's den for one more look at First Among Firsts.
And if jealousy distracts Second from his unhappiness, so much the better.
I take Second for walks twice a day.
Today Second and I went near the lake, as we often do, and he was even more silent then usual. I was tired of talking to myself, of being ignored, and decided I'd had enough of his moodiness. He sat down on a bench looking out at the water, and I just flat out asked him what was going on.
At first he didn't answer me, merely fiddled with his hat for a few moments, his eyes on the horizon. Then he sighed and said nothing was wrong, and I wouldn't understand anyway.
Well, that certainly was a mixed message, but I ignored the insult and told him that I knew hiding pain was a good quality, but sometimes it's just not productive. You're acting like an idiot, I told him. You need to do something, get over this, because you're driving me crazy.
"Oh, fine, and I suppose you've never done anything to annoy me?"
I snorted at him. It's not the same thing. By definition, a First cannot be annoying, because whatever we say goes.
"You are unhinged," Second said, so I nipped his ankle. "Ouch! That's hardly sporting."
What is it? I persisted. Is it females?
"For heaven's sake."
One female in particular?
He flashed me a warning look. If you want First Among Firsts, I goaded him, you're going to have to fight for her. I think Third is interested.
"Don't be ridiculous," Second said, but there was heat in his tone.
Ah, good, I thought, that will get him going. I kept talking. If it's not women, are you unhappy with what you do?
"This conversation is over," Second said, and stood up. He walked toward the shoreline.
It's over when I say it's over, Second.
"You're not the alpha here, Dief."
Uh, sure. And don't call me Dief. You know what my name is.
He started throwing stones into the lake. Very unusual behavior for him, I must say. He kept talking over his shoulder, and I had to move to read his lips properly, because the wind was making it hard for me to hear him. "I'll call you what I want to call you," he said, rather sulkily. "You're my wolf, and what I say goes."
Behind me I could faintly hear him calling, but I ignored him. A few seconds later he was in front of me, blocking my path. Get out of my way, I warned, but he crouched down.
"I'm sorry," Second said, "I know we don't own each other. I don't know why I said that."
Look, Second -- I used his rank deliberately -- if you're going to mope around like this, I'm going to move in with Third. At least he pays attention to me.
He snorted. "He doesn't understand you."
So what? He has pizza.
He snorted again.
I growled at him. Well, I don't understand you these days. Whatever's wrong with you? Tell me and maybe I can help. We've been pack mates a long time, Second.
He shook his head. "You can't help."
If it's not females, if it's not your job, if you're not ill, are you annoyed with Third?
"Well--" He shrugged. "No. No more than usual." I wasn't convinced. He stood up and we started walking again, companionably. We took a few steps and he stopped, looking at the lake. His eyes were far, far away. "I'm homesick, Dief."
I felt so bad for him I didn't even correct him when he used that name. Homesick. That's something I can't fix.
So go home, I said.
He shot me a look. "I can't, and you know it. Not until --"
He stopped because someone ran by us and there was shouting, and Second started to chase after the runner and I ran after him to help bring the quarry down. A nice old lady whose purse had been taken by the runner kissed Second on the cheek, making him blush, and gave me a cookie. The chase seemed to make Second feel better. Someone I guess had made a call because cars showed up and then Third arrived and Second turned the mugger over to someone and eventually we all went back to Third's den and ate pizza. It felt like a normal day, just like dozens of others, and after a while I sort of forgot about our conversation because I was feeling much more content, and Second seemed that way, too.
I sniffed the tank. That shelled thing would make a good dessert, I think.
BIG HEAD BRINGS FOOD.
BIG HEAD CHANGES WATER.
FURRY FACE LOOKS IN TANK. LICKS MUZZLE.
WANTS TO EAT ME.
HELP ME, BIG HEAD!
BIG HEAD CHANGES WATER.
FURRY FACE LOOKS IN TANK. LICKS MUZZLE.
WANTS TO EAT ME.
HELP ME, BIG HEAD!
As it turned out, I didn't get my chance to taste the shelled thing.
Not that I didn't try.
Third and Second were still carping at each other over First Among Firsts, Third saying things like, "Don't you think she's hot?" and Second pulling at his collar and saying "I don't know what you mean," and "I'll thank you kindly not to talk about her that way," neither paying any attention to me, so I took the opportunity to jump up on a chair and stick my nose in the tank. I slurped a little brackish water to clear my palate, and then just as I had my teeth ready to close on the shell--
--the damned thing stuck its head out and bit me on the nose!
Well, you can imagine how surprised I was -- and blast it if my nose didn't feel like it was three times its size, the way it was throbbing. I was so startled I lost my footing, and tumbled myself, the chair and the tank onto the floor.
There was quite a crash, not to mention a huge splash as water and rocks exploded everywhere. Oddly the tank itself didn't break, but the shelled thing rolled out into the middle of the rug and lay there upside down. I was really angry at it, and made a grab for it with my jaws.
I never got there. Third. . . Third! smacked me on the snout. "Get away from my turtle!" he yelled.
The impertinence! I certainly wasn't going to let a Third get away with that. I put my ears back and took a step towards him. Problem was, I didn't really want to bite him. I settled for growling and showing my teeth. Third responded by growling back and showing his teeth. He has big teeth.
Fortunately, Second stopped it before any blood got spilled. He got between us, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, and put his hand on Third's chest to push us apart. "Not a good idea, Ray," he said.
"Yeah? Well, I told you the wolf and the turtle are natural enemies," Third sniffed. "He better not have hurt Waxy." He picked up the shell. "You okay, Waxy?"
Second looked confused. "Your turtle's name is--"
"Wax. Yeah. Turtle. . . Wax. Turtle Wax. Get it?"
"Not entirely, no."
"Forget it." Third busied himself cleaning up the mess, once he'd hauled that damned lethal creature off to the kitchen.
Second crouched down and shook his finger at me. "That was not appropriate behavior, Dief," he said in a prim voice. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
I swear, Second, I said to him, if you say bad dog! to me, I will urinate on your boots. And stop waving that finger at me if you want to keep it.
"You behaved abominably."
It bit me! I protested.
"Don't whine, it's unbecoming." And with that Second stood up and went to help Third.
Huh. Ingratitude. How dare he take Third's part!
The upshot of this whole sordid affair was to be my banishment from Third's den, but Second commuted that sentence. I am no longer allowed to sit near the tank, however, even though it has been moved to a higher table. And I swear I saw that stupid creature stick its green tongue out at me.
