CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: "A PINK WEDDING"
A one week engagement. That was a little on the drastic side as far as Jack was concerned. One week left to indulge in the singles lifestyle. For what it was worth, Jack didn't want any indulging at all. Ace had done all the indulging in the world. From seventeen to twenty-six, he had without a doubt lived more than most people. He had given the world all he could and now it was time for him to collect a little bit of reward for his efforts. After tomorrow, he would be a married man and his minute universe would revolve around a single girl with pink hair.
The wedding was tomorrow. Tonight was supposed to be the night of the bachelor party. Jack had a tough choice in his best man, but length of time gave way to Kai, who happily accepted the title given to him. However, his perpetual smile faded when Jack told him he didn't want a bachelor party. Kai's brow had wrinkled. "Why?"
Jack just shook his head. "Better to not even take the chance. Besides, anything you have in mind…and trust me, I think I know the things you have in mind," A knowing smile passed between the two of them, "But the things I know you have in mind we couldn't get away with in most states and certainly not in this sleepy hollow."
"Yeah." Kai nodded, "Only one more day to go. Where would I find a midget, a stripper, and a roulette wheel this far south?"
"Cripes, man, what're you going to do to me? I'm glad I'm not having one now." Jack choked on his sweet tea.
Preparation for the wedding was sparsely in Jack's hands. Sasha was normally the town tailor, but still being confined to a wheelchair after Hurricane Jack, she was unable to make the effort, so Lillia filled in for her and made not only all the dresses for the bridesmaids, but the tuxes as well. The dress, Rick told him, was already made. Popuri would be wearing the same dress that Lillia herself had worn and Jack was not to see it, or her, the entire week of the engagement.
Not that that bothered him a terrible amount. Sure, he was aching to see Popuri, but he was also busy helping Rick arrange the things for the marriage. The reception would be held in Rose Square and, of course, everyone was invited. It had only taken two days from his initial phone call to his father to get him and his mother back to Flowerbud where, of course, his mother was thankfully over her hysterics upon hearing that he was getting married.
"I knew you were hiding something from me. Where is she? I want to meet my daughter-in-law?" Jack just pointed her in the direction of the Poultry Farm and watched her go. He saw little of her the following week, no doubt spending time getting to know her future in-laws. Let her, he figured. She deserved it. These hysterics would be nothing, of course, to when she got grandchildren. Jack wasn't even going to try and pretend that wasn't going to happen. Of course, he couldn't imagine anyone he'd rather have father his children than her.
He was lucky. He still had his father and he himself would be one, but Barley had received news a few days after the beginning of the engagement that all the fears about his daughter Joanna had been right. The sum of those fears came in the form of a drug overdose that had ended her life. Barley had received the news with a mixture of sadness and all-too-knowing. He had known quite well what his daughter was involved in and that May's birth had been a result of those lifestyles. So now, at the end of his daughter's life, he shed not a tear. Jack felt sad for him. He knew there was nothing he could do now. The mother was gone, but not the daughter. Jack made a mental note to talk to Barley about whatever he could do to help the old man.
Thus it was, on the eve of the wedding, Jack had Kai and Cliff over and after a few rounds of Halo, they pulled all the 'Jack's matches' tapes off the shelf and after seeing they were arranged by date, began to pour through them. Instead of indulging in the single's lifestyle, Jack indulged, at long last, in watching his former life without the slightest twinge of regret or nostalgia, rather with awe and pride.
There was his early years for him to see. Jack would, later in his years, order all the DVDs that were about him or featured him, but these early matches were almost impossible to find—including his very first match against 'The Baron' Raymin Vilaar. A noble-born Frenchmen, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. His scars eclipsed Jack's. His experiences eclipsed Jack's. His victories just as hard won as Jack's, but he never rose to the level of fame that Jack did and, in many ways, Jack felt the old Baron resented him for that.
The Baron had taught Jack by trial through fire, by beating the crap out of him, making him 'tougher than cured leather' as the old Baron had put it. Jack's first wrestling teacher had taught him a few holds and then moved away, taking every cent of the three thousand dollars Jack had spent. He remembered the days where he paid his dues: sleeping in a rusted old car, bleeding for dollars in bingo halls and sports arenas. Trips to Japan, England, Australia, Canada, honing his craft until he was, not long after his initial AWF debut, to become the greatest wrestler in the world. He beat the old Baron three times in a row defending his championship, so Jack's self-held title as the world's greatest wrestler was uncontested.
