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Excerpt: Scarlet and the Keepers of the Light by Brandon Charles West

Chapter One: A Surprise Gift

In the eyes of his daughters, there was no greater hero than Mr. Hopewell.  The fact that in many senses of the word he was a hero by traditional standards had little to do with why they felt so strongly about his status as the world’s greatest man.  That fact was do entirely, this day at least, to the unusually calm German Shepherd puppy he was cradling in his arms as he tenderly wiped away a large amount of grit and grime from the puppy’s face. An hour prior, when Mr. Hopewell had been simply a great dad and an everyday, run of the mill kind of hero, he had been out for a jog through the winding paths that crisscrossed the wooded park near their neighborhood.  He had decided to take along the family’s dog, a rambunctious black Labrador named Cricket.  As a former soldier in the Army and now a firefighter, staying in shape was a constant concern of Mr. Hopewell, especially now that he was getting older.  Mr. Hopewell was not what anyone would consider a big man, but it had been a while since he’d been considered a skinny one either.  Most of his hair had gone and he now kept what little he had cut very close to his head to avoid looking like he had half a brown donut on his head.  Mr. Hopewell had vibrant green eyes that he shared with both his beautiful daughter’s.  Ally, Mrs. Hopewell, still loved him, despite the fact that his pants had seemed to have shrunk a bit over the past few years (at least that was what he liked to tell himself) and he was having funny aches and pains in muscles and bones that he had never paid any attention to before. Despite all these unmistakable signs of age, Mr. Hopewell had taken to the woods as energetic as the bounding two-year-old Labrador trotting next to him.  Unlike the dog, however, his energy steadily decreased, as hers seemed boundless. When they had gotten about two miles into the woods, and right about as Mr. Hopewell was regretting his decision to run instead of watching an old movie on television, which had been his original plan for the morning, he and Cricket happened upon something that would change his family’s lives forever.  Feeling a little queasy, out of shape, and very old, Mr. Hopewell was breathing so hard and so busy trying not to think about the burning in his muscles that he didn’t notice when Cricket’s leash began to trail behind him until he felt his arm jerk back.  The sudden stop caused him to slip on the muddy ground and he soon found himself seated flat on his bottom, staring angrily at Cricket who was digging in a bush at the edge of the trail.  It took Mr. Hopewell a moment to regain his composure but after a brief glower at Cricket, he was able to see the comedy of it all and even laughed at himself.  At least they were alone and there wasn’t anyone to share his embarrassment.  Standing up gingerly, feeling the ache in his back that would be worse come tomorrow morning, Mr. Hopewell walked back to Cricket and patted her on the rump. “Wha’cha got there, girl?” he asked. Cricket looked up at him, an expression of distress in her large brown eyes.  Mr. Hopewell pulled her away from the bush and moved closer to inspect what had gotten her attention.  The foliage was thick and within the bush it was quite dark.  Mr. Hopewell was about to write the whole incident off to a squirrel or bird when he heard the unmistakable wine of a puppy.  Cricket began to bark wildly and started to dig again at the bush. “Easy, girl,” Mr. Hopewell pleaded, again pushing Cricket back.  He cautiously reached into the bush and carefully brought out a puppy that looked poorly nourished and was covered in filth.  He looked the animal over for any sign of injury, but found none.  How in the world did you get out here, he thought, searching around for any sign of the mother dog or any other people.  As he set the puppy down to remove his sweatshirt, Cricket immediately began to lick and nuzzle at it, causing a smile to grow on Mr. Hopewell’s face. With the sweatshirt wrapped snuggly around the sleeping pup, Mr. Hopewell began to make his way out of the woods, remarking to himself how lucky it was that they had come along when they did.  The weather forecast predicted a rainy night and the puppy surely would not have survived out in the elements alone. “You’re a hero,” he said to Cricket as the Labrador looked up at him, clearly pleased with herself.  Mr. Hopewell laughed and stroked her behind the ears. By the time he arrived home on that Saturday afternoon, nearly an hour later than he had originally said he would, his wife and daughters had grown worried.  They met him at the front door with looks of concern on their faces, followed quickly by puzzlement as their attention turned to the bundle in his arms. “What’s that daddy?” his younger daughter, Melody, asked, rushing out to the yard and tugging at her father’s pant leg.  She had long blond hair that hung straight and bounced on her shoulders.  Her face was tanned from the summer sun and her pixie-like face was illuminated by a joyous smile that showed off her tiny white teeth.  Her cotton dress swirled around her legs as she twisted from side to side, trying to get a peek at the bundle in her father’s arms.   Mr. Hopewell smiled at his little girl.  “Let’s head inside,” he answered.  “It’s a bit hot out here.”  Mr. Hopewell’s tee shirt was drenched with sweat and he was in desperate need of something to drink and a chair.  Cricket, on the other hand, danced wildly around the family looking as if she was ready for another run or anything that might involve the expulsion of a great deal of energy.  She held her head up high, obviously still very proud of what she had found in the woods and the praise that Mr. Hopewell had given her.  