I'm beginning to feel like a yo-yo.
Taylor's mind is so agile, she keeps jumping from one story to another.
I can't keep up!
But they're all fun to read, so I'm good with that.
We're back to Jack - since Adam's being an editor and insisting Taylor work on her Servant story more before they post it!
Anyway, enjoy the new chapter.
The Last Guardian
When he finally awoke, Jack yawned and sat up. Once he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he raised his arms, leaned back and clasped his paws behind his head in the laid back manner that only he could pull off. He looked at me, gaze bright when he said, "Let's go somewhere."
I folded my novel shut.
"Where?" I turned to face him.
"Surprise." he replied, winking. "Bring your backpack."
I grabbed my jacket from its hook near the front door and slipped it on. I didn't bother locking the door before walking out into the crisp night air. We didn't really need to worry about break-ins since we were in the middle of nowhere. Jack sat behind the wheel of the Bronco, one paw hung casually out the open window. A small smile crept across his face as I slid onto the soft leather of the passenger seat and shut the door. Once inside, I took off my backpack and set it at my feet. It felt heavy, like there was already something inside it. I neglected to empty it after taking it out from under my desk. Jack rolled up his window.
"Ready?" I asked, half smiling.
Jack's ears tilted back, then pricked forward. He reached into the back seat, and retrieved a multicolored beanie. He pulled it over my head, careful not to mess up my thick ponytail.
"It'll keep your ears warm." he told me, turning up the heater. "It's supposed to get cold tonight."
As we backed slowly away, I couldn't help but notice how perfectly cozy our cottage looked, with its string of Christmas lights hung loosely over the railing of the porch. Our safe haven glowed in the darkening night.
It was a long drive over a bumpy road to get to the highway, and even longer to get into town, assuming we were going into town at all. Whatever Jack’s surprise was, it had to be pretty monumental for this much effort.
I bent down and unzipped my backpack. The roofs of six painted birdhouses stared back at me.
Jack glanced at me.
I reached in, lifting up a birdhouse.
"You feel like making a pit stop?"
Peetie's House of Memories, located a few miles outside of town, was the perfect place to buy and sell homemade birdhouses, used Christmas ornaments, and other tasteful knick-knacks. I made Jack stay in the car while I took the treehouses into the shop, though he had volunteered to do it for me. The smell of old wood greeted me along with the owner's cheerful smile.
"Long time no see!" Pete called, wiping down the counters.
I walked by the shelves of heavily used children's toys under a sign that Pete himself playfully labeled, "Special Junk".
"Where's Daisy?" I asked, setting my bag on the counter.
I looked around for her. She was gentle and soft spoken, the perfect Guardian for the mellow Pete.
"She's in the back sorting boxes," he said, gesturing to a dimly lit hall behind him. "I can go get her if you want."
I unzipped my bag and took out my birdhouses one at a time.
"No, no, I don't want to bother her."
Pete picked up one of the little homes by its hook, examining it over his wire framed glasses. He smiled.
"You made these?"
"Zack helped. We were going to get them to you last week, but he was busy with something. Jack and I were on our way to town and we figured, why not stop by and say hello."
Pete's smile grew wider.
"That's mighty sweet, Miss Taylor."
I let my eyes wander around the store while Pete carried the tiny houses into the back room. A tv sat on a perch near the used Christmas decor. It was on mute. I read the subtitles.
"BREAKING NEWS: Local Guardian found dead 40 yards from Highway Five. It's human companion remains in critical condition and is unlikely to survive. Hunters are still searching for the killer animal."
A blurry photo appeared beside the reporter. A wolf, white and clean-looking, looked back at me, wearing Jack's eyes.
"You alright, kiddo?" Jack looked at me. "You seem a little quiet."
We were finally in town, held up by a stoplight. His yellow eyes implored me to spill my feelings, but I couldn't. How could I possibly tell him he and the animal that nearly killed him had the same eyes?
I didn't answer and, being the angel that he was, Jack didn't push me. When the light turned green, he focused his gaze on the road, saying nothing more. I lifted my empty backpack into my lap, and looked out my window at the warmly lit stores and shops, curious as to which one concealed my surprise. My curiosity was soon overwhelmed by fear. The wolf in the photo could be anywhere by now. She could be here in town, passing herself off as a Guardian. She could easily travel back up to Willow Wood, where our cottage sat unoccupied. My stomach began to knot. I desperately wanted to tell Jack, to have him take my fears away, like he always did. If I did, he'd be alert, sleepless, sick to his stomach from the stress of worrying about my safety. I couldn't hurt him like that.
Moments later, we were parked in front of Krissy's Candles, the only candle shop in town and my favorite store in town. I gasped, leaned over and hugged Jack, burying my face into his fur. Pulling away, I reached up and cupped his face in my hands.
"Thank you," I whispered.
He smiled warmly at me, tail thumping against the seat and for one brief moment, I didn't see the scars. His delighted expression, his sunny eyes, his wet nose, were all I saw. No scars.
"You're welcome." he whispered back.
He turned off the car. I grabbed my backpack and we followed the yellow glow into the shop. The smells were the best part of the place. Sure, the rich reds and dark wood accents were made brilliant by the lights in the store, but it was the smells, the delicious smells, that everyone came for.
And everyone did. Guardians were everywhere, all around us, walking around and sampling scents with their humans. The stronger breeds, like German Shepherds, Huskies, and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, looked after the young. The gentler breeds, the Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Sheep Dogs cared for the old. I realized as I caught sight of the Guardians around me, I found that they looked "ordinary" compared to Jack.
In truth, I hadn't thought much about how my Guardian differed from the others until now. Even amongst the wild variety of shapes, colors, and personalities of each Guardian, Jack stood out. He seemed to be the only one who wasn't a purebred. There was Lab in him, I knew. His floppy ears, wide muzzle and webbed feet proved that. There was something else too, something more complex. His legs, arms and muzzle were slightly longer than the purebred Labs. His fur was thicker too, an outer coat of coarse guard hairs and an under coat with soft layers of fluff. His paws were massive, nearly double the size of my hand, and his tail was long, slightly curved and bushy with fur. And his eyes. No one in the world had eyes like Jack.
Except for maybe the wolf that tried to kill us.
Jack took my hand, disrupting my thoughts and pulling me deeper into the soft glow of the shop. My eyes skimmed over the rows and rows of candles, wrapped and unwrapped, scented and unscented. I smiled, feeling truly happy for the first time since early this morning. This shop, this treasure trove of scents and colors, was my haven away from the cottage. It was a place to be safe and free from concern.
I made a beeline towards one of the shelves, dragging Jack behind me. I let go of his paw and picked up a candle, lifting it to my nose. It's scent was silky, sugary, homey. Chocolate. I sighed and closed my eyes.
"You want that one, Tay?" Jack asked, taking the candle from my hand.
I nodded and opened my eyes. Jack smiled at me, his expression bright. His tail thumped against the wooden leg of a table behind us as I picked up another candle and breathed in its scent. Anyone else would've told me I had enough candles at home, too many to be buying more. Not Jack. Jack supported my strange obsession without hesitation. My beautiful Guardian.