Laken finds conflict, love and a reluctant wolf destined to be leader…West discovers her
The beauty of the red sandstone canyon never ceases to amaze me, ensuring that the hour and a half drive from the city remains consistently worthwhile.
The journey unfolds with vibrant greenery from the entrance gate, continuing to captivate on the route towards the valley floor. Immediately, soaring cliffs come into view, stretching as high as sixty feet. The well-preserved red rocks in this natural area offer an ideal setting for activities like hiking and camping, with my personal favorite being rappelling.
Hunter's red Jeep glides past parked cars during our leisurely descent into the park. I intentionally lose myself in nature's masterpiece, while the soothing tunes of a classic rock station play on the radio. Tall and slender, Morgan sits beside me, humming in perfect harmony with the song, captivated by the canyon walls rising vertically around us.
Once we arrive at the center of the valley, I notice the RV section of the park is full. One campsite displays a string of white lights across its designated area, while a corn hole game sits ready for a friendly match on the narrow patch of grass. The tents seem to be more sporadically placed, each boasting its own unique and diverse setups, creating a dynamic atmosphere.
Pass the quaint but convenient bathrooms, Hunter makes an unexpected sharp turn, causing me to bump my head into the window. I’m not the only one caught off guard. Morgan quickly falls into me, whipping my face with her auburn pony tail.
“What the hell?” Morgan asks, her voice pitched extra high.
“Sorry about that,” Hunter says, a hint of embarrassment in his tone. “Almost missed our turn.”
Normally, nothing prevents my friend from driving with a feathered foot. In fact, Hunter is my most reliable and levelheaded college buddy. Though our friendship is relatively young, lasting only about a year, I have a strong intuition that we are destined to be lifelong friends.
I catch sight of our pink reserved sign in the distance, and a grin effortlessly spreads across my face. I never tire of the breathtaking landscape: lush green grass, yellow and white wild flowers, and red sandstone bluffs. It’s an enchanting escape from the barren city.
Our chosen campsite nestles in a somewhat secluded enclave, snug against the imposing canyon walls. Towering trees gracefully drape over the site, creating a perfect haven of soothing shade.
“This location truly is a geological treasure,” Alex says from the passenger seat, sweeping his dirty blond hair from his forehead. “Did you know the dark stripes in the canyon walls are encrustations of lichen? Over time, the lichen breaks down the sandstone into sand, contributing to the erosion of the canyon walls.”
In the overhead mirror, I catch Hunter rolling his hazel eyes from behind the steering wheel, clearly annoyed with the words of our talkative friend.
If Alex weren’t a geology major, I imagine one of us would put an end to his constant educational ramblings. But it’s his passion, so despite our disinterest, we all listen politely. Well, most of the time.
“I explained what lichen is, right?” Alex continues.
“Yes,” I answer quickly, “A plant composed of an alga and a fungus that rely on each other to live.”
“You do listen to me,” Alex says, beaming over his shoulder.
“Yep, I can’t seem to tune you out.”
I glance over to Hunter and observe his silent brooding face. Sharing in his pain, I lean forward to squeeze his shoulder, suggesting he’s not alone in his suffering. Soon after, he cranes his neck while backing his Jeep into the parking spot. The brief appeasing smile he shoots me sends a surprising rush of warmth to my face.
“Alright, we’re here,” Hunter announces, putting his car in park.
Eager to start our adventure, my hiking boots are the first to crunch the gravel. I stretch my arms above my head, letting out a yawn under the clear blue sky. Pausing for a moment, I absorb its beauty and inhale the fresh, earthy scent. But that’s all I need, a moment. With a determined plan already established in my mind, I rally our group with an ambitious request.
“OK, let’s set up everything quickly so we can get a good hike in before lunch.”
“Whoa, hold up there speedster,” Alex insists, towering over me at six feet. “We always eat after setting up camp. It’s our reward for making it through the tedious and argumentative process.”
