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  • Writer's picturejgewagner

First Draft of First 'Wild Open Faces' Chapter

Adding a serious caveat here.  I wrote this in 2010.  It's changed and morphed many times since then as you'll see in other posts . . . but it's good to see where it all started.  Also if there's something you like, that was edited out in newer versions (if I ever get around to posting them), feel free to chime in!

CHAPTER ONE – In La Luna, We Rest

“We’re almost there,” Liddy said, taking in the sweeping Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.  “Didn’t I say it was breathtaking?”

“It is,” I answered, quietly tracing the small craggy peaks framed by the windshield.  It just wasn’t the home I was used to.  

“You okay?  You haven’t said much since Albuquerque.”

Alongside us, tall junipers and Ponderosa pines lined the road, swaying in the wind as we drove past the tiny town of Glorieta.“I thought you liked quiet,” I whispered, awed by nature’s abundant use of green to mask the desert.  “Isn’t that why we left Los Angeles?”

“We left so we could start fresh.”  Liddy’s already pouty lips pursed into a sour frown. “And last I checked, youwere all for it.”

“I’m fine, Lid.  It just all looks so different.”  I inhaled, breathing in sage and pinon.  “And it smells . . . odd.”

From the day I entered this world, to the day we packed up our lives and drove off to New Mexico, I’d lived in the same house in Los Angeles with my mother and my aunt, Liddy.  Of course, Mom never told us she planned to swan-dive off the Santa Monica Pier before she killed herself ten months ago, so until the moment Liddy and I crossed over the New Mexico state line, I never seriously imagined living in a town like La Luna. 

“Were you thinking about your mom?” Liddy asked.


“It’s okay if you were, sweetie.  You’re allowed to remember her.”

“Like I could forget.”  Mom had made that one impossible.

Liddy turned the car off the highway, heading toward La Luna. Green and wooded with Pinon, La Luna huddled against the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The town was small, but compared to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Glorieta it could have been Los Angeles. 

“Hungry?” Liddy asked as we drove past a diner.

“Yeah.”  I pushed a wilted lock of hair out of my face and squinted up Luna Street.  “But I don’t really feel like eating out.”

“Should we stop at a store before we get to the house instead?”

“Alright,” I nodded.

We parked in front of a bar near the end of Luna Street.  As Liddy dug through her purse for a brush, I wound my hair into a ponytail, wishing it either had fewer waves or a little more curl.  Either was better than the golden nest it’d become during our trek out to New Mexico. 

Liddy got out of the car and locked an arm in mine.  She pulled my hand from my flushed face and clicked her tongue.  “Stop fussing.  You look beautiful.”

“I don’t want to look beautiful.  Just human, if that’s all right.”  

Liddy flared her nostrils, flattening the sharp tip of her sloped nose exactly the way Mom did whenever she was caught between amusement and irritation.  She whooshed her other arm out in front of her.  “What do you think?  Will you survive?”

“Ask me after school starts,” I shrugged, looking up at her. Liddy was five nine.  I’d only made it to five two.  Ashrimp in a lobster’s universe, Mom used to tease.

Draping an arm around my shoulder, she maneuvered my rag doll frame, wilted from the heat, while we walked.  “I know you’re not dying to repeat senior year, and it might take a while to get used to.  But you’ll be alright.”

“Do you think it’ll be hard to start over?”

“Likely,” she nodded.  “But you, of all people, can do anything.  You’re the smartest thing on this planet since Schrödinger.” 

Liddy tugged me into a small corner market on Luna Street, and I playfully brushed her fingers off the pale freckled slope of my shoulder. “Please,” I snorted. “Schrödinger?”

Sometimes her obsession with science drove me crazy.  Aside from her penchant for holing up in whatever lab she could find when she wasn’t teaching at the University, she pretty much compared me to some different obscure scientist every week.

“Sweetheart,” she said on her way to grab a cart, “if you weren’t my niece, I’d sell your brain on the black market.”

“Heartening,” I chattered, grabbing a basket.  The market felt like an icebox.  Especially compared to the heat outside.  “I’ll get the Cheetos.  Meet me up front in a minute?”

