I'd been fast asleep for the last couple hours in the back of my parents' white SUV, until the constant flicker of changing radio stations and the smell of fresh country air and manure stirred me awake. The warm sun had been beating down on my leg through the window, so I rubbed out the hot spot as I sat up. Taking a deep breath of the farm-saturated air flowing through the cracked window, I smiled and stretched my arms out in front of me. If it were a bit drier it would have smelled just like home. Even the enormous fields of tall, grass-like crops that lined both sides of the two-lane highway were familiar, and I could name them without hesitation. The long green stems with the bright golden heads could have been easily mistaken for wheat, but experience and growing up around farms told me it was rice.
When I thought of California I imagined the Hollywood version of it, with big cities, beaches and preppy teenagers. I certainly couldn't fathom the simple but vast dissections of farmland that had been spread out all around me since we'd entered the state's borders. So far, it was exactly as my parents promised it would be when they announced a week ago that we were moving. Apparently there were plenty of small towns and farmland in California, towns miles and miles from a city with a population more than four thousand. While it might have smelled, and even somewhat looked like home, I couldn't help but think of everything I was leaving behind – the only place I'd ever known as home, and my friends.
Aaron. Before the move life had grown difficult for my family. When school was done I'd go straight home to help with chores because my dad could no longer afford to pay hired help. After finishing chores I devoted the rest of the night to homework in order to keep up what decent grades I received. Most the time I had too many responsibilities to even remember that I was still a teenager. My boyfriend, Aaron, had been the only excuse my parents allowed for the occasional ditch on chores. If they expected me to have a traditional relationship, and eventually give my mom what she so often spoke prematurely about, grandkids, then they'd have to give me some leeway for dating. Not only was Aaron a good excuse to get away, but he also knew how to have fun. When life got too stressful he always knew what to do and where to take me to make me feel a teenager again. I'd even been settling into a pleasant routine of daunting work and afterhours fun when my parents lost everything.
Like so many other ranchers in my hometown in Texas, my parents' debt and bills had become so excessive that just one week before this trip, it was clear we had no choice but to move as soon as possible. They'd held on as long as they could, but eventually the only option was to declare bankruptcy. The most manageable situation for all of us was to leave what was no longer our ranch and move to my Uncle Robby's small farm in Tranquility, California. I couldn't say I'd been happy about it, but like a champ I rode it out and tried not to complain so that I could help do what I knew was best for my family.
My older brother Scott waved when he saw me turn around to look out the back window of the car, and I smiled and waved back. He was towing the five-stall horse trailer with our old black Ford, and sitting next to him in the passenger seat was my oldest brother, Jeremy. The original plan had been for Jeremy to drive to California in a separate moving van full of our belongings. That was, until we'd packed and found that everything that hadn't been repossessed, such as personal things like clothes, fit neatly into the SUV and truck, which had fortunately been paid off. I suppose we wouldn't have needed furniture anyway, since my uncle had pretty much everything we would need.
"We're almost there, Kyla. How'd you sleep?" my dad asked from the driver's seat, dark hazel eyes looking back at me through the rearview mirror. At his greeting, my mom also turned her head to smile at me.
I stretched my leisure-cramped arms and legs in front of me again and yawned. "Fine, but I'm dying to get out of the car. I'm starving too." Before rolling the window all the way down in order to get a good look at the farmland that reached as far as the eye could see, I stole a glance at the clock, which read almost six in the evening. Dinnertime.
Through the glare of the setting sun and the diagonal breaks in the orange-spotted fruit trees I could see that we were coming up on a large house, the first one I'd seen around since I'd awoken. When my dad turned down a long driveway not thirty seconds later, I knew we'd reached our new home. As the car crunched slowly over the graveled entrance I studied my new surroundings. An enormous barn next to the two-story house stood back just far enough not to loom over it. The dark green of the paneled wood gave it a warmer and homier feel than I would have expected, and the contrast of the bright white door and window trim made it look new and freshly painted. Past the large, open double-doors in the front and back of the barn I could see straight through to the fenced horse pasture and surrounding fruit trees on the other side. It appeared the farm wasn't as 'small' as I'd been led to believe.
