LAUREL COUNTY, KY
Penny was down at Kim’s Kountry Kupboard, a tiny convenience store off Rt. 1193 that sold nonperishable foods, old VHS tapes, floaties and innertubes for the manmade lake that was about a mile up the road. It had a bait shop out back. It was Tuesday and Penny needed to get a few things to tide her over until next week when she was taking one of the wolves, Bartholomew, to a lodge an hour or so away. She would be showing him to a group of Girl Scouts that would be camping there over the weekend. The moms that took the girls camping usually paid Penny in cash, which is what she was counting on. She could stop by the Kroger in town after explaining the wolves’ disappearance in this area of the country to the girls, letting them pet Bartholomew—on the back, not the head—and telling them what they could do to help.
She walked up and down the short isles, gathering some cans in her arms. Beets, corn, baked beans and weenies swimming in a brown, sugary sludge. She stopped in front of the snacks. She frowned and grabbed a bag of tortilla chips from an end cap just before approaching the register. She placed her items on the counter.
Travis looked up at her. His skin was rough and red and bunched around his dark eyes. Gray hair fell in a tangled heap over his shoulders. A toothpick balanced on the curve of his lip that shined bright with a sheen of spittle.
“How you doing, Pen?” he said. He picked up each can, rolling it along his thick palm. He pecked slowly at the register, the machine thrumming with each strike. He glanced up at her, holding a can of green beans.
“I’m okay,” she said. VHS tapes lined a few shelves up against the back wall, their sleeves torn and bleached with age, some with no sleeves at all. A poster hanging above the rows of tapes showcased the indigenous fish of Kentucky—the bluegill, the shovelnose sturgeon, the rainbow trout, the bowfin.
“Any trouble at the homestead?” he said. He packed the cans into a paper bag. He reached for the chips. The plastic crinkled beneath the pads of his fingers.
“Actually, Emma’s gone missing. Since yesterday morning,” she said. She watched him stuff the chips into another bag. “Do you have any cheese dip for those?”
“Emma’s got out? Well. You know that people aren’t going to take kindly to her if they see her. Wolves haven’t been in these woods for some time, not like they used to be. People ain’t used to ‘em.”
“I know,” she said. She pulled the bags toward her.
“You know, I think some of those bags of corn flakes is about to go stale. If you want you could just take a few. Just gonna be throwing ‘em out anyhow.”
“No, thank you Travis.” She picked up the bag full of cans and balanced it against her hip. “I told you. I’m fine.”
Travis smiled. The toothpick leaned back with the curve of his lip.
“All right, Pen. You come on back soon.”
“Thanks,” she said. She paused, looked down at the bag of chips. “So, do you have any?”
“Any what now?”
“Cheese dip?” he hummed deep in his throat. He leaned back a bit and squinted even more so that his eyes all but disappeared into the folds of thick, sun-hardened flesh that blanketed his face. “I ain’t never heard of cheese dip. We got wintergreen, cherry, apple, peach.”
He reached below the counter and dropped a few round black tins in front of her. They knocked against the wood and rolled toward her.
“Never mind,” she said. She grabbed the bag and pulled it toward her. “Thanks, Travis.”
“You take care now,” he said. “Hope that wolf turns up. I’ll let you know if I hear anything. Good luck findin’ your dip.” He grabbed the tins and put them back under the counter. Penny took her bag and headed out into the morning.
Sometimes, the wolves got out. It was usually in the springtime after the first big thaw when all of the imperfections and defects that the winter had weakened along the fences became more accessible. The wolves would push through the holes in the chain link, their coats still thick enough from the cold to shield them from the jagged metal, and trot into the forest. Penny would notice they were gone because the others would be slinking around the edges of the pen, heads low, tails sweeping the snow-soaked brush, watching the space one of their own had slipped through which would be flecked with bits of gray and white and black fur, wondering if they should do the same.
Penny could usually count on them coming back in the next day or so, looking much the same as the family they had left behind, head low as they took flicking steps back through the wide doors she held open for them, back into the pen. The others would greet them with wagging tails, yipping and jumping on their backs, biting at their thick necks.
This had not started happening until a few years ago. Will had done a good job of keeping the fences maintained before then. He would walk up and down the pens every day, kicking at the base of them through the snow with steel-toed boots, rattling the sections with gloved hands, leaning against them, feeling for weakness.
