"Miss Isobelle Harding." Our principal, Mr Saunders called me to the stage.
Shaking with adrenaline, I ascended up the metal steps with the sound of applause ringing in my ears. All my focus went into not tripping in my graduation gown and making a spectacle of myself. The pressure of having a hundred pairs of eyes following me scorched my face with embarrassment. I could feel perspiration beginning to form across my brow and upper lip.
Bloody hell! Why did this gown have to be made from black polyester?
In temperatures of thirty degrees, the heavy material was suffocating. By the time I had walked across the stage, I had turned into a flustered mess. As subtly as I could manage, I wiped my sweaty palms across my gown before accepting the scroll. The Principal grasped my clammy hand in his as we exchanged an awkward handshake. I couldn't get away quick enough, scampering off down the opposite steps to where my best friend, Joanne Prichard was waiting for me.
A beaming smile spread across her freckled face. "We did it!" She squealed jubilantly, bouncing on her heels.
"I know, I can hardly believe it. There have been times where I've wanted to pack it all in," I admitted, reminiscent of all the caffeine-infused nights we had endured, in order to finish our dissertations.
"Just think about the opportunity the university has given you this summer. I'm completely jealous," she pouted.
"I know, I've never been as far as Spain before. I've always wanted to travel to America." I gave a little squeal of excitement.
I was incredibly lucky indeed. I had been given a grant from the university to study a rare species of wolf. One that supposedly resides in the remote state of Forest Lake. I had lodgings arranged for me in the small town of Hawcroft. The information pack had arrived the previous weekend, which I studied obsessively.
I could hardly believe that I had been chosen out of all the other students to go. I wished my best friend, Joanne could've gone with me but her father had already arranged for her to join him in his veterinary hospital this summer.
"There you are, girls," my dad rushed over. My mum was hot on his heels as were Joanne's parents. Like the majority of proud parents, they were bleary-eyed after shedding proud tears of joy during the ceremony.
"Let's get some pictures," Joanne's dad, Gordon urged.
"Just the girls first, then we'll do one with the mums, then the dads, and then finish with a group photo," Gordon spoke, organising things.
I posed beside Joanne, both giving our best smiles before we were ambushed by our mothers.
After he went snap happy, Gordon passed around the camera, allowing us all to look at the digital image on the back screen to view our pictures. Joanne and I looked like we'd both run a marathon, wearing a mascot outfit as we were sweating profusely. Her hair was as blonde as mine and had gone from being poker straight, to damp and frizzy.
"This is one of the proudest moments of my life," My dad, Arron, gushed with pride. "The other times were marrying you, Fiona, and of course when you were born," he said, as he pinched my flushed cheek.
"We were wondering whether you all wanted to go to Hickory's for dinner?" I asked on behalf of myself and Joanne.
That was our favourite restaurant. We wanted to go there one last time before we both went our separate ways for the summer. I wasn't due to return back to England for at least twelve weeks. That would mean a whole three months of missing everybody. It seemed fitting to enjoy one last meal together at our favourite place.
"That's the barbecue smokehouse you girls usually go to, isn't it?" Joanne's mum, Norah asked.
"That's the one," Joanne replied.
"I bet our Izzie will get to experience the real deal over the water," my dad added, "Real cowboy food," he looked at me with awe.
My dad had always wanted to go to America and experience how the cowboys lived. He loved watching old western films and often wondered what it would be like to visit Texas. Whenever he watched an old film on television, he would comment on how his lifelong dream was to sit and eat food that had been cooked on an open bonfire, ride through the wild west on horseback, and sleep under the stars.
"I'm not going to be around any cowboys, Dad. Where I'm going, there's nothing but forest and mountains for miles," I explained.
His exuberant expression never faltered. "It's still going to be brilliant though, no matter what. It's a fabulous opportunity you've been given," he chirped happily.
My dad wasn't as fortunate as myself growing up. He came from a life of poverty on a council estate in Bradford. Both his parents had died whilst he was little and he went to live with his aunt. He shared a bedroom with five of his cousins and each of them survived on one decent meal a day.
