“You sure you’re okay?” J’vonte asks.
“I’m fine,” I reply, grimacing as I towel my face off in the locker room. “I’m just a little sore.”
“And bruising,” my friend adds, twisting her locker open to reveal the mirror within. “Look.”
I really don’t want to. And yet, like the scene of a crime, or a police car with its lights on as it drives by, I look anyway—and see, quite clearly, the beat-red outline where the ball hit my cheek, the flowering bruise along my jaw. It’s all I can do to keep from reaching up and touching it.
“Dad’s gonna be pissed,” I say, grimacing as I speak.
“It’s not like he can do much about it,” J’vonte replies with a sigh. “Ashley Jones claimed it was ‘just an accident.’”
“You really think it was ‘just an accident?’” I enunciate my words with air quotes. “If you ask me,” I continue, “I think Easton had something to do with it.”
“Why do you think that?”
“You couldn’t see him with all the people gathered about, but I could. I had the perfect look at his face while I was lying there. He looked pissed.”
“Is he still going on about the wolf thing?” J’vonte asks.
“It would seem so,” I say. “Honestly… I think he put the cheerleaders up to this.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Duh, J’vonte. It would’ve been too obvious if he’d done it myself.”
“Oh.” She closes her locker. “I guess you’re right.”
“No kidding,” I say.
I turn my head, cycling my gaze across the room in an effort to see if any of the cheerleaders might’ve tried to stay and spy on us. When I see that none have, I nod, say, “Let’s go,” then start toward the doors.
I push them open.
Nearly run head-first into Jackson.
“Hey,” he says, just in time to prevent me from running into him.
“Hey,” I reply, grimacing as I jar to a halt.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Like crap,” I say. “Do I look it?”
“You look… well…” He trails off as J’vaunt exits the locker room.
“Like shit,” my friend offers.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jackson says.
“I would,” J’vonte replies. “Ashley Jones throws a mean dodgeball.”
“Especially when she’s been told to throw it,” I conclude.
“You’ll have to catch me up on this,” Jackson says.
“Let’s wait until we’re a little ways from the school first. I don’t want anyone overhearing.”
“Yeah,” J’vonte replies. “No kidding.”
Jackson offers a nod of agreement, and allows me to lead us out of the gymnasium and through the halls.
When we finally step outside the school, and begin to make our way toward the pickup lane where the school buses are waiting to depart, J’vonte turns to me and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” I reply, and nod. “See ya.”
“It was nice meeting you, Jackson.”
“Same,” the young man replies.
We wait until J’vonte boards the bus, then wave goodbye to her.
It isn’t long after that the two of us begin making our way down the old farm road.
“So,” Jackson says, when it appears he has deemed us far enough away. “You want to catch me up on what’s going on with this guy named Easton?”
“It’s a long story,” I reply.
“We have a fifteen-minute walk,” he offers. “Is it gonna take that long?”
“It might,” I say.
Jackson rolls his shoulders, shifting his pack from one side of his back to the other, and says, “That’s fine. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to tell.”
“That’s the thing,” I offer. “It’s not like there’s a whole lot to tell.”
I nod, and sigh, and say, “Easton Wells hasn’t liked me since I started taking an interest in the wolves that used to exist in the area.”
“Used to?” he asks.
I nod. “Yeah. Used to.”
Jackson blinks, and waits for me to continue further.
Sighing, I run a hand through my thick blonde hair, then lift my eyes to the woods to our right and say, “Before climate change started affecting their habitats, and illegal poaching drove them into an early grave, the red wolf used to rule these lands—keeping deer populations under control, the genetically-inferior elk from reproducing, the scavenger populations fed, and the trees and grasslands healthy. After they were declared extinct in the wild, though, the entire ecosystem shifted.”
“Elk and deer ate trees. Ruined the shores of rivers for beavers by eliminating foliage. Caused the coyote population to explode. You’ve probably seen more of them in this area because of the lack of wolves, and the old elk—they don’t have any natural predators, so the weak among them just keep reproducing. It’s caused a big problem for us since the whole thing’s begun.”
“And Easton Wells doesn’t like you talking about the wolves because… why, exactly?”
“Because Easton’s father, Paxton Wells—the guy who owns Wells Fishing and Hunting—he killed the last red wolf that was known to exist in Texas.”
Jackson’s face hardens. His brow twitches. His lips purse into a frown. “He did?” Jackson asks.
“Yeah,” I reply, and watch out my peripheral as Jackson’s hand balls into a fist. “It’s… hard to believe that one person could cause so much damage, but it was his shop that sold most of the hunting gear in the area, that attracted so many people to hunt the wolves when permits were officially listed for them.”
“But you said he killed the last one,” he offered. “Which means that they weren’t always on the hunting list.”
“No,” I reply, shaking my head. “They weren’t.”