“Except we only argue on where to put the tent,” Morgan points out, adjusting her purple framed glasses. “Everything else is easy.”
Morgan’s right. Last month we positioned the tent between two trees to help with the heat of the day. The ground was dry, flat and ideal for sleeping. Hunter and I both agreed it was a good idea. But Alex insisted it was a mistake. Well, a colony of ants living beside the trunks eventually became active and made their way into our tent, biting us as we slept. Poor Morgan still has scars.
“Sorry, but I need to eat first,” Alex continues, shifting his eyes to Hunter, who’s slightly shorter and less visibly muscular. “You’re hungry too, right bro?”
The shrug of Hunter’s shoulders could be taken either way. He’s annoyingly clever like that.
“Really, Alex,” Morgan scoffs, narrowing her brown eyes. “You had two yogurts, an entire bag of beef jerky and like five protein bars on the way here. How can you possibly be hungry?”
“My metabolism is a beast,” he replies, reaching around me to grab the tent. “Besides, my workout this morning already demolished those calories and then some.”
Alex hands Morgan the gray tarp, and they both go in search of the perfect tent placement. Which in my opinion doesn’t exist.
“That pouty look suits you,” Hunter says, taking a chair from my arms, a smirk lingering on his lips.
“You think?” I ask, playing along for amusement.
“Oh yeah. Very seductive. Especially here in the Midwest.”
I swallow my snicker. “Well then. Maybe it’ll help me leave here with a hot strapping cowboy.” I tease. “Or better yet, a sexy chivalrous Indian.”
Hunter shakes his head. “I think you’ll be lucky to leave here without a sunburn. But hey—good luck with that.” Effortlessly, he extends into the car, seizing the remaining bags in one smooth motion.
I begin to feel the heat of the afternoon, beating down on me as my blue tank top provides little protection.
“Remind me to apply sunblock,” I say, watching the sunlight shine on top of Hunter’s head, illuminating his rich-brown hair.
“Will do,” he says, taking the rest of the chairs from my arms.
“Hey,” I frown, realizing my arms are empty while his are incredibly full. “Are you gonna let me help or what?”
“I got it,” he insists.
I tuck my blond hair behind my ears and frown. “OK, but I’m not helpless.”
“I know you’re not. You can grab my mini lighter from the glove box.”
“Gee thanks, that really makes me feel useful.”
Wearing a lopsided grin, he replies, “That’s what I’m here for.”
I shake my head in aggravation. “So I couldn’t help but notice how deep in thought you seemed while driving. Everything OK?”
“Yep, all good here.” Walking away from his Jeep, he casually deflects. “What about you? Did you ever make that appointment?”
I knit my brow. “What appointment?”
“The one you told your parents you would make, so you could talk to someone about what happened.”
“Oh,” I mumble, averting my eyes. “Honestly, I’m fine. I don’t need to see a shrink. Besides, that was over a month ago and nobody even got hurt.”
“Being robbed at gunpoint is still a traumatic event. Even without injury.”
“I know, but I’m good. My parents hired a security guard, and they just put in a new security system at the store. It’s much safer now.”
“It’s great to hear that Laken. Good for them.”
“Yep, so no need to worry about me anymore." I reassure him, patting his arm. "Alright?"
Hunter flashes a faint smile. “We’ll see,” he remarks, making his way gradually towards the rest of the group.
Allowing Alex to pick the ideal spot for the tent saves us a lot of time. For once there is no arguing. Most likely because the area chosen appears solid, flat and free of plant attracting bugs.
Between the four of us, we manage to get the six person tent upright and properly assembled within minutes. Then we all peer in satisfaction at our temporary shelter, positioned a few feet from the fire ring. Hunter points out the close proximity of the concrete picnic bench and charcoal grill with a few mumbled thoughts and the gesturing of his hand.
“Looking good, y’all,” He exclaims.
