There were seven backup dancers dressed in barely-there Santa outfits and push-up bras, waiting for the musical cue before they started shaking their assets in the fake snow coming from the blower. John looked at them and sighed. The vision he’d had for his latest music video couldn’t be further from the glitzy production that was happening around him, and he wasn’t happy about it. There was no point in complaining – again! – to Lucius, though. The director listened patiently to John’s suggestions and then ignored them.
“What’s the problem, JP?”
“This sucks, that’s the problem.” John gestured at the girls and the fake snow and the cabin all blinged up with neon holiday lights. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Laura, his manager, nodded. “Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. But Lucius knows his shit, that’s why we chose him for the project. Remember?”
“I know, but –”
“He’s the top director of music videos in the country.”
“I don’t need his resume,” John replied irritably. People loved Lucius, couldn’t say enough nice things about him, but John thought he was a narcissistic, pompous ass. “I need my manager to be on my side.”
Laura gave him an appraising look. “Okay. We’ll call it quits for today and I’ll arrange a meeting. How does that sound?”
“Tell him we’re done,” John countered. “I’ll find someone else to make the video. The way it should be done.”
Which was nicer than telling Lucius to kiss his ass, but not nearly as satisfying.
“You’re the boss. Go get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make a new plan.” Laura chucked him on the shoulder before turning and striding off, heels clacking loudly on the concrete floor. “Lucius! Turn off the blower, we’re done!”
John didn’t stick around for the shouting. He all but threw the shiny, tricked-out Fender at the nearest PA and fled the studio. He wasn’t so lucky ducking the paparazzi, and had to endure the flashbulbs before he could make good on his escape.
Home was just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, a good two-thousand miles away from LA, and he couldn’t wait to get back there. He was only in town to film the stupid video – performers came to Lucius, not the other way around – and John was glad he’d decided to bail on the project because he wasn’t spending his holiday surrounded by a bunch of superficial actors, musicians and producers.
He’d been renting a place in Venice for the duration of the video shoot, right off the beach, and had been indulging in some surfing during his brief spans of downtime. He loved living in Tennessee, he really did, but sometimes he just yearned for the ocean. Growing up his family had spent summers at the seaside and those were some of the happiest times he could remember.
It was getting on towards dinner time but John wasn’t particularly hungry. He kicked his shoes off as soon as he got through the door and made a beeline for his acoustic guitar. Nothing calmed his frazzled nerves better than getting lost in a melody. He sprawled on the couch and picked out random chords, eyes closed. Eventually the chords coalesced into a song, "Folsom Prison Blues".
John had started his career doing covers of other people’s songs, Johnny Cash being his absolute favorite. Ironic, then, that he was now so often compared to the late singer and not just because of his propensity for wearing black.
Music had always been a part of John’s life. His mother, Grace King, had been a well-respected folk singer in the 60s, though she’d given that life up when she married Patrick Sheppard. She’d been the one to instill a love of music in John, and taught him to play the guitar. After she’d died, Patrick wanted all traces of her gone, and had fought with John over his pursuit of a career in music rather than Sheppard Industries. In hindsight, John could see that his father had been hurting just as much as his son, but it hadn’t felt that way at the time. When he’d finally broken away and followed the music, he’d taken his mother’s maiden name as his stage name, to honor her.
His cell phone rang and John debated whether or not to answer it. He was tired, and frustrated with the waste of time the video shoot had turned out to be, and he really didn’t feel like talking to anyone.
With a sigh he set aside the guitar and fished the phone out of his pocket. If it was Laura, which was most likely, she’d just keep calling. He was surprised to see that it wasn’t his manager after all, but his old friend Todd.
“Hey. This is unexpected. Everything okay?”
You still interested in that old cabin?
Todd’s ex-wife, who they all called The Queen behind her back, had been fighting him for ownership of the family cabin ever since they initiated divorce proceedings. It wasn’t much, just two rooms, a loft and a tiny bathroom, but they’d each refused to give in. John, who could afford something much grander, had wanted that cabin since the first moment he stepped foot in it during a fishing trip. Something about it had just spoken to him, and he’d told Todd he’d gladly take it off his hands any time he wanted to sell.
“The Queen finally gave up on it?”
She has. So I’m free to sell it, if you still want it.
“You know I do.”
Maybe you should take a look at it first. It’s been empty a while.
The idea popped into John’s head fully formed. Christmas was only a week away, and for once he had no social obligations. His father and brother were out of the country on business, not that they often got together anyway, and he had no public appearances scheduled. He could vanish into the Smokies and have some well-deserved quiet time far away from the intrusive eyes of his adoring public. It was perfect.
“You know what? That’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll take it for a test drive this week, stay there through the holidays.”
If that’s what you want. You going incognito?
I’ll leave my old truck at the Stop-n-Shop. Extra set of keys for the cabin will be in it.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate this. You’re saving my life.”
I owed you one. Merry Christmas, Sheppard.
“Same back atcha.”
John couldn’t believe his good fortune. Sure, Laura would probably never speak to him again, and Lucius would make his displeasure known publically and at great length, but John really needed to get away. He felt like he was losing control of his music and that scared him. His record label had been making noise about a new album but John had felt blocked and uninspired. What he needed was some time to regroup.
He booked a flight back to Tennessee, and didn’t send Laura a text message until he was ready to board the plane and it was too late for her to stop him.
The radio was on, playing a mix of country and Christmas songs. Whenever one of John’s own songs came on he changed the channel. It was weird, hearing himself sing. He’d never liked listening to recordings or watching taped specials; he was too critical of his own performances to enjoy them properly. Every other song, though, he belted out in full voice with a grin on his face.
The smile melted away when he caught sight of flashing lights in the rearview mirror. “Crap.” He pulled over and fished out the truck registration from the glove box, and then thanked his good fortune when he saw that he’d been stopped by female cop; he knew the effect his looks had on the fairer sex and wasn’t above exploiting that to get out of a ticket.
“Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?” she asked once he rolled the window down. She was attractive, even with the unflattering uniform and her hair pulled back in a tight bun.
“No, ma’am.” John gave her his most wholesome grin.
“You were speeding. Sign a mile back says fifty miles per hour, and you were doing sixty-three.” Lady Cop leaned against the side of the truck. “You look familiar.”
“I have that kind of face.” John was glad he was wearing his sunglasses and a hat over his unruly hair. The last thing he needed was word getting out that JP King was in the area. “Sorry about the speeding. I didn’t realize I was going that fast.”
“You want to be careful on these country roads,” Lady Cop said. “Deer could jump right out at you and cause you a world of trouble.”
The cop’s lips curled up in a smile. “You have family in Davis Ridge?”
“Just passing through,” John hurried to assure her. The last thing he needed was an entanglement with the law. And it wasn’t even technically a lie, since Todd’s cabin was five miles or so outside of town.
“Well, and if that’s not a crying shame.” The pout didn’t sit well with the uniform and the gun. “You take it nice and slow from here on in and I’ll let you off with just a warning.”
“I’ll be sure and do that, thank you.” John flashed her his best smile, the one with lots of teeth. He wanted to get out of there with a minimum of fuss. He had one hand on the gear shift, ready to get back underway, but suddenly there was a large man seated on an even larger horse blocking the road.
“Larrin! I see you!” The guy had a distinctive look, decked out like a wild man in a coat that looked like it came straight off the back of a brown bear, and a matching cowboy hat. He sported a scruffy beard and a very unpleasant expression.
The cop put a hand on the butt of her gun and visibly steeled her spine as she turned towards the mountain man. “Jake, I’m working.”
“And if I am it’s none of your damn business,” Larrin snapped. “We’re not together anymore, Jake, which I wish you’d get through your thick skull.”
John grimaced. The last thing he needed was to get involved in a backwoods domestic dispute, especially when at least one of the parties was armed. “I’m just gonna –”
“Get back on your way, Jake, before I run you in for disturbing the peace.”
Jake pointed a finger at John. “You’ll pay for this.” He tugged on the reins and got his horse – a Percheron, if John’s upbringing had taught him anything – turned around. They faded into the woods more quickly than John would’ve expected.
Larrin turned back to him, all her hard edges bleeding away as she gave John a decidedly sultry look. “Sure I can’t convince you to stick around town for a while?”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
“Shame. Well, if you ever find yourself this way again you just look me up.”
“Sure.” John waited until she stepped back from the truck before putting it in gear and getting the hell out of there as fast as the posted speed limit would allow.
There was smoke rising from the chimney, which John assumed meant that Todd had someone come to open the place up and air it out for him. He’d have to remember to send a proper thank you for that, and for loaning him the truck.
“Perfect,” John murmured to himself. He cut the engine and hopped out of the truck, stopping only long enough to grab his duffle bag and guitar case.
The front door was bracketed by two deep wooden lounge chairs. Way up here in the mountains it wasn’t unusual for people to leave their houses unlocked, but the cabin was sealed up tight. John unlocked the door and pushed his way in. He stood a moment just over the threshold, admiring the space.
Natural wood floors, a galley kitchen, stairs up to the loft, a door in the back for the bathroom, and a large living room. There were two well-worn couches in front of a large fieldstone fireplace, and a table with six mismatched chairs ranged around it. There wasn’t much around in the way of decoration, just an odd bit of pottery and some framed paintings of mountain scenes.
“Perfect,” John said again. Not just because no-one would ever find him there, but also because the simple set-up of the cabin was exactly what he needed. No stress, no distractions. He was sure he’d be able to get some writing done.
He dropped the duffel and carefully propped the guitar case against the wall before investigating the tin pot hanging over the fire. Turned out to be some sort of stew and it smelled delicious. It made sense to have it simmering there instead of leaving the stove on. Todd really had thought of everything.
John kicked off his boots and stretched out on the bigger couch, which was solid blue corduroy and incredibly comfortable. It had been a long flight, compounded with a lot of driving, and he was tired. A little nap would be nice, and then he’d dig into that stew, get his things unpacked, and enjoy the peace and quiet. It was the perfect plan.
“What the hell?”
“You need to get outta here, mister.”
The kids were backlit by the fire, which had burned down to lazy licks of flame, and it took John a long moment to realize that he was being addressed by a girl who couldn’t be more than eleven or twelve years old. She had two boys with her, one pretty young and holding her hand, the other slightly taller than her.
“Who are you?” John asked.
“This is our place,” the girl said. “And you better leave before we call the cops.”
The little boy moved closer to her. It was hard to see in the dim light but he gave off a completely terrified vibe. John wasn’t sure why they were squatting in the cabin but he couldn’t have them there, not when he needed peace and solitude so badly. And he knew full well there was no phone.
“As a matter of fact, this is my friend Todd’s place. I have permission to be here. Pretty sure you don’t.” John leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Where are you parents?”
The older boy pushed in front, hands up. “Please, mister! Please don’t make us leave!”
John turned on the floor lamp next to the couch to get a better look at his trespassers. The little boy had wide, fearful eyes and they were all dressed in fairly shabby clothes, and jackets that were ill-fitting and probably second-hand. The girl and the little boy looked like they could be related: similar features and the pale complexion and freckles that came with having red hair. The older boy, in contrast, had dusky brown skin and curly brown hair that was cut close to his scalp.
“Where are your parents?” John repeated, though he softened his tone.
“Our parents had to go out of town unexpectedly,” the girl said, looking John right in the eyes. “The lady we stayed with got sick, so we came here. We didn’t wanna bother anyone.”
“What are your names?” he asked, not unkindly.
The two older kids shared a look and seemed to have an entire silent conversation in the span of a few seconds. It ended when the boy shrugged and the girl sighed.
“Fine. I’m Jennie and these are my brothers. Ryan –” she nodded down at the little one. “And Andre. Who’re you?”
“I’m John. And I really think we need to contact someone to come and get you.”
Another silent communication, to which little Ryan seemed oblivious; he kept his eyes on John, barely seeming to even blink. It was a little disconcerting.
