“There are no wolves in Texas.”
I state this plainly to my fellow classmates as I stand at the front of Mrs. Ledger’s classroom, gripping tightly the edges of the podium as I attempt to fight off the swell of anxiety that threatens to overwhelm me.
“Twenty years ago,” I say, “in the early 2010s, the last of the great wolf population was decimated by a combination of many things—poaching, human expansion, and climate change being three of them. Since then, not a single red wolf has been seen in East Texas.”
“Boring,” a fellow classmate, and general annoyance named Easton Wells, says.
“Mr. Wells,” Mrs. Ledger says, narrowing her eyes like daggers across the room. “To the principal’s office! Now!”
I try to keep my nerves from flustering me even further as the young man makes his way from his desk and toward the classroom’s exit, but find my panic surging even further as he turns and glares at me. It’s no secret that Easton’s father, Paxton, owns the Wells Hunting and Fishing Supplies store, and is thought to be responsible for killing the last red wolf known to exist in the state. He claimed it was because it was encroaching on his land. But I know better. I know that Paxton Wells killed the wolf because he wanted it as a trophy.
The thought, enraging to me as it happens to be, emboldens me to continue my presentation to the rest of the class, who stare at me with wide eyes and mouths agape.
“In conclusion,” I say, turning my eyes on Mrs. Ledger, who merely nods and gestures me to continue with a wave of her hand, “wildlife specialists and conservationists are doing their best to maintain the wolf population in our zoos and sanctuaries, where they are currently thriving as best as they can.
The class claps as Mrs. Ledger puts her hands together. “Well,” she says, leaning forward to examine first me, then the class around me. “Thank you, Miss Smith, for that wonderful, if somewhat saddening, presentation.
“Now then,” she continues, “you all know the drill. Finals are on the last Tuesday of the month, so be sure to study.”
“Yes, Mrs. Ledger,” the class says as I make my way back to my desk.
“Dismissed,” she says, just as the bell to head home begins to ring.
“How does she do that?” my best friend, J’vonte, asks as I gather my binder and follow her into the hall. “It’s like she has a sixth sense or something.”
“I think you’d need it to be a teacher,” I offer.
J’vonte shrugs and leads us through the many winding halls of Red Wolf High, careful to avoid the line of students making their way to and from lockers and out of the school. Fortunately for us, our lockers are positioned directly near the school’s exit. Unfortunately, it’s directly near the front office—which is also where the principal’s office is housed.
I try to avert my eyes from the massive panorama of glass windows that look into the front office—hoping, to whatever kind angels might be listening, that I won’t catch a glimpse of Easton Wells as he waits for his punishment to be doled out to him.
“What are you looking for?” J’vonte asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “I just don’t want to see—“
My eyes center on Easton Wells.
Crap, I think.
Though the young man offers me his usual petulant glare, it’s what he mouths to me that leaves me questioning myself.
What did he say? I think.
I’ve never been good at reading lips, which could either be a good or a bad thing, depending on the situation. Today, it leaves me reeling with dread.
“Just ignore him,” J’vonte says, guiding me toward our lockers. “He’s just a little weasel anyway.”
“A little weasel whose dad could ruin my dad’s life,” I offer.
J’vonte frowns as she dials her combination before opening her locker and considering her reflection in the mirror hanging inside of it. I have always been envious of her dark complexion, rich as a sunset and smooth like silk. I could only dream of being as pretty as her.
“Something wrong?” J’vonte asks.
“No,” I reply, shaking my head before opening my own locker. “Just… thinking.”
“About what? The wolves?”
“No. I mean, I—”
“I know it upsets you, Oaklynn. That’s why I was surprised you did your report on them.”
“I had to do it on something,” I offer.
“But the wolves?” J’vonte shakes her head. “You wouldn’t catch me walking that tightrope, especially not with… you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
I do know. More than well, in fact. And now that I may have screwed up simply by existing, I can’t help but wonder what might come next.
Sighing, I finish depositing and withdrawing my belongings within my locker, then turn to J’vonte and say, “Ready?”
We cut through the crowd and step out the front doors and into the breezy autumn air, which tousles my blonde hair and makes waves through J’vonte’s curls. My friend immediately dons her hood. I, however, am content to let the breeze waft over me as we make our way across the lawn and toward the pickup lane.