A bridge of silence ensues, extending ever further between us as we continue to walk. While I collect myself in order to continue my story, Jackson’s mood dampens, his lips purse even further, his eyes darken even more.
“When the last wolf was known to run these lands,” I say, “she was spotted wandering the grounds of the Wells family home. He… Paxton, I mean… claimed that she was threatening his property, and that she growled at and tried to attack one of his dogs. I know it’s bullshit, though. I know he wanted her dead. Wanted to make her into a trophy.”
“He what?” Jackson growls.
“He… made her into a trophy,” I reply. “He has her displayed in Wells Hunting and Fishing.”
“That bastard,” Jackson says, physically trembling with rage.
“I’m mad about it too,” I say, “which is why I felt it was my duty to educate our class about what happened to the wolves all those years ago, why I want to so badly become a biologist or conservationist so I can help them someday. It was my dream to see them running through the wild someday.”
“Wait. Was a dream?”
I pale. “What?” I ask.
“You said it was your dream,” Jackson says, turning his head to look at me. “What did you mean by that?”
“Nothing,” I reply. “It’s… stupid, anyway.”
“Tell me,” Jackson says, in a voice that is softer than it has been, in a tone calmer than it should be. “I won’t judge you.”
With a nod, I swallow the lump in my throat, then say, “I thought I saw a wolf a few days ago.”
“You thought you did?”
“Yeah. I… was walking home from school, on this road, when I saw something out the corner of my eye. I turned my head to look and didn’t see anything at first. I thought I was just seeing things. But when I looked again, it was… there.”
I lift my hand and point beyond the farmlands nearby. “Yeah. There. In the trees.”
Jackson stares into the distance—his eyes lost, his lips pursed into that ever-lingering frown of his. Gone is the apparent rage that had coursed through him. Instead, a quiet consumes everything about him: his eyes, his face, his breaths.
I come to a halt beside him and say, “Do you believe me?”
“Why wouldn’t I believe you?” I reply. “I heard someone say that they’ve been seeing wolves too.”
“Yeah. A known drunk up the road from here.”
“Who knows,” Jackson says as he begins to walk forward again. “Maybe they are back in town.”
“You really think so?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Jackson replies. “But if you’ve seen one… then that means they probably are back. Right?”
“I… I don’t know,” I say, and fall silent shortly thereafter.
The truth of the matter cannot be voiced, though. Because if it were—and if, by chance, he really, truly believed in it—he would think I was a madwoman. Especially if I said I saw a wolf right outside my window.
As we draw closer to the homes, and as my thoughts on the matter begin to affect me even more, I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then expel it accordingly.
“I should go,” Jackson says, turning around to face me as he walks backward. “Thanks for walking with me, Oaklynn.”
“You’re welcome,” I reply. I try to force a smile, but find a frown appearing in its place as he turns to walk off.
In making my way forward—and in trudging toward my home—I can’t help but wonder:
Why had Jackson been so upset by the mention of the last red wolf in Texas? Was he really just upset about the last of a great species dying? Or was there something deeper going on here?
Either way, I don’t know.
All I know is that, as I step up to my home, I find myself dwelling on that even more.
Thoughts of why Jackson’s mood had altered so swiftly following the revelation of the red wolf’s death haunts me, to the point where I find myself thinking about it long after I enter the home.
Why did he get so mad? I wonder. Is there something I don’t know?
I pull back the kitchen window’s array of curtains to stare out at the Meadows’ house—hoping, at best, to catch a glimpse of something. However, when I see nothing but closed curtains and an empty drive, I can’t help but frown.
There’s still so much I don’t know about Jackson—still so much I’ve yet to understand. Obviously, something had to have happened between his and the Wells family, and yet, I can’t for the life of me imagine what it might have been.
We would’ve just been babies, I think, when something happened.
If something happened, I then think.
With that thought in mind, I wonder: if something really did happen, and it had affected the Meadows family that much, did that mean that Jackson could really hold a fifteen-year grudge?
“He said his Mom had an accident,” I mumble to myself.
Could Paxton Wells have been the cause of it?
Without the ability to know, and unable to keep ruminating on it, I slide out of the kitchen and make my way back into my room, where I seat myself on the broad windowsill and look out at the forest beyond my home.
Between the wolves’ sudden reappearance, and the Meadows’ family’s abrupt return to the town of Red Wolf, I’m not sure what to think about everything.
Sighing, I reach into my pants pocket to retrieve my phone.
A text from my mother shines on my touchscreen.
Will be home late again, my mother says. Sorry.
More trouble? I type back.
Don’t worry about it is her quick and abrupt reply. Love you.
You too, I reply, then lower my phone and look out at the woods once more.
She’d never said there wasn’t trouble.
She’d never said things were all right.
Instead, my mother had simply said not to worry about it—
Which definitely means that something is wrong.
Could the Paxtons be up to no good once more?