Complications, that’s what these kids were. And as much bullshit as there was in Jennie’s story, there was also an underlying truth: they really had nowhere else to go. He couldn’t just throw them out in the snow, but he also wasn’t looking to get involved in whatever these kids were hiding from. At least not until after the holidays. It was selfish of him, but he needed that week to decompress and get his head on straight. He’d deal with the fallout later.
“I’ll make you a deal.” He sat back and stretched his legs out. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here if you do the same for me.”
“You hiding out too?” Andre asked, and got an elbow in his side from Jennie.
“Just until after Christmas. So how about we share the cabin till then? I won’t ask you any questions, but afterwards you have to come clean, got me?”
“Family meeting,” Jennie said. She dragged her brothers into the corner, their hushed conversation too quiet for John to overhear.
He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Sharing the cabin with three probable runaways during his vacation? Sacrificing his peace and quiet to babysit? All that time in LA must’ve really scrambled his brains.
“We agree to your terms.” Jennie, the spokeswoman of her little family, came forward and stuck her hand out. “Shake on it.”
John shook her hand, amused in spite of himself. “Good enough. Now, which one of you made the stew?”
“Me,” Andre said. “It’s rabbit.”
“Yeah? You catch it?”
“Sure did,” he replied proudly. “I got traps up all over.”
The urge to ask how long they’d been squatting was overwhelming but John managed to quash it; a promise was a promise. “Well, how about we dish that up? I’m starving.”
“Ryan, go set the table.” Jennie pulled her hand out of her little brother’s grip and nudged him towards the kitchen. The little boy couldn’t have been more than four years old, not that John was the best judge of that sort of thing. Ryan was a little slip of thing, so he might’ve been younger, or just small for his age.
“I can –” John started to say, but Jennie cut him off with a glare.
“It’s his job. Go ahead, Ryan.”
It was hard not to intervene when the little guy had to push a chair over to the cabinets, which he used to climb on so he could reach the plates and glasses. But clearly Jennie was right, because he did it quickly and without breaking anything.
Andre made a big show of serving everyone, getting a little carried away with the ladle. John plucked a rogue piece of rabbit meat off the table and popped it in his mouth. “This is really good,” he said, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“He’s gonna be a chef someday,” Jennie said proudly.
“Cool.” John and his three new roommates tucked into the stew. It was a quiet dinner, just a lot of chewing and slurping, but he didn’t mind. He had no clue how to engage these kids in conversation.
That night, as he resumed his earlier pose on the couch, which had now become his bed, John listened to the kids talking softly up in the loft before they fell asleep. He knew it was irresponsible of him not to call the authorities. He was stuck now, though, because he’d made a promise. He shook on it. And they weren’t bad kids, not really. Maybe tomorrow he’d find out if Ryan could talk. Or, and this was more likely, he’d realize what a stupid mistake he’d made.
“Tomorrow,” John muttered to himself as he fell asleep.
“Hey, buddy. You don’t look so good.”
Ryan just nodded, his eyes glassy. John pressed a hand to his forehead, though he already knew the kid had a temperature. He had no idea what to do, and could feel himself starting to panic.
“Jennie!” he called up to the loft.
She appeared at the rail, leaning over so that her braids hung and swayed with every movement of her head. “What?”
“Your brother’s sick.”
Jennie flew down the stairs. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt as a nightgown and thick brown socks on her feet. She kissed Ryan’s forehead.
“I have some Children’s Tylenol,” she said. “Be right back.”
John looked down at the little boy slumped in his lap and decided that a couple children’s chewables weren’t going to get the job done. Ryan needed to see a doctor, in case he had something that needed antibiotics or…some kind of shot? John had no idea but now he at least had a plan. Davis Ridge had to have a doctor. Hell, even a witch doctor would be preferable to John handling this on his own.
Andre returned with Jennie, who handed two little pills to Ryan. “Chew them up good, okay?”
John slid out from under Ryan as he dutifully did what his sister asked him to. “I’m going to take him to town to see the doctor.”
It was almost comical, the panicked looks that the three kids immediately shot at him.
“You can’t!” Andre said. “They’ll call –”
Jennie elbowed him in the side. “It’s just a fever. We’ll take care of him.”
John held up his hands. “Look, I’ll keep my promise. No-one there knows me. We’ll use fake names if we have to. Okay?”
Andre and Jennie had a quick, whispered conversation, and then Jennie was back with a worried look on her face. “Why should we trust you?”
“Because I’m trying to help you. And I’d just feel better if the doctor took a look at Ryan. Get him dressed, please.”
John did the same himself, grabbing his duffle and making for the bathroom. There was no phone at the cabin, and cell service was spotty at best, so there was no way to call ahead for an appointment. Maybe there was a walk-in clinic. He ran through several possibilities while he got himself ready to go, trying to plan ahead.
When John came out of the bathroom Ryan was dressed and in his jacket, looking small and miserable beneath a poorly-knitted green cap. Jennie was kneeling next to him, talking to him in urgent tones that broke off as soon as she saw they weren’t alone.
“Listen to John. He’ll take care of you.” Jennie glared at John, as if daring him to prove her wrong. “I’m not too scared to go to the police. Just so you know.”
“Come on, buddy. Let’s go.” John picked Ryan up. He really was a little guy, he hardly weighed anything.
When they got to the truck John paused, unsure. “You should probably be in a booster seat or something, right?” But there was nothing for it. The best he could do was get Ryan strapped in on the bench seat behind the front seat. After a moment’s hesitation he also covered him with a blanket that was back there, since it was pretty cold in the cab. As soon as he started the engine John cranked the heat up and adjusted the vents.
As he pulled away from the cabin the last thing he saw was Jennie and Andre standing on the porch, the blanket from the couch draped over their shoulders, watching with solemn faces.
John wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when he walked into the doctor’s office, but he wasn’t prepared to see animals in there as well as people. He carried Ryan past a very large woman with an even larger dog and settled him into a chair across from two teenage boys, one holding a duck on his lap and the other with his hand wrapped around a rope tied to the collar of a goat.
“We don’t have an appointment,” John said when he got to the front desk. “But my…ah…my friend’s son is sick, and he’s out of town.”
The receptionist was a middle-aged woman with a cloud of wild brown hair sticking out from her head in a way that made his own cowlicks seem tame by comparison. She tapped the sign-in sheet on the counter. “This ain’t the big city, honey. Just sign in and we’ll call when it’s your turn.”
John quickly scrawled his name – chances were no-one would recognize his real one – and took the clipboard with the attached medical history questionnaire that the nurse handed him. He resettled Ryan on his lap when he sat down, and they both contemplated the questions on the form.
Who was he kidding? He didn’t even know Ryan’s last name. Why hadn’t he thought to ask Jennie that before he left? There wasn’t a single question he could answer, besides sex and race, and it seemed pointless to include just those. John surreptitiously set the clipboard on the side table and covered it with magazines.
He’d always hated waiting rooms, full of sick people undoubtedly spreading their germs and kids running around being too loud and too sticky. This one lacked the annoying kids but made up for it with animal smells.
“I don’t know what kind of doctor this is,” he murmured to Ryan. “This can’t be sanitary.”
“Doc Beckett is a good guy,” said the kid with the duck.
“Yeah? What’re you in for?”
“Need him to look at my duck. She’s been a little depressed lately.”
John looked at the duck, but it looked pretty normal. White feathers, orange feet. “And what’s wrong with the goat?” he asked the other boy.
“Nothin’. I got a sore throat.”
“You boys in Four-H?” It was a rhetorical question, really, since the kid with the duck was wearing a ball cap that said as much.
“What’s wrong with your kid?” Goat boy asked.
“He’s sick. Fever.”
“You might wanna change his feed.”
John stifled a grin. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Shortly after that the boy with the duck was called back. John flipped through a magazine, some farming thing, and tried to engage Ryan by pointing out different pictures, but the boy was as silent as always.
It was nearly half an hour before they were finally called. John scooped up Ryan and followed the nurse into a room in the back that had an ocean mural painted on one wall. She took the little boy’s temperature, his blood pressure, and listened to his chest with a stethoscope.
“Okay, sweetie. The doctor will be in to see you shortly.”
As soon as she was gone Ryan climbed off the paper-covered exam table and curled back up in John’s lap. John stared down at him for a minute, nonplussed, and then patted him on the back. He cast around for something to say and then pointed at the mural.
“Look at all the fish,” John said. “Have you ever been to the ocean?”
Ryan shook his head, but John could see him looking intently at the mural.
“I was in California a couple days ago and I was actually in the ocean. Do you know what surfing is?” John waited but Ryan just blinked up at him. “Well, it doesn’t matter. But the ocean is pretty cool.”
Before he could make any additional awkward attempts at conversation there was a brisk knock on the door and the doctor came in. He was dressed pretty informally, in John’s opinion – just jeans and blue polo shirt with a ridiculous polka dot bowtie that was covered in blinking red and green lights. When he spoke it was with a light Scottish accent.
“Well, now. Who have we here?” The doctor sat on a stool and rolled himself over. “I’m Dr. Beckett.”
“Oh. Uh…John. This is Ryan.” John mentally cringed. He sounded like an idiot. For his part Ryan was seemingly mesmerized by the blinking bowtie.
“Aye, and it’s a pleasure to meet you lad. What seems to be the trouble?”
“Fever,” John said.
“So it is,” the doctor said after a cursory look at the notes the nurse had jotted down. “Let’s take a look. Open wide.”
Ryan obligingly opened his mouth and let Dr. Beckett have a look at his throat, though he kept one small hand wrapped around John’s wrist.
“You’re a very good boy.” The doctor added some notes to the file. “Is anything aching or hurting, like in your knees or your elbows?”
John looked at Ryan, who looked back and shrugged. “I don’t think so,” John said. He hoped he was right.
“Does he not speak?” Dr. Beckett asked John.
For reasons beyond his understanding John found himself going on the defensive. “He’s just really shy. Besides, I’d think you’d be used to non-verbal patients.”
“You mean the four-legged and feathered.” Dr. Beckett grinned. “Davis Ridge isn’t exactly a metropolis, if you’ve noticed. If I didn’t serve the animal population I’d be out of a job.”
John nodded. It made sense, even if it was a strange arrangement. “Doesn’t seem sanitary.”
“I’ve separate rooms for the animals, and I wash up between patients. I’ve not cross contaminated yet.” Dr. Beckett pulled his stethoscope from around his neck. “Let’s have a listen. Ryan, my boy, can you take some deep breaths for me?”
The doctor listened to the kid breathe, his expression intent, and John worried that it might be bad news. What if he had pneumonia or something? John didn’t want to have to break his promise on the first day, but if Ryan was really sick he didn’t think he’d have a choice. Whatever the kids were hiding from their health and safety had to take precedence.
The doctor checked his ears next, and felt his lymph nodes to check for swelling. He told Ryan everything he was going to do before he did it, which John appreciated.
“Well, I think we have a diagnosis,” Dr. Beckett said. He rolled back over to the desk and opened up a drawer. “Take one of these and see me if you don’t start feeling better in a few days.”
He held out a purple lollipop, and Ryan looked up at John eagerly. John nodded and the little boy slid off his lap and ran to fetch his prize.
“Are you sure you’re a real doctor?” John couldn’t help being a little suspicious. Lollipops were not a cure-all, even here in the backwoods.
Dr. Beckett laughed. “I assure you, Mr. Sheppard, I have the degrees to prove it. Your little lad here just has a cold. Slight fever, some reddening and swelling in his throat. He should get some rest, and drink plenty of fluids. I recommend giving him an over-the-counter medication for the fever, like Children’s Tylenol. Keep an eye on it, and if it gets worse or doesn’t seem to be getting better in the next day or two come back in and we’ll take another look.”
John helped Ryan get back into his coat and tugged the hat down over the kid’s head to cover his ears. “Sounds like we need to pick up some supplies, buddy.”
“You can find everything you need at the General Store.” Dr. Beckett closed the file and tucked it under his arm, abandoning the stool. “Are you visiting family in the area?”