I was surprised with the elegance my uncle managed to instill in a barn, but I was even more impressed with the house. Rob had seemed again to work wonders with the contrast of white trim, helping the gray stone that veneered the exterior to look inviting rather than gothic. Four windows at the top of the two-story house looked out over the driveway, but from the size of the outside I knew there had to be more than four rooms waiting at the top of the stairs. A white overhang, supported by three white stone pillars on each side, shaded the steps up to the small porch and front door. Through a large, jutted out window to the right of the home's entrance I could see into the kitchen, and from what I could tell, the inside of the house looked as polished as the outside.
"We're here," my dad announced as he parked the SUV to the side of the house and next to a beat up, faded blue truck that I assumed was my uncle's. When he saw his brother open the front door a rare grin lit up his face, and he jumped out as quickly as he could. "Rob, Rob, Rob! Look at you, you old bastard!"
I watched my mom wince at the unnecessary profanity and couldn't help but smirk. Often times had I heard her use similar, if not more vulgar, words, but somehow it was always different when it came from someone else. Watching my dad and uncle hug I was reminded of how astounded I'd always been by their similar looks. Tall, toned but thin, with thick black hair and dark hazel eyes. Rob was four years older than my dad, but if his hair hadn't started to gray and he hadn't let it grow to the tips of his ears over the past few years, they would still almost look like twins. After my uncle had hugged my dad and then my mother, he picked me up and spun me around, just like he used to do when I was younger. I had no idea he'd be strong enough to do the same six years later.
"Look at you. All grown up and beautiful!" he exclaimed, putting me down and releasing me from the hug. Decades spent living in California had dulled his southern accent so much that I could barely pick up on it as he spoke. He playfully rubbed his eyes and stared at me again in exaggerated disbelief. "I haven't seen you since the last time I visited! You must've been what, eleven? What are you now, fifty?"
I felt I was getting a little old for the 'how old are you' joke, but I decided to play along anyway as I put my hands on my hips and gave a roll of the eyes. "Ha-ha you're funny. What're you now, a hundred?"
"We got a smartass on our hands," Rob boomed, continuing to chuckle as he hugged my brothers. "Get those horses out of the trailer and into the barn, then we can grab ourselves some dinner."
"Kyla, help your brothers with the horses while me and your father get some stuff from the car," my mom instructed more specifically while following our dad over to the back of the SUV.
I followed Scott and Jeremy to the rear of the trailer, and each of us grabbed one of the four horses to lead into the barn. When we got back to the trailer for the second round and saw just one more horse waiting to be taken, Scott yelled 'nose goes', instantly putting his index finger to his nose. With a sigh, I waved them both off and stepped up into the trailer, not even bothering to touch my nose because I knew they'd beaten me. I swear it was like they planned this stuff, and their laughs could be heard disappearing toward the house as they left me to get the last horse out. Using the leather lead to direct the animal, I kicked at the gravel as I ambled to the barn and then into one of the open stalls.
"This is a great way to spend the last day of summer, isn't it Fido?" I mumbled to my favorite large brown colt. After putting him in the stall I stood there for a minute and affectionately stroked his paled muzzle. "At least Uncle Rob's place is nicer than I thought it'd be." He pressed against my hand in acknowledgement, causing me to smile and give his neck a playful pat. "We'll just get through this together then."
Knowing that the horses hadn't eaten in a while, I looked around for where my uncle might keep the feed. There was a loft about thirty feet up and I could see the edge of a bale of hay sticking out over the side. Once I found the ladder I propped it up, and after kicking the bale over the side I spread some of it into each of the horses' troughs. Then before leaving I made sure to securely close both the back and front doors of the barn.
