Sunday seemed to arrive all too quickly for Louise and her mother. Louise had been sadly packing away her things when Anita came into her room and sat down on her bed.
‘Lou… I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to go back yet. I was thinking… You’ve got half term this week. I know you’ve probably got plans with Melody and your friends, but if you wanted to your Aunt and Uncle have said that we could stay a few days more?’
‘Really?!’ Louise whipped round, her braids flying. Her mind was whirring… Melody wouldn’t like it. But then, Melody had Dylan now, to take her mind off everything…’We could maybe see Layla’s puppies being born,’ she said hopefully. ‘Could we stay, for a few more days? Go back on Wednesday, maybe?’
Anita’s face lit up and she stood and walked over to her daughter, pulling her into a tight hug. ‘Thanks, Lou,’ she whispered.
* * *
‘Wow Layla, you really are strong!’
Louise laughed as Layla tugged on the pull-rope playfully, her tail wagging frantically, almost pulling Louise over in the process! Kendra looked over from where she was bartering with a local fisherman and grinned.
‘You be careful with that dog, young lady! Especially in her condition!’
‘Oh, relax Auntie!’ Louise called back. ‘It’s not as if she’s going to give birth right here on the beach – Layla!!’
Layla was stood stock-still with an expression of pure surprise on her face as a pool of straw-coloured liquid collected in the sand around her hind paws. Louise gaped.
‘Layla! I’m so sorry! Auntie Kendra!’
Kendra was already at Louise’s side, smiling maternally down at her beloved pet. ‘Looks like all that exercise kickstarted you, girl! Come on Lou, let’s get her into the back of the van and home. We can’t have her giving birth on the beach!’
Layla’s labour was quick and looked practically effortless; both Anita and Kendra were looking on jealously exchanging gruesome tales of their own experiences while Arnie and Louise helped the eager mother reach all five of her newborn pups. Louise could hardly take her eyes off the fluffy brood, and as soon as Layla had finished cleaning up the first born she carefully reached into the basket and picked it up.
‘Hello there! Ooo, Uncle A, this one’s a boy!’
‘You’re right there, girl! And I think this one is too, and the others are girls… Two boys, three girls! Aren’t you a clever girl, Layla!’ Arnie ruffled the proud dog’s head, his eyes misting over a little. Layla licked his hand soothingly and seemed to nod in response. ‘Why don’t you give that one a name, Lou?’
‘Really?!’ Louise gasped. ‘Wow! Thank you, Uncle A! Hmm… What shall we call you, little puppy? Hey!’ She laughed as the pup reached out at batted at her nose, yipping away at her!
Lou hadn’t wanted to go to bed that night, instead wanting to stay watching Layla, Cooper, and the rest of the puppies even as they slept. As her eyelids drooped as the night went on she eventually admitted defeat, and got up from her spot on the computer chair quietly, dimming the lights as she left the room. Turning back for one last look, she saw Cooper nestled right up practically under his mother’s chin, snoozing peacefully.
‘Night, Layla… Night Cooper… Night pups,’ she whispered as she slowly closed the door. Just as the door was about to close to, she saw Layla open one eye and look at her, a smile seeming to appear on her sleepy face. ‘Well done, girl,’ Lou smiled back.
* * *
‘So, what does everyone have planned for your last day here?’ Kendra asked as everyone got stuck into their freshly made waffles. ‘I thought we could all go down to the park later for a picnic, take the pups out for the first time?’
‘Great idea, sis!’ Anita said happily through a mouthful of her waffles. In the past few days Anita had visibly relaxed, the worries of Bridgeport seeming to melt away like the waffles were doing on their tongues. ‘You’re up for that, right Lou?’
‘Of course!’ Louise nodded enthusiastically. ‘But this morning I think I’m going to take Tanner into town. I’ve, er, I’ve got an appointment at the salon. I’m going for a makeover.’
‘A makeover? Whatever for, love! There’s nothing wrong with you,’ Kendra admonished gently. ‘You don’t need one!’
Louise smiled as she speared another piece of waffle onto her fork. ‘You’re so sweet, Auntie! No, I’m not doing it because I think I need one. It’s just that… Well, I kind of feel like I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been here. Well not changed, just… I’ve come out of myself a bit more. I’m not afraid to be me any more. I just want the outside to reflect that. I’m not going for anything drastic, don’t you worry!’