“Just passing through,” John replied. He picked Ryan up and settled him on his hip. “Thanks, doc.”
“Healthy holidays to you both.”
“Chocolate Frosted Flakes or Apple Jacks?” John asked, holding up each box. Ryan shrugged and just kept sucking on his lollipop. “Hmm. Maybe both.”
He loaded up the cart, and once that had all been paid for – with the cash he had left after paying for the doctor visit – John stowed it in the truck and then went back to the diner to order up some breakfast to go, since they’d left the cabin in such a rush that morning.
“What do you think, buddy? Pancakes all around?”
Ryan nodded, but John noticed he was starting to lose whatever spark of energy the chewables had given him. He picked the kid up and held on to him while the order was placed and they waited for the to-go boxes. Hopefully this was the last time he’d need to come into town before Christmas; the whole idea had been to avoid people.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the handsome stranger.”
John cringed. He recognized that voice. Sure enough, when he turned around there was the same cop who’d pulled him over the day before.
“I ran your plates.” Larrin leaned against the counter by the cash register. She gave John an obvious once over that left him feeling very uncomfortable. “Can’t be too careful. We don’t get many strangers here in town. And you’re definitely not Mr. Todd Geist from Knoxville who, according to the DMV, is several inches taller than you and very blond.”
“I never said my name was Geist. He’s a friend, he’s letting me borrow his truck.”
“Of course he is.” Her attention shifted to Ryan and John had to fight the urge to hide the little boy from her prying eyes. “And who’s this?”
“My, uh…my friend’s son. Ryan.”
“I don’t remember seeing him in the truck yesterday.”
John tried to think of some excuse that Ryan hadn’t been readily visible in a regulation booster seat, and then was saved by the reappearance of the mountain man stalker.
The diner door blew open, a cold gust of wind swirling around the room and setting placemats fluttering on the tables. The guy looked even rougher up close. And more intimidating, even without the giant horse.
Larrin sighed and rolled her eyes. “Jake.”
“You’ll be sorry, Larrin Curso! Did you think you could just toss me aside?”
Everyone in the diner had stopped eating and talking, but no-one was looking directly at Larrin or Jake. Ryan, meanwhile, felt like he was trying to burrow under John’s skin. The lollipop was sticky against his neck.
“That’s it. You’re disturbing the peace. I have to take you in this time.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Jake waved his hand and John jerked in surprise when every glass in the place shattered at once.
“God dammit, Larrin!” A man wearing a stained white apron came flying out of the back. “Not this again!”
“I’ll take care of it,” Larrin said. But Jake had pulled another disappearing act and was gone.
“Here’s your order, sir.” The girl behind the counter handed John a plastic bag loaded down with Styrofoam to-go boxes. She seemed unfazed by the drama.
John was glad he’d paid when he placed his order. He used the distraction of the cook yelling at the cop to slip out the door. He was definitely not coming back to town, he didn’t care if he lost a limb or accidentally blew up the cabin. The people in Davis Ridge were crazy. And a little scary.
The air was crisp, but not too cold, and John didn’t mind getting some fresh air for as long as his fingers stayed limber enough. It had been a crazy kind of morning and he needed to ground himself.
In deference to the upcoming holiday he picked out the chords for "Silent Night", humming along, before he tackled the song he’d written and had been filming a video for. It wouldn’t be released until next Christmas, which seemed a long time to wait, but he knew the producers of the compilation album would start marketing it well in advance of Halloween.
“I remember that feeling
How we used to be
Sitting together, happy
Around the Christmas tree.
“And I can’t help but wonder
How it all fell apart
And how I kept on going
With this empty space in my heart.”
It was the first original Christmas song he’d written. Oh, he had an album of holiday tunes that sold incredibly well, but they were all covers and carols. It had been a long, long time since he’d felt like celebrating Christmas.
“That’s a sad-sounding song, Mr. John,” Andre said, surprising him. The kid had been out checking his traps, even though the kitchen was now fully stocked. He had an air rifle slung over his shoulder.
“I guess it is.”
“Does Christmas make you sad?”
John shrugged. He wasn’t a big fan of talking about himself, beyond what he put into his music. It made him a notoriously frustrating interview subject.
Jennie opened the door and poked her head out. “Andre! Time for chores.”
“But I –”
Andre gave John a regretful look but went inside as directed.
“You need to relax,” John said to Jennie as he idly strummed the guitar. “It’s okay to have some fun.”
Jennie’s only response was a sour look. John supposed he ought to count it a win that she didn’t lock him out of the cabin. He reminded himself that these kids were only a temporary concern, and if Jennie wanted to rule over them with an iron fist it wasn’t his problem. Not really.
His fingers picked out a different holiday song, which he sang loud enough for Jennie to hear.
“Sleigh bells ring
Are you listenin’?
In the lane
Snow is glistenin’.
A beautiful sight
We’re happy tonight
Walkin’ in a winter wonderland.”
Ryan took his meal in bed, Jennie no doubt having fed him the soup spoonful by spoonful. John had yet to get up to the loft to see him because Jennie deftly redirected him every time he tried. John watched her as she ate, hunched over her plate protectively, and wondered what was going on in her head.
Andre was just expounding on the many different types of meat to be found in a turtle when Ryan came pelting down the stairs, eyes wide and making frantic noises in the back of his throat as he pointed wildly. He threw himself at Jennie, who immediately turned toward the nearest window.
“Where is he? Out there?”
“Who?” John asked. “What’s going on?”
“The Mad Scientist,” Andre whispered. “He steals kids and ‘speriments on them.”
“He has a bag full of needles,” Jennie added, her voice tremulous with fear. “He hates kids.”
John got up from the table and went to the window. He wasn’t buying the mad scientist story but the kids were clearly afraid of something. The light outside was fading fast but John thought he saw a man on horseback. Maybe it was some bogeyman, or maybe it was the cop’s crazy stalker. Either way John wasn’t going outside to check.
“Well, whoever it is he’s gone now.” He turned around to find that the kids had taken up defensive positions. Andre stood in front of the door, the air rifle braced against his shoulder, and Jennie was just behind him with an iron skillet in her hand.
“You can stand down,” John said, equal parts amused and impressed. The kids were gutsy, he’d give them that. “Where’d you hide the little guy?”
Ryan popped out of the cabinet next to the stove and Jennie immediately tried to herd him back upstairs. John got to him first.
“Hey, buddy.” He scooped Ryan up and pressed a hand to his forehead. He was still a little warm but not as much as he had been. “You feeling better?”
Ryan nodded but cast a fearful look towards the window.
“No-one’s gonna bother us, I promise. Come on, let’s go sit down.” John breezed past Jennie with a smirk – and no, he shouldn’t be stooping to her level – and plunked himself and Ryan down on the couch.
“Can you sing another song, Mr. John?” Andre asked, trailing along behind. “You sing real good.”
Ryan nodded enthusiastically, and John couldn’t say no to that. “Okay, little man. Can you get my guitar?”
“He should be in bed,” Jennie said.
“He’s going to sit and listen to a song,” John replied with forced patience. “I don’t think that’ll be too taxing.”
Ryan was quick retrieving the guitar, holding it up high to keep from dragging it on the floor. He handed it to John and then settled himself in Andre’s lap, in front of the fireplace. Jennie cleared away the dinner things while John tuned up and tried to think of a song to play for the kids. They needed something to take their minds off the boogeyman in the woods.
“You guys ever hear about Johnny Cash?” he asked them. Both boys shook their heads. “He was a great singer. They called him the Man in Black, and I’m going to sing you one of his songs.”
Their eager looks were surprisingly gratifying, and John sang them a song that his mother used to sing for him when he was really little.
“My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to Ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me ‘Sue.’
“Well, he must of thought that it was quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from lots of folks,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named ‘Sue.’”
By the time he got all the way through it Andre was laughing, Ryan was completely enthralled, and even Jennie was leaning in the doorway listening. It had been a long time since John had sung for such a small audience; he decided he liked it, especially the enthusiastic applause he got. Maybe it wasn’t so bad having the kids around.
His name, carried on the wind and drawing him forward. He didn’t feel the cold, or the snow turning his feet into ice cubes. He didn’t feel anything but a burning need to reach the speaker of his name, whoever or wherever it may be.
Come to me, John.
“I’m here,” he mumbled, weaving between the trees. His eyelids felt incredibly heavy, and he was having trouble seeing where he was going.
Just a little farther, John. You’re almost there.
“Almost there,” John whispered.
The trees thinned out, giving way to a rocky outcropping. In the back of John’s muddled mind a frantic warning was trying to make itself heard. Stop! Danger! But he paid it no heed. The voice was so close now, so clear, that it blocked everything else out.
The outcropping turned into a cliff, and for just a moment John was aware that he was standing on the edge of it and looking down into a dark and shadowy abyss. Then he couldn’t keep his eyes open for one more second and as he fell into darkness he heard a very different voice, much less ephemeral, shouting at him.
“Are you trying to kill yourself, you idiot?”
“Ah. It lives.”
A man came into view and John struggled against the blanket that wound around his legs so that he could sit up. He snatched the blanket back when he realized his sleep pants were gone and he was just in his boxer briefs. “What’s going on?”
“You tell me.” The guy handed John a steaming mug of hot chocolate. “There I was, minding my own business, when some idiot goes shuffling past my window. In the dark. In the most weather-inappropriate attire. And almost wandered right off a cliff. Are you high?”
“What? No!” John wrapped his hands around the mug. “I was…sleepwalking, or something.”
“Sleepwalking. Right. Aren’t you a little far from home, Mr. King?”
The guy shook his head, sitting down in an overstuffed armchair opposite John. “I may live out in the wilderness but I do have more than a passing acquaintance with popular culture. You have very recognizable hair.”
John fought the urge to touch the cowlicks in question. He supposed it was inevitable that someone in Davis Ridge would recognize him, but he’d been hoping it would be later rather than sooner.
“And you are?”
“Dr. Rodney McKay.”
“As in Physicist.”
John choked on the hot chocolate. “You’re the Mad Scientist!”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Merely a brilliant scientist, thank you.”
“So no experimenting on kids?”
“Physicist,” he repeated. “I don’t experiment on anything biological.”
“That’s not what the legends say,” John said with a chuckle.
“The legends are grossly overstated.”
John just nodded. Rodney was a good looking guy, all broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes, and bore little resemblance to a mad scientist. His place was pretty nice, too. Smooth and gleaming where Todd’s cabin was rough and weathered. There must be a lot of money in physics.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone who I am. I’m kind of incognito this week.”
“Hiding out?” Rodney gave him an assessing look. “Well, luckily for you I don’t feel the need to converse with any of the locals. I haven’t told anyone about the kids, either.”
“You know about them?”
For some reason that question made Rodney look embarrassed. “Yes, well, I happened to notice them on one of my trips through the woods. Pretty sure they’re the ones who ran away from the group home in Evansville. There was a notice up in the post office there.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe it was something like that.” It certainly explained a lot about Jennie’s protective behavior, and their fear of involving the cops.
“It’s probably good they have someone keeping an eye on them,” Rodney said. John suspected that Mr. Physics had been doing just that.
“I should get back.” John finished off the last of the hot chocolate. “Um…do you have my pants?”
“Oh. I was just drying them out. Next time you go wandering in the snow you might want to throw on some warmer clothes.” Rodney got up and went into another room.
“I was sleepwalking!” John called after him. At least, he was pretty sure that’s what happened.
Rodney returned and tossed John his lounge pants and socks, nice and warm from the dryer. “Well, don’t do it again. I might not be around to save your skinny ass the next time.”
John hastily pulled his pants back on, and then looked down at his feet. “I don’t have any shoes.”
“I wasn’t going to let you walk home, idiot.”
He’d anticipated riding Rodney’s horse, but the man surprised him with an ATV. Rodney bundled John up in a heavy coat, a hat, and a spare pair of too-big boots and drove him back to the cabin.
“Why don’t you come for dinner tomorrow?” John asked when they got back. He tried to return Rodney’s clothes but he was waved off.
