WWA Book 1 – Chapter 1

WWA Book 1 – Chapter 1

Hemlock’s luck had bled itself out. He knew this because instead of being at home with his mother and father, he was in an RV with his two aunts, driving down a road to the middle of absolutely nowhere. Apparently, being an LGBTQ+ youth from a conservative Christian family in the middle of Wyoming was a terrible mistake. He’d been kicked out of the house without even the slightest hesitation.

He breathed a sigh, thanking God for the umpteenth time that day that his aunts had been so willing to step in. He honestly hadn’t expected them to be so willing to take on a teenager, especially considering their nomadic lifestyle. He still vividly remembered his own surprised sob when he’d called them in tears and been accepted into their arms so readily. Thank the Lord for his Aunt Ficus and Aunt Roxanne.

“Doin’ okay back there, kiddo?”

Roxanne’s voice sounded from up front, gentle and sunny. Hemlock’s lead-coated tongue struggled for a second before forcing out; “I’m okay.”

I guess shock still has me in a chokehold.

He caught her toothy, slightly crooked smile grinning at him in one of the rearview mirrors. It wasn’t a happy smile, no. It was one of those smiles you give someone who just woke up in a hospital bed and asked you if they were going to be okay. Her paws held a map, claws tracing over the lines of the trails and roads as she undoubtedly planned their first hike in Yellowstone. Hemlock had never been hiking before, and the prospect made him a little nervous, but the promise of colorful hot springs and grandiose plains was enough to spur him to just… be brave. Outside, the landscape passed them steadily by, growing dimmer by the second in the sunset. Admittedly, he’d never seen this much of his home state before. His parents had never seen a need to travel, and he’d never wanted to before. It was that thing that other people did. Now, Hemlock was “other people.”

Blues and pinks painted the sky, the clouds like smoke from the fire of the setting sun. The sight of the trees and mountains silhouetted black against the open skies took Hemlock’s breath with gentle hands. Just around every bend in the road was a new perspective, and every new sight made Hemlock feel like a confused little kid all over again. He was a complete stranger to these roads. These… mountains.

Hemlock’s phone buzzed, a sound trying to remind him to do his evening prayers. Instinctively, he began to close his eyes and fold his paws into position, but he stopped himself. When he thought about it, he wasn’t sure if God wanted to hear from him right now. Too many things were still up in the air.

Instead, he watched.

The campground carried the scent of wood smoke and cool night air. Hemlock was booted out while his aunts set up the RV, leaving him to gather his bearings and have a look around on his own. Taking in the scenery of the late evening sky through the leaves of the trees above, he noticed a second too late that someone was running straight for him. Another body hit his side like a bumper car and knocked him over, falling down on top of him with a loud “OOF!

The cat who had rammed into him had light tan fur marked by darker brown spots and stripes. She sat up quickly, putting one paw to her shoulder and rubbing it with a groan. “Oww…  Damnit…”

Hemlock returned to his paws with grace that surprised even him and glanced over at her, adjusting his glasses on his snout (fortunately, they’d stayed on his face during the crash). “Sorry. I should’ve-”

She slammed a paw over his mouth and looked him very firmly in the eyes. “No. Don’t apologize. That was my fault.”

Well, okay, I guess?

Her topaz eyes looked him up and down very carefully, face screwing up like a toddler carefully inspecting their plate full of peas. Whoever she was, she radiated an energy like a curious wildfire, bold and full of spark. Tilting her head, she asked with restraint evident in her voice; “You’re not hurt at all, are you? I’m grounded if you are.”

“Um… I would hope not? I mean, I don’t think I am-”

“Oh, thank goodness! My name’s Josephine, by the way! I don’t know you, and I know everyone, which means you must be new here. C’mon, let me introduce you to everyone!”

Before Hemlock could even think to protest, he was being dragged off by Josephine, who had used stealing his beanie as a strategy to get him to follow her. Far swifter than he was, she took off through the campsite and left Hemlock to dart hurriedly after her. Who knew someone so small could be so quick?

She talked a lot too. In the span of maybe five seconds, she switched topics from the color of the sky to what was for dinner to what she’d spent her day doing. Hemlock honestly couldn’t register any of it, her constant chatter going in one ear and completely out the other. It made him feel a little bad that he couldn’t keep up with it, but he knew it wasn’t humanly possible for him. 