Liddy flipped her long copper hair at me, nodding over a slender shoulder.  While she cheerfully walked the aisles, haphazardly throwing things into the cart, I went looking for snack food.  Mom had made us live like health freaks.  Over the last ten months, I’d made it my duty to support the junk-food industry.  

Wandering the dim store, a tall end-cap filled with assorted cookies caught my attention.  Clutching the basket under my arm, I stood on my tiptoes, reaching for a pack of Oreos on the top shelf.  As I stretched, the basket’s red plastic corner wedged between my ribs, attacking me. I tried shoving it into submission, then pulled the basket-handles off my shoulder, snagging my tank-top.  

“Crap!”  I yelped, tugging at my top as the basket hit the floor. 

Crouching on the cool tile I hastily rescued my Cheetos. Down the aisle, something flashed in my periphery.  For a split second I thought I saw my mother standing motionless between two shelves of cereal, but when I looked up, there was nothing but empty rows of boxes and scuffed tile.  Briefly, I closed my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose between my fingers.  Its bad enough you’re stuck riding out senior year in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.  Now you’re seeing your dead mother too?  Nice, Ruby.  

Shaken, I shot up, backing into something solid.  I whipped around and a tall boy with the most unusual, if not damaged face I’ve ever seen, stared down at me.  As soon as our eyes met, I froze, fixated on his devastated features.  

“Let me guess, you just finished charm school.”  He glared at me.

My mouth opened, but nothing came out.  I meant to apologize, but instead sucked in a ‘sorry’ along with a whole lot of wind.  His large frame blocked the isle.  He was solid for sure — proportioned yet muscular — but his face was like a car crash. Knotty skin twisted across angular planes, forming jagged boundaries around smooth glossy patches of skin near his mouth and cheeks.  Up toward his hairline, a large scar stretched tightly from temple to temple, as if he’d had bad plastic surgery.  His face was nearly completely disfigured and the damage was jarring. 

“Didn’t your mother teach you it’s rude to stare?”  

His gruff voice dropped an octave, and I instantly felt like the world’s most insensitive person.  “I . . . yes,” I said, continuing to gawk.  “I’m sorry.”

The boy pinned me to the spot with his eyes.  His inexpressive face was like a rock mask. But his eyes spoke magnitudes. “Yeah, I can tell.”  

I felt terrible for being so rude, and more than a little mortified.  

“Next time, try paying attention,” he scowled.  

As I started to apologize again, he turned and stomped down the isle toward a cash register.  After a moment I followed, almost tiptoeing toward Liddy.  While we stood in the checkout line, I poked her in the side, surreptitiously pointing him out.  

“I totally almost knocked him over,” I whispered.  “It really pissed him off.”

“Smooth move,” she whispered back, giggling at the blush spreading across my cheekbones.  “You okay? It’s been a long drive.”

I poked her harder, talking between my teeth.  “Did you see his face?”

“Sad,” she nodded.

“I wonder what happened.”

“Something terrible I’d gather.”

The boy’s face made me sad, and my stomach contracted insistently while I watched him pay for his groceries.  I felt his anger physically, as if a leash tethered me to him, bridging the distance between us.  Thanks to Mom, a.k.a. former model extraordinaire, appearances were like my Achilles heel.  I hated knowing that what someone looked like mattered so much to people.  Even more, I hated other people thinking Icared about the surface of anything.

“Don’t feel bad,” Liddy whispered.  She rubbed the small of my back then pulled several bills out of her purse when the checker began swiping our items.  

Two lanes over the boy finished paying and glanced up at me. He grabbed his bag off the checkout belt, glared for what felt like an hour, and marched out of the store. Through the market window, I watched him load groceries into a worn black pickup.  Slamming the tailgate, he turned and squinted at me through the window then jumped in his cab, revving up the engine before squealing out of the parking lot like a banshee.

Liddy raised a manicured eyebrow at the checkout clerk.

“Ezra.”  The clerk nodded toward the window.  “That guy’s got a heck of a chip on his shoulder.”  Under his breath he added, “Asshole.”

We paid for our groceries and quietly carried our bags to the car.  On the way to our new house, I prayed that I’d be smoother with the rest of La Luna than I was with Ezra.  Leaving my old friends was hard enough; starting over in a town full of people that hated me, when I still suffered from bouts of self-loathing myself, would be horrible.