I will have revenge. Some day.
I think I should mention that Second has a really big secret that no one else knows. No one except me.
He sees dead people.
Well, one dead person in particular.
He didn't always, but a couple of season cycles back, Second started talking to the air. I didn't think anything of it; it merely seemed another facet of his peculiar personality, another proof of his essential unhinged-ness. When I listened, however, it seemed that Second was carrying on an actual conversation, as if he were hearing a reply to what he said. Well, I've seen enough strange things in my time -- narwhals, the aurora borealis, Third's hair -- this was just another freaky thing for me to experience in Second's company. Second talks to the air person the same way he chats with me, or Third, or anyone else. Problem is, only Second can see him, and sometimes others catch him at it and wonder why he's still running around loose.
I mentioned to him that it was unseemly for other packs to think we had a lunatic in our group, but he pointed out we already have Last, who clearly has a hole in his bag of kibble. His point, I suppose, was that one more lunatic wouldn't be noticed.
But it turns out he's not really crazy. Sometimes if I look at where Second is talking, out of the corner of my eye I can catch a glimpse of something in front of him, and if I unfocus my gaze, it somewhat looks like an old fellow, dressed like Second, in a similar outer wrapping.
(If you're interested, the color of the wrapping is "red," I am told, which, when worn by Second, seems to draw everyone's eye like North does a compass. I myself have no idea why "red" is so powerful. I understand, in a limited way, about "blue" and "green" and "brown," because those are eye colors, and I am used to differentiating them. But "red" is not a color I can identify easily. I understand that Second, Third, Last and other breeds may see "red," but I do not. It's another benefit of having them in my pack, just as they benefit from my nose. But I digress.)
Back to the air-spirit-thing. If I concentrate really hard, or close my eyes while listening, sometimes I can hear the thing's voice. It's hard to do that, because if I look at the old fellow directly enough to read his lips, he slides away from me.. It's actually very annoying. This -- spirit? -- creature? -- doesn't talk to me, though sometimes he talks about me, and I wouldn't care too much about it, except I can't smell him, which is rather disturbing, actually. That's how I infer the thing is dead.
I think it's Second's father, from the half of the conversations I can easily follow. When I started listening to what Second was saying, I realized he had almost as many problems with his sire as I had with mine. Fewer, perhaps, because his father was rarely around, while mine was all too present. What is it with males and their fathers, anyway? I mean, Third and his father aren't really good friends and now that I think about it, Green-Eyed Third also had problems with his father.
I wonder if there's something about our histories that drew us together. Hmm. I'll have to think about it.
Anyway, this sometimes-visible-father-thing seems to have set up shop in Second's closet. I know that because I frequently find my pack mate in there, talking away. The other day I waited over a half hour for Second to let me out to do my business, and finally I had to nose him out in that damned closet, where he was yapping away like he had all the time in the world. Finally I couldn't stand the pressure in my bladder any more, so I scratched at the door.
He opened it up. "I'll be done soon."
"Shortly. Right now I'm busy."
Busy? You call this a productive use of your time? I have to relieve myself!
"Well, I'll be done in a moment."
I sniffed, dancing a little with the need to urinate. You know, I'm beginning to think you're never coming out of the closet.
He started a little. "What exactly do you mean by that?"
I looked at him as if he were mad. What do you think I mean? You're in the closet. I want you to come out, and you won't. That's all.
Seemed perfectly obvious to me. I had to go and he was hanging around with some blankets.
"Oh." He calmed down from his snit, but he still wasn't ready to leave. "I just need a few more words with my father." He looked like he was about to push through the back wall.
Please, Second, I whined, imagining him stepping through some secret passage to who knows where, I'm begging you not to go any deeper into the closet!
"That's enough!" He really sounded annoyed now, though I still can't figure out why.
Well, the Hell with him. I left a puddle in front of the closet door, right where I knew he'd step in it.
How sharper than a wolf's fang it is to have an ungrateful Second!
The last few days have been difficult. Something happened with Third, but in the end I understood something about Second I hadn't realized before.
It all started day before yesterday, with Third snapping at Second, at me, at people on the street -- well, pretty much at everybody. Then there was an incident in an alley, when I had to attack a man who was threatening Third with a big knife, and Third nearly killed him, though by then the attacker was helpless. I yelled at Third, told him to stop, but only Second could get through to him.
That's another reason Third will never win a dominance battle with Second. He's far too susceptible to Second's will.
Second doesn't like it when his subordinates are upset. It's the same thing that's been worrying me about Second's homesickness. You outrank your subordinate pack members, but along with the bossing them around and expecting them to feed you, you have to look out for them. Second takes that responsibility very seriously. It used to bother him when Green-Eyed Third was upset with him (which was often, by the way) and of late he's been wondering out loud if Green-Eyes is safe, wherever he is. I told him he can take care of himself, and mostly I believe it, though I admit I saw him do some pretty stupid things when he was with us. For their part, both Thirds have often put themselves in dangerous situations to protect Second. And Second has done the same for me.
That's why we're a successful pack, which I credit myself for, because I lead by example.
But I'm wandering again.
Whatever was bothering Blue-Eyed Third didn't have anything to do with me or Second. He was constantly brooding, and got into a brawl with one of the others at that place we meet him, you know, the place with the men with guns. It's an interesting bunch down there; there's a big one I call the Bull, who seems to be in charge most of the time, a dark one who moves like a panther and of course CatFemale-Who-Rubs-Against-Second. There's also one scruffy fellow who stinks so strongly of fish and bacon bits that I sometimes want to knock him down and roll in him. Well, he and Third are always getting in dominance contests, and this was no exception. Big Bull and Panther had to pull them apart. Fish Smell kept yapping at Third, but Third just stalked off.
Anyway, a lot of things happened over the next two days, not all of which I saw, but by last night Third and Second had ended up saving a female from being killed. They didn't shoot anyone or have to race to the rescue in Third's conveyance, but they saved her all the same, if a little quietly. I prefer the thrill of the chase, bringing down the prey in some sort of dramatic ending. Afterwards, Second told me the female asked to see Third alone, so the two of us waited for him outside her den.
Third came back to us with shoulders hunched and paws curled into fists. He got inside the vehicle, but was curiously still. I understood that something upsetting had happened, though I didn't know the details. This whole affair had been somewhat confusing. No one had really explained it to me, and I was more than a little frustrated. I knew that even if I asked him directly, Third, unlike Second, would never tell me. I promised myself I'd make Second tell me about it later.