Like Melody, she too was anxious for Mr. Hopewell to unwrap his bundle so that she could play with her new friend. Mrs. Hopewell, however, gave her husband a look that she was well known for in the Hopewell house.  It was a look that said…Charles, what have you done this time?  Mrs. Hopewell was a petite woman with short blond hair who, unlike her husband, was not looking at all old for her age.  Partly because she took better care of herself than Mr. Hopewell and partly because she was normally a busy woman who found little time to eat, and so was still as thin as she had been when the couple had met many years ago.  One of her best traits was a set of full lips that had the ability to display the most wonderful of smiles.  She was not, however, smiling now.  Following her family into the house, Mrs. Hopewell knew that she was going to have to be the bad guy again and under her breath she grumbled at her husband for putting her in that position.  Whatever Charles Hopewell had in the bundle, it was surely alive and would surely be a part of their family by evening if she didn’t put her foot down.  After all, they already had dog and to be perfectly honest, she wasn’t all that happy about it, despite Cricket being a rather good dog…as dogs go.  Mrs. Hopewell, unlike her easygoing husband, was the one who kept things sane around the Hopewell household.  Sometimes she wondered, with his soft spot for his daughters and his carefree attitude, whether the house would fall into utter chaos without her sensible voice to keep them grounded.  One thing she did know was that without her, there would certainly be more than one dog and probably any number of other animals residing in their home.  Mr. Hopewell was not very good at saying no. As if to put an exclamation point on her thoughts, her fears were confirmed as she reached the living room to find Mr. Hopewell unwrapping the small puppy who looked to be in poor shape.  Both of her girls were fawning over the little creature and it wasn’t a minute before Scarlet, their eldest daughter said the magic words___ “Can we keep him, Daddy?” “Now honey…” Mrs. Hopewell started, but nobody seemed to be paying her any attention. “I don’t know,” Mr. Hopewell answered his daughter.  Now that they were in the comfort of their home, he was looking over the puppy more closely and did not seem to like what he saw.  “He doesn’t look to be in good condition.” Both of the girls were glued to their father’s every move.  Mr. Hopewell was used to responding to medical emergencies at work, but he was not a veterinarian.  The puppy was shivering and his breathing was slow and shallow.  He handed the puppy to Scarlet and told her to keep it warm while he went to call Cricket’s veterinarian.  Scarlet held the little puppy close to her chest, putting her cheek against his face and received a few puppy kisses as a reward.  It was love at first sight and she had already begun to think about how she was going to convince her mother to let her keep him.  “Don’t worry, little one,” Scarlet whispered into the puppy’s ear.  “You’re home now.”  The puppy looked up at her and winked.  At the time, she thought little of the tiny gesture.  Later of course, she would remember this incident as the first sign that this little dog was something very, very special.  The puppy nestled itself into the crook of Scarlet’s arm and fell asleep.

Three weeks later, the puppy was still with the Hopewell family and had taken to sleeping with Scarlet in her room.  Her father had solidified his hero status in she and Melody’s mind by not only saving the puppy from certain death, but by also managing to convince their mother to let them keep the puppy, at least until they could nurse it back to health.  There had been many arguments between Scarlet and her mother over the nameless puppy and as of yet, Scarlet seemed to be on the losing side of the battle to keep the dog.  Mrs. Hopewell insisted that they not name the puppy so they wouldn’t get too attached and had only agreed to let him stay with Scarlet at night because the alternative meant nobody getting any sleep as the puppy would wail mercilessly when separated from Scarlet at bedtime.  What helped Scarlet’s case, however, was the remarkable behavior of the puppy.  With the exception of crying at night, which was easily solved by allowing Scarlet to take the puppy to her room, the puppy was, according to her father, the best behaved puppy he’d ever known.  Not once had the puppy ever had an accident in the house.  He never begged or got under foot.  Within minutes of anyone in the family teaching him a new trick or command, the puppy had the action mastered.  Then there was that fact that it had been three weeks and the puppy was clearly in fine health.  Surely, her mother realized what she was really agreeing to; after all, how could she really expect them to give up the puppy after spending so much time with the darling little thing.    Scarlet woke to the soft wet nose of the puppy nuzzling against her neck.  She giggled at the tickling and smiled as the puppy then covered her face with kisses.  She cradled him in her arms and rocked him back and forth. The puppy’s markings had begun to develop.  His muzzle was jet black, as were two saddle-like patches on either side of his back.  The rest of him was a sandy brown, almost reddish in parts; his back paws black, his front the sandy brown.  Mr. Hopewell had begun to say almost daily that he was going to be a very big dog.  His paws were comically large; nearly twice the size they seemed like they should have been for a puppy of his size and the rest of his shape was sleek and powerfully muscled for such a young animal.     “You’re going to need a name,” Scarlet said softly. Suddenly she remembered what day it was and in the same instant answered the question as to how she was going to keep the puppy.  Today was her twelfth birthday.  Not even her sensible mother could deny a request on her birthday. Setting the puppy down on the floor, she headed downstairs to let him out with a new hopeful skip to her walk.  