I am sitting at the kitchen island, working on homework, when my dad walks in, looking tired as ever.
“New neighbors?” he asks as he shrugs his jacket off his shoulders.
“Yeah,” I reply, lifting my eyes to face him. “Did you meet them?”
“No. I just saw the moving truck in the yard.” He pauses. “Why? Did you?”
I offer a tentative nod as he steps deeper into the kitchen. “Yeah. I did. Well, one of them, at least. It was rather dramatic.”
“Tell me more,” my dad says.
I laugh and relay the story to him in a casual manner—conveniently leaving out the fact that Jackson is, in fact, one of the most gorgeous guys I’ve ever seen.
“What’s with the painkillers?” he asks.
“Oh,” I say. “Those.” I nudge them out of the way with my pencil. “I fell.”
“Oaklynn,” he says, and sighs. “Are you sure you don’t need to see a doctor?”
“I’m just sore, Dad. It’s not like I broke anything.”
“You never know. Your tailbone’s right there, you know?”
“I know,” I say. “But really—I’m fine. I feel better already.”
“All right.” He considers the homework spread out before me and nods his approval. “I take it you’re studying for the big biology test?”
“Uh huh,” I say, running down the list of topics and shuffling my flash cards so I can consult them within the next few minutes. “Dad?”
“Can I… talk to you about something?”
“You know you talk to me about anything,” my father replies.
“Well… it’s more like ask you about something,” I say. “Or… warn you, more like.”
He raises an eyebrow.
I sigh, and set the pencil on the table before saying, “Easton Wells got sent to the principal’s office today.”
“Oh?” my father asks in as casual a manner as possible. “What does that have to do with me?”
“It happened when I was giving my speech.”
“On the wolves,” my father sighs, and frowns. “That’s right. I remembered you saying you were working on a paper.”
“I just wanted to warn you. In case Mr. Wells… well…”
“I understand,” my father replies. “You don’t need to worry about it, Oaklynn. What happens at my job stays at my job. And besides—“ He smiles. “If Mr. Wells brings anything up, I can just say I know nothing about it. Right?”
“Right,” I say, though find myself regretting my statement almost immediately.
My father turns to regard the moving truck across the street, then braces his hands along the edge of the counter before leaning forward. “I didn’t think anyone would ever buy that old house.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Well… for one… it’s in nearly as bad a shape as this one is.”
“The house is fine,” I say.
“And for two,” my father says, continuing onward as if I haven’t just complimented he and mom’s carpentry skills, “the original owners refused to sell it to just anyone, especially the city.”
“Do you know why?”
“Something about protecting family tradition. Whatever that means.”
Family tradition, I think, and frown.
My father turns to face me after a moment and says, “Ah well. It’s good we have new neighbors, and not, you know, a livestock farm across the road.”
I scrunch my face up in disgust. I don’t necessarily mind pigs and cattle and sheep and goats, but I don’t necessarily want to smell them.
My dad laughs as he turns to the fridge and says, “We got the better end of the bargain, if you ask me. Hopefully these guys aren’t the nosy types.”
“I’m sure they aren’t,” I offer, thinking back to my encounter with them. “Jackson seemed nice enough.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” My father turns his head as a pair of headlights pull into the driveway. “That’d be your mom.”
A short moment later, my mother comes sauntering into the house, carrying a bag of what smells like fried chicken under her arm. “You’re telling me someone actually bought that house?” she asks.
“It appears so,” my father replies.
“Oh, thank God.” She deposits the bag of food on the counter. “I was afraid we’d end up with a pig farm across the road.”
My dad snorts.
My mother asks, “What?”
“We were just talking about that,” I explain. “I said the same thing.”
“Oh.” She looks down the island at the painkillers and says, “Don’t tell me you fell again?”
“Afraid so,” I offer, and finish scribbling the last of today’s notes down before sliding everything back into my biology notebook. “Sorry, Mom.”
“Oaklynn Elizabeth Smith. I swear to God. You’d trip over air if it got in your way.”
“I think that’s what happened,” I reply.
“Sure it was,” she says. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the new neighbors, would it?”
“No!” I say, a little too defensively. “I mean, I—no, it—“
My mother laughs and says, “I’m just giving you a hard time, Oak.”
“Thanks Mom,” I reply, a bit morosely at that. If anyone would pick up on my crush, it’d be her.