‘Just so long as it’s practical,’ Arnie grunted from the end of the table. ‘You won’t be able to help with the weeding if you’re all dolled up to the nines.’
Grinning, Louise rolled her eyes. ‘Never fear, Uncle!’
‘There we go, boy! You’ve had your makeover, now it’s time to go for mine!’ Louise stepped back to admire her handiwork; Tanner’s coat was practically gleaming and his polished hooves were glinting in the sunlight through his neatly groomed feathers.
‘Don’t you look handsome!’ Louise patted his neck as Tanner turned his head back to inspect his coat, tossing his mane from one side to the other. Seemingly satisfied, he nuzzled Louise. What a nice girl, she was. If only she’d brought him another apple…
Saddling up the steed Louise hopped onto the horse with far more confidence than she had done a few days previously and set Tanner off trotting up the road. She’d done a lot more riding since the trip to the grocer’s she’d taken with Daisy, even helping out her Uncle with a couple of the riding lessons he gave to some of the local children. Breathing in the fresh, countryside air she realised just how much she loved it in Appaloosa Plains. The wide open spaces, greenery, the quiet countryside… It was the total opposite of noisy, grey Bridgeport, yet she loved them both equally.
Coming up to the small salon, she walked Tanner up to the tetherposts (Louise was still amused by the number of places there were to tether horses in this town!) and fastened his bridle securely, leaving the horse to wait for one of her Uncle’s riding students to come and pick him up in a few minutes time, before walking a little self-consciously into the building and up to the stylist who was sat behind a desk reading a fashion magazine.
‘Ah, you must be Louise Fletch!’ The stylist smiled widely and flipped her magazine closed. ‘You’re early! Good thing I’m quiet today,’ she joked, winking. ‘Right then my dear! My name is Justine and I’ll be styling you today! What did you have in mind?’
‘Well, I’m not really sure… Just a change, really,’ Louise replied as Justine ushered her over to her work station and onto a wooden platform. ‘I’ve had the same style and hair since I was five years old, I think!’
‘Gosh, that is a long time! Around ten years, yes? Well it’s high time for a change! Leave it to me, my dear!’
Justine got to work immediately, combing out Louise’s braids and flicking through rails and rails of clothes as she tried to find a style for the teenager. ‘You girls have got to be careful, you know,’ she said absent-mindedly as Louise was sat with conditioner soaking into her hair. ‘Flash too much flesh and you’ll look foolish! I see it all the time when I pop to the city, young girls strolling around with their legs and their chests out wearing next to nothing when they simply don’t need to! They’re pretty enough to get attention without resorting to such cheap measures. Poor creatures, I always think they must have so little confidence in themselves if they feel that’s the only way people will be interested in them. You remember that, my girl! You have stunning features, you know,’ she said as she turned back to her client and started painting a face mask on to Louise. ‘You just need to make the most of them!’
Lou sat and listened as Justine chatted away, letting everything sink in. What she’d said about the girls in the city had really hit her. Melody walked around just as Justine had described, showing off everything, but… Could what Justine had just said been true about her friend? Was Melody just covering up a lack of confidence? Puzzled Louise tried to concentrate on her own makeover, which was coming to an end as Justine applied a last subtle coat of mascara.
‘There we go, my dear! I do hope you like it.’
Louise loved it.
Her hair was tied back away from her face, waving down her back. She hadn’t realised just how long it was out of the braids! Her makeup was subtle, classy, enough to enhance her features without being caked on. Justine had dressed her in a short black skirt, white blouse and red demin jacket, doing just as she’d said she would do – emphasise one of Louise’s features without making her look cheap. Louise had been lost for words as she’d paid Justine.
‘No need to thank me, my dear! It’s my pleasure!’ Justine had beamed as she waved her goodbye. Louise had walked out of the salon to find her Uncle, Aunt and Mother waiting where Tanner should’ve been.
‘Louise, my dear, you look beautiful!’ Anita exclaimed as she hugged her daughter, with Kendra echoing her sentiments as she smoothed back Louise’s hair. Arnie grunted his approval.
‘Good job I had Helena take back Tanner as part of her lesson today,’ he said. ‘Can’t ride horses in a skirt like that!’
