3867 words (15 minute read)

Chapter 02

The Dodo Restaurant, Sugarhouse, Utah

The restaurant was crowded but not overly loud. The normally quirky atmosphere was softened by dimmed lighting and tables dressed with black tablecloths and jarred candles. The aroma of roasted meat, sauteed vegetables, and sugary-sweet desserts wafted throughout the venue setting mouths to watering.

Carter regarded the woman who sat across from him as she contemplated her menu. She’d worn a dark green cocktail dress and Carter found it refreshing. Everywhere he’d looked that day, his eyes were assaulted with red and the many variations and permutations of the tinct. He supposed it was festive and somewhat traditional to dress in such hues on St. Valentine’s Day, but it was a practice he’d never subscribed to.

He couldn’t be sure if she’d selected the color to subvert cultural expectations, or if it was an oversight caused by stress. All the same, the green of the dress accentuated the green in her hazel eyes, the same eyes that were now peering at him shyly.

“You’re staring,” she whispered, accusingly.

Carter smiled. “Am I not allowed to stare?”

The woman blushed. “I didn’t say that.” She began fiddling with the wedding band she still wore on her left hand and Carter’s gut gave a little lurch.

“Jezebel,” he said softly.

“Hmm?”

“Why so nervous?” Carter took her hand to stop the maddening movement.

“It’s just,” Jezebel pulled her hand free from Carter’s grasp, tucking both her hands in her lap beneath the table. “People are going to see us together, Carter.”

Carter stared at her, flummoxed. “The only people who’d care about it, one way or another, already saw us together at New Years, Jez.” He paused a moment, remembering their first kiss when they rang in the new year, and the many kisses that followed. They’d fessed up to their friends about their relationship that evening; no one was surprised or upset in the least. “Besides, all these folks are too wrapped up in their own celebrating to pay us any notice.”

When Carter offered his hand to her, palm up, Jezebel sucked in a sharp breath and returned her hand to his keeping. “I’m sorry. I guess this’ll take some getting used to.” She smiled, the blush of her cheeks giving her a lovely youthful glow.

Though he was enthralled with her, Jezebel wasn’t the only woman in Carter’s life. To ease his worry, he asked after Jezebel’s daughter; a girl he considered a daughter of his own. Hell, if he’d been braver in high school, Jezebel would’ve born his children and not Franklyn’s. Still, he could not fault her for the choices she made. Franklyn was nearly eighteen years dead, and Carter had gotten the chance to raise a family with the love of his life in the interim.

“I didn’t see Beth when I picked you up. How is she, today? I’ve been worried. You know, with the holiday and all.” Feeling a twinge of guilt for celebrating so soon after Elizabeth’s loss, Carter cast his eyes to the candle on the table between him and his companion.

Jezebel’s grip tightened on Carter’s hand. “Actually, she forgot what today was and only realized once she was already at school. Sarah tells me she put on a brave face and made it through her classes, though.”

Seeing her bite her lip, Carter knew she was leaving something out. “But…” he said, both in question and to urge her to continue.

“But Beth was looking rather fragile when I got home. Sarah was there and gave me a rundown while Beth was occupied. She’ll be with Beth all evening.”

“She’s been doing so much better. I really thought the therapy was helping.” A heavy feeling settled on Carter’s heart.

Jezebel’s eyes widened a fraction. “You know it is. This is just a setback like Dr. Bowman warned us about.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” The weight on Carter’s heart eased a bit and his mind turned to more amorous thoughts. “How late did you say Sarah is staying with Beth?”

Jezebel cleared her throat, “She’s staying over, actually.” Her arms, neck, and chest flushed a dark red.

Carter traced a slow circle on the soft flesh of Jezebel’s hand. “All night, huh?” When Jezebel’s eyes lifted to meet his, he saw passion smoldering behind her hazel irises, partially obscured by her swooping flaxen fringe.  Carter knew the same heat reflected in his own eyes.

“Yes,” she said softly, warmth infusing her voice. “All night, Mr. Williams.”

***

The dry snow crunched under her boots as Elizabeth traversed from the curb, through the cemetery, to the plot she’d dreaded returning to. Leftover from the storm nearly a week passed, the snow was no longer soft and fluffy. It was hard packed and topped with a layer of glassy ice, the result of the sun melting it a bit throughout the day only to be frozen again upon sunset. It wasn’t the easiest walk she’d ever taken.

The headstone was far nicer than she expected; she hadn’t thought there’d be a service, let alone a burial. Anthony was a ward of the state with no family to speak of. Ms. Ruiz, his case-worker, was the closest he’d had to family, but Elizabeth doubted the woman could have afforded a funeral even if she’d  wanted to. She set the mystery aside to ponder over later.

