“Miss Isobelle Harding.” Our principal, Mr Saunders called me to the stage.
Shaking with adrenaline, I walked up the metal steps with the sound of applause ringing in my ears. All my focus went into not tripping over in the graduation gown I was wearing and making a spectacle of myself. The pressure of having a hundred pairs of eyes following me scorched my face, and I could feel beads of sweat begin to form across my brow and upper lip.
Bloody hell; why did this gown have to be made from black polyester? I thought inwardly. Black attracted the heat and in temperatures in the region of 30 degrees, I was stifling in the heavy material.
In the short distance across the stage, I had turned into a flustered mess. Subtly, I wiped my sweaty palms across my gown and accepted the scroll. The Principal grasped my clammy hand in his as we exchanged an awkward handshake. I couldn’t get away quick enough, scarpering off down the opposite steps to where my best friend, Joanne Prichard was standing there waiting for me.
A beaming smile spread across her freckled face. “We did it!” She squealed jubilantly, bouncing on her heels.
“I know, I can hardly believe it. There have been times I’ve wanted to pack it all in,” I admitted, reminiscent of the copious amounts of caffeine infused nights I endured, in order to finish dissertations.
“Just think about the opportunity the university has given you this summer. I’m completely jealous,” she pouted.
“I know. I’ve never been as far as Spain. I’ve always wanted to travel to America,” I gave a little squeal of excitement.
I was indeed so incredibly lucky. I had been given a grant from the university to travel abroad, to study a rare species of wolf that supposedly resides in the remote state of Forest lake. I had lodgings arranged for me in the small town of Hawcroft. The information pack had arrived the previous weekend which I studied obsessively.
I couldn’t believe I had been chosen out of all the other students to go. I wished my best friend Joanne could’ve gone with me but her father had already arranged for her to join him in his veterinary hospital this summer.
“There you are girls,” my Dad rushed over. My Mum was hot on his heels, as was Joanne’s parents. Like the majority of proud parents, they were all bleary eyed after shedding proud tears of joy during the ceremony.
“Lets get some pictures,” Joanne's Dad, Gordon said, whilst setting up the camera on a tripod.
“Just the girls first, then we’ll do one with the Mum’s then us Dad’s and finish with a group one,” Gordon spoke, organising things.
I posed side by side with Joanne, both giving our best smiles before we were ambushed by our Mothers.
After he went snap happy, Gordon passed around the camera, allowing us all to look at the digital image on the back screen of the camera to see our pictures. Joanne and I looked like we’d both ran a marathon wearing a mascot outfit, as we were sweating profusely. Her hair, as blonde as mine, had gone from being poker straight to damp and frizzy.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my life,” My Dad Arron, gushed with pride. “The other times were marrying you Fiona, and of course when you were born,” he said, as he pinched my flushed cheek.
“We were wondering whether you all wanted to go to Hickory’s for Dinner?” I asked on behalf of myself and Joanne.
That was our favourite restaurant. We wanted to go there one last time before we both went our separate ways for the summer. I wasn’t due to return back to England for at least 12 weeks; that’d mean a whole three months of missing everybody. It seemed fitting to enjoy one last meal together at our favourite place.
“That’s the barbecue smoke house you girls usually go to isn’t it?” Joanne’s mum, Norah asked.
“That’s the one,” Joanne replied.
“I bet our Izzie will get to experience the real deal over the water,” my Dad added, “Real cowboy food,” he looked at me with awe.
My Dad had always wanted to go to America and experience how the cowboys lived. He loved watching old western films and often wondered what it would be like to visit Texas. Whenever he watched an old film on television he would comment on how his lifelong dream was to sit and eat food that had been cooked on a open bonfire, ride through the wild west on horseback and sleep under the stars.
“I’m not going to be around any cowboys Dad; where I’m going there’s nothing but forest and mountains for miles,” I explained.
His exuberant expression never faltered, “It’s still going to be brilliant though, no matter what. It’s a fabulous opportunity you’ve been given,” He chipped happily.
