"I would know who roars mostly like the beast going out to hunt and then back to feast."-Agnes Obel, Beast.
Her entire life, Alaia Mendel had plans. She had plans and lots of them. When she was in fifth grade, her elementary school held a whole graduation ceremony, with stage-crossing and everything. A week before it took place, her homeroom teacher made everyone in the class sit down and fill out a work sheet about their plans for the future. Back then, her plans had included things like 'become an astronomer' and 'meet Nick Jonas', but still, she had plans. Over the years, they changed to fit who she grew into and became steadily more realistic, but no matter what, Alaia always had plans. No where, in any of her plans ever to exist did it say 'move to Calton'.
Calton, Texas was actually a bit of a sprawling town, despite it's massive population (read: massively small) of 2,000, at least half of which included tourist and out-of-city college students. It had a lake, cliffs, hills and an abundance of densely packed trees. It was also super weird. There wasn't any particular thing that stuck out, but it just gave off odd vibes. It didn't have a high crime rate or anything, and there was a supermarket, a movie theater and even a cool little bohemian Downtown, but it all felt strange; like being watched by a stranger at a restaurant. And Alaia was crossing the town line with her life packed into a rusted old Toyota.
Her father had moved there a few years ago after retiring to open up a diner (his childhood dream), and she had visited sporadically, but she never wanted to stay long. However, in her junior year of high school the question of college had arisen, and with it the question of money. Neither of Alaia's parents had ever been very wealthy, despite their respective career success. They remained forever in that too-rich-yet-too-poor financial bracket where she wasn't eligible for student financial aid, but her parents couldn't really afford to fork out much cash. She had grades good enough to get in anywhere, but not good enough to get the scholarship she would need to cover tuition, so she settled for community college. It just so happened that Alcott Community College offered to pay half for the total cost of classes and books and was also located in Calton. It was convenient, frugal, and the most logical choice Alaia could really make.
So there she was, flying down the narrow country road past the 'Welcome to Calton, Texas' sign, with her collection of mugs clanking together in the passenger seat. It was early afternoon and it was hot. The air was sticky with phantom humidity, not a cloud in sight, and the air conditioner was doing it's job poorly. The engine was making a chugging noise but it was old and always made some kind of noise. She ignored it in favor of turning the air on higher. As if to mock her, it let out a sound like a shotgun going off followed by a high pitched wee and then the hand on her speedometer was tumbling down slowly. The car shook, slowing down and came to a shuddering stop. She attempted to start it in vain, before fumbling in her purse for her cell phone. There was a little 'X' in the the top right corner indicating no signal. A string a curse words slipped from her lips as she banged on the steering wheel in frustration. After a moment she clambered out, popping the hood, and peeked at the engine, pretending for a moment that she knew anything about cars. Nothing looked out of place, but it smelled like something was burning. Without any real hope, she tried cranking it again. No dice. Swearing again, and repressing the urge to cry, she decided to wait for someone to drive by. She waited twenty desperate minutes without seeing a single car. Sweat gathered at the nape of her neck, under her arms, and on the small of her back. Deciding against melting into a puddle in the heat, she began walking in search of help.
Alaia wasn't an athletic or an outdoorsy person. She was always the last on to finish running in gym class, and she could never participate in outside activities unless she was hopped up on allergy pills. Walking past the tall grass, up a hill, under the burning sun was her own personal hell. She passed a boarded up gas station and two decrepit houses, before she finally saw any signs of actual living humans. In her heat-fever, she had started mentally shaking her fist at God (why have you forsaken me), but she was walking up on an automotive shop so He must've been intervening. The grimy, glass front door led into what had to be a waiting room with a few chairs, a cluttered desk, and (sweet baby Jesus), two oscillating fans. A few shameless moments were spent standing in the circulating cool air while Alaia waited for a secretary or something to show up. No one did. At second glance, she realized the desk was so covered in boxes and papers that no one could possibly operate at it. Cautiously, she walked to the double glass doors that lead to the garage. Immediately, she was met with some classic rock song, and the sound of metal on metal. The garage wasn't very big, but there were a few cars clearly in the midst of being repaired.
