For the next four days of my Seasons of Cheer blogging challenge, I’d like to invite you back to Clapham in the winter of 1995, where a teenage Jack is coming to grips with being offered a new home by Jamaican hacker/spy Rio Palmer. If you’ve read The Power of Zero, you’ll know that Jack escaped from a pimp and was living on the streets when Rio’s home became a refuge for him. And if you’ve not yet read the story, you can find out more about it here.
Learning to trust a stranger isn’t an easy proposition for Jack, just as offering a home to a boy who’s clearly been through something horrible but won’t talk about it can’t be easy for Rio. But the two somehow make it work. And this story is something we didn’t get to see in The Power of Zero: Rio and Jack’s first Christmas together.
Part #1: Keys
Jack struggled with the deep green scarf. It was longer than he was tall and he almost tripped stepping on one end while trying to wrap the other around his neck. “Why do I need this? My coat has a hood. With fur!”
He ran his fingertips over said fur, grateful for its warmth. He had only vague, blurry memories of seeking shelter in the underpass by Clapham Junction railway station. The days after that were just a haze. But he remembered the morning when Rio had placed a key in his lap and had told him that the room they were in was Jack’s safe space. And that, now that Jack was better, Rio would not set foot inside unless invited.
Jack hadn’t believed it. But the key worked, and in the two weeks since Rio had been as good as his word. He called or knocked when he wanted to speak to Jack, and he was never right in front of the door when Jack slid it open.
Jack woke every morning in a clean, warm bed wondering how he’d come to be so lucky. And then he made sure that his backpack was ready to grab and run if that lucky streak found a sudden end.
Being unable to see his coat and pack had worried him even when he’d been too weak to stand. He’d been relieved to find the coat hanging in the wardrobe, freshly washed and smelling of lemon. The coat, his boots, and his pack had all been there, along with new jeans, socks, briefs, t-shirts and a fleece hoodie. None of which he’d bought.
“You can’t go out without a scarf, you had bronchitis,” Rio argued back, shrugging into his own coat. “Your throat an’ chest need extra protection. Especially since we’re goin’ topless.”
Jack blinked. Then he backed up until he could press his back against the wall. Without conscious thought, he reached for his knife and gripped it tight.
He couldn’t get into Rio’s car.
The doctor had said he needed fresh air. And he liked the vintage Citroen DS Rio kept on his drive. But he couldn’t—
He couldn’t run if he was in a car.
“Jack? Wha’s botherin’ you?”
Jack said nothing, but Rio got it a moment later. “Oh. It’s the car, righ’?”
Jack managed a tense nod and braced himself for Rio’s anger. Maybe his streak of luck had just run out.
“Ah, well. We can walk,” Rio breezed through the change of plans. He took a ring of keys from the hook beside the door and held it out. “Here. These are yours. You’re good with a pick, I know, bu’ this is easier.” He waited patiently until Jack reached for the keys, then led the way out the door.
Jack followed, listening to Rio talk to someone on his phone about dropping off boxes, marvelling that the man wasn’t even one little bit put out by Jack’s reluctance to get into a car, even though he’d clearly meant to go somewhere. And he’d given Jack keys to his house.
Jack felt in his pocket to make sure the keys were where he’d put them. The big one was for the back door, he knew. He’d carried it around with him while he’d found shelter in Rio’s basement. The other two were newly cut. One for the porch and one for the front door. Holding the keys made Jack feel strange. And a little bit safer than he’d felt before.
Check back tomorrow for part #2 of Jack’s story…
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. 🙂