Jackson Watts hadn’t been back to his hometown of Winfield, Tennessee since he left for Marine Corp Boot Camp in Parris Island at the age of seventeen. Except for the short stint returning state side after his first deployment. Just as quickly as he landed in Tennessee, he was ready to head out back to South Carolina.
He stood in the town square and looked around, not much had changed – but he had morphed into a different person from the boy everyone knew as Jax, Steve Watts’ boy or Winfield Pirates quarterback. The battlefields of the Middle East had given him a new perspective - the fallout of a fight doesn’t fade with bruises and scars.
He looked around, at the Winfield multi-purpose store where he and Nate had smuggled their first pack of smokes by bribing old Bucky Thomas’ daughter. Nate had promised Paullina Thomas that Jax would kiss her if she sold them the cigarettes. Jackson being too honest for his own good delivered on the promise his friend had no intention of keeping.
Jackson smiled at the memory. They were so im-pressionable and naïve back then.
He then zoned his focus on Blueberry Café – where he took Belle on their first date. Belle had always been more in love with Jackson, than he ever was with her. They dated all through High School, in increments of three to four months.
Jackson inhaled a breath, a hopeless attempt to breathe in the town and all its memories.
He finally made his way across to the Winfield Library – where Belle was working.
When he opened the front door, he found Nate lounging at the front desk. Belle laughed at something he had said.
Nate was dressed in his white dress shirt adorned with four stars signifying his rank as Chief of Police. Jackson smiled.
He wasn’t the only one who had changed since he’d last been in Winfield.
Back in High School, Belle Ramsey, was the Homecoming Queen and most likely to end up as a housewife with 2.0 kids – and Nate Tyler, the Winfield Pirates Running Back and High School heartthrob breaking all the hearts and all the rules… the last place anyone would’ve thought he’d end up was law enforcement.
Nate was the first to look up and see Jackson standing in the doorway. He rushed over to embrace him in a bear hug.
“Jackson Watts, as I live and breathe brother,” his grin grew with every word.
“Nate… so good to see you,” Jackson leaned back to observe his best friend’s impressive manicured beard, “It’s been a minute.”
Belle weaved her way in between the two men, gripping Jackson’s waist between her fleshy arms.
“How is it humanly possible that you have just gotten better looking with time Jackson?”
He smiled down into her almond-shaped brown eyes.
“Oh, stop Belle; you’re as gorgeous as ever girl.”
Belle finally released her grip and moved over to the counter, leaning with her side against the edge. She was completely engrossed with Jackson, staring with her mouth agape.
Thia stood behind a fully stocked shelf row of books, slightly moving two books apart to get a better view of the trio.
She leaned further forward to get a better audio of their conversation, pushing further into the books. She hadn’t realized how much pressure she was applying and accidentally pushed a stack of books from the shelves.
The sound of the books thudding to the wooden floorboards was louder in the empty library, as the sound carried a great deal.
Thia retreated in haste, clutching at her ears with her palms. She backed into a corner and lowered to the floor; pulling her knees up to her chest – rocking herself back and forth.
She blinked slowly, inhaling through her nose; exhaling through her mouth – as her eyes started to tear. She snapped at the elastic bands on her wrist, thrice – then inhaled through nose exhaled through her mouth – repeat.
Jackson’s first reaction was to take cover, lowered to the ground and against the side of the front desk. When he looked up to find Nate and Belle staring at him, he straightened with a frown on his face.
He cleared his throat, running his palms across the front of his jeans. And then went in search of what caused the sound – as he was trained to react. Marines ran toward the danger, not away from it. Nate followed suit.
Jackson spotted Thia in the corner and slowly approached; Nate hanging back.
Thia slowly looked up at Jackson; and then just as quickly looked down at her shoes.
Jackson studied the huddled-up girl in the corner. She uncharacteristically wore black pants, a black turtleneck sweater and black moccasins. He found it odd, as it was late spring in Winfield.
Her long, dark hair was pulled back into a neat French braid.
Jackson inched closer; lowering down onto his haunches. Even his knees cracking as he bent echoed through the room.
He swallowed as he reached out for her hand. She flinched and recoiled further against the wall.
Jackson smiled; he’d seen this before. Most of the young kids in the Middle East were slow to trust.
“Hey… are you okay?” he finally asked.
She slowly looked up and met his gaze. Her forest green eyes narrowed at the corners, stared back into Jackson’s gray-blue eyes.
