The White Wolf

They say that on a certain moonlit night in the fall of the year, the fog creeps over the hill, and a white wolf appears, its coat resplendent in the light of the full moon. Its intelligent eyes scan the horizon for that one lone soul who has had the misfortune to be outside on this night. Stealthily creeping ahead of the advancing fog, it lopes just out of sight of the unsuspecting victim until, seizing the opportunity, it pounces and grapples with its prey, finally dragging it back into the forest.
They say it requires a sacrifice.

Jed had heard the stories. He scoffed. He smirked. He may be a cattle man, but he subscribed to Scientific American and prided himself on not falling prey to the superstition of the rest of the country folk.

His wife had met with the ladies at the local library and had heard the rumors of a white wolf. She had come to him, worried, begging him to not go out at night. He had laughed at her. She had begged him to take a gun. Well, if it would make her feel better, he had said.

Jed was picking up a load of feed when he ran into Hiram Lowell. He related the story told to his wife and asked about the rumored wolf.

“Well, yeh might not want to throw caution to the wind,” stated old Hiram, matter-of-factly. “There are things that go on in these parts that can’t be explained away.”

Jed just smiled and shook his head. These old-timers were all foam and no beer.

That night Jed’s wife was working on a quilt for her granddaughter as she watched Wheel of Fortune. The tidy house smelled of pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie. More pumpkins were piled by the front door. The moon rising over the hill cast shadows in the cornfield, its light a cold, shadowy reflection of the warm sun’s rays. Jed stepped into the crisp, autumn night and walked down the country road, his dog Baxter by his side. His gun remained on the rack above the door.

Jed thought he would show these country bumpkins that their rumored wolf was just a story, nothing more. He and his trusty dog would walk this country road, looking for any signs, tracks, or fresh kills. He gave a momentary thought to the gun on the rack at home. Oh, well. You can’t fight a mythical creature with a gun, anyway. You fight this kind of thing with reason – proof. As he crested the hill, he saw the fog rising on the other side. He stood there for a moment, admiring the countryside in the pale moonlight.

Then Baxter stiffened. A low growl gurgled in his throat. His hackles stood on end.

Jed peered into the fog. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. In the distance, cows bellowed. He turned on his flashlight and aimed it toward the fog. Two eyes reflected back at him, then disappeared.

Jed had a sudden burst of unexpected fear. Turning toward home, he imagined he heard rusting on either side of him in the tall grass. Soon, the fog caught up with him, caressing and teasing him as it passed. Baxter barked once, ferociously, then bolted toward the house, leaving Jed standing in the middle of the road, only a hundred yards from the house.

He started to run He heard a rustling in the grass and turned just in time to see a flash of white fur and a gaping mouth full of sharp, polished teeth headed straight for him.

Craaaaack!

Just as he was raising his arm to fend off the creature, it yelped and swung around in mid-air, landing in a heap just feet from him. Glaring up at him, it snarled and picked itself up, then loped into the fog, dragging a bloody forefoot.

He burst into the doorway of his house and grabbed his gun off the rack. The damn thing was hot! He looked back at his wife, peacefully sewing by the fire.

The next day at the feed store, Hiram Lowell sat in his pickup. Jed walked over to relay the news of the previous night, but stopped, confused, when Hiram met his gaze with sharp, glinting eyes. Then the old man smiled, showing polished canines.

That’s when Jed noticed the thick, gauze bandage on Hiram’s forearm.

© shocky Photo provided by Grammar Ghoul Press

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Marie

“Honey, where’d you get that doll?”

They were on their way to preschool when Miranda glanced in the rear-view mirror of the minivan to see her daughter playing with an odd, old doll, a doll that looked like it had been rejected by a child long ago.

“Mrs. Devo gave it to me. She said it was her special friend. She wanted me to have it.” The little girl turned to her doll and said, “Isn’t that right, Marie?”

“Who is Mrs. Devo?” Miranda asked.

“You know, Mrs. Devo,” replied the girl. “The one in the house next to us.”

Miranda racked her brain. A young man had recently moved in to the old, ivy-covered house next door. She had met him briefly, a young professional, aloof but friendly enough. He had just moved from Louisiana. What was his name? Jean… something French… Devereaux?

