Laken finds conflict, love and a reluctant wolf destined to be leader…West discovers her
Hunter’s classic red Jeep passes a few parked cars on our slow descend into the park. I purposely take in nature’s artwork as we cruise to a classic rock station on the radio. Sitting beside me is tall and slender Morgan, humming beautifully to a song as she admires the enormous canyon walls that vertically encircle us.
The beauty of the red sandstone canyon takes my breath away with every visit. It’s invariably worth the hour and a half drive from the city. The vivid greenery begins at the gate and continues to impress on the route to the valley floor. Overhanging cliffs come into view right away, reaching as high as sixty feet. The preserved red rocks inhabiting the natural area create an ideal environment for hiking, camping and my favorite—rappelling.
Once we arrive at the center of the valley, I notice the RV section of the park is full. One campsite has a string of white lights hanging across their designated area, along with a corn hole game setup on the grass. The tents seem to be more sporadically placed—all with their own unique setups.
Pass the small 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. He’s a steady person in every way. In fact, Hunter’s my most dependable friend. I’ve only known him about a year, but I can tell we’re destined to be lifelong friends.
I spot our pink reserved sign in the distance and crack a smile. I never tire of the breathtaking landscape: lush green grass, yellow and white wild flowers, and vibrant-red sandstone bluffs. It’s a enchanting escape from the barren city.
Our particular campsite is situated in a somewhat secluded section, right up against the canyon walls. Large trees cascade over most of the site, making it a perfect shady haven.
“This location truly is a geological treasure,” Alex says from the passenger seat, sweeping his artificial blond tips 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 soft amber eyes from behind the steering wheel, clearly annoyed with the words of his best 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 his pain, I lean forward to squeeze his shoulder, suggesting he’s not alone in his suffering. Soon after, he cranes his neck and quickly backs 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 and yawn at the clear blue sky, taking in its beauty for a moment and breathing in 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.”
She’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, averting his eyes to his slightly shorter, more slender best friend. “You’re hungry too, right Hunter?”
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 bag holding 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.” He reaches into the car, grabbing the rest of our bags with ease.
And with that so-called encouragement, I begin to feel the heat of the afternoon, beating down on my bare arms. My tie dye tank top isn’t providing much protection.
“Remind me to apply sunblock,” I say, watching the sunlight shine on top of Hunter’s head, illuminating his shiny caramel 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 scowl. “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.” I tap my shoe to his. “Everything OK?”
“Yep, all good here.” Resting his backside against the Jeep, he casually deflects. “What about you? Did you ever make that appointment?”
I furrow 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, peering away. “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.”
“That’s great, Laken. Good for them.”
“Yeah. So no more worrying about me.” I pat his arm with my palm. “OK?”
Hunter flashes a small smile. “We’ll see,” he says as he slowly treks to the others.
What Hunter doesn’t know—what I purposely chose not to mention, is the fact that I haven’t been able to set foot in my parents store since the incident. I don’t know why I’m reluctant to divulge the truth. I trust Hunter. So whether it’s shame, fear or something else stopping me, I can’t find the courage to be honest. Not with anyone. Not even myself.
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 five 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 words and the gesturing of his hand.
“Looking good, y’all,” He adds.
Morgan and I place our collapsible chairs around our future campfire as Hunter and Alex toss our sleeping bags in the blue tent, along with our bags of clothes and personal items.
The only thing left to do is fill Alex’s stomach. If only that we’re 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 dinning hall and notice the concerned glares aimed our way. Lindell isn’t exactly known for having a quiet disposition. Without meaning to, he tends to accumulate a lot of backwards glances, mostly because of his untimely outbursts.
“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 dumped her. 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 shins.
“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 spot 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. Her angelic voice matches her personality—innocent and pure. 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 small smile.
“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 nineteen candles in one swift breath.
Nora pats my shoulder and then whispers in my ear, “I’m very proud of you.”
I smile awkwardly, uneasy with her praise.
If my mother were still alive, I’d probably be hearing similar words from her. Instead, I have Nora. Even as a teenager, she acted as nurse, teacher, counselor and baker of sweet treats. 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.
There isn’t enough cake for everyone, but 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 room suddenly feels very small. Claustrophobic even.
Lindell and I typically avoid the lunch rush, and if it weren’t for the birthday festivities, we’d already be back to work. I make a mental note to skip the cake next year.
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.”
“Yeah, 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.
He leans forward. “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 smile 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, smiling. “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.
I’m really going to miss that infectious laugh, but I’ll hear it again. Soon enough.
Once my lungs breathe in the outside air, I take off in a wild sprint. Within seconds, I transition into my wolf form. My clothes rip from my body as I see scraps of fabric fly above me. I immediately feel lighter. Unchained. Free. But most of all: relieved—as I leave 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 quicker heart rate 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 heat through my thick fur.
In a big clearing, I catch sight of 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 of my black fur. Then I howl in frustration—remembering my coat doesn’t dry quickly. The adrenaline of my run starts to wear off and so does my sense of pride.
While I slowly return to the invisible boundary line, I hear a group of people arguing. Normally, I’d ignore the quarreling and be on my way, but something draws me towards it. Something I can’t explain…