Jackson had been eyeing the bright green box for two weeks now, ever since his mom, Stella, put it under the tree.
“It’s from your grandfather, Jackson. He says you can’t open it until Christmas Eve.”
So Jackson had to wait…and wait…and wait. The West Virginia winter days passed slowly, school was out for break so there was no one to play with.
Surrounded by the hills and valleys all covered with a white blanket of snow, Jackson liked to sit by the window and watch the snow fall. Tiny flakes would cling to the sill until they melted, creating little rivers that raced down the glass.
His grandpa always sent him the best gifts. Last year he got a remote control airplane, the year before, a new bike. He couldn’t wait to open this one.
The gift was oddly shaped…a long box, almost four feet tall, but not rectangular in shape, a portion of it was larger than the rest, so Jackson spent his days studying it…trying to guess what could possibly be inside.
On Christmas Eve his parents made him attend mass with them. He had to wear a pullover sweater in red and green, which he hated. He was more comfortable in his Wrangler jeans and tee shirts, but his mom was insistent, and when he complained she narrowed her eyes, giving him this look that meant he wouldn’t win this one.
So he sat between his parents in church, trying to hide, hoping he wouldn’t run into any of his classmates. All he needed was to be teased when school started up again.
Nothing like being 8 years old and called a baby because your mother still dressed you.
“Try to sit still Jackson, pay attention.” Stella placed her hand over her son’s leg, trying to get him to stop squirming. She knew he was anxious to get home and open his gifts; she couldn’t wait to see her son’s smiling, happy face knowing he would tear through the paper in a whirlwind of excitement. But for right now, he needed to calm down, and listen…the preacher was telling the story of Christ and she knew Jackson loved this story.
Eventually her son settled down enough to focus, and soon he was captivated by the preacher’s lively voice that soared over the congregation in a jovial, animated tone.
Still, Jackson’s patience only lasted that one hour. Back at the house he zipped through the rooms at lightning speed, yanking his sweater over his head and tossing it over the wooden rocking chair in the living room. His Dad built a fire in the fireplace so the chilly Southern winter winds couldn’t break through the red brick walls. The large eight foot Douglas fir tree stood proudly near the huge picture windows, all lit up in an array of twinkling, colorful lights, blinking in tune to the carols playing over the radio. Johnny Cash’s The Christmas Guest played loudly enough to drown out his mother’s blender as she prepared the last dish of the large holiday feast she been working on since the crack of dawn. Jackson found his feet tapping to the tune as he glanced over at the Christmas tree once more, his mother loved playing these catchy tunes by her favorite artists, over and over again, and the easy rhythms grew on Jackson over time.
His grandparent’s wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow, but he knew he would be able to open his gifts tonight.
“Can I open one right now, just one Mom, please,” he danced around his mother in earnest, almost making her trip, “I promise I’ll only open one.”
“Not yet Jackson, let me finish the cranberry sauce, go help your father, he’s in the bedroom probably looking for the wrapping paper to wrap my gift that I know he just bought yesterday.” her voice was teasing, loud enough so that she heard her husband shout out from the bedroom.
“I heard that Stella! And I didn’t just buy it yesterday!” I bought it the day before yesterday, Charles thought with a chuckle, but he would never admit it.
He chuckled again when he saw his son’s forlorn face appear at the bedside. Oh the joys of being 8 and having to wait to open your presents. “Come on over here son, hand me that tape, will you?” He waved his son over with his free hand.
Jackson shuffled over with a sigh; he picked up the tape dispenser with one hand and tore off a piece to hand to his father.
“How much longer do we have to wait Dad?” he asked, as his father reached out and plucked the tape from his fingers.
“Not too much longer son, in fact, I think we’ll open the gifts a little early tonight.”
“Really?” Suddenly the light appeared back in Jackson’s eyes, “Can we Dad? Really?”
“Sure thing son,” Charles chuckled again at the bounce he saw in his son’s step, “As a matter of fact, in about twenty minutes, you’ll know why.”
He didn’t even get to finish his sentence, Jackson had raced out of the room, the tape forgotten. The presents were going to be opened early tonight and he was nearly bursting out of his skin.