“Good God,” my mother says as she walks through the door that night.
“What’s wrong?” my father replies as he walks in after her. He nearly drops his keys when he looks my way. “What the hell happened to your face?”
“It’s a long story,” I say, and grimace while doing so.
My mother comes forward and touches my opposite cheek. Her eyes are set on mine, her mouth curled into a frown. “Who did this?” she asks. “Tell me.”
“It was technically an accident,” I say.
“Technically?” my father asks.
My mother narrows her eyes.
Frowning, I gently push her hand away, then say, “We were playing dodgeball.”
“Uh huh,” she says. “And?”
“Ashley Jones beaned me in the face with the ball.”
“Accidentally?” my mother says.
“That’s the thing. I… I think she was put up to it.”
A low growl rises from my father’s throat.
“Ben,” my mother says, in as cool and calm a voice as possible.
“How do you know?” my father asks. “Tell me.”
“Well… I can’t be sure, exactly. But, I did see him glaring at me while I was on the ground.”
“But you have no real proof that he did put this girl up to it,” my father continues.
“No. I don’t.” I frown as my dad reaches up to place a hand against his face. “That’s the thing, Dad—I have no beef with Ashley Jones. I don’t see why she’d target me unless…”
“Unless… what? Easton put her up to it?”
“Exactly,” I say.
The sigh that passes from my father’s throat is monumental. Like air rushing from a mountain, it echoes through the room, stirring the hairs on my anxious neck. I want so desperately to say something—to reassure him that I have a gut feeling about this—but know that feelings aren’t proof, and without proof, I shouldn’t be laying blame.
“It was just a feeling I had,” I reply. “That’s all.”
“Isn’t Ashley Jones the head cheerleader?” my mother asks.
“Yeah. She is.”
“She could have been put up to this, Benjamin.”
“Either way,” my father says, “we shouldn’t go pointing fingers. You especially, Oaklynn.”
“I haven’t said anything,” I offer. “Don’t worry. I’m not dumb. I don’t have a death wish.”
“It’s not that I wouldn’t want you to tell the school,” he continues, “especially if you are being targeted by members of the football and cheerleading teams. It’s just… after the day we’ve had…” He sighs.
I lift my eyes to face him. “What’s going on?” I ask, then flick my eyes to my mother. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, honey,” my mother says. “Just more unnecessary drama with the Wells.”
“This is all my fault,” I say, then sigh, lowering my hands into my lap. “I know I shouldn’t have done the report on the wolves.”
“You should have the right to report on whatever you want,” my father offers.
“The problem,” my mother says, “is that Easton’s little outburst in Mrs. Ledger’s class got him after-school detention, which just so happened to coincide with a report the local newspaper was doing on the Wells family.”
“Easton wasn’t present,” my father adds, “and the reporter said that they couldn’t wait to take a family picture, so they had to pull an old one.”
“And that’s what they’re complaining about?” I ask. I nearly have to lift my jaw from the floor. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” my father says. “I was working the store when it happened. Paxton was furious. He kept going off about this, complaining about that. He even shot me a look at one point that I swore would’ve killed any inexperienced employee.”
“What was the story supposed to be about?”
“Their sales pitch for the upcoming hunting season,” my father offers, “and how Wells Hunting and Fishing has been leading the cause for the last nineteen years. My only guess is they wanted a ‘coming of age’ photo with Easton.”
“Which they didn’t get,” my mother says, “and which caused Mrs. Wells to turn on me.”
“What’d she do?”
“Oh, the usual. Trying to find store violations that she can accuse me of so she can report me for ‘improper business practices’ or some BS. She brought her PTA posse in to snoop around, and I swear one of them was trying to mess with the heat lamp cord that runs along the far wall.”
“So… what? One of them could trip?”
My mother snorts. “I wouldn’t put it past Katrina Wells to resort to dirty tricks to get her way, even if it meant making her friend trip over a cord.”
“That they tried to pull out,” my father adds.
I shake my head and sigh as I rise to round the counter. “I’m so sorry, Mom. If I’d’ve known that something like this was going to happen, I would’ve never talked about the wolves.”
“Like I said: it wasn’t your fault. Grown women should know better than to stick their noses where they don’t belong.”
“Yeah,” my father adds. “Katrina Wells’ ass is one of them.”
My mother snorts.
My father grins and says, “Don’t worry about this, Oaklynn. Just leave everything to me and your mother.”
“I’ll threaten to ban them from the store if I have to,” my mother adds.
“Wouldn’t that cause more trouble?” I ask.
“Honestly?” my mother replies. “I think Mrs. Wells has too big an ego to get herself banned from the store. She is, like everyone says, town royalty.”
I can’t help but laugh.
In the end, I guess my mother’s right.
I shouldn’t have to worry about things I can’t control—
Especially if I have a new set of problems to deal with at school.