Mom and Dad were asleep. I had to wait a whole three hours after I went to my bedroom to sneak downstairs. Who knew that after kids fall asleep, parents stay up until midnight?
Sprinting down the path, my mind wandered to Jack. He would be upset that I was late but happy I had brought him the meat he requested. I got to the edge of a grove of trees and slowed my pace. Twice I looked over my shoulder to see if anybody was there, but all that was near was the glittering full moon. I looked onward. Standing before me were countless towering oak trees that looked slanted as I advanced through the forest. The night sky stood there, too, the darkest of all blacks, providing no light but that of the moon’s for me to travel under. The unusually hushed evening made me jump at every little rustling I heard in the bushes, every occasional whistle of the wind. Yet I still had a sense of security knowing that Jack was near. He would never let a fly harm me after all I’ve done for him.
Weaving through trees and overgrown weeds, I drew closer to the cave. Sliding the steak from my messenger bag, I whistled our call. My friend crept from a shadow within his nook as soon as I summoned him. I managed a meek grin of greeting at my furry companion. Then I gave him the meat. Jack bowed his head in respect. I stood watching him scarf down the pink, juicy steak until my legs got impatient and I sat. Jack, oblivious to me, finished his meal and looked up at me with longing eyes that shimmered in the moonlight.
“I know you want more,” I told him sincerely. “I swear, I tried. But Mom would realize if I took more. I can’t have that happen after last time. She got suspicious of you.” But he continued to beg, so I gave him half of the crackers meant for me and kept the rest for myself. We both nibbled and stared at the ground in silence.
When we were finished, he came closer to snuggle up. That was when I realized just how frigid it was. Ice littered the ground. Jack’s luscious fur provided me with warmth when we both settled down. Soon Jack was snoring in a slow rhythm. I arranged a bed of fertile grass and flower buds with a patch of soft, green moss as a pillow. Jack and I were so close that he delivered heat as well as a blanket. I stared into my wolf friend’s tranquil face as he snoozed. The timber wolf had faded, thick, black fur with streaks of white. When I stroked him, layers of hair were swept off his coat. As for his facial features, his snout was slender and his teeth still razor-sharp as they’d never been used to fight, hunt, or even bite. The teeth were very misleading but made up for with those forgiving, ocean-blue eyes that stood out most of all. He was about seven years old and particularly decrepit, but whatever his disorder, whatever his looks, I loved him for who he was.
It was as if he understood English; when I talked to him, he’d nod or bow and always behaved himself properly. He was my protector. Under my breath I whispered to myself, I, Rose Lengton, will always care for and love this wolf with all my heart.
Six years ago, when I was seven myself, I found and raised him. He had never been shown how to hunt, so I brought him food and showed him where to find water and shelter. Every day after school I’d meet him in the woods to play, sleep, and care for him. On weekends like today, I go to Jack at night without letting Mom and Dad know, of course. They’d ground me forever if they discovered I was fostering a wolf without their supervision. I had been caring for the dejected wolf ever since he had been abandoned as a pup.
Soon enough I fell soundly asleep, although I had horrific nightmares about wars and death. I was awakened by Jack’s nuzzling to comfort me. I felt relieved… until he alerted me with a flash of panic in his eyes that our worst fear had been realized. It was morning, and I hadn’t returned home. My parents would be worried. I snatched my bag, waved goodbye to Jack, and darted through the clearing. I got a glance of a bundle of fur that looked oddly like Jack’s. The sun crept up way high into the sky from behind the horizon, I noted. Not good; my parents ought to have been awake already; I sped up. Mom and Dad were waiting for me at the dining table at home.
“Rose! There you are,” cried Mom.
“We were so scared for you,” my dad told me sweetly. I looked from him to my mother, unsure of what to say, and uneasy about their looks. Did they know? They couldn’t have.
“So,” she continued, “explain yourself.” She put her hands on her hips, waiting for my response.