Exactly thirteen minutes later the knock at the door made Jackson jump up from his seat faster than you can say “white lightening,” and speed towards entryway. He flung open the door with a look in his eyes that resembled a starving man heading for the buffet table.
He wasn’t sure who he was expecting to see there, Santa maybe?
“Grandpa! Grandma!” his voice echoed throughout the room and sent both his parents scuttling from various corners out into the foyer.
“Jackson!” his Grandmother held him in a tight embrace and Jackson breathed in her perfume, his Grandma always smelled so good.
Tilting his head slightly, Grandpa took off his brown Stetson hat, and handed it over to his daughter. Stella hung it on the wooden tree coat rack next to the door. Grandpa looked just as eager as Jackson, and his eyes twinkled as he shook Jackson’s hand.
Still holding Grandpa’s hand, Jackson dragged his family out into the sitting room where they all made themselves comfortable on the large leather sofas, still chatting with one another. Stella brought out white porcelain mugs filled with steaming hot chocolate.
Finally the big moment arrived, and with all his favorite people surrounding him, Jackson tore through gift after gift, his eyes still fixed on the odd shaped box from his Grandfather. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on that one.
His mother made him stop and smile for the camera after every gift, which was slowing him down, making him antsy.
“Okay son, go ahead, that box can’t wait any longer.” His grandfather didn’t have to tell him twice, Jackson was already tearing the paper away, his eyes full of anticipation.
Everyone let out a large gasp, except Jackson, he was puzzled, he turned the case over and over, perhaps Grandpa had given him the wrong gift?
“Oh my goodness!” Stella exclaimed, “That’s really too much Dad!” she clasped both hands tightly together, her eyes nearly watering.
“Nonsense!” Grandpa exclaimed proudly, a large grin on his face, “It was always meant to be passed down, and now it’s time.”
Jackson didn’t know what to say…he held the gift stiffly in his hands…how on earth was he going to tell his Grandpa that he didn’t know how to play the guitar?
Arabella enjoyed her walk to school. Spring was just arriving and she loved breathing in the fresh air and watching the flowers begin to bloom all around her. Her mom made her pancakes this morning and they talked about her upcoming math quiz. Arabella knew she would ace it, she spent all weekend studying for it, so she was not the least bit worried about it as she walked pass the small corner store at the end of the block. She waved hello to Mr. Butler, the nice old man who owned the store. He paused in the middle of sweeping his steps to wave back at her before continuing on with his work. Arabella told herself to remember to bring him some ice cold lemonade later on after school. Mr. Butler was always so sweet and friendly to her, and ever since Mrs. Butler died last year, Arabella tried to come around more often, so Mr. Butler wouldn’t be so lonely.
Rounding the block and reaching the school grounds Arabella found herself in step with Jolene Parker, her best friend. They had been best friends since they were five and shared everything with one another. Maybe Jolene would go with her after school to visit Mr. Butler too; she liked him just as much as Arabella did.
“He’s staring at you Ara.” Jolene’s voice was a low whisper as she stood by her best friend near the lockers. Their next class was going to start in two minutes but Jolene just had to let Arabella know. Arabella's eyes lit up at her friend’s words, and she giggled softly, starting to turn her head around to see for herself.
“No, don’t look!” Jolene half nudged her shoulder against Arabella in warning, “He’ll see you looking. Just go on inside the classroom, he’s coming this way!”
Arabella quickly made a beeline for the door, heading directly to her desk, not even pausing to greet her favorite teacher, Mr. Sky. Her skin felt all tight and tingly as she walked, she knew he was following her in and walking right behind her, she could almost feel him, and just his mere presence was making her shiver.
Clint Owen sat behind her in Biology. She’d known him ever since Kindergarten, in fact, she knew almost everyone since Kindergarten. Terra was not exactly a big town, everyone knew everyone here, there was no such thing as a secret in Terra.
Arabella had the biggest crush on Clint Owen since forever, and she was pretty sure he liked her too because his face broke out into a smile when he passed her desk, and when he sat down he accidentally scooted his desk forward so that it purposely rested against the back of Arabella’s chair.