My Dad wasn’t as fortunate as myself growing up. He came from a life of poverty on a council estate in Bradford. Both his parent’s, my grandparent’s, had died whilst he was little and he went to live with his aunty. He shared a bedroom with five of his cousins and each of them survived on one decent meal a day. Money was tight, and he left school in order to get a job and help out as best he could. It was only after he turned twenty, that he joined the police force, starting out from the bottom. He spent years, working his way up the ranks to become a Chief inspector at the City of London police department. My Mum however, came from a modest middle class family in Warwickshire. Her life was a stark contrast to dad’s. She never knew the meaning of poverty, never understood how it felt to go hungry. My grandparents always made sure she was happy and never went without. They kept horses and enjoyed holidays abroad every year, whereas dad had never even visited the sea-side. Mum studied to become a Paediatric Surgeon and currently works at Great Ormond street hospital in London. Both my parents came from opposite walks of life, yet their paths entwined together somewhere along the way. That's almost poetic in a way; as if fate somehow had a part to play in bringing them together. Am I a hopeless romantic in thinking that? Yes, I suppose I am.
My parent's have always supported me in all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’d always shown an interest in animal biology. I knew it was my vocation. The type of career that would enable me to travel the globe. Those were my dreams, and I couldn't but wonder whether fate had any plans in store for me too.
“Mmm, this brisket is to die for.” Mum said to Joanne’s Mum, Norah. She gave mum a look which suggested she too was immensely satisfied. “It is. It just melts in your mouth, and this dipping gravy, Mmm, Heaven.”
I grinned over at Joanne. She was glowing bright red with shame at the orgasmic noises our Mother’s were making whilst enjoying the food.
“I think we should bring our wives here more often Gordon,” Dad joked, looking at his friend with a wide-eyed expression on his face.
Gordon snorted with a nod, “I know. They seem to be enjoying the meat alright.”
At that point Joanne nearly died of shame and so did I.
To be personally honest, I didn’t know she could turn that shade of crimson. I chuckled, because if I didn't laugh, I'd cry.
“Izzy, are you coming the ladies loo's?” She asked as if asking a question, but in her fierce eyes, it was more like a command.
I followed behind her as she thundered her way past happy diners, over to the ladies toilets. As soon as we were out of earshot, she rounded on me, “What are they like? We can't bloody take them anywhere.” She whined, in a mixture of amusement and embarrassment.
“They're having fun. It’s cute really. My parents work all the hours god sends usually. It makes a change seeing them spend time together like this,” I replied with a shrug.
Joanne chewed on the inside of her cheek before she answered, “Yeah but they don't give a shit what they say and who hears,” she huffed with a half laugh.
Joanne was always way to easy to embarrass. It didn't take much; you only had to mention the word sex, and she turned a deep shade of red.
We eventually found our way back to the table to finish our meals. Then I had one too many glasses of wine that I probably shouldn’t have consumed. Especially with my flight leaving so early in the morning. I could've done with not having the remnants of a hang over to take along with me, but hey-ho. What's done was done.
Once the evening came to an end, we all said our tearful farewells and promised each other that we would keep in touch over the summer. My only concern was the lack of service my mobile phone was likely to have, high up in the mountain range. But that was a problem that I would have to deal with another day.
The following morning....
“Have you got all your travel documents and your visa?” Mum asked as she crossed off each item on the list.
Mum was one of the worlds most organised people. She was a list maker. Not a single day went by, where she didn’t compile a list of things that she needed to do, or things she needed to buy. This time she had put together a list of all the things I needed to take with me to America.
“Yes Mum, they're in the travel wallet you bought for me,” I replied, holding it up as evidence.
“See, Arron. Those things come in handy don’t they? They keep everything together all in one place; everybody should have one.” Mum suggested as she wagged her index finger at my Dad. He'd initially scoffed at the idea of owning one, back when she was ordering them from E-Bay the other week.
Mum began rhyming things off, using her fingers to mentally count with, “Let's see, you’ve got your money, your suit cases are packed...... a spare charger? Did you get one?” She questioned me.
“Yes. I picked one up the other day,” I answered.
