The rock skittered across the pavement, finding its resting place along the curb. Seconds later, another rock found its home a few feet down.
My sneakers continued to send rocks to their new home as I made my way to the downtown cafe. It was a cafe I was very familiar with, visiting it every weekend. Though there seemed to be millions of cafes in this city, my favorite had always been Gus’s. It wasn’t the cleanest cafe and the “U” on the neon sign had blown out, but I considered it the comfiest. The worn-down booth seating, the autographed (probably fake) sports memorabilia, and the ancient jukebox in the corner gave it the feeling of a secret hideout that kids would retreat to after school.
“Mornin’ Jack,” the plump waiter said, as I took refuge in my normal booth. “The usual for ya today?
“Yep, but can I get sausage instead of bacon this time? Thanks, Patty.”
“Of course, hun,” she said in her southern drawl. “Am I putting an order in for Ben as well? We can have it nice and warm for him when he gets here.”
“Ben couldn’t make it this morning, but thanks for offering.”
Patty put her pen and small notebook back in her apron, never writing down any order at all. “Order for Jack, Mr. Gus.” Patty hollered, “but he wants sausage instead of bacon this time”
The heavyset man in the back grunted and cracked a couple of eggs on the side of the griddle in a practiced manner. He added three sausage links and poured pancake batter next to the perfect-looking eggs.
I slipped a worn-out deck of playing cards from my pocket. After sliding the cards out of their case, I did several series of riffle and bridge shuffles before laying them out on the table. It was my first game of solitaire for the day, and I had been on a hot streak recently. For the last three years, my daily routine consisted of playing solitaire, and I would only stop when I won a game. I had won the first game for the past week straight.
I looked at my watch. 8:45 AM. I had ten minutes to complete my game of solitaire. It never took me that long, but Gus always had my breakfast out for me in ten minutes. Even if it was an unusually busy morning, he still magically had my bacon and eggs ready at the same time. I started by laying out the seven cards in a row and got to work. I probably could have gotten in several games of solitaire with how fast I could recognize the correct moves, but I didn’t need to. I won my first game again. They say the odds of winning solitaire is as high as 80% if you make the best possible moves. With it being the eighth day I was definitely pushing my luck, but I had felt really lucky recently. I couldn’t pinpoint it on any one thing, but everything just seemed to be going my way.
I looked at my watch. 8:50 AM. Seemed about right. After playing, I would usually get distracted by people walking by the diner window. Some people were regular passerbys, which made it so I could predict what outfit they would be wearing that day. If the foot traffic was light outside, I would listen to the music that blared a bit too loud from the brightly colored jukebox in the corner.
My breakfast came at exactly 8:55, just as expected. Gus had arranged the pancakes, eggs, and sausage in the shape of an odd-looking automobile. Gus knew I wasn’t a kid, but I think the old cook got a kick out of coming up with ways he could form my food into different objects. Though I had never actually talked to the guy, we had a weird sort of bond. I never noticed him arranging the food of other customers in silly patterns.
I made quick work of my foodmobile, which was usually what happened when Ben wasn’t here. Ben is my best friend, but the guy sure is a chatterbox. I didn’t mind it though, and I think it’s part of what made our friendship work. He could talk about anything and make it interesting, so it was never much of a burden listening. Or at least acting like I was. He would usually pick up quickly on that though, he’s pretty sharp. He would just change the topic until he knew he was getting some of my attention back.
“Thanks for breakfast!” I said as I passed by Gus and Patty.
“Have a good day, hun,” said Patty with a motherly smile.
Gus grunted as usual.
I blinked my eyes a few times as they adjusted to the bright, early morning. It was supposed to be a warm day, perfect for the fun weekend Ben and I had planned. While pulling out my phone to call him, I noticed a young girl across the street break away from her mother and chase a squirrel into the street. The last thing I remember was a giant, black truck swerving in my direction.
. . .
The first thing I noticed when I regained consciousness was Ben sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed. My head was pounding and my body ached, but I noticed none of my appendages were wrapped up. If nothing was broken, it would truly be a miracle.
“Jack, you’re awake! Thank the high heavens!”
I smiled until I could feel the pain of it. Ben wasn’t exactly religious so I felt his statement was somewhat ironic, but it felt good knowing my good buddy was there with me. My parents were in Montana and I was in Maryland so it was nice to have the close support.
“So what happened?” I asked, trying to recollect any memory I could to figure out how I ended up at the hospital.
“Based on eyewitness reports, a young man was struck by a wayward black truck in its attempt to avoid a small child that wandered into the street.” Ben put the straw he was using as a microphone into his Styrofoam cup.
“Wow, when’s your first gig with the local T.V. station?” I asked sarcastically.
. . .
His mouth opened but I never heard the response come. A bright flash of white light blinded me.
As my eyes adjusted to the new setting, I found myself sitting at a bench in a park. In front of me was an old man fishing in a large pond in the center of the public area. I rubbed my eyes, confused by the instant transformation of scenery. I turned my head to the left and right, not noticing any other sign of life. The strangest thing, though, was that my body no longer ached. I actually felt as light as a feather. Hopping to my feet, I made my way towards the wispy-haired man who appeared to be of Asian descent.