From beneath her arm, Beth removed the rolled picnic blanket she’d tucked there. She unrolled it and flung it out over the snow covering Anthony’s grave. She spent several moments needlessly straightening it, before crawling onto it, the snow giving beneath her weight. Once she was kneeling at the top edge of the blanket right before the beautifully hewn granite headstone, she settled and collected her thoughts.

Tentatively, tenderly, Elizabeth reached forward and began tracing the engraved letters of his name. Her fingertips followed the grooves, memorizing the textured. “Hello there,” she said softly, her voice somehow unwavering. “You missed our first Valentine’s Day, Mister. That was a week ago, in case you’re wondering.” Her tone was one of mock-reprimand, one Anthony would have been all too familiar with.

Elizabeth’s teasing spirit broke and her chin began to quiver. “It’s okay, though. I forgive-” her voice faltered. She cleared her throat, wiped a tear from her cheek and tried again. “I forgive you, Toney. My Toney… I thought I’d have a lot to say to you when I finally plucked up the courage to come here. Yet, the only thing that comes to mind is that I miss you… and I forgive you.” Her voice was now only a whisper in the February afternoon.

Having said her piece, but not yet ready to let go, Elizabeth remained kneeling there, studying the words and designs on the stone. All that remained of her first love. That was something she’d taken away from her sessions: Anthony was her first love, not her only love, and she would love again someday. Elizabeth tried to believe that; she both hoped and feared it was true.

She was unsure how long she’d spent at Anthony’s grave when her mobile phone chirped in her pocket. She drew it out and read the message from her mom inquiring where she was and when she’d be home. Heaving a resigned sigh, she sent a reply estimating how long it would take to return on foot; she hadn’t yet convinced her mother she was ready to drive alone, so she’d walked to the cemetery.

“Well, Toney, the real-world is calling me.” She stood and shook the snow from the plastic underside of the blanket before folding and rolling it up to tuck it under her arm once more. Before departing, she kissed her fingers and pressed them against the “T” of his name. “I love you, Anthony Larsen.” With those parting words, she began her long, cold walk home.

***

The Guardian forcibly restrained his counterpart, grateful his age and training enabled him to do so. It would only be a few years before the man’s brute strength would out-match his own. “She can not know,” the Guardian growled, keeping a watchful eye on his charge. “We are meant to be her shadows, her guardian angels. We can be nothing more.”

“I can’t do this, Pops. I can’t watch her hurt like this.”

“You must,” the Guardian said in a tone that brooked no argument. “Her heart will heal. In the meantime, we have a job to do. Tell me now if you can keep it together or not.”

The Guardian’s companion didn’t reply straight away, so he slipped into the man’s mind and sorted through the conflicting thoughts and feelings. At last, the Guardian sensed his counterpart’s resolve. “I’m good, Pops. Let’s go.”

With that, the pair took off after Elizabeth, trailing her using their own unique methods of camouflage to avoid detection. The evening was bitterly cold, and the Guardian felt a wave of relief wash over him when Beth returned to the warmth of her home. The Guardian bid his counterpart goodnight. He stealthily made his way into the basement apartment where he could more easily watch over his charge through the night while the other man kept watch over the house itself.

The new arrangement took some getting used to, but the Guardian felt his little girl was better safeguarded than ever, now that they’d worked out the kinks in their partnership. The Guardian would suffer anything if it would benefit Beth, even associating with and being around his new companion.

The Guardian listened to the conversation between Elizabeth and her mother taking place on the floor above. They were discussing Beth’s trip to the cemetery. Beth told Jezebel she’d been saying goodbye and that she was ready to let go. Elizabeth didn’t realize she’d told a falsehood; she wanted to be ready, but she wasn’t entirely there, yet. Perhaps, in time.

Later that evening, while Beth was studying on her bed amid a minefield of papers, binders, and books, the Guardian felt a shift in the atmosphere. A subtle weight settled on the room and the smell of ozone pervaded the air. The Guardian felt fear surge through him and went on the alert, scanning every mind he could reach.

It was Beth’s mind, though, that made the fine hairs on his arms stand on end. He sensed a split there, a wall. On the one side, she was absorbed with her studies. On the other side, the Guardian found images of towers and bridges, the scent of the ocean surf, the sensation of fog curling around her, along with a prompting to leave, to travel. These thoughts were not Beth’s own; they’d been sent to her.

The Guardian couldn’t ascertain whether Beth received the message on a conscious or even subconscious level. A seed of concern took root in his gut. All at once, he realized there was some kind of magic at work and his worry multiplied. What little he knew of magic didn’t bode well for his kind, but he wondered what it could mean for Beth, with her being human.

***

“Remind me why we’re doing this?” Sarah called to Elizabeth, winded and fatigued. The pair had been running laps for fifteen minutes on the poorly-lit indoor track at the community center.