She had a plan and she felt sure it would work.  By the end of the day, the puppy would be officially part of the family and he would have a name. She found her mother and father in the kitchen as she moved past them to the patio door to let the puppy outside.  Her face was beaming and her smile was so wide it crinkled the skin around her bright green eyes. Scarlet was a strikingly beautiful girl, although she was never mean or assuming about it.  To her it was just something that made her lucky and at times she went out of her way to be nice to the girls in school who were picked on for being overweight or who were considered ugly.  Although her father was never hesitant to tell his children that they were beautiful, it was Scarlet’s kindness, humility and unassuming manor that made him most proud.  Scarlet’s skin was pale and flawless, a trait she had clearly inherited from her mother, and her red hair cascaded down her back, drinking in the golden light of the sun whenever she stepped outside.  The red hair had been a surprise and it was only a coincidence that her parents had named her so appropriately.  Scarlet pulled a soft band from around her wrist and pulled her hair back into a ponytail.  She watched the puppy and Cricket frolicking in the yard for a few moments and although she was sure it was just her imagination, she could have sworn the puppy was playing fetch with Cricket.  He would get the tennis ball and using his tiny neck muscles would hurl the ball with surprising strength out into the yard, where Cricket would chase it down, bring it back and the entire process would begin again.  She watched this go on for several minutes before turning to sit down at the breakfast table.  Her father was reading the paper and her mother was doing a number puzzle and both were pretending they didn’t notice her arrival. “Good morning,” she said, smiling at the little game her parents seemed to relish in playing birthday after birthday. “Oh, didn’t see you there,” Mr. Hopewell replied.  Looking up briefly from his paper.  “Good morning.” Mrs. Hopewell looked up from her puzzle.  “I was thinking we might run a few errands today, dear,” she said to her husband. He grunted and nodded in response.  “I could use a trip to the hardware store.” Scarlet simply shook her head.  She didn’t mind when her parents played their silly games.  It had become a kind of tradition and if she were being honest, she would miss it if they didn’t tease her. Deciding to play along instead of giving her usual mock astonishment, Scarlet said, “School is coming up soon.  We could go and buy some school supplies.” Both Mr. and Mrs. Hopewell looked up at her simultaneously and then, unable to keep straight faces any longer, laughed and got up to hug their daughter.  “Happy Birthday,” they each exclaimed. Scarlet had decided to wait until after her party to attempt to convince her mother to let them keep the dog.  Her first thought had been to talk to her father beforehand and enlist his help in the effort, but then she thought better of it.  Her mother was an expert at seeing through this tactic and might very well be angry for trying to manipulate her.  No, it was better just to broach the subject head on and hope that her well-formed arguments were sensible and this being her birthday would give her an edge. At her party, which was attended by several of her friends and her aunt, uncle, grandmother and cousins, the puppy put on a display that was perfect for Scarlet’s coming request.  He played dutifully with her small cousins, never once protesting at their unintentional rough treatment of him.  He managed to stay out of everyone’s way while the crowd moved from room to room playing party games and having cake and ice cream.  And after Mr. Hopewell recounted the story of how he had rescued him from certain death in the woods, he performed a series of tricks to demonstrate how smart he was to the delight of the crowd.  Although he looked to be no more than eight or nine weeks old, the puppy sat, lay down, rolled over, let out his tiny bark, and even shook hands all at Mr. Hopewell’s command. When it was finally time to open her presents, the puppy dutifully sat at Scarlet’s side, watching with quiet interest as she unwrapped each package.  After a large assortment of clothes and shoes, board games and great many books had been opened and piled on the coffee table, Mrs. Hopewell snuck out and returned with a small, rectangular box.  Scarlet had already opened presents from her parents and as she stole a look at her father, she saw that he too seemed surprised by this new gift. Mrs. Hopewell smiled and handed the box to Scarlet.  “I guess there are times when you can’t always be sensible,” she said cryptically. Scarlet opened the box, searching her mother and father’s faces for clues but got none.  In fact, her father seemed even more curious than she was and by the time she at last removed the lid, he had left his seat and was leaning over to see what was inside.  He never got a chance to see what was contained within the package; Scarlet’s squeal of joy, however, told him all he needed to know about what was inside. Scarlet leapt from her chair and threw her arms around her mother’s neck.  “Thank you-thank you-thank you, Momma,” she exclaimed. “You’re welcome,” Mrs. Hopewell answered, her eyes getting misty at the sight of her daughter’s intoxicating joy, any misgivings she might have had about her decision melting away.  “Happy birthday.” Scarlet danced around the room and then picked the puppy up and began whirling him around.  Cricket and Melody joined in, spinning in circles as they performed a celebratory ballet across the living room carpet.  Scarlet then squeezed him tightly and nuzzled him against her cheek.  Still clutched in her hand, was a small red collar.

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