But since Will had worsened over the last few years and they hadn’t had the money to hire a hand to help out around the sanctuary, the wolves had started to get out. Penny had tried to mend the fences herself, but she just didn’t have any skill with it. Now that Will was gone, there was little she could do.
She had asked Will to leave in late summer of that past year, when the leaves were just starting to turn. The sunrise was golden the day he left, and the air was still thick and heavy with moisture. Penny stood by the kitchen counter, holding a cup of coffee. Will stood in the doorway, a small suitcase at his hip. She watched him as he walked down the steps and across the yard to his truck. The engine growled and wheezed as he bumped down the gravel drive and turned out onto the road. Penny stood and watched the golden light shimmer along the grass, wet and glistening with dew as the rumble of his engine faded into the summer morning.
Penny and Will had opened the sanctuary ten years ago that winter. It had begun as just a small farm. A dream of theirs. A few chickens, a goat, a horse. They got Tristan, their first wolf, the alpha of the pack, a few years after that. They hadn’t planned on it. A friend of theirs had gotten Tristan at an auction in Ohio and couldn’t keep him. He was very young and very thin. Will took him in and nursed him until he was strong. They paid the money and got the permits to be able to keep him, and their collection grew. Now they had a rather large pack, 9 in all. They roamed over most of the land Penny and Will had accumulated over the years, fenced in to a wide range of woods and grasslands, creeks and rocky outcrops. They did well for themselves, caught raccoons and rabbits and sometimes birds, whatever made its way into their enclosure, even though Penny and Will fed them every few days and supplied them with fresh water. They had built a few small wooden huts for them that they lined with hay for sleeping. Penny had tried to keep up with all of the feedings since Will had gone, but it hadn’t been easy, along with everything else. She missed a day or two each week, but she didn’t think the wolves minded too much.
The wolf that had gotten loose, Emma, had been gone since early Monday morning. Emma was the alpha female of the pack. Tristan and was rather docile thanks to all of the attention he received as a pup. Most of the other wolves were very approachable as well, having also been hand raised from pups or just having grown accustomed to human interaction since coming to the sanctuary. They had gotten Emma when she was a bit older on average than the others, and she still had quite the wild streak. She let them approach her because Tristan allowed it, but she did not enjoy it, nor did she let them touch her. At least, not often.
Penny did not think much about Emma’s absence at first. Every other time a wolf had gotten loose, it returned before anyone had a chance to see it and report it to the Sheriff, or worse. She patched the hole as best she could, just as she always did, and continued to tend to the other animals. She fed the goats, the pigs, the llamas, the emus. She raked out old straw from their stalls, threw fresh bales down. She checked the water troughs and made sure the heaters and pumps were working. She checked on the chickens and the turkeys, collected eggs and checked for losses. Penny wore rain boots when she did her rounds, the green rubber of them squelching through the thick mud that coated the narrow trails between the pens this time of year. Most had been made by the pigs and goats, which wandered the land freely, and she just followed what was already there. This past winter had been relatively easy on her and the animals. Most had made it through.
Penny got in her truck. She put the bags in the passenger’s seat and turned out onto 1193. She hung her arm out of the window and squinted into the trees. The leaves were bright and small, newly sprouted. She breathed deep.
The asphalt was dark and slick with rain. It had been raining on and off all weekend, and Penny had stayed in more than she’d meant to. She had gotten the llamas and camel inside, the zebra and the emus. She needed to let them back out. They would like to pick at the branches that hung down into their enclosures, at the tender weeds sprouting up through the muck.
Penny slowed along the side of the road, the truck’s tires crunching along the gravel. She looked out over the rail at Laurel Lake. It had been there as long as her family had, vast and deep, rocky islands of pale sandstone dotting the dark blue-green water. She pulled up the emergency break and it stuck with a mechanical groan.
She stepped out of the truck and leaned out over the rail. The gravel ran down in a steep slope along the face of the dam. On the other side of the road there was a long drop down to the shelves of rock that lead out over a steep cliff which ended in a narrow creek that tricked off from the dam. She walked around the side of the road and down the trail that wound down to the lake’s shore.
Her and Will’s property practically butted up against the lake, only a few hundred yards from it. The wolves gathered along the fences some nights, watching the silver moonlight play on the glass-smooth surface of the water. Penny would walk along the fence in the dark and find them there, silent, watching. She thought it might be where Emma would go to hunt.