“I’m doing this for extra T&F practice,” Beth said in between breaths. “And I think you said you were doing this to-”

“To look fierce in my prom dress. That’s right.” Sarah wasn’t pleased with the reminder.

“I think you look fantastic. I hope you’re not doing this for Evan.” Elizabeth pressed.

“Evan? Oh, please. He’s just the flavor of the week. I’m doing this for me.” Aiming to change the subject, Sarah huffed a deep breath, “Is it just me, or is it easier to run outside?”

Beth laughed, a welcome sound to Sarah’s ears. “It’s not just you. Running indoors is taxing, mentally.”

“God, I miss the outdoors. Do you miss it? I remember a time when there wasn’t snow and ice everywhere. A time when the air wasn’t so cold it could kill.” Sarah complained, laying on the dramatics thickly. “A time when the sun didn’t set before dinner.”

“Really? It’s been so long, I can’t recall such a time.” Beth said, joining in the fun.

The two traded smiles and fell into a companionable silence, the only sound their breathing and the rhythmic thud of their shoes on the tartan track. Beth could smell rubber from the floor and old sweat; Beth longed for the scent of freshly mowed grass and the clean smell that follows a rainstorm. Sarah was not alone in wishing Spring would arrive early. Every now and then, Elizabeth could feel Sarah’s eyes on her, checking for depression or despair. Sarah needn’t have bothered. When Elizabeth ran, she was free. Her worries fell away and her heart could release its heavy burdens.

When they were nearing the end of their final lap, Elizabeth began to slow. “Oh, weak sauce, E! Does this look like the finish line? Come on!” Sarah berated her friend, though she looked as though she wanted to be through running, too.

Grimacing, Elizabeth forced herself to return to speed until the lap was complete. “You’re the worst.” She grumbled.

“Whatever, you love me.” Sarah laughed, and Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh, too. They completed the lap and slowed to walk their cool-down round before stretching. “See now, aren’t you glad you didn’t phone it in? Feels good, huh?”

Beth finished draining her water bottle, wiping her lips with the back of her wrist. “Yeah, it does. Thanks for calling me out.” Beth returned the question. “So, how do you feel?”

“Oh, I feel like death.” Sarah winced, hugging her chest. “I don’t think we busty gals were designed for running.” They shared a look and burst out laughing, breathless as they were.

Later, in the locker room, Sarah glanced up from tying her shoes to ask to borrow Beth’s hairbrush and stilled, worry twisting in her gut. Elizabeth’s eyes were far off as she pulled the brush through her hair. Her motions were slow, almost comically so. This wasn’t the first time she’d witnessed this strange absence come over her friend. It usually preceded a lengthy talk about far-off places, traveling after graduation, and once a troubling conversation about running away.

Sarah couldn’t fathom why Beth yearned to leave. It was March, only three months before graduation, and Beth’s birthday would follow a couple weeks after that. Sarah wanted this time together with her best friend, knowing that they’d each leave for college in the Fall, maybe sooner in Sarah’s case. The thought of such distance between them made her a little ill, and all Beth seemed to talk about was leaving.

Sara suspected this odd compulsion in her friend was likely part of her grieving process. Still, that knowledge didn’t keep her heart from hurting every time Beth had the thousand yard stare. Raking through her tangled blonde hair with her fingers, Sarah shaped the unruly locks back into a ponytail. She didn’t want to interrupt Beth’s strange daze to borrow her hairbrush, after all.

***

“I don’t know, Carter.” Jezebel hurried out of the bathroom adjoining her bedroom as though she were fleeing from a spider.

Carter stood wrapped in a towel, gaping, astounded at her hasty exit. “What is there not to know? We’ve been dating for six months.” Deciding not to let her get away so easily, Carter abandoned his toothbrush on the counter and strode after Jezebel. By the time he reached the doorway to her walk-in closet, she was already half dressed, sliding on a pair of grey slacks. “What’s holding you back?” Carter tried to gentle his voice.

Jezebel finished buttoning her pants before turning to face Carter. “I don’t know how Beth would take to having a man in the house.” She answered quietly.

Carter was unable to hold back the laughter that burst from him. Jezebel scowled at him, waiting for him to regain his composure. “Jez, she’s not a little girl. She’ll be eighteen in three months; she’s practically an adult already.”

“I know, but-”

“Most children grow up with their fathers living in the same house with them and their mothers; it’s how families are meant to be.” He smoothed his hands over her shoulders trying to coax her apprehension away.

“We aren’t a family, though. You aren’t her father, Carter.” Jezebel wasn’t trying to be cruel, but the words cut Carter deeply.

“I may not be her blood, but she is my daughter, Jez. I helped you raise her.” Carter’s blood was pounding in his ears. He’d never said such a thing to Jezebel; it had always gone unspoken, but he thought it was understood.