“Mr. Devereaux?” she asked her daughter as they pulled up to the school.

“No, not Mister Devo. Missus Devo,” Abigail responded.

Mr. Devereaux had not mentioned a wife.

“Honey, let’s leave her in the car, okay?”

The girl pouted and held the doll out of Miranda’s reach.

Miranda tried again. “I don’t think they allow toys at school,” she said.

“It’s my sharing day. I’m gonna share her.”

Miranda frowned, but relented. She watched Abigail skip into the cheery children’s center, hugging her new possession.

Miranda was cleaning her daughter’s room when her cell phone started buzzing. The voice on the other line was panicked.

“Mrs. Leewald? You need to come pick up your daughter. There’s been an accident. Don’t worry. Your child is fine. Her teacher tripped and fell. She is being transported to the hospital as we speak.”

“I’ll be right there,” she said, ending the conversation as she hurried out the door.

The principal was waiting outside the school with the small group of children. Abigail looked somber.

“What happened to Miss Marshall?” Miranda asked her.

“She took Marie away,” Abigail said. “Marie didn’t like it. She said she would get her, and she did,” She hugged her doll tightly.

“Honey, dolls can’t make things happen. They’re just plastic. They’re not real,” Miranda said.

“Marie says she’s real,” Abigail said, twirling her fingers through the dolls mangy curls. “She says the other dolls aren’t, but she is,”

Miranda gave her daughter a worried glance. The girl gazed lovingly at the doll. That doll belongs in the trash heap, thought Miranda, though the burn pile might be better.

Miranda made lunch while Abigail swung outside with the doll. Miranda stopped to watch from the window. The doll’s eyes seemed to be looking at her. I must be going crazy, she thought. Just then, the knife she was holding slipped out of her hand and plunged into the floorboards millimeters from her foot. She looked down, shock registering through her body. Coincidence? She thought of Miss Marshall.

Abigail had left the swing and was squatting by the fence. A strange humming came from that direction. It stopped when Miranda approached.

“Honey, it’s lunchtime,” Miranda said.

Abigail looked up with a dreamy, otherworldly look. She smiled wryly, sending shivers up Miranda’s spine.

“Honey, what were you doing out here?” she asked.

Abigail just averted her eyes, the smile glued to her face.

“Abby? Abigail?”

The doll was still clutched in the girl’s arms. This had to end.

She led Abigail into the house and sat her in front of her sandwich.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, as she gathered newspapers and headed outside. Soon she had a roaring fire going in the fire pit. As she made her way back to the house, she saw Abigail standing in the doorway. Miranda reached for the doll, but Abigail flinched and bolted. Miranda lunged for one of the doll’s legs, grabbed it and yanked the doll free.

A shriek filled the air. It came from all around her, reverberating off the house next door. She quickly threw the doll on the fire. Abigail’s mouth was wide open, the sound coming out unlike anything Miranda had ever heard before. As the fire engulfed the doll, the screaming subsided into sobs.

Miranda went to her daughter.

“Come now,” she said, stroking Abigail’s hair. “I’ll buy you a new doll.”

Sobs eventually gave way to sniffles. Finally, Abigail nodded.

As they walked out the front door, Abigail suddenly brightened.

“Look, Mommy!” she said, pointing.

Miranda’s heart lurched. There, leaning against a potted plant, sat Marie.

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

Stranded

Adrian ran his fingers along the side of a 1936 Buick. The deep burgundy paint gleamed in the pale light of the full moon. He counted five classic cars gloriously lining the frosty gravel drive. Notes of music crackled from the house, mixed with titters of laughter and clinking dishes. He looked at Amber, shivering in her parka, hands shoved deep in her pockets. At least someone was awake at this late hour.

Adrian knocked on the door.The music stopped, and the door was thrown open wide, emitting a burst of warm air that enveloped Amber. She drew closer to the radiant heat.

“Good evening,” boomed the voice of a stout gentleman. “How can we help you folks this fine evening?”

Amber peered around him. Two women talked and laughed in the background. Their white satin gowns shimmered with the slightest movement, and their short hair bobbed as they laughed. Amber thought of an old Clark Gable movie she had seen as a child. They must be having a themed party. How quaint to find such a thing here, in the middle of nowhere. She shivered.