“So,” my best friend says. “I take it your mom is picking you up?”
“No,” I reply.
“What?” I ask, jarring to a halt as J’vonte stops moving.
“You know how I feel about you walking on that dirt road,” my friend offers.
“Both of my parents are at work,” I say. “And besides—it’s not like anything’s ever happened on that road.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Oaklynn. I mean, come on. Have you ever heard of hitchhikers? Or serial killers? Or someone’s dogs?”
“Dogs like me,” I say, hoping to disarm the mood with an innocent smile.
“Sure they do. Especially when they’re rabid.” My friend frowns as she turns to consider the cars pulling up alongside the curb, then sighs a short moment later. “I’m sorry, but… I just don’t like it that you have to walk home.”
“I know you don’t. But like I said: I’ll be fine. I’ve walked that road a dozen times. It’s not like another’s going to be any different.”
“I know.” She turns to regard the bus. “I just wish the bus ran down the old road.”
“Yeah. I do too.”
“I guess I should go,” my friend says. “See you tomorrow?”
“See you tomorrow,” I reply, and offer her a brief wave before turning to make my way down the road.
The sound of the school buses revving their engines and the cars driving off quickly fades as I head east—toward where the urban landscape of the small farming town begins to taper out and the fields rise in their stead.
As I walk, slowly but surely advancing toward the dirt road that will eventually lead to my home, I consider the old barbwire fence that rises to my right, then the horses that graze in the fields beside of it. The whole while I wonder if I will get my father in trouble at his place of employment at Wells Hunting and Fishing.
You’re overreacting, I think, taking a deep breath before expelling it. Easton got himself in trouble. It’s not like you can get blamed for that.
Maybe not. But, at the same time, it doesn’t paint me in a very fine light, especially when it was my presentation he decided to speak out at.
“It could’ve been anyone’s,” I mumble.
No, I think. It couldn’t have. I was the one who decided to do my presentation on the wolves, regardless of the fact that Easton was in my class, and knowing that I might have been called upon.
It won’t be me who suffers if anything happens. It’ll be Dad.
I shake my head in an effort to dispel my father’s fragile working life from my mind and step onto the dirt road.
Here—beyond the city limits, and in a place where few cars willingly travel—the grass seems greener, the air purer, the world sounder. I hear birds chirping in the trees, squirrels playing in the underbrush, bugs as they cavort in the slowly-cooling air of East Texas. It’s late in the year, but still warm, and will probably remain that way until October or November, maybe even December, if the weather decides to act as it should. It’s been erratic for the past five years, leaving climatologists to believe that the southern United States is finally beginning to succumb to climate change.
I trudge onward—passing by the old horse ranch, then alongside the grassy hills that frame the old town of Red Wolf. Distantly, I can make out trees, which are part of the old growth of the national forest that runs alongside the highway; and while standing there, staring out at them, I wonder if the wolves I spoke about will ever run these lands again.
Then the reality hits.
If wolves were ever reintroduced here, they’d likely just fall victim to the same poachers and permits that caused them to go extinct in the wild in the first place.
I am just about to reach for my earbuds and smartphone so I can play some music when something moves out my peripheral.
I turn, expecting to see a dog scampering through the trees that line the edge of the ranch. Instead, I see nothing but brush moving.
What was that? I think.
Could it have been a fox, maybe? Or a cat?
No, I muse. It was too big. Too noticeable.
Neither would’ve caught my eye like a dog would have.
If it was a dog.
What else would it have been? I think. A wolf?
I laugh, and pull my smartphone and earbuds from my pocket.
I’m just about to start forward again when the same movement appears out my peripheral.
I spin, ready to face the dog in the underbrush.
That’s when I see it.
The stark red fur. The tawny complexion. The proud yet noble face.
It’s there only for a moment. After that, it darts into the underbrush and disappears from sight.
My heart skips as I consider what just happened.
No, I think. It couldn’t be.
But it was.
As I stand here, dumbfounded as can be, I find myself reminiscing on what I said no more than a half-hour beforehand.
I used to think there were no wolves in Texas.
Now I know I’m wrong.