CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: "COLD SNOW, HOT SPRINGS"

Boy oh boy, was it ever cold. Snuggling into his blanket, Jack flipped onto his side in bed and lazily looked out the window. His head snapped up as he noticed a white sheen outside the window.

XxXxXxX

"Remind me why we're doing this again?" Mary asked her mother.

"Popuri said Jack doesn't have a lot of winter things, so we're doing the neighborly thing by bringing him some of the essentials for a Flowerbud winter." Anna answered.

"Do we have to do it when it's cold?" Karen griped, "Can't we do it in the summer, when it's not cold?"

"Oh, you'll be fine, Karen. Stop being such a baby." Sasha said. She leaned closer to Karen so only her daughter would hear, "You wanted me to give Jack a chance and after that tantrum you put on, I'm giving it to you, heaven help me."

"This crockpot is getting heavy." Popuri said, holding the pot in her hands. "Hurry up or I'll drop it."

Ann reached out and took it from the pink-haired girl, "Here, I'll take it. He'd better be awake for us coming over at eight in the morning, in the ankle deep snow, giving him stuff he could just buy himself."

"I'm sure he'll be up." Manna said, "He's always up early. I can always see him and Cliff from the kitchen window, working or running around. You know I think little May should be around about this time, too. Did you guys know that May and Stu come play on his farm? You'd think he'll let my baby come play when she's born?"

Sasha stopped her with a look, "Manna, are you pregnant?"

Manna lowered her head, "No."

"Oh, I thought you hadn't told us or something like that." Sasha sighed and patted Manna on the shoulder, "Don't worry, I'm sure one day you and Duke will have a baby. One that won't leave and never come back."

The women all muttered their assessments. Their only daughter, Aja, had left at the tender age of twelve with Joanna, May's mother, and both had hardly been seen or heard from since.

The women, bundles in their arms, approached the Old Time farm and jumped as Jack flung himself out through the front door and into the thick snow, wearing only his boxer shorts. He rolled around in the snow, his arms flailing as he cackled in delight, "It's all MINE!" He cried, "Mine, mine, mine, mine! All mine, it's mine!"

He sat up, tossing handfuls of the snow into the air and even stuffing some of it into his shorts, laughing in delight as he rolled around in the snow in front of six bewildered women. He spun around and stopped, his left hand holding open the elastic strap to his boxers and his right hand holding a clump of snow to drop inside. He looked at them, his smiled faded. He quickly stood up, "Morning ladies."

Sasha, who felt her cheeks burning, sighed, "Jack."

Ann grinned, "Hey, Jack. Is that lump of snow in your pants, or are you just happy to see us?"

Jack shook his leg, trying to make the snow fall out through the leg hole. "So, what brings you ladies here?"

Manna stepped up, "We brought you some things that we think you need for the winter...like clothes."

"Ya, those would be cool." Jack said, "As you can see, I don't have any on right now."

"And it would be nice if you put some on." Sasha said sternly. How immature of the boy, to roll around in his underwear.

Jack just shrugged her off, "Come on inside, all of you. Show me what you have and I'll put some clothes on."

Jack's clothes turned out to be just a robe for decency's sake. He invited them in and accepted their gifts. They turned out to be a thick parka jacket, some thick pants, insulated working gloves, some piping hot meals, and a big pair of fuzzy pink slippers. He opened the slippers and looked to Popuri, who tried to look innocent. "What?"

"I wonder who bought these for me?" He said sarcastically. "Thanks, Poe?"

"How did you know I bought those?" She asked innocently. Jack's eyes fell flat and he refused to answer her question. Jack thanked all the ladies kindly and saw them out, making eyes at Karen, Mary, and Popuri respectively as they left. He noted the big, think-insulated coats and such and was thankful. They'd come in handy on those winter days that were just too cold. Today, however, was not too cold and all he grabbed was a thin jacket and some pants and he was off into the snow, frolicking like a schoolboy on a snowed-out day.