“Oh, James,” called a melodic voice from within. “Invite our guests in out of the cold.”

“Of course,” boomed James. “Won’t you come in?”

“Maybe just for a moment, just to warm up,” Adrian said. Amber nodded, grateful for the warmth.

“Not many people travel our road since the freeway went in. We don’t see many strangers these days,” James explained.

The two stepped over the threshold and into another world. Elegant couples peppered the room. Candlelight shimmered and flickered, reflected in polished silver.

“What brings you folks out at this hour,” James asked.

“Our car slid off the road up above,” Adrian explained. “We just wondered if you had a phone. We don’t get cell service out here.”

“Of course. I’ll get ’em on the horn,” James replied, entering an opulent study. “Please join us while you wait.”

Amber noticed two women watching her mysteriously, slipping each other glances. She pulled her jacket closer around her despite the heat. A man started playing a ragtime song on the piano. More people arrived, also dressed in strange, old clothing. Amber glanced at Adrian, who just shrugged.

A young maid looked around nervously as she came from the kitchen balancing trays piled with food, then quickly scampered back, avoiding all eye contact. Everyone gathered around the table, feasting on roast duck, vegetables and pumpkin soup. James walked to the cupboard and returned with a bottle and some small glasses. Eyebrows raised.

“Anyone ready for some moonshine?” he asked, smiling beguilingly.

There was a flurry of activity as guests claimed small glasses.

Adrian and Amber looked at each other. The moon must have descended over the frosty hill. Through the darkness the wispy tendrils of morning were probing the sky.

“We should go up and see about that tow truck,” Adrian said.

“Of course, of course,” said James, patting him on the back. “Must get to where you’re going, mustn’t you. Life doesn’t wait while we party.”

They shook hands and said their goodbyes, then trudged up the hill. They found the Prius hooked up to a tow truck and being pulled out of the ditch.

“Thank God for answering services, eh?” Adrian said to the mechanic.

The mechanic looked at him oddly.

“We called early this morning,” Adrian added.

“We didn’t get no call,” said the mechanic. “Trucker said there was an abandoned car out here, so I came to get it. Been sitting here for days.”

“That’s impossible,” Adrian said, baffled. “We just went off the road last night. No cell service, so we called from the house down there.”

As he pointed to the house, a chill went up his spine. Amber clenched his arm in a vice grip. The fingers of sunlight that were teasing over the hills revealed a dilapidated shack, the shiny Buick now a rusted heap.

The mechanic stared. “The old Shepard place? Ain’t no one lived there for over seventy-five years. Big party got outta hand one night. Old man Shepard killed his guests, then offed himself. Locals won’t go anywhere near.” He unhooked the Prius.

Adrian paid the man. As they took to the road, they passed by the old house. Looking at it, Amber let out a cry. Through a darkened kitchen window she could clearly see the face of the anxious maid, hand on the pane, wide eyes meeting hers.

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

Unbalanced

“Sorry to interrupt the party,” Gloria slurred, wobbling in, already holding a wine glass. “Carry on.”

The guests looked up, irritated. The drunks were starting early. They returned to grazing on antipasti.

“Is Johanna here?” she shouted, waving her left arm in the air, balancing precariously on her stilettos. “Johanna?”

A man in a tuxedo walked toward her, but she tossed her head and walked toward the bar. She plunked her wine glass down.

“Whisky,” she demanded, slumping over the bar. “You can put it in here.” She pointed to the wine glass.

“Miss, I think you’ve had enough.”

“Damn strait I’ve had enough,” she yelled, rising to her feet again, wobbly. She turned to face the crowd. The tuxedo man was approaching her again, but she didn’t care.

“Where the hell is Johanna?” she yelled to nobody in particular. Everyone stared. When she didn’t get the result she wanted, she started mumbling under her breath.

“Ma’m, come with me please,” the tuxedo man said, gently placing his hand on her arm. She threw him off.

“Where is Johanna? I want to see Johanna,” she cried, starting to run toward the front doors, her crepe dress flailing helplessly behind her. She stopped outside, taking off the damn shoes. Why did she choose these things, anyway? Where was that girl?