“I’m Jackson…” he tried again.
Thia hadn’t said anything in return, but she held his gaze. Her full mouth dropped open, as her breathing was still labored. It was unusual for her to make eye contact with people, as she had lost her trust in most a long time ago. And she had seen attractive men before – well dressed and well-groomed men, but they still frightened her. They, especially, frightened her.
Jackson was different somehow; his eyes were kind. The last person she could remember with such kind eyes was her father.
“I didn’t mean to scare you…” he lowered himself down, sitting next to her – careful to keep a safe distance. He pulled his knees up to his chest as well, with each elbow resting on a knee.
“You didn’t…” she whispered.
“I kinda scared myself,” he chuckled, running a hand across his beard.
Thia slowly looked across at him, her knees still up to her chest – with her hands more relaxed at her ankles.
“I… well when I heard the thud… it kinda made me recoil… which in the military it’s sorta the first thing you do when you hear a loud bang… you take cover.”
He looked across at her and found her eyes fixated on him.
He noticed that she had started snapping the 3 yellow elastic bands on her left wrist. He counted, she snapped at each one three times before starting again.
He laid out his left arm, showing the bracelet on his wrist. It was a baby blue satin ribbon entwined with black leather strips – joining the pieces was a gray capsule.
“This was my mom’s,” he started, pointing at the bracelet “Well… it was her ribbon you see...”
He ran his finger across the ribbon.
“The leather straps… well… that’s just to make it look cooler, more manly,” he smiled.
And for a split-second, Jackson thought he saw her smile as well.
He swallowed, as he ran his fingers across the capsule, “And in here… this is my saving grace… what gets me through anything… this is a little piece of my mom.”
Thia was definitely smiling now.
“Now not like, as in… a piece of her…” his laughter echoed through the room. “It’s just a strand of her hair.”
“It smells like her still, I dunno how… after all these years… but it does.” He dropped his arm to his side and leaned his head back against the wall. “It gives me peace… like she always did.”
“The doctor at the clinic said that the bands would help… if I snap them, it would help when I feel anxious,” she said in a soft, almost inaudible voice - but loud enough that he could detect a slight European accent. He couldn’t pin the accent exactly but decoded it could be Russian by the trilling of her Rs and subbing the th for d. But the dropping of her Ls had him guessing Ukrainian.
Jackson looked across at Thia, “And does it?”
She shrugged. But she had stopped snapping the bands.
“You’re not from here are you?” Jackson asked.
She shook her head.
“I kinda feel like I’m not from here anymore either…”
Belle had had enough of the counselling session and interrupted with the tapping of her foot. Jackson ran his hand across his face and chuckled.
“Alright, we get it… time to get up.”
Thia bit her bottom lip, her legs were still shaky. She wasn’t sure how she’d manage to get up.
Jackson was first up and extended his hand to her.
His smile was kind and compassionate, just like his eyes.
Thia cautiously placed her dainty hand in his. She inhaled a deep breath, as he helped her to her feet.
He had held on to her hand, “Well you know I’m Jackson… but I don’t know your name…”
“Nice to meet you Thia.”
Her hand began to tremble. He slowly let go, but still held her gaze.
She then rushed to gather the books that had fallen. Jackson decided to help.
“Really Jax - you looking for an application to work here?” Belle teased, but it came out more bitter than humorous. She never did like it when Jackson received attention from the opposite sex.
Belle stomped over to the front desk.
Nate stood in the background, hands on hips as he chuckled.
As Jackson picked up one of the books, he looked down at his bracelet. He hadn’t told anyone outside of his close friends’ circle about it – until now.
He closed his eyes and could see flashes of his mom sitting at her dresser.
He could sit for hours and watch as she brushed through her long locks of blonde hair. She’d smile back at him in the reflection of the mirror; then slowly pat the cushioned seat for him to join her.
Winfield (Tennessee) – USA, 1994
8-year-old Jackson sat at his mother’s dresser, carefully running his tiny fingers across all her brushes, makeup – picking up her bottle of perfume, putting it to his nose. He inhaled; nostrils ignited.
Kathryn stood in the doorway, watching him with a smile on her lips.
He turned to face her; his face lit up – as he rushed over to wrap his arms around her waist.
“What are you doing in here Jacky?”
Only his mother called him Jack, and he preferred it that way. When he was younger, he didn’t mind the nickname. And when Kathryn passed away, no one else dared call him that.
