I dream of wolves running across the countryside. Yipping, barking, howling, growling—they run across the meadows that are filled with wildflowers as if they are little more than pups, and bound through the high grasses that cover the landscape.
By the time I awaken the following morning, I am filled with both dread and relief.
They’re back is the first thought that crosses my mind.
But what, I wonder, will happen now?
As I lie here, slowly but surely taking in this information, I tilt my head up to find that Belle is sleeping at my feet, content to inhale and then exhale as she dreams of things that only cats dream.
Thoughts of last night immediately bombard my conscience.
The wolf, approaching—
My heart, hammering—
I’d seen with my own two eyes the creature press its snout to the glass, then watched as it breathed upon the panes as if it were a beast of magic and mayhem. Belle’s yowl had nearly scared me out of my skin, and though I’d seen the wolf run, I’d not witnessed where exactly it had gone.
Please, I think, let it have gone back to the woods. Let it not have run across the road, or into town.
Surely the wolf wouldn’t have been that foolish. Right?
Right, I conclude.
I push myself upright and consider the window to my side for a moment—looking first at the blinds, which I’d left drawn back, then out the glass itself, at the forest that lies in the distance—before sliding my legs out from under the covers and placing my feet on the floor.
It doesn’t take long for me to assume my morning ritual afterward.
Given that it’s a Saturday, I don’t have to worry about rushing to make my way through the shower, nor do I have to speed through my makeup routine in order to make myself look presentable. Rather, I take my time—not for the sake of others, but for myself.
By the time I have dressed, I feel refreshed and ready to take on the world.
“Well,” I say, turning my eyes on Belle. “Shall we go get breakfast?”
The cat stretches, arches her back, then leads me out of the room and toward the kitchen.
It isn’t long after I step onto the hardwood flooring that I realize my previous fears may have manifested themselves.
Had to run into the shop, my mother’s handwriting says on a note pasted to the refrigerator. Your Dad and I will be back later.
“The shop?” I ask out loud.
Why would they have had to go in on a Saturday? They’re usually both off own weekends.
Had something really happened at the store last night? Had Mister—or even Missus—Wells gone and complained about Easton’s punishment to my mother?
I am unable to control the sigh that follows.
Figures, I think, that something I did would mess everything up.
I know I shouldn’t blame myself; and yet, I find myself beating the metaphorical hammer down upon my head, driving myself even further into the depths of self-loathing.
If Easton did tell his parents that I got him sent to the principal’s office—even if it wasn’t true—it’s likely that my parents would have heard about it.
Bastard, I think, and sigh.
I have just opened the fridge and am just about to begin pulling objects out to cook when I see movement appear out the corner of my eye.
I turn. Look. Stare.
The new guy, Jackson, is back at work unloading boxes from the moving truck. And worst yet: he’s wearing a tank top that makes him resemble an Olympian God.
Oh, God, I think. Have mercy on me.
Rather than act like a normal person and not stare, I find myself doing just that—watching how, in quick succession, he climbs up the ramp, then walks into the truck before crouching down to lift a box into his muscular arms. The whole process is like a work of art; and I, the awestruck patron, am left only to stare.
He has just turned and is about to step down the stairs when he lifts his eyes to the window and smiles.
I instantly pale.
Did he see me? Did he think I was staring?
No, I think. He couldn’t have. He didn’t know I was here. He doesn’t know how long I’ve been watching.
Still—being caught in the act is nothing short of humiliating. My sole response is to lift a hand and wave in admission.
He nods, smiles, then descends the ramp before disappearing around the truck.
I swear and nearly step on Belle in the process.
“Sorry!” I say.
The cat grumbles and saunters off, leaving me to bask in my humiliation over being caught staring at the new, very attractive guy next door.
It isn’t long afterward that I find myself turning back to the fridge so I can cook.
I can barely keep my eyes on my eggs. Between thoughts of the wolves, the new guy next door, and what might be happening with Mom and Dad, I find that I have to force myself to eat.
You can’t control what you can’t control, my maternal grandmother used to say. So let nature run its course.