Except for Butch, but that was a tainted win. Jack had quit, had thrown the match and let Butch The Cleaver win. He had hoped that with that win, Butch would take all of the fame and fortune and spotlight away from Jack so that Jack could make his escape. That hadn't happened. Somehow, Butch hadn't done that and that confounded Jack. He had size, strength, talent, charisma. Jack had actually liked Butch like a brother when he had first arrived. The Cleaver always brought an acoustic guitar with him and strummed little home-made songs that he had crafted. The big country boy that Butch was, Jack was the only one who knew Butch had wanted to be a country music star, but he found out that he was better at wrestling than singing. That was shortly before they had started their feud.
Valentine's Last Stand, they called it, or so Kai had told him. The last feud of his career. Six months of his life dedicated to working Butch into such a frenzy that he saw nothing except taking Jack's title. That feud had taken a lot out of Jack because he had turned heel for it.
In the business, the heels were the bad guys, the villains, and the people you boo, who cheat and thieve to win. Because before they were bitter rivals, they were close friends. Jack had seen a lot of potential in Butch in his debut, so he took the country boy under his wing and made him his protégé, his tag team partner. Both were babyfaces, or faces, the good guys. They had torn up the tag team division as champs for a good three months before Jack knew it was time to put his plan into effect. He could see it now: a feud against Butch which would peak at Revolution for the title…and their careers. Jack—then Ace—had crafted a subtle, yet brilliant plan.
That plan began with his turn on Butch. It could, in truth, be the first match that Jack had thrown. He had gone down through a table thanks to their opponents and lay there on purpose while Butch was pinned. When their opponents had won and left the ring, Jack shocked the crowd by turning on Butch and beating him down. It was possibly the most shocking turn in wrestling history save for the formation of the N.W.O.
But unlike then, Jack hadn't gone heel entirely and a month of people booing him turned away as he began getting cheers again. He was a Heel who acted as a Face. He didn't cheat or lie or attack people. In fact, his turn on Butch was as fake as his infamous, yet short-lived, heel turn. Quite the opposite had happened. After Butch kept trying to get revenge, people booed him and Butch, by default, became the heel of the feud.
So they fought and fought and fought until Jack had landed himself in the Revolution main event. Butch had been set-up, he had taken the gold, he had beaten the immortal Ace Valentine, and held the title for over a year. So what had gone wrong?
Jack sighed, because he knew the answer. He knew exactly what had happened. Butch 'The Cleaver' Cliver was not Ace Valentine…and the people wanted Ace Valentine. Well, they had him. For seven years, they had him and all that he could give, so there was nothing left to give and Jack refused to give them everything until his body was gone and he had nothing left for himself. This was why he left, to have something for himself. There was finally something Jack Harris could attain: happiness, contentment…love.
And Ace Valentine had it too, a gold than didn't glitter and a gem buried in the heart of girl.
Jack and Kai relived their glory days to Cliff, telling of the one glorious month when Jack and Kai, as tag team champs in an international promotion in Japan, had absolutely ruled the world. Jack admitted to Kai that he was his greatest rival, even though that was debatable: Kai, the Baron, Butch…all worthy opponents, but impossible to differentiate between them. Too different. Kai was a smashmouth high-flyer, Baron was simply tough, like a slab of living iron encased in flesh, and Butch had been a true brawler. He settled Kai's mind and told him he was his greatest rival.
Little did he know the real truth. Jack's greatest rival—greatest enemy—had been himself.
The nostalgia settled in and they talked about the business, the days gone by. Kai gave them some tales of his last tour of duty that had been from last summer to now. The way he figured, he could last a long while recovering from his injuries during the summer. Jack agreed and wished Kai a long and successful career in the indies.
Cliff seemed to live in a moment of regret that he himself could never attain their level of excellence, but his lost dreams were little in the face of the orange haired girl who would, he promised the two of them, be his wife. Of that, he had no doubt and the two of them believed every word he said. It was almost evident from the start and Jack was happy that his friend had found a love so pure and felt that terrible moment of shame knowing he had seduced her.