"Hello?" She called out, just as she rounded on a PT Cruiser with a propped up hood. A hand holding a wrench waved from behind it. She wasn't really sure what that meant, but she took as a sign to come closer.
A man was hunched over the engine. He had on a pair of dark blue coveralls, but the top half was let down with the sleeves tied around his waist, revealing a tank top and a pair of tan, grease smudged arms. He did something with the wrench and glanced up. A look crossed his face like her smelled something odd. He stood upright suddenly, tossed the wrench into a toolbox, and wiped his hands on a rag.
Pushing wheat colored hair, damp with sweat, from his forehead he asked, "Can I help you?"
She swallowed. He was-unf her brain supplied.
"Uh, my car."
He raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
She mentally kicked herself. "My car broke down, a couple miles from here. I was wondering if you could tow it and see what the problem is?"
"Yeah. You're gonna have to fill out some paper work first though."
Weaving his way through the few cars in the garage, he led her back into the waiting room and proceeded to shuffle around a few boxes and papers. He grumbled under his breath in frustration until he found what he was looking for and handed her a thin packet of stapled papers and a pen.
"Sorry," he apologized, looking slightly embarrassed, "not many strangers come in here."
She simply nodded, and started filling out the paperwork. It was standard stuff: name, date of birth, insurance identification number, car model, year etc. He took it when she was done and read it over.
"Mendel? Are you Neil's daughter?" He asked, a vague look of recognition crossing his face.
Alaia was surprised. She couldn't imagine her father hanging out with a twenty-something-year-old mechanic.
He let out a huff that reminded her of a dog, his lips quirking up in a way that seemed ironic.
"I'll go get your car."
He left in a tow truck that looked a little worse for wear and she took a seat in the waiting room. It was weird, sitting there alone in an empty building. Honestly, she was a little creeped out. When she pulled her phone out of her pocket and clicked it on, the little signal in the corner showed one measly bar. Sighing, she dialed her father's phone number. He picked up on the second ring.
"Hey kiddo, you getting close?" She could hear dishes clinking, food frying, and many voices in the background; all the sounds of a restaurant.
"Um, the Camry kind of died."
"Aw hell Allie, I knew that damned thing wouldn't make it. I tried to tell your mother-" He cut himself of, taking a deep breath. "Where are you? I'll pick you up."
"I'm actually in town. I'm at the auto shop that's on the road coming in."
There was a tense silence over the line.
"That's Paxton's place." He said it like it was supposed to raise alarms or something.
"O-kay...?" She posed the word like a question, drawing out the syllables, unsure how she was meant to respond.
"I don't like the kid; he's trouble, but...he'll take care of your car."
"Alright." She didn't really know what to say.
"We're still having the lunch rush, but I'll be around to get you in about half an hour, okay?" He sounded guilty about having to work.
Someone called his name in the background and he mumbled something back.
"Okay, sit tight kiddo. Love you."
"Love you too, Dad."
The mechanic-Paxton-returned shortly with her car. He let it down in the garage and came to talk to her briefly.
"It was leaking transmission fluid when I got there, so that's probably the problem, but I'll take a better look at it and see."
With her limited knowledge (read: lack of knowledge) of cars, she had no clue what that meant, but it didn't sound good.
He came back in just as her father pulled up. Neil walked in with a distinctly unhappy look on his face. Both men nodded at the other, solemnly in the way that men do. Alaia wanted to roll her eyes.
"The issue is definitely with the transmission, it's looks like the whole thing may need replacing, but I don't know for sure yet. I have a few other cars I'm working on so it'll be a few days, but I'll give you a call when I know for sure."
Alaia's dad looked stricken. He took a minute to ground himself.
