1

 

“YOU COULD get a summer job.”

Finn Ryan knew better than to roll his eyes at his mother. That would just make everything worse. “Mom, it’s almost August. All the summer jobs are taken.”

“So you’re planning on just sitting around the house until school starts?” she asked from behind one of the final boxes left to unload. They’d just moved from Austin, Texas, to Woodland Park, Colorado.

“I was hoping to get out and do some exploring.” He leaned against the kitchen counter in an effort not to appear confrontational. “We’re living in the mountains now. It’s a new world for me. I’d like to get to know it better.”

“By using up money driving around?” She looked up from the box as she pulled out the huge platter Finn’s grandmother had left her and that was relegated to Thanksgiving and Christmas use. “Gas is expensive, young man. We’re not made of money.”

Finn wanted to be out of the house, but walking away when his mother was in the middle of trying to plan out his life was a surefire way to piss her off big time. “I know. I’ve checked online. There’s a bunch of hiking trails that either come through town or start here. It wouldn’t take that much gas to get to them. Come on, Mom. Didn’t we move up here to get back to nature?”

She set the platter on the growing pile of dishes next to the sink. “It was, but until we know what’s lurking in the woods, I’d rather us go as a family.”

“And listen to Shelby go on about every little bug that crawls past her?” Finn pushed himself up to sit on the marble countertop, just far enough away from the pile of dishes to keep from knocking them off.

“Your little sister is more cautious than you are,” his mother replied. “I’m hoping the more we get her out of the house and into the wild, the more accepting she’ll be of things. There aren’t as many bugs here as in Austin and they aren’t as big. She nearly died of fire ant bites a few years ago, in case the source of her fears has slipped your mind.”

“No, it hasn’t.” Finn remembered very well carrying his screaming sister into the house with thousands of ants biting both of them. “I just want to be able to enjoy life up here. It’s a lot more awesome than Texas was.”

His mother felt around in the bottom of the box, the packing peanuts making a rough rustling sound. “I agree with you. I just need us all to be safe while we’re adjusting. Just the higher altitude can be a problem if we aren’t careful.”

The back door opened, and his father and sister walked in. At seventeen, Finn was as tall as his father at six feet, but his father was heavier by a fair amount. Although both his parents often reminded him that he still had time to fill out, Finn constantly worried that he was going to be skinny and awkward forever.

His sister bounced a bit as she carried a couple of plastic bags to the table and set them down. Her bright red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, something she’d begun wearing since they’d moved, claiming it was helping her to adapt to the new environment.

“Did you know there’s a farmers’ market in town?” his father asked as he opened the stainless steel fridge and put in a gallon jug of milk.

“No. When is it?” His mother carried the final box to stack it with other empties by the back door.

“This morning. I think the sign said it was over at one.” With quick movements, Finn’s father put the rest of the perishables in the fridge.

“One?” His mother glanced at the clock. “If you’re thinking about going this week, we’ll have to hurry.”

“Next week I’ll be at work.” Closing the fridge, his father folded up the plastic bag and carried it to where the recycling was accumulating. “I’d like to go.” He glanced at Finn. “I’d like all of us to go. Get out and see what our new town has to offer.”

Finn slipped off the counter. “Sounds like fun. It’ll get me out of the house for a while.” He headed for his room at the end of the upper hall so he could put on some socks.

“Five minutes, Finn!” his mother shouted after him.

“Okay.” He didn’t hurry. It wouldn’t take him five minutes to put on socks.

The hall that ran the upper length of the house had hardwood floors that squeaked as he walked. There were enough noises, he hadn’t bothered trying to figure out where they all were so he could avoid them. The heavy wooden door separating his room from the rest of the house was open as he approached. His room didn’t look like his yet—it was still too clean. He’d put everything in its place when he’d unpacked his boxes. The desk at the window was still organized, but it was starting to show a bit of clutter. Beyond the window was a breathtaking view of Pikes Peak. He thought it was the best view in the entire house. Of course the view from the porch was better, but it didn’t count since it wasn’t in the house.

The thick smell of the cedar lining rushed out when he opened his closet to get to his chest of drawers and retrieve his socks. He hadn’t decided yet if he liked the smell or not.

