Finding Woo

  • Story by Brad Johnson for the Sandra and Woo and Gaia Artwork Contest 2016

Eyes finally focusing through the gloom, the raccoon stared pensively at the steel bars of the small cage. Resting uncomfortably on the metal plate floor of his locked pen, he sighed softly, “Woo…”

It was still hard to think clearly, but the last thing Woo could remember was finding the meat on the plate at the edge of the park. So fresh, so tasty smelling – he just couldn’t help himself. Then he was here, caged in the darkness. The raccoon sighed to himself again. Sandra had scolded him at least a dozen time that his appetite would get him into trouble. Unfortunately, his human friend was right.

Peering through the bars into the larger room, Woo had just decided there were five other pens like his when the lights snapped on. A rather drab, doughy woman stamped into the room, her white coat open to show a swath of putrid green sweater. Her stringy hair was what Sandra would call brown, Woo decided, although it was hard for the raccoon to tell for sure. But her expression conveyed a clear anger at the world in general and Woo in particular. Brusquely flipping pages on her clipboard, the grumpy woman stopped in front of his cage, glaring down at him.

“I needed another dog,” glowered the woman. “I suppose I can use a raccoon if I must, but I wanted a dog. You ate the last of the knock-out drug, you little glutton.” Leaning close to the cage, the woman hissed, “Why aren’t you a dog?”

Trembling, Woo pressed back into the darkest corner of the cage, the steel bars of the holding pen not yielding at all. Not daring to speak, the raccoon stared back at the woman, his eyes large in his mask. He waited breathlessly.

“After I inject you with my improved R9 formula, we’ll just see if you react like a dog would, food bandit. First I need to infect you with rabies, but that won’t be a problem. I just have to wait until morning for the sedative to wear off completely so you don’t go into shock.” The woman gave Woo a nasty smile. “Rabies in the morning and then R9 when the disease has almost run its course. One way or the other – you’ll only be sick for a week, raccoon.”

Humming to herself at that happy thought, the woman turned away. On her way out, she kicked one of the pens and a dog gave a low whimper. When the lights snapped off and the door locked behind the woman, Woo cautiously pulled himself out of the back corner of his pen.

A low, velvety voice purred from one of the pens on the other side of the room, “I didn’t think you were a dog.”

Stepping forward into what light there was, the raccoon answered softly, “Name’s Woo.”

“Midnight,” purred the dusky feline.

“Blackie,” woofed a Labrador one pen over from the cat, the large dog’s golden eyes gleaming. “My poodle friend here is Fluffy, but she doesn’t talk anymore. Not since the woman gave her R9. No one ever talks after that.”

“What’s it supposed to do?” asked Woo.

“Cure rabies,” answered the dog angrily. “Rabies she gives us.”

“Except it doesn’t, “added the cat diffidently. “It never has. 27 dogs, and no cure. 8 cats too. Maybe you’ll be luckier than old Fluff over there. Then it’s our turn.”

Grimacing, Woo shook his head, squeezing his dark eyes shut tightly. He wished he hadn’t decided to eat that dratted food.

“Well, I refuse to stay here,” declared Woo resolutely. Reaching out with his clever front paws, the raccoon nimbly stroked the latch closing his cage. His sensitive digits probed the lock, testing for any vulnerabilities.

The cat scoffed, “What – you’re going to melt through the bars of your dog pen like some ghost? You think you can just..”

A loud, metallic click interrupted Midnight’s snark.

Deftly, Woo opened his cage. Sauntering through the opening, the raccoon grinned at the open-mouthed cat and dog. “Raccoons don’t belong in cages!” he declared proudly.

Recovering first, Midnight purred, “Neither do cats.” After a sly look at Blackie, she added grudgingly, “Or dogs, I suppose. At least not these cages…”

The Labrador grinned hugely, “That’s a pretty kind thought for a cat to admit, Midnight. But don’t worry, Woo and I won’t tell on you.”

The cat laughed and then sighed. “It doesn’t get us out of here though.”

