School noises echoed loudly behind us—shouts, voices calling and cheering; teenagers acting like children, rejoicing like children. With each of our steps, the cacophony quieted slowly, muffled by the trees and joining with the warm summer wind which sighed through the trees.
The summer wind tossed her ebony hair. With her right hand, the hand closest to me, she moved it aside, behind her ear and over her shoulders so that it flowed once again down the gentle curve of her back. I watched her movements and smiled. With a brief glance in my direction and a sparkle of jade-green eyes, she returned my smile with her own soft grin.
Our footfalls placed the high school behind us, and the warm air filled with silence. Neither of us dared speak. It was one of those fragile moments where two people know they have a subject of great importance to discuss, and yet neither musters the courage to acknowledge it.
"So." She began, after another passing moment in which only the hiss of the wind through the pines and the soft crunch of our feet in the grass belayed the quiet surrounding us. "Summer is here."
"No more school," I reminded her, bringing forth another smile from us both. "At least, not until next fall."
Another lull ensued, and I drifted closer to her side, captivated more by her figure than by the wilderness surrounding us. My left hand fiddled with the pocket of my jeans, and I imagined wrapping it around her waist.
"I'm turning seventeen soon," I mentioned, for want of anything better to say. Immediately, I felt foolish. I was walking home with the most beautiful girl I'd known, and all I could talk about was myself.
"Tomorrow, right?" she asked in low and melodious tones. When she gazed up at my face, her own face seemed much closer than before.
I nodded. Jays fluttered in the branches overhead, knocking bits of bark and pinecone to the ground.
"I'll miss it, then," she continued. "My mom wants me to meet her new boyfriend in Reno."
"I understand. I mean, go ahead. I don't mind that much." As I looked away, the foolish feeling returned.
"Justin." She stated.
Startled, I stopped walking and turned back to her, my face betraying the pleasant surprise and the glow I now felt spreading throughout my body. Alaya's hand, the same she had used to brush back her hair, now clasped my own.
"I wasn't blowing you off." she continued, now taking my other hand, my right hand, in her left. "What I was going to say was, maybe we should do something together, at my house. On our own. Today."
I gripped her hands in my own, rubbing her soft, coffee-brown flesh under my fingers and feeling the tingling excitement that still persisted, reminiscent of the jolt she'd sent through me when she'd taken my hands in hers only a moment before.
Meeting her green eyes and her alluring smile, I could only reply with a yes.
We approached her house some minutes later, still walking hand-in-hand despite the beating heat. A small, squat, one-story structure, her home's front side was level with the street. The yard in back, however, extended into a steep ravine, so steep that the home's back porch was built on stilts. That porch, and indeed the entire eastern side of her house, offered a spectacular view of the forested foothills and high, rocky mountains that marked our tiny town, Kirin's Run.
The side we faced, however, was less spectacular. Alaya pulled a lanyard from her jeans. A small, brass key glittered on the end of it. As she fumbled with the lock, wincing occasionally from the door handle's heat, I examined the dry grass and gravel scattered intermittently across the lawn. Half on and half off the driveway, an automobile rusted under a beige, canvas tarp.
"It's just you and me this afternoon," Alaya explained as the stubborn door finally opened with a jolt. "Mom's still in Reno with her boyfriend, she's picking me up tomorrow. Your parents are cool with us being here alone?"
"They don't know we're here alone," I replied, ducking into the cool house behind her and blinking against the sudden darkness. "They won't be home until tomorrow."
"Perfect," she replied. "I'll get us some water."
She slipped off her sandals and left them by the mat. I heard her bare feet slap across the tile; then she turned left around a corner, presumably heading for the kitchen, leaving me in the entryway with the uncooperative door. The stubborn door was just as difficult for me to close as it had been for Alaya to open.
"You want ice?" She called back as the latch finally clicked into place. Both her voice and the snap of the door echoed loudly in the empty house.
"Ice is fine," I replied. When I turned around, she stood in front of me again, holding one glass of water in each of her hands. Ice floated near the surface of both, the sides of the glasses cloudy with condensation. As I accepted the offered glass, our fingers brushed, hot against the icy chill of the beverages.
"Happy seventeen," she stated, her voice low once more. As she did, she tipped back her glass and eyed me from under her bangs.
"One month of unmarried bliss," I returned, and Alaya burst into laughter, snorting into her glass in a most undignified manner.
When she'd finished her bout of hysterics, we clinked our glasses together and finished the toast by the doorway. Leaving my shoes by the doorway, I followed her back to the kitchen, noting that all of the windows were closed, their curtains drawn against the summer sun.
Alaya took my empty glass and put it in the sink, next to an empty ice tray and a plastic water jug.
"So, what now?" I asked. "This party was your idea."
"We could go on another walk," Alaya suggested, "but it's hot out, so I'd rather stay inside. We could make healthy conversation, which is what our parents would want us to do, if they knew we were here, but we already do that every day."