Money was tight and he left school in order to get a job and help out as best as he could. It was only after he turned twenty that he joined the police force, starting out from the bottom, then spent years working his way up the ranks to become a Chief inspector at the City of London police department.
My mum, however, came from a modest middle-class family in Warwickshire. Her life was a stark contrast to Dad. She never knew the meaning of poverty, never understood how it felt to go hungry. My grandparents always made sure she was happy and never went without. They kept horses and enjoyed holidays abroad every year, whereas, Dad had never even visited the sea-side.
Mum studied to become a Paediatric Surgeon and currently works at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London. Both my parents came from opposite walks of life, yet their paths entwined together somewhere along the way. That's almost poetic in a way, as if fate, somehow, had a part to play in bringing them together. Am I a hopeless romantic in thinking that? Yes, I suppose I am.
My parents have always supported me in all I've ever wanted to do. I'd always shown an interest in animal biology. I knew it was my vocation. The type of career that would enable me to travel the globe. Those were my dreams and I couldn't help but wonder whether fate had any plans in store for me too.
"Mmm, this brisket is to die for," Mum said to Norah. She gave Mum a look which suggested, she too, was immensely satisfied. "It is. It just melts in your mouth and this dipping gravy. Mmm, heaven."
I grinned over at Joanne. She was glowing bright red with shame, embarrassed by the orgasmic noises our mothers were making whilst enjoying the food.
"I think we should bring our wives here more often, Gordon," Dad joked, looking at his friend with a wide-eyed expression on his face.
Gordon snorted with a nod. "I know. They seem to be enjoying the meat alright."
At that point, Joanne nearly died of shame and so did I. Her fork dropped from her fingers and onto the table with a clatter.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't know she could turn that shade of crimson. I couldn't help but chuckle because if I didn't laugh, I'd cry.
"Izzy, are you coming to the ladies loo?" She asked, as if asking a question but in her fierce eyes it was more like a command.
I followed behind her as she thundered her way past happy diners, over to the ladies toilets. As soon as we were out of earshot she rounded on me.
"Why are they like this? We can't bloody take them anywhere." She whined, in a mixture of amusement and embarrassment.
"They're having fun. It's cute really. My parents work all the hour's God sends. It makes a change, seeing them spend time together like this," I replied with a shrug.
Joanne chewed on the inside of her cheek before she answered.
"Yeah, but they don't give a shit what they say and who hears," she huffed with a half laugh.
Joanne was always way to easy to embarrass. It didn't take much, you only had to mention the word sex and she turned a deep shade of red.
We eventually found our way back to the table to finish our meals. Then, I had one too many, glasses of wine, that I probably shouldn't have consumed. Especially with my flight leaving so early in the morning. I could've done with not having the remnants of a hangover to take along with me but hey-ho, what's done was done.
Once the evening came to an end, we all said our tearful farewells and promised each other that we would keep in touch over the summer. My only concern was the lack of service my mobile phone was likely to have, high up in the mountain range. But that was a problem that I would have to deal with another day.
The following morning...
"Have you got all of your travel documents and your visa?" Mum asked as she crossed off each item on the list.
Mum was one of the worlds most organised people. She was a list maker. Not a single day went by where she didn't compile a list of things that she needed to do or things she needed to buy. This time she had put together a list of all the things I needed to take with me to America.
"Yes, Mum, they're in the travel wallet you bought for me," I replied, holding it up as evidence.
"See, Arron. Those things come in handy, don't they? They keep everything together all in one place. Everybody should have one." Mum suggested as she wagged her index finger at Dad. He'd initially scoffed at the idea of owning one, back when she was ordering them from E-Bay, the other week.
Mum began rhyming things off, using her fingers to mentally count with.
"Let's see, you've got your money, your suitcases are packed...... a spare charger. Did you get one?" She questioned me.
"Yes. I picked one up the other day," I answered.
"Well, that's everything then. Oh, wait. Here, I bought you some magazines to read on the plane." She remembered, fishing them out of a carrier bag.