Snow was, to him, a part of his childhood that brought a heavy sense of nostalgia. He remembered playing in the snow in his small back lot of the city, where his dad had worked as a consultant to the police force. Snowball fights and such were the order of the day, as were snowmen who became the targets of Jack's early feats of pro-wrestling. It was a lot of work to build up a snowman, only to demolish him with a flying drop kick, but one of the kicks of childhood.

And, it always brought back memories of high school. He didn't know if he loved snow or despised it, because of the memories it brought him. It harkened back to a time in his life where he had been unsure about a lot of things. That day on the ice rink, where he had seen Miss Wilkinson, his high school science teacher, out on the ice. Her long raven-black hair billowing out of her cap like black waves, her smooth, pale skin, her luscious red lips; she was more than attractive, she was downright sensuous to look at. The way she looked at him...the same way Karen looked at him; that animalistic look that drove Jack wild.

That look. That eyes-half-close look, the curl of the woman's lips...sometimes referred to as "bedroom eyes", Jack had been on the receiving end of those looks plenty of times in his life. But now that he thought of it, he saw that look often in Karen's eyes. Mary didn't gaze on him like that, she held him with a calculating gaze, like she was trying to figure out everything about him.

Popuri looked up at him with a sparkle in her eyes, a glazed over look and a blush in her cheeks that Jack would have thought of as "starstruck" if he thought she knew who he was.

But Karen...she gave him that look every time she saw him. Why was that different? Why was Karen so different than Mary and Popuri? Why?

Jack needed help, but he didn't know where to turn. There was literally no help in the town. He couldn't ask any of the guys, that wasn't a conversation that went between guys. Most conversations between guys about women started either with, "What do you think...?" or a shake of the head and the phrase, "Women."

There wasn't a single female he could speak with. Ann was Popuri's friend, so she'd be sure to blab it to her. The older women—or as Jack called them, the "Chatty Trio"—would have spread that gossip around town so fast, Jack might as well shout it out himself.

No, this was a problem for him and himself only. He didn't know what to do about it.

"Hi, Mr. Jack." May's shrill cry came from the entrance to his farm. Jack had a sudden nauseating feeling, like he was Mr. Wilson and May was the reincarnation of Dennis the Menace. She waddled into his farm as best she could in a coat so think, her arms stuck out and couldn't be lowered to her side. She giggled and then tripped, falling face first into the snow and wailing as she flailed helplessly trying to get up.

"Help me! AAH!" She cried until Jack came over and lifted her up onto her feet. He patted her covered head. "What's up, small fry?"

"You gonna play with me today, Mr. Jack?" She asked.

"Well, I can't farm, now can I?"

"You can grow snow!" She said.

Jack chuckled, "Then business is booming. What say we go and make a snowman?"

"Yeah!" May cried, rushing out into the field, then tripping and falling again on her face too fast.

XxXxXxX

Jim Black stared through the window of his black Sedan and sighed. This was going to be a hum-dinger of a day, but thanks to Aaron St. Claire and a little old fashioned gumshoe work, he felt confident this entire mess that he'd been put into was going to be over soon.

He stepped out of his car and approached the courthouse, tugging his trench-coat closer to him to stave off the bitter, wet cold of early winter. He hated winter—almost as much as he hated summer...and spring...and fall. In fact, these days, he didn't like anything at all.

The press, a choking mob of yelling people, microphones, and cameras, flocked towards him, only the throng of police keeping him at bay. He sneered at the thought of his face on all the news shows and papers with the title 'suspected pedophile' underneath. He was thinking murderous thoughts about Jack and Kevin Harris.

He slept through most of the boring proceedings, even thought this concerned his own fate. The hearing was to investigate the photo files on his computer and the emails sent to the mayor's office from his own office. He had spilled his story a hundred times to the good cop-bad cop duos that had unceremoniously NOT believed a word he said. They'd locked him in a cell with big, burly guys who had heard he was a pedophile and expressed in an array of violent measure their displeasure with pedophiles.

But he allowed himself a small smile. He had evidence now.

