As with most of life’s extraordinary problems, I felt ill equipped to handle the beast hurtling toward me. The monster’s yellow eyes focused upon me. Its tongue, dripping saliva, lolled from its mouth. I flicked my eyes left and right, looking for cover. A door to slip through. Anything. But could find no escape. In a matter of seconds, it lunged for me. I hit the ground, the air forced from my lungs. And, before I could take a breath, my face was plastered with the dog’s kisses. Laughter bubbled up in my throat, and I tried to shove the more than one hundred pound wolf-hybrid away to no avail. So, arms shaking, I managed to hold the dog several inches from my body and draw my knees up, and rolled us both to the side. I made it to my feet, but the dog remained with his tummy in the air, smiling at me.
Bending down, I rubbed his belly, and tried to sound scolding. “You’re really too big to be doing that.” However, my laugh gave me away.
With the canine properly mollified, I continued on my trek to the house across the lawn. The farmhouse, and Lobo the happy monstrosity, had belonged to my aunt Bethany Wells until her recent death. Aunt Bethany had died under what locals were calling “mysterious circumstances.” But mysterious was putting it more than gently. Neighbors had found her body in her vegetable garden, a spade in one gloved hand and a look of pure terror on her face. They said it looked as though she had tried to protect herself, but her efforts were in vain. Whoever (or whatever) had attacked her left every inch of exposed skin covered in lacerations. Of course, I hadn’t seen her body myself. Everyone kept telling me how lucky I was that I hadn’t been there to find her. That I hadn’t seen her before the funeral home fixed her up. Of course, I couldn’t help feeling that the images in my head were much worse than the reality. Then again, I could be wrong. According to the rumors, the person who found her had yet to recover his wits. And, thus far, authorities had not determined whether she had died of fear or “simply” bled to death.
Simply. I shook my head, clenching my fists, and said, “Ugh! I’ve never encountered anything less fucking simple in my life!” I gave a wince at my choice of words and rolled my eyes skyward, as I reached the back door of the house. “Sorry, Auntie Beth.” But, still frustrated, I pivoted on my feet and set my fists on my hips. I took in my rural surroundings, looking for anything to point me in the right direction, anything to give me insight into what had actually happened.
The house, in a large clearing, was surrounded by forest, the gravel driveway vanishing through the trees near the front of it. At the far end of the clearing stood an unused barn, leaning heavily to one side. Between that and the house, acres of tall grass waved in the breeze, at times almost seeming to bow to me. Bowing to the most average of the average, I thought, suddenly weary. A creaking gate drew my attention to the small fenced-in area roughly thirty feet behind the house. All at once, I felt cold despite the warm spring air and crossed my arms over my chest. Each time the gate blew open, I caught a glimpse of the garden behind it. I had gone over the plot several times but found it of no help. Even so, I continued to be drawn to the area. Now I walked purposefully to the gate and latched it.
Turning, I nearly stumbled over Lobo. “Sheesh, dog.” I started to pat his head, when he tipped it to the side, one ear perked up, and looked toward the trees. Scratching him behind his other ear, anyway, I took a deep breath and cast one final glance toward the soon-to-be flourishing garden, before going inside for the evening.
* * *
Fighting my way through images of thick forest undergrowth and moonlight-catching foliage, I bolted up in bed, gasping for air, drenched in sweat, my ears ringing.
I had been running. Whether from something or toward it, I was unsure.
Banging and howling. That is what pulled me from the dream, made me struggle my way out. Realizing this, though still wondering if that too had been a dream, I calmed myself down and listened.
I heard it again. Something hitting a windowpane. Untangling my legs from the blankets, I climbed out of bed and followed the sound to the room across the hall. Moonlight poured in, casting an elongated shadow across the floor. A tree branch. The window rattled with every gust of wind, as the branch hit the glass. I let out the breath I had been holding, closed my eyes briefly, and crossed the room. The yard was bathed in milky light and, as I stood looking down, I heard the other sound.
Lobo was howling. Howling interspersed with intervals of all-out barking.
When I spotted the dog, he was sniffing around the garden fence, only stopping to howl and bark toward the forest. The closest neighbors lived on the other side of the woods, but could likely still hear the commotion, so I opened the window.
“Shh! Lobo! Cut that out!” I called, trying to keep my voice low. When the dog continued, I said more loudly, “Lobo! Stop it!” The dog whined but stopped, looking up at me. He sat, giving another whimper. “Good,” I said, trying to make up for my harsh tone. “Good boy.” I started to close the window, when something else caught my eye.
The gate to the garden was blowing in the wind, banging against the fence.
* * *
The sun was rising, as I fell asleep. I had tried telling myself the wind had caused the flimsy gate latch to unfasten, and it was no grounds for fear. But a part of me was unconvinced; the part that had kept me awake until dawn. So when my alarm clock ripped me from sleep at ten-thirty, I deftly reset it for noon.
However, it seemed only moments later music was waking me. I reached for my clock and flipped the switch, but the sound continued. Peeking out from under the pillow over my face, I saw my cell phone vibrating its way toward the edge of the nightstand. “Ugh.” I reached for it and touched the screen before I could even see who was calling. “Hello?”