She sat on the brick wall just outside, shoes in one hand, empty wine glass in the other. A limo pulled up in front of the hotel. Gloria stood up hopefully.

“Johanna?” She pushed wisps of hair out of her face. This updo was quickly becoming a downdo. She released the pins, letting her hair fall, shaking it out. She saw the shocked faces in the car and tried to compose herself, patting stray hair down, smoothing her dress. She struggled to put her shoes back on as they exited the car, first the new husband, then his new bride enveloped in her frothy white strapless dress.

“Johanna,” she whispered, moving toward her. “You look beautiful.” Tears welled up in her bloodshot eyes.

“What are you doing here, mother?” Johanna asked, with strained patience. “I thought we agreed you would stay away.”

The rest of the wedding party waited by the door, feigning disinterest.

“I just wanted to see my baby girl get married,” she slurred, slumping against Johanna, who stood up taller, pushing her mother away.

“I haven’t been your baby girl in a long time, Mother,” she said. “You gave that job to your own mom, who did a great job, by the way.”

“Aww… honey, you’re not gonna hold a grudge on your wedding day, are you?”

“Mother, please leave,” Johanna said. “Now.”

Her new husband tried to lead her into the hotel, but Johanna turned and faced her mom, steeling herself.

“You know what? I have lived a lifetime of waiting for you to come around and be the mom I needed. Instead you come around and mess things up. You and your party friends almost ruined my life. I’m so grateful to Grandma for coming to my rescue.”

Her mother shook her head in disgust. “Meddling bitch,” she said.

“No, Mom,” Johanna continued. “Grandma saved my life. I almost fell in with the same crackhead crowd you were running with. People go where they are comfortable, and that was the life I knew. I’m happy now.” She motioned toward her new husband and her friends. “These people are my life. They love me. They don’t embarrass me. Grandma loves me, and God only knows why, but she loves you, too. She wants you to get some help.”

She started walking, but turned and said softly, “I love you, too, Mom. Get some help. I really wish you could have been here today.”

“But I am here,” Gloria protested.

“Not like this. Get some help.” Johanna said, turning back to her new husband.

Gloria stood there watching her only daughter walk away. She had not been there to see the wedding. She wasn’t welcome at the reception. Some of what Johanna had said started sinking through the drunken haze. Johanna was married now. Soon there would be grandchildren. Would she miss out on their lives the way she had missed out on Johanna’s? She pulled out her phone and looked at the number she had stored – Clean Treatment. She pushed dial, then cancelled the call.

Shoes and wine glass in hand, she started walking down the road toward the bar. She would call, just not today.

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

   

Fifteen

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

The cake sat on the table, candles burning to the nubs. The festive, edible confetti covering the top of the cake suggested hope, but the yelling from the other room was not promising.

A door slammed in the distance, rattling the old house, wavy glass windows shuddering at the disturbance.

Grace returned, tears streaming down her face. The house seemed to fold around her as darkness fell outside. The streamers and balloons lining the small dining room danced slowly overhead in the drafts from the windows. Some of the candles had burned out. She blew out the others, leaving the cake in the middle of the cheap, plastic tablecloth.

She sat in the semi-darkness. If someone had told her things would be like this, she might have made a different choice. She shuddered and retracted the last thought superstitiously. They were just going through tough times, she told herself. Things would get better.

She surveyed the room. Behind the cheery balloons and crepe paper streamers, the walls were covered with school pictures and awards. In the secondhand china cabinet, a baby picture stood proudly between tiny, white, patent leather shoes and a threadbare stuffed animal.

Grace thought back to the night, a lifetime ago, when she had told her then boyfriend of two years that she was pregnant. He had scoffed, then had gotten angry, then had insisted on an abortion. He was a lesser star on the football team, the son of a prominent town doctor. She was the daughter of a pastor. What would people say? There had been yelling and harsh words, and she had stormed off.

Abortion. The quick fix. Her parents would disown her. Frightened and alone, she sat on the park bench, knowing this decision was up to her. After Luke’s reaction, she couldn’t count on him for anything. How could she have been so trusting? How could she have been so stupid? She was barely seventeen.