But even if he was shutting me out, Third was in my pack, and I was responsible for him, so I licked his ear, trying to tell him I was sympathetic. Well, at the very least I was trying to get him to react to me. But he didn't even push me away, which he usually does when I lick. He sat there gripping the wheel, saying nothing. Then he started to shake, and suddenly he was crying.
I didn't know what to do. I'd seen him shout, complain and make a big fuss, be angry or silly, but I'd never seen him cry before. Honestly, I was at a loss.
Second was the one who reacted.
He reached over and gently rubbed Third's neck, and a shiver passed through me. I had an almost unworldly sensation as a vivid recollection hit me. Suddenly I was back in the bear trap, all those years ago, when Second bridged the gap between us and rubbed my neck. I remembered how desperately I had needed that touch, frightened, sad, alone as I was. That was the moment, I think, that Second became my pack mate.
I was jealous of Third in that moment, but it lasted only a second, because I knew he was in pain, feeling overwhelmed by it, and I knew how Second's simple action must make him feel. Third started to cry harder, but I could tell it was a letting go sound, the sound you make just before everything starts feeling much, much better.
Second has that power, you know.
He doesn't touch often, but when he does, he means it.
Right then I was so proud of him, but more than that, I was a little in awe. I don't like feeling that way, feeling like Second might be better at leading than I am, that he might know more, be able to connect better with his pack. That he might, in a way, be able to heal with a touch.
I pushed the thought away, reminding myself how much better at dealing with females I am, how much friendlier and open I am with strangers, etc. etc. etc. Those were hollow thoughts, though, small, selfserving thoughts. When it comes down to it, Second is the one with the strength, not me.
And the heart.
It made me think.
Second really is something, you know?
Yeah, he's something, all right. I want to kill him. I want to rip out his throat and worry his limp body with a bone-breaking shake.
I am infuriated with Second. He made me so angry, so frightened, so--
I need to calm down, or I am going to bite the first person I see. With any luck, that will be Last, though he deserves it the least.
Let me start over.
For some time I have been worried about Second. I have always known he takes unnecessary risks in the pursuit of criminals. But now it's worse; I swear he's taking risks because he doesn't care if he gets hurt.
Or. . . No. I don't even want to think it. Maybe he's reckless because he wants to be hurt.
It's become so obvious that even Third agrees with me. Oh, we don't discuss it, Third and I, because we never discuss anything. But I see it in his eyes when he looks at Second. And I hear it in his voice, frustration. Concern. Worry. Fear, perhaps.
Why would Second do this?
Since that day by the lake he first admitted what was wrong, I've watched him become desperately unhappy with this place, this city where we live now. Sure, he finds things to do that are amusing, and of course he cherishes Third's company, and mine, and that of Last, and the others -- and, even though he is skittish of them, CatFemale and First Among Firsts. He is used to us, to them, and he knows we care about him. But the faraway look is in his eyes more often than not, now, and his behavior has become almost predictable in its recklessness, as though he were trying not to think, or feel, to block his thoughts and emotions through action and impulse.
Third is the champion of impulse, but even he has warned Second that he is taking chances and provoking people to do him harm.
I already know he will confront people who have weapons even though he doesn't carry one, other than a knife, but I always thought that was all about righting inequities without considering the odds. It is a combination of bravery and foolishness that causes him to act this way. Now I'm beginning to think it's arrogance as well, as if he assumes his strength of will can dictate the other person's behavior. Well, that may work sometimes on Third, but I doubt if he can predict with certainty that it will work with criminals.
What is going on in his brain? Whatever it is, it's in the non-wolf part, because I can attest to the fact that wolves have more self-preservation instincts than he does.
Probably he's been building up to this for some time, years, maybe, and I never really noticed. A while back, he made a challenge to a bully that ended badly -- on that occasion he was willing to take a brutal beating and go through tempered glass to protect an innocent man. He was a mess for days, and afterwards Green-Eyed Third went after the bully himself, in revenge for Second. Beat the man to a pulp, but then suffered weeks of insomnia, lying in bed with a gun under his pillow. And that was only the beginning. The situation deteriorated exponentially, and in the end, everyone had been hurt. Several were dead. All indirectly because of Second.
But at least that time I could tell myself Second's motives were pure. He wanted to save someone who could not save himself. Someone likely to be killed.
But lately. . .!
This time he courted disaster by confronting a loud-mouthed bearded bully over some sort of minor incident in a restaurant -- hardly a life or death situation this time. Behaving in his most annoying manner, Second chose to challenge this bearded man publicly, make him look small in front of subordinates and passers-by alike. Didn't anyone ever tell him that if you ridicule someone publicly they get bent out of shape over it, and may try to retaliate in like kind?
This bully told Second to go away, but Second kept returning to provoke him, challenging him on his own turf. Brilliant, Second! Rub it in! Make the guy furious, why don't you? Standing for hours outside the bully's den in the cold, armored only in his "righteous avenger" attitude. Being his most irritating self. And no one is as irritating as Second can be, once he puts his mind to it.
Third told him to cut it out. Big Bull told him the same thing. Even I warned him I would not back him, and I'm First, and he should have listened. But would Second listen? No.
If pack order were determined through passive-aggressive dominance battles, Second would win. All the time. Hands down. He'd be First of the World.
I could have predicted what would happen. Just like the bully years ago, this bearded man had him beaten severely, outnumbered in an unfair fight. When I saw him, all bloody and bruised, I felt sick, and though I wanted to find those who had done it and tear them limb from limb, I also wanted to shout at Second, See? You got what you deserved!
Perhaps he had expected us to rescue him in the nick of time, as we so often have before. If so, he didn't get his wish in this case. Certainly we cringed, friends and pack alike, as he limped in, broken, dispirited, and we all felt tremendous guilt that we hadn't rushed in after him. Well, you know what? I resent being manipulated that way. Sometimes, when I am in a dark mood, I begin to wonder if he's not really sailing in blindly; perhaps Second smugly feels entitled to have others rescue him. I wonder, was it his faith in the rightness of his actions, or his faith in his pack that got bruised, along with his body? That's a disturbing thought, that he could expect Third and me to be there to catch him, not just if he does something important, but if he chooses to jump off a tall building on a whim, or fling himself over Niagara Falls just for the hell of it. Just to see if we'll do it.