“Oh. No. No, that’s not a good idea. Kids and I don’t get along real well.” Rodney’s crooked mouth twisted even further, but John wasn’t going to let him off the hook. He’d saved John’s life and John needed to do something to repay him.
“It’ll be fine. We’ll be expecting you at five.”
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. King –”
“It’s John. And I won’t take no for an answer.”
Rodney sighed and nodded, and John couldn’t help but grin in response.
“Thanks for the ride. And the save.”
“Try to stay in bed this time,” Rodney advised. He turned the ATV around and zoomed off into the night back to his place. John stood on the porch and watched him go, and tried to ignore the butterflies in his stomach at the prospect of seeing Rodney again.
“I was thinking we should get a tree,” he said.
Jennie turned around to stare at him, half-washed dish in her hand. “What for?”
Ryan, whose fever had finally broken, nodded enthusiastically. Andre looked cautiously at Jennie, who for the first time since John had met her seemed unsure.
“I don’t know,” Jennie said hesitantly. Both Andre and Ryan gave her imploring looks.
“It would be a real favor for me,” John said. “I haven’t really celebrated Christmas in a long time. So long I’m not even sure I’d know how to do it right.”
It sounded stupid when he said it out loud but he could see that the kids were buying into it. Maybe Jennie wasn’t willing to have any fun on her own behalf, but if she thought she was paying John back for his silence that was something else, and John wasn’t above exploiting that to help the kids have a decent holiday.
“We can help, Mr. John,” Andre said. “Is it ‘cause of that song?”
“That sad song. Is that why you don’t celebrate Christmas?”
John’s throat got tight, and he had to swallow a couple of times before he could talk. “Yeah. That’s why.” Although it wasn’t really the song itself but the memory of his mother, who’d inspired it.
Jennie looked between the two of them, brow furrowed. “As long as we don’t do too much. I don’t think Mr. John should spend any more money on us.”
John bit back the negation that was on the tip of his tongue. He had money enough to really do things up right, but he didn’t want to overwhelm the kids either. Or make them feel beholden to him. He remembered what Rodney had said about them running away from a group home, and figured they were used to making do with very little.
“Okay,” he agreed. “We do it with what we have on hand. Everyone cool with that?”
“Yes!” Andre said. Ryan clapped his hands and Jennie just nodded.
“Well, then I suggest we finish cleaning up and then go out and look for a tree.”
Twenty minutes later they were tromping through the snow looking for the perfect tree. They were armed with a toboggan, a length of rope, and a hacksaw from the shed behind the cabin. Ryan was wrapped up like a mummy to ensure he didn’t catch cold, only his eyes and the tip of his nose visible between the knit cap and the thick scarf.
Jennie, ever the boss, had given herself final veto power over the tree selection. “Too scraggly. Too full. No, Andre, see the bird’s nest? We can’t take that one.”
John was starting to regret the whole thing when he spotted it, the perfect tree. “Hey, guys. How about this one?”
Andre and Ryan were in ready agreement but Jennie had to circle the tree, examining it from every angle before she’d make her determination. “Yeah. Okay,” she said finally.
John sighed in relief, and made ready to start sawing, but Andre forestalled him with a hand on his arm. “What’s up, buddy?”
“My gramma always said you should only take the top of the tree. That way it could still grow.”
John eyed the tree dubiously. It wasn’t very big, maybe five feet. Topping it wouldn’t give them much to work with. John knew he shouldn’t be encouraging her but he found himself looking to Jennie for the final word.
“That’s a good idea, Andre. A smaller tree’ll be easier to decorate anyway.”
Which was how they ended up hauling home a two foot tree. John rigged a stand for it from an old plastic planter and some wood scraps. They set it up on one of the end tables in the living room and right away the kids started working on decorations. Jennie made some popcorn they could string together for a garland while the boys cut ornaments out of paper that they colored in with the box of crayons John had picked up at the store the day before.
John watched the kids work, a funny feeling in his stomach as their homespun tree started to come together. He hadn’t been lying when he said it had been a long time since he celebrated Christmas. His mother had died when he was eleven years old, and his father hadn’t had any Christmas spirit in him after that.
Ryan handed John a paper ornament that had been cut out in a rough circle, and colored bright green. Scrawled across the front of it was his name, John, in sprawling letters.
“You made this for me?” he asked.
Ryan nodded, a worried expression on his face like John might crumple the whole thing into a ball and toss it out.
“This looks great. Thank you!” He held his hand out for a high five and Ryan obliged him. John let himself be tugged out of his seat and over to the tree, so he could hang the ornament on it with a bit of string.
His childhood Christmas trees had been much grander in scale; Patrick Sheppard insisted on providing only the best for his family. Expensive glass ornaments, sparkly lights, loops of shiny white garland…none of it quite compared to this little tree-top festooned with popcorn and inelegantly colored paper ornaments. John felt like his mother would’ve really liked it.
“There’s nothing to put on top,” Jennie said, eyeing the tree with a critical eye. “There should be an angel, or a star.”
“We’ve got time to come up with something,” John assured her. “It looks really good, you guys did a great job.”
“Can you make us some hot chocolate, Mr. John?” Andre asked.
John was sure the kid would’ve had no trouble taking care of that himself, could probably even make some from scratch, but John kind of liked that he’d asked. This was a pretty self-sufficient group and he often felt superfluous.
“Sure thing, buddy. Everybody want some?”
Ryan nodded eagerly, and even Jennie agreed to have a cup. John considered that good progress. He busied himself with the teapot and the mugs, and wondered what he was going to do about the kids once the holidays were over.
“Do I even want to know?” John asked, dumping the wood into the bin beside the fireplace. He glanced out the front window and saw Rodney’s horse tied up to the porch rail. Oh.
“Guys, come on. I told you Rodney was coming for dinner.” He shoved the couch back into place and waved his hand at the rest. “Put that stuff away.”
“You said Rodney was coming. Not the Mad Scientist!” Jennie protested with a scowl, arms crossed.
“He’s not a mad scientist. He’s just a guy. A cold guy who probably wants to come inside.”
As if in answer, Rodney knocked loudly on the door. “I know you’re in there, John, I can hear you talking! If this is some sort of prank I’m keeping the dessert I brought!”
“Jennie,” John said warningly.
Jennie sighed dramatically and helped Andre move the rest of the furniture away from the door. “Just so you know, he makes a wrong move and I’m beaning him with the frying pan.”
“Noted. Please tell Ryan to get out of the cupboard.” John unlocked the door and pulled it open, catching Rodney with his hand raised to knock again. “Hey. Sorry about that.”
“Is there a problem?” Rodney asked. He looked like a pumpkin in the puffy orange coat he was wearing, which was accessorized with a fur-lined hat that covered his ears and matching mittens. He held a Tupperware container in one hand. “I mean, I understand if you changed your mind –”
“I didn’t change my mind.” John took the Tupperware and ushered Rodney into the cabin. “The kids weren’t expecting the Mad Scientist to come knocking, is all.”
“Oh.” The corner of Rodney’s mouth twitched up. “I guess I should be lucky they weren’t armed, then. I’ve seen the traps out in the woods.”
“They’re mine,” Andre said. He was hovering uncertainty between the kitchen and the living room.
“You have excellent knot-tying skills.”
“Yeah?” Andre smiled shyly. “What’d you bring?”
“Brownies. And I have to warn you. I’m a pretty miserable cook, but brownies are the one thing I make better than anyone else. If you eat one, you may never be able to look another brownie in the eye.”
John handed off the container to Andre, who was openly grinning by that point. The kid was an easy sell, but Jennie still looked skeptical. And Ryan was a no-show.
Rodney stripped out of the coat, the blue sweater he wore underneath just as bulky. He looked around the cabin with interest.
“You’re really roughing it. Do you even have running water in this place?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. The bathroom’s out back, though.” John jerked his thumb at the back door, and then chuckled at Rodney’s horrified expression. “Just kidding. I have fully functional indoor plumbing. Even got real glass in the windows.”
“Oh, ha ha. Hilarious. I have to say, this place isn’t what I expected from a big time musician like you. No TV? How do you live without TV?” Rodney tossed his coat on the nearest couch, the hat and mittens following.
“I’m only here for a week.”
“Still, you could’ve sprung for a nicer place. Do you even have wifi?”
John shook his head. “Why would I need wifi?”
“Oh, right. Flying under the radar. Presumably that means you cut off all contact with the outside world, which is ridiculous, but to each their own I guess. Who furnished this place? Hoboes?”
Rodney was an amusing guy. He never stopped moving, wandering around the room as he babbled on. John presumed Rodney’s cabin was fully wired, though if he had wifi way up here he must be paying a fortune for it.
“No offense taken. You want something to drink?”
“I’ll take a scotch and soda.”
“Um.” John looked pointedly at the kids. “I don’t have any alcohol. How about sweet tea?”
“Is there lemon in it? Because I’m deathly allergic to citrus.”
“I’d have to –”
“Unless you made it yourself I really can’t take the chance. The store-bought stuff almost always has lemon, and way too much sugar. Have you ever made sun tea? That’s much better for you.”
John exchanged a look with Jennie, who was starting to look more amused and less wary. Intentional or not, Rodney was doing a good job slaying his evil Mad Scientist image.
“Coffee would be acceptable, thank you.” Rodney plunked himself down in a kitchen chair. “Whatever you’re cooking smells delicious.”
“That’s all Andre,” John said over his shoulder as he pulled out an aging Mr. Coffee. “He’s the main cook around here.”
“A budding chef, eh?” Rodney drew Andre into a culinary conversation that started with stew bases and moved on to other things, including locally grown herbs, fresh fish and truffles. By the time the coffee was ready he and Andre looked like old friends, hunched over a raggedy-looking recipe book and discussing ingredients.
It felt very homey, and John couldn’t help smiling when he handed Rodney his coffee. He knocked on the cupboard door and waited for Ryan to poke his head out.
“Come on, buddy. Time to set the table.”
Ryan shook his head, eyes wide. Jennie crouched down, keeping her voice low when she spoke to him.
“His weakness is lemons. We have a whole bottle of lemon juice in the fridge. It’s okay.”
“Please tell me you’re not planning a homicide,” John muttered.
Jennie rolled her eyes at him. Murderous intentions or not, her words had the desired effect. Ryan scrambled out of the cupboard and got to work setting the table, keeping a wary eye on Rodney all the while. For his part, Rodney pretended to not even see the boy, and kept up his conversation with Andre until everything was ready and dinner was served.
It turned out Rodney wasn’t just making idle chit-chat. He really loved food, if the pornographic noises he made while he ate were any indication. He moaned over the stew, practically whimpered at the homemade bread, and managed to fill John’s head with a whole slew of inappropriate thoughts.
Andre was proud as a peacock, though, and even Jennie had relaxed. It took Ryan until dessert – and the brownies were as sinfully delicious as advertised – to warm up to Rodney, but the chocolate seemed to do the trick. As first dinners went, John felt safe calling it a success.
John helped Jennie with the dishes, while Ryan and Andre challenged Rodney to a game of War using a deck of cards that was slightly warped from water damage. It had been a long time since John had felt this pleasantly domestic. He employed a housekeeper and a part-time cook, and had a couple of close friends he occasionally hung out with, but most of the time when he was at home he felt pretty lonely. This was a nice change of pace.
They finished up in the kitchen just in time to catch a dispute over the card game.
“You, sir, are a cheater.” Rodney slapped his cards down on the coffee table and glared at Ryan. “Are you hiding aces up your sleeve, you little menace?”
To John’s surprise Ryan giggled and shook his arms vigorously. No cards fell out of the sleeves of his oversized flannel shirt, but that just made him laugh even harder. It was an infectious sound, because Andre started rolling around on the couch, holding his stomach, and even Jennie cracked a smile.
“Laugh it up. I had no idea I was playing with a couple of hooligans. You’re lucky we weren’t playing for money, or I’d have to challenge you to a duel.”
“Brownies at ten paces?” John interjected.
