Appaloosa Plains. Just your average, quiet, southern town. Mountains to the north, a meandering river to the south, and a sleepy community nestled in the middle surrounded by trees. A naturalist’s dream, some say. The perfect place to be if one simply wishes to while away the hours sitting on the front porch gazing out at the occasional passing hedgehog, or to saddle up one’s horse and go for a hack amongst the woodland.
‘You’d better get a smile on your face before we reach my sister’s house, young lady, or we will be having severe words later!’
‘But I don’t want to be here, Mum!’
‘For goodness’ sake Louise, we’re only here for the weekend. It’s not like I’ve uprooted your entire life!’ Anita Fletch rolled her eyes as she braked to avoid a family of ducks as they waddled across the road to reach the pond on the other side.
‘You may as well have done! You do realise just what you’ve done to me, dragging me away for this weekend! This weekend, Mum! Of all the weekends!’
‘Yes I know Louise, you’re missing Melody’s party, you’ve only mentioned it eight hundred times. You know full well I don’t like you hanging around with that girl, she’s a bad influence! And I’ll tell you again, it is only one party!’
‘But everyone was going to be there!’
‘And everyone will be there at the next one! Come on Lou, please. You know what I’ve been through, I just need to get away from the city for a while, especially after what your Father – Look, you know I need this. Please. Just co-operate.’
‘Fine!’ Lou dramatically tossed her braided hair and slumped her head against the car’s window, pouting and crossing her arms, trying to bite back the tear that threatened to spill over. It wasn’t just any old party. It was going to be the party of year! Melody’s parents had gone away for the weekend and Melody had practically invited the whole school.
Dylan was going to be there.
Louise sighed, staring glumly out of the wind shield at the hell she’d been dragged to. She wished she had Melody’s parents. They didn’t drag her to the middle of nowhere just because they were having a nervous bloody breakdown. Hmph. Life just wasn’t fair.
The car turned onto Anita’s sister’s street, and Louise tried to repress the smile that was creeping onto her lips. Her aunt and uncle’s green farm house, the one her mother and aunt had grown up in, stuck out like a sore thumb amongst their muted neighbours and even from this distance she could see Aunty Kendra stood on the front porch, beaming and waving at her approaching family.
Parking up, Anita practically ran from the car and into her sister’s arms, hugging her close as if the embrace was all that was holding her together. Louise stood awkwardly on the sidelines looking around for Layla, the collie her aunt and uncle owned.
‘It’s okay, Anita, it’s okay. You’re home now, you’re safe.’
‘I just can’t believe he would do that to me, Ken!’
‘I know sweetie, I know. We’ll go make a coffee and talk all about it.’
Louise tried not to listen to the snippets of conversation that floated her way, instead concentrating very carefully on the lilting noise of a distant ice cream van. Eventually, her mother pulled away from her sister and made her way tearily into the house. Kendra watched her walk up the porch steps with a sad smile on her face before turning to her niece.
‘Louise, my darling, how are you? It’s so good of you to come out here with your mother, especially after what’s happened. You must be taking it so hard too; you’re such a dear to be so strong for mum, hey?’
Shifting from foot to foot, Louise muttered an incomprehensible reply. Her aunt’s kind words made her feel a little guilty. Deservedly guilty.
Kendra smiled warmly. ‘Well, we’ll try not to bore you too much while you’re here. Your uncle’s taken Daisy down to the equine centre to give Elisa from across the road her jumping lesson, but I think Tanner’s out the back. I’m sure he’d be glad to see you!’ Reaching into her pocket, Kendra handed Louise a small apple and winked.
Nodding, Louise turned and walked down the dirt path down the side of the house and jumped over the fence at the end of it, breaking into a smile as the wise old face of Tanner the shire horse turned her way. Seeing the proffered apple he trotted over and took it from her outstretched hand, munching away gratefully.
‘Hey, Tanner! Steady on, have they not been feeding you or something!’ Louise laughed as Tanner devoured the treat, whinnying gently and nudging the teenager for more. Placing a steadying hand on his face, Louise remembered when she had met the great horse for the first time. Her uncle had bought him when she was five years old, so he had been a part of the farm for as long as she could remember.
