The rules of the contest were that Domey, Michelle and I would all use the same "image" as a prompt. The "image" was supplied by Mighty Reader, who also suggested the contest in the first place. Mighty Reader also supplied a second image for the exclusive use of Michelle.
The "image" all three of us used is "A performer named Jake Jacket, sitting alone in a hotel room." That's it. The second image for Michelle was "a little black cat." Not much to go on, you might say, and you'd be right.
So these "Jake Jacket" stories have Domey starting with Jake in the hotel room, me ending with Jake in the hotel room, and Michelle starting or ending with Jake in the hotel room as is her wont.
None of us began writing until Tuesday. That was unplanned and possibly just slackerly of us. But we're busy people, people, so back off. I finished mine on Tuesday night and did a wee bit of editing on Thursday. Michelle finished hers on Thursday. I am amazed Domey wrote his at all, so much did he complain of the trouble he was having making enough of a psychic connection with this Jake Jacket fellow to write about him.
So that was the contest. There is no voting on the stories, because we love and respect each other too much to compete like that. Anyway, here are the stories.
*this post intro was written by Scott, but posted up by Michelle because she had issues getting Davin's story in this morning, so yeah, sorry Scott.*
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"Signs" by Michelle Davidson Argyle
**This story has been removed for publication**
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"Gift of the Magi" by Scott G.F. Bailey
Jake Jacket stood in the open doorway of a blimp that bobbed in the air fifteen hundred and eight feet above a football stadium. Jake wore a tight blue, red and white jumpsuit, a crash helmet covered in silver glitter and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Strapped to Jake’s back was an Aebersold KX-95 jetpack. The jetpack weighed nearly sixty pounds and despite the padded straps, Jake’s shoulders and spine already ached and he’d only been wearing the damned thing for five and a half minutes.
Leaning backwards a few degrees to shift the weight of the jetpack and to move out of the cold wind at the blimp’s door, Jake shouted into his cell phone. The noise of the wind and the roar of the crowd of seventy-thousand football fans below him drowned out almost everything else.
“What if it doesn’t work?” he called into the phone. From three hundred and seventy-nine miles away, in a comfortable leather chair in a comfortable walnut-paneled office, Jake’s producer answered.
“Why shouldn’t it work? It’s a freaking high-tech jetpack. It’s the same jetpack you’ve been riding all year. Safe as bathwater.”
“Safe as milk,” Jake corrected him.
“Safe as milk!”
“Exactly. Nothing to worry about.”
The Aebersold KX-95 jetpack had not been designed to act as a parachute or to save a man falling from the sky. Jake had no idea if he’d slow down at all when the jets ignited or if he’d only plummet to his death on the 50-yard line. Not that he cared a great deal either way, but like anyone else Jake avoided pain when he could.
“No one’s ever tried this before,” Jake yelled into the phone. There was a pause before his producer answered.
“That’s the whole point: it’s never been done. We talked about this last week, remember? This is a new act for you, for the viewers. This will exceed everyone’s expectations.”
“I’m terrified,” Jake yelled. “I may throw up. How would the viewers like it if I came flying out of this blimp in a cloud of my own vomit? Would that exceed their expectations?”
“You don’t have to be like that, Jake. You’re a professional. Look, you’ve got less than a minute. I’m going to hang up now. Have a good flight.”
“A good flight.”
From behind him, someone pulled the cell phone from Jake’s hand. Some other unseen hand patted him on top of his helmet. Jake nodded. Time. He coughed and tasted bourbon. Did everyone on the blimp know he was well on his way to being drunk? Did the crew have a betting pool on how many bones he’d break in the fall, or if he’d even survive? Who gives a crap. Jake stepped into the air.
The crowd cheered, a wave of ugly noise rolling up and beyond Jake’s falling body. Jake heard nothing. The white hiss of air screaming past his head masked everything else. He was falling, yawing alarmingly and face up, off-balance, following the weight of the jetpack down, down, down toward the earth. So fast. So fast. His right bootlace had come untied. I can’t die like that, Jake thought, and pulled the triggers on the jetpack’s hand controls. He felt the two jets vibrating behind his back and he pitched forward but still the Astroturf rushed up at him. A marching band marked time in the end zone, the bells of the sousaphones all turning right-to-left-to-right like synchronized oscillating fans and Jake thought, well this is it.