With the horses taken care of, I jogged up to the porch and pushed open the front door. The main entrance exposed a long hall with an open, small formal living room on the immediate left. There were upward-leading stairs just past the formal room, and after that another open door that looked like it might be a bathroom. The hall seemed to come to an end at a more functional living room, as I could just see the edge of a couch and entertainment center. There were two door-less entryways on the right, one of which I could tell led to the kitchen, but the other I couldn't see into from where I stood at the front door. However, the cheery voices of my family could be heard coming from somewhere beyond the kitchen, so I headed down the hall to the second doorway, which I found opened up to the dining room.
When I reached the dining room everyone was sitting around a large, dark oak table talking about the drive. Each of their plates was full, but they seemed to be waiting patiently for me to arrive before eating. A full plate at an empty chair next to Jeremy marked my seat, so I made my way to sit down beside him. The second I hit the chair everyone picked up their utensils to dig in, and with my rumbling stomach reminding me of how hungry I was, I didn't waste a second in doing the same. While I hungrily ate away at my meal of corn, mashed potatoes and ham, I listened to everyone joke and laugh loudly. Based on what I'd always heard from my dad about Rob, my uncle looked much happier since we'd arrived, now that he wasn't the only inhabitant of his large house. Both of his kids were off at college already for the start of the next semester, and his wife had passed away about three years before.
Throughout the process of moving it occurred to me that I was alone in expressing an aversion to leaving Texas. Scott was the only other one who had left behind friends and a girlfriend, neither of which he was really attached to, and so moving wasn't a big deal for him. Jeremy had graduated high school a few years ago and stayed home to help on the farm while all his friends had gone off to college. So he, too, had nothing to stay for.
"So anyone who wants to come is more than welcome." The end of Rob's invitation broke through my thoughts, and I watched as my brothers and mom nodded in agreement, while my father said he was going to stay. Since everyone was decided they all looked at me, waiting patiently for a response.
Blinking away my solitary reflections I looked around at my family, ending with my gaze on my mom. "Where are you going?"
"We're going to town to check things out, get school supplies, whatever," Scott answered through a mouth full of food before our mother could explain.
Seeing as I'd already spent the entirety of the last day of summer cooped up in a car, the last thing I wanted to do now was shop for school supplies. With that in mind, I shook my head. "I'll pass. I'm going to take Fido out for a ride and stretch his legs."
Seemingly satisfied with my answer, they all turned back to conversation and their food, leaving me alone with my thoughts once again. The horses were the only things I had fought for when my parents announced the move, and looking back on it, I was surprised they'd been able to work out taking them to California. Even though I'd had to do some convincing, it didn't take nearly as much as I'd prepared myself for. Of the twelve horses we had raised, four were special to my parents, and those were the four I convinced them to bring. I'd been able to take a huge part of home with me, and while I didn't like having to move, I had to at least be appreciative for that.
Once everyone finished dinner they picked up their plates to drop in to the sink on their way out of the house. Before leaving, Rob stopped at the door of the dining room, and turning back to me he warned, "Be careful, Kyla. I know I don't need to remind you that now's when wild animals come out. Just don't get too far from the house."
"I'll be alright, Uncle Rob. I'll stay close," I assured him, smiling thankfully when he grabbed my empty dinner plate.
Curious to test the night air, I got up and made my way through the dining room to the connected kitchen. I had almost reached the front door when my mom stopped me, and ushered me to the side and into the living room so nobody else could hear. "How are you sweetheart? You were kind of quiet at dinner."
It had been obvious from day one that I wasn't happy about the move, but to be fair, I couldn't say that I hated it. Everything about my uncle's farm seemed so pleasant and inviting that even though I'd had to leave my friends and boyfriend, I was sure it wouldn't take long for me to start liking it.
"I'm alright I guess," I told her, and I could feel her searching my face for signs of disappointment. "Just still getting used to the fact that we moved. It was so sudden, you know?"