She walked down onto the sandy shore. No one was out, which was odd. Usually the beach was dotted with families, children splashing in the clear water, sitting on the plastic yellow tube that ran along the shallows in a slowly curving arch to bar swimmers from deeper waters. Buoys dotted the lake, warning boats away from the shores. Trees bunched in dense groves along the islands, thick walls of them lining the great expanse of the lake itself, the woods pushing up against sandy shores.
Penny walked along the water. She stepped up onto a shelf of rock, heading toward the woods. She paused at the edge of the shelf, looking down into the lake. Sunfish flitted where water met rock. The males were bright discs of orange and green, a black spot up behind their eyes, dark and imposing. They dig out little nests to impress the females, sand puffing up in smoky clouds around them. They nipped and chased each other, guarding their careful creations. The smaller, duller females darted along the outskirts of the male’s nests, testing the boundaries, probing for entry.
Penny headed into the forest. She knew that Falconer season was coming to a close, and that, of course, wild pig and groundhog season was year round. She wasn’t wearing the proper clothing or shoes, and she hoped she could be spotted decently through the trees, so as not to sneak up on someone and get shot by accident, or scare any animals someone else was stalking.
Penny knew she needed to find Emma herself. Emma had been gone too long, and if Penny didn’t find her, someone else would. Emma likely would not survive the encounter. The sheriff had already warned her and Will a few years back that if they didn’t do a better job keeping their animals in, they might lose their license. They hadn’t had any escapees for a while after that, Will was a bit more diligent with the upkeep, and they hadn’t heard from him since. But Penny was sure the sheriff had not forgotten his threat, and she knew that he would know exactly where the wolf had come from when and if Emma was found.
Penny worked her way deeper into the forest. It was still early, and she knew the sun would be up for some time. She wasn’t too worried about that. But she needed to be able to find her way back to the shore, back to the road. She was sure to run into the shore more than once as she made her way along the lake’s edge. That would help her keep her bearings. She could probably find the wolves’ enclosure pretty easily, it came so close to the lake. She knew she should have paid better attention to the fences. She felt her pockets, patted at her jeans. She did not have her phone. She hoped her sister Judith wouldn’t call her while she was out. If she did and Penny didn’t answer, she knew Judith would worry.
The woods were quieter than she expected. She could hardly hear anything over the hush and snap of her own footfalls. Few birds called. Her boots were glossy with water from the brush, the jeans that bunched along the tops of them dark with moisture. She paused, listened. The air was still and heavy with the lingering rain.
She waited. The forest remained still. She began again to move.
That past Thursday, the day before Emma got out, Judith had come by. She lived a half-hour south, near Williamsburg. She came by every few weeks with her kids now that Will was gone. She was almost ten years younger than Penny, only in her mid thirties. Her two boys would romp through the trees, running alongside the cage, trying to get the wolves to chase them. Usually the wolves just hid in the trees, watching the children from afar with yellow eyes. Judith shouted at them to go feed Pete, the old llama. Or bother one of the pigs. Leave the wolves alone.
Penny had been mucking the camel’s stall when Judith came by. The camel, Nathaniel, watched her from his pen, chewing on a hunk of hay from the pile Penny had given him earlier that morning. His top lip fell heavy over his teeth like velvet, creased down the middle. Every time he chewed, Penny could see the lined yellow plates of his square teeth.
Judith stood at the fence, arms slung over the darkening wood. Tom, her oldest, jogged along one of the low fences, a goat running along side him on the other side. The goat’s head was bowed, ribbed horns curled toward him. The younger child, Aiden, shouted at his brother from over by the pigs. They squealed hungrily, tiny tails slapping against their pink thighs, flat, wet noses wiggling toward Aiden’s fingers.
“How are things, Pen?” Judith said. Penny tossed a shovelful of dirty straw into her wheelbarrow. She wiped her nose along the thick sleeve of her jacket. It was an old denim one of Will’s she wore on colder days.
“Fine,” she said. She leaned down and scooped up another shovelful. Nathaniel leaned down to grab another mouthful of hay. He chewed it with a slow deliberation that Penny found somewhat memorizing.
“What are you going to do with all these animals, Pen?” Judith said. She glanced in the direction her boys had gone. They’d disappeared along the edge of the wolf pen.
“What do you mean?” Penny said. Nathaniel lowered his head as if to grab at more hay, but just stretched his neck out toward Penny, still chewing. Judith leaned over the fence to pat his neck.
“There are too many of them. It’s too much for you to handle,” she said.