“Haylee? Were you asleep?”
The voice chased away the last remnants of sleep and had me tossing back the covers. “No,” I said, clearing my voice. “No, Mom, I just had to run to the phone, that’s all. What’s up?” Even from a distance of thousands of miles, my mom’s distaste for sloth triggered my desire to placate her.
“I thought you’d want to know your father made it back alright, since you hadn’t called. And we wanted to make sure you were okay.” She paused. “Well? Are you? Okay, I mean?”
I blinked, as I distinctly remembered my father saying he would call me, but I shrugged it off. “Uh, yeah, Mom, I’m fine.” I glanced over at the clock, noting that I had switched it off just in time. “You know… Just been going through things here. Aunt Bethany’s stuff.” Rising from the bed, I thumbed a button on the phone and sat it on a small table near the bathroom door, before stepping inside.
“You know you don’t have to be the one to do that. Your dad was supposed to let you know,” she said.
I could hear my father mumbling something in the background. I rushed on to defend him. “He did, Mom. This is just something I need to do. Besides, you guys have a lot to do on your end. It’s just easier this way.” I splashed some water on my face and grabbed an elastic band. Pulling my hair off my shoulders and into a ponytail, I stepped back through the door, as my mother continued.
“You could at least take a break for a little while. Why don’t you fly out here. You never come visit. It would be good for you.”
I wanted to say I wasn’t the one who had chosen to move halfway across the country, but I kept quiet. There was no sense in acting childish. Instead, I said, “It hasn’t been that long since I visited.” I pulled on a clean shirt and chose a pair of shorts from the foot of the bed.
“I wish you just would have moved out here.”
I paused in the process of buttoning the shorts. “I was sixteen years old and had just finished my junior year, Mom. I wasn’t going to leave my friends or my home.” I took a deep breath. “You know we’ve been over this before. I don’t want to talk about that right now. Okay?”
“You’re right.” My mother used the same calming technique. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral. Your father said the ceremony was beautiful.”
“Yeah. It was nice. I think Aunt Bethany would have liked it.”
“Yeah, your father mentioned that.” She paused for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was low. “Haylee… your father also mentioned that… well. You haven’t cried. Are you alright?”
I didn’t know how to answer this question. I hadn’t expected it. Now that I thought back over the last week or so, I hadn’t yet reacted to my aunt’s death. I wasn’t ready to deal with the emotion it entailed. But I also wasn’t ready to talk about that with my mom. Especially not over the phone. “Um, Mom – ” I began, but she interrupted me.
“Haylee Gai Wells, am I on speakerphone?”
Picking up the phone, I thumbed the button again and held it to my ear. I managed to keep the relief from my voice. “Nope. You know how the service is out here.” I raised my eyebrows, a tight smile on my face, as I left my room.
“All the more reason to be somewhere else. Are you at least going to go to the city and start school in the fall?”
“Mom. I just graduated. I discussed this with Aunt Bethany… and you. She supports –” I paused, closing my eyes. “She supported my decision. I’m taking some time off. I may not even go at all. I don’t know yet.” I managed to keep the smile in my voice but braced myself, because I knew what was coming, as I headed down the stairs.
“I mean, you need a degree. Something useful. So you can do something with yourself.” As with the subject of moving out West, this was a topic my mother had brought up countless times. “Did you at least like the school when you visited?”
I gritted my teeth, not wanting to think about where I had – or hadn’t – been when my aunt was killed. Part of me blamed my mother for my being away, as it had been per her request to visit the nearest city’s university. But mostly I blamed myself. Maybe if I’d been here instead… I shook my head, clearing it of such thoughts.
“It was fine but I don’t think college is for me, at least not right away. Besides, I can get any number of jobs around here, as it is, Mom,” I said, hopping down the last step. “I don’t think I want to move to the city. I like it here. I know a lot of the people. It’s quiet.”
“Oh, honey, you’re not serious about living there, are you? I mean, you’re in the middle of nowhere. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“I’m not – ” I began, as I reached the kitchen counter.
“And that dog doesn’t count.”
With my hand on a box of Pop Tarts, I closed my eyes, trying not to say anything I’d regret. “There are plenty of people around, Mom. You don’t need to worry.”
After a slight pause, my mother said, “So, what are you going to do there, Haylee?” She, too, had chosen her words carefully.
“Well, I’m going to finish going through the house. I’ve just got a few rooms left. Then I’ll make my decision.” I popped the “pastry” into the toaster. “I just want you to know that I think I’m staying. You can tell Dad, too.”
“I suppose he’ll be happy you’re not selling his childhood home. What are you going to do for work? Not that you really need to do anything with what she left you, but it’s not healthy for you to be cooped up in that house.” Her tone was prim, now that she knew she wouldn’t get her way.
“Like I said, I’ll finish up with things here. Clean out everything I don’t want or need. But I think I’ll take my time doing it, savor the solitude for a while. Then I’ll start looking for a job. There’s plenty of office type work in town, or maybe I can find something at one of the schools. I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. But right now, I just need… calm.”