Well. Perhaps that's cynical of me. Probably it's just that he's so, so -- bull-headed. Whatever it is, I am beginning to resent not being informed about things. He doesn't wait for us, just goes off and does his thing. It's arrogance. Arrogance and stubbornness and a fair amount of stupid self-righteousness. It makes Third yell at him, drive too fast and mutter under his breath as he endangers his own life for him. It makes me want to turn my back on Second and walk away forever. It makes me want to kill him.
We roll over and take it, Third and I. Because for whatever reason we love him and we're programmed to save him over and over and over again, no matter what.
And because he's unhappy.
And maybe because we're afraid that sooner or later he'll stop wanting us to arrive in the nick of time.
In the midst of all the turmoil following Second getting beaten up, the following conversation ensued when Third came by to check up on him. Second had spent the first night after the assault over in Third's den, but insisted on coming home the next day, even though the cot here is hard and Third wouldn't be around to fuss over him.
Hmmm. Maybe that's why he came back. Third fussing can be a frightening experience, since though he means well he 1) can't cook other than coffee and 2) has a less than cheery bedside manner and 3) his "comforting" largely consists of him pacing around glowering, offering to kick various people in the head. Anyway, Second came home.
This is what I heard (all right, mostly lip read) in First Among Firsts' den:
3rd: Oh, hey. How's Fraser doing?
FAF: Turnbull's looking after him.
3rd: That oughta kill him.
FAF: He'll be fine, Detective.
3rd: I told you to call me Ray, Inspector.
FAF: Uh. (Muffled).
FAF: Call me (muffled).
3rd: (Insistently) Call you what?
FAF: Margaret, I said call me Margaret, for heaven's sake. Is something wrong with your hearing?
3rd: What, you think I'm Dief or something? (Laughs, for reasons that elude me).
FAF: (Snippy) Fine. Sorry. Sorry I brought it up. My mistake.
3rd: Aw, don't be that way.
FAF: (Bristling) What way?
3rd: You know. That way.
FAF: (Now getting angry) I'm sure I don't know what you mean.
3rd: (Getting angry himself) Suuuure you don't! They got a name for you, lady, and the second word is "tease."
FAF: How dare you!
3rd: How dare I?! You're the one who came over all breathy with that "call me Margaret" stuff.
FAF: I did not!
3rd: Did too!
FAF: Did not!
FAF: (Crossly) Just forget it, Detective!
3rd (Louder) Ohhhh, no ya don't, no way, Margaret. You call me Ray.
FAF: Perhaps you should leave.
3rd: Not leaving until you call me Ray.
FAF: (Sputtering) I'll have you know you're on foreign soil!
3rd: And I'll have you know I ain't crossing the border until you say it.
FAF: Oh, for the--! I could arrest you.
3rd: Rough stuff, huh? Cool. I've got handcuffs--
FAF: (Annoyed) Oh, please!
3rd: Okay, if you insist. But first you gotta say it! Go on. Ya know ya want to. Ray, Ray, Ray--
FAF: Are you twelve?
3rd: Old enough, Margaret. Meg. Maggie. Peggy. Greta.
3rd: Whatever, C'mon. "Raaaaaay."
FAF: (Muttering) This is absurd!
3rd: Bet your sweet ass it is!
FAF: No need to use obscene language!
FAF: You said the word, (drops voice) "ass."
3rd: Yes I did. You bet your sweet (loudly) ass I said you have a sweet ass, sister!
FAF: You! You! You -- I -- (Pause) Uh -- you. . . you think I have. . . um, a--
3rd: A sweet ass. (Drops voice to conversational tone) Yeah. A great ass, actually.
FAF: A great ass?
3rd: Best I've seen in a while.
FAF: Really? It's not too big?
3rd: It's perfect. Really.
3rd: I don't joke about things like that. Cross my heart. It's world-class.
FAF: It is?
FAF: Thank you, I think. Um. Ray.
3rd: You're welcome, Margaret. (Pause) Must be a Canadian thing.
FAF: (Suspiciously) What is?
3rd Another great Canadian ass.
FAF: What do you mean by that?
3rd: (Flustered) Well, there's yours, and then there's. . . Uh, not sure. Anyway, I like it. Yours.
FAF: I think this is an improper conversation.
3rd: Yeah. Ain't it great?
He leered at her, but it turned into a regular smile, and I actually saw the corners of her mouth go up. This was excellent! Unfortunately at this point Last arrived, stepping in front of me to bring a message to First Among Firsts. Third winked at First Among Firsts and turned to go, realizing for the first time that I had been watching. He narrowed his eyes at me, and as he passed he said under his breath, "You just keep your trap shut, understand?"
We took a trip to see some old friends.
Specifically, we went to visit the family of Green-Eyed Third. Second was invited to a feast there (every meal is a feast with that pack) because Green-Eyed Third's mother is very fond of him. Well, I have yet to meet any females, including criminal ones, who are not fond of Second. He wangled an invitation for Third, our current Third, to come with him. Frankly, I think it was because Second is a little afraid of CatFemale -- who is a member of that pack -- and Third helps keep her off him.
I got invited too, because the old female pack leader thinks I am a "nice doggy." I put up with that odious name because of her meatballs. Besides, Tough One, a.k.a. "Ante," is living with CatFemale these days, and I was feeling a little horny. So -- what the hell if the Old First calls me "doggy," if it means I get to mate with Tough One?
Third acted like he didn't want to go, doing his standard whining and cringing performance, but Second delivered his patented "Now, Third" speech, or rather "Now, Ray," coupled with a look of mild disapproval. It worked, as always. Third sighed and we all piled into his conveyance and went over to visit the other pack.
We were greeted warmly by Old First, her various offspring and associated pack members, though the old female clucked and fussed over Second in particular, which embarrassed him, as all special attention does. To my surprise, CatFemale did not seize the opportunity of Second's arrival to wrap herself around him, as she so often has in the past. I know I was startled, and so was Second, and Third said something snide about how reserved CatFemale was acting. Amazingly, for once she ignored his jibes.
It was a bit of a mystery, but I lost interest in solving it when I caught a whiff of Tough One and trotted off in search of her.
She and I got up to a number of interesting things before dinner was served, and I lost track of what everyone else was doing. However, as we were all moving into the dining room, there was a knock at the door. I happened to be in the hall in time to see CatFemale rush to the door and open it to reveal the last person I would have expected to see.
