by David Lee

Chapter 4

John's sleep-cycle would be off for several days, so he wasn't ready to go to bed when his wife did. He didn't want to keep the boys up too late, but he did enjoy their company.

Jackson thought maybe he should head for the bedroom to let father and son have their time together in private. However, John bade him to stay.

"I'm so happy to be home with both you guys. I'm glad you're going to college instead of the military. I know how it probably sounds coming from a person of my rank, but it's true. There're guys not much older than you who're facing horrors I don't want you to see."

"I suppose you saw a lot of stuff you don't want to talk about," Jordan ventured.

"Yes, but I'll share some things from time to time. I don't expect you guys to be my therapists."

"We could share some of your burdens if you want," Jackson offered. "I know it helps to talk things out."

"That's kind of you. I am gonna tell you a little about one young man - PFC. Ethan Bean by name. When he joined our group, he was barely 19 years old and rather tall and lanky. The guys affectionately called him 'string bean." Everyone loved him immediately."

"You're saying 'loved' instead of 'loves.' Does that mean he didn't make it?"

"Sorry, I should use the present tense, but he nearly bought the farm from an IED, um, actually both of us are lucky to be alive. He was my driver, and we were coming toward a check-point when a large animal ran out in front of us. Bean hit the brakes and swerved to avoid it. Ahead of us, where it ran, there was a big explosion. We would have been blown to pieces if we hadn't been forced off the road."

"Was it a dog like Rollo?" Jordan asked.

"Come to think of it, it did look a little like him. It wasn't the usual scrawny ones we saw; it looked almost like a small bear. The whole thing was over so quickly, we didn't get a good look.

"Obviously, the blast shook us up pretty badly. Ethan sat there nearly in shock. He didn't want to give in to his emotions, but I felt we both needed to. He reminded me of you, so I did what a father would do instead of what a commanding officer is supposed to do. I put my arms around him, and we cried," John said, wiping away a tear.

"God, I'm so proud of you, Dad!"

"Me too, Jackson nodded.

"I understand the point of army protocol," John continued, "– not getting too emotionally involved with your men, but he and I bonded from that moment on. I've never felt so close to anyone in the military. I don't want you to think this was like a bromance. It was entirely on the up and up. His dad had died before he enlisted. I think perhaps I kinda filled that role for him."

"I know what you're sayin', Papa John. Coach Carlson has been like that for me a lot of times. Now, I feel like you are too."

"Definitely," John smiled as he arose and placed his hands on Jackson's shoulders. Then, gently squeezing the backs of the teen's necks, he continued, "I'm here for you guys. No matter what, you can always count on me."

Things settled down on the acreage following the excitement of John's return from the warzone. He adapted quickly to his old life and didn't seem to suffer the nightmares which plagued some of his fellow soldiers.

He consulted with a local contractor about increasing the size of his facility. He wanted to get more into breeding, and he wanted to expand his boarding capabilities as well. The latter direction might prove to be the future for a small operation like theirs. More people were choosing to live in the country and commute to jobs in Cedar Rapids. Most of them lived in the subdivisions which were sprouting up around Route 30, and they didn't have the space to keep horses on their property. However, they loved being able to ride when they had the opportunity. Several people were on a waiting list to keep their animals at John's convenient location.

Jordan's last semester in high school slowed down substantially once swimming was over, since his team didn't go to state. Still, he spent some of his extra time supporting Jackson.

Several wrestlers on Jackson's team qualified for the state finals which were held in Des Moines for three days late in February. Being centrally located, the capitol city drew tournaments in most of the major high school sports – boys' and girls' basketball being among the top ones.

A week before the grand finale of the wrestling season, there was an event which impacted Jackson's life in several ways. He wasn't around to hear the explosion or see the frenzied activity because it happened several miles away - in his old hometown.

Around 10:30 on Saturday morning, fire engines, sheriff's vehicles and ambulances hurried to Crofton in an attempt to extinguish the flames and save the lives of the victims.

The catastrophe occurred in an outbuilding at Jackson's boyhood home. From what the first-responders reported, it looked like a drug-making attempt gone wrong. A hazmat team would later confirm their suspicions.