“Well, that’s everything then. Oh wait...here. I bought you some magazines to read on the plane.” She remembered, fishing them out of a carrier bag.
“Thanks mum. I completely forgot about getting any of those,” I replied with gratitude.
“She thinks of everything; she’s sharp as a whip this one,” dad praised, fawning over mum in adoration. She gave him a loving peck on the lips before returning to fuss over me.
“I just thought, it's a twelve hour flight. You’d get bored to tears otherwise,” her eyes creased with concern, “You will be ok out there on your own wont you?” Tears began to well up in her hazel eyes.
“Mum, I’ll be fine. And I’ll text and ring you all the time,” I comforted, “There will be things for me to do when I’m not working. Plenty of people for me to make friends with. The university has rented me a car, so I can visit Stonevale too. I've read all the information; there's bars and restaurants, plenty of shops, not to mention recreational activities." I assured her, seeing her frown lines begin to relax.
“Well, make sure you do ring home, or else your father and I will be on the next flight over there,” She warned in a warm maternal tone.
My Parents both accompanied me to Heathrow airport to give me a last minute send off. I promised myself that I wouldn’t cry, but my soft self was barely holding back the tears. I checked my luggage in to baggage handling and went over to wait next to the security area.
Reality had started to kick in by this point and it took everything I had not to fling my arms around my Dads neck and beg him to take me back home. Once the first calling for all passengers to board was announced, the waterworks started.
"Good afternoon passengers this is a boarding announcement for flight 89B to Detroit, Please make your way over to gate 3. Please have your boarding passes ready, along with your passports, with the picture page open ready, thank you."
“D-Dad, M-Mum, I’m really going to miss you,” I sobbed.
My Dads eyes had reddened as he fought back the tears. Mums face already had tear tracks running freely down both cheeks, “Oh my baby, my only baby,” her shoulders bounced as she sobbed uncontrollably.
I hugged both of them as if my life depended on it. It took all my will power to detach myself from them and walk the short distance towards the hand luggage conveyer. I turned around to give a final wave, only to notice both my parents were clutching each other in a tight emotional embrace. My Mum put her finger tips to her lips, as if to blow me a kiss and my Dad held one outstretched hand up. I shuffled slowly forward whilst looking over my shoulder. The security officer passed me back my handbag after I walked through the metal detector and gave one final wave to my parents.
I don't even remember how I got to the gate because I walked in a daze. Part of me welcomed the adventure and part of me wanted to remain rooted in London. The minute I stepped foot on that plane, it'd be the furthest I had ever been away from my parents.
The air hostess greeted me with enthusiasm as I handed her my boarding pass and passport. I was given back a stub which I needed in order to locate my seat. A member of cabin crew pointed to the middle of the plane, showing me where row F seat 10 was located. I put my hand luggage away in the overhead compartment after removing some magazines and a set of earphones I kept from my holiday the previous year, then settled down in the window seat.
It was almost an hour before the plane began to move, positioning itself along the runway. There was a brief pause before the pilot began the announcements. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome on board flight 89B to Detroit. We are currently 2nd in line for take off..." Then a member of cabin crew went through the emergency procedures. "Could all passengers please direct your attention to the monitors above as we review emergency procedures; there are six emergency exits on this air craft....” she began with the hand signals pointing to each exit point.
No sooner had we ascended into the air, the intercom chimed with another announcement from the cockpit. "Good afternoon passengers, this is your Captain speaking. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet at an airspeed of 400 miles per hour. The time is 07:25am........” I zoned off at this point, more interested in the duty free magazine.
The Cabin crew came around with the on flight breakfasts and the hot beverages. They were barely edible, but at that point I was that hungry, I would've eaten a scabby dog. I was looking forward to the cup of tea but once I saw that it resembled dishwater, I immediately changed my mind and opted for a bottle of Tropicana instead.
I wondered how long it would be before I tasted a decent cup of tea again and regretted not having packed any boxes of tea bags into my suitcase. I was an avid Yorkshire tea drinker. And the thought of going cold turkey from my favourite beverage had me breaking out in cold sweats.