A small spark awaited her decision, its life hanging in the balance. The realization gradually overtook her. She would have this baby, and she would work as hard as she could to give it the best life possible.

Three months before her eighteenth birthday, Grace gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Athena, after the goddess of wisdom – and warfare, she had found out later. Teenage Athena was now demonstrating her warlike aptitude. Perhaps wisdom was coming.

Athena had never been a calm child. As a fetus, she had pummeled her young mother from the womb. Grace sometimes blamed herself, thinking that wavering over Athena’s life had influenced her temperament. Once she was born, Athena had greeted Grace’s hopeful face with a wail that lasted for the next three months. She fussed at nighttime, never wanting to sleep. To calm her, Grace walked her up and down the road – a new road, in a new city, where no one judged a pastor’s daughter.

Yet Grace remembered the good times. Athena’s birth, though complicated and unexpected, had ushered her into the club of parenthood. She had looked down on her little, wailing daughter with her red, squeezed-up face and her balled up fists and fallen totally and completely in love. Those tiny toes, that shock of hair, the gasping breath between wails were all proof of a miracle. In an instant, the spark had flared into a flame. Where before no Athena had existed, a tiny, blustery, little presence now proclaimed itself to the world.

Standing, Grace smiled and wiped her tears. How could she ever second guess her choice? Today she would celebrate, even if she had to celebrate alone. Through the difficult past fifteen years, the depth and warmth that came from loving her child had filled every crack and crevice in her heart.

As she cut into the small, cheerful cake, the door down the hall creaked open. The streamers danced in the gust of air.

“Mom?” a hoarse voice called, hesitantly.

“I’m in here,” Grace called back, slicing through the frosting and into the rich chocolate center.

Athena stopped in the doorway, arms crossed. They looked at one another with red, puffy eyes, then both burst into laughter.

“Is that my piece?” Athena asked, enfolding her mom in an awkward, distant-yet-desperate, teenage hug.

“You bet it is,” said Grace, lighting a candle nub and placing it on top. “Now make a wish!”

But really, what more was there to wish for?

The Panic Of Not Knowing

Twenty-four hours can change your life, Dana thought as she sat, slumped, her face in her hands. Just yesterday Olivia was whirling around the patio in her rainbow tutu to an audience of one, Dana, who sat sipping her coffee among the dahlias. Energetically, Olivia became one with her dance. In true five-year-old fashion, she embraced life with the bear-hug of love.

Dana now looked at her daughter in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines. Olivia’s eyes were closed, her heartbeat thrumming like a hummingbird’s.

“Mama, can we have ice cream today?” she had said, after curtsying and climbing up onto Dana’s lap, stealing a sip of her latte.

Dana had appointments and meetings all day, so ice cream would have to wait. A momentarily disappointed Olivia climbed down, then, forgetting the ice cream, leaped and twirled, arms extended, into the house to get ready for school. Dana watched her go, finishing her coffee. She loved these mornings. Bill was away on another business trip, and she had her daughter all to herself. Tomorrow they would get ice cream.

Beep…beep…beep…

The sound of monitors brought thoughts back to the present and her daughter now lying here, motionless.

She grasped one of Olivia’s little hands. A tear trickled down her face as she made silent bargains with the universe. She tried a direct connection to God, though she hadn’t had a conversation with Him in years. Oh, baby, she thought, just get well. Please come back to me.

Bill was flying back early.

When the school had called her to tell her Olivia had been feeling dizzy, Dana canceled her afternoon meeting to pick her up. When she got there, Olivia was reeling, unable to stand upright. Something was not right. She scooped her up in her arms and raced her to urgent care, her soothing banter belying her gut-wrenching anxiety. The wait had been short. Olivia’s condition spurring the medical staff into action. Once admitted, things had quickly spiraled out of Dana’s control. The next thing she knew, she was sitting beside her unconscious daughter’s bed, miles from home at the children’s hospital.

Tears flowed freely now. Worry vice-gripped her heart, unrelenting. The doctors couldn’t give her a diagnosis. It could be a virus causing an immune response; though rare, they had seen it before. Or it could be something much worse. They would need more tests. The nurses had poked and prodded, taking blood samples, checking vitals. She needed Bill. She longed for his strong presence, for his arms to enfold her, for him to make everything okay.