The family crossed the road from the salon and walked into the park where Arnie laid out a red and white checked table cloth and Kendra started to unpack a wicker hamper. As everyone tucked into their food Layla and the puppies ran riot around the park, all except for one puppy who laid on the rug beside Louise, gazing up at her pleadingly hoping for a piece of her hot dog!
‘Pippin! I can’t give you any of my food, it’s not puppy food! Louise said, tapping the greedy pup on the nose. ‘Why don’t you go play with your Mum and Cooper?’ She pointed over to where Layla and the adventurous Cooper were chasing each other round in circles.
‘Layla! Come and get your pup, m’dear,’ Arnie called over, and everyone grinned as Layla dutifully trotted over and carefully picked Pippin up off the rug before noticing that there was food on offer and biffed Louise’s hot dog off her plate!
‘Oh, Layla!’ Louise said a little faux-crossly as both Layla and Pippin pounced on the soiled hot dog, finishing it off in less than thirty seconds between them. Getting up, she went over to where Cooper was chasing his tail and pulled out the tug-rope she’d played with Layla with.
‘Here we go boy! Wow, you’re nearly as strong as your Mum!’ Louise laughed as Cooper tried his hardest to match his Mother’s strength, playfully growling as he tried to get his mouth around the thick rope. Succeeding, Cooper gave one great yank and caught Louise by surprise; she dropped her end of the rope and Cooper began dashing around the picnic blanket with his prize in delight!
Chortling away, Kendra stood up and came over to the creased-up Louise. ‘That pup adores you, you know,’ she said.
‘Well, I adore him too! It’s pretty hard not to, to be fair!’
‘Your Uncle and I were wondering, we’ve cleared it with your Mum, but… Would you like to take him home with you? Not yet, you understand, he’s still pretty reliant on Layla as amazing as that seems, but in a few weeks? Seems a shame to split the two of you up!’
‘Are you joking?!’
Lou’s mouth gaped open in shock. ‘I would love to take Cooper home with me! Are you absolutely one hundred percent serious?!’
‘Yes, we are!’ Kendra said, laughing at her niece’s joy. ‘Besides, it’ll be good to know that at least one of Layla’s pups is staying in the family!’
About to reply, Louise was interrupted by a calamitous splash from the far end of the park. Everyone turned to see Layla proudly doggy paddling in the pool!
As Arnie got up and ran over to try and fish his dog out of the strictly human-only pool, Louise scooped up Cooper who was now standing by her feet, watching the commotion.
‘I can’t wait for you to come home with me, boy!’ she whispered, cuddling the tiny pup to her. ‘We’re going to have an amazing time!’
After Arnie had managed to coax Layla from the pool and had apologised profusely to the strict park ranger, it was time to be getting back. Louise and Anita were having to head back to Bridgeport that evening; Anita had business meetings the following afternoon and needed to be back in the city. After loading up the cases in the car, it was time for the final goodbyes. Kendra embraced her sister, and the two promised that it wouldn’t be long before they saw one another again. Louise picked up Cooper and cuddled him close, cooing at her new best friend. Arnie, feeling a little self-conscious stood by himself, bent down and gave Layla a huge hug, not caring about the muddy paw prints she left on his back!
As Anita and Kendra walked out to the car for a final goodbye and Layla took Cooper off to tuck him up in bed with his brother and sisters, Arnie turned to Louise. ‘You’ve done some good work here over the past few days, my girl. You’ve been a great help.’
Louise beamed. ‘Thanks! I’ve had a lot of fun, actually. It’s been hard work, but I’ve had fun! Let me know how you get on with those potatoes, yeah?’
‘Of course I will! And Lou, just so you know – you’re always welcome here on the farm, if you ever want to come for a few days. I know it’s not as hip and trendy in little old Appaloosa Plains as it is in the city, but if you ever need to get away for a while, we’re always here for you.’
Louise’s face broke out into a smile at her Uncle’s earnest words. ‘I’d love to, Uncle Arnie! I’d absolutely love to!’
‘Mum, I owe you an apology.’ As Anita and Louise drove down to get onto the motorway back to Bridgeport, Louise spoke up. It had been playing on her mind for the past few hours, but she’d only just worked up the courage to apologise.
‘Apology? What for, my dear?’
