The Hero I Need by Nicole Snow

1





True Stripes (Willow)





No, no, no, and also, no.

This is not how I imagined my life.

Red lights flashing on the dashboard like evil eyes, headlights dimming, the engine losing power!

Panic like a thrumming war drum in my pulse, tears in my eyes, and worst of all, none of it’s for me. I’m letting him down when he needs me most and it makes me sick.

This can’t be happening. Not here. Not now.

Not in the middle of Nowheresville, North Dakota. The farm fields and cute sleepy houses yawning on forever in the hills like a painter’s wet dream are too adorable for this. Too anticlimactic a backdrop for a disaster this big.

Ugh.

But let’s backup...

Once upon a time, I had plans.

Go to a good school and work my rump off. Travel internationally. Work with endangered animals—especially big cats, the first and (probably) only love of my life. Win accolades for my work, just like dear old dad.

Maybe get interviewed by National Geographic or at least land a few articles in hotshot science journals.

Talk to kids about the living wonders of every four-legged beast in the Felidae family.

Finally, meet Prince Charming somewhere underneath an African sunset with layers of light that show off the love in his eyes. All his dreamy, growly, infinitely obsessed-with-me goodness as he gets down on one knee and asks me to marry him.

Of course I’d say yes.

Then onto an awesome life with my best friend, taking time off from our illustrious careers to work on our picture-perfect family. Three smart, well-behaved little angels who’d grow up surrounded by Mother Nature, our third wheel, and who might even follow me in my work, just like I followed Dad.

Yeah, so, it’s funny how fate works.

I think God must have a soft spot for every Department of Transportation under the sun since he loves long, winding, entirely unpredictable detours.

Like the one I’m on now, holding in a scream and gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles go ivory-white because it’s the only thing I can do not to start pounding the dash like an angry little monkey.

Welcome to my detour of a life.

So far, all I’ve accomplished is school, resulting in one big fat unremarkable B.S. in Zoology. If I didn’t love animals so much, I might get hung up on the BS part.

But Dad stepped up and put me through my program, which I’m endlessly grateful for.

I just wish I’d known everything after graduation would be a one-way ticket to hell in a handbasket.

Oh, sure, my father had a comfy entry level field job lined up for me, but I’d been like, “Oh, no, Dad, you’ve done enough. I can take it from here. I’m a big girl.”

Why?

Because he understood.

He knew it was coming.

Unfortunately for me, I inherited just enough of the Macklin family pride to make it a driving force in my hamster wheel of a brain. So rather than take a cushy job where I would’ve been welcomed as the world-renowned rhino expert’s daughter—or have people sneering that I’d only gotten the gig because Peter Macklin is my father—I took a job at the Exotic Plains Rescue in Minot, North Dakota.

Mistake number one.

Seriously. North Dakota, where there are...not a large number of exotic cats roaming the wilds, unless you count the occasional cougar.

Or Bruce.

I glance in the rearview mirror nervously, wondering how he’s holding up in the stock trailer I’m pulling. He might be over five hundred pounds and host a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth that could shear the flesh off a Christmas turkey in one pull, but he’s as mild as a house cat.

Honest.

A cat who eats five pounds of raw meat for breakfast and will never see the inside of a litter box, maybe, but a big kitty nonetheless. He’s an adorable lumbering hunk of orange-and-black-striped sweetness, born and raised in total captivity.

I’ll spare you the lecture on how you can take the tiger out of the wild, but you’ll never rip the wild out of him. He’s as gentle of a giant as he can be, but that’s not the point.

I’m worried.

His front paw was so swollen this morning he wouldn’t put any weight on it. A quick check showed there’s nothing broken, but an infection could cripple him.

I fix my eyes on the road and try not to let my lip quiver for the hundredth time.

Easier said than done.

Bruce stole my heart the moment I met him. I’d been so full of myself then. So sure that my job at the rescue was my calling, or at least my launchpad. A delusional part of me even thought my rescue work in North Dakota could lead to something real, a door to the kind of fame Dad has in his work with rhinos.