Day turned to night. A nurse entered silently and jotted notes on a chart. Olivia had missed her bedtime story. Dana herself would have been reading in bed until the familiar lead weight of sleep forced her eyes closed. Bill’s flight would be here soon. Dana rested her head on Olivia’s bed, spent.

The sun was high in the window when Dana was roused by a hand on her back. Bill. She saw the fear in his eyes. She embraced him and lost herself in his arms, sobbing. For the next few days, they tag-teamed at the hospital. Though Dana didn’t want to leave Olivia’s side, sleep deprivation overtook her and forced her to seek the quiet darkness of a hotel bed, where she slept fitfully, cell phone by her side. The doctors still couldn’t tell them anything. Olivia was breathing on her own, but barely. When they discussed life support, Dana broke out in a cold sweat.  Nobody had warned her about the sheer terror that could overtake her as a parent.

Once again, she took up her post at Olivia’s bedside. She held one small hand and started quietly singing a song that she used to sing to Olivia as a baby, comforting verses about walking through a storm and not being alone. She sang softly. Time slowed down. As he left, Bill urged her to eat. She nodded, knowing she wouldn’t. She sang, and a peace came over her. Hospital sounds faded into the background.

They were alone in the room when she thought she felt Olivia’s hand move slightly. Her voice caught, then found itself again as she pushed the call button. Soon, little eyelids fluttered slowly, then opened. She paused.

“Mommy?”

Dana’s heart caught in her throat. There was no sweeter sound on earth.

“Hey, baby,” she replied softly, stroking Olivia’s face. Gratitude washed over her. “Ready for that ice cream?”

Wedding Plans

“Amber…? Amber!”

Amber tried to hide the look on her face. She turned to face her sister.

“What are you staring at?” Lynne asked, her face all screwed up in that motherly grimace of an older sister.

“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking,” Amber replied, taking a sip of wine.

“Well, I was asking your opinion about the dresses,” Lynne said, pouring herself another glass. “What do you think of coral chiffon?”

Amber tried not to choke on her wine.

“Coral? Not really my color,” she said, pointing to her red hair.

“Well, the day is not about you, is it?” Lynne reminded her. The other bridesmaids stifled tipsy giggles. “We need to talk about this. We need to come to a decision. The girls like this coral dress. What do you think?”

Amber rolled her eyes. This was interminable. She would give anything to be anywhere else right now, like a rodeo, or under a bridge. In the college of life she had inadvertently enrolled in Weddings 101. Instructor? Bridezilla.

“Why can’t we have a normal color, like blue or green?” she offered. These would have set her hair off, but then Lynne, with her stringy blonde hair, wouldn’t like that at all.

“No, I think we’ll go with the coral,” Lynne decided, and raised her glass. The bridesmaid troupe raised their glasses as well. Everyone stared at Amber.

“Fine,” she said, beaten. She raised her glass, then downed the whole thing. What she wouldn’t give for a shot of tequila!

The nameless bridesmaid clones started chatting among themselves like a gaggle of geese. Straightened, highlighted hair bobbing and flowing. Privileged girl tans. She watched her sister chat happily with them, blue eyes sparkling as she laughed about shared times. She turned away again. Her hand went subconsciously to her red curls, pulling and twirling one as she thought.

“Amber…? Amber,” Lynne was staring at her again with her penetrating gaze. How long had she been daydreaming? The clones had left, probably to go to the bathroom together.

“I’m fine,” Amber said, sighing.

“Thanks for agreeing to be in the wedding,” Lynne said. “I know how difficult it must be for you. It means a lot to me.”

“I guess I can expect Dad to be there, right?”

“Of course.”

A pained look came over Amber’s face.

Lynne looked away. Amber felt bile rising up in her throat at the absurd unfairness of it all.

“How are things at home?” she asked, twirling her curl again.

“Oh, you know. Mom is busy with her volunteering, and Dad is working all the time, as usual. You should call them. They would love to hear from you.” Lynne said. “They are planning a trip to Europe after the wedding,” she added.

Ugh! She felt the tears coming again. Stupid tears. Again. Always with the tears. She steeled herself, biting her cheek and blinking fast, hoping that would make them go away. She couldn’t believe he was footing the bill for this circus of a wedding.

