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It was the morning of my eleventh birthday, and as usual, my dad had failed to notice. It wasn’t that he didn’t care; he had just never been one for party planning or affection in general. That had been my mom’s job. Still, a card would have been nice.
Instead, he gave me my order for the day. It was 5:00 A.M., and he handed me a postcard. “It’s all one order. The directions are kind of confusing, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Without another word, he walked back into the freezer and shut the door behind him.
On the front of the postcard was a picture of a dormant volcano with steam rising from its peak. In bright orange text, it read, Aloha! I flipped it over and found directions on the back. They were confusing, mostly because there wasn’t really an address. It read:
The Howling Cave
Twelve Pines Forest
Timber Hills, MI
Enter from the southwest corner of the forest. Follow the path for a half a mile, then follow your nose.
I hitched my icebox trailer to my bike and set out just as the sun began to outline the jagged tree line.
* * *
Five minutes deep into the forest, all I could smell were pine needles and the first of the season’s bee balm. I love the smell of bee balm. My mother used to tie a bundle to the clothesline upwind of the laundry as it dried, so my sheets would come out smelling like fresh air and mint. She had an elevated sense of smell like a bloodhound, so half her day was spent sniffing out odors and concocting perfumes from things she found in the woods behind our house: pine and juniper for bathroom odors; lemon and sage for smelly drains; a cocktail of water, dandelion, and crushed peach pits worked great on upholstery; and a towel tumble-dried with cinnamon sticks was a surefire cure for a wet dog.
Breakfast was her favorite time of day. Every morning, I would find her in the kitchen in a state of euphoria as her nostrils gulped the scents of bacon, eggs, and syrup. I even caught her drooling on her apron a few times.
Watching her eat was even more fun. Every bite she took was followed by a series of mmmms and I’ve outdone myselfs, even when all she had made was buttered toast. Her food was usually underseasoned for my tongue, so I’d sneak a dash of salt when she closed her eyes, something she did when she swallowed so she could concentrate on the blooming of every taste bud. I once joked she should wear earplugs, too, and was then asked if I could pick some up for her next time I was at the store.
Her condition wasn’t all syrup, bacon, and eggs, however. I once forgot to take the trash out, and one whiff of it caused my mother to pass out on the kitchen floor. I quickly got rid of it and revived her with an orange peel. When she had her stroke last year, I tried basil, lavender, ginger, garlic, anything I could find until the doctor told me to stop.
For her funeral, her friends brought bouquets of not only flowers but also dried herbs, soaps, fruits, sandalwood, and other sweet-smelling things. When I looked at her in her casket, I pretended she had just closed her eyes for a moment so she could take them all in at once. I hid a piece of orange peel behind her right ear.
I stopped my bike and smelled the air. It would have helped if I knew what I was supposed to smell or whom I was meeting or what.
Then it hit me like the punch line of a bad joke, every foul-smelling particle of it. I opened my mouth to cough, and my tongue absorbed it like a sponge. I stuffed my mouth with mints fluffy with pocket lint and looked for the source of the smell. It didn’t take long to find the carcass of a dead raccoon half-hidden in the bushes beside my feet.
Is this some kind of prank? I thought. Had I been dragged out into the woods at 5:00 A.M. just to smell a dead raccoon and go home? If I had, that would have been the time for the comedian to jump out from behind a bush and shout, “Gotcha!” so I could run him over with my bike.
“This is dumb,” I muttered to no one and steered my bike back the way I came. My pedals had only completed one full rotation before I stopped again. Another smell overtook me: smoke. Someone somewhere had a campfire going. It was the only thing I had to go on, so I left my bike on the path, unhitched the trailer, and followed my nose through the brush.
* * *
I was surprised when I found the campsite. Not that I thought it didn’t exist but that my sense of smell led me right to it. My mother would be proud.
At the mouth of a narrow cave, there was a clearing. In the center of the clearing was a crackling fire, but—as far as I could tell—no one to tend to it. In fact, there was very little that suggested anyone had ever been there, aside from a cast-iron pan and a single sock half-buried in the dirt.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” No response. Whoever it was, was probably gathering more firewood or relieving himself behind a tree, something totally ordinary, not the things my brain was telling me he was doing, like putting the finishing touches on his booby trap.
Then I heard something my brain had not prepared me for: a low growl. I turned slowly toward the sound and met the eyes of a terrifyingly beautiful gray wolf. Her ears were back, and her fur formed a serrated crest along her spine. Her fangs were long, and her claws were sharp. I’m sure she had many other worthy qualities, but the dangerous ones were all I could concentrate on at that moment. I closed my eyes and pictured my mother making bacon for me in her new kitchen.
I snapped out of my daydream to find a boy, a human boy about my age, jumping between the wolf and me.
“It’s okay, Ma. I invited her here. She’s brought us breakfast.” He gestured toward the icebox. The wolf snorted and shot me a warning glance before lazily collapsing next to the fire.
“Sorry ’bout that,” he said as he turned his attention to me. He had a silly smile. The kind you paint on a clown, wide and red. “She’s not used to people. ’Cept me.”
He was filthy from head to toe with a wild crop of brown hair and silvery-gray eyes. His clothes were damp and smelled like wet dog. I desperately wanted to throw them in the dryer with a cinnamon stick or three.