Jackson's father, Clint Conover was pronounced dead at the scene. His girlfriend, Toni, was airlifted to University of Iowa Hospital in critical condition from second and third-degree burns over a large part of her body.

It was after lunch by the time a deputy showed up at the Jacobson's acreage to break the news to Jackson as next of kin. The guys were in the stable playing with Starboy when they heard his vehicle in the drive.

It had taken awhile for the authorities to track down Jackson's whereabouts. If someone on the volunteer fire squad hadn't told them to contact Coach Carlson, it would have taken even longer.

Jackson received the news without showing any emotion. The deputy thought it strange but assumed the boy was in shock and that the loss of his father wasn't registering yet.

Jackson first question wasn't what the deputy expected. He asked if he was responsible for the disposal of the body, and if so, what would he be required to do. He let the officer know that he was estranged from his father and had been emancipated.

"I'll find out and get back to you," Deputy Hoyt said, with a frown. "In the meantime, I suggest you not leave the county without letting us know. This is an ongoing case."

"What the hell?" Jackson exclaimed. "Do you think I killed my old man? What about the bimbo he was living with? Check out her alibi."

"She was with him and she's in critical condition and may not make it either. Did you have something against her?"

"She's not my favorite person, but I didn't have anything to do with what happened, if that's what you're implying. In fact, I don't KNOW what happened beyond the little you've told me."

"Jackson and I have been together almost every minute except when we're in school. He couldn't have gone anywhere in the night without me knowing because he doesn't even have a car of his own!"

"How do I know you wouldn't help him get even with his father," the deputy said, as his parting shot.

"Do you think they're gonna try to pin something on me?" Jackson asked of Jordan after the deputy left. "I probably shouldn't have gotten pissed at him."

"Whatever they try to do, you've been with us all day today, and I can vouch for where you were all night."

"Yeah, you can," Jackson smiled. "You know just about everything about me."

"Mom and Dad know where both of us were. Don't worry; we're covered!"

Before they went back inside, Dan Sorenson showed up to ride his horse again. He mentioned there'd been an explosion in Crofton and asked if they'd heard anything.

"Someone from the sheriff's office told us about it but we don't know a lot," Jordan volunteered. "Jackson's father was killed in it."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! Is there anything I can do?"

"No, I'm okay," Jackson replied. "He and I weren't on speaking terms after he threw me out."


"Yeah, but it's okay. We hadn't been a family for a couple of years - since Mom died. His bimbo accused me of coming onto her and he took her word over mine. I wouldn't have gone for that scuzzy chick if she were the last person on earth!"

The evening newscast shed a little more light on what had happened. There was an interview with Sheriff Davidson in which he brought up their suspicion that the shack was being used as a drug lab.

While Jackson wasn't thrilled to have his family name connected with drugs, he welcomed this news as a good indication the disaster had been caused by an accident rather than an intentional act. In that case, no one should be looking at him as a suspect. He supposed he should have shown some grief in the presence of the deputy earlier in the day. However, it would have been an act, and probably not a very convincing one. He couldn't feel any genuine sorrow over his father's demise. He supposed that fact, in itself, was sad.

Back at school on Monday, Jackson found the whole experience a bit surreal. He felt like everyone was looking at him. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he didn't think so. No one seemed to know what to say to him, including many of his teachers.

Most everyone at school liked Jackson even though he tended to be a loner. He was a serious student, an accomplished athlete, and a decent kid. Besides, despite those attributes, he didn't have an attitude. Many in his position might have.

Ms. Porter, his counselor stopped to ask how his day was going when she met him in the hall after lunch.

"I'm doing okay, but I feel like I'm on exhibit in a zoo."

"In a way you are," she smiled. "Most kids wouldn't have shown up for classes two days after a parent died. They'd have taken time off as a vacation no matter what the circumstances were."

"Does that make me weird? I don't feel any sadness over my father's death. You know how he treated me."

"You're not strange for feeling nothing. Coach Carlson and I are among the few who know the details of what's gone on in your life. How you react; whatever you feel, or don't feel, it's all valid. No one else can dictate your emotions. Just go about your daily life, and things should be back to normal before long."