When the head judge of the hearing allowed his lawyer—Mr. St. Claire's personal defense lawyer, in fact—he stood up and called Jamie Biggs in his defense. Biggs was a computer expert who was called on to give his testimony.

St. Claire's lawyer, one Jimmy Forelli, gestured to the computer tower on the small table of evidence. "Is this Mr. Black's computer?"

"Correct." Biggs said.

"And did you inspect Mr. Black's computer, specifically the files in question?"

"Correct."

"And what did you find, Mr. Biggs?"

Biggs shuffled in his seat, "Well, computer keeps a hidden log of when each file is created. I inspected each individual photo for its creation date."

"And when was the files in question created."

"They were all created on November 24th, at two-thirteen am. They were subsequently emailed two minutes after that."

"Thank you." He rushed Biggs off the witness stand and then turned to the table of evidence. He picked up a plane ticket. "Your honor, this is a ticket for my client from Metro Heights to Chicago and back. On the date in question, my client was not only not at his office, he was in another city."

He set them back down and then picked up a tape. "I know what you're thinking. He could have bought the ticket and given it to someone else. But this, I think, will exonerate my client once and for all. Permission to play this tape?"

The judge nodded and Forelli put it into a vcr and played a tape, which was clearly a surveillance video from the look of it. "At precisely ten pm, my client entered this bar in Chicago and stayed until closing time at four am. You can see him here, in the upper left corner." He pointed to Jim Black's form, sitting at a table, smoking, talking to some people, and drinking. They wound through the tape, showing his entire duration there in fast-forward, but save for some bathroom breaks, Jim Black was most definitely at that bar the entire night. Jim was just glad he was able to remember the bar he went to and they still had the surveillance tape.

"Can any of you of the panel tell me how it is Mr. Black was at his computer, when he was all the way in Chicago? He couldn't have. Someone broke into Mr. Black's office, stole a file of his, then planted the images on his computer and mailed them to the mayor's office in a deliberate attack on my client."

The judges of the hearing panel looked to one another.

Fifteen minutes later, Jim Black walked out of the courthouse a free man.

XxXxXxX

Jack walked up to the General Store just in time to see Karen shoveling the sidewalk clear. She spied him and smiled, stopping in her shoveling. "Hey, Jack. How's life without me around?"

"Pretty much like it was before I met you. I haven't seen you in a few weeks, not since you got sick at my house." He noted.

Karen just yanked her head towards the store. "My mother. She's adamant that you're the devil in disguise."

"What?!" Jack cried, "Who told her?! Bah! Your mother's just a paranoid old broad, right?"

Karen shrugged, "Unless you really are trying to corrupt me, Jack."

Jack rubbed his hands together, "And soon my plan will be complete. Hahahaha!" He stepped closer to her. "Tell ya what. Tonight...you...me...hot springs. Get out for a little while, okay? Get some air, put a little space between you and the old crow. That sound okay?" He asked, leaning closely to ask this of her. Karen felt her cheeks grow hot, burning from his nearness.

"Sure, Jack." She said softly. Jack smiled and then gave her a firm pat on her behind before walking off. Karen watched him leave in the direction of the Library and sighed, wishing tonight could come a little faster.

Jack knocked softly on the door to the Library. "Mary?"

"Open." Her soft voice said.

Jack opened the door and stepped in, seeing Mary behind her desk, as always. She smiled as he came in. "Hello...er, whoever you are today."

Jack just shrugged, "It's me, of course."

Mary recognized the difference of tone, the change of voice, the subtle body language. He wasn't a predator stalking prey, he was a friend visiting a friend. Mary sighed, "Oh, it's you, Jack."

"Of course, it's me." He said, "Who else would I be?"

"It could have been Ace, coming for a nooner." She thought. She spied the books in his hand. "Something new?"

"Just came in this morning, so I figured I'd drop it off." Jack put four books on her desk.

Mary picked them up, looking. "I've never heard of these."

"Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower'. Hands down the best fantasy you've ever read. I don't know if you've heard of Stephen King before," She was shaking her head no, "But he's written a lot of books. He did some horror books in the seventies and eighties and got famous for that, but lately he writes more dark fantasy than anything else. The Dark Tower series is absolute gold. Try it."