“I think we know who’d win that,” Jennie said with a smirk.
“Smartass,” Rodney shot back. “You’re all just lucky that I have to head home, or there’d be some real trouble here tonight.”
“Do you have to, Mr. Rodney?” Andre gave him the saddest puppy dog eyes that John had ever seen on a person. Rodney paused in the act of grabbing his coat.
“Oh. Well, yes, actually. My horse needs to get bedded down for the night and I have some work to do.” He looked at John. “But maybe John could bring you kids to my place tomorrow? I have a sled and a pretty good hill to use it on.”
Andre and Ryan turned their pleading gazes on John. How was a person supposed to stand up to that? Besides, that meant he’d get to see Rodney again and he was definitely interested in that.
“I guess we could fit that in our busy schedule.” He grinned at Rodney, who looked pleased.
“Don’t come too early. I work late and sleep in.”
“Yeah. I should be able to put together something moderately edible.” Rodney slipped his coat on. “It won’t be as good as anything Andre can make, but no-one should get food poisoning.”
“Don’t oversell it,” John said. He handed Rodney his hat and mittens. “I’ll walk you out.”
“See you tomorrow, Mr. Rodney!” Andre said brightly.
“Come on. Let’s put away the cards and then it’s time for a bath.” Jennie slipped back into her mother hen role. “Thank you for the brownies, Mr. Rodney.”
“Thanks for leaving the lemon juice in the fridge,” Rodney replied, which made Jennie blush.
John put his own coat on but left it unzipped, and walked out on the porch with Rodney. The temperature had dropped when the sun went down, and every breath puffed out in a white cloud.
“Thanks for dinner,” Rodney said. He fiddled with his hat and his mittens, like he was nervous. “Looks like you’re taking good care of the kids.”
“They pretty much take care of themselves,” John admitted. He leaned back against the door, hands shoved into the coat pockets.
“Well, they shouldn’t have to.” There was a dark tone in Rodney’s voice. John could’ve asked, but they hadn’t known each other long enough for him to feel comfortable peppering Rodney with personal questions. He changed the subject instead.
“How long have you been living up here?”
“Little over two years, I guess. I got a really good deal on the property, but the house had to be completely gutted and redone.”
John could believe that. Rodney seemed like a guy who needed to have things exactly to his specifications. A trait he shared with Jennie, which made John bite back a chuckle.
“No offense, but it’s easier to picture you in a city than way up here in the mountains.”
Rodney shrugged. “No-one bothers me here. The work I’m doing is critically important and I can’t have constant distractions. It’s all the solitude of Siberia without actually having to be in Siberia.”
“Are you sure you want us intruding on you tomorrow?” John asked. Rodney had offered, but maybe he’d just been caught up in the moment or something. He didn’t know what the man was working on, but ‘critically important’ certainly sounded…well, important.
“Oh, no. Uh…I mean, it’s fine.” Rodney pulled on his gloves and stepped off the porch. He untethered his horse, and ran his hand down her neck in an affectionate gesture. “I could use a break, to be honest.”
“As long as you’re sure,” John said, relieved. It wasn’t just the pleasure of talking to an adult, and one that didn’t seem to care a bit about his famous persona. No, it was Rodney being good looking and funny, and John thinking more and more about kissing him.
“Try not to go wandering tonight, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Goodnight, John.” Rodney swung up into the saddle and turned his horse towards home. “See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” John replied. He stayed on the porch until Rodney had disappeared into the woods.
John drifted awake, a familiar voice calling to him. Just his name, but the promise of so much more was carried along with it. He pushed off the blanket and sat up, listening to see if he’d hear it again.
I’m waiting, John.
Every fiber in his being wanted to reach out for the speaker of that voice. John stood up and headed for the door. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton, but he knew if he could just reach the person behind the voice everything would become clear. Everything would make sense.
He reached for the doorknob.
John started, snapping into wakefulness with his heart pounding. He looked down at the floor, the pile of pots and pans just barely visible in the light of the nearly-full moon, and then looked up through the front window. Jake the crazy mountain man was standing out in the yard, unmistakable in his furs.
“Mr. John!” Jennie and Andre came down the stairs, leaving Ryan watching through the railing above.
“What’s going on?” He’d been dreaming again. Or thought he was. John looked back outside, but Jake was gone. If he’d even been there to start with.
“You were sleepwalking again,” Jennie said. “We wanted to make sure you didn’t go outside.”
Andre nodded. “Mr. Rodney told us he saved you from falling off a cliff.”
John rubbed a hand over his face. He wasn’t thrilled that Rodney had shared that little detail with the kids, but he supposed he couldn’t be too angry because it seemed like he’ d been ready to head out in the cold yet again. He didn’t know what was wrong with him. Sleepwalking? He’d never done that before. And how deeply had he been sleeping to miss the kids setting up an alarm? Maybe he should make time to visit with Doc Beckett on his own behalf.
“Thanks, guys,” he said finally. “I appreciate the help.”
“I’ll fix it back up,” Andre said. He dropped to his knees and started to rebuild the barricade.
“You should get back to bed, Mr. John.” Jennie gave him a critical look. “I don’t think you sleep enough.”
“I sleep just fine.”
“Maybe we should sleep down here. You can have the bed.”
“I’m fine,” John insisted.
“Whatever.” Jennie huffed and went back up the stairs. “Let’s go, Andre.”
John sighed and sat down on the couch. He felt too riled up now to get back to sleep. He wished he knew what was going on. Weird dreams, sleepwalking. Had Jake really been standing in the yard or had John imagined that? If he really had been there, why?
“Goodnight, Mr. John,” Andre said softly, his voice carrying down from the loft.
John’s throat got a little tight hearing it. How had everything gotten so complicated?
“Goodnight,” he whispered back.
Finally John had enough and took his own ride down the hill, grabbing Jennie as he went and tugging her into his lap. Thanks to his extra weight they hit the drift at the bottom with a bit more force, knocking them off the sled and sending them sprawling, faces full of snow. Jennie was actually giggling, something John hadn’t thought he’d ever hear, and when he got a good look at her face she was beaming. It was the most she’d ever looked like the little girl she was, instead of the protective mother bear she emulated so well.
“She’s a tough customer,” Rodney remarked as Jennie and Ryan went sliding down the hill together.
“I don’t know how long she’s been in mother-mode. We have this arrangement. No questions till after Christmas.”
“You do know you’re the adult, right?” Rodney managed to look both amused and exasperated. “What’s your plan for after the holidays? I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you have one.”
John shrugged helplessly. “It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. But what can I do?”
All three kids were at the bottom of the hill, engaged in an impromptu snowball fight. Their laughter somehow made the already bright day even brighter, and John found his own lips twitching up in a smile.
“You’ll have to call social services,” Rodney said. “You can’t just leave them out here fending for themselves.”
“Yeah. I know. I hate to think of them in some children’s home, though.” John didn’t mention that he’d been trying to think of some way to use his fame to help them. What good was having all that money if he couldn’t put it to use in a positive way? At the very least he could try to get them in a nice place, somewhere they could all stay together.
“Uh oh.” Rodney’s words pulled John out of his thoughts, and he saw that Ryan was running up the hill. The kid looked absolutely terrified. Jennie and Andre weren’t far behind, hands linked as they ran.
Ryan latched onto John’s legs, panting and shaking. John loosened the kid’s vice-like grip so he could pick him up.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” he asked, but Ryan just tucked his head into the crook of John’s neck.
“Mr. John! Mr. Rodney!” Jennie pointed wildly with her free hand. “Back there! A man was watching us!”
Andre nodded emphatically. “He looked like a bear! He made a scary face, like he was gonna get us!”
John immediately scanned the treeline, looking for sign of the intruder. He had no doubt who it was, and suddenly it seemed much more plausible that the man really had been standing out in the yard last night when John had his ‘sleepwalking’ incident.
“I’d call the Sheriff,” Rodney said, sounding disgusted. “But she’s as good as useless. Especially where Jake is concerned.”
“I’ve had a couple run-ins with him,” John replied. “I’m gonna go down, take a look. Maybe give him a piece of my mind.”
That idea was soundly voted down. Ryan clung even more tightly to John’s neck, and Jennie just gaped at him, wide-eyed.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Rodney said. “Not to offend your manliness or anything, but you’d be outmatched in that fight. The guy is nuts. Thinks he’s a warlock.”
“What’s a warlock?” Andre asked, fear already being replaced with curiosity.
Rodney gave him an assessing look. “Someone too stupid to believe in science.”
John wasn’t so sure. He thought about the way all the glasses broke in the diner with just a wave of Jake’s hand. And the weird compulsion he’d had to walk himself off a cliff.
“Come on, let’s grab some lunch.” Rodney herded the two older children inside. “Who wants hot cocoa?”
John and Ryan stayed outside a moment or two longer, while he tried to see if there was any movement from the direction the kids had indicated. He was angry. It was one thing to try and intimidate a grown man, but John wouldn’t tolerate any threat to the kids.
“Get your skinny butt in here, John!” Rodney called from the house. That got a huff out of Ryan, his breath hot on John’s neck.
“You think that’s funny?” John asked incredulously. “It’s slander! My butt is not skinny.”
Ryan giggled this time, and nodded.
“Well, you just wait, pal.” John reluctantly turned his back and headed for the house. “If Rodney is as bad a cook as he says, we’re all gonna be skinny.”
As it turned out, Rodney was almost as adept at making grilled cheese sandwiches as he was at making brownies. The kids devoured them eagerly, and then retreated to the living room with the massive flat screen TV to watch old Scooby-Doo episodes while John helped Rodney with the dishes.
“So how’d you run afoul of the sheriff’s pet sasquatch?” Rodney asked, handing John another mug to dry.
“She pulled me over on my way into town, and he just showed up. She’s very…aggressive.”
Rodney snorted. “That’s an understatement. She and Jake make quite a pair, and I don’t mean that in a good way. If Curso has her sights set on you, she won’t give up. And neither will he.”
“Just as well I’m leaving in a couple days.” Even as John said it he knew he was lying. He hadn’t planned on any of this – the kids or the physicist or even the crazy mountain man – but he was reluctant to leave it behind nonetheless. Rodney was wrong. There was definitely magic up in these mountains.
“Yes, well. It was nice having you for a neighbor.” Rodney rinsed out the sink, his crooked mouth twisted unhappily.
John felt like he should apologize, but he couldn’t hide out in the mountains indefinitely. He had a life to get back to, even if it would seem emptier than it had been after so much time spent with the kids. And Rodney.
“Don’t you get lonely up here all by yourself?” he asked before he could stop himself. After all, Rodney had all the physical comforts but his house was just as empty as John’s. Emptier, even, since John at least employed a staff.
“The solitude helps me with my work,” Rodney replied defensively. He turned his back to John, shoulders hunched. “My calculations could change the way we approach space travel, and I can’t have constant interruptions when even one wrong number could ruin everything.”
“I don’t buy it,” John said. He leaned back, hands braced on the counter.
“I’m a genius, I’ll have you know!” Rodney whirled around, jabbing a finger in John’s direction.
“That I believe. But shouldn’t you be working in a lab or something? With other science nerds?”
“I work better on my own.”
There was a story there, and not a nice one if John had to guess. But he didn’t want to push things, not when he only had a little time left. He liked Rodney. The guy was funny, and snarky, and no hardship on the eyes either. Maybe if John had been staying longer…
“Have Christmas dinner with us,” he said.
“Dinner. On Christmas. You know the food will be good.”
Andre had been working on a menu, after making a thorough inventory of the food they had on hand. No-one wanted to chance a trip into town.
“I don’t know,” Rodney said.
“Do you already have other plans?”
“No, but –”
“Then it’s settled. Dinner’s at four.”
Rodney grumbled some more but John suspected it was all for show. And maybe it was selfish, wanting to spend a little more time with the man before he had to leave. But…it was Christmas. And that was reason enough.
And then it all went to hell in spectacular fashion.
The kids came downstairs and approached John as a group, all three of them looking anxious. John set the guitar aside.