He was led to a little stream behind the campsite, giving way from the trees into a wide open, marshy meadow. The ground squelched lightly under his paws, wildflowers brushing against his sides as he moved. There was no trail, but Josephine carefully forged a path for the two, making her way towards some rocks and what looked like a grove of shimmering aspens. Mountains loomed in the distance, watching them on a silent vigil. It was enough to send strange but not unpleasant shivers up and down Hemlock’s spine.

Clambering over the rocks into the aspen grove was a little difficult on his soft paws, but Hemlock made it, tumbling gently into the soft grass and moss below. The impact made him tune back into Josephine at long last, and he scrambled to his feet as he heard her laugh and toss back his beanie to him, a grin on her face.

“Welcome to the Wilderness Quartet’s humble abode!” Josephine nearly crowed in joy, chest puffed out. “Though I guess since you’re here, it’s the Wilderness Quintet now.”

Did I just get indoctrinated into this girl’s friend group without even realizing?

Whoa. She was smooth.

A white cat built like a plushie mixed with slime raised his head, pushing heart-shaped glasses up his nose with one paw. “Yo, Josie, who’s the new guy?”

“Knowing her, she probably never remembered to ask,” a dark brown cat with a fish’s tail and glowing lure on her head chimed in. She spoke in dry tones, as though the whole world and every wonder of nature didn’t interest her in the slightest. Hemlock could practically feel the way it made Josephine’s heart sink.

“Hey, be nice,” a third cat, cream-colored with limbs made of glass said, sitting up from her position and adjusting her clear shawl. The pink liquid contained in her glass torso sloshed as she moved and turned to face Josephine. “It’s okay if you didn’t ask their name. They can introduce themselves.”

Hemlock, whose face had been in the moss long enough that a bug of unknown origin had begun lightly investigating his nose, heaved himself to his paws with a soft oof and shook himself out. Josephine passed him back his beanie, which he carefully inspected for any signs of damage (perfectly intact, thank God), after which he turned his head up to look at the other cats in the aspen grove. “I’m Hemlock,” he said in what must’ve been the most awkward way possible, sounding stiff and stilted and horribly nervous. It was no surprise that Hemlock had never been very good at making friends.

“Julian,” the cat in heart glasses raised a paw with a smile. By his paws were a sketchbook and some writing utensils, one of which he picked up and absentmindedly twirled. “Mind if I sketch you? I’m trying out some new materials.”

Hemlock nodded as Julian gestured to some brush-tip pens. “Uhh… sure? So long as I don’t have to pose or anything.”

“No worries, no worries. I don’t need people to pose for me to draw them. Just looking at you is enough, babe.”

“Julian!” the cream cat exclaimed in the admonishing tone of a mother. “Don’t call him that.”

“I use it for everyone!”

“Not right out the gate!”

The pair bickered for a few more heartbeats before the tan cat sighed and shook her head. “Sorry about my cousin, he’s just flamboyant. I’m Rosie, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”

Hemlock felt he could get used to Rosie’s company pretty quickly. She was soft but not quiet, responsible but not overly stern. True to her name, she smelled faintly of roses, with eyes the color of green tea. His comfort around her was automatic.

“C’mon, Siren, introduce yourself,” Josephine pushed after several seconds of near-perfect silence, interrupted only by the first few crickets starting to play their melodies off in the grass somewhere. Her tone wasn’t as bright as it had been before, more stern and insistent. It wasn’t a request. It was an order.

Siren scoffed, baring her teeth lightly and looking anywhere but Hemlock and the other cats. “Siren.”

For a brief moment, Hemlock’s eyes locked onto hers, tired and dull. The spark her friends had when he looked at them just… wasn’t there with her. Her expression was flat, dreary like a rainy day at sea, but without the awful turmoil of the waters. She didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to be anywhere. She was full of awful, hollow grief that sank to the bottom of her like a rock tossed into a bay, no longer willing to fight or move. And then, as swift as a fish through water, she looked away, and he was left wondering what she’d been through. What she’d seen. What she’d lost.

Rosie hopped silently down from her rock, placing a paw on Hemlock’s shoulder and gently shaking her head. That wasn’t a secret he wanted to uncover. Not tonight, perhaps not ever. On quiet paws, she herded the rest of them back to the campsite for dinner, Josephine racing ahead the whole time while Julian chattered incessantly next to him and Siren’s glare bored holes in Hemlock’s back. For his first time in a new place, sitting around the dinner table eating hot dogs that had been roasted over a fire and listening to Josephine tell them tall tale after tall tale, he felt surprisingly at home. Maybe, just maybe, things weren’t as dismal as he felt. Maybe, just maybe, being a drifter was home.

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