Bygones and such, he thought. Forgiveness had been dealt and that was that, no sense being regretful now. As the night had gone by, he bid them farewell. Then he packed up all his tapes and stuffed them into a chest and took it to the back of the barn, where he buried it in the barn's storm cellar, never to be seen again. He bid farewell to Ace Valentine, who he would never need again and would never see again.
Looking into the night sky, he smiled. "You do good work, boss. Thanks. Sorry about that whole…'I'm bigger than you' thing a few months back.'." As he walked back towards his home, a summer breeze kicked up and his mailbox fell open. Inside was an envelope that hadn't been there that morning. He took it and opened it. It was from his secret admirer, the one who had sent him letters. Written in the same haphazard, glued-together letter writing was the last message,
"Forgiveness is a blessing you have been given, Jack. I have more patience, more tolerance, and more understanding of your life than you ever will. You have, with My help, bested your true enemy: your own mind. You have given friendship, blessings, and love to those and healed wounds that would have taken scores of years to heal. There are others, still scarred, but time will heal them as well. So long as you and yours touches the earth of this farm, your family will always be blessed. Take My blessing tomorrow and know that all is well. Be warned, though. The enemy never sleeps and is always watching, waiting to pounce on those like a lion."
"There are plans within plans within plans that you, and others, will never know of. Let tomorrow end your conspiracy…and begin your legacy that will lead to redemption."
Jack felt joyful tears fall from his face. He smiled and let the summer breeze take the note from his hands and fly off.
Some men, on the day of their wedding, feel cold feet, nervousness, and apprehension. Jack felt a sense of apprehension but it was more akin to 'Let's get this over with, I have things to do.' He couldn't rush this, he knew, but he wanted to savor it, let it linger as much as possible. This was really Popuri's day. She had waited for this day and it would be the most important day in her life and he wanted to make sure it went as spectacular as possible. If he so much as saw a gopher, he was going to snap loose.
There was a million things that had to be done and it seemed as if none of them would be done on time, but in the end all the pieces had fit like an old swiss watch and there was nothing to do except…well, get married. Jack took his place at the head of the procession, followed by his best man and Popuri's maid of honor, Kai and Ann. Then came Cliff and Karen, then Mary and Gray. They didn't want any more than that, really. Jack was beginning to feel the eyes watching him and felt a little nervous. What a laugh! HIM! Nervous under the gaze of less than a hundred people; a man who had shed off the stares of tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis.
Finally, the wedding march began to play and Jack held his breath. May came out ahead first, spreading rose pedals. Not that it mattered, because they were on the farm, having the wedding in the field. Jack watched as she prepared to emerge from the Inn. There was a surprise waiting for Popuri, one he would never, ever have dreamed of before meeting her. But this surprise fit her and seemed to be the proper thing. He would not missthe expression on her face when she saw it. She had been led here with a blindfold over her eyes, into a tent just at the edge of the field where a windowless tent had been set up for her to sit in until it was time for the ceremony.
At last, at long, long last, she emerged wearing a white gown that looked simplistic, but it fit her so very well. It looked like a white version of her usual red-and-black dress. The veil was drawn over her face, but it was so transparent that Jack had no trouble seeing the expression on her face. She held a bouquet of white roses in her hands and strode forward, looking more beautiful than Jack had ever seen her. Her hair glistened and flowed behind her and even from the distance, Jack could see the way his mother and Lillia had used touched of makeup to accentuate her natural beauty. She was, in essence, everything a bride was supposed to be. She was blushing.
She stepped forward, her eyes looking at Rose Square, which lived up to its name. When she reached the edge she stopped, gasping. Breaking her stride—to say nothing of tradition—she pulled her veil up to see the Square better. What she had assumed as a rug, was not.
The entire village square, from end to end, was covered entirely in pink. The ground was not the pavement, but rather carefully placed pink roses.. Every inch was covered in pink roses. Popuri squealed in shock and very nearly collapsed. The procession was near her, but the entire Square…the entire Square was covered in roses. Popuri didn't want to, but she stepped onto them so she could approach her groom. She pulled her veil back down and strode forward, passing the tearful faces of her loved ones in the seats, again all set into the roses, and stepped next to Jack. She looked up at him, smiling, trying to hold back tears. "Jack…what is all this?"
Jack shrugged, "It seemed fitting. It's for you. A million pink roses for you to have your wedding on."
"Jack, how can you afford this?"
Jack grinned, "I can afford anything I want, Poe. A million roses…that's just small potatoes. I hope you love it."