After I had re-read each magazine from back to back, I managed to fall asleep for a few hours, jerking awake every now and then as my arm slipped away from supporting my chin. The last time I woke, I had dribble down my chin. Thank goodness the seat next to me remained empty, because I would've never have lived down the humiliation.
The inflight movie burned up some of the time. I was grateful they didn't show a film like ‘Alive’ or 'Final Destination' or something along those lines. It was the new Beauty and the Beast film. It made me wonder if it was at all possible for a beautiful woman to fall in love with such a creature.
I struggled to relate because we all live in an age where looks matter in order to spark an attraction. Although, in the absence of beauty, it is possible to be attracted to someone's personality. Thinking it through, I couldn't see myself spending the rest of my life with someone who was beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside. I had only ever had one serious boyfriend during my time in University. It was a brief relationship that we both struggled to maintain with our hectic schedules. I wasn’t in any hurry to pursue another relationship anytime soon; my research project would make that exceptionally difficult.
Finally, when the Captain announced that we would begin our descent for landing, I breathed out a huge sigh of relief. I wanted nothing more to get up and stretch my legs, desperate to get to my lodgings, grab a shower and to crawl into a soft bed. My neck was stiff from struggling to get comfortable and failing miserably.
I knew I still had hours of driving ahead of me to Forest lake. A professor from the Michigan technical University was meeting me in arrivals to accompany me to the guest house. I would be staying in the small town of Hawcroft: a quiet and friendly town north of Stonevale.
As soon as the landing wheels hit the tarmac, I my posture relaxed. It felt good to finally be back on the ground again.
Once we were able to vacate our seats, I immediately reached for by belongings from the overhead compartment. I wanted to make a run for the baggage conveyer, in the hope that I could beat the stampede of passengers desperate to retrieve their luggage.
I was one of the first to wait in the baggage area and I was also one of the last to retrieve all of my luggage. That was what Mum usually called ‘Sods Law’. She had tied a pink ribbon around each case so that mine would stand out from similar looking cases. I loaded each one onto a trolley and made my way towards the arrivals.
I only had to look around briefly before I spotted a pleasant, yet nerdy looking man, with dark hair, combed to the side, glasses and a tweed suit jacket teamed with an oxford shirt and jeans. He was glancing from left to right while holding up a cardboard plaque with my name scrawled on it. He eventually noticed me waving at him and smiled, “Hi, you must be Isobelle?” He greeted, in a strong New York accent.
“Yes sir,” I replied politely.
“Call me Peter; you’re a real English rose aren’t you. You’re going to need to be careful up on the ridge honey; the boys will be fighting amongst themselves over you,” He chuckled with amusement. I blushed nervously at the compliment, deciding to brush off his clumsy attempt at a friendly welcome. It didn't seem like he was used to talking to girls often and was quick to switch topic onto the weather.
We chatted briefly about how my flight was and whether or not I had been looking forward to spending time in Michigan. Despite the awkwardness at first, he loosened up and actually seemed quite nice. He was nothing in comparison to the stern, stiff upper lipped, professors that I was used to, back in London.
“The guest house where you’ll be staying is right on the outskirts of the forest. We already sent all your equipment there in advance. The young couple who own the guest house are called Helen and Sam Evans; they're a young married couple and have two little kids. They’re lovely people. They’ll take good care of you,” He assured, putting my mind at ease.
“How long is the drive to Hawcroft?” I enquired, hoping that it wasn't all that far.
He pondered for a moment, as if trying to give me a more accurate time. “Three maybe four hours tops, depending if the roads are clear. There’s a lot of travelling through woodland and those roads aren't well lit.”
I sighed heavily as I pulled the trolley over to where a blacked out SUV was waiting out front. Peter helped me load in all my luggage, before opening the passenger side door for me.
“I’ll be driving you. I hope you don’t mind. This will be your car for the duration of your stay. I left mine at the guest house. I'd never have been able to fit all this luggage into my small car. You women don’t exactly travel light do you?” He joked, not having thought about the sensitivity of women and their need for essentials.