"We could stand here listing things," I joked.
"Or we could watch TV," she finished, and crossed her arms.
"Let's do that."
I followed her out of the kitchen, back through the hall and into the den. It was a single step lower than the other rooms in the house, with carpet instead of wood or linoleum, and furnished with a large green couch, a coffee table, and a bulky tube TV.
I flopped down on to the couch, putting my feet up on the coffee table and patting the cushion next to me. "Make yourself at home," I invited, gaining more confidence each minute I spent in her company.
"Offering me a seat in my own house? Classy."
Alaya strolled around the table, sitting daintily on the opposite side of the couch before stretching out her legs and placing her bare feet on my knees.
I spent a moment gazing at her wiggling toes before turning my attention to her face.
"Your head is supposed to be where your feet are," I said bluntly.
"Picky," she pouted. "Go get the remote so we can watch something."
"This is your house," I reminded her.
"So I don't know where the remote is. You go get it. And when you sit back down, make sure you do it right this time."
"Fine." She swung her feet off my legs and back onto the floor, crossing to the TV before returning with the remote.
"It was right next to the TV stand," she complained, waving the device in the air and standing in the center of the room. "Didn't you see it?"
"I wanted to make you work for me."
"Amazing." Alaya walked back around the table and presented me with the remote. "It's your birthday. Pick a show."
"First you have to sit back down," I reminded her again. "Closer."
Obediently, Alaya dropped to the pillows next to me, fixing me with a daring stare from her brilliant, green eyes.
"That's better," I said, taking the remote in my right hand. With my other arm, I impulsively pulled her to my side. "Now we can find something to watch."
The afternoon deepened as we sat together on the sofa, sometimes watching soaps or old sci-fi, always enjoying each other's company. When the house got to dark, Alaya opened a huge, east-facing window, through which I could see the wooded landscape drop away and spread into an enormous, bowl-shaped valley. Stroking Alaya's black hair, her head leaning against me just below my jaw, I thought the ragged mountains in the distance resembled a sleeping dragon, sleeping with his head on his paws in the valley.
We'd long since muted the program. When it ended for another commercial break, Alaya switched off the set entirely. Evening set in, and we watched the sky darken as the sun set behind the house.
"See the hills over there?" I asked, after a while.
Alaya's eyelids fluttered. "Mmhm?"
"Don't you think they look like an animal?"
"Oh yeah," she said after a moment. "A sleeping wolf. I'm tired."
"Aren't you?" She asked.
"No, I mean yes, I mean… I'm tired too. But I thought it looked like a dragon."
"Where are the wings?"
Alaya was right; I couldn't see a pair of wings. "They're folded," I explained after a while.
"It doesn't have wings," Alaya stated firmly, in a sleepy-sounding voice. "It's a wolf."
In the distance, the first star appeared, right over the wolf-dragon's nose.
"I wanted it to be a dragon, though," I complained. "I mean… Alaya?"
"Yeah?" She asked again.
"I'd never got to do this before."
"You'd never had a birthday party before?"
"No. I mean, nothing so personal like this. I'd just never had the right girl, or the right… opportunity."
"Oh. Well… you're welcome." Her words, though sincere, sounded distant; her drowsiness was infectious. I closed my own eyes then, inhaling the scent of Alaya's flesh and hair. Alaya didn't buy cosmetics. Her hair smelled good all on its own.
Some time later, I awoke. My legs were sore, and my arms were wrapped around Alaya's middle. She was still asleep, lying face-up on my chest. Many more stars dotted the sky above the black shadows of the mountains.
I unfolded my arms. My hands, hovering over her finely curved shoulders, moved first to shake her gently awake. When she didn't respond, they moved again, hovering over, but not yet touching her face, her neck, her chest… but something caused me to pause.
On the coffee table next to us, my phone began to vibrate, a raucous buzz of plastic on wood. It fell off the table, quieting once it hit the floor, but the horrible noise had already made Alaya's eyes blink open. Somehow, I was thankful for the intervention.
"What's that," she murmured, shifting and blinking in the dark.
"It's my phone." I squinted at the harsh white light. "My parents want to know how everything's going at home."
"You're not at home."
"I know. I was supposed to baby-sit my younger brother today."
"Oops." She yawned, stretching her arms and grinning when she caught my eye.
"It means I should get home, unless you want to show me your bedroom so I can spend the night." I said, patting her shoulders lightly. "Either way, you have to get off the couch. Come on, move, you're crushing me."
"Bold statement." Alaya pushed herself off the couch. I felt cold air rush in behind her, as her bare feet slapped down the hall. For one nervous moment, I thought she'd taken my joke seriously.
"Alaya? Where'd you go?" I blinked into the darkness.
Her slapping feet returned. "I'm right here. This is for you."