"You have no idea." She said. No more time for banter, they turned to Pastor Carter, who happily called an end to the music and spread out his arms. "Friends and loved ones, we are gathered here in the sight of God to wed this couple in holy matrimony."
"I have been told that the couple wishes to read their own vows, so at this time I will let them have their say."
Jack cleared his throat. He reached into his tux and pulled out a slip of paper, then looked into Popuri's eyes and tossed the paper away. "Popuri, before I came here I had everything a man could have. But when I came here, I found out that there was something missing in my life: love. Honest to God love. I could have taken any woman in the world…I'm not being cute, I really mean that. But you…you're a true woman. You hold yourself with honor and I can only hope that in the years to follow I prove to be as good a man and husband to you as you will be a wife to me."
He took her hands in his, "I promise to always love you and forsake any other woman. I vow that so long as there is breath in my body, no one will every harm you or our family to come. I take pride knowing that you have, in rebellion against our generation, upheld the standards of what a real woman is. You will always be fed, be taken care of, have a means for yourself, and I promise that will never change so long as I'm alive. I love you, Popuri and there's nothing in this world that can tear me away from you."
He paused and watched. Popuri was embarrassed because the tears she had held back had returned in force. Thankfully, she wasn't wearing any mascara, so it wouldn't run, but she still smudged off some of her makeup on her white gloves when she wiped her eyes. She pulled a slip of paper from under her glover—her vows—and followed suit by tossing it away. "Jack, I love you. I knew I loved you at one moment. That moment when we were dancing last year in the Harvest Festival. Somehow…I knew. I knew I'd always be in your arms, so…" She bit her lip, another joyful sob wrenching itself from her lips. "My God, Jack…I love you so much!" And that was all she could manage.
Jack turned to Ben and gave him a small nod. No sense in waiting for her to regain her composure. The pastor smiled. "The vows being said…Jack, do you take Popuri to be your wife?"
"And Popuri, do you take Jack to be your husband?"
She nodded, sniffling, "I do."
"The ring?" Ben asked. Jack turned to Kai, who handed him the ruby rose ring that Jack had bought. Jack slipped the ring onto her gloved finger, whispering to her, "With this ring, I take thee as my wife."
Popuri put his ring on, but said nary a word for fear that she would burst into tears. Ben looked out at the congregation. "If there is any here who has just cause that this couple should not wed, speak now or forever hold your peace."
Jack suddenly turned on them, flashing a hard stare, a stare that Ace Valentine had used to put fear into many a men. Anyone who saw that face knew that anyone who spoke up then was welcoming a world of pain…so, of course, no one spoke. Of course, no one wanted to. There was no just cause among the gathered.
Ben nodded, "Then with the power invested in me by God Almighty, I declare you husband and wife." Ben turned to Jack and cried, "Well? Gone on and kiss her!"
Jack gladly lifted her veil and kissed for the first time his wife and best friend. Popuri felt rigid and frightened and for good reason. A week's worth of anticipation and nervousness were shedding off. Apparently all the emotions of having a wedding were all on her shoulders. He hugged her, wrapping his arms around her and giving her his strength and a good thing because as soon as they were two seconds into their kiss—on which they were being applauded—Popuri's knees gave out and she was standing solely on Jack's power.
He stood there for a few second, holding he up and felt he knew how angels felt: helping the weak when they couldn't stand. He felt the irony of the moment, because then he felt like an angel holding an angel. She regained a little of her strength and found her feet again and the crowd was none the wiser. She stood up and they turned to the crowd. Ben presented to them Jack and Popuri Harris.
Ben wrinkled his nose, "Popuri Harris…that sounds terrible."
It was the biggest celebration the town had ever known. There was no shortage of joy and no trace of sadness amongst the village. Of all Jack's relatives, only his mother and father were there. No, not just them. As Jack and Popuri danced, he caught a few glimpses of a gray haired man in overalls and a bread at the edge of the throng, a fleeting glimpse of the man and he was gone. Jack smiled, thinking out loud, "Love ya, gramps."
The party was also the longest in history. In mid-summer, the sun was shining, the air was hot, a cool breeze was blowing, but that dampened no spirits as people danced and sweated. The beer was pulled out and flowed well, with everyone enjoying themselves. There was no ill to happen with the exception of Kai nearly slinging Karen into the small corner of Rose Square that was still under construction. That one little corner that had the rebar sticking out into the air (they were waiting on the brick to be delivered and the guy they had hired was apparently an idiot).