“Come on, slowpoke!” Shelby called from his door. “Mom’s ready to roll.”

Finn yanked open his sock drawer and snatched out a pair. “She said five minutes.”

Shelby laughed. “You know Mom, she’s ready to go now.”

Leaning against the closet door, Finn managed to get his socks on before he headed back downstairs. “I wish she’d use a watch,” he mumbled as he fell into step behind Shelby.

 

 

THEY PARKED behind the library, only a few blocks from their new house, and walked the two blocks to where the street was closed off and the vendor booths started. At first it looked more like a craft fair than a farmers’ market. Some of the crafts looked like things he’d seen at similar events in Texas, but when Finn looked closer at them, it was obvious the details were different. Sure there were handmade wooden signs, but the sayings on them were different. Instead of coyote crossings, there were bear crossings. The photos were of mountains instead of fields of bluebonnets. Eagles replaced pelicans. His parents barely slowed down for the art booths, but about half a block down, the food vendors started.

“Corn!” his mother squealed in pleasure. “I wasn’t sure we’d be able to find fresh sweet corn up here. Peter, I want a case of it. We can blanch it and freeze it. It’ll be great all winter. Oh, and they’ve got watermelons.”

Finn’s father patted her arm. “Lisa, honey, let’s go through everything, and then you can make your choices. Get the best prices.”

“Of course.” She smiled up at him. “That way you and Finn don’t have to strain to get it back to the car.” She hurried into the first booth and started talking with the burly man standing behind the string peas.

“Why don’t you two go looking around?” Finn’s father suggested. “I’m sure she’ll be a while. If I can’t find you, I’ll call. Finn, keep an eye on Shelby.”

“Dad, I’m fifteen,” Shelby objected before Finn could. “I can take care of myself.”

Their father shrugged it off. “It’s a new city, Shelby. Humor your old man and stay close to Finn.”

She let out an overly dramatic sigh. “Fine.” She glanced at Finn. “Come on.”

Not seeing the point in trying to direct their path, Finn followed her. In the next booth, they paused to sample some fresh bread that Finn had to admit was really tasty but had an odd texture. The sign in the booth was for High Altitude Bakers out of Divide. It made him remember his mother mentioning something about baking was difficult in the mountains.

They made it another block before the booths turned to the right. The food vendors ended on the side street and two local animal rescue places had booths. The first had an assortment of leashes, collars, and toys on the table with pictures of the animals they had available for adoption.

“We need to get another cat,” Shelby announced as she perused the pictures.

Finn shook his head. “But you cried so hard when Muffin died.”

“I know. She was old. Mom and Dad got her before either one of us was born. I’d known her all my life. My pillow was so cold after she was gone. But I think I’m ready for another cat… or maybe a puppy.”

“That’s up to Mom and Dad,” Finn said. He didn’t want to admit that he would be interested in having a dog too, even for the short time before he went off to college in another year.

“I’ll talk to them about it.” Shelby straightened and turned from the table. “I stay on their good side better than you do.”

Finn rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

He froze when he turned from the shelter adoption table and spotted the big chain link cage across the street that housed a huge wolf. There was something in the yellow eyes that called to him. The black wolf blinked at him, breaking the momentary spell.

Finn hurried across the street to the table that kept people away from the wolf’s pen. A sign hung under the folding table for High Mountain Wolf and Wild Dog Center. The logo on both ends of the sign was a wolf howling at the moon with mountains silhouetted against it. On the table lay a bunch of pictures of wolves; some of the pictures had snow in them, and bright orange leaves graced others.

“Hi,” said a deep voice.

“Hey.” Finn looked up into a pair of hazel eyes that were nearly as vivid as the wolf’s yellow ones had appeared. He swallowed. “Nice wolf you’ve got there. It is a wolf, right?”

The boy behind the table nodded. He looked to be about the same age as Finn but was slightly taller and nearly twice as broad.

For a moment, Finn wondered if he was a football player or something since he had a narrow waist below his massive shoulders.

“Right,” the boy said. “That’s Midnight. He’s one of our outreach wolves. From what we’ve been able to tell, he’s one of the few pure-blood wolves we’ve got, but he was hand-raised by some guy in Montana, so he’s mellow enough to handle people staring at him. A lot of wolves and wolf hybrids can’t stand that. It probably also helps that he’s not an alpha and tends not to take it as a challenge.”