Normally, this would have been excellent advice—because in the grand scheme of things, a person really can’t control anyone else, regardless of how much they want to. However, in times when it seems like the whole world is against you, it’s not easy to simply let things run their course, or however my grandmother used to say it.
A sigh escapes my lips, taunting me in all its earnest.
I’m just about to lift my eyes to look out the window when I hear, then see the moving truck disappearing down the road.
They’re done? I think.
How could they be? They’d just arrived last night, and from what I saw, Jackson had been the only one who’d been unloading the truck.
Frowning, I finish shoving the last of my scrambled eggs into my mouth, then rise and make my way to the sink.
A knock comes at the door shortly thereafter.
“Coming!” I call, struggling to swallow my food and wash my hands at the same time.
In moments, I approach the door and look out the peephole—
Only to find that Jackson is standing directly outside it.
A moment of hesitation strikes me. A flutter of unease beads within my stomach.
Remain calm, I think. Don’t do anything stupid.
Me? Stupid? That’s a hoot.
With a shake of my head, I reach up, unlock, then open the door.
Jackson stands outside—hands in his pockets, eyes set to the ground. He lifts them as the door creaks open, and offers a short nod and smile as I come into view. “Hi, Oaklynn,” he says.
“Hi,” I reply. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah. Everything’s fine. Why?”
“I thought I saw the moving truck leave,” I say, then peer past him, only to find that the big yellow truck is no longer there. “Oh. It is.”
“Yeah. My dad decided to take it into town before he got charged for another day.”
“You want to come out?”
It takes a moment for me to slide my shoes on, but within moments, I am stepping into the crisp autumn air, and closing the door behind me.
“I hope I’m not keeping you from anything,” he says.
“No,” I reply. “You’re not.”
“Okay. Good.” He exhales and casts his gaze across the road. “Nothing in the house is set up yet. No internet. No power.”
“No power?” I ask.
“Yeah. Dad’s doing that today.”
“Oh. I… see.”
“Yeah. Thankfully the water’s on, so we both got to shower after we came in last night.”
“Where’d you come from?” I say. “If I can ask, anyway?”
“We moved here from Fredericksburg.”
“Wow. That’s quite a drive.”
“Yeah. It was. But we made it.”
I lean against the railing to consider the home across from us and ask, “So, is it just you and your dad? Or is your mom here with you too?”
“Mom… isn’t with us anymore,” he replies, then frowns.
“Oh. I’m… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s okay. She passed away shortly after I was born, so… I didn’t really get a chance to know her. I guess that takes the sting out of it some.”
“Yeah. I guess it would.”
We remain silent for several long moments, during which time we listen to the sound of the wind, of the birds as they chirp in the trees. Distantly, I can make out clouds as they roll across the horizon, threatening to bring with them the rain that was forecast in the previous night’s news. It makes sense that rain would come with such dreary news, especially due to information that wouldn’t have been offered otherwise.
Nosy, nosy, nosy, I think.
When it comes time for Jackson to finally respond, it’s to ask, “So… have you lived here in Red Wolf your whole life?”
“I have,” I reply, turning my head to look at him. His pensive gaze is still set on the home across the street. “What made you and your dad move here?”
“Dad used to live here, before I was born. He said he loved everything about it—from the farmlands, the woods, to everything in-between. He… he left after Mom’s accident. He couldn’t bear to live here, he said, because there were too many memories. So, when he was sure that he could properly take care of me on his own, he packed up everything and moved us to Fredericksburg.”
“And you’re back because this house became available?”
“Grandma Meadows called us back into town,” Jackson says. “She said that there was work to be done, tradition that needed to be upheld. So… that’s why we’re back.”
“That’s great that your grandmother could bring you all back together,” I say.
“Yeah. I guess.”
Judging by the look on his face, it seems as though he would rather not be here, all things considering.
I decide to divert the discussion in a more neutral direction. “What about you?” I ask. “What are your plans now that you’re here?”
“I’m going to enroll in the community college next fall.”
“Oh,” I say. “I see.” I pause. “How old are you?”