‘Oh, Tanner. Life’s always a disappointment, isn’t it?’ She sympathised as Tanner realised there were no more apples coming his way and softly head butted Louise to show his annoyance, rubbing his neck. ‘At least you’ll have more apples some day. I don’t think my dad’s coming home any time soon. Any time ever. And I don’t even have Dylan to take my mind off things…’ Louise paused as she voiced her feelings for Dylan aloud for the first time, shaking her head sadly. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears.
Tanner stood still carefully as the apple-girl clung onto him, a little confused. She wasn’t happy, he knew that. But he didn’t understand why. Oh, these human types, they led such complicated lives. All he needed was the odd carrot, the odd apple, his salt lick and a bale of sweet hay and he was right as rain.
But these human types needed more than that, and right now the apple-girl needed him. So he stood still carefully and nickered quietly as she clung onto his mane. Maybe he was her apple. Who knew.
* * *
After digging out another apple from the barn for Tanner and sorting her face out, Louise jumped over the other side of the fence and into the back yard. To the rear of the yard stood her uncle’s farm, acres upon acres of crops as far as the eye could see. The back yard itself was remarkably simple; a barbecue, a picnic table, a fire pit and the dog house, in which a sleepy Layla was snoozing. She raised her head in acknowledgement as Louise approached her, before looking pointedly at her bowl.
‘Honestly, does no-one on this farm feed their animals? One second, Layla!’ Louise popped into the house and prayed that the dog food was still kept in it’s usual spot in the utility room. Finding it, she ran out to find a slightly more alert Layla waiting patiently.
‘Here you are girl! Chicken and liver, enjoy!’ Louise carefully poured the dry food into the bowl, expecting Layla to react as she usually did and bound from her kennel and up at her in delight for a few minutes before scoffing her face. Instead, Layla practically crawled from her spot and up to the bowl sleepily, pulling the bowl closer to her before tucking in.
Louise frowned. ‘Layla? Are you okay?’ she asked concernedly, but got no reaction from the dog who’s main priority now was the filling of her stomach. Lou watched her for a while longer before walking back into the house and into the kitchen where her aunt was cooking tea.
‘Where’s mum?’ she asked a little nervously, her shy demeanour getting the better of her. Even around close family she could feel on edge, especially if she hadn’t seen them for a while.
‘She’s in her room unpacking, she’ll be out for her meal. Stu surprise, my speciality! Hope you’re hungry, there’ll be a lot to go around,’ replied Kendra as she busily chopped an aubergine, courgette and squash, seemingly at the same time. Kendra had been a professional chef back in the day, before buying her own restaurant in the centre of Appaloosa Plains and taking a back seat management role to help out with the family’s farm her husband now ran. Not that she lost her passion for cooking, mind. Her family was the best fed in the entire county!
‘I didn’t eat lunch so that I’d have room for your cooking, aunty K!’ Louise joked, tentatively taking a seat at the kitchen table. Kendra laughed before gently admonishing her niece.
‘Now then Loulou, you know that’s not what I like to hear! You’re a growing girl, you should be having your three square meals a day!’
‘But your meals are huge! They’re more like cubes!’
‘Right they are, and that’s why my restaurant is the most successful in the area! And don’t you forget it, my girl. And don’t just sit there, either! No idle hands in this house, mark my words. Wash up and you can give me a hand here, there’s a tonne of potatoes to be peeled!’
* * *
‘Kendra, Arnie, can I just thank you again for taking in Louise and I for the weekend? You don’t know how much it means to me, just to be able to get away from everything. Work, the city, life…’ Anita trailed off as she took another mouthful of her stu, trying not to let her words run away with her. Arnie, back from the equine centre, smiled sympathetically.
‘It’s no problem at all, Anita, as you know family’s welcome here at any time! Just as long as you chip in. We’ve got you mucking out the stables at seven tomorrow morning, just so you know!’ Arnie’s bellowing laugh echoed around the kitchen as Louise tried not to choke on her food.