Incidentally, the only other thing to note was Ann drinking so much that she jumped into the river because she couldn't make it to the closest bathroom. Speculation ran for years, everyone wondering if she had managed to make it there before her bladder burst, or if she had jumped in because she had peed on herself and was simply hiding her embarrassment. Ann took the truth to her grave; not even Cliff knew.
Jack was glad to see there wasn't a single soul on the chairs of date-less people except for two: Gray and Aja. The girl had been solemn and silent since she had returned, only speaking to Jack on the ferry. He supposed that she was mending her fences with her parents and with herself before going into the village proper. Jack had apologized for calling Gray names, but he felt terrible that there was nothing he could do for the young man aside from handing him cash.
While that was always nice, Jack knew of something more valuable than cash.
He approached Gray from behind and clasped him on the shoulders. "Hey, Gray. Enjoying the party?"
"Of course!" Gray said, "A real shindig. Why?"
"Because, there's someone here who isn't." Jack pointed and Gray followed his eyes to where Aja was sitting by herself in a stunning red dress. Jack was glad he had fallen in love with Popuri now, because if Aja had been in the village when he had come, Jack knew he would have fallen for her in an instant. There was no doubt who the most beautiful woman in the village was that day—even above the bride herself. But there was no one left to claim the seat next to her except for one."
Before Gray could even speak, Jack was in his ear. "Take her a rose, tell her it'd be an honor to ask for a dance. If she says no, try again. If she smiles, reel her in and try to be formal. Be friendly, but not eager. Eager will just drive her away. Be friendly, don't try and force a conversation, and above all else do not try and be cool. You're not cool, Gray. Okay? You're a blue collar guy and as long as you don't try to be anyone besides a blue collar guy asking for a dance, you'll do fine. Don't try and be cool or smooth or witty, because you're not. And for God's sake, don't try wooing her with a song on your guitar—Conway Twitty, you are not."
Gray nodded, staring ahead at Aja. Jack slapped him on the shoulder and the boy got up and went across. Jack half-expected him to fall flat on his face, break his nose, and then remember what he was doing and ask Aja for a dance while he had blood gushing from his nose, but no…fate was smiling on all that day. Gray approached the stunning Aja and offered her the rose. Jack wished he could have heard the conversation. Aja shook her head, but accepted the rose. Jack expected Gray to stand there like an idiot, not sure of what to do but he said something and Aja smiled, then he said something else and she asked him something and he nodded and strummed his fingers through the air as if on a guitar.
Upon seeing this, Aja's eyes lit up. She said something and Jack heard Gray sing something and Aja laughed. She stood up, accepting Gray's hand. The young man walked hand-in-hand with Aja to the dance floor. As soon as Gray caught Jack's eyes, he shot him a dominant look and quickly, subtly gave Jack the finger while scratching his forehead. Jack knew what that meant: everything Jack had said would drive her away had apparently attracted him. "Guess I was wrong." He said.
For shooting him the bird, Jack later put an egg down the back of Gray's shirt and smashed it while pretending to talk to him. Gray would later be sitting next to Aja in the field, talking to her, and the egg would draw an army of fire ants down his shirt that prompted him to run into the lake. (Incidentally, Aja followed him, thinking him being funny until the ants floating on the water attacked her too.)
The party wound down and people began to leave to their respective homes, either under their own power or on the arm of family. With the presents given (mostly homemade gifts) and the garter belt and bouquet thrown (Gray caught the garter when it bounced off Zack's flattop and fell into his hands, and Karen planted her heels into Elli's back to throw herself into the air and, amazingly, catch the bouquet in her teeth), it was finally time to go home. Jack carried Popuri into the farm, holding her in his arms. She stared lovingly at the field of roses, amazed that Jack loved her enough to do such a thing. But right now wasn't the time for talk or wonder. Although Jack had proposed a long, extended honeymoon, Popuri insisted that she simply wanted to have it all here.
She wanted to stay here. She wanted to be home. She wanted all her memories in one place. Silently, Jack took her inside as the sun fell down, into a home that was lit with candles, rose petals on the bed. As the candles flickered in the evening, dying later that night, Jack and Popuri finally knew the true joy they had held back from one another.