"Thanks! That helps."

Managing to exchange text messages with Jordan before his next class helped too. Jordan was his security blanket.

Before wrestling practice, Coach Carlson gave him a shoulder-squeeze. Jackson appreciated the support he was receiving from the ones in his life who mattered.

Once he got on the mat with is training-partner, his focus was completely on his wrestling moves. There, he could block out everything else.

After practice, Sheriff Davidson was waiting for Jackson and asked for a few minutes of his time. Jackson wondered if someone was trying to implicate him in his father's death. Deputy Hoyt's attitude was still fresh in his mind.

Davidson asked him to sit in the car while they talked. Jordan's Jeep was parked nearby as he waited. His presence made Jackson less apprehensive.

"How are you holding up, Son?" the sheriff asked.

"I'm okay. Am I under suspicion?"

"Nope. That's what I'm here to talk about. I want to apologize for Hoyt. He's new to the force and needs to work on his people-skills.

"The evidence is quite clear even though the investigation isn't completed. Tori Pratt, or whatever her name is, made a statement before she died. As we suspected, they were trying to make meth. There have been countless serious accidents resulting from amateurs cooking batches of the drug."

"So, what happens now? Am I responsible for anything?"

"Not really. You can claim your father's remains or let the county take care of it. They'll probably try to recoup the expenses from the estate if they do."

"What estate?"

"The house and property are worth something, and I imagine you're the sole heir. It might not be a lot, but it could help with your education."

"Thanks! You've made me feel better."

"Good! I consider that part of my job."

The state wrestling finals were a big deal. Even if Jackson were to place third in his current weight-class (145), it would be great. He'd already been promised scholarship money for Iowa State, based on his previous wins. Of course, if he came in first, The University of Iowa might offer him a better scholarship. All he had to do was win four more times, Thursday, Friday, and twice on Saturday.

The major university in Iowa City was much closer, and he could easily come home on the weekends. But Jordan was planning to go to Iowa State in Ames, and Jackson wanted to be where he was, no matter the school or the funds.

Whatever the outcome would be, Jackson was ready to participate. He was pumped as he boarded the school bus with the rest of the team and a few loyal supporters for the two and a half-hour ride to Des Moines.

He would rather be traveling with Jordan, but that wasn't an option in this case. He had talked the coach into letting them ride home together after the last match. Since it would be his final one in high school, Carlson had granted him the option because he was emancipated and should have some of the freedoms that brought.

Without his lover beside him on the bus, he rolled his letter jacket into a kind of pillow to cushion his head against the window and fell asleep.

Jordan's high school had only two wrestlers going to state. It wasn't enough to warrant a bus to carry them or their supporters, so they rode in an SUV with their coach and a couple of parents. They wouldn't stay for the whole event if they lost early in the process.

Jordan would be staying the whole time because his parents had excused him from school and had spent the money on a small room in the same hotel where the Crofton wrestling team would be housed. John felt his son deserved it as a reward for the extra responsibilities he'd taken on while acting as the man of the house during John's last deployment.

Jordan wasn't eligible to ride the Crofton bus due his not being a student in that district, so he was traveling in his Jeep a few car-links behind the vehicle Jackson was on.

The team would be stopping somewhere at a McDonald's to eat something on the way. He would pass the bus when they got off the interstate and slip in ahead of the team to order before the line got long. Then, he'd sit with Jackson and enjoy the time they had together.

The Wells Fargo Arena was a huge facility. Jordan had had to park a good distance away and he'd have felt overwhelmed by it, had not Coach Carlson given him permission to sit by him. The team had kind of adopted him weeks earlier, so no one questioned his presence.

Jackson's face lit up like it was Christmas morning when he saw his boyfriend right down front. Jordan's presence gave him extra resolve to do his best.

Some of his opponents had heard about his father's death and had assumed he might not be in the best frame of mind. They would soon find out how wrong they were!

His first match lasted a fairly short time. During the first period, the two grapplers seemed well matched. Jackson scored more points for riding-time but felt he should have done better. In the second period, he again came out on top. In the third period, he caught Jordan's eye at the start, and smiled. He experienced a new surge of energy and he dominated his opponent with a pin in the first few seconds.