“I’m grateful, I really am. I had no idea how I was going to find my way if I’m honest; so thank you, you’re a life saver,” I replied.
Apart from the few thoughtless comments, Peter was a really pleasant person to be stuck in a car with. The conversation kept flowing smoothly and we never ran out of things to talk about. I discovered that he was in his mid thirties, unmarried, has a shorthaired chihuahua called Derik and a ginger tabby cat called Sebastian. He was single and living in his grandmothers old house.
He wasn’t wrong about the drive. It took ages to reach the guest house. It was late into the night by the time we got there. I had to remember that the people who owned it had two small kids, so I kept my voice down to a whisper when greeting them.
They were a young couple in their late 20′s. The woman who was called Helen, was incredibly pretty. Her tanned skin was flawless and her long blonde hair reached her arse. The summer dress she wore clung to her voluptuous figure like a second skin. She was the type of woman that would make you question your own self confidence. Her husband Sam, was around six foot five, burly and looked as if he could model sportswear. I didn't need x-ray vision as his well defined muscles strained beneath his tight V-neck T-shirt. I thought to myself, surely there must be something in the water if the people are this good looking around here?
Peter and Sam carried all my luggage to the room I was staying in, whilst Helen took me around to show me where all the amenities were.
“I hope you like your stay here at Forest Lake. If there’s anything you need just let me know,” Helen offered kindly.
“Thank you. I’m going to take a look round the town tomorrow to get a feel for the place first. Maybe talk to some of the locals, meet some people, settle in.” I replied.
“You want some company? I was going to take the kids out for a few hours tomorrow anyway?” Helen suggested.
“That would be great, but only if its not too much trouble,” I replied, not wanting to be a burden.
She gave me a look that said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ before responding in a hushed tone, “It’s Sam’s birthday this weekend, and the kids want to get him something special, so trust me honey it's no bother at all.”
I mouthed oh, “I’ll tag along then,” I said thankfully, “What time should I be ready for?”
“Oh say, 9.30, after we sit down to breakfast. The kids usually have me up around 6am. They run into our room and bounce on the bed; they’re natural alarm clocks,” She said with a chuckle.
“Well in that case, I’ll let you get some rest. I know I’ll crash once my head touches the pillow,” I replied, struggling to contain a yawn.
Helen showed me to my room before saying goodnight. The room I had been given was a sight to behold. It was filled with the most beautiful hand crafted oak furniture, that Sam’s father had made. Helen told me that Sam and his father built this guest house and most of the cabins around the area. His dad builds furniture as a hobby, but builds cabins for a living.
The bed was crafted from the same materials. All the soft furnishings matched: cream cotton with a country rose pattern. I sat on the edge of the bed, peeling away my clothes and pulling on a pair of pyjamas before exhaustion rendered me completely unconscious. I managed to send a quick text to my parents, and to Joanne, just to let them know that I arrived here safely, before sleep fully consumed me. My eyelids were heavy and each time I yawned, my eyes watered with fatigue.
During the night, I woke up to the most unpleasant eerie sound of howling. Drunk on sleep, I rubbed my eyes and reached over to the bedside unit to find my phone. After the screen illuminated the darkened room in bright blue glow, my eyes adjusted enough to read the time. It was 4:00AM. I’d only been asleep just under 2 hours. The sound grew louder and I groaned in annoyance. On clumsy feet, I stumbled out of bed to where the window. The curtains were swaying gently which confused me; when I went to sleep the window was closed, I didn't recall having opened it. My fingers gripped the wooden frame in the attempt to slide it shut. It was at that precise moment that I heard a combination of howls, like a pack of wolves were standing beneath my window.
I closed the window and secured the latch, pulling the curtains closed before shuffling back to bed. At least I knew my research was going to prove a success, I thought. Especially if there was a pack of wolves living beyond Helen and Sam's back garden.
The howling continued relentlessly for at least another hour. I had to resort to plugging my headphones into my phone and listening to my playlist in order to drown out the noise. Eventually, some while later, I drifted off to sleep.