Jack had Karen to thank, in a way. She had pulled him aside and given him a 'dos' and 'don'ts' talk. He nodded, took notes, then handed her a few notes that he knew of. She took notes, compared, threw her notes away and made duplicates of his that she gave to the other women in town. Jack's notes became the stuff of legend.
When Jack woke up, he felt like Scrooge waking up to find it was still Christmas Day and everything was fixable. Only, this wasn't Christmas Day, it was the day after and everything was well. His arms caressed the tiny, naked form curled next to him. He pushed aside her disheveled hair and kissed Popuri's forehead. Popuri woke up, opened her eyes, and suddenly remembered that he was married now. She snuggled into Jack, hugging him tightly. He kissed her cheek, "Well?"
She stretched out, caressing his bare chest, "That was…worth the wait."
Jack chuckled to himself, feeling more content than he ever had in his life. Never before had the act of love been so fulfilling. Never before had he felt this way. Never before had he woken up the morning after and been glad to see the girl he had woken up with. Some married men feel a freezing cold knowing they'll wake up next to the same woman for the rest of their life, but Jack would never take another in her place. He loved her so completely, so entirely…if she died, he could never take another wife—that much was clear.
Their honeymoon lasted a few days. In truth, it lasted until they literally got tired of themselves and had to take a day to recuperate. The honeymoon was over and the marriage had to begin. Jack talked to Popuri during their day of rest. They got to know one another in ways they didn't know. Jack told her the truth: that he was a former professional wrestler named Ace Valentine and that he had enough money to do well with for the rest of their life. This awed Popuri, but her interest waned almost as soon as he told her. He offered her the chance to see his tapes, but she declined. The thought of big sweaty men in tights, wrestling with each other only amused her. Jack wondered if watching him fall from a height of twenty feet in that Rage in the Cage match would change her mind, but he thought better of it.
Best if she simply didn't want to know. If she didn't, he wouldn't force it.
The roses wilted within days and Jack burned them as he went back to work. Popuri proved to be a fine wife to him. She arranged the house to the way she wanted, decorated to suit her tastes, and made him lunch. That part he loved, since he hated making his own meals—even though he was good at it. She had his shower running at the end of the day, ready for him, joined him as well and Jack couldn't complain about that. His wife was lovely in his eyes. Now that they were married, the way they adored one another—physically and mentally—was only natural, holy even. Jack would catch Popuri staring at him with catlike eyes, sizing him up. To Jack, there was no body as lovely as his wife's and he couldn't imagine why he had chased after any other. One day, jokingly, he suggested that they just close the curtains and walk around naked. Popuri laughed it off, saying she was a lady and wouldn't do such a thing, but he saw how the very idea working in her mind and laughed to himself.
May was skipping home next to Pastor Carter as he walked her home. He paused at her doorstep, saying good-bye to her as she opened the door and went in. "Hi, Grandpa! What's for dinner?" She paused, seeing Jack and Popuri in the living room. Jack and Popur smiled at her. She smiled back, "Hi, Mr. Jack. Hi, Miss Popuri! You gonna eat with us?"
"Not really." Jack said. "Your grandpa has something he wants to talk to you about."
Barley, sitting in his chair, smiled at her, "Come here, May." She bounced over and sat on his knee. He patted her back. "Honey, you know about mommy, yes?"
"Mommy went away." May said, "You said she wasn't coming back again."
Barley nodded, "Yes, and you know I'm getting to be old, May. It's hard fer an old feller like me to take care of a youngin' like you. Yeah?"
May nodded, "I'm good, grandpa. I don't want to make you mad or hurt you. I'm good."
Barley smiled, "I know you are, but I don't think I can do as good fer you like a real mommy and daddy could. You'd like a mommy and daddy, right?"
May nodded viciously. "I'd love a mommy and daddy!"
"Well, kiddo." Jack said, "You got your chance. See, there's all this space on my farm and there's no crazy little girl running around on it." Jack approached and leaned down to her, "May, how would you like to come live on my farm with me and Popuri?"
May looked up at him, her expression wary, "Like a family?"
"A family." Jack said, "But there's one thing you have to do and you can't come with us unless you do this, okay?" He held her attention before pointing to Popuri and then himself, "You can't call me Mr. Jack and you can't call her Miss Popuri. You have to call me daddy and you have to call her mommy. Is that okay?"