The lines of exhaust from the twin jets found the ground and Jake slowed, amazingly, gently, safely just in time. He landed on his feet in the middle of the field and cut the power to the jetpack.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the PA system thundered. “The amazing Jake Jacket!”
The crowd erupted into a wild roar of approval mixed with disappointment. Jake threw his hands in the air, as he’d done after hundreds of other jetpack rides all over the nation, at county fairs and baseball games and corporate team-building events. He smiled; he was contractually obligated to. Then he was surrounded by cameras and security men and large-breasted cheerleaders in tight uniforms and Jake thought another drink was in order. Nobody told him that the jet’s superhot thrust had melted large swaths of Astroturf, delaying the start of the game’s second half while the field was repaired. The ratings were so good that nobody really minded.
Jake was bundled off the field and he found his way to his crew. He took off his gear and changed into an old brown suit before slipping out of the stadium and up the street to a dark bar. He stayed in the bar all afternoon, past the end of the game and watched the regular daytime drunks filter out to be replaced by the regular nighttime drunks.
A kid, some longhair in his twenties, appeared to Jake’s left. The kid looked vaguely familiar, having one of those pretty, perfectly symmetrical celebrity faces with a perfect shadowing of stubble. Leather coat, black shirt and jeans. Musician, Jake thought.
“Hey,” the kid said.
“Hey, you’re Jake Jacket.”
“So I am. Keep it to yourself, will you?”
The kid looked around the bar as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune to have stumbled into the right dive bar out of all the dives in the city.
“I won’t tell anyone,” the kid said. “I saw you on TV today. That was amazing.”
Jake couldn’t believe how skinny the kid was. Why were all these rock stars so thin? Drugs, probably, or boutique European liposuction. Jesus Christ. The kid had his hand out.
“I’m Tom. Tom Clean.”
“The Tom Clean?”
“Yeah, that’ s me.” The kid looked around again, pretending embarrassment but hoping someone had overheard and recognized his name. Tom Clean hid his disappointment.
Jake took Tom’s hand, shook it once theatrically and let go.
“I wanted to be a rock star,” Jake said. “I guess everyone does.”
“I guess. Are you a player? Music?”
Tom Clean was drinking cheap domestic beer from a longneck bottle.
“I have no talent, I guess.”
Jake was drinking bourbon on the rocks with a water back.
“At least you’ve got the jetpack.”
“At least I’ve got the jetpack. At least I’m not waiting tables or working on a factory line, right? At least I make enough money to drink myself to sleep.”
“Hey, Jake, don’t be like that. It’s early. You want to shoot some pool?”
“I want to shoot myself.”
Down the bar, nine stools beyond Tom Clean, a pretty woman in a green dress with a deeply plunging neckline was ordering a Cosmopolitan. Jake adjusted his tie and sat straighter for a moment. As he watched the woman he slowly fell forward into his habitual slump and then looked away from her, at the melting ice in his glass. Jake was willing to risk his life riding a jetpack, but that was as far as it went. A woman was out of the question. Death before dishonor.
“Hey, Jake. C’mon,” the kid said. “You’re Jake Jacket, the Jetpack Man. You’re totally cool.”
“Hey, I wish I had a jetpack.”
“You could buy one, you know.”
“My accountants won’t let me. I tried once, last year. I called the Aebersold company. You fly a KX-95, don’t you? Beautiful machine, man. It’s totally cutting edge. Same gyroscopes that the military uses in their land-to-air missiles. I put them in touch with my accountants, and that was the end of that.”
“Your accountants said no?”
“They control your money?”
“Conditions of my parole. I was in rehab all spring, you know.”
“I was drunk all spring.”
“Hey, Tom Clean.” Jake registered dimly that he was getting pretty hammered. He always called people by their whole names when he had crossed from the pleasant phase of a drunk into that mysterious dark kingdom beyond.
“Hey, Tom Clean. Do you want to buy my jetpack?”
“Yours? For real?”