She sat as still and as straight as she could throughout Mr. Sky’s lecture. She wanted so badly to turn around and smile at Clint, make small talk. They’d been friends for years now, but it was just up until a few months ago when she took a second look at him. She couldn’t put her finger on it, when her feelings changed, she just knew, one day Clint was her buddy, the guy she would joke around with and exchange homework answers in Biology, the next day he was the object of her affection, the guy who made her heart start pounding whenever he walked into a room. It was maddening really, but thus was the life of a teenage girl, and for the time being, it wasn’t so bad.
“Did you do all your homework problems last night?” She could feel Clint’s breath on the back of her neck; it almost made her jump out of her seat. She hoped he couldn’t see her suck in her breath, and she tried to calm herself before turning her head slightly so that she could answer him.
“I did all of them except for the last two.” She kept her voice to a whisper, mostly so that it wouldn’t shake, “I couldn’t figure those ones out.”
“Then we’re in the same boat.” She could hear Clint’s soft chuckle, she loved hearing the sound of his laugh, it was so rich and full of life, “I stayed up until midnight looking for the answers, but no dice.”
She smiled wider, nodding her head, answering him without looking in his eyes. “Yeah, sometimes I think Mr. Sky makes these things up.”
Clint chuckled again, only this time he was leaning forward so the back of his arms were touching her. “Do you see tonight’s assignment he wrote on the board? It’s gonna be a killer.”
By now Arabella was thoroughly flustered, completely missing what Clint was trying to say. She nodded quickly, staring down at her knees. She wished he would just ask her out, maybe she could be the one to ask him out. She wondered what he would say to that. What everyone in school would think of her if they all found out she was asking boys out.
“So what do you say?” Clint’s voice interrupted her thoughts. She didn’t know what he was talking about, and in her doubt she turned her head all the way around so that she could face him. “What?” she asked, tilting her head slightly and brushing her hair off her face, “Say about what?”
Now it was Clint’s turn to look embarrassed. His cheeks turned a bright pink at her words, but because everyone around was looking at them, he knew he had to repeat his question.
“Do you want to come over after school and work on tonight’s homework assignment together?” He said this really fast and hurried, making some of his words run together in his haste to get this over with.
Arabella looked dumbstruck at first, her mouth halfway opened, her figure frozen in disbelief. Finally she blinked, “Homework?”
Dumb dumb dumb…she thought, but that’s all that would come out of her mouth.
“Yeah,” Clint was smiling at her again, “Homework.”
“Oh…uh…ok…sure.” She was completely glad those words made it out of her mouth because for the rest of the period she could not form a single sentence or sustain a rational thought, the only thing she could think of was that she was going over to Clint’s place after school, it would be just him, and her, alone together.
Jackson didn’t want this…he really really really didn’t want it, and he had no clue why Grandpa would even give him this. It didn’t even look new, and it totally wasn’t him, nothing like him at all.
But he didn’t know how to give it back, and he was afraid to hurt Grandpa’s feelings, so he tried his very best to put on a happy face and look excited.
“Wow! Thanks Grandpa…and Grandma!” He hoped the disappointment couldn’t be heard in his voice.
“Come here son,” His Grandpa waved him over with one hand, “Bring that guitar over here and come sit by me.”
Slowly Jackson picked up the guitar by its neck and made his way through over to Grandpa, kicking through all the colorful wrapping that surrounded his feet. He sunk down into the sofa cushions with a small plop, still trying to fight the frown that wanted to take over his face.
“Lookie here Son,” his Grandpa’s southern accent gently washed over him, and Grandpa took the guitar from Jackson’s hands, “This baby once belonged to my own Grandfather, and then my father, and then me.” his wrinkled hands rested on the oiled wood of the neck, stroking softly back and forth as he spoke, “I know you haven’t learned to play the guitar yet, but it’s my job to teach you, just as my grandfather taught me. I guarantee you son, once you know how to play, you will never be alone, you will always have a friend.”
Jackson stared up into his Grandpa’s eyes; he tried really hard to understand what Grandpa was trying to say…
“This thing here,” Grandpa placed the guitar carefully in his lap and began strumming it lightly, his eyes soften as he played, and almost magically it was as if he were 20 years younger, “It’s going to open all kinds of doors for you, I promise.”