"Thanks, Mum. I completely forgot about getting any of those," I replied, with gratitude.
"She thinks of everything. She's sharp as a whip, this one," Dad praised, fawning over Mum in adoration. She gave him a loving peck on the lips, before returning to fuss over me.
"I just thought, it's a twelve-hour flight. You'd get bored to tears otherwise," her eyes creased with concern. "You will be OK out there on your own, won't you?" Tears began to well up in her hazel eyes.
"Mum, I'll be fine. And I'll text and ring you all the time," I comforted. "There will be loads of things to do when I'm not working. Plenty of people for me to make friends with. The university has rented me a car, so I can visit Stonevale. I've read all the information. There are bars and restaurants, plenty of shops, not to mention, recreational activities that I can take part in." I assured her, seeing her frown lines begin to relax.
"Well, make sure you do ring home or else your father and I will be on the next flight over there," She warned, in a warm maternal tone.
My Parents both accompanied me to Heathrow airport so that they could give me a grand send-off. I promised myself that I wouldn't cry but my soft self was barely holding back the tears. I checked my luggage into baggage handling, then went over to wait next to the security area.
Reality had started to kick in by this point, and it took everything I had not to fling my arms around my Dad's neck and beg him to take me home. Once the first calling for all passengers to board was announced, the waterworks started.
"Good afternoon, passengers. This is a boarding announcement for flight eighty-nine B to Detroit. Please make your way over to gate three and have your boarding passes ready, along with your passports, with the picture page open. Thank you."
"Dad, Mum, I'm really going to miss you," I sobbed.
My dad's eyes had reddened as he fought back the tears. Mum's face already had tear tracks running freely down both cheeks.
"Oh, my baby, my only baby," her shoulders bounced as she sobbed uncontrollably.
I hugged both of them as if my life depended on it. It took all my willpower to detach myself from them and walk the short distance towards the hand luggage conveyor. I turned around to give a final wave, only to notice both my parents were clutching each other tightly in an emotional embrace. My mum put her fingertips to her lips as if to blow me a kiss and my dad held one outstretched hand up. I shuffled forward, slowly, whilst looking over my shoulder. The security officer handed back my handbag after I walked through the metal detector, then I gave one final wave to my parents.
I don't even remember how I got to the gate because I walked in a daze. Part of me welcomed the adventure and part of me wanted to remain rooted in London. The minute I stepped foot on that plane, it would be the furthest I had ever been away from my parents.
The air hostess greeted me with enthusiasm as I handed her my boarding pass and passport. She tore off a stub, then handed it to me. A member of the cabin crew pointed to the middle of the plane, showing me where row F, seat ten was located. I rummaged through my bag, pulling out the magazines and tossing them down on my seat, then stuffed my bag in the overhead compartment. After settling down in the window seat, I started to read.
It was almost half an hour before the plane began to move, positioning itself along the runway. There was a brief pause before the pilot began the announcements.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome on board flight eighty-nine B to Detroit. We are currently second in line for take-off..."
Then a member of cabin crew went through the emergency procedures with us.
"Could all passengers please direct your attention to the monitors above as we review emergency procedures. There are six emergency exits on this aircraft...." she began with the hand signals, pointing to each exit point.
No sooner had we ascended into the air, the intercom chimed with another announcement from the cockpit.
"Good afternoon passengers, this is your Captain speaking. We are currently cruising at an altitude of thirty-three-thousand-feet at an airspeed of four-hundred miles per hour. The time is zero seven hundred hours........" I zoned off at this point, more interested in the duty-free magazine.
The cabin crew came around with the on-flight breakfasts and the hot beverages. They were barely edible but at that point, I was so hungry and would've eaten a scabby dog if it was offered to me. I was looking forward to the cup of tea but once I saw that it resembled dishwater, I immediately changed my mind and opted for a bottle of Tropicana instead.
I wondered how long it would be before I tasted a decent cup of tea again and regretted not having packed any boxes of teabags into my suitcase. I was an avid Yorkshire Tea drinker. And the thought of going cold turkey from my favourite beverage, had me breaking out into a cold sweat.