“Yeah. I’m retiring, Tom Clean. Today was the big finale. There’s nobody on Earth who’s done my act, and I say I should go out while I’m on top.”
“What do you think, Tom-tom Clean?”
“Wow. But I can’t get my hands on more than a couple of hundred a week.”
“Terms of your parole.”
Jake looked past the kid. The woman in the green dress had picked up a friend, a guy in a blue suit with a shiny tie and a bull market haircut. Good for her, I guess. Good for him.
“Hey, Jake. I’ll trade you for it.”
“What?” Jake had already begun to forget his offer to the kid.
“I’ll trade you for the jetpack. How much is it worth, do you think?”
Jake pushed the hair back from his forehead and took a sip of water.
“Wow, Jake, that’s too cheap.”
“I didn’t pay retail, Tom Clean. I can let it go cheap. But what do you have that’s worth ten thousand? A car?”
Tom Clean laughed.
“All my cars are worth a lot more than ten-freaking-grand, Jake. But back at the hotel, I have a 1970 Fender Strat that Jimi Hendrix owned for nineteen weeks. Swear to God. He rehearsed with it for the Isle of Wight gig.”
Jake had no idea what most of that meant.
“So it’s worth ten?”
“At least. But I didn’t pay retail for it, either. See, we both sacrifice and get what we want.”
“Gift of the Magi.”
“I accept your offer, Tom Clean. Let’s go to your hotel.”
The kid had a town car for the night, and the air from the open windows cleared Jake’s head a little as they were driven across the city. First they went downtown to the Hilton and picked up the guitar, which was in an aluminum and Kevlar flight case. They drove back uptown to the hotel where Jake and his crew were staying and the driver backed the town car up to the equipment trailer in the parking lot. The kid stayed in the car, doing a line of coke while Jake unlocked the trailer and helped the driver shift the jetpack into the town car’s trunk.
“You really retiring?” the driver asked.
“Yeah, I am.”
“My kids love you, man.”
"It’s okay. I guess every athlete has a shorter career than the fans like.”
Jake smiled. He and the driver shook hands. Tom Clean threw his arms around Jake before handing over the guitar and riding away into the humid, pressing dark. Jake stood in the parking lot, looking at the headlights streaming by on the freeway above the hotel. It was a really shitty little hotel, and at last Jake went inside.
He sat on the edge of the bed with all the lights off. His drapes were open and the reflections of innumerable taillights spattered across the windows like rain. The guitar case lay on the floor at Jake’s feet, unopened. Jake had no idea how to play guitar, but for a while he’d be in possession of one that Jimi Hendrix once played. Maybe. Who could say? The kid was pretty fucked up and perhaps not too bright.
In the morning the crew would find the jetpack missing and they’d immediately suspect Jake. His producers had paid good money for that machine and they’d want it back. The kid would want his guitar back, too. None of this was real.
Jake leaned over and opened the case. The guitar looked like nothing special and it was chipped and scratched and had cigarette burns on the headstock. It was heavier and somehow clumsier to hold than Jake had imagined, and it smelled of stale cigarettes and pot. Jake didn’t try to play it. He sat, awkwardly holding the guitar on his lap, watching the traffic thin out and the sky darken as dawn slowly approached.
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"The Speed of Jake" by Domey Malasarn
Jake Jacket rises from his king sized bed in a Doubletree Hotel, somewhere. His feet are already touching the floor when he wakes. His boots are already on. There’s a basket of pears wrapped in cellophane on the bureau with a card looped through a twist of baby blue ribbon:
See you tonight. Bigger and Better.
The telephone rings and Jake answers it.
“That you, David?”
“Rise and shine, Jake! You’re in Palm Springs, California. It’s eleven o’clock on July third. I ordered room service. The whole damn place didn’t have any bear claws, but I told them ‘Jake Jacket doesn’t perform without his bear claw,’ and they wrangled one up for you. How you feeling, Jake? Hung over?”
“Yeah. I told you I didn’t want a bachelor party.”
“It wasn’t a party. It was a get together.”
“Strippers you didn’t even touch.”
“I’m not gonna let my Vondette down. Not when I’m this close.”