“I’m not old,” Penny said.
“No one’s saying you are.”
Judith had begun to worry more about Penny after the separation. She told Penny that she didn’t talk to Will like she should. Judith was one of the only people who had seen Will’s decline firsthand, was one of many that thought Penny asking Will to leave had been the right thing to do. Penny noticed a change in Judith as the months went on, as Penny receded more and more into the sanctuary. She didn’t come by Judith’s as much, didn’t go into town. But what could she do, leave them alone? She didn’t understand why Judith insisted on visiting so often. She had been fine on her own for almost eight months. There was no changing it.
“You can’t do all of this by yourself. You can’t keep up as it is.”
“They’re doing fine. I’ve told you.”
“Get some help, then. Hire someone. Someone just to help out a few days a week. You know I’d do it, but with the boys and all. Howard works all the time. Someone’s got to care for them.”
“I know it,” Penny said. She leaned on the shovel handle. She had heard all of this from Judith before. Many times before.
“You know I’d be more than happy to give you a bit of money every once in a while, if you don’t have enough to hire someone,” Judith said. Penny resumed her shoveling.
“We are doing fine,” she said, not looking up. Judith held her breath as Penny slowly continued to rake out the stall. Judith had offered Penny money before, but Penny had never taken it. Judith had even tried to leave money at the house, to get in the car before Penny noticed. But somehow the money always ended up back with Judith, stuffed into a pocket of her purse or resting on her kitchen counter when Penny would leave after their monthly Sunday dinners.
“What about the wolves, Pen,” Judith said. “You don’t need them. They’re too much work. You can give them up at least?”
Penny looked beyond her sister’s shoulder and to the start of the wolves’ enclosure. She heard a hoot echo out of the trees. The boys must be down close to the lake by now. She wondered if they had spotted any of the wolves amidst the trees.
“No. No, I can’t do that,” she said. She lifted the shovel over the fence and propped it against the side of Nathaniel’s barn. She lifted the chain loop from the post and opened the metal gate. She backed out with the wheelbarrow. Nathaniel watched her go.
“Why not? They’re just a nuisance. You told me last year that Sheriff Norton was on you about them. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry?”
Penny put down the wheelbarrow. She looped the chain back over the fence and locked it. Nathaniel walked to the fence and hung his head over. Penny looked up at him. His long, dark lashes hung heavy over black eyes. The soft, velvet folds of his nose puckered with each tensing of his jaw, each grind of his blunt molars against the hay. She felt Nathaniel’s breath on her neck, warm and thick with the sour musk of half digested hay. She reached up to cup his dimpled chin in her palm.
“I can’t,” she said. Penny turned and picked up the wheelbarrow, heading toward the compost and did not look at her sister. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t ask me again.”
Penny moved away into the trees, wheelbarrow held before her. She could feel Judith behind her, the heat of her pity beaming out toward her like a floodlight.
After Judith and the boys had gone, Penny headed back into the house. She put away the pitcher of lemonade, the box of crackers, the jam. She washed her hands and sat down at the kitchen table. She looked at the cell phone sitting by the pile of bills that had accumulated there. She picked it up. Three missed calls from Judith from earlier that day. Her sister never ceased giving her grief about her lack of proper cell phone etiquette. Penny found it difficult to keep it on her person, difficult to keep up with. Her sister never tired of reminding her that she should think about her own wellbeing every once in a while. What if something happened to her? What if someone couldn’t reach her? How would they know where she was, that she was okay?
She opened the cell phone. Scrolled through the recent calls. She saw Will’s name. She put the phone on the table and looked at it for a while. Closed it.
She got herself a glass and filled it with a couple fingers of Buffalo Trace. She sat out on the deck in her rocking chair and watched the trees. She rocked, sipping her bourbon. It was bright amber in the dimming light. She cupped one hand to her cheek and let out a long, low howl. The howl crescendoed to a piercing crack before she let it fall away. She leaned back a bit, waiting.
It was soft at first. A tentative whine in the cooling air. Then another, longer this time, higher. A few more joined in, the wailing dipping and growing and merging into one call that mounted to a single voice. Penny closed her eyes and smiled, listened to her wolves’ voices carry along in the air of the cool spring night.
Penny was deep in the forest now, deeper than she had been off her own land since she was a girl. A few hours had passed. She needed to turn back soon. But she knew Emma was out here, knew that if she just pushed on a bit more, she could find her. She had to find her. To bring her home.