“That’s good.” Finn forced his gaze away from the other teen and back to the wolf. “I don’t think I’d like to challenge him for anything. He’d probably eat me.”

“Yeah, like you’d make much of a meal,” Shelby snipped beside him.

Finn’s face grew warm, but he forced back a retort.

“I don’t think Midnight would eat you. He’s more apt to run from a challenge.” The teen pulled out a flyer from a holder in the center of the table and thrust it toward Finn. “We’ve got a center between here and Divide. We offer tours. You could come out and see some of the wolves that would eat you.” He flashed a bright smile.

Not being able to help himself, Finn took the flyer and grinned back. “Thanks. I’ve been looking for stuff to do until school starts.”

“New around here?” The teen put his hands on the table and leaned forward, and Finn noticed how long and elegant his fingers were and blushed at the thoughts that popped into his head.

“Yeah, just moved in last week.” Finn’s gaze kept moving back and forth from the boy in front of him to the wolf. Both demanded his whole attention.

“We’re in a great part of the country. There’s a lot to see here. I might be biased, but I think our center is one of the highlights in the Pikes Peak area.”

Finn had never had a huge interest in wolves, but he’d never seen one so close before. The chain link just a few feet behind the teen didn’t seem as substantial as the plexiglass at the zoo always appeared. But he wasn’t afraid. He wanted to reach through the wire mesh and pet the wolf. He wanted to know more. “So how many do you have?” He paused, then added, “Wolves, how many wolves do you have?”

“Full-blooded wolves, only three,” the boy replied. “But wolf and coyote hybrids, twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five?” Finn blinked and jerked his attention back to the young man. “That’s a lot.”

“Yeah. Takes me, my folks, and our volunteers a lot of time each day to take care of them all.”

“Volunteers? You mean like a job you don’t get paid for?” The spark of an idea hit Finn. He hadn’t had the opportunity to make any new friends since moving.

The boy laughed. “I guess that’s one way you could put it.”

A woman, who bore a resemblance to the boy, walked up with a reusable bag in her hand. “Hey, thanks for stopping by the booth.” She smiled warmly at Finn and Shelby before turning to the boy. “Ivan, you need anything? I’m going to get a bit more shopping done before we pack up.”

“No, Mom. I think I’m good. Just talking to these folks here.”

“Okay.” She put the bag down on the pavement under the table and hurried off.

Finn waited until she was gone before continuing. “So what’s it take to be a volunteer?”

“Oh, like you could handle physical labor?” Shelby said and turned away from the table.

“Are you eighteen?” Ivan studied him, and a shiver went through Finn. There was something appealing in his hazel gaze.

“Seventeen, until next summer.” Finn’s shoulders drooped.

“You could still volunteer if you get one of your parents to do it with you.”

“Really?” Finn straightened and started trying to figure out which of his parents would be interested in going with him to a wolf center. “I could try that.”

“We’re always looking for folks to lend a hand.” Ivan leaned against the table again and dropped his voice. “I have to be honest, though, it can be kind of dirty shoveling wolf shit for hours at a time.”

Finn shrugged. He didn’t think it could be much worse than moving the mud that always seemed to fill their backyard in Austin every spring. “Doesn’t sound too bad.”

With another bright grin, Ivan stopped leaning on the table. “Keep the flyer, and come out sometime. Midnight and the others would love to meet you up close and personal.”

“We could go in the pens with them?”

“They’re not monkeys that throw their shit out through the wire.” Ivan laughed. “Going in is one of the perks of volunteering. Wolves are amazing animals once you get to know them.”

“Finn, I’m leaving,” Shelby said from over her shoulder as she wandered off.

“Crap,” Finn muttered. “I’ll talk to my parents. Hope I can make it out there.” He held his hand over the table. “I’m Finn.”

Ivan’s hand was large enough that it engulfed Finn’s. “Ivan. Hope to see you again. If not at the center, maybe in school in a few weeks.”

“Sure.” Clutching the flyer, Finn hurried off after Shelby. He paused and looked back at Ivan, who was watching him go. Behind Ivan, Midnight’s yellow eyes caught the afternoon light and sparkled.