“You’re a good kid, Jake. D’you sleep?”
“Think so, but the bed’s already made.”
“The bed’s always made, Jake. You never get under the covers anymore.”
“I never did, did I? I never had time.”
“And you never will, Jake. But it’s all part of the show. We like it that you don’t sleep under the covers. The world likes it that you don’t sleep under the covers. Young boys in Utashinai, Japan try to emulate you by not sleeping under the covers—There’s room service coming; I can see them in front of your door. You got ten minutes to eat. Bye.”
A knock. A seven-foot-tall teenager with a big Adam’s apple walks in. He wears a vest that’s red in front and black in the back like a movie theater usher. “David sent over breakfast for you, Mr. Jacket. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“No need to call me sir.”
“Sorry, sir. I’m just a fan, that’s all.”
“David said you wrangled up a bear claw for me.”
“I went down a few blocks to a bakery I know. Shirley’s. They had one…They had more than one if you want more, but I only got the one. David said you only wanted one. If you want more, I can go get another one for you.”
“I only want one. I only have time to eat one.”
“Yes, sir. Here you are, sir.”
“You want me to autograph anything for you?”
“Would you? We’re not allowed to ask. I don’t—” He digs his long fingers into his tiny front pockets, inhaling so that he can reach all the way down to the bottom. “—I can’t believe I don’t have anything for you…for you to sign.”
“Here. Take mine.” Jake fishes out an empty matchbook from his own leather pants. The book is from San Diego. There are no matches inside, only the fuzzed row of cardboard stubs. He scrawls his name on the back.
“Thank you very much, sir. This is the best tip I ever got.”
“You coming to the show tonight?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be down in the front with my mother. We’ve been saving all year.”
“Neither of you have any heart problems, I hope.”
“How problems, sir? No. Well, Ma, she’s a bit down because her last boyfriend just left her. But, no, no heart problems that I can think of.”
“That was a joke, kid. I just meant ‘cause the show can get pretty exciting. Bigger and better. That’s always our motto, and we’ve been doing this twenty-some years, so we’re pretty big and we’re pretty better.”
“Bigger and better, that’s right, sir. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was a joke. It’s just that Ma’s been kinda down.”
“Hm. Aren’t we all? What’s your name?”
“Arthur Fitzmaurice, sir.”
“Well, Arthur, I’ll look out for you tonight. Now go on and let me eat my breakfast.”
“Yes, thank you. Sir, very much. I mean…”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see you at the show. What’s your mom’s name?”
“Well, maybe I’ll say hello to Arthur and Mary while I’m up on stage.”
“Really, sir? We’d love it, Mr. Jacket. Ma’d go crazy.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“Do I need to sign the bill?”
“No, sir. My manager is taking care of the bill. No need to, sir.”
“All right then, I’ll see you tonight, Arthur.” He shoots the boy with his finger gun.
Jake Jacket calls his Aunt Rosemary from the hotel phone. He has to call twice, and when she answers she says she was out in the yard checking on her garden. They talk briefly. They talk about tomatoes and the cracked rib Jake got two nights ago in the Sphere of Death act.
“You tape yourself up good, Jakey. You’re always rushing around. You’ll go on and make it worse.”
“I like to move fast, Aunt Rosemary. Keeps me from thinking too much.”
“I always say, you—”
“Got famous too soon. I know Aunt Rosemary.”
“You did good in school. You coulda been an nephrologist like your daddy, or maybe a coroner like your uncle.”
“I know it, Aunt Rosemary.”
“Now you just risk your life every night like a man on a mission. You’re thirty-three, but you’ve lived like you’re sixty.”
“Times flies, Aunt Rosemary. I love you.”
She sighs. “And I you, Jakey.”
“I’m asking Vondette tonight, Aunt Rosemary.”
There’s silence on the phone for a minute. Then the woman’s voice comes back cracked with emotion. “You make me proud, Jacob. I know I was worried that you two haven’t known each other that long. But, it’s nice to see you settle down.”
“Who’s settling, Aunt Rosemary? Vondette will just have to keep up!”
By three in the afternoon Jake Jacket is backstage pacing in the wilted center tent of the Palm Springs County fair. He’s sweating in his white leather jacket. He sighs with relief when David shows up with his hands behind his back.
