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Authors: Tess Hilmo

Skies Like These

BOOK: Skies Like These
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For Meagan, Eli, and Claire,

who stand at the precipice

 

CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

32

33

34

35

36

37

Acknowledgments

Also by Tess Hilmo

Copyright

 

1

Jade gazed out the car window at knee-high yellow grass rolling and bending across the prairie like waves in the ocean, crashing into black, jagged mountains off in the distance.

“That big craggy one is Grand Teton,” Aunt Elise said, both hands tight on the steering wheel of her old Lincoln Continental. Jade wondered how her aunt could see over the dashboard, she was so short. “I've climbed it seventeen times.”

Jade looked sideways at her aunt. She studied her wild, choppy hair poking out every which way, then dropped her eyes down to the knit vest and awful brown corduroy pants that ended a full five inches above her sandals. Jade tried to imagine her aunt climbing Grand Teton. “Mom didn't tell me you were a hiker.”

“What did your mother say about me?”

That was an interesting question. Aunt Elise had moved to Wyoming seven years ago. Before that, she lived a block over from them in Philly, but Jade was only five when Aunt Elise had moved and couldn't remember much beyond the fact that her father always called her aunt “an unusual bird” and her mother always shushed him.

“She said you run a doggy dude ranch.”

Aunt Elise wiggled her shoulders. “Indeed I do. Diggity Dog Ranch, the best in all of Wellington.”

“How many doggy dude ranches are there in Wellington?”

“Well”—Aunt Elise hesitated—“just the one.”

“That's quite the distinction then.” Jade had to agree with her dad. Aunt Elise seemed a bit odd, and the last place Jade wanted to spend part of her summer vacation, or any time really, was Wyoming. She loved Philadelphia, with its classic architecture and historical significance. She loved knowing every twist and bump of sidewalk within her neighborhood, and how Mrs. Wilkins didn't mind if you picked a few raspberries from her bushes or how you should shop at Mr. Yee's market because his candy bars were always a dime cheaper than anywhere else.

“I can't believe you're finally here.” Aunt Elise was smiling so wide her cheeks were about to split open.

“I can't believe it either,” Jade said, slumping down in her seat.

“I was pinching myself all morning. I kept saying, Elise, you've been away from that precious niece for entirely too long. Today is the day you'll see her again.”

Jade turned her head away from her aunt, toward the prairie grasses and flowers that spread out to the horizon. She had never seen so much open space. There was an occasional abandoned field or city park in Philadelphia, but they were still organized and gridded into allotted plots of land. Wyoming was seamless and vast.

“I see you're a fellow adventurer.” Aunt Elise flicked a hand toward the tattered copy of
Robinson Crusoe
sticking out the side pocket of Jade's backpack.

“Mom gave it to me. She said it was one of her favorites.”

“How far along have you gotten?”

“A little over halfway.” Jade fiddled with the blue tassel of the bookmark.

“What do you think of it?”

“Robinson Crusoe doesn't seem very bright.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well,” Jade began, pondering the story, “as I see it, he would have saved himself a mess of trouble if he'd listened to his dad and stayed in England.”

Aunt Elise stared straight down the road. Jade couldn't tell what her aunt might be thinking, so she turned her head back to the side window and counted fence posts along the highway. They were strung together with rusty barbed wire, holding in auburn horses, grazing cattle, and the occasional sheep. She counted all the way up to twenty-one posts before Aunt Elise broke the silence.

“So you start reading the greatest adventure tale ever written but think it would have been better if he had stayed home?”

“Pretty much, but I'm not finished,” Jade said. “It's just that this Crusoe guy never really considered how dangerous life might be for him as a sailor. He should have been more judicious.”

“Judicious? What grade are you going into?”

“Seventh.”

“Well”—Aunt Elise seemed to be measuring her words—“promise me you'll keep reading it, okay? You might be surprised how
judicious
Mr. Crusoe really is after you see all he does to handle himself on that island. It's impressive stuff.”

Jade shrugged and went back to counting fence posts.

“Uh-oh, storm on the horizon.” Aunt Elise was squinting at the sky.

Jade sat up and leaned forward. It was bright blue overhead, but dark clouds shifted and stirred off in the distance. “Those clouds are miles away.”

“Weather moves fast across open land. That looks like a powerful front.” A gust of wind swept across the prairie, flattening tall grasses in its wake and hurtling into the side of their car. “Hang on.” Aunt Elise tightened her grip and sat up as tall as she could, as if that would make a difference.

Jade locked her car door and tugged on her seat belt. “It's only a little rain, right?”

The corner of Aunt Elise's mouth curled into a half smile. “Nothing about Wyoming is little.”