‘Mum, mucking out the stables? That’ll be the day! You should see our apartment back at home, uncle, it’s utterly spotless! Mum abides dirt of any kind, I can’t imagine her covered in horse muck’ Louise grinned at her mother across the table.
‘Louise Fletch! I will have you know that I cleaned out my fair share of stables in my younger days! Your aunt will vouch for me, won’t you Kendra!’
Kendra nodded, chuckling away. ‘I must say, she did Louise. That was until she grew up and flew off to university and left country life for the rat race, and seemingly developed an allergy to mess! I have seen your apartment many times, Anita, before you start! You can’t deny it!’
‘See! I told you mum!’
‘Will you all stop ganging up on me! Come on Louise, you know I’m not uptight! It wasn’t until your father said…’ Anita trailed off, her smile wiped from her face instantly at the mention of her husband. Tension radiated.
Louise stared steadfastly at her now empty bowl. ‘Um. I think I’ll go to bed,’ she murmured as she got up from the table and took her bowl to the dishwasher. ‘Am I in the loft?’
‘Yes you are sweetheart, in the room your mother and I used to share,’ said Kendra with a faux-brightness to her voice, glad of the distraction from the uncomfortable atmosphere. ‘I think Layla’s up there at the moment, she’s taken to sleeping on the rug in there. I hope that’s alright?’
‘Of course! Oh, aunty, I meant to say something earlier – is Layla okay? She seems really sluggish and lazy. Well, lazier than usual I mean!’
‘Course she is, daft girl. She’s nearly full term!’ Arnie looked at Louise as if she’d just asked what colour the sky was.
‘Full term? What?’
‘Oh gosh!’ Kendra exclaimed suddenly, her hands flying to her face. ‘I completely forgot to tell you both! Layla’s having puppies! She’s due in the next couple of weeks, we think!’
Reaching her room, Louise found Layla laid in the centre of the patterned rug on her back. Now that she looked closer she could see her stomach was rounded through her dense fur. Puppies!
‘That’s so exciting, girl! I can’t wait to see them! What lucky puppies, having such a gorgeous mummy! Make sure you -‘ Louise was distracted as her phone vibrated in her pocket. Standing, she took it out and read the message.
Lou! You’ll never guess what! Dylan Rivers just asked me out! Dylan! Hahahahahaha!! Think I’m gonna go for it, it’ll get Brad off my back! That’ll teach him to break up with me, won’t it? Haha! Hope you’re having fun in the middle of nowhere, lol as if! You’re missing a great party girl! xxxxxx
Louise felt her heart drop into her shoes. She sent some vague response to Melody and dropped her phone into the drawer of the dresser, slamming it shut angrily.
Dylan and Melody. Dylan and Melody.
She’d missed the party and Dylan had asked out her best friend. Dylan had asked out Melody and she hadn’t been there to say anything. She hadn’t been there to stop it. Melody would have said no if she’d told her, she would have found someone else to get back at Brad with. Surely, she would…
No she wouldn’t, you silly girl! Melody looks after number one, then everyone else if it suits her…
Louise cursed the voice in her head as she changed into her nightdress numbly and crawled into the welcoming bedsheets. Layla watched her curl up, baffled at the sudden change in her mood. She’d been so happy, then that little box thing had made her so sad. Why?
Carefully, Layla jumped up onto the other side of the double bed and settled down. Poor girl. She was sad.
She felt a squirming inside her stomach, and shifted her position. Babies. They were her babies. She’d be looking after them soon, any day now. Until then her maternal instincts would be put to better use here, she thought. Snuggling up closer to Louise, Layla put her head down and drifted off to sleep.
Half an hour later Anita carefully climbed the stairs up to her old bedroom, where she herself had slept as a teenager. Half nine and Louise was already fast asleep. This wasn’t like her. She was a city girl, they were generally a nocturnal bunch! Exhaling, Anita rubbed her face resignedly. She was trying not to let her marital difficulties be too much of a strain on her daughter, but she’d seen her face at tea time, she’d seen how she’d clammed up. How she hoped she wouldn’t lose her, as well as her husband. Oh, her darling girl…