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A Two-Lane Highway, The Present
There was a storm coming on.
Hallie Muldoon could see it ahead in the distance, where leaden thunderclouds seethed and roiled on the horizon, blotting out the westering sun. At the sight, the strange, nebulous sense of anxiety and urgency she had felt ever since learning of her grandmother's unexpected death last month heightened within her, and she pressed her foot even harder against the accelerator of the car she drove.
In response, the sporty red Mini Cooper S shot down the narrow two-lane highway that was a patchwork of macadam bounded on either side by long, sweeping green verges abloom with a profusion of wildflowers, beyond which lay checkerboard fields of ripening grain.
Under other circumstances, it would have been a picturesque scene. But at the moment, beneath the lowering sky, it was somehow reminiscent of Van Gogh's painting Starry Night, and Hallie suffered the disturbing sensation that she was journeying into the distorted realm of an unquiet mind instead of toward the small town of Wolf Creek, her childhood home.
She had not been there since her mother, Rowan Muldoon, had passed away and Gram had sent her back East to live with her two great-aunts, Gram's spinster sisters, Agatha and Edith. That had been many years ago now, and the beginning of an entirely new life for Hallie, the old onethe one she would have lived had her mother survivedhaving died along with the only parent she had ever known.
Hallie thought that in some respects, nothing had gone right in her life since that moment.
In sharp contrast to Meadowsweet, the quiet, relatively isolated farm where Gram had lived, Great-Aunts Agathaand Edith had resided in a crowded, noisy big city, in a dark old gloomy town house wherein the sunshine, freedom and laughter to which the then seven-year-old Hallie had been accustomed had been painfully taboo. In the great-aunts' town house, the long heavy curtains were always drawn against the sun that would otherwise have faded the furniture and carpets, and little girls were to obey the rules, the primary of which had been to be seen and not heard. Natural childhood curiosity and chatter had brought severe frowns and censure.
As a result, back East, Hallie had quickly learned to keep her mouth shut and her thoughts to herself, to slip like a wraith through the shadowy halls of the town house, and to apply herself diligently to her studies at the private school in which the great-aunts had enrolled her, rather than wasting her time with such frivolous pursuits as idle daydreaming and rowdy playing.
In adulthood and retrospect, Hallie had realized the great-aunts had no doubt loved her dearly and meant well. It was just that having no experience with children of their own, they had reared her in the same fashion that their austere, Bible-thumping father, the Reverend Bernard Dew-hurst, had reared them, knowing no other way. In the end, they had done their best for her, and Hallie could not find it in her heart to blame them for proving unable to change their own lifelong beliefs and behavior, and to move ahead with the times.
But, oh, how different things would have been if only her grandmother had never sent her away from Wolf Creek and Meadowsweet farm! A middle daughter, Gram had been the black sheep of the five Dewhurst sisters, estranged from her family because in her youth she had brazenly eloped with Jotham Taylor, Great-Aunt Agatha's fiancé.
The highly reserved, straitlaced Dewhursts had never forgiven Gram for that, her father remorselessly declaring her dead to them for her unspeakable sin, striking her name from the family Bible and cutting her off without a single penny.
Eventually Gram and her dashing, wayward husband had moved to faraway Wolf Creek and bought the small farm, Meadowsweet, where Hallie had been born and to which she was now returning.
She wondered how much both the town and the farm had changed in the intervening years since she had been gone. In her own mind, of course, both had stood still, frozen in time, just the same as when she had last seen them during her childhood. Still, she knew that in reality, that would not be the case, that both would no longer be as she remembered them.
Perhaps Wolf Creek had grown in size and population, become more than just a tiny dot on a road map, of little or no interest to passersby. Unlike some small towns, it had no claim to fame to attract tourists, to entice them off the beaten path to the single grassy square bounded on its four sides by the only main streets in Wolf Creek. In another time and place, the square would have been referred to as the village green. But Hallie recalled it only as the park where, on market days, she had romped with the other children, in the shadow of the town hall and the courthouse.
Not for the first time, it occurred to her how strange it was that her memories of Wolf Creek were so much clearer than those of Meadowsweet, her birthplace and the farm that had been her childhood home until her mother had died and Gram had sent her away.
Hallie remembered that the farmhouse itself dated from the 1800s and boasted Victorian architecture, and she had a vague impression of cupolas and towers rising from a large house whose lightning rods were silhouetted like needles against a boundless azure sky. But try as she might, she did not recall more than that, not even the color of the house's traditional wood scallops, siding and ornate trim, although she thought there had been at least three shades of paint.