"I will. Thank you." She put the four books under her desk.

"Now those are just the first four books. The whole series is seven books long, so you've got some time to finish those before I can get the last installments in the mail. I never finished it myself, but I'm hoping to. Well, shoot, I've got to get back. May is back at the farm, probably covering my cow in snow or something."

Mary called good-bye to him and sighed as he left. She had been dreading seeing Jack by herself for weeks, knowing that Ace was always waiting for her was a bit disconcerting, unnerving. Yet Jack had come in and it was Jack. Ace was nowhere to be seen. She didn't know what to think or say to that. Beforehand, Ace was simply coming out and showing himself to her, knocking Jack away before he could fight back.

Was Jack even aware of Ace? Mary had been reading on personality dissociation and Jack was certainly exhibiting many of the symptoms, but the problem with Jack and Ace was that they only differed in certain areas, but the remainder of the time, they were remarkably similar. At least, she could see this by watching him, putting together what she knew of him.

Most importantly, Jack needed her before Ace did something they both regretted.

XxXxXxX

Jack returned home in time to find May just playing with a snowman. She looked up at him, laughing, "Hi, Mr. Jack. I finished my snowman."

Jack took one look at the misshapen lump of clay that didn't look anything like what a snowman was supposed to look like and had to stifle a laugh. "That's great, booger. Listen, it's getting close to sunset, so why don't you go on home, okay?"

"Sure." She said, suddenly sounding sullen. May suddenly went up to him and tugged on his jacket. "Mr. Jack?"

He looked down at her. "Yeah?"

"Will you marry me?"

The absurdity of the question surprised him. He kneeled down in front of her. "Why would you want to marry me?"

"Because, I like being over here and I thought if we got married, I could be over here all the time. I love you, Mr. Jack." She wrapped her thick-coated arms around his arm, since that was the only thing she could get near to hugging. For some reason he couldn't understand, Jack felt like a total heel, as if he had no right to tell her no. But he couldn't in any way, shape, or form, marry May.

He patted her back. "Sorry, May. But I'm just too old for you. You'll be alright, you just have to find someone your own age."

"But I love you!" She whined.

Jack swallowed a rising lump in his throat. "I...I love you, too. But you're a little girl, May. I'm...I'm sorry." And he truly was.

May let go of him, pouting. "Okay."

"Go on home, okay?"

"Okay." With that she waddled off, leaving Jack by himself. Where had he heard that before? Of course! He snapped his fingers. Popuri! She looked at him like that, said that kind of unwavering devotion endlessly. Jack felt as if the thought should have been some kind of revelation, but it wasn't. Not really.

He sighed. It was getting dark. He trudged off and wandered mindlessly, feeling as if he had no sense of purpose at all. Before long he reached the steps of the Hot Springs and walked up. When he neared the top, he could feel the warmth rolling off the springs delightfully.

Next to the springs was a cave, but he hadn't explored those yet. According to what he'd heard, it was a mine filled with lots of ore. Jack recalled the pick-axe in his barn. Maybe he'd have to do some winter exploring.

Jack kicked his boots off, shrugged off all his coats, and hopped into the Hot Springs with a satisfying 'AAAH'. The Springs were better than a hot tub. The smell of fresh, hot water from the mountain springs, fed from the waterfall to the side of the springs, was just the right temperature and the small bubbles massaged the aches of the day away.

Jack was only inside for about ten minutes when the door leading from the shed to the pool opened and closed. Jack waited and two minutes later, the door opened again and Karen stepped out and...my goodness, Jack was glad his lower half was hidden by bubbling water.

Karen stepped in wearing a purple two-piece bathing suit and that was generous at best. Her top wasn't so much a top but two flimsy bits of purple fabric covering up her nipples delicately. The bottom, if it could even be called that, was a thin thong that left nothing to the imagination on the backside and covered very, very little on the front side.