“What’s up, guys?”
Ryan and Andre looked at Jennie, who in turn looked directly at John with her head held high.
“We should invite Mr. Rodney to spend Christmas with us.”
That was it? John grinned, relieved. “I already did. He’ll be here.”
Andre let out a breath, but the kids still looked tense. John frowned.
“What’s going on?”
“We want you to stay,” Jennie said, her words all in a rush. “Here. With us.”
They all looked so earnest, and so hopeful, that John felt like a monster to have to tell them no. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
“That’s really nice to hear, but I can’t. I have my work to get back to.”
“You can work from here.” Jennie lifted her chin, stubborn little thing that she was, and crossed her arms over her chest. “You can write songs anywhere.”
“True. But I have performances, and studio obligations. I have friends, and a house, and a lot of other grownup stuff that I can’t do from here.” Even to his own ears that sounded lame. “And you can’t stay here, either. You need to be with someone who can take care of you.”
Andre nodded. “You take real good care of us, Mr. John.”
John felt like the worst person who ever lived. He never should’ve made that arrangement with the kids the first day. He never should’ve gotten so attached to them.
“Trust me, Andre. I’m not good parent material. I’m on the road a lot. You guys need a proper family.”
Ryan stuck his bottom lip out, his whole chin quivering as his eyes filled with tears.
“So you don’t want us,” Jennie said, and the accusation rang loudly in John’s ears.
“I didn’t say that.”
“I should’ve known you wouldn’t stay. No-one stays.” She started to cry and that was ten thousand times worse.
John got to his feet, meaning to hug Jennie, but she grabbed her coat and ran out the back door, shouting how much she hated John as she went. He was left with the devastated faces of Andre and Ryan, and he was pretty sure he could feel his heart breaking. Clearly he’d given the kids the wrong idea, and that was on him. He’d ruined what meager Christmas they were going to have.
“I thought you liked us,” Andre whispered.
“I do! Jesus, I do. But –”
John was interrupted by loud, persistent knocking on the front door. “Davis Ridge Police, open up!”
The sheriff had exquisite timing.
“Get behind me,” John hissed at the boys before he opened the door. The polite greeting he had prepared died in his throat when he saw three police cars and several deputies in his yard. Not a good sign.
“Mr. King,” Larrin said icily. “I received an anonymous tip that you’ve been harboring juvenile runaways. I have a warrant to search the premises.”
A piece of paper was slapped against his chest and the Sheriff pushed past him, two deputies on her heels while the others spread out in the yard. Andre had stayed close behind John, but Ryan broke for his safety cupboard and was intercepted by a deputy, who picked him up and then cursed when the kid started fighting him, arms and legs flailing.
“Hey, put him down!”
John made a move towards the deputy, and before he knew what was happening he’d been spun around and pressed up against the wall, handcuffs snapping shut over his wrists.
“I think we’ll add resisting arrest to the aiding and abetting charge.”
John struggled but Larrin just pressed against him more forcefully. “I have a Taser. Don’t make me use it.”
He was pushed outside, deputies bringing Andre and Ryan out as well. Ryan was still fighting, his face red and set in angry lines very reminiscent of his sister, but Andre was slump-shouldered and silent.
“Don’t worry, guys, I’ll get this all straightened out,” John promised. He turned and gave a narrow-eyed look to the sheriff. “Excessive show of force for just a couple little kids, don’t you think? The press will have a field day with this.”
“I think you’ll find things work a bit differently here in Davis Ridge, Mr. King,” Larrin said with a smirk. “Hell, we don’t even have a local paper. You won’t find much use for your fame and fortune around here.”
One of the deputies ran over, stumbling a bit in his haste. “No sign of the other one, ma’am.”
“She’ll be back. You stay here, keep an eye on the place.”
The boys were placed in one car, and John in the other. The last thing he saw was Andre’s ashen, tear-streaked face.
The door between the holding cell and the offices opened up and Larrin came in, thumbs hooked in her belt loops. John surged to his feet, hands balled into fists.
“Mr. King. It’s not often we get a big-time country star around these parts.” She leaned against the bars and gave him a long, slow smile. “Aren’t we fortunate? And at Christmas time, too.”
“If you’re not going to book me, you have to let me go,” he replied.
“I have twenty-four hours to decide. That’s the law. That’ll give us some time to get to know each other, don’t you think?”
John felt sick to his stomach. Was this woman for real? Some of the disgust he was feeling must’ve shown on his face, because Larrin scowled at him.
“You might want to play ball, John. No need to make things so difficult.”
A deputy peered around the open door. “Sheriff? Sergeant Daniels from the state barracks called. They need you to come down there. He said it was urgent.”
“I’ll be back,” Larrin said, winking.
John sat down on the cot that had been provided with the cell, and rubbed his hands over his face. What a colossal fuck-up this all was. He wished he had his cell phone, so he could call Rodney, or Laura, or his goddamned lawyer. Had they found Jennie too? He hoped not. Maybe she’d gone to Rodney’s. If he knew what was happening he’d surely help.
When the door opened again, John expected the sheriff. Instead, a little old man shuffled in holding a silver thermos.
“Well, if that don’t beat all. JP King, right here in Davis Ridge!” The old guy was mostly bald, and peered at John through thick coke-bottle glasses. “I’m a big fan of yours, son.”
As if John didn’t already have his doubts about the Davis Ridge PD, now they were letting fans in? The whole thing was starting to feel incredibly surreal.
“Thank you,” he said anyway. First rule of fame: don’t piss off the fans.
“I thought about you, sitting here all alone on Christmas Eve, and thought to myself, that boy needs some holiday cheer.” The old man tried to push the thermos through the bars but it was too wide. “Oh, criminy. I guess I didn’t think this through.”
John took pity on the guy. “What if you pass the cup through? You should be able to pour from your side.”
That brightened the old man up. “You think so? Let’s give it a go.”
John met him at the bars and accepted the plastic cup, passed sideways through the gap. The pouring proved a bit awkward, partially due to the fact that the man’s grip was shaky to start with, but soon the spicy aroma of hot cider filled the holding cell. And John had to admit he could do with something in his stomach.
“This smells great. Thank you.” John took a tentative sip, but it was just the perfect temperature. He drained the cup and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. “Really good.”
“Well, any friend of the sheriff is a friend of mine,” the old guy said.
That seemed wrong to John – friends didn’t lock friends up in jail cells – but suddenly he found it a bit difficult to focus. The cider, which had initially tasted good going down, left a bitter aftertaste in the back of his mouth.
“What’s in that?” he asked, his words slurring just a little. Belatedly, alarm bells sounded in his head. “What did you do?”
John blinked blearily at the man on the other side of the bars. He looked different. Bigger. Furrier. Like a bear. The plastic cup dropped from John’s nerveless fingers and bounced a couple times on the concrete floor. The room was starting to spin and he stumbled back to the cot to sit down before he fell down.
“Told you you’d be sorry.” The old man was gone, and it was Jake sneering at him.
“How?” John’s tongue felt thick in his mouth.
“Natural herbs, mixed by someone with know-how.”
Thinks he’s a warlock.
John was more than convinced, but it wasn’t like he could tell Rodney how wrong he had been. He couldn’t do anything but fall back on the cot and watch the room fade away around him until there was nothing.
He wondered if he’d dream of his mother. He did, sometimes, and those were the best dreams because John got to talk to her, tell her about his career in music and how he thought of her every single day. Sometimes he dreamed of being on stage, performing, adrenalin rushing through his veins. Once, just once, he dreamed of a futuristic city in the middle of the ocean, shining and magnificent; he woke up crying from that one.
John drifted, waiting for whatever dreams would come.
And then Rodney was there, his hand warm on John’s neck and his voice loud next to John’s ear.
“He’s barely breathing!”
John didn’t know Rodney very well, not as much as he’d like to, but the man sounded pretty stressed. He tried to tell Rodney he was fine, but the first tendrils of panic broke through his sleepy haze when he realized he couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t even open his eyes.
Someone who sounded an awful lot like Laura, but couldn’t possibly be, said: “…ambulance out here in East Bumfuck.”
There was more conversation, but John was so busy freaking out that he missed most of it. He heard hack and Lisa and something about a land line phone. All the while Rodney’s hand provided the only anchor John had to the reality that existed outside of his paralyzed body, a spot of warmth curled around his neck; he hadn’t even realized he was cold.
Jennie. John doubled his efforts to move, to make a sound, anything. He didn’t want to scare her, even if he was really scared himself. He tried to remember what happened, how he’d ended up in his current state, but all he had was the bitter taste of apples in his mouth.
Rodney’s comforting hand moved away, and then his voice was gone too. Same with the woman – Lisa? – who sounded like Laura. John wanted to yell at them not to leave, that maybe he seemed almost dead but he really wasn’t, but the effort made his head ache.
“I’m sorry,” Jennie said.
They hadn’t left him alone, and John was overcome by a surge of gratitude. He could feel Jennie’s small hand covering his own, her breath on his ear as she whispered to him.
“I don’t hate you. I’m sorry I said it. You never promised anything.”
Oh, but how he’d wanted to! Four days knowing those kids and he was a goner. He tried to tell her so, but his damn mouth still wouldn’t move.
“…see my momma when you get to heaven, can you tell her we’re okay? In case she doesn’t know.”
John felt a press of lips on his cheek, and his heart ached at Jennie’s words. No matter how good she was at taking care of herself and the boys, she was still just a little girl who’d lost her mother. He’d be damned if she lost him too, and this time when he tried to move his body responded. He felt his fingers twitch, and then he grabbed hold of Jennie’s hand and squeezed it.
“Mr. John?” she whispered.
John opened his eyes, blinking up at the fluorescent lights for a moment before he turned his head and looked at Jennie.
Jennie threw herself on him, laughing and crying at the same time, and John hugged her tight. He didn’t know what had happened, but now he remembered Jake tricking him into drinking drugged cider. It was probably just good timing, the effects wearing off right when John needed them to. Or maybe it was magic after all.
“I made some calls,” Laura said. “We’ll have this straightened out in no time.”
“So this wasn’t a jail break?”
“I’d have blown a hole in the wall if I had to,” Rodney replied with a dark expression.
John was ridiculously pleased by Rodney’s anger on his behalf. “Well, I’m not waiting around to sort things out. We have to find Andre and Ryan.”
“But we don’t know where they are,” Jennie said. She was clinging to John’s hand.
None of them had been watching the door, or heard the deputy who was now leaning heavily against the wall, one hand to his head. John pushed Jennie behind him and Rodney moved to block them both.
“And you’re just going to tell us, I suppose.” Rodney’s voice was thick with sarcasm.
“We don’t all think Sheriff Curso is right.” The deputy was young, easily in his early twenties. “She lets her ex run around, no matter how many complaints we get about property damage and him scarin’ folks. Those kids weren’t bothering anyone, she could’ve waited till after the holidays to round ‘em up.”
Laura stepped forward, hands on her hips. She’d dressed appropriately for the season, in a long black wool coat and a bright blue scarf, but she still looked out of place there, far too polished for a dingy police station holding cell.
“You help us, and we can help you,” she said. “I know some lawyers who’d have a field day with the way the sheriff runs things around here.”
“Kids deserve a better Christmas either way,” the deputy replied with a lopsided shrug. “She sent ‘em to Evansville, to a foster home until they can be sorted out.”
He gave Laura the address, which she plugged into her cell phone. John gave Jennie’s hand a squeeze and bent down to whisper in her ear.
“We’ll get them out of there. I promise.”
“I have the car out front,” Rodney said. “Let’s get this –”
He was interrupted by the arrival of Jake, who knocked the deputy to the floor when he burst into the room in a swirl of fur and anger. Whatever state the other deputies were in, they obviously hadn’t been able to stop him. He pointed a finger at John.
“You! You should be dead!”
“So hard to find a good herbologist these days,” John replied. He assumed a defensive position, ready to fight his way out if necessary, but Laura beat him to the punch. Literally.