Morgan and I set up our foldable chairs around the prospective campfire, while Hunter and Alex throw our sleeping bags into the royal blue tent, along with our packs containing clothes and personal belongings. The only thing left to do is fill Alex’s stomach. If only that were possible.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I mutter, staring at the plate of food before me.
“Tell me about it,” Lindell says, a mouthful of deer meat in his mouth. “All I want is a fat, juicy piece of beef. This lean diet Crue has us all on is making my hair grow thin.”
I sigh inwardly at his oblivious response, taking note of his disheveled blond hair. “That’s not what I—“ I clip myself mid sentence. My best friend doesn’t need to hear the real reason for my pensive state of mind. Lindell, just like everyone else, assumes I want the responsibility and authority of being leader. But the truth is, I have no aspirations to be in charge of anyone or anything.
“What did you say?” Lindell asks, chewing his food loudly.
“You’re right about the food,” I say, brushing aside my predestined burden like it doesn’t exist. “I could really go for a double bacon cheeseburger right about now.”
“And potato wedges,” he adds, reaching for his special blue cup.
I lean forward, speaking softly, “I heard the provisions are bleak because the last trade agreement didn’t go well with the Enoch pack.”
Lindell groans, pounding his fist abruptly on the light oak table. “I really hate those greedy bastards.”
I peer around the dining hall and notice the concerned faces aimed our way. Even though everyone in our tribe is accustomed to Lindell's outbursts, they don’t necessarily approve.
“Crue wants me to meet with Bree tomorrow,” I continue. “To somehow sway her to change her mother’s mind. I told him it’s a lost cause. They both despise me.”
“Bree only gives you a hard time because you refuse to give her the attention she longs for. I bet if you promised her a date we could be eating hamburgers by dinner.”
“Not happening,” I reply sharply, giving him a kick to the shin.
“Alright, point made,” he winces. “You need to lose the grimace. I can’t be the one responsible for making the future wolf king angry on his birthday.”
My head shakes at his notion. “You’re asking for it,” I warn him, tightening my jaw. “You know that insult is reserved for Crue and is only supposed to exist in private.”
“Relax, nobody heard me.” Lindell tucks away his smirk and points to the swinging kitchen door.
I glance over my shoulder and catch sight of Nora, carrying a round chocolate cake. She casts her wide brown eyes around the room, attempting to spot me. Soon, her voice begins to belt the traditional song of Happy Birthday, and my head quickly lowers in unwanted attention.
A crowd of about twenty gathers around, joining in on the festivities. Most can’t sing in tune, so I aim my ears to the lyrical talents of Kadence. When her angelic voice graces the air, it captivates all who listen. Barely sixteen, her fair skin and icy blue eyes almost look unnatural against her jet black hair.
“Time to make a wish,” Nora says, using her sweet motherly voice, a proud smile tugging on her lips.
“I’m only humoring you because you made this delicious looking cake,” I say, managing a grin.
“Fair enough.” She grins, sweeping a hand through her chocolate brown hair.
With a contemplative stare, I pretend to make a wish, then blow out all twenty candles in one swift breath.
Nora pats my shoulder and then whispers in my ear, “I’m very proud of you.”
I offer an awkward smile, feeling discomfort in response to her praise.
If my mother were still alive, I’d probably be hearing similar words from her. Instead, I have Nora. With no children of her own, her maternal persona insists upon making a fuss over anyone younger than her.
Adjusting her stained apron, Nora orders two of the rambunctious triplet boys to gather some plates from the kitchen. They comply immediately, eager to devour a slice of cake.
Because there isn’t enough cake for everyone, Nora makes sure the kids are first in line to receive a sliver. The smallest triplet, Mace, takes a seat next to me, eyeballing my portion with his wide hazel eyes. Once he receives his piece, he waits for nobody as his fork hits the plate in a mad rush.