Sometimes his father would mockingly call him Jacky to get a rise out of him, but it was always in a drunken stupor – so Jackson thought best to just let it be.
There was a loud thud as the front door closed, followed by an even louder crash as Jackson’s father launched his toolbox through the front window.
He had just been laid off from his third job within just six months.
Kathryn and Jackson hurried downstairs to see about the commotion.
Steve had swept right across all the picture frames on the mantel, shattering glass and destroying memories.
He picked up the fire stake and started smashing Kathryn’s prized decorative ceramic art pieces. Her eyes welled up, as Jackson hugged her waist tighter.
She broke free from his grip and tried to intervene. In one swift motion, Steve had her pinned against the wall – fire stake to her throat. Kathryn’s eyes bulged, unable to move.
“Pa… please,” Jackson wailed.
Steve glared down at him, struck him across the face with the back of the hand still clutching the stake.
A defiant Jackson wiped the blood from his mouth.
“I need a drink,” Steve backed off and freed Kathryn from his grip, made his way to the kitchen.
She rushed to Jackson’s side, wrapped her arms around him pressing rapid-fire kisses to his forehead and cheeks.
Steve returned, beer in hand. “Leave him be and start on dinner woman!”
“Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed Steve, but the living room is covered in glass and there’s a big hole in our window… I’ll have to clean all this up first.”
Steve smirked, taking in the destruction he created then down at Jackson, who now had a vile look in his eyes.
“Let the boy do it!” he taunted.
“Steve…” she tried again.
He heaved the beer bottle against the wall, glass shards shattering and ricocheting into Jackson’s arm and leg.
“Honestly Steve…” Kathryn fussed over Jackson again.
An impatient Steve pulled her up by the hair, dragging her across the floor into the kitchen. Jackson’s screams were drowned out by her anguished cries and the sound of Steve’s grunting - as he continued to kick and punch Kathryn, dragging her behind him.
He’d exerted himself so much that he broke out in a sweat and started heaving for breath.
All the noise finally drowned out, as Jackson rocked himself to calm. He got up from the floor, picked out the shards of glass that pierced his flesh. He wiped his tear-stained face with his t-shirt.
When Jackson entered the kitchen, Steven was sitting at the table with the bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon to his mouth. Kathryn had her back turned to him at the stove, but he could see her shoulders shaking and he knew she was still crying.
Steve gave him a knowing look that meant he better hurry up and get to cleaning. So he did.
He got the broom, dustpan, mop and garbage bags – then quietly exited the kitchen again.
He dared not look back at his mom and that angered him. He hated Steve. One day, he’d be bigger and stronger… and Steve would be the one in the corner shaking and crying.
Later that night, when Steve was asleep and snoring away – Kathryn joined Jackson on the steps of the front porch.
“Hey baby,” she gingerly pressed a kiss to his cheek.
Her left eye was swollen and turning a darker shade of purple-blue. Her bottom lip was split and swollen, and her cheek started swelling too.
Jackson could only imagine what the rest of her looked and felt like. He had gotten off easy today; his mom took the brunt of the beating.
“I hate him mama…”
“Don’t say that baby… he’s your father.”
His eyes narrowed, refusing to cry “He’s not my father… he’s not a real man.”
A tear trickled down her cheek, and even though it hurt – she pressed another kiss to his temple pulling him closer.
“One day I’ll be bigger, and he won’t hurt us anymore mama.”
“No Jackson…” she distanced herself an inch to look him in the eyes. She cupped his tiny face in her hands. “You will not be anything like that… because violence begets violence baby.”
“No buts…” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a blue ribbon. She handed it to Jackson. He held it up to his nose, it smelled like her.
“Whenever you feel angry or sad… or just alone…” another tear down her cheek, she swallowed hard, “… you take this and think of me, and this moment… and how much I love you my darling… and that, even with all this evil and hate in the world… I love you more than life itself.”
“I love you too mama.”
He didn’t mean to hug her so hard and whispered sorry as she groaned at the contact.
He could feel her tears drip onto his head and dampen his hair. He held the ribbon up to his nose again and inhaled; closed his eyes and laid his head in her lap – as she brushed through his tear-soaked hair.
With every whimper heard from his mother, Jackson held the ribbon tighter and longer up to his nose. It became his coping mechanism, the one thing he could cling to when times got bad.