“I was just curious.”
“I guess I would be, too, if I were the new kid in town.” He smiles, then asks, “Hey. Do you go to Red Wolf High?”
“Really?” I ask, a little too enthusiastically for my own good.
I lift my eyes as the sound of an approaching car comes up the drive. “That’d be my parents,” I say.
“I should go,” Jackson says. “I have a few things I need to unpack at the house.”
“See you at school?” I ask as he makes his way down the stairs and crosses the street.
He spins to face me and says, “See you at school” before turning and making his way across the road.
My mother’s blue minivan turns into the driveway not long after Jackson crosses the road. A short moment later, both of my parents step out of the vehicle and come walking up the drive.
“Hi, honey,” my mother says, adjusting a wilting pot of flowers in her arm. “Was that the new boy from across the street?”
“It was,” I reply, and watch Jackson offer my father a brief wave before disappearing into the house. “Is everything all right?” I then ask.
“Everything’s fine. Why?”
“I just thought that… well… after what you mentioned last night…”
“Oh.” My mother laughs. “Don’t worry about that, dear. It was just Missus Wells giving me a hard time, that’s all.”
“About Easton?” I ask.
My mother shakes her head. “That boy. I swear. If it isn’t one thing with him, it’s another. She claims it was targeted harassment—because lord only knows you like wolves because he and his father hate them—but I assured her that you couldn’t have known you were going to be called on, and were just following your heart.” She frowns, sighs, and then says, “I just wish he’d give the whole wolf thing a rest.”
“Speaking of wolves,” my father adds as he turns his head to face me, “did you hear that one was spotted nearby?”
I turn my head to face him, shock taking over my senses, and ask, “What?”
“It was old Mister Johnson up the road. He was drunk off his gourd, but there he was, sitting on his porch, yelling for people to watch out for the wolves!”
“What makes you think he saw one?” I ask as a flicker of unease creeps up my spine.
“Your father stopped to ask about it,” my mother replies, annoyed. “That’s how we found out.”
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in it,” my father says, patting my shoulder. “I know you love wolves, Oak, but it’s probably best for everyone that they’re gone.”
“Yeah,” I mumble as my parents walk into the house. “I guess so.”
As the door closes behind them, I turn my head back to the house across the road—and wonder, deep down, just what could have brought Jackson and his father back to the town of Red Wolf.
He’d said that there was work to be done.
Just what kind of work was it?
“Have you heard the news?” I ask J’vonte as we video chat later that afternoon.
“Which news?” my friend asks.
“Which news?” I reply. “That the new guy is going to our school?”
“Yeah.” I collapse onto my bed, then roll onto my stomach. I prop the phone up on the pillows to offer J’vonte the perfect look at me. “He said he hadn’t finished high school yet, so… he transferred over to Red Wolf High.”
“You said he was good-looking,” my friend offers.
“I said: he was something.”
“Something. Sure.” My friend rolls her eyes. “That’s great, Oak. Now, did you want to hear what I was talking about, or not?”
“Oh, the wolf thing? Yeah. I’ve heard.”
“And? What do you think of it?”
“I think that people are…” I pause, then, to consider what I’m about to say. Should I tell her that I’ve already seen a wolf? And that it approached my window?
Better not, I think. She’ll think you’re a wackjob.
“Oak?” my friend asks. “Earth to Oaklynn: come in, please.”
“I’m here,” I say, and sigh a short moment later. “Honestly? I’m not sure what to think of it.”
“Aren’t you even a little bit excited?”
“Excited? Not the word I’d use to describe me. Thrilled is what I’d say.”
“But… you have some reservations.”
“Naturally,” I say. “I mean, there’s more than enough prey in the area for them, so it’s not like they have anything to worry about in terms of getting food. On the other hand, hunting season is about to come up, and, well… I’m just scared that they’ll be made targets.”
“By anyone,” I say. “Especially…” I lower my voice. “Paxton Wells.”
“You act like saying his name three times in a mirror will summon him.”
“It’s four times, actually; and yes, it seems like it.”