“One step at a time,” smiled Woo, trotting over to the cat’s pen. As he stroked his front paws over the locking mechanism, he paused. “You guys aren’t sick, are you? With rabies?”

Stretching up to her paws and then grooming herself, Midnight meowed softly, “Not me or Blackie. But the poodle – it’s too late for Fluffy.” Blackie hung his head and Woo nodded solemnly. After a minute or so, the raccoon smiled his satisfaction as the lock clicked loudly. He pulled the latch and opened the cage.

The cat sprang out of the pen, knocking Woo over. Shaking herself and smoothing her fur, she muttered, “Sorry. I just… I hate that pen…”

Woo chuckled, “I wasn’t too fond of my cage either, and I was only in it a few minutes. While I was awake at least?”

Blackie woofed an answer to the unstated question. “You were out for a couple of hours since you got here, Woo. Dunno how long before that – sorry.”

As the raccoon tickled the lock on the Labrador’s cage, Woo stated, “I can’t open the lock on the door. So, how are we going to escape?”

The cat and the soon liberated dog quartered the lab along with Woo, each animal searching for a way out. At a call from Midnight, the others joined her at the window. Besides the glass and a screen, the window was covered with a grill of metal bars bolted onto the outside wall. The cat purred diffidently, “If Woo can open this latch and Blackie can force out the screen, I can slip through here. I can leave, but neither of you can fit through the bars outside, I think?”

Smacking his fist into his other paw, Woo declared, “Okay, let’s get you out Midnight. You bring help and rescue me and Blackie, right?”

Midnight sat and washed one paw. “Um… Woo? What help?” Scowling at her paw, she meowed softly, “I’m a cat. No one will help me. No one ever helps me.”

Woo tilted up the cat’s chin and smiled into her eyes. “Sandra will help. Trust me – my human will come for me if she knows where I am. You just have to fetch her.”

When Blackie woofed, “Find your inner dog..” the cat rolled her eyes but grinned tentatively. “Okay. I’ll bring your Sandra… somehow…?”

Woo peered out the dirty window and scowled. He was on the second floor, looking down into a muddy alley, with a couple of dumpsters and no people. He fiddled with the latch until the dog could push up the filthy glass and press out the screen with his massive black paws. Then Woo stuck his head out between the bars and grinned. “I can see the bridge over the river. You go there, and then this is how you get to Sandra’s house…” In short order the raccoon explained how to find Sandra, having walked the path to the bridge many times himself. He also described Sandra so Midnight could recognize her.

Faces pressed against the steel grate over the window, Woo and Blackie watched Midnight scramble down the side of the building from ledge to ledge to dumpster to the ground. She scampered off into the night towards the distant bridge. Sighing, Woo watched the small, agile feline disappear into the darkness and then glanced at Blackie. “She’ll really try to get help?”

“Midnight is a good cat. She’s almost trustworthy enough to be a dog.” He laughed, “Don’t tell her I said that…”

The raccoon and the Labrador shared a laugh as they settled in to wait.

———

Sandra pulled at her blonde hair in frustration, shivering in her light top and jeans. “Where can he be?” she wailed. “You know Woo wouldn’t just wander off.”

Her friend Larisa leaned against a tree, folded her arms, and then fiddled with her jacket. Taller than Sandra, the pretty teenager sighed, “Come on Sandra. Woo’s a guy. He probably ran off to the forest looking for some hot lady raccoon to smooch…”

Almost in tears, Sandra glared at her friend. “He would not. At least… at least not without letting me know…”

“Oh right. What’s he gonna do? Leave you a note? I know you think raccoons are smart but…”

“Let’s look again,” Sandra scowled. “If he’s hurt, we might have missed him in the dark. And it’s getting really cold out.”

Larisa threw her arms out wide. “Sandy – we searched the whole neighborhood. Twice!” Looking a little contrite, the taller girl continued hesitantly, “I know you’re worried about Woo…”

A child’s voice piped up from the shadows, “What happened to Woo?”