After a nod of understanding and a tight embrace my mom started leading me back to the front door. "I am sorry it happened so fast, but I'm sure if you give it a chance you'll start to see it as home. You might even love it out here."
I just nodded in return and smiled goodbye as she hurried out the door to the car, where Scott was hanging out the window and yelling at her to hurry. After the taillights disappeared behind the trees along the driveway, I stepped onto the porch. The peaceful aura of the night made me take in a slow, deep breath. The air was still warm, untouched yet by fall winds and cold, and so a jacket wasn't necessary. Exhaling loudly, I hopped off the steps and walked to the trailer to unload my saddle.
It took me a minute to find it in the dark, but when I did I speedily strode to the barn, saddled up Fido, and mounted him in a swift motion only achieved through experience and a mysterious gift of grace. With the reins and a light kick I led him out of the barn, stopping at the entrance to look around, unsure of which direction would give the most interesting walk. Behind us stretched orange trees, and in the other direction grape vines neighbored by – from what I could make out – grazing fields spotted with cattle. The fresh citrus smell of the oranges lured me behind the barn, and so, following my nose, that's where I went.
After spending the last couple days in the car, I was more than glad to be in the open air as we walked between the trees. It wasn't chilly, but it was cool enough to be surprisingly refreshing after a long day of travel. A glance upward revealed an enormous moon, and the world around me was dark enough to expose the thousands of stars that lit our path. Beginning to feel more at ease with each step, and unworried about getting lost as the rows of trees left us only one direction to go, I released the reins to let Fido walk his own pace and lay down across the horse's back.
With a deep sigh I folded my arms behind my head, eventually letting my eyes flutter closed. For the first time in a while, I was starting to relax. Of course I worried about school the next day. I wondered if it would be hard to make friends at a new school as a junior. Wondered what my friends back home were doing. Did they miss me? And what about Aaron? Would our relationship last with the distance of a few states between us? Would I be as happy here as the rest of my family already seemed to be? Or if I couldn't be happy, could I say anything and let the others know it? Even with all these concerns floating around in my head, the warm, citrus air seemed to creep through and create a fog that kept me from noticing each one clearly, and soon they were completely lost. After a while I lay there, thinking and hearing nothing but the slow, steady beat of Fido's hooves beneath me, and the crickets that chirped unreservedly, mirroring the contentedness I finally felt.
Relaxation had almost led me into a light snooze when Fido stopped, and his body stiffened beneath me. At a disgruntled whinny I shot up, grabbing the reins lest he should try to run. As the horse grew tensely quiet, I realized that his distress had seemed to silence the world around us. The crickets had stopped chirping, whatever warm breeze there had been died, and the leaves were still and no longer rustling. The only sound was my steady heartbeat, and it was beginning to pick up. The silence screamed at me, a deafening alarm warning me that something wasn't right.
It had to be a wild animal. A coyote, maybe even a cougar, neither of which I thought would be bold enough to attack a horse. Still, the silent darkness filled me with a building terror, and with each quiet second that passed by, my pulse quickened. In the earth-shattering stillness it seemed like hours had passed before the breaking of a stick on the ground behind me dropped my pounding heart to my stomach. After recovering from an unnerving flinch, I took a deep breath and gathered the courage to swivel my head, only to see nothing but indistinct trees behind me. A second later Fido stomped impatiently on the ground, throwing his head to let me know he was growing more and more uncomfortable.
"Okay boy, okay. Let's get home." I patted his neck and whispered comfortingly, and then I began to turn him around.
Assuming it had only been a small rabbit that frightened us, my heart was in the process of returning to a comfortable rhythm as we turned, until it was bolted to a start again by the near silent padding of a quick stride. The dark outline of a terrifyingly enormous animal crossed the path in front of us, and then dodged back into the trees faster than I could blink. Its shape resembled a canine, but I didn't think even wolves could get that big. It had to be almost as big as my horse, and definitely wasn't a coyote or a cougar. When Fido loudly voiced his disapproval I hastily agreed by kicking my feet back, and he took off at a gallop, racing toward the house at lightning speed.