Jack's mouth dropped, his mental defense shattered, and he felt his pulse quicken to the level of a stampeding freight train. Karen gave him the Look again and slunk into the water, sliding next to him and lifting his arm so she could sit under it. "Been thinking about you, Jack."

Jack pulled her closer to him. "I think about you all the time. Your swimsuit is a little...risqué, don't you think?"

"Relax, I know what I was doing when I bought it." She blushed, "In fact, I even shaved to wear it."

"Your legs? I hope to high heaven you shave your legs, woman." Jack said, laughing.

Karen laughed softly. "Not my legs." She lifted the bottom of her bathing suit for Jack to see. He peeked in, his eyes going wide. "Holy...!" He gasped.

She blushed, letting it back down. Of course, there wasn't much left to their imaginations, not after their skinny dipping incidents. Neither one of them was one for wasting words that night. Karen quickly turned and took Jack in a long kiss, all the while holding his face as she stood up and then seated herself on his lap, wrapping her legs around his back.

The Springs, already quite heated, got even hotter as Jack kissed the increasingly attractive Karen in his arms. As they kissed, his hands went over her body, groping and touching. She rewarded him with a moan of pleasure when he found a spot that she liked. The flimsy bathing suit was easy to brush aside as he brought his lips from hers to her neck, tracing a path slowly down to her breasts.

Karen sank into a state of perpetual bliss, interrupted only by her want and need to taste Jack's lips. How could she have denied herself his touch for so long? Sure, she hated her home and wanted to leave, but with Jack here, wasn't it worth it? Wasn't his touch worth everything? He had so much. Couldn't he just leave with her? Take her somewhere else where she could see the world outside this puny town. Everything under the stars could be theirs for the taking. Tonight...tonight, she was his for the taking.

Karen let everything she was trying to hold onto go. She thrust herself at him, knowing full well that the male part of his brain would take the hint. And Jack did. He pulled her closer, kissing her shoulder as he held her. No words passed between them, for they needed none.

Jack couldn't stop himself any more. Karen had enticed him from the first days he'd spent in the village. They had traded glances and looks and held each other's naked forms, but the push to something deeper was undeniable. Jack couldn't wait any more, he had to have Karen, was going to take her right then and there. Jack's right hand crept down her back, then under her leg, pushing the flimsy bikini bottom aside. Karen nearly screamed in anticipation, waiting for him eagerly.

"KAREN!"

The sudden scream of her mother was so sudden that Karen literally leapt off Jack and fell backwards into the Hot Springs. She lifted her head and found her mother at the edge of the pool, glaring at her with her face so red, it looked like the surface of a tomato-a tomato engulfed in flames. "GO HOME THIS INSTANT, YOUNG LADY!"

Karen, embarrassed beyond belief, and still trying to scoop bits of herself into her "bathing suit" before her mother could see. But it was no use. Her mother had seen her and the truth was undeniable. Practically naked, straddling Jack, their eyes empty and their mouths open...there was no excusing themselves. Jack sunk into the water, still trying to hide his lower half for nothing else than sheer decency. Never before had the age old adage "Get a room" been more true.

Sasha screamed incoherently, trying to find a vent for her rage as Karen scrambled out of the Hot Springs and into the shed to grab her clothes. "GET YOUR CLOTHES AND GO HOME THIS INSTANT!"

"Mom, it's cold out! I need my jacket on!" Karen protested.

"YOU'LL JUST HAVE TO FREEZE ALL THE WAY HOME! GO! NOW!" And Sasha used her hand to spank Karen on her exposed bottom, something she hadn't done since Karen had been a young teen, sneaking out with Rick to kiss him when they'd been younger.

Sasha turned to Jack, stabbing her finger at him as if she could stab him to death with it. "YOU ARE NEVER TO SEE MY DAUGHTER AGAIN, DO YOU HEAR ME? I WILL NOT HAVE MY DAUGHTER TURNING INTO YOUR SHAMELESS HUSSY! IF I EVER SEE YOU NEAR HER AGAIN, I WILL KILL YOU, JACK!"