Several teammates hugged him or patted his butt, so Jordan's embrace didn't appear out of the ordinary.

Jackson joined Jordan in rooting for the two guys from Lisbon. Because of the weight-classes they were in, they weren't going up against anyone from Crofton, so Jackson didn't feel like he was being disloyal to his team by supporting them. Coach Carlson encouraged that kind of sportsmanship.

Between dinner and lights-out, the guys snuggled in Jordan's bed. Jackson had to sleep in the rooms provided for his team, but he didn't have to hang out there. Jordan saw to it that he was rewarded for his win.

Friday was a bit different. Jordan left his car in the hotel parking lot because Coach Carlson allowed him to ride the bus with the team. It was a bit irregular, but he didn't care. He believed in good sportsmanship for sure. However, he had another motive which probably wasn't entirely altruistic. He sensed that Jordan was Jackson's good buddy and life-line. In the interest of having his star wrestler at his best, it couldn't hurt to be nice to his friend.

Jackson wrestled his next opponent mid-morning. This time, he got his pin in the second period. He smiled at this decisive victory. He liked it when his win didn't depend on a decision by the judges. Those could be disputed, a pin couldn't.

As Jordan and he watched other matches, his mind wandered back to past triumphs. Wrestling had been good for him. He had come in third in the state as a freshman wrestling at 113 pounds. He'd been a skinny, scrappy, relatively happy kid at the time. He'd enjoyed the sport but hadn't expected to do so well.

As a sophomore, he'd lost in the second round at state. Two things were different that year. He was in a higher weight-class and the match occurred only a month after the car crash in which his mother died. He seemed to have lost his will to compete, and Coach Carlson had wondered if her death had been the main reason, or if there were other factors as well.

Jackson had become depressed but didn't have anyone to lean on other than his coach and his counselor. Adding to his stress were rumors that someone had tampered with the brakes on his mother's car. When Toni had moved in only three months later, townspeople began to whisper.

By his junior year, Jackson had shaken off his unhappiness by working for a couple of farmers in the area to make spending money, and by focusing on his sport. He'd made up his mind that if he was going to have a future, it would depend on him, and wrestling could help make it happen. That year, he came in second in the state in the 132-pound class.

Saturday morning, he met his next challenger. The guy was taller by several inches, but that was a good thing as far as Jackson was concerned. He felt his muscles were more compact, and he was sure he could bring the kid down.

He was right. He got his pin in the first round. When the referee held up his hand in victory, Jackson had the biggest grin he'd displayed in a long time. Jordan and he hugged immediately. Coach Carlson embraced him second.

Having to wait for his final match in the evening wasn't all bad, though he was a little edgy waiting. He tried to relax so he'd be ready to do his best.

The team had needed to check out of their rooms before they came to the arena that morning, so there was no chance of trying to take a nap.

Jordan, however, had kept his room because there was a winter storm warning posted for late that night and his parents had felt both boys would be safer staying in Des Moines until Sunday.

Jackson got permission to leave the Wells Fargo facility for a couple of hours when no one he knew would be on the mats. He mentioned to his coach that they might hang out at the Jordan Creek Mall, but the guys headed for the hotel instead.

Once there, they took a warm shower together and Jordan treated Jackson to an amateur massage. Relaxed from that, Jackson fell asleep immediately. Jordan joined him for about an hour. If his cell phone hadn't awakened them, Jackson might have slept so long that he'd have missed his last match!

The final match of Jackson's high school career came off at 7:30 PM. The arena was packed with wrestlers and their families. Jackson was probably the only one who didn't have a relative in the crowd. But he did have someone closer than a brother. Jordan's presence buoyed his spirits.

A few minutes into it, Jackson scored another decisive win with a pin. After the ref officially raised Jackson's hand in victory, Jackson jumped several feet into the air. Coach Carlson hugged him, raising his feet off the floor, and then Jordan held him for several seconds.

"I love you," Jackson whispered in his ear.

"Same here," Jordan replied.

After the awards ceremony, the rest of the team border their bus, but Jackson went to the hotel with Jordan where he received his personal reward for being a winner.

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