After I reread each magazine from back to back, I managed to fall asleep for a few hours, jerking awake every now and then as my arm slipped away from supporting my chin.
The in-flight movie burned up some of the time. I was grateful they didn't show a film like 'Alive' or 'Final Destination' or something along those lines. It was a new 'Beauty and the Beast' film. It made me wonder if it was at all possible for a beautiful woman to fall in love with such a creature.
I struggled to relate because we all live in an age where looks matter, in order to spark an attraction. Although, in the absence of beauty, it is possible to be attracted to someone's personality. Thinking it through, I couldn't see myself spending the rest of my life with someone who was beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside. I'd only ever had one serious boyfriend during my time at University. It was a brief relationship that we both struggled to maintain with our hectic schedules. I wasn't in any hurry to pursue another relationship anytime soon. My research project would make that exceptionally difficult.
Finally, when the Captain announced that we would begin our descent for landing, I breathed out a huge sigh of relief. I wanted nothing more than to get up and stretch my legs, desperate to get to my lodgings and grab a shower, then crawl into a soft warm bed. My neck was stiff from struggling to get comfortable and failing miserably.
I knew there were still hours of driving ahead of me to Forest Lake. A professor from the Michigan Technical University was meeting me in arrivals and taking me to the guest house. I would be staying in the small town of Hawcroft: a quiet and friendly town north of Stonevale.
As soon as the landing wheels hit the tarmac, my posture relaxed. It felt good to finally be back on the ground again.
Once we were able to vacate our seats, I immediately reached for my belongings from the overhead compartment. I wanted to make a run for the baggage conveyor, in the hope that I could beat the stampede of passengers, desperate to retrieve their luggage.
I was one of the first to wait in the baggage area and I was also one of the last to retrieve all of my luggage. That was what Mum usually called, sod's law. She had tied a pink ribbon around each case so that mine would stand out from similar looking cases. I loaded each one onto a trolley and made my way towards the arrivals.
I only had to look around briefly, before I spotted a pleasant, yet nerdy looking man. His dark hair was combed to the side, and he wore glasses, a tweed suit jacket, that he'd teamed with an oxford shirt and jeans. He was glancing from left to right while holding up a cardboard plaque with my name scrawled on it. He eventually noticed me waving at him and smiled.
"Hi, you must be Isobelle?" He greeted, in a strong, New York accent.
"Yes, sir," I replied, politely.
"Call me Peter. You're a real English rose, aren't you? You're going to need to be careful up on the ridge, honey. The boys will be fighting amongst themselves over you," he chuckled with amusement.
I blushed nervously at the compliment, deciding to brush off his clumsy attempt at a friendly welcome. It didn't seem like he was used to talking to girls often, and was quick to switch the topic onto the weather.
We chatted briefly about how my flight was and whether or not I had been looking forward to spending time in Michigan. Despite the awkwardness at first, he loosened up and actually seemed quite nice. He was nothing in comparison to the stern, stiff upper lipped professors that I was used to back in London.
"The guest house where you'll be staying is right on the outskirts of the forest. We already sent all your equipment there in advance. The young couple who own the guest house are called, Helen and Sam Evans. They're a young married couple and have two little kids. They're lovely people. They'll take good care of you," he assured, putting my mind at ease.
"How long is the drive to Hawcroft?" I enquired, hoping that it wasn't all that far.
He pondered for a moment as if trying to give me a more accurate time.
"Three, maybe four hours tops, depending if the roads are clear. There's a lot of travelling through woodland and those roads aren't well lit."
I let out a heavy sigh as I pulled the trolley over to where a blacked out SUV was waiting out front. Peter helped me load in all my luggage before opening the passenger side door for me.
"I'll be driving you. I hope you don't mind? This will be your car for the duration of your stay. I left mine at the guest house. I'd never have been able to fit all this luggage into my small car. You women don't exactly travel light, do you?" He joked, not having thought about the sensitivity of women and their need for essentials.