“I’m an idiot,” Jake says.
“It was right where you thought it was.” David produces the small black box, opening it in front of Jake to reveal the diamond ring inside. “Is it the way you remember it?”
“I’m so nervous I think I’m going to vomit in my helmet tonight,” Jake says. He tucks the box into a pouch on his belt.
“I think I saw her come in already. She’s got on a pretty pink dress and pink lipstick with a pink bow in her hair. You can’t miss her. She’s the prettiest thing here. And she’s wearing the sweetest smelling perfume. Like tulips.”
“You could tell what her perfume smelled like?”
David laughs. “That part may’ve been in my head,” he says.
“So, do you think she’ll say yes?”
“Of course she’ll say yes, Jake-boy! Yes, she’ll say yes. You’re Jake Jacket! Bigger and better!”
“Bigger and better, yeah, yeah,” Jake says. “Do you think she’s expecting it?”
“I think she’s been expecting it since before you thought to do it. She can start touring with us. Maybe raise a little Jake Jacket Junior. We’ll have the kid in a jetpack before he’s two.”
“My Aunt Rosemary won’t like that.”
“Course not. Nobody will like it, Jake. But you can’t keep it from happening if someone has it in them to be a daredevil. Just like you can’t keep it from happening if someone has it in them to be a regular devil.”
“Like you, David.”
“You need someone to look after you, and there ain’t no one more invested than a greedy, money-grubbing bastard like me, Jake.”
“Sometimes I don’t know about you, David.”
“Sometimes I don’t know myself, let me assure you.”
The crowd streams in just before the show. Jake thinks to peek around the curtain to see Vondette, but he decides to wait until he’s on stage to keep it spontaneous. He likes the idea of the spotlight panning through the crowd, finally fixing on his beautiful pink lady, shiny as a new apple.
“He said he’d say our name, Ma.” It’s Arthur Fitzmaurice on the other side of the curtain. In the rush, Jake had forgotten about him until now. From the volume of the boy’s voice he must have gotten a seat right up front like he said. The tired voice of a woman Jake takes to be his mother Mary answers.
“Just don’t get your hopes up, Arthur. These entertainers are busy people. He’s probably forgot all about you by now. I bet he meets hundreds of people a day and makes that very same promise to all of them. If he followed through it’d be like reading the Palm Springs county yellow pages.”
Somewhere else a balloon pops and some people in the crowd gasp. Jake fastens his helmet and heads toward his motorcycle. He feels the need to get some reassurance from David again, but there isn’t any time. The lights go down. He sees the spotlight lingering at his entrance and he revs the engine. A second later, he’s with his people, their expectant faces watching and waiting. He hits the ramp and soars over the eight-barrel run. He loops around and takes another ramp and ten barrels. He pauses just long enough to see Arthur Fitzmaurice clapping his hands, his too-large Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows.
Jake rides on stage as the clowns roll in the Sphere of Death. The crowd quiets. Jake’s partner Lyle waits inside, looping around on his own motorcycle, finally making one complete vertical revolution while Jake unclasps his cape. A moment later, there’s a drum roll and the clowns open a latch on the Sphere. He revs his engine and enters. The pace is slow at the start. Both motorists circle each other. As they increase their speed, their revolutions get wider until both are driving horizontally.
Jake eases into a steady pace and takes the opportunity to look out at the crowd through the gaps in the Sphere. At first it is a blur of faces and balloons, circles of color. Then, he starts to pick out individual people, Arthur and his mother Mary, a baby with a bonnet. He spots a flash of pink that he assumes is Vondette and a shock of anxiousness courses through him. He and Lyle have gotten faster now, and finally Jake angles and starts his vertical ascent so that both riders criss-cross at the top and bottom of the sphere.
“Today’s the big day, huh?” Lyle calls out to him.
“Got the ring in my pocket,” Jake shouts.
They keep up their pattern until the crowd is roaring, and finally Lyle, and then Jake slow down until they are able to stop and exit the sphere.