“Hello, sir. Is this some kind of dream?”
The old man’s rod snagged something right as I finished my sentence. The rod strained forward, indicating something quite large on the other side. I stared at the man’s arms as they shook from the intense battle.
“Would you mind helping me, young man? My strength isn’t what it used to be.” His voice was calm and peaceful despite the struggle.
I stepped forward to help him brace the rod as he started to reel in the fish. My face turned a shade of red when I noticed my arms were shaking more than the old man’s had. After a few minutes of battling, the line broke, causing me to fall on my butt. The old man laughed, offering me his wrinkly hand.
“Maybe one day I’ll catch Excelia. But what fun would that be?”
“How long have you been trying to catch that fish?” I asked.
“I don’t know for sure. It’s not the destination, but the journey, right friend?”
His smile was contagious and I couldn’t help but smile in response. The man walked back to the bench behind us and I followed him.
“What is your name, young man?” he asked me.
“Jack. And yours?”
I nodded in response as I turned to look out at the giant pond, not sure what else to say.
“I’m sure you wonder why you are here,” he said.
“It crossed my mind a few times,” I said, trying not to be too cheeky.
He flashed me a friendly, toothy smile and patted my leg. “You’ve been chosen, my friend. A lucky soul, you are. A Guardian.”
“A guardian? Like a guardian angel or something? Do I have somebody I have to watch over now?” My first thought went to Ben. Did I have to spy on him to make sure nothing happened? That was definitely something I wasn’t a fan of.
“You are called to help those when they need the protection. I believe you have a Guardian to thank for your good fortune.”
“Can I meet them?” I asked, uncertain of how this whole thing worked.
“Would you want to meet every person you helped? I think the knowledge of helping without reward is greater than any other treasure we can find.”
I pondered his words for a minute, letting them sink in. “So how do I help someone? Can I choose who to help and when?”
“Not quite. Though I am old, I do not know all things. However, I do know that our souls call for help during times they are in the greatest distress. You will be called upon during those moments. There is something beyond this life, yes. I believe that to be true. But sometimes a soul has more to accomplish before it starts a new journey.”
I was even more puzzled than before, but I didn’t know what questions to ask since I was trying to comprehend what had already been told. The edges of my vision started to become white again. Before it overtook my eyes, I heard Kinjo speak one last time.
“Good luck, Jack. Our time has been wonderful.”
. . .
A young boy’s laughter filled the air. I looked up at the dirty-faced toddler as he climbed the steps of his playhouse to go down the slide. He did this a few more times as I took in my surroundings again. I was on a hillside behind a cabin and didn’t notice any adults around. The boy didn’t seem to notice my presence either despite me standing near the foot of the slide.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked
I didn’t get any type of response from him. I staggered back a few steps when he ran through my body after going down the slide for the third time.
That...was strange, I thought, looking down at my hands. I jumped up a few times and felt the familiar pull of gravity. I kicked the post of the playhouse and my foot bounced back off of it. I guess there are some type of Guardian rules? Why didn’t Kinjo say anything about that?
Before I could get too upset, I heard a deep growl from the thick foliage adjacent to the playhouse. I wasn’t the only one that heard it, either. The boy froze in place when he hit the ground after reaching the end of the slide. Peering into the trees the best I could with the dimming sun, I noticed two glowing eyes looking out. Then a head popped out. The head of a mountain lion.
The toddler started whining as the mountain lion stalked closer, but his fear seemed to keep him in place. My own fear did the same for a brief moment, but my protective instincts finally kicked in.
“Hey,” I yelled, waving my hands like crazy and jumping around. My attempt to startle the mountain lion and scare it away was fruitless. In frustration, I hurtled myself at the mountain lion in an attempt to tackle it. My arms only grasped air as I fell through the mountain lion, my body thudding onto the rocky ground below. I felt no pain from this, which was a weird sensation.
How could I be a Guardian if I couldn’t do anything! My frustrated and horrified thoughts overwhelmed me as the mountain lion continued its pursuit. It wouldn’t be long until the beast had its meal. Feeling something uncomfortable under my shoe, I noticed a large rock. I reached out to pick it up, finally feeling something solid again as my hands wrapped around it. Throwing as hard as I could, I released the rock towards the animal. It smacked the creature in the back leg, causing the mountain lion to leap in surprise. It looked around, trying to determine the source of the attack. It couldn’t see me and I knew it, so I took the few seconds I had gained to grab another rock from the soil. This one nailed the mountain lion right in the mouth. That was all it took to spook it. The mountain lion retreated into the forest.
“Timmy!” a young woman cried, running out the backdoor of the cabin. She scooped up the boy and cradled him in her arms. The edge of my vision went white once again.
. . .
“I actually just got off the phone with them before I got here,” Ben said. He looked disappointed when his joke fell flat. “What’s wrong, Jack? You okay, man?”
I stared back at him, my brain now working overtime. Had no time passed at all? Did I just have the craziest daydream?
“Uh...oh no, I’m good.” I lied. “I just was thinking about what they would bring me for lunch.”
“In the middle of our conversation? I thought you—”
Ben’s voice faded away in my mind as I noticed something sitting in the corner of the hospital room. An old fishing rod I had seen before. Kinjo’s rod.