No, not Green-Eyed Third. The Last.
Last was standing there, shifting from foot to foot, filling up the door with his shoulders, looking very unlike himself in a suit and noose around his neck. Why anyone would wear one of those is beyond me. It's like a leash, and how demeaning is that? Most of the males were wearing them, and I know Third had complained bitterly about his all the way here. Last's appearance was remarkable enough, but what nearly knocked me over was when CatFemale grabbed him, lifted up onto her toes and kissed him on the cheek. "Come in, Trevor," she said, and took him by the hand.
Did I ever know he had a name?
If I thought I was surprised, you should have seen the look on my pack mates' faces when CatFemale dragged Last into the dining room. Old First and the rest of them looked interested, and greeted him, but clearly he was expected. Only Second and Third were taken aback.
"Turnbull?" Second said, rubbing at an eyebrow.
"Uh, yes, Constable Fraser," Last said nervously.
"Ma," CatFemale said, ignoring Second, "you remember Trevor, don't you?"
"Of course, cara," Old First said, taking Last's hand, then turned towards Second, smiling warmly. "I believe you work with Francesca's young man, don't you?"
"Francesca's young man?" Second echoed faintly.
"'Trevor?'" Third said. "Your name is Trevor?"
"Yes, Ray, Trevor," CatFemale said to Third, her dark eyes flashing at him.
"Well, it's actually 'John Renfield Trevor Winston Turnbull.' Er, the Third," Last began. "But Miss Vecchio--"
"'Trevor?'" Third repeated, clearly stuck, "Fraser, did you know Turnbull had a first name?"
"Ray," Second said irritably.
"Huh, 'Trevor Turnbull.'" He shook his head. "Your parents were as sadistic as mine.'"
"Shut up, Ray," CatFemale said harshly, then immediately turned on a smile for Last, "Please sit down, Trevor. Next to me." She pushed Last and he flopped into a chair.
"How long you been seeing Frannie. . . Trevor?" Third said, smiling evilly across the table.
"Well, Detective Vecchio--" At this, five pairs of eyes, Old First, CatFemale, two adults of the pack and a child, whipped around to stare at him. Last blanched. "Oh," he stuttered, "uh, shouldn't I call Detective Vecchio 'Detective Vecchio?'"
"Never mind, Trevvie," CatFemale said. "We should be used to the defiling of my brother's name by now."
"Good one, Frannie," Third said between his teeth. "Just call me Ray. . .Trevvie."
Now Second's head whipped around. Possibly he was remembering Third cooing "Call me Ray," to First Among Firsts. Whatever the reason, he was frowning, and I was really beginning to enjoy the show.
"All right, Ray," Last said tentatively, "Miss Vecchio and I have been seeing each other since that wonderful visit by Tracy Jenkins--"
"Oh yeah, the country singer. Well, how 'bout that?" Third said, grinning at Second. "How 'bout that, Frase?"
"Mmm," was all Second said, and he looked down at his food as if it were the most interesting thing he'd ever seen.
Dinner passed without further interruption, a glorious feast of meatballs, pasta, delectable fried things and a divinely decadent dessert. I hung around under the pup's chairs, and they were very generous in sharing with me.
Towards the end, as I lay there belching, I noticed Second was still a little distracted, and I saw him mutter something to no one in particular. My nose twitched, because this was how he acted when he was talking to the air. And yes, in fact, he excused himself and went out to the front porch.
I followed him at a distance.
"What are you implying?" he was protesting to the air as I paused in the doorway. "No, I have no interest in her, I am happy for her. I was merely surprised, is all." He shook his head and stared sullenly into the air about two feet in front of him. I squinted, and sure enough, could make out the shadowy figure of the old man. I closed my eyes and listened intently.
"--only saying son, that if you don't jump to it, she'll be taken."
"Evidently she is taken, Dad, and by the way, let me reiterate, I am not interested in Francesca!"
"What's wrong with her?"
"Nothing. Not a thing."
"Then you don't have an excuse, do you? Benton. Listen to me, boy. Go get her. You know it's you she wants. She's just seeing him to make you jealous."
"She is not!" Second stopped short, looked around and lowered his voice. "Just. . .go away, Dad. This is none of your business."
"Hmmph. One of these days, son, I will go away--"
"If only," Second murmured.
"--and you won't have Bob Fraser to kick around any more!"
"Good grief, Dad. Are you Nixon, now?"
"Mark my words, son. Life is passing you by. Better grab for the gusto while you can."
"Grab for the gusto, good grief," Second muttered. "You sound like a beer commercial. Really, Dad . . . Dad?"
There was no more conversation and I opened my eyes. I couldn't see the figure any more, so I figured he'd gone back to wherever he came from. Second looked around, checking the ground around the porch, but clearly he was alone.
Except for me. "And what do you want?" he growled at me.
Nothing, I said, except to remind you you are a horse's ass.
"Great. You, too? I suppose you think you're a role model, don't you? Well, I saw you with that poodle -- disgraceful. Embarrassing."
I snorted. Bet I had more fun than you did.
No, really, Second, he's right; you had your chance with her. You've been replaced.
"So what if I have? I am not, repeat, not interested in Francesca that way."
All right. But what about the other one? Third is making progress there. Practically sniffing her rear end. You better do something or the next thing you know they'll be going at it like rabbits.
He gawked at me. "Whatever are you talking about?"
You really are obtuse sometimes, Second, I said, and turned my tail to him.
Inside, Third and Last were having an argument about someplace called "Gilligan's Island," wherever that is. Third was gesturing wildly and being his usual noisy self, while Last kept nodding and trying to get a word in edgewise. This he managed whenever Third paused for breath, at which time Last would chime in cheerfully with something that would make Third start yammering all over again.
CatFemale was sitting next to Last, hanging on his every word as though he were spitting jewels. The look on her face was honestly one of rapture, and it occurred to me that it was possible Last might leave my pack and start one with CatFemale. And that it might happen soon.
The thought made me a little wistful. We all make fun of Last, but essentially he's a good sort, with pure motivations and a capacity to endure mockery far beyond my tolerance for it. Whatever doltish things he may say, he acts pretty bravely when he has to, if somewhat foolishly the rest of the time. I would hate to see him go.
That led me to another thought. Maybe Last is smarter than the rest of us combined, if he's the one who's found a mate and moved on with his life.