“Amber. Think about this. Dad is a selfish jerk, but you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Mom has spent endless nights crying because you don’t call,” Lynne said.

She turned on Lynne, eyes narrowed. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Everything you’ve asked for, you’ve been given. You just bat those eyelashes and the man caves. I’ve never really asked for anything until I asked for help with paying for the university, and he wanted my five year plan… in writing. Look at this place,” she continued, waving her hand around. “What does a wedding at a winery cost, anyway?”

Lynne looked away. There was silence.

“Amber,” Lynne said quietly, earnestly, turning back toward her sister, “I can’t help what Dad does. I want you to be a part of my wedding. You’re my sister, and I love you. I wish you could put this aside and move on.”

Lynne had been telling her for years to get over it. She knew she couldn’t. The pain seared into her heart. She also knew Lynne was right. It was not her fault, although she had played into it plenty of times. But who’s to say Amber wouldn’t have done the same thing in her position.

The tipsy clones were on their way back.

“Would it help if the dresses were blue?” Lynne offered.

“Nah, coral is just fine,” Amber said, smiling wryly. “Open bar, right?”

Lynne just laughed and hugged her sister.

“You bet.”

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

Close Encounters

She settled into the grass with her book, stretching her aching legs and resting her back on her pack. He was already asleep. She envied him this ability to sleep whenever the moment arose. But for now, she would just sit back and enjoy the crisp high desert air and the warm sun.

The hike had been a little more arduous than she had imagined. Was it the elevation, or was she feeling her age? The sedentary life had not been kind to her, but since she had shed those extra pounds, hiking had become not only easier, but her personal rebellion against this modern life of convenience, computer, and television.

The birds wouldn’t let her read. They were rustling all around her. She watched them appear and disappear in the sage. A dragonfly rested momentarily on the branch of a small tree. There must be water nearby in this arid, dusty land.

She scanned the open range, marveling at the distant hills against the blue sky. Had she ever seen sky so blue? There was a dust cloud in the distance. Dust devil? The air around her was still, thankfully. It had been a chilly morning, and any wind would diminish the beautiful sun’s warmth. She tucked her book back in the pack and settled back in, content to take in the view.

The dust cloud was coming closer. There were dots moving on the land. She sat up, alert. She nudged her husband, and he stirred.

“What is it?” he exclaimed.

She shushed him, pointing.

“Holy crap!” he said, sitting up, wide awake now.

“Put a sock in it,” she hissed, grabbing his elbow excitedly.

The chorus of tweets and twitters had been joined by a staccato drumbeat of hooves. Wild horses. She knew they existed. She had seen them in other places, driving through Nevada and Eastern Washington, but never here in Oregon. But now that she saw them, she remembered there was a herd that roamed the flatlands around the Steens Mountains.

The drumbeats slowed, and the horses came to a restless stop not far from where the couple sat. They milled around, heads up and ears at attention, tails swishing wildly.

What a sight to behold, she thought.

One dun horse stared them down and shook his mane. He took a few steps closer, never taking his eyes off them. She looked over at her husband. She knew how much he wanted to grab his phone and start taking pictures, but to do so might startle the herd.

Some of the horses had followed the stallion, but he quickly turned them back before resuming his halting approach. He seemed as curious about the couple as they were about him. His ears twitched and he breathed deeply as he circled downwind. The other horses watched him, heads and tails held high, ever alert to the need to turn and run.

She held her breath. She wanted this moment to last forever. She thought of a book she read as a kid about a man who could tame wild horses without using force. They had called him the horse whisperer. She had dreamed about having that experience, about stepping into the ring with a wild horse, looking it in the eye and letting it know she understood. Yet here, sitting still, sharing the same space, she had a thrilling tingle of fear mixed with excitement. These horses were powerful. She could see the muscles rippling beneath their winter coats. She could feel the energy of the herd.

Suddenly, the stallion tossed his head, snorted, and turned toward the herd. In a flurry of manes and tails they were off as one, hooves pounding the staccato drumbeat of freedom as they raced across the plain.

She looked over at her husband, now standing, cell phone in hand.

This was so much better than TV.

Picture courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press