“No, Carter,” Jezebel snapped. “You were only around when the unit was stateside. You were gone for months, years at a time! We needed you. I-”

“I wanted to be here. You know I wanted to be here! You two are everything to me.” Carter interjected.

“The point is up until four years ago, I raised her on my own. Me,” fury burned behind her eyes as they grew shiny with unshed tears. “Yes, you and the guys helped whenever you weren’t on deployment, but I was alone in this. First, Frank leaves me widowed with a baby and then the rest of you, our so-called ‘family’, run off to war on the other side of the world.”

For a few moments, they only stared at each other; Carter unwilling to say something that might scare her away, and Jezebel waiting for him to turn his back on her forever. The nervous energy rushing through Jezebel finally got the better of her; her knees buckled and she sank onto the upholstered bench in the middle of the closet. Carter went to her then, he knelt before her, gathering her shaking hands into his larger, steadier ones, holding them on her knees.

“You raised her beautifully. I’m so sorry I missed those early years - most of them, anyway.” Carter studied Jezebel’s face, concerned and confused. “I thought we were passed this, Jez.”

Jezebel let out a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry. I’m just so nervous. What if this doesn’t work out? Things- things are good how they are. Do we really want to push our luck?” She finally met his eyes, though her vision was blurred with tears about to spill over.

“Jezebel, you stole my heart the moment I met you. A boy of fifteen, I was no match for you.” Carter whispered his confession. “Not a day has passed between then and now that I haven’t loved you.”

“No, that can’t be true.” Jezebel accused, though not harshly. Carter nodded his head. “Why didn’t you say anything back then?”

“You were crazy for Frank.” Carter shrugged.

“No, I-” Jezebel stood and moved away from Carter, shaking her head. “I eventually settled for Frank, but… but it was always you.”

In that moment, Carter wished he had a time machine. He would have given anything to go back and have the courage to pursue a relationship with Jezebel while they were still youths. “But, all these years-”

“Why do you think I haven’t dated anyone since he died?” She said, more strength behind her words. “I was waiting for you. But you kept leaving us, leaving me.” When Carter didn’t reply, at a loss for words, she continued. “I never wanted to be a military wife, Carter. Franklyn didn’t give me any say in the matter; he joined up without consulting me. I didn’t want to lose you like I lost him. So, I promised myself I wouldn’t take you seriously until you were out.”

Gobsmacked, Carter could only utter, “Oh.” A million thoughts rushed through his head and when they slowed, he was left with one question. It was a question that would need to wait, and he asked another, instead. “So, you are unsure about me moving in with you because you’re scared I’m going to re-up and leave you here, alone?” He stood, clasping the towel to his hip, as it had loosened while he knelt before Jezebel.

“If you want to oversimplify it, sure.” She said, a little defensively while withdrawing an undershirt and a pair of boxer-briefs from a drawer.

When she handed the underclothes to Carter, he smirked at them. “I practically live here already.” He sensed her mood starting to lighten. “I can’t even remember the last night I spent at home.”

Jezebel snorted. “I can. It was Tuesday.”

“Yesterday was Tuesday.” Carter pointed out as he donned the undergarments.

“Last Tuesday, smart alec.” She was doing her best not to smile, and Carter thought he detected a hint of laughter in her voice.

“That was a work-thing. I may not have been with you that night, but I wasn’t at home either.” Carter selected a shirt hanging on his side of the closet, slid it on and began doing up the buttons. “That brings me to my next point. I’ve got a business to run. I won’t be heading off to war, leaving my business behind, let alone my stunning girlfriend.”

He reached for a tie from the selection hanging alongside his shirts and Jezebel swatted his hand away. “Not that one.” She eyed his shirt, then plucked a different tie off the rack and hooked it around Carter’s neck. As she knotted the tie for him, she eyed him suspiciously. “Stunning girlfriend, huh?” Carter nodded as best he could without disrupting her work. “Girlfriends are easy to leave, stunning or otherwise.” She stepped away to get her shoes on.

“Hmmm. You’ve got a point, there.” Carter said, quickly extracting the small velvet box from its hiding place in his sock drawer, keeping his back to Jezebel. He heard her offended intake of breath. “Stunning wives are much more difficult to part with.” He turned, opening the small box as he did. “Maybe, for now, we can split the difference and settle for ‘stunning fiancée’.”

Jezebel dropped the red pump she was about to slip on. “Carter,” she whispered, questioningly.

Carter went to her and took her left hand, winding his fingers through hers. “I am not going anywhere, Jezebel. It’s you and me until the day we die. I promise.” He let out a breath, heavy with nerves. “If you can promise me the same thing,” he placed the box in her hand, closing her fingers around it and stepping back, “then marry me.”


Next Chapter: Chapter 03