I wonder if that's what Second is thinking, too.
Rule #1: Playing dead should be left to dogs and wolves.
Because if you are as intense as Second, you might take it a little too far and find it hard to come back, which brings us to #2:
Rule #2: Don't scare your pack members unduly.
All right, I suppose I knew Second was going undercover as a corpse. But hearing it from Third and seeing it in person were two different things, and I didn't like the way it made me feel to see my closest packmate lying there so still. Scared me to death. Besides, Third looked none too happy about it either, and evidently he'd helped set it up. Last took one look at Second and started to caterwaul louder than anything I've ever heard from CatFemale. She had to slap Last to bring him around after he fainted. Honestly, they deserve each other. Meanwhile, everyone else completely fell apart at the thought Second was dead. I know he's beloved of all the females, but this was ridiculous. I could just bite him when he does these unnecessary things.
The day after the "funeral," Third dropped by our den. Second had gone out for a walk, but I decided it was too damn cold and remained behind. I'm glad I did, or I would have missed a very interesting encounter. When I heard Last admit him, I trotted up front to say hello to Third. He scratched my ears, and I couldn't help growling happily, and then he slipped me half a bologna sandwich, which was delicious, but his attention was on First Among First's office.
Last hastened to tell Third that Second was out, but he shrugged and knocked on the doorframe to the front office. The female said, "Come in," without looking up, and when she did so, she looked a little startled to see him there. I followed him.
I love it when no one pays any attention to what I'm doing.
"Detective," First Among Firsts said, in her usual curt tone.
Third rolled his eyes. "Are we gonna start that all over again, Margaret?"
This time she didn't pursue that line of discussion. "Constable Fraser isn't here," she said formally. "Is there some way I may be of assistance to the Chicago Police Department?"
"I'm not here officially and I'm not here to see Fraser," Third said, coming closer to the desk. "I wanted to talk to you."
First Among Firsts shifted in her chair. "About what?"
"Well, yesterday, at the funeral home, with all that crazy stuff that was going on--"
"What about it?"
I cringed a little on his behalf. Clearly the female was in full snapping Chihuahua mode. Third sort of squared himself before he went on. I know that feeling; he was in a dominance battle, and she was on top. "I just, well I noticed your reaction when you thought Fraser was dead. You were really upset."
She colored a little. "Well, naturally I was concerned at the thought that a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a subordinate of mine, with whom I've had a relationship, uh, a working relationship, had, uh, -- well, I was understandably taken aback."
"I know." Curiously Third didn't mock or correct her, which would have been standard behavior for him. Instead he kind of shimmied himself so one hip was perched on her desk. She looked a little alarmed, but held her ground. "I just wanted to say. . . look, I'm sorry we didn't tell you what we were up to. I think we scared you pretty bad."
The female stared at him for a minute, and then she looked down at her paperwork. "I'm fine."
"I know," Third said. "I know you are."
"Is that all?" She picked up her pen, still looking at the desk.
Third watched her push papers around for a moment, then stood up. "Just wanted to apologize." First Among Firsts didn't reply. "So, I'll just. I'll be going, I guess." He walked to the door. "See ya around."
She didn't answer him, and eventually Third just went out, nodding to Last as he left. I watched from the window of the front room as he got into his big black conveyance and drove away. When I peeked back into First Among First's office, she had her face in her hands.
Rule # 3: It's probably not a good idea to breed with your own sister.
I mention this because Second came THISCLOSE to doing so. I had no idea he even had a sister, even a half-sister, but one whiff of this yellow-haired cutie and I knew right away we were talking relations.
And "relations" is almost what they had. Well, I think Second would have liked to. He was sending out major amounts of mating smells at her, and she was reciprocating, though only a little. For a wild moment I had a joyous vision of Second and this "Maggie," as she was called, all hooked up and happy and mating their hearts out. I didn't even tell Second what I knew about this new female, that they were kin. All right -- maybe it was wrong of me, but I figured Second needed a little action and they could sort it out later. Whatever.
The situation almost immediately deteriorated, however. Third got into the act. When Second showed interest in her, Third's head swiveled so fast in her direction I'm amazed it didn't just pop off and roll up to her feet.
The good news was that Third's interest made Second very competitive, and that was reassuring. I had begun to wonder about him, whether he just had no instincts towards mating with females at all. Apparently I was premature in that judgment. He even got into a brief shoving match with Third over her, which was a relief, and amusing to boot.
But he's too smart for his own good. He started adding things up, and talking to his dead father, and sooner or later he came up with the truth about the female. And because he's such a prude, that pretty much put a damper on his interest. I mean, he was pleased to discover he had a living relative, but take it from me, that's not the same comfort as an all-night rut session. Curiously, just about then Third's interest in her started to wane, too. I guess when there was no contest, there was no interest. Now he's acting like her brother, too. Not at all what I would have expected from him.
Or maybe Third is taking this thing, whatever it is, with First Among Firsts a little more seriously than I intended. Could be. I wonder if he realizes she will always prefer Second.
The spring thaw is late this year.
Winter should be ending here in the city, but snow still coats the ground and it's bitterly cold. Second spends almost all his free time out of doors anyway, walking, listening, sitting in the cold, looking aimlessly at the horizon. I don't know what to say to him any more.
He confessed to Third he's homesick. Considering that he barely confides his feelings to me, that's significant for Second. Third was sympathetic, but there's nothing he can do about the situation either.
And so we remain here in the city, frozen in position, doing what we always do, chasing bad people. Doing our jobs. Eating pizza, watching television. Watching Second. Waiting for the thaw.
Second and Third came in the other night, a little singed and stinking of smoke. Seems someone tried to set fire to them, and both were rather shaken up. I do not like hearing that two of my pack members were nearly roasted alive.
It's the beginning of something, I can feel it. Something big. It's in the air, in Second's face. He is strangely nervous, as if he is picking up the crackling of energy, trying to hear, or see, or feel something that cannot be heard or seen or felt, but which makes itself known all the same. It's trouble, but he is excited, too. Gone is the woebegone air, the distant look in his eye -- the sadness. Now when he looks at the lake, he looks north, and his eyes are determined. He is filled with anticipation.
I see it in Third's face, too, but in a different way. His face is closed, but his eyes give away his inner tenseness. It's definitely not anticipation Third feels -- it's dread. What he sees is nothing good, and he hates the fact that he sees it.