As the two older girls jumped, Cloud’s younger sister Yuna stepped from the all-concealing shadows mischievously. Dressed all in black, the girl was smaller and younger than Sandra, and much sneakier. Grinning at their obvious startlement, the girl asked, “What’s going on?”

Sandra answered while still looking around frantically, “Woo’s missing. He wasn’t at home after school and he missed dinner and I can’t find him anywhere and it’s dark and cold and I’m scared…”

Larisa touched Sandra’s shoulder hesitantly. “Try to calm down Sandra. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

At that moment, a slender black cat oiled her way around Yuna’s bare ankles, startling the young girl into scampering over to Sandra and Larisa. The cat sat boldly in front of the three young women and wrapped her tail around her feet. She cleaned one paw, glancing up into Sandra’s face from under her lashes.

The blonde girl pointed down at the painfully thin feline and asked, “I didn’t know you and Cloud had a kitty, Yuna?”

Shaking her head decisively, the younger girl declared, “She’s not mine. Larisa?”

The taller blonde put up her hands palms out and stated firmly, “No way. My folks won’t let me – can you imagine all the cat hair mixed into the paint?” She suddenly smiled, “But she’s awfully pretty isn’t she? So mysterious, just appearing like that.” Larisa’s eyes gleamed and Yuna grinned, nodding happily.

Sandra nodded absently but couldn’t help looking into the shadows worriedly. She called “Woo!”

The black cat meowed loudly and ran three steps into the dark before turning to look over her shoulder. None of the three girls were paying any attention to her.

Stalking forward like a miniature panther, the cat approached Sandra. When the troubled blonde teenager called out the raccoon’s name again, the cat pounced on her foot, howling. Then she ran off three paces as she had before, looking behind her.

Meanwhile, Sandra had jumped when the cat pricked at her shoe with her claws. She glared down at the cat, transferring some of her fear for Woo into anger. “Stop that you..” she began.

Yuna’s sweet voice interrupted, “Wait Sandra. Call Woo again.”

When the older girl obligingly called the raccoon’s name again, the elegant black cat yowled piercingly and turned for a third time, running several paces into the night. Then she paused and looked back at the three girls.

“I think she wants us to follow her,” grinned Yuna, chasing after the dusky kitty. After a moment, Sandra and Larisa followed.

As the girls ran into the cold, dark night after the animal, Larisa complained loudly, “Sure. We follow a cat to find a raccoon that’s lost. Who does she think she is? Lassie?”

Yuna laughed, “Lassie’s just a dog. If you want real adventures, always follow a cat.”

Midnight grinned to herself, but no one can tell when a cat smiles. She ran through the darkness towards the bridge, retracing her path to the animal testing lab.

———-

The sharp feline howl drew Woo to the window. Peering down into the alley, the raccoon discovered Sandra gazing up at him, her face shining with joy. He waved his black paw through the steel grate at the teenager and exclaimed “Woo!” loudly.

Sandra scooped up the black cat and kissed her loudly and soundly on the top of her head. Midnight squirmed with embarrassment, escaping Sandra’s embrace with much wriggling. She leapt against Yuna and the smaller girl automatically caught up the slender cat, hugging her and stroking her soft, black fur. The exhausted cat snuggled against the child, turning to peer up at Woo and Blackie. She grinned.

Blackie woofed loudly and Woo waved with both paws, giving the cat an enthusiastic thumbs up. While the animals were cheering each other, Larisa wandered around the side of the building.

Sandra called, “Don’t worry Woo! We’ll figure out how to get you out of there. Just give us a minute to…”

An enormous explosion interrupted the blonde teenager. Everyone stared as Larisa jumped back into the alley, now lit by the bright orange flames of the fireball. Larisa stared at the glorious fire, enraptured. As the flames faded, the pyromaniac grinned happily, “The back door was locked and bolted and really thick.” Peeking around the corner, she laughed, “It’s not now.”

Hesitantly, Sandra peeked around the corner. Yuna demanded of Larisa, “You carry explosives?”

Larisa shrugged, “You don’t?”