“I always get these two mixed up. I can never remember which is which.” Clint half laughed, his textbook open in front of him, his papers carelessly scattered around the table.
Arabella laughed with him, still floating on cloud nine that she had Clint all to herself. She was trying to act like a grown up and not a giggly, silly, teenage girl, but she wasn’t sure she was doing a good job at it. She almost half wished Clint would stop talking and just kiss her, but he didn’t, he kept right on talking.
“I got mitosis for question number 4. What did you get?” Clint was sitting awfully close, so close that Arabella could smell his cologne. She really liked it.
“Um…I got…I got mitosis too.” She briefly checked her paper for the answer before smiling up at him. He wasn’t even looking at his paper; his chin was propped up in one hand and he was staring at her as she spoke. This made her incredibly nervous, being this close, him staring at her, she could see his deep brown eyes so clearly now.
Clint knew he was rambling, he kept fumbling along with his words like an idiot, saying whatever thing popped into his mind. What he really wanted to do was pull Arabella closer to him and kiss her. He honestly didn’t know how to do that. Arabella had been his friend since they were small, he already really knew her. She was just like any other girl in his class for the longest time, he remembered when he pushed her on the swings in first grade, traded his peanut butter sandwich for her turkey one in second grade, saw her cry in fifth grade when the class bully pulled her hair.
She was always nice to him, and he had never given her any romantic thought until this year. He knew she was pretty, and nice, and sweet, but it wasn’t until high school that he realized how his feelings had changed towards her. Maybe it was when he saw her during PE, in her gym shorts, trying to play volleyball with the class and failing miserably at it. Or maybe it was when she almost tripped and fell during third period English and he automatically reached out and caught her without hesitating, his heart had leaped to his throat at the sight, he didn’t want her to get hurt.
He didn’t know when it happened, but once it did, he tried to spend all his time with her, even doing his homework so that she would sit next to him, like she was doing now. Her face was all lit up and she was laughing at whatever funny thing he had just said, he couldn’t even remember what that was.
He decided to take a chance, maybe she liked him the way he liked her, there was only one way to find out.
Lost in his eyes, Arabella didn’t even notice that Clint had leaned in towards her until his nose brushed against hers, and before she could react, she could feel his lips on her skin, the sweet softness of his mouth. He was gentle, and so very sweet, just kissing her lightly, slowly, giving her enough time to relax and respond.
It was exciting and scary all at the same time. But little by little, Arabella found herself kissing him back, giving into all the emotions that she was capable of feeling. Almost surprised at her own reaction.
Clint Owen was wonderful, and she was so glad that he was here with her.
As the days and weeks went by Arabella and Clint began dating exclusively. The news spread quickly all over town. She looked forward to spending time with him after school and on the weekends. He would go over her house and hang out with her and her parents, watching movies or joining them for cookouts in their backyard. They would spend time with Mr. Butler, helping him sweep the steps and stock the shelves of the corner store.
Life was wonderful for Arabella, she loved being Clint’s girlfriend, she loved wearing his Letterman jacket to school, she loved that her parent’s let him go with them when they went to the lake during summer break, but she especially loved that Clint seemed to be perfect for her, made for her, and completely in love with her.
So it was no surprise to anyone when Clint proposed to her right before the end of their senior year of high school, and it was no surprise when she said yes. They has a simple ceremony with just their family and friends. Arabella's Dad rented out the local hall and everyone danced the night away.
As a wedding gift, Arabella's parents helped them with a down payment on a small house near the edge of town. It was perfect for Arabella and Clint, just the two of them in a small cozy two bedroom home. Arabella had tons of fun decorating it with Jolene’s help, and by the time fall rolled around again, Clint was working with his Uncle Garth at the local timber factory, and Arabella began attending Terra’s community college and working part time at the preschool located just down the block from their house.
For both of them, life couldn’t have been more perfect.