I was no stranger to wild animals, and I'd always been taught that running was the worst thing to do. But the size of that shadow drove reason wildly away. Over the pounding of my heart in my ears and Fido's hooves in the dirt I could barely hear the rustling of leaves keeping pace behind us. When I looked back, however, I was only greeted by darkness and the sound of an unseen pursuer. Luckily, the brightly lit barn and house came into view as we burst out of the trees, but I didn't slow our pace until we'd reached the safety of the covered barn.
Once inside I pulled back on the reins, bringing Fido to a stop. "Whoa boy, it's okay. We're safe now." I looked around the barn tentatively, testing my own statement before I dismounted the still uneasy horse.
Walking him into the stall I unbuckled and removed the saddle, not without difficulty because my hands were still shaking from fright. Even unsaddled, Fido stomped angrily around in his stall for a moment before settling, still tense, for staring wide-eyed toward the door. The other horses must have taken note of his behavior, because they also became uneasy. Or perhaps they smelled something in the air.
After giving the horses a little bit of the feed I finally spotted in the corner, I cautiously glanced out the barn door, checking for the large animal. Now the dark hid even the orange trees from me, but simply staring gave me a morsel of courage. It took studying the outside for a minute to convince myself there was nothing dangerously close. Then I left and nearly jogged to the house, my heart hammering away in my chest once more. Once safely inside, I let out a deep sigh and sat on a stool at the kitchen island to catch my breath.
Hearing me come in the front door, my dad walked in from the living room, looking concerned when he noticed me breathing deeply and still nearly shaking. "What's wrong? You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm alright," I answered, standing and stretching to try and relax my stress-strained body. I glanced out the kitchen window into the ominous dark, and it took a few more deep breaths to calm me before I could give a full answer. "A wild animal spooked Fido, it scared me is all."
"Oh, okay. Well, you want some hot tea? It'll calm your nerves." He turned to the cabinets nearby, opening all the doors to search for a teapot.
I immediately shook my head, stopping him before he could find it. "No, I'm going to unpack a few things and head to bed."
With a nod of understanding he stopped searching and closed the cupboards. "That's probably a good idea, I carried your suitcase up for you. Goodnight." He kissed me on the forehead and gave me a tight squeeze, and then I headed out of the kitchen.
As I got to the top of the stairs I realized I was right about there being more than four rooms upstairs of the house. With a quick glance down the hall I spotted seven doors in total. A few of the rooms were open, so I slowly walked down the hall, peeking in each of the open doors and looking for my stuff. In the second-to-last room on the right I spotted my suitcase on a full size bed, all made up with crisp new sheets and a puffy orange comforter. A smile creased my lips at the effort my uncle had taken to decorate what he could of the room with my favorite color. It succeeded in adding flavor and warmth to the cold room, which I otherwise would have felt lonely in.
The dark wood floor creaked quietly under my first step as I walked in and made my way to the bed. Opening the suitcase at the same time as I kicked off my shoes, I pulled out sweats and a tank top, then undressed and threw my clothes in the corner so I could put on my pajamas. After getting on the sweats and tank and setting the suitcase on the floor beside the bed, I looked around the room thoughtfully. The goal had been to unpack a few things, but the brand new comforter looked so soft and enticing that it was nearly screaming at me.
With an apathetic shrug, the decision was made that things could be unpacked the following day, and I flicked off the lights to jump under the covers. I shivered when I slid between the cold sheets, and it wasn't until I warmed and curled up on my side that I realized how tired I was. Within five minutes of lying down and closing my eyes I had fallen asleep. Though I drifted off quickly, that sleep was restless. I tossed and turned all night. Nightmares haunted me with worries of school. My peers ignored me and whispered about me into each other's ears. I dreamed Aaron left me alone in a field of orange trees. Abandoned me even though I was calling for him. Took my horse and left me alone with the darkness.
Alone with a wolf.