Sandra shook her head, “Thanks?” But she immediately hopped through the ruined doorway, skipping over the remaining flames and splinters of wood. Trotting forward, the teenager spotted a stairwell and started up. The other two girls followed, Yuna carrying Midnight. The cat was staring at the dwindling flames with almost as much fascination as Larisa.

Climbing the steps two at a time up to the second floor, and running down the hall, Sandra tried each door. Naturally, there was one solid metal door that was locked. Calling “Woo!’ loudly, she heard answering cries from the raccoon and the dog as well as raccoon paws pounding on the door from the inside. Sandra twisted and pulled as hard as she could, but the lock wouldn’t budge.

As she sank down in frustration, Yuna stepped forward. Handing the black cat to Sandra, the young girl pulled out a small leather case. She withdrew a set of lock picks and grinned at Sandra before kneeling down in front of the lock.

From behind Yuna, Larisa muttered, “You carry lock picks?”

Yuna shrugged, “You don’t?”

The young girl set to work, and it was only a minute or two before the lock clicked. She twisted the knob and the door opened. A compact, furry form launched himself through the opening, knocking Yuna down. Sandra dumped Midnight onto the floor and just managed to catch the raccoon in flight. Both Sandra and Woo ended up in a pile on the floor, hugging each other tightly.

Laughing, Yuna picked up the disgruntled cat, smoothing down her fur and soothing her. Larisa fearlessly entered the lab, eyeing the large, powerful black dog. Blackie calmly walked to the blonde girl and reared up, licking her cheek. Larisa surprised herself by giggling, and was quickly down on her knees with her hands buried in his fur, petting him and stroking his ears. For his part, the Labrador’s tail thumped a mighty rhythm and he licked Larisa’s face enthusiastically.

Yuna and Midnight entered the testing lab, turning on the lights and exploring. Woo took the opportunity to whisper in Sandra’s ear, thanking her and explaining what went on in the laboratory. By the time she had a full understanding, the young girl could hear sirens approaching.

———-

Explanations to the police and the fire department took the rest of the night. Parent were called, with reactions ranging from horror (Larisa’s folks) to delight (Yuna’s folks). The “doctor” running the laboratory was brought to the scene and the discussions quickly changed from teenagers retrieving pets to more adult crimes. Oddly, the police were more concerned with extensive animal cruelty, an illegal biological agent (rabies), and the dozens of missing pets. The desk full of notes Woo mentioned to Sandra turned out to contain plans for the next phase – human experimentation. When the girls and animals finally went to Sandra’s house, things were looking grim for the researcher.

Sandra mysteriously divined the name of Blackie’s owner, after Woo surreptitiously told her. A phone call brought an overjoyed ten-year-old boy bounding into Sandra’s yard. He was immediately overpowered by the delighted Labrador, reunited at long last with his boy. Tears and laughter and lots of wet, sloppy licking were had by both the dog and his boy.

Woo stood with Midnight, watching the slobbering dog happily wrestle with the laughing boy. “Can Sandra call anyone for you?” he asked the cat.

Long resigned to her fate, Midnight shrugged. “I’m a cat. Who would there be to call?” She walked away, pretending not to care.

When he motioned her over, Sandra approached Woo. Since they were isolated on one side of the yard, Woo whispered, “Midnight doesn’t have anyone. She… um…”

Sandra smiled, “Without her, I wouldn’t have found you.”

“Yeah.”

The blonde teenager winked at Woo, walking away from the puzzled raccoon. She paused and had a short word with Yuna, who looked surprised. The child hesitantly approached the cat and knelt down, holding out her hand and murmuring.

By the time Sandra was beside Woo again, Midnight had crawled onto Yuna’s lap and was purring loudly. The two were ignoring everyone else, Yuna’s fingers stroking Midnight’s soft, black ears. Even Sandra could tell the little cat was smiling.

Sandra felt Woo grasp her hand tightly. In a flash, the raccoon was in the girl’s arms. Sandra walked over to Larisa and the taller blonde patted Woo, stroking his soft fur. The two girls and the raccoon watched the pair of younger children frolic with their joyful pets.