As is so often the case these days, neither discusses his feelings with me. I hardly think they're aware of me at all.
And then, in a sweep of noise and familiar scents and well-known expressions, the harbinger of change arrives.
Green-Eyed Third is back.
I had forgotten how quiet it can be out here, this far away from the city. From anything. I think I'm having a little difficulty readjusting. Certainly it's colder here than I remember. I miss the heat of our den. I miss Third's den. I miss pizza. I even miss the shelled thing.
I hope someone is feeding it. Fattening it up for me. I will be back.
It's fairly quiet, almost somber, around the campfires. The sled dogs' conversation has begun to bore me -- all about, oh, the longest distance they've ever traveled in one day, how fast they can run. Yawn. Dull, dull, dull, they so need to get a life. I go in search of more articulate chat, but I am disappointed. My path takes me near Last and First Among Firsts, and I pause for a moment. Both of them seem rather excited, particularly Last, who I think has led a rather sheltered life up to now. All of this potential danger is thrilling to him. It's been my experience that danger leads to injury and pain, if Second and Third are examples to go by, but I don't have the heart to mention that to Last. Let him enjoy himself. A nice scar or a limp might be good for him, give him a rakish look and an interesting story to bring home.
First Among Firsts is jittery with a kind of suppressed nervousness. The whole time she is talking to Last her eyes are squinting into the distance at the various campfires, searching for someone. I can guess who. Her conversation with Last seems to focus primarily on where they will be going next, after whatever is going to happen here finally happens. Last seems to favor returning home to our den or to some big city to the west that lies on the sea, which I gather is where he was born. I hope he goes back to CatFemale. Otherwise, I can see CatFemale coming after him in a fury, and that would be like having a bus run over you and then drag you underneath it all the way home.
Besides, when I last sniffed her, I could tell she's going to be a mother. I assume it's Last's cub. It's been my experience that mothers-to-be, of whatever breed, aren't too happy about being abandoned.
Note to self: Make sure Last doesn't get killed.
As for First Among Firsts, she is talking excitedly about 'Toronto' and 'Ottawa.' I've been there, Ottawa, I mean -- went there once with Second. It's a nice, if boring, place, with lots of flags and big buildings and people who dress like Second standing around outside them. Important things happen there, I understand. Huh. The female is telling Last she'll be important there. Well, I wouldn't put it past her -- she's relentless enough.
This Toronto place, on the other hand, seems to consist entirely of places to shop, if you listen to First Among Firsts.
Well, this conversation is about as boring as the sled dogs', so I move on.
I avoid Gassy Man, for obvious reasons.
Second and Third are having a non-conversation at their campfire. What do I mean by that? Well, I've noticed that from time to time the two of them have trouble communicating, which is odd, because most of the time they seem to act in unison, especially in dangerous situations. But I suppose when there is no danger, they start to think too much. That's always a mistake, I've found. Subordinate pack members shouldn't think. They should just obey their First.
But when was the last time either of them obeyed me?
In any case, the silence between them is palpable as I come near. Second is poking at the fire, looking into the flames. Perhaps he's thinking about Green-Eyed Third, who remains behind, wounded by the man we must confront tomorrow. I suspect, however, that Second's focus is within himself.
Third, meanwhile, isn't looking at anything except his feet. He starts to say something, something about when we return home, something about Second and the other Third, and then I understand. It's heartbreaking, really. He thinks he is about to be kicked out of the pack.
Funny thing is, he isn't looking at me to get my opinion of that, and let's face it, as First, I'm the one who decides these things. No, he's asking Second, asking in a roundabout, fairly inarticulate way, which means he's worried about the answer. And then Second is answering him, but he doesn't really answer him at all, just starts to tell one of his stories. As always, I wonder if Second is being deliberately obtuse or if he doesn't know how to say what he feels. Maybe both. If I were Third, I'd bite him, but Third just looks back at his feet. Maybe he has frostbite.
And then we're interrupted, and Third makes a joke to cover up the awkwardness, and the silence falls again.
I'm sorry Third is worried. There's room for both Thirds in the pack. Yes, they'd need to figure out between them who's Third, and who ends up Fourth, and I suppose that would entail a little violence, but it could be done.
But I think the question is moot.
Let me say this about Green-Eyed Third. I really, really care about him. I was very upset when he disappeared, overjoyed when I saw him again, and concerned when he was hurt the other day -- was it so recently? -- saving Second. We all hope he will be all right. It seemed terribly unfair that he and the rest of the pack should be separated again, so soon after his return to us. Of course, Second felt tremendous guilt.
Guilt. It's a familiar theme between the two of them.
I don't know how Green-Eyes feels about me. Let's face it, it's not as if he rushed over to greet me when he came back. He ignored me. He ignored Third too, except to sniff him warily, which I suppose makes sense, as he didn't know him. He only wanted to see Second.
All very well and good. But that's not pack. As Third might say, that's not buddies.
Green-Eyes has changed. He looks much the same; better, maybe, with a new kind of dignity about him. But he's more tightly wound, less open, angrier than when he left. I thought he'd left us because he wanted to be on his own, to start his own pack, but I was wrong. Wherever he went, whatever he did, it changed him. I find I miss the shouting, gesturing, in-your-face Third who went away. He has become a lone wolf.
I am sorry about that. It's not an easy path to follow.
We are happy to see him again, especially Second. They were so close once, and perhaps they will be again. But I don't think he'll ever be part of our pack again. Not because I won't let him come back. Because he won't want to. Won't be able to.
And that's very sad, indeed.
Second and First Among Firsts are kissing.
I've developed the habit of keeping an eye on Second, because when he's not within my sight it makes me worry what danger he might have gotten himself into. Since he's been here I haven't noticed that tendency toward self-destruction I saw back in the city, but still, I worry.
So I happen to be watching him closely as First Among Firsts comes up to him at the campfire and interrupts us, and he rises and goes with her. I cast a glance over at Third, but his eyes are in shadow, his head down in the dejected slump he's been affecting all day. Then he gets up too, and walks away.
Second and the female pause outside the ring of light cast by the fire, and stand a few inches apart. If they're speaking, I can't hear the words. That's when they kiss. It's a gentle kiss, rather chaste and sweet, but both of them seem to enjoy it. I move a little closer, but stop when the kiss breaks. They look at each other a minute, and then separate and turn away.