“Yeah. I know it’s far, but we bought out all the other butchers.”
“You live here?”
“Yep. That’s my mom.”
The wolf grunted.
“Well, not my real mom. She’s dead. My dad, too.”
He shrugged. “Yep.”
After a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, “I’ll get your order.”
I started unloading the meat from the trailer. The boy insisted on helping and gave me a quarter for my trouble. How he got the quarter and how he had been able to pay my father for thirty pounds of meat I didn’t ask, but something else was bugging me. “So, why do you have to buy meat at all? Can’t your … mom just hunt her own food?”
The boy looked troubled. “Not anymore. Our pack can’t steal livestock ’cause the ranchers will shoot if they hear so much as a moo. I lost two cousins that way.”
“What about deer?”
“Deer have moved out. Don’t know where they went, but they’re not here. We kill rabbits and squirrels, which are fine for me, but for my family, they’re not more than a snack.”
The wolf groaned.
“Comin’, Ma!” The boy grabbed a raw steak and tossed it to her. She gobbled it up in a matter of seconds and flopped back on the ground, pleased.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “I love hearing what different people are called. Someday, I’d like to meet someone by every single name.”
“My name’s Mary.”
“That’s a good one.”
“I guess.” If it hadn’t been my mother’s name, I wouldn’t have thought so. Most people think she named me after her, but I was actually named after Mary Tyler Moore, her favorite actress.
“I’m Weylyn, which I like okay. I think it’ll look good on a business card.”
“How old are you?”
“Eleven … today.”
“Today is your birthday?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t mean to say it, but maybe I was just tired of pretending it wasn’t true.
“Happy birthday! You have to stay for breakfast. Unless you have other plans?”
I pretended to think about it and said my other plans could wait.
* * *
Most girls celebrate their eleventh birthdays with a few of their friends from school. They eat cake and ice cream off paper plates and sit and gossip about the girls who couldn’t make it. They talk about articles they read in magazines stolen from their older sisters, using phrases like second base and frenching without actually understanding their meaning.
I spent my birthday with a pack of wolves.
They were very welcoming, allowing me the best spot next to the fire and licking my face clean after I had eaten. Even Weylyn’s mother warmed up to me after a while, inviting me to scratch her belly and ears.
Weylyn also proved to be better company than I had had in a long time. He told stories about life in the pack: stories about friendship, long winters, the hunt, and being hunted. He even told me about his parents (the human ones).
“Our house backed up onto the woods,” he said, gazing over my shoulder as if the house were right behind me. I nearly turned to look, but stopped myself.
“It had a fire pit where me and my parents would roast hot dogs and marshmallows and stuff. One night, this wolf came sniffing around,” he said, nodding at Ma, who was curled up by his feet. “I was scared at first, but my mom told me it was okay. She said the wolf was just hungry and threw her a hot dog. After that, Ma would show up every time we lit a fire. At first, it was just ’cause she wanted hot dogs, but then I think she liked being around us.” Weylyn ran his fingers through the scruff of Ma’s neck. The wolf sighed contentedly.
“There’s a picture somewhere of Ma and me on a trampoline, but I don’t know where it is,” he continued. “It’s probably with the rest of the stuff I left behind when my parents died. It was a snowstorm, you know.”
“What was a snowstorm?”
“That’s how they died. In a car accident. That’s what the lady from the government told me, anyway, when she came to get me.”
I wasn’t used to talking about death. My dad and I avoided the topic as much as humanly possible. During my mom’s funeral, he mostly just sat in the corner of the room, humming to himself. When people offered their condolences, he asked them why, as if he hadn’t yet heard the news. It made some of the mourners second-guess whether they were attending the right funeral.
“So … how’d you end up out here?” I asked awkwardly. “In the woods.”
“I just ran away,” he said, shrugging, as if it were that easy. “My parents kept emergency money under their mattress, so I grabbed that and some other things that were important to me and snuck out through my bedroom window. Ma must’ve known something was wrong ’cause she was waiting for me at the edge of the woods.”
“Do you ever miss them? Your parents?” I asked.
“Yeah. I do,” he said, his bottom lip quivering slightly.
“I know how you feel. I lost my mom.”
Weylyn’s expression shifted gears. I could tell, even before he spoke, that he had drained his mind of his own sadness and replaced it with empathy for mine. “I’m really sorry,” he said, and meant it.
* * *
It was almost noon. The fire was dying, and the wolves were all napping in the sun. Weylyn and I licked the last of our meal off our fingers and were ready for a nap ourselves. “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” I said with a full belly and a full heart.
“It’s not over yet. You can’t have a birthday without a gift.” Weylyn jumped up and ran into the cave. I heard him rummaging around; then he came back out with both of his hands behind his back.
“Close your eyes,” he said, giddy.
I closed them, and he placed something in my hands.
It was a postcard. On it was a picture of the ocean during sunset, fiery orange and pink with text over it that read: WISH YOU WERE HERE.
“I took my dad’s collection of postcards with me when I left, dozens of them from all the places he’d been. This one’s my favorite. I don’t know where it is, but it’s pretty. I thought maybe you’d find it pretty, too.”
I did. When I got home, I placed it on my nightstand. It was the first thing I saw when I woke the next morning.
Copyright © 2017 by Ruth Emmie Lang