"Wanna get some clothes and things from your car?" He asked.
She hadn't thought of it, but nodded. After gathering everything she needed, they headed out. Her dad drove her to the house, which she'd never seen. It was small and old, but well maintained with blue painted siding and white trim. It was nice. The interior was cozy, with a surprising amount of wallpaper, and comfy looking furniture that she knew was secondhand. (Her father was all about bargains.) He helped her carry her stuff inside.
"If you need to go anywhere, I have your old bike in the garage. Nothing around here is very far. The cable is on, and I even got wifi installed. There's food in the fridge, and you can always come down to the diner if you get hungry." She could see the paternal panic in his eyes and fought back a smile. He always took care of her.
"I'm sure I'll be fine, Dad."
He pulled her in for a tight hug, lips brushing her temple.
"I'm glad you're here kiddo. I missed you." She squeezed him.
"I missed you too, Dad."
He pulled back, looking a little embarrassed and grabbed his keys before heading out.
Her dad's house wasn't very big, and had definitely been built on to. Her father's bedroom was in the new addition in the back of the house, down a hallway off the kitchen. The kitchen was very old-fashion country, with lots of light wood and a butcher block island in the center. All of the dishes were mismatched and the fridge had a couple of dents in the doors. There were, however, large windows across the back wall, that saw out into the back yard, and the trees behind it. It was pretty. There were two other bedrooms. One had a futon, and not much else, the other was her bedroom.
She had a full bed, a dresser, and even a little desk, all in matching white wood. She assumed she had what was the old master bed, because the was an en suite with a pretty nice tub, and the view from her windows was decent. After making up the bare bed and unpacking the few things she brought from her car, Alaia wasn't sure what to do with herself. Glancing out at the woods, she decided to explore some. With her cellphone in her back pocket, she went outside. Heat still clung in the air, despite the fact that it was now late afternoon, but once she was past the tree line it cooled noticeably. There was a rough trail beat between the trees, and she followed it. In the city there wasn't any forest this thick, and she had allergies anyways so she didn't trapeze through the woods often. But, she had nothing better to do, and if it came down to it she could take a benadryl. The trees were packed thick together and the ground was covered in thick foliage. The abundance of trees created a blanket of shade from the sun, but there were lots of flowers growing. She knew the downward drooping yellow blooms as angel's trumpets, but that was it. There were many different purple blossoms, some tall standing stalks and others growing from shrubs, but she didn't know their names. On one of the shrubs she saw blueberries growing. She knew there was some yogurt and milk in the fridge, and a smoothie sounded good. She folded the hem of her shirt into a makeshift bowl and began picking the best looking ones. She had nearly enough for her and her dad, when she heard something shuffling in the bushes behind her. She whipped around, but couldn't see anything. She was about to turn back to the berries, figuring it was probably just a squirrel or something when whatever it was started to growl. It started out low, but gained volume and conviction rapidly. She backed away, bumping into the blueberry shrub, and it snarled. Barely stifling a scream, she took off back towards the house. She could hear it following her but didn't see anything over her shoulder. It stopped once she cleared the tree line, but she kept running right to the back door.
Once she was inside, she looked back into the woods. She couldn't see anything but a pair of glowing yellow eyes.
Her father came home just after eight with two styrofoam boxes filled with lasagna and garlic bread and sweet tea for each of them. They ate together in front of the TV while a crime show played. Alaia thought about telling him about the animal in the woods until she realized she was an idiot for venturing into them in the first place. Who went strolling around in unfamiliar wilderness? She'd seen enough I Shouldn't Be Alive to know better. Instead she asked about the diner and how that was going. Neil nearly gushed for all the good things he had to say. She couldn't keep the smile off her face. She was happy he was happy. After watching a few programs he headed off to bed. She didn't last much longer, first taking a shower then changing into pajamas.
She was just drifting off when a keening howl sounded from somewhere too close in the woods. She couldn't suppress her shudder.