She swung and made solid contact with Jake’s jaw. The big man snarled and grabbed hold of her, yanking her close. Rodney and John both moved to intervene, but Laura brought her knee up in a move that had both of them wincing and Jake howling. There was a loud buzzing, a snap of ozone, and Jake was on the floor, twitching but out cold. Laura held the Taser up with a triumphant grin.
“Four brothers, asshole. You don’t scare me.”
“Holy shit!” Rodney exclaimed. “I can’t believe you just did that!”
Rodney and the deputy worked together to drag Jake into the cell and lock him inside. “This man tried to murder my friend. I want him charged.”
“I won’t let him out,” the deputy promised. “I’ve already called Doc Beckett down to take a look at everyone. He can make a determination on Jake’s mental state. I guarantee he’ll go away for a long time, prison or the looney bin.”
“Thank you,” John said. “I’ll be in touch to give my statement.”
“Merry Christmas!” Jennie called out as they ran for the car.
“Are you famous, Mr. John?” Jennie asked.
“He sure is,” Laura said. “One of the top-selling country artists alive today. His last album went triple platinum.”
“He sings real good.”
“How do you get away with not wearing a cowboy hat?” Rodney asked. “Isn’t that standard for country singers?”
“Funny,” John replied. “Why aren’t you wearing a pocket protector?”
“I’m a geek, not a nerd!” Rodney sounded honestly offended, which just made John laugh.
It was nice to have something to laugh about, which he wouldn’t have thought possible that morning. But between the four of them he was certain they could find a way to get Ryan and Andre out of the foster home with a minimal amount of fuss. Surely they’d be able to appeal to the foster parents’ sense of fairness and holiday spirit. If not, John didn’t think he was above kidnapping. Or camping out on the foster family’s doorstep. Even if they had to stay in Evansville, he wanted them all to be together for Christmas.
“This is it,” Rodney said. He pulled up in front of a non-descript two-story house that didn’t have a single Christmas decoration out front or in the windows, unlike the houses on either side. “Well, they really get into the holidays, don’t they? They couldn’t find a less cheery house to stash the kids in?”
“We’ll think of something.” John wished he felt as certain as he sounded.
Laura was already getting out of the car. “Leave this to me. Let’s go, John.”
“Better keep the engine running, in case this turns south,” John advised Rodney.
Laura’s sharp rap on the front door was answered by a stern-faced older woman in a striped blue housecoat. Her graying hair was permed into tight curls that looked more like a cap than actual hair.
“Help you?” she asked.
John tried to see beyond her into the house, but she kept the door mostly closed.
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.” Laura held out her hand, and when the woman just continued to stare she slowly dropped it. “I’m Laura Cadman. And I’m sure you know my client, JP King.”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
John swallowed his sigh. The one time he wanted to trade on his fame and it was a no-go.
“You don’t? He’s a very famous musician, and he’s in town over the holidays to visit orphan children and bring them some Christmas joy.” Laura smiled her brightest, fakest smile. “We heard you’d just taken in two young boys and we’d love to surprise them. Isn’t that right, JP?”
“What? Oh, yeah. It’s the least I can do for those less fortunate.” John wasn’t as good as Laura at spinning a tale of bullshit, but he did his best to look earnest and non-threatening.
“Sissy!” the woman bellowed over her shoulder. “We got visitors.”
“Who is it, May?” an equally loud voice shouted back from somewhere in the house.
“Some singer. Wants to see the kids.”
“I don’t know! Get over here and take a look, ‘stead of making me yell myself hoarse!”
John exchanged a look with Laura, sharing her incredulity. He met a lot of people in his line of work, from all walks of life, but this was a new one on him. Especially when the sister joined May at the door wearing a pink housecoat and an identical face. Wonderful. Cranky twin matrons.
“Which one’s the singer?”
“The disreputable looking one.”
John looked down at himself. Black cargo pants and a tan Carhartt jacket was disreputable?
“We only listen to good, Christian music, young man,” the sister said. “None of that libidinous stuff you croon about in dance halls.”
“Libidinous?” John said under his breath.
“I can assure you ladies that JP King sings only the most reverent songs this time of year,” Laura said. “He has a whole album just of gospel music.”
Which was a lie, but it wasn’t like the grumpy sisters would know.
“It’s good publicity for the town, ma’am,” John added. “A real feel-good story for Christmas.”
“I don’t know.” May was starting to waver. “We don’t celebrate the pagan aspects of the holiday, you know. People forget the baby Jesus was born, and he’s the real reason for celebration.”
The sisters crossed themselves in tandem.
“JP sings a lovely version of "Away in a Manger.” Laura started moving forward, a little at a time, until the sisters started moving back. “We’d only take a minute of your time. And it’ll be nice for the boys.”
“One song,” the sister said. “And don’t think we’re gonna feed you or anything. We don’t give handouts.”
John wondered why the sisters even bothered fostering kids. It wasn’t like they gave off a warm, fuzzy, welcoming vibe. The interior of the house wasn’t any better. The furniture was covered in plastic, there was a decided lack of the kind of knick-knacks John assumed older ladies would collect, and the only holiday decoration that he could see was a garishly painted ceramic manger scene on the middle of an otherwise-empty coffee table.
“Real homey,” John said.
“I’ll get the children.” May pulled a chain from around her neck, which had a key dangling off of it, and headed for the stairs.
“You locked them in?” John tried very hard to contain his anger.
“These boys are notorious runaways. They’re not going anywhere on my watch.”
Laura and John were left with the sister, who sat down on the plastic-covered couch with a little squelch. John didn’t plan on sitting at all. He wandered around the living room, looking at the few pictures that were hung on the wall. The newest of them looked to be from the nineteen-forties. The focal point of the room was the large painting that hung over the old console television set depicting a very disappointed looking Jesus hanging from the cross.
“Mr. John!” Andre shouted as he ran down the stairs. “You came!”
Ryan was right behind him and John crouched down to meet them, pulling them both into a hug. The tension seeped out of him now that he knew they were okay.
“What is this?” May was watching them, eyes narrowed. “How’d they know you? Sissy, you best call the police.”
“No need to do that,” Laura said. “There’s just been a little mix-up, that’s all. These boys were mistakenly put in your care.”
“Weren’t no mistake,” the sister said. She leaned over the arm of the couch, which caused more unfortunate squelching, and grabbed for the phone. John was unsurprised to see it was an old-fashioned corded variety.
“That’s our cue,” John said. He scooped Ryan up and grabbed Andre’s hand. “You boys ready to go?”
“Yes!” Andre said enthusiastically.
“Good, because your sister is in the car and –” John pulled the front door open and found himself face-to-face with Sheriff Curso. “Crap.”
“Kidnapping, Mr. King? I thought better of you.”
“Aren’t you out of your jurisdiction?” John snapped.
“Yes! Finally!” Laura crowed. She pushed past John and waved her cell phone in the sheriff’s face. “I believe we have a date with a judge.”
“What judge?” John asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this covered. Shall we?” Laura marched right out the front door and down the steps. Rodney and Jennie were huddled together next to the car, handcuffed together and looking miserable.
“You’re not an easy guy to be friends with,” Rodney said morosely.
“Your honor, this is a matter of utmost –”
“Save the speeches, please. I’ve been brought up to speed. And you can tell Patrick Sheppard’s lawyers that we’re even now.”
John shot Laura a look, wondering how in hell she’d gotten his father involved in all this. They were meeting with the judge in his chambers, along with Rodney and Larrin, while a bailiff stood at the ready and a deputy sat just outside the closed door with the kids. John had no idea what kind of favors his father had to call in to make this happen, particularly on Christmas Eve.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. King,” Judge Ritter said. “Though the circumstances could be better. Could I trouble you for an autograph for my wife before you leave?”
“Judge Ritter, I –”
Larrin was cut off with a stern look. “Sheriff Curso. This meeting has been a long time coming. I’ve heard rumors about how you run things up in Davis Ridge, and let me assure you, those days are over. You’re suspended pending an investigation.”
“You can’t –”
“I can, and I did.” Judge Ritter motioned for her to sit down, and waited until she’d done so before going on. “Now, about the children.”
“Your honor, if I may?” John asked.
“Only if you make it quick.”
“Sir, those are good kids. They only ran away so they could stay together.” John had gotten a fuller picture from Jennie on the ride to Evansville. “All they have is each other.”
“They have you,” Rodney interjected. “You’re really good with them.”
“And you are?” Judge Ritter asked.
Rodney raised his chin. “Dr. Rodney McKay. I’ve seen Mr. King interact with the children and he’s been very responsible. He makes sure they have food, and took the little one to the doctor when he was sick. I’m certainly no expert in family relationships, but he needs to keep those kids.”
John looked at Rodney in surprise. “What?”
“What do you mean, what? Isn’t that why we’re here? It’s not like you can’t afford to have three little kids living with you. And I may not have known you for long, John, but you don’t seem like the kind of guy that can just walk away.”
John had known it would be hard to say goodbye, but thought it would be when the kids were going to a good home. He never thought it could be his home. And why not? He had the space, certainly, and he could cut back on the live performances, spend more time at home with them.
“All that music must be rotting your brain,” Rodney said with a shake of his head. “You seriously hadn’t thought about this? I find that very disappointing.”
“How do you figure into this, Dr. McKay?” Judge Ritter wanted to know.
“Oh, well, uh…I’m John’s neighbor.”
“He’s a family friend,” John corrected with a grin.
“Mr. King, are you here to petition me for guardianship of the minor children?”
Now that the idea had been voiced John didn’t need to think about his answer. “Yes, Your honor.”
“As I hope you’re aware, your celebrity does not preclude you from going through the proper channels and filing all the necessary paperwork.”
Damn. John should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. His shoulder slumped in disappointment. He couldn’t send the kids back to that horrible foster home. He just couldn’t.
“However, since it’s Christmas and everyone who would need to process that paperwork is off, I think I can release the children into your care temporarily.” Judge Ritter held up his hand when John opened his mouth to thank him. “You are to remain in Davis Ridge until such time as the county offices reopen and the paperwork has been filed and finalized. Is that going to be a problem?”
“I will talk to the children first, privately, and if they agree you can all go back to Davis Ridge and enjoy your holiday. And I can go back to bed because my grandchildren will have me up at the crack of dawn.” The judge gestured to his bailiff. “Fred, can you please relieve Sheriff Curso of her gun and badge, and escort her out? Thank you.”
John didn’t get a chance to talk to the kids before they were ushered in the judge’s chambers, and he hoped he’d made the right choice. He didn’t know the first thing about being a dad.
“Are you sure about this?” Laura asked. “I mean, I think it’s great that you want to take care of the kids, but can you handle parenting on top of everything else?”
“I don’t know,” John replied honestly. “I might suck at it. But…they need someone. And I’ve gotten kind of attached to them.”
“Well, if you want my input, which you really should because I’m incredibly intelligent, I think you’re a natural.” Rodney was the only one not sitting, preferring to pace instead. “And they really like you, I’ve seen it. They’d be really lucky to have you for a dad.”
John blushed, pleased at the compliment. He didn’t know why Rodney had such faith in him, but he was glad for it.
When the chamber door opened five minutes later and John found himself in the middle of a group hug, he decided to stop worrying and just enjoy the moment.
Rodney stumbled in behind her, looking bleary-eyed and a bit rough around the edges. John was trying and failing not to be jealous that Laura had stayed with Rodney for the night, having turned her nose up at Davis Ridge’s one and only hotel, the Peekaboo Lodge.
“You need to fire her immediately,” Rodney said as he collapsed on the nearest couch. “I’m pretty sure she’s a raving alcoholic. Who, by the way, owes me a very expensive bottle of Glenlivet.”
John raised an eyebrow at that but Laura just laughed. “He fell prey to a classic blunder,” she said.
“You challenged her to a drinking contest?” John asked Rodney incredulously.
“How was I supposed to know she’d hustle me?” Rodney grumbled. “You could’ve given me a heads-up on that, you know.”