Jack, in utter shock, simply sat there, mute as Sasha fumed, her tiny fist clenched and trembling. He had seen angry parents before, had done his share of running across the lawn of a high school sweetie whose father hadn't appreciated his daughter being deflowered. In his younger days, Jack had once thought of himself as the master deflowerer of his high school. (He had preferred the term "virginity negotiator").

He didn't know what happened after that. He blacked out and woke up later with no one there and the moon high in the sky. He looked around, but could see no one. Lifting his hands, he found his hands and feet completely pruned. How long had he been sitting here?

Jack quickly dried off and got dressed, heading down the stairs and onto the mountain path when he collided with someone, spilling onto the ground.

"Ow! Who's walking this late at night?" He asked.

"Jack?" The female voice asked.

"Poe? That you?" He stood to his feet and fumbled in the dark, trying to take her hand. He squeezed a lump of flesh that certainly was not a hand and Popuri squeaked, reaching out to strike him. "Jack! Keep your hands to yourself!"

"Sorry." He found her hand and lifted her to her feet. "I didn't see you, it's too dark. You okay?"

"I'm fine. But what're you doing out here, this late at night?"

"Me?" Jack asked, surprised, "What're you doing out here? It's got to be after midnight."

"I know," She answered softly, "That's why I come out here. It's so quiet, so peaceful. Like all the problems of the world just go away when I'm by myself. Sometimes, in the summer, I stay up there and go to sleep at the peak of Mother's Hill."

"It's kind of cold out for that, isn't it?" Jack asked.

Even in complete darkness, Jack could hear her blush, "I think the cold is kind of romantic. Makes you just want to snuggle up next to someone, doesn't it?"

"Yeah. That's what I think as well." Without another word, he took her and held her close to his body. Popuri just snuggled into him, like a cat settled onto a pillow for a good night's sleep. Together, they walked back home. At the back of Jack's mind, he was still envisioning himself and Karen, their interruption, Sasha's subsequent screaming. He only wished he hadn't blacked out. Had that been so traumatic that he simply didn't remember?

He saw Popuri to her house and saw her off, but didn't kiss her. She watched him leave through her window, her heart drooping, hoping for that kiss that hadn't come. She waited until she saw him turn off his distant light. Poprui turned her eyes skyward, remembering exactly why she had gone up to Mother's Hill in the first place.

When the stars had come out, she had wished on each and every one of them the same wish: "Let me and Jack be together."

And when she had wished all she could wish, she had lowered her head and prayed. She had been telling Jack the truth: she did pray for him, but not just for his farm to do well, so that she and he would end up together. Every day, Popuri's heart swelled when she thought of Jack. She moved about her chores with him in her heart, his name on her lips, and a song running through her mind as she dreamed of the day when Jack would truly be hers.

XxXxXxX

That night, Karen knelt before her bed, running her hands through her frazzled hair. She clasped her hands together in a way she hadn't done since she was younger. She closed her eyes and spoke out loud, "God, I know you can hear me and I know right now I'm not your favorite person. But I am so sick and tired of living under my mother. Jack...I just want to be with Jack. Is that so much to ask? Is it really so much to ask? I don't expect an answer, but if you're watching, I want you to know that I just want all this...crap to just go away. Please?"

She stayed silent for a minute, as if waiting for God's booming voice to come out of the sky and say something, but nothing happened. The only voice she heard was her mother's, that shrill scream that was still haunting her every minute.

XxXxXxX

Mary looked into the sky through her window, her hands pressed together. "God, I know I don't pray much, but this is something different. I'm...in love with two men. I don't know what to do and I don't know which one to love. They're both so similar, yet so different. I...I don't really know what I'm asking for. But please...if you could find it in your heart, help me with this. I don't know what to do."

XxXxXxX

Jack went home and sat on the edge of his bed. He took one glance at the bible sitting next to his bed and swept it into the drawer of his end-table. He went to sleep, and dreamed a dream. All he envisioned was himself, jumping up in the Hot Springs and cursing at Sasha in an explicit, curse-laden tirade.

All the while, Ace smiled at him. "Good work, kid. 'Bout time you showed some spine."