The first time Jackson played his guitar in front of an audience was in church, at his mother’s insistence; he played the background music for the choir. The second time he played was at his cousin’s birthday party…then for the Mother’s Day picnic at the local park in the Spring. Each performance was better than the last, and in the beginning Jackson thought the best part was always when everyone clapped and cheered for him when he was done, but soon he realized that wasn’t the best part at all, no way, eventually he figured it out, what the best part was, it took up most of his free time, the first thing on his mind in the mornings, the last thing he thought of at night, it’s what kept him from riding his bike with his friends during the Summer, and why he never bothered with girls when he started junior high and then High School. It became his life, what he lived for, what he breathed, and that was making music…
“You’re gonna do what?” Dustin, Jackson’s best friend, scowled at him as they walked through the hall at school.
“Start a band.” Jackson wasn’t even concerned that today was his English quiz, he hardly looked over his notes last night, “You have to join. You’re the only other guy who knows how to play a guitar. I called some tenth grader last night, some guy named Brett; I heard he can play the drums.”
Dustin gave out this little huff at Jackson's words, rolling his eyes. Unless it had breasts or gorgeous legs, he had zero interest in being in some off the wall band. There was only one thing Dustin Wade was interested in, and that was the ladies, pretty southern ladies, he discovered the opposite sex when he accidentally caught a glimpse into the girls locker room on his way to gym class one day. All that wonderful bare flesh captured his interest, among other things, and ever since then, he was crazy about girls.
Now here was his buddy, trying to make him do something as stupid as start a band, it sounded so dumb, so nerdy, and so much work! Dustin avoided work at all costs.
“Hell no, I ain’t doing that. Why do you want to do that shit anyways? We’ll be stuck inside all day. No way.” Dustin was in full tirade until a whiff of flowery perfume, long blonde hair, and bright pink lips, brushed right by him, smiling as she made her way inside the classroom. He stopped talking just enough to smile back and tip his head in her direction causing her to giggle.
Jackson completely ignored the girl, refocusing his energy on Dustin once again. “Come on man, just try it. The guy I called on the phone, Brett, he said he’ll come over after school to play with us, come on, we can play whatever kind of music you want.” He knew Dustin loved rock more than anything, even though he, himself, preferred that rich country twang, he loved how country music sounded on his guitar, how it felt, vibrating underneath his fingertips. But right now, he’d be willing to sacrifice anything to get Dustin onboard.
“Aerosmith?” Dustin eyed Jackson, raising one eyebrow to see if he could get a rise out of him, he knew Jackson never like playing hard rock.
Now it was Jackson’s turn to roll his eyes. “Yeah, whatever, Ray Tabano can play a mean guitar, I bet we can mimic some of those sounds, easy.”
Dustin eyed Jackson once more, it wasn’t until another pretty blonde overheard their conversation, looking up from her desk and saying, “Y’all in a band? That’s so cool! Can I come watch sometime?”
Once those words were out of her mouth, Dustin’s eyes lit up like a tree at Christmas time, you could almost see the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, and he readily agreed to join Jackson’s band.
The practices in Jackson’s garage started off at once a week. Brett turned out to be this big bulky guy that looked like something out of a Brawny paper towel commercial, his arms were huge, his jeans extremely tight, his cowboy boots rough and worn, and his sense of humor made Jackson cringe every now and then. But the guy could play the drums like no other; his hands flew at lightning speed, never missing a beat. Brett could play any type of music, rock, pop, country, and he could play it well. Once he and Dustin got over goofing off the first fifteen minutes of every practice, Jackson knew he could count on at least an hour, sometimes two, of great music.
By the time winter began approaching Jackson’s Junior year of high school, the three of them knew they had a unique talent, they all got along fabulously, and genuinely enjoyed each others company.
“Hey guys, I think we should give this a go.” It was Dustin who tossed the flyer over to Brett that day in Jackson’s garage. Brett reached out and caught it before it landed on his drums. He scanned it quickly at first, with very minimal interest.
“What’s this?” he quickly dismissed it with a flick of his wrist and the flyer floated like a feather to the ground at Jackson’s feet, “A talent show? Don’t you think that’s cheesy Wade?”
“Hell no! Did y’all see first prize?” Dustin fiddled with his guitar, adjusting the strap over his shoulder as he spoke.