"I'm grateful, I really am. I had no idea how I was going to find my way if I'm honest. So thank you, you're a life saver," I replied.
Apart from the few thoughtless comments, Peter was a really pleasant person to be stuck in a car with. The conversation kept flowing smoothly and we never ran out of things to talk about. I discovered that he was in his mid-thirties, unmarried, has a shorthaired chihuahua called Derik, and a ginger tabby cat called Sebastian. He was single and living in his grandmother's old house.
He wasn't wrong about the drive. It took ages to reach the guest house. It was late into the night by the time we got there. I had to remember that the people who owned it had two small kids. So, I kept my voice down to a whisper when greeting them.
They were a young couple in their late twenties. Helen was incredibly pretty. Her tanned skin was flawless and her long blonde hair reached her arse. The summer dress she wore, clung to her voluptuous figure like she had been sewn into it. She was the type of woman that would make you question your own self-confidence. Her husband, Sam, was around six-foot-five, looks to die for and owned muscles as if he could model sportswear. I didn't need x-ray vision as his well-defined assets strained beneath his tight v-necked t-shirt.
Peter and Sam carried all my luggage to the room I was staying in, whilst Helen took me around to show me where all the amenities were.
"I hope you like your stay here at Forest Lake. If there's anything you need, just let me know," Helen offered, kindly.
"Thank you. I'm going to take a look round the town tomorrow to get a feel for the place. Maybe talk to some of the locals, meet some people, settle in," I replied.
"You want some company? I was going to take the kids out for a few hours anyway?" Helen suggested.
"That would be great but only if it's not too much trouble," I replied, not wanting to be a burden.
She gave me a look that implied 'Don't be silly' before responding in a hushed tone. "It's Sam's birthday this weekend, and the kids want to get him something special. So, trust me, honey, it's no bother at all."
I mouthed 'Oh.' "I'll tag along then," I replied thankfully. "What time should I be ready for?"
"Oh, say, nine-thirty, after we sit down to breakfast. The kids usually have me up around six. They run into our room and bounce on the bed. They're natural alarm clocks," she said, with a chuckle.
"Well, in that case, I'll let you get some rest. I know I'll crash once my head touches the pillow," I replied, struggling to contain a yawn.
Helen showed me to my room before saying goodnight. The room I had been given was a sight to behold. It was filled with the most beautiful, handcrafted, oak furniture, that Sam's father had made. Helen told me that Sam and his father built this guest house and most of the cabins around the area. His dad built furniture as a hobby but constructs cabins for a living.
The bed was crafted from the same oak wood. All the soft furnishings matched: cream cotton with a country rose pattern. I sat on the edge of the bed, peeling away my clothes and pulling on a pair of pyjamas before exhaustion rendered me completely unconscious. I managed to send a quick text to my parents, and to Joanne, just to let them know that I arrived here safely before sleep fully consumed me. My eyelids were heavy and each time I yawned, my eyes watered with fatigue.
During the night, I woke up to the most unpleasant eerie sound of howling. Drunk on sleep, I rubbed my eyes and reached over to the bedside unit to find my phone. After the screen illuminated the darkened room in a bright blue glow, my eyes adjusted enough to read the time. It was four o'clock in the morning. I'd only been asleep for just under two hours. The sound grew louder and I groaned in annoyance. On clumsy feet, I stumbled out of bed, towards the window. The curtains were swaying gently, which confused me. I was fairly certain all windows and doors were locked before I lay down for the night. My fingers gripped the wooden frame in the attempt to slide it shut. It was at that precise moment that I heard a combination of howls, like a pack of wolves, were standing beneath my window. My eyes strained through the darkness but all I could make out were shadows.
I closed the window and secured the latch, pulling the curtains closed before shuffling back to bed. At least I knew my research was going to prove a success. Especially if there was a pack of wolves living beyond Helen and Sam's back garden.
The howling continued relentlessly for at least another hour. I had to resort to plugging my headphones into my phone and listening to my playlist, in order to drown out the noise. Eventually, some while later, I drifted off to sleep.