“He’s just being a baby because he can’t hold his liquor.” Laura looked around the room, brow furrowed. “Where’s your tree?”
“Right here.” John gestured at the little tree, which was now laden with a variety of paper ornaments, pine cones, and popcorn garland.
“That’s your tree? But it’s so –”
“Awesomely decorated?” John asked, with a meaningful look at the kids who were hovering nearby with their eyes glued to the bags of presents.
“Oh. Yes. Very…homespun. Well, who wants to help me with these?”
Ryan and Jennie quickly volunteered, but Andre made a beeline for Rodney; they were quickly engaged in an in-depth discussion of the upcoming meal which was currently filling the cabin with delicious smells.
John stepped back and watched everyone, a smile playing across his lips. In just five days the kids had become part of his life, and so had Rodney. It was a big step, becoming a legal guardian, but for him there was no alternative. There was no-one else he trusted enough to look after them.
“Well, this is…” Presents artfully displayed, Laura looked around with her hands on her hips. “I’d say it was rustic, but that hardly does it justice.”
“It’s homey,” John said.
“Homely,” Rodney muttered from the couch. Andre whispered something in his ear and then ran back to the kitchen.
“Are you really staying here until the paperwork is finalized? Because I gotta tell you, I can’t do it.”
“She’s not staying with me again.” Rodney sat sideways on the couch so he could face both John and Laura. “She’s a menace.”
“And you snore so loud the windows in my room were rattling. Life is full of disappointments.”
“I’m sure you’d know all about that.”
“Hey,” John interjected. “Do I need to separate you two?”
“Mr. John!” Andre called from the kitchen. “Fifteen more minutes!”
“That long?” Rodney groaned. “I’m starving.”
Jennie abandoned the stacks of presents, which she’d been rearranging to her liking, and joined Rodney on the couch. “Will you sing us a song, Mr. John?”
“Not the sad one,” Andre added.
John opened his mouth to protest – he felt weird singing in front of Rodney – but then Ryan pushed the guitar into his hands, an expectant look on his little face.
“Just one,” he said. He settled on the other couch, and took his time getting the guitar in tune while everyone sat across from him. Ryan climbed into Rodney’s lap, and Laura started playing with Jennie’s hair, braiding it and unbraiding it while they waited.
John didn’t have to think about which song to sing. His favorite Downhere Christmas tune was already on the tip of his tongue. He did close his eyes, though, so he could focus on the music and not Rodney’s heavy-lidded gaze.
“A land adorned with snow,
Tree silver and gold
A fire crackling along
“Red and green décor
Carolers at the door
And that family feeling is strong
“Would it be less Christmassy, if all of it were gone?”
He gave the song his own twist, as he did all the covers he sang, even as the original version played out in the back of his mind.
“Even if nobody said Merry Christmas,
If even the choirs and belfries made no sound
There would be peace on the Earth, and forgiveness
‘Cause it’s Christmas in our hearts.”
When he got to the verse about being led to ‘our heart’s true home’ he heard his voice catch, just a little. Probably not enough for anyone but him to notice. This song always reminded him of his mom, and all that they’d lost when she died. But she was always in his heart. And somehow now there was space for Jennie and Ryan and Andre there too. And Rodney, if he was being honest. It was a little overwhelming.
There was resounding applause from everyone once John finished the song. Everyone but Rodney, who was giving him such a heated look that John could feel himself flushing from the intensity of it.
“That was really good, Mr. John!” Andre said enthusiastically.
“No-one tugs the heartstrings like JP King,” Laura said.
“Who’s JP King?” Andre asked, honestly confused, and Laura slung an arm around his shoulders just as the timer in the kitchen went off.
“Oh, kids. So much to learn. Come on, let’s get dinner on the table and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Rodney and John shared an awkward silence, until John ran his fingers over the strings. That seemed to snap Rodney out of whatever headspace he was in.
“You’re, uh…you’re really good. I can see why you’re so famous.”
“Listen. I know we haven’t known each other very long, and during that time I may have saved your life a time or two, so I don’t want you to think you owe me anything…”
John waited for Rodney to get to the point, his heart pounding in his chest. The way Rodney had been looking at him…maybe he was feeling the same way that John was.
“But, um, I’d like to help. With the kids.”
That hadn’t been at all what John was expecting, and he was surprised to find himself a little disappointed. “What?”
“Well, with their education. Science, math, engineering…I could help you make sure they receive the educations they deserve. Particularly Andre. It’s not too soon to start him in culinary classes. I have a lot of connections with private tutors and things.” Rodney gestured widely, his expressive hands emphasizing his words. “Not that you can’t provide that, I’m not saying you’d neglect their educations or anything.”
“Wait, don’t say no! I promise not to be intrusive! Well, I’ll try. And I don’t want to second guess your parenting or anything. I’d just hate to see them not living up to their potential, you know? And…I like them.”
Rodney looked so earnest that John wouldn’t have been able to tell him no, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t. Rodney being invested in the kids meant that John would see him more, that when he left Davis Ridge it wouldn’t be goodbye forever.
“Rodney! Shut up for a minute.” John felt bad when Rodney’s face immediately fell. “No, I didn’t mean…I think it’s great. The kids really like you.”
“Yes, they do. I’m sure they’d love to have you around, as much as you want.”
Rodney leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and opened his mouth to say something, but then Andre was calling them to dinner and the moment was lost. John blew out a breath, and gave Rodney a hand up.
“Come on. That turkey won’t eat itself.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Rodney said.
“Mr. John!” Jennie said, grinning. “Look up!”
John tipped his head back and saw that someone had hung mistletoe from the loft balcony. He narrowed his eyes and shot Laura a look. What did she think she was playing at?
“You have to kiss,” Jennie instructed. “It’s the law.”
John’s gaze snapped to Rodney, who was staring back at him, face flushed red.
“Pretty sure it’s not,” John replied, without taking his eyes off Rodney.
“Pretty sure you’re not a lawyer,” Laura said. “Besides, you don’t want to break a Christmas law, or else Santa won’t visit you anymore.”
John rubbed the back of his neck, not sure what he should do. He could always just give Rodney a peck on the cheek. It wasn’t the kind of kiss he’d been thinking about, but what if –
“Oh, for the love of…come here.” Rodney grabbed handfuls of John’s shirt and tugged him forward until they were pressed together, lips to lips and chest to chest.
Everything else just melted away: the room, the avid audience, everything but Rodney’s mouth moving determinedly on John’s own. It was everything he’d imagined and more, and it was like the universe suddenly clicked into place. This is where he was meant to be, with Rodney and the kids and his music, all of it filling out his life and making it whole.
“Hey! This isn’t a peep show!” Laura said loudly.
John and Rodney pulled apart, and Rodney licking his lips was possible the hottest thing that John had ever seen. He wanted more, but as usual the timing was all wrong. Still, he couldn’t help the goofy grin he knew was on his face, and took comfort in the fact that Rodney was sporting one as well.
“Can we eat now?” Andre asked plaintively.
John chuckled. “Yeah. Let’s eat.”
Someone – probably Laura – arranged it so that John and Rodney sat next to each other during dinner. They held hands under the table, which made John feel a little like a teenager in the throes of a first crush. The food was delicious, the kids kept up a running commentary on the inner workings of the North Pole that was in turns silly and dead serious, and by the time the meal was over everyone was looking pleasantly stuffed.
When it was time to open presents Ryan ran up to the loft and came back down cradling something in his hands, which he passed over to John.
“Is this for the tree?” John asked. It was a paper angel, the bottom fashioned into a cone that would fit over the top of the tree. The angel itself seemed to be John, judging by the dark hair and the guitar drawn in crayon that the angel was holding.
John picked Ryan up so he could put the angel on the tree. “Good job, buddy. Thank you.”
Ryan hugged John around the neck and whispered in his ear, “Me’y Chr’m’s.”
John hugged him back just as tightly, his eyes filling with tears. “Merry Christmas, Ryan.”
JP King’s highly anticipated new album, Mountain Magic, drops today. It’s been three years since Lone Wolf landed at the top of the charts, and a lot of industry insiders were certain that King had peaked. Well, they’ve all been eating crow since the release of the single “Everything I Never Wanted (Is Exactly What I Need)”, which has been the most talked-about song for the four weeks it’s been given airtime.
There’s already Grammy talk surrounding this album, which tonally is very different for King. No reason to wonder where his new, more optimistic outlook has come from: the singer-songwriter became the legal guardian to three orphan children, and is in the process of filing for adoption, in what has to be the most heartwarming story of the year.
Things are looking up for JP King, and for everyone fortunate enough to listen to his new album.
He had his own plane, and a hangar at McGhee-Tyson, but he’d been too tired to fly himself home. John ended up sleeping most of the flight. He hadn’t expected a welcoming party, but one was waiting for him just outside the hangar. Andre and Jennie held up a big banner that said Welcome Home John, and Ryan was sitting up on Rodney’s shoulders, hands curled around Rodney’s ears.
Exhaustion forgotten, John walked over to meet them, a big grin on his face.
“Hey, guys! I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“That’s why it’s a surprise, silly!” Jennie tugged on the banner so Andre could get first hugs, and rolled it up while she waited her turn.
They’d Skyped while he was on the road, and there’d been plenty of late-night phone calls with Rodney, but John still felt like he hadn’t seen his family in ages. Everyone got big hugs, and Rodney got a loud, smacking kiss before John pulled Ryan off his shoulders.
“Hey, buddy. What’s the good word?”
Ryan leaned close to John’s ear, his words still mostly in whisper mode. “Missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” John whispered back.
“Let’s blow this popstand and get you home,” Rodney said. He scooped up John’s duffle bag and gave John’s ass a surreptitious squeeze before heading towards the car. “Andre and I whipped up a pretty good welcome home dinner.”
“Gotta be better than fast food and IHOP.”
“Maybe we should pack you some meals next time.”
“Or maybe next time you can all come with me,” John said. “What do you think? Big tour bus? See the country? You guys can keep me from wasting away on McDonald’s that way.”
Jennie looked skeptical. “There’s a lot of us to put on a bus.”
“Well, this isn’t just any bus. You guys would have your own room and everything.” It was something he’d been thinking about while he was away, and missing everyone so much. He had a tour scheduled for next summer and he didn’t want to be away from his family for such an extended period of time. It wasn’t as if the kids would miss school, since Rodney had tutors coming to the house.
"I could make a list of restaurants,” Andre said eagerly. “Ms. Francie has been telling about all kinds of good stuff I never tried before.”
“Well, don’t start making reservations just yet. John and I need to talk about it first.” Rodney held the door open so the kids could climb in the back of the car and get strapped in.
John knew it was a big commitment. Rodney was still living in the rental house he’d leased in Knoxville, despite the fact that John would be more than happy to have him move in. The two weeks he’d spent taking care of the kids was the longest time he’d stayed at John’s house, and John hadn’t even been there to enjoy it.
When the kids were set to go and the door had been shut, John pushed himself into Rodney’s personal space, hands gripping tight to the other man’s hips.
“You afraid of commitment, McKay?”
“I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m not.” He sounded put out, but Rodney’s eyes kept staring at John’s mouth. “What you’re talking about is the road trip of doom, though, John. Five people in a bus? Do you have a death wish?”
“No. I have a don’t-want-to-miss-my-family wish.”
Rodney looked up, his whole posture softening. “Well, I’m certainly open to discussing it. We…uh, we really missed you while you were gone.”
John replied with a kiss, this one soft and lingering and full of the love he had for Rodney. He knew he could make the tour bus idea a reality, though he might have to work on Rodney a bit to get him to agree. Not a hardship by any stretch of the imagination.
“Don’t think you can win your argument that way.”
John just smirked. “Let’s go.”
He let Rodney drive so he could close his eyes and let the kids’ chatter wash over him. It was good to be home.
Winter Wonderland, Johnny Mathis
A Boy Named Sue, Johnny Cash
Missing You This Christmas, JP King
Christmas In Our Hearts, Downhere