An announcer’s voice comes on the loudspeaker. It’s supposed to be David, but Jake detects a Southern twang that David doesn’t have. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is only the beginning! With Jake Jacket, you can always expect the act to get bigger and better!”
The spotlight fixes on Jake, so bright he can no longer see out into the crowd. A harness lowers in front of him and he steps forward into it while the clowns strap him in.
The announcer: “For the next act, Jake Jacket will show that man can fly!”
Jake is lifted off the ground and races two hundred feet into the air. The light is slow to keep up with him, and for a brief second, he sees the crowd below: Arthur, Mary, Vondette, and beside Vondette, David whispering in her ear. The man kisses Vondette on the cheek before slipping back into the crowd. There is a second when Jake can get angry. Instead the harness propels him through the air so that he swings out over the crowd, soaring above them. He makes two laps under the big top before the harness unlatches to the shock of the crowd and Jake is sailing over them toward a trapeze hidden in shadow. He catches it to the relief of the crowd but they are awed again when he swings back and lets go into nothing. The lights shut off. The crowd is silent. A moment later, Jake stands center stage with his cape back on. The crowd roars and Jake takes a bow.
“Thank you, everybody! It’s an honor to be here in Palm Springs. We hope to put on a tremendous show for you tonight!”
The crowd applauds.
“First, though, I’d like to say hello to my good friends, Arthur and Mary Fitzmaurice. Arthur was kind enough to wrastle a bear for me this morning.” He directs the spotlight over to the front row where both people are blushing and jumping up and down. “And, now,” Jake says, “I’d like to make a very special announcement about a woman I love.” He reaches into the pouch in his belt. He unfastens it and removes the tiny black box while the spotlight pans around the crowd and finally stops on Vondette, pink and shiny. “My Aunt Rosemary is the woman I love most in the world,” Jake says. “She’s raised me ever since I was six, ever since my ma and pa died in a train wreck on a rainy winter’s day in Buffalo, New York.” Vondette had been beaming, but something in her face starts to unravel. “I brought with me today a diamond ring that I paid a lot of money for. And, I was hoping to make my Aunt Rosemary proud by offering it to someone that I might share the rest of my life with.” He can feel the pressure building up in his throat. He swallows once, careful not to make his nerves audible on the microphone. “I think I’m gonna make my Aunt truly proud, when I give this ring to Mary Fitzmaurice, a woman who’s been a good mother to Arthur, and who should be proud for having done such a good job of raising him.”
The crowd is quiet. The spotlight lingers on Vondette for a moment longer and then slowly creeps back over to Arthur and Mary.
“A ring?” Mary’s voice is timid as she looks over at her son.
“A ring for you, Mary. From Jake Jacket, because you and Arthur have been such dedicated fans.” Jake lowers himself on one knee so that he can hand the box over to the woman. The band starts and the crowd claps, and Jake continues with the show.
He doesn’t remember much about his performance that night. The crowd responds when he expects them too, all except for Vondette, who disappeared before Jake even got to his Ring of Fire act. For the finale, he leads the crowd outside and directs them to form a horseshoe around him, leaving a clearing for him to make his departure. The clowns appear and help him strap on his jetpack, and he secures his goggles on and prepares for flight. He’s counting down, when young Arthur Fitzmaurice appears in the crowd. He’s so tall he stands out, even though he’s in the back.
Jake turns around, nervous that the finish is going to fizzle. “What is it, son?”
“What you did just now, for my Ma. That’s the best thing any man’s ever done for her.”
“But we can’t take it from you, Mr. Jacket,” Mary says, also stepping forward out of the crowd. Jake can tell that she’s been crying because there are trails of dark mascara streaming down both of her cheeks. She hands the ring over to him. Jake takes it, not really knowing what to do.
“Fly away now,” Arthur whispers. “We’re good, Mr. Jacket. Fly away.”
Jake looks out at the confused faces around him. The clowns begin their countdown again, and the jetpack starts to hiss. He braces himself and soars into the darkness. The lights from the fair diminish and are replaced by the steady position of the stars in the sky. Jake takes out the ring and holds it up. It sparkles like the stars as he hovers over the earth. It is a slow rotation, the earth below him, so slow it gives Jake some time to think.