She laughs once more before saying, “Okay, guys. Eat up. I made sure to get all the fixings.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I say as my dad passes me a plate.
“Yeah,” my father replies. “Thank you, dear.”
“It’s as much for your benefit as it is mine,” my mother says. “You wouldn’t catch me cooking after the day I had.”
“Something happen?” I ask as I begin to serve myself food.
“Nothing for you to worry about, dear.”
Though I try my hardest to hide my emotions, I can’t help but frown.
Mom is normally such an open book.
If something happened, and she’s not willing to tell me…
It means that it might have had something to do with me.
I can only hope that Missus Wells didn’t catch word of what happened with her son. Because otherwise…
One of the most powerful women in the town could take it out on my mom.
It’s hard not to dwell on the happenings of your day when the world is silent and the lights are off. Lying in bed with my thoughts in the gutter and my heart on my sleeve, I try desperately to shake the innate paranoia that I was in part responsible for mother’s hard day, but find myself doing just that.
It wasn’t your fault, I keep telling myself. You didn’t make Easton Wells say anything.
It could, however, be said that I dangled the metaphorical line before him—that I caught him, hook, line and sink, and forced his reply. It’s the literal equivalent of poking the sleeping bear, albeit with a more dangerous predator at the end of the stick.
Sighing, I roll over to look out the window, only to come face-to-face with the woods that I’d so casually seen the creature within.
The wolf, I think.
If it even was a wolf. For all I know, it could’ve been a dog that looked like a wolf—a half-breed mutt who’d been let loose from someone’s yard. At the same time, though, it doesn’t seem like that would be the case, because unless the owner was completely careless, the city ordinances against loose dogs are so strict that people are afraid of them getting shot by farmers.
Still, if that’s not the case, that leaves only one possibility.
There are no wolves in Texas, I think. You gotta get that through your thick skull right now.
Fixating on this will only get me in trouble. I’m so close to finishing up my senior year with not only flying colors, but the potential to spread my wings. If I screw up now, it’ll only bring about my downfall.
Sighing, I close my eyes.
Only to immediately be met by Jackson’s face.
He’d seemed so nice, so thoughtful, so utterly caring when he could’ve simply ignored me and continued with his unpacking. He didn’t have to stop and see if I was all right, let alone talk to me after the fact.
He did say he’d see you around, I remind myself.
But what did that mean, in the grand scheme of things? That he would come over? That we would hang out?
I tuck myself deeper beneath the covers—and try, with little success, to push myself into sleep.
Eventually, I begin to feel myself drifting.
Like a boat amidst gentle waves.
I’m just about to fall asleep when I hear growling at the window.
“Belle?” I ask, cracking my eyes open to slits. “What’s wrong? Why are you growling?”
The little black cat growls again, but this time arches her back and hisses.
Sitting up, I lift my hand to rub my eyes, then ask, “Belle?”
The cat growls once more.
I lean forward.
Look out the window.
See at first what I think is a dog.
In the darkness, it’s hard to determine its figure. But the closer it comes to the window, the easier it is to see.
I swallow the lump in my throat as Belle growls and slashes at the window.
No, I think.
I can’t be seeing this. Surely this is just a dream. Right?
But no. It isn’t. I realize this as the creature outside presses its snout against the window and fogs up the glass with its breath.
Slams herself into the window.
Causes the pane to vibrate.
The wolf turns and takes off into the woods just in time for my bedroom door to open. “What’s going on?” my mother asks, squinting in an effort to make sense of the darkened room. “Why is Belle growling?”
“She… she saw…”
“What?” My mother frowns.
“Something out the window,” I say, turning my head to look at the woods. “Surely you see—“
But she doesn’t.
The fog from the windowpane is gone, as is the creature who was once there.
Sighing, my mother strides forward, takes hold of the little black cat, and sets her on the bed before reaching up to draw the curtains across the windows. “You know I don’t like you leaving these open at night,” she says.
“Belle messes with them,” I offer, still struggling to make sense of what just happened.
My mother merely shakes her head, then leans down and runs a hand through my hair. “Goodnight, Oaklynn.”
“Goodnight,” I reply.
The moment my mother closes the door, I’m out of the bed and at the window, tearing the curtains aside and peering out at the world beyond my room.
Though I can see nothing but darkness, I know more than well what I saw.
There’s no denying it now.
The red wolves of East Texas are back.