Liddy drove into the foothills a couple miles outside La Luna proper and pulled into a long gravel driveway.  She stopped in a dirt lot in front of a secluded wood house, letting the car idle for a moment.  “Well?” 

The house seemed to grow out of the foothill at the bottom of the mountain range.  Tall pines framed the rectangular wood-sided structure.

“Liddy,” I exhaled.  “You never told me.”

“I tried, babe.  But your mother always sabotaged the conversation.  I think she was afraid we’d run off without her.”

“I can’t believe she didn’t want to move here.  It’s so beautiful.”

Mom had complained incessantly about living in the land of silicone, and smog, and traffic so dense you could practically lean out your window and kiss another car’s bumper.  For the longest time she’d wanted to pack it all up and ride out of town with the sunset.  But when Liddy up and bought a house in New Mexico with part of her and Mom’s inheritance, Mom miraculously had a sudden change of heart.  

“It’s not urban enough.”  Liddy tipped her head slightly, as if in deference to Mom’s memory.  “At least that was her excuse.  You know your mom.  She never could make up her mind.”

We unloaded our Volkswagen.  There wasn’t much to bring inside.  Liddy had already packed and sent forward almost everything we owned. True to form, she’d flown out early, settled things with the University, where she’d join the Biology department in Fall, and enrolled me in my new high school.  Always go into battle armed with a breadth of information and an organized mind, that was her motto. 

After I’d put the groceries away and set the last packing box down in the living room, I stood and turned in circles on the tiled floor, looking up at the ceiling.  The wood beams — gnarled lengths of roughly hewn oak — smelled fresh like the trees outside.  When I closed my eyes it was easy to believe that the house was an extension of the forest. 

“The fireplace works,” Liddy pointed out, pulling me over to a rounded hearth tucked into a corner of living room between two large windows. 

Liddy grabbed my hand and guided me through the first floor taking pleasure in my oohsand ahhs.  The kitchen, a square room that faced a green grassy clearing divided by a creek, made me miss Mom.  Once in a while, when she was alive, we’d sit up all night talking with Liddy in our much smaller kitchen in Los Angeles.  Liddy and I hadn’t had a good talk in eons, and the cozy space between the room’s navy walls seemed like a good place to bond.

“Do you want to see your room now?”  

Liddy shrugged toward the staircase.  Upstairs, at the end of the short hall, she led me into a bedroom that, like the kitchen, faced the creek.  A small room, the floor and ceiling were cut from pale beams of near flawless wood that offset brilliant red walls.  Along the outer wall a rectangular window overlooking the creek illuminated the already vibrant space.  

“Wow.  I mean seriously . . . wow!”

Liddy nodded toward my easel and the large box of paints propped against the closet.  “All the light, it’s like the room is on fire.  I knew you’d like it.”  She smeared a thumb across my chin, wiping away some of the grime that had accumulated over the long drive over from Phoenix.  

“You’re the best,” I whispered.

“So now that you’ve had the grand tour, think we should eat?”

Downstairs, we gorged ourselves on frozen pizza and junk food around our old table in our new kitchen.  Neither of us said much; it’d been a long two days from Los Angeles to New Mexico and we were both so tired.

“I guess I’ll go to bed,” I sighed, after staring way too long at my empty paper plate like the meaning of life lay woven in its fibers. 

“I have to go into Albuquerque in the morning, love,” Liddy reminded me.  “Will you be okay on your own?  Or do you want to come along?”

“To the University?” 


I thought about it.  Between setting up her office and introducing herself to her new colleagues in the Biology department, Liddy probably had more than a few good hours of work to get done.

“No.  I think I’d rather take a hike.  Or if you don’t mind, maybe you could drop me off in La Luna in the morning.”

“I’m leaving early, Ruby.  And I probably won’t be back until after one.”

“That’s alright.  I’ll walk back.”

“It’s at least two miles,” she frowned. 

Shrugging, I gave her a super-exaggerated you’ve got to be kidding meeye-roll.  Before Mom died, I hiked all the time.  I’d practically made the Santa Monica Mountains my home away from home. Two miles would be like walking up the driveway.  

“Alright.”  She drummed a burgundy nail on the table.  “But let’s go into Santa Fe tomorrow when I get back.  We’ll do a little shopping and get some dinner.”

“Deal,” I smiled.

I tossed our plates in the trash, stopping near the table before heading upstairs.  Stretching over the back of Liddy’s chair to reach her face, I kissed her pale cheek and brushed a long piece of copper hair out of her eyes.  Liddy had a beautiful head of wild hair that she always wore loose down her shoulders. 

“I love you,” I whispered in her ear.

She leaned her head back against the chair and smiled up at me, raising an arm to brush my cheek with her fingers.  “I love you too, babe.  Goodnight.”  

For the first time in my life I had my own private bathroom. I stood in my underwear in the small yellow space and quickly brushed my teeth, trying to ignore my reflection.  I knew my face as well as I knew Liddy’s. But I couldn’t look at my broad cheeks, or at my nose, which has a small rise at the bridge, or at my chin, which I’d always thought seemed a little sharp, without seeing my mother.  Except for my green eyes, everyone said we looked alike.  

Eager to put her out of my mind, I killed my bedroom lights and stood at the window, looking out at the pines and the creek.  Washed in moonlight the mountainside glowed.  And deep and vast as the forest was, it seemed a little intimidating. 

In the dark, night loomed through the window.  Beams of moonlight tapered to points that pierced the windowpane, staking my bed to the floor.  They cast strange shadows over everything.  

I rubbed my eyes with my knuckles, something Mom used to say I shouldn’t do if I want to avoid crow’s feet.  For the briefest moment, colorful sunbursts popped in the windowpane. Then as my eyes adjusted, I noticed something stir near the creek.  A faint form materialized, sitting beside a boulder near the banks of the stream.  It stood and stretched, and when silvery light illuminated its face, I realized I was looking at a mountain lion — a mountain lion that seemed pretty focused on my bedroom window.

Despite the moonlight, the longer I stared the worse the darkness played tricks with me.  Ghostly shapes faded against the sky then sprang to life each time I blinked. My brain grew so tired of trying to focus, I lost track of everything.  I had no idea if the cat was still there, but I wasn’t so keen on the idea that itmight still see me.

Beneath the ghostly light brushing the tree-tops, the forest went black.  Dark clouds swept the moon, turning the backyard dark like licorice.  I stepped away from the window, but I still feltthe lion’s eyes piercing the glass, searching for me like a peek-hole in the night.  They burned angry holes in my nightshirt, and city girl that I am, I completely freaked out. 

Outside coyotes howled, and leaves rustled, and the babbling creek seemed to whisper “Run, Ruby.”  Diving for my bed, I curled under my comforter and hid.  Back home, plenty of mountain lions lived in the Santa Monica Mountains, but I’d never come face to face with one.  And even though there were two stories of glass and wood between us, I couldn’t shake my uneasiness.  

Our new house had been empty for awhile.  The lion probably hung out by the creek all the time.  We were the ones who were trespassing.  But my brain confused my stomach, which tugged at my gut, and I couldn’t shake the chill that suddenly took me over.  

I buried my face in my pillow, mumbling “Stupid, Ruby.” After everything, I didn’t need a shrink to explain that I was overtired, and excitable, and probably making mountains out of molehills.  But I saw the lion’s silvery eyes every time I closed my own, which made it impossible to sleep. 

I tried thinking about the long drive from California to New Mexico.  About the strangers Liddy and I saw whenever we stopped to get gas or grab a bite to eat. I thought about the trains we’d passed, snaking across expanses of arid land alongside our car.  The Burlington Northern Santa Fe.  Union Pacific.  Amtrak. All going places we weren’t.  Then I thought about my mother.

We never had a symbiotic relationship, like the forest to the mountain.  But I did love her.  And I wasn’t always sure who I was anymore without her around to tell me, much as I used to disagree.  If she were alive, I’d crawl into bed with her and tell her that the lion scared the bejesus out of me.  I’d tell her that I was nervous about making friends, and about starting over in such a small place like La Luna.  Ten months had passed since Mom left us, and in my new room, hiding under the pile of blankets shielding me from both my new life and the secretive night outside my window, it felt like forever.  

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