With my first bite in hand, I catch a glimpse of Crue walking into the dining hall. His gray, shoulder length hair is easy to spot, even with the growing crowd of hungry people entering.
I peer away, hoping to avoid eye contact with our highly respected, yet very meticulous leader. Even though Crue’s presence is inevitable, I’m determined to get a day off from his persuasion. The pressure and stress from his ongoing influence is the last thing I desire on my birthday.
I eat some more of the delicious cake, keeping my head down in the process. But I find it hard to enjoy. The noisy chatter continues to build as the long tables fill up around me. The large communal room suddenly feels very small. Claustrophobic even.
With one sideways glance, I see Crue approaching me with great purpose, his permanent, solemn face eager to hold my attention.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I ask in haste, barely able to hear myself through the loud, organized chaos.
Squeezing my shoulder, he says, “Exactly one year from today, you will take over as the leader of the Mantra pack. Today is an important milestone, not just for you, but for all of us. Tomorrow we will began discussing in greater detail the distinguished path before you and your greatest responsibilities to come. “ He pats my arm and manages a small smile. “Happy Birthday West.”
“Thanks.” I nod reluctantly.
Crue walks away with perfect posture and joins the table of elders in the corner of the room. I try to contain the anger and resentment building inside of me, but it’s no use.
I need air.
I need space.
I need to—
“You alright?” Lindell asks, “You look a little pale.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I lie.
“What did Crue want?”
“Just wishing me happy birthday.”
“Good. It’s time he starts treating you like a worthy leader. Next year, you can put him in his place.”
I lift my chin in approval, half smiling for his benefit. Lindell means well, but his words only add more tightness to my chest.
Suddenly lacking an appetite, I allow Mace to finish off my piece of cake. With his face already covered in chocolate frosting, he thoroughly licks my plate clean. It almost brings a grin to my face.
“Hey, buddy,” I whisper, easily grabbing his attention. “Can you do me a favor?”
His little mop of brown hair bounces with the nod of his head.
“If anyone asks for me, you tell them I needed a break and that I’ll be back soon.”
“OK,” Mace says, showing me his missing front teeth. “See you at dinner.”
“See you soon, little dude.” I fist bump his little hand and then quietly slip away.
Stopping at the door, I take one last look around the room, holding my gaze at my best friend. Lindell is busy mingling with the only bald-headed wolf in our pack, Trent—a confident wolf more suited for leadership and command.
Once my lungs breathe in the outside air, I take off in a wild sprint. My clothes rip from my body as I transition into my wolf form, scraps of fabric flying above me. I immediately feel lighter, unchained, free. Most of all, relieved as I shed all my troubles behind me.
My senses are immediately heightened. Smells. Sounds. The way the dry earth feels beneath my four legs. It’s all superior to my human awareness.
The rapid pulse, pumping blood through my veins, reminds me that I’m alive. That I’m stronger. Faster. More powerful.
As a human, I am limited. As an animal, I am boundless.
I increase my speed, letting the breeze whip me in the most satisfying manner. Trees, bushes, plants, all smell incredible, their aroma strong and crisp. The red soil is musky and fresh. I lift my head to the sky and soak up the sun, feeling it’s warmth through my thick fur.
In a big clearing, I catch sight of a falcon, soaring with incredible momentum. It motivates me to test my limits. Using my back muscles for more propulsion, I force out an even faster pace, eventually exceeding my top speed. I attempt to reach the falcon’s shadow, panting hard in the process. Without realizing it, I cross the border of our sacred land. Moments later, I run out of steam and tumble into a dinky pond. The impact shocks my core, but thankfully, doesn’t do any damage.
In haste, I return to dry land and shake the water off my black fur. Frustration overwhelms me, and I let out a howl, recalling the slow drying process of my coat.
The sound of a heated argument reaches my ears, delaying my return to the invisible boundary line. Normally, I avoid human interaction, but something draws me towards it. Something I can’t explain…