She moved toward a large hunk of limestone jutting from the ground up over a small hill. The stone was the larger of two that made a narrow pathway down into a small clearing. She moved down between the boulders, running her hands along their sides as she went. Thick moss grew along them, and some came off and crumbled behind her fingertips as she raked them across. She stepped into the clearing and saw a small pool. It was lined with boulders, their dark bodies disappearing into the mouth of it. It was dark and deep, and she could not see the bottom. She wondered if it was the opening to some underground cave, some source of ground water she was not aware of. She didn’t think this could be possible. She knew all of the reservoirs and caves in the area.
She kneeled by the pool and stuck her hand in. it was ice cold. It made her fingers ache after only a few moments. She let them dangle beneath its surface.
She remembered the last time she had gone in the wolf pen before Emma had gotten out. It was about three weeks ago, after the last time Will had called. He had asked her about them right before they hung up. She told him they were doing fine.
“I’d like to come see them sometime,” he said. She could hear him shuffling around on the end of the line. It sounded like he was moving papers.
“I don’t know,” Penny said. She was standing out on the porch where she got better reception.
“Don’t you think it would be good if I came and helped out some?” he said. “You can’t be doing all of this by yourself.”
“I don’t know why you’d want to,” she said.
“Because I care about them. And about you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Penelope. You know how hard this is for me.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
After years of the bright, sterile walls of doctor’s offices, of pill bottles and Psychiatrist’s sagging couches, of weekend phone calls from different rehab centers, Penny was finally finished. She couldn’t stand to find another bottle of booze swaddled in plastic wrap and stuck into toilet tanks, under the deck, hidden away in the backs of freezers and cupboards and dressers. Will’s puffed cheeks and sour breath were gone. His warm, calloused hands and softly drooping eyes, the way they crinkled and sparked when he smiled. All of it was gone. And Penny was alone.
She hung up the phone. She set it on the arm of her rocking chair. She walked down along the goat path and toward the wolves’ gate. She lifted the huge latch and let herself in. She stood for a moment silently, waiting for them to notice. She walked into the trees a bit, careful of where she stepped. After few minutes, she began to hear them padding up through the leaves. She sat down, back against a tree. She saw Molly first. She was a red wolf, small and lithe. Her bushy tail wagged against the grass, ears back, head low. She stopped a few feet from Penny, watching. Rosie was up next. A simple gray, wider across the chest. She stood back from Molly, moved around her behind the next tree. They began to gather in twos. Rye and Sawyer, Stella and Annabelle. Bartholomew came, then Emma. Tristan was last. He walked up through the group, up to Penny. She let him sniff at her, head low, yellow eyes glowing up at her out of the midday gloom of the trees. His tail began to wag furiously and he rubbed his neck against her outstretched hands. She laughed.
“Now I’m going to smell all of wolf,” she said. He licked at her fingers and whined deep in his throat, a low rumble. The other wolves yipped and panted. Emma held back and watched as the other wolves prodded and licked Penny. She laughed, patting their heads, accepting their affection. She stood, Tristan trying to leap up onto her, black paws heavy with mud. Penny looked out at Emma. She had dark, amber eyes. Her ears were tipped with black, full and white against the dark of the trees. She was mostly white, a saddle of peppery gray along her back and down her tail. The black of her nose dipped down along her lips. Her paws were dark with mud.
And that was how Penny saw her now, standing up above her on one of the boulders. She was silhouetted by the sun, white fur shining like a halo around her, ears tall and pricked. Penny stepped back to get a look at her, her heel dipping into the deep pool, startling her. She focused quickly on Emma again, hoping she hadn’t moved. The wolf looked down at her with the same calm expression, the same dark eyes.
“Emma,” Penny said. She held out a hand. “Emma, come on down here, girl. Come on.”
Penny moved toward the wolf, trying to make her way back up the narrow path between the boulders while still keeping an eye on her. Emma watched her progression until she was back up near the edge of the rock.
“Emma. Come on. Don’t just stand there. Come over here. Move.” Penny’s hand was still outstretched. She took a stop forward.
Emma’s ears twitched. Penny held her breath. Something in the forest chirped and Emma’s ear turned toward it. Penny glanced in its direction, and Emma followed her gaze. The wolf turned her head, black nose pointed into the gloom, Penny before her, hand outstretched, waiting for anything, waiting for a reason to move.