“Yeah, that’s a lot of money, five hundred bucks, but did you read the fine print? It says it must be original, that means we have to write a song ourselves, we’ve never done that. We only know how to play other band’s songs.”
Jackson ignored Brett’s comments and reached for the flyer, he scanned it quickly, his eyes flying over the small letters. Brett was right, they would have to write an original song, Jackson could already feel the excitement creeping up his spine. This was a perfect opportunity, absolutely perfect, and they were ready, he just knew it.
“We should do this guys…” his voice was firm, and he looked at both Brett and Dustin who were both looking back at him a mixture of chagrin and doubt.
“Why?” Brett shrugged his shoulders, twirling one his drum sticks round and round in his fingers, “We don’t even have a song. We’ll never be able to do this on time.”
“I think I have one.” Jackson spun around and grabbed his old worn leather diary from the wooden work bench, “I’ve been messing with this for a few months now…want to see it?”
“You wrote a song?” Dustin was already stretching out his hand, curiosity scribbled all over his face, “I’ve been fixing to do something like that, let me see it.” He was quiet for a few seconds as he read, then he looked back up at Jackson, “Hell, this is good! Check this out Brett.”
That night they stayed out in Jackson’s garage until almost ten, only leaving when Stella came and scolded them all for being up so late on a school night.
Jackson didn’t have to persuade his buddies to practice with him anymore. Brett skipped basketball practice so he could spend more time at Jackson’s place; Dustin turned three girls down all in the same week, which was completely unreal, so that he wouldn’t ruin their routine. Jackson still lived, breathed, and thought of music, that was nothing new.
Each night before he went to bed, Jackson would write in that old leather diary. Sometimes just a few words or a couple of sentences, sometimes a paragraph or two. He always wrote with a pen, so instead of erasing things he changed his mind on, he would just cross them out, because he never knew if he would need those words again. Most of the time he realized, that more likely than not, the original words were always the best.
The night of the talent show was something out of a dream. It was the first time Jackson was going to play in front a very large group of people, people who were really going to judge him, and not just clap and cheer unless they really liked him.
Dustin looked pretty pale that night, tiny beads of sweat were already glistening along his brow line even before they went onstage. This made Jackson worry. He’d been studying all the bands before them and he knew none of them were as good as them; none of them had the same knack for music as they did, nor did they possess the same talent.
“Come on Wade. You ok?” Jackson wasn’t sure how to ease Dustin’s nerves.
“Fine.” Dustin wiped his forehead with the back of his arm, “A lil' nervous, is all.”
“Suck it up Wade.” Brett tapped both of his drumsticks together in front of Dustin’s face, “You’ve got more talent in your little pinky than any of those other guitar players I’ve seen.”
“Yeah, thanks.” His friend’s words didn’t seem to help his nerves at all, Dustin fiddled with his guitar, how did this fucking guitar strap snap close anyways?
“Besides Wade, take a peek out there,” Brett moved the dark blue velvet curtains slightly out of the way, all three boys looked out, “That place is full, full of more girls than you can ever imagine, or possibly date. And they’re all out there, waiting for you.”
This seemed to perk up Dustin better than any words Jackson could think of, he should have guessed that the mention of girls would ease Dustin’s mind, because Dustin immediately stopped fiddling with his guitar, a cocky grin taking over his face, “Hell yeah, let’s show em how it’s done boys.”
The applause Jackson heard that night meant more to him than any other applause he’d ever received. Some people were even standing up as they clapped. And when they were announced the winners of the talent show, Jackson couldn’t stop smiling. He smiled through Dustin’s victorious shouts, through Brett’s whoops and hollers, and through all that wonderful, wonderful applause.
What he didn’t see, what no one really saw that night, was one man who watched the entire talent show silently way in the back of the auditorium. He left even before the winners were announced, he didn’t need to know who won, he already figured out who he wanted, what he needed. No one knew at the moment that this was the man who was going to change Jackson’s entire life, and Dustin’s, and Brett’s…and even Arabella’s.
Tonight he would let them celebrate…enjoy their victory, because it was all about to change…tomorrow…