First Among Firsts moves off a little, her head down. I fancy there are tears in her eyes, though I am too far away to know for certain. Second, on the other hand, is already heading towards the team to talk to Gassy Man. He doesn't even look back at the female. I shake my head in wonder. Another missed opportunity, Second.
But wait a minute . . .
Another figure comes out of the shadows and steps in front of First Among Firsts. I move a little closer, ready to come to her rescue if she is attacked; after all, if Second were so inclined, she might have been a pack member of mine. Despite her brittleness and her yelling, I confess I've developed a certain fondness for her, and I'm feeling sorry for her right now. The figure catches a little moonlight and I breathe a sigh of relief. It's Third.
Now I really have to be closer, because it's too dark to read their lips.
"I'm sorry," Third is saying. "He's obviously unhinged."
Huh. I couldn't agree more.
"Constable Fraser is not unhinged," First Among Firsts says, a little sharply. "Muldoon, his mother, the terrorists. He has a lot on his mind."
"Then he's thinking about the wrong things, Margaret," Third says, shaking his head.
She smiles at him, a little smile. "Thank you."
Third looks up at her, and I swear his eyes are reflecting light, as mine do. "Look, I know I'm not . . . I mean, I know he's . . ."
"He is . . . unique."
"That he is," Third says, and smiles.
She smiles back at him. Her face is kind. "And so are--"
"Nah," he says, shaking his head. "I'm not." And then his face changes in some way I can't name. . .no, wait. Interesting . . . he looks like a wolf. "Say my name," he growls.
She takes in a breath, and then lets it out so softly I almost can't hear the syllable. "Ray." She tries again. "Ray."
"Yeah," Third says, moving closer.
And then I really don't have to hear what they're saying, because what they're doing is all too obvious. Second had given First Among Firsts a nice, sweet, gentle, "good-bye, it's been nice knowing you, too bad things didn't work out, have a good life," kind of kiss, but what Third and First Among Firsts are doing isn't sweet or nice or gentle. The two of them are pawing at each other, making slurping noises with their mouths. I watch Third drag the two of them back into the shadows of the trees and I fight my natural curiosity and decide at least this time to give him a little privacy, since he's doing me the honor of acting like a wolf. I trot back to the fire, where Second has returned, and stretch out next to his feet. He looks at me quizzically. "Have you seen Ray?"
I smile enigmatically.
A little while later Third ambles back to us. He's even more askew than usual, but he's whistling. Second cocks an eyebrow at him, taking in his new mood. "Where have you been?"
"Around." Third settles himself onto a seat and warms his hands over the fire. "Frase. How far is Ottawa from Chicago?"
"By land or air?"
"Less than two hours."
"Great. Greatness." He's grinning, in an enirely lupine way.
"No reason," Third says, getting control of his face. "Might wanna visit there some day, you know?"
Rule #4: Wolves were not meant to fly. If someone tells you it is a good idea to do so, bite them. They lie.
Rule #5: Corollary: Never jump out of a plane, no matter what apparatus you are wearing, even if someone were to distract you by saying, "Look, Dief, shelled things!"
Rule #6: Do not panic if you cannot find your pack immediately upon being thrown from a plane. Most likely they are either in a metal tube under the ice shooting at criminals, or in a mineshaft talking to dead people. Nothing to worry about.
Rule #7: When you discover your pack is well and safe, after thinking for sure you'd never ever see them again and the thought of that had filled you with despair beyond all imagining so that you'd sooner die yourself than continue on without them--
Then it is perfectly permissible to jump on them and lick them all over.
In fact, it's expected.
He's looking at me, grinning, as if he's in on the best joke ever.
What? I ask.
He doesn't need to tell me, though. I already know the punch line. He's happy.
"We're home, Dief." He stops, looks at me, grows serious. I'm sorry. I mean Snow Hunter."
I'm startled. Thank you, I manage to say.
It's a precious gift, and a long time coming. I am so touched I have to look away. Wouldn't do to let him see how I feel.
But . . .
Call me Dief, it's all right, I say. Dief is -- well, I'm used to it, and you like it.
He's grinning at me again, fondly. To cover my feelings I look for Third, but he's in the sled, sleeping, I think. Trust him to miss the most spectacular vista so far. The valley before us is almost blinding with bright snow, mountains thrusting up behind it into the cloudless sky. Blue glaciers glint among faraway peaks. We're on a rise, trees behind us, There's not so much as a hare's track to spoil the perfect snow.
He draws my eye again. Second, flushed cheeks, white billowing breath, swathed in a fur wrapping, his mouth open as he pants against the wind. The white of his teeth is like the white of the snow, his smile bright like the sun, eyes clear as the sky, and I feel his joy as if it were mine.
I remember the first time we met. I remember the cabin in the woods we shared. I remember the trip to the big, smelly city, and all the people we met along the way. I remember every moment, every day that we have spent in each other's company.
I understand now. Don't know why it took me so long.
I am his friend, his most constant friend. No one knows him better than I. He is happy to have me by his side, just as he is glad Third is with us, sleeping or not, happy that we are still one pack, still together.
But what I understand now, that I couldn't before, is that it was not enough. It was never enough, just to be loved by friends and pack. He needed to be here. It's this place, this unforgiving northern ground that makes Second happy. The cold, the brightness, the harshness of it, it's necessary for him; it's in him, smoothed and warmed and burnished into the singular, crazy being that he is. This land is his home, but it's more than that. It is his food, his water, his life. It's more important to him than a mate, more important than work or comfort, more necessary than family or friends. It's who he is. He is North.
And like the magnetic North, he draws us with an irresistible force.
I don't know what will happen to him, if there is a mate for him, offspring, or only Third and I to share his cabin. Are there a thousand more adventures or this one alone, a long life or a short one? No one can predict the future. But right now the present is enough. He has found at least a temporary happiness, so how can I worry?
My heart is so glad to see Second happy at last that I almost feel like crying. To keep him this way I will endure the freezing cold, which I never liked very much, and the hunting for food, which is a chore, and the lack of doughnuts and the absence of other beings to talk to besides the two of them and the silly sled dogs, who have little of interest to say. What I feel doesn't really matter, in the end. If Second is happy, then I am content.
What am I saying? If Second is happy?
I come to myself with a start, and sink into the snow to consider my place in the universe.
You are a fool, Snow Hunter. Diefenbaker.
Perhaps . . . I have been mistaken all this time.
Well. How funny to realize it at last.
Perhaps the truth has always been this:
He is First.
I am his Second.