"What is it?"
Alaya sat down next to me, facing me, her knees nestled together, almost touching my own, her hands cupped together in her lap. Her eyes appeared large in the dim light, her face pale and serious. I sat up straighter when I saw her expression, and leaned in a bit to better hear her words.
"It's my gift to you," she almost whispered, and from the space between her hands, she drew forth a long, silver chain.
Mesmerized, I watched it move, the ornament beautiful and mysterious, fluid moonlight in the darkened house.
"We've only been dating a month," I whispered back.
"I've known you for longer than that."
"Inviting me here tonight—you've already given me something, Alaya."
"Please," she said again, "take it."
I let the silver pour into my hands. It pooled between my fingers and in the creases of my palms, warm from its contact with Alaya, and now me.
"Where did you get it?" I asked, holding it up again to watch it sway.
"It was my dad's."
"And now yours?"
"Now yours. Mom bought it for Dad. He gave it back when they split up."
Tears now glittered in Alaya's eyes, glittered from the faint starlight outside, glittered like the silver links in the chain. The image chilled me, so sad and yet so beautiful.
"It's beautiful." I stood, and so did she. She guided my hands to the clasp, helping me fasten the ornament around my neck.
She didn't lower my hands. Still clutching them with hers, she kissed me.
I felt the moist heat of her breath, the electric softness of her lips, the warmth of her blood beating in her fingers and the sensuous tingle as the front of her body brushed against mine. It took all my will to finally pull away.
"Make sure to wear this, even when I'm not around," she warned. "And don't lose it. You have no idea how upset I'll be if you do."
"I'll keep it safe," I promised. "But I'm going to have a hard time finding something to top this."
"Don't worry," she said with her crooked smile. "My birthday isn't until spring, so you have the whole year ahead of you to shop."
I gathered my phone and wallet, and the two of us made our way back down the short hall to the house's front door. I found my shoes by the mat, where I'd left them several hours before. As I pulled them onto my feet, Alaya jerked open the door.
"This is goodbye for tonight," I said as I stepped towards the threshold.
"Be safe," she warned, eyeing the dark woods around us. "I mean it. Don't fall and break your neck, or anything stupid like that."
"I'll be fine," I assured her. "I'm a highly competent male."
"Famous last words," she grumbled as I took another step further from the house.
"You too, Alaya. Have a nice time in Reno."
Still grumbling, she tugged the door closed behind her. But before it closed entirely, I caught one last glimpse of her smile.
The wooden beams supporting Alaya's back porch loomed in the darkness as I skidded down the ravine. I'd decided to cut through the valley, rather than following the road around it. I knew where to go, and this route between our houses was more direct. Soon, the beams disappeared behind me, fading away among midnight shadows as I slipped into the forest.
A single light shone from the upper floor of my house as I approached. My younger brother Marcus was apparently still awake, no doubt reading fantasy novels or playing games with some of his online friends. I wondered if he'd noticed my absence.
I entered quietly through the house's side door, using a spare key our family had hidden in an artificial rock. I needn't have bothered with secrecy, though—as I'd suspected, Marcus was fully into a game and appeared entirely unaware of my entrance. He didn't even notice the first time I knocked on his door-frame, or the second. Only after three sharp raps and my loud interjection of "Hey, Marcus!" did he start around and stammer "Oh hey, Justin," before returning to his game.
I first closed his bedroom door, and then mine—only after my room was comfortably dark and quiet did I strip off my daytime clothes and climb into bed, opening my window to feel the balmy nighttime breeze.
In my dream, I ran. Where was not important. Rather, it was the very act of running, loping through the undergrowth, which brought me ecstasy. It was the cool wind's caress on my silver-black fur, the wind's eddies teasing my flowing mane. It was the rhythmic crunching of paws on dry needles, the way my four feet dug into the mossy soil beneath the dirt's dry surface before again propelling me off, forward into the open world. It was the smell of swirling dust and pine resin and decomposing leaves, one thousand times more potent than humanity's most powerful perfume. It was the sound of trees creaking in their eternal sleep as I, the spectral, lupine hunter, darted amongst them. My run was no mission. It was celebration.
Up I ran, up the northern side of the valley, the soft sand and topsoil giving way to a harder surface of polished white stone, glowing white in the full moon's light. Up this, I climbed, as well, scrabbling, clawing my way to the top of the bald-headed ridge. The wide expanse of sleeping valley trees spun dizzily below, minute pricks of yellow the only signs of human habitation. With a calculated burst of exertion, I, the hunter, heaved myself to the edge of the chalky precipice.
At last I stood, surveying my domain as the north wind rose in spirals and buffeted my coat. I was the hunter, the wolf, lupine lord of the wilderness, and this was my domain. With my forest sprawling beneath me and the star-streaked cosmos as my witness, I howled my challenge to the night.