More easily brought to mind was the sweet expanse of meadow whence the farm had taken its name. It had boasted a gay riot of grasses, toadstools and wildflowers, as well as butterflies, dra-gonflies and honeybees, the latter of which her grandmother had raised on the farm. All year long, when the weather had permitted, Hallie had played in the meadow, creating a vivid, imaginary world there, in which the insects were faeries and the toadstools and blossoms, their homes.
Even now, if she closed her eyes and tried very hard, she could still smell the sweet scent of the meadow and feel the warmth of the bright sunshine that had streamed to the earth there.
Reminiscing about that meadow had been her one salvation in those early days back East. It had been the place to which she had escaped in her mind when the unexpected loss of her mother, the sudden uprooting from her home and Gram, and the darkness and dreariness of the town house belonging to Great-Aunts Agatha and Edith had proved far too depressing and overwhelming for her, a lonely, baffled child.
But now, as all these memories of the meadow besieged her, Hallie could not suppress a wry smile. She did not think her great-aunts had ever believed in faeries. But Gram and Hallie's mother had believed, and they had passed that belief on to her.
They had talked to the honeybees, too. She wondered if those precious insects were still raised at Meadowsweet, their white wooden hives lined up neatly in a row behind the farmhouse. She hoped so.
Despite all the years that had passed since she had left Wolf Creek, there was still so much Hal-lie did not know, did not understand. Why, for instance, had Gram ever sent her away to begin with? Other children lost their parents, grieved and tried to go on with their lives afterward. They were not packed off to long-estranged relatives and never permitted to come back home. Still, that was exactly what Gram had done to her.
Had Hallie not been so certain of her grandmother's deep and abiding love for her, she would have thought that after her mother's death, Gram had not wanted to be bothered with her, a seven-year-old child. But, no, that was not the reason. Hallie felt sure of that. There was something else, something her grandmother had never told her, always keeping her at arm's length ever after, when the two of them had previously been so close.
Even now, when so much else was misty in her mind, Hallie could remember trotting in Gram's wake, helping to feed the chickens and to care for the honeybees, to harvest fruit from the orchard and vegetables from the garden and to hang the clean wash out on the clothesline to dry. Yes, there had been a time when she could have been described as her grandmother's little shadow.
But then her mother had died, and everything had changed.
Maybe because she resembled her dead mother so much, she had been a painful reminder to her grandmother of their mutual loss. Perhaps that was why it had appeared Gram could no longer bear the sight of her and so had packed her off to the care of Great-Aunts Agatha and Edith. If that were indeed the case, Gram's action would at least be understandable, if not particularly kind. Still, however plausible, this rationale did not seem at all in keeping with what Hallie recalled of her grandmother's joyous, generous nature. Nor did it explain why, in the end, Gram had willed her the farm.
But what other reason could there have been?
Hallie did not know, but one of the main reasons she was now returning to Wolf Creek and Meadowsweet was to try to find out. Her grandmother was dead and buried now, so could no longer keep her away, and surely, by leaving her the farm, Gram had intended that she come home at long last, anyway.
Because she was so lost in her thoughts, it was only at the last moment that from the corner of her eye, Hallie glimpsed the streak of dark fur that suddenly shot across the highway unwinding endlessly before her. Abruptly jolted from her reverie, she instinctively slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the animal. In response, her small red vehicle screeched along the road, tires burning rubber and laying skid marks, before coming to such a bone-jarring stop that she felt certain she would have a bruise later from the seat belt she wore.
Ahead of her, in the middle of the highway, stood the largest wolf Hallie had ever seen.
As a child, she had often spied the animals, which had given Wolf Creek its name. But this one was unquestionably uncommonand not only in size. For it was almost wholly black in color, with only a little silver-gray around its face, and as it stared hard at her, she saw that in a rare but recognized twist of genetics, it had retained the gleaming blue eyes with which all wolf cubs were born, but that normally turned golden in adulthood. A thin but visible jagged scar ran downward across its left cheek, as though the animal had survived some long-ago, hand-to-paw battle with a hunter and, for its defiance, been knifed during the desperate struggle.
Hallie felt strangely mesmerized by the beast's gaze, unable to tear her eyes away. Oddly, despite its obvious size and strength, the wolf did not initially appear menacing to her. But that was before, without warning, gathering its powerful muscles, it lunged toward her, abruptly leaping onto the hood of the car and pressing its muzzle against the windshield to peer in at her.
The unexpected weight and action of the animal jolted the vehicle violently, causing it to rock briefly and Hallie first to scream and then to catch her breath in her throat as she wondered if the beast were capable of somehow shattering the safety glass in order to attack her. Ludicrously, in some dim corner of her mind, she also hoped the wolf's hard, sharp toenails had not scratched the car.