“I-I, uh…” What should I have said? Should I’ve told her the truth about Jack? I had to keep him safe. On the other hand, I’d never fibbed before for no good reason. “Well, um, you see,” I started, but I couldn’t lie. “I’ve sort of been taking care of a wolf for a few years in the woods, and I was out visiting him,” I blurted out. Bracing myself. Waiting for the punishment, for the lecture. But none came. All my parents did was laugh, as if I were joking. I didn’t try to convince them any further.
“Whatever,” I said, and went upstairs to my bedroom. They were still chuckling.
* * *
The following Sunday morning everybody ate in silence. I wasn’t permitted to go anywhere for two days for “running off so suddenly at night.” I suppose my parents figured it was just a dramatic teenager phase of mine and I was trying to get attention. Anyway, I didn’t get to see Jack at all during my punishment, the longest amount of time we’ve ever been apart. On Tuesday afternoon, after several monotonous hours, I was bailed out of my jail cell. I told my parents I was going into the forest to collect specimens for science class; we were studying plants and herbs.
I tore across the woods to meet Jack, who was waiting for me by the trunk of a tree.
“Hey, buddy!” I cried jubilantly, and tickled him behind his ears. He stalked around me in circles, much like a cat. And when I squatted on the ground, somehow he wedged himself into my arms, so I caressed him while humming a soothing tune.
After a short rest, I explained to him why I hadn’t been able to visit for the past few days. Jack appeared to listen contentedly. The wolf gobbled up his food and inhaled the water I brought him. We started skipping around and soon we were playing a game of tag. I shrieked giddily while Jack chased me through the trees.
Tuckered out, both of us went back to the clearing. It was about time for me to go. I put Jack’s paws up on my shoulders.
“That was fun, wasn’t it, boy? Well, I have to go. I’ll try to come see you tomorrow,” I said sorrowfully and then slunk away.
* * *
The next day Mr. Scott assigned us bucket loads of homework and Dad wouldn’t let me go anywhere until I completed it. I sat down in the living room with my final piece of homework, a spelling worksheet. Fidgeting, I stole a glance at the clock. Four fifty. I wouldn’t have time to see Jack at this rate.
Focus, Rose. Focus. How many syllables does “acceptable” have? Think! I hurried on, probably missing half of the questions. One left to finish. And… done! I shoved my work into my folder and dashed…
“Dinner,” called Mom from the kitchen. I groaned but managed to get through finishing half of my supper before I noticed the sun disappearing from view out the window.
“Dad, do you have the time?”
“Five forty, sport. Why? You going somewhere?”
“I…” I started, but my mother interrupted.
“You’re not going anywhere. Early bedtime tonight. Church tomorrow morning.”
I totally forgot! Tomorrow was Thursday, and, like every week, I had to miss the first hour of school to go to church. I moaned but reluctantly went upstairs and crawled into bed.
* * *
When I snuck off to the woods after school on Thursday, something didn’t seem quite right. What was it? The fact that there was no moon? The unusual silence passing through the trees. Or was it… the scent? Then the smell of fire wafted through the air. A forest fire! I thought in panic. My heart nearly leaped out of my chest when my eyes wandered to Jack who, wedged under a boulder, was being crushed. He shot me a look of such helplessness. He needed me. I ran as fast as I could through the flames, but not fast enough. A wave of fire swept over Jack’s boulder, and I fled. It was too late.
That evening after the firefighters came as I trudged home, I caught a glimpse of a constellation similar to Jack’s beautiful face. It especially caught me off guard when I saw Mom standing on the porch. She didn’t look angry, in fact, she was grinning.
When I got to the house, I told her everything—or at least started to, but I needn’t have continued. She told me that after she heard about the wildfire, a neighbor had called her up and informed her that I was safe. I told her of Jack, too, and this time, she believed me.
At dinner, Mom said she had a surprise for me. I followed her out to the barn. And you can just imagine my shock when she handed me a wolf-dog pup. And how she resembled her father; his eyes, his fur. He must have bred with one of the feral dogs in the woods. A smile spread across my face. I loved that wolf-dog. I cared for her for as long as the skies were blue and the grass grew. And the pup was as protective and loyal as her father.
That loyal wolf-dog pup will forever be known as Dani, Daughter of the Wolf in the Woods.