‘I was a brat when you wanted to come here, I didn’t make things easy for you. I was so annoying the whole car journey here! But I know that you really needed your time here, and I’ve had a pretty good few days too. So I’m sorry for being a brat.’
Anita smiled to herself. ‘That’s quite all right, my dear. I’m just pleased you had such a good time as well! I can’t wait for Cooper to come and live with us!’
‘Me too!’ Louise grinned as she gazed out of the window, watching as the ‘You Are Now Leaving Appaloosa Plains’ sign flew past. ‘I can’t wait to bring him back here, too!’
* * *
‘Finally, you’re back! You’ve missed so much while you’ve been stuck in that backwards town, Lou! I have so much gossip!’ Melody flounced into the apartment, dressed in the tiniest of green dresses, Louise noted, and sat down on the arm chair she usually sat in. Louise closed the front door and went to perch on the sofa as she usually did, a little miffed that Melody hadn’t said anything about her new look.
‘Why haven’t you been returning my texts?! I sent you loads while you were away! I guess you were too busy being buried in horse muck or something! Oh, never mind about that! Listen to what happened at the party!’
And Melody talked…
…and talked for what seemed like hours to Louise. She barely seemed to pause for breath! Lou listened as she talked about the party, and who had kissed who and who had drunk so much that they passed out and got their eyebrows shaved off and who had tried to turn up and been turned away, and how Dylan had asked out Melody and how Melody had said yes.
‘You should’ve seen Brad’s face when he saw me kiss him later on!’ Melody cackled. ‘That’ll teach him for dumping me for Tiffany. Anyway, it’s not all bad. I actually went on a date with Dylan the other day, it wasn’t too bad. We went to the cinema and he paid and everything. He’s not so bad. He’ll do for now!’
Louise nodded feeling a little numb, like she was oddly blank… She wasn’t entirely sure what she was feeling. It wasn’t the raging jealousy she’d felt when she got that first message. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t annoyance. It was just… Numbness…
Do I even care?
Contemplating that thought, Louise stopped listening to Melody all together. That was it. She simply didn’t care anymore. She had stopped caring as soon as Melody had waltzed into her apartment and hadn’t asked her one thing about her time away, hadn’t said one thing about her makeover. She just didn’t care any more.
‘…Lou? Are you even listening to me?! Honestly, you go to the country for a few days and come back with your ears packed with horse muck!’
Louise gave Melody a look. ‘Melody, shut up.’
‘What did you just say?!’
‘I said shut up, Melody!’ Louise stood up angrily. ‘Are you ever going to ask me about my weekend, or are you just going to mock me about it for the next few weeks? Were you ever going to mention the fact that I look completely different to when I left?!’
‘What, you mean you hair? Yeah, it looks nice, I guess. Jeez Lou, calm down!’ Melody rolled her eyes, smirking.
‘Do you even care what I’ve been up to?!’
‘Of course I care, Lou, it’s just that I’ve got the gossip!’
‘Well I don’t care about the gossip!’
‘I’ve been away for days and days and you just aren’t bothered! You just want to show off about drinking and playing boys off each other! I’ve actually been doing something with my life!’
‘Louise, what’s got into you?’
‘You do not care about me, Melody! You just want an audience to listen and give you attention, you never give anything back! I’ve had enough, Melody, and I’m sick of it! I’m just as important as you are!’
Melody fell silent, looking a little shell shocked as Louise came to a breathless halt. ‘Lou… I don’t know what to say…’
‘I… I had no idea you felt that way, that I made you feel that way. I’m so sorry, Louise… I know I talk a lot, I just… I figured you were happy to listen. I never thought that… Oh, gnomes. I’m sorry, Lou.’
‘…Really?!’ Louise frowned a little. She hadn’t expected that reaction. Melody looked positively ashamed of herself.
‘Really. Look, how about we pop to Simbucks for a coffee? We can sit and have a proper catch up, you can tell me about all the… The farmy things you’ve been doing. Do you fancy it?’
Louise smiled and nodded. She felt different, more alive… The power balance between Melody and herself seemed to have shifted. They were equals.
Still, she wasn’t going to rest on her laurels. She did know Melody, after all. Whether this act of contrition was real or not was anyone’s guess. But for now… Yes, she’d forgive her.