“Speaking of the Wells family—whatever happened with your mom? You mentioned that something was wrong.”
I reach forward to lower the volume on my phone—hoping, at the same time, that my mother isn’t nearby, and that she is not privy to the conversation I am having about her. “Missus Wells went into the flower shop,” I say.
“And complained about Easton being sent to the principal’s office.”
“Dumbass like him should have a desk there,” J’vonte says, and blows her bubble gum before popping and returning it to her mouth.
Sighing, I run a hand through my hair, then turn my head to the window as I consider the reality that I am still not sure what Easton Wells might have planned. He’s not exactly popular, but he is on the football team.
“Something up?” J’vonte asks.
“I just want everything to be okay,” I say.
“How couldn’t it? You have the new guy at your fingertips—“
“At arm’s length,” I interrupt.
“—and that already puts you at an advantage over the other girls. The wolves are apparently back, and we’re set to graduate next year. Aren’t you even a little bit excited about getting out of Red Wolf?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, and frown. “J’von… have you ever felt like you had a bigger purpose in life?”
“Yeah. That’s why I want to get out of Red Wolf.”
“I mean… a purpose purpose. Something you were meant to do to help change the world… or, at the very least: your community.”
“What’re you getting at?”
“What I mean is—“
A knock comes at my door, cutting me off before I can finish. “Oaklynn!” my father calls in. “Dishes!”
“I’ll do them in a second!” I call back.
“I gotta go,” I say, tapping on the screen and lowering my finger until it hovers over the End Call button. “Talk to you Monday?”
“If not before then,” she says, and winks at me.
I terminate the call before she can say anything potentially embarrassing.
Outside my room, I find my dad considering his smartphone. “Ah. There you are. Sorry to disturb your call, but they need to be done.”
“I know,” I say, and proceed to follow him into the kitchen.
At the sink, I don a pair of rubber gloves to stave off the evil soapsuds that threaten to burn my hands, then run the water and wait until it heats up. “Dad?” I ask.
“Yeah?” he replies.
“Is everything all right with the shop?”
“The flower shop is fine,” my father says. “Why do you ask?”
“I just… worry that I might have caused trouble.”
“Oaklynn, hon, you didn’t cause any trouble. Just because Easton Wells has it out for you doesn’t mean your mother and I are suffering in any way, shape or form.”
“I just worry that he’s feeding them bull—“
“—stuff,” I finish, scrubbing the first of many dishes with the scrubber.
My father comes to stand beside me and peers out the window that looks out at the neighbor’s house. “We all know that bullies feed into false narratives,” he says. “It’s what gives them a sense of validation and self-worth. It’s a trait of the narcissistic.”
“I don’t know if Easton Wells is narcissistic,” I reply. “Wouldn’t that mean he’d have to care about only himself?”
“Who do you think he cares about? You?”
I blink, then say, “Uh… yeah. I… I guess so.”
“Maybe he’s got a crush,” he says, to which I respond by grimacing and shaking my head. “You know that old adage: boys will be boys.”
“That’s stupid and everyone knows it,” I reply.
“Maybe so, but Easton Wells might like you and he’s trying to get your attention by being mean to you.”
“I doubt he likes me. And even if he does: that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“You learn a lot in psychology class.”
“I can imagine,” I say, glancing out the window to look at the house across from us.
“Although if I do say,” my father says, setting his hands upon my shoulders, “I think someone has a crush on the new neighbors.”
I drop a pan and promptly soak myself with soapy water. “Dad!”
“Just callin’ em as I sees ’em, dear.”
“Well, callin’ em as you sees ’em doesn’t work here, Dad. I do not like the new guy.”
“Whatever you say,” he replies, then walks off chuckling under his breath.
Oh God, I think, horror striking my body, my heart, my mind. Was I really that obvious?
If so: I can only begin to imagine what Jackson must have thought.
As revulsion over my own pitfalls overwhelm me, I struggle not to kick myself—mentally and physically—over being so awkward and dumb.
It’ll be fine, I think. What’s the worst that could happen?
I can only begin to imagine it.