My mother sighed into the phone. “Alright. I understand. Just don’t wait so long between phone calls next time. We’ll expect to hear from you by the weekend, okay?”
“And Haylee? I am really sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral.”
It was my turn to sigh. “I know. It’s all right. I promise.”
“Well. I should get going,” my mother said, as if we hadn’t discussed anything of significance. “We love you, Hay.”
“I love you guys, too. Bye.” With that, I ended the call and placed my phone on the kitchen table, with another well-earned sigh. Then, leaning over the counter, I pinched pieces of the strawberry rectangles into my mouth. I always felt out of sorts after a conversation with my mother and knew the only thing that could calm me was currently overrun with weeds.
So, instead of spending the day going through yet more boxes, I found an old pair of sneakers and some worn gloves and headed outside. On my way to the garden, I hummed a little tune to which I had forgotten the words and, preoccupied with remembering it, unlatched the gate. I stopped reminiscing when I realized something was not quite right.
“Wait a minute,” I said, looking back at the gate. I stooped over it to examine the latch. It seemed fine. But I was sure I had just had to unlock it and thought back over my last few movements. “Yep, definitely.” Now, the explanation of a flimsy latch had worked when the wind had blown it open. But I could find no good way to rationalize this. The wind could not latch the gate and the gate could not miraculously latch itself. “I must have imagined it,” I said, suddenly doubting myself, as I was prone to do. “Or dreamed it. It’s the only thing that makes any sense. That must be it.” I forced myself to shake off my misgivings and move on.
Staring resolutely at the garden before me, the task ahead seemed rather daunting, but I didn’t let it stop me. Moving to the opposite end, I began my work. I had only been pulling weeds for about fifteen minutes and had a nice-sized pile, when I heard the crunch of tires on the driveway. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked up to see the familiar County Sheriff’s emblem emblazoned on the side of the vehicle. I tossed my gloves down to mark my place and dusted off my knees, before going to meet the man climbing from the car.
He nodded at me, as I approached. “Hi there, Miss Haylee.” Glancing over the garden, he added, “Are you sure you’re up for that?”
“Hello, Sheriff.” I looked back at the plot. “This garden was a sanctuary to my aunt, and I can’t let that part of her go. Despite what happened. We’ve spent a lot of time here, especially since my parents moved. It means a lot to me.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. I think you’re right to feel that way.” He paused, moving to stand with one hip hitched. “You can call me Jimmy, Miss Haylee. Everybody does. No need to be formal.” He squinted past me, emphasizing the wrinkles around his eyes. “You have any trouble here since the funeral?”
I frowned, following his line of sight, only to find Lobo staring off into the forest as well. “What kind of trouble would I have, Sher—Jimmy?” I shook my head at the strange feeling of calling an authority figure by the name his friends had used in childhood. I didn’t think I could ever get used to calling my high school teachers by their first names, even if I’d graduated five years instead of five weeks ago.
“There’ve been reports of coyotes in the area. I thought I’d check in here, see if there were any signs. What’s that dog after?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s kind of odd he didn’t bark when you pulled up. Probably just a deer.” I shrugged, more interested in the sheriff’s news, and turned back toward him. “Is that what they’re saying killed Aunt Bethany? Coyotes?” I tried to keep the skepticism out of my voice.
He met my eyes again. “Yes, I believe so, from the looks of things. We don’t see any other explanation for it. Not many wolves in the county anymore, and the last mountain lion was seen about ten years ago. So, it stands to reason.” His face was grim, causing him to look even older than his fifty odd years. “So, you ain’t seen nothin’?”
I stared at the gravel at our feet. “No, I haven’t seen anything. Not that I’d know exactly what to look for, I guess.” I kicked at one of the larger rocks. “Are they really that dangerous?” I asked, looking up at him again.
He glanced back toward the dog. “Well, not normally. They tend to stay away from people. But they could be rabid, so it’s best to be careful. Is he always here like this?”
“Lobo? He’s stuck close by ever since… what happened. Usually, he roams. I think he misses her.” I pushed a stray strand behind my ear and looked away.
“Well, Miss Bethany’ll be missed by near everybody. If you don’t mind my sayin’, you look just like her. And your daddy. It was good that he could come in for the funeral. Good you didn’t have to take that on all on your own. He gone back to California already?”
I fidgeted a little, as I replied, “Yeah. He had to get back to work.” For some reason, I always felt the need to defend my parents, even when the complaints against them were the same that agitated me. Or, maybe, especially then.
“Well, you remember that the Logans live just through those trees,” he indicated behind me. “Don’t be afraid to call your neighbors, if you need somethin’, okay?”
I nodded. “Will do. You don’t need to worry, Sheriff. Lobo’s here with me, and I always have my cell nearby.”
“Good. Well, I’ll be movin’ on now. I just wanted to check in on you and, again, I’m real sorry for you loss.” He tilted his head and began to move toward his car. “We’ll let you know if we learn anything else, Miss Haylee.”
“Thanks, Sheriff,” I said and gave a small wave.
He chuckled at my failure to use his given name, shaking his head as he climbed back into his car.