Suddenly a crack of thunder split the sky. Darkness fell and dense rain poured from above. Lightning ripped across the western horizon.

“One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.” Aunt Elise counted up to ten Mississippis before another explosion of thunder enveloped them. “That bolt landed two miles away.”

“How do you know?” Jade asked, her voice trembling.

“Five seconds equals one mile. Start counting from the flash of lightning and stop with the thunder. That's the speed of sound.”

The towering mountains Jade had been admiring were not visible anymore. Steel-gray mist shrouded the car and silvery raindrops—the fattest she had ever seen—battered the windshield with earsplitting thumps.

“Don't worry,” Aunt Elise called out. “We'll make it.”

How her aunt could even see the road through the storm, Jade hadn't a clue, but she seemed to know how to manage it. She swerved past rivers of rain and plunged through puddles that sent fans of water spraying out from the wheels. She watched the lightning and counted seconds before the thunder clapped above. “It has to get closer before it passes,” Aunt Elise said. “One Mississippi, two…”

Crack.

“Excellent,” Aunt Elise said.

Lunatic, Jade thought, squeezing her eyes shut. She should have been signing up for the summer reading program down at the library like she did every year. She should have been organizing the pantry and trying out new cookie recipes and playing mini golf with her friends. Anything other than being in the middle of nowhere with a woman she hardly knew. What were her parents thinking, sending her off like this?

“And there it goes,” Aunt Elise said.

Jade tentatively opened her eyes and saw shards of sun slicing through the mist. The pelting rain slowed and slipped off the back of the car, like they were driving out of a car wash. She turned around and saw the storm moving on behind them.

“That was a good one,” Aunt Elise said. “But it's over now.”

Jade worried that wasn't true.

She was worried it had just begun.

 

2

Aunt Elise continued to drive past spacious fields, where black cows raised their chins up to the sky and horses ran wild, tails flicking behind them. Gradually, buildings began to speckle the land, growing closer together. Aunt Elise pulled off the highway and entered the sprawled-out town of Wellington. After weaving through a few blocks, they came upon a large gate; a wooden dog carved out of a massive tree trunk stood next to it like a sentinel. In its mouth hung a sign that read:
DIGGITY DOG RANCH
. Aunt Elise pushed a button on her car visor that opened the gate and Jade could see an adobe house with a flat roof and large front porch at the top of the driveway. “Home sweet home,” Aunt Elise said.

The moment the gate closed behind them and the car started up the drive, a band of barking dogs appeared from around the side of the house, yapping and nipping at all four tires.

“How many are there?” Jade asked.

“Nine this week. Some'll go, some'll stay. There's no need to be afraid, they won't hurt you.”

Jade tried to relax the muscles across her brow and force a smile. “I'm not afraid.”

Aunt Elise turned off the car. “I'll get out first and provide a diversion. You can skedaddle into the house.”

Jade unhooked her seat belt and pulled the silver door-lock knob up. That simple movement and its subsequent
click
brought all nine dogs running over to her side. They were shoving and nudging and vying for position. One massive brown dog stood as tall as the window and looked directly at Jade. His gray-pink tongue dangled out the side of his mouth. A smaller, curly-haired dog jumped up against the window, smearing muddy paw marks as he went.

Jade took a deep breath and started to open her door. The car was from sometime around the Paleozoic era and the doors took a little effort to get going. The moment it was ajar, black noses began pressing into the opening.

“Heel up!” Aunt Elise said, stepping around from her side of the car. The band of dogs scampered over and sat in a cluster at her feet.

All except the huge one. It stayed put, waiting for Jade.

“That's Astro.” Aunt Elise was talking about the massive dog at Jade's door. “He's a bullmastiff. He's slow as January honey. Sweet like that, too. Reach your hand out for him to sniff and he'll step away.”

“But his nose is so close to his teeth.”

“He just wants to check you out.”

Jade opened the door wider and reached a hand toward the dog. He ran his nose along her fingertips. It was cold and damp and the whiskers on his upper lip tickled her skin, sending a tiny jolt of delight shooting up her arm. The joy of it surprised her.

“I think you've made a new friend.”

Jade forced the smile that had managed to creep across her face down into a serious expression. “Hardly,” she said, feigning disinterest.

Aunt Elise shook her head. “When a dog like Astro decides to love you, there's no hardly about it.”

Astro sat down with a snort as Jade eased out of the car. Coming across the prairie she had seen horses that weren't much bigger than this dog at her feet. “Is he one that will go?” Jade asked.

“Probably not. His owners brought him for a two-week stay three years ago.”

“And left him?”

Aunt Elise pulled the luggage from the trunk and wheeled it up to the front door. The dogs crowded and skittered around her feet.

BOOK: Skies Like These
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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