Welcome back to the final installment of Christmas is a Work in Progress, a story that covers Jack and Rio’s first Christmas together.
You can find out how the story starts by clicking here: Part #1: Keys | Part #2: Lights | Part #3: Working it Out.
And if you’ve not yet met the young Jack, you can find out more about The Power of Zero by clicking here.
Part 4: Work in Progress
“You really don’ wan’ to go to sleep, do you?”
Jack jerked upright and blinked rapidly. He was comfortable there on the sofa with a full belly, the music, strings of lights, and the book in his lap. He didn’t want to chance going to bed. Not after the previous night. Not on this night of all nights. But he didn’t want to explain it to Rio either.
“No, I don’t,” was all he said and glanced at the clock in the corner. It was after 2 o’clock in the morning and yes, he was tired. But while he might nod off for a few moments at a time, proper sleep would be impossible.
Rio nodded. “Ah have an idea,” he said, and heaved himself out of his armchair. “Ah was thinkin’ of startin’ this tomorrow, but since we’re up—”
“We might as well get a head start.” Jack grinned as he repeated Rio’s comment from that morning. “What are we doing now?”
“Wait an’ see.” The Jamaican left the room and returned a short while later with a large box. He set it down and went out again. Several trips more and the living room floor was littered with half a dozen boxes and Rio returned from his final trip with a toolkit. “Come an’ help,” he invited and held out a Stanley knife to Jack.
Rio Palmer was patient. Jack had already learned that from the way he waited for Jack to evaluate his options. It didn’t matter if the question under discussion was what Jack wanted to eat, or whether he felt safe enough to come close and work side by side with Rio. And he didn’t get angry when Jack chose something different.
With his brain sluggish from too much food and too little sleep, Jack took even longer to think. In the end, interest—and a tendril of growing trust—won over fear.
Jack slid from the sofa and joined Rio in the middle of the living room.
He took the Stanley knife Rio offered and sliced through the tape holding the boxes closed.
Rio reached inside the largest box and lifted out a computer monitor. “You need a computer,” he said. “An’ Ah thought it migh’ be fun for us to build one.”
Jack had never heard anything so insane. Or so intriguing. “Build a computer?” He peeked into one of the smaller boxes he’d just opened and found it full of… bits… in plastic sleeves or bubble wrap. He’d seen computers. In Curry’s and in the library, and he assumed the bits in his box went inside one. “Why do you want to build a computer?”
“’Cause it’s fun. Ah told you.”
“No. Not that. Why build one when you can buy them?”
“Ah.” Rio sat back on his heels. “The first thing you need to understand about computers,” he said, and the accent was gone as if it had never existed, “is that they’re like cars. You can buy one that’s the same as everybody else’s. You can buy one that’s rare and that makes people stop what they’re doing and look. Or you can build yourself one that’s unique and just right for what you want to do with it.”
“Like…” Jack cast around for a comparison. “Like a race car.”
“Exactly. Each one is unique. And race cars are set up fresh for every race, so they are the best for each particular track.”
“And computers are the same?” Jack pulled one of the packets from the box and looked at it. Inside the bubble wrap was a length of plastic with tiny metal teeth along one side. He had no idea what that was or what it did.
“Very much so.” Rio stripped cardboard from a desktop shell. “Take all these out and put them on the dining table,” he instructed, waving at the last box Jack had opened. “Oh… and throw a blanket across the table first. When you buy a computer, you’re buying a family car. I like to be a little more individual than that.”
Jack spread a blanket over the table and laid all his packages out in a neat line. “Do you have a book? On how to build a computer?”
“Several. But don’ worry. We’ll do it together. An’ then, Ah’m gonna watch you go head to head with the pirates of Monkey Island.”
Jack opened his mouth to ask, but Rio beat him to it.
“It’s a puzzle game, an’ Ah’ve noticed tha’ you like puzzles.”
Jack considered the small stack of books beside his place on the sofa. A book about survival techniques had replaced the book about mountain lions. David Gemmel’s Waylander sat on top of that. But yes, the other three books he’d chosen were from Rio’s extensive selection of brain teaser and puzzle books.
“You like puzzles, too.”
“So Ah do. Now come over here an’ watch. Before you can build a computer, you need to know what it’s made of.”
It was lunchtime when the computer was finally up and running. Jack’s eyes felt as if they’d been sandpapered and he was working on his second litre-bottle of coke, but he now knew things he’d never thought of before. He understood terms like hardware, memory, and processor. He knew what software was and had installed his first operating system. The night and day he’d so dreaded had flown by. And working with Rio had been fun.
Jack still kept the dining table between them, and Rio was careful not to touch him or even move too quickly… but they’d built a computer together. And Jack had been startled speechless when Rio had told him to find a place for it in his room.
Rio had even waited—holding the monitor—for Jack to invite him into his room, so they could set it up as a workstation on the desk by the window. Now he leaned against the wall, watching, while Jack arranged keyboard and mouse.
“Go on, then,” he encouraged. “You’ve done all the hard work. Now it’s playtime.”
Jack pressed the button and the computer whirred to life. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it, but earlier this morning they’d been installing software, which was about as exciting as watching paint dry. When the screen came to life this time around, it showed icons on a deep green background. He carefully clicked on the Monkey Island icon and—obediently—colours filled the screen and music played.
Jack turned in his seat and took in the big Jamaican, from comfy orange slippers to coffee-coloured dreadlocks and delighted grin. “Why are you doing all this, Rio? Giving me a place to sleep, rearranging all your Christmas plans, staying up all night building something for me? Why?”
The answer wasn’t long in coming. “’cause you told me you’re a zero, o’course.”
“You said zeroes change things.”
“So they do. An’ I wan’ to help with tha’.” He slid down the wall and settled himself cross-legged on the floor in what Jack was coming to recognise as a favourite position. “Everyone deserves a chance, Jack. Zeroes in particular. An’ Ah believe you found my basement for a reason.”
“But…” Jack searched for a way to articulate his feelings. In his experience, people didn’t take in homeless boys. Not like this.
“No buts, Jack. You’ll always be safe here. An’ one of these days, you’ll even believe it. All this…,” he waved his hand to encompass the room, the computer, Jack and himself. “All this is a work in progress. An’ as long as we want to, we’ll work it out.” He yawned, then, wide enough to crack his jaw. “Ah’m off to bed for a few hours. We’ll sor’ out dinner later, okay?”
“Okay.” Jack watched him roll to his feet and leave the room before he turned back to the computer screen with its gaudy figures and cheerful music. He wasn’t in the mood for a puzzle game. A year ago, at Christmas, his life had changed. Now it felt as if his life was changing again. And if Rio was right, and Jack’s life was a work in progress, then maybe Christmas was a work in progress, too. One day, he might even like it enough to celebrate.
This year, he and Rio had strung lights around Rio’s living room and built a computer. It was a start.
Thank you for your company! I hope you enjoyed this little extra glimpse into Jack’s life, as well as all the other stories and snippets I’m posting this month. And if you’d like to read your Jack & Gareth shorts neatly bundled, then check out Midnight Tracks, below.
Seasons of Cheer is my blogging challenge for this year. Every day during December I’m aiming to post a story, snippet or outtake. A moment to stop and draw breath during a month that’s usually crazy busy.
And here’s an extra treat for everyone who subscribes to my newsletter:
Midnight Tracks, a collection of shorts, snips, and outtakes from the first five Power of Zero books, including an exclusive Christmas short story you won’t find anywhere else – delivered to your inbox on Christmas Eve. 🙂