May looked at them and then smiled, "Yeah!" She leapt off Barley's knee and into Jack's arm. Popuri came over and embraced the two of them; May wrapped her arms around Jack and Popuri's necks. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She cried, "Grandpa! I got a mommy and daddy now! Mr. Jack's gonna be my daddy and Miss Popuri's gonna be my new mommy!"
Barley smiled, nodding to himself as he stood, "God bless you, Jack. For doing this fer my granddaughter…if there's ever anything I can do fer you youngin's, jest tell me."
Jack held up his hand. "No trouble at all, Barley. I'm only too happy. Come on, you young rascal." He said, ruffling her hair, "Let's go home. Our home."
So they left, a family at last.
The remaining weeks of summer flew by. Jack had Gotz put a new room onto their house for May. The prospect of her own room and not a spot in a storeroom she shared with Barley's old junk had her excited. Popuri and May were mother and daughter before a week had passed, so strong was the bond. As the months grew on, Jack and May grew so close that May literally became Jack's shadow. One would never have known she was adopted, the resemblance was so strong.
Barley was grateful for the offer. Not that he didn't love May, but he was simply unable to help care for her like a small child needed. But Jack and Popuri were mother and father to that girl like any parents to any child in history. Jack adored her as if she were his own flesh and blood and May…May didn't know any different. As far as she was concerned, Jack and Popuri had always been her parents and had only just picked her up at a young age.
Jack taught May the farm. He taught her what he knew and more. He taught her all that he knew about life. Popuri, in turn, taught her how to be a little lady as only she knew how, but it soon became clear that May was Jack's daughter more than Popuri's. Jack saw in her a farmer. He could tell when he gave her an apple seed and let her plant it on her own. "It's your tree, May. You're like this seed: small now, but strong in time. Take care of it and it'll take care of you." He watched her plant it in front of the barn and care for it week after week, making sure no animal stepped on it or tried to eat the small sprout.
The summer did pass well, he thought. Summer's End came up before he knew it and there was a big celebration at the church-rather than the square-due to the fact that it was raining. It was a heavy storm that night. Popuri had been gone all day to help ready the church. May was with him, playing with her pretend farm toys on the floor. Jack watched outside, hoping the rain didn't take away her apple sprout.
He was ready to get in the shower when a sharp banging came at his door and a screaming voice followed, "MR. JACK! MR. JACK! MR. JACK, OPEN UP!"
Jack tossed the door open in a hurry and Stu ran in, clasping onto his leg, bawling violently. Jack shut the door and leaned down, trying to speak comfort to the boy. Something bad had happened, he just knew it. Someone had passed away or something, what else could get him so worked up besides that?
"Stu? Stu, what's wrong? Stu, talk to me." He shook the boy a little and noticed an envelope, dampened by the rain, in his small hands.
"Some….some men…they…hurt…and…they-they-they…said…give you..!" Stu stammered hard, handing the envelope to him. Jack took it and stood up. Inside was a crude paper folded up. On it was written a small poem:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
One day your past,
Will catch up with you,
Jack opened the paper and gasped.
Inside was an instant Polaroid picture. Someone—a big man, he could see—had Popuri, was holding her facing the camera. His face was cut off at the top of the picture, but his face didn't concern Jack. What caught him around his throat and strangled him was the image of the twelve inch dagger that the big man was holding against Popuri's throat, a small line of blood already trickling down her neck and tears streaming down her terrified face.
Jack pressed his teeth together in fury so hard he cracked one of his molars, his fist crushing the picture until his knuckles went white. He turned to Stu. "Where are they?"
"The-the church." Stu said.
Jack pointed to the bedroom. "Stu, May…I want both of you to go into my bedroom and lock the door. There's a cellphone on my dresser. Dial 911 and tell them to come to Flowerbud Island by helicopter. Can you do that, Stu?"
Stu nodded. He took May by the hand and they headed for the bedroom. "Don't be scared." Jack told them.
May looked at him before they closed the door. "I'm not scared, daddy."
Jack nodded. Just like him. He wasn't scared, he was furious. He hadn't told Stu why he wanted him to call the police to fly out. Not to help with an arrest, no. No, he wanted them out there to clean up the mess.
Jack dashed through the door and into the village towards the church, thinking the same thing over and over again:
"Someone's going to die for this. Someone's going to die tonight."