Lost and Found - By Nicole Williams

For my Dad

Thank you for being such a strong and silent protector in my life, and for setting the bar for what a man can and should be.

THERE ARE LOW points, and there are low points. This—rattling down an endless stretch of interstate in a Greyhound bus toward the middle of farm-country-nowhere a week after barely graduating high school—was my low point.

I didn’t understand why “barely” graduating high school was indicative of how I would do in art school in the fall—high school was designed to torture teenagers, not teach them—but Mom thought otherwise.

If the art school in Seattle I wanted to attend didn’t cost a fortune and a half, I wouldn’t have given a damn what Mom thought. She was on the road so much I was lucky to see her one day a week. Even on that one day, she was usually in and out so quickly you would have thought my brand of “freak” was contagious. I didn’t understand why a woman who had ignoring her one and only spawn down to a science was putting her foot down when it came to funding my future.

I’d been accepted into the art school I’d been dreaming about since I’d given the proverbial finger to Home Economics in eighth grade and taken Art 101 instead. I’d never been so excited about anything in my life. But that didn’t matter to Mom. She wouldn’t foot the bill for school unless I convinced her I could step up to life’s plate and prove myself a responsible member of society, unlike the drain to it she was convinced I was.

So where, in all the possible places, could I prove myself to dear, suddenly-concerned, checkbook-holding mom?

Willow Springs Ranch, smack in the middle of Hickville, USA.

That’s right. A ranch.

I’d never been on one, but I didn’t need to in order to know ranches and Rowen Sterling should stay on opposite ends of the universe. I was a city girl who’d never been around anything four-legged other than dogs or cats. I believed wide open spaces and starry nights were overrated and only idealized so the country music industry could stay afloat. I thought rural was synonymous with hell.

I was the lucky girl who’d be spending my entire summer up to my knees in “rural.”

I wasn’t sure how I’d do it, and I sure as hell didn’t want to do it, but I had to. Three months in hell was worth four years of art school. My life had never been easy, so I knew I could handle whatever waited for me at Willow Springs. A long time ago, I’d learned I was good at “handling” life. I didn’t excel at it, and I certainly didn’t thrive at it, but I could handle life and everything it had thrown at me.

My secret? I’d simply accepted that life was pain.

There wasn’t a rhyme or a reason to the universe and those who occupied it. We were here. Some of us for long durations and some of us for not so long, but the one thing we humans could depend on from life was pain.

Accepting that had somehow made living easier. I’d stopped looking for happiness and, in so doing, wasn’t living in a steady state of let-down anymore. I didn’t let myself hope either. That was the real poison that put the vacant expression in so many people’s eyes.

I accepted.

That was the only reason I was about to hop off the Greyhound bus in western Montana. I’d accepted that if I wanted to go to art school, I’d have to pay a pain price to get there.

After twelve hours on the road, everyone practically bolted out of their seats the moment the bus came to a stop. Even though “Big Sky Montana” wasn’t anything to bound out of a bus toward, it was more appealing than hanging back in the recirculated air that had gotten especially rank the last hundred miles. The middle-aged guy who’d snored his way through the whole trip leapt out into the aisle without a look or word my way. After shouldering my purse, I tucked my hair back into my hoodie and slid the purse strap over my head.

I took a few steps toward the aisle and waited for someone to let me into the line. I was sitting in one of the first few rows. Surely the entire bus wouldn